Wildfire smoke turns the sun into a blood-orange disk in August 2021 between Douglas and Bill in a landscape dotted with wind turbines and drilling rigs. (Alan Nash/@alannash59)

On Jan. 27, President Joe Biden ordered a pause in Department of the Interior oil and gas leasing — which had been proceeding at a breakneck pace for years. He wanted to slow the giveaway of federal lands and mineral resources and take time to consider how the leasing program could be improved to better serve American taxpayers, state treasuries, public land users and the millions of citizens suffering accelerating harm from climate change.

Opinion

Cue angst and lawsuits from the usual suspects — the American Petroleum Institute (API), Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW), Western Energy Alliance and a bevy of resource colony politicians. Lawsuits were filed by 16 states in three separate federal courts, and on June 15 the infamously conservative Fifth Circuit in Louisiana enjoined the leasing pause, forcing DOI to resume quarterly lease sales.

Before the pause, the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management had compiled a list of 459 tracts suggested secretly by oil and gas drillers and BLM bureaucrats. These tracts contained 568,196 acres (888 square miles) of subsurface estate, under both public lands and privately owned surface lands containing ranches, farms and homes.  

Then, on the first of November, BLM announced that “only” 195 Wyoming tracts (a mere 280 square miles) were eligible for sale. Worse yet, BLM would be conducting full environmental assessments of these parcels, including analysis of potential greenhouse gas emissions. Again, cue crocodile tears from industry and politicians. 

“It is clear that the BLM is continuing its efforts to make public lands energy development as expensive and difficult as possible,” moaned Pete Obermueller of PAW. “It’s just another effort to bring everything to a screeching halt,” carped Steve Degenfelder of little Kirkwood Oil and Gas, LLC of Casper. State Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) imagined a broader conspiracy at work, tweeting: “In case you’re wondering why you are paying more at the pump. The Biden administration is choking off domestic supply of oil and gas.”

Let’s think about this. Two important facts stand out.

First, why do industry and their politicians need to lock up 888 square miles of Wyoming in this one lease sale? An Alaska commissioner of natural resources once told the Alaska Miners Association he’d like to see “more mining and less whining.” The same seems to apply to the poor, downtrodden Wyoming oil and gas industry. Today there are 5 million acres — more than 7,800 square miles — of leased non-producing federal mineral rights waiting to be developed. This is more land area than Campbell and Sheridan counties combined. Conservation Economics Institute estimates that “Wyoming has … stockpiled [enough] non-producing acres … [for] 67 years of drilling opportunities on federal lands.” 

It makes much more sense for industry to drill this New-Jersey-sized acreage it’s already leased, rather than demanding to lock up 888 more square miles of Wyoming.

Pretending that climate change is not a problem and begging for hundreds of square miles more of oil and gas leases in Wyoming is nothing more than whistling past the graveyard.

Bob leresche

Second, by conducting full environmental assessments of these parcels before leasing, BLM is simply fulfilling its legal obligation to consider the social and environmental impacts of its actions. This will be the first time social costs of carbon and climate change are considered. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires agencies to consider impacts on social, cultural and economic resources, as well as on natural resources. NEPA also requires that federal actions attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety or other undesirable and unintended consequences.

Any Wyomingite who has lived here long has seen and felt critical drought; more, bigger and hotter wildfires; and new wind and weather patterns. Whether you’re a rancher choosing between cutting your herd or paying $250/ton for hay trucked in from Nebraska, a farmer watching spinach greens burn up in early summer heat waves or a fly fisherman unable to catch and release because high water temperatures over-stress trout, you’ve begun to feel climate change. It upends traditional commerce and lifestyles, and it sometimes poses serious risk not just to the environment, but also to our property, health and safety.

Overwhelming scientific evidence concludes that climate change is human caused, is accelerating rapidly and can be sufficiently slowed only by drastically reducing the burning of fossil fuels within the next decade. Ignoring what is obvious to the 197 nations participating in the Paris and Glasgow climate conferences, pretending that climate change is not a problem and begging for hundreds of square miles more of oil and gas leases in Wyoming is nothing more than whistling past the graveyard. 

