A bunch of world leaders, a handful of activists and oodles of fossil fuel lobbyists are convened in the United Arab Emirates for the annual United Nations climate conference, or COP28. They’re doing a lot of talking about climate, but are they doing any doing to solve the climate crisis? Not a lot, but they did do some talking about doing.
Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas and is a potent greenhouse gas, having about 86 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over the near-term (methane in the atmosphere breaks down into carbon dioxide and water over the long-term). Methane naturally occurs in coal seams and in oil and gas reservoirs. Oil wells also contain methane and other “associated gases” that can include health-harming volatile organic compounds and deadly hydrogen sulfide.
Sometimes the methane is captured, processed, and marketed as natural gas. But the entire system is prone to leakage, some of it intentional, most not. And when the driller is focused on oil, the methane and other gases are often vented directly into the air or flared, i.e. burned off. Either way, the oil and gas industry emits gobs of methane and other compounds, including nasty carcinogens like benzene. This is not only bad for the environment, but also wasteful: Natural gas lost to leaks or flaring is not taxed and generates no royalties, meaning the state and federal governments — i.e. the taxpayers — are losing out on millions of dollars each year.
The Obama administration and then the Biden administration worked for years on regulations to tackle these emissions, but previous proposals have often come up short. Obama’s EPA, for example, implemented rules that would only cover new oil and gas wells, leaving the tens of thousands of wells contributing to the Four Corners Methane Hot Spot, for example, untouched (the BLM had its own set of rules for existing facilities). Earlier iterations also weren’t strong enough on flaring, didn’t regulate pneumatic controllers (a major emissions source) and exempted the low-producing wells that are common in the Western U.S. and that tend to be leakier than the big producers.
The new rules, while providing some flexibility for operators, fill in most of the gaps in earlier drafts. They will phase out flaring on new wells; require leak-detection surveys on a monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly basis (depending on type and size of facility); and require even low-producing wells to pipe associated gases to market or use them to replace other fuels onsite if at all possible. The rules also allow the EPA to “leverage data collected by certified third parties to identify and address ‘super emitting’ sources.”
Land and public health protectors generally have praised the new rule. “The U.S. EPA has taken bold action to cut methane pollution from oil and gas production,” said Robyn Jackson, Executive Director of Diné C.A.R.E., in a written statement. “Inspections at smaller wells with leaky equipment are especially important at the older infrastructure we see in Navajo Country.” Jackson emphasized that it is now up to the Navajo Nation EPA — and other tribal nations and state governments — to implement the rules for existing sources, adding: “Both federal and tribal government action is critical to protect our communities, our health, and our future.”
For more on this topic, check out our four-part series, Methane Madness, from 2021:
Some folks will read the news about the methane rule and whatnot and get all upset about Biden waging a war on American energy production and compromising our energy independence and putting a bunch of roughnecks out of work. The data say: Not quite, buddy.
In fact, U.S. crude oil production hit a new all-time daily record high in September of this year and is on pace to set a new annual record, as well. That is to say, the hundreds of thousands of wells that pockmark the nation will suck nearly a billion more barrels of oil from the earth this year than they did during the energy crises of the 1970s and 80s. Ack!
Most of the gains are due to a drilling frenzy in the Permian Basin, which stretches across southeastern New Mexico and western Texas. It’s one of the most productive fields in the world; it’s also one of the planet’s largest methane emitters.
1.36 million: Tons of methane emitted from the New Mexico side of the Permian Basin oil and gas fields in 2022.
3.38 million: Tons of methane emitted from the Texas side of the Permian Basin oil and gas fields in 2022.
133: Tons of methane emitted by the HollyFrontier Navajo Refinery in southeastern New Mexico in 2022.
35,951: Tons of methane emitted from the Colorado side of the San Juan Basin coalbed methane fields in 2022.
19,010: Tons of methane emitted from the now defunct San Juan Coal Mine in northwestern New Mexico in 2022.
And when you hear about how the new methane rules are going to hit oil and gas operators in the pocketbook, just keep this one number in mind:
$26.33 billion: Third quarter 2023 combined profits for the Permian Basin’s ten largest operators: Pioneer, EOG, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Occidental, Diamondback, Devon, Chevron, Mewbourne, and Endeavor. Yes, that’s for just one quarter!
