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Cato Report on Federal Lands Reveals "Think Tank" as Dirty Energy PR Firm

3 min. read

The self-proclaimed "libertarian" Cato Institute is out with new "research" and policy recommendations for the Interior Department, and specifically regarding how they believe the treatment of federal lands should be reformed. Unsurprisingly, given Cato's track record as pro-corporate, anti-environmental shills, the main recommendations center around giving federal land to the states, along with selling off federal lands to individuals or even corporations.  What is a bit surprising, however, is what Cato leaves out of its analysis: namely, a complete failure to point out how extremely cheap corporate (e.g., mining, oil and gas drilling) access to public property happens to be.

What do we mean by "extremely cheap?" The Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining gives us a good idea. Here are a few highlights from that report:

  • "Taxpayers lose a conservatively estimated $100 million a year because, unlike with the coal, oil and gas industries, mining companies can extract valuable resources from public land essentially for free."
  • "Taxpayers face a multi-billion dollar mining cleanup bill. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the mining industry releases more toxic pollution than any other."
  • "Mining companies—even those that are foreign-owned—are allowed to take approximately $1 billion annually in gold and other metals from public lands without payment of a royalty."

A pretty sweet deal for the corporations, if not for the rest of us. Yet there's no mention of any of this in the Cato analysis. To put it charitably, it is disingenuous of Cato not to call for market rates being charged to companies that currently receive extremely inexpensive (in effect, heavily subsidized by taxpayers) access to public property for for mineral and fuels extraction, cattle grazing, etc. It's especially disingenuous given that this access almost invariably leads to our public property being damaged, even ruined, by the activities of these corporations. It's a clear case of "market failure," in other words, yet there's no mention by Cato of any of this in their "analysis," let alone in their policy recommendations.

Why wouldn't a libertarian "think tank" like Cato support what Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has called for, namely "ensur[ing] a fair return to the public for mining activities that occur on public lands and to address the cleanup of abandoned mines?" A listing of Cato's major sponsors - ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, the Koch brothers, Castle Rock, etc. - provides us a clear answer to that question. Simply stated, Cato is heavily funded by, and does the bidding of, corporations with a strong interest in maintaining, and even expanding, their easy and cheap access to public lands for mining, fracking, etc. It doesn't get much clearer than that.

Needless to say, Cato's deep financial ties to corporations with a powerful financial interest in the outcome of  any "analysis" of their operations calls into question said "analysis."  More broadly, it calls into question Cato's entire facade of being an independent "think tank."  To the contrary, it seems to us that it would be far more accurate to call Cato a public relations firm masquerading as a think tank for its corporate patrons in the dirty energy industry and elsewhere.

Cato and other “small government” proponents could change this, of course, if they started forcefully advocating for kicking fossil fuels off of taxpayer-funded government welfare.  Given that Cato's clearly not calling for defunding dirty energy from its taxpayer-funded gravy train, the only conclusion one can reach is that Cato, along with its friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, etc., are nothing more than front groups competing for polluter propaganda dollars that they can launder through a faux-”libertarian” veneer. In contrast, a real libertarian group would call for charging market rates for corporate access to federal lands, and certainly not for having the taxpayer write the check.

P.S. Also worth noting is that an "e-book" on "government waste" that Cato sent out a while back had nothing in it about expensive, wasteful, taxpayer-funded fossil fuel industry welfare payments. This seems to be a common theme with Cato.