By Lisa Friedman
The New York Times
Of all of the efforts by the Biden administration to protect environmentally fragile lands, few have generated as much vitriol as a proposal that would block oil and gas drilling on 1.6 million acres of high desert sagebrush steppe in Wyoming.
One lawmaker in the Republican-led Wyoming Legislature called President Joe Biden’s plan an attempt at “total government control.” Another declared it the worst disaster in American history, affecting “more people than the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined.” Some spread fears that China would influence the government’s decision-making. A federal lands manager said she had received violent threats, prompting an investigation by the FBI.
The 1,350-page proposal for managing 3.6 million of acres of federal land in southwestern Wyoming was years in the making but still took many Wyoming residents by surprise when the Bureau of Land Management made it public in August.
In addition to blocking energy development on nearly half that land, or 1.6 million acres, the plan would also restrict mining and some grazing. Those areas include petroglyphs dating back some 200 years, North America’s largest sand dunes and migration corridors in the Red Desert for bighorn sheep, mule deer and elk.
The explosive reactions illustrate how Biden’s climate policies are running into a wall of distrust in some oil and gas states.
“The actions that this administration has taken to date have been perilous for Wyoming by and large,” Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, said in an interview. “I think people in Wyoming realize this administration has put its foot on the neck of their state.”
As a candidate, Biden pledged to end new federal oil and gas leasing. And, as president, he has said he wants to conserve at least 30% of public lands and waters by 2030. Both are part of an aggressive agenda to curb climate change, though Biden has approved some large fossil fuel projects. Political and legal concerns have played a role in those decisions.
Biden now faces fresh pressure from Republicans to temper his clean energy agenda as the war between Israel and Hamas raises concerns about the global oil market. Experts have called the situation in the Middle East the biggest threat to energy supplies since Russia invaded Ukraine last year.“We are in a bit of a bubble here right now with Ukraine and the Middle East,” said Mark Squillace, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Squillace said if oil prices climbed there could be heightened interest in federal oil and gas leasing, but only in the short term.
This week the International Energy Agency projected that global demand for oil, gas and coal will peak by 2030, thanks in part to clean energy policies countries have already adopted.
“I think we all know that in the next 20 years or so there’s going to be a whole lot less oil and gas production, because of the trends that we’re seeing with electric vehicles and renewable energy,” Squillace said. Wyoming, which also is grappling with collapsing demand for its coal, he added, “should, of all states, know the consequences of not managing their land.”
Wyoming is the nation’s top coal-producing state, holding about 40% of all reserves in the country. It also was the eighth-largest crude oil-producing state in 2022, accounting for 2% of total production; and the 10th-largest gas producer, accounting for 3% of national production.
The Bureau of Land Management’s proposal for southern Wyoming, known as the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan, dates from 1997. The agency is required to periodically update the plan and in 2011 began to do so. That process should have taken months but instead dragged on nearly 12 years because of lawsuits and disputes over issues such as the protection of sage grouse habitat.
In August, the Biden administration issued a draft of its new plan, which outlined four management options. In an unusual move, it embraced the version, known as Alternative B, that would put the most land under special protections. It also would result in 2,900 fewer jobs in oil and gas drilling and production, according to the plan.
The backlash began almost immediately. Lawmakers accused the Biden administration of trying to pull Wyoming “back to the Stone Age.” Gordon sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management director asking the agency to withdraw the entire plan. A local sheriff declared he would not enforce the plan if it were finalized.
The director of the Bureau of Land Management’s field office in Rock Springs, Wyo., Kimberlee Foster, told a local news outlet that her staff members had begun receiving threatening calls that were being investigated by the FBI. “It’s not really about specifics in the document,” Foster said. “The hate has been more political in nature.”
The agency declined to make Foster available for an interview and directed questions about the threats to the FBI, which did not respond to a request for comment.
But a spokesman for the BLM, Brian Hires, also said there had been a “significant area of misinformation” around public access to public lands under the Biden plan.
“For example, there have been rumors about no longer being able to walk your dog on public lands, roads closing, and hunting no longer being allowed,” he said in a statement. “None of this is true and we are taking every opportunity to separate fact from fiction.”
For some opponents, the Rock Springs plan aggravated wounds already raw from Biden’s plan to conserve 30% of federal land and waters by 2030. Wyoming officials, like many Republicans across the American West, call it a federal land grab.
“The situation is ripe for this sort of anger to come to the surface,” said state Sen. Brian Boner, a Republican. He noted the federal government already owned nearly half, 48%, of Wyoming land. “You feel like you don’t really have a voice in the way your state moves forward, and in this instance there’s a significant threat to peoples’ livelihoods,” he said.
Boner said his committee was drafting a bill to be considered in the next legislative session that would allow the governor to prohibit state and local officials from cooperating with federal policies that harm the “core interests” of Wyoming.
But there are many conservationists, tribal leaders, outdoor recreationists and others who said they supported more aggressive environmental protections.
RJ Pieper, 38, who now owns a photography studio in Rock Springs, spent more than a decade in the oil and gas industry.
“At some point, we have to say where can we balance industry with making sure we protect the public lands we love to recreate on,” said Pieper, who operated natural gas processing plants.
Pieper said he heads up to the Red Desert several days a week each spring and fears that drilling and mining would spoil the area’s natural beauty. He’s also saddened by how acrimonious the debate has become.
“It’s a way of life, using our public lands, so I get why everyone is leading with emotion on this,” Pieper said. But, he added, “We’re a very red state and it’s to the point where people believe anything Biden is bad.”
Julia Stuble, senior manager for Wyoming at the Wilderness Society, an environmental group, noted that nearly half of the Rock Springs management area had already been leased for oil and gas. The areas in which the BLM has proposed to block new leases have low prospects for oil and gas yields, said Stuble, who criticized lawmakers for using “inflammatory rhetoric” in opposing the plan.
Critics and supporters of the plan alike have said Wyomingites need more time to study the draft. Late last week, the BLM extended the public comment period an additional 60 days, until Jan. 17. A final plan could come anytime after that.
Gordon said he hoped the extra time would help defuse the discord. He has ordered the University of Wyoming to hold workshops with conservationists, grazing interests, hunters, recreationists, oil and gas industry officials and the general public to discuss various options within the plan.
“A lot of work happens between a draft plan and a final plan, and that work is best informed by people who roll up their sleeves to work together,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, the BLM director, in a statement. “We are committed to doing that work to finalize the final plan.”