The Only Fair Return is Keeping Coal in the Ground

After years of rebuffing calls for change (and even highly visible endorsements of more coal production from former Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar), the U.S. Department of the Interior and Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, are engaging the American public in an “honest conversation” about how to reform the management of our publicly owned coal.

It’s a watershed moment in the history of the Interior Department and the federal coal program, and a refreshingly welcome sign that the agency is finally starting to take seriously the need to stop rubberstamping more coal mining in the U.S.

After all, the Interior Department directly oversees the production of more than 40% of our nation’s coal, the vast majority of which comes from extensive publicly owned deposits in the western U.S.  When burned, this coal produces more than 11% of our nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, a distressingly odd situation considering the Obama Administration’s express commitment to combating climate change.

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Coal train hauling a load south out of the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

The federal coal program also stands in stark contrast to the President’s signature climate accomplishment, the Clean Power Plan, which was finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month.  Even middle of the road environmental groups like The Wilderness Society have described the federal coal program as a “blind spot” in our nation’s plans to curb carbon emissions.

Yet in moving forward with its “honest conversation,” there seems to be a lack of forthrightness from the Interior Department.  Rather than come clean and tell the American public that its reform efforts are about the fate of our publicly owned coal, they’re couching reform in terms of “fair return,” asking the public, for example, to provide comment on royalty rates, fair market value, and how to ensure greater competition when leasing.

Everybody loves a “fair return,” no doubt, but from a climate perspective, the only way the American public public gets a fair return from coal is when it’s kept in the ground.

We all know this.  It’s why as the Interior Department has engaged in a series of “listening sessions” in the western U.S., the agency has been overwhelmed with comments and concerns about the future of coal.  Like last week in Gillette, Wyoming, the heart of the Powder River Basin, the nation’s largest coal producing region, where people overwhelmingly called on Interior to consider the future of their community.

The folks in Gillette get it.  This isn’t about reaping more money for taxpayers, this is about figuring out how to get to keeping it in the ground.  As I remarked:

“We can’t keep mining and burning coal and have any chance of meaningfully reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change….The reality is we have to move beyond coal and we have to leave it in the ground.”

That’s why as the Interior Department’s “honest conversation” has unfolded, WildEarth Guardians has aimed for the heart of what matters here.  In a report released earlier this month, we presented our plan for how the agency can get to a point where our coal is kept in the ground and our climate protected.  The plan includes five key milestones, including:

  1. A moratorium on leasing more coal;
  2. Retiring existing leases that are not producing;
  3. Recovering carbon costs as coal is produced;
  4. Honestly reporting to the American public on the true climate impacts of the federal coal program; and
  5. Helping communities dependent on publicly owned coal transition to more sustainable and prosperous economies.

By our measure, within 10-25 years, we can end the federal coal program by following this path.

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Certainly, it won’t be easy.  Helping communities like Gillette transition away from coal will require immense leadership from the Interior Department and a commitment from Congress and other agencies to provide the resources to make it happen.  As coal companies continue to go bankrupt, don’t expect any help from them.

Of course, that’s assuming consensus builds around the need for transition.  Even though communities like Gillette understand that Interior’s reform efforts are really about the fate of coal, they deny, adamantly, that this fossil fuel has no role in our future.  In fact, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead called on the Interior Department to “Keep coal profitable.”

It’s bizarre.  With agreement over the role of coal in fueling climate change, scientific studies confirming that coal has to be kept in the ground, mounting evidence that more carbon emissions are costing our nation and our world dearly, and even ongoing federal court rulings against Interior for failing to address the climate impacts of more mining, the writing is on the wall.

Coal is going to go away, whether Gillette likes it or not.  Denying this reality, or worse deceiving people into believing this fallacy, is nothing short of reckless.

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Coal silos in Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

In the meantime, the Interior Department’s coal reform listening sessions are wrapping up this week in Denver and Farmington, New Mexico.  WildEarth Guardians will be there in force telling Interior to keep it in the ground.  Join us if you can, we’ll be rallying beforehand and spreading the word.  Here’s more info. on the Denver and the Farmington hearings.

