The state embarks on a years-long effort to protect people, main streets and budgets
Colorado’s state government has made a promise not to leave behind the more than 1,000 people directly impacted by coal closures — and the thousands more indirectly affected, like electricians, truck drivers, security workers and others who serve the mines and plants. It approved the Office of Just Transition in 2019 to help with retraining or relocating coal workers, or paying them to retire early. (The office plans to expand into oil and gas in coming years.)
But this project isn’t something many people in coal-mining areas are even aware of, according to interviews with workers around the state. In fact, it’s only now getting any real resources: a couple employees approved in the 2021-22 state budget; a possible $15 million in seed funding through HB21-1290; and an extra $5 million annually through HB21-1312’s proposed elimination of corporate tax breaks.
“We are not going to insulate the state from change. Let’s be very clear about that,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who works closely at the Capitol on energy policy. “This is not going to be, ‘Hey, we want everything to be like it was in 1975 and it’ll always be that way.’ We have to help communities reinvent themselves, find the next thing.”
“Still trying to get our arms around it”
Colorado currently has seven coal-fired power plants and six coal mines, the largest of which is West Elk in Somerset, just east of Paonia. By 2030, the state expects there will be just one unit of one coal-fired power plant left — Comanche 3 in Pueblo — and anywhere from one to three mines.
It’s Wade Buchanan’s job to oversee the Office of Just Transition and figure out, among other things, how many workers the state will need to help across the 11 counties that are most likely to see the impacts. The state has no working estimate for how many will be indirectly affected by the coming job losses.
Montrose, Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco, Morgan and Pueblo counties are the highest priority, and there are 1,129 coal workers in those places now, the state estimates. The second tier includes 562 people in Delta (home to the North Fork Valley), El Paso, Larimer, Gunnison and La Plata counties…
here’s real urgency in the counties seeing the decline. Take Rick McGaughey, who on May 7 shut down Hays Drug Store, a prominent feature of Paonia’s main drag. For the first time in 115 years, Paonia doesn’t have a pharmacy, and the owners aren’t sure where they fit in…
Unlike other coal towns, this one isn’t dying. Paonia’s housing market is hot as retirees, second-home owners and remote workers have moved in, driving up prices by double from a decade ago. There’s a vibrant agribusiness and tourism scene, with fruit orchards and wineries and ranching…
“This has killed my district”
A hot housing market means stable property tax revenues, but not every town has that. State Rep. Perry Will serves Moffat, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, north of Paonia, and has seen what happens when coal declines and new business and people don’t move in.
“This has killed my district,” the Republican said flatly. He has little hope where he lives for the kind of reinvigoration happening now in Paonia.
In some counties, the coal industry is the largest taxpayer among all residential and commercial plots. It accounts for nearly half of property tax revenues in Moffat County. The state estimates it will take nearly $3.2 billion in new commercial property value — 10 times the value of the Denver Broncos’ stadium — to replace the cumulative tax revenue losses in Colorado’s coal counties.
Other Republicans who mainly represent the affected areas initially scoffed at the idea of an Office of Just Transition, calling it an insult and rejecting that a renewable-energy transition was inevitable. Now they’re coming around, with Will and Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale sponsoring the funding bill. It’s the best available option and fighting the transition has proved pointless, they said.
The few left in the mining business want to stick around — people like Mike Ludlow, president of Oxbow Mining outside Paonia. He’s one of three workers at the shuttered Elk Creek Mine. There used to be 380.
It’ll take several years for those three to restore the former mine site to its original state before closing entirely. His colleague, Doug Smith, stood next to him outside of a large office on site that’s filled with a lot of empty space and photos of the old days…
“This is not a dodge”
For all the fears already realized and families displaced, Colorado is at the vanguard of a national “just transition” effort, which is gaining popularity among unions. Colorado’s is a first-of-its-kind project, said Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the AFL-CIO of Colorado and chair of the Just Transition Advisory Committee…
Much of the $15 million pending in the legislature would be put to stimulate economic transitions in local communities. House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar from Pueblo said Colorado needs to support those communities hiring people like Wade Buchanan to figure out their respective next thing. Rankin said it’s critical the state let the locals lead on that, not the other way around.
Spreading $15 million around the state won’t go far. Even the bill sponsors acknowledge that. A report released Dec. 31 by the state’s Just Transition Advisory Committee made no illusions about the state’s readiness, or lack thereof, to cure coal country.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (James Burky):
Almost every day for the past two years, Palisade High School science teacher Patrick Steele and his students — including his daughters — spent their free time looking after fish.
Not just one or two, but about 250 razorback suckers, a species once on the precipice of extinction. The fish were cared for on a daily basis by students lending their free time.
They call themselves the Palisade High Hatchery. And on Friday, the fish were released into the Colorado River, capping off a project years in the making.
The fish hatchery is in a building on the high school campus that’s no longer than one Ford truck and no wider than two. Staff and students had to work hard to raise money to renovate the building so the fish could not only survive but thrive.
Steele brought his classes to the hatchery, which is usually run by a rotating group of students and some core members. Gross would come in to lend a hand as well.
Steele even brought a group of his students to a hatchery in California so that they could learn how to run one…
“I mean, we started out with them as these tiny baby fish and then released them at 12 inches. It’s amazing to be a part of this whole experience,” Ella Steele added.
A federal appeals court has rebuked the U.S. government for failing to properly consider the interest of Native American nations in developing allocation guidelines for the Colorado River Basin’s waters and ordered it to prioritize obligations assumed when it signed a treaty with the Navajo Nation in 1868. The April 28 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may boost Native American negotiating clout as the basin’s states ponder how to address impacts of ongoing drought in the region.
Coming 18 years after the Navajo Nation (Naabeehó Bináhásdzo) first sued the Department of Interior in an effort to assure that its interests are protected by the federal government in any move to reallocate Colorado River waters, the decision opens the door to a possible federal district court decision directing the Biden administration or a successor about how to fulfill trust and treaty responsibilities owed to the Navajo Nation.
“We hold that the Nation has successfully identified specific treaty, statutory, and regulatory provisions that, taken together, anchor its breach of trust claim,” wrote Judge Ronald Gould of Seattle in the court’s majority opinion. Among the reasons the court relied upon to support that conclusion are the Treaty of Bosque Redondo, under which the Navajos surrendered a significant portion of their historical territory in exchange for a promise of a “permanent homeland,” a long-standing doctrine of water law based on a 1908 Supreme Court decision and the Department of Interior’s “pervasive control” over the river.
The decision does not mean that the Navajo Nation will be given a specified amount of water. “They’re not seeking a quantification of tribal water rights,” said Mark Squillace, the Raphael J. Moses Professor of Natural Resources Law at the University of Colorado Law School. “What the tribes seem to be claiming is that the federal government has basically dropped the ball in terms of its responsibility to protect the tribe and the tribe’s interest in clean water. It is still the case, I believe, that quite a number of people on the reservation don’t have access to clean drinking water. They don’t have water that is piped into their homes.”
Squillace said that situation is ironic because the tribe has paper water rights. “Here’s this nation that has Winters rights … that would almost certainly guarantee them enough water, certainly for their domestic purposes but for other purposes as well, and yet they basically have to truck water to their home in order to have access to clean drinking water,” he said…
According to a 1976 ruling by the Supreme Court, Winters v. United States means that the federal government must assure Native American reservations of “appurtenant water then unappropriated to the extent needed to accomplish the purpose of the reservation.” Although Native American water rights are guaranteed by federal law, their extent must be determined in state courts under a 1952 statute known as the McCarran Amendment. While the Navajo Nation has some of its water rights under that doctrine quantified as a result of settlements with New Mexico and Utah, the tribe has not reached agreement with Arizona on exactly how much Colorado River water it is entitled to use…
Instead, the decision largely relies on the 1868 Treaty. “Water was not explicitly mentioned,” said research professor Heather Tanana of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. But “the treaty itself says it should receive a liberal construction at all times and in places. No community can survive without water.”
