The North Fork Valley and its surroundings — managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Uncompahgre Field Office — is an exceptionally beautiful place. Located on the western slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the valley is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in Colorado, and is renowned for its outdoor reaction. Many in the region have worked hard to transition the local economy from coal mining to more sustainable industries such as agriculture, tourism, recreation, and the arts. Now this cleaner economy is under threat.
The BLM is currently in the process of writing a new Resource Management Plan for the region. Part of this comprehensive planning process determines which of the nearly one million acres of federal mineral estate will be available for oil and gas leasing for the next 20 to 30 years.
The agency's so-called “Preferred Alternative” is essentially the status quo in which roughly 90 percent of the lands would be available for leasing by oil the and gas industry. For a region looking beyond coal for a sustainable economic and environmental future, oil and gas leasing represents a step backward — a turbulent future of booms and busts, environmental damage, and enormous impacts to those whose backyards would host this federally-determined development whether they like it or not.
Some local citizen groups have instead been advocating for something called the North Fork Alternative in which only 25 percent of the available lands would be open to leasing. Meanwhile, other local and national groups, including Earthworks, are suggesting that BLM create a new alternative in which no new leasing occurs.
The differences of these approaches is understandable. Those in favor of the North Fork Alternative — who have worked with locals on a compromise solution for years — see a realistic chance to get solid conservation gains through this alternative if they can convince BLM to favor it over the Preferred Alternative. Others like me, however, look at it through a different lens.
Recent reports have concluded, using the best available data, that the carbon contained in the world's already-developed oil, gas, and coal resources will warm the earth beyond 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. Not including coal, just the oil and gas
resources already in production would warm the world beyond 1.5 degrees. The latter is the number that 180 nations agreed to this year in Paris — the number that, if exceeded, would open the climate flood gates to serious and irreversible planetary damage. Two degrees, climate scientists say, will take us into a whole new era of climate severity and uncertainty.
Simply put, this means that no new fossil fuel development can occur, period, anywhere in the world if we are to meet the goals of the Paris agreement. In the United States, oil and gas production on federal land accounts for roughly 25 percent of our national total, so if we cannot take a hard line to keep at least this carbon in the ground — carbon the Department of Interior has authority over without Congress's approval — then I'm not sure what hope we have to deal with the climate crisis in any meaningful way.
Earthworks, the extractive industry watchdog group for which I work, has spent considerable time weighing these factors and realities. What is politically realistic and what is required by climate science may be two different things, but in this case, we're doing what we can to show BLM that our members throughout the country strongly oppose new fossil fuel development, and that best thing we can do now is to begin preparations for a managed decline, over time, of existing fossil fuel production and work to replace it with renewable energy and the jobs associated with it.