When a huge utility company pledges to go carbon free — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate #CarbonFree

In early December, Xcel Energy, a sprawling utility that provides electricity to customers in eight states, including Colorado and New Mexico, announced that it planned to go carbon-free by 2050. In what has been a rough year for climate hawks, this was welcome news. After all, here was a large corporation pledging to go where no utility of its scale has gone before, regardless of the technical hurdles in its path, and under an administration that is doing all it can to encourage continuing use of fossil fuels.

At the Dec. 4 announcement in Denver, Xcel CEO Bob Fowkes said that he and his team were motivated in part by the dire projections in recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. “When I looked at that and my team looked at that, we thought to ourselves, ‘What else can we do?’ ” Fowkes said. “And the reality is, we knew we could step up and do more at little or no extra cost.”

Xcel committed to 100 percent carbon-free power generation by 2050 through solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower plants like Shoshone Generating Station (middle left of photo). Fossil fuel burning may still be part of the mix if they use carbon capture and sequestration technology. Shoshone Falls, Idaho. By Frank Schulenburg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71359770

It was a big step, and apparently inspiring. A couple of days later, the Platte River Power Authority, which powers four municipalities on Colorado’s Front Range, pledged to go carbon-free by 2030. Here are seven things to keep in mind about Xcel’s pledge:

  1. Xcel is going 100-percent carbon-free, not 100 percent renewable. There’s a big difference between the two, with the former being far easier to accomplish, because it allows the utility to use not only wind and solar power, but also nuclear and large hydropower. It can also burn some fossil fuels if plants are equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technology.
  2. No current power source is truly clean. Solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower plants have zero emissions from the electricity generation stage. However, other phases of their life cycles do result in greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants — think uranium mining, solar panel manufacturing and wind turbine transportation. Even the decay of organic material in reservoirs emits methane. But even when their full life cycles are considered, nuclear, wind, solar and hydropower all still emit at least 100 times less carbon than coal.
  3. Carbon capture and sequestration techniques don’t do a lot for the big picture. Even if all of the carbon emitted from a natural gas- or coal-fired power plant is captured and successfully sequestered without any leakage — and that remains a big “if” — huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are released during the coal mining and natural gas extraction, processing and transportation phases.
  4. Even though carbon sequestration qualifies as “clean energy,” Xcel is unlikely to utilize the technology on any large scale with coal because of the cost. Even without carbon capture, coal is more expensive than other power sources, so why spend all that money just to keep burning expensive fuel? On the other hand, natural gas is relatively cheap, so it makes more sense for Xcel to continue burning the fossil fuel with carbon capture.
  5. Economics play as much a role in this decision as environmentalism. Even as Xcel was making its announcement, executives from PacifiCorp, one of the West’s largest utilities, were telling stakeholders that more than half of its coal fleet was uneconomical, and that cleaner power options were cheaper. So even without the zero carbon pledge, Xcel likely would have abandoned coal in the next couple of decades, regardless of how many regulations the Trump administration rolls back. Meanwhile, renewable power continues to get cheaper, making it competitive with natural gas. And without some kind of big gesture, Xcel risked losing major customers. (The city of Boulder, Colorado, defected from Xcel, a process that has been going on for the last several years, because the utility wasn’t decarbonizing quickly enough.)
  6. Xcel’s move, and others like it, will pressure grid operators to work toward a more integrated Western electrical grid. A better-designed grid would allow a utility like Xcel to purchase surplus power from California solar installations, for example, or the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, and to sell its wind power back in that direction when it’s needed.
  7. Xcel needs better technology to meet its goal. Xcel admits that “achieving the long-term vision of zero-carbon electricity requires technologies that are not cost-effective or commercially available today.” It is banking on the development of commercially viable utility-scale batteries and other storage technologies to smooth out the ups and downs of renewable energy sources. If Xcel is serious about its goal, though, it will need to embrace approaches that don’t necessarily boost the bottom line. That could mean incentivizing efficient energy use, promoting rooftop solar, and implementing rate schedules that discourage electricity use during times of peak demand. It will also need to get comfortable with paying big customers not to use electricity during certain times.

