After the future of resigned House Speaker Jim Wright was decided Wednesday, the first business the House faced Thursday was to decide the future of 107,000 acres of oil shale claims in Utah.
The House voted 301 to 80 to abolish what some say has been a land giveaway allowed by an old 1872 mining law - passed when Ulysses S. Grant was president. It allows claimholders to "patent," or buy, title to oil shale land for just $2.50 an acre.Critics of that old law say claim-holders often turn around and resell the land for thousands of dollars an acre to recreational land developers and oil companies.
The General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency, said 20 "patent" sales it reviewed showed the government received $4,500 for land estimated to be worth up to $40 million. Also, 12 pending sales for land worth up to $47 million would be sold for only $16,000.
The bill the House passed Wednesday - which still must be passed by the Senate to become law - was generally endorsed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.
Republicans, including Reps. Jim Hansen and Howard Nielson who both voted against the bill - claimed that new fees it imposes are too high, that it changes rules on patent applications already filed and that it may be a backdoor attempt by environmental groups to prevent development in the West.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, was among the Democrats leading the fight for passage of the bill.
He said in a speech on the House floor, "Presently, the law allows speculators to obtain title to lands under which oil shales are thought to exist by filing a claim and driving out once a year to observe it through their car window.
"The law is a surviving vestige of the days when the BLM's mission was to sell or give away, if necessary, the public lands to promote development of the West. We have long since abandoned such attitudes in this country."
In opposition, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said "it would be tough to raise a jack rabbit" on much of the land affected by the bill, so $2.50 an acre is not an unfair price for it.
Also, he said, "This bill is taking away from the American citizen what has been his right. . . . It's backed by the environmental community who want to put more land into federal ownership."
The bill would authorize the secretary of the interior to determine which of the 1,600 oil shale claims in the West are still valid and then put them into one of three categories:
- Allow claimholders who filed and completed patent applications before Jan. 24, when the bill was introduced, to still buy the land for $2.50 an acre. About 7,279 acres in Colorado likely fall in that category, according to the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.
- Allow claimholders who filed patent applications but had not met all requirements before Jan. 24 to obtain limited title to some minerals for a $2,000-an-acre fee. About 28,000 acres in Utah likely fit that category, as do 18,683 in Wyoming.
- Prohibit claimholders who did not file patent applications by Jan. 24 from obtaining any sort of title. They could maintain their claims without title or convert them to mineral leases.
Some of the examples of "land giveaway" found by the GAO that contributed to passage of the bill include:
- Selling 82,000 acres of oil shale lands in Utah and Colorado for $2.50 an acre, while some of the claim-holders immediately resold the land for $2,000 an acre.
- In 1983, 160 acres near Keystone, Colo., were sold for $2.50 an acre and re-sold for $11,000 an acre as part of a residential development.
- A patent application for 1,280 acres near Lake Mead National Rec-reation Area in Nevada might be purchased from the government for $3,200, but real estate agents value it at between $25.6 million and $32 million because it is within three miles of nine gambling casinos in Laughlin, Nev.