Experts: Stopping Oil & Natural Gas Development on Federal Lands, Waters Will Hurt The Environment

When the Biden Administration announced a ban on permitting and leasing for oil and natural gas development on federal lands, it argued the policy was needed to protect the environment and address climate change.

“In my view, we’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis,” President Biden said after signing the executive order. But now that the ban is in effect, experts are bringing to light the potential for more environmental harm than progress.

Executive Orders Pose Risk to Wildlife

In Wyoming, Brian Nesvik, the director of the state’s Game and Fish Department, writes that the federal lands ban will reduce the department’s flexibility to produce energy and conduct reclamation projects:

“Game and Fish’s ability to protect wildlife habitat and have mineral development relies on maintaining maximum flexibility to determine where and when drilling or mining occur. The department makes recommendations based on best-available data and the landscape as a whole. From a wildlife habitat conservation perspective, it makes sense to site drilling activity on lands that are already disturbed, and oftentimes those locations are on federal land. That maximum flexibility is essential. Using existing sites reduces habitat disturbance and decreases the amount of reclamation needed following project completion. Suspending new federal leases limits options for siting potential mineral development, giving producers no choice but to seek leasing opportunities on private or state lands – lands that are some of the most productive and healthy wildlife habitat.

“Further, when habitat is disturbed by mineral development, reclamation is an important action that benefits wildlife. The blanket suspension on further lease sales may disincentivize smaller mineral producers from continuing existing operations. We’ve seen this before; when producers go out of business, reclamation is put on the back burner. Simply stated, this is bad for wildlife.” (emphasis added)

Orders Were Sold As Part of a Climate Change Package, But Could Increase Emissions

In the Gulf of Mexico, banning development in federal waters would again have the opposite result of the action’s intended emissions reductions if the order simply relocates production while demand remains consistent.

That’s because oil, natural gas, and vapors produced in the Gulf must be captured resulting in offshore production having the lowest emissions of any U.S. oil and natural gas play. A senior official with Woods McKenzie had the same analysis, stating, “If you cut U.S. offshore oil production while leaving demand unchanged, total emissions go up.”

Additionally, an Obama-era Bureau of Ocean Energy Management report found that reducing production in the Gulf would only move that demand to foreign sources with higher emissions:

“Foreign sources of oil will substitute for reduced Outer Continental Shelf supply, and the production and transport of that foreign oil would emit more GHGs.”

One of the major reasons Gulf production has so few emissions is that carbon capture and adequate pipeline takeaways capacity reduces the need for venting and flaring. This is something companies and regulators are aggressively trying to address onshore, as well, but these orders put these efforts at risk.

The chief of New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department, Sarah Cottrell Propst, sent a letter to the federal government seeking clarity on the executive order and warned that the federal lands ban will actually undermine efforts to reduce routine flaring and venting:

“Clarifications on rights of way approvals within the Order are particularly important to New Mexico’s environmental goals. Of particular concern, the Order places a 60-day pause on the administrative authority of BLM field office staff to approve items such as new permits to drill, leases, right of ways, etc. Section 3.g states that “this does not limit existing operations under valid leases” and “does not apply to authorizations necessary to (1) avoid conditions that might pose a threat to human health, welfare, or safety.” However, there is confusion in the field regarding which approvals fall within these categories because additional approvals are often required even when operators have a valid lease and permit to drill. Operators have reported many examples of approvals not moving forward that appear to fall under these exceptions.

“Specifically, right of way approvals are critical to ensure that new wells will have takeaway capacity for their natural gas and not be forced to vent or flare. In addition, right of way approvals are needed for lay-flat pipelines which transport water to and from well sites during completions activity. These lay-flat pipelines facilitate the reuse of produced water in completions operations, which takes pressure off New Mexico’s precious freshwater resources for use in oil and gas operations.” (emphasis added)

In a column titled, “Destroying US economy won’t stop global warming,” Paul Gessing, the president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, says that the U.S. is already making tremendous progress on reducing carbon emissions, thanks in large part to natural gas:

“In late 2020 Forbes noted that U.S. CO2 emissions already comply with the Paris Climate Accords. Goosed by an 11 percent drop in CO2 emissions in 2020 thanks to travel reductions stemming from COVID19, the United States has seen emissions drop since the mid-1980s. Nowadays, despite a population that is 40 percent larger than it was in the mid-1980s, U.S. CO2 emissions are approximately the same as they were back then. This is a remarkable feat.

“This combination of a long-term shift in electricity generation from coal to natural gas, basic efficiency as demanded by market competition, and regulations from fuel mileage mandates to the Clean Air Act have made the United States a more CO2-efficient national economy.”


The economic impacts of these orders are well-documented, but it is coming to light more and more that these are slated to occur without the perceived environmental benefits, and in reality, could be detrimental to not only local economies across the country but increase environmental impacts as well.

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