Op-Ed: Lawsuits against climate action don’t represent this Wyo citizen

Published on WyoFile on April 6, 2021

By Don Jones

In late March, Wyoming entered into a lawsuit to prop up the state’s fossil fuel industries. Or, should I say, another lawsuit to prop up the fossil fuel industries. It’s hard to keep track of them all these days. It seems Gov. Mark Gordon aims to establish a proud Wyoming tradition of suing anyone and everyone who tries to take action on climate change by reducing the use of oil, gas, and coal.

Gordon and other Wyoming politicians paint these pro-climate efforts as attacks on Wyoming’s people and our way of life. As a matter of fact, I’m a proud, lifelong Wyoming resident. I cherish our outdoors and wildlife, and like many people my age I’m deeply concerned about climate change. These lawsuits don’t represent me — but it’s clear who they do represent.

The most recent lawsuit, filed on March 24, pits Wyoming against the Biden administration over its decision to pause oil and gas leases on federal lands. This comes on the heels of the state signing onto a suit fighting the decision to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline. Both of these are piled on top of litigation against Washington state over its refusal to build a port so Wyoming can ship its coal to Asia. And it looks like the tradition will continue — the Legislature is set to pass a bill creating a $1.2 million “legal defense fund” so Wyoming can sue other states that try to divest from coal.

State politicians are aligned when it comes to Wyoming’s need to defend its fossil fuel interests in court. But these lawsuits don’t benefit normal Wyoming residents nearly as much as they help the state’s biggest and most powerful industries. All of the actions that prompted the suits share a single goal: To slow the devastating impacts of climate change. They have the side effect of potentially cutting into some fossil fuel companies’ profits. As someone who hopes to spend another 50-60 years living in Wyoming, I’m more concerned about the longterm threat of climate change and the impacts of fossil fuel development than I am of the size of an oil company CEO’s bonus next year.

Gordon described Biden’s leasing pause as a “direct attack” on Wyoming. State Superintendent of Schools Jillian Balow said it would “defund Wyoming schools.” Even Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik claimed it was “bad for Wyoming’s wildlife.” But all of these arguments seem overblown. There are literally millions of acres of public land in Wyoming that have already been leased for oil and gas development, but no one is doing anything with them.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the report Gordon and Wyoming’s Congressional delegation are using as proof of the lease pause’s harm was paid for, in part, by the oil and gas industry. I also suspect the oil industry and its lobbyists helped Balow and other state school superintendents craft their alarmist messages. A former Interior Department official called the idea that Wyoming would lose hundreds of millions of education dollars from the pause “absurd” and “ridiculous.” As for Nesvik’s claim that pausing oil and gas leases would hurt Wyoming wildlife? Just about every wildlife biologist in the state seems to disagree.

Fossil fuel industries are important for Wyoming in terms of jobs and tax revenue — I don’t deny that. But that’s largely because Wyoming lawmakers have chosen to keep things that way, even as the world around us moves into the 21st century, away from fossil fuels, and leaves us behind. 

I understand why they’re moving away. In my 26 years in Wyoming, I’ve seen the mule deer herds in the Upper Green River Basin decline as their sagebrush habitat has become dotted with well pads and crisscrossed by roads. Summer before last in Converse County, I stood on the edge of the Thunder Basin before dawn and watched the light from gas flares at dozens of wells stretching to a horizon where sage grouse leks are rapidly shrinking and disappearing. And I’ve already witnessed summers growing longer and hotter, droughts increasing and wildfires burning larger, more intensely and later into the fall.

Wyoming’s lawsuits against climate actions don’t represent me. The more we learn about the phony “harm” things like the lease pause inflict on Wyoming — while we witness the real harm caused by fossil fuel dependence and climate change — the clearer it becomes whose best interests our leaders and their lawsuits have in mind. Not mine, and probably not yours, either.