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.

DSCN3425

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.

Smoggy Skies in the American West Point to Fossil Fuels

Benjamin Storrow with the Casper Star Tribune reported this past weekend on the prospect of eight Wyoming counties (effectively 1/3 of the state) falling into violation of federal limits on ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

The report coincides with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent release of ozone data for the years 2011-2013 and a recent statement from agency staff that federal ozone limits–now set at 0.075 parts per million–should be strengthened to between 0.070 parts per million and 0.060 in order to effectively protect public health.  The agency is currently under court order to promulgate new ambient air quality standards for ozone in 2015.

The revelations piqued our curiosity about the broader impacts of stronger health standards for ozone in the American West.  Taking recently posted data from the Environmental Protection Agency, we mapped out which counties in the west are violating current ozone air quality standards and which counties would be in violation of stronger ozone standards, depending on where they’re ultimately set.  As the map below shows, the clean air landscape of the west stands to change dramatically.  More importantly, what the map below shows is that areas throughout the west are already experiencing unhealthy levels of smog.

You can check out an interactive version of this map here >>

Western Areas Violating Ozone Standards

Western U.S. Counties Violating Current and Proposed Ozone Air Quality Standards

The landscape stands in stark contrast to what the Environmental Protection Agency found in 2012.  As the map below shows, only a handful of areas in the west were violating ozone limits and designated “nonattainment” (a nonattainment designation under the Clean Air Act spurs a mandatory clean up).  Effectively, only parts of central and southern California, the Phoenix metro area in Arizona, the Denver metro area of Colorado, and a portion of western Wyoming were deemed to have unhealthy smog levels.

map8hr_2008

Based on more recent data, it appears that a number of new areas are violating current standards, including Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and northwest Colorado and northeastern Utah.  More importantly, it appears that under the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed standards, the number of areas likely to be designated nonattainment would be greatly expanded, including areas in every state except Montana.  Put another way, the American West is facing a serious health crisis and an unprecedented smog clean up challenge.

Not exactly what you would expect for a region renowned for its big skies and clean air.

The big question, though, is what is the cause of this burgeoning smog problem?  While California has its unchecked urban development, cars, trucks, and industrial agriculture, in the interior west, booming oil and gas drilling and fracking is a key driver.  In fact, earlier this year, we put together a map showing the overlap between active oil and gas wells and areas likely to violate the Environmental Protection Agency’s new ozone standards.  The overlap is uncanny.

Western_OilGas_OzoneAq_2014Wells (1)

Overlap between potential ozone nonattainment areas and active oil and gas wells in the western U.S.

The reason for this overlap is due to the fact that oil and gas drilling and fracking operations are huge sources of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, which are key ozone forming pollutants.  Take the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado.  Recent studies found that oil and gas operations in this rural region release as much volatile organic compound pollution as 100 million cars, an absolutely shocking amount of pollution.  In Colorado, even with the adoption of recent rules to limit pollution, oil and gas operations are still predicted to release 64% of all volatile organic compounds by 2018.  Even in an urban region like Denver, oil and gas operations are projected to release more than 60% of all smog forming compounds, far more than all the cars and trucks in the area.

Even in areas without high ozone levels, drilling and fracking is filling the atmosphere with immense amounts of pollution.  Most recently, the Western Regional Air Partnership reported that oil and gas operations in the Bakken shale region of North Dakota stand to release 367,000 tons of volatile organic compounds by 2015.  That’s equal to the amount released annually from 27 million cars (according to the Environmental Protection Agency, an average car releases 27.33 pounds of volatile organic compounds annually).  This is in a region with a population of less than a million.

Certainly, in other parts of the West, like in Nevada, Salt lake City, Washington, and Oregon, the challenge has more to do with increasing population and urban development.  More people means more cars, more trucks, etc.  But whether linked to fracking or population, the fact is that the western United States is going to have to come to terms with the need to keep growth in check.

The looming smog crisis in the American West presents an opportunity to get it right for our health and future.  Without a doubt, we should be alarmed at the prospect of such a vast amount of the region falling into violation of ozone health limits.  However, the solution isn’t to bemoan the challenge, it’s to embrace it.

Its time for all states in the west to start taking steps to limit fossil fuel pollution, especially from fracking, and to keep growth and urban development in check.  Our goal everywhere should be to keep the west smog-free.

