You’d think the oil and gas industry was still running the U.S. Department of the Interior, given one of the agency’s most recent actions.
That’s because on “Black Friday”—in the clutter of the holiday rush—the agency buried a report that was supposed to call for bold action to fulfill President Joe Biden’s promise to confront the climate crisis and address climate justice in the United States.
The Black Friday report means more climate delay instead of bold climate action. It’s another black eye for the Interior Department, confirming the agency has no intent of real climate leadership to rein in fossil fuel extraction.
That’s why I’m asking you to help WildEarth Guardians’ audacious and necessary Keep It in the Ground campaign to end fossil fuel extraction from public lands. We’ve fought climate denial and climate delay—whether from Trump or Biden. Please help us keep up the fight by supporting this work with a donation of $50, $100, $250, $500, or more today.
On Friday, November 26—the day after Thanksgiving—the Interior Department released a report claiming to respond to President Biden’s order directing the agency to prepare a comprehensive review and reconsideration of the federal oil and gas leasing and permitting program, taking into account the impacts of climate change and corresponding climate costs.
The report, however, presented no assessment of the climate impacts and made no recommendations for addressing the climate costs of the federal oil and gas leasing program. Incredibly, the word “climate” is mentioned only twice in the entire 14-page report!
Instead, the report papered-over climate concerns, and offered recommendations that promote more oil and gas leasing and extraction and generate more revenue for the oil and gas industry.
Make no mistake: not only would following the recommendations in the report undermine desperately needed climate action, but it would seal the fate of climate-imperiled species like the Joshua tree, wolverine, and Sonoran desert tortoise.
At best, Interior’s Black Friday news dump is outright climate denial. At worst, it’s deliberately deceptive and nothing more than a shill for the fossil fuel industry’s bottom line. Either way, the Interior Department is failing the climate.
We won’t stand for it, and neither should you. Your generous support has been a critical ingredient in our successful climate defense work over the past decade, and your continued support will propel us forward in the new year.
There’s no denying it. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plans to “kick start the hydrogen fuel industry” is nothing short of a scheme to subsidize oil and gas companies and keep the state dangerously reliant on fossil fuels.
“Dirtier Than Coal”
In her proposed “Hydrogen Hub Act,” which was unveiled last month, the governor claims that producing hydrogen would represent a climate and clean energy “solution.” Unfortunately, the only thing hydrogen stands to fuel is the climate crisis.
For one, hydrogen is currently produced using methane gas. In other words, the “gas” in oil and gas. Converting methane to hydrogen not only promotes more oil and gas extraction (i.e., fracking), but in doing so creates carbon dioxide as methane molecules are split into carbon and hydrogen. To boot, converting methane to hydrogen requires enormous amounts of energy, energy that today mainly comes from the burning of fossil fuels.
It’s a filthy process that scientists have found is dirtier than coal. Worse, by promoting more fracking, this method of manufacturing hydrogen stands to perpetuate environmental injustice, air and water pollution, and damage to public lands and sacred landscapes in New Mexico.
It’s no wonder that opposition to the governor has been resounding.
In comments spearheaded by the Western Environmental Law Center and joined by WildEarth Guardians and dozens more health, Indigenous, climate, and community organizations, the message was clear: the governor’s “Hydrogen Hub Act” is “fatally flawed.”
In statements offered last week, Tribal, community, and climate groups condemned the governor’s push for hydrogen as an unjust scheme to prop up the oil and gas industry. The groups specifically highlighted that the state’s move to promote hydrogen threatens the sacred Greater Chaco landscape, a region the Biden administration has sworn to protect.
“The proposed hydrogen legislation is a way to crutch the fossil fuel economy when Indigenous Pueblos have advocated to end fossil fuel extraction in the Greater Chaco landscape. Hydrogen is a continuum of the fossil fuel economy that our communities don’t want.”
– Pueblo Action Alliance
“Green” in Name Only
Most importantly, the amount of energy required to convert water to hydrogen is astronomical, requiring far more energy to create than even fossil fuels. Adding injury to insult, energy today is still largely fossil fuel-derived, meaning the energy required to turn water into hydrogen would inevitably fuel massive amounts of coal, oil, and gas consumption, leading to more climate pollution.
Boosters of hydrogen, like Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, claim this energy problem can be solved in one of two ways: 1) hydrogen can be created using renewable energy and 2) carbon emissions from fossil fuel energy production can be captured and stored underground.
On the latter, carbon capture and sequestration is still a failed fantasy and at best has yet to achieve any level of commercial viability. Critically, however, the energy required to capture carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and permanently store them underground is itself astronomical. More energy means more fossil fuel burning, perpetuating the cycle of climate destruction.
