To drill on Colorado public land, feds will need to assess fracking’s climate impacts

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An oil refinery along Colorado 14 in Coalmont, Colorado.
Wikimedia commons/tony webster

About 150,000 acres of public land in Colorado and Utah previously pegged to be leased for oil and gas operations will need to undergo a substantial review of the sites’ potential greenhouse gas emissions before any drilling can commence.

The Colorado sites — in clusters around Fort Collins and westward from Steamboat Springs, with a few at the New Mexico border — comprise the latest swath of public land in the West on which oil and gas drilling has been halted. In March, a federal court held up the drilling of 300,000 acres of public land in Wyoming as a result of a lawsuit by the environmental advocacy groups WildEarth Guardians, Western Environmental Law Center and Physicians for Social Responsibility. 

The court found the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and its Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had failed to account for “the cumulative impact of greenhouse gas emissions generated by past, present or reasonably foreseeable BLM lease sales in the region and nation” when it approved the leases in Wyoming.

Losing the case in Wyoming, DOI conceded that there was a similar lack of data on greenhouse gas emissions associated with the Colorado and Utah leasing decisions, and so instead of going through another lawsuit, the agency asked the court to allow it to remand the leases and compile the emissions data, which the court granted.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to consider the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of projects granted under their purview, in this case oil and gas drilling on public lands. The court found the DOI failed to address any of those impacts in their original reports in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. 

“While the [DOI] qualitatively recognized climate change was an issue, it failed to actually quantify what those emissions look like and provide a measure to the public for understanding the significance of these emissions,” says Kyle Tisdel, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. 

The direct impacts of oil and gas drilling — those from the construction and use of wells — largely affect the environment and communities that surround those operations, but it’s the indirect and cumulative impacts that have long-lasting, far-reaching and “far greater” implications, Tisdel says. 

“What [DOI] also failed to do was consider indirect emissions; when you drill a well, you’re drilling it to extract oil and gas from that well, and that oil and gas is not going to sit in a tank somewhere, it’s going to be used or burned somewhere down the line. … They failed to consider those downstream [impacts].”

Assessing the cumulative impacts — the last NEPA requirement — presents the biggest challenge, ostensibly, for the DOI. According to the most recent court ruling, the federal government needs to take a holistic view of oil and gas drilling and recognize how any new drilling might hasten climate change. In theory, that should be as tall a task as it sounds, Tisdel says.

“That portion of the decision in particular requires a broad enough look that the agency has never performed before at any scale,” Tisdel says.

But in Wyoming, the DOI completed its new environmental impact analysis in a matter of weeks, pressed to hurry, Tisdel believes, because the court ruling froze drilling activities on the leases in question. Tisdel says there are “significant deficiencies” with the new analysis and the advocacy groups have filed motions with a federal court to see if the agency met its obligation to report direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of drilling.

The same process lies ahead for Colorado and Utah. The judicial system will determine when, and if, DOI and BLM have done enough to prove fracking on the 150,000 acres meets federal guidelines.    

“BLM is always [claiming] that their analysis is good enough and that it’s on the shoulders of public interest groups to challenge whether that analysis is sufficient or not,” Tisdel says. “Ultimately courts make that call. Obviously in the first round, the court clearly said that analysis wasn’t sufficient. … We haven’t seen remanded analysis for Colorado or Utah, but if that analysis is modeled after what was done in Wyoming on remand, we have significant concerns.” 

The courts represent a firewall against a Trump administration that “has been quite defiant historically” to address climate change, Tisdel says. Holding the administration accountable through the legal system might be the best way to ensure environmental standards are met, says Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, managing attorney for WildEarth Guardians.

“While this motion continues to affirm the Trump administration can’t legally turn its back on climate change, we need accountability,” Ruscavage-Barz says. “This isn’t a matter of doing more paperwork. It’s a matter of enforcing restraint to preserve our ability to keep making progress for the climate.”

And though mandating proper environmental assessments on these Western lands is important, Tisdel says, it’s a small part of a much larger obligation to protect the country from the effects of climate change. 

“It remains to be seen how [the Trump administration] will address this going forward. What the federal government should do and is actually required to do, particularly on something of this scale when we’re talking about an existential threat to this country, is to think through their decision-making process in the context of the facts and of the science as we know them to be,” Tisdel says. “What is called for is managed decline of our oil and gas and coal leasing and development on our public land. There’s no pathway that will allow continued extraction in a business-as-usual type of approach.”

The environmental groups that brought the original lawsuit heralded the decision by the DOI as a win for the movement. It will require the administration to properly analyze and disclose the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions from fracking on public lands, which account for 25 percent of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions every year.