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Sen. Michael Bennet and fellow senators urge Biden to finalize oil and gas reforms

Updated policies seek to better support communities, protect environment
A gas well in La Plata County. (Durango Herald file)

Sen. Michael Bennet led 20 senators and House representatives in calling on President Biden to finalize oil and gas leasing reform in a letter on Thursday.

The letter urged the president to finalize the “common-sense reforms” outlined in the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Rule by the end of April. The senators intend to have the rules finalized by the end of the month to prevent legislative maneuvers through the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn agency rules by a majority vote within 60 legislative days.

BLM’s reforms would increase royalty rates on oil production; prohibit noncompetitive leasing; concentrate leasing away from lands with little potential oil and gas production; make it more difficult to lease lands in cultural, wildlife and other sensitive places; and restrict companies with histories of noncompliance and abuse of federal restrictions.

Bennet was joined by other senators including fellow Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper and household names like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“These reforms are critical to update and improve the oil and gas leasing program to help ensure it better supports the needs of our communities, while protecting the environment and our public lands,” the senators wrote in the letter.

The letter signed by Bennet is in stark contrast to legislation proposed by U.S. Rep Lauren Boebert, The Restoring American Energy Dominance Act, which would prevent BLM from raising bond rates on federal oil and gas on millions of acres of Colorado land.

La Plata County commissioners Marsha Porter-Norton and Matt Salka signed a letter addressed to the House of Representatives protesting Boebert’s legislation and supporting the BLM regulations rules.

The BLM’s reforms align with legislation that Bennet has introduced over the years like the Oil and Gas Bonding Reform and Orphaned Well Remediation Act, although that bill has yet to become law. The rules also follow letters Bennet signed urging further governmental reform on the oil and gas bonding system in December 2022 and July 2023. The rules suggested by BLM would address many of the issues Bennet has previously supported.

Federal royalty rates on gas production have remained the same for over 100 years while bonding levels have remained unchanged for 60 years and minimum bids and rents have remained stagnant for 30 years, according to a report from the Department of Interior.

On the royalty rates alone, the federal government lost over $12 billion in revenue from oil and drilling on federal lands between 2010 and 2019 because the rates were too low, according to the Taxpayers for Common Sense report cited by the DOI.

Another key issue addressed in the proposed reforms is a focus on leasing land that has strong possibility for oil and gas drilling development and that are away from areas considered significant for conservation or cultural reasons. Under current practices with noncompetitive leasing, companies can buy land for as little as $2 or less per acre with little to no additional costs.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office cited by the National Wildlife Federation, 99% of noncompetitive leases issued between 2003 and 2009 never entered oil and gas production. Still, those lands were considered unavailable for other uses such as outdoor recreation or wildlife conservation.

The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, estimated that, at its current rate, it would take the oil industry until the end of fiscal year 2030 to fully utilize all the idle plots it has yet to tap for oil.

Colorado College’s Conservation in the West Poll found that 70% of voters surveyed in eight Mountain West states believe that their representatives should prioritize conservation efforts over oil and gas drilling and mining. Ninety percent of those surveyed in the Colorado College poll also supported having oil and gas pay for clean up and land restoration rather than state or federal governments. The latter issue is one that Bennet has supported before.

Oil executives have expressed concern over the Biden administration’s gas policies before, warning actions such as pausing oil and gas exporting and drilling might “hamper growth,” according to a survey from the pro-oil website EnergyInDepth. Previous pauses on oil and gas drilling had minimal near-term economic impact on the oil and gas industry, according to a report commissioned by the environmental nonprofit the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The proposed reforms are reviewed by the Biden administration before being published in the Federal Register and officially become the rules for oil and gas onshore drilling.

Eliza DuBose, a senior at American University, is an intern for The Durango Herald and the Journal in Cortez. She can be reached at the edubose@durangoherald.com.

An earlier version of this story misspelled U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s first name.

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