News Roundup

HD reprieve, CO Ds want BLM HQ in GJ, land reclamation art, and more

On satellite maps, the scrub oak and ponderosa pine-covered slopes of the HD Mountains resemble an island, rising up from a sea of pastures and alfalfa fields and oil and gas wellpads on Southern Ute land in southwestern Colorado. Boasting a 25,000-acre roadless area—and lacking the traits that attract the adrenalin junkies and fitness freaks ubiquitous in the region—the mountains provide a relatively peaceful refuge for the bears, mountain lions, and elk that call them home. 

For decades the oil and gas industry has endeavored to invade the island, with limited success. But in the waning days of the Trump administration the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the minerals under the US Forest Service portion of the HDs, took steps to lease out some 2,500 acres in and near the mountains, including parcels in the roadless area. 

Then, in late January, President Joe Biden paused all oil and gas leasing on federal land, keeping the industry from further encroaching on the HDs—at least for now—and prompting a collective sigh of relief from local activists and landowners who tenaciously have fought to protect the area. Also getting a reprieve from this spring's auction block are parcels in the Pawnee National Grasslands, White River National Forest, as well as swaths of land in Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. 

Red dots represent oil and gas wells. The purple dots are directional wellbores. Most of the non-directional wells (red dots w/no purple) in the HD Mountains are inactive. The parcels that were to be leased were all on US Forest Service land. Chimney Rock National Monument is just to the right of the boundary. Map: Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Industry groups once again insisted that the leasing pause would result in economic catastrophe, a claim that simply does not stand up to scrutiny. The HD Mountains are in coalbed methane—or natural gas—country. Natural gas prices have been in the dump since 2009. That means bids for the HD parcels would likely net as little as several thousands of dollars for the feds and the state. And, given the stubbornly low commodity price, the chances that the leases would be drilled anytime soon are slim.

In fact, the leasing pause may be good for oil and gas states in a way, because with no federal mineral rights to acquire, oil and gas companies may go after state parcels instead (the leasing pause does not extend to state, tribal, or private minerals). Next month, EnergyNet—a sort of eBay for oil and gas leases—is putting more than 183,000 acres of state land on the block in Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado. The sale price for the lease and rents will all go to the respective states, rather than be shared with the feds, as is the case with federal leases. And once production starts, the states will rake in more cash because not only are state royalties higher than for drilling on federal land, but the revenue goes entirely to the states (as opposed to splitting it).

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The oil and gas industry’s sky-is-falling routine seems to have made petro-state Democratic politicians a little squeamish. Last week seven Democratic senators—including Michael Bennett and John Hickenlooper from Colorado, Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján from New Mexico, and Jon Tester of Montana—voted in favor of an amendment to ban the president from banning “fracking” on public lands. The amendment, which would not have affected the leasing pause, was ultimately stripped from the bill, but it did throw cold water on remaining hopes that the review being conducted during the pause will result in an outright ban on oil and gas development.

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Meanwhile, another Colorado Democrat, Gov. Jared Polis, is pushing back against national environmental group calls to send the BLM HQ back to DC. 

The Trump administration relocated the national offices to Grand Junction, Colorado, in 2019. The move promised to bring some 300 government workers to the city of 63,000 people that is in transition from a fossil fueled economy to a more diversified one. Ultimately, only a few dozen staffers made it to the new offices, which share a building with oil and gas companies, thus confirming critics’ worst fears: That the move (and the bungling way it was orchestrated) would scour the agency of senior, knowledgeable staff while also granting industry more access to those who remained. 

Now those same critics are hoping Biden will reverse the relocation just as he’s begun to rollback so many of Trump’s regulatory rollbacks. But Colorado politicians from both parties are urging him to hold off. Here’s the crux of Polis’ letter to Biden: 

At the risk of irking a few of my readers, I must say that while I agree with the critics in many ways, in the end I’m with Polis on this. It’s clear that the Trump administration used the relocation as a means to achieve the ultimate goal of the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” And it’s clear that the Biden administration must now reconstruct the agency to something better than it was before. But I see no reason that can’t happen at least partly in Grand Junction, so long as it entails kicking out the oil and gas folks as well as changing the HQ’s moniker—it is currently named for Robert Burford, the Sagebrush Rebel BLM director under Reagan. 

I guess the real rub for me is the implication behind some of the arguments against relocation to the rural Western US. And that is a presumption that all or most rural Westerners are ignorant, backward rednecks who are pawns of extractive industries and who don’t care about protecting the public lands. Clearly that’s not the case. The aforementioned HD Mountains largely have remained un-industrialized thanks to locally based groups such as the Oil & Gas Accountability Project, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Western Leaders Network, and like-minded local politicians. Keeping the national headquarters nearby gives those kinds of groups better access to the high-level staff. 

