In shadow of Rockies, will candidates mention public lands?

Tomorrow night's inaugural presidential debate may seem a logical place for the candidates to discuss the role of federal lands in providing energy, recreation and job opportunities at a time of stubbornly high unemployment.

The debate at the University of Denver takes place in a swing state with more than 20 million acres of federal lands that offer everything from natural gas and oil shale to Rocky Mountain National Park, ski resorts, trout streams and prized hunting grounds.

It's the first time in eight years and only the second time since 1996 that a presidential debate has been held west of the Mississippi River. And it's the first time in at least half a century that the Centennial State has hosted such a debate.

But while Western lawmakers, conservationists and energy advocates said both candidates could benefit at the polls by touting their lands policies, few expect the issue to garner more than a brief mention.

"It's definitely worth a question," said Tom Kenworthy, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress who lives outside Denver. "Whether it's going to be a first 10 minutes or top-10 question, I doubt it."


The first half of tomorrow's hour-and-a-half debate will be devoted to "the economy," with subsequent 15-minute segments devoted to "health care," "the role of government" and "governing," according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. It will be moderated by "PBS NewsHour" host Jim Lehrer.

Both candidates will be looking to sway voters in swing states like Virginia, Ohio and Florida -- but also Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, each of which is rich in public lands. Voters there are likely to be more familiar with the social and environmental trade-offs of promoting or restricting drilling on public lands.

"This debate is in a region that is defined in many ways by public lands," Kenworthy said. "It's why many people live here: access to hunting and fishing and all the other recreational activities, and access to extractive industries, in some cases, as well."

Even many Virginians and Floridians will strongly identify with the risks and rewards of offshore drilling, a key wedge issue between the candidates, with Republican nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney advocating incremental development in the Atlantic Ocean.

For President Obama, the message likely will be that the United States is producing more oil than at any time in the past several years and that imports of foreign crude have dipped below 50 percent for the first time in decades. He may boast of new exploration in the Arctic Ocean and in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, while proposing the first new seismic studies for oil and gas in the Atlantic in decades.

The president may also tout significant progress permitting renewable energy on public lands in the Southwest and along the shores of the mid-Atlantic after years of inaction by the George W. Bush administration.

But if the lands issues do come up, Romney will likely counter that oil and gas production is up on private lands, but flat or declining on the public lands Obama controls; that Obama backtracked on a plan to lease waters off the coast of Virginia; and that leasing on Western lands last year reached a 25-year low.

Romney may also tout his plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; to halt new federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing; and to allow states to oversee the permitting of wells on federal lands.

But whether either candidate will discuss the merits of protecting tourism in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico or to preserve wildlife, scenery and recreation opportunities in the West remains to be seen.

A review of transcripts from the 2008 debates, which were held in Hempstead, N.Y.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Oxford, Miss., showed that the terms "public lands," "federal lands," "national parks," "hiking," "hunting" and "fishing" garnered nary a mention. "Hunting" was used just once by Obama in Nashville, but it was in the context of killing Osama bin Laden.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) each spoke multiple times about the role of federal waters in increasing domestic energy production.

Obama urged exploring new ways to find oil, including from offshore drilling. But he also warned that oil and gas companies at the time had 68 million acres under lease that they weren't using. "Either you use them or you lose them," he told the Belmont University crowd in Nashville, in a taste of his administration's future position on the issue.

McCain told the audience at the University of Mississippi -- a debate moderated by Lehrer -- that more offshore drilling and tapping U.S. reserves "will have, I think, an important effect on the price of a barrel of oil."

Still, some observers note the challenge in getting East Coast media to cover uniquely Western issues.

"It's always harder to get attention in Eastern newspapers about public lands, because they don't live amidst several hundred million acres of public lands," said Kenworthy, who is a former reporter for the Washington Post and USA Today who wrote from the West.

An editorial last month in the Denver Post, for example, said that because the debate is taking place in the West, candidates should be asked to discuss energy and environmental policy.

And an op-ed last week in the New York Times by Timothy Egan calls for Lehrer to spotlight public lands specifically.

The debate "gives the moderator Jim Lehrer a chance to ask a rare question about something beyond the cackle of magpies inside the Beltway," Egan wrote. "Please, Jim: Your audience at the University of Denver, and all over the West, would love to hear something about the public lands stance of both candidates."

