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Despite a Denver Post exposé and worsening smog pollution in the Denver Metro Area, the oil and gas industry continues to frack in Colorado before obtaining legally required air pollution permits.

And while WildEarth Guardians is pushing back to put an end to this illegal practice, sadly, state air regulators are continuing to turn their backs on the problem, letting the fracking industry trounce Colorado’s clean air.

Worse, they’re turning their backs on the problem even as Colorado Governor Jared Polis is calling for tighter regulation of oil and gas companies and “aggressively” moving forward to curtail smog in the Denver Metro Area.

The 90-day Loophole

In case you missed the news last April, oil and gas companies are abusing a regulatory loophole in Colorado, constructing and operating massive production facilities before obtaining permits that actually limit harmful emissions.

Referred to as the “90-day loophole,” Colorado’s regulations actually allow companies to avoid submitting applications for legally required air pollution permits at oil and gas well sites for up to 90 days after beginning production.

The loophole effectively allows companies to avoid obtaining permits for months, sometimes even years, after drilling wells, fracking, and beginning to produce oil and gas.

As the Denver Post reported, hundreds of oil and gas well facilities are now operating in Colorado without permits. With no permits, there’s no assurance that companies are controlling their toxic emissions.

For people and communities near these oil and gas well sites, no permits means no ability to ensure companies are limiting harmful pollution. That means no ability to ensure companies are fully protecting public health and the environment.

In the words of Berthoud, Colorado resident Stephanie Nilsen, who lives next to Extraction Oil and Gas’s Trott facility, which is currently producing oil and gas from 18 wells without a permit, “It is just unfair. Air quality? They screwed me.”

The Denver Post’s front page story on April 7, 2019.

Industry Abusing Loophole

The thing is, while there is a loophole in Colorado’s air quality regulations, it only applies to small sources of emissions.

In the Denver Metro Area, which is designated a “nonattainment area” because of violations of federal health limits on ground-level ozone (i.e., the key ingredient of smog), a small source is any facility with the potential to release less than 100 tons of smog forming volatile organic compound emissions.

If an oil and gas production facility has the potential to release more than 100 tons of volatile organic compounds, then that source is considered a “major source” and subject to stringent permitting requirements.

A major source permit requires companies meet very stringent emission limits, offset emissions to achieve a net reduction in pollution, and comply with other strict provisions. Put another way, a major source permit ensures companies achieve the highest level of clean air protection.

More importantly, if an oil and gas production facility is a major source, Colorado’s regulations don’t allow companies to use the 90-day loophole. Instead, if a facility is a major source, companies must obtain a major source permit before even beginning construction.

Unfortunately, oil and gas companies in Colorado have acted as if the 90-day loophole is a free pass to pollute for any production facility, no matter the level of emissions.

Even as fracking has boomed in the Denver Metro Area and pushed ground-level ozone to dangerous highs, industry asserts major sources of emissions don’t have to obtain permits before beginning construction and production.

They’ve gone so far as to argue the 90-day loophole provides an absolute exemption to major source permitting.

Colorado Regulator Complicity

Industry’s arguments are flat out wrong. Unfortunately, regulators with the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division have refused to push back and have even gone along with industry’s abuse of the 90-day loophole.

Over the years, they’ve looked the other way and allowed hundreds of oil and gas production facilities that are major sources of air pollution to avoid obtaining major source permits.

This Crestone Peak oil and gas well production facility near Erie, Colorado is currently operating without legally required air pollution permits.

In doing so, they’ve foreclosed opportunities to reduce emissions and hold the fracking industry accountable to the best clean air standards.

Even in the Denver Metro Area, where emission cuts are critical for curbing the region’s smog, the Air Division has refused to enforce major source permitting requirements when it comes to fracking.

Coupled with ineffective regulations and seeming collusion with the oil and gas industry, it’s no wonder the region’s pollution woes are only worsening. This past spring, the American Lung Association reported that Denver’s ground-level ozone pollution is on the rise.

Ozone especially harms children, older adults and those with asthma and other lung diseases. When older adults or children with asthma breathe ozone-polluted air, too often they end up in the doctor’s office, the hospital or the emergency room.

– JoAnna Strother, Director of Advocacy, American Lung Association in Colorado

And even though earlier this year, the Air Pollution Control Division indicated it planned to investigate “if the (state’s) regulatory structure complies with the technical requirements of the Clean Air Act,” there’s seemingly been no changes to date.

In fact, the Air Division appears to be moving more aggressively than ever to let the oil and gas industry off the hook when it comes to major source permitting.

Right now, the Division is proposing to approve around 30 new air pollution permits for oil and gas production facilities that would let companies avoid major source permitting. Most of these facilities are located in the Denver Metro Area.

Just some of the air pollution permits proposed for approval by the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division that would allow oil and gas companies avoid major source permitting.

Under the proposed permits, companies like Noble Energy and Extraction Oil and Gas would be allowed to avoid major source permitting, even though the companies have already built major sources and started producing oil and gas.

WildEarth Guardians has opposed the Air Division’s proposed permits. In comments submitted last Friday, we objected to permits allowing Extraction Oil and Gas, Noble Energy, SRC Energy, and other companies to avoid major source permitting requirements.

