Inside The Fossil Fuel Industry's Media Strategy To Drill And Mine On Public Lands

A handful of fossil fuel industry front groups are engineering media campaigns aimed at persuading the public that the federal government should relinquish control of public lands to western states, claiming it would benefit the states economically. But evidence actually suggests that these land transfers would harm state economies, and the industry front groups are hiding their true motivation: opening up more public lands to oil drilling and coal mining while sidestepping federal environmental laws.

Fossil Fuel Industry Groups Seek State Control As Means To Open Up More Public Lands To Drilling And Mining, While Skirting Environmental Laws

National Wildlife Federation: “Transferring Federal Lands To States Would Allow Oil And Gas, Mining And Other Industries To Avoid Federal Laws.” In an article for the National Wildlife Federation’s National Wildlife magazine, contributor Paul Tolmé described why industry groups have “so much interest in handing federal lands to states”:

Why so much interest in handing federal lands to states? Other than anti-federal-government sentiment in general, the answer is natural resources such as oil and gas. Transferring federal lands to states would allow oil and gas, mining and other industries to avoid federal laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which gives the public the right to comment on and determine federal-land-management policies. A cornerstone of the conservation movement, NEPA is considered a thorn in the side by extractive industries that would like free access to resources on public lands. State environmental laws and regulations are typically far more lenient. [National Wildlife, 1/29/16

Center For American Progress: States Governments Would Generally Allow Industry To “Maximiz[e] Private Profits Through Mining, Drilling, And Other Resource Extraction.” The Center for American Progress (CAP) reported in October that then-presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) energy plan included asking Congress “to transfer ownership of federally owned oil, gas, and coal resources to the states,” which “would give state governors unprecedented power to sell drilling and mining rights in America’s national forests, national parks, and other public lands; to waive environmental protections; and to seize revenues owed to U.S. taxpayers.” CAP stated that other presidential candidates were similarly using the issue to “win the support of the fossil fuel industry,” adding: “The mining and energy interests—including companies owned by Charles and David Koch—behind these groups would presumably reap substantial financial gains if U.S. public lands, energy resources, and minerals were transferred to state control or sold off to the highest bidder.” In a 2013 report, CAP noted that there were bills in seven western states advocating for state ownership of public lands, and added: “If successful, these bills could be disastrous: Rather than being managed for the benefit and use of the American public, these lands will instead be managed in whatever way each state wants to use them—which generally means maximizing private profits through mining, drilling, and other resource extraction.” [Center for American Progress, 10/27/15; 3/11/13]

Several Industry-Funded Groups Have Admitted That Push For Land Transfers Is Motivated By Drilling And Mining Interests. While fossil fuel front groups typically frame their push for state ownership of federal lands around broad economic arguments, several groups have explicitly acknowledged that it is motivated by a desire to open up more lands to oil drilling and coal mining. For instance, in a report arguing for state ownership of federal lands, the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) -- which has received funding from Exxon and foundations run by the oil billionaire Koch brothers -- stated that resolutions demanding that the federal government transfer lands to state ownership “are motivated by concerns over federal land management, including restrictions on natural resource development.” Similarly, according to the Los Angeles Times, Utah Republican State Representative Ken Ivory, founder of the Koch-linked American Lands Council, suggested that “more oil wells and coal mines” was one reason to transfer federal lands over to the states:

First, Ivory would hold up a color-coded map showing the huge amount of land in the West — about 50% of the entire region, compared with a fraction of that in the East — owned by the federal government.

Then Ivory would hit the candidates with his radical proposal: Why not transfer control of most of that land to the states, which could clear the way for more hunting and fishing, more oil wells and coal mines and tree harvests, with all the economic benefits that surely would follow?

“Why shouldn't the federal government have to treat all the states equally?” said Ivory, himself a Republican, who has been pitching his plan around the country through an advocacy group he founded, the American Lands Council. “If they were really serious about a solution big enough to solve so many of the major issues that face our nation — economic, environmental, national security, energy — this is the only solution.”

