Trump's Oil Dreams: For Mountains and Wildlife, It's the Pits
July 20, 2018
Zack Colman / Reveal News & Elizabeth Shogren / Reveal News
Ten thousand feet up, it's possible to see all of Colorado's North Fork Valley -- sloping mesas with snow-dusted mountains, the land below resembles a vintage pioneer landscape. But if Donald Trump has his way, this sweeping vista could soon be replaced by an invasion of oil and gas pumps. Trump's administration is opening vast stretches of public land to energy companies and, in the case of North Fork, up to 95 percent of the valley's forests and fields could be handed over to drillers.
Trump Dreams about a New Energy Boom.
Oil Leases Could Cover this Mountain Valley
Zack Colman / Reveal News
PAONIA, Colo. (July 13, 2018) -- Ten thousand feet up, it's possible to see the whole North Fork Valley from Dan Stucker's plane. As the aircraft glides over sloping mesas with snow-dusted mountains, the land below resembles a vintage pioneer landscape.
If President Donald Trump has his way, a new feature could arrive on this vista: oil and gas pumps. His administration is opening vast stretches of public land to energy companies, and among the forests and fields under Stucker's plane, up to 95 percent of the valley could be available to drillers.
The administration's new policies would bring sweeping changes to this Rocky Mountain landscape, facilitated by a growing bond between federal officials and the oil and gas industry. Emails and other communications between government employees obtained by E&E News reveal directives and orders by Trump officials to shelve environmental policies to speed energy development.
In one instance, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke courted oil and gas drillers in private by assuring them that changes to federal land policy would make their companies more profitable.
Documents show that some career employees in the Bureau of Land Management questioned whether drillers were being penalized adequately for major violations of environmental regulations. Interior Department staffers also pushed back on efforts by political appointees to put federal land up for auction before scientific assessments on the potential damage drilling could inflict on wildlife were finished.
At other times, federal officials voiced concern that Trump's drilling goals were more aggressive than oil industry wishes. One federal official was asked whether it would be possible to rejigger data to make it look like the government would sell more leases because she was worried about how companies' lack of interest in drilling would look to administration bigwigs, according to an email E&E News obtained.
These policies will set the nation on a future course of reliance on fossil fuels that cause climate change, more air and water pollution in rural areas, and new threats to endangered species. In return, the government charges oil companies as little as $2 per acre to lease the land for drilling.
Once a coal town, Paonia has transformed itself over the past few decades. It's now known for wineries, boutiques, galleries and organic farms that draw tourists from nearby ski resorts. Perhaps most symbolic of its economic conversion, the town now hosts a major company, Solar Energy International, that trains solar panel technicians.
But Paonia's shift away from its fossil fuel roots could be reversed under the Trump administration's new policies.
Stucker, the pilot, represents the more traditional side of this region. He said his family arrived here on covered wagons in 1893. Dutch people, then Coloradans. That's how they distinguish things in this valley -- you're either a fifth-generation son of the Western Slope like Stucker, or you're an organic-farming hippie. Waves of them came in the 1970s.
"I have friends who are liberals and what I love about that is we have wonderful arguments," said Stucker, a self-described libertarian who favors drilling here. "I do not want us to become Boulder, where you have to get permission to screw a lightbulb in."
Leasing vast acreage to oil companies
Trump feels the same way.
The president's plans to expand fossil fuels seem as boundless as the tracts of wilderness below. He wants to open millions of acres across the West, all owned by taxpayers, to private oil and gas companies. Last year alone, his administration put 11.9 million acres on the auction block. It was the most in nine years. In sheer size, that's twice as big as Vermont.
Colorado's North Fork Valley is now destined to become part of that statistic. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management announcedit would offer 7,903 acres in the valley to drillers in December.
The move underscores how the Trump administration has sidelined science to promote energy development. Trump revoked a policy that required the Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, to consider how its actions could contribute to climate change.
Interior Department officials wanted to make the business case for drilling on federal land to oil executives at a March 2017 meeting of the American Petroleum Institute's board of directors at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
An email from then-Interior Department official Megan Bloomgren -- who now works for the oil lobby group -- to colleagues clarified the message that Zinke wanted to deliver. The upshot is that Bloomgren wanted to persuade them that drilling on federal land would be easier under Trump than President Barack Obama, in turn increasing companies' revenues, returns for taxpayers and US energy production.
