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Indian Creek - Part of Bears Ears National Monument

Nationally treasured federal lands face threats by oil, gas, and other extractive uses

Should public, federal lands be opened up even further for extracting minerals, oil, and gas for private ventures? FracTracker’s Karen Edelstein discusses the past, present, and potential future of many of America’s cherished natural resources and wonders.

The United States is blessed with some of the most diverse natural landscapes in the world. Through foresight of great leaders over the decades, starting in 1906 — Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Benjamin Harrison, and Jimmy Carter – to name just a few — well over a half billion acres of wilderness have been set aside as national parks, refuges, monuments, and roadless areas. Some of the most famous of these protected areas include the Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Grand Tetons National Parks. In all, the federal government owns 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land that the United States comprises. These federal lands are administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM): 248.3 million acres, the US Forest Service: 192.9 million acres, US Fish and Wildlife Service: 89.1 million acres, and National Park Service: 78.9 million acres. In addition, the US Department of Defense administers 11.4 million acres.

Why are federal lands at risk?

While most people assume that federal wild lands are forever protected from development and commercial exploitation, quite the opposite is true. For most of the past century, federal lands have hunted, fished, logged and grazed by private individuals and enterprises. In addition, and in the cross-hairs of discussion here, is the practice of leasing lands to industrial interests for the purpose of extracting minerals, oil, and gas from these public lands.

Provisions for land conservation and restrictions on oil and gas extraction, in particular, became more stringent since the inception of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. However, environmentalists have watched in horror as the current administration in Washington has gutted the EPA, and installed climate change-deniers and corporate executives in high levels of office throughout a range of federal agencies. Notable is the appointment of Ryan Zinke as US Secretary of the Interior. Zinke, a former businessman, has a long record of opposing environmental viewpoints around extraction of oil, coal, and gas and cutting regulations. The League of Conservation Voters gives his voting record a lifetime score of 4 percent on environmental issues. As recently as this week, Joel Clement–one of Zinke’s senior advisors–resigned his post, citing, Zinke’s poor leadership, wasting of tax-payer dollars, and denial of climate change science.

Early in his tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Zinke initiated a review of 27 national monuments, a move that environmentalists feared could lead to the unraveling of protections on millions of acres of federal land, and also relaxed regulations on oil and gas exploration in those areas. Public comment on the plans to review these national monuments was intense; when the public comment period closed on July 10, 2017, the Interior Department had received over 2.4 million comments, the vast majority of which supported keeping the existing boundaries and restrictions as they are.

Federal lands under threat by Trump Administration

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The above map shows which sites are under consideration for oil, gas, or coal extraction, or face boundary reduction of up to 88%. Click here to view this map full-screen with a legend, zoom in and click on areas of interest, etc.

Who should be allowed to use these resources?

Ranchers, loggers, and recreational hunters and anglers felt that the 1906 Antiquities Act had been over-interpreted, and therefore advocated for Zinke’s proposal. (The Act was the first U.S. law to provide protection for any general kind of cultural or natural resource.)

However, environmental advocates such as the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and others were adamantly opposed to opening up federal lands resources for extraction, citing the need for environmental protection, public access, and, importantly, concerns that the lands would be more easily transferred to state, local, or private interests. Environmentalists also argue that the revenue generated by tourism at these pristine sites would far exceed that generated by extractive resource activities. Attorneys and staff from NPCA and NRDC argued legislation in effect since the 1970s requires role for Congress in changing the boundaries of existing monuments. The President or his cabinet do not have that sole authority.

The Wilderness Society estimates that already, 90% of the land in the US West, owned by the Bureau of Land Management, is open for oil and gas leasing, while only 10% is set aside for other uses (Figure 2). According to information from Sourcewatch, in 2013, these lands included 12 National Monuments, Parks, Recreation Areas, and Preserves that had active drilling, and another 31 that might see possible drilling in the future.

