Halt to federal lands energy leasing draws mix of reactions in Garfield County
Industry reps suing, conservation groups applaud push for renewables over fossil fuels
A halt to oil and gas leasing on federal lands announced Wednesday by President Joe Biden was met with a predictable mix of reactions across western Colorado’s gas patch.
The moratorium on new leasing was one of several executive orders signed by the president as part of a sweeping initiative aimed at tackling climate change through land conservation, pollution controls and a strong push toward renewable energy resources.
The response was swift from Colorado’s energy sector and industry supporters who opposed the move to close off public lands from new leasing, and from numerous environmental groups who praised the move.
Industry advocates the Western Energy Alliance immediately filed a lawsuit in federal court to try to block the leasing ban, saying the order exceeds the president’s authority.
“The law is clear. Presidents don’t have authority to ban leasing on public lands,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Alliance, said in a news release. “All Americans own the oil and natural gas beneath public lands, and Congress has directed them to be responsibly developed on their behalf. Drying up new leasing puts future development as well as existing projects at risk.”
Garfield County is the second-largest natural gas producing county in Colorado after Weld County. Roughly 10% of the county’s 11,000 currently active wells are operating on federal land leases, primarily within the wide swaths of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands north and south of the Colorado River near Rifle and Parachute.
About 90% of those lands available for leasing are already leased, and would continue even under the moratorium, Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky noted.
“It’s not just the leases, though, it’s all the new regulations for permits that will come with this and be based around climate change reports and other new requirements,” he said.
Between the new rules for operating on federal lands, and the new, stricter regulations for operating on private lands brought by Colorado’s Senate Bill 181, “it just adds to the cost of doing business in Garfield County, and on public lands.”
Jankovsky said those jobs are now likely to go to neighboring energy-producing states where state-level regulations are not as strict.
“We still have our producing wells for the life of those, but this is a big impact on the industry,” Jankovsky said.
The leasing ban will also limit the amount of federal mineral lease grant dollars available for local entities, hurt local schools and other taxing districts, and force people to leave the county, he said.
Will Roush, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, welcomed the news that the Biden Administration is committed to conserving 30% of the nation’s public lands over the next 10 years — the so-called 30×30 pledge.
“Today’s pause on new fossil fuel leasing on federal lands is an important step forward for all western Coloradans who want public lands protected, not contributing to the climate crisis,” Roush said.
“President Biden’s inspiring 30×30 pledge will support additional protected lands and waters across Colorado and centers environmental justice in our most at-risk communities,” he said.
It also bodes well for the Wilderness Workshops efforts in support of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse’s CORE Act, which would provide permanent protections for the Thompson Divide region south of Glenwood Springs, Roush said.
“The leasing pause brings a needed balance to future management decisions in the Piceance Basin and provides the opportunity to better protect iconic wildlife, rivers, and access to our special places,” he said.
Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, also weighed in with a statement on the announcement.
“The Western U.S. is getting hotter and drier, and people are suffering, right now, from increasingly severe wildfires, more intense droughts, extreme weather, and a lack of economic opportunities — especially those that strengthen, rather than compromise our beloved natural heritage,” he said. “Our way of life hangs in the balance, and climate change amplifies each of these threats.”
That “way of life,” however, also applies to families and communities that will be impacted by the loss of jobs, freshman U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said in a press release.
“Blocking future oil and gas leases on 700 million acres is an unlawful attack on the livelihoods of the people in my district,” Boebert said. “While the Biden administration pretends big oil is its target, the reality is it’s the folks in small rural communities that will be hit hardest by today’s indefinite moratorium.”
Critics of the president’s plan also have pointed to a recent energy study that analyzed the economic impact of a federal land leasing ban in Colorado and other western states.
The study, conducted by Timothy Considine, professor of energy economics at the University of Wyoming, determined that the first year under a leasing moratorium in Colorado would result in $453 million in lost GDP, $224 million in lost wages, $27 million in lost state tax revenue and nearly 3,000 job losses.
Biden has vowed to take an approach that would offset any such losses with new jobs creation and economic development in the renewable energy and automotive sectors.
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Garfield County is seeking to qualify its four west-end communities for Colorado’s Rural Jump Start program, providing tax breaks for new businesses.