Oil industry Exploits Pandemic as Excuse to Dodge Federal Regulations, Fees

Photograph Source: Phil Dolby – CC BY 2.0

In an act of appalling hubris, the oil and gas industry is asking the federal government to loosen enforcement of federal regulations on public lands in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance, one of the petroleum industry’s primary lobbying groups, was quoted in EnergyWire as seeking one-year extensions for two-year drilling permits and 10-year federal mineral leases, a change that would allow them to hold onto unused leases they are stockpiling. Sgamma also referenced changes to compliance requirements and “royalty and fee waivers” for the world’s wealthiest industry. Robert McEntyre of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association is quoted in the same story as seeking “commonsense flexibilities” when it comes to complying with federal regulations.

Ironically, the oil industry’s call for a lax approach to regulatory oversight came the day after a federal court struck down the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) precisely because the federal government failed to live up to its obligation to enforce federal regulations and undertake a detailed Environmental Impact Statement before approving the project. The DAPL project sparked a worldwide controversy when a months-long encampment of water protectors led by the Lakota people of the Standing Rock reservation attempted to block pipeline construction beneath the vulnerable waters of Lake Oahe. These same environmental and social justice problems are echoed in current controversies over pipelines like the Keystone XL, Enbridge Line 5, and the Coastal GasLink planned across Wet’suwet’en sovereign lands north of the Canadian border.

But pipelines are hardly the only aspect of the oil and gas industry where lax regulation is causing major problems. Declines of sage grouse throughout the American West are partly attributable to habitat destruction and fragmentation from wellfield construction. Drilling threatens to sever key migration routes like the ancient Path of the Pronghorn. Natural gas drilling and production in the Upper Green River Valley of Wyoming has replaced the previously pristine air quality of Pinedale, Wyoming with smog that rivals Los Angeles. This is an industry that clearly needs a lot more adult supervision from federal agencies – not less – than it is getting now.

Global oil prices have fallen due to a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, but natural gas prices are low as result from a decade of over-aggressive drilling and production in the United States which has glutted the market. The oil industry made this bed for themselves, and now they should have to lie in it.  Natural gas is bought and sold on a continental market; it is not a global commodity easily traded across oceans, as are crude oil and refined petroleum. Thus, when oil corporations over-produce, they run out of places to store it, and natural gas prices collapse. This dynamic has wracked western states with boom and bust economic disruptions (and the waves of crime and environmental destruction that accompany the booms) for decades.

Instead of taxpayers propping up fossil fuel industry, we should be helping it die with dignity, and instead fund programs to retrain and rehire the industry’s workers into new positions that offer comparable pay but make the world a better place. America has a massive backlog in infrastructure maintenance, with potholed highways and failing bridges. Oil industry workers could be gainfully employed rebuilding America’s infrastructure, or in a government-sponsored program to install solar panels for homeowners, instead of propping up an industry that accelerates the building climate catastrophe and costs taxpayers billions of dollars in disaster relief for sea level rise and extreme weather events exacerbated by climate disruption.

Congress should ignore the fossil fuel industry’s pleas for price breaks – and “flexibility” in enforcing regulations – on publicly-owned lands and mineral deposits, which federal government shouldn’t be leasing in the first place. Instead, lawmakers should focus economic stimulus dollars on distributed renewable projects like rooftop solar, which produce clean energy in urbanized settings that don’t require more sacrifice of lands and wildlife.

The coronavirus pandemic has led millions of workers to cancel travel plans, stay home, and self-isolate to minimize their exposure to the virus and reduce transmission to others as a means to “flatten the curve” of new cases. The resulting reduction in fossil fuel combustion has depressed commodity prices, true enough, but also has given the planet a much-needed reprieve, dispelling smog and clearing polluted waters. The pandemic gives the world a glimpse of how much cleaner and greener the world will be when we end our addiction to fossil fuels. That’s a future worth the investment.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.