That the Division has proposed to approve these permits seems a clear indication that industry’s abuse of the 90-day loophole remains condoned by regulators.

New Hope or Business as Usual?

To be certain, Colorado Governor Jared Polis has ushered in a new era of oil and gas regulation that prioritizes public health and the environment. In April, he signed Senate Bill 19-181 into law, which directs Colorado air regulators to adopt new rules limiting harmful emissions from fracking operations.

However, the Air Pollution Control Division seems to be moving slowly and uncertainly, at best, to meet Senate Bill 181’s mandate.

It was only last Friday, July 5, that the Air Division announced its first public meeting regarding a “Potential Fall 2019 Air Quality Rulemaking.”

That meeting isn’t scheduled to take place until July 29. And while the Division is asking for public comment, it’s unclear exactly what the public is commenting on at this point.

In May, WildEarth Guardians, together with partners at Colorado Rising, 350 Colorado, and Mothers Out Front, submitted concrete expectations for new rules under Senate Bill 181.

Among other things, we called on the Division to eliminate the 90-day loophole, adopt an aggressive oil and gas industry emission offset program, and hold fracking companies accountable to the most stringent of air pollution controls. We have yet to receive a response to this letter.

However, given the lack of substance and clarity so far around the process, there’s reason to be concerned the Air Division may not be on track to meet these basic expectations.

Most importantly, with the Division continuing allowing oil and gas companies to avoid major source permitting, there’s reason to be concerned clean air is taking a backseat to the fracking industry in Colorado.

In the Denver Metro Area, we estimate there are currently over 50 fracking facilities operating without legally required major source permits.

The map below shows where these facilities are located. The bigger the circle, the higher the level of volatile organic compound emissions. Zoom in or click to see a larger version of the map to learn more.

 

In spite of this, the Air Division is letting the companies behind these facilities avoid major source permitting.

Instead, they’re obtaining weaker permits that don’t ensure stringent pollution controls, don’t offset emissions, and don’t achieve the high level of clean air protection required for major sources.

For the Denver Metro Area, this means more smog pollution and more danger to public health. This certainly is not the “aggressive” clean air action that Governor Polis intended.

We Need a Change

As part of our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative, we’re taking aim at industry’s illegal abuse of the 90-day loophole.

In a Clean Air Act citizen enforcement lawsuit filed in May, we targeted seven companies, including Extraction Oil and Gas, Noble Energy, Crestone Peak Resources, and others for violating Colorado clean air laws by failing to obtain legally required major source permits.

This federal case is unprecedented in the American West. Never before has a citizen suit been filed against the oil and gas industry in this region. However, never before have we faced such a widespread failure of the fracking industry to comply with our clean air laws.

While our legal case promises to secure the accountability we need for our clean air and health, the reality is, we need Colorado regulators on board with safeguarding air quality in Denver and beyond.

We know the Governor genuinely wants to see clean air restored in Colorado. Citing “outrage” over delay, earlier this year, he stepped up to keep the Denver Metro Area’s smog clean up on track. In statements, he’s made abundantly clear his support for bold action to reduce air pollution and protect public health.

We have to do everything in our power right here at home to make our air cleaner and our people healthier as soon as we possibly can.

– Colorado Governor Jared Polis

With the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division continuing to let industry abuse the 90-day loophole, it’s urgent the Governor step up to set things right.

That’s why we’ve reached out to our members and supporters to stand with us in calling on Governor Polis to ensure clean air and health comes first in Colorado. Hundreds of Coloradans have so far signed the petition, which we intend to deliver to the Governor next week.

But the Governor also needs to hear directly from Coloradans. Call him or send an e-mail today, click here for contact information >>

So long as the oil and gas industry is allowed to abuse the 90-day loophole and pollute without permits, clean air and public health will suffer in Colorado. It’s up to the Governor to change this and give Coloradans the breath of fresh air they deserve.

While New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham supports bold climate action, her focus on methane and her seeming unwillingness so far to tackle the oil and gas industry’s full greenhouse gas footprint threatens to derail any and all success in reducing carbon emissions.

This climate blindspot has been highlighted before. While the Governor has trumpeted policies to curtail carbon and promote renewable energy, advocates have pointed out that New Mexico’s surge in oil and gas production–and the greenhouse gases resulting from the consumption of these fossil fuels–ultimately stands to erase all gains for the climate.

With New Mexico facing record levels of oil production and soaring rates of natural gas production, this blindspot stands to seriously hobble the state’s climate progress.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham

Cutting Methane Won’t Cut It

To date, Michelle Lujan Grisham’s solutions have focused on targeting only production-related emissions, and even then only methane. Earlier this year, she signed an Executive Order calling for rules to limit methane.

True to form, last week the state kicked off a stakeholder process to start drafting these rules, although the timing of their development and implementation is completely up in the air.

It’s well-meaning. After all, methane is a potent greenhouse gas with up to 86 times the heat-trapping capability of carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, the reality is that reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production in New Mexico will make absolutely no difference for the climate.

