DENVER— Conservation groups filed a protest today challenging the Trump administration’s plan to auction fracking leases across more than 47,000 acres of public lands in Colorado. Fracking those leases would destroy habitat for a tenuous population of greater sage grouse, worsen deadly air pollution in the Denver metro area and cause up to 1.2 million tons of climate pollution.
The online auction is scheduled Dec. 17. President-elect Biden has pledged to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands and waters when he takes office Jan. 20.
“Our climate depends on the incoming Biden Administration following through with its promise to ban fossil fuel leasing on public lands and so does our public health," said Matt Nykiel with WildEarth Guardians. "Over the past four years, fossil fuel development along the Front Range has made it harder and more harmful for people to breath and particularly so for those in minority and underserved communities."
The leases continue the Trump administration’s defiance of climate scientists’ call to cut global greenhouse gas pollution by half in the coming decade. The Trump administration has offered more than 7 million acres of public lands in the lower 48 states for fracking leases, and 4 million acres have been sold. Lawsuits have so far invalidated about 60% of that 4 million acres.
“The Trump administration’s last-gasp fire sale of our public lands makes Biden’s plan to end fossil fuel leasing all the more urgent,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Each new fracking lease locks in greenhouse gas pollution that our climate can’t afford. It’s time to end the disastrous federal fossil fuel programs once and for all.”
The protest challenges the Bureau of Land Management’s failure to analyze harm from climate pollution and refusal to evaluate such emissions in the context of global carbon budgets. It alleges that the Bureau failed to adequately assess how volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides will worsen ozone pollution in Denver and along the Front Range, where pollution levels already exceed federal health standards.
“More fossil fuel leasing promises more warming, more severe wildfires, and more water scarcity in the Colorado River system,” said John Weisheit with Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeeper. “This is the opposite of prudent public policy. President-elect Biden’s plan to end new federal fossil fuel leasing can’t come soon enough.”
The protest also challenges the Bureau’s failure to prioritize leasing outside of sage-grouse habitat and its failure to fully assess potential harms from fracking to grouse populations. Lease parcels would destroy habitat for a dwindling subpopulation of the grouse in North Park.
“The sage grouse population in Colorado’s North Park is already isolated and perilously small,” said Erik Molvar, executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “The Trump administration’s aggressive leasing of sage grouse habitats has already been rebuffed by the courts, and this latest lease auction highlight’s this administration’s illegal last-ditch effort to sign over as much of our western public lands to the oil industry as it can.”
Estimates from multiple state wildlife agencies show that grouse populations are plummeting. The grouse once occupied hundreds of millions of acres across the West, but their populations are declining as oil and gas development, livestock grazing, roads, powerlines and other activities have destroyed and fragmented their native habitats.
“Continued oil and gas extraction on our public lands is intensifying drought conditions and wildfires driven by climate change, disproportionately impacting Native Americans,” said Kate Hudson, Western U.S. advocacy coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance. “These impacts are only heightened when our government leases our lands near the headwaters of the Colorado River which is critical to the survival of 40 million people in seven states and two countries. The Biden administration must take immediate action to halt leasing and extraction across the West to preserve the possibility of a livable world.”
Today’s protest was filed by WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western Watersheds Project.
Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide federal fossil fuel leasing ban would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals in recent years.
Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from already-leased fossil fuels on federal lands, if fully developed, would essentially exhaust the U.S. carbon budget for keeping the world below a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature increase.
Existing laws give presidents the authority to end new federal fossil fuel leasing. Hundreds of organizations have already petitioned the federal government to end new onshore and offshore leasing. President-elect Biden has committed to “banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters.”