Fossil fuel drilling threatens air and wildlife in national parks, advocacy group finds
Rocky Mountain National Park | Susan J. Demas
WASHINGTON — A “massive” methane cloud forming over Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.
Noxious air pollution fouling Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Herds of mule deer and pronghorn at risk of decimation at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
Environmental problems like these are already resulting from fossil fuel extraction near four federally protected lands — and could become even wider problems if the federal government doesn’t bolster protections, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks said in a recent report.
Oil and gas development near parks could contaminate water and air, destroy habitat, hurt the visitor experience and exacerbate the impacts of climate change, Mike Murray, chairman of the coalition’s executive council, said in a Feb. 2 statement.
“The Biden administration and Congress must take action to curb the adverse effects of energy extraction on parks, surrounding landscapes, gateway communities, park visitors, and national park resources,” he said.
Leasing of public lands to oil and gas developers grew significantly from 2016 through 2020, under the Trump administration, according to the report. During that time, the federal government leased 5.4 million acres to fossil fuel companies, according to a Wilderness Action report.
The coalition said that while oil and gas leasing has slowed under the Biden administration, the U.S. Interior Department is still on track to lease thousands of acres to energy companies in 2023.
“It is imperative that the Biden administration complete much needed reforms to the federal oil and gas program,” the authors said.
Unsafe air in New Mexico
The coalition used four Western case studies to highlight the negative impacts of fossil fuel extraction on federally protected lands: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand Teton National Park.
The authors said that in the region surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the Bureau of Land Management has leased more than 90% of public lands to oil and gas developers.
They added that more than 37,000 oil wells had been dug in the region, and a methane cloud covering more than 1,200 square miles has formed over New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah.
The coalition recommended federal legislation to protect Chaco Canyon, an area that’s culturally significant to the area’s Native American communities, and noted the Bureau of Land Management was considering withdrawing roughly 10 square miles of public land surrounding the region from mineral leasing.
Finalizing that proposal is “essential,” Jerome Lucero, vice-chair of the All-Pueblo Council of Governors, said in the report, as is legislation to permanently protect the area.
Growing oil and gas development in the Permian Basin, near Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico, are correlated with a rise in airborne ozone levels that violates National Ambient Air Quality Standards, the authors said.
Ozone concentrations greater than 70 parts per billion can have detrimental effects on human health, including lung scarring and inflammation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board, ozone levels at Carlsbad Caverns first rose to unsafe levels in 2018, when they measured 71 parts per billion. These levels remained elevated into 2020, when they measured 73 parts per billion.
As a large national park, Carlsbad Caverns has special air quality protections under the Clean Air Act. Yet the EPA paused its investigation to officially designate the area as violating those standards earlier this year.
The top New Mexico environment official said this week a federal designation would come eventually, according to public radio news station KUNM.
An EPA spokesperson did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Interior’s decision to disallow mineral extraction on forest land surrounding the caverns and recent rewrites of state and federal methane laws are steps in the right direction, the report’s authors said.
“However, a thorough assessment of the cumulative risks posed by oil and gas drilling on the wide-reaching cavern system connected to Carlsbad Caverns, and similar protections put in place, is greatly needed to protect these irreplaceable resources,” they said.
A rocky future for Colorado, Wyoming wildlife
In Colorado, the authors of the report found oil and gas drilling in Weld County has contributed to Rocky Mountain National Park falling out of compliance with regional haze standards set under the Clean Air Act.
The Bureau of Land Management plans to lease another roughly 60,000 acres of land west of the park for fossil fuel projects, which may interfere with overwintering elk populations, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
The authors added that other impacts of climate change affecting the park include more aggressive invasive species and more devastating wildfires.
“Without additional planning and regulations to protect and improve air quality and manage the boom of oil and gas development near national parks, our climate and air remain at risk,” they said.
In Wyoming, the authors found that impacts of oil and gas extraction were also affecting the survival of local wildlife.
Oil and gas development in the western half of the state has led to a decline in mule deer habitat that has dropped population numbers 46% below the state baseline for a healthy population, the authors said. A proposed 250,000-acre leasing project could alter migration patterns for the mule deer, further decimating their population, they added.
The authors added that pronghorn herds face similar challenges in Grand Teton National Park, in which a 3,500-well project could “irrevocably alter the Path of the Pronghorn.” Hundreds of pronghorn use the route to migrate seasonally.
The authors cited a Center for Biological Diversity legal petition, which asserted that the park’s entire population of pronghorn could disappear with any alteration to the route.
“In order to ensure that the mule deer and pronghorn of Grand Teton remain protected, oil and gas development should remain far from national parks and migration paths,” the authors said.
Protecting national parks
The coalition proposed several legislative protections for national parks, including protecting animal migration routes from project development, and enhancing community air monitoring.
The group also recommended the federal government create a stronger mandate to force energy companies to pay for environmental clean-up costs prior to drilling.
“Too often, oil and gas companies fail to fully pay for clean-up costs that result from drilling on public lands, which can pollute our air and water while leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab,” the authors said.
In a tweet promoting the report, the group urged movement from the federal government.
“Much stronger action is needed from the Biden administration and Congress to better protect these extraordinary places from the impacts of oil and gas development,” the group said.
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