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Agency in Political Crossfire: Land Management Bureau Explained

July 29, 2021, 10:01 AM

The fight in Congress over confirming Tracy Stone-Manning as director of the Bureau of Land Management has become one of the Biden administration’s most contentious nomination battles in its first seven months.

That’s partly because Stone-Manning would be one of the first environmentalists to lead the land bureau—a uniquely powerful Interior Department agency but relatively obscure outside the West—that’s known for its epic political, legal, and environmental battles.

Those include fights over the fate of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, oil and gas leasing within Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the future of coal mining in the West and the violent 2014 standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and land bureau officers in Bunkerville, Nev.

All of those issues to some degree were part of former President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and image, and many are just as much part of President Joe Biden’s climate and energy agenda.

Here’s a look at the bureau’s role in energy and climate policy, and what’s at stake with Senate action on Stone-Manning’s nomination possible as early as Thursday:

1. What is the Bureau of Land Management?

The land bureau is America’s largest land owner. It has a mandate to manage its land for multiple uses, many of which conflict. Drive any road across any of the Western states, and chances are, some or all of the land in all directions is federally owned. The land bureau is in charge of a large portion of the territory—a total area a little smaller than the land mass of Texas.

But the bureau’s mission is bigger than managing land. It’s in charge of leasing and permitting all U.S.-owned onshore fossil fuels and other minerals across an area of federal, state, and private land roughly totaling the area of Alaska and New Mexico combined.

It also targets its land for ecosystem protection and renewable energy development, manages a lot of it for livestock grazing, and protects some national monuments, wilderness areas and conservation areas. The bureau additionally has a hand in fighting wildfires and wildfire prevention.

2. What lands the bureau in political fights?

The clashes over Stone-Manning’s nomination are rooted in the bureau’s outsized role as an obscure but influential agency that’s pivotal to any administration’s energy and climate agendas. It also represents the center of political tension over the role the federal government plays in the lives of millions across the West.

In some states, the land bureau controls most fossil fuels, timber, rangeland, and recreation. About 80% of Nevada, for example, is owned by the federal government. Wyoming—one of the country’s fossil-fuel producers—is about 46% federal. Those states’ economies are directly linked to federal land, energy and climate policy. By contrast, less than 2% of Texas and less than 1% of Kansas are owned by any federal agency.

With oil, gas, and coal increasingly the targets of Democrats’ climate policy, the land bureau bears the brunt of the resulting political conflict.

There’s another dimension, too: Vast tracts of federal land displace the local tax base and restricts development in rural areas dependent on oil, gas, coal, and timber production. The U.S. government offers payments in lieu of taxes to offset lost tax opportunities, but many local governments want to see more fracking, mining, logging, and recreation on nearby public lands so they can squeeze them for economic benefits.

3. Why is the bureau key to Biden’s climate policy?

Biden pledged during his 2020 presidential campaign that he’d halt oil and gas leasing as part of his strategy to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change. The land bureau is key to any effort for the White House to make good on that promise.

The White House “paused” oil and gas leasing in January to allow the Interior Department to review the future of the program in the context of global warming. Land bureau staff are involved in that and make the call about whether any given tract of federal land should be leased and drilled for oil.

The Interior Department may also take steps to stop methane emissions from existing oil and gas fields on its land—another key to Biden’s climate agenda.

4. Why is Stone-Manning so controversial?

She would symbolize the environmental movement’s takeover of an agency that historically has focused on developing natural resources, including oil drilling and grazing, more than protecting land for its ecological value.

Stone-Manning was a senior adviser for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation and was an activist for the environmental group EarthFirst before serving in government for decades.

Republicans have used Stone-Manning’s involvement in a 1989 EarthFirst tree-spiking incident in Idaho to stonewall her nomination. Stone-Manning wasn’t directly involved in the tree-spiking, but warned the U.S. Forest Service in writing that the trees had been spiked. Her court testimony led to the convictions of those responsible for the spiking.

To Learn More:

Haaland Says She Can’t Answer GOP Questions on Leasing Pause
Oil, Gas Leasing Report Coming ‘Soon,’ Interior’s Haaland Says
Land Bureau Nomination Deadlocks Amid Eco-terrorism Charges
Stone-Manning Gains Key Support Despite Tree-Spiking Claim
Antsy Industry Awaits Interior Oil Lease Sale After Court Order
Utah Wild Horse Roundup by Feds Can Proceed, Judge Rules
Land Agency’s Suspension of Utah Oil and Gas Leases Avoids Suit

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

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