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.

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!

fracking tour map

Fossil Fuels from Public Lands Costing us Dearly

Last year, WildEarth Guardians called out the U.S. Department of Interior for touting the economic benefits of its fossil fuel management program while completely ignoring the carbon costs.

The omission was significant.  As we estimated, the cost of oil, gas, and coal produced from public lands managed by the Interior Department in 2013 could be in the billions and likely overshadows the economic “benefits” reported.  These costs reflect the economic damages caused by carbon-induced climate changes, in other words, the costs that society absorbs in the form of extreme weather, rising sea level, higher air pollution, etc.

Since the release of our report, however, we’ve come to find out that we seriously missed the mark in our cost estimate.  In fact, the latest studies indicate we underestimated total costs by more than 100%.

As a report published yesterday in the journal, Nature Climate Change, reports, carbon costs are not actually the $101 per ton we relied on in our report, but actually $220 per ton.

The study, completed by Stanford scientists, is a telling revelation that the cost of carbon is getting more expensive than ever as our understanding of climate-related economic damages is refined.  The findings should sound an even shriller alarm over the need to significantly curtail greenhouse gases as quickly as possible.  As a press release from Stanford bluntly points out:

Based on the findings, countries may want to increase their efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, said study co-author Delavane Diaz, a PhD candidate in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford’s School of Engineering. “If the social cost of carbon is higher, many more mitigation measures will pass a cost-benefit analysis,” Diaz said. “Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile.”

In our July 2014 report, we estimated the total cost of oil, gas, and coal produced from public lands overseen by the Interior Department in 2013 to amount to more than $176 billion.  Based on the latest $220 per ton estimate from Stanford, however, total costs are actually higher than $383 billion.  With the Department of Interior reporting $121 billion in economic benefits, this amounts to a total cost of $262 billion.

In other words, in 2013, the overall cost of oil, gas, and coal produced from public lands was more than double the reported benefits.

On the flip side, this means that every ton of coal, every barrel of oil, and every cubic feet of natural gas kept in the ground is money in the bank.  With carbon costs rising, it means that fossil fuels on our public lands are becoming more valuable in the ground than out.

Unfortunately, with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management claiming that increased oil production was a “major accomplishment” in 2014, the value of keeping fossil fuels in the ground may not be sinking in yet.

For the future, both near and long-term, hopefully that will change.  With carbon costs continuing to rise, the Interior Department can’t afford to keep turning a blind eye to our climate.

north-antelope-mine

A worthless coal mine surrounded by valuable, undeveloped coal seams in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Photo by EcoFlight (ecoflight.org).

 

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.

 

Your Land is Fracked: The Untold Story of Drilling on Our Public Lands

Note: Tim Ream is WildEarth Guardians’ new Climate and Energy Campaign Director. He’ll be joining me in blogging here from time to time.  Enjoy his first post!  — Jeremy Nichols

I’ve spent a whole lot of days and nights in my life enjoying the beautiful public lands we have been blessed with across this nation. I’ve experienced the awe of waking in subalpine forests covered in new snow, incredible morning birdsong along desert riverbanks, and the diverse life and landscapes of myriad other wonderful places on our National Forests and on lands managed for us by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Still, my first night out with WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols, was brand new to me. We set camp in a coal-bed methane drilling field that was unlike anything I had ever seen on public lands.

Think of your favorite wild place and then imagine one of these plopped in every direction.

Think of your favorite wild place and then imagine one of these plopped in every direction.

I had just started my first week as Guardians’ new Climate and Energy Campaign Director and Jeremy decided I needed some intimate acquaintance with the land it was now my job to protect. Guardians’ vision is that our U.S. public lands should be completely free of fossil fuel development. After all, more than one in three Americans rely on public lands as a source of their drinking water. If you travel just about anywhere in this country, you surely drink water that originates on our public lands. The last thing any of us want is to have our families contaminated by chemical concoctions used to frack for oil and gas – often secret chemical combinations that companies refuse to identify to doctors or researchers.

 

Well pads don't just make your public lands hike ugly, they can kill you.

Well pads don’t just make your hike on public lands look ugly, they can kill you.

Along with clean water, we expect our National Forests and other public lands to be sources of clean air. Just the opposite is happening in many rural communities near frack jobs on our public lands. Rural communities in Utah and Colorado have already been federally declared as unhealthy air zones with fracking, oil and gas transport, and oil and gas processing the culprit for excessive smog. Air monitors in rural regions in some other Western states, otherwise free from industrial sources or heavy traffic except for oil and gas production, are also beginning to ring alarms over their decline in clean air. I personally had a hard time breathing in the worst of the areas we visited.

Great open spaces aren't so great when tracking invades.

Great open spaces aren’t so great when fracking invades.

But even if public lands oil and gas could be magically fracked (and nearly all oil and gas produced in this country nowadays is fracked) in some pristine way that didn’t pollute our air and drinking water, we’d still have to fight it. That’s because just about every serious scientist who has weighed in on global warming policy prescriptions agrees that the bulk of the fossil fuel left in the world has to be kept in the ground.

