Biden’s visit a chance to commit to climate action on public lands
By Jennifer Rokala
As President Joe Biden visits Colorado and the West, he’ll come face-to-face with the reality of climate change. Massive wildfires, accelerated by a century of unchecked oil, gas, and coal production, are the new normal across the region. A decades-long drought, driven by climate change, has led to the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River.
The president is using this trip to lay out his vision for infrastructure investments to mitigate the effects of climate change, but he has not fully used the power of his office to take the concrete actions that could move America towards a clean energy future.
Even as Biden calls for change, his administration is preparing to auction off drilling rights to more than 700,000 acres of public land in Colorado and Wyoming.
In the Gulf of Mexico, the president is moving ahead with a fire sale, offering oil and gas companies 80,000,000 offshore acres for drilling — an area larger than all but four U.S. states.
There is nothing in the law that requires Biden to hold lease sales of this magnitude. To the contrary, the law explicitly gives his Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, broad discretion to determine which lands — if any — are available for oil and gas drilling.
On his first day in office, the president ordered the Interior Department to prepare a report on the oil and gas leasing program and provide him with recommendations for how to fix a century-old system that is rigged in favor of the oil industry. The Interior Department followed the president’s instruction; Secretary Haaland said that she expected the White House would release that report in “early summer.”
But summer has come and gone. Hundreds of Americans have died in heat waves and climate-fueled disasters from California to New York. And President Biden has yet to release the road map that would ensure future oil and gas leasing reflects the costs that our children and grandchildren will have to pay.
For major policy changes to stick, the formal rulemaking process can take years. By sitting on the oil and gas leasing report, President Biden is running down his own clock and making it less likely he will accomplish anything significant to make America’s public lands part of the climate solution.
In contrast to the president’s reticence, Congress is moving ahead to fix the rigged oil and gas leasing system. The House Natural Resources Committee has added long-overdue reforms to the president’s Build Back Better Act that would raise the royalty rates that oil and gas companies pay when extracting publicly-owned resources.
The bill also extends those royalties to methane emissions, holding companies responsible for their waste. It strengthens requirements for the bonds that oil and gas companies have to post before drilling, ensuring that taxpayers won’t be on the hook for cleaning up uncapped and leaking wells. And it ends the practice of noncompetitive leasing, which oil CEOs have long used to lock up public lands.
These common-sense reforms, which are smart fiscal and climate policy, will soon head to the Senate. Colorado senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper have been champions of these fixes; they’re in a strong position to make sure these reforms land on the president’s desk.
President Biden’s infrastructure plan is a bold vision to move America to a clean energy future–but vision is meaningless without action.
Next month, the president will head to a global climate summit, urging world leaders to cut carbon emissions, while he simultaneously expands oil and gas drilling at home and does nothing to fix a broken leasing system.
When the president encourages Congress and the world to act, he has an obligation to lead by example.
President Biden has the power to take substantial steps to address the climate crisis via America’s public lands. If you see him in Colorado, tell him it’s past time for him to use it.
Jennifer Rokala is the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities. She lives in Denver.