Greed Trumps Clean Energy at PNM

At last, the truth is coming out.

PNM is fighting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to clean up the company’s coal-fired San Juan Generating Station not because they want to protect ratepayers and not because they have a better plan.

It’s because they don’t have any money.

In a motion asking the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to put the brakes on the EPA’s clean up plan, the company, which is New Mexico’s largest utility, stated that it “does not have sufficient internally generated cash flow to pay for the SCR project and will have to raise substantial funding for it in the capital markets.”

In other words, their pockets are empty.  And to pay to clean up the San Juan Generating Station’s air pollution would require fundraising in capital markets.

Now normally, that wouldn’t be a problem for a big utility, especially one that’s a regulated monopoly, like PNM.  Remember, under New Mexico law, the company is guaranteed to recover a reasonable rate of return from its customers, which makes it a “can’t lose” investment.

Except, somehow, investments in PNM are losing.

In testimony submitted to the 10th Circuit, PNM treasurer, Terry Horn, explained not only that “Standard and Poor’s currently rates PNM as below investment grade” but also that “PNM Resource, Inc. common stock trades well below its book value.”

Put another way, the company’s credit is in the pits, meaning the market has no faith that investments in PNM will pay off as expected.  As a result, the cost of acquiring new capital to pay for clean air retrofits promises to be enormous.

As if that wasn’t enough, PNM’s ability to recover the costs of financing the clean air retrofits would be questionable, at best.  Under New Mexico law, the company can only recover costs that are “reasonable and prudent.”  By any measure, it’s difficult to believe that exorbitant finance costs stemming from the company’s poor credit would be considered “reasonable and prudent.”

In the end, PNM’s shareholders will have to absorb the finance costs and possibly more.  It’s no wonder the company is freaked out.

Unfortunately, instead of coming clean with its financial predicament, PNM is resorting to greedy desperation.  Like attacking the EPA’s clean air plan.  And worse, they’re working to pass legislation that would impose a “non-bypassable surcharge” on New Mexico ratepayers, a scheme that would essentially force ratepayers to cover the costs of cleaning up the San Juan Generating Station, regardless of whether those costs are reasonable and prudent.

Worst of all, though, now they’re accusing the concerned public of being liars.

Case in point is a letter that PNM’s Executive Director for Environmental Services, Maureen Gannon, sent to WildEarth Guardians the day before Thanksgiving.

In the letter, PNM accuses WildEarth Guardians of being inaccurate.  What are these inaccuracies, you might ask?  Let’s take a look:

  • PNM claims that WildEarth Guardians is inaccurate in asserting that the “only alternative offered by PNM is to continue operating the plant as is with nominal pollution controls.”  Yet according to the numbers, this statement is not inaccurate.  PNM spurred the State of New Mexico to adopt a plan that would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by only 17%, whereas the EPA’s plan would reduce emissions by 83% (the baseline nitrogen oxide emission rate for the power plant is 0.28 pounds per million Btus—the EPA’s plan would reduce that rate to 0.05 pounds per million Btus whereas PNM’s pla would reduce that rate to only 0.23 pounds per million Btus).

I suppose “nominal” is in the eyes of the beholder, but a 17% compared to an 83% reduction in harmful emissions seems to speak for itself.

  • PNM further claims that WildEarth Guardians is inaccurate in asserting that “PNM has proposed to force ratepayers to cover the full costs of air pollution controls without determining whether such costs are reasonable and prudent,” which is interesting because, as mentioned, the company has proposed a scheme to foist a a non-bypassable surcharge upon ratepayers to cover the costs of the clean up.
  • Most significantly, PNM also takes issue with modeling showing that the San Juan Generating Station contributes to 33 premature deaths at a cost of more than $250 million annually.  The company is referring to a Clean Air Task Force report that modeled the health risks of coal-fired power plants throughout the country using the same methodologies used by the EPA to estimate the health costs of benefits of major clean air regulations.

PNM may disagree with the methods used by health and environmental regulators to estimate costs and benefits, but that doesn’t mean the modeling is flawed.  And it certainly does not mean there are no health risks from the San Juan Generating Station, as the company asserts.

Sadly, rather than face the truth, it’s just more hot air from PNM.

