Taxpayer, conservation groups pressure U.S. to halt drilling auctions

Sept 8 (Reuters) - U.S. taxpayer and conservation groups on Tuesday will urge the Trump administration to halt plans to sell oil and gas leases on more than 300,000 acres of public lands this month, saying prices are unlikely to be competitive due to the weakened state of the drilling industry.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will hold the first of six September lease sales in Nevada on Tuesday with an auction of 11 land parcels covering more than 15,000 acres. It will sell other leases later in the month in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah and several other states.

The sales come on the heels of a large federal auction in New Mexico here last month that attracted far less interest from drillers than other recent sales in the state. The auction marked the resumption of the administration's oil and gas leasing program following a five-month pause due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

But with the drilling industry still struggling with sharply lower prices and demand, critics say they are expecting similar poor returns from sales this month.

Federal budget watchdog organization Taxpayers for Common Sense and conservation groups Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship and the National Wildlife Federation will hold a press conference on Tuesday to urge Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to cancel the sales.

Leasing public lands to crippled oil and gas drillers makes it “impossible for taxpayers to get competitive prices for the land held in public trust,” the groups said in a statement. They also said drilling on public lands harms wildlife and the outdoor recreation economy.

Oil and gas drilling on public lands is a key part of the Trump administration’s efforts to boost domestic energy production. Later this year, it hopes to hold the first lease sale in California in seven years as well as the first in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Tom Brown)