8 Western Priorities We’re Watching In 2014

Jan 21, 2014

By Center for Western Priorities

With 2013 in the record books, it’s time to look forward to 2014. Across the Rocky Mountain West and in Washington D.C. there are interesting land and water policy debates percolating to the surface, which are guaranteed to impact those of us living in the West. These issues will be decided against the backdrop of an election year: the entire U.S. House and a third of the Senate are up for reelection, not to mention state governor and legislative races.

As we have moved into the New Year, the Center for Western Priorities is tracking eight natural resource stories we expect to be front-and-center throughout 2014:

1. Exports Anyone?

The oil and gas industry is making another push to export more oil and natural gas. There is currently a ban on exporting crude oil and rules limiting natural gas exports. The issue has created a rift between the oil and gas industry and North American manufacturers. On the one hand, oil and gas companies want the flexibility to sell into the global market. But manufacturers, like Dow Chemical, are benefiting from low natural gas prices, which could rise with more exports.

Exporting oil and natural gas raises some touchy questions. Will exporting oil and gas increase fuel prices? Should we be working towards energy independence, or allowing companies to export domestic oil? Should companies be allowed to drill on public lands and then send the extracted oil and gas overseas?

2. Secretary Jewell’s Big Year

2014 is an important year for Sally Jewell. The former CEO of outdoor retail giant REI was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior last April. During her first year on the job, Secretary Jewell did a lot of listening and learning about the inner-workings at the Interior Department. Now it’s time for Secretary Jewell to begin building a conservation legacy for herself and for President Obama.

At the end of last year, Secretary Jewell gave a speech where she pledged to use administrative action if Congress continues to stall on bipartisan—and locally-supported—land conservation measures. The Secretary has also stated a goal of creating 100,000 jobs on public lands under her stewardship.

Secretary Jewell needs to make progress during 2014 if she’s going to have success on her policy goals. In the West, where outdoor recreation and tourism pump billions into state economies, her actions will have a far-reaching impact.

3. The Do Something Congress?

Throughout our history, land conservation bills have received bipartisan support in Congress. But the “Do Nothing Congress” has held up nearly everything, including land bills with broad-based support. The last Congress, for example, was the first in the post-World War II era not to permanently protect a single new acre of new land, and the current Congress isn’t doing any better.

It remains to be seen if Congress will move beyond its recent deficiencies and start moving on bipartisan land bills. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)—the most important source of funding to improve recreational access onto public lands—is a good place to start. The LWCF has bipartisan support and is set to expire in 2015. Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Richard Burr (R-NC) have sponsored a bill to reauthorize and fully fund the LWCF. The bill would also devote a portion of its resources to opening up some of the four million acres of public land that are currently inaccessible to the public.

4. Getting Real About Methane

Since natural gas burns cleaner than coal, replacing coal with natural gas can have climate benefits. However, without rules in place to eliminate “fugitive emissions” from natural gas development, methane leakage threatens to erase any climate benefits of natural gas. Methane—a potent greenhouse gas, 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide—seeps out during natural gas production, distribution and use.

At the state level, Colorado has taken the lead by proposing new air quality rules that would be the toughest in the country in controlling the release of methane from oil and gas operations. When the new rule was announced, executives from Colorado’s three biggest oil and gas producers stood with Gov. Hickenlooper and representatives of the Environmental Defense Fund and praised the rule.

As Colorado finalizes its best-in-class air quality rules, questions remain if other states and the Obama administration will follow suit. President Obama has called for an accounting of methane leaks from natural gas production. This is the year for the President to take the lead on this issue.

5. Drilling in the Neighborhood

Booming oil and gas development in the Rocky Mountain West has moved drilling rigs closer-and-closer to residential neighborhoods. Concerns over air pollution, water contamination, and quality of life issues have caused some communities to exercise local control over industrial drilling and fracking. No place is this more evident than in Colorado, where drilling operations have expanded along the state’s populated Front Range.

Between 2012 and 2013, five Front Range communities—Boulder, Lafayette, Longmont, Fort Collins and Broomfield—responded by passing ballot measures to limit or ban fracking within their borders. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, along with the Hickenlooper administration, responded with lawsuits trying to overturn the election results.

In the coming year we expect communities to continue exerting local control over oil and gas development within their borders. In Colorado, a statewide constitutional amendment has been floated for the November election to give communities the authority to ban or restrict oil and gas development.

Will the oil and gas industry learn to live with its neighbors?

6. A Thirsty Region

Rocky Mountain West states have experienced varying degrees of near-constant drought over the past couple of years. New concerns over scarce water supplies in the Colorado River—the Southwest’s primary water source—indicate this won’t change in 2014. A recent New York Times story details the complex challenges facing water managers as they try to allocate diminishing water supplies between farmers and growing cities in the arid region.

Water shortages, combined with ongoing fears over groundwater and surface water contamination due to drilling and fracking for oil and gas, makes water a top issue for Western states. In 2013 alone, oil and gas operations in Colorado led to 71 spills that impacted groundwater and 41 spills that impacted surface water.

7. Small Bird, Big Impact

The Greater Sage Grouse, a bird whose populations have declined significantly, could radically affect Western land use. The bird is being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. As the result of a court-ordered settlement, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has until 2015 to make a final determination on the Greater Sage Grouse’s status.

There are efforts underway in the states and by the federal government to keep the bird off of the endangered species list. The question in 2014 is whether state plans are strong enough to prevent listing the Greater Sage Grouse as an endangered species, which would lead to even more land use restrictions.

8. Public Lands & Climate Change

The fact that Earth’s climate is changing is almost universally accepted among the scientific community. In the West, we’ve experienced extreme weather events like drought, wildfires, and flooding, all connected to climate change.

In 2013, the Obama administration released its Climate Action Plan to address climate change. In 2014, President Obama is expected to sidestep the ineffective Congress and use administrative actions to begin addressing the climate. On public lands, oil, gas, and coal extraction contributes nearly 4.5 times more carbon into the atmosphere than the lands naturally absorb. This is the year for public land managers to take steps to equalize the ratio by decreasing the sources of greenhouse gases and increase public land’s capacity to sequester carbon.