Let me say that again just so you know exactly where WildEarth Guardians stands: 

REDUCING METHANE EMISSIONS FROM OIL AND GAS IN NEW MEXICO WILL MAKE ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE FOR THE CLIMATE.

That’s because what really matters are the end-use carbon emissions related to production. In other words, it’s the ultimate processing and burning of oil and gas, i.e., the consumption, that matters, not methane. The numbers confirm this, and then some.

We calculated total carbon associated with oil and gas produced in New Mexico in 2018. Its off the charts. Using end-use emission factors developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we estimated that production led to the release of more than 189 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator, 189 million metric tons of carbon equals the amount released by 48.5 coal-fired power plants in a single year.

This figure was calculated using New Mexico Oil Conservation Division oil and gas production data, then multiplying this by the Environmental Protection Agency’s factors of 0.43 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every barrel of oil produced and 0.0551 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every thousand cubic feet (Mcf) of natural gas produced.

The chart below sums it up. Without a doubt, oil and gas production in New Mexico leads to a massive carbon footprint. And this is just for 2018!

New Mexico Oil and Gas Production in 2018 and End-Use Carbon Dioxide Emissions

No Comparison

To put this into perspective, we compared emissions most recently reported by the Environmental Protection Agency for New Mexico. There’s truly no comparison.

While end-use carbon emissions related to oil and gas production amounted to more than 189 million metric tons, total methane emissions from production amounted to, at most, a little more 629,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

[NOTE:  The Environmental Protection Agency reported 182,946 metric tons of carbon equivalent for methane from oil and gas production, but this figure is based on an assumption that the gas is only 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Using the more recent finding that methane is actually 86 times more potent, total emissions are closer to 629,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.]

This means that methane emissions from oil and gas represent 0.3% of the industry’s total climate footprint.

Importantly, most recent reports indicate that coal and natural gas-fired power plants in New Mexico emitted a total of only 24,000,000 metric tons of carbon.

That means oil and gas production in New Mexico was ultimately responsible for nearly 10 times as much carbon pollution as the state’s power plants.

As the chart below shows, carbon emissions resulting from the consumption of oil and gas in New Mexico dwarf oil and gas industry methane emissions and power plant carbon emissions. Methane emissions barely register on this chart (we had to cut the end-use carbon emissions bar down just so methane emissions could barely register).

A Burning Disaster

Put another way, even if New Mexico went 100% renewable and even if the state completely zeroed out oil and gas industry methane emissions, the state would still be the source of as much carbon pollution as nearly 50 coal-fired power plants.

With oil and gas production on the rise in the state, this underscores that cutting methane emissions won’t lead to any meaningful climate progress.

In fact, major drillers in New Mexico, including the notorious companies Chevron and Exxon, have indicated they intend to ramp up production to nearly two million barrels of oil per day in the Permian Basin of southeast New Mexico and west Texas.

And what are these companies doing to reduce their methane emissions in the meantime? Burning through flaring. In fact, reports indicate more flaring is happening in New Mexico than ever before.

This just underscores the absurdity of focusing on methane as any kind of a climate solution.

Because while burning methane turns the gas to carbon dioxide and reduces its heat trapping capacity, it still has a climate impact. With flaring ramping up in New Mexico, it highlights that reducing methane emissions is simply shifting the problem and not actually solving it.

Flaring at oil and gas well site in southeast New Mexico

Keep it in the Ground

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham talks the talk on climate, but talk is cheap. If she doesn’t get serious about confronting the full carbon footprint of the oil and gas industry, her climate blindspot, then it’s clear that she’s not willing to walk the walk.

If that’s the case, she may as well be in climate denial.

“This is a state that is not in climate denial. We are clear that we have basically a decade to begin to turn things around and New Mexico needs [to] and will do its part.”

– New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham

New Mexico and New Mexicans need real climate action, not rhetoric, not empty messaging, and certainly not empirically baseless solutions that actually promote more oil and gas production and consumption.

In this case, the solution is clear: New Mexico needs to start clamping down on new oil and gas development and get on track to ultimately keep fossil fuels in the ground.

While this seems extreme, in truth, it’s the most common sense and reasonable solution at hand. After all, the climate crisis is already ravaging New Mexico and portends even more harms to the state’s water supplies, public health, clean air, infrastructure, and ecosystems.

Although the booming oil and gas industry may generate revenue today, our planet–and particularly the State of New Mexico–will be paying a heavy cost tomorrow.

If New Mexico’s Governor continues to coddle the oil and gas industry and deny the true costs of the climate crisis, then she will fail miserably in delivering on any meaningful climate progress.

For a safe, healthy climate and for real economic prosperity, it’s time for Michelle Lujan Grisham to mind her climate blindspot and acknowledge the need to start keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

Earlier this year, WildEarth Guardians launched its Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative, a campaign to defend communities and our climate from fracking in and around the Denver Metro Area.

The campaign has been in high gear since February and this month, we kicked it into overdrive.

In a groundbreaking lawsuit filed in federal court on May 3, we challenged seven oil and gas companies over ongoing clean air violations at 15 production facilities, all of which are located in Weld County north of Denver.