Environmentalists last week also presented Lehrer with thousands of petitions requesting that he ask Obama and Romney about climate change during the first presidential debate (Greenwire, Sept. 27).

Candidates are more likely to speak about their energy platforms broadly, including Obama's support of extending the production tax credit for wind and implementing a clean energy standard, themes likely to resonate well in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Romney will likely criticize Obama for favoring renewable energy -- and perhaps mention the failed solar manufacturer Solyndra -- while touting plans to drill more federal lands to become energy independent by 2020.

"We can't talk about energy if we don't talk about public lands," said Jack Coleman, an energy attorney at Arent Fox in Washington, D.C. "Public lands are extremely important to the future of the country for oil, gas, unconventional oil in particular, oil shale and oil sands, and also for renewables."

Lawmakers hopeful

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, said voters in Colorado, like many parts of the West, are grappling over how to balance oil and gas development and mining with habitat protections, clean water and conservation.

"Where those come in complete confrontation, I think it would be a very important question that gets asked of the candidates," he said. "I think Obama will do well on that question. Romney has gone mostly drill, drill, drill. But I think it's a question that people in the West need to hear."

The issue of drilling and hydraulic fracturing may also resonate with voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the issue has flared in the past several years, Grijalva said.

But Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who chairs the subcommittee, said he has little hope that national media will ask candidates to discuss their plans for the nation's several hundred million acres of public lands, most of which are in the West.

"Sometimes the questioners, I wonder if they even know where the West is," said Bishop, a former teacher who has argued that development on public lands in Utah is a critical funding source for schools. "I don't have a whole lot of hope that there will be a fervent discussion about what is needed in the West to make our education system fair and our kids have a future.

"So energy, lands policy ... I'm sorry, it has never been well-covered by the Eastern media," he added. "I don't expect it to be well-covered in the debates or actually in the rest of the campaign."

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said energy development on public lands is "front and center" in the minds of voters in her state, which is a top producer of coal, oil and natural gas and virtually guaranteed to vote for Romney.

"I hope there is at least one opportunity to discuss what for us is the driver of our economy, and that is natural resources," she said. "My guess is they will spend very little time on it."

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee, said he's hopeful Obama will have the opportunity to discuss the Interior Department's progress promoting solar and wind development on federal lands.

"I think the president has a fantastic answer that will encompass all of the above," he said, "not just oil and gas but also wind and solar and geothermal and all the other projects that [Interior] Secretary [Ken] Salazar has laid out for them."

Records speak for themselves

In a statement widely ridiculed by conservation groups, Romney in February told the Reno, Nev., Gazette-Journal that "I don't know why the government owns so much" federal lands.

But he vowed to not allow "extreme environmentalists" to hold up development of coal, gold and other resources in the state, a statement sure to play favorably among industry groups and those in the West who backed the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and '80s (E&ENews PM, Feb. 3).

Salazar at a public lands forum in Boulder, Colo., last month pounced on the statement, saying Romney "doesn't understand that the public lands belong to the public," according to the magazine High Country News.

Conservation groups have also strongly opposed a proposal by Romney's running mate, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), to sell millions of acres of public lands to the highest bidder, a proposal that they said could fleece taxpayers and potentially harm local economies (E&E Daily, March 22).

Romney has also pledged to allow states to manage the development of oil and gas, coal, mining, and renewable energy on federal lands, similar to how states oversee compliance with federal air and water regulations (Greenwire, Aug. 23).

Though his plan would exclude "only lands specifically designated off-limits," it represents an unprecedented change in the management of hundreds of millions of acres of lands under the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.

Oil and gas groups have generally backed the plan, though at least one group said it is politically untenable and potentially burdensome (Greenwire, Sept. 11).

Obama's record on public lands has been mixed, according to conservation groups. Major policies include backing the Clinton administration's roadless rule, which protected 58 million acres of national forests from logging, most drilling and road building.

BLM also introduced sweeping reforms to the oil and gas leasing process designed to give federal agencies and public stakeholders greater input into where development may occur. Environmentalists strongly backed the reforms, but trade groups complained they slowed down an already laborious process.

The Obama administration also proposed new protections for wildlife in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and designated national monuments protecting historical forts in Virginia and California and, just last month, an American Indian site in Colorado. Conservation groups, however, are pushing for much larger designations.

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