There was some big news this week and it was in no small part thanks to you!
On Tuesday afternoon, Senator Joe Manchin pulled his backroom Dirty Deal—a scheme to fast-track numerous coal, crude oil, and gas development projects across the country—from a stopgap funding bill that needed to pass by October 1 to avert a government shutdown.
Why did fossil fuel-friendly Senator Manchin strip his own Dirty Deal from a must-pass bill? Because of relentless pressure by you and hundreds of thousands of people across the country!
In the past week, over 7,200 WildEarth Guardians supporters stood together with Indigenous and Frontline communities and other climate and environmental activists to deliver a simple message: Congress must not sacrifice our communities and our climate to pad the pockets of the oil, coal, and gas industries!
What does this week’s win prove?
When we work together—we win!
When we raise our voices—we win!
When we organize and mobilize—we win!
We know it’s very likely that Senator Manchin’s Dirty Deal will rise from the dead. And the fossil fuel lobbyists and their supporters in Congress will do everything in their power to try and sneak this Dirty Deal into other must-pass bills before the end of the year.
Please stand ready as we certainly will need to call on you again to raise your voice and demand environmental justice and climate action! And, if you are able, please consider making a donation to support this work.
For all of us here at WildEarth Guardians, thank you for steadfast support. Working together, I’m confident that more victories are in our future.
It’s another big win for the climate!
In a powerful ruling, a federal judge this month held the Trump administration illegally overturned a ban on new coal leasing adopted by President Obama.
The leasing moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2016, effectively halted the expansion of the nation’s largest coal mines. It was a major step forward for our climate and for clean energy.
At the behest of coal companies, Trump’s Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, rescinded this moratorium. With the help of attorneys at Earthjustice, we sued to overturn this egregious attack on the climate. Led by Tribal groups, the lawsuit challenged the Trump administration’s blatant disregard of the law, climate science, and the public interest.
This win is significant. It comes as the coal industry is desperately trying to hang on and keep fueling global warming. It also presents a major opportunity for the Biden administration to get it right and start keeping fossil fuels in the ground to protect our climate.
The win is also the latest vindication of WildEarth Guardians’ longstanding campaign to confront public lands coal mining and defend the climate.
Nearly 50 percent of all coal mined in the U.S. is approved by the federal government and comes from public lands in the Western U.S. This coal is burned in power plants from coast to coast and is responsible for 15 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s a simple truth: we can’t keep mining coal and protect our climate. For over a decade, WildEarth Guardians has been at the forefront of challenging the federal government’s role in authorizing more coal mining. You’ve been with us every step of the way, and your continued support will help us stop dirty coal in its tracks.
This latest win gives new hope that our nation will finally stop burning costly coal and make climate protection a priority.
Kate Toan was cool with taking her husband’s last name when they married. “How can you pass up being a Merlin?” she says. “I can definitely relate to this bird, which uses insight and strategy to hunt larger birds,” she says. Small yet fierce, merlins embody agility, determination, focus and vision, grace, mental speed and power, swiftness, and leadership. Not bad qualities for an attorney who goes after powerful industries like oil and gas.
The newest member of Guardians’ legal team, Kate has been working as an attorney for about 10 years on oil and gas and climate issues. She came on board with Guardians at the end of 2020 in the Climate and Energy Program as our Colorado attorney.
Kate credits an intense wilderness experience that set her on this path. Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kate signed up in 1998 for a three-month trek through the Southwest with the National Outdoor Leadership School. She was 20.
“More so than other outdoor education programs, NOLS really focuses on the ‘education’ part,” she says. “They teach you skills, they teach you values, and they teach you to how to actually see the things you’re looking at. Until I began working a full-time job with an infant, a toddler, and a puppy during a pandemic, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I carried more than 50 percent of my body weight over 10 miles a day through the desert and over mountains….It’s hard to describe how being isolated from civilization for months, while eating, sleeping, breathing in designated wilderness areas, changes you. It’s like seeing with new eyes.”
She went on to earn a B.S. in environmental science from Northern Arizona University, a J.D. from Vermont Law School in 2008, and an LLM in Natural Resources Law from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2013.
A case she calls probably her most significant to date was Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which challenged oil and gas regulators to address climate change. Although ultimately the case was lost at the Colorado Supreme Court, in another sense it was a win for the environment: the agency’s position was revealed—that it didn’t have a duty to protect public health, safety, welfare, or the environment when it regulated oil and gas development. And the unprecedented public scrutiny led to legislative reforms within just a few months of the decision.