The array of statutes, regulations and cases that govern allocation and use of the Colorado River itself also do not provide the Nation with any specific amount of usable water…
Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez acknowledged that point in a statement released after the 9th Circuit’s decision was issued. “Water resources are becoming a greater concern for the southwest portion of the United States,” he said. “Over 150 years after the signing of the Treaty of 1868 between the Navajo people and the United States, we are still having to fight for water allocations.”
The Navajo Nation is larger than ten U.S. states and Puerto Rico and covers an expanse of 71,000 square kilometers that stretches across northeastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah.
Drought and climate change are sapping the region’s water. The numbers indicate challenging years ahead.
Spring is generally a time of renewal for the watersheds of the western United States.
Warmed by the lengthening days, the region’s towering mountain ranges shed their mantle of snow, releasing freshets of water into welcoming streams and reservoirs.
This year, though, the cycle is in disarray. Outside of the Olympic and Cascade ranges of Washington state, winter snows were subpar. The spring melt has been a dud. From the Klamath to the Colorado and Rio Grande, watersheds are under stress once again, and water managers face difficult tradeoffs between farms, fisheries, and at-home uses. The main thing being renewed is concern over the seeming inadequacy of the region’s water supply.
“This is a drought emergency,” said Becky Bolinger, the Colorado assistant state climatologist.
Bolinger was referring to the latest runoff forecast for Lake Powell, a large reservoir on the Colorado River. The amount of water projected to flow into the country’s second-largest reservoir this spring and summer is 28 percent of the 30-year average. Dan Bunk of the Bureau of Reclamation said this year’s inflows are on pace to be the third or fourth lowest in the last century. Today, the lake is just 34 percent of capacity — or, looking at the math another way, about two-thirds empty. Downstream states like Arizona are bracing for mandatory cutbacks next year.
What is worrisome is that Bolinger could have been discussing any number of western watersheds.
In California on Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded a drought declaration to include 41 of the state’s 58 counties. Water levels in the state’s two largest reservoirs — Oroville and Shasta — are about half of what they usually hold this time of year.
In the Klamath basin of southern Oregon and northern California, there are already lawsuits over how the Bureau of Reclamation is allocating scarce water from Upper Klamath Lake. The drought is forcing the federal agency to balance the needs of endangered fish species both upstream and downstream. It told farmers in the upper basin to expect very little irrigation water this summer.
In New Mexico, water managers say the Rio Grande through Albuquerque could run dry this summer, which would complicate water management efforts. Mike Hamman, chief executive officer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, told Circle of Blue that his district faces a “three-pronged challenge:” delivering irrigation water to farmers, sending water downstream to Texas that is required under a federal compact, and protecting endangered species like the silvery minnow that rely on the river…
Instead of calling these dry years a drought, they recommend the term “aridification.” Drought suggests a temporary departure from normal. Aridification implies that the region’s climate, under the influence of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, is entering a different reality…
As in the Colorado River basin, precipitation in California this winter and spring was quickly eaten by a hot and thirsty atmosphere and dry soils.
The social cost of carbon is mentioned twice in the 196-page transportation bill that was introduced into the Colorado’s legislative session in early May. It’s not clear exactly how it will have any more effect than the 55-mph speed limit on one of the interstate highways through Denver. Likely, if this bill passes, it’s part of a bigger puzzle.
But the mention frames transportation differently than ever before in Colorado. Transportation always was about the balance between mobility and the ding to the public treasury, the taxes we pay. This adds a new metric to the discussion, a new dimension of costs.
I wouldn’t advise wading through the 107-word sentence in Senate Bill 21-260 where social cost of carbon is first mentioned. It’s not exactly the sort that Gabriel Garcia Marquez would craft. The gist is that our vehicles pollute, and the pollution has a social cost. It goes on to instruct the methodology of the social cost of carbon be employed, to get an assessment of the environmental costs over time and put into dollar figures. Alone, this does not alter Colorado’s path on transportation, but it does set a new tone.
More telling is “greenhouse,” a word that shows up 42 times in the bill along with 3 mentions of “ozone,” a component greenhouse gas and part of the unhealthy air found along the northern Front Range.
