Carbon roadmap bill advances in #Colorado: But environmental activists worry this is the wrong path for trying to remove carbon from atmosphere  — @BigPivots #ActOnClimate

Colorado Capitol Dome from the south. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

On the first Friday in January, three days before she was sworn in as a new state representative from Denver’s south metro area, Ruby Dickson was part of a tour of relatively new businesses in the Boulder area.

This was not your typical chamber of commerce tour, though. It had been organized by then State Rep. Tracey Bernett, who had taken an extraordinary interest in climate change legislation during her first two years in the General Assembly.

The four businesses had in common the goal of drawing carbon dioxide from the air, in the case of one business through the technique of biochar, or creating new processes that eliminated need for emissions such as exist now with virgin steel-making.

If ebullient during the tour, Bernett was under a storm cloud, accused by the district attorney in Boulder County of falsely claiming residency in Louisville, a part of her old district but apart from her home near Longmont that had been put into a new district. Two days later, she resigned.

In leaving, she handed off an idea for legislation to the incoming representative Dickson.

That bill, HB23-1210, “Carbon Management,” easily passed its first legislative test on March 9, getting approval from the House Energy and Environment Committee in an 8-3 vote.

Biochar projects such as this one near Berthoud would be eligible for state funding under the proposed legislation. Photo/Allen Best

If it becomes law, the legislation will crack the door open in Colorado for new technologies and practices that many climate change activists insist will be necessary for the state to meet its mid-century decarbonization goals. But many activists who worry just as intensely about the risks of climate change are convinced it’s a misstep.

The bill has two components. One would make “carbon management projects” eligible for grants under the state Clean Air Program that was established by legislators in 2022 with funding of $25 million. Potential applications among the 11 defined in the bill include bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, durable geological carbon sequestration, and direct air capture and storage.

Enhanced oil recovery—a practice that has provoked hurricane-strength opposition in other places—is expressly excluded from potential grant application.

The program requires cash matches to the grants before the program expires in 2028. The first round of grants will become available in spring 2023.

The second major component of the bill directs the Colorado Energy Office to work with a contractor to create a carbon management roadmap in consultation with stakeholders. It is to be delivered to legislators by February 2025.

This proposed roadmap would be an extension of and complementary to the legislative recommendations issued in late February by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. That 67-page document, “Creating Colorado’s Carbon Sequestration Framework,” goes into great detail regarding the questions that Colorado must resolve if it is to find ways to sequester carbon emission from hard-to-decarbonize sectors in decades ahead.

That new report was triggered specifically by Colorado’s landmark legislation in 2019 that adopted sweeping economy-wise carbon reduction goals for 2025, 2030, and 2050.

See: Colorado sets out to create legal structure for carbon capture 

An economist, Dickson has a master’s degree from Oxford and, according to her LinkedIn profile, seems to speak Chinese. The thesis for her undergraduate degree was an analysis of Chinese citizens’ investment habits.

She’s a researcher for Rethink Priorities, a consultancy that tries to help organizations identify what resources would be most effective in addressing animal welfare, climate change, and other causes.

Ruby Dickson.

“A lot of the things I’ve worked on involve climate change,” she said in an interview with Big Pivots several days prior to the committee hearing. “I have worked on carbon management technology from that perspective. That is why I was so eager to work on this when I went into the Legislature this year.”

Told that Sen. Chris Hansen had been engaged in something similar, she went to him to solicit interest in a co-sponsorship.

“It was a pretty easy conversation,” she reported.

Dickson in the interview stressed the stopping of further emissions and then actually removing emissions from the air. “There are a lot of potential solutions here, and we shouldn’t leave any stone unturned,” she said.

When this reporter suggested she expect an 8-3 vote along party lines, the three Republicans on the committee all in opposition, she said she reserved hope. One of her bills, regarding work force transition, had gained unanimous Republican support in its committee hearing, she noted.

In this case, though, she was wrong—although Rep. Ty Winter, a rancher from the natural-gas rich Las Animas County whose district extends from Trinidad to the Kansas border, did tell her that he appreciated her efforts to consider the needs of his rural constituents.

“Respectfully no, but I appreciate you thinking about this stuff,” he said in explaining his vote.

Dickson had said that many of the people who would most benefit from and take advantage of the new technologies would be rural people “and people whose jobs are being affected by the transition away from fossil fuels.”

In her opening pitch to the committee, Dickson emphasized both the emergency and the opportunity.

“We really need to set our sights on a net-zero goal very soon,” she said. Colorado, she went on, has an abundance of resources to achieve this, both solar and wind, but potential geologic reservoirs, underground geological formations where carbon emissions can be stowed with some confidence that they will not find their way to the surface. The Canon City Embayment is the most prominent such geological formation in Colorado, but there are others.

