Days after taking office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order pausing new oil and gas leases on federal lands. The decision, which was part of the administration’s efforts to address climate change, produced immediate concern across Wyoming. The state is heavily reliant on the energy sector — particularly fossil fuels — to fund government services. The industry is also a key source of jobs, both directly and through the myriad welding, machining and transportation companies that serve the industry.
While Biden’s order was directed at all states where drilling occurs on federal lands, Wyoming felt its impact more acutely than many places. Nationwide, about 10% of oil and gas production occurs on federal lands. But in Wyoming, that figure rises to 51%.
Biden’s order didn’t ban production on federal lands. Operators with existing leases can still drill. But the ban on leases has still had consequences. In the three years leading up to the pandemic, Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sales in Wyoming amounted to an average of $142 million annually. Half of that share went to the state. This year, there have been no lease sales in the first and second quarter.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Louisiana granted a temporary injunction that halted the leasing pause, which has been challenged by several states including Wyoming. The judge said the administration did not provide a rational explanation for cancelling lease sales and enacting the pause. Millions or possibility billions of dollars were at stake, he wrote.
The decision shows that the rule of law works for Wyoming. The federal courts have been looked at skeptically by some here, but it was a federal judge that stepped in and said the administration must follow the law as it seeks to pursue its goals.
The legal case is hardly over, but this injunction does provide breathing room to address critical matters presented by Biden’s leasing pause. As the administration works to address climate change, it’s important for the president to recognize that decisions in Washington can cause pain 1,700 miles away in Wyoming.
If the administration wants to change how American produces energy, it must not forget that there are thousands of workers in oil-producing states whose livelihoods will be affected. And whether their political leaders should have seen this coming doesn’t make the economic fallout any less painful for Wyoming families.
The same goes for the government services paid for with severance and other taxes generated by oil and gas production. The administration should be working with Wyoming on these matters, not simply imposing edicts. These government services help some of the most vulnerable members of our society — especially the old and the young. Regardless of whether Wyoming should have worked harder to diversify its economy years or decades ago, these people will still feel the pain.
The administration should use this halt to focus on how it can support energy-producing states during a time of transition. Compensating them for the losses caused by the pause would be a start, but there’s more to consider. Promises of task forces and job retraining feel hollow when they are offered as possibilities and not decisive action. And uncertainty makes it difficult for companies to do their work.
We recognize that this matter is hardly over. But the reset could prove beneficial. Climate change poses a real threat — one that we are seeing amid a brutal drought and active wildfire season. But addressing it does not demand that so many people in Wyoming are left behind in the process.