Conservation groups finalized a legal agreement with the Bureau of Land Management today that blocks drilling on more than 45,000 acres of oil and gas leases until officials revise land management plans in the Grand Junction and Colorado River Valley Field Offices that govern approximately 2 million acres of public lands in western Colorado.
“This legal agreement, along with successful challenges to management plans in the region, effectively put the brakes on further oil and gas leasing in the Piceance Basin,” said Kyle Tisdel, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “This is a major win against a Trump administration that refused to acknowledge or analyze the climate and human health impacts of oil and gas exploitation.”
“This legal agreement blunts the government’s willful ignorance of the climate and health damage from fracking on public lands,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “There are already more fossil fuels being developed in the world than can be safely burned. President-elect Biden’s promised ban on federal leasing can’t come soon enough.”
The settlement results from a 2018 lawsuit challenging the agency’s failure to undertake site-specific environmental review when it approved the leases. Instead the Bureau relied on resource management plans for the Grand Junction and Colorado River Valley field offices that failed to analyze fracking’s potential harm to climate, public health and the Colorado River.
“The Bureau has long played a shell game to avoid meaningful analysis of the impacts of fossil fuel development on our public lands,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “This challenge, together with challenges to recently adopted resource management plans, exposed the practice. And we’re happy today that the Bureau will not approve more development on these leases until the real impacts are considered and disclosed to the public.”
Today’s settlement prevents development on over 45,000 acres of oil and gas leases while also requiring the agency to complete a supplementary environmental impact statement for the Colorado River Valley and Grand Junction Field Office resource management plans prior to reconsideration of the leases.
“The watersheds from the high plateaus of western Colorado are a treasured source of high-quality drinking water, and it is very possible that this resource could be significantly impaired by drilling operations to extract fossil fuels,” said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers. “The environmental review by the Bureau must provide the necessary hard look into the cumulative impacts that these energy companies may cause to the critical water resources of western Colorado.”
The 53 fracking leases are near three state parks, a migratory bird hotspot, and the site of the “18 Hours of Fruita” mountain bike race. Leases are within a half-mile of a K-12 public school in De Beque, and beneath Vega Reservoir, an important area for wildlife, recreation, irrigation, and hydroelectric power.
“The settlement announced today with the Bureau of Land Management is a significant step towards limiting dangerous oil and gas leasing in Colorado’s River Valley and Grand Junction—areas that are considered climate hotspots, suffering from historic drought and uncharacteristically large forest fires. We are watching the real, immediate devastation of the climate crisis here and across the country,” said Emily Gedeon, director of the Sierra Club Colorado Chapter. “Instead of using public lands to exacerbate climate disruption, we should be protecting these places as carbon sinks, habitat and green space. The Sierra Club will continue fighting the Trump administration’s relentless and dangerous agenda that puts the fossil fuel industry over our health, safety and environment.”
Since approving resource management plans for the Colorado River Valley and Grand Junction Field Offices, the Bureau has failed to analyze potential harm to the climate from lease sales in the area, leading to the 2018 lawsuit. Conservation groups recently prevailed in a related lawsuit challenging the Bureau’s failure to analyze potential climate damage from its 2015 Colorado River Valley resource management plan for 800,000 acres of public lands adjacent to the Grand Junction plan, which is also being challenged and where the court is set to rule on a pending motion for voluntary remand. Both plans would have drastically expanded oil and gas drilling on Colorado’s Western Slope.
Biden has pledged to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands and waters when he takes office Jan. 20.
The lawsuit prompting today’s settlement was filed by Wilderness Workshop, Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers & Colorado Riverkeeper, and Sierra Club. The groups are represented by Diana Dascalu-Joffe and Wendy Park of the Center for Biological Diversity and Kyle Tisdel of the Western Environmental Law Center.
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 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 petitioned the federal government to end new onshore and offshore leasing. More than 500 groups have called on President-elect Biden to enact his commitment to “banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters.”