Colorado has become a national epicenter for oil and gas in the past couple of decades, so it’s no surprise that industry execs are crying that the sky is falling after President Biden on Jan. 27 announced a moratorium for oil and gas leasing on public land.
However, once you dig into the details of the announcement – and the dysfunction of the current leasing system – a different picture emerges.
First, it’s important to separate fact from fiction. The election-scare stories of a “ban on fracking” were untrue. The proposed moratorium will only prevent future sales of federal land so that no more public land can be auctioned off at discounted prices to oil and gas corporations. Existing oil and gas refineries and power plants – the site of most oil and gas jobs – will be unaffected.
But stopping these sales of public land is still critically important, not just for public health and the climate but also Colorado’s economy.
Since 2016, Colorado has lost more than 345,000 acres of public land – an area more than three times larger than Denver – to an out-of-control oil and gas leasing system. In total across the U.S., more than 6 million acres have been leased to oil and gas corporations. Some of that land has been leased for as little as $2 per acre.
I serve on the Town Council of Frisco, which has a guiding principle to “protect the quality and health of the natural environment in Frisco and the surrounding area.” We are surrounded by public lands that are valued aspects of our community and provide opportunities for recreation and other services to residents of Summit County and all Coloradans.
Despite claims to the contrary, the vast majority of these sales create no jobs at all. Nationally between 2009 and 2018, 63% of acres leased by oil and gas corporations were simply stockpiled, and there are more than 10,000 permits to drill for oil lying around unused.
Oil executives realized that if the land holdings look good on a balance sheet, and the cost is marginal, then simply stock up while you can. More than three-quarters of the public land made available for oil and gas leasing had little to no development potential at all.
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The cost is marginal to industry, but it’s expensive for the state and therefore taxpayers. Colorado not only loses land in return for no real jobs and no future revenues, but it also incurs opportunity cost. The moratorium now gives us time to think about a new future for Colorado.
With the world moving away from oil and gas and the cost of renewable energy now regularly cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives, the long-term future of the oil and gas industry is looking a lot more bust than boom. Colorado would be wise to not be left holding the bag.
Frisco, along with several other Colorado jurisdictions, has a goal to be powered by 100% renewable electricity by 2035. That vision is more achievable than ever, and we need to focus precious resources on helping communities reach clean energy goals instead of lining the pockets of oil and gas investors.
Instead, it’s time to explore other ways to use public land. Take Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado’s most famous national park is the product of the decision to protect public land. This decision has more than paid for itself countless times over. It has created more than 4,000 long-term jobs, attracts more than 4 million visitors each year, and, in 2019 alone, brought in $477 million in economic benefits for the state.
Additionally, and unlike the oil and gas industry, it does this while not emitting dangerous emissions that pollute the air we breathe, harm the climate, and cause more than 32,000 child asthma attacks in Colorado each year.
Not everything can become a national park – but our public lands have enormous potential, and we can foster that to not only protect Colorado’s environment, but also to boost its economy.
Rather than privatizing land for little benefit, we should create new tourism destinations, outdoor recreation opportunities, and then watch as new stores and services pop up to service these new markets, and new jobs are created that will exist far beyond the lifespan of the oil and gas industry.
There are sustainable and long-term benefits in protecting our public land and finding better uses for it in our state.
For years we’ve been told we have to sacrifice public land, public health and the climate in order to keep the economy rumbling. It’s been a bad deal for the state, and this moratorium gives Colorado a chance to plan for a better future.
Jessica Burley is serving her second term on the Frisco Town Council and her first as mayor pro tem.
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