Before Kate joined the Guardians staff, she represented Guardians at a Clean Air Act challenge to Colorado’s so-called “90-day loophole.” Before this suit, Colorado allowed oil and gas producers 90 days of production prior to applying for air pollution permitting. “Production” was also defined as saleable production, not the moment at which hydrocarbons began coming from the well. The rationale was to allow producers to get a better understanding of what a well’s production levels would be before they obtained permitting. Unfortunately, this loophole meant that the production phase with the highest level of air emissions—the pre-production phase—wasn’t subject to permit limitations. Although this case was lost at the District Court stage, the agency revoked the 90-day loophole almost concurrently with the court decision.
“Right now the cases I’m most excited about are Guardians’ Clean Air Act, Title V lawsuits,” Kate says. “These cases all challenge the failure of the State of Colorado to take final action on ‘major sources’ of air pollution, including the Suncor oil refinery. Prior to these suits the state believed that it was permanently immunized from suit over these overdue permits by a 35-day statute of limitations. The oldest overdue permit application at that time was the initial major source permit for the Holcim Portland Cement Plant, whose application was more than 25 years old, and which had been operating under its construction permit. Recently Guardians added Governor Jared Polis as a defendant to these cases, as the duty to adequately staff and resource his agencies ultimately lands at his desk.”
“I am very excited about what Guardians can do in the next few years to advance climate health, and the health of the people and the amazing web of life hosted by this planet. I’m bringing to this position an ongoing litigation docket which is almost exclusively related to Colorado sources of air pollution, and most of which are deadline cases—did an agency miss a deadline by which it was required to act.”
“With national climate policy so much in flux, with changes to the National Environmental Policy Act possible, with the push to decarbonization finally seeming to be gaining real traction, and in general the climate and environmental policy changing ever more rapidly, I anticipate more litigation with substantive challenges to agency regulatory interpretation. I hope to bring a real focus on impacts to Frontline, Indigenous, and disproportionately impacted communities who have been too often disregarded or trampled on by the legal system.”
We know Kate’s fierce determination will make all the difference in the world.
This week, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which many are hailing as the panacea for fighting climate change. While this sweeping bill makes important investments in a number of policies, we here at WildEarth Guardians can’t overlook major provisions that lock in fossil fuel extraction on public lands while locking out Indigenous and Frontline communities.
Continued oil and gas leasing on public lands, tax credits for dirty coal companies, and wildfire funding that doesn’t change how agencies manage public lands undermine many of the promised benefits of this climate bill.
Many of you have joined our fight to stop new leasing and drilling on public lands. Your continued support is more important than ever.
Our team at Guardians recognizes that we still have a lot of work to do. While this bill makes significant strides forward, we must continue pushing additional policies and agency changes that put keeping dirty fossil fuels in the ground at the forefront of climate solutions. We are redoubling our commitment to Indigenous and Frontline communities that are calling for no new leasing to protect our air, our water, our health, and our livelihoods.
5 things you should know about the climate bill:
- This legislation acknowledges we need to take bold steps and make big financial investments to fight climate change. We cannot overstate how important it is for our elected leaders to come together to find solutions to the climate crisis.
- When given a chance, though, Congress allowed the good in this bill to be watered down by provisions that prop up polluters and expand fossil fuel leasing on public lands.
- The bold steps outlined in this legislation may actually accelerate fossil fuel expansion and leasing on public lands, which will only fuel the climate crisis. The president’s signature on this bill locks in new rules that could open up new oil and gas leasing for at least another decade. That’s time we don’t have.
- Climate action must be centered on environmental and climate justice. This is especially important for the Indigenous and Frontline communities that bear the brunt of continued oil and gas extraction and development. Locking in more fossil fuel exploitation ignores the impacts Indigenous and Frontline communities are facing.
- Protecting public lands from fossil fuel extraction must be part of our solution to the compounding climate and biodiversity crises. Instead of keeping it in the ground, this bill ignores the major pollution and climate impacts from expanded drilling and mining on public lands.
We simply cannot frack, drill, and burn our way to climate action. We must keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground and stop selling America’s public lands and waters to the fossil fuel industry. This is why your support of Guardians is more important than ever.
Please consider making a donation of $25, $50, $100, or more to enable our work of advancing meaningful climate policies and change—we can’t do it without you.
