In January, the Biden administration paused oil and gas leases on public lands. This month, Biden announced an additional leasing pause in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, re-sparking the debate over the administration’s handling of oil and gas leases, including those in Utah.
A major focus of the Biden administration has been attempting to slow the impacts of climate change. These efforts include executive orders to expand green energy infrastructure, push for electric vehicle fleets and a pause on oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
“Now, today’s executive order also directs the Secretary of the Interior to stop issuing new oil and gas leases on public lands. We’re going to review and reset the oil and gas leasing program,” President Biden said in an address.
In an effort to resume state income from federal land leases, Utah joined a lawsuit in March against the Biden administration, calling for an end to the pause. State Senator Ronald Winterton, a supporter of the lawsuit against the Biden administration, worries the leasing pause is taking critical money away from rural Utahns.
“The federal government owns, you know, 70% of our state. And so the federal government in their leasing program, they lease the land, and then if they develop oil or gas production on that, then the federal government gets royalties off from that in which they share 49% of that revenue generated back to the state to try to make up for that. The importance to the state of Utah, in federal leases and that, that's the difference and making up the revenues so that the small counties can actually provide government services,” Winterton said.
In many cases, oil and gas leasing is an opportunity for Utah to generate revenue from jobs from otherwise undeveloped land across the state. Jobs running support services for oil and gas employees, like gas stations and grocery stores, spring up around extraction sites as well.
However, fossil fuel extraction regulations change with administrations, potentially leaving rural areas that depend on oil and gas jobs without a reliable stream of funding or employment opportunities.
“When it's good, it's good," Winterton said. "And when it's not, you know, we struggle because there's not much outside of that. I mean, most businesses are support businesses for that industry. Yeah, we have tourism, but that doesn't really pay the bills. There's not that many jobs in tourism for this. So we see high percentages of unemployment when things go south with a change of administration or their policies."
David Jenkins, the president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, feels these issues are the result of a broken system. He said the pause is a necessary step to re-evaluate this system that allows companies to lease land cheaply and abandon unproductive areas, at the expense of taxpayers.
“We have these antiquated rules and laws governing leasing and royalties. And the good thing about a pause is that we can look at that and try to balance this a little bit better so that taxpayers are getting a fair deal,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said while the pause limits state income on land leasing, the leasing pause doesn’t stop current resource extraction, and states are often left to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells. Jenkins is frustrated by the lack of consideration for taxpayers’ checkbooks but also feels people are losing sight of other ways to generate revenue from public lands.
“You can't just sacrifice every other value that our public land serves for just one purpose like oil and gas activity. We depend on it for recreation, for hunting and fishing, we depend on it for tourism, we depend on it for wildlife habitat. These are our public lands; they belong to all of us,” Jenkins said.
Beyond direct impacts to leased land, oil and gas extraction may impact land that others depend on for their livelihoods. The Valley Organic Growers Association is a collection of farmers and ranchers in western Colorado. Along with 20 other agricultural, conservation and recreation groups, the association has moved to defend the leasing pause and block the lawsuit Utah is part of.
Mark Waltermeyer, a board member of the association and a local farm owner, worries farmers and ranchers in the region are at risk of contamination from oil and gas extraction on surrounding public lands.
“Our water originates in areas that have not entirely but largely been leased for oil and gas development and the oil and gas development that is and could be taking place will jeopardize the economy that we've been spending our lives creating," Waltermeyer said. "The moratorium gives us a chance to go through that process and say, hey, you know, these are, these are our values, and we don't see those represented in the decisions that you're making about oil and gas."