Fracking and Climate Change: Lawsuit Challenges Public-Land Drilling Leases

A lawsuit filed this week by environmental groups claims that while the Obama administration talks a good game about cutting carbon emissions to address climate change, the U.S. Department of the Interior has been in "climate denial" in the way it continues to issue oil and gas leases on public lands in three western states, including Colorado.

The federal complaint, filed in Washington D.C. by WildEarth Guardians and Physicians For Social Responsibility, contends that Interior's Bureau of Land Management has failed to account for greenhouse gas emissions and other climate impacts on 375,000 acres of public-land oil-and-gas leases issued in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming since early 2015. It seeks a moratorium on additional leases until a thorough analysis of carbon emissions from fracking and other impacts can be completed, similar to what the administration has already ordered for federal coal leasing.  

"We're breaking global temperature records every month, and every month Interior ignores climate impacts and leases more and more oil and gas from public lands," WildEarth Guardians staff attorney Samantha Ruscavage-Bartz said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "When does it stop?"

Activists have long complained about the mixed messages of the current administration's energy policies. Two years ago, President Obama called climate change "an urgent and growing threat" and announced an ambitious plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the followup on those plans will inevitably rely on his successor, while actual steps to shift from fossil-fuel reliance have fallen short of critics' expectations. Since 2008, the Obama administration has leased more than 10 million acres of public lands to the oil and gas industry, for as little as $2 an acre. 

Industry advocacy groups such as the Western Energy Alliance have called the anti-fracking movement "naive" for its insistence on a rapid conversion to renewable energy sources; the groups have also pushed for online leasing as a way to avoid "Keep It in the Ground" protests at BLM lease auctions.

The fractivists counter that Interior still treats the fossil fuel industry as a favored customer, even though only 35 percent of the leased public lands are actually producing at any given time; many leases appear to be snapped up for speculation or are sat on for years. 

The lawsuit comes as Colorado's own homegrown plans for carbon reductions — a modest proposal by Governor John Hickenlooper to achieve a 35 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2030 — is being blasted by enviros as a "greenwashing scam." 

Read the complaint in its entirety below.

WildEarth Guardians et. al. v. Sally Jewell et. al.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast