Social costs of oil and gas leasing on federal lands, carefully considered

OVERVIEW: A report filed with the US Department of the Interior recommended that terms governing the leasing of federal land for oil and gas development be updated to reflect social costs associated with such development. While such costs may be policy relevant, I suggest social costs are smaller than the report indicates and the recommended policy changes are not well focused.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (“Interior”) has begun an effort to update financial terms for oil and gas leases on federal lands. These financial aspects – royalties, minimum acceptable bids, annual rental rates, bonding requirements, and penalty rates – are collectively referred to as “government take.” One issue raised in the effort concerns social costs associated with oil and gas development on federal lands. (As noted earlier, Shawn Regan and I have filed a comment with Interior on the issue.)

THE HEIN REPORT

Social costs of such development are also among issues addressed in a report filed in the Interior rulemaking docket by Jayni Foley Hein of New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity. The report provides an overview of the legal requirements governing government take and recommends Interior’s regulations be revised to reflect option value and social costs. Here I focus on social costs.

Hein said social costs are imposed by oil and gas development on federal lands both during development and during production. She wrote:

America’s public lands offer millions of people a place to hike, camp, hunt, fish, and enjoy scenic beauty. They provide drinking water, clean air, critical habitat for wildlife, sites for renewable energy development, as well as natural resources including timber, minerals, oil, and natural gas. As soon as energy exploration begins, competing uses of federal land such as recreational enjoyment, commercial fishing, and renewable energy development are impaired, and continue to be foreclosed for the duration of production.

Hein listed the following social costs of oil and gas activity on federal lands*:

  • Loss of use values (including loss of recreational value, renewable energy development potential, timber value, scenic value, and wildlife habitat)
  • Local air pollution (local effects of methane leakage, emissions from diesel or gas-fueled pumps and other engines)
  • Global air pollution (methane leaks, carbon dioxide)
  • Induced earthquakes from disposal of hydraulic fracturing wastewater
  • Potential oil or wastewater spills and subsequent water contamination from wastewater stored in pits and tanks
  • Noise pollution
  • Increased traffic (wear and tear on roadways, traffic-related fatalities).

She recommended increasing rental rates and royalties to reflect social costs associated with development and production of oil and gas on federal lands.

GETTING SOCIAL COSTS RIGHT

Naïve application of Hein’s list would likely produce significant over-counting of social costs. Regan and I described social costs as “the sum of all future benefits foregone by one or more persons due to oil and gas development activity on federal lands.” We were imprecise. We cannot simply sum up all possible future foregone benefits, but rather we should focus on the difference in benefits between two specific cases: one case with oil and gas resources leased for development, and a second case in which the land is not leased.

The social costs of oil and gas leasing is the sum of the specific incremental differences in the stream of future benefits associated with the land leased for oil and gas development as compared to the best alternative use. Specification of the second case is key. Assume, for example, that if the property is not leased for oil and gas development, then it would be leased for PV solar power development. Leasing the land for PV solar power also involves some loss of timber value, wildlife habitat, recreational value, and so on. In counting the social costs of oil and gas leasing associated with, say, wildlife habitat, we need to focus on just the difference in wildlife habitat between the two cases. If recreational use is impaired equally, the loss of recreation value is not properly counted as a cost of oil and gas leasing.

Consequences, or rather, the differences in consequences beyond the property itself matter too. It is likely holding a specific tract of property out of oil production has no effect on total world oil production and consumption, and therefore there would be no difference in total air pollution, traffic, potential for oil leaks, and so on. Withholding a particular property out of development primarily would affect the location, not the total amount, of these costs. Location can matter: we likely do not want to increase traffic and local air pollution in already crowded areas. But location does not always matter: the greenhouse gas implications are the same whether a methane leak arises from development on federal land or elsewhere.

SUMMING UP

A careful identification of the social costs of oil and gas leasing associated with specific federal properties would reveal these social costs to be smaller than a naïve application of Hein’s list may suggest. Federal oil and gas policies governing the government take primarily affect the distribution of social costs, not the total amount. Most relevant social costs are highly localized to the area of development, a feature which should make them easier to manage.

Other issues arise with Hein’s proposal to increase rental rates and royalty rates to account for social costs. While charging a higher royalty rate, for example, would discourage development of federal lands at the margin, it would not encourage operators to minimize social costs on properties that are developed. Other policy levers may be more useful.

*NOTE: The list of social costs is my summary drawn from Hein’s report. We might dispute aspects of the list, but for purposes of this post I am more interested in the social cost concept rather than the particular items listed.

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2 thoughts on “Social costs of oil and gas leasing on federal lands, carefully considered

  1. Typical liberal New Yorker. Has no concept of how big the country really is. Every square inch of good oil land could be leased out, and you would never see it, unless you went out to look for the rigs deliberately.

  2. I’m guessing Ms. Hein would be shocked to learn that there is a place out here in the flyover states where fly fishing for wild rainbow and brown trout would be impossible *without* the existence of oil and gas lease roads built to access producing wells. That’s right, every single fishing access on the quality water stretch of the San Juan river below Navajo Dam (a world class fly fishing destination) was built so a rig could be moved in to drill a well and so that lease operators could service said well. I’m sure it’s a prima facie truth to anyone sitting in a professor’s office in the pristine wilderness known as Manhattan that development degrades the wilderness experience, but it’s a slightly different world out here when you’ve got boots on the ground (or in the river). There are so many examples where infrastructure built for oil and gas has made recreation possible in the west, maybe there should be a social _benefit_ factored in to the bonus and royalty paid on federal mineral leases…

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