Days after major news outlets called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden in November, the Utah Petroleum Association contacted the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development.
To what extent, association President Rikki Hrenko-Browning wanted to know, would Biden’s potential restrictions on oil and gas leasing on federal land impact Utah’s economy?
“Just following up on our recent discussion re quantifying the impact of a ban on new federal leasing and/or fracking,” Hrenko-Browning wrote to members of the governor’s team and Michael Vanden Berg of the Utah Geological Survey on Nov. 11, noting a lack of solid data on the issue. “Hopefully we can pull something together!”
The conversations led to the creation of an internal report on the matter, which concluded that a temporary oil and gas leasing moratorium would have limited effects on Utah’s energy development, even if it lasted for years. But the industry groups representing fossil fuel and mining companies continued to have repeated contact with Utah lawmakers and the offices of Govs. Gary Herbert and Spencer Cox to push back on Biden climate policies restricting drilling and mining on federal land, often citing economic concerns that appeared to differ from the state’s report.
The Utah Petroleum Association and the Utah Mining Association video-conferenced and emailed with elected officials and executive branch staff repeatedly, and the groups wrote resolutions and talking points that were used in the Legislature.
The activity is documented in hundreds of emails that were obtained through public records requests by the Energy and Policy Institute, a clean energy watchdog group, and shared exclusively with The Salt Lake Tribune.
The communications reveal another example of how fossil fuel trade groups work to fight federal climate action at the state level. The Huffington Post reported last month that trade groups played a similar role in other states, pushing lawmakers and governors, including Democrats in New Mexico and Louisiana, to oppose any new leasing restrictions.
The economic consequences of a leasing freeze
The November conversations between Hrenko-Browning, Vanden Berg and staff working in then-Gov. Herbert’s office indicate a mutual desire to assess the impact on Utah’s economy if Biden carried through a campaign pledge to put a pause on new oil and gas leasing on federal land, which makes up nearly two thirds of the land in the state.
When Vanden Berg and Kevin Brooks of the Governor’s Office of Energy Development shared their internal report on the subject with their colleagues in early January, however, they concluded that such a ban, if temporary, would likely have limited impacts on the state’s energy sector.
After listing the unknowns of the yet-to-be announced Biden policies, Brooks and Vander Berg’s report pointed out that the majority of oil and gas leasing in Utah takes place on private, state and tribal land, not on federal land. The report also acknowledged that the number of new oil and gas wells drilled in Utah fell precipitously in recent years from over 900 in 2014 to an average of just 50 new wells per year from 2017 to 2019, despite former President Donald Trump’s American “energy dominance” policies.
At the same time, Trump-era directives opened up a rush of leasing on federal land, which led the report authors to conclude that if a leasing moratorium lasted fewer than eight years and grandfathered in existing leases, “Utah has more than enough potential well locations that could be drilled without major disruptions to overall activities.” Natural gas production could see more impacts than oil production, it added.
When Biden issued an executive order on Jan. 27 that placed an indefinite pause on oil and gas leasing on non-tribal federal land and initiated a review of the federal oil and gas leasing program, both Brian Somers of the Utah Mining Association and Hrenko-Browning encouraged Utah elected officials to issue a statement opposing the action.
“The Utah Mining Association and Utah Petroleum Association,” Somers wrote, “both feel that any statements from state elected officials on the executive order should also include verbiage that addresses these agency reviews. We fear these reviews have the potential to lay the groundwork for future assaults.”
Biden’s order presented itself as heavily focused on climate action and job creation, and it grandfathered in existing leases and applications for permits to drill, meaning in areas that have seen a glut of leasing, the order alone may do little to limit fossil fuel extraction.
But when Cox, who had only recently entered the governor’s mansion, released a statement that afternoon, it appeared to contradict the internal report’s conclusion that such an order would only pose a limited threat to the state’s fossil fuel industry.
“Today’s order,” Cox said, “curtails future investment in Utah, weakens rural Utah’s economy and keeps many Utahns from being able to provide for their families.”
Similar points were made in a subsequent letter signed by Cox and 16 other Republican governors on the Biden energy policies several weeks later, and Utah joined a Louisiana-led lawsuit in March that is challenging the legality of Biden’s order.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce, a spokesperson for Cox, downplayed the significance of the internal report’s findings, saying it only took into account current production, not future opportunity.
“The UGS report was based on a best-case scenario before the Biden announcement became official and was offered as an initial internal review,” Napier-Pearce said in an email. “A ban like this halts exploration and potential future investment in a region that was already disproportionately hit hard by COVID. It results in a loss of predictability for producers, who will likely seek more predictable locations to invest their resources. ... This disruption in the supply chain will impact business decisions, which will, in turn, impact employees and their families in the region.”
