Why is it that “balance” is one of those words that people use when they’re doing something undecidedly unbalanced? Such is the case with the president’s executive order banning oil and natural gas leasing on federal lands.
The fact sheet put out by the new administration led with it. President Biden is “upholding the commitment” to “restore balance”. But there’s been a balance on federal lands at least since the 1970s when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). The balance involves the multiple use of federal lands, which includes conservation as well as oil and natural gas and other productive uses. By banning leasing, President Biden has decidedly tipped the balance.
But let’s look closer at the talking points. The administration likes to point out that “fossil fuel extraction” accounts for nearly a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But that’s really an unsurprising statement. Considering that 22% of oil production come from federal lands and waters, “fossil fuel extraction” includes coal, and the use of fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases, that makes sense. Leaving aside the rhetorical gimmickry of constantly repeating that estimate as if it’s particularly significant, I’ll move on.
Note the loaded language about our industry “stockpiling” millions of acres of leases. We’re really doing a bad job of “stockpiling” acreage when the Trump years marked a historic low of leases in effect, down to 25.5 million acres from a high of 67.6 million acres in 1989, a drop of 61%. The fact sheet continues ominously that 53% of that acreage is unused. Since a 47% utilization rate is a historic norm and 2019 saw a historic high in production, we’re producing more on less acreage than ever before. That’s a balance we’re proud of.
Finally, I’ll mention that the fact sheet cites 7,700 unused permits to drill. While there’s no data linked or provided on the BLM statistics page, I’ll assume that number is correct. Since then-candidate Biden promised to ban leasing and permitting during the campaign, that sounds like a rational response from companies. The fact sheet promises that the “targeted pause does not impact existing operations or permits for valid, existing leases” but then not two days after it was issued, 70 permits on “valid, existing leases” were revoked. So much for promises. I’m glad companies have a substantial inventory of permits to move forward with.
Bigger picture, the executive order also promises to create jobs by investing in renewable energy, as if that promise erases the 58,676 jobs lots annually from the leasing ban during the Biden first term. It also promises 30% of public lands will be conserved by 2030, an arbitrary goal based on round numbers and round years. I’ll dig into those numbers in the near future, but federal conservation is funded almost exclusively by oil and natural gas leasing and development. The president has decided to upset that balance in the name of balance.
By juxtaposing the 30x30 goal against the order banning leases, the intention is clear. The leasing ban is neither balanced nor temporary. It’s the first step of the larger goal of eliminating oil and natural gas first on federal lands, and then, completely. I’m disappointed the Keep-It-in-the-Ground agenda is predominant so far in the new administration, but not surprised. President Biden has an aggressive left flank in his party and needs to show progress. Reality will set in, not only because Congress is sharply divided with the mid-term election in 2022 looming as an ever-present damper on extreme policies.
Despite the “best” political intentions, political decree cannot just get rid of energy sources that meet 70% of Americans’ needs. These policies are in the ascendance now, but will quickly fall out of favor as energy prices rise and energy becomes less reliable. We don’t need to get to a situation of California’s rolling brown outs before that corrective happens. The rest of the country and many of their representatives are just too practical and moderate to let that happen. In the meantime, Western Energy Alliance is in the forefront defending against these extreme policies.