This isn’t happening because of Biden, necessarily, but it’s also not happening in spite of his administration’s policies. Indeed, Biden is walking a fine line on oil and gas, approving big projects like Willow up in Alaska and approving thousands of drilling permits on public lands, while also implementing new regulations, establishing national monuments, and withdrawing millions of acres of federal lands from future oil and gas leasing.
Myriad proposals to tap lithium deposits in southeastern Utah are progressing from the conceptual to the exploratory phases. But they are running up against a familiar obstacle in these arid parts: concern about how the projects might affect diminishing water supplies in the Colorado River Basin.
Lithium is the primary ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from cell phones to electric vehicles to grid-scale energy storage. Demand for the stuff has shot up tremendously over the last decade, which has also elevated prices. That, in turn, has sparked interest in developing a domestic lithium industry, with projects sprouting in Nevada, at the Salton Sea and Great Salt Lake, in southern New Mexico, and in the Paradox Formation in the Four Corners Country.
The Paradox Formation (or Basin), stretching from the northwestern edge of the San Juan Basin up to the town of Green River, Utah, contains oodles of lithium (along with potash and bromide and so on). That’s because some 300 million years ago a sea covered the area, then evaporated, then flooded the area, then evaporated, repeating this cycle about 29 times over the course of 15 million years. The process left behind thick deposits of salts and other materials. Over the ensuing millennia, rock piled up atop the salt, squeezing it into fault lines, where the salt was pushed up into domes that shaped the overlying landscape. Those salt deposits contain lithium.
Companies have poked around in the Paradox Formation in search of potash for years. Now they’re going after lithium in a big way, with several firms staking claims in the Lisbon Valley and beyond.
Anson Resources’ Paradox and Green River Projects are probably the furthest along (if investor presentations are to be believed). The Australian company and its subsidiaries — A1 Lithium, Blackstone Minerals, and Blackstone Resources — have been staking claims fervently among the sandstone formations northwest of Moab between the Green and Colorado Rivers over the last several years, amassing more than 1,000 federal mining claims. They also acquired private land surrounding the Department of Energy’s uranium tailings disposal site on the southern edge of the town of Green River as well as securing leases on Utah state land.
Conventional lithium operations pump mineral-filled water to the surface, put it in shallow ponds, and allow the water to evaporate, concentrating the lithium and associated materials. Potash is extracted like this, as well — a complex of potash evaporation ponds near Moab have gone viral as instagram targets due to their vivid colors. This method not only requires a lot of land for the ponds, but also is water-intensive, with as much as 200,000 gallons of water evaporating for each ton of material produced. Plus, the process can produce a lot of waste and takes a long time.
Anson plans a different approach. They say they will partner with China-based Sunresin and use that firm’s patented direct lithium extraction, or DLE, method. Anson would drill a well (or redrill an old oil and gas well), pump the brine to the surface, and use resin beads to extract the lithium from the water, without evaporation ponds. After the lithium is extracted, the water is injected back underground. That, in theory, makes it a non-consumptive use of the water, meaning it shouldn’t have as much of an effect on water supplies.
But direct lithium extraction is a largely unproven technology, and it’s not clear that it will work in the Paradox Basin. The technique may require fresh water to be injected into the lithium deposits before pumping it to the surface, since the minerals may not be adequately saturated. In the 1950s and 1960s, a couple of facilities in Moab pumped up brine for use in the Atlas uranium mill; they had to pump fresh water into the subterranean salt beds, first, in order to dissolve the salts. Plus, any time you drill deep into the earth and remove or inject water, you’re potentially screwing with the hydrology — and even the geology.
This has been shown in the oil and gas fields, where “produced water,” or wastewater left over from the drilling and extraction process, is often reinjected deep underground. The process has induced seismic activity, or triggered earthquakes, in the Permian Basin and elsewhere. During the coalbed methane drilling boom in the San Juan Basin in the 1990s, all sorts of weirdness occurred, from methane flowing from water taps to a freshwater spring suddenly becoming hotter — all likely the result of pumping billions of gallons of water from the coal beds to “liberate” the methane, and then shooting it back into the ground. And in the Paradox Basin, a project that captures salt before it can enter the Dolores River and then injects it 16,000 feet underground (to keep Colorado River salinity levels in check) also triggered tremors in western Colorado.
In other words, while direct lithium extraction could be a “game changer” for the industry, making it feasible to commercially extract lithium from geothermal brines under the Salton Sea, for example, many unknowns remain about the technology in general and this proposal specifically.
