Amid looming legal battles over wildlife protections and climate change, on December 13 the federal government leased thousands of acres of Colorado’s public lands for oil and gas development — but far fewer than it originally wanted to.
The rights to drill on twenty parcels of land scattered across northern Colorado and the Western Slope were auctioned off for $965,527, according to the auction site EnergyNet. In all, 7,847 acres of federally owned lands were opened up for new fossil fuel development.
That’s far fewer than the 220,000 acres that the Bureau of Land Management originally planned to auction off this month. But the fate of those lands hangs in the balance of an ongoing court fight between environmentalists and the Trump administration. And the latter’s “energy dominance” agenda — its preferred name for its plans to let the fossil fuel industry massively expand drilling on public lands in the West — shows no signs of slowing.
Over the past two years, under Trump and soon-to-depart Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the BLM has offered tens of millions of acres of federal land to the oil and gas industry in its quarterly lease sales. More than a million acres have been successfully leased for development, many for as little as $2 per acre.
The BLM originally planned to put more than 220,000 acres of Colorado’s federally owned lands up for bidding in the December 13 auction. But the agency twice dramatically scaled back the sale following a September federal court ruling that affirmed Obama-era habitat protections for the greater sage grouse, which the Trump administration has announced plans to repeal.
The ruling requires the BLM to hold an additional public comment period for parcels containing sage grouse habitat — which means the land could be put back on the auction block as early as the BLM’s next lease sale, in March 2019.
Taylor McKinnon, an activist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the lawsuit, says that the plans are “a boon for Zinke’s cronies in the fossil fuel industry, but will only worsen the plight of our climate future and the already-imperiled sage grouse.”
In Colorado, Trump’s pro-drilling agenda has prompted backlash not only from longtime climate and environmental activists, but increasingly from the state’s business community. In advance of this week’s lease sale, representatives from 24 businesses in Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry sent a letter to Jamie Connell, director of the BLM’s Colorado State Office, urging the agency to take a more balanced approach to its management of public lands.
The administration’s current plans, the letter said, “are poised to do irreparable damage to Colorado’s outdoor industry through the prioritization of oil and gas development.”
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“What the outdoor industry has realized is, our future is at stake,” says Matt Hamilton, sustainability director at the Aspen Skiing Company and one of the letter’s signees. “And when we speak in a unified voice, there’s power in numbers. We’re a significant chunk of the economy.”
Hamilton says that agricultural development has made the North Fork Valley, where over 2,800 acres were initially to be included in the December 13 lease sale before being pulled, an important food source for ski resorts like Aspen. Increased oil and gas drilling could threaten the clean air and water on which North Fork growers depend.
Beyond those concerns, of course, are the climate implications of the “energy dominance” agenda. A report released last month by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that nearly a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuels extracted on public lands — a figure that is likely to climb as the Trump administration continues to slash protections and open up vast new acreages for drilling.
“Each new federal oil and gas lease locks in carbon pollution that our climate future can’t afford,” says McKinnon. “With decades’ worth of oil and gas already leased, and with droughts, wildfires and declining river flows only worsening, new leasing locking in more carbon pollution is disastrous public policy.”