And while discussing legislation in several western states insisting that the federal government relinquish control of public lands, the Exxon- and Koch-funded Heartland Institute wrote: “With booming energy production on private lands revitalizing the economies of states such as North Dakota and Texas, many western states have sought to be granted an opportunity to use resources within their borders. In addition to coal, oil, and natural gas potential, federal lands are also a major source of softwood timber, hard metals, and grazing areas.” [, 3/3/15;, accessed 5/6/16;, accessed 5/6/16; Los Angeles Times, 10/28/15; Los Angeles Times, 5/10/15;, 3/3/14; Media Matters, 7/31/15]

American Petroleum Institute President Bemoaned That The “Trend Seems To Be To Restrict, Delay And Obstruct” Drilling On Federal Lands. Jack Gerard, the president of the oil trade group American Petroleum Institute (API), stated in a 2013 speech that “we need to be concerned, about what’s happening on federal lands, where the trend seems to be to restrict, delay and obstruct – exactly the wrong direction in my view.” Gerard added that “the federal government owns millions of acres of land, much of which is off limits based on ideology and faulty reasoning.” [, 1/16/13 via the Internet Archive]

Meet The Fossil Fuel Front Groups Campaigning To Drill And Mine On Federal Lands

The American Lands Council/Federalism In Action

The American Lands Council (ALC) was launched by Utah State Representative Ken Ivory (R), and aims to “secure local control of western public lands by transferring federal public lands to willing States.” According to documents gathered by the Los Angeles Times, ALC has received funding from Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which was co-founded by the oil billionaire Koch brothers and has been described by Politico as the Koch brothers’ “main political arm.” Furthermore, Ivory is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate front group that connects fossil fuel industry executives with legislators to push model bills that serve industry interests. ALEC's “Private Enterprise Advisory Council” includes fossil energy powerhouses Koch Companies Public Sector, Energy Future Holdings, and ExxonMobil, as well as many other oil and coal companies. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Exxon- and Koch-related companies and foundations have each contributed over $1 million to ALEC. In 2014, Ivory was named ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year.” [American Lands Council, accessed 5/6/16; Los Angeles Times, 5/10/15; Media Matters, 7/31/15;, 7/31/14]

Earlier this year, Ivory left ALC to head Federalism In Action (FIA) and lead the organization’s “Free the Lands Project,” which aims to “shepherd the transfer [of public lands] to the states from the federal government.” FIA was launched by the State Policy Network (SPN) and State Budget Solutions (SBS). SPN is a network of conservative think tanks that are largely funded by DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, dark money groups largely backed by the Koch brothers’ political network. State Budget Solutions has received over $2.3 million from Donors Capital Fund, and its president Bob Williams is the founder and senior fellow of the Koch network-funded Freedom Foundation. [The Salt Lake Tribune, 2/3/16;, accessed 5/6/16; State Policy Network, accessed 5/6/16;, accessed 5/6/16; Media Matters, 7/31/15;, accessed 5/6/16; State Budget Solutions, accessed 5/6/16; Freedom Foundation, accessed 5/6/16;, accessed 5/6/16]

Several newspaper articles have described ALC as a “nonprofit” without disclosing the group’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. For example, the Great Falls Tribune referred to ALC as “a not-for-profit in Utah that is promoting state management of federal land across the West,” and the Las Vegas Review-Journal described it as “a Utah nonprofit led by Ken Ivory.” Furthermore, the Elko Daily Free Press published an ALC op-ed that argued in favor of transferring federal lands to states. Similarly, FIA policy fellow Karim Elsayed penned an op-ed in the Washington Examiner asserting that “[c]ontinued federal control of state land undermines the principle of federalism” and that “[i]t is time to free the lands from the many federal programs and regulations that currently render them useless." Neither the Daily Free Press nor the Examiner noted the fossil fuel ties of ALC and FIA, respectively. [American Lands Council, accessed 5/6/16; The Salt Lake Tribune, 2/3/16; Great Falls Tribune, 4/23/15; Las Vegas Review-Journal, 1/17/16Elko Daily Free Press, 6/4/15; Washington Examiner, 12/16/15]