Dickson also talked about Colorado’s highly-educated demographics but also the workers being disrupted by the new energy economy. This bill, she said, recognizes the need for guardrails to consider environmental justice. She talked about extensive conversations with environmental and labor groups, and the potential to create well-paying jobs.

This will not pose a cost to Colorado. “I also think there is something to be said for doing our part for the climate crisis and because it’s the right thing to do.”

Where this will go, she acknowledged, is unclear.

“We don’t know what it will look like over the next couple of decades. It could end up being a serious positive for our economy here. We have so many advantages.”

And her takeaways:

“This is the first step in making Colorado the national and even global leader in carbon management,” she said.

“We need to push down the cost curve by learning by doing,” she said, anticipating one counterargument.

The Carbon Management bill specifically excludes enhanced oil recovery from eligibility for grants under Colorado’s Clean Air Program. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Dickson’s bill did get pushback, primarily from the hardest-core environmental activists who, in an unusual way, found common ground with the Legislature’s most ardent climate change denier.

Rep. Ken DeGraaf, who is from Colorado Springs, used the occasion to again suggest that carbon dioxide is not a problem to human health until it gets to be something like 12,000 parts per million. And, he suggested when quizzing witnesses, wasn’t this an extravagant cost for Colorado to attempt to trim emissions when it would make very little difference anyway on a global scale?

Morey Wolfson, who has been in Colorado’s environmental trenches for about 50 years, had testified that carbon removal is extravagantly expensive.

“Here’s the math,” he said. To reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, now at 420 parts per million, by just one part, will require removal of 8 billion tons at a cost of $100 per ton. That, he said, will cost $800 billion. “Your state budget is $42 billion.”

“There are so many inexpensive ways to not put carbon into the atmosphere in the first place,” he said.

Jan Rose, from the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate, warned that the bill lacked the guardrails needed when moving carbon dioxide around in a gaseous form. She also suggested room for missteps. “I see red flashing signs that say Solyndra,” she said,

referring to California solar company that filed for bankruptcy in 2011, defaulting on  $535 million in federal loans.

Leslie Glustrom, testifying on behalf of Clean Energy Action, urged amendments to recognize risks. “If your pipeline breaks, your local concentrations are high enough to kill you,” she warned.

“Prioritize public health and safety first” before enabling companies to chase the Q4 tax credits delivered by the Inflation Reduction Act, she said. The IRA provides tax credits designed to encourage innovation of carbon-removal technologies.

Glustrom also warned against “group think behavior”—a statement again seized upon by DeGraaf, who reporting seeing a “large degree of group think” in play.

Wolfson, too, warned of the “bandwagon effect.”

“Those who support carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and sequestration, 99% have not done the math that I am talking about,” he said. “I have read thousands of articles, and only 1% of the articles ever tell you that removing 1 ppm will cost you $800 billion.”

Several other witnesses pushed back. Christopher Neidl, who describes himself as a carbon removal evangelist from Austin, Texas, downplayed the the threat from leaks from pipelines.

“They’re not exactly an enormous health threat,” he said. He urged approval of the bill so that “Colorado is in the front of the line instead of being a taker of the technology when it comes.”

Individuals from a new organization called the Signal Tech Coalition also testified. “We are not going to meet our climate goals without carbon removal technologies,” said Quinn Antus, the co-founder and executive director.

The Polis administration has also endorsed the bill’s contents. Keith Hay, the senior director of policy at the Colorado Energy Office, called it an “important first step” to reduction of emissions from economic sectors of Colorado’s economy that will be particularly difficult to decarbonize.

“It sends a signal to the marketplace that Colorado is serious about creating a marketplace for the technologies and that jobs that come with it,” he said. He also noted a “number of Fortune 500 companies that are looking to move into a state with carbon capture technologies.”

Representatives from the Blue-Green Alliance; Healthy Air Water Colorado; Boulder County; Colorado Communities for Climate Action; and Xcel Energy also testified in support. The Xcel rep said that this was among the technologies that it is monitoring and evaluating.

Dickson wrapped up her case by citing a study by Lazard, the consultancy, that found solar prices had dropped 99.5% between 1975 and 2019. ($115/watt to 27 cents/watt). On-shore wind dropped 70% from 2009 to 2021.

The cost of this large-scale drawdown, she said can’t be known now. “But I would guess—and I think a lot of the data show—that the more we try, the cheaper it is going to be.”

This is from Big Pivots 70. Please consider subscribing.