This is a climate bill. It has to be. Transportation will become the No.1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado as the big coal-fired power plants begin closing in 2022. Gina McCarthy, speaking at the recent 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium, called transportation the “big kahuna.” She was speaking from her federal perch as Biden’s climate advisor, but it’s also true in Colorado.
Colorado has taken steps to produce small waves in decarbonization of transportation. Now it needs a big wave, say those involved in transportation efforts, and this is it.
It’s also a congestion bill. I’m guessing I heard the word “congestion” used or alluded to a dozen times when Gov. Jared Polis, legislators, and several others spoke on the interior steps of the Capitol on May 4. Alec Garnett, the House speaker, talked about the ability to immediately tell you’re leaving Utah or Wyoming when entering Colorado. This bill provides for new funding sources that aim to deliver more asphalt and concrete.
The bill is also a compromise, as was best described by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a Republican. He talked about highway expansions he wants to see in Colorado Springs, the widening of Powers Boulevard and more. “These simply cannot be accomplished without a much greater infusion of state and federal dollars,” he said. Suthers, a former state attorney general in Colorado, also said he is a political realist—suggesting compromise is inevitable.
“Transportation can’t be a partisan issue. It’s too important to the quality of life of our residents in Colorado Springs,” he said.
Kevin Priola, a Republican state legislator from the Brighton area, also spoke on behalf of the bill. He’s been a big booster of transportation electrification in Colorado, showing up at a bill signing with Gov. Jared Polis in 2019 near East High School in Denver.
At the Capitol, he spoke about congestion on Interstate 76, now bumper to bumper instead of the occasional car that he saw from his grandfather’s farm when he was a boy. But highway widening cannot be the whole answer. “We can’t just continue to bulldoze mountains and widen lanes,” he said.
Most bills run 10 to 20 pages. This one runs to 196 pages. This is Longs Peak, not Rabbit Mountain outside of Lyons. Or, for those in Durango, Engineer Mountain instead of Perins Peak. It’s sweeping, with a little bit for everybody, most fundamentally new ways to collect revenue. But there’s a distinct shift in direction, a big pivot, if you will.
Are there comparable pivots? Others might point to funding changes of the last 30 years, including 1992, the last time Colorado passed a gas tax increase. A case may be made for 1973, the year when the first bore of the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel Complex was opened, followed by the second bore in 1978.
This is from the May 12, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal. To sign up, go to http://BigPivots.com
I’d make the argument for 1930. That’s the year that the state began plowing snow on Berthoud Pass, a clear recognition of the ascendancy of the automobile. Before, there was no way to drive across the Continental Divide during winter.
Now the pivot is toward electrification and, more broadly yet, decarbonization through a variety of pathways. And, in an odd reversal of my thesis about 1930, it opens the door partway to the idea of a Front Range passenger train. Carl Smith, representing the railway workers’ union, pointed out that rail workers losing their jobs on ferrying coal from mines to markets could transfer their skills to passenger rail.
Elise Jones, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, emphasized electrification of transportation. The bill proposes to put more than $730 million toward electric vehicle solutions. That, she said, represents “one of the biggest investments in transportation electrification by any state anywhere in the country.”
The bill, said Jones, recognizes the scale of the challenge as Colorado seeks to expand the number of electric vehicles – currently 36,000 on state highways – to nearly a million by the end of the decade.
“To support these new EVS, Colorado will need 111 times more charging stations by 2030, and this bill would put a significant down payment on that infrastructure,” she said.
Jones also noted the funding proposed by the bill for all types of electric mobility, from electric bikes and transit to school buses and trucks, but also rideshare vehicles like Uber and Lyft. “It includes money to replace the dirtiest vehicles on the road with zero-emissions buses and delivery trucks.”
Travis Madsen, who runs the transportation program at SWEEP, elaborated on this theme when I talked to him. “I think the bill is an essential piece of achieving Colorado’s climate targets,” he said.
“We need to step up the pace, and this bill will provide some needed juice to get this (transition) moving faster,” he said.