Property And Environment Research Center

The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) released a report in March 2015 claiming that the federal government loses money managing public lands, while state ownership generates “significant financial returns.” PERC has received $155,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998, and $233,144 in Koch family foundation grants since 1986, according to data compiled by Greenpeace. It has also received $150,750 from DonorsTrust, the Koch-backed dark money group, and is a member of the Koch-backed State Policy Network. [, 3/3/15;, accessed 5/6/16;, accessed 5/6/16;, accessed 5/6/16;, accessed 5/6/16; Media Matters, 7/31/15]

The PERC report and the group’s fellows have been cited in op-eds and columns in newspapers in Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Montana to make the case for public land transfers. Additionally, PERC senior fellow Terry L. Anderson wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” blog, in which he defended Ryan Bundy’s occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, and asserted that mineral- and timber-rich lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service “could and should be turned over to the states, if not privatized.” Additionally, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by PERC research fellow Shawn Regan, who argued that the federal government should “sell unneeded lands” and use the revenue to “turn around America’s national parks.” None of these media outlets disclosed that PERC receives funding from the oil industry. [Las Vegas Review-Journal, 9/29/15; Deseret News, 3/2/16; 3/31/15; Idaho Statesman, 4/16/15; 6/5/15; Missoulian, 2/16/16; The New York Times, 1/7/16; The Wall Street Journal, 4/24/16]

Strata Policy

Strata Policy was hired by the Utah state legislature to “promote the state's legal efforts to wrest control of 32 million acres of public land from the federal government,” according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Strata Policy co-founder Randy Simmons was the Charles G. Koch professor of political economy at Utah State University from 2008 to 2013, and is a senior fellow at the Koch- and Exxon-funded PERC. Strata co-founder Ryan M. Yonk has also acknowledged that the Charles G. Koch foundation has funded his research at Utah State’s Institute of Political Economy, as The Wichita Eagle reported, and he has been the principal investigator for several Koch foundation grants. Yonk is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, which has received $160,000 in funding from the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation, and was a Koch Student Fellows Faculty Advisor. [The Salt Lake Tribune, 6/29/15; The Salt Lake Tribune, 1/11/16; Media Matters, 4/13/15;, accessed 5/6/16;, accessed 5/6/16; The Wichita Eagle, 3/10/15; Independent Institute, accessed 5/6/16;, accessed 5/6/16; Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, accessed 5/6/16]

Yonk and Strata Student Research Associate Josh Smith co-authored an op-ed in the Idaho Falls Post Register and The Quad-City Times that cited PERC’s report to argue that “[f]ederal land management tends to be costly and ineffective,” and that state management is an “option for at least some of those lands.” Yonk also wrote an op-ed in The Hill asserting that federal ownership of lands hampers economic activity and “makes providing basic services like education, public safety and infrastructure far more difficult,” leading young people to move away in search of “better economic opportunities.” None of these outlets disclosed Yonk's financial support from the oil billionaire Koch brothers. [Idaho Falls Post Register, 3/17/16, via Inside Sources; The Quad-City Times, 3/19/16, via Inside Sources; The Hill, 4/18/16]

Environmental Policy Alliance

According to The Washington Post, the Environmental Policy Alliance is a subsidiary of a group called the Center for Organizational Research and Education (CORE), which was founded and is run by the PR firm of corporate lobbyist Richard Berman. The New York Times reported that Berman is “well known” for creating front groups that “secretly collect corporate donations to finance the aggressive, often satirical media campaigns his team conceives." The Times reported that Berman solicited up to $3 million from oil and gas industry executives in 2014 for a campaign against environmental protections and boasted of being able to keep donors' contributions and involvement hidden. [The Washington Post, 6/4/15; Berman and Company, accessed 5/6/16; The New York Times, 10/30/14; Media Matters, 4/13/15]

