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!
1. 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.”
Calling on President Obama to stop leasing more publicly owned coal, oil, and gas.
3. 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.
The Colowyo coal mine in northwestern Colorado.
4. 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.
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.
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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
Peabody’s North Antelope-Rochelle strip mine in the Powder River Basin.
8. 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.
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.
10. 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.
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!