President Joe Biden’s temporary freeze on new oil and gas leases on public lands has halted the sale of 10 parcels totaling more than 1,500 acres around the HD Mountains, east of Bayfield.
The Biden administration announced last week a range of executive orders aimed at addressing climate change and starting the process of phasing out fossil fuels, a promise he made on the campaign trail.
“We have a narrow moment to pursue action at home and abroad in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of (the climate crisis),” the executive order reads. “We must listen to science to meet the moment.”
As part of the orders, all new oil and gas leasing on public lands is indefinitely paused to allow time for a “comprehensive review and reconsideration of oil and gas permitting and leasing practices.”
The review will also consider adjusting royalty fees for oil and gas, which are about $2 an acre and haven’t been updated for decades. The order does not apply to tribal lands.
For Southwest Colorado, Biden’s temporary freeze puts off the contested sale of 10 parcels, which cover 1,561 acres, in the HD Mountains.
The parcels are on national forest lands, but because the Bureau of Land Management administers federal minerals, the sale of these leases is headed by the BLM.
Multiple requests for comment in the past two weeks have not been returned by the BLM.
The HD Mountains are a remote, hard-to-access landscape that serves as critical winter habitat for deer and elk, and is home to an array of Native American cultural sites, with Chimney Rock National Monument to the east.
But the 35,000-acre mountain range also sits on top of a vast reserve of coal-bed methane, a form of natural gas, which for years has attracted the attention of oil and gas companies looking to extract the resource.
In the 1990s, during the boom years of the oil and gas industry in La Plata County, residents rallied and waged a significant grassroots effort to push back on development in the HD Mountains.
As the industry waned, a result of falling natural gas prices and companies finding cheaper places to drill, pressure to drill in the HD Mountains also abated. Because of those grassroots efforts and falling prices, there are only about 30 wells in the area.
But in recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the HD Mountains’ reserves, which has also resulted in a resurgence of those grassroots efforts pushing back.
For residents concerned about the environmental impacts of new drilling in the HD Mountains, Biden’s announcement was welcome.
“It was nothing short of joy,” said Patrick Delaney, a resident of the region since 1993. “It’s a great win for us if it’s going to amount to someone taking a look at the cumulative impact of what’s going on out there.”
For many residents in the area, the concern extends beyond a single well being drilled. Instead, it’s the associated infrastructure, such as roads and pipelines, that could compromise the entire landscape.
Jimbo Buickerood with the conservation group San Juan Citizens Alliance pointed out many of the proposed parcels in the HD Mountains are near Chimney Rock National Monument, sacred grounds for Native Americans.
“Hopefully, we can slow down the process and take a look from the big picture,” he said. “Are we going to allow the industrialization of that area around Chimney Rock or are there other choices?”
Lynnis Steinert, treasurer for the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association but speaking on her own behalf, said previously that drilling close to the monument would be very disruptive.
“We do night sky programs because the area has been designated as dark sky,” she said. “We have visitors from around the world who enjoy the peaceful landscape. I also think it is very disrespectful to the ancient Pueblo people and their descendants.”
While heralded by conservation and environmental groups, Biden’s executive orders met backlash from the oil and gas industry, which says the move will hamstring the industry, result in job losses and disrupt the supply chain.
Christi Zeller, who heads the Energy Council, a Southwest Colorado oil and gas advocacy group, said the second largest source of federal government income comes from bonus checks for leases and royalty checks on federal mineral development by the oil and gas industry.
“The suspension of leasing decreases income for the government and job loss for thousands of contract employees or employees in the energy industry,” she said. “Thankfully, the order does not restrict energy activities on private or state lands, or lands that the United States holds in trust or restricted status for tribes or individual (Native Americans).”
Zeller said the cost of Biden’s ban will be staggering in his first term. She estimated the gross domestic product across eight western states would decline $33.5 billion, 58,676 jobs would be cut annually, wages would drop $15 billion, and state tax revenue would plummet $8.3 billion, with Wyoming and New Mexico hit the hardest.
“Presidents don’t have authority to ban leasing on public lands,” she said. “All Americans own the oil and natural gas beneath public lands, and Congress has directed the agencies to responsibly develop America’s resources on their behalf.”
Proponents of Biden’s executive orders, however, are quick to point out several key factors they say invalidate the oil and gas industry’s claims.
For one, the executive order does not affect existing leases or parcels previously leased but yet to be developed.
BLM’s records show about 26 million acres of federal land were under lease to oil and gas developers at the end of 2018. Of that, about 12.8 million acres are producing oil and gas, meaning 50% is still ripe for development.
“They have a stash that’s good for years,” Buickerood said. “(The oil and gas industry’s claims) are so overblown right now. They have a tremendous amount of leased acreage.”
Gwen Lachelt, a former La Plata County commissioner who now leads Western Leaders Network, a conservation group, said any time new reforms or regulations are proposed on oil and gas, the industry cries foul and threatens a total collapse.
“Every single time, without fail, the industry’s response is the sky is falling,” she said. “It’s just so hollow. Their response has been completely predictable in my 30-plus years in working for reforms and better regulations.”
Indeed, Lachelt and other supporters believe the order is the first meaningful step to reform fossil fuel extraction, whether that’s adjusting royalty fees, changing the review process for new leases or drafting a transition plan to renewable energy.
“The bust has been here now for a long time,” Lachelt said. “The pause helps states and fossil-fuel dependent communities figure out a transition plan. For our region, we need to create whole new industries.”
While there still may be a long way to go for any meaningful improvements to the environment, for residents around the HD Mountains, the temporary reprieve from any imminent drilling on the landscape they love is a moment to revel in.
“We’re absolutely delighted,” said Terri Fitzgerald, a 50-year resident of the HD Mountains. “We thought the leasing around here is the most ridiculous thing in the world, and we’ve been fighting the destruction of the HDs for years now.”