The simple truth is most fossil fuels must be left in the ground or we risk runaway global warming.

The simple truth is most fossil fuels must be left in the ground or we risk runaway global warming.

So, how are we going to lockdown hundreds of billions of dollars of fossil fuel that every greedy oilman and gas developer in the world wants to get their paws on? The same way we have created large open spaces free from industrial or residential development; the same way we have preserved landscapes big enough for bison and wolves; the same way we have kept forests uncut for miles in every direction. Our precious public lands, and the fossil fuels found under them don’t belong to the federal government. They belong to us; they’re our birthright as citizens. The government only manages them at our direction. Those are our fossil fuels. That’s our carbon. And the way I read the polls, most Americans don’t want that carbon burned up into our atmosphere, speeding the pace to an unlivable world of runaway global warming for our kids and grandkids.

The biggest most protected landscapes in our country are all on our public lands because that is where we the people have the most influence to protect them. So it only makes sense that the place we will have the most influence in locking down the first extensive sources of carbon, and thereby turning the tide on climate change, is on public lands that hold publicly-owned carbon. We have to keep the oil and gas and coal industries from burning our carbon and destroying our climate. And as the greatest historical climate polluter, it only makes sense that the U.S. has the responsibility to lead on this carbon lockdown issue by locking down our public lands fossil fuels first.

Your public lands or just another cash cow for Big Oil and Gas?

Your public lands or just another cash cow for Big Oil and Gas?

With that as our mission, Jeremy took me out for a tour of what we are up against, specifically focusing on oil and gas. It isn’t pretty. We did an 1800-mile loop from Denver up through southern Wyoming, through Utah’s Uinta Basin, down to northwestern New Mexico and then back to Colorado. Despite the distance, we still only saw a tiny fraction of public lands oil and gas drilling. In fact, the U.S. currently has more than 32 million acres under lease. That is an area of public lands fossil fuel development leasing bigger than the size of New York State. Thankfully, not all of it is being developed at this time, but that is only because oil and gas companies bid on and then hold these leased public lands in speculation. One of Guardians’ goals is to stop this lease speculation on public lands by Big Oil and Gas.

Checkerboard land ownership can put public lands fracking right next to farms and ranches.

Checkerboard land ownership can put public lands fracking right next to farms and ranches.

Despite lease speculation, the amount of active development is still huge. About 25% of fossil fuels burned in this country come from public lands, those are fossil fuels that you own. Think about that: the overwhelming majority of Americans–heck, even a majority of Republicans–have told pollster after pollster that we want the government to do more to stop global warming, but what the Obama Administration is doing instead is selling off the public’s fossil fuels to speed the rate of global warming. Sarah Palin’s “drill baby, drill” turned into Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy and the result is undoing all other government efforts taken to stop global warming combined.

Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy is making global warming worse.

Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy is making global warming worse.

Jeremy and I traveled landscape after landscape riddled with gas wells, pump jacks, pipelines and processing plants. We saw hundreds of miles of new roads built across vast, previously unroaded landscapes, with the sole purpose to let Big Oil and Gas pull money out of the ground. There are huge sections of public lands that have an oil well pad every quarter of a mile in every direction for hundreds of square miles. Where there are gaps, projects are proposed to fill in the blank spaces. These well pads are eyesores, dangerous, and dominate the landscape. You can’t hunt near gas tanks. You won’t picnic next to toxic industrial facilities. And you don’t camp in well fields, maybe with the exception of Jeremy and me on a mission. For all intents and purposes, we haven’t just sold Big Oil and Gas our fossil fuels, we have given away our birthright of public land.

It has to stop. Now.

Picnic anywhere you like, but please keep the kids and pets out of the toxic waste.

Picnic anywhere you like, but please keep the kids and pets out of the toxic waste.

On these pages, Jeremy has been describing what Guardians has been doing to fight coal, oil, and gas development project by project throughout the West. We are going to step up that work, with an added focus on oil and gas. We will expand on recent court wins and we have a few novel legal approaches to help us take back our lands.

In addition, we have a bigger vision. What if the young and growing climate movement, the mature and experienced public lands movement, and the fiery and surging anti-fracking movement all joined forces to shut down one-third of all oil and gas fracking in one fell swoop? Guardians is hoping to catalyze this three-way movement marriage into the biggest threat the U.S. fossil fuel industry has ever faced. Taking back our carbon on our lands is a winnable fight and would be an incredibly powerful step turning the U.S. into a leader in addressing climate change.

Stay tuned to these pages.

And of course, you can help. Please support our work in protecting our drinking water, our air, and our climate by joining WildEarth Guardians and lending your support to kicking the fossil fuel industry off our public lands for good. Become a member or make a donation today.

I look forward to working with you on this incredibly important campaign. Check out more photos of our public lands fracking tour here. And thank you for your support.

Tim Ream

Climate and Energy Campaign Director

The author is unhappy with oil and gas drilling on public lands.

