Mitt Romney is pitiching the idea that he can increase US energy independence, lower gas prices and create thousands of jobs by speeding up oil and gas development in the US; and in Canada with the Keystone pipline. How does Romney intend to speed US oil and gas development? In his energy plan he says he wants to turn over regulation of oil and gas production to the states. He predicts that state regulation will result in quicker approval of leases and mines. This might seem like a small matter in an election where voters will decide whether or not we will address climate change. But for those who care about our national parks, our national forests, wilderness and our other public lands, it should be a real concern. If the states get authority to regulate drilling on public lands, it could be a tipping point, when the heirs of the sagebrush rebellion finally establish a long-sought precedent for local control of federal land.
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The federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guides every federal agency. It requires that all environmental effects of a federal action are fully evaluated. Many states have parallel legislation, but provisions are usually much weaker. In many states, state regulation of actions like drilling on public land would allow for more environmental degradation. But an even greater concern would be state or local decision making regarding the use of federal lands. And it is a short step from allowing the states to regulate activities like drilling on federal lands, to allowing the state to choose which activities will occur on those lands. Already local communities do participate in planning for land use on public lands. But this is very different from direct state or local control of the decision making process. From Utah where the creation of latest national monuments was strenuously resisted, to Montana where a wolf hunt was established after federal government biologists worked tirelessly to reintroduce wolves to Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, it is clear that state and local priorities are often at odds with national environmental goals.
Federal land managers face a constant barrage of requests for all types of commercial activity; more grazing, more timber harvest, more cell phone towers, more roads, more permits for outfitters. With a thorough review of the impacts of these proposals developed under NEPA, federal land managers can make a balanced decision. Environmental stewardship will get short shrift if NEPA is circumvented and local people are left to decide whether their neighbors can use the federal land for profit.
For many of us the parks, forests, deserts, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas managed by our federal government comprise a unique and wonderful national asset that we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren. Because of the precedent it would establish, Romney's energy plan that would transfer to the states authority to regulate drilling on federal lands, is a threat to that wild lands legacy.