What we do know is that Anson is looking to secure a bunch of water for its operations. Their water right applications seek:
19 cfs (13,755 acre-feet or 4.5 billion gallons per year) from wells located on Utah state land north of Dead Horse Point state park. The brine presumably would then be piped to a processing plant near the Colorado River, the lithium would be extracted, and the wastewater injected back underground. Intrepid Potash, the National Park Service, and a coalition of environmental groups protested the application, in part for its lack of detail and because, well, there really isn’t any extra water available.
Another 19 cfs from several 8,000- to 9,000-foot deep wells on the south end of Green River adjacent to the uranium tailings depository. After extracting the lithium from a plant on this property, they would inject the wastewater into 5,000- to 7,000-foot deep wells. The Bureau of Reclamation protested this application because of its close proximity to the Green River and the potential to affect surface water supplies and quality. They also worry about direct lithium extraction, writing: “Data shows the success of DLE is hard to predict, consumes both freshwater and brine water, contaminates aquifers, reduces the groundwater table, hurts wildlife, worsens soil conditions …” Ooof.
And they leased 2,500 acre-feet (814 million gallons) per year from the Wayne County Water Conservancy District. This water may be used for processing, but it’s not clear where, yet. Anson has indicated it could have processing facilities in Green River and on the Colorado River below Moab, neither of which is near Wayne County (home of Hanksville). Perhaps they also plan on having a processing plant there.
The water rights applications are still pending.
For more information, check out John Weisheit’s post for FarCountry.org, the website of the Canyonlands Watershed Council.
In the study, published in the journal Science, colleagues and I mapped how U.S. coal power plant emissions traveled through the atmosphere, then linked each power plant’s emissions with death records of Americans over 65 years old on Medicare.
Our results suggest that air pollutants released from coal power plants were associated with nearly half a million premature deaths of elderly Americans from 1999 to 2020.
It’s a staggering number, but the study also has good news: Annual deaths associated with U.S. coal power plants have fallen sharply since the mid-2000s as federal regulations compelled operators to install emissions scrubbers and many utilities shut down coal plants entirely.
In 1999, 55,000 deaths were attributable to coal air pollution in the U.S., according to our findings. By 2020, that number had fallen to 1,600.
In the U.S., coal is being displaced by natural gas and renewable energy for generating electricity. Globally, however, coal use is projected to increase in coming years. That makes our results all the more urgent for global decision-makers to understand as they develop future policies.
PM2.5 — particles small enough to be inhaled deep into our lungs — comes from several different sources, including gasoline combustion in vehicles and smoke from wood fires and power plants. It is made up of many different chemicals.
As a result, anyone downwind of a coal plant may be breathing a complex cocktail of chemicals, each with its own potential effects on human health.
Tracking coal PM2.5
To understand the risks coal emissions pose to human health, we tracked how sulfur dioxide emissions from each of the 480 largest U.S. coal power plants operating at any point since 1999 traveled with the wind and turned into tiny particles — coal PM2.5. We used sulfur dioxide because of its known health effects and drastic decreases in emissions over the study period.
We then used a statistical model to link coal PM2.5 exposure to Medicare records of nearly 70 million people from 1999 to 2020. This model allowed us to calculate the number of deaths associated with coal PM2.5.
In our statistical model, we controlled for other pollution sources and accounted for many other known risk factors, like smoking status, local meteorology and income level. We tested multiple statistical approaches that all yielded consistent results. We compared the results of our statistical model with previous results testing the health impacts of PM2.5 from other sources and found that PM2.5 from coal is twice as harmful as PM2.5 from all other sources.
The number of deaths associated with individual power plants depended on multiple factors — how much the plant emits, which way the wind blows and how many people breathe in the pollution. Unfortunately, U.S. utilities located many of their plants upwind of major population centers on the East Coast. This siting amplified these plants’ impacts.
In an interactive online tool, users can look up our estimates of annual deaths associated with each U.S. power plant and also see how those numbers have fallen over time at most U.S. coal plants.
Coal’s role in US electric power generation fell quickly Coal declined significantly as a U.S. source of electricity generation as natural gas and renewable energy increased over the past 15 years.
A U.S. success story and the global future of coal
Engineers have been designing effective scrubbers and other pollution-control devices that can reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants for several years. And the EPA has rules specifically to encourage utilities that used coal to install them, and most facilities that did not install scrubbers have shut down.