To our knowledge, it’s the first citizen suit under the Clean Air Act ever filed against the oil and gas industry in the Rocky Mountain West. And it promises big results for clean air and the climate.

The lead outlaw in the case includes Extraction Oil and Gas, a notorious fracking company that has rankled Front Range communities for its residential drilling practices.

The company is developing more than 80 oil and gas wells and related infrastructure in the City and County of Broomfield, a move that has drawn intense local condemnation and legal action by WildEarth Guardians.

Extraction Oil and Gas has begun construction of massive oil and gas facilities in the community of Broomfield, Colorado. Photo by Laurie Anderson.

Other lawbreakers include Noble Energy, Crestone Peak Resources, Great Western Oil and Gas, PDC Energy, Bonanza Creek Energy, and Mallard Exploration.

The suit takes on the fracking industry’s abuse of a loophole in Colorado’s clean air regulations.

That loophole allows small oil and gas production facilities to avoid submitting pollution permit applications for up to 90 days after first beginning production.

Unfortunately, over the years the oil and gas industry has expanded the loophole and argued that it also applies to the largest production facilities. Sadly, under former Colorado Governor, John Hickenlooper, an ardent supporter of the oil and gas industry who once drank fracking fluid to underscore his allegiance , that argument gained traction.

Now industry routinely constructs massive multi-well fracking facilities that have the potential to emit thousands of tons of toxic air pollution without ever obtaining permits. In some cases, companies may operate well sites for years without ever having a permit in hand.

We’ve mapped out at least 50 oil and gas facilities in the Denver Metro Area that aren’t subject to the 90-day loophole, yet are currently spewing out massive amounts of unchecked air pollution with out a permit. Check out the map, which we’re still building out, here >>

Extraction’s Kennedy Oil and Gas Facility near the town of Berthoud, Colorado has been operating since September 18, 2018 without an air pollution permit.

Not only does this practice fly in the face of our state and federal clean air laws, it’s increasingly putting the health of Front Range communities at risk.

And it underscores that, despite popular rhetoric, Colorado doesn’t really have the strongest oil and gas air quality rules in the nation.

In fact, the 90-day loophole, coupled with a complete lack of effective inspections and completely toothless enforcement, has basically created an environment where the oil and gas industry can pollute as much as it wants, when it wants, wherever it wants, and with no consequences.

As a former inspector for the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division put it:

It’s cheating, plain and simple.

– Former Colorado Air Pollution Control Division Inspector, Jeremy Murtaugh

We aim to change that.

Leveraging the citizen suit provisions of the federal Clean Air Act, we’re exercising our right to enforce violations of our clean air laws and secure long overdue accountability that is long overdue. That includes seeking maximum penalties, which we estimate likely exceed $1 billion.

Given that, by our estimate, the companies enjoyed economic benefits of more than $400 million, this is a more than appropriate deterrent.

And our track record of success on Clean Air Act enforcement cases gives us reason to believe we’ll win this case, too.

Over the years, we’ve won every Clean Air Act enforcement case we’ve brought, either by securing a successful court ruling, settling on favorable terms, or compelling polluter to do the right thing.

Our Clean Air Act enforcement cases have shut down coal-fired power plants, forced power plants to meet stringent air toxic limits, and secured resources for energy efficiency and renewable projects in low income communities as coal-fired power plants retire.

As for as our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement initiative, we’re not just suing industry head on, we’re also challenging illegal permits, including several recent permits proposed for ConocoPhillips, Noble Energy, Crestone Peak Resources, and other companies.

Crestone Peak Resources oil and gas well site near Erie, Colorado.

Crestone is currently under fire for proposing to develop dozens of new oil and gas wells in and around Erie, Colorado.

We’re also continuing to challenge federal fracking approvals. In a letter last week, we pushed back against U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans to auction off lands for fracking near Brighton, Colorado.

All told, these sales of lands by the Bureau could open the door for 500 new oil and gas wells in the region.

Finally, we’re also weighing in to ensure that new rules adopted under recently enacted Senate Bill 181 ensure the fracking industry is held to the highest standards of accountability when it comes to clean air and public health.

Senate Bill 181, which became law in April, requires the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission to adopt new rules to rein in oil and gas industry air pollution.

Together with our allies at Colorado Rising 350 Colorado, Mothers Out Front Colorado, and Frack Free Colorado, we called on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees the Air Quality Control Commission, to meet a number of expectations and recommendations to ensure strong rules and accountability to public health, particularly along Colorado’s Front Range.

Most importantly, we called for rules that ensure if the Denver Metro-North Front Range region fails to meet federal health standards limiting ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog, that no new air pollution permits will be issued to the oil and gas industry.

We believe SB 181 provides enormous opportunities for the Department, Division, and Commission to get a complete handle on air pollution from the oil and gas industry, to make meaningful progress in protecting our clean air, and to ensure that public health is fully safeguarded.

– WildEarth Guardians, Colorado Rising, 350 Colorado, Frack Free Colorado, Mothers Out Front

With the Denver Metro Area’s smog problem getting worse and Colorado in general facing increasing strains on its iconic clean air, now is not the time for Colorado Governor Jared Polis and his agencies to give the oil and gas industry a break.

Along Colorado’s Front Range and in the rest of the state, we need tough action to defend our clean air. And in holding the oil and gas industry accountable to clean air, we can make meaningful steps toward safeguarding our climate.

In Colorado and beyond, our clean air challenges and climate crisis go hand in hand because they’re both fueled by fossil fuels. Our strategy is to rein in air pollution and start making some serious progress for the climate.

So far, we’re on track. Stay tuned for more updates around our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative.

Drilling rig recently erected in Broomfield. Photo by Laurie Anderson.

WildEarth Guardians this week called on the Colorado Governor, Attorney General, and Health Department Director to start enforcing clean air laws and order a halt to oil and gas development in Broomfield, Colorado.

The call comes as Extraction Oil and Gas has started drilling the first of more than 80 new oil and gas wells in the community at a multi-well fracking facility called the Interchange B Pad. According to officials with Broomfield, drilling began on April 19 at Interchange B and is expected to continue until late May.

Last fall, Broomfield gave the green light for Extraction to unleash this damage on the community.  Although Guardians and Residents Rights, a group of local residents, filed suit to block the approval in state court, the judge unfortunately has yet to rule on our case.

Extraction has since ravaged Broomfield, clearing wells pads, ripping up open space to lay pipelines, building new roads, and now moving in drilling rigs and other heavy equipment. The community has literally been turned into an industrial sacrifice zone.

Oil pipeline being laid on open space near homes in Broomfield.

In the meantime, as part of our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative, we’ve uncovered that oil and gas companies are routinely constructing their well facilities and fracking before securing legally required air pollution permits.

Earlier this month, the Denver Post published a damning exposé around industry’s practice of polluting without permits, highlighting how rampant the illegal practice is and how much it’s jeopardizing clean air along Colorado’s Front Range.

That story highlighted how Extraction’s facilities in particular are posing tremendous threats to public health and Coloradans’ quality of life because of the company’s law breaking.

Janis Butterfield, left, and her partner Stephanie Nilsen at their home in Berthoud, Colorado. Butterfield and Nilsen live about 1000 feet south of Extraction’s Trott Pad, seen on the horizon. Photo by Michael Ciaglo Denver Post.

In Broomfield, Extraction is engaging in the same dangerous development, constructing and now drilling wells at the Interchange B Pad without obtaining permits legally required by the Clean Air Act.

This has to stop.

In our letter, we called on Colorado’s newly elected leadership, including Governor Jared Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser, to put the brakes on Extraction’s unlawful development.

We urge you to take action to halt this illegal development and assure full protection of air quality and public health.

– WildEarth Guardians

With reports mounting that Colorado air regulators have for years failed to enforce, inspect, and actually hold the oil and gas industry accountable, our hope is that the new Governor and Attorney General turn the tide on fracking and start putting public health and clean air first.

And there is good reason to be hopeful. Governor Polis’ new Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Director, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, has made clear that her goal is swift action to improve air quality and defend public health.

In our state, we cherish the environment and expect clean air to breathe. It’s time for us to move as swiftly as possible to get back in good standing with federal [clean air] standards.

– Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Director, Jill Hunsaker Ryan

For Broomfield residents, the situation is urgent. However, for all communities along Colorado’s Front Range, the need for swift clean air action is dire.

WildEarth Guardians is stepping up to defend clean air and hold the oil and gas industry accountable to public health everywhere along Colorado’s Front Range. We hope Governor Polis and his Administration move toward the same goal.

They should start by ordering Extraction Oil and Gas to stop drilling in Broomfield.

Last week we scored a critical win for the climate as a federal judge slammed the Trump Administration’s attempts to jumpstart the federal coal leasing program.

In a stinging rebuke of Trump’s pro-coal rollbacks, the court held that former Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, illegally lifted a moratorium on the sale of publicly owned coal that was put in place by the Obama Administration.

With federal coal accounting for more than 40% of all coal mined in the nation and nearly 15% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, that’s great news for our climate and clean energy future.

The ruling comes in response to suits filed by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the States of California, New Mexico, and Washington, and a coalition of environmental groups represented by Earthjustice, including Guardians, Citizens for Clean Energy, EcoCheyenne, Montana Environmental Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Sierra Club.

Our coalition targeted the failure of the Interior Department to account for the climate implications of lifting the Obama moratorium on coal leasing.

All told, the pause on leasing adopted by the last Administration stalled the sale of 2.8 billion tons of coal, most of which would have been mined in the American West. The moratorium also set the stage for comprehensive reforms to the way federal coal is managed.

When Zinke lifted the moratorium in 2017, he did so with no public input and no accounting of the environmental impacts of opening the door for nearly 1 billion tons of coal mining. In his ruling, federal Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls, Montana held:

Federal Defendants’ decision not to initiate the NEPA [environmental review] process proves arbitrary and capricious.

– Federal Judge Brian Morris

This ruling is huge and it now sets the stage for renewed climate progress and revived efforts to reform the federal coal program. And it couldn’t come at a more critical time.