Xcel’s pledge is a big step in the right direction, and it has the potential of becoming a giant leap if other major utilities follow suit. But it also underscores a sad fact: While our elected officials twiddle their thumbs and play golf with oil and gas oligarchs, the very corporations that helped get us into this mess are the ones who are left to take the lead on getting us out.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at jonathan@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva intends to force a reckoning with #climatechange — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate

Camp Fire 2018. By NASA (Joshua Stevens) – NASA Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager https://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/images/imagerecords/144000/144225/campfire_oli_2018312_crop_lrg.jpg ; https://landsat.visibleearth.nasa.gov//view.php?id=144225, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74269291

Here’s an interview with Rep. Raúl Grijalva from Paige Blankenbuehler and The High Country News:

Less than a week before the midterm elections, U.S. House Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D- Arizona, released a report detailing how the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, on which he has served for 14 years, stacked its hearings with industry interests. “Under Republican leadership,” he wrote, “hearings have disproportionally included witnesses who pad their profits by degrading public lands.”

Now that Democrats have won a majority in the House, Grijalva will have his chance, as the committee’s new chairman, to change the direction of the governing body that oversees federal lands and energy and water resources. Grijalva’s committee will also oversee and investigate the Interior Department, employing the system of checks and balances that Grijalva thinks his predecessors neglected.

[The week of November 28, 2018], High Country News spoke with Grijalva about his priorities and what his leadership could mean for climate change policies and resource management in the West. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

High Country News: As you assume chairmanship, what do you hope to do differently than (outgoing chairman) Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah)?

Raúl Grijalva: We have an opportunity to take this committee and its priorities and its policies and legislative initiatives and steer it in a different direction. Under our jurisdiction, we have issues that have to be dealt with — tribal sovereignty, education, health care, historical and cultural resource preservation.

The other issue is climate change. It touches every issue that we deal with, and the fossil-fuel extraction industries are making such a rush for resources in our public lands. This administration, in two years, has made every effort to suppress science and dumb down the issue of climate change. We want to elevate that again to the status it deserves in decision-making.

HCN: How will you do that?

RG: We will begin to look at ways in which our jurisdiction can help mitigate the effects of climate change. We’ll do that legislatively, by holding hearings and introducing policy initiatives. My committee will revisit all of the rules that have been changed by this administration that have to do with climate change and science, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, and responsibility over our federal waters and waterways. The list goes on and on.

HCN: How effective can you realistically be in changing the direction of the committee?

RG: The prerogatives of the current administration will limit our authority. With this administration, we have had no oversight hearings. Our request for accountability and inquiries for information have been ignored. But I’m going to re-establish a co-equal status.

I have a list of every inquiry the committee has made — many went unanswered by the Interior Department. We are going to send those inquiries again. We want answers to all of these questions. If we get the information, we proceed from there. If we are ignored again, we are in a realm where we need to use legal authority. We, as the majority, have options that we didn’t have as a minority. That includes subpoena.

HCN: How will you change the committee’s posture toward climate change and wildfire now that we’re seeing much longer fire seasons?

RG: There is no way to deny it. The planet is getting hotter, it is getting drier, and one of the things we need to do is confront the issue of these wildfires and other natural catastrophes that are happening — and confront them with the urgency that they demand. The president doesn’t think climate is the reason. That denial is embedded in Interior and this administration. We need to elevate the importance of addressing climate change.

Our response has been reactive. We have always dealt with the fire issue as a budgetary issue, and we should, but it’s more than that. The issue of climate change cannot be denied. We need to look at how we change building standards and where we decide it’s OK to build homes. In some cases, denial (of building permits) is a good thing.

HCN: How do you plan to handle the scandals and lawsuits facing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke?