The results have been dramatic: Sulfur dioxide emissions decreased about 90% in facilities that reported installing scrubbers. Nationwide, sulfur dioxide emissions decreased 95% since 1999. According to our tally, deaths attributable to each facility that installed a scrubber or shut down decreased drastically.
Globally, however, the outlook for coal is mixed. While the U.S. and other nations are headed toward a future with substantially less coal, the International Energy Agency expects global coal use to increase through at least 2025.
Our study and others like it make clear that increases in coal use will harm human health and the climate. Making full use of emissions controls and a turn toward renewables are surefire ways to reduce coal’s negative impacts.
Lucas Henneman is an assistant professor of engineering at George Mason University. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser this week expressed reservations about the Colorado River District’s proposal to acquire major senior water rights associated with the Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon, voicing discomfort with the idea of a proposed instream flow right not being owned by the state. Speaking at a Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting, Weiser told river district General Counsel Peter Fleming that the ordinary structure in Colorado is for the state, through the state board, to own instream flow rights…
The proposal is for the river district to lease the acquired water rights back to Xcel for operation of the plant. The river district proposes that it and the CWCB would apply to state water court to get an alternate beneficial purpose of an instream flow added to the Shoshone water rights, to ensure the ability to keep the water in the river when it isn’t used for power generation, such as when the power plant is undergoing repairs. Although water entities already have agreed to generally keep water flowing as if the plant is in operation even when it is shut down, the river district and partners are seeking to protect those historic flows permanently, including in the case of the plant closing…
Fleming said the river district’s position is that the river district would assign the state the right to use the water rights for instream flows. He said that effectively the state would hold the right to use the water for instream purposes, but the only caveat is that Xcel wants to use the water for hydropower as long as the plant is operating, and the river district as the owner of the water rights would lease to Xcel the right to use the water…
Fleming said that although the CWCB ordinarily owns instream flow rights, state law also lets water users loan water to the CWCB for instream flows on a temporary basis, and other types of agreements also are in place. He said state law contemplates the state board using any means of acquiring the right to use instream flows, whether it be via loans, donations, acquisitions or obtaining “any sub-interest in the water right.”
Said Weiser, “What I don’t understand is why you’re talking at all about owning a title for something that’s use is in perpetuity and ordinarily managed by the state. That is not quite making sense to me as something that is outside of the way we tend to operate.” Weiser said the river district’s goal of getting to a status quo that’s sustainable for the Western Slope “seems to be accomplished by an instream flow right that is owned by the state and this body (the CWCB).”
THE NEWS: The anticipated and feared nuclear renaissance suffered a major blow this week when Oregon-based NuScale and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems killed plans to construct a small modular nuclear reactor power plant in Idaho. Several years in the making, the project had become too expensive and there were too few subscribers to make it financially viable.
THE CONTEXT: As the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector has grown more urgent over the last couple of decades, so-called climate hawks have increasingly looked to nuclear power as a decarbonization tool. That’s because the nuclear reaction — like solar or wind energy — emits zero carbon when generating power. And even when mining, processing, and enriching uranium as well as building the nuclear plant are taken into account, nuclear power still emits far less than fossil fuels.
These pro-nuclear climate hawks, or green nuclear evangelists, as I like to call them, tend to brush aside safety concerns and the problem of storing the spent reactor fuel, otherwise known as radioactive waste. And they often completely ignore the impacts of uranium mining, past and present. But it’s more difficult to get around the astronomical cost of building a new conventional nuclear reactor: The price tag for the Vogtle plant in Georgia, still under construction, is around $31 billion so far.
So, the green nuclear evangelists have focused on keeping existing plants, such as Diablo Canyon in California, open. And, to a lesser extent, on developing smaller, unconventional reactors that won’t cost so much.
The euphemistically named Carbon Free Power Project was supposed to fit the bill. It was pushed by a Portland startup called NuScale, which would include 12 60-megawatt reactors installed on the vast Idaho National Laboratory, and the Utah Association of Municipal Power Suppliers, or UAMPS. With 46 members scattered across the Interior West, UAMPS would own and operate the plant, while NuScale would build the reactors.
When I wrote about the project five years ago, NuScale claimed that its small modular reactors, or SMRs, would be safer and use less water than conventional reactors. But the big selling point was their relatively low buy-in cost. A utility could, theoretically, build a micro-nuke plant for less than $2 billion upