In the last few weeks, we’ve watched with horror as Russian troops have invaded Ukraine and committed one atrocity after another against innocent civilians. This invasion has already triggered one of the worst humanitarian crises in Europe since World War II.

In response, President Biden has rightly implemented a series of sanctions, including banning Russian oil and gas imports.

No doubt, this was the right and moral choice to make, since it will help defund Putin’s attacks on the Ukrainian people. As a result of this choice, American energy prices have, however, been rising, and that hasn’t been easy for many who are already struggling to make ends meet. 

The oil and gas industry isn’t helping, and may in fact be driving up energy costs by prioritizing stock buybacks and shareholder payouts over efforts to make the cost of oil more affordable for consumers. But we shouldn’t be surprised. The industry is, after all, driven by profit, not by altruism.

To make matters worse, the industry is right now shamelessly using the war in Ukraine and the economic hardships many Americans are facing as pretexts for demanding more federal oil and gas leases and permits than it already has. And it has a mountain of them.

Currently, the oil and gas industry is sitting on more than 9,000 unused permits. There’s nothing stopping companies from using those permits and drilling now on public lands. Moreover, of the
more than 26 million acres of public lands currently leased to the oil and gas industry, nearly 13.9 million (or 53%) of those acres are sitting unused.

The industry’s demand for more oil and gas leases and permits appears all the more audacious and odious when you consider:

- U.S. oil production is nearing an all-time high.

- The Biden administration has already approved more new leases in its first year than the Trump administration did in its first three.

- While 90% of domestic production occurs on non-federal lands, there is more oil flowing from federal lands now than at any point since at least 2003.

Let’s be clear: making more public land available for leasing and issuing more permits to drill will do nothing to ease the economic burden Americans are facing at the gas pump – a Shell executive testified as much in a Senate hearing on March 10. Nor will it help us deal with countries like Russia.

It will, however, exacerbate the climate crisis that is already having devastating effects around the globe, including here in Montana. That’s because leases and drilling permits issued today are huge sources of potential emissions, threatening today’s efforts to reduce emissions and transition us away from fossil fuels.

The oil and gas industry would rather us forget that the U.S. is currently a net exporter of fossil fuels, exporting more petroleum products than we import overall, which means that we are energy independent, at least on paper. But because the U.S. sells its oil and gas on an international market, prices are determined by that market’s forces, even for fuels produced domestically.

Those forces include the actions that Iran, Iraq, Russia, and other volatile petrostates take. Since those prices generally result in profit for U.S. oil and gas producers, the industry is more than happy to charge the high prices that the global market sets, even if those prices hurt the American consumer.

The fact is, we will not achieve true energy independence – reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy delivered across the country – as long as we keep putting ourselves at the mercy of the oil and gas industry and the volatile global market it’s hitched to.

Instead of using this international crisis to continue enriching oil and gas executives and making ourselves more dependent on fossil fuels, we should instead be recommitting ourselves to renewable energy sources. Only then will we achieve true energy independence, have domestic control over the price of the energy we use, and stop empowering the likes of Russia and other
petrostates capable of inflicting the sort of devastation we’re seeing in Ukraine.

We will also stop inflicting devastation on our planet, ourselves, and the future we’re leaving to the next generation.

- Aubrey Bertram is a staff attorney at Wild Montana.