The verdict is in: for our climate, it’s time to keep fossil fuels in the ground!
In a resounding victory, a federal judge struck down two U.S. Bureau of Land Management illegally approved plans that authorized more fossil fuel extraction on public lands in the Powder River Basin of northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana.
The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit brought on our behalf by the Western Environmental Law Center, which we joined together with the Western Organization of Resource Councils, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Northern Plains Resource Council, Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club.
This is a major rebuke of the Trump administration’s abject denial of climate science and the law. However, it’s also a critical wake-up call for the Biden administration that it’s time to rethink letting the fossil fuel industry run roughshod over public lands.
The Powder River Basin is the largest coal-producing region in the U.S. and has recently seen a huge surge in oil and gas fracking.
Suffice it to say, fossil fuel extraction in the region is linked to a massive amount of climate pollution. That’s why WildEarth Guardians has worked for years to put an end to coal and oil and gas production in the region and keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong.
Turning a blind eye to climate, the Bureau of Land Management under the Trump administration authorized new plans for the region that kept vast swaths of public lands open to mining and drilling.
This ruling puts the Bureau of Land Management’s plans on ice. Most important, it directs the Biden administration to honestly disclose and address the full life-cycle impacts of fossil fuel extraction and give serious consideration to ending the sale of public lands for more coal mining.
For our climate, we have to start keeping fossil fuels in the ground. With this latest ruling, we’re making progress. And with your continued support, we’ll build upon this victory.
To her fellow Guardians, she’s known as “Double Doctor Sam” (holder of two doctoral degrees in anthropology and law), avid Jazzercise instructor (she celebrated her 22nd anniversary in June), world traveler, and legal whiz.
But to the coal and oil and gas industries, she’s indefatigable and imperturbable, battering industry with suit after suit until Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda crumbles. Energized by her work to push the envelope—and the law—for the climate and our natural world, Guardians legal director Samantha Ruscavage-Barz is an indomitable force for nature.
Born in a blighted Pennsylvania coal town, Ruscavage-Barz first fell in love with the Southwest through her professor’s slides in an “Archaeology of the Southwest” class at Penn State. She spent the next 17 years doing archaeology in the field. After earning her PhD at the University of Washington, she arrived in New Mexico to further her career.
Some of those years were exhilarating—like the two she spent painstakingly excavating several rooms in a 16th-century Pueblo site, Pueblo Blanco, in New Mexico’s Galisteo Basin. For the most part, however, Ruscavage-Barz conducted archaeological surveys for government development projects ranging from road-building to coal mining.
She was working at the New Mexico State Highway Department in the curiously titled position of “Highway Environmentalist” when fate intervened. Fittingly for this litigator-to-be, it came in the form of a lawsuit.
Ruscavage-Barz was overseeing the analyses of impacts to natural and cultural resources for a highway expansion project in southern New Mexico when a neighborhood group sued the Highway Department and Federal Highway Administration over the project, arguing that their analyses did not adequately capture the historic character of the farming communities, acequias, and houses that would be damaged for the sake of two extra lanes.
The suit didn’t faze the Highway Department, but it did rattle Ruscavage-Barz.
“The people living in the path of the highway expansion voiced concern that the road was going to completely change the character of their communities. The Highway Department just wanted to bulldoze past their concerns and dismiss them,” she said.
As she witnessed the communities’ lawyers fight for their right to exist, she also found herself impressed with the power of the law.
Lawyers, she realized, “give people and nature—who don’t normally have a voice in project planning—a seat at the table as decision-makers.”
She spoke to the lawyers and investigated the laws intended to protect the environment and cultural resources, unearthing a system of natural and cultural protections that development agencies were prepared to ignore unless they were held accountable by conservation-minded lawyers.
“Among development agencies, the focus is on consumption of natural resources and their income-generating potential,” she said. “I saw the need for voices to protect natural resources for their own sake.”
Determined to give voice to the voiceless, she quit her job at the Highway Department and enrolled at the University of New Mexico School of Law.
Learning to lose
Ruscavage-Barz became WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy staff attorney in 2010. Rather than a timeline of legal triumph, her next five years at the organization would be a lesson in loss.
It wasn’t until 2015 that she won her first case, which derailed coal mining expansion schemes in Colorado, Montana, and New Mexico.
