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Utah cries foul over moratorium on oil and gas leasing and drilling

President Joe Biden’s Interior Department suspends most decision-making for next 60-days, not just energy development

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this July 13, 2015, file photo, Melanie Martin of the Tar Sands Resistance Movement, looks over the Book Cliffs, in eastern Utah. Development of the country's first tar sands mine is one of a number of battle fronts across the West between preservationists and the energy industry.

Among the many orders the Biden administration issued this week was a temporarily halt to the leasing of fossil energy resources and new permits for drilling and mining on public lands. Signed by acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega on Wednesday, this order places a 60-day hold on virtually all decisions that could result in ground-disturbing activities.

Industry representatives and Utah elected leaders were quick to denounce the moratorium, claiming it will disrupt rural economies and lead to more environmental harm.

“This action perpetuates the very discord between rural and urban Americans that the President [Joe Biden] spoke out against in his inauguration speech. Although it is routine for an incoming administration to pause high-level agency decisions while agency leaders get into place, such a widespread suspension of routine permitting decisions normally made in the field is unprecedented,” said Utah’s all-Republican top political leadership in a joint statement.

Sally Jewell, a former petroleum engineer who served as President Barack Obama’s Interior secretary, contends the federal oil and gas leasing program has long short-changed taxpayers and resulted in leases being issued in areas with low potential for development and high potential for conflict.

She says a moratorium is in order to give the Biden administration a chance give the program a long-overdue update. Besides, industry and energy speculators are holding more leases than they know what to do with.

“There’s been so much leased and the oil companies will run around saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to be really hurt if [leasing] doesn’t happen.’ That’s nonsense. I know that. They have plenty of places that they can go,” she said.

The Utah leaders’ statement alleges, without offering much evidence, that Biden’s order will exacerbate job losses in Utah’s energy sector, already hit hard by the pandemic.

In the past year, industry has exhibited little appetite for buying oil and gas leases on Utah’s public lands, where drilling activity has come to a virtual standstill despite large numbers of drilling permits already approved. While it’s hard to see how a 60-day leasing pause would have much of an impact, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and the state’s top lawmakers implored Biden to reconsider.

“The economic impacts of this decision will be felt nationwide and couldn’t come at a worse time for Utah’s rural communities, tribes, and small businesses,” the leaders said. “We are eager to work with his administration to improve management of our public lands, but gratuitously punishing our rural economy is not helpful.”

Ute tribal leaders, meanwhile, demanded the order be amended to exempt tribal lands. The Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeast Utah is rich in oil and gas resources and their development is crucial to the tribe’s economic prospects, according to tribal Chairman Luke Duncan.

“Your order is a direct attack on our economy, sovereignty, and our right to self-determination,” Duncan wrote in a Jan. 21 letter to Vega. “Indian lands are not federal public lands. Any action on our lands and interests can only be taken after effective tribal consultation. "

Perhaps Vega’s order will lead to a longer moratorium or outright ban on oil and gas leasing and drilling, which would align with candidate Joe Biden’s pledge to tackle the climate crisis caused by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for warming the plant. But the order’s stated goal is to suspend pending Interior Department decisions or actions so they can be reviewed by Interior’s incoming leadership, not reduce emissions.

For starters, the order is careful to avoid placing limits on existing oil and gas operations under valid leases.

“It also does not apply to authorizations necessary to: (1) avoid conditions that might pose a threat to human health, welfare, or safety; or (2) to avoid adverse impacts to public land or mineral resources,” it states.

The secretarial order suspends a lot more than energy development, putting a pause of most decisions by an Interior agency. This includes revisions to Bureau of Land Management resource management plans, approval of any mining plans, grants of rights of way or easements, most hiring or promoting of nonseasonal personnel, and any decision regarding the disposition of any “RS 2477” road claim. These claims of existing public rights-of-way based on historical uses crisscross huge swaths of public lands in the state and several thousand of them are pending.

Such decisions can be approved, however, by any one of nine top political appointees to be named to the Interior Department in the coming days.

Environmental groups applauded the leasing pause, noting that under President Donald Trump, the Interior Department had leased more than 6 million acres for oil and gas extraction, sometimes at fire-sale prices, under Trump’s “American energy dominance” agenda.

Developing these leases has harmed some of the West’s most cherished landscapes and their nearby communities, argued Matt Kirby, energy director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“Stopping this reckless leasing program immediately is an excellent first step and is great news for national parks and public lands across the country that have suffered under the previous administration’s rush to hand public land over to polluters,” Kirby said. “We hope that this is quickly followed with more permanent action that will protect public lands and begin a fair and equitable path to shift the nation towards clean energy.”

But critics argued a leasing ban would carry unintended consequences that could undermine efforts to protect the environment.

“Restricting development on federal lands and waters is nothing more than an ‘import more oil’ policy. Energy demand will continue to rise — especially as the economy recovers — and we can choose to produce that energy here in the United States or rely on foreign countries hostile to American interests,” Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a release.

Rikki Hrenko-Browning, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, conceded that Biden’s leasing pause could be a well-intentioned move toward reducing climate-disrupting emissions, but it could wind up having the opposite effect.

Citing data from the Environmental Protection Agency, Hrenko-Browning said nationwide greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 10% overall since 2005, and 27% in the power-generation sector. Less available gas could prolong power plants’ use of coal, which releases twice the amount of carbon dioxide.

“What [the order] does in reality is negatively impact local economies all across the West including Utah, infringes on Native American sovereignty and self-determination, and works against the Biden Administration’s goal of combating climate change,” Hrenko-Browning said. “We strongly urge the Biden administration to revisit this decision and instead work in a collaborative fashion, in the way his Inaugural Address portended.”

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