From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):
State utility regulators study options
In squeezing natural gas from the built environment, Colorado is unlikely to adopt hard mandates, as have been enacted by local governments in California and a few other states. But can Colorado figure out a gentler approach that achieves the same results?
Members of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission didn’t get any simple instructions along the lines of “just-add-water” during a meeting on May 20 with experts from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Regulatory Assistance Project, two national organizations engaged in the transition from natural gas.
”I am sorry I am not giving you a simple answer,” they were told at one point by Meghan Anderson of the Washington state-based Regulatory Assistance Project. “There are lot of things coming together.”
That was in response to a question from Commissioner John Gavan. He had alluded to SB21-200, the bill submitted by Sen. Faith Winter and others that would give the state’s Air Quality Control Commission more authority to achieve greenhouse gas reductions through new regulations.
Environmental groups have insisted that Colorado needs to move more rapidly in wringing out greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s economy. A 2019 law specified targets of 50% by 2030 and 90% by mid-century.
Gov. Jared Polis has vowed to veto the bill if it lands on his desk. Despite running on a platform of 100% renewables, Polis argues for an approach that is not seen as heavy handed regulation. He’s not against prodding the market, as was evident in a legislative hearing on the same day as the PUC meeting. Will Toor, the director of the state energy office, testified in support of a bill that would steer state funding toward building materials with lower carbon emissions embedded in their production or extraction.
“We have this raging battle going on in Colorado on that issue, do we do it through mandates or market forces?” Gavan said at the PUC session. “What do you see from around the country and the world?”
Colorado most certainly needs both mandates and market forces, Christie Hicks, the lead counsel for energy markets and utility regulation with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in response to the question by Gavan. She emphasized the importance of transparency and accountability in a stakeholder processes with utilities and others.
In Washington state, demand for natural gas has actually dropped, the result of improved energy efficiency, more stringent building codes, and deliberate efforts to displace fossil fuels in buildings with electricity.
Colorado’s largest gas-distribution utility, Xcel Energy, said in a PUC filing that it expects a 1% annual growth in demand for natural gas for building use. Xcel, in a November position paper titled “Transitioning Natural Gas for a Low-Carbon Future,” also argued against too aggressively transitioning from natural gas to electricity, even though it will sell more electricity.
For Colorado to meet its decarbonization targets, it must shut down coal plants and aggressively electrify transportation. More difficult yet will be the weaning of buildings from their dependence on natural gas—and, in some places, propane—for space heating, warming of water and appliances such as kitchen stoves.
The PUC commissioners were told that natural gas combustion in buildings causes 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Eric Blank, the PUC chairman, asked the same question in a different way. Even before joining the PUC, he has been talking about the 40,000 to 50,000 housing units being built each year in Colorado along with perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 commercial units, virtually all with natural gas hookups.
Even beyond what the PUC can do, he asked, do you have any advice about what Colorado can do as we begin shifting toward all-electric, particularly with deployment of incentives?
Colorado very definitely is not California, he said, a reference to the natural gas bans in new construction by local governments in California, led by Berkeley beginning in 2019.
“It’s just not how Colorado operates,” said Blank.
Education will be foundational, answered Natalie Karas, also of the Environmental Defense Fund. She pointed to a website-based planning device created by a utility in New York that can instantly spit out the emissions associated with fuel decisions.
And can the natural gas lines be repurposed, say to hydrogen? “We have a 50- or 60-year gas system, and to keep that system safe requires hundreds of millions of dollars of ongoing investment in coming months and years,” Blank pointed out. “Is there any clean energy value in those assets going forward in terms of using it for hydrogen or other clean energy molecules?”
Blank got an indirect answer. “It’s all about meeting end uses,” said Megan Anderson of the Regulatory Assistance Project. The question, she said, is whether it’s good idea to make upgrades or are there better ways to meet customer needs.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal that tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To subscribe, go to http://BigPivots.com.
PUC Commissioner Megan Gilman, who assembled the session, asked a central question about motivations and accountability. Current models used in Colorado and elsewhere reward investor-owned utilities with returns based on investments they make in energy generation and distribution. That gives utilities incentives to make investments that don’t necessarily align with climate goals. “That’s a fundamental problem,” she said.
