In the real estate world where Donald Trump made his name, dominance was the ultimate goal. Deals were zero-sum games, with clear winners and losers. So when the White House designated this week as “Energy Week” and began using the term “energy dominance” to promote it, many environmental advocates worried that if energy was the winner, wildlife and health would be the losers.
“I am alarmed by the use of the word ‘dominance,’” Anne Carlson, senior climate adaptation specialist with the Wilderness Society, said in an interview. “It implies a switch of the multi-use purpose of public lands to the idea of energy dominance.”
On Thursday, Trump is expected to call for expanded fossil-fuel production on public lands and to tout the foreign policy benefits of expanding energy exports. The Department of Interior is reviewing whether to shrink the size of 27 national monuments — lands cordoned off to energy development for environmental, historical, or cultural reasons — to enable energy production. The administration and congressional Republicans say former President Barack Obama abused a century-old rule to unilaterally create these monuments. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Reuters this week that there’s a “social cost of not having jobs.”
But analysts are increasingly finding ways to value the benefits of the natural world and to identify the threats posed by fuel production. Carlson, for example, warns that development on national monuments will lead to habitat fragmentation, at untold cost to biodiversity in the West and other regions with endangered and dwindling species. She noted that mule deer still haven’t acclimated to the oil and gas wells popping up in Wyoming.
“I’m keenly aware of the fact that we have enormous strongholds for wildlife populations,” she said. “Losing that is something that you would be losing forever.”
For Republicans, the effort is long overdue. Under Obama, they note, fossil fuel production on federal lands dropped to 21 percent of U.S. output in 2015, down from 36 percent in 2010.
“It’s not necessarily removing the restrictions. It’s allowing what the land has already been designated for as its primary purpose to go forward,” Rob Bishop, a Republican congressman from Utah, and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told Undark. “They would let leases on areas that they knew would be unproductive or knew would be litigated.”
In the West, balancing the land’s energy and environmental purposes is a constant struggle. The economics are hazy, too. Energy analysts note that much of the recent energy production occurred through drilling techniques like fracking in shale formations, or “plays,” on private and state land. Obama didn’t necessarily promote more U.S. oil and gas production, but it boomed anyway and he was glad to tout its economic benefits.
More broadly, there’s a question of how to assess the market value of biodiversity versus federal revenue from oil production leases, or financial security for energy companies and their workers?
“The accounting is really difficult,” Reed Watson, executive director with free-market group Property and Environment Research Center, said in an interview. “It’s hard to make decisions about trading sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken and economic prosperity.”
Some analysts do try to put a price on such non-market goods. One type of analysis assigns value to “ecosystem services” like floodplains, biodiversity, and avoiding damage from climate change, comparing those benefits to the value of resources like fish, coal, and oil. Some environmental economists are moving into “alternative metrics like number of people affected or change in pollution burden,” to be presented “alongside or instead of monetary metrics, depending on the specific policy need,” said Robert Griffin, an environmental economist with Stanford University’s Natural Capital Project. By contrast, the Trump administration dismisses the social cost of carbon, a per-ton monetary benefit for averting carbon emissions and the climate damage they cause.
National monuments themselves are economic drivers. The Montana research firm Headwaters Economics showed steady gains in employment and per capita income in virtually all 16 Western monuments it studied, often from recreation like fishing, hunting, and kayaking. Local communities have been fiercely loyal to monuments. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, a Democrat, told Zinke, a former Montana congressman, that he’d oppose downsizing the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, which he said brings in 130,000 visitors and $10 million annually.
“These public lands are our heritage and support an unmatched quality of life,” Bullock wrote in a statement about his June 23 letter to Zinke. “I will continue to fight to preserve public access to our lands, rivers, and streams, and I oppose any effort that jeopardizes or calls into question the future of the Upper Missouri River Breaks or any other part of our public lands heritage.”
Watson, who said he worries about “unfettered” exploration, pointed to one saving grace: that a glut of oil and depressed demand for coal mean that production may not be imminent even if leasing restrictions disappear.
But the point of energy leases isn’t necessarily to pull fuel from the ground right away. Kevin Book, managing director with the consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners, told Undark that many companies pay the federal government for the land rights for “optionality” so they can produce if prices or the business climate calls for it. The energy boom and some Obama-era policy changes to enable natural gas and oil exports have given the U.S. foreign-policy leverage against Russia and other actors, so long as trade routes remain open, he said.
“What we can do is make it cheaper to produce the resource that we have, and in some cases accommodative regulation can do that,” Book said. “What we can’t do is we can’t create demand.”
Zack Colman, a former fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written about energy and environment for a variety of publications, including The Atlantic, High Country News, and The Washington Examiner. Most recently he was deputy energy and environment editor with The Christian Science Monitor.