Madsen directed my attention beyond our cars to the fleets of trucks and delivery vehicles. Section 11 of the bill proposes a clean-fleet enterprise within the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment – the agency given the most significant responsibility for creating rules to decarbonize the economy – to provide incentives for the shift in fuels. This new clean-fleet enterprise will be allowed to “impose a delivery fee to be paid” by those getting the goods by delivery of motor vehicle. Nudge, nudge.
A personal aside here: I live on the edge of one of metropolitan Denver’s small but up-and-coming commercial areas. There’s a daily parade of diesel-powered trucks delivering wine, beer, fruits, and all other manner of items to be consumed in the restaurants of Olde Town Arvada. Moreover, I have wheeled around the warehouse districts along I-70 and I-76 on Denver’s east and north side. The size of the fleets of Amazon and others astound me.
But then there’s the issue of how we wheel about on a daily basis. In September 2020 the Denver Regional Council of Governments issued the 2019 Annual Report on Roadway Traffic Congestion in the Denver Region, which noted that vehicles miles traveled per capita had actually declined in 2019, a second straight year. On weekends, the VMT per person was down to 25.4 miles.
Of course, with population growth of 1.4%, there was just as much travel.
Some people seem to think covid will dent this, perhaps permanently. I’m skeptical.
This transportation bill aims to deliver leverage. Section 28 would require the Colorado Department of Transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (think RTD) to “engage in an enhanced level of planning, analysis, community engagement, and monitoring with respect to transportation capacity projects and specifies what that entails and also requires CDOT to conduct a road usage charge study and an autonomous vehicle study.”
To me, this doesn’t say I’ll have to ditch my car. But there’s some jostling here.
Madsen sees this as a crucial section, along with the AQCC rulemaking on transportation emissions that is expected this summer. “I think there’s going to be a lot of push and pull over whether and how Colorado invests in transportation differently to reach the GHG roadmap targets,” he says. He points out that the state roadmap calls for growth in vehicle travel to be cut in half.
In Denver itself, densification is rapidly underway. Some people don’t feel the need to have their own cars. “That will be an important way we can accommodate more people without causing a dramatic increase in everyone driving,” says Madsen.
I’m skeptical—not about the goals, but whether local governments can be nudged into making land use decisions that actually impact greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. I’ve been hearing this conversation for decades with no real gain.
A couple of weeks ago I drove to the western precincts of Arvada amid the rolling hills just short of Highway 93, the road between Golden and Boulder. These huge projects — Candelas and Leyden Ranch—have wonderful open spaces and uplifting views, exactly what people from elsewhere expect in Colorado. (If you don’t mind some wind occasionally).
These housing projects are also absolutely car centric. They’re VMT disasters. In this, they are more typical than not among the 40,000 to 50,000 houses being built in Colorado annually, the number of which have been going up during the last 4 or 5 years.
The bill got its first legislative hearing on [May 10, 2021], dragging on for 7.5 hours in the Senate Finance Committee before being passed, with amendments, on a 4-3 party-line vote. So much for Sutherland’s pitch for bipartisanship.
The social cost of carbon mention remained intact. Colorado first began using that metric as a result of 2019 legislation, which requires the Public Utilities Commission to evaluate electrical generation projects with the federal social cost of carbon, which was then $46 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions. This tilts the table against coal generation, although as a practical matter, the table is heavily tilted toward lower cost renewables. Two other bills being considered by legislators this session would also add social cost of carbon to the PUC matrix when evaluating programs that would reduce natural gas use in buildings and elsewhere.
But the practical effect of social cost of carbon in the transportation bill?
In response to my questions, Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, said the goal of the social cost of carbon is to provide “a consistent approach across relevant agencies. We are ensuring that we are doing cost benefit analyses and accounting using an appropriate social cost of carbon and making sure in multiple pieces of legislation that we use the same social cost of carbon at the PUC, C-DOT, CDPHE, etc.”
Madsen—who took Toor’s job at SWEEP when Toor joined the Polis administration in early 2019—said he thinks the practical effect will depend on a future rulemaking at the Air Quality Control Commission. That may occur later this year.