Despite their claims of inaccuracies, their claims that they are looking out for ratepayers, and their claims that their plan is somehow better than the EPA’s, PNM can’t hide the fact that it cares more about making money than about protecting clean air, public health, and our environment from the coal burning San Juan Generating Station.

WildEarthGuardians_PNMActionNov2011_AnaJune_IMG_5146

Making the Best of a Smoggy Situation

It’s been a busy few weeks, but one notable glimmer of hope came out late last week:  despite being rebuffed by President Obama, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is staying the course and reinvigorating her efforts to tackle smog here in the U.S.

And to kick things off, her Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, Gina McCarthy, issued a memo last week affirming the EPA’s intent to finalize its designation of nonattainment areas.

The issue here is pretty simple.  Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA sets ambient air quality standards at a level necessary to protect public health and welfare.  Once established, the EPA then has to look across the country and find out which areas are violating those standards.  If an area is in violation, it’s declared “nonattainment.”  This designation triggers a mandatory duty for both states and the EPA to clean up the unhealthy air pollution.

Here, EPA promulgated ambient air quality standards for ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog, in 2008.  These standards were later found to be legally and scientifically unjustified, but nevertheless they were stronger than the previous standards.  The older standard, which came out in 1997, limited ozone concentrations to 85 parts per billion.  The 2008 standard limited concentrations to 75.  Yet the EPA’s own science advisers recommended a standard between 60 and 70 parts per billion.  So while the 2008 standard was stronger, it wasn’t strong enough.

That’s why in January of 2010, Lisa Jackson and the EPA decided to revise the 2008 standards and make them as strong as the science demanded.  In doing so, the EPA also decided to hold off on doing anything to implement the 2008 standards.  They reasoned that, even though the 2008 standards were were stronger, they’d be irrelevant in the face of a scientifically and legally justified standard, so why waste the effort.

That logic made a lot of sense at the time, but who knew that President Obama would put political expedience ahead of science and the law.

That’s why we filed suit against the EPA and have teed up two more to force the Obama Administration to at least start implementing the 2008 ozone standards.  It’s a travesty that President Obama would lead this nation on into believing that stronger ozone standards were on the horizon, then pull the rug from under them.  Fortunately, despite the politics of it all, the President isn’t above the Clean Air Act.

And fortunately, the EPA is heeding the writing on the wall.  As Assistant Administrator McCarthy said in her most recent memo:

[T]he current standard is 0.075 ppm [75 parts per billion].  This standard will provide additional public health and welfare protection until the next regular review is completed, and EPA fully intends to implement this current standard as required under the Clean Air Act.

It’s not ideal, but when it comes to public health, we need to make the best of it.  An amazing amount of progress has yet to be made to really confront smog in the United States.  The EPA has identified a number of areas likely to be designated nonattainment based on 2010 data, including Sublette County, Wyoming, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and more.  Based on 2011 air quality monitoring data, we know that many more areas will be included.

So, here’s to clean air and making the best of a bad situation, and here’s a tip of the hat to the EPA and Lisa Jackson.  It’s a shame that President Obama naively sacrificed our health for perceived political gain, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t start making progress in reducing smog.  Our aim will be to ensure the EPA acts as quickly as possible to start cleaning up ozone.  With the law on our side, we’ll have a fighting chance for clean air, whether the President likes it or not.

Lisa Jackson stands for clean air, even if President Obama doesn’t.

80% of the West at Risk from Smog

More fallout from President Obama’s decision last week to scuttle scientifically based and legally acceptable nationwide smog limits.

Based on WildEarth Guardians’ analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency’s own data, the decision leaves more than 50 million westerners–up to 78% of the entire American West–at risk from unhealthy levels of smog.  If the standard would have been set at 0.060 parts per million, more than 90% of all of California and Arizona, 89% of all Utahns and Nevadans, 79% of all Coloradoans, and many more westerners would have been given new hope for breathable air.  Check out the table below, which is from our analysis.

The upside is that we are doing everything we can to at least keep the EPA on track to start cutting smog in areas like western Wyoming.  Stay tuned for more on that front.

And in the meantime, check out some more enlightened critique on Obama’s disastrous decision from our partners at NRDC.  And while you’re at it, check out their alert and make your voice heard at the White House, too.

The Great Smog Sell Out

Unreal.

