This guest column about energy and local control appeared in The Denver Post and a number of Montana newspapers, September 2001.
Did we miss something? some brilliant stroke of logic that redefines the meaning of 'energy crisis' and 'local control?' Despite being used as rallying cries for significant public lands issues, the Bush administration applies these terms in contradictory ways, depending on the outcome they desire. That outcome typically benefits wealthy corporations.
Local control means that citizens and land management agency employees closest to the effected land have the most influence over the decision. It means considering everyone's input on how problems can be resolved given the local circumstances. Locals are residents with at least a modest connection to and concern for their community and landscape, not just those 'born and raised' there. Local control doesn't mean circumventing or ignoring national legislation. You can't vote the rest of the United States out of your county.
The reverse is true. Political appointees can't run roughshod over local opinion circumventing or ignoring national legislation.
In the U.S. Forest Service roadless initiative, over a million comments were received from the American public, most gathered in over 600 local meetings in towns in and around national forests. The majority said let's stop paying for more roads and increasing development when we can't maintain what has already been developed or damaged. But now we're being told by the Bush administration that those meetings weren't local enough and all authority for making those decisions needs to stay with the local forest supervisor. No national policy will dictate whether roads will be built on unroaded public lands.
As a former forest supervisor, I've watched local citizens and national forests waste millions in time and dollars struggling over roadless areas for 20+ years without resolution. It's past time for a national policy. Limited public resources would be better spent on restoration and improved management in roaded areas. If a road hasn't been built there since the Forest Service was established over a hundred years ago, there's likely not much need for one.
Then there's energy, specifically oil and gas development on national forests. Same administration, same public land, same locals, same forest supervisors. Same logic? No way. Bush's energy plan codifies the opposite. Besides ignoring significant environmental laws, the House bill specifically prohibits local citizens and local forest supervisors from making energy development decisions. But locals are the only ones who know enough about local lands to make road development decisions. It doesn't make any sense -- until you follow the money.
The excuse is the 'energy crisis'. Natural gas prices continue to decline because of there's no lack of production. Barrons just featured 'The Coming Energy Glut' on their front page. In the past year, rather than invest in new technology and increased efficiencies, petroleum-based companies bought up their own stock while prices were low, then choked supply. They are now enjoying windfall profits based on the illusion that is an 'energy crisis.' It also worked for electric companies servicing California.
The Wall Street Journal reports, front page, that the largest problem facing energy companies is what to do with all the extra money they have. The big companies have more money in the bank -- in accrued capital, not including investments, assets and projected revenues -- than most countries. Royal Dutch Shell alone has $11 billion they don't know what to do with, even after their campaign contributions. According to the article, the reason more exploration is desirable is that related subsidies, incentives and tax credits generate more money than bank interest. Hard to believe but the new energy bill ensures $36.4 billion dollars in tax breaks and subsidies for the energy industry. And simultaneously seeks to reduce their royalty payments.
The Bush administration's definitions are becoming clear. 'Local control' means the 'locals' can be placated by thinking they have control of public lands if you let them keep the same ability they've always had -- to debate road-building on lands that either are too difficult to road or lack reason to road. If people are that gullible then you can tell them there's an 'energy crisis', and they'll relinquish 'local control' to the energy industry to dictate where, when and how their children's heritage is despoiled. Time to revise the dictionary.