She admits that half a decade of losing was “disheartening,” but also takes pride in her—and Guardians’—persistence, likening it to the fight for equality during the Civil Rights era. Brown v. Board of Education was by no means the first case the NAACP filed against segregation in public schools, but it was the one that stuck, and the one that shattered the status quo forever—just as one of WildEarth Guardians’ coal mining cases invoking the need to consider climate finally set the stage for safeguarding our climate.
The fact that Guardians encouraged her to continue to bring cutting-edge cases over those five years, even if that often meant losing, “kept me going,” Ruscavage-Barz said.
Her persistence has paid off in the years since that first win. One by one, judges are siding with Guardians and holding the government accountable to our climate and our planet—resulting in billions of tons of coal kept in the ground, reconsideration of decisions to sell nearly four million acres of oil and gas leases in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Montana, and New Mexico, and plans to drill more than 4,000 fracking wells in Greater Chaco curtailed.
No longer does Ruscavage-Barz excavate the remnants of ancient civilizations. Instead her job now involves construction—painstakingly assembling proactive protections for the Wild, communities, and the environment from the ground up, each successive case building on its predecessor until robust environmental protections and government accountability emerge from the detritus of climate denial, coal mines, and fracking pads.
12 years on
Ruscavage-Barz has been a Guardian for nearly a third of the organization’s existence. But even as Guardians expands, she notes, the legal strategies that have defined it over the past 33 years continue to be effective in protecting our environment and holding government accountable.
“Guardians’ legal work has always been prudent, but pioneering,” she said. “We don’t bring litigation without thinking it through. But at the same time, we don’t hesitate to go where no one has gone before.”
As threats to our wild places, wildlife, and climate grow ever more perilous, and as courts increasingly heed Guardians’ calls for change, one thing remains plain: we’re lucky to have Ruscavage-Barz in our corner.
The proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention” may well have been crafted with Guardians Staff Attorney Daniel Timmons in mind. From small-town water resources expert to reluctant corporate lawyer to undaunted climate Guardian, Timmons’s career is an odyssey of reinvention that on August 1, 2022 brought him to the helm of the Guardians Wild Rivers program.
From science to law
Growing up on the beaches outside Charleston, South Caroline, Timmons had limited exposure to the West until college, when he participated in anenvironmental science and policy program in Arizona. There he fell in love with the desert—and with remedying its entrenched water issues. His interest in water led to a master’s in environmental sciences and policy from Northern Arizona University, for which he conducted a thesis project updating an existing groundwater model for a growing area north of Phoenix. Eerily, Timmons ran into trouble getting the model to run until the present day; it kept predicting the area’s water would start to dry up long beforehand. “It was definitely an eye-opening experience,” he says.
Post degree, Timmons parlayed his research experience into a water resources specialist job with the small town of Chino Valley in north-central Arizona. There he attempted to strike a balance between finding a new source of groundwater for the parched town and mitigating the impacts of taking that water from the hotly contested Verde River. Unfortunately, the town suffered dire financial distress in the Great Recession, resulting in mass layoffs that included Timmons—but not before he had a revelation that set him on the path from environmental scientist to environmental attorney.
“My boss and I had been working on an in-depth presentation on the water crisis facing the town, trying to open the eyes of the council that this was a death knell,” he says. But when the presentation ended, the council members did not ask Timmons or his boss a single question. They sought the opinion of only one person: the town attorney.
“We were the experts, and they looked to the town attorney to give them advice. I said, well, I need to be sitting in that chair!” Timmons says.
A year later, he enrolled at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.
A great escape
When he graduated from Lewis & Clark mid-recession, recently married, and $150,000 in debt, Timmons’s journey took a darker turn. Out of desperation, he took a job as a corporate environmental lawyer.
As Timmons details in a speech he delivered at the 2019 Guardians Gala: “For four years, I helped take fresh water out of flowing rivers. I helped [my corporate clients] evade responsibility for decades of toxic pollution. I even secured permits for new fossil fuel plants and a massive gas pipeline…I continued on autopilot, cashing paychecks as an environmental lawyer working against the environment.”
Only when he unexpectedly found himself working “on the right side of things,” fighting an oil-by-rail terminal on the Columbia River in collaboration with cities and towns, Indigenous Tribes, and environmental lawyers working on behalf of conservation, did he vow to extricate himself from corporate work.
It was easier said than done, requiring a move back to South Carolina to get his foot in the door with public interest environmental law. Finally, after nearly two years as an associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston, he was hired as a Guardians’ staff attorney in 2019.