She added that the Governor’s Office of Energy Development consults with clean energy and clean air groups as well as mining and drilling associations. “No one has a monopoly on the OED’s time,” she said.
In an interview, Hrenko-Browning said the internal report was only one of many analyses conducted on the impacts of Biden’s leasing pause. She pointed to a study released in December by a University of Wyoming economics professor, which concluded the potential impacts would be far greater. That study, which has been cited repeatedly by opponents of Biden climate policies, has numerous ties to the oil and gas industry — notably by the Western Energy Alliance — and was promoted with industry funds, according to reporting in The Guardian.
“The effects of the lease sale ban,” Hrenko-Browning said, “will grow over time when county and state budgets start feeling the effects of lack of lease bonuses and federal production royalties.”
But Carly Ferro, director of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter, argued that continuing to delay climate action will have greater consequences for Utah’s economy and environment in the long run.
“The reality is: the industry is locking up nearly two million acres of land in Utah with unused oil and gas sites,” she said. “All the while, the West is in the throes of the worst drought our region has ever suffered — fueled by climate disruption exacerbated by fossil fuel emissions. Sixty-eight percent of Utahns support limiting new fossil fuel leasing on public lands because we have seen the consequences of excessive extraction and also recognize the massive potential of our clean energy future.”
Trade groups ghostwrite for the Legislature
During the legislative session, Somers and Hrenko-Browning worked with lawmakers to help pass a resolution opposing Biden energy policies, again citing the potential economic repercussions.
On March 2, Somers sent Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron, talking points on a Senate resolution that Hinkins sponsored opposing Biden’s executive orders limiting lease sales. At a committee hearing at the state Capitol later that day, Hinkins read out the talking points nearly verbatim, and both Somers and Hrenko-Browning spoke in favor of the resolution, which later passed.
The talking points said the resolution focuses “on articulating the benefits derived from the natural resources and energy sectors to the State of Utah.” It also noted that, even prior to the leasing moratorium, local economies in energy-rich counties were suffering. “Given that rural Utah has some of the highest unemployment rates in the state (for example, nearly 11% in Uintah and nearly 10% in Duchesne counties),” the talking points read, “we must fight for these industries and the jobs that form the foundation of our rural economies.”
Hrenko-Browning contacted Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, and he agreed to introduce the same resolution in the state House of Representatives, according to an email from Somers to Hinkins. Stratton did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview, Hinkins said Somers and Hrenko-Browning provide vital services to state lawmakers during the legislative session.
“When you’re in session up there, you’ve got 45 days of drinking from a fire hose,” Hinkins said. “Basically, I asked them to please help me put something together, and they were more than willing to help me at least get some facts and figures. … Hopefully we got something that’s correct. I mean, I don’t want to put something out there that’s just a bunch of bulls---. I want something that’s factual.”
Hinkins added that the point of the resolution was to express the state’s displeasure with Biden’s unilateral actions by executive order, including on oil and gas leasing policies, without consulting Utah leaders or holding public hearings. “Why don’t we just have a dictator?” he asked.
Lauren Simpson, policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, a liberal advocacy organization, called on state leaders to move away “from the influence of dirty energy and special interests.”
“In the coming years, climate change in Utah will cause more drought and wildfires that could have devastating impacts on everyone,” Simpson said. “We need leaders who take the urgent threat of climate change seriously. Unfortunately, these interactions show just how much access dirty energy groups have to Utah’s top-level government officials.”
Somers said the close relationship between the industry groups and lawmakers, including in the drafting of resolutions, “easily fit within UMA’s advocacy mission and should be neither surprising nor controversial,” adding that the trade group is registered as a 501(c)(6) industry-advocacy organization. Both Hrenko-Browning and Somers are registered lobbyists.
“I work regularly with members of the executive branch and the state legislature to inform, advise, encourage and assist on a variety of policy considerations that have a nexus with Utah’s mining industry,” Somers said. “Rest assured that there are anti-industry groups — often funded by out-of-state patrons and wealthy foundations — that oppose us at every turn and engage in the same type of lobbying and advocacy activities. This is how the political process works.”
Hrenko-Browning made similar points about her organization’s work. “Whether we’re talking about the Legislature, and even to an extent the governor’s office and the related agencies, they’re hearing from people on both sides of issues on a regular basis,” she said. “That’s our job … to educate on the impacts of different policies and to advocate for our members.”
Ferro, of the Sierra Club, also noted that the communications reveal what is a common practice among state lawmakers and officials.
“Unsurprisingly,” she said, “fossil fuel and mining interests are working behind closed doors with Utah politicians in an attempt to lock our state into an unpredictable boom-and-bust cycle that has left our air polluted, our communities vulnerable, and our climate in crisis.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.