And if you can’t attend a hearing, sign our petition calling on Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, to keep our coal in the ground.  It’s our future, let’s speak out for it!

We can’t buy our way out of global warming.  The only fair return is to keep our coal in the ground.

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Feds Seriously Moving to Adopt Arch Coal Loophole

One would think that in the face of mounting controversy over the Obama Administration’s massive climate blind spot, the federal government would start to show some restraint when it comes to approving fossil fuel development on public lands.

Instead, they’ve done the complete opposite.  Not only that, but a new proposal from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior signals they’re aiming for the worst, a scheme to sacrifice nearly 20,000 acres of wild forest lands to appease Arch Coal.

The proposal comes in the aftermath of a landmark court ruling that overturned a loophole allowing coal mining in National Forest roadless areas in western Colorado.  A dubious giveaway, the loophole opened up thousands of acres of protected lands for coal mining near the iconic West Elk Mountains.  Even worse, it opened the door for coal companies to develop methane venting wells.  Far from harmless, the venting is devastating for the climate and has already transformed public lands in the area into a de facto gas field.

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Methane venting well with West Elk Mountains in background.

Thankfully, last summer a federal judge held that when adopting the loophole the Departments of Agriculture and Interior illegally failed to account for the climate impacts of expanded mining near the iconic West Elk Mountains.  The order dealt an especially significant blow to Arch Coal, which planned to target 350 million tons of new coal mining in the area.

More importantly, it opened the door for the Agriculture and Interior Departments to get it right on climate.  Instead of deferring to the status quo and letting the fossil fuel industry get its way on our pubic lands, the order created an unprecedented opportunity for these agencies to finally say “no.”

Sadly, instead of seizing the opportunity, it appears the agencies remain intent on sacrificing our public lands at the expense of our climate.

In a notice today, the Department of Agriculture, with the Department of the Interior “cooperating,” announced it intends to restore the coal mining loophole, opening up 19,100 acres of protected National Forest lands for coal mining and putting Arch Coal’s plans back on the rails.

The proposal takes climate hypocrisy to dangerous new heights (or should it be lows?).  Not only would it pave the way for more coal mining, it stands to unleash nearly half a billion tons of carbon.  Worse, it would do so by giving away our protected public lands to a single coal company.

That latter point can’t be emphasized enough.  The only other company that could possibly benefit from the loophole is currently shut down and has no plans to reopen.  This leaves Arch as the sole beneficiary, truly making it the “Arch Coal Loophole.”

The corrupt optics aside, while it may not be blatant climate denial, giving away our public lands to a coal company sure comes close.

The fact that the Agriculture and Interior Departments have even proposed the Arch Coal Loophole is troubling (after all, it means they’re already squandering taxpayer dollars for the benefit of Arch), but hopefully they’ll come to their senses and change course.

In the meantime, check out this video to see what’s at stake on the ground in western Colorado.  It’s a few years old, but as fresh as ever.  Enjoy!

More Fracking in Store for Colorado’s Front Range

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced last week its intent to auction off 86 parcels comprising more than 36,000 acres of our public lands to the oil and gas industry for drilling and fracking.  These lands are located along Colorado’s Front Range, including in Weld, Adams, Arapahoe, Morgan, and Logan Counties. They also include portions of the Pawnee National Grassland, which is already being heavily impacted by oil and gas development.

Click here or on the image below to view our interactive map of these where these fracking leases are located in relation to Front Range communities and other key areas.

Front Range Oil and Gas Leases

Map of oil and gas lease parcels proposed for auction by the Bureau of Land Management in May 2015.

The ensuing drilling and fracking will fuel air pollution in the Denver metro area, an area already violating federal limits for ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.  The key culprit for the region’s smog?  Unrestrained oil and gas development.  And, despite rules adopted to limit oil and gas industry emissions, studies have found smog-forming pollution is still on the rise.

