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Our View: Biden’s pause on federal land leases is prudent

Biden’s pause on leases is prudent

Fishing, ranching, swimming, hunting, kayaking, rafting, climbing, farming, skiing, hiking, biking, snowshoeing, mining, camping, bird-watching. All of these activities use air, water and land owned by the people of Southwest Colorado.

These “Common Grounds” are one of the four topics we’re addressing in FOCUS 2021.

The complex management of the resources we depend on for our very lives is complicated further by the threat of climate change, evidenced by the current drought, changing weather patterns and biodiversity loss.

The problems can seem intractable, the political barriers to progress insurmountable.

And so we pause. It’s the only sensible thing to do.

That’s what the Biden administration has done with its executive orders on climate change – in particular, putting a short-term hold on leases of federal land to extractive industries while the Department of the Interior reviews and assesses impacts.

You would think the sky is falling by how oil and gas industry representatives have responded. But it’s not, and they know it.

A 60-day pauuse on new leases was enacted by order of the Secretary of the Interior. Biden’s Executive Order on Climate Change includes a pause on new leases without a termination date; the pause will likely last no more than a year, while the Bureau of Land Management conducts a rigorous review of policies. And even if Biden’s pause were to be extended, the order has no effect on existing leases. Producers can keep right on producing from active wells and start producing on unused leases. Some producers have enough unused leases to keep them going with new projects for several years. And of the 2.5 million acres of federal land already leased at the end of 2019, 1 million weren’t even in production.

Industry spokespeople have warned Western states will lose billions of dollars in revenue and jobs if the “time out” lasts very long.

It’s true that the oil and gas industry contributes considerably to Colorado and other Western states’ economies.

But most of that money doesn’t come from new leases. Ten-year leases of federal land go for as little as $1.50 an acre.

If that sounds like a good deal, consider that federal royalties on production remain at 12.5%, the same amount at which they were set in 1920. (Imagine you could buy a pound of bacon for 52 cents, or pay $60 a month in rent; that’s what those cost in 1920.)

What the industry is really worried about is paying higher prices for the resources they extract from public land. They’re concerned the government might start charging them 21st-century rates. Some are also worried they may no longer be able to walk away from used-up drilling sites, leaving behind “orphaned” wells taxpayers must cough up money to clean up.

Oil, gas and coal extraction on federal lands creates nearly a quarter of the nation’s annual carbon emissions, a significant contributor to climate change.

Taking a break to review policies regulating extraction on public land is prudent and overdue. Altering existing policies to benefit the planet and taxpayers should be the aim.

Raising leasing rates and royalties for federal lands and increasing bonding to cover mitigation costs for orphaned wells could reduce the production of fossil fuels on public lands while increasing revenues.

These changes will impact the energy sector, but it can have a say in how the transition from fossil-fuel dependency to renewable energy resources rolls out and can choose to benefit from it instead of fighting it.

No one expects demand for fossil fuels or their production to end overnight. The sky is not falling – but our way of life is endangered by climate change. Let’s find a way to work together on this.

This editorial was updated on Feb. 9, 2021, to clarify the timing of the “pause.”

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