Coloradans react to Biden executive orders on climate, public lands

New oil and gas leases on federal land paused amid emphasis on conservation, environmental justice

An aerial view of the Sunset Roadless Area in the North Fork Valley in western Colorado. (Courtesy of EcoFlight)

Environmentalists and clean-energy advocates across Colorado applauded a slate of executive actions taken by President Joe Biden on Wednesday to address climate change, while one oil and gas group responded by suing the new administration in federal court.

Biden, who announced that the United States would rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office a week ago, promised to “supercharge” federal climate policy in an effort to meet the landmark treaty’s emissions-reducing goals. Joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and top advisors at the White House, he signed a sweeping executive order aimed at protecting more federally-owned lands from fossil-fuel development and accelerating the deployment of clean-energy technologies like electric cars.

“We’ve already waited too long to deal with the climate crisis,” Biden said. “We can’t wait any longer.”

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Gov. Jared Polis welcomed Biden’s actions, boasting that Colorado’s own efforts to reduce emissions and conserve public lands ”can serve as valuable examples” to the new administration.

“National progress on moving to cleaner, less expensive cars and cleaner energy is good for America and good for Colorado,” Polis said.

Biden’s order directs nearly all executive-branch agencies to place climate issues at the center of their decision-making processes, from the creation of a new White House climate office and an “environmental justice” division at the Department of Justice to efforts to electrify the government’s fleet of 650,000 vehicles and reduce wildfire risk in national forests.

The moves represent a sharp reversal from four years of federal policy under former President Donald Trump, whose administration routinely denied and downplayed the scientific consensus on climate change. And the whiplash may be particularly acute at the Department of the Interior, which oversees hundreds of millions of acres of public lands across Colorado and other Western states.

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Rejecting “energy dominance” agenda pursued by former Interior Secretary and Colorado native David Bernhardt, Biden on Wednesday directed the department to impose a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling leases until a “comprehensive review and reconsideration” of its procedures can be completed. The order also directs agencies to work towards the environmentalist-backed “30×30” agenda, which aims to conserve 30% of the lands and waters of the U.S. by 2030.

In a statement, Conservation Colorado executive director Kelly Nordini called the pause on drilling “long overdue.”

“For far too long, federal lands in Colorado have been leased to big polluters for pennies on the dollar — often with disastrous long-term results for our climate and communities,” Nordini said. “Coloradans overwhelmingly support climate leadership based in science and grounded in equity and health to protect our state now and for future generations.”

Impacts on communities across Colorado

But the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based oil and gas industry group, said on Wednesday that it had filed suit against the Biden administration in federal court, asking a judge to nullify what it called an “unsupported and unnecessary action that is inconsistent with” federal law.

“All Americans own the oil and natural gas beneath public lands, and Congress has directed them to be responsibly developed on their behalf,” Kathleen Sgamma, the group’s president, said in a statement. “Drying up new leasing puts future development as well as existing projects at risk.”

The moratorium, however, is unlikely to have a large impact on the industry in Colorado. The Bureau of Land Management issued only 62 new oil and gas leases in Colorado in 2019, compared with 287 in Utah and 1,049 in Wyoming, according to agency data. Colorado’s richest oil-producing region, the Denver-Julesburg Basin, lies mostly on privately-owned land along the northern Front Range and is largely unaffected by Wednesday’s order.

Critics of the industry also note that under Trump and other previous administrations, drillers have amassed a stockpile of thousands of inexpensive leases across millions of acres of federal land, minimizing the impact that a pause on new leasing will have.

“As long as the review is completed expeditiously, we don’t expect an economic impact in the short-term with current market factors and the many existing unused leases and permits,” said Polis.

Pete Kolbenschlag, a Paonia activist and director of the Colorado Farm and Food Alliance, applauded the Biden administration’s actions. He said that the Western Slope’s North Fork Valley, where healthy agricultural and tourism sectors have helped offset the decline of the region’s coal-mining industry, is a model for how rural communities can be “resilient” in the face of climate change and the global energy transition.

“In the last few years, we’ve been working to reimagine that past, and to move beyond a boom-and-bust economy,” Kolbenschlag said.

Though he acknowledged that many local governments across Colorado and the rural West still depend on extractive industries like oil and gas as important revenue sources, Kolbenschlag said that the federal government’s renewed focus on clean energy gives communities the chance to be a part of that future.

“There’ll be a lot of noise about these orders harming rural communities, and threatening jobs and livelihoods,” he said. “But one opportunity in the pause (is) to rethink how government funds itself. … We need to be taking a moment to reconsider how we’re going to get to a more sustainable economy in the future.”

In the Denver metro area, where low-income people and people of color have long borne the brunt of pollution from fossil fuels and other industrial sources, advocates said that they were encouraged by the Biden administration’s commitment to principles of environmental justice.

“With this executive order, environmental justice will be at the center of all we do, addressing the disproportionate health and environmental and economic impacts on communities of color,” Biden said.

Ean Thomas Tafoya, an activist with environmental group GreenLatinos, is hopeful that Biden’s emphasis on protecting these “fenceline communities” will translate to efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies to crack down on polluters like the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City.

“This is the first step, requiring all these processes, but we have to be organizing to make sure these processes actually change,” Tafoya said. “Today feels really good, but there’s more work to do to actually implement this.”

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