Last week, Denver Business Journal reported that Colorado oil and gas companies raked in billions of dollars in profits in 2022. Despite this, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) says that energy companies are overregulated, and these regulations are clamping down on rural communities’ livelihoods.
“I know many communities have experienced a very large fall from the rise that they had because they are being regulated into poverty,” Boebert said. “And we’re not subject, you know, to oil and gas, we’re subject to climate extremists, forcing us all to bow at the left’s altar of climate change.”
The controversial Silt congresswoman, who was reelected for a second term by a narrow margin in November, has made her stances on oil and gas clear: she wants to galvanize the industry with deregulation, she wants the U.S. to prioritize domestic energy production, and she is against environmental measures like the Green New Deal, which would work to counteract gas emissions’ exacerbation of global climate change. Boebert’s husband works as a consultant for an energy firm, and was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for his work.
Asked to comment, a Boebert staffer replied that producing energy in America is “42% cleaner than foreign oil.” This is nominally true, since oil produced abroad must be shipped to the U.S. before it can be used, which causes further emissions. However, the statement neglects multiple realities of the oil and gas industry: for one thing, even if emissions are cut by producing energy in the U.S., the emissions generated will still have a significant negative environmental impact.
Beyond that, drilling can damage the environment in more ways than just ozone pollution. According to numerous studies, those who live within half a mile of oil and gas sites are more likely to experience negative health outcomes, including infant mortality, blood disorders, and cancer. And inactive wells — of which Colorado has many — can leak pollutants into the ground and water.
On Feb. 9, Boebert took the floor during a U.S. House Natural Resources Committee hearing titled “Unleashing America’s Energy and Mineral Potential” to call for more American energy production and less red tape. She would later introduce a bill aiming to cut that red tape herself.
“You know, back home in Colorado I’ve seen first-hand the harm leftist policies have created in our communities. Colorado’s Western Slope used to have a booming energy production. We used to have about 112 rigs operating on the Western Slope, and now we have four. Extreme leftist policies lock up land, they’ve driven away good, paying American jobs, and have helped drive up gas prices,” she said.
Boebert’s claim here is misleading. According to the Baker Hughes Rig Count, Colorado did at one point have as many as 124 active oil rigs — in 2008. Since then, the state’s number has averaged around 30 active rigs. That number dipped to 4 during 2020, but this was due to pandemic restrictions rather than environmental regulations. Since then, the number has bounced back up to 18. However, on the Western Slope alone, there are thousands of active oil wells, with more permits waiting to be approved, according to data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).
Boebert was one of many representatives who interviewed one of the hearing’s expert witnesses: Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas member group that describes itself as the “voice of the industry in the west.” Sgamma’s refrain, throughout the hearing and beyond, was that the oil and gas industry is being hamstrung by overregulation.
“I’m going to be discussing how some of the overregulation that’s affecting the industry is causing us to produce less than we would otherwise,” Sgamma said in an interview on the KOA radio news show “Colorado’s Morning News” before the congressional hearing. “Government red tape, delays with environmental analysis, difficulties introduced with the Inflation Reduction Act. Lots of different policies are suppressing American production that could be much greater. But the good news is we are working hard to increase production here in Colorado and all across the country so that we do meet that demand and bring energy prices down.” (1:27 – 2:30)
Boebert, Sgamma, and others have singled out gas prices as a primary reason to deregulate big oil: increased production would raise supply to meet a high demand by consumers. In theory, this would allow the price of gas, which jumped as high as $5.02 last year, to stabilize and become more affordable.
Speaking with Sgamma during the hearing, Boebert’s line of questioning was favorable towards the deregulation argument. “You discussed the increased bureaucracy around lease suspensions and permit extensions,” she said. “What can we in Congress do to ensure that these agencies spend their time reducing the current APD [Application for Permit to Drill] backlog, which sits at almost 5,000, versus haggling over these paperwork exercises?”
Sgamma’s answer: energy companies shouldn’t need to spend so much time on paperwork.
“Just specify that an APD term is for four years instead of two,” Sgamma replied to Boebert. “Because right now, when we try to get an extension, we’re having to justify it quarterly. So it’s a bunch of extra paperwork churn. So just make the term four.”
Environmental activists are skeptical of the calls for deregulation, saying that oil companies are only trying to cut corners.
“And then the reality of it, it just feels like they just don’t want to do the work and they look for excuses to be able to cut corners and actually simplify the path to getting their permits,” said Lauren Petrie, executive director of Colorado Rising, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about and pushing back against the negative impacts of oil and gas development. “So, you know, I don’t think that it’s fair to say that that’s going to hinder any of the programs. And if it creates more paperwork, well, you know, I’m sure they can afford to hire people to do it.”
Petrie noted that, while oil and gas companies apply for more and more drilling permits, several of them have wide swathes of land that they leave unused. The practice has come under criticism in recent years, with U.S. President Joe Biden calling attention to the dearth of unused permits in his 2022 State of the Union address.