RG: There are 14 Inspector General investigations looking into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Department of Justice is taking a look at him. (Editor’s note: So far, investigators have yet to confirm any wrongdoing.) At some point, those dogs start nipping at your heels. We’ve reached a point that Zinke needs to move on. [ed. Zinke has resigned]

There’s no question that the extractive industries have had a free rein under Zinke. It’s no coincidence that Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was shrunk because of coal deposits. Bears Ears (National Monument) was shrunk because of nearby uranium deposits. The criteria of making decisions on how to best conserve and have a multi-use philosophy for our public lands and assets has been skewed in one direction and one direction only.

The extractive industries are protecting Zinke. He’s curried favor with them, and they are protecting him. He has a responsibility to protect the multi-use philosophy of the department. He’s failed. Resources are there not just for extraction.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at paigeb@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

#Drought news: Much of the D3 and D4 areas in #Colorado have accumulated precipitation deficits of 9 to over 15 inches in the last 6 months

Click on a thumbnail below to view a gallery of data from the US Drought Monitor.

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

High Plains

Light precipitation at best (to 0.5 inch in spots) kept dryness and drought unchanged in the northern Plains. Farther south, the dryness farther to the south and east began to encroach on Kansas, but D0 expansion was only expanded into a small section in the southwestern part of the state this week. Moisture deficits have been increasing elsewhere across the southern tier of the state, and the region will be closely monitored for the possible expansion of D0 next week.

Farther west, only spotty light precipitation was observed across Wyoming and Colorado, keeping the large areas of dryness and drought there intact. Much of the D3 and D4 areas in Colorado have accumulated precipitation deficits of 9 to over 15 inches in the last 6 months, and substantial shortfalls date back more than a year in most of those regions…

West

Most areas in the region recorded little precipitation and no change in abnormally dry and drought areas, including the area of protracted drought affecting much of the eastern sections of Arizona and Utah. At least light precipitation fell on most areas north and west of the central Great Basin, with moderate to heavy amounts exceeding 1.5 recorded in much of the Idaho Panhandle, a few spots farther southeast from eastern sections of Washington and Oregon into central Idaho, the higher elevations and northwestern coast of California, and areas of Washington and Oregon from the windward Cascades westward. From northern California to the Canadian border, the heaviest precipitation (3.5 to locally over 8 inches) pelted the immediate coast and the Cascades. But despite the heavy precipitation, reductions in the Drought Monitor depiction were conservative, with D0 eroded from parts of western Washington and northeastern Oregon, plus a few patches of 1-category improvements across the western half Oregon. Despite the heavy precipitation this week, many areas from southwestern Washington thru northwestern California remain 1 to locally 2 or more feet below normal for the calendar year, and only 50 to 75 percent of normal has been measured across large parts of Oregon and some adjacent areas…

South

Light to moderate precipitation dampened the eastern half of Tennessee, but only light precipitation at best was measured in the western half of the state and portions of the Lower Mississippi Valley, and little or none fell farther west.

The continued dryness in parts of Deep South Texas, the Texas Panhandle, and Oklahoma prompted the expansion of D0 conditions westward through Zapata County in Deep South Texas, and northeastward to cover the central and eastern Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and approximately the northwestern half of the remainder of Oklahoma. Most of these areas reported near or less than half of normal precipitation since late October, and deficits of 2 to 4 inches accumulated in north-central and northeastern Oklahoma during this period.

