WildEarth Guardians

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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.

Southeast Montana’s Tongue River is in the oil and gas industry’s crosshairs.

At the end of February, we filed our opening brief in a lawsuit over the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s sale of 150,000 acres of public lands in Montana for fracking.

The suit was filed last year by the Western Environmental Law Center and Earthjustice on behalf of Guardians, Montana Environmental Information Center, and several local landowners.

Click here to read our in-depth blog post on this lawsuit >>

Our aim is to overturn the sale of our public lands to the oil and gas industry, defend our climate and protect the region’s clean water.

In 2017 and 2018, the agency auctioned off lands in a number of iconic corners of Montana, including the Tongue River Valley, along the Beartooth Mountain Front, and next to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

Fracking rig in Montana’s Tongue River Valley at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains.

In doing so, the agency turned its back on the environmental consequences of fracking Montana’s public lands, claiming the impacts would “not be significant.”

Our lawsuit takes aim at this ludicrous finding and our latest motion sets forth how it not only defies facts, but also defies the law.

Despite the climate crisis, in a recent push to open up more federal lands to oil and gas drilling, BLM has sold, and is proposing to sell, millions of acres of oil and gas leases in the western United States. This case challenges two of these sales in Montana, the December 2017 lease sale and the March 2018 lease sale, which are addressed by four [Environmental Assessments] EAs.

– Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment

Although focused on Montana, our lawsuit holds enormous potential for thwarting the Trump Administration’s efforts to sell public lands for fracking across the American West.

Right now, millions of acres in the western U.S. are being put on the oil and gas auction block. We’re fighting back, but we need the courts to start holding the Administration accountable.

Our case is still unfolding, but hopefully by the end of this year, we’ll get a ruling and with it, some accountability. Stay tuned for more!

WildEarth Guardians has embarked upon a new campaign leveraging the federal Clean Air Act to protect the Denver Metro Area and Colorado’s Front Range from unchecked and out of control fracking.

For too long, state and federal regulators have allowed the oil and gas industry to run roughshod over people and communities from Denver to Fort Collins and everywhere in between. The result? A dangerous smog problem, toxic emissions, oil and gas wells next to homes and playgrounds, and fracking that is going virtually unmonitored.

The Governor of Colorado and the State Legislature thankfully are moving to confront some of these issues, but a full solution to the oil and gas problem plaguing the Front Range requires more aggressive advocacy and legal action.

Oil and gas well site less than 100 feet from homes in Windsor, Colorado.

Given this, we’re putting into action our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative.

Similar to the way state and federal regulators undertake enforcement initiatives (like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s coal-fired power plant enforcement initiative), WildEarth Guardians is making it a priority to confront the impacts of fracking to clean air along the Front Range.

We’re doing this in four critical ways:

1.  Confronting Federal Fracking Approvals

First, we’re confronting federal fracking approvals throughout the Front Range region.

It surprises people to know that in this region, there are extensive deposits of publicly owned oil and gas managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The agency regularly sells the rights for company’s to develop these deposits and rubberstamps drilling and fracking permits.

We’ve been pushing back against these fracking approvals, challenging the failure of the Bureau of Land Management to meet federal Clean Air Act requirements limiting federal approvals that would worsen air quality.

Most recently, we launched a legal challenge to 38 new wells that would frack under the town of Brighton just north of Denver. We’re also in the midst of challenging another 58 wells that were approved east of the town of Greeley, about 60 miles north of Denver.

Our aim is to leverage federal environmental laws to put the brakes on federal fracking.

2.  Forcing EPA Sanctions

The Denver Metro area has long suffered from high levels of ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog. The region has been declared a “nonattainment area,” which means the region is violating health limits on ground-level ozone.

It surprises people to know that oil and gas operations are a key source of smog-forming emissions in the region.

Sadly, in spite of the region’s troubles with smog, state air regulators with the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division have refused to fully confront the problem and ozone levels remain dangerously high.

In part, it’s because of the Air Pollution Control Division’s reluctance to clamp down on the oil and gas industry. Instead of curtailing pollution, in 2017 the state initiated a seemingly endless “stakeholder” process and doesn’t even intend to propose any further emission cuts until 2020.

