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.

A Year of Major Climate Progress: WildEarth Guardians’ Top Ten of 2015

2015 was a seriously amazing year for the climate movement (the Pope!). As well for WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program, it was a year of tremendous success.

We secured lawsuit wins, rallied widespread public support for climate protection, mounted unprecedented pressure on the Obama Administration to rein in greenhouse gases and the fossil industry, helped kick off a new movement to keep our fossil fuels in the ground, and more.

The year’s progress marks nearly a decade of dogged and strategic advocacy by WildEarth Guardians. Beginning in 2007 when our Climate and Energy Program was founded, we’ve been at the forefront of campaigns to tackle fossil fuels in the western U.S. From confronting the region’s coal-fired power plants to challenging coal mining and fracking, our aim has been to make it more difficult to produce and consume fossil fuels. In doing so,  we’ve made it easier for clean energy to take hold and power our nation, spurring enormous reductions in greenhouse gases and playing a vital role in global efforts to combat climate change.

As 2016 kicks into gear, we thought we’d get inspired for the new year ahead by taking stock of our key successes in 2015. A lot happened, but we thought it best to recount the top ten key milestones of the past 12 months (in no particular order). So, without further introduction, here’s to the success of the past year and the promise of much more to come!

WG Utah Fracking Credit Brian Roller1. Interior Department Cancels Oil and Gas Lease Sales

Since the inception of WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program, we’ve been confronting the U.S. Department of the Interior’s sale of our western public lands to the oil and gas industry. Bending to the demands of the likes of Exxon and BP, Interior has over the years leased more than 34 million acres of federal oil and gas, mostly in the American West. This leasing effectively hands over the rights for private companies to drill and frack our public lands (Wyoming has the most acreage of federal oil and gas leases, most of which were sold just in the last 10 years-check out a map showing the leases offered for sale since 2005).

While leasing has been a disaster for our public lands (as we’ve noted), it’s emerged as a major impediment to climate progress. Fracking not only unleashes massive amounts of methane pollution, when burned, it fuels our nation’s global warming footprint. A report released by The Wilderness Society in 2015 found that oil and gas produced from public lands and waters is responsible for 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half of these emissions can be traced back to production from public lands in the American West.

In 2015, we stepped up our efforts to confront public lands oil and gas leasing, aiming to raise the profile of the climate consequences, mobilize the public and our allied organizations, and draw national attention to the issue. On all accounts, we succeeded. We turned out supporters in Cheyenne, helped organize more than 100 people to show up in Denver, and stirred the pot in Salt Lake City.

Our efforts culminated in the unprecedented cancellation of a lease sale in Utah, a move that rippled nationwide and spurred the cancellation of another lease sale subsequently scheduled in Washington, D.C.

Although certainly the fight isn’t over (the Interior Department is facing pressure from the oil and gas industry and the politicians they support to put fracking first on public lands), the tide is turning.

 

2.  Leading the Charge to Keep it in the Ground, Kicking off the Next Climate Campaign

After years of fighting fossil fuel on myriad fronts, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups finally came together in 2015 with the aim of launching a unified front to stop the leasing of publicly owned oil, gas, and coal throughout the U.S. Guardians played a key role in making it happen, helping spearhead a letter to the President and joining with a diverse coalition to rally in person with a simple ask: “Keep it in the Ground.”

Keeping it in the ground is a simple concept. By slowing and ultimately stopping the production of coal, oil, and gas, we incentivize a transition from fossil fuels and meaningfully curtail future greenhouse gas emissions. In simple terms, carbon kept in the ground is carbon kept out of the atmosphere.

The opportunity to keep fossil fuels in the ground is especially at hand with regards to federal oil, gas, and coal. These are the fossil fuels owned by the American public and managed by the Interior Department, and which underlie vast acreages, mainly in the American West. Right now, these fossil fuels are responsible for more than 20% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Every American has a say in how these fossil fuels are managed, and with the Obama Administration fully committed to combating climate change, has every reason to expect them to be kept in the ground.

Sadly, these expectations have been massively let down. Since taking office, the President has overseen the sale of nearly billions of tons of coal and millions of acres of oil and gas leases. In just the last month, the Administration approved the sale of 738,000 tons of coal in Wyoming and announced the upcoming auction of more than 45,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Utah. Ugh.