On the right side of things
Timmons’s litigation at Guardians has primarily focused on halting fossil fuel development on public lands and protecting the imperiled wild rivers of the Southwest. He’s more than living up to his promise as a climate guardian and has stepping up to lead Guardian’s river work, building on his expertise and critical legal analysis.
His most recent sweeping success came in June, when the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to reassess and reconsider more than 2,000 oil and gas leases across four million acres of public lands in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. While the bedrock litigation for the win was filed prior to Timmons’s arrival at Guardians, he was directly responsible for dismantling the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s flawed analysis of fracking’s climate impacts.
“The BLM analysis was a lot of sleight of hand, the kind that agencies often get away with. They can just rely on their technical analysis and then hope the court will say, ‘That seems really confusing. The agency must know what it’s doing,’” Timmons says.
Thanks to his work, the court instead decided the BLM needed to go back to the drawing board and redo its environmental analysis. “And from our perspective, there is just no way that the agency can take an honest look at four million acres of oil and gas leasing and say, ‘That does not have a significant environmental impact,’” Timmons says.
Timmons is also engaging in a multipronged effort to address climate and air quality impacts plaguing New Mexico, particularly in the Permian Basin. Right now, Guardian’s is challenging New Mexico’s continued issuance of air permits to oil and gas facilities without considering how this would affect the state’s ozone levels. The goal is to leverage the Clean Air Act to ensure New Mexico’s poor air quality does not affect neighboring states. Timmons has also led the petitioning of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate southeastern New Mexico and parts of West Texas as “nonattainment” zones for ozone—triggering additional requirements, permitting obligations, and a state plan to comply with federal ozone pollution standards.
To Timmons, however, perhaps his proudest achievement as a Guardian, so far, is a simple one: “I got oil spills banned in New Mexico.” When he realized there was no legislation on the books prohibiting oil spills, “everybody I talked to, I said, ‘Can you believe this?’ and they said, ‘No, that can’t be right,’” he says. Even the oil and gas industry had no argument against such a law. As a result, in a rare show of solidarity, Guardians and the state agency regulating oil and gas partnered to propose a rule change that forbids drillers from spilling oil and fracking waste in New Mexico. In June 2021, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Commission granted the change after a public hearing arranged by Timmons, Guardians’ organizing team, and a coalition of other groups.
It’s the type of collaboration he witnessed and envied as a corporate lawyer, only he’s “on the right side of things” for good this time around. Timmons has recently stepped into his newest role as the Guardian’s Wild River Director to help bring together climate change impacts and the health and viability of water in the southwest.
“I just feel like I’m blessed with the skills and the opportunity and the legal background to try to make a difference on one of the most important issues of our time,” he says.
We couldn’t agree more.
On November 15, 2021, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the “Honoring Chaco Initiative,” a first-of-its-kind collaboration among the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs to protect the Greater Chaco landscape across New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. It was a landmark step for a beleaguered landscape that, despite its profound sacredness to the Tribes who live there, has been drilled and fracked nearly into oblivion for decades.
Celebrating the announcement alongside a diverse coalition of more than 40 groups was WildEarth Guardians Organizing Director Rebecca Sobel, who has been working to protect Greater Chaco since 2014. Spurred by this triumph, Sobel has now taken the reins of Guardians’ first-ever Organizing Program.
“Guardians has been working through administrative and legal channels to win victories for wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and climate—and recognizes that to cement our successes, we need social change and people power supporting those victories,” Sobel said. “Guardians wins on a big scale in the courtroom; organizing takes those wins to communities and figures out how to make lasting change.”
The Organizing Program team currently consists of Sobel and two other organizers: Soni Grant, based in the Four Corners area who works primarily on cultural landscape protection and the Greater Chaco campaign, and Alma “Rosie” Sanchez in Colorado, focusing on coexistence with wolves, living rivers, clean air, and climate justice. Organizers attend and manage events as well as engage in direct action and creative communication tactics like delivering petitions and letters to key decision makers in media-worthy events that amplify calls for action.
Though still in its infancy, the Organizing Program’s boots-on-the-ground approach is already meeting with success not only in Chaco but also in Colorado, where Guardians is targeting metropolitan Denver’s Suncor oil refinery. The refinery, whose uncontrolled pollution disproportionately affects people of color and families with low incomes, has long operated illegally and in defiance of clean air safeguards. Spotlighting Suncor’s dirty dealings, Guardians created a public process that led to air-permit hearings and “a groundswell of calls not only to clean up, but also to shut down the refinery,” Sobel said.
