DENVER— Conservation groups filed a formal protest this week of the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to vastly expand fracking and drilling in western Colorado as part its revision of a resource management plan for 1.2 million acres in western Colorado. The plan anticipates expanding the number of fracking and drilling wells from 521 to more than 1,300 in the next 20 years. It places no limit on the number of future wells that can be drilled.
“Unlimited fossil fuel development, which this plan allows, is incompatible with a safe climate future,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “At a time when scientists call for keeping fossil fuels in the ground to avoid climate disaster, it’s counterproductive for the Obama administration to allow fossil fuel expansion on public lands.”
The protest describes failures by the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address fracking and drilling impacts — including significant water withdrawals, inevitable toxic spills, and greenhouse gas and selenium pollution — to the Colorado River, climate, human health and endangered species. It cites violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and the Federal Land Management and Policy Act.
The agencies rely on an outdated 2008 “biological opinion” document to protect endangered fish; the study underestimates per-well freshwater use by analyzing conventional drilling, but not horizontal drilling and fracking. It assumes that each well will use 250,005 gallons of freshwater, but water use needed for horizontal drilling on BLM lands covered by the biological opinion averaged 3.8 million gallons from 2011 to 2014. Horizontal drilling in the Grand Junction Field Office in 2014 used up to 23 million gallons of freshwater.
“In the face of droughts, dwindling snowpack and water shortages, it’s hard to imagine a worse policy for the Colorado River than to use already-scarce water to create more fossil fuel pollution,” said McKinnon. “It’s bad for the river, it’s bad for endangered fish, and it’s bad for 30 million downstream users.”
The plan fails to protect endangered fish and rivers from chemical spills and leaks or from selenium pollution from soil erosion caused by fracking and other drilling. While rates of spills and leaks into rivers would be expected to increase proportionally with new drilling from 2 to about 5 spills per year, the plan fails to adequately consider spills, much less enact measures to mitigate and prevent that pollution. Hydrocarbons, other chemicals, and selenium can be toxic to endangered fish.
Further, the BLM refused to fully assess the impacts of greenhouse gas pollution that would result from its plan, claiming that it “does not have an established mechanism to accurately predict the effect of resource management-level decisions from this planning effort on global climate change.” Federal courts have held that federal agencies can use the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon, which was convened by the Council of Economic Advisers and the Office of Management and Budget, to assess impacts of greenhouse gas pollution.
In late April the same groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers and the Utah Rivers Council — filed a protest on a BLM plan amendment that allows for a ninefold increase in drilling and fracking, to around 17,000 wells, on the White River Field Office, located in northwestern Colorado, just north of the Grand Junction Field Office.
Federal fossil fuel leasing is a leading source of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. More than 101,000 square miles of publicly owned federal oil, gas and coal are currently under lease to private fossil fuel companies. This is an area 53 times larger than Grand Canyon National Park. Over the past decade, federal fossil fuel leasing has consistently generated about 25 percent of all U.S. energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and about 21 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Each new federal fossil fuel lease undermines global carbon budgets by opening new deposits to development when only a small portion of existing, proven deposits can be burned while avoiding 2 degree Celsius warming by century’s end.