New mapping analysis reveals extent of bargain oil and gas leasing

Sep 19, 2019

Nearly one million acres of oil and gas leases in New Mexico sold for $2 per acre or less

Center for Western Priorities

DENVER— The Wilderness Society and the Center for Western Priorities released new geospatial analysis today, offering a data-driven look at low-cost oil and gas leasing on public lands in the West. The story map, America’s Public Lands Giveaway, used a tool developed by The Wilderness Society to map all federal oil and gas leases on public lands, identifying leases sold for bargain prices. 

The oil and gas industry currently leases 17.7 million acres of public lands in ten Western states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming—locking up lands for development and preventing them from being actively managed for conservation and recreation. According to our analysis, 32 percent of all public lands and minerals actively leased for oil and gas were sold for just $2.00 per acre or less—totaling 5.7 million acres. Under current rules, companies can purchase oil and gas leases at auction for the minimum bonus bid of just $2.00 per acre, or can purchase unsold leases noncompetitively by paying the first year’s rent and a small fee. 

In New Mexico alone, nearly one million acres of active leases were purchased at auction for the minimum bid or noncompetitively.

“These maps show how the federal government’s outdated oil and gas leasing process is allowing industry to lock up our lands across the west for just a couple dollars an acre, forsaking valuable conservation and recreation for the public,” said Kim Stevens, campaign manager at The Wilderness Society. “It’s time for Congress to end these outdated policies that put industry ahead of the taxpayers and the future health of the environment.”

“This administration can’t be trusted to protect America’s public lands, waters, and communities from the impacts of oil and gas drilling. The ‘lease everywhere’ approach we’ve seen only helps the former and future oil and gas clients of top Interior Department officials—it’s taxpayers that get shortchanged in this process,” said Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Jennifer Rokala. “For decades, the oil and gas industry has taken advantage of an outdated system tilted in their favor and against taxpayers and other land uses.”

Since Congress updated the leasing process in 1987, 42.1 million acres, or 60 percent of all oil and gas leases issued, have been purchased for the minimum bid or noncompetitively. These low-cost leases incentivize land speculation and are terminated at greater rates than leases purchased for competitive bid prices. Since 1987, 93 percent of leases sold for $2.00 or less have been terminated, while only 79 percent of competitive leases have been terminated. Companies often buy up leases that don’t produce any oil and gas—47 percent of active leased acres are sitting idle, generating only $1.50 per acre for taxpayers annually. 

[Click here to view the story map]


In the last two years, the Trump administration has offered more than 2.1 million acres for oil and gas development that have failed to sell at auction. These leases are currently available for the industry to purchase noncompetitively for just $1.50 per acre. This report provides a number of policy changes Congress can take to modernize and update the century-old leasing system. 

[Click here to explore a map of active oil and gas leases]