mountain mama Sara Kuntzler

Sara Kuntzler is the mom and the Colorado grassroots organizer for the environmentally attuned group Mountain Mamas.

A Colorado group of politically active mothers was among the state's green advocates to throw its support behind Sen. John Hickenlooper's bill to end noncompetitive leasing on public lands.

Hickenlooper on Thursday introduced the Competitive Onshore Mineral Policy via Eliminating Taxpayer-Enabled Speculation Act.

“Non-competitive leasing encourages speculation on public lands at taxpayers’ expense,” Hickenlooper, the former governor and ex-energy company geologist, said in a statement. “Westerners lose out when large swaths of land are set aside for speculation instead of conservation or recreation.”

Hickenlooper's bill is cosponsored by fellow Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Jacky Rosen of Nevada.

Read the proposed legislation by clicking here.

Spokespeople for the industry groups including the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the American Petroleum Institute Colorado and the Western Energy Alliance did not immediately respond to requests for comment. (This story will be updated if they respond.)

A century ago, Congress created non-bidding drilling rights on 38% of U.S. public land to spur energy development.  More than 527,000 of those acres can be leased for as little as $ 1.50 an acre, federal records indicate.

Hickenlooper's office on Thursday cited a 2020 Government Accountability Office report that indicated about 99% of lands leased non-competitively are never used to produce oil or gas and, in total, they generated less than 2% of federal royalties "despite accounting for nearly 40% of acres leased."

Colorado's Mountain Mamas, advocates for "renewable energy, cleaner transportation and protection for the public lands that make Colorado so special," said Hickenlooper's bill would right a ship that isn't working for taxpayers.

"Senator Hickenlooper’s ... act will create a more streamlined, efficient leasing system by requiring all oil and gas lease sales on public lands to be issued through a fair competitive process, instead of through the backdoor," Mountain Mamas said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

"As Colorado moms, we are thankful to Senator Hickenlooper for his legislation to close a loophole that allows short-term gain for the oil and gas industry. Their profits threaten the long-term vision that should guide the management of our federal lands to protect the opportunities of our kids and grandkids," the group said. "The Bureau of Land Management's role is to manage our federal lands, lands we all own, in a way that benefits all of us now and for future generations.

"Unfortunately, oil and gas companies are abusing loopholes that allow them to drill on our lands for a steal now and then leave a mess for future generations to clean up. It's hard to see how anyone but the oil and gas industry benefits from that deal, especially our children. We encourage the administration and Senator Hickenlooper's colleagues from across the country to stand together and make this fix."

The Colorado-based The Center for Western Priorities called the leasing loopholes a taxpayer ripoff.

“Noncompetitive leasing is just one example of the ways in which the federal oil and gas program is broken and in desperate need of reform," executive director Jennifer Rokala said in a statement. “As the climate crisis impacts communities around the West with wildfires and extreme drought, we shouldn’t be handing out swaths of public lands to oil and gas companies for pennies on the dollar. Instead, drilling on public lands should be done thoughtfully and intentionally through a fair and transparent competitive process. This commonsense bill would help do just that."

Conservation Colorado, which worked to elect Hickenlooper by calling out the environmental record of Republican incumbent, Cory Gardner, last year was also on board with the former governor.

"Public lands are critical to our fight against climate change and will be a solution to solving the crisis," deputy director Jessica Goad. “The practice of leasing public lands for drilling at bargain basement prices in a noncompetitive process directly conflicts with our national climate and conservation goals. We're thrilled that Senator Hickenlooper is leading this effort.

"The Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management must advance reforms to the oil and gas program to align our dual climate and conservation goals and the U.S. Senate should pass this good bill right away."

The Colorado Farm & Food Alliance also responded, characterizing noncompetitive leases as an "outdated 100-year-old backroom giveaway."

"It’s long past time to reform the public lands oil and gas leasing program, and Senator John Hickenlooper’s bill to end the century-old loophole known as noncompetitive leasing is an important move in that direction," the alliance said. "This legislation will at least help ensure taxpayers are not ripped-off by speculators and land-grabbers who — under the current system — can lock up our best recreation and wildlife lands, critical watersheds and important natural wonders for less than $2 an acre.

"These lands safeguard the water supplies for our most important agricultural areas and include vital wildlife migration corridors as well as habitat for big game and sensitive species. They provide the Colorado beauty that drives our recreation and agritourism industries, the backdrop to our wineries and ranches, awe-inspiring aspen groves now in their autumn splendor, and critical carbon sinks that help to mitigate the causes of and impacts from climate change."

Carol Hedges, executive director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, said the act would "increase transparency, increase efficiency, save the public money, and ensure that the federal government can promote the multiple uses of our shared public lands."

She continued, "Because the current federal oil and gas program is broken, the Bureau of Land Management is propping up oil and gas speculators who take advantage of a decades-old loophole, known as noncompetitive leasing, to lease lands without having to bid on them at an auction. Senator Hickenlooper’s bill to close this loophole is a common-sense reform that will make the federal government’s land management policies more fiscally responsible. Congress has an excellent opportunity to include this reform in the budget bill and we look forward to the day when noncompetitive leasing is a thing of the past.”

Former state Rep. Jonathan Singer, the executive director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans (LOGIC), also sided with the former governor.

“Coloradans depend on our public lands for our way of life, and we should not have to worry that our public lands are being leased to speculators behind closed doors for next to nothing," Singer said in a statement. "Senator Hickenlooper’s new bill will close the loophole known as noncompetitive leasing and increase fairness and transparency within the oil and gas leasing program by requiring all oil and gas leasing on public lands to be issued through a fair competitive process, instead of through the backdoor. Not only is this good government, it’s just common sense."

Colorado Politics senior political reporter

Joey Bunch is the senior correspondent and deputy managing editor of Colorado Politics. His 32-year career includes the last 16 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and he is a two-time finalist.

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