Under Trump, the Interior Department has attempted to rubberstamp new federal coal leases at a frenetic pace.  Earlier this year, the Administration trumpeted the approval of new leasing in Utah, including the approval of the Alton coal lease, which would expand the Coal Hollow mine near Bryce Canyon National Park.

Although last week we sued to block the Alton coal lease, the Administration is feverishly pushing to give away our publicly owned throughout the American West. Just last month, we filed objections to an Interior proposal to sell nearly 2,500 acres of coal just west of Durango, Colorado.

Last week we sued to block the Alton coal lease, which would expand the Coal Hollow mine near Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah. Photo by Tim Peterson.

Amazingly, the push to lease comes even as demand for new leases is declining. And it comes as the coal industry is collapsing in the face of economic competition, primarily from more affordable renewable energy.

The reality is, no amount of Trump politics can change the economic realities facing the coal industry is. And now we’ve shown that no amount of politics can change the legal realities facing the coal industry.

For years, we’ve been leading the charge to keep our publicly owned coal in the ground. In 2015, we pioneered the call for a moratorium on coal leasing, laying out a five point plan for shutting down the federal coal program and advancing a just transition away from fossil fuels.

After last week’s court ruling, we’re back on track to achieving that vision.

Without a doubt, we still have work to do. The Administration and industry will certainly fight back against the court’s ruling and Trump will likely attempt more political shenanigans to bail out coal companies.

Nevertheless, with our legal win in hand, we’re closer than ever to keeping our coal in the ground for good.

WildEarth Guardians’ efforts to hold the oil and gas industry accountable to clean air and public health along Colorado’s Front Range is kicking into high gear with several recent wins for air quality and public health.

As we’ve reported, this year we launched our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement initiative, a concerted campaign to confront the oil and gas industry’s air pollution in the Denver Metro Area and surrounding communities.

Our aim is to expose the true clean air costs of oil and gas, turn the tide against fracking, and start keeping fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. We’re doing that in four ways:

  • Confronting Federal Fracking Approvals
  • Forcing Environmental Protection Agency Sanctions
  • Securing Clean Air Justice in the Courts
  • Challenging Illegal Air Pollution Permits 

So far, we’re getting off to a great start. In fact, just iIn the past week, we’ve made some major strides in our campaign.

First, we helped defeat an industry-led effort to derail smog clean up along Colorado’s Front Range.

Earlier this year, industry had mounted campaign to pressure state air regulators to blame the region’s smog pollution on China and other international sources of air pollution. If successful, their effort could have derailed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sanctions that are needed to guarantee clean up of the region’s air pollution.

In detailed comments to the Air Quality Control Commission, we exposed how industry’s scheme was not legally allowed or justified. Ultimately, at the urging of Colorado Governor Jared Polis, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission rejected industry’s requests.

That’s great news for the region’s clean air and health.

Second, we overturned the Trump Administration’s approval of dozens of fracking wells in the Denver Metro Area.

Confronting federal fracking approvals is a key component of our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative. Throughout the Front Range, the federal government has a role in approving extensive oil and gas development because of public lands and publicly owned minerals in the region.

Last week, we scored a major victory in this area. Climate and Energy Program Attorney Becca Fischer overturned the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approval of 38 new oil and gas wells that would have fracked under the City of Brighton, which is north of Denver

In response to an appeal of the drilling, the Bureau of Land Management held its officials illegally ignored comments from WildEarth Guardians and set aside the fracking decisions.

That’s more great news for the region’s clean air and health.

Finally, we mobilized major support for clean air justice.

In February, we put seven oil and gas companies on notice of our intent to sue them for failing to comply with Clean Air Act permitting requirements.

And last week, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette, who represents Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, called on Colorado Governor Polis to investigate our claims and ensure the oil and gas industry is fully complying with clean air laws along the Front Range.

In a letter to the Governor, Representative DeGette stated:

I write today to express my concern regarding allegations that several oil and gas companies are routinely violating federal law by drilling in Colorado without first obtaining the required Clean Air Act permits.

– U.S. Representative Diana Degette

That’s some major progress for clean air and public health in Colorado. Most importantly, that’s some major progress for reining in the oil and gas industry, defending communities from fracking, and safeguarding our climate.

Stay tuned for more as our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative continues to gain momentum!

With the backing of our landmark court ruling this week, we’re stepping up our push for a fracking moratorium on our public lands.

Alongside the Western Environmental Law Center and Physicians for Social Responsibility, yesterday we called on the Bureau of Land Management to back down from plans to sell public lands for fracking in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming

Because while our court ruling directly affected public lands in Wyoming, it stands as an indictment of the entire federal oil and gas leasing program.

In his ruling, Judge Contreras rebuked the U.S. Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Land Management for failing to account for the cumulative climate consequences of selling public lands for fracking not just in Wyoming, but regionally and nationally.

He specifically ripped the agencies for being too narrow in their scope of analysis and actions given the nature of climate change, soundly holding that they violated federal law.

Given the national, cumulative nature of climate change, considering each individual drilling project in a vacuum deprives the agency and the public of the context necessary to evaluate oil and gas drilling on federal land before irretrievably committing to that drilling.