The Birth of an Organizer
The natural choice for Guardians’ Organizing Director—she first floated the idea for the Organizing Program 13 years ago—Sobel came to social activism at an early age. Her thirst for social justice stems from her years commuting to a wealthy, private Jewish school while living in Center City Philadelphia.
“Riding the public bus through neighborhoods and with people who didn’t have the same privileges I was afforded, I learned early on that pursuing social justice was a luxury that you could afford only if your basic needs were met,” she said.
She recalled organizing a “really makeshift” rally in the cafeteria of her high school to protest a high-profile donation that would change the school’s name, clashing with the principles on which the school was founded. She called reporters, the school was shamed, and an organizer was born.
“I tell that story because that’s organizing, even if I didn’t know it then. Organizing defines power as the ability to get a decision maker to do what you want, even when they don’t want to,” Sobel said.
She fled the East Coast for the West at the first opportunity, armed with a bachelor’s degree in globalization and social justice, a master’s in international relations and human rights, and a desire to change the world—but no idea where to start. She applied to a position at Greenpeace and, for her first campaign at the organization, found herself working alongside famed environmentalist Bill McKibben on the largest climate change demonstration in U.S. history. And with that, her career path suddenly came into focus.
“When I applied for that first job with Greenpeace, I didn’t know that ‘organizer’ was a job,” Sobel said. “When you want to change the world, they tell you to become a lawyer. So when I found out that you could get paid to [organize] for good causes, I was amazed.”
She joined Guardians in 2007 to lead its Outstanding Natural Resource Waters campaign, an effort to protect the quality of New Mexico’s headwaters in perpetuity. After winning the campaign, she left to be executive director of the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy in Santa Fe and then launched her own consulting business called “Action Oriented,” where for eight years she “worked for or with nearly every environmental nonprofit in New Mexico,” she said.
In true full-circle fashion, Guardians’ Chaco campaign was one of her consulting contracts. After some persuasion by Jeremy Nichols, Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director, she joined Guardians again to pursue climate justice in Chaco full-time. She has been a Guardian ever since.
Organizing the Future
Sobel’s aptitude as Organizing Director goes beyond her longstanding engagement with Guardians and its campaigns. Working on the ground and behind the scenes, she intuitively grasps that bringing people together is not about the organizer, but about the movement.
“A good organizer isn’t a certain personality type. It’s somebody who inspires action, who helps create and support leadership in others,” she said. “And it’s [somebody who] has the humility to step aside when needed.”
“Good organizers,” she said, “try to organize themselves out of a job.”
For now, though, Sobel’s job at Guardians is still cut out for her. She envisions a network of Guardians organizers across the West, with one in every Guardians office. In the interim, she and her team are continuing to pursue justice in Greater Chaco. This past April, in response to appeals from Guardians and others, the Biden administration agreed to review fracking on nearly 45,000 square miles of the region and paused all oil and gas extraction activities on the leases, pending the review.
“The Chaco campaign is an awesome testament to organizing,” Sobel said. “When you’re in isolation, it’s hard to feel like one person can make a difference. Organizers build movements so it’s not just one person—it’s hundreds or thousands of people coming together to do the thing.”
Clearly, what Sobel and the organizing team have already accomplished together is proof of that power.
In spite of promises to protect the Greater Chaco region, the Biden administration continues to rubber-stamp more drilling and more fracking in this beleaguered landscape, perpetuating more environmental injustice and calling into question whether the U.S. Department of the Interior is committed to doing anything but the oil and gas industry’s bidding.
Last fall, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the launch of the “Honoring Chaco Initiative,” a promising move by the Biden administration to follow through on pledges to protect the Greater Chaco region from an oil and gas industry onslaught.
The Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico is culturally significant and important for the spirituality, survival, and cultural health of numerous Tribes, who hold the landscape sacred. Chaco Canyon and Chaco Culture National Historic Park are at the heart of Greater Chaco.
For years now, the land, its people, and its cultural fabric have been under assault by oil and gas companies. Fracking has exploded across the landscape, putting communities at risk, despoiling sacred landmarks, and irreparably degrading Chacoan ruins and other culturally significant sites.
