Frederick H. Larsen of Pacific Palasades, Calif., may soon purchase 27,000 acres of federal land in eastern Utah for $2.50 an acre.
The aquisition is made possible by anachronistic "patenting" allowed under the 1872 Mining Law. Last week, we criticized the aspect of the old law that requires only $100 worth of assessment work every year to keep a federal mineral claim active.Patenting is more insidious because it allows public land to become private property on the gauziest of pretexts, at the lowest imaginable price.
Land is claimed in 40-acre tracts, although many tracts may be staked out at the same time. If a miner can show he has done at least $500 worth of work on the claim, and it contains valuable minerals, he can file for a patent.
Under the present rules, he must pay $250 application fee to cover the paperwork. But that only applies to the first 40-acre tract in the application; if he has other tracts, it's only $50 for each.
Then he pays the exact same price for land as stipulated in the 1872 law: $5 an acre for a lode claim, $2.50 an acre for a placer claim.
"This is the ultimate real estate bargain," Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark. told the Senate on Oct. 18. "After a claim is patented, the owner of that land may legally put it to any use he chooses."
We're not talking about some hypothetical situation. The Bureau of Land Management is starting to process patent claims on 53,000 acres of oil shale land in Utah and Colorado.
Of this, 27,000 acres are in eastern Utah. The 175 claims are in the control of one applicant - Larsen, according to Jerry Meredith, BLM spokesman for Utah.
When the Mineral Leasing Act was passed in 1920, it established that oil shale is not a locatable mineral. So claims filed after that time for oil shale aren't patentable. Other minerals are still fully claimable.
Last year, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that oil shale claims filed between 1872 and 1920 are valid.
James M. Parker, the BLM's state director, outlined a three-step process that the agency will follow in deciding Larsen's claims:
assessment work was done. This step has been completed with the Utah claims.
- Publish a notice in the local papers asking if there are any adverse claims. It hasn't happened yet.
- If no adverse claims are received, the BLM will hold a formal field investigation to make certain that valuable minerals really are present at each discovery point that was claimed.
When the field tests are finished - which could be in about two years - the land will become private property. The BLM will charge $2.50 an acre, or $67,500.
The filing fee under which Larsen asked for patenting was $25. If the claim has the required amount of oil shale, the total price would be $67,525 for 27,000 acres.
Another set of claims, 26,000 acres, are being processed in Colorado. Also, 200,000 more acres of federal land in the two states have some kind of oil shale claims.
"Eventually, if they (the claimants) choose to, they could file an application for patent. But they have not chosen to do so at this time," said Meredith.
Shale oil may never be worth digging out of the ground. It just costs too much to dig it up, crush the rocks, retort the oil. After all, it's not even economical to drill deep wells in Oklahoma, with the cheap oil from the Middle East.
But one of the many amazing aspects of this is the law doesn't care that there's no market for oil shale. All that must be proven, under a Supreme Court decision, is that the oil is there - at least 15 gallons per ton of rock, in beds a foot thick or more, yielding 1,500 barrels per acre.
When that is established, the owner can do whatever he wants with the land.
The BLM imposed a moratorium on processing oil shale mining claims, giving Congress a chance to decide the question. But Congress did nothing. We can't blame the BLM for carrying out the act and following court rulings.
On Dec. 6, James E. Cason, the Interior Department assistant secretary for land and minerals, wrote to Sen. John Melcher, D. Mont., the outgoing chairman of the Mineral Resources, Development and Production Committee:
"We had hoped to reach a consensus with Congress on these issues prior to deciding to go forward . . . Now that the 100th Congress has adjourned without enacting oil shale legislation, the department feels compelled to carry out its duties under the Mining Law of 1872 to adjudicated the validity of mining claims for which a mineral patent is sought."
The land giveaway is proof that it's time to chuck this dangerous antique.