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Opinion: If we don’t drill for oil and gas on federal lands, we’ll buy it from Russia

Production from public lands is some of the most sustainable in the world. Banning it won’t cut global emissions or reduce costs

The budget reconciliation bill before Congress would, if passed with all the public lands provisions, drive oil and natural gas producers off federal lands in Colorado and across the West to other areas of the country or overseas. If passed as-is, it would achieve the President’s goal of “no federal oil.”

Kathleen Sgamma

The dozens of policies put forward in the name of climate change may sound good to some. But does anyone think for a moment that reducing oil and natural gas produced in America is going to reduce their use overall?

Oil and natural gas account for about 70% of Americans’ total energy use. People aren’t going to stop driving their cars, charging their cellphones, or heating their homes. And the many so-called clean-energy policies in the bill won’t replace that energy overnight, if ever. Just look at California or Germany, which have had to increase their reliance on fossil fuels to avoid blackouts after years of policies favoring weather-dependent renewable energy. 

Indeed, the White House admits that oil and natural gas are critical as officials continue to ask Russia and OPEC to increase production to alleviate high prices. If that energy is imported from overseas, the greenhouse gas emissions will be generated regardless — and at higher levels because Russia and OPEC don’t have the strict environmental standards we have in the United States. Stopping the 20% of American production that takes place on federal lands and waters isn’t going to reduce energy prices or greenhouse-gas emissions. 

Some don’t want any production on federal lands, arguing that all public lands must be set aside. But development is not done in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Great Sand Dunes, or any other park or wilderness areas. It’s conducted on working landscapes suitable for energy development. Most of the federal development in Colorado is on the West Slope in areas that have been designated for multiple uses, not in areas set aside for preservation. 

Federal land management agencies, in cooperation with states, counties, tribes, conservation groups, and other stakeholders, determine which lands are appropriate for energy with input from the public over many years. These multiple-use lands sustain communities on the West Slope and across the West, including historically marginalized communities such as Indian tribes.

The Southern Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado is one of the nation’s preeminent energy tribes that balance stewardship of their lands with economic growth. Although the bill applies only to federal lands, putting lands adjacent to the reservation off limits negatively impacts economic and job opportunities for the Tribe, an outcome that is neither environmental nor social justice. 

Production from public lands is some of the most sustainable in the world. Environmental standards are strict across the country, but even more so on public lands. Extra controls and protections are appropriate, since public lands and the energy beneath them belong to all Americans. We all have an interest in protecting these lands, and we in the industry take our stewardship very seriously. Companies often commit to even more restrictions and constantly innovate to reduce impacts, while voluntarily supporting conservation. 

For example, advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have reduced the footprint on the land by nearly 70% over the last decade. We produce more energy with less impact on the land than ever before. Less than 0.1% of all public lands have any oil and natural gas activity on them. Leased acreage remains at historic lows since 2018. We have achieved a balance on public lands that meets Americans’ energy needs while protecting the environment. 

Even better, federal oil and natural gas provide nearly all the conservation funding for national parks and other public lands. With the Great American Outdoors Act passed last year by Congress, $2.8 billion is available for conservation and infrastructure in our national parks and other public lands, including $32 million this year for Rocky Mountain National Park. The reconciliation bill before Congress would ensure that funding dries up. 


Why would members of Congress and the Biden Administration wish to drive production off federal lands and waters and send it to Russia and OPEC? Misguided ideology has gotten the country to the brink of putting the American oil producer out of business even as the White House asks unfriendly nations to increase production. 

We ask instead for a truce with the American producer. We call on practical members of Congress to recognize the madness of sending billions of dollars and millions of jobs overseas and reconsider the reconciliation bill. It makes no sense to disadvantage Colorado producers while propping up foreign adversaries. 

Kathleen Sgamma, of Denver, is president of Western Energy Alliance.

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