Last month, the first-ever auction for oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) ended with just three bidders winning drilling rights to more than half a million acres. The controversial auction, rushed in the final days of the Trump administration and widely opposed by environmentalists, raised a tiny fraction of what the government had projected, just $14.4 million in revenue; most tracts went for the minimum price of $25 an acre.

After a 40-year political saga, lease rights to one of the nation’s most pristine, wild places went to extractive energy companies for a pittance. Environmental groups would have likely paid far more to protect the land — a practice some call conservation leasing — but federal rules excluded them. As the Biden administration pauses new oil and gas leasing to review the federal leasing program, it’s time for those rules to change.

Current regulations require leaseholders to extract, harvest, graze, or otherwise develop their leases or risk losing them altogether. Tempest Williams found this out the hard way in 2016 when she tried to buy federal drilling rights for1,120 acres near Arches National Park in Utah to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But the government cancelled the leases after Tempest Williams wrote in The New York Times that she had no intention of drilling. Other environmentalists have been similarly thwarted. In the late 1990s, the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust purchased federal grazing permits from ranchers in Utah to protect environmentally sensitive lands only to see the unused allotments reopened to other ranchers. And in 2008, climate activist Tim DeChristopher was famously thrown in prison after he attempted to bid for oil and gas leases at a federal Bureau of Land Management auction.

If environmental groups are willing to pay more to protect an area than industry groups are to develop it, then the land clearly ought to be protected.

Read the full article about conservation leasing by Shawn Regan at Grist.