“Can you explain today why these leases and permits cannot simply be used?” Boebert asked Sgamma in the hearing.
Responding, Sgamma cited bureaucratic red tape and oil-barren land as reasons for permits to go unused. “Well, you’re never gonna operate on 100% of leases. So right now we’re at a 66% utilization rate, and so that’s a good high number, so there’s about 12,000 nonproducing leases, there are 23,000 producing leases,” she said. “That’s a good mix, because sometimes economic resources are not found on a particular lease. There are other approvals that are necessary for permits, and we have several held up in court cases. So there are various reasons why a permit doesn’t get used immediately.”
According to experts, drilling does have many extra costs: turning a lease into a producing well takes time and money. It’s also true that, in many cases, energy companies are actually producing less than they could, keeping prices high and sending more profits into investors’ pockets.
“I mean, they’re either admitting that they are not productive and they’re not beneficial to actually do the work,” Petrie said. “Or, you know, I mean, it just goes to show that we’re not in any rush to drill new wells, which is what they’re constantly saying that we need to do.”
Petrie also commented on fossil fuels’ detrimental effects on the environment.
“I mean, climate change being driven by fossil fuels is going to cost us far more than any of the measly benefits that the industry touts will come from or operation anywhere, you know,” she said. “So, you know, I will not shed a tear for the industry having, you know, 12,000 permits that are hung up in court and whatever have you.”
Both now and in the past, the position of Sgamma and the Western Energy Alliance has been that, while climate change must be counteracted, it would be economically unrealistic for U.S. industry to make a total switch from fossil fuels to wind or solar power.
“On good days, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, maybe we get 40% renewables,” Sgamma said on air. “But when it was really freezing at the beginning of February, for example, when temperatures went negative, natural gas and coal provided almost all of the electricity, renewables went down to 5% because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. So if politicians pursued more realistic policies instead of trying to demonize oil and natural gas and drive it away, we would actually have reliable, affordable energy into the future.” (5:08 – 5:45)
Winter has hit hard in Colorado this year, with temperatures sporadically hitting the negatives. This was most evident in December, when a cold snap dropped the temperature at Denver International Airport by a record-breaking 37° F in a single hour. However, what Sgamma neglects to mention is that drastic cold-weather events like this are increasingly prevalent as a result of climate change, which is directly impacted by the use of the oil and gas she advocates for.
Asked to elaborate further on this via email, Sgamma elaborated: “People today would perish without our reliable, affordable energy and be much, much poorer, as opposed to hypothetical effects on people well into the future, as predicted by climate scientists. So on balance, oil and natural gas are a huge benefit to humanity. We should as a society address climate change with research and development to find alternative low-carbon sources of energy, but until we find them, oil and natural gas consumption is projected to increase well into the future and will continue to provide a net benefit to society for decades to come. Those who advocate for turning off all fossil fuels now do not offer a realistic solution. We do by continuing to reduce our GHGs [greenhouse gas] and producing oil and natural gas in a much more environmentally protective manner than do other countries that we’d have to import energy from if we don’t produce it here.”
Sgamma also pointed out that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal power, and on a global scale, switching from the latter to the former has actually been responsible for more reduction in ozone pollution than solar and wind energy combined. However, while natural gas is cleaner than coal, that does not make it clean: this energy source still puts millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year, according to the EPA.
Also, the environmental damage from oil extraction goes beyond just greenhouse gas and climate change, also impacting the health of people who live nearby.
Petrie emphasized that technology exists to store solar and wind energy for later usage, if only industries are willing to invest in it. “The whole thing about renewable, reliable energy is, gas is four bucks a gallon right now. It’s, you know, it’s expensive. It’s a volatile market. It fluctuates up and down uncontrollably,” she said. “And so that’s not something that’s going to happen with renewable energy, especially if we’re investing in things like storage facilities so that, sure, when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, we’ve got storage that we can use. But if we’re not investing in that technology, we’re never going to get there.”
Since the hearing, Boebert has continued working with WEA to promote environmental deregulation. On Feb. 22, Boebert introduced a bill to the Natural Resources committee titled the “American Energy Act,” aiming to cut through the red tape to make it easier for energy companies to drill. The bill also promises to answer Sgamma’s request from the hearing, by extending the term of APDs from two years to four years.
“Western Energy Alliance strongly supports Rep. Boebert’s bill to add certainty to the federal oil and natural gas permitting process,” Sgamma was quoted as saying in a press release about the bill. “The West Slope of Colorado is held back economically because of uncertainty on federal lands, which make up the majority of production in her district.”
But according to Petrie, the economic benefits of oil and gas are exaggerated.
“When you factor in the fact that they get tax breaks and subsidies and bailouts, you know, they got COVID bailouts out the wazoo. And meanwhile, like mom and pop shops and, you know, people can barely stay afloat,” she said. “… And you know, those externalities like the pollution, the water consumption and the abandoned wells that they’re not going to clean up, you know, falls on taxpayers eventually. So when you balance out all of those things, it’s really not the boost to the economy they think they are.”