“The social cost of carbon will help illustrate the value of reducing emissions (either through transportation and land-use planning to reduce overall vehicle travel, or through electrification measures),” he said.
Have a different take on this transportation bill? Happy to publish other viewpoints. firstname.lastname@example.org.
One farmer claimed to have learned more in one day of master irrigator training than he had in five years of farming on his own.
For another, the light bulb came on when he realized by making one simple change he could save $10,000 a year.
Colorado Master Irrigator program manager Brandi Baquera was thrilled to share those glowing endorsements during a panel presentation at the virtual Ogallala Aquifer Summit in late March. She always believed the program’s “one-stop shop” format was exactly what the region’s irrigated farmers needed.
The first class of the master irrigator program, which was held a little over a year ago, offered 32 hours of instruction to 25 producers who collectively farm 20,000 acres across multiple counties in the Republican River Basin…
While program participation is currently limited to the Republican Basin, Baquera is eager to see the concept spread and get adopted by other advisory teams and coordinators across the state…
How to conserve water, without putting farmers out of business or harming the local economy, has always made it difficult to translate talk into action.
“Conservation has been a conversation out here for so long,” Baquera said. “It’s not for lack of trying, it’s just finding the right formula. It’s about connecting all the dots.”
Farmers taking the training don’t just sit through a class on theory; they learn about water use efficiency practices and technologies immediately applicable to their farms.
The curriculum is developed by an advisory committee consisting of local experts, with emphasis on the unique features of the basin. Participants are awarded a $2,000 stipend, along with a package of additional incentives that include free energy audits, discounts from local businesses and service providers, and prioritization for cost-share grants through the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Most importantly, it emphasizes peer-to-peer interaction, discussion and learning…
The point of the program is that using less groundwater doesn’t necessarily mean lower yields or lower profits, it’s more a matter of understanding the tools available and knowing how to use them, she said.
Ninth-warmest April on record; below-average Arctic sea ice extent
The global temperature for April 2021 was the ninth highest for the month of April in the 142-year NOAA record, which dates back to 1880. The year-to-date (January-April) global surface temperature was the eighth highest on record. According to NCEI’s Global Annual Temperature Rankings Outlook, it is very likely that the year 2021 will rank among the 10 warmest years on record.
This monthly summary, developed by scientists at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, is part of the suite of climate services NOAA provides to government, business, academia and the public to support informed decision-making.
The April 2021 global surface temperature was 1.42°F (0.79°C) above the 20th-century average of 56.7°F (13.7°C). This was the coolest April since 2013 and the ninth warmest April in the 142-year record. April 2021 marked the 45th consecutive April and the 436th consecutive month with temperatures, at least nominally, above the 20th-century average.
Temperatures were much above average across eastern Canada, southern South America, parts of northern and southern Africa and western Asia. Parts of the northern and southern Pacific Ocean and northern Atlantic Ocean were also above average.
In contrast, parts of Alaska, the western half of Canada, the central contiguous U.S., Europe, central Asia, Australia, eastern Antarctica and the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean were cooler than average.
Regionally, South America and Africa had an April temperature that ranked among the seven highest on record. Meanwhile, Europe and Asia had their coolest April since 2003 and 2015, respectively.
Sea Ice and Snow Cover
The Arctic sea ice extent in April averaged 5.34 million square miles, which was 328,000 square miles (5.8 percent) below the 1981-2010 average and the sixth-smallest April extent in the 43-year record, according to an analysis by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) using data from NOAA and NASA. Sea ice extent was below average in the Barents, Bering and Labrador Seas and near average elsewhere.
The Antarctic sea ice extent during April 2021 was 88,800 square miles (3.4 percent) above average and the largest April sea ice extent since 2016. Sea ice extent was below-average in the northwestern Weddell Sea and northern Ross Sea, where April temperatures were above average.
According to data from NOAA and analyzed by the Rutgers Global Snow Lab, the Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent during April was 30,000 square miles below average and was the 11th-smallest April extent on record. The North American snow cover extent was the 10th smallest on record, while Eurasia had its 16th-smallest April snow cover extent on record.