Source: The Wilderness Society

Figure 2. Percent of land already available for oil and gas leasing in the West. Source: The Wilderness Society

What Zinke has Proposed

True to expectation, in August of 2017, Zinke issued a recommendation to shrink the boundaries of several national monuments to allow coal mining and other “traditional uses” — which appear to include large-scale timbering, as well as potentially oil and gas drilling. Sites include Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah (encompassing more than 3.2 million acres in lands considered sacred to Dine/Navajo people), Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon, and Gold Butte in Nevada. According to Zinke’s report, Grand Staircase-Escalante contains “an estimated several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits”. Zinke lifted Obama-era restrictions on coal leasing on federal lands this past March, 2017. However, just last week, a federal judge ruled that the current Administration’s efforts to suspend methane emission restrictions from pipelines crossing public lands were illegal. These are merely a few of the Obama-era environmental protections that Zinke is attempting to gut.

Zinke has proposed decreasing the size of Bears Ears National Monument from the current 1.35 million acres to a mere 160,000, a reduction of 88%. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of thirty Native American tribes, condemned the recommendation as a “slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country.” The Navajo Nation intends to sue the President’s administration if this reduction at Bears Ears is enacted.

Bears Ears National Monument, designated by President Barack Obama, contains tens of thousands of cultural artifacts, and is facing not only a threat of boundary shrinkage, but also a relaxing use restrictions within the Monument area. The current President has referred to Obama’s designation of the monument as “an egregious abuse of power.” Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated by President Bill Clinton, and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was designated by Clinton and expanded by President Obama.

The recommendation details were not made public in August, however, and only came to light in September through a leaked memo, published in The Washington Post. In the memo, Secretary Zinke noted that the existing boundaries were “arbitrary or likely politically motivated or boundaries could not be supported by science or reasons of resource management.” The memo goes on to say that “[i]t appears that certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining and timber production rather than to protect specific objects.” In addition, Zinke is advocating for the modification for commercial fishing uses of two marine national monuments: the Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll.

Lacking Specificity

According to the Washingon Post, Zinke:

… plans to leave six designations in place: Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients; Idaho’s Craters of the Moon; Washington’s Hanford Reach; Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant; Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks; and California’s Sand to Snow.

Perplexingly, the report is silent on 11 of the 27 monuments named in the initial proposal. One of which is the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — over 725,000 square miles of ocean — in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The report also requests tribal co-management of “cultural resources”  at Bears Ears, Rio Grande del Norte, and Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks. While one could imagine that greater involvement of indigenous people in the federal government’s management of the sacred landscapes to be a potentially positive improvement, the report is silent on the details. More information on tribal co-management and other options can be gleaned from a series of position papers written by the Property and Environment Research Center.

Of other note: Zinke is also suggesting the establishment of three new national monuments, including the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area in Montana, a sacred site of the Blackfeet Nation. Badger-Two Medicine was the site of a more than 30-year battle to retire 32,000 acres of oil and gas leases. The tribe prevailed, and the leases were canceled in November, 2016.

With potential lawsuits pending about boundary changes, galvanized push-back from environmental and tribal interests on resource management definitions for the targeted monuments, and general unpredictability on policy details and staffing in Washington, the trajectory of how this story will play out remains uncertain. FracTracker will continue to monitor for updates, and provide additional links in this story as they unfold.

Check out National Geographic’s bird’s eye view of these protected areas for a stunning montage, descriptions, and more maps of the monuments under consideration.


Federal Lands Map Data Sources

National Monuments under consideration for change by Secretary Zinke:
Accessed from ArcGIS Online by FracTracker Alliance, 28 August 2017. Data apparently from federal sources, such as BLM, NPS, etc. Dataset developed by Kira Minehart, GIS intern with Natural Resources Defense Council.0=not currently targeted for policy or boundary change1= targeted for expanded resource use, such as logging, fishing, etc. 2=targeted for shrinkage of borders, and expanded resource use.

National Park Service lands with current or potential oil and gas drilling:
Downloaded by FracTracker Alliance on 9 November 2016, from National Park Service.  Drilling information from here. List of sites threatened by oil and gas drilling from here (23 January 2013).