– U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras

What this means is that unless and until the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management address the cumulative climate impacts of selling public lands for fracking throughout the U.S., they have no legal basis to authorize any new oil and gas leasing.

Notwithstanding this, the Administration is still ramping up plans to sell off the American West to the oil and gas industry.

This month alone, more than 560,000 acres of the western U.S. will be sold for fracking.

This acreage includes lands in the Greater Chaco and Greater Carlsbad regions of New Mexico, in western Wyoming’s Red Desert, in southeastern Utah’s Greater Bears Ears region, in southeast Montana’s Tongue River Valley, and next to Colorado’s Pike-San Isabel National Forest.

And so far in 2019, more than 2.2 million acres have either been put on the auction block or will soon be. Click here to see the table so far of lands proposed for sacrifice this year.

See for yourself what’s at stake. Check out the interactive map below and explore exactly what lands will be up for sale this month and what lands are slated for the auction block in coming months (and click here to see larger version of the map >>).

 

We’ve estimated that for every acre of public lands sold for fracking, 27.63 metric tons of carbon are released annually.

With 2.2 million acres on the auction block so far in 2019, that’s more than 60 million metric tons of climate pollution that could be unleashed.

That’s equal to the amount of carbon released annually by more than 15 coal-fired power plants (according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalency calculator).

All this just underscores the urgent need for a moratorium on selling public lands for fracking. And with our court win in hand, we intend to step up our push for just that.

Fracking on public lands at the foot of Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

Because now, more than ever, there’s simply no excuse for not keeping our fossil fuels ground, especially on public lands.

As climate scientists (including within the Interior Department) sound the alarms over climate change and as studies confirm that public lands fossil fuel production is a major contributor to global warming in the U.S., we can’t afford to let another acre of our lands be sold to the oil and gas industry.

No doubt, oil and gas companies and their cronies in the Trump Administration are going to fight back against a moratorium.

The President’s climate denial is giving industry backing to ravage public lands and communities across the American West. We have no illusion that oil and gas interests will willingly acknowledge the reality of climate change or agree to anything other than limitless fracking.

Still, we have the upper hand. With the science, the popular support, and now the law on our side, we are on track to secure a moratorium on public lands fracking.

Whether or not the oil and gas industry or Trump like it or agree to it, we will secure climate justice.

WildEarth Guardians is in court today defending the Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico from fracking!

Before a federal appeals court, we intend to make the case that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management illegally allowed the oil and gas industry to drill and despoil this sacred landscape, putting our climate, clean air, and Navajo communities at risk.

Stay tuned to WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Twitter account @ClimateWest for updates and developments!

Together with the Western Environmental Law Center, Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, in 2015 we filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of hundreds of drilling permits in the Greater Chaco region.

Sadly, last year our lawsuit was rejected by a U.S. District Court judge in New Mexico. Undeterred, we’ve continued to press for justice.

And last fall, we called on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit to overturn the lower court’s ruling.

Today, we’re literally getting our day in court. At a hearing in Salt Lake City, Utah, we’ll be arguing before a panel of three federal appeals judges. Their hearings start at 9 AM mountain time. We’ll likely be arguing between 11 and noon.

WildEarth Guardians’ Managing Attorney, Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, will be presenting to the court. Alongside her will be the Western Environmental Law Center’s Energy and Communities Director and Staff Attorney, Kyle Tisdel.

The hearing won’t be streamed online, but we’ll try to provide updates via social media as we can. Stay tuned to @ClimateWest and future updates here on our Brave New Wild blog!

Coal companies and their cronies in the Trump Administration are going to every length to get their hands on our public lands and publicly owned coal here in the American West.

The latest is a proposal by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Office of Surface Mining to rubberstamp an expansion of the King II coal mine in southwestern Colorado.

Located near the town of Durango, Colorado, the King II mine isn’t the biggest or the worst coal mine, but it’s a poster child for how the federal government caters to coal at the expense of our public lands, climate, and clean air and water.

Under this new proposal, the Bureau of Land Management would sell nearly 2,500 acres of publicly owned coal to GCC Energy, the owner of the King II mine.

The sale would allow the company to expand the mine further west, getting to within 10 miles of Mesa Verde National Park. The new coal would extend the life of the mine by more than 20 years.

The Mesa Verde National Park region of southwest Colorado was home to Ancestral Puebloan peoples 1,000 years ago.

Although an underground mine, King II still requires extensive surface development, including haul roads, load out facilities, and ventilation shafts. Coal from the mine is also trucked away, meaning its operations have tremendous on-the-ground impacts locally and regionally.

And of course, the coal is ultimately burned, unleashing carbon emissions and other toxic air pollution. In this case, GCC burns coal from King II in cement kilns, itself a carbon-intensive process and major concern for the climate.

Already, estimates indicate the King II mine is responsible for nearly 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. That equal the amount of carbon pollution from more than one million cars (according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator).

That means under the latest 20 year expansion plan, more than 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution stands to be unleashed.

