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Opinion: It’s too easy and cheap for drillers to lease and pollute Colorado’s federal land

The oil- and gas-leasing program needs wholesale reform, before it’s too late to reverse greenhouse-gas emissions

When President Biden took office in January, one of his first actions was to hit pause on all new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands. The president took this immediate action because he knew that our federal leasing program is deeply flawed and that communities in Colorado and across the country are paying the price because of it.

Jonathan Singer

This was a powerful way to start a presidency, and it showed taxpayers, small business owners, and outdoor enthusiasts that he was committed to ensuring that America’s public lands work for all of us.

However, nine months have passed and states like Colorado are once again being confronted with unnecessary oil and gas leases.

For far too long, companies have been able to speculate on federal public lands, lease and develop public resources in shady backroom deals and for below-market rates, and walk away from their oil and gas wells without paying to clean them up. This is why, when the leasing pause was put in place, it was done with the understanding that it would be in effect until a comprehensive review of the federal leasing program was completed.

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President Biden entrusted that review to the Department of the Interior and Secretary Deb Haaland, and ordered a full report on the oil and gas leasing program, complete with recommendations for how to fix the antiquated program. Since then, DOI has moved forward with that review, working with communities and organizations across the country to gather input on how best to improve leasing and development on our public lands. However, the American public has yet to see the report.

In compliance with a June federal court order, the administration has just announced that it plans to offer up more than 700,000 acres of public land in states like Colorado and Wyoming for oil and gas leasing, including acres within sensitive wildlife habitat corridors and recreation hotspots. Regardless of any court order, the administration still must honor the commitments it has made to reform the lease program before moving forward with large lease sales like this. 

For far too long, Coloradans have been impacted by an outdated leasing system that caters to the will of the oil and gas industry. We have been subjected to leases on our public lands without proper public participation, forced to live next to old, leaky abandoned wells that are polluting our air and water, and have had limited access to some of our most precious bike routes, fishing holes, and hiking trails.

The oil and gas industry already is sitting on nearly 1 million acres of leases in Colorado alone that they have yet to develop, and oil and gas development on public lands across the country accounts for over 20% of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. With President Biden’s decisive action, we thought these reckless leases would be a thing of the past; but, unfortunately, and at least so far, it seems that not much has changed. 

Colorado and other States will struggle to meet our greenhouse-gas emission reduction targets if more acreage is leased before reform takes place. For years, Coloradans and communities across the West have urged our leaders to evaluate the need for the federal oil and gas leasing system to continue, and for other common-sense reforms needed to protect our communities and our iconic public lands if it does.

Fortunately, leaders in Congress are heeding these calls. In Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennet introduced a bill, co-sponsored by Sen. John Hickenlooper, to hold oil and gas companies accountable for cleaning up their oil and gas wells on public lands. Sen. Hickenlooper recently introduced a bill to end the wasteful practice of noncompetitive leasing and requiring that taxpayers receive “fair market value” for all oil and gas leases on public lands to be issued through a fair and competitive process.

In addition, the House Natural Resources Committee is working hard to include common-sense reforms in the Build Back Better Act that would raise the rates that oil and gas companies pay to lease our public lands and extract our public resources, force oil and gas companies to pay for clean-up costs up-front so that taxpayers aren’t left holding the bag, and end the practice of noncompetitive leasing, which has allowed oil and gas companies to lease our lands for pennies on the dollar.

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These reforms are badly needed and will save taxpayers money in the long run. Since Colorado’s senators are supportive of these provisions, we hope they are working to ensure their inclusion in the Senate version of this bill.

These efforts in Congress have given Coloradans hope, but if we are to truly protect our public lands and livelihoods, we need to reform the entire system — and we need the administration’s help to do it. Last month, President Biden visited Colorado to promote his vision of building back better. We Coloradans are here to tell him that building back better includes protecting our public lands, and the communities that rely on them.

Our broken lease sale program is a clear and present threat to our public lands, waters, wildlife, and communities. I encourage the Department of the Interior to follow Congress’ and move forward with common-sense reforms as soon as possible. Further, it is essential that these reforms are adopted before any additional leasing takes place.


Jonathan Singer, of Boulder, is the Executive Director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggest writers or give feedback at opinion@coloradosun.com.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com


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