Will Coggin, director of the Environmental Policy Alliance, wrote an op-ed for the Tulsa World in April advocating for opening federal lands to drilling. He cited a report from PERC and wrote: “Federal lands could provide a tremendous economic boon.” In 2015, Coggin wrote nearly identical op-eds in Montana’s Helena Independent Record and Fairfield Sun Times, Nevada’s Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Utah’s Deseret News, as ThinkProgress noted. ThinkProgress said the op-eds “argued in support of right-wing efforts in Utah and ten other western states to seize control of national forests and national monuments so they can be drilled, logged, mined, or sold off to private companies.” None of these media outlets disclosed the Environmental Policy Alliance's ties to Berman or the oil industry [Tulsa World, 4/7/16; ThinkProgress, 4/6/15; Helena Independent Record, 4/2/15; Fairfield Sun Times, 3/31/15; Las Vegas Review-Journal, 3/31/15; Deseret News, 3/31/15; ThinkProgress, 4/6/15]

ThinkProgress Graphic Shows Web Of Funding And Other Connections Behind “Bundy Land Seizure Agenda. In February, ThinkProgress published a graphic showing the many different funders and groups behind the campaign to “seize and sell America’s national forests, monuments, and other public lands”:

[ThinkProgress, 2/11/16]

Contrary To Fossil Fuel Industry Claims, Efforts To Seize Federal Lands Would Likely Harm State Economies

Federal Land Management Provides Huge Economic Benefits To Western States. The 2013 CAP report noted that state ownership of public lands “would result in the eventual exploitation for private profits of these beautiful parks, refuges, forests, and other lands because the leaders driving such efforts would prefer to see quick economic gains from resource extraction rather than prioritizing these areas’ more sustainable economic uses such as recreation.” It noted that “public lands already provide an extraordinary economic impact,” and that federal management of public lands stimulates hundreds of billions of dollars of economic development each year and supports millions of jobs:

Public lands provide tremendous economic impacts. The Department of the Interior—the agency that manages most public lands—stimulated $385 billion in economic development and more than 2 million jobs in 2011 alone. This number includes the extraction of oil, gas, coal, and other minerals from public lands, in addition to timber, grazing, and recreation. Recreation-related activities alone created 403,000 jobs and nearly $49 billion in economic activity across the country. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages national forests, also has major economic impacts—visitor spending on recreation in and near national forests, for example, added $13 billion to gross domestic product and sustained 200,000 jobs across the country in fiscal year 2011.

The report also pointed out that “adequately managing millions more acres of land will be very difficult for states facing budget constraints.” [Center for American Progress, 3/11/13]

Center for Western Priorities: PERC’s Nationwide Analysis Admittedly Ignores Wildfire Costs. The Center for Western Priorities (CWP), a nonpartisan conservation and advocacy organization, noted that the PERC report’s claim that state ownership of public lands is financially advantageous is based on a “flawed cost comparison.” CWP noted that “PERC considers protecting communities from wildfire ‘government waste,’” and that PERC’s claim that money is lost on public lands management is largely based on the “unavoidable costs” of managing and suppressing wildfires. CWP added: “If these necessary wildfire-fighting expenses are removed (which have averaged $3.13 billion annually in recent years), the federal government actually makes $1.17 billion in revenue from national public lands each year.”


[Center for Western Priorities, April 2015]

CWP Also Found That PERC's Utah Analysis Was Based On Flawed Assumptions. CWP found that PERC’s analysis asserting economic benefits from state ownership of public lands in Utah was based on unreasonable assumptions and actually shows the state losing money. The CWP report stated that in “six of the ten scenarios examined in the report,” the state of Utah “actually comes out in the red,” and the remaining scenarios “could only occur under extreme assumptions that oil prices stay perpetually high, that American taxpayers are robbed of their oil and gas revenues, and that drilling increases considerably in special places.” [Center for Western Priorities, 12/9/14]

