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The owners of Big B's orchards in Hotchkiss think increased traffic from oil and gas development allowed in resource management plans for the region could impact the valley's growing agri-tourism economy. But the collapse of the oil market could slow any future development. (Provided by Big B's.)

Conservation advocates in the West quickly praised President Joe Biden’s executive order pausing new oil and gas leases on federal lands and in federal waters, while the resource industry and local business backers called it a misguided attack with massive economic fallout. 

“For far too long, federal lands in Colorado have been leased to big polluters for pennies on the dollar — often with disastrous long-term results for our climate and communities,” Conservation Colorado Executive Director Kelly Nordini said in a statement. “President Biden’s order pausing this outdated practice is long overdue.”

The orders are intended to cut emissions from oil, gas and coal to help slow some of the worst effects of climate change. But industry and local officials said in interviews and statements that blocking activity on federal lands, which produces a significant portion of oil and gas in the United States and an even higher concentration in the West, would devastate employment and slash government budgets. 

MORE: Joe Biden to pause oil and gas sales on public lands, call for conservation plan championed by Michael Bennet

“Shutting down local production would be about the worst decision this president can make if he wants to lead in efforts to combat global climate change,” said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association trade group. “The president ought to visit Colorado, and sit down with the men and women who work overtime to safely develop the resources and products that are essential to modern society and who keep the lights on in storefronts and homes across the country.” 

Last year, the Interior Department collected $113.7 million in revenue from oil, gas, coal and other natural resource extraction on federal lands in Colorado, The Colorado Sun reported earlier this week. In fiscal year 2019, the bureau issued 1,841 new leases, including 62 in Colorado, down from 105 the previous year and a high of 613 in 2001.

American Petroleum Institute President Mike Sommers said in a conference call that the order is “nothing more than an import-more-oil policy” that will weaken U.S. energy leadership in the world and undermine national security. Sommers said the oil and gas industry “shares President Biden’s goal for addressing climate change,” but that leasing and drilling moratoriums will actually harm the environment, for example, by making it harder for coal-fired power plants to transition to cheap and cleaner natural gas.

On that call, a New Mexico teacher of the year said moratoriums in her heavily energy-dependent state would cost public schools $1.7 billion in funding and eliminate promising careers. “It will hurt students,” said Jessica Sanders, president of the New Mexico Science Teachers Association. Oil and gas revenue, she said, is “essential” for the education of New Mexico students. 

The Western Energy Alliance announced it was challenging the new ban in federal court in Wyoming, even before Biden appeared in public Wednesday to sign the orders. 

Biden’s scheduled actions quickly follow an Interior Department order his first week in office that halted new permits for actual drilling on federal lands unless approved by the highest department officials. Taken together, the leasing and drilling pauses signal major challenges to the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda that expanded resource extraction from federal lands.

MORE: Joe Biden’s pause on oil and gas development on public lands splits conservationists, industry

The pauses are to new leases and to new drilling permits. Oil and gas development companies hold thousands of existing leases on federal lands and in offshore waters that will not be affected by the pause. They also hold approved permits to drill on much of that property.  Between 2014 and 2019, the BLM received nearly 24,000 applications to lease federal land for oil and gas operations. Almost 10,000 of those leases were approved, but are not being used, according to a Government Accountability Office from March.

Gov. Jared Polis noted those outstanding leases and permits in a statement praising Biden’s conservation efforts, saying an overall policy review in light of climate change is overdue and that he welcomed a president “who believes in science.” 

Western Slope business leaders said they expected job losses and cuts to school revenue and other crucial funding sources. 

“A ban is not needed to move forward with an agenda to address climate change, particularly in light of the fact that demand will not decrease for energy products so production will move elsewhere, not stop,” Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President Diane Schwenke said in an email. “There is no reason that policy development cannot occur while maintaining the current level of energy activity.”

The actions will have big impacts on conservation and commerce debates in places like Colorado’s North Fork Valley, where some leaders in towns like Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford want to block new leasing and drilling in favor of expanding their farming and tourism economy. 

“The issues in the North Fork have come to a head because it’s about what direction this community wants to go in and what it sees itself as in the future,” said Pete Kolbenschlag, director of Paonia’s Colorado Farm and Food Alliance. “If you accept we need to move away from carbon by 2050, then we need a plan to do that; the pause helps us talk about that transition. It gives everyone breathing room.”

United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said at a White House news conference it’s a false choice between old energy jobs and new. Renewable energy sources will create more jobs than when “we were stuck where we were” — for example, Kerry said, the same people who currently build gas-powered cars will build cleaner, electric-powered cars.

Biden signed executive orders Wednesday that:

  • Pause “entering into new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters to the extent possible, launch(es) a rigorous review of all existing leasing and permitting practices related to fossil fuel development on public lands and waters, and identif(ies) steps that can be taken to double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030.”
  • Commit to the goal of conserving at least 30% of our lands and oceans by 2030. The order also calls for the establishment of a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative to “put a new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, increasing reforestation.”
  • Establish climate considerations as an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security. 
  • Create the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy – led by the first-ever National Climate Advisor and Deputy National Climate Adviser. 
  • Formalize a federal “commitment to make environmental justice a part of the mission of every agency by directing federal agencies to develop programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities.
  • Create an Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, to be co-chaired by the National Climate Advisor and the Director of the National Economic Council, and directs federal agencies to coordinate investments and other efforts to assist coal, oil and natural gas, and power plant communities.

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...