The development also stands to destroy drinking water and diminish the flows of the South Platte River.  As WildEarth Guardians pointed out in a recent objection to the Forest Service’s plans to allow oil and gas leasing under the Pawnee National Grassland, oil and gas drilling and fracking is poised to permanently destroy 1.4 million acre-feet of water, nearly half a trillion gallons (see objection at p. 19).

But the real kicker is the amount of greenhouse gases that would be unleashed.

Although the Bureau of Land Management has not been entirely transparent yet on the full amount of carbon pollution expected to be released, an estimate by the Forest Service found that development of leases on the Pawnee national Grassland would unlock 127,440 tons of carbon dioxide and 6,608 tons of methane.  Given that methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, this amounts to nearly 650,000 tons of carbon in total slated to be released annually because of expanded fracking just on the Pawnee.

And this doesn’t even take into account the carbon pollution that would be released from natural gas processing, oil transport and refining, and of course the eventual combustion of all the oil and gas slated to be produced from these leases.

WildEarth Guardians is fighting to stop this tide of fossil fuel destruction and keep the Front Range safe and healthy.  We’ve turned the heat up on both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, exposing how disastrous their oil and gas plans would be.  Sadly, they’re not yet listening.  With the Bureau of Land Management’s latest notice, we have a chance to appeal and, hopefully set things straight.  Stay tuned for updates.

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Oil drilling and fracking viewed from near the Pawnee Buttes on the Pawnee National Grassland. If the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have their way, more of this will be showing up along Colorado’s Front Range.

Interior Department Killing Climate Progress

The climate hypocrisy of the U.S. Department of the Interior reached new and absolutely bizarre lows this past week.

On Monday, Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior Department, helped unveil the largest solar farm on our public lands, commending the project for taking “action on climate change” and helping “move our nation toward a renewable energy future.”

The plaudits were well founded.  After all, an estimated 300,000 tons of carbon stand to be displaced annually by the 550 megawatt solar farm, not an insignificant amount.

Two days later, however, Sally Jewell completely obliterated this climate progress.

In an oil and gas lease sale in Colorado, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management auctioned off 15,424 acres of public lands for drilling and fracking in the Little Snake Field Office in northwest Colorado.

Touted as an economic success, what the Bureau of Land Management failed to acknowledge is that development of these leases would fuel an increase in carbon dioxide (i.e., CO2) emissions to more than 800,000 tons annually just in the Little Snake Field Office.  The chart below, taken from the agency’s own environmental analysis, plainly shows the projected increase.

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Air emission increases projected in the Bureau of Land Management’s Little Snake Field Office of western Colorado (taken from p. 23 of the agency’s analysis).

That’s not the worst of it.  The chart above also shows that methane emissions (i.e., CH4) from oil and gas development would increase to 19,247 tons annually.  Given that methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, that amounts to more than 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

When everything is said and done, we’re looking at a decision by the Interior Department that will increase carbon emissions by more than 2 million tons annually.

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The net carbon increase is actually 2,184,229 tons annually.  No climate benefits will be remotely reaped by the Interior Department’s solar project. 

And as if this wasn’t bad enough, this increase doesn’t even take into account the carbon emissions that will result from the burning of the produced oil and gas.  All told, we’re taking about a major carbon setback.

So much for the benefits of solar, so much for climate progress at the Interior Department, and so much for moving our nation toward renewable energy.

Oh, and as for the claimed economic success of the Bureau of Land Management’s oil and gas lease sale?  Taking into account the value of carbon, which could be as high as $220 per ton, we’re looking upwards of $480 million in costs.  That’s a far cry from the $319,113 in revenue reported by the agency.

The worst of it is, more oil and gas leasing and even more carbon pollution is on the horizon.

Just this past week, the Bureau of Land Management announced plans to lease 35,000 more acres of public lands in Colorado, including 25,000 acres of the Pawnee National Grassland.  And next week, the agency intends to auction off 12,000 acres of public lands for fracking in southern Utah.

The climate hypocrisy of the Interior Department seemingly knows no bounds.  For our nation and our future, hopefully this will change and change soon.  We can’t save the climate by selling more oil and gas.

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Public lands oil and gas development approved by the Department of the Interior is destroying climate progress.

Take a Fracking Tour in the Rockies!

Check out our new interactive photo tour map of fracking in the Rocky Mountain West!

Click on the image below and see firsthand what fracking is looking like on the ground, what’s it’s doing to the iconic American West, and what’s at stake if we can’t overcome this onslaught from the oil and gas industry.  If you really want to dive in, download the .kml file, open it up in Google Earth, and explore away (and by the way, for the more GIS minded, Google Earth Pro–which comes with way more data handling capabilities–is now free).

The vast majority of oil and gas development occurring in the Rocky Mountain West is happening on public lands.  Although our public lands are an immense national treasure, they are sadly being industrialized.  Worse, this development is fueling unprecedented releases of greenhouse gases, including from methane leaks.  WildEarth Guardians is working to keep our public lands frack-free in order to safeguard the climate and protect our future.

This is a work in progress, we’ll keep posting photos as we get ’em and refining the map as we go.  In the meantime, enjoy!

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U.S. Interior Department: Still All About Fossil Fuels

Even as scientists are confirming that it’s time to keep fossil fuels in the ground, the U.S. Department of the Interior continues to open the door for extensive coal, oil, and gas development on our public lands, fueling unchecked carbon pollution at belligerently reckless rates.

The latest step backward occurred earlier this week as Interior’s Bureau of Land Management just gave itself a big pat on the back for approving thousands of new drilling permits and offered to lease nearly 6 million acres of public lands to the oil and gas industry for fracking.

The Bureau was so zealous, they gloat that they offered drilling permits and leasing opportunities “in excess of industry demand.”  

Flaring on well in Lybrook badlands

Flaring, where the oil and gas industry purposefully burns off natural gas while producing oil, is the ultimate waste. Here, flaring at a fracking site on public lands in northwestern New Mexico was condoned by the Bureau of Land Management. Photo by Mike Eisenfeld.

In other words not only is the Bureau of Land Management meeting 100% of industry demands, they’re actually trying to give away even more.

It doesn’t end there.  Last month, Interior reaffirmed its belief that coal is an “important part of our domestic energy portfolio,” offering new guidance to make leasing and mining more “efficient” and “certain” for industry.

Certainly, the new guidance is meant to ensure the American public gets a fair return on coal, especially where it’s exported, and it is likely to spur higher prices for federal coal leases and higher royalties.  However, there’s an ominous omission.  Nowhere has Interior signaled its intent to ensure carbon costs are factored into the valuation of coal.

It’s a simple concept.  Carbon has a price.  If unleashed from the ground (in the form of oil, gas, or coal), that price becomes a cost borne by our economy in the form of the destruction wrought by climate change.  Those costs can add up, erasing any economic benefits otherwise reaped by the production and consumption of fossil fuels.

In the case of publicly owned coal, all signs indicate that carbon costs are, in fact, adding up and overriding any economic benefits.  As reported by our friends at Greenpeace, while a ton of federal coal is brining in $1.03 per ton in revenue, it’s yielding carbon costs of between $22 and $237.

Interior’s new guidance, while providing greater clarity and direction around the valuation of publicly owned coal, continues to turn a blind eye to carbon costs, filling industry’s coffers at our expense.

Ensuring a fair return from coal sales is certainly laudable, but the reality is, no return can ever be fair if it doesn’t fully compensate the American public for the climate damage caused by unleashing more carbon.

Now, more than ever, Interior should be exercising massive restraint when it comes to development of fossil fuels on our public lands.  Sadly, they’re not.  The list of new coal, oil, and gas projects slated for approval in the coming months continues to swell.  Here’s just a sampling of what’s in the queue:

And this is just a fraction of what’s planned for approval in the next year.  It’s like a tsunami of carbon threatening to be unleashed.

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55,000 acres of public lands are slated to be auctioned off for fracking in southern Utah. The prospect of more fossil fuel development portends disaster both for our climate and our public lands.

Of course, with Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the Department of Interior, actively advocating for more fracking (and even dismissing the notion that fracking should be banned or otherwise curtailed), perhaps there’s little chance of a shift.

If that’s the case, the Obama Administration needs to fire Sally Jewell.  After all, she’s the one who said climate denial has no place at the Department of the Interior.

 

Pass or Fail for Governor Hickenlooper’s Fracking Task Force?

By Tim Ream, Climate and Energy Campaign Director, WildEarth Guardians

Fracking in Colorado proved deadly last week with the death of one and injuries of two other Halliburton workers at a frack job in Weld County. While a dramatic loss of life like this quickly made national headlines, Colorado residents near fracking sites continue to wonder whether they are being subject to less visible but just as deadly air and water pollution from fracking; pollution that will eventually strike in the form of cancer, birth defects, and respiratory disease.Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 8.58.04 AM

Concerns like these have led to a spate of local initiatives, including several ballot measures, seeking to rein in fracking. Bolstered by findings that oil and gas development can pose immense risks to public health and safety, including recent findings that fracking operations release seven times more cancer-causing benzene emissions than previously estimated, these initiatives succeeded in putting communities first.

Yet while local communities have asserted their rights to defend their residents, they’ve also faced oil and gas industry lobbying and lawsuits aiming to turn back efforts at local control.

To fully defend local communities’ rights to protect themselves from the oil and gas industry, citizens in 2014 proposed a Colorado Right to Local Self-Government Amendment to the state constitution. Sensing a serious threat to their bottom line, however, the industry and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper negotiated a deal that removed the amendment from the November ballot.

That deal resulted in the creation of a 21-person Oil and Gas Task Force, which was charged with recommending a set of statutory and regulatory changes to reduce the dangers of fracking to local communities. While welcomed by the oil and gas industry and the politicians they support, it has yet to be seen whether the Task Force can truly keep families and communities safe from fracking.Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 8.59.07 AM

WildEarth Guardians decided that if the Task Force were truly to succeed, it needed a clear set of standards to measure progress. To that end, today we released a “Test for Success” for the Task Force. You can read the report here, but in a nutshell, we believe that any set of recommendations by the Task Force must include the four following elements:

• A right to know what chemicals frackers are using near communities and full disclosure from the oil and gas industry and state regulators,

• Safety triggers for pollution violations, which ensure that fracking is shut down when air, water, and other health standards are not being met,

• Three strikes and you are out for the oil and gas industry’s worst repeat bad actors, and

• The ability for local communities to step in when the state fails to enforce its own rules.

Overall, these recommendations are incredibly straightforward and are simply about putting public health and safety first. With reports underscoring the extreme risks of fracking, the recommendations are all the more reasonable.

“Any deal that does not protect our families and communities from fracking is not a compromise, but a failure.”

Check out the report for more details on these key principles, but more importantly provide your own input to the Task Force by emailing it to ogtaskforce@state.co.us. You also have a right to provide live public testimony at Task Force meetings. Their meeting schedule is here.

The bottom line is that if Governor Hickenlooper’s Task Force is to succeed, they need to hear from us. Whether they pass or fail is up to them, but unless we make clear our expectations, we can’t effectively grade their efforts.

For the sake of Colorado, we hope the Task Force lives up to these recommendations. However, if Governor Hickenlooper won’t defend basic principles such as the right to know and the need to empower local communities to enforce laws and regulations, it will clearly signal that citizen’ ballot initiatives need to be aggressively renewed.

Ultimately, this isn’t about whether fracking is good or bad, it’s about whether Colorado is going to be protected. The challenge is upon Governor Hickenlooper’s Task Force and we eagerly look forward to assessing whether or not they rise to the occasion.