Plans to cut off public lands to oil, natural gas drilling and leasing are unrealistic
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Like the Green New Deal, any new, radical proposal seems to warrant discussion, no matter how unrealistic, unlawful or politically unviable. So it is with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) plan for a moratorium on oil and natural gas drilling and leasing on federal lands. 

Taking those in reverse order, the plan may sound great to her liberal base. To the 10.3 million Americans employed directly or indirectly by the industry’s $1.3 trillion economic engine, it sounds like lots of lost high-paying, blue-collar jobs. It may be good for votes in California and New York, but not across the Heartland.


But does a President Warren have the legal authority to stop development on public lands? Not according to the Mineral Leasing Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which have been the law of the land for many decades. When the Obama administration tried a moratorium on offshore development, it was overturned in court.

More importantly, it’s just not realistic. A moratorium on public lands is part of an agenda to stop developing American energy. Since fossil fuels provide over 80 percent of the energy that all Americans depend on for their healthy and safe lifestyles, it’s simply unrealistic to cut them off.

Americans aren’t going to suddenly stop traveling to work and school; heating and cooling their homes; taking medicines, which are made from petroleum products; using medical devices with all their plastic and electronic components made from petroleum; and eating food made using natural gas based fertilizers and machinery run on diesel.

So what happens if we stop developing oil and natural gas in America? We take the $350 billion the industry has kept here by displacing foreign oil and send it overseas, along with millions of jobs. And since oil exporting countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia don’t produce it under our strict environmental rules, the greenhouse gas intensity of our energy would increase.

Many who espouse drastic climate change policies prescribe a cure that’s worse than the symptoms. They fail to take into account mitigation strategies or future technological breakthroughs that may solve climate change and its impacts. They ignore the fact increased use of natural gas in the electricity sector is the No. 1 reason the United States has reduced greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country. Increased natural gas electricity generation has eliminated 2.36 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases.


Until such time as there’s a viable alternative that does everything oil and natural gas do, stopping all use would result in immediate adverse impacts and yes, even death. We should continue acting on climate change, but making oil and natural gas go away won’t suddenly provide a reliable, affordable alternative.

We simply aren’t willing as a society to tolerate emergency rooms operating only when the wind blows and the sun shines, or using our smart phones for just a few hours a day. We don’t have an alternative to keep people warm during the winter months. Politicians should increase funding for R&D, not stop the energy we need today and into the foreseeable future.

But back to public lands. We get about a quarter of our energy from fossil fuels developed on public lands, which corresponds to roughly the same amount of greenhouse gases. Some of that slack could be taken up on private lands, but not all of it. A moratorium would deprive the federal government of billions in royalty revenues that companies pay.

Further, oil and natural gas is the source of funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which her plan calls for increasing. Where would those funds come from? A moratorium would likewise deprive the government of funding for national parks.

Over 200 million acres of national parks, wilderness and other protected areas are already off limits to development. But there are millions of acres of working landscapes across the West that have been deemed appropriate for oil and natural gas only after years of careful analysis and public input. Sending that production to other areas of the country or overseas deprives communities across the West of their livelihoods, and federal and state governments of a huge source of revenue.

Luckily, we can do both. Despite Sen. Warren’s negative messaging, oil and natural gas development on public lands is done responsibly to protect the environment. We’re proud of our environmental record and all the ways we keep Americans safe and healthy.

As Sen. Warren and I agreed during a hearing in 2016, public lands decisions should be made with public input. A future president should engage the public in a discussion that considers the benefits of oil and natural gas, and not deliver an unrealistic Keep-It-in-the-Ground directive that just doesn’t make sense.

Kathleen Sgamma is President of Western Energy Alliance, which represents over 300 companies engaged in all aspects of environmentally responsible exploration and production of oil and natural gas in the West. Alliance members are independents, the majority of which are small businesses with an average of fifteen employees. Learn more at