However, things are looking brighter. In the wake of the roll out of a formal Keep it in the Ground movement, new federal legislation was proposed by U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Bernie Sanders, and others to ban new oil, gas, and coal leasing. And, in rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, President Obama himself remarked, “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.”

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Calling on President Obama to stop leasing more publicly owned coal, oil, and gas.

WildEarthGuardians_Coal3.  Win Over Colowyo and Trapper Coal Mining

With coal, the primary aim of Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program has been to get to the root of the problem.

That’s why for several years now, we’ve sought to confront new coal mining in the American West, targeting production as a means to curtail consumption and future carbon pollution (after all, coal is mined for one reason: to be burned; no mining, no burning, no carbon).

The focus of our campaign has been on the Interior Department’s role in approving the mining of publicly owned coal in the western U.S. For years, Interior has rubberstamped coal mining with no public notice and no consideration of the climate consequences. With Interior overseeing 40% of all coal production in the U.S., which in turn produces 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the nation, this is a huge deal. In 2015, that all changed.

In May, we secured a court victory that held the Interior Department illegally turned its back on the public and on the climate consequences of approving more coal mining at the Colowyo and Trapper mines in northwest Colorado. The ruling capped a more than two year legal campaign by Guardians to put a stop to Interior’s practice of blindly authorizing more mining across the western U.S.

While the win itself was significant, the ruling sent shockwaves throughout Colorado and beyond, it held, for the first time, that the Interior Department had a duty to account for the climate impacts of its coal approvals and to be transparent with the public about these impacts.

More importantly, the ruling held that if the Interior Department continued to ignore its obligations under federal law, future mining approvals would be overturned, potentially shutting down mining operations.

The court win also helped to kick up the profile of the federal coal program (seemingly exponentially) and to amplify calls for reform. This past summer, Interior moved to reform the way it manages publicly owned coal, acknowledging a need to “manage our coal program in a way that is consistent with our climate change objectives.”

U.S. Senators, including Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, also weighed in, calling on Interior to account for the carbon pollution associated with its coal approvals. The call was followed by proposed legislation from Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts that would prohibit new coal leasing unless and until Interior raised royalty rates to account for carbon costs. Even former Interior Department echoed the calls.

In the meantime, we followed up our court win by filing new lawsuits, doubling down on our efforts to stop illegal coal approvals and to spur reform that protects our climate. While the rhetoric around the federal coal program is changing for the better, it means nothing unless things change on the ground.

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The Colowyo coal mine in northwestern Colorado.

DSCN56284.  Keeping Coal-fired Power Plants on Track for Retirement

WildEarth Guardians has a stellar track record of confronting the production side of coal in the American West, but over the years, we’ve also scored some pretty major victories on the consumption side as well. After all, by confronting both sides of the equation–the mine and the power plant–we can mount an even more powerful force for clean energy, helping the western U.S. transition from coal more quickly and effectively.

In 2015, our efforts maintained course as we scored key victories that both elevated the pressure for coal-fired power plants to retire and provided certainty around the future of one particularly dirty plant in northeastern Utah.

The Bonanza power plant, owned by Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, was built in the early 1980’s and for years avoided installing legally required pollution controls under the Clean Air Act. After pressure from Guardians, the Environmental Protection Agency finally intervened and proposed to issue a permit that would, in some respects, bring the facility into compliance with clean air laws. However, the permit ultimately fell short of ensuring full compliance, so we appealed in early 2015.

Our appeal opened the door for some frank and often contentious negotiations that led to a groundbreaking agreement where Deseret committed to a lifetime limit on coal consumption and upgraded pollution controls, Guardians agreed to stand down, and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to put it all together in a new air pollution permit for the power plant. The agreement is an effective retirement plan for the Bonanza plant, but most importantly provides certainty around its fate and impacts to clean air in the meantime.

Beyond the Bonanza plant, Guardians also secured an agreement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finally take action to clean up two of Utah’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants–the Hunter and Huntington plants, both operated and primarily owned by Pacificorp. Although it has yet to be seen whether the Agency will step up and actually ensure an effective clean up plan, our efforts have kept the pressure on Pacificorp to rethink its plans to keep them operating for years to come.

WildEarth Guardians may not have the millions in hand to fight coal-fired power plants like the Sierra Club does, but dollar for dollar, we’re doing more to keep a spotlight shining on these dirty energy plants in the American West and bolstering the transition to clean energy.