New Mexico’s governor has argued that renewable energy could simply be used to meet all the energy needs of creating hydrogen, whether it’s powering direct production of the gas and/or energizing carbon capture and storage operations.
Of course, this is where the concept of hydrogen production veers from lunacy to an outright assault on the climate.
That’s because calls for renewable energy to power the creation of hydrogen are essentially calls to slow, if not halt, our world’s transition away from burning fossil fuels for electricity. Essentially, every bit of renewable energy used to create hydrogen is a bit of renewable energy that is unable to replace coal, oil, and gas-fired power generation.
This where the insidiousness of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s push for hydrogen really comes into focus. Her plan wouldn’t just promote more fracking, it would slow the New Mexico’s efforts to move away from coal and gas-fired power, effectively stalling the build-out of clean renewable energy to replace dirty fossil fuels.
This is shocking, but it’s all the more shocking coming from a governor who proclaims herself to be a leader in confronting the climate crisis.
As scientist warn that an expeditious move away from coal, oil, and gas consumption and production is needed to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, New Mexico can’t afford to slow down a transition from fossil fuels.
The prospect of New Mexico building out a hydrogen industry is about as anti-climate as you can get. By pushing her “Hydrogen Hub Act,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham isn’t just promoting a false climate solution, she’s promoting a climate killer.
With the New Mexico Legislature set to begin in early 2022, it’s more critical now than ever to fight back against the “Hydrogen Hub Act” and ensure the governor backs down from the idea that hydrogen is a climate solution. If the governor and Legislature are serious about climate action, then they need to get serious about transitioning the state away from fossil fuels and to 100% renewable energy ASAP.
You can help deliver this message, send an e-mail today to firstname.lastname@example.org, tell the governor to abandon her “Hydrogen Hub Act.” Tell her to get behind making New Mexico the first state to commit to a future 100% powered by renewable energy and 100% free of fracking and energy injustice.
President Biden is working furiously to undo Trump’s wretched environmental rollbacks, including restoring our nation’s bedrock environmental law—the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
With your help and your voice, we can ensure the Biden administration follows through to protect clean air and water, communities, public lands, wildlife, and more. Sign the petition today to restore NEPA!
Described as our nation’s basic charter for environmental protection, the National Environmental Policy Act holds the federal government accountable to people and the planet. The law guarantees the public is informed of the environmental impacts of federal actions and has a chance to influence decision-making.
Unfortunately, corporate polluters, resource exploiters, and their cronies in the Trump administration launched an unprecedented assault on NEPA, erasing safeguards and rolling back protections.
Thankfully, thousands of Guardians like you have taken action this year to restore NEPA, and now the Biden administration is wasting no time undoing Trump’s assault on the environment. Let’s make sure they stay on track. Sign the petition today!
We know firsthand that without NEPA, we can’t keep our air clean, our water pure, our communities safe, public lands protected, or achieve environmental justice. Join us in speaking out to restore the National Environmental Policy Act! Add your name before the November 22 public comment deadline.
I was ecstatic when President Joe Biden, in late January, took executive action halting new oil and gas leasing on America’s public lands and offshore waters. It was an accomplishment that required millions of people to speak out because we know that addressing the climate crisis requires bold action.
But I was also realistic, fully aware that the fossil fuel barons—and the politicians they fund—would immediately fight to overturn President Biden’s order. At WildEarth Guardians, we knew we still had plenty of work to ensure just and equitable action for the climate, frontline communities, and our future.
In June, Republican-led states beholden to the oil and gas industry got a federal judge to order the Biden administration to restart the sale of oil and gas leases on public lands. On August 31, the administration announced its intention to auction off more than 740,000 acres in states including Montana, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Mississippi, and Alabama.
As our relentless Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols, told the national media, “These new plans to sell public lands for fracking are nothing but a shattered promise from the Biden administration to put climate, justice, and health first. Rest assured, we will be doing everything within our power to block these plans.”
More than a decade ago, Guardians set forth on an audacious campaign to defend the climate and end the sale of dirty fossil fuels from public lands. You have been with us every step of the way. We are not about to give up now, and neither should you.
We simply can’t frack our way to a safe climate and can’t afford to keep selling public lands to the oil and gas industry. Join me in telling President Biden to keep his climate promises. Speak up and demand action today.
My time in New Mexico public education certainly taught me one thing—that our public schools are woefully ill-equipped to prepare the next generation with the tools we need to solve the climate crisis.
I remember feeling hopelessly defeated when I first realized how quickly the world was changing due to climate change. I was eight years old, listening to my third grade teacher explain that fossil fuels, the United States main source of energy, would be all used up by the time we were her age. I was sitting next to the people I would spend the next few years with, all of us unprepared for our uncertain futures ahead. We were all shocked when my teacher’s next words were, “And it’s up to your generation to figure out what to do! Good luck!”