Bowing to fossil fuel industry and anti-environmental pressure, President Obama today ordered the EPA to withdraw its plans to strengthen nationwide air quality standards to limit ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

The White House actually had the gall to claim that the decision wasn’t political.

That’s complete bull.  This is putting politics ahead of public health plain and simple.

I can’t even begin to explain how misguided this is (maybe we could start with the lost $100 billion in health benefits?).  Even if one believed that playing politics with clean air was ethically sound, isn’t the point of political negotiating to get something in return?

Here, Obama’s giving up one of the most significant public health rules to ever be proposed in this country, yet what are we getting in return?  Nothing, except seemingly Obama’s “hope” that by caving into trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute, which is simply against any and all regulations, that they may give him their political support.

That’s the some of most insane wishful thinking I’ve ever heard.  And if this is what Obama means by “hope,” then he’s seriously mistaken about the integrity, ideals, and expectations of the American public.

People don’t want politicians selling out our environment for hopes.  Yet that’s exactly what Obama did here.

The one bright glimmer of hope here is that WildEarth Guardians is already poised to aggressively hold the Obama Administration accountable to cutting smog pollution nationwide.  Two weeks ago, we filed suit against the EPA over their failure to move to clean up areas that are violating the current smog standards.

The current standards, which were adopted in 2008, have been on hold while the EPA revised them.  Of course, with the revision now derailed, it’s time to hold EPA accountable.  Our suit aims to force EPA to designate areas violating the 2008 standards as “nonattainment,” triggering deadlines on states to clean up the air or face sanctions.

Among the areas that stand to benefit from this lawsuit–Western Wyoming, Phoenix, Salt Lake, Denver, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and dozens of other communities nationwide.

With the help of President Obama, the fossil fuel industry scored a victory against the environment this time.  But we’re not about to back down.  In fact, we think it’s time to get more aggressive than ever.

Godzilla could defeat the smog monster.  Why can’t President Obama?

Why is Industry Fighting $100 Billion in Clean Air Benefits?

What if I told you that you that there’s an investment out there that can make up to 48% in annual return and every year prevent up to 12,000 human deaths, 58,000 asthma attacks, 2.5 millions days when people miss work or school, and 8.1 million days when people have to restrict their outdoor activities?

Unbelievable?

It’s not.  It’s called clean air.

What is unbelievable, if not completely bizarre, is that industry lobby groups are launching a full out assault against this incredibly worthwhile investment.

Under an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to tighten federal limits on ground-level ozone pollution, the key ingredient of smog, this country could reap up to $100 billion in economic benefits every year.  And that only counts the actual health benefits, like keeping asthmatic kids out of hospitals or keeping grandparents alive so they can see their grandchildren grow up.  It doesn’t count the other benefits that go along with reduced ozone–the jobs created in the pollution control sector, the quality of life increases, and critically the increased productivity and intellectual development of our kids in school.

Apparently however, industry thinks these benefits are simply not important.

Groups like the American Petroleum Institute are going so far as to call on the Obama Administration to completely scrap the proposal, which strengthen the current ozone standard of 0.075 parts per million to somewhere between 0.060 and 0.070 parts per million.

Jack Gerard, the President of the Petroleum Institute, even went so far as to assert that adopting stronger ozone standards would equate to “no jobs.”

In other words, Gerard is saying, $100 billion in benefits to the United States every year will actually kill jobs.

If such logic was dismissed as the bizarre anti-regulatory rhetoric that it is, it would be laughable.  Unfortunately, the Obama Administration seems to be listening.

Yesterday, the Administration announced that the proposed ozone standards will not be finalized by this Friday, July 29th, as originally promised.  Instead, they’ll be delayed indefinitely.

Public health groups, like the American Lung Association, rightfully blasted the Administration.  After all, clean air delayed is clean air denied.  Although in this case, clean air delayed is $100 billion denied.

Here in the West, the impacts of this delay will hit particularly hard.  A number of areas are likely to be in violation of the new ozone standards (see the map below).  More delay will simply stall efforts to clean up the smog in those areas.  For people living in these areas, such as Sublette County, Wyoming, San Juan County, New Mexico, Navajo County, Arizona, and La Plata County, Colorado, it means they’ll be forced to breathe unhealthy air indefinitely.  Worse, they’ll be denied their share of $100 billion in benefits.