Dryness and drought have been most prolonged in northeastern Oklahoma and adjacent Arkansas, where the depiction was not changed. Many sites reported 6 to locally 12 inches less precipitation than normal since early summer…

Looking Ahead

During the next 5 days (December 26 – 31, 2018), heavy snow with localized blizzard conditions are expected in the short-term from eastern Colorado and adjacent New Mexico northeastward through the Plains and across the upper Mississippi Valley and northwestern Great Lakes Region. Moderate rain is expected farther south and east. Of the Nation’s dry areas, the snowstorm will likely only impact the D0 in northwestern Minnesota and (to a lesser extent) the eastern Dakotas. Farther south, light to moderate precipitation (0.5 to 1.5 inches for the 5 days) should dampen much of the dry areas across New Mexico, The Oklahoma Panhandle, and portions of the Texas Panhandle and the eastern two-thirds of Oklahoma. Moderate to heavy precipitation (1.5 to 3.0 inches) is forecast across the northern tier of Washington along the immediate western coastline and the windward Cascades, with lesser amounts (0.5 to 1.5 inches) expected farther south into the orographically-favored areas of Oregon. Light precipitation at most is forecast for other existing areas of dryness ad drought, including the upper Northeast and southern Florida

For the CPC 6-10 day extended range outlook (January 1-5, 2019) shows enhanced chances for above-normal precipitation along the northern tier of the Plains and upper Mississippi Valley, much of New Mexico, western and southern Texas, the Southeast, and the Alaskan Panhandle. Subnormal precipitation is favored in most areas from the Rockies westward, and across the central Plains and middle Mississippi Valley.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending December 25, 2018.

A look at conservation easements

Flat Tops Wilderness

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Matt Annabel and Sara M. Dunn):

Sustainable agricultural production requires responsible stewardship and financial stability. Since 1976, Colorado has provided a mechanism for landowners to perpetually protect their lands and associated water rights, while enjoying financial benefits through the grant of a conservation easement. The landowner retains ownership of the property after a conservation easement is conveyed.

Conservation easements can be created only by a voluntary agreement between the landowner and a government entity or a charitable land trust created for that purpose. The landowner selects the governmental entity, such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife, or a land trust that best suits their goals, objectives and interests to hold the conservation easement. The Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust hold many conservation easements in our area.

Aspen Valley Land Trust was organized in 1967 and is the oldest land trust in Colorado. To date, AVLT has conserved over 41,000 acres that protect local agriculture, rivers, wildlife habitat, recreational access, and outdoor educational opportunities in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Roughly half of AVLT conserved lands lie within the greater Roaring Fork Valley, and half between Glenwood Springs and the Flat Tops north of De Beque.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust was formed in 1995 to help Colorado’s ranchers and farmers protect their agricultural lands and encourage the intergenerational transfer of ranches and farms. CCALT focuses on agricultural easements and encourages traditional activities such as farming, grazing, hunting, fishing and recreation on the land.

The first step in conserving a property is identification of the property values that the landowner wants to preserve and the rights they are willing to relinquish in order to conserve the property. Landowners have flexibility in selecting which property rights they are willing to give up in exchange for a conservation easement.

In instances where farming and ranching are identified as the conservation values of a property, easements can be used as a tool to compensate landowners for tying their water resources to the land, defining stewardship obligations and permanently restricting development. This preserves the land for agricultural production while maintaining the scenic landscapes and wildlife habitat that draw recreation and tourism dollars to our communities.

When an easement is granted, the current use and management of the land is usually maintained resulting in very little impact on daily activities. Public access is not a requirement for conveying a conservation easement, although the property owner is required to grant the land trust access for monitoring visits.

Conservation easements are typically monitored on an annual basis and visits are coordinated with the landowner. The annual visit to the property is to ensure that the terms of the easement are being met, to continue to build relationships with the landowners, and to resolve stewardship issues that may arise.

Conservation easements can generate financial benefits for the landowners. Conservation easements are valued through an appraisal process which considers the value of the property without the conservation easement vs. the value of the property in its restricted state subject to the conservation easement. The difference between the two appraisal values is the conservation easement value which is used to calculate how much the landowner will be compensated for conserving their land.

Most conservation easements are donated, in which case the landowner is compensated through federal and state tax incentives. In some rare situations, grants may be available to compensate the landowner for a portion of the conservation value

A typical conservation easement takes approximately one year to complete. There are associated fees which vary greatly depending upon the circumstances. The fees cover a baseline inventory report, appraisals, title work, environmental assessments, mineral reports and the drafting of the legal documents necessary to create the conservation easement.