Hungry for action, my classmates and I banded together to form an “earth club,” buying beans and paper cups, planting seeds in wet paper towels. We nourished and cared for our little bean seedlings in the weeks that followed, as if we were nourishing our future. And though I can look back fondly at that time, the truth is, I knew even then that well-meaning efforts failed to address the root of the problem.
From kindergarten to high school, everything I’ve learned in class was rooted in the same perspective, a story of infinite entitlement with no consequence. Our history was taught from the exclusive vantage of heroic colonizers, scrubbed clean of actual deaths, their horrendous crimes tucked away into footnotes, if present at all. The exploitation of New Mexico’s land and people was always taught to be a victory. There were no stories offered to challenge this perspective, or to promote a worldview where the extraction of resources and people would be more perilous than celebratory.
I remember my sophomore year, when I took my first class in New Mexico history. We read a romanticized story about a European woman who settled in the New Mexico desert to escape the east coast industrialization. Her diary was rooted in entitlement as she wrote about her annoyances over those city dwellers who followed her out into the desert, occupying ‘her land.’ In class, I expected to discuss the irony of her frustration, especially as a newcomer to New Mexico in the early 20th century after centuries of settlements. But we never did.
Sure, we learned about the skinning, raping, and the stealing of land and people, and of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but we acted as if these historic events and their consequences were safely frozen in time. As if the crimes of our ancestors have no impact on us today. Our education never explored the consequences of colonization, which would have better prepared us to reckon with the trials of climate change and resource colonialism today. We never talked about the fatal flaws of creating an economy based on the extraction of land, lives, and livelihoods and how that practice would ultimately create fossil fuel barrons and climate catastrophes.
Outside of school, I learned about the stranglehold the oil and gas industry has had on almost every aspect of New Mexico policy and way of life. Touting its funding of public education, the oil and gas industry threatens the state with financial collapse if we dare to choose a different path beyond modern-day resource colonialism.
New Mexico has been a resource colony even before it was a state. Now, New Mexico is the second biggest oil producing state in the nation, with little to show for it beyond a legacy of sacrifice zones. Our state ranks lowest in the nation for public education, with the lowest overall opportunity and quality of life, and the highest rates of childhood poverty and hunger. New Mexican families are losing their homes and their land while their children attend schools funded by the culprits.
From one election year to another, oil and gas companies pour millions of dollars into political campaigns, as we all witness the barrage of attack ads on anyone that would challenge the status quo of colonialism. New Mexico politicians tell us that being a resource colony and extracting oil and gas means improving our state, giving us more to spend on education and on the future of our children. Rooted in a sense of infinite entitlement with no consequence, they promise endless profit through the destruction of our lands and culture. They promise better education for students while they frack away our future.
Children of the 21st century are the ones forced to reckon with these broken promises. We have learned from a young age that our way of life is not sustainable simply by witnessing the world around us change.
We’ve seen years of drought and forest fires, rising temperatures and destructive oil spills. We’ve seen firsthand the ecosystems that once thrived in the Rio Grande visibly struggle as countless species face extinction, the river itself drying up for more miles each year than ever before. We’ve watched forest fires shroud our horizons, no longer a seasonal event, but now a season in and of itself.
The world is changing. Generation Z can’t look to the future with the same hope that previous generations have. We have grown up in the shadow of fear, uncertainty and denial. There is no certainty of a steady career path, no promise that the home our family has built will still be here decades down the road. We have no hope of a vocation that can protect us from the fallout of compounding crises that come with climate change.
Even today, public schools teach little, if anything, about how to move beyond the extractive industries that have bled our state dry. Everything I’ve learned about solutions for a better future, I’ve learned from tidbits in newspapers, from my family, and from activists and advocacy organizations. Certainly not from my public education, from the politicians I watch on TV, or from the industries that perpetuate the problem.
If our leaders fail to reckon with the colonial mindset and centuries of resource extraction, they will perpetuate the sacrifice of our land and people. By not addressing the need for systemic reform, for true justice and reconciliation, we remain on the path to nowhere, with no tools to face the challenge ahead.
The Biden Administration has promised to finally reconcile the federal oil and gas leasing program with climate realities, accounting for the cumulative impacts of oil and gas on climate, culture, and communities. So far, President Biden has yet to deliver, as the administration just announced its intent to lease more than 700,000 acres of public lands for more fracking across the West. That’s why WildEarth Guardians is asking the public to demand President Biden keep his promise to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.
If promises are kept, we have a chance to turn the page and end an era of extractive colonialism, but the shackles of oil and gas seem to drag our leaders behind.