As the votes were taken, there was one interesting additional interplay.

McGraaf dismissed the value of such work. He also said he was “just not a fan of government interference in the market, as was brought up with the Solyndra example that was cited. I am not a fan of government picking winners or losers.”

Rep. Mike Weissman had a lengthy response. He addressed the roadmap and the “very broad spectrum of potential technologies,” and suggested there will be “downstream policy choices and investment choices that we could make.”

Then he addressed the idea of markets free of policy choices. “Frankly, we never have had a free market for energy policy in this country in a couple of key perspectives. We have never adequately internalized the cost of pollution with anything we do, and that’s why we are here today. We have also made policy choices, from the very earliest phase of our country in terms of subsidizing different things.”

Weissman then went on to describe various policies from the opening of federal lands for coal extraction beginning in 1840 to the Energy Act of 2005 that all, in some way, subsidized fossil fuel extraction and use.

“And on and on and on and on,” he continued.

“The question is not whether policy has something to say what about how the market works and energy, but what we say.”

West Slope water managers will not review, approve applications for conservation program: River District criteria will not be used to evaluate projects — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

This hayfield near Rifle is irrigated with water from a tributary of the Colorado River. West Slope water managers say they are being left out of the process to review and approve applications of a water conservation program. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

West Slope water managers say they are being cut out of the process to review and approve applications for a federally funded conservation program, even though a state official had previously promised they could participate.

Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Executive Director and Colorado commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) Becky Mitchell had assured the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District that they would have a say in reviewing and approving projects for the rebooted System Conservation Program within their boundaries. But it now appears that the districts’ role will be limited to providing input to the UCRC on the applications, for which limited public information has been released.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District spans 15 Western Slope counties. Voters across the district are considering a mill-levy increase that would raise the River District’s budget by $5 million, funding a variety of water-related projects. Colorado River District/Courtesy image

Dec. 6, 2022 email from Mitchell to Southwestern’s General Manager Steve Wolff and River District General Manager Andy Mueller said that in the event a “prospective applicant’s SCPP project is located within the boundaries of the district, enrollment in the SCPP will be subject to approval of the application by both the CWCB and the District.”

Mitchell had also said publicly at meetings and conferences that the conservation districts would have a say on projects within their boundaries, and a Jan. 23 CWCB memo says that “Commissioner Mitchell and staff will work closely with the conservation and conservancy districts within which projects are located in the project approval process.” 

In anticipation of reviewing project applications, the River District developed its own set of criteria on which to evaluate them. Those criteria go further than the UCRC’s in specifying who would benefit from the SCP program payments and preventing too much participation in a single basin. The River District works to protect and develop water within its 15 Western Slope counties.

But in a March 10 letter to both conservation districts, Mitchell walked back her promise of their significant involvement. She said only the UCRC’s criteria — not the criteria developed by the River District — can be used in considering project approval.

“I recognize the attention that the Colorado River District staff and the Southwestern Water Conservation District staff have given to these issues,” the letter reads. “However, to ensure compliance with reauthorizing federal legislation, the only criteria that may be applied are contained in the Funding Agreement and Request for Proposals. Further, it is the UCRC that is required to determine whether a project meets those criteria.”

The River District discussed the issue at a board meeting Thursday.

“I think that was disturbing to us because it was a reversal of a commitment that had been made in early December by the commissioner,” Mueller said. “There is a complete lack of process within our state reviewing this program or the potential impacts to other water users. … There is no analysis done whatsoever to protect communities.”

Paying water users to irrigate less has long been controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities. 

River District staff said they have still not seen any completed SCP applications for projects within their boundaries.

The River District board on Thursday voted that if and when the project applications become publicly available, the River District will review them and provide feedback that the UCRC criteria does not go far enough to consider the impacts within the state of Colorado. The board also voted to provide a response to Mitchell’s March 10 letter. 

Wolff replied to Mitchell’s letter asking her to reconsider her position and reaffirm her commitment to the districts that they would have a meaningful role in the approval process. 

“(We) have not found anything to support the position described in your letter,” Wolff’s response reads. “To the contrary, the UCRC Facilitation Agreement and related documents appear to provide a robust role for each state for evaluating projects within its boundaries…”

Water levels in Lake Powell, seen here in May 2022, have fallen to historic lows. A water conservation program run by the Upper Colorado River Commission is aimed at boosting reservoir levels. May 2022 photo/Allen Best

CWCB approval

The Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously on Wednesday to designate projects that are participating in the rebooted SCP as falling under the umbrella of a “state-approved water conservation program.” That means that water users who choose to get paid to cut back won’t see their water right affected for participating. Under Colorado’s abandonment or “use it or lose it” principle, water rights holders must continue to put their water to beneficial use if they want to keep their water right. 

The System Conservation Program was restarted as part of the UCRC’s 5-Point Plan, which is aimed at protecting critical elevations in the nation’s two largest and depleted reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead. The program will be paid for with $125 million in federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and will pay water users in the upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming — to cut back. 

The UCRC is a Salt Lake City-based interstate water administrative agency established by the 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. Its role is to ensure the appropriate allocation of water from the Colorado River to the upper basin states and compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact. 

The UCRC unveiled its 5-Point Plan in July in response to calls for conservation from the federal government to address the crisis on the Colorado River and plummeting reservoir levels that threaten the ability to make hydroelectric power. The Bureau of Reclamation designated the UCRC as the administrator of the rebooted conservation program and it began accepting applications in December.

The scope of what CWCB approved this week was narrow; they did not approve the individual applications for the SCP. That responsibility for final approval, as Mitchell’s March 10 letter notes, lies solely with the UCRC.  

Mitchell said at Wednesday’s CWCB meeting that although the conservation districts would not be approving projects, she would still take input from them. Her March 10 letter invites the districts to participate in the approval process under the same narrow scope as CWCB by designating the SCP as a “state-approved water conservation program,” which protects against abandonment.

Mitchell added that she has requested that the meeting where the UCRC makes the decisions about which projects to approve be open to the public and that the applications be made publicly available, with personal information of applicants redacted. The status of that request was unclear as of Friday afternoon. 

“If we were to do this again… I would ask that the applications be transparent from the beginning with the personal information redacted,” Mitchell said. “That is not the way we did it this time.”

At Wednesday’s CWCB meeting, River District General Counsel Peter Fleming asked the board to postpone the approval that protects water users from abandonment by two weeks. He added that there were “heated controversies” about system conservation in western Colorado and that the tight timeline has put everyone in a pressure cooker. 

He said the criteria the UCRC is using to evaluate applications is focused on getting water downstream, not on preventing issues within Colorado like potential injury to other water users. 

“Our view is that both the water conservation board and the districts have a higher level of input and activity than simply the determination as to whether the proposed system conservation projects fall within the (definition of a state-approved conservation program),” he said. “The delay would give us a little time to work that through in cooperation with the CWCB for the benefit of the entire state and our shared constituents.” 

Beth Van Vurst, counsel for Southwestern Water Conservation District, said the district needs additional information on the project proposals.

“We haven’t seen the applications, we haven’t seen any operating plans, we haven’t seen any details,” she said. “Without that information, I don’t know how the Southwest board could determine whether or not these projects warrant protection under state law.”

Raymond Langstaff irrigates his fields outside of Rifle in May 2022. A water conservation program that pays irrigators to use less water from the Colorado River will have little oversight from West Slope water managers. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Crop switching proposals

The CWCB released some details related to the 36 Colorado project applications that are currently being reviewed by the UCRC. Those which have preliminary approval from UCRC could save up to 9,618 acre-feet of water, according to a March 15 memo. Of the 36 proposals, 19 propose to halt irrigating for the entire season and nine propose to stop irrigating for part of the season, according to a CWCB breakdown.

Eight of the proposed projects are in the southwest corner of the state, within the bounds of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, and get their irrigation water from the Dolores Project. These projects are proposing switching crops from thirsty alfalfa to other forage crops like Sudan grass that use less water. Altogether, the eight projects are estimated to save 791 acre-feet of water. 

Greg Peterson, executive director of the Colorado Ag-Water Alliance, organized the Dolores projects and helped irrigators submit applications. He said they are asking for $200 per acre-foot of water, which is calculated to represent the cost of switching crops. If the new forage crops end up being as profitable or more profitable than alfalfa, irrigators will probably make the switch permanent, Peterson said. 

“If they can go back and look at the costs and revenues associated with it, they don’t need to be paid again to do this,” he said. “They will just do it because it’s profitable for them. We are paying for them to take a risk.”

Some irrigators with the Dolores Project, which delivers water stored in McPhee Reservoir to the Dove Creek area, Montezuma Valley and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation, have experienced water shortages in recent drought years. In 2021, some farmers received only 10% of their water allocation. Switching to less thirsty crops helps them to adapt to an increasingly water-short future under climate change, Peterson said.

“They are in a pretty rough situation,” Peterson said. “Long-term it’s looking like you might not get the water in that system that you’re used to. In the southwest particularly it’s become a really rough climate for alfalfa if you don’t have the water.” 

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.