Western Wire

The former head of the Department of the Interior called current climate litigation a “new breed,” differing from environmental lawsuits in the past at a Friday forum on energy in Denver.

“Today I’m focusing on a new breed of environmental litigation, one that is as different from [prior] litigation as a lion is from a house cat,” said former Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Norton and Joe Balash, Interior’s current Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, joined Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) to deliver comments at the Western Energy Forum on Friday in Denver.

The forum was hosted by the Western Caucus Foundation.

“This new breed is exemplified by recent suits by various cities against major energy companies,” Norton said. Oakland, San Francisco, New York City, and King County, Washington have filed similar lawsuits, along with the City of Boulder, Boulder and San Miguel Counties in Colorado.

“Climate change litigation has moved into the Rocky Mountains,” Norton said. “Climate change debates are nothing new, but aspects of this litigation are significant.”

Norton served as Colorado’s attorney general from 1991 to 1999.

Norton said the new litigation differed from more routine suits based on alleged violations of specific statutes, such as failing to do an environmental impact statement as part of the National Environmental Policy Act, for example. The new lawsuits, she said, relied on “amorphous concepts of common law, nuisance law, trespass, and negligence, things that are not passed by Congress.”

Not only are the new lawsuits relying on different legal concepts, but the financial stakes are much higher than the few million-dollar payouts for routine legal challenges filed by environmental groups each year.

“Even more ominously, the financial calculus has changed dramatically,” Norton added. “The potential attorneys’ fees in the new variety of suits can be measured in the billions, not nationwide, but by city and by law firm.”

She said that the contingency fee model, as seen in the Colorado lawsuit, for example, “enhance the motivation for attorneys to file climate change suits.”

In addition to climate lawsuits, the forum panelists invoked the current administration’s pursuit of “energy dominance” and the role of energy in the economy and as part of the country’s national security policy.

“So why do we need energy dominance, why do we need to dominate that space?” Balash asked. “There’s three cases we make for that, there’s economic, environmental, and moral.”

“The economic case is all about the American people. Our communities benefit from energy development, from the jobs that are created,” Balash said. “It keeps families intact and allows people to stay in communities across the Western U.S.”

“The environmental case is really simple. The United States does it better, cleaner, and more responsibly than virtually anywhere else in the world,” Balash said. “American energy is the cleanest energy in the world” across all categories, he added.

As for the moral case, Balash said, addressing global poverty with affordable energy production is imperative.

“While poverty is caused by a number of different factors, one thing we know is that you cannot solve poverty without energy,” Balash said. Freedoms of movement, light, and communication all start with energy the senior Interior department official said.

Economic and National Security

“I was a young soldier in 1973 in the 1st Army Division in Europe during the oil embargo, and literally our tanks ground to a halt,” Coffman told the forum. “We didn’t have the fuel for them because of the scarcity produced by our dependence on foreign oil.

“They were able to cut it off for political purposes,” Coffman said. “Dependency is over with, we are now an exporter of energy to the world.”

Coffman told Western Wire, “it’s not just an economic issue, it’s a national security issue.”

“When we’re dependent on foreign oil, then we have to worry about any disruption in the flow of those resources to the United States,” Coffman said.

He pointed to global political and economic turmoil in the 1970s through the 1990s, along with the actions of states, including members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). More recently, Coffman said the Russian “stranglehold” on energy exports to countries provides a clear example of the need to develop resources and use technological innovation to drive a free and open market in oil and natural gas.

“We need to think in that context as well, and hydraulic fracturing—we’ve led in technology and we’re benefitting from it,” Coffman added.

Gosar shared Coffman’s national security concerns, agreeing that the economic and security nature of domestic energy production in the United States were inextricably linked, and especially important for states in the Rocky Mountain West.

“If you don’t have dependable low-cost energy, you don’t have an economy, point blank,” Gosar told Western Wire. “And, if you don’t bring it naturally from your own country, you’re dictated upon by other countries, and we’ve seen how that looks. It doesn’t work out really well.”

Accessing energy and the federal mineral estate is critical for not only the broader economic impact, but for local impacts as well, where majority-federal land counties in the West look to mineral royalties, severance taxes, and property tax revenues in various forms for everything from educational funding to law enforcement and infrastructure.

“The third tier here is we have a lot of our energy and our minerals in this vast estate under federal jurisdiction, it’s important that that wealth be shared across the country, to entities like schools and infrastructure,” Gosar said. “The multiple-use application—this isn’t an either/or, this is an ‘and’—I want minerals and royalties and I want clean air and clean water too.”

Christian Reece, Executive Director of Colorado’s Club 20, which advocates for the state’s 22 western counties, told Western Wire that she is encouraged by Congressional efforts like the Western Caucus Foundation understand constituencies in the West that are predominantly rural.

“I have a county in Western Colorado that is 97 percent public lands,” Reece said, pointing to Hinsdale County. “They only have 3 percent of their county that is developable for business or private residences and that hamstrings their economic competitiveness as compared to their surrounding counties.”

“We have the political will to really make some regulatory reforms when it comes to the energy industry, either rolling back regulations or replacing old regulations with common sense and practical regulations that have been achieved through a bipartisan way,” Reece said, protecting the environment and the industry.

“They don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” Reece added.

Reece supported the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas project as a way to export natural gas, calling it a “moral obligation.” Tipton, whose district encompasses Club 20 counties, also called for Jordan Cove’s approval to help export Colorado’s resources, given the proximity to the Piceance Basin of Western Colorado.

Christopher Guith, Senior Vice President of the Global Energy Institute at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first commercially successful fracked well.

“We’re at a point where 90 percent of all the wells that are drilled on shore are using hydraulic fracturing,” Guith said. “America’s energy diversity makes us so competitively strong around the world.”

“We’ve got over 100 years of gas, we’ve got 200 years of oil, and almost 10,000 years of coal,” Guith said.

“While the rest of the world sees increased electricity prices, at this point in time we have the lowest electricity prices among major economies,” he said, including inexpensive feedstock derived from oil and gas production, thanks to low commodity prices as a result of resource development.

“The increase we’ve seen is larger than what every other country in the world produces, save for Russia and Saudi Arabia,” Guith said.

“This has changed our footing in the global space,” he said.