When the Biden Administration first called for a halt to new oil and gas leases, New Mexico’s own Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham opposed. She echoed the threats of industry—a worse-off New Mexico with less oil and gas, less money towards public education. But we’re already leading the nation in oil and gas pollution, at the bottom of all the best lists and at the top of all the worst ones. If Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to improve the education of students of New Mexico, why is she allowing our future to be fracked away? Why isn’t she demanding Biden keep his promise?
To better prepare students to solve the problems of today, we can no longer follow the culprits and the colonized mindset that brought us here. By holding public education hostage to oil and gas revenue, our politicians are not only sentencing students to a poor education, they are also auctioning off our livelihoods.
My generation has risen up, not by desire but by necessity. Now, our leaders must step up, turning their climate rhetoric into actual policy, abandoning the colonizing mindset for a frame of climate justice. We simply cannot afford the continued sacrifice of our land, lives, and livelihoods to more broken promises.
You can listen to an auto-recording of this piece here:
Elia Vasquez is a WildEarth Guardians intern and a sophomore at New Mexico State University. A shorter version of this piece originally ran in the Albuquerque Journal.
This piece originally appeared in our Summer 2021 newsletter, “Wild at Heart.” Read the entire newsletter here.
There’s a question taped to the wall in my office that I refer to every morning. It reads: Each of us must experience one of two pains—the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. Which pain will you choose? In running WildEarth Guardians, I aim to choose the disciplined path, prioritizing the most difficult, important, and impactful work every day.
As a nation, we face the same pain point decision in addressing the climate crisis. Either we must choose the heroic path—transforming our economy to decarbonize—or we must face the grim realities of a world destabilized by our worsening climate emergency.
When President Biden issued the Executive Order enacting a moratorium on the sale of oil and gas underneath America’s public lands, he said we need to raise our “climate ambition.”
For more than a decade, WildEarth Guardians’ bold position on keeping fossil fuels in the ground has defined ambitious, supply-side climate policy. Now comes the choice point for leaders at the state and federal level. Will our leaders embrace the hard realities of this moment, or will they ignore the climate emergency?
I used to say the crisis would be faced by generations ahead. Then I said decades ahead. Today, because the climate emergency is here, I say the time is now. The latest evidence is the heat dome in the Pacific Northwest.
With this urgent reality, Guardians is applying relentless pressure in the courts and on elected officials in the American West—including especially the Governors of Colorado and New Mexico—to increase their climate ambition and aggressively oppose the powerful oil & gas industry. We believe a good place to start is a call for an end to the further sale of oil & gas leasing from public lands.
WildEarth Guardians will continue to push industry, the Biden administration, Congress, and state officials to ensure the pain of decarbonization comes now rather than the pain of a worsening climate emergency in the years ahead.
Please do your part for climate action: Urge President Biden to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground on public lands and ask your members of Congress to co-sponsor and pass the Keep It In The Ground Act.
The United States is facing a crisis in abandoned infrastructure, or “orphanage,” among the oil and gas industry. This crisis has been succinctly described by Megan Milliken Biven & Regan Boychuk as well as extensively reported on by the think tank Carbon Tracker, as in here, here, and here. The problem is that properly decommissioning oil wells is expensive, and simply walking away from them (so far) has not been. Many wells can produce indefinitely in lower and lower amounts, until the cost of operating them exceeds the available profits. At this point the operator will plug (if they are willing and able to plug) or walk away (if they aren’t).
The problem with orphans has many facets. Having operators profit from assets and abandon their liabilities is a massive subsidy to the oil and gas industry at a time we should be investing in renewable energy. These wells can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece to plug, even before reclaiming the land or remediating pollution costs are considered. Additionally, a well is a piece of property — the state can’t just go plug it, it has to go through a formal legal process of being declared abandoned. This imposes administrative burdens, delays, and costs as public agency staff must essentially build a legal case against an operator. It can take years to move a particular operator into “orphan status.” Then there are the constraints around publicly run plugging operations. In Colorado, where I live, our Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s Orphan Well Program has a budget of up to 5 million dollars per year and five full time staff. However the Program has never plugged more than 61 wells in a year. Even if the program could be doubled or even tripled in size, the state currently has approximately 11,000 inactive wells — and is expecting many thousands more in the near future.
We need the oil and gas industry to pay their closure costs up front
Increasing the up-front payment of abandonment costs for all oil and gas sites and facilities, including wells, locations, pits, tanks, waste disposal sites, and processing facilities, is absolutely critical to the goal of preventing future abandonment. Up-front payment of 100% of the expected costs would remove the profit incentive to abandon an oil and gas facility. It would also take advantage of the fact that wells are most productive at the beginning of their useful lives, meaning the greatest amount of cash is flowing then.
The oil and gas industry has proven that it is not a trustworthy one. It has already left a landscape across the United States that is littered with abandoned oil and gas facilities, including the one in Louisiana that killed 14 year old Zalee Gail Day-Smith in February of 2021. Many of these orphans are created by small “wildcat” operators — but not all. One reason we see more small operators abandoning their facilities is that large operators originally spun off those facilities when they became less profitable.
We must confront the two problems facing the United States with respect to our aging oil and gas infrastructure. First is the fact that we already have an enormous number of wells that are legally orphaned, functionally abandoned, or are producing such low quantities that their owners could never afford to pay to plug and abandon them (unless they had other, more productive assets). The second is that we have some very large operators with many thousands of wells, and these wells are often much more expensive to plug and abandon because they are deeper, fracked wells, on larger disturbed area locations, and have much more infrastructure associated with them. If we charged these operators the “up-front” costs of plugging and abandoning these assets it would run into many billions of dollars for a single company. The logistics of collecting and managing such large sums, not to mention the potential for protracted (although likely frivolous) litigation from the industry, are daunting.
Colorado’s proposed new financial assurance rules
Pursuant to a change in the law made in 2019, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission just a few months ago put forward a set of draft rule proposals for amending their rules on bonding, or “financial assurances.” These rules would require the majority of Colorado’s oil and gas operators to pay $78,000 per well, but would allow other operators to bond their wells under a blanket bonding regime for as little as $1,250. The only condition to qualify for these blanket bonds is to have a low number of low producing (under 5 barrels of oil equivalent or “BOE”*/day) wells, or to plug a certain percentage of their own wells per year. The choice of $78,000 as a representative amount is just wrong. It’s a number that will be 3x too high for some wells, and 3x too low for many, many others, and was based on faulty data inputs that have since been corrected. However, it is the blanket bonding option that poses the most serious kinds of financial and safety risks to the state.
We cannot afford to assume that operators with large amounts of production relative to their total number of wells will not abandon their facilities. In Colorado in 2020 an oil producer called Petroshare declared bankruptcy and abandoned its wells to the Orphan Well Program at an estimated cost of about 16 million dollars. At the time, Petroshare was among the top 15% of producers per well with an average of over 26 BOE per well per day. Petroshare might have actually qualified for blanket bonding as a “Tier 2” operator prior to its bankruptcy.** The state would have collected 1.5 million dollars for its blanket bond, and another 1.26 million dollars for its inactive wells. While 2.76 million would have been an improvement over the $325,000 the state actually had from Petroshare, it is still almost six times less than the state is anticipated to spend to deal with Petroshare’s orphans. Even under the lowest “Tier 3” status, where operators would have to pay a bond for each individual well, at $78,000 per well the company would have had only 4.35 million in bonds, while the projected costs of its orphans are 3.5 times larger.
Why is adequate bonding a health and safety issue?
When companies walk away from their oil and gas assets they leave physical problems behind. Leaking methane is one of the biggest. Methane from inactive wells averages 12 grams per hour per well, but there can be “super-emitters” that spew methane at rates thousands of times higher. When wells are abandoned and fall into disrepair it can take a lot longer for this problem to be identified and corrected. This methane is potentially explosive, and these explosions can be and have been deadly. It happened in February, killing a girl who was playing near an abandoned oil tank in Louisiana. It happened here in Colorado when a temporarily abandoned well leaked methane into the basement of a house, which exploded in 2017 killing Joey Irwin and Mark Martinez. Methane is also an incredibly potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 100 times more strongly than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe.
When oil and gas facilities are abandoned it takes time for the responsible state agency to move through its routine. The staff of that agency must identify rule violations, provide warnings, make allegations, and provide notice and a hearing. Each one of these steps can take months to years. In Colorado, once the operator has had its bond claimed and its licensing revoked, the state’s Orphan Well Program will add the facility to its list of projects which can itself be many years long even with the current “low” number of official orphans. In the meantime, the gas just keeps escaping.
Preventing well abandonment
I believe that the two problems of (1) undercapitalized operators with too many wells that need plugging, and (2) big operators with a lower probability of imminent failure, but whose “real” bonding levels would easily reach into the billions, might cancel each other out if an appropriate regulatory framework could be crafted. On the one hand: semi-broke operators with tens of thousands of wells in Colorado alone that the owners cannot afford to plug or pay bonds on, and don’t want to have to pay to keep in safe condition. On the other hand: a fistful of giant companies with enormous future plugging/bonding costs that are also less likely to pose an imminent risk (assuming they are preventing from spinning off their less productive wells to more vulnerable operators the way they have done). Give the rich guys some incentive to plug wells for the poor guys, and make the poor guys pay what they can.