Hicks said the best example of using regulation to achieve broad societal goals can be found in the electric sector, where states have been nudging utilities firmly to abandon coal-fired generation in favor of those that cause less pollution.
One technique is called performance-based ratemaking. Rates the privately-owned utilities are allowed to charge customers depend upon utilities achieving social goals. In this case, the allowed utility revenues would be tied to reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
Hicks also urged a wholistic view of energy systems, seeing natural gas along with electric—which, in a way, is exactly what the Xcel position document issued in November urged.
The EDF’s Karas talked about the need for “rigorous analysis” of “every new piece of gas infrastructure being put into the ground. The experts all talked about the importance of planning.
Colorado’s debate about natural gas March 11, 2021
Natural gas under the microscope October 16, 2020
Colorado’s natural gas pivot July 31,2020
Natural gas questions and tensions July 14, 2020
Replacing natural gas in Denver July 8, 2020
The future of energy illustrated by Basalt Vista October 19, 2019
Also explored during the session was the question that Blank described as the “economic rock.” In short, how does this transition from natural gas in buildings occur across all economic sectors, not just among the well-heeled or, for that matter, not just in new homes and buildings?
The Xcel paper in November also drew attention to this problem. The scenario is what if only those of most modest means, unable to retrofit their homes, are left holding the bag of the stranded asset and hence required to pay much higher cost.
If there are no easy answers, the best equity will be borne of both well-crafted.
From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Suzie Romig):
Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District is currently seeking funding for $6.5 million in improvement projects set for completion in 2022 and 2023 at the Fish Creek Water Treatment Plant that processes drinking water for Steamboat Springs.
The district received the final Water Treatment Facility Master Plan report in April from Carollo Engineering, which outlines 20 years of recommended work in four implementation phases at a substantial cost of $53 million, said Frank Alfone, general manager at Mount Werner Water.
The first phase of improvements addresses operational needs and updated regulatory requirements issued within the past five years from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment related to copper and lead rules, as well as measurement of residual chlorine in the water, Alfone said…
The district is working with the financing arm of Carollo to investigate funding options, such as loans, grants and possible customer rate hikes. The district board will decide this fall if the necessary work will lead to future rate increases for customers of the district, which serves the city south of Fish Creek. Alfone said the district rates will not increase in 2021, also noting that current rates are, on average, lower than the statewide average.
Following the required regulatory improvements, the next phase in the master plan would be $6.5 million for work in 2028 to boost efficiencies in water filtering and processing capabilities for sediment and taste and odor issues from increased debris flow in the case of wildfire in the Fish Creek Watershed, Alfone said.
Fire experts say the Fish Creek Watershed represents one of the highest wildfire risks in Routt County due to the topography and fuel types…
The topography upstream from the water treatment plant includes the forested Fish Creek drainage that is a steep canyon several hundred feet deep. The canyon normally stays very wet, but during dry years, a fire in the canyon could be very destructive. The box canyon could function as a powerful funnel for flames during wildfires, said Drew Langel, a local forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.
From KSJD (Lucas Brady Woods) via KUNC:
Alfalfa growers ideally need 30 inches of irrigation water per acre, per season, for their crops. This season, some farmers in the county are only getting a fraction of an inch from their reservoirs. As a result, farmers have to adjust, by selling cattle, limiting acreage or shutting down completely. And some of the sacrifices they’re forced to make can be really hard on their mental health, Nolan said.
“Sometimes you look in the mirror and you’re like, ‘Should I be doing this?’” [Mike] Nolan said. “‘Like, does this make any sense?’ That stuff just builds. And it’s in seasons like this, it can crack. And that’s the scary part.”
Nolan is not the only one noticing the mental health effects that drought is having on farmers.
According to data compiled by Celebrating Healthy Communities, a Colorado-based suicide-prevention group, farmers and ag workers are the second-highest at-risk population in Montezuma County, where Nolan farms. That means they’re more likely to die by suicide than almost any other occupational group.
And the data show another concerning correlation.
Researchers also compared the state of Colorado’s drought data for the past decade with the state’s suicide data for the same period. When drought conditions worsened, so did the suicide rate among farmers.
JC Carrica, the CEO of Southeast Health based in La Junta, Colorado isn’t surprised by those findings. He specializes in behavioral health care in rural communities.
“There’s seasonality,” Carrica said. “There’s peaks of anxiety, peaks of depression. It’s ever flowing, because it’s weather-related or market volatility.”
