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What is the future of public lands in Colorado under the Biden Administration?

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Posted at 12:24 AM, Feb 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-26 17:25:57-05

DENVER — After campaigning to conserve public lands and combat the climate crisis, within his first week in office, President Joe Biden made good on several of his promises through a series of executive orders.

The Biden administration is pushing for the protection of 30% of America’s lands and ocean waters by 2030.

One of the executive orders the president signed banned new leases of federal public land for oil, gas and mineral development for the next two months as the administration takes a closer look at the leasing process.

While some celebrate the move and what it will mean for Colorado, others are criticizing it, saying a long-term ban will hurt the state’s economy. Denver7 took a 360 look at multiple perspectives on the future of public lands under the new administration.

Past, present, future

The Biden Administration’s approach to public lands is a vastly different strategy than the previous administration.

Under President Donald Trump, more than 25 million acres of land were offered up for leasing, and another 78 million acres were offered up offshore. Of the public lands up for lease, 2.5 million acres are in Colorado. Only a fraction of those lands were actually purchased.

However, a study published in the Science journal found the administration caused the largest reduction in protected public lands in American history, including the downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments by 85% and 51%, respectively.

Along with the reductions, the Trump administration made more than 120 rule changes and signed numerous executive orders on the treatment of public lands.

“The Trump administration will probably be looked back at as the most out of sync administrations ever,” said Charles Wilkinson, a professor of law at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “One thing they didn’t do was adopt new broad policies. They instead went piece by piece.”

Wilkinson says the effects of the Trump administration’s public lands policy will be felt for years. Those effects will extend to Colorado, since roughly 40% of the state is considered federal public lands.

However, along with temporarily blocking new leases, he believes the Biden team will attempt to roll back some of the previous leases.

“Some of those leases are going to get overturned. Some came too late in that the Biden administration, if asked, soon enough can eliminate some of them,” Wilkinson said.

President Biden’s pick for interior secretary is also likely to be a fierce advocate for conservation efforts. Deb Haaland is a Native American who has spoken out against fracking in the past and participated in protests against the creation of pipelines.

The interior secretary has the authority to issue oil and gas leases on federal public lands, which would put Haaland in a powerful position.

“The Biden administration has a lot of room to run, and there should be some statutory changes,” Wilkinson said.

Conserve, protect, defend

Environmental and conservation groups are already applauding the approach the Biden administration is taking on public lands and said it is a stark contrast to the past four years.

“I think Coloradans expect our public lands to be protected, and what we saw was that under the Trump administration, federal lands were leased for oil and gas at dollars an acre. That’s just not something that lines up with Colorado values,” said Garrett Garner-Wells, the communications director for Conservation Colorado.

One of the major issues they contend has been in issue under previous administrations is the use of a leasing systems that hasn’t been updated in decades to dole out public lands.

Conservation Colorado would like to see the Biden administration update that system so the land is better protected.

Changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) have also had a dramatic impact on public lands. Environmental groups are calling for those changes to be reversed as quickly as possible by the new president.

These changes, along with the CORE and Colorado Wilderness Act, could have a long lasting impact on the state’s public lands.

Despite the early steps Biden is taking to combat climate change and protect public lands, Garner-Wells said it will take more than just a few executive orders.

“I think this is something that’s going to take the next four years and beyond for us to get back on our feet when it comes to those bed rock environmental protections,” he said.

Striking a balance

While some are applauding the Biden administrations moves, others worry about the potential economic consequences on the state and on the nation as a whole.

Oil and gas companies worry about the potential for the ban on land leases lasting indefinitely.

“We have seen that if there is a permanent ban on federal leasing, in Colorado that could mean around 18,000 jobs lost, and it could mean around $108 million in state revenue that’s also lost — so, significant impact here in Colorado,” said Lynn Granger, the executive director of the American Petroleum Institute of Colorado.

Roughly 25% of the country’s oil and one eighth of our natural gas come from federal lands.

While only a fraction of the oil development comes from federal lands, a much larger portion of natural gas is extracted from these lands.

Colorado is sixth in the nation for oil production and seventh in the country for the production of natural gas, so any changes to federal land leasing will have an impact on the economy.

Granger and API would like to see the decisions about how to responsibly move forward with energy production happen on a state level instead, with more of a local stakeholder process.

Beyond that, she said if the U.S. is serious about tackling the climate crisis, the best way to do that is to allow American companies to develop energy responsibly, rather than rely on foreign nations that don’t have strict regulations put in place.

“If you care about the environment and you care about our national security, then you want the production of that natural gas and oil to occur right here in the U.S. The U.S. does it safer and cleaner than anywhere else. In fact, the U.S. has led the world in emissions reductions since 2000,” Granger said.

Colorado also has some of the strictest regulatory framework in the country, with a focus on public health, safety and the environment as a result of SB 181, which passed in 2019.

API is encouraging the Biden administration to perform a robust stakeholder process in order to understand the potential unintended consequences of not allowing for these federal leases.

“It’s not a choice between the energy that we all use in bed every day and protecting the environment. We can have both, and I think Colorado has done a really great job in showing that you can have both,” she said.

For now, the Biden administration has put a pause on federal land leases as it refocuses the country’s attention on the environment. Some believe the move is the right move at the right time. Others worry this decision will hurt the U.S. economically and environmentally. Ultimately, it will be up to the Biden administration to decide how to proceed.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.