More Fracking in Store for Colorado’s Front Range

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced last week its intent to auction off 86 parcels comprising more than 36,000 acres of our public lands to the oil and gas industry for drilling and fracking.  These lands are located along Colorado’s Front Range, including in Weld, Adams, Arapahoe, Morgan, and Logan Counties. They also include portions of the Pawnee National Grassland, which is already being heavily impacted by oil and gas development.

Click here or on the image below to view our interactive map of these where these fracking leases are located in relation to Front Range communities and other key areas.

Front Range Oil and Gas Leases

Map of oil and gas lease parcels proposed for auction by the Bureau of Land Management in May 2015.

The ensuing drilling and fracking will fuel air pollution in the Denver metro area, an area already violating federal limits for ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.  The key culprit for the region’s smog?  Unrestrained oil and gas development.  And, despite rules adopted to limit oil and gas industry emissions, studies have found smog-forming pollution is still on the rise.

The development also stands to destroy drinking water and diminish the flows of the South Platte River.  As WildEarth Guardians pointed out in a recent objection to the Forest Service’s plans to allow oil and gas leasing under the Pawnee National Grassland, oil and gas drilling and fracking is poised to permanently destroy 1.4 million acre-feet of water, nearly half a trillion gallons (see objection at p. 19).

But the real kicker is the amount of greenhouse gases that would be unleashed.

Although the Bureau of Land Management has not been entirely transparent yet on the full amount of carbon pollution expected to be released, an estimate by the Forest Service found that development of leases on the Pawnee national Grassland would unlock 127,440 tons of carbon dioxide and 6,608 tons of methane.  Given that methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, this amounts to nearly 650,000 tons of carbon in total slated to be released annually because of expanded fracking just on the Pawnee.

And this doesn’t even take into account the carbon pollution that would be released from natural gas processing, oil transport and refining, and of course the eventual combustion of all the oil and gas slated to be produced from these leases.

WildEarth Guardians is fighting to stop this tide of fossil fuel destruction and keep the Front Range safe and healthy.  We’ve turned the heat up on both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, exposing how disastrous their oil and gas plans would be.  Sadly, they’re not yet listening.  With the Bureau of Land Management’s latest notice, we have a chance to appeal and, hopefully set things straight.  Stay tuned for updates.

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Oil drilling and fracking viewed from near the Pawnee Buttes on the Pawnee National Grassland. If the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have their way, more of this will be showing up along Colorado’s Front Range.

Taking Aim at Utah’s Coal Polluters

Last week, WildEarth Guardians joined the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association in calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finally clean up the Bonanza coal-fired power plant in northeastern Utah.  This latest volley comes on the heels of ongoing efforts to hold the power plant’s owner, Deseret Power Co-op, accountable after years of violating the Clean Air Act.

The Bonanza power plant is one of the last remaining coal-fired power plants in the American West to be retrofitted with up-to-date pollution controls.  Located in the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah, a region struggling with smog and other pollution, the plant is hammering local communities with foul emissions.  It’s also choking iconic landscapes with its haze, including nearby Dinosaur National Monument.  Not surprisingly, even the National Park Service has called out the Environmental Protection Agency for not doing more to clean up the plant.

Our message to the Environmental Protection Agency has been simple:  if the power plant can’t operate in compliance with our clean air laws, it shouldn’t be allowed to operate.  We’ll see if the agency follows through or if the Bonanza power plant will get another free pass to pollute.

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The Bonanza coal-fired power plant sports a 600-foot smokestack that rises ominously above the Uinta Basin. It’s the fourth largest source of carbon pollution in the state of Utah and every year fills the skies with tens of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals.

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.

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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.

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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.

Sabotaging Clean Air in New Mexico

Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, and now the State of New Mexico are lashing out against an EPA plan to clean up the coal burning San Juan Generating Station.

It’s a shame, because as we’ve pointed out, not only will the EPA’s plan save lives, it will drastically reduce haze and smog forming pollution from the four smokestacks of the San Juan Generating Station.  Consider that under the EPA’s plan, air pollution will be cut by more than 80%, while under a PNM-sponsored plan, pollution would be cut by only 20%.