He also says that drought can be especially devastating.
“When you see the wind come through and shear off whatever little bit of grass you had from a quarter inch of rain a couple of days prior,” he said. “It’s kind of the carrot and the stick, and sometimes there’s just not enough carrot to keep people’s hopes high.”
Many mental health issues in the agricultural community can be compounded by a lack of services. The answer, Carrica said, is to make more of an effort to get mental health care to farmers, on their level.
Kate Greenberg is the Commissioner of Agriculture for the state of Colorado.
“As we see financial stress increase, as we’ve seen, in the last decade or so,” Greenberg said. “We also see spikes in suicide rates among agricultural communities.”
Greenberg says her department is working with local partners across the state to get more resources to rural areas. What works in a city might not translate to agricultural communities. So, she says, resources like online training manuals or public service announcements should be written with that in mind. Colorado also maintains a crisis hotline — a free and confidential mental health resource that’s available 24/7.
But as climate change continues to heat up and dry out the West’s farmland, Greenberg said the stress that comes with water scarcity will remain a challenge in keeping agriculture viable, and those who do it mentally well.
Back in the Mancos Valley, Mike Nolan said this year’s lack of water is changing his operation in a fundamental way.
“The big one was laying off everybody, which was a real bummer,” he said. “Never had to do that. It was really hard to do.”
But Nolan says off-and-on therapy has really helped.
Last year one of my students in a history of science class commented that “no one knows which doctors to trust because they are politicizing the pandemic, just like politicians are.” The interactions between science and politics are now so complex, so numerous and often so opaque that, as my student noted, it’s not clear anymore whom to trust.
People often assume that the objectivity of science requires it to be isolated from governmental politics. However, scientists have always gotten involved in politics as advisers and through shaping public opinion. And science itself – how scientists are funded and how they choose their research priorities – is a political affair.
The coronavirus pandemic showed both the benefits and risks of this relationship – from the controversies surrounding hydroxychloroquine to the efforts of Operation Warp Speed allowing researchers to develop vaccines in less than a year.
In this context, it is understandable that many people began to doubt whether they should trust science at all. As a historian of science, I know that the question is not whether science and politics ought to be involved – they are already. Rather, it is important for people to understand how this relationship can produce either good or bad outcomes for scientific progress and society.
The historical relationship of science and politics
Geopolitical objectives drive a large part of scientific research. For example, the Apollo space program from 1961 to 1972 was driven more by the competition between superpowers in the Cold War than by science. In this case, government’s funding contributed to scientific progress.
In contrast, in the early days of the Soviet Union, the government’s involvement in biology had a stifling effect on science. Trofim Lysenko was a biologist under Stalin who denounced modern genetics. As he became head of top scientific institutions, his opponents were arrested or executed. Lysenkoism – despite being dead wrong – became the accepted orthodoxy in the academies and universities of communist Europe until the mid-1960s.
As the Lysenko story demonstrates, when political powers decide the questions that scientists should work on – and, more importantly, what kind of answers science should find – it can harm both scientific progress and society.
Two political parties, two scientific realities
The relationship between science and politics has always been dynamic, but the rise of social media has changed it in an important way. Because it’s more difficult to discern between true and false content online, it’s now easier than ever before to spread politically motivated fake news.
In the U.S., social media has massively accelerated a long–growing political divide in scientific trust. Starting with Ronald Reagan, Republican leaders have turned science into a partisan field. The ideology of limited government is one of the main reasons for this attitude. Republican lawmakers often ignore environmental issues despite scientific consensus on the causes and dangerous effects these issues lead to.
President Trump brought the suspicion of science to another level by treating science as essentially just another political opinion. He argued that scientists and institutions who contradicted his views were motivated by their political agendas – and, by extension, that the science itself was false. By contrast, President Biden has put science at the top of his priorities.
As a result, the divide between scientific and anti-scientific positions – at least in the U.S. – is now often partisan. People of different political views, even when they are educated, are sometimes not able to agree on facts. For instance, among U.S. citizens with a high level of scientific knowledge, 89% of Democrats say that human activity contributes a great deal to climate change, as compared with only 17% of Republicans. Democrats are not immune to this either, as seen by the strong Democratic support for labeling genetically modified foods. This is despite scientific consensus on the safety of these foods. But overall, Republicans tend to be much more anti-science than Democrats.
Disagreements in science are necessary for scientific progress. But if each party has its own definition of science, scientific truths become a matter of opinion rather than objective facts of how the world works.
Where is the relationship going?
Because trust in science was so degraded during Trump’s presidency, several leading peer-reviewed journals endorsed Biden as a presidential candidate. This was perhaps the first time in history that such a large number of scientific journals and magazines took clear stances for a U.S. presidential election.
The fact that the acceptance or rejection of science is increasingly determined by political affiliations threatens the autonomy of scientists. Once a theory is labeled “conservative” or “liberal” it becomes difficult for scientists to challenge it. Thus, some scientists are less prone to question hypotheses for fear of political and social pressures.
In my opinion, science cannot thrive under an administration that ignores scientific expertise as a whole; but neither can it thrive if scientists are told which political and moral values they must embrace. This could slow down or even prevent the emergence of new scientific hypotheses. Indeed, when scientists align themselves with or against political power, science can easily lose its most important asset: the ability to encourage disagreement and to raise new hypotheses that may go against common sense.
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From Undark (Diana Kruzman):
As the Colorado River Basin enters yet another year of drought, global companies are worsening the water crisis.
DRIVING INTO SOUTHERN California’s Palo Verde Valley from the Arizona border, fields of vibrant green appear out of the desert like a mirage. Near the town of Blythe, water from the Colorado River turns the dry earth into verdant farmland, much of it to grow a single crop — alfalfa, a type of plant used mainly to feed dairy cows.
For decades, a significant portion of alfalfa grown here and elsewhere in the western United States — as much as 17 percent in 2017 — has been loaded onto trucks, driven hundreds of miles to ports on the west coast, and shipped around the world, mainly to China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. A little over five years ago, one company decided it made more sense to own the land, and the water that came with it, outright.
The company, a Saudi Arabian dairy firm called Almarai, purchased 1,790 acres in the Palo Verde Valley to secure a supply of alfalfa for its dairy cows. Soon after, Saudi Arabia began phasing out domestic alfalfa production to preserve its water supplies, which were dwindling after years of overuse for agriculture. The purchase made headlines as critics including local politicians and environmentalists questioned whether it was fair for a foreign entity to use up valuable groundwater resources for products that wouldn’t ultimately benefit Americans.
But the company is far from alone. Foreign corporations are increasingly purchasing land in the U.S.; in the Southwest, thanks to longstanding laws on water rights, these purchases often come with unlimited access to the valuable water underneath the soil. Combined with nearly year-round sunshine, this has made the area a magnet for companies looking to grow water-intensive crops and raise livestock. Over the last 20 years, foreign companies have purchased more than 250,000 acres of land in six Southwestern states to raise cattle and pigs, as well as to grow everything from almonds to alfalfa, according to an analysis of purchase data that Undark obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On its face, foreign ownership of farmland hasn’t proved significantly different from American ownership for large-scale production of crops like alfalfa. Domestic farmers have long shipped food overseas, and companies like Almarai, as well as independent researchers, have suggested the outsized focus on foreign companies may be xenophobic. American farmers and companies also control millions of acres overseas, mainly in Africa, Asia, and South America. But with their implications for food and water security — that ultimately, the U.S. is not in control of its own farmland — the purchases are drawing attention to the larger trend of industrial agriculture in the U.S. and the problems that come with it.
Corporate farms, researchers and policymakers warn, drain aquifers and threaten access to water for drinking and future crop production. The export of crops and the water used to grow them, known as virtual water, has been accelerating for decades, despite concerns that in drought-stricken areas such as the Southwest, this system is unsustainable in the long term. Although virtual water itself is not inherently problematic — and can even reduce water usage in some cases — its extraction from water-stressed communities is sounding the alarm as water crises become more urgent. Even as the Colorado River Basin enters its 21st year of sustained drought and climate change threatens to further exacerbate water scarcity, virtual water trading is expected to triple globally by 2100, with a large share moving from the U.S. to other countries.
“It’s basically exporting water in the form of alfalfa to countries that are water scarce,” said Alida Cantor, an assistant professor at Portland State University in Oregon who researches water management and sustainability. “But it’s exporting it from a region that is also water scarce.”