While we had high hopes that the Biden administration and Secretary Haaland would live up to their commitments and uphold their promises, sadly the oil and gas industry still seems to come first in Greater Chaco. As recent reports have exposed, the Interior Department’s U.S. Bureau of Land Management continues to approve massive drilling and fracking operations, extensive road and pipeline construction, and more oil and gas processing facilities.
But it’s the Bureau of Land Management’s latest plans that comes as a major punch in the gut for Greater Chaco.
Earlier this month, the agency announced a proposal to reapprove nearly 45,000 acres–that’s 70 square miles–of federal oil and gas leases located only 15 miles east of Chaco Culture National Historical Park and in an area with many Navajo communities and residences.
Oil and gas leasing is bad, it locks in the right for oil and gas companies to drill and frack, meaning it essentially guarantees more air and water pollution, more climate emissions, and more threats to public health and safety. However, the context under which the Bureau of Land Management has proposed to approve these particular leases makes it absolutely reprehensible.
Here, these leases were originally approved under the Trump administration. At the time, industry cronies in the Interior Department cut every corner to fast track more oil and gas leasing in response to company demands. In the Greater Chaco region, the Bureau of Land Management rushed to lease, flouting the law, science, community and Tribal concerns, and any notion of environmental justice.
In response, we sued together with Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Sierra Club, and Western Environmental Law Center. In spite of our lawsuit, the Bureau of Land Management proceeded to approve more than 100 new permits authorizing big oil giant EOG Resources–formerly Enron–to drill and frack the leases.
In response, we moved to block EOG’s drilling plans, filing a motion for a preliminary injunction in federal court last January. Thankfully, the Biden administration realized the injustice of defending the Trump administration’s lawless leasing and shortly after, we reached a settlement agreement with the Bureau of Land Management. As part of the settlement, the agency agreed to reconsider its leasing and to pause drilling and fracking on the illegal leases in the meantime.
Unfortunately, it appears the Bureau of Land Management actually had no objective plan for reconsideration.
In its announcement this month, the agency released four environmental assessments. All four state that the Bureau of Land Management’s “proposed action” is to reapprove all past leasing. Worse, all four assessments rely on the same lawless logic of the Trump administration that oil and gas leasing poses no significant impacts to the environment.
And if that wasn’t enough, all four assessments plainly state that in reapproving the leases, more oil and gas extraction in the region will disproportionately impact Navajo residents and communities with air and water pollution and infrastructure degradation. In other words, a complete environmental injustice.
Although we hope the Bureau of Land Management changes course, in the meantime, we’re gearing up for another fight. We certainly want to trust the Biden administration and Secretary Haaland to do the right thing for the Greater Chaco region, but if the Honoring Chaco Initiative is all talk, then we’ll have no choice but to go court to defend this irreplaceable landscape.
Stay tuned for more! In the meantime, speak out and keep the pressure on the Biden administration.
In a win for our climate, the Biden administration has agreed to reconsider oil and gas leasing across 4 million acres—more than 6,200 square miles!—of public lands in the Western United States.
The agreements result from a suite of groundbreaking climate lawsuits filed by WildEarth Guardians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Western Environmental Law Center. You, your actions, and your financial support made this victory possible!
In three settlements upheld by a federal judge this month, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to reassess and reconsider more than 2,000 oil and gas leases in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
Most of these leases were approved by the Trump administration, which sought to sell as many acres of public lands as possible to the oil and gas industry. Under Trump, science and the law took a back seat to the greedy demands of Big Oil companies like Exxon and Chevron.
Our settlement stems from a landmark court ruling we secured in 2019, holding that the Interior Department illegally ignored the cumulative climate consequences of selling public lands for fracking.
When oil and gas leases are sold, it conveys a right for industry to develop, guaranteeing that more dirty fossil fuels will be extracted and burned, only to flood the atmosphere with more climate pollution. Fracking and associated development on public lands also threaten critical wildlife habitat and fragment ancient migration routes of pronghorn and mule deer.
After our 2019 court win, we sued AGAIN in 2020 and AGAIN in 2021, confronting the Trump administration’s absolute climate denial. In response to our pressure, the Biden administration has thankfully agreed to do the right thing.
But if we have any chance of confronting the climate crisis, we have to stop leasing public lands for fracking—which means we still have much work to do.
I know we will be in the courts again and again in the coming months and years to defend our climate, public lands, and wildlife habitat. This is where we need your help today.
Please support our Keep It in the Ground Fund with a gift of $50, $100, $250, or more—so we can build on this victory across 4 million acres!
Together we’ll keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.