Fortunately, under the Clean Air Act, the state can’t avoid its duty to clean up the Front Range’s smog. By law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is required to impose sanctions on Colorado if it fails to meet clean up deadlines.

Sanctions include ratcheting down pollution limits and emplacing more stringent permitting requirements on the oil and gas industry.

We know the Environmental Protection Agency isn’t the best agency to rely on these days, so in January, we put the agency on notice of our intent to sue them under the Clean Air Act for not sanctioning Colorado’s failure to clean up its smog.

This month, we plan to launch that lawsuit and ensure Colorado air regulators are held accountable to its failure to clean up smog along the Front Range.

3.  Securing Clean Air Justice

A cornerstone of our initiative is directly holding oil and gas companies accountable to the Clean Air Act.  Last week, we took the first step of putting this accountability into action.

After an extensive investigation, we found the oil and gas industry is chronically failing to obtain legally required air pollution permits before fracking its wells along the Front Range.

At issue is that companies are drilling and putting wells into production before meeting rigorous permitting requirements for new sources of air pollution.

In nonattainment areas, like the Denver Metro area, sources have to achieve extremely stringent emission limits, as well as offset emissions.

This means that as companies develop new fracking sites, they should be reducing overall emissions. They’re not, and that’s illegal.

Noble Energy fracking well site in Denver Metro area.

What we’ve found is that companies are developing new fracking sites that have the potential to release thousands of tons of toxic ozone-forming air pollution, yet are not obtaining permits for months, if not years, afterward.

What’s more, they’re not offsetting emissions. Where we should be seeing net decreases in smog-forming pollution, we’re seeing increases.

To say this is illegal would be an understatement. The oil and gas industry is knowingly violating our clean air laws so that it can frack and put wells in to production as quickly as possible. However, the industry’s bottomline doesn’t trump our clean air.

Last week we put seven of the worst offenders on notice that we intend to sue them in federal court and hold them accountable to the Clean Air Act. The companies include Bonanza Creek Energy, Crestone Peak, Extraction Oil and Gas, Great Western, Mallard Exploration, Noble Energy, and PDC Energy.

The facilities are all located in Weld County, Colorado, but impact clean air throughout the Front Range region. In total, the companies collectively face more than $1.3 billion in potential penalties.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re currently developing Clean Air Act enforcement lawsuits targeting other companies and dozens of other facilities.

Our aim is to ensure the oil and gas industry pays for its crimes. More importantly, our aim is to ensure companies aren’t allowed to frack unless they’ve complied with the most stringent Clean Air Act permitting requirements and actually reduced their toxic air pollution.

4.  Confronting Illegal Air Permits

Finally, we’re pushing back against the State of Colorado over their illegal permitting of fracking facilities under the Clean Air Act.

Unfortunately, the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division has been a willing accomplice in the oil and gas industry’s scheme to avoid stringent permitting. Rather than hold companies accountable to the law, the Division is actively issuing permits that let companies skirt strict permitting requirements and increase their emissions.

The thing is, under the Clean air Act, the Air Pollution Control Division legally can’t do this.

We’re fighting back on this front, challenging illegal permit approvals to ensure industry is complying with the most stringent clean air safeguards.

In the past week, we’ve commented on numerous permits for fracking facilities, including permits for Extraction Oil and Gas facilities and a permit for a PDC Energy facility.

At the end of February, we also brought this issue to the attention of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission. You can listen to our testimony below.

 

We’re gearing up to push back on more permits. And if the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division continues to issue illegal permits under the Clean Air Act, we will take them to court.

Extraction oil and gas fracking site in Broomfield, Colorado.

We can’t afford to lose our clean air to fracking. In Colorado, we hope to turn the tide for our health and start to hold the oil and gas industry accountable to the law.

With our latest Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative, we hope to systematically push back against oil and gas companies and make the case for keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

For the Denver Metro area, that means cleaner air and healthier communities.

And for our planet, that means a shot at a safe climate.