But the only way to provide the incentives to both the rich guys and the poor guys is for the state to set the financial assurance/bond levels at the true cost of plugging and abandonment. If the bonds are lower than the true cost, there will always be a financial incentive to walk away. If we “pull punches” up front we are robbing ourselves of the tools we need to hold the industry accountable for cleaning up its own messes, and we will continue to barrel headlong into the orphan well crisis already in progress.
*Barrel of oil equivalent, or BOE, is equal to one barrel of oil or 6 MCF (thousand cubic feet) of fracked gas.
** A Tier 2 operator would be one where at least 40% of its wells produce more than 5 BOE/day.
It’s hard to imagine a name less befitting the grandeur of the endangered grouse than “lesser prairie chicken.” Trifling grouse, maybe? Boring ground bird? It’s hard to say which is the worst. All of them fall far short in capturing the striking physical appearance and peculiar mating behavior of the prairie denizen.
Sure, the lesser prairie chicken wambles a bit in flight because of a body that looks like a partially deflated balloon. But this bird also boasts coral-colored throat sacs, bright orange eye combs, and expressive ear tufts that stand up like a headdress when the male is engaged in pageantry and droop in hangdog fashion following a rejection or a defeat in battle. In a weird way, the incongruity between the prairie chicken’s plump shape and brilliant adornments only adds to its allure. It’s nature’s equivalent of the family station wagon tricked out with racing stripes and a rear spoiler. It’s impossible not to watch as it cruises by.
The lesser prairie chicken’s mating behavior might be even more fascinating than its appearance. When lesser prairie-chickens lek (breed), a whole host of males will compete for some personal space in the sand sage so that they can entice females to view an elaborate mating display. The few females that dare enter this obstreperous battle ground are pursued relentlessly, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the human dating scene. The males will puff and stunt and grapple as they struggle for attention. Erratic clashes send peppery feathers flying through the air to get caught in the grama stalks and sagebrush. The bird becomes a blaze of sunset colors as he stamps, shuffles, and bobs among the buffalo grass. He will genuflect before a female, wings spread out on the ground, his tail lifted. Or perhaps he’ll perform a flutter jump with quick flaps of striped wings. The dance is a signal of both fitness and intelligence, and females choose the prospective mate with the smartest moves.
The sweetness of the song matters, too, and males will trill and chortle in their attempt to win a female chicken’s approval. When male chickens pin their heads forward to make a slow, seductive approach, they flare their tails and peak their ear feathers as their throats grow swollen with a booming vibrato song. A male will squeak, cackle, drum, and gobble, and his voice will rise in an excited “pike call” when he feels the time is ripe to woo a mate. His boom can travel a mile across the plains, sounding like approaching thunder. If a competitor interrupts, the birds break back into combat with stabbing beaks and swinging wings. When the feathers clear, the victor gets right back to dancing and singing.
It’s a ritual that might seem better suited to the rainforest, where the far more charitably named superb bird of paradise struts his stuff. Or maybe you’d expect such grandiose behavior from the more positively monikered bowerbird—who will adorn his tiny palace of sticks with colorful litter and show off his wing flicks when a potential mate comes to scope out his digs. But, unlike the Bowerbirds, you won’t find an Indie band calling themselves the Lesser Prairie Chickens, at least not without a heavy dose of irony. The hidden cost of such a misnomer is that those unacquainted with the lesser prairie chicken’s humble majesties find it easy to subject the bird to scorn or depict it as insignificant. After all, what’s one little chicken against the tide of economic progress?
Quite a lot, actually. For one, the lesser prairie chicken’s decline can teach us important lessons about the sensitivity and interdependence of ecosystems. The deliberate eradication of bison and prairie dogs, and the suppression of naturally occurring wildfires, allowed mesquite, redcedar, and other woody plants to pervade the shortgrass prairie, disrupting prairie chicken breeding and nesting grounds. Mess with even one player in an ecosystem, and watch the rest suffer. If the losses snowball? Well, the extinction of the lesser prairie chicken could serve as a tipping point for the collapse of an iconic American landscape. Such is the peril of eliminating species that have existed on the American prairie for tens of thousands of years.
The lesser prairie chicken also serves as a herald for the precarity of its prairie habitats. When climatic and habitat conditions are favorable for the lesser prairie chicken, livestock fares well. When things are rough for the prairie chicken, ranchers and farmers can expect a hard season. In other words, the herd does as the bird does.