Utah Economists: Federal Land Management Benefits The State Economically, Transferring Control To State Could “Put A Strain” On State Budget For Several Years. A report prepared for the Governor by researchers at three Utah universities found that federal management of public lands currently contributes nearly $200 million to Utah’s gross state product and supports nearly 5,000 jobs. The report concluded that while “it is likely the state of Utah could take ownership of the lands and cover the costs to manage them,” transferring federal lands to state ownership could “put a strain on the state’s funding priorities in the early years as the state adjusts to the loss of federal dollars, evaluates land resources and conditions, and develops programs to replace those now managed by federal agencies.” CWP said the study showed that Utah “could not afford to manage public lands unless some wildly improbable assumptions took place, including oil prices remain constantly high and the state is given the mineral rights currently owned by all Americans.” [Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah, November 2014; Center for Western Priorities, April 2015]

University Of Idaho Economists: Land Transfer Could Cost State Up To $111 Million Per Year. The Idaho Legislature requested that the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources Policy Analysis Group analyze how much transferring federal lands to the state would cost. The researchers found that the state of Idaho would lose money in eight of the nine scenarios examined, resulting in economic losses of up to $111 million a year. [University of Idaho Policy Analysis Group via Boise Weekly, November 2014]

Headwaters Economics: Federally-Managed Public Lands Are Associated With “Increased Economic Performance.” A 2012 study by Headwater Economics on the economic impact of protected federal lands in the non‐metropolitan U.S. West found that “on average, counties with national parks, wilderness, and other forms of protected public lands benefit with increased economic performance.” The report noted: “Environmental and recreational amenities can play a role in attracting people and stimulating economic activity in the non‐metro (non‐metropolitan) U.S. West. Federal lands, such as those managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service, provide many of these amenities.” [Headwaters Economics, 12/12/12]

Polls Show Public Support For Federal Management Of Public Lands

ALC Suggests Public Lands Transfer Movement Is Widely Supported. In an op-ed in the Elko Daily Free Press, ALC quoted Ivory as saying that opposition groups are “afraid of the success that the transfer of public lands movement is having,” and quoted founding member Doug Heaton as saying: “The economic, legal, and environmental case for transferring public lands to the states is so strong that hundreds of elected officials have joined our efforts to improve access, health, and productivity on public lands through local control, and nearly every state in the west has introduced transfer of public lands related legislation. Some states have called for the transfer and others are studying it. Even eastern states are coming on board.” [Elko Daily Free Press, 6/4/15]

Poll: Most Western Voters Oppose Public Land Transfers. In 2014, a bipartisan poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates for CAP found that western voters overwhelmingly oppose state-level proposals to transfer U.S. public lands to state ownership. CAP wrote of its findings:

Across the eight-state region, 59 percent of respondents agree that having state government assume full responsibility for managing U.S. public lands, including paying for all related costs, would not be fair to taxpayers in their state. These voters believe that transferring U.S. lands to state ownership would result in having to raise state taxes or sell off prized lands to cover expenses. Only 35 percent of respondents agreed with the arguments put forward by proponents of efforts to transfer U.S. lands to state control. [Center for American Progress, 9/25/14]

Poll: Most Western Residents Oppose State Takeover. Colorado College’s 2016 Conservation In The West Poll found that 58 percent of voters in seven western states oppose turning federally-managed public lands over to state control. The poll showed majority opposition to a state takeover of public lands among voters in Arizona (65 percent), Colorado (59 percent ), Montana (59 percent), Nevada (52 percent), New Mexico (63 percent), and Wyoming (54 percent). In Utah, the poll showed that more voters opposed a state takeover (47 percent) than supported it (41 percent). [, accessed 5/6/16; accessed 5/6/16; accessed 5/6/16; accessed 5/6/16; accessed 5/6/16; accessed 5/6/16; accessed 5/6/16; accessed 5/6/16]

Poll: Western Voters Overwhelmingly Support Permanently Protecting And Conserving Public Lands. A 2013 poll conducted by Hart Research Associates for CAP found that 70 percent of voters say it is “very important” to “permanently protect/conserve public lands for future generations.” [Center for American Progress, 2/2/13]