Bob LeResche

Bob LeResche is a Board Member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council. He is a former Commissioner of Natural Resources of Alaska, energy executive and investment banker. He and his wife Carol own...

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  1. Very unfortunate when folks in Wyoming join the war against fossil fuels. Talk about cutting your own throats

  2. Wyoming is well on top of things IMO. The addition of Bitcoin mining in Wyoming will bring the ability to scale up the renewable power with out sacrificing the stability of the power grid. And bitcoin will pay for it instead of the corrupt money printers!

  3. Umm I went fly fishing yesterday out of my drift boat. Caught and released all 16 fish. Not sure what that has to do with the bs your pushing? Maybe you could answer that. I see you are on the powder river resource council. That means you’re biased. I’m sure you have totally eliminated oil and gas from your life, my question at this point is, do you and your wife get strange looks when you walk to town naked? Because being against oil and gas means no clothes, vehicles, food or anything else that is touched by petroleum and especially wind turbines. The petroleum to build just one is huge and to keep it running is astronomical.

  4. Most of the federal acreage now nominated for O&G leasing in Wyoming these days are for tight unconventional oil and gas plays. Unconventional oil plays if successful cover vast areas. Think of plays like the Bakken in ND and the Eagleford in Texas. In Wyoming it would include formations like the Mowry, Niobrara, and Turner in the Powder River Basin. The exploration companies that put together a new play idea needs lots of acreage at cheap prices because of the large area of the unconventional prospect/play and the high risk involved in exploration. There are hundreds if not thousands of these plays/prospects that have been drilled across the US and probably about twenty or so have been hugely successful. With old leases that are unproductive and continually expiring, there won’t be new plays discovered in Wyoming if you can’t obtain large areas of new federal leases.

  5. My feeling is that before we give the Oil & Gas Hegemony more public lands to purloin , they should first be required to clean up the thousands of orphaned wells and derelict infrasturcture in their wake.

    The Petrocracy has not been good stewards of the land and its resources. Why keep enabling such bad behavior and slothfulness ? Look around…

    1. Dewey: The Abandoned Mine Reclamation fund was established for just the purpose you suggest – cleaning up and reclaiming old workings. It has been very successful in Wyoming. A tax of $0.25 per ton of produced coal is levied and that money used to reclaim mines nationwide. Maybe we need a similar fund for abandoned oil and gas wells – like the thousands of CBM wells in the Powder River Basin. The problem I see is similar to the Superfund sites – there are well over a thousand of them in the US but less than 10 are actively being reclaimed. Good intentions but no follow through. With the abandoned mine reclamation fund, there was follow through and actual work on the ground was performed. Congress would need to adopt such a fund for the oil and gas industry but I guess we could do it locally too. It is possible though.

      1. Lee:

        “The Abandoned Mine Reclamation fund was established for just the purpose you suggest – cleaning up and reclaiming old workings. It has been very successful.”

        Please.

        That fund is a slush fund that is used for everything except cleanup whenever anyone can get away with it, which is often. It is one reason why the Feds cut us off awhile back.

        It has had little responsible follow through; and fer sure, no good intentions in regards to “clean up”.

        In regards to drilling, the oil and gas industry is indeed crying wolf. They are spoiled brats.

        Read the “REPORT ON THE FEDERAL OIL AND GAS LEASING PROGRAM” publish in 2021 by the DOI in November.

        1. Sorry, Lee , but by direct observation I can honestly report the AMLR fund in Wyoming has been corrupted. A block from my house in downtown Cody along the hillside is a sterling example. About a century ago there was this dinky sand and gravel site there along the Cody Canal. The whole ” mine” was less than a half acre in size ; would fit in your back yard . It produced maybe a couple hundred tons of sand and gravel for cementwork in Cody’s first couple decades of buildout. Total value of product mined would be pegged in the few hundreds of dollars. It was abandoned before the Great Depression. When I was a kid in the 50’s we played there and caught lizards. So fast forward to the 1990’s and a civic project was ginned up by a prominent oilman’s wife and her friends. They applied for and got over $ 500,000 in AMLR money . It was used to ” reclaim ” an area ten times the size of the original “mine” , doing some large scale landscaping and contouring and hauling in hundreds of cubic yards of topsoil and installing a sprinkler system. Today it is a city park.