Despite the prairie chicken’s clear role in supporting human endeavors, we’ve responded by decimating its habitat, chopping it up with cropland, livestock grazing areas, fences, oil and gas wells, powerlines (which provide a perch for birds of prey), buildings, and roads. We’ve diminished the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat by 85%, and as a result their population has declined by as much as 99% in some ecoregions. Of the remaining habitat patches, only around .1% are sufficiently unfragmented to sustain even a minimum population of lesser prairie chickens. A decade ago, an already diminished lesser prairie chicken population declined by half in a single year. The threats to the bird are myriad. Lesser prairie chickens succumb to fungus-based biotoxins that fester in waste grains and watch their eggs get thrashed by harvesting equipment or get roasted in their nests by soaring temperatures. Lesser prairie chickens are hardy and can typically satisfy their water needs on dew and sand sage, but in times of drought, which climate change is making more frequent and severe, they seek out larger water sources, where more predators lurk in wait.
Field studies have suggested that oil and gas development could completely eliminate lesser prairie chicken populations. This is because the birds don’t just avoid the roads built to access stations or the wellpads themselves, but flee the entire oil and gas field. The birds despise the wellfield noise and oil-well-wastewater.
Rather than support a bird whose diet is primarily comprised of insects that damage crops, and whose wellbeing is a bellwether for the health of an entire ecosystem, some still argue that we should give priority to the same fossil fuel interests we’ve propped up with tax and energy policies for a century—despite the enormous profits the industry already reaps and the enormous damage it inflicts. In one year, the 1,800 largest fossil fuel companies made $500 billion in profits, yet they still received direct subsidies totaling $700 billion. That astronomical number doesn’t even include the health and environmental costs of pollution that are passed on to the public. The estimates for subsidies can climb as high as $5 trillion per year when all the damages that will occur as a result of climate-related events are accounted for. Fossil fuel companies then use those subsidies to quash environmental protection efforts.
But it’s the environmental protection efforts that work and the subsidies that don’t. Ninety-nine percent of species granted Endangered Species Act protections have avoided extinction, and concerted conservation efforts have been successful at boosting the lesser prairie chicken population levels in recent years. In contrast, fossil fuel subsidies have forever failed to improve production or create jobs. They’re so ineffective that the costs, in terms of public health and production lost due to pollution, actually exceed the value of the subsidies.
Don’t be fooled by fearmongering—the only way to gain true energy independence is to ditch fossil fuels. Endangered Species Act protections are stiff, so the proposed listing of the lesser prairie chicken as endangered in its southern range and threatened in the northern grasslands could play a huge role in shutting off the wellspring of wasted money taxpayers gift to fossil fuel executives, a gratuity that comes at the expense of taxpayer’s own health and the wellbeing of their environments.
The lesser prairie chicken is anything but trifling or boring, and a grouse by any other name would sing as sweetly. It’s past time we stopped propping up industries that pollute our prairies and started supporting the animals that lend them song and color. For heaven is here where the prairie chicken lives.
While New Mexico’s oil and gas industry is bemoaning President Biden’s pause on new federal oil and gas leasing, claiming it has the potential to cost the state “billions,” the truth is the industry actually exacts a terrible financial toll on the people and communities in the Land of Enchantment.
Just what does this terrible toll look like?
For starters, let’s consider all the climate pollution released by New Mexico oil and gas companies. As we’ve reported, the state’s industry is responsible for nearly 50 coal-fired power plants of carbon emissions, more than any other source. That includes potent methane gas and carbon dioxide released when oil and gas produced in New Mexico is burned.
All told, these greenhouse gas emissions cost our society as a whole $3 billion annually. These costs come from sea level rise, wildfires, increased air pollution, drought, crop damage, and other destruction wrought by the climate crisis.
In New Mexico, the costs of the climate crisis are staggering. Estimates indicate the state already pays $1.6 billion every year because of the changing climate. These costs come from increased air pollution and associated deaths and illnesses, higher residential air conditioning costs, more frequent and severe forest fires, and decreased water supplies.
Reports show farmers in New Mexico already pay $73 million annually because of climate change while New Mexicans pay $248 million more in energy bills every year because of warming temperatures and extreme weather.
Conveniently, oil and gas companies and their political cronies decline to mention these climate costs and deny that New Mexicans shoulder any of these liabilities.
It doesn’t end there, however.
The true cost of the oil and gas industry to New Mexico is staggering, with the toll including extensive air and water contamination, land destruction, poverty, injustice, and economic instability. Let’s take a look at some of the dirty details:
- Oil and gas extraction has pushed air pollution levels so high in southeast New Mexico that the rural region is now violating federal smog standards. Because of oil and gas, the region, which is home to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, now experiences air pollution levels normally found in big cities like Houston, Los Angeles, and Denver.
- Oil and gas companies report an average of 3.3 spills of toxic waste every day in New Mexico, including oil spills, gas leaks, and poisonous frack water. Too often, these toxic spills affect streams, groundwater, and public lands.
