As our world shifts to renewable energy and moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we must ensure that Coloradans do not get left behind. President Biden’s pause on oil and gas leasing on public lands offers a chance to assess the true impacts of the industry on Colorado communities, our carbon budget, and local economies.
Right now in our state, oil companies can lease an acre of land from the federal government for as low as $2, less than the cost of a Big Mac. With costs so cheap, they are literally stockpiling our public lands. They own the rights to 2.5 million acres in Colorado alone. Of these, more than a third are sitting idle. This hinders our use of these lands for recreation, tourism and clean energy development– industries that produce mass revenue, jobs and returns on investment. It also negates any alarmist claims that a pause in new leasing will “shut down” Colorado’s oil and gas industry.
On lands where fossil fuels are being extracted, oil and gas corporations are often not held accountable for the full cost of clean-up due to outdated federal bonding rates. When companies go bankrupt and orphan their wells — which is happening with great frequency right now — the public pays the price, not only in cleanup costs, but also in contaminated drinking water, polluted air, and impaired wildlife habitat. This could cost the public hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.
When these costs are added to the almost incalculable costs of climate change, including worsening wildfires, more extreme heat, and prolonged drought, and to the clean-air impacts of oil and gas development along the Front Range, it is clear that we as a state and nation are seriously underestimating the price we are paying for oil and gas.
On top of that, supply and demand are mismatched. With renewable energy growing faster and becoming cheaper, demand for oil is on a downward trend and this will only continue.
We in Colorado recognize that times are changing. In 2019 Colorado changed its oil and gas policy from “fostering” to regulating the industry in a manner that protects public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife resources. We also adopted a goal of making the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, 90% by 2050, that must be made to avoid dangerous climatic disruptions and their enormous social and financial impacts. President Biden’s pause will help bring federal energy policy in line with Colorado’s goals.
A better path forward is possible, and President Biden’s executive actions will help us get there. Renewable energy generation on public lands, a better and cheaper alternative, represents billions of dollars in capital investments and provides thousands of construction and operations and maintenance jobs. Once online, the projects will provide steady revenue to the U.S. Treasury as well as state and local governments. Renewable energy can also be part of a strategy to help communities, especially those currently dependent on fossil fuel production, diversify their economies. President Biden was right when he said that last week’s day of climate executive actions was really “jobs day.”
We are on the tail end of a broken fossil fuel system that hides the true costs to our state and our communities and leaves us paying for the consequences. It is the time to invest in a clean energy economy — one that takes us away from a toxic dependence on fossil fuels, reinvests in communities, and begins a just transition to clean energy. The Biden administration’s bold energy proposals are a welcome, proactive shift when we need it most.
Jim Lockhart is the conservation chair of the Pikes Peak Group of the Colorado Chapter of Sierra Club.