Badger-Two Medicine potential Monument:
Shapefile downloaded from USGS by FracTracker Alliance on 28 August 2017. This map layer consists of federally owned or administered lands of the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For the most part, only areas of 320 acres or more are included; some smaller areas deemed to be important or significant are also included. There may be private inholdings within the boundaries of Federal lands in this map layer. Some established Federal lands which are larger than 320 acres are not included in this map layer, because their boundaries were not available from the owning or administering agency. Complete metadata available here.


By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Allegheny County, PA map of zoning designations

Allegheny County, PA – Drilling, Leasing, and Zoning Trends

By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
and Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

FracTracker recently updated its Pennsylvania Shale Viewer to reflect the latest data on unconventional oil and gas permits and active wells in the state. Within this data, we noticed an increase in permitting over the past year for Allegheny County, PA. We have worked on a number of recent initiatives aimed at expanding conversations about unconventional oil and gas drilling by mapping mineral rights leasing and zoning ordinances in Allegheny County. In this article, we bring these various analyses together.

The analysis below can assist residents and public officials in preparing for what appears to be a pending wave of new development.

Untapped Reserves

Over the past decade, unconventional oil and gas development has predominantly occurred in areas where shale formations are densest and most productive. For instance, the map below illustrates wells and permits in Southwestern Pennsylvania that track along the Marcellus Shale. An outlier on the map is Allegheny County when compared to its neighbors such as Washington and Greene Counties just to the south—two of the most drilled in the Commonwealth.

swpa_ac_og

Unconventional wells and permits in Southwest Pennsylvania

A few factors may explain these spatial anomalies. First, oil and gas companies are generally reluctant to operate in heavily populated areas. This is partly due to the complications of acquiring leases and easements in tightly packed communities.

Infrastructure is second consideration. In the absence of compressor stations and midstream pipelines, companies can’t get their product to market.

A third factor is the stronger political opposition often found in urban centers. For example, Pittsburgh’s 2010 fracking ban pushed back against drillers and had a chilling effect in bordering municipalities. Many of Allegheny County’s municipalities have, thus, had the luxury of putting oil and gas-related land use decisions on the back burner. Nevertheless, operators have maintained interest in extracting untapped shale reserves that lie beneath their borders.

Recent Permitting & Drilling Trends

Within Allegheny County, PA, there are now 24 well pads containing a combined 248 permitted wells, of which 109 currently have an active status. On average, these numbers show a 20% increase in well permits annually (40-50 per year) since 2014. This figure compares to less than 10 per year prior to 2012. Furthermore, while only partway through 2017, we’ve already reached this 20% increase in new permits (41 since 8/24), with the overwhelming number of these being issues for Findlay and Forward Townships. A table and graph of permitting activity since 2008 is seen below.

ac_permits_table_08242017

ac_permits_graph_08242017

Table and graph of permitted wells in Allegheny County

Interestingly, the number of active wells over the past few years does not track with increasing number of permits. In fact, active wells peaked in 2014-2015 and have steadily declined since, as is seen in the table and graph below. We credit these opposing trends to operators placing their wells into inactive status during a period of lower gas prices. Meanwhile, operators are increasing their applications for new wells in preparation for a predicted rebound as well as new pipelines and processing facilities coming online for delivering to new markets.

ac_dw_table_08242017

ac_dw_graph_08242017

Table and graph of active wells in Allegheny County

Predicting Development: Mineral Rights Leasing

The locations of permits and active wells are not always good indicators of long-term future development. A better picture can be painted with data on properties leased for eventual drilling. In 2016, FracTracker built the Allegheny County Lease Mapping Project, which revealed the extent of oil and gas leasing agreements across the region. From that work came some interesting findings.

There are 467,200 acres in Allegheny County. We found 63,014 acres (18% of the county) are under some kind of oil and gas agreement – this includes mineral rights leases, as well as other agreement such as pipeline rights of ways. It is important to note that as many as 15% of the records we obtained in executing the project could not be mapped due to missing metadata (many block/lot numbers were no longer provided with online records after 2010), so these are conservative estimates.

