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Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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Environmental groups are applauding President Joe Biden’s curtailing of oil and gas leasing on U.S. lands, saying this kind of aggressive crucial action is needed to slow down climate change. Oil and gas (O&G) is not so much a fan of the policy shift. However, Biden’s campaign pledge to halt new drilling on federal lands and end the leasing of publicly owned energy reserves is something the O&G industry will not feel for many years, given the stash of leases it has in its pockets. These leases will sustain the petroleum-based energy industry for many years until its carbon footprint no longer allows the various corporations involved to purchase enough credit to offset the damage the industry does to the air, water and earth.

Biden has extended a 60-day moratorium on new drilling permits for U.S. lands and waters into the second quarter, allowing additional time for officials to review the impact of O&G drilling on the environment and climate. A reduced Environmental Protection Agency staff will need to conduct analyses with present-day data to roll back any rule changed by the Trump administration. The EPA shrank under Trump—both in staff and funding—and is doing far more with far fewer resources.

“The fossil fuel industry has inflicted tremendous damage on the planet. The administration’s review, if done correctly, will show that filthy fracking and drilling must end for good, everywhere,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has pushed for the drilling pause.

Oil industry groups have criticized the move, saying Biden had already eliminated thousands of oil and gas jobs by killing the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas drillers in western states, said the executive order is intended to delay drilling on federal lands to the point where it is no longer viable.

According to a report issued by Colorado-based nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wild in February 2021, O&G companies currently hold leases on over 20 million acres of federal land in Mountain West states, including on more than 4.2 million acres in New Mexico. Oil production from federally managed lands and waters topped a record 1 billion barrels in 2019, according to the Department of Interior from Feb. 11, 2020.

“Any talk that cancelling these lease sales is going to devastate the industry further is more smoke and mirrors. The Trump administration sold out New Mexico taxpayers by leasing as much land as it could, often below market value, before voters chose a different path,” said Mark Allison, New Mexico Wild executive director. “The low acreage in these sales also reflects the nose-dive in demand for new oil and gas leases on public land in New Mexico—which, by the way, belongs to the public and not the industry. The Biden administration is right to pause and review these sales to ensure they don’t end up shortchanging New Mexicans in the future.”

The key findings in the Rocky Mountain Wild’s report analysis relevant to current oil and gas leases in New Mexico show that the oil and gas industry currently has millions of acres of leases where they can continue operations during this pause. In addition, interest in leasing has gone down significantly in the last year. O&G has almost 4.3 million acres currently leased in the state with almost 1.6 million acres on lands with the highest potential for oil and gas development. Over 1.1 million acres leased are not developed. In 2019 over 58,000 acres of leases were sold, and in 2020 over 70,000 acres were sold. In 2021 less than 6,700 acres have been proposed to be sold.

According to an Associated Press analysis of government data, under Trump, DOI officials approved almost 1,400 permits on federal lands, primarily in Wyoming and New Mexico, over a three-month period that included the election. “This decision does not impact existing operations or permits for valid, existing leases, which continue to be reviewed and approved,” the BLM, citing the U.S. Department of Interior, said. Its effect could be further dampened by stockpiled drilling permits issued in Trump’s last months that allow O&G to keep pumping oil and gas for years, possibly undercutting Biden’s climate agenda.

Biden’s conservation plan conserves 30 percent of the country’s lands and ocean waters in the next 10 years and sets aside millions of acres for recreation, wildlife and climate change. The $2 trillion program is intended to slow global warming with regulatory actions designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and issue a memorandum elevating climate change to a national security priority.

Governor Lujan Grisham criticized Biden’s new limits on oil and gas production, fearing that his energy plan could hurt New Mexico. She has asked Pres. Biden to create a program that gives credit to states who are well beyond where the federal government and other states are in climate change initiatives and that New Mexico be granted an energy transition exemption or waiver based on the actions the state has already taken toward renewable energy.

Autumn Hanna, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, argued royalty rates on production are outdated. “Holding more lease sales now would mean locking in these money-losing terms for developing federal resources,” Hanna said. “The better option is to let the review run its course, reform the oil and gas program by ditching outdated terms and updating rules, and fix the broken policies of the past.”

States tackling climate change have been getting a lot of support from President Biden as he pushes the reverse button on Trump’s environmental policies. Unfortunately, a review of more than 100 rules and regulations on water, public lands, air, endangered species and climate change that were rolled back or weakened by Trump’s administration may take Biden’s entire Presidency and more to restore.

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