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The 550-megawatt Bonanza coal-fired power plant in northeastern Utah faces a lifetime limit on coal consumption through an agreement with Guardians and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Credit Theo Stroomer

5.  Coverage of Coal Campaign in High Country News

WildEarth Guardians efforts to confront the climate impacts of coal mining in the American West received front page treatment in High Country News this past November. The article was a refreshing look into our campaign to keep coal in the ground and the very real intersection with economic health and vitality in coal producing communities of the western U.S.

Importantly, the article highlighted a key position of Guardians, which is that keeping coal in the ground shouldn’t mean that workers are thrown in the streets and communities left hanging. The reality is, towns like Craig, Colorado and Gillette, Wyoming, need support to plan and implement a transition away from coal so that when it is ultimately kept in the ground (and it is a matter of when, not if), they’re left prosperous and sustainable.

That’s why as Guardians has been unabashed about shutting down the federal coal program, we’ve also been upfront that initiative by local, state, and federal agencies to help communities transition needs to go hand in hand.

The reality is, our climate can’t afford more coal.  But the reality is, we need to support communities. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. However, with the Obama Administration proposing more coal mining in the western U.S., including a heinous proposal to lift National Forest protections to allow Arch Coal to expand its western Colorado mine, parity has yet to be achieved.

CampaignAgainstCoal.Shogren.151109_Page_1WEG_GreaterChaco6.  Thwarting Chaco Oil and Gas Leasing

The Greater Chaco region of northwestern New Mexico has always been near and dear to our hearts. The cultural epicenter of the American Southwest, this region is magical, an amazing convergence of natural beauty, spiritual significance, and human presence.

Sadly, it’s also been trashed by the fracking industry. Over the years, more than 40,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the region, turning this landscape into a fossil fuel pincushion. Some areas, however, have stayed safe, yielding marginal or no oil and gas. With the advent of shale fracking, that changed.

Now, the oil and gas industry is pushing ever closer to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park and its outlying ruins, putting Navajo communities, sacred places, and the climate at great risk. Tapping the Mancos shale, industry is engaging in the most intensive and destructive form of oil and gas development its ever seen, and they seem to care little about who and what gets in the way.

In the past year, we’ve mounted a major campaign to turn the tide against fracking in Greater Chaco, starting by successfully thwarting the Interior Department’s attempt to lease several thousands of acres of publicly owned oil and gas near the National Historical Park. Since then, we’ve sought to turn back new fracking permits and shine an ever brighter spotlight on the Interior Department’s role in letting industry run roughshod over the cultural fabric of the landscape.

While facing some setbacks, including an adverse ruling from a federal judge in New Mexico, we’ve remained undaunted. In doing so, we’ve made fracking in Greater Chaco a national concern and helped draw greater political scrutiny to the Interior Department’s actions.

Our ultimate goal is to turn back fracking throughout the Greater Chaco region, and in doing so, light the spark for a frack-free American West.


Powder River Google Map7.  Massive Powder River Basin Coal Leases Withdrawn

WildEarth Guardians has been focusing on coal mining in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana for many years, working to slow and ultimately stop the flow of coal from the nation’s largest coal producing region. All told, more than 41% of the nation’s coal comes from this region, stripped from massive mines by the nation’s largest coal companies.

This coal fuels power plants from coast to coast and is even shipped overseas to be burned. In total, more than 600 million metric tons of carbon are unleashed from Powder River Basin coal burning every year, amounting to more than 12% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Our engagement in the Powder River Basin was really kicked into gear by an industry rush to lease billions of tons of coal from the U.S. Interior Department around 2009. At one point, 16 new leases were under consideration by Interior, which would expand the region’s largest mines and lock in industry’s right to mine billions of tons of coal.

Since then, we’ve kept the pressure up to thwart this rash of new leasing. And although several leases have unfortunately been sold, we’ve kept a number at bay, including two high profile leases that were withdrawn this past year:  the West Jacobs Ranch and Antelope Ridge leases.

The withdrawal of these leases was huge. Literally. Together, the leases contained nearly two billion tons of coal, which if burned would have unleashed more than 3.2 billion tons of carbon pollution. The leases were being pursued by Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, the largest coal companies in the U.S. What’s more, the leases were slated to expand Arch’s Black Thunder mine and Peabody’s North Antelope-Rochelle mine, the two largest coal mines in the U.S.  Oh yeah, and these mines are in the largest coal producing region in the U.S.

It also confirmed in a big way the hastening and irreversible decline of the coal industry, and in particular Arch and Peabody. Both Arch and Peabody are facing a dire 2016, with both companies on the verge of bankruptcy. Reports indicate the industry as a whole is not likely to survive much longer.

Put another way, not only was two billion tons of coal kept in the ground, but the coal industry’s biggest companies with the biggest mines in the biggest coal producing region were kicked in the teeth.

Sure, both Arch and Peabody continue to fight for more coal, even going so far as to attack John Prine (yes, our beloved American folk artist). But after this last year, the prospects of a turn around seem incredibly unlikely.

NARM_pit-41 credit Peabody Energy

Peabody’s North Antelope-Rochelle strip mine in the Powder River Basin.

For web mapping-28.  Telling the Story of the Federal Coal Program

In the midst of growing climate consciousness and renewed international climate talks in Paris, attention to the federal coal program reached an all-time high in 2015. Guardians helped sharpen that attention and awareness in 2015, putting together a series of maps that for the first time provided a visual overview of the threats to the climate posed by publicly owned coal leases and the opportunities to keep it in the ground.

The mapping was an accomplishment in an of itself. The Interior Department does not maintain consistent spatial data for the federal coal program, leaving it up to individual state offices to decide what or what not to prepare and make available. These maps were put together through the transcription and tabulation of location data from hundreds of coal lease records.

But more importantly, the maps provide a power and simple vehicle for telling a more complete story around the federal coal program, particularly in the Western United States, where the vast majority of federal coal and coal leases are located. The maps even inspired Guardians to put together some micro-story maps, one on the Arch Coal Loophole, which would open the door for more mining in western Colorado, and one on Bowie Resources, a coal company that is emerging as a major climate threat.

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9.  Exposing Climate Denial Within The Interior Department

The U.S. Interior Department’s continuing sale of publicly owned oil, gas, and coal is proof enough of the Department’s denial of climate change. However, this past year, we exposed true climate denial within the Department, revealing how the decentralization of Interior and the unwillingness of leadership to offer clear and compelling direction is fueling a virtual climate mutiny within the Obama Administration.

The revelations helped fuel unprecedented pressure and attention on the Interior Department’s management of our publicly owned fossil fuels and hold the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, accountable to her acknowledgment that cutting carbon needs to be a goal of the Department of the Interior.

It also prompted the Bureau of Land Management to offer a memo to its offices stating emphatically, “Anthropogenic climate change is a reality….Please ensure that all discussions of climate change in BLM’s NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] documents are consistent with this conclusion.”

We still have progress yet to make in fully ferreting out climate denial within the Interior Department. In recent analyses of oil and gas leasing proposals, Interior continues to deny that its actions have any impact on the climate. In simple terms, the Interior Department continues to argue that all of its decisions are too small to matter, a rationale that we’ve challenged (see for example in our recent protest of Interior’s November 2015 oil and gas lease sale in Wyoming).

Conveniently, according to Interior, no decision to lease oil, gas, and coal appears to be big enough to matter. The implicit climate denial persists, but increasingly, the Interior Department is running out of excuses to avoid tackling climate change.

DSCN3822spring-creek-mine-00410.  Another Coal Win in Montana

And finally, Guardians scored another win in federal court in October, overturning another illegal coal mining approval in Montana.

This ruling, which targeted an expansion of the Spring Creek mine in the Powder River Basin of southeastern Montana, continued to affirm that the Interior Department’s management of our publicly owned coal is chronically flawed. Not only does the Department continue to turn its back on the climate impacts of its coal decisions, but it continues to put the interests of coal companies ahead of the American public. Our message to Interior: fix the federal coal program or face more legal pressure from Guardians.

With this ruling in hand, the prospects of more success in 2016, either through additional court wins or through much-needed reform of the federal coal program, seems inevitable.

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Given our success in 2015, the year to come holds tremendous promise. Already, there are rumblings about thwarting new sales of publicly owned oil, gas, and coal and growing the keep it in the ground movement. Here’s to 2016!

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.

Report Cover

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.

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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.

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.

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