WildEarth Guardians Plans Raft Of New Lawsuits In Colorado Over Permitting
An anti-oil and gas activist group with a focus on litigation and protesting has announced its intent to file suit for alleged Clean Air Act violations against seven Colorado oil and gas companies and is seeking more than $1.3 billion in penalties, according to a statement released Tuesday.
WildEarth Guardians hopes to force penalties of nearly $100,000 per violation per day, using Clean Air Act language, that could amount to what it estimated as approximately $1.3 billion in penalties at more than a dozen facilities across Colorado. The group alleges multiple infractions in 2018, charging that the companies proceeded with drilling oil and gas wells without properly permitting the sites.
“The oil and gas industry is willfully violating our clean air laws at a massive scale along Colorado’s Front Range,” Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director, said in a statement announcing the intent to pursue litigation. “With our health at risk, we can’t afford to let fracking companies keep trouncing our clean air.”
The group also alleges that Colorado air regulators have turned a blind eye to the drilling.
“Fracking without air pollution permits is a brazen violation of federal law and an affront to the health of communities along Colorado’s Front Range,” said Nichols, who vowed that his group intends to make an example of the companies.
But a top Denver lawyer familiar with the group’s arguments told Western Wire the permitting approach used by the companies is commonly used in oil and gas states due to the uncertainty of drilling and producing from the wells, or what type of emissions the operator will encounter. From day one, however, operators are required to install emission controls, including on tanks and have flares and vapor recovery systems in place to be below major emission source thresholds, and the process is one seen across the west, with EPA approval.
In other words, the emissions levels projected by WildEarth Guardians is unlikely with emissions controls in place, with EPA regulations requiring controls before the first day, and the group is likely trying an “over-the-top” legal strategy. Requiring a permit before drilling or estimating emissions would require a regulatory change at the state level, with approval by the EPA.
The group lists Noble Energy, Extraction Oil and Gas, Crestone Resources, Great Western Operating, Mallard Exploration, PDC Energy, and Bonanza Creek Energy, as part of a first round of intended targets, with other companies and facilities being added in the future.
“We will not allow these companies to go unpunished,” he said.
“We also urge you to cease operations at these facilities immediately unless and until you come into compliance with the Clean Air Act,” WildEarth Guardians added.
There were several errors in the letters of intent. For example, an early draft listed Noble Energy as Bonanza Creek multiple times, one of the other companies WildEarth Guardians sent a notice of intent on February 19th. The updated draft still contains multiple references to Bonanza Creek instead of Noble Energy.
WildEarth Guardians has been at the forefront of the “keep it in the ground” movement in recent years, pushing policies and litigation that, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has cost more than $91 billion to the economy.
The group has been accused of “weaponizing” the NEPA process, suing the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico, and bringing another lawsuit in New Mexico under NEPA and the National Historic Preservation Act that was thrown out in June 2018. WildEarth Guardians has been instrumental in the national effort to bring youth-activated “children’s lawsuits” and regulatory proposals to New Mexico, but the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board rejected a proposed rule in August 2017.
But the group’s activities haven’t been limited to just one state or issue. Some residents in Craig, Colorado equated the group’s legal efforts to “terrorism” after the group tried to shut down a coal mine in the northwest part of the state. As a result, 450 businesses asked the group to remove their names from a page listing WildEarth Guardians’ supporters.
The pushback did nothing to temper the group’s brash attitude.
“If people want to pressure these breweries to distance themselves from effective environmental advocacy groups like WildEarth Guardians, that’s a fair tactic,” Nichols said in 2015, responding to the requests for delisting. “But it’s not something we’re going to sweat or let distract us from our efforts to safeguard the environment and help move our nation toward cleaner energy.”
In Wyoming, the group protested oil and gas lease sales proposed the BLM Wyoming Office and in other western states. Their protests of BLM lease sales 2016 halted nearly $70 million in sales proceeds from reaching New Mexico’s coffers for approximately nine months.
In 2015, protests by the group and other activist organizations attempted to block the BLM office located in Lakewood, Colorado. The physical protest was one of many that the group and its allies performed that ultimately led to the BLM moving its oil and gas lease sale auctions to an exclusively online format.
Meanwhile, WildEarth Guardians has flooded agencies, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with lawsuits and listing petitions under the Endangered Species Act.
According to Nichols, the group has no intention of letting up on what it views as “a brazen violation of federal law and an affront to the health of communities along Colorado’s Front Range.”
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” added Nichols. “The industry’s disdain for our clean air seems to have no limits and we fully intend to keep digging and exposing violations.”