Last month, NRDC Trustee Robert Redford boldly took a stand against the Bush administration's cynical efforts to take Utah landscapes out of public ownership and auction them off to private industry. Redford met with almost uniform praise for championing these wild places that belong to all Americans. But a few industry-funded voices have claimed that Redford's actions constitute a "war on the poor" because they will raise heating bills for low income families.
These allegations are as false as they are cynical. The truth of the matter is that 80 contested oil and gas leases in Utah have nothing to do with the cost of home heating. Here is why:
• According to Goldman Sachs, the US natural gas market is expected to be in surplus well through 2012 thanks to new supply coming on line, namely from the Haynesville Shale along the Louisiana/Texas border.
• Utah is home to just 2.5 percent of known U.S. natural gas, and therefore will have very little influence on the price of what is already an oversupplied commodity.
• Natural gas prices have fallen dramatically this year from $12/MMBtu in June to around $5/MMBtu today, forcing US natural gas drillers to cut expenditures by 20 percent in 2009 and making the notion that these Utah fields would even be developed in the current market highly suspect.
• America doesn't have a supply problem; it has a credit problem: since gas companies are forced to borrow at high interest rates, developers are scaling back projects, not looking for new ones.
Then there is the fact that the oil and gas industry already has more leases than it knows what to do with. In the last four years, the BLM has issued more than 25,000 permits to drill, yet companies hold leases to nearly 34 million acres on federal resources that are not in production.
We don't have to choose between protecting places of rare beauty and keeping homes heated at affordable rates. We can do both.
President-elect Obama's plan to weatherize 1 million low-income homes a year will have a far greater and longer lasting impact on heating bills than new drill heads in Utah. Once a house is weatherized, it remains efficient for years to come, but once a landscape is industrialized, it loses its wild character forever.
I have written before about the rare beauty of the Utah landscapes that the Bush administration wants to liquidate. Many of the sites proposed for development are adjacent to natural wonders--places like Arches, Canyonlands, and Dinosaur National Monument.
These places are part of our natural heritage. We are responsible for them. If we fail to protect them--if we say the short-term profit of a few companies is more important than long-term efficiency gains and wilderness values--than they will be gone for good. That is why we are fortunate that Robert Redford is willing to put himself on the line to protect these wild landscapes for all of us.