          What I saw plainly there but have seen elsewhere is that million$ in AMLR money collected in Wyoming from the Powder River coal mines was diverted to Washington DC, and reallocated to reclaim Appalachian mountaintop coal mines and help miners thereabouts with their Black Lung disease. Wyoming AMLR money went everywhere but back to Wyoming. We have a LOT of abandoned wells and pits and all manner of oilfield detritus in my Park County and dead pipelines that are not getting any reclamation. The BLM did clean up some old family lignite mines in Oregon Basin. Maybe they used AMLR money , maybe they didn’t . I really don’t know.

          Look back thrpough the news accounts from the 1990’s and 2000’s and you will see Senator Thomas, then Barrasso, and Rep Cubin all complaining that Wyoming paid millions into AMLR but was getting little to none of it back. That’;s a sound argument. But it only gets crocodile tears from me because the people and state of Wyoming cannot whine about not getting AMLR money cycled back to them when they get $ 2.00- $ 3.00 back for everything else they pay in federal taxes and fees. Wyoming makes ends meet with its monthly stipend of federal money, and always has.

          When you say that Abandoned Mine Lands money can and should be used to reclaim orphan oil and gas wells, I know that is simply not happening. When AMLR money is/was used, I saw it done so rather corruptly. It’s how we roll…

        2. George: Despite the tax being levied on coal production, there was extensive reclamation of bentonite mines throughout Wyoming. This reclamation work was conducted by DEQ Land Quality Division who performed admirably. Another use of the funds was for underground mine stabilization in Rock Springs. Our problem was that we received too much money simply because it was allocated according to the amount of coal produced and we led the nation in coal production; therefore ‘ we got the most money – more than we could use. Other states like Arizona, with its large copper mines, or Minnesota with their large tactonite mines, received almost no money. This created a lot of animosity. DEQ was hard pressed to spend the money it came in so fast. A very substantial amount of reclamation work has been performed though and the program has served Wyoming well but not the other states so well – if at all – thats why our funds were withheld.

        3. Each reclamation project DEQ LQD performed, required two phases of work. In the first phase, DEQ let a contract for an engineering firm to survey the scope of work and prepare an engineering design with an estimate of yards of material to be moved, roads which needed reclamation, seeding, etc. In the second phase, DEQ LQD sent the engineering scope of work out to contractors for bids and awarded the bid accordingly. The contractor did not receive their final payment for work performed until it was approved by DEQ staff. All done very professionally and according to the book.

  6. KEY WORDS: LEASED, NON-PRODUCING. Generally speaking, when an oil/gas or mining company leases a large tract of land, the expectation is that only a small percent of the acreage might actually prove to be viable exploration or production target. Probably no more than 5% of the acreage might prove up although there are exceptions like the vast production zones in the Texas/New Mexico Permian basin and the vast Baaken in North Dakota. So it begs the question as to whether acreage is being accumulated on speculation or to make the books look good. In some cases, the leased acreage might not be viable at today’s market prices for oil/gas but under higher prices it becomes a drilling target. And, how many shut in wells are awaiting higher prices or new technology prior to being put back into production.
    I’ve also wondered about the amount of acreage being leased in Wyoming – it seems like a lot but are the companies nominating parcels for lease because they are truly interested in them as a probable drilling target or just positioning themselves in a speculative way. Some companies have gained quite a reputation for acquisition of large acreages – maybe there should be a limit on the acreage a producer can hold. Quite a cat and mouse game in these industries and that’s considered normal in their industry but causes the rest of us to wonder about their intentions.