"He's saying 'when you buy a lease from us now it's a junk bond. We want to move that over so we take on more burden and get return on investment with right market conditions. That way you have a higher probability of success. That way lease value and taxpayer return goes up. I'd like to sell product. We're looking at how to price royalties and rents right now,' " she wrote in a March 22, 2017, email. "What can he say to back up that he wants to ensure federal lands are just as profitable as private land?"
Coordination with industry has at times been overt. In an audio recording obtained by the watchdog group Documented and shared with E&E News, Interior Department energy adviser Vincent DeVito detailed his courtship of energy companies at an event by Americans for Prosperity.
The conservative group is linked to fossil fuel billionaires David and Charles Koch. Another brother, Bill Koch, owns an energy company that drills in the area and used to own a now-shuttered coal mine in Paonia.
In the recording, DeVito asked energy executives whether they would drill more if the department lowered its fees.
"We met with the investors and were like, 'Listen, if we do this, will you participate? Because there is no sense in taking the hit for lowering royalty rates unless you guys do this,' " he said in the recording. "Money from a low royalty rate is better than no money at all. And that's exactly what we're trying to do. You know, we are prioritizing production, we are prioritizing revenue, which creates jobs, right? So when we lower that royalty rate, and we did the lease sale last week, we got folks to come to the table and invest."
Some energy experts say the Trump administration is trying to lease lots of federal land that oil companies don't even want. Of the 11.9 million acres offered by the administration in 2017, 792,823 received bids, considerably less than the 921,240 acres out of 1.9 million under the Obama administration in 2016.
Onshore oil, gas, coal and other hardrock mining on federal lands generated about $496 million for the US Treasury in fiscal 2017 and $1.4 billion for states. Most of this came through royalties. Critics note that royalty rates and fees for renting federal land haven't increased in decades. The Government Accountability Office suggested that raising royalty rates could increase revenues for taxpayers between $5 million and $38 million.
Royalty rates for onshore production are currently 12.5 percent, the lowest allowed by federal law. Energy-rich states such as Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah have higher rates.
"Federal onshore oil and gas revenues have increased 87% in just the first year of the Trump Administration, as well as an overall increase in federal energy revenue around $1 billion," Interior Department spokesman Alex Hinson said in a statement. "With historic tax cuts and smart regulatory reform, we look forward to continual growth. That means more money for conservation and to rebuild our National Parks."
The 87 percent increase reflects an additional $167 million generated for the federal government from lease sales last year.
The oil industry and Trump's supporters say the president is swinging the pendulum back to energy after Obama conserved a record amount of federal land, some of which Trump has undone. They say Obama suppressed energy production through cumbersome permitting and heavy-handed regulation.
But internal emails obtained by the conservation group Rock Mountain Wild and shared with E&E News illustrate a complication with Trump's policies: Energy companies didn't want to lease a lot of the federal land, and that was problematic for BLM leadership because Trump and Zinke had instructed the agency to hold quarterly lease sales.
"It doesn't look like Colorado will have a March 2018 Lease Sale," Rachel Vaughn, a BLM official in Colorado, wrote to colleagues in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2017. "We don't have any new (expressions of interest) for the field offices in that rotation and we don't have any old deferrals that can be brought forward at this time."
For an administration that wants to demonstrate that it's turbocharging the energy economy, the email betrayed a truth the White House hasn't wanted to admit: By and large, the industry isn't buying what the White House is selling.
"We've been seeing some pushback from the Main Interior, regarding lease sale postponements," Jennifer Spencer, a mineral leasing specialist for the BLM in Washington, responded on March 8, 2017.
Spencer explained that a Nevada office ran into a similar problem -- lack of industry interest -- and recommended postponing the lease sale. But the Interior Department wouldn't approve that. Instead, it forced BLM officials in Nevada to shuffle around leases from another district: The Battle Mountain district was supposed to have one lease sale. Instead, the BLM planned two in separate quarters, spending taxpayer dollars to divvy up the land and hold two distinct auctions to satisfy the demands from Interior headquarters.
Can Drilling Coexist with Wildlife, Organic Farms?
Paonia sits in a fertile shadow of the Rockies atop the nation's second-largest shale gas reserve. It's a town with a legacy of coal mining. Now it's full of artists and organic farmers. Cafes line the main drag and mountains hug the valley. The land at its doorstep is under Bureau of Land Management control. That means Trump is the landlord.
The family farm where Dan Stucker, 69, spent summers pitching hay turned 104 his year. He's lived a storied life, doing everything from "deliver a baby to plan an invasion." A former State Department employee who spent years in Zimbabwe -- he remembers it as Rhodesia -- the land where his family's story began eventually called him home.
So perhaps it's ironic that Stucker named his plane "Unintended Consequences," because that's exactly what people on the other side of this debate are worried about.
Here's why: Trump doesn't seem to accept that fossil fuel extraction has costs -- to the environment and people's health. The White House reduced estimates of damage from carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to $1 to $6 per ton. It was $42 under Obama. In the past, Trump has called climate change "bullshit" and a "hoax." Now, his administration is implementing policies that reflect that view.
That outlook emerges in Trump's decisions here and across the West. The nation's vast public lands have always been an engine for energy development. Now it's in overdrive. One of Trump's economic cornerstones is "energy dominance." He wants the nation to produce more energy than it ever has.
To do that, Trump instructed the agency overseeing public lands to kill the "burdens" on oil drilling, gas extraction and coal mining. A 43-pagereport by the Interior Department identified various rules meant to ensure that energy development was done safely and cleanly. Then the White House began axing them.
Those decisions had clear consequences for wildlife, such as the greater sage-grouse, a threatened bird that exists on federal territory oil and gas drillers covet.
"We understand current BLM policy prevents the BLM from utilizing the best available science/data, specifically the most current (sage-grouse) Habitat Management Categories . . . when applying stipulations in regards to oil and gas parcel leasing," D. Bradford Hardenbrook, a habitat biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, wrote in a letter to a BLM official obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the conservation group WildEarth Guardians. "Inadequate impact preventions are the result."
It's not unusual for Republican presidents to jettison regulations. What stands out is how Trump is doing it. There's scant mention of conservation -- a GOP hallmark in the past -- or safeguarding the environment. The metric for success in the report was simple: Does this get energy out of the ground faster?
Trump's Interior Department is also taking a lighter touch on enforcing laws it has on the books. A BLM official decided against proceedings to penalize Whiting Petroleum Corp. for spilling 107 barrels of oil in Colorado on March 28, 2017.
"Seems to me that failing to report a major undesirable event ought to be more than a wrist slap," Gregory Shoop, then the associate state director for the BLM's Colorado office, said in an email to Mark Lyon, a supervisory petroleum engineering technician for the BLM in Colorado. "But that's a problem for another day." The documents were obtained through WildEarth Guardians' FOIA request.
Trump's vision of oil pumps riles many residents in Paonia. It threatens the town's economic lifeblood, they say. People here want to avoid repeating history by relying on a boom-and-bust resource economy driven by the price of fossil fuels.
Hunters crowd into inns and lodges every fall, lured by elk that graze on nearby hillsides. They're a major contributor to Paonia's economy, said Mike Drake, a bow hunter and former Paonia Chamber of Commerce president. Agriculture flourishes here, too. Paonia has Colorado's highest concentration of organic crops.
Can these hills be speckled with oil rigs and still sustain those virtues?
"I don't think the federal government has ever set foot out here. They wouldn't understand it," said Elizabeth Plummer. Her store, Lizzy's Market, sells local meats, cheeses and produce from 20 suppliers.
"We the people own this land, and we the people should have a say in who does what with our land," she said. "And the fact that it could be leased for next to no money and be literally destroyed without anybody having a say in it is literally deplorable. What happened to 'we the people?' "
Bob Reedy owns a gas and service station in Paonia that his dad started 65 years ago -- local reporters call it, and the worn couch crammed into the corner, the town's "conservative think tank." He doubts the industry's estimates for jobs growth or economic benefits will come true, but he's a utilitarian. He guesses oil company employees will spend money in town while they're working, even if they're only here a short while.
"I hunt, I fish, I ride horses, I ride ATVs and I use pickups, Jeeps, whatever. I use (the land) as much, and in the past probably more, than 90 percent of the people who use it now," Reedy said, adding that he thinks it all can coexist with oil drilling. "We've got to get energy somewhere. Why not here?"
Climate change is another unintended consequence. The Trump administration revoked a policy that instructed the BLM to consider whether its actions warm the planet. That means an agency that already accounts for 20 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions doesn't have to consider its effect on the atmosphere when auctioning off federal land. That land could be under the control of private oil and gas companies for decades.
Climate change already is hitting this area hard. Residents experience water shortages. The Gunnison River Basin, where Paonia rests, is "a microcosm" of the broader climate and water troubles bedeviling the state, according to theNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Higher temperatures mean precipitation is increasingly falling as rain rather than snow. That's decreased the Rockies' snowpack, a natural reservoir that feeds the Colorado River system's summer streams. Now, there's less to melt. Crops go parched. Riverbeds go dry. Farmers' pockets go empty.
"Climate change, global warming, degraded water supplies -- all the various things that happen when we start developing lands, especially for energy production, is something that isn't factored into what we get from it in the short run," said Mark Waltermire, a soft-spoken organic farmer outside Paonia who sells produce across the state.
Is Drilling Profitable Here?
Trump can offer as much land as he wants, but that doesn't make it profitable to pull oil and gas out of difficult areas. Geology is the problem. Most of the shale plays on which hydraulic fracturing has occurred aren't on federal land. Trump can't control that.
That's especially salient for Paonia, said Brad Burton, a petroleum geologist at Western State Colorado University. The North Fork Valley is "characterized by a thin stratigraphic section that is essentially devoid of petroleum source rocks," so developing oil and natural gas has "extremely low" prospects.
"We're giving away leases for pennies on the dollar," said an Interior Department staffer, speaking on background to be candid. "It's to the detriment of the American West."
But energy companies defend the practice. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group, said shutting out federal oil and gas development would increase reliance on imported fuel, making the US more dependent on other oil-rich nations.
"The land is not locked out from other uses," she said. "I know that environmentalists love to say that."
Comparatively few acres attract the minimum price, she said. The government still collects a check either way from rental fees and whatever the company paid for the lease.
"It's kind of like 'no harm, no foul' if somebody buys a lease and then doesn't use it," she said.
Energy companies say there's plenty of interest from industry, but the Obama administration and environmental opponents impeded energy development.
"For eight years, I couldn't get a permit. Why is that?" said Eric Sanford, operations and land manager with SG Interests, which has federal drilling operations near Paonia. "I think it's unfortunate that public lands are used as a political tool like they are."
Worldwide fossil fuel consumption is expected to rise for decades, and US taxpayers benefit by exporting fuel. It's better to have the land under lease so if there's a fuel shortage, drilling can start immediately, oil executives say.
The concern among critics is that Trump is handing large stretches of public land to oil and gas companies for a decade or more. That treats the West's huge landscape as a bank account filled with greenhouse gas emissions that oil companies could withdraw at any time.
"It's what in the climate policy community they call 'climate lock-in,' " said Michael Saul, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "People are essentially paying money to acquire property rights and federal minerals that in the real world are never going to be burnable under any sort of climate action scenario."
Brent Helleckson, owner of Stone Cottage Cellars, a vineyard and winery in Paonia, is dressed in overalls and a Stetson. His outfit belies a background in aerospace engineering. He's realistic about oil and gas companies' need to stockpile reserves as they deplete what they have. Still, Helleckson questions whether the BLM properly administers its program.
Helleckson surveys the bare branches he's been pruning. The sun begins its slow crawl down the blue sky, finding a notch behind the snow-capped mountains and green valley.
"Is that the best use of that land for the taxpayer? I doubt it," he said. "You've taken a public good and converted it to a private asset. We should be very careful about where we do that."
This report is the result of a collaboration between E&E News and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
These Pits Are Deadly to Birds
But Feds Won't Penalize Oil Companies
Elizabeth Shogren / Reveal News
(July 11, 2018) -- As we fly in a small aircraft on a blustery spring day in northern Wyoming, two former US Fish and Wildlife Service agents direct my attention to a cluster of oil field wastewater pits below us. Thick black oil blankets one of them.
"That's a bad pit. Completely full of oil. That's ugly," says Gary Mowad, who retired from the federal agency in 2014.
Swirly rainbow sheens glimmer on the surface of two adjacent pits the size of community swimming pools. Tarry oil floats on the edges. Birds are lured to these pits, thinking they will provide respite, food and drink in this dry region.
"Those would kill birds," says Mowad. Seeing these pits torments him because countless times in the past, he plucked dead and dying birds from oily sites like these.
The former agents' mission is to show me the danger that birds face from a Trump administration decision that reversed a policy that had saved millions of birds for five decades, during both Republican and Democratic administrations. The energy industryinfluenced the administration to adopt this new interpretation, according to an investigation published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in March.
On a short flight over oil fields in the Bighorn Basin, the two retired agents spot dozens of these pits. During their careers they collected the remains of hundreds of birds at oil and gas production pits across the West. Dead birds decompose or sink quickly, so the numbers discovered are only a tiny fraction of the half million to 1 million birds killed every year at oil pits, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service estimate.
When agents found live songbirds, ducks and other birds trapped in oil, they had to break their necks to end their suffering.
"When you find them and they're still alive, they're in really bad shape. I mean you have to euthanize them. You're just not going to (rehabilitate) them. It's gut wrenching," says Mowad, who rose to deputy chief of law enforcement at the agency before retiring.
In the mid-1990s, Mowad, a pilot, saw pits like these in Colorado from his own plane, and was inspired to pioneer a federal program to clean up pits to protect birds. He and other agents flew over oil fields and when they discovered oily pits, they recorded the geographic coordinates and gave companies 30 days to clean them up or face fines or prosecution under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The act makes it a crime to kill any migratory bird or destroy nests or eggs "at any time, or in any manner" -- unless you have a permit.
But in December, the Trump administration's top lawyer at the Interior Department issued a legal opinion declaring that the law only applies to intentional killing and not when industries kill birds, even if those deaths are predictable and avoidable.
Several current and former Fish and Wildlife Service scientists and agents worry that without the fines and prosecutions, many more birds will die.
But industry representatives say that oil companies will keep protecting birds despite the new policy.
"I don't think more birds will die because companies don't need a rule or prosecution hanging over their head to do the right thing," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance. "We want to protect birds. Nobody wants to see a dead bird. I mean, everybody loves birds. We're going to continue to operate in an environmentally responsible way that minimizes bird deaths."
Sgamma said that oil companies have switched to storing wastewater in closed containers, instead of open pits.
"Most modern operations do not use open pits so that again has taken away a source of potential bird deaths and will continue to operate those in that manner," Sgamma said.
The oil and gas industry has no data on how many pits remain in use, according to industry trade groups. Not all states keep track of wastewater pits, but some do. Colorado has more than 3,000 active pits and Louisiana has over 900. California has about 700active pits, and Arkansas has 286. Wyoming's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission website lists thousands of oil drilling sites, but does not sort them by which have open pits.
To underscore that many open pits remain, Mowad asked another former agent, Mark Webb, to fly in his personal plane over oil fields in northern Wyoming. In the distance, the Rocky Mountains are shrouded in clouds as the three of us fly over an oil operation. We see a few rectangular-shaped pools. They're covered with netting and the former agents say the company is doing what itshould to protect birds.
Then a pungent odor reminiscent of rotten eggs fills the cockpit. That's hydrogen sulfide from a different oil production site below us.
One pit is covered with what the former agents call "oil sludge." Other pits at the same operation also have thick oil on them, and swirly rainbow sheens visible from the air.
"That's a killer," Mowad said.
It only takes a little oil to kill a bird. Oil entraps them, and they die from exposure or starvation. Oil also can poison birds when they ingest it while preening, according to toxicologists.
We fly over several other oil production sites. The pits aren't covered with netting and oil is visible on the downwind side of the pits. Rainbow sheens glimmer on the surface of others. We fly over about 30 pits, and most are clearly oily, according to the former agents.
In some cases, the surrounding wetlands and streams are blackened, too.
"They're discharging into this wetland here," Mowad says as we fly over an oil operation. "Those are problem pits. You see the sheen? You see the oil? That will kill birds."
After the flight, I told Sgamma what we saw. She reiterated that modern oil operations use closed containers instead of pits. When pits are used, she added, Wyoming requires operators to cover them with netting. If oil is found on the surface, the operator must clean it up.
But the agents worry that without the fines and prosecutions, many more oil production operations will look like the ones we flew over. Birds will be attracted to the ponds. What look to them like places to rest, and find a drink and a bite to eat, instead will be where they meet painful deaths.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, for noncommercial, educational purposes.