Secretary Haaland, Colorado's epic drought highlights the need to end fossil fuel extraction

Secretary Haaland, Colorado's epic drought highlights the need to end fossil fuel extraction
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Interior Secretary Deb HaalandDeb HaalandInterior reverses Trump, moves BLM headquarters back to DC Harris in Shanksville honors heroism, courage of Flight 93 passengers Environmental groups call for immediate restoration of national monuments shrunk by Trump MORE is visiting Colorado this week so she can see up close how heat, drought and rampant fossil-fuel extraction have ravaged once-beautiful parts of our state.

When she returns to Washington, D.C., Haaland will have all the more evidence to support a ban on new oil and gas leases on public lands and a managed transition away from fossil fuels. The Biden administration’s review of what drilling and fracking on public lands is doing to the climate, if done correctly, will show that any new extraction would run counter to climate science and catastrophic to the planet.

On her first day in Colorado, Haaland spoke powerfully about the worsening drought conditions ravaging Colorado and the West.

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“Drought doesn’t just impact one community,” she said. “It affects all of us, from farmers and ranchers to city dwellers and Indian tribes. We all have a role to use water wisely and manage our resources with every community in mind.”

Without a doubt, water is the lifeblood of the North Fork Valley, where I live. The North Fork, on Colorado’s Western Slope, is home to the state’s largest concentration of organic farms. Our produce, wines and cheeses fill dinner plates and glasses in homes and restaurants across the West. But erratic frosts, prolonged droughts and extreme weather are making that harder to do.

This year some farmers have already run out of water and drinking water concerns are mounting.

No water, no food. No water, no wildlife. No water, no life.

When we run out of water, others do, too. The Gunnison River Basin, which feeds the Colorado River, is in our backyard. The Colorado River supplies 40 million downstream users and it’s drying out as temperatures warm. Colorado River flows, already at record shortages, are expected to drop precipitously in coming decades.  

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And we’re feeling the heat on the Western Slope, having already seen warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius, double the global average and making our region one of the country’s largest climate hot spots

But even as warming tightens its grip on our region and North Fork farms fields go fallow for lack of water, federal agencies are approving more fossil fuel extraction.

That’s a grave mistake. We must urgently confront the climate emergency and we should start now by banning new leasing on public lands. 

In the North Fork Valley, there are more than 100,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the middle of the watershed and the county’s climate hotspot. The climate can’t afford any new fracking and drilling and Colorado certainly won’t have the water to support it.

In addition to no new federal fossil-fuel leasing, Biden’s review should outline a managed decline of existing production, coupled with an equitable transition for communities dependent on oil, gas and coal mining.  

We’re already making this transition in western Colorado. Paonia, Hotchkiss and nearby towns are thriving without fossil fuel extraction.

Delta County has made up lost revenue from the mine closures because communities invested in a different vision, based on organic and sustainable agriculture, recreation, renewable energy and the arts. Real estate values are rising and more people are moving to the area.

This organic agricultural mecca, which employs thousands of people, from Western Slope growers to Front Range farm-to-table restaurants, needs to be protected and supported. The North Fork is becoming a model for how to go from boom-and-bust fossil-fuel towns to clean, renewable, stable economies. We even thrived through COVID-19 as people sought out clean air and water, healthy food and outdoor recreation.

Federal laws require public land managers to protect our climate, wildlife, water and ecosystems. Haaland has the authority to stop new leasing on public lands and she must use it.

Other communities across the country — from New Mexico’s Chaco region to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast to Montana’s Big Sky country — are also urging the Biden administration to follow the law and climate science, and make good on his campaign promise to ban new fossil fuel leasing on public lands and oceans. Our communities and our climate future can’t afford anything less.

Natasha Léger is executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community in Paonia, Colorado.