Unchecked oil and gas extraction threatens climate, Colorado’s North Fork Valley
WASHINGTON—Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today challenging the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service’s 2020 approval of a plan that allows fracking across 35,000 acres of Colorado’s Western Slope. The North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan allows 35 new fracking wells in the North Fork Valley and Thompson Divide areas of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest.
Today’s lawsuit says federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws by failing to fully assess the potential for water pollution and harm to the climate, and by refusing to analyze alternatives that would minimize or eliminate harm to the environment. The plan would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, equivalent to the annual pollution from a dozen coal-fired power plants.
“This case is about confronting the Trump administration’s complete disregard of law, science, and public lands,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We can’t frack our way to a safe climate and we certainly can’t afford to keep letting the oil and gas industry run roughshod over Colorado’s irreplaceable and vital public lands.”
“The Trump administration charted a course to destroy public lands and our shared climate,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “This master development plan is a 30-year commitment to the disastrous ‘energy dominance’ agenda which ignored significant impacts on the communities and spectacular values of the North Fork. We are determined to hold our federal government accountable to a more sustainable future for Colorado’s public lands, wildlife, people, and climate.”
“Fossil fuel development and sustainable public lands don’t mix, especially in the roadless headwaters of the Upper North Fork Valley,” said Brett Henderson, executive director of Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “This project is incompatible with necessary climate change action, healthy wildlife habitat, and watershed health, and is at odds with the future of our communities.”
“We are in a megadrought in the North Fork Valley and the Western Slope. The water used to frack in the watershed risks precious water resources and only exacerbates the climate and the water crisis,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This 35-well project is the beginning of much larger plans to extract a resource that should be left in the ground and for which the market is drying up.”
“This dangerous plan promises more runaway climate pollution in one of the fastest-warming regions in the United States,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re suing to force federal agencies to stop ignoring the climate emergency. Like the planet, the Colorado River Basin can’t survive a future of ever-expanding fossil fuel development.”
“It is past time for the federal government to meaningfully consider climate change in its oil and gas permitting decisions,” said Melissa Hornbein, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Gunnison and Delta Counties have already exceeded 1.5°C of warming; the project failed to meaningfully analyze impacts to climate, roadless areas, and the agriculture and eco-tourism centered economies of the North Fork Valley. More drilling is projected to harm Delta County’s tax revenue, not help it. These communities need land management that serves the public interest.”
Colorado’s Western Slope is already suffering from severe warming. The Washington Post recently featured the area as the largest “climate hot spot” in the lower 48 states, where temperatures have already risen more than 2 degrees Celsius, reducing snowpack and drying Colorado River flows that support endangered fish, agriculture and 40 million downstream water users.
In January 574 conservation, Native American, religious and business groups sent the then president-elect a proposed executive order to ban new fossil fuel leasing and permitting on federal public lands and waters. In February the Biden administration issued an executive order pausing oil and gas leasing onshore and offshore pending a climate review of federal fossil fuel programs. In June the Interior Department will issue an interim report describing findings from a March online forum and public comments.
Background: Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide fossil fuel leasing ban on federal lands and oceans would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals.
Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroy habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have inflicted immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.
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 the world’s already producing oil and gas fields, if fully developed, would push global warming well past 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Melissa Hornbein, Western Environmental Law Center, (406) 471-3173, email@example.com, Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (801) 300-2414, firstname.lastname@example.org, Grant Stevens, Wilderness Workshop, (319) 427-0260, email@example.com , Brett Henderson, High Country Conservation Advocates, (866) 349-7104, firstname.lastname@example.org, Natasha Léger, Citizens for a Healthy Community, (970) 399-9700, email@example.com
The badger cull policy has cost the lives of more than 140,000 badgers since 2013, in the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory. Badgers have been shot across a geographical area stretching from Cornwall to Cumbria at an estimated public cost of over £70m, when the costs of policing, training, monitoring, equipment, and legal defence are taken into account.
Despite the huge cruelty and cost of the badger cull policy, the government has provided no reliable scientific evidence to prove that badger culling is making any significant contribution to lowering bovine tuberculosis (TB) in cattle, in or around the cull zones. The government could kill every badger in England, but bovine TB will remain in cattle herds, since it’s primarily spread from cow to cow.
There are over 9.6m cattle in Britain and we move more cattle in this nation than anywhere else in Europe. The movement of cattle is a key driver for the spread of bovine TB in both cattle and badgers.
For too long, the government and the farming industry have wrongly blamed the badger for the spread of bovine TB in cattle, which has become a dangerous distraction from tackling the root cause of disease in the cattle industry.
However, could growing public recognition over infectious disease control issues, resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, help to bring respite to the badgers?
Over the past 12 months, all of us have gained an insight into the danger of pandemics and the actions we need to take to stop the spread of Covid-19. R-numbers, testing efficiency, track and trace, biosecurity controls, vaccines, antibodies and herd immunity have all become subjects of discussion in households across the nation.
For those of us who have long opposed the cruel, expensive and ineffective badger cull policy, these discussions resonate for disease control in animals as well as humans.
Like the spread of Covid-19 in the human population, the spread of bovine TB in cattle is largely down to cows being kept inside buildings for extended periods or moved in large numbers across the country.
The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), undertaken between 1998 to 2005, cost over £49m and resulted in the death of more than 11,000 badgers in the largest and most complex field research programme ever undertaken on the issue of badgers and the spread of bovine TB to cattle.
The Independent Scientific Group, which reviewed the results of the RBCT, found that the culling of badgers could make no meaningful contribution to lowering bovine TB in cattle, and that like Covid-19 in humans, bovine TB in cattle is most effectively controlled by cattle-focussed measures, including improved testing, track and trace systems, movement and biosecurity controls and vaccination against the disease.
One of the most outspoken critics of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is the former chief scientist Sir David King. Through his Independent Sage Committee, he has heavily criticised key aspects of the Covid-19 control strategy, from the timing of lockdowns and the failures in testing and track and trace systems, to movement and border controls.
To a large degree, Sir David has received strong public support for many of the concerns he has raised on the Covid-19 pandemic, but in my opinion there remains a huge inconsistency in his position on the control of disease in humans compared to animals.
As the government chief scientist under Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sir David King challenged the key findings of the Independent Scientific Group which oversaw the Randomised Badger Culling Trial. This helped pave the way for the incoming coalition government in 2010 to plan and implement a badger cull policy which remains in place to this day. I believe he was wrong to do so.
Like Covid-19, bovine TB is a disease spread primarily by aerosol droplet infection when cattle are held indoors for extended periods of time, without any prospect of “social distancing’’.
The most effective way to stop the spread of the disease is to put in place effective testing and track and trace systems for cattle. Biosecurity measures are crucial in stopping the spread of disease on farms, at cattle markets and when cattle are moved. A widespread cattle vaccination programme is the most effective way of building up herd immunity to stop the spread of the disease.
Badgers have been unfairly blamed for spreading bovine TB in cattle, and demonised and destroyed as a result. The government has laid out an exit strategy from badger culling, but tens of thousands of badgers remain under the threat of being shot before this is finally implemented.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused great human suffering, but it could lead to significant scientific improvements in disease control for both humans and animals. It is now time that the government uses the lessons learned from the pandemic to bring the killing of badgers to an immediate and permanent end.
Let us hope by the time Covid-19 ends, it will also bring a close to the badger cull, one of the darkest chapters in the history of farming and wildlife conservation in Britain.
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