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Jobs vs. environment: What did interior secretary learn from briefing on leasing ban?

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An oil pump works away near Roosevelt on Feb. 3, 2016.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The move by President Joe Biden to ban any new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands and offshore waters was praised as a first good step to meet his ambitious climate change agenda in a Thursday briefing and soundly criticized as a threat to good paying jobs when the United States needs them the most.

The Interior Department took comments in a virtual hearing from Washington from a wide array of groups during the event as the agency conducts what it says is a long overdue review of its leasing program, including royalty rates companies pay and how much the going price is per acre.

At odds in the debate is what environmental groups says is the urgent and pressing need to cut harmful emissions produced by the extraction of fossil fuels and what industry and labor organizations say are critical jobs and a resource that fostered the country’s energy independence for the first time in six decades.

Newly appointed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland acknowledged oil and gas “helped build our economy and fuel our nation,” but said now is the time to “rethink” how the country manages minerals and energy on public lands.

The program, she emphasized, has not been meaningfully examined in decades.

On Wednesday, Biden’s ban provoked a lawsuit by Utah and a dozen other states hoping to overturn his executive order on the assertion it violates federal law. That lawsuit is on top of litigation already filed by Wyoming and the Western Energy Alliance, which represents independent oil and gas producers in several Western states, including Utah.

In the briefing, Wendy Kirchoff, vice president of regulatory policy with the American Exploration and Production Council, told Interior Department officials that 2019 on-shore revenues from oil and gas development were $4.2 billion, money that supports towns that would otherwise dry up and keeps families in jobs that support hotels, restaurants and other commerce.

“People are concerned,” she said.

Critics have said those concerns over the ban have been overblown because industry is sitting on thousands of leases that have not been developed, but Kirchoff said not every lease means there are recoverable reserves and it takes time and money to determine a lease’s viability.

“We are producing much more with far less acreage and with far less surface impacts as well,” she said.

She said the leasing ban will only produce negative results for the country and the world.

“It shifts production elsewhere and does nothing to address global emissions,” Kirchoff said.

But Sharon Buccino, senior director of the lands division of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it is critical the Biden administration act now to curtail the harmful effects of climate change stoked by fossil fuel emissions, citing catastrophic wildfire seasons and extended drought.

Her concerns were echoed by Natalie Eddy, interim field manager with Earthworks, who said the organization has documented extensive pollution coming from oil and gas fields next to vulnerable communities.

“The more we learn about climate change the more we know more action is required,” she said. “There is no amount of regulation that will stop this harm.”

Sean McGarvey, president of the North American Building Trades Union, told department officials his organization represents 3 million men and women in construction, of which 50% work in the oil and gas sector.

Those workers build pipelines and other energy infrastructure, including petrochemical facilities, some of which require as many as 8,000 people on site.

“Those jobs would not exist if not for oil and gas production.” McGarvey said.

Wendell Hibdon, director of energy and infrastructure for the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, urged the Interior Department to consider national security needs and the integrity of the energy grid.

“We are not climate change deniers. We believe climate change is real, it is happening and it needs to be addressed. The solutions need to be realistic,” he said. “Good-paying jobs for Americans should be considered with any type of climate plan.”

The Interior Department will continue to take comment on the oil and gas leasing ban and reforms to the program through April 15. The input will help shape a report due out this summer.