For years, GCC has gotten off the hook in terms of taking full responsibility for the environmental and health costs of its King II mine. Local residents have endured unchecked truck traffic, water contamination, and air pollution. And federal mine regulators have turned their back on any meaningful oversight, writing off the impacts of the mine as “insignificant.”

In 2017, we appealed a prior expansion of the mine, challenging the failure of the Office of Surface Mining to hold GCC accountable to environmental scrutiny related to a massive production increase. While that appeal is still pending, it underscores that the federal government has done nothing but cater to this coal company.

Sadly, the lack of oversight and accountability continues.

Under the latest coal sale proposal, the Bureau of Land Management and Office of Surface Mining have already declared they believe the impacts of expanding the King II mine would be “insignificant.”

The agencies indicated they have no intention of preparing an environmental impact statement to fully account for the mine’s environmental impacts, which is required whenever federal actions pose significant environmental consequences.

Instead, they intend to “streamline” the environmental review, meaning their aim is to fast-track approval by cutting corners on process and analysis.

Map of the King II coal mine expansion area. Click on the map for a larger .pdf version.

And already, the agencies are shutting the door on the public. While people have been invited to submit comments, the agencies have given people only 30 days to fully scrutinize GCC’s plans and offer informed feedback.

For similar coal proposals, the Bureau of Land Management normally gives the public 60 or more days to submit comments.

Given this, we requested an extension of the comment period this week. Unfortunately, the agencies quickly denied our request, another indication that this “streamlined” process is meant to thwart public involvement, not accommodate it.

View of the lands that will be undermined by the King II expansion. The La Plata Mountains are in the distance.

Despite this resistance to public involvement, we will be pushing back and pushing back hard.

Because we simply can’t afford to let our federal government so brazenly cater to the coal industry. What’s happening at the King II mine is emblematic of broader collusion between regulators and companies under the Trump Administration. The mine may not be the biggest or worst, but it’s where we need to take a stand to defend the public interest.

And of course we simply can’t afford to keep mining coal given the state of our climate crisis. Last fall, federal climate scientists said very clearly that “immediate and substantial global greenhouse gas emissions reductions” are needed to “avoid the most severe consequences” of climate change.

While the politics of Trump may be leading officials with the Bureau of Land Management and Office of Surface Mining to deny climate change, the politics don’t change facts.

The reality is, for our climate, we have to keep our coal in the ground.

At the King II coal mine, this reality is imperative. Given the potential consequences to the region’s clean air and water, to nearby Mesa Verde National Park, and to local residents, we can’t afford to let this latest mine expansion move forward even an inch.

WildEarth Guardians is in the courtroom tomorrow to defend our public lands from dangerous oil and gas pipelines.

Last August, we sued President Trump and his U.S. Department of Transportation over their complete failure to inspect oil and gas pipelines on public lands.

By law, pipelines on American public lands are supposed to be inspected at least once a year. These inspections are supposed to be undertaken by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is responsible for assuring pipeline safety in the U.S.

Unfortunately, our investigations not only revealed that inspections aren’t happening, but that the Transportation Department isn’t even aware of its legal duty to assure inspections on public lands.

What happens when pipelines aren’t inspected? Disaster.

Just this week, an oil pipeline on public lands ruptured and spilled into southern Utah’s San Juan River.

Site of this week’s oil pipeline spill into the San Juan River of southern Utah.

And this week, we learned that pipelines on public lands are especially dangerous given that they’re often classified as “rural gathering lines” and virtually unregulated and uninspected.

A story this week in E&E News exposed the enormous risks posed by oil and gas gathering lines, highlighting a series of deadly explosions that rocked west Texas over a two week period last summer.

The reporters found that for gathering lines, “there are no rules.”

Unlike long-haul transmission lines, which are closely regulated by the federal government, or utility pipelines usually monitored by states, rural gathering lines fall in a gray area. They don’t have to be marked, built to standards or regularly inspected. Unlike for transmission lines, operators don’t have to have emergency response plans for when they leak or explode.

– Mike Lee and Mike Soraghan for E&E News

Across the western U.S., where most American public lands are located, we’ve tallied up report after report of spills, leaks, explosions, and more associated with oil and gas pipelines. Most all of these pipelines are tied to regions of intense oil and gas development.

All told, an estimated 120,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines on our public lands appear to be completely overlooked by federal safety regulators.

In August, we filed suit in federal court in Montana to finally compel the Transportation Department to do its job.

In response, the Trump Administration moved to dismiss our case, actually arguing that they don’t have a mandatory duty to inspect pipelines on public lands. We fired back, highlighting not only that they have a mandatory duty, but that their failure to inspect poses imminent threats to America’s public lands.

Tomorrow, a federal judge in Great Falls is set to hear arguments around the government’s motion to dismiss.

WildEarth Guardians’ attorneys, including Sarah McMillan, Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, and Becca Fischer, will be there in person representing American public lands.

Braving record cold in Great Falls, they’ll be pushing back against the Trump Administration’s attempt to turn its back on our health, safety, and environment.

The judge could issue a ruling and decide whether the case can move forward. More likely the court will offer some key signals on its view of the issues and where the case may be headed.

Regardless, things are sure to heat up in the courtroom on the issue of oil and gas pipelines on public lands.