Landowners interested in more information on conservation easements can contact AVLT at http://www.avlt.org or 970-963-8440. The local Conservation Districts will be holding an Ag Expo on Feb. 2, 2019 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Garfield County Fair Grounds in Rifle where additional information regarding conservation easements can be obtained. Registration is required to attend the Expo. More details can be found at: http://www.bookcliffcd.org/.

Water Law Basics appears monthly in the Post Independent in cooperation with the area conservation districts. Matt Annabel is communications and outreach director for the Aspen Valley Land Trust, and Sara M. Dunn is district supervisor for the Bookcliff Conservation District.

#ColoradoSprings scores $4.6 million from FEMA for two high priority stormwater projects

Douglas Creek, Colorado Springs. Photo credit: Pam Zubeck/Colorado Springs Independent

Here’s the release from the City of Colorado Springs:

Thanks to grant funding totaling $4.6 million awarded through FEMA to the State of Colorado, work will soon begin on two separate mitigation projects in Colorado Springs to restore a severely degraded drainage channel along Douglas Creek and Pine Creek.

The first grant, for $2,612,325, will fund a bank stabilization project along a 1,100-foot stretch of Douglas Creek, just south of Garden of the Gods Road that is threatening I-25, Sinton Road, major utilities and surrounding business property. This area eroded during 2013 and 2015 flood events, continues to erode today and was identified as a finding in the 2013 EPA audit of the City’s MS4 permit.

When complete, this stretch of Douglas Creek will be designed to withstand a 100-year flood event. It will function as a natural stream corridor, build resilience in future events by restoring floodplain function, and will help downstream communities by reducing sediment in the Fountain Creek watershed.

The second grant, for $2,005,125, will fund restoration and stabilization along a 1,750 foot section of Pine Creek that has experienced signification erosion and bank failure since the 2013 flood. This project will use natural channel construction to reconnect with the natural floodplain and will utilize an upstream detention pond to be constructed separately by the City. The stabilization of this area will protect adjacent properties and significantly reduce a heavy sediment load currently impacting downstream areas.

FEMA’s grant represents 75 percent of the total cost for the project; total cost is approximately $3,483,100 for Douglas Creek and approximately $2,673,500 for Pine Creek. The 25 percent match will come from the City.

The 25 percent local grant match funding was made possible through a provision in the City’s Inter-Governmental Agreement with Pueblo that earmarks funds that can be leveraged toward grants for much larger projects.

Federal funding is provided through FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which is designed to assist states, U.S. territories, federally-recognized tribes, and local communities in implementing a sustained pre-disaster natural hazard mitigation program. The goal is to reduce overall risk to the population and structures from future hazard events, while also reducing reliance on federal funding in future disasters.

From KRDO (Scott Harrison):

City officials announced last week that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide a $4.6 million grant from a pre-disaster mitigation program, designed to reduce risk and spending from future disasters.

FEMA is paying 75 percent of the cost of two projects to stabilize creek banks and stop erosion caused by flooding in 2013 and 2015.

The city will use $2.6 million of the grant on a section of Douglas Creek, below Sinton Road and south of the interchange at Interstate 25 and Garden of the Gods Road.

Erosion at that location is affecting two adjacent commercial properties, has already damaged some utility lines and could eventually undermine Sinton Road.

The city will use the remaining grant on a similar project in Pine Creek, near the intersection of Briargate Parkway and Chapel Hills Drive.

Homes line both sides of the creek but are closer on the north side, where some work has been done to improve drainage and reduce erosion.

The Pine Creek project will include an upstream retention pond to prevent flash flooding and erosion by holding runoff during heavy storm events and gradually releasing it later.

The actual cost of both projects is $6.1 million but the city is paying 25 percent to qualify for the 75 percent match from FEMA.