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Utah Leadership and Biden Administration At Odds Over Oil and Gas Leases

Natural Gas Flaring

Shortly after taking office, the Biden Administration announced a 60-day moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal land, drawing the ire of Utah lawmakers. KPCW’s Sean Higgins has more on the piece of legislation in the Senate introduced this week designed to counter the President's order.


The Protecting our Wealth of Energy Resources, or POWER, Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate on January 28th. Utah Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, as well as 22 other Republican Senate colleagues introduced the legislation in response to the Biden Administration’s recent executive order halting new oil and gas leases on federally managed lands.


If passed into law, the POWER Act would prohibit the President and cabinet secretaries from blocking energy or mineral leasing on federal lands and waters without Congressional approval.


A lawsuit was also filed in federal court against the order on January 29th, claiming the President does not have the authority to ban leasing on public lands. 


Approximately two-thirds of Utah is made up of land owned by the U.S. Government -- second only to Nevada’s nearly 85% -- and the issue of public land use in the state has been a point of tension between the state and the federal government for decades.


Biden’s executive order drew harsh criticism from Utah’s state and federal lawmakers, as well as from Utah tribal communities, who claim the order is detrimental to the state’s energy industry and related small businesses, which have suffered job losses since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Senator Lee said in a statement that the order was a “job killer” and cited a study from the University of Wyoming that estimates potential losses in investment, production, and tax revenue to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. 


Also in a statement, Governor Cox said the administration’s action was taken without any input from the state and did not take into account how a moratorium would impact rural Utah, where many energy-sector jobs are.


The order only halts the issuing of new leases, and does not affect leases that have already been granted for mining and drilling. 


Despite the sharp criticism, many environmental groups have praised the moratorium, including the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Both groups say the halting of new leases provides an opportunity to reassess the country’s energy policies and transition to more climate-friendly and sustainable forms of energy production.


Some parts of Utah are already transitioning to solar power as a primary source of energy. An 80-megawatt solar project in Tooele County is slated to be online by 2023. The project will provide renewable energy to six customers in Utah, including Summit County, Park City Municipal, Park City Mountain Resort, and Deer Valley Resort. Salt Lake City and Utah Valley University also secured contracts to take advantage of the solar power.


With Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the White House for at least the next two years, it is very unlikely that the POWER Act will make it out of the Senate.


KPCW news reports on climate change issues are brought to you by the Park City Climate Fund at the Park City Community Foundation, an initiative that engages Park City in implementing local, high-impact climate solutions that have potential to be effective in similar communities.

Sean Higgins covers all things Park City and is the Saturday Weekend Edition host at KPCW. Sean spent the first five years of his journalism career covering World Cup skiing for Ski Racing Media here in Utah and served as Senior Editor until January 2020. As Senior Editor, he managed the day-to-day news section of skiracing.com, as well as produced and hosted Ski Racing’s weekly podcast. During his tenure with Ski Racing Media, he was also a field reporter for NBC Sports, covering events in Europe.