The author is unhappy with oil and gas drilling on public lands.

Time for EPA to Come Clean on Methane

It’s only Wednesday and it’s already been a busy week on the issue of methane, a  greenhouse gas that’s like carbon on steroids and is released extensively in the production of fossil fuels:

  • There’s been ongoing coverage of our court victory last Friday overturning Arch Coal’s plans to expand its West Elk mine and in the process vent massive amounts of methane.  That ruling invalidated a U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management approval of Arch’s plans on the basis that the costs of carbon pollution, including the costs of venting methane gas, were ignored, a big victory for the climate.
  • And this week, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that newer gas wells being drilled into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale are leaking more methane than wells drilled into other formations.  The study has major implications for shale oil and gas drilling and fracking across the nation, which is fast taking hold as the predominant form of oil and gas development.  Indeed, we just commented this week on the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to allow 5,000 wells to be drilled into the Niobrara shale formation of eastern Wyoming.

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Methane venting well at Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in western Colorado (click to see more pictures of what methane venting at coal mines looks like, including this video of methane venting in action)

There’s a lot going on around methane, but what’s disturbingly not being discussed is how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and apparently other federal agencies, for that matter) are downplaying, if not covering up, the climate impacts of methane emissions.

Certainly, everybody recognizes that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but what seems to be obfuscated is exactly how potent it is.

The measure of a greenhouse gases potency is also called its global warming potential.  In the case of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency has for many years universally presumed a global warming potential of 21, meaning that for one part of methane equals 21 parts of carbon dioxide.  But studies are consistently confirming that this estimate is too low, particularly when assessing the short-term climate impacts of methane emissions.

In fact, while studies are finding that over a 100-year period, the global warming potential of methane is more than 30 times that of carbon dioxide, they’re finding that in the short-term, methane may be as much as 105 times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas.

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (often referred to as the IPCC), probably the most authoritative (even if somewhat cautious) scientific body that is synthesizing climate information for policymakers and the public, reported methane global warming potentials under two scenarios:  the first, where climate carbon feedback is not accounted for the second, where it is.  The climate-carbon feedback factor refers to the fact that as carbon creates more warming, more greenhouse gas emissions are released.  For example, as permafrost melts, more methane is released from Arctic tundra.

Taking into account climate-carbon feedback (which is more reasonable and accurate given the very real feedback impacts of greenhouse gas-fueled warming), the IPCC reported in their most recent synthesis of climate science that methane’s global warming potential is 34 over a 100-year period and 86 over a 20-year period (you can download their report at climatechange2013.org at p. 714).  Below is the table showing the IPCC’s reported global warming potentials.

Global Warming Potential Over 100 Years Over 20 Years
Without Climate-Carbon Feedback

28

84

With Climate-Carbon Feedback

34

86

In spite of these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to assume that methane’s potency is only 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

For instance, in the agency’s latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks in the United States, which was released in April and presents 2012 data, they rely on a global warming potential of 21 (see their Executive Summary at p. ES-3).  In doing so, they report that coal mines and oil and gas operations (the fourth and first largest sources of methane in the U.S., respectively) release the equivalent of 222 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (total of 10.57 million metric tons of methane).

Yet, based on a global warming potential of 86, total carbon dioxide emissions due to methane from coal mines and oil and gas operations is actually more than 900 million metric tons, a more than four-fold difference.  

The table below shows the differences between EPA’s estimate of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from coal mines and oil and gas operations, based on the outdated global warming potential of 21,  and estimates based on the IPCC’s global warming potential factors.

Methane and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (in million metric tons) from oil and gas operations and coal mines, based on EPA’s 2012 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks, released in April 2014, and IPCC global warming potential factors.

methane and co2e emissions

What this shows is that the climate impacts of methane are being significantly underestimated, in turn giving the impression that methane emissions from coal mines and oil and gas sources are not significant sources of carbon.  In fact, just based on methane along, this data shows that oil and gas and coal mines are the fourth and fifth largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., right behind power plants, transportation, and industrial fossil fuel combustion.

Certainly, the Environmental Protection Agency has not outright discounted the significance of methane emissions from oil and gas operations, but they have refused to acknowledge that methane from coal mines is worthy of any agency attention.

And although the agency last fall officially raised the global warming potential of methane from 21 to 25, this is a far cry from reflecting the real short-term climate impacts of unchecked methane emissions.  Furthermore, in doing so, the agency rejected establishing a global warming potential based on a 20-year timeframe, essentially turning its back on the fact that methane’s climate impacts are more significant over the short-term, rather than the long-term.

By downplaying the climate impacts of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency is undermining the urgency that should be driving efforts to cut emissions of this potent greenhouse gas.  The result is that other federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management notable among them, continue to drag their feet in acknowledging the need for methane reductions and the cost of delaying action.

With President Obama himself calling for methane cuts nationwide, it’s critical that the Environmental Protection Agency get it right in curbing this potent climate threat.