- The oil and gas industry has put $10 billion in clean up costs on the shoulders of New Mexico taxpayers. The industry is truly getting a free ride, forcing taxpayers to carry the risk of paying for virtually off of the industry’s reclamation liabilities.
- Pollution from oil and gas extraction threatens the health of 138,399 New Mexicans, including 32,009 students and 99 schools and daycares. It’s estimated that more than 12,000 childhood asthma attacks are linked to smog pollution caused by oil and gas.
- The oil and gas industry turns 14 billion gallons of water into toxic waste every year to drill, frack, and produce wells. This is equal to the amount of water used by 1/8 of New Mexico’s population.
In many cases, however, the real costs of oil and gas to New Mexico are less quantitative and more intuitive. After all, if the oil and gas industry’s largesse was so beneficial to the state, clearly we should we tangible riches and advancements. We don’t.
In fact, while the oil and gas industry purportedly generates “billions” in revenue for New Mexico, the state ranks dead last or near last for a number of critical social metrics, including:
- Out of the 50 states, New Mexico is the worst in quality of education, ranking 50th.
- The state ranks 49th in child poverty rates.
- The state ranks 49th in terms of opportunity for citizens to succeed.
- New Mexico has the 44th worst economy out of all 50 states.
- The state continues to rank dead last in child well-being.
- New Mexico has the second highest poverty rate of all U.S. states.
- The state’s infrastructure, including energy, transportation, and internet, ranks the 5th worst in the U.S.
In terms of the best overall states, New Mexico is 48th out of 50, edging out Louisiana and Mississippi.
All of this begs the question: If the oil and gas industry is the key to New Mexico’s economic prosperity, why isn’t the state one of the most prosperous in the U.S.?
The reason is simple: Despite the hard work of New Mexicans to support their families and communities, the industry has lobbied fiercely to convince the state’s politicians to keep New Mexico shackled to oil and gas.
It’s not a surprise that virtually every single state elected official, including Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Attorney General Hector Balderas, and New Mexico Speaker of the House, Brian Egolf, receive thousands of dollars in oil and gas industry contributions every year.
As all signs indicate oil and gas is costing New Mexico dearly, the industry maintains its stranglehold on the state through political influence. Even champions for health and the environment, including New Mexico Senate President Pro Tem, Mimi Stewart, have killed legislation perceived to be a “danger” to the industry.
The real danger is that the oil and gas industry’s stranglehold on New Mexico stands to suffocate the state entirely, further decimating its economy, its health, its environment, and its people.
It’s time for elected officials in New Mexico to stop perpetuating the costly myth that the state needs oil and gas. The truth is that for New Mexico’s health, economy, sustainability, and prosperity, the state’s leaders need to stop the industry’s stranglehold and make just and equitable transition from fossil fuels a number one priority. Take action today.
Representative Deb Haaland’s nomination by President Biden to lead the Interior Department represents an historic opportunity to drive the systemic change the natural world, our climate, and our country so desperately need.
If confirmed, Haaland—an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo—would be the first Indigenous person to run any Cabinet-level department in the history of the United States.
The full Senate vote to confirm Representative Haaland will be Monday, March 15, so we’re asking you to contact both of your senators today.
Unfortunately, Biden’s most historic Cabinet nomination could also be his most imperiled. That’s because senators in the back pocket of the dirty fossil fuel industry simply don’t want a climate justice activist and protector of public lands at the reins of the Interior Department. Which is why we’re asking you—imploring you—to speak out on behalf of Haaland’s confirmation today.
Representative Haaland is a steadfast champion of bold climate action, environmental justice, Tribal rights, and protection of public lands and endangered wildlife.
In Congress, Haaland has been at the forefront of issues central to the climate and nature crises that the Interior Department must address. The Interior Department must stop the plundering of public lands, protect endangered species, implement policies that nurture an ethic of wildlife coexistence, protect 30% of all lands by 2030, and expand and deepen protection of national parks, monuments, and cultural sites.
Representative Haaland is exactly the visionary leader America needs to guide the Interior Department toward justice, equity, conservation, and environmental protection at this pivotal point in history. Her bold vision to address the nature and climate crises is precisely why some senators—and the resource exploiters bankrolling their election campaigns—adamantly oppose her leading the Interior Department.
They’re saying she’s too radical. But Haaland is merely committed to the bold and just path of transitioning our nation off our dependence on dirty fossil fuels.
Confirmation of Representative Haaland to be Interior Secretary would be a monumental step forward for Indigenous rights, climate action, environmental justice, and protection of public lands and threatened wildlife. In these times we need bold leadership, so please join me and urge your senators to support and confirm Representative Haaland to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior.