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Climate Protection Just a Game to the U.S. Interior Department

Despite major climate progress here in the U.S., including a historic moratorium on leasing publicly owned coal, the Obama Administration is still frighteningly out of step when it comes to confronting the global warming impacts of fossil fuel production on our public lands.

In fact, despite mounting calls for an end to public lands oil, gas, and coal leasing, Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, remarked that it’s “naive” to believe we should keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Perhaps the Secretary missed it when the President last year rejected the Keystone tar sands pipeline, saying “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.

It goes way beyond reckless rhetoric, though.

By all measures, the Obama Administration’s Department of the Interior seems to be doing everything possible to deny, dismiss, and disregard taking any action to rein in fossil fuels. It’s as if the Interior Department believes climate protection is just a game. How else to explain the agency’s response to concerns over massive carbon increases tied to some of its recent coal mining and oil and gas fracking approvals.

Take the Continental Divide-Creston Natural Gas Project, so named because it would let BP (yes, BP) smother a 1.1 million acre stretch of the Continental Divide southwest of Creston, Wyoming with nearly 9,000 new oil and gas wells, unlocking more than 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (and also 167.3 million barrels of oil condensate).

An analysis prepared by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management discloses that this single oil and gas project stands to unleash more than 8.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, every year by 2022. Astoundingly, these annual emissions are projected to continue for up to 55 years.

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Greenhouse gas emissions projected from Continental Divide-Creston project. You can see the analysis for yourself here on page 4-53 >>

8.6 million metric tons of carbon every year for 55 years is a lot. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator, that’s the same as 2.5 coal-fired power plants. Yes, that’s right, this one oil and gas project will emit the same amount of carbon as the smokestacks of two and a half coal-fired power plants.

So what was the Interior Department’s response to what is admittedly a s**t ton of carbon pollution?  The agency had the audacity to assert that because it couldn’t model what specific climate impacts would result from the the release of the specific greenhouse gases, that it was “not possible” to even analyze climate impacts (see the “analysis” on p. 4-68).

In other words, while acknowledging the project would release as much carbon as two and a half coal-fired power plants, according to the Interior Department, there’s simply no way to tell how bad these emissions might be.

Never mind that scientists are sounding the alarms, saying that we need to keep more than 3/4 of all our fossil fuels in the ground and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 66% below 2010 levels just to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius.  And never mind that even a 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperature still portends disaster for many corners of the world.

It’s no different than a thunderstorm trying claim it didn’t cause a flood because there’s no way to prove that each of its rain drops was actually a part of the rising waters.  And just like those thunderstorms got a lot of nerve, so, too, does the Interior Department.

The Interior Department’s unplausible deniability gets worse, though. That 8.6 million metric tons of carbon? That’s just from the construction and production of the wells, it doesn’t even take into account the downstream burning of oil and gas that will inevitably occur.

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BP has already drilled and fracked more than 4,000 oil and gas wells in the 1.1 million acre Continental Divide-Creston area. Apparently unhappy with this, the company now wants to drill and frack nearly 9,000 more.

Once again using EPA’s handy calculator, the 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas expected to be produced can be expected to unleash more than 656 million metric tons of carbon emissions. And like a cherry on top, the 167.3 million barrels of oil condensate can be expected to yield another 72 million metric tons.

When all is said and done, we’re talking more than 728 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from the ultimate consumption and combustion of oil and gas.

Taking into account the Interior Department’s own numbers, the Continental Divide-Creston project stands to unleash an estimated 21.8 million metric tons of carbon every year for 55 years. That’s more than 1.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases.

To put that into perspective, the Keystone tar sands pipeline would have unleashed 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon over its lifetime.  Remember what happened to Keystone?

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Much of the Continental Divide-Creston project area is, appropriately, located in Carbon County, Wyoming. 

Think the Interior Department’s baseless dismissal of the climate consequences of this massive oil and gas project is just an anomaly?

It’s not. In fact, we’re seeing the same thing come up again and again and again and and again (and even again).

Take the Trapper coal mine in western Colorado. Last month, Interior approved an expansion of the mine, which fuels the nearby Craig power plant. According to an analysis prepared by Interior’s Office of Surface Mining, the mining approval will lead the release of more than 5.8 million metric tons of carbon annually, both from the mining and the inevitable coal combustion (see the analysis on p. 5-6).

Once again, that’s a lot of carbon. To be precise, 5.8 million metric tons equals the amount of greenhouse gases released annually by more than 1,221,053 cars.

What was Interior’s response? Any climate impacts would be “negligible” (see the analysis on pp. 4-18 and 4-19). As if to snidely underscore its seemingly contradictory claim, the agency pointed out that 5. 8 million metric tons of carbon would be only “0.07%” of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

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The Craig coal-fired power plant. According to the Department of the Interior, this power plant, the largest single source of carbon emissions in Colorado, poses only “negligible” climate impacts. Photo by EcoFlight.

This response pushes absurdity to the extreme on many levels. For one thing, when it comes to climate change, there is no such thing as a single significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The largest single source of carbon in the U.S., the Scherer coal-fired power plant in Georgia, releases only 0.24% of all U.S. greenhouse gases. That’s how it goes with climate change. It’s not a small group of massive sources of carbon pollution that matter, it’s a massive amount of small sources that matter. Interior’s logic effectively denies this fact.

More importantly, Interior’s argument misses (by miles) the bigger context here. Because we’re not just talking the Trapper coal mine. We’re talking about numerous coal approvals being made by Interior that cumulatively add up to a major climate disaster.

Currently, the agency is weighing approval of seven new coal mine expansions in the western United States. Take together, these approvals stand to unleash more than 135 million metric tons of carbon, contributing to nearly 2% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Estimated carbon emissions associated with pending Interior Department coal mining approvals. Estimates utilized average production rates and EPA emission factor of 0.000931 metric tons of carbon for every pound of coal burned.

Mine Location Tons of Coal Produced Per Year (Estimated) Pounds of Coal Metric Tons of CO2 % Contribution to U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Belle Ayr Wyoming 22,500,000 45,000,000,000 41,895,000.00 0.59%
Colowyo Colorado 5,000,000 10,000,000,000 9,310,000.00 0.13%
Dry Fork Wyoming 6,000,000 12,000,000,000 11,172,000.00 0.16%
Freedom North Dakota 13,500,000 27,000,000,000 25,137,000.00 0.35%
Rosebud Montana 4,000,000 8,000,000,000 7,448,000.00 0.10%
Skyline Utah 4,000,000 8,000,000,000 7,448,000.00 0.10%
Spring Creek Montana 18,000,000 36,000,000,000 33,516,000.00 0.47%
TOTAL 1.90%

Add that to the fact that the Interior Department’s coal approvals are already linked to more than 11% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and you can see this pending mining really threatens to add up.

Add to that the total carbon emissions linked to the agency’s oil and gas approvals and you find that a little more than 20% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to Interior Department fossil fuel decisions.

That sure doesn’t seem “negligible.” One could argue this actually puts the Interior Department at the top of the list of our nation’s largest climate polluters. Negligent, maybe, but definitely not negligible.

While the Interior Department seems to be moving beyond outright, blatant climate denial, which is a positive sign. But playing games with numbers and reason in an attempt to avoid taking any responsibility for reducing greenhouse gases seems no different.

Sally Jewell may find it naive to believe we need to start keeping fossil fuels in the ground to protect our climate. For the rest of us who believe in and adhere to the laws of physics, however, that’s not naiveté, it’s common sense.

It’s time for President Obama to start enforcing some climate common sense. He truly needs to rein in Sally Jewell and his U.S. Department of the Interior.

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