The list below shows the top five municipalities found to have the most leases. Of note is how West Deer, North Fayette, and Elizabeth townships all have a significant number of leases, but do not yet register in permitting activity.

Most Leased Municipalities in Allegheny County, PA

  1. West Deer Township (5,325 leases)
  2. North Fayette Township (5,070 leases)
  3. Elizabeth Township (4,070 leases)
  4. Fawn Township (3,872 leases)
  5. Forward Township (3,801)

We also discovered that more than 70% of leased properties were zoned residential or agricultural, despite the fact that unconventional oil and gas development is a highly disruptive and industrialized activity. The list below shows a breakdown of zoning designations.

Leased Properties Zoning

    • Residential (37%)
    • Agricultural (34%)
    • Commercial (23%)
    • Industrial (3%)
    • Other (3%)

Status of Protective Zoning

In 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upended state laws governing local oil and gas zoning rights with its landmark Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decision. The court struck down parts of Act 13 that imposed statewide zoning standards for oil and gas development. Zoning ordinances with stronger ordinances are now being adopted by some townships. However, many others have zoning codes that reflect pre-Robinson language, which allows mineral extraction everywhere, regardless of whether it is a compatible land use.

Drawing the connections between drilling trends, leasing activity, and protective zoning is, therefore, significant. Over the past six months, FracTracker has worked with Food & Water Watch to put our lease mapping data and state drilling data in context with assessments of Allegheny County’s municipal oil and gas zoning ordinances. The map below illustrates these overlaps.

Map of Allegheny County Drilling, Leasing, and Zoning


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Analysis

Allegheny County contains 130 municipalities. Food & Water Watch was able to obtain and review zoning codes for 104 of these 130. At least 56 municipalities have no zoning ordinances specific to oil and gas development. Of greatest concern, when placed in context with leasing and permitting data, FracTracker found that leases already existed in 43 of these 56 municipalities without oil and gas ordinances, although 8 of these 43 were found to have other less restrictive language regulating specific oil and gas activities, such as seismic testing. Fawn Township, one of the most permitted and most leased municipalities in the county, was found to have no oil and gas zoning ordinance.

Conclusions

It’s important to recognize that there is a significant difference between conventional oil and gas development and today’s heavily industrialized unconventional extraction industry. In many of Allegheny County’s municipalities there seems to be a presumption that there is no need to prepare zoning codes for drilling, despite data that suggest increased oil and gas development may be just around the corner.

With the deeper understanding of Allegheny County’s permitting trends, leasing activities, and the state of protective zoning presented in this article, municipalities would be wise to assess where they stand. Reviewing and updating their respective zoning codes to determine if they sufficiently address concerns related to unconventional drilling could be the most effective way to protect the interests of their residents.

Hypothetical Impacts of Unconventional Drilling In Allegheny County

With tens of thousands of wells scattered across the countryside, Southwestern Pennsylvania is no stranger to oil and gas development. New, industrial scale extraction methods are already well entrenched, with over 3,600 of these unconventional wells drilled so far in that part of the state, mostly from the well known Marcellus Shale formation.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is also home to the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area, a seven county region with over 2.3 million people. Just over half of this population is in Allegheny County, where unconventional drilling has become more common in recent years, along with all of its associated impacts. In the following interactive story map, the FracTracker Alliance takes a look at current impacts in more urban and suburban environments, plus projects what future impacts could look like, based on leasing activity.

hypothetical impacts map

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

The Mississippi Fracking Fight: Saving Forests, Woodpeckers, and the Climate

By Wendy Park, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity

 

If the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gets its way, large areas of Mississippi’s Bienville and Homochitto national forests will be opened up to destructive fracking. This would harm one of the last strongholds for the rare and beautiful red-cockaded woodpecker, create a new source of climate pollution, and fragment our public forests with roads, drilling pads and industrial equipment. That’s why we’re fighting back.