For the 600 people that every year suffer asthma attacks triggered by the San Juan Generating Station, the difference between a 20% and 80% cut in pollution could literally be a life and death situation.

Veiled as an effort to “preserve low cost electricity,” PNM and New Mexico’s opposition really comes down to politics.  Remember, New Mexico’s new Governor, Susana Martinez, has vowed to “undo” former Governor Bill Richardson’s efforts to safeguard the environment.  And as far as PNM is concerned, this is the same company that paid millions over clean air violations at the San Juan Generating Station, then turned around and violated clean air laws yet again.

And really, the politics are incredibly obvious.  Both PNM and New Mexico filed petitions with the EPA requesting the agency “reconsider” its clean air plan.  The basis for the requests?  That EPA was wrong to adopt its own clean up plan in light of the fact that the State of New Mexico had “submitted” its own plan.

Well, guess what?  That’s not how the Clean Air Act works.

Under the law, states are, in fact, charged with adopting clean air rules that are consistent with the Clean Air Act.  And they have to submit these rules for EPA approval.

But when states adopt clean air rules that are inconsistent with the Clean Air Act, the EPA is legally mandated to adopt its own clean air rules, called a Federal Implementation Plan.  Simply because a state, like New Mexico “submits” a clean air rule doesn’t let the EPA off the hook, particularly where the clean air is completely inadequate.

Judge Arguello with the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado recently rejected the same argument, which was put forward by the State of North Dakota.  In a ruling adopting a WildEarth Guardians settlement agreement with the EPA, Judge Arguello stated:

North Dakota’s construction of the [Clean Air] Act would seemingly allow a state to indefinitely postpone the promulgation of a FIP [Federal Implementation Plan] by filing inadequate SIP [State Implementation Plan] after inadequate SIP, and demanding that the EPA approve or disapprove of them before promulgating a FIP.

In other words, a state can’t derail EPA’s effort to adopt a Federal Implementation Plan simply because it submits its own clean air plan, especially where the state clean air plan is inadequate.  Yet that’s exactly what PNM and New Mexico are demanding.

It’s bizarre, because what it really means is that PNM and New Mexico are demanding that the EPA reject the inadequate state clean air plan before it adopts a federal plan.  The result would be that no clean air plan would ever be adopted.

Of course, maybe that’s really what PNM and New Mexico are after.  Perhaps the 20% reduction plan is simply a tactic to avoid doing anything at all to cut smog and haze forming pollution at the San Juan Generating Station.

It’s not a stretch, especially given the rhetoric from PNM and New Mexico so far.  Perhaps all they’re really after is a free pass to pollute.

It’s disturbing, but ultimately will prove to be wishful thinking.  The Clean Air Act is on our side on this one.  Sooner or later, PNM and New Mexico are just going to have to suck it up and start to protect clean air in New Mexico.

The San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico.

Fracking vs. Clean Air: Hearings Wrap-up

The EPA this week held public hearings on a proposal to ratchet up protection for public health and welfare in the face of oil and gas drilling.  In Pittsburgh, Denver, and today in Dallas, the message was resounding:  The EPA’s rules promise less air pollution, greater savings for industry, and increased scrutiny on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking.

It’s good news given that every year, 25,000 oil and gas wells are fracked, leading to huge amounts of toxic air pollution.  Even in cities like Denver and Dallas, oil and gas drilling releases more smog forming compounds than cars and trucks.  And in rural communities like Pinedale, Wyoming, oil and gas drilling is fueling smog levels higher than Los Angeles.

Even industry commented that it wasn’t opposed to the EPA’s proposal.  That’s a welcome change from the knee jerk opposition to any regulations normally espoused by organizations like the American Petroleum Institute.

And although industry is calling for an extension of the comment period and a delay in adopting the final rules, it’s wishful thinking.  Under the terms of a consent decree with WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the EPA has to finalize the rules by the end of next February.

The delay is especially uncalled for given increasing signs that ramped up drilling is taking a tremendous toll on public health.

Earthjustice‘s billboard made the rounds in downtown Denver on Wednesday.

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.