President Joe Biden halts federal oil and gas leasing to review the program

Order is part of sweeping executive action to tackle the global climate crisis

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) This file photo shows equipment in the oil fields southeast of Vernal, Feb. 7, 2012. The new Biden administration has announced a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters, potentially slowing down further development in Utah’s Uinta Basin.

In a sweeping move to confront the global climate crisis head on, President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed executive orders aimed at establishing American leadership in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Central to this campaign is a moratorium on federal oil and gas leasing, pending a review of the program, that is sure to spark a backlash from the fossil fuel industry and energy-producing states like Utah.

“In my view, we’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis. We can’t wait any longer,” Biden said at the White House. “We see it with our own eyes. We feel it. We know it in our bones. And it’s time to act.”

His orders did not include outright bans on leasing and drilling that climate activists have clamored for, but they send a strong signal that the Biden administration is headed in a diametrically opposite direction from his predecessor. Donald Trump’s “American energy dominance” agenda swept aside most hurdles to oil and gas extraction on public lands.

Biden directed the Interior Department to launch a “rigorous review of all existing leasing and permitting practices related to fossil fuel development on public lands and waters, and identify steps that can be taken to double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030,” the White House said in a statement posted Wednesday morning. That effort is expected to soon be led by New Mexico’s Rep. Deb Haaland, Biden’s nominee for interior secretary.

Wednesday’s announcement, which builds on Biden’s earlier cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and embrace of the Paris climate accord, follows a 60-day moratorium he issued on virtually all of the Interior Department’s decision-making.

Utah’s political leaders last week denounced these measures as an attack on rural Utah, which relies on oil and gas revenues to support local businesses and schools.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox predicted the leasing pause would set back investment and energy production in Utah, where two-thirds of the land is managed by the federal government, and keep many from being able to provide for their families.

“Unity in our nation can only be reached when we work together to solve complex challenges,” Cox said. “His action was taken without coordination with the state to determine how his decision would impact rural Utah and those that live there.”


One industry group, American Energy Alliance, falsely characterized Biden’s move as a “ban on oil and natural gas production,” predicting it would lead to higher prices for U.S. consumers and greater reliance on foreign sources of energy, while doing nothing to combat climate change.

“President Biden should focus his own energies on Americans and the American economy,” said the group’s president, Thomas Pyle, in a statement. “If he were serious about justice and equality, his emphasis would be on encouraging energy sources that can deliver affordable energy to every one of every income level.”

Sally Jewell, interior secretary under President Barack Obama, dismissed such claims as “a political rallying cry” that are not grounded in facts. Over the past several years, industry has amassed leases on millions of acres, most of which have yet to be drilled, along with nearly 10,000 unused drill permits.

On Jewell’s watch, Interior imposed a moratorium on the coal leasing while it undertook a comprehensive review of federal coal program similar to what Biden is now doing with oil and gas. The Trump administration lifted that moratorium without implementing any reforms proposed during the review.

Like the coal program, Jewell believes, the oil and gas program needs a drastic overhaul to square it with the realities of climate change and Americans’ growing interest in recreation on public lands.

”These laws were written at a time when there was concern about U.S. energy security and energy independence and they were all written to accelerate leasing as fast as possible without looking at what was a fair return to the American taxpayer,” said Jewell, who started her career as a petroleum engineer and later became CEO for a leading retailer of outdoor gear.

Environmental groups

While drawing condemnation from Utah’s political leadership, Biden’s announcement drew cheers from environmental leaders across the nation.

“Hitting pause on oil and gas leasing is a crucial first step toward reforming a rigged and broken system that for too long has put oil and gas lobbyists ahead of the American people,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for the Center for Western Priorities. “This temporary pause in leasing will give Secretary Haaland and the Interior team time for a top-to-bottom review, and give Congress time to pass long-overdue legislation to overhaul an outdated system that has enriched oil and gas CEOs at the expense of America’s land, water, and wildlife.”

About a quarter of the nation’s carbon emissions are believed to come from fossil energy extracted on public lands and waters, which account for 22% of U.S. oil production and 12% of natural gas production.

“For too long, fossil fuel interests profited from excessive extraction near communities, leaving locals with the cost of pollution and health consequences,” Carly Ferro, director of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter, said. “We welcome this news and look forward to a new vision for land management that centers public health, protection of nature and green space, and a future we can all benefit from.”

In deference to tribal sovereignty, Biden’s order won’t restrict energy development on Utah’s Ute Indian Reservation and other tribal lands, which the federal government holds in trust for the tribes. Nor does it affect coal leasing on public lands or halt drilling on existing oil and gas leases.

In a statement Wednesday, the White House said the president intends to lead a clean energy revolution that will result in a carbon-free power sector by 2035 and get the nation on a “irreversible path to a net-zero economy” by 2050.

“Today’s actions advance those goals and ensure that we are tapping into the talent, grit, and innovation of American workers, revitalizing the U.S. energy sector, conserving our natural resources and leveraging them to help drive our nation toward a clean energy future, creating well-paying jobs with the opportunity to join a union, and delivering justice for communities who have been subjected to environmental harm,” the White House said.

Another order commits the nation to conserving 30% of its lands and waters by 2030, an idea known as the “30 by 30″ initiative.

Industry leaders fear a 1-year leasing moratorium holds “profound and far-reaching negative consequences” for Utah’s economic future. Oil and gas revenues, which could be reduced under a leasing moratorium, play an important role supporting rural communities and maintain national parks, according to Utah Petroleum Association President Rikki Hrenko-Browning

“Most of Utah’s federal natural gas properties are located in rural areas, particularly in the Uintah Basin, where oil and gas income provide a lifeline of financial support for education, health care, and other public services, especially for local governments and special districts,” Hrenko-Browning said. “These losses in the oil and gas sector spill over to the Utah economy writ large, the effects of which are exacerbated by the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Under lease

But supporters of the moratorium point out that plenty of federal land remains under lease and available for drilling. Less than half the 3 million acres under lease in Utah are in production, according to Bureau of Land Management statistics.

“In Utah alone, the industry is sitting on more than 1.7 million acres of unused federal oil and gas leases on some of our nation’s wildest and most culturally significant public lands,” said Steve Bloch, legal director of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “At the same time, drilling is at a historically low rate. In this landscape, the Biden administration’s pause on new leasing will not impact the oil and gas industry’s bottom line.”

During its four-year run, the Trump administration offered leases on nearly 1 million acres in Utah, but industry did not show much interest. More than half the offerings sold for the minimum $2 an acre or failed to attract any bidders at all, according to an analyses by the Center for Western Priorities and other groups.

Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus and other elected leaders in Grand County last year convinced the BLM to refrain from selling leases in recreation hot spots near that southern Utah town. She doesn’t believe the leasing moratorium will hurt her community, which hosts a few productive oil fields.

“Land that has yet to be leased is probably not super productive, otherwise it would have already been leased by now,” Niehaus said. “Hitting the pause button on new leases isn’t actually all that progressive. It’s not going to hurt us because I would rather have productive lease development than more leases that just kind of sends out the industry and then goes into direct conflict with recreation areas.”