My colleagues and I at the Center for Biological Diversity believe that all species, great and small, must be preserved to ensure a healthy and diverse planet. Through science, law and media, we defend endangered animals and plants, and the land air, water, and climate they need. As an attorney with the Center’s Public Lands Program, I am helping to grow the “Keep It in the Ground” movement, calling on President Obama to halt new leases on federal lands for fracking, mining, and drilling that only benefit private corporations.

That step, which the president can take without congressional approval, would align U.S. energy policies with its climate goals and keep up to 450 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution from entering the atmosphere. Already leased federal fossil fuels will last far beyond the point when the world will exceed the carbon pollution limits set out in the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. That limit is expected to be exceeded in a little over four years. We simply cannot afford any more new leases.

Fracking Will Threaten Prime Woodpecker Habitat

In Mississippi, our concerns over the impact of fracking on the rare red-cockaded woodpecker and other species led us to administratively protest the proposed BLM auction of more than 4,200 acres of public land for oil and gas leases the Homochitto and Bienville national forests. The red-cockaded woodpecker is already in trouble. Loss of habitat and other pressures have shrunk its population to about 1% of its historic levels, or roughly 12,000 birds. In approving the auction of leases to oil and gas companies, BLM failed to meet its obligation to protect these and other species by relying on outdated forest plans, ignoring the impact of habitat fragmentation, not considering the effects of fracking on the woodpecker, and ignoring the potential greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas taken from these public lands. The public was also not adequately notified of BLM’s plans.

 

Mississippi National Forests, Potential BLM Oil & Gas Leasing Parcels, and Red Cockaded Woodpecker Sightings


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Fracking Consequences Ignored

According to the National Forest Service’s 2014 Forest Plan Environmental Impact Statement, core populations of the red-cockaded woodpecker live in both the Bienville and Homochitto national forests, which provide some of the most important habitat for the species in the state. The Bienville district contains the state’s largest population of these birds and is largely untouched by oil and gas development. The current woodpecker population is far below the target set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan. A healthy and fully recovered population will require large areas of mature forest. But the destruction of habitat caused by clearing land for drilling pads, roads, and pipelines will fragment the forest, undermining the species’ survival and recovery.

red-cockaded_woodpecker_insertNew leasing will likely result in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. In their environmental reviews, BLM and the Forest Service entirely ignore the potential for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to be used in the Bienville and Homochitto national forests and their effects on the red-cockaded woodpecker. Fracking would have far worse environmental consequences than conventional drilling. Effects include increased pollution from larger rigs; risks of spills and contamination from transporting fracking chemicals and storing at the well pad; concentrated air pollution from housing multiple wells on a single well pad; greater waste generation; increased risks of endocrine disruption, birth defects, and cardiology hospitalization; and the risk of earthquakes caused by wastewater injection and the hydraulic fracturing process (as is evident in recent earthquakes in Oklahoma and other heavily fracked areas).

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Climate Change

Oil and gas development also results in significant greenhouse gas emissions from construction, operating fossil-fuel powered equipment during production, reclamation, transportation, processing and refining, and combustion of the extracted product. But BLM and the Forest Service have refused to analyze potential emissions or climate change effects from new leasing. Climate change is expected to worsen conditions for the woodpecker, compounding the harms of destructive drilling practices. Extreme weather events will become more frequent in the Southeast U.S. as temperatures rise. Hurricane Katrina resulted in significant losses of woodpecker habitat and birds in the Mississippi national forests. The Forest Service should be redoubling its efforts to restore and preserve habitat, but instead it is turning a blind eye to climate change threats.

At a time when world leaders are meeting in Morocco to discuss the climate crisis and scientists tell us we already have enough oil and gas fields operating to push us past dangerous warming thresholds, it’s deeply disturbing that the Obama administration continues to push for even more oil and gas leases on America’s public lands. The BLM’s refusal to acknowledge and analyze the effects of fracking on the climate, at-risk species, and their habitat, is not only inexcusable it is illegal. The science is clear: The best way to address catastrophic warming — and protect wildlife — is to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Photographs for this article were sourced from the U.S. Department of Agriculture fair-use photostream.