UPDATE (a couple tweets in response to this that I thought y’all’d like to see that make good points)

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Fossil fuels are having it rough these days. Coal has been beaten down by cheap natural gas, an infusion of renewables into the electricity mix, environmental activism, and state and federal policies. The Western natural gas industry has been pummeled by, well, natural gas: the shale gas and oil boom made possible by “fracking”—the magic combination of horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing—created a chronic glut that has kept prices low. And oil has been battered by a pandemic-induced reduction in global demand. 

Now the U.S. Energy Information Administration, often bullish on energy use and fossil fuels, is predicting that energy demand may not return to 2019 levels for years, dealing yet another blow to oil and coal (because as electricity demand falls, coal-fired power gets kicked off the grid first, due to higher costs). And Morgan Stanley Research forecasts that coal will be completely absent from the US energy mix by 2033 and replaced largely by renewable energy sources (EIA thinks coal has a couple more decades of life left in it). Coal-state Wyoming, meanwhile, doubled its wind energy production capacity in 2020. 

It’s all part of what I call the Big Breakdown of coal. The February issue of High Country News is largely devoted to the decline and is full of good stuff, including a nice profile, by Jessica Kutz, of Nicole Horseherder, who fought to get Navajo Generating Station to clean up its act and who is now working to get a just transition for the communities affected by its 2019 closure. 

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Democrats in the New Mexico State Legislature are working to come up with sustainable solutions for the many communities that will be left in the lurch, economically, by fossil fuels’ inevitable decline. The Climate Solutions Act, introduced last month by State Reps. Melanie Stansbury, Brian Egolf, and Angelica Rubio, would build upon the Energy Transition Act of 2019, which requires electric utilities to reduce carbon emissions and provides transition funding for coal-reliant communities. The new bill would extend emissions cuts to the oil and gas industry and expand the economic development and diversification efforts, with a focus on the most impacted and historically disadvantaged communities. The bill made it through the Energy and Natural Resources committee on a 7-4 vote. 

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One way to help communities recover after the fossil fuels have run out is to create a restoration economy based on the reclamation of oil and gas wells and coal mines. I mentioned this here and have a Writers on the Range piece on it coming out soon. On a more offbeat note, the whole thing brings to mind the way some land artists in the seventies wanted collaborate with the reclaimers to create something like land reclamation art.

Robert Smithson, creator of Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, was the most enthusiastic in this vein. He aspired to install a giant, revolving disc at the base of the yawning Bingham Pit in Utah to monitor nature’s long reclamation of the vast wound (not possible until they finally stop mining there). He compared the post-mining landscape to Humpty Dumpty: you can never really put it back together again. But, he theorized, “you will be able to perhaps confer a different kind of value through a different kind of cultivation. I think it is possible to cultivate waste, spoil banks, or the cuts in strip mining areas. It’s a matter of developing a different value structure, and also to have some kind of relationship between the industrial processes and the ecological controls.” Smithson died in a plane crash before he could realize any of this.

Smithson’s contemporary, sculptor Robert Morris, had his own ideas. He thought the Bingham Pit, Four Corners Power Plant, and big dams should stand unreclaimed as a monument to humanity’s hubris: “All of these structures are testimony to faith in science and technology, the practice of which has brought the world to a point of crisis which nobody knows how to resolve.” Morris actually reclaimed a gravel pit near Seattle into what is now considered an “internationally celebrated earthwork.” Below is a long passage from Morris from a 1979 talk about land reclamation art. But first, I’d like to make my own suggestion: Turn the broken down refineries and power plants into movie sets for dystopic films.

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Ian James has a heartbreaking story in the Arizona Republic about the record number of people—494—who died from the heat in Arizona last year. The previous record was set in 2019, when 283 people died of heat-related causes. The heat disproportionately affects those in lower-income brackets, who tend to live in poorly insulated homes and cannot afford air-conditioning or may be hesitant to use it due to electricity costs. Lower-income neighborhoods tend to have fewer trees and less shade, thus amplifying the urban heat island effect. Last year Phoenix experienced its hottest July and August ever and the temperature topped 100 degrees on 145 days, another record.

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This isn’t that new, but it’s news to me: Savehistory.org. It’s a coalition (and website) dedicated to ending archaeological resource crimes such as looting, digging, and pothunting. The website has a lot of good information as well as a tip-line to which you can report suspected vandalism. It’s worth a gander.