Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Texas Commissioner of the General Land Office

The General Land Office administers the use of all state-owned lands. This responsibility includes leasing for gas and oil production, mining, and grazing, and monitoring the environmental quality of public lands and waters. The office also operates the veterans' land program, in which state bonds are used to underwrite loans to military veterans for land purchases.

Nearly 12 percent of Texas, or about 32,000 square miles is state controlled public land. This land area is larger than the total land of South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island. Unlike most western states, little more than 1 percent of Texas is public land. Managed by the General Land Office, most of the public land in Texas is in west Texas or submerged along the Gulf of Mexico coast. Valuable mineral leases on parts of this land generate money to support primary and secondary public schools and universities across Texas.

The Land Commissioner authorizes exploration and exploitation of public lands, so the Commissioner's decisions affect hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity. This also has a significant impact on state government and services, as the General Land Office generates hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties on oil and gas extracted from state lands. The Land Office has often come under criticism for doing too little to protect coastal areas of Texas.

As with similar offices in other states and the Federal Department of the Interior, the Texas Land Commissioner must reconcile the economic use of natural resources with environmental protection and conservation. State lands are a valuable source of revenue, particularly given that the state cannot draw on an income tax for revenue and that a significant share of oil and gas royalties are dedicated to public education. These issues are particularly acute in the coastal areas, where the state owns four million acres of submerged lands and all of the beaches. The General Land Office must balance the competing goals to both to exploit and preserve public lands.

Oil and gas production on state-owned lands has helped fund public education and keep taxes low. The economic activity generated by the energy sector has been key to fueling our economy. But it’s no secret Texas' oil and gas hey days are behind us and the state can rely solely on this a non-renewable asset to fund public education forever.

With over 20 million acres of state-owned land, much of it on the windy Gulf coast and in windy and sunny West Texas, the state should be a leader on renewable energy production, but it is not. Moving quickly into a 21st century renewable energy market would generate additional revenue produced on state lands from energy production, which in turn would help fund public education and keep taxes low. It would produce economic activity in communities across Texas, in both the manufacturing and construction sectors. It would provide jobs in some of the communities in Texas most in need of them. And transitioning away from a petrochemical economy into a renewable clean energy economy would help protect our environment.

The Texas General Land Office should aggressively take the lead on renewable energy development rather than continuing to focus exclusively on depleting non-renewable fossil energy reserves to fund public education.

The Christmas Mountains, in the heart of the Big Bend region of southwest Texas, were donated to the State of Texas in 1991. The foundation that gave the land to Texas stipulated that the Christmas Mountains were to remain public. The land should have been transferred to the National Park Service (NPS) and been made part of Big Bend National Park years ago. However, Republican Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has prevented has blocked making the Christmas Mountain area a part of the Big Bend National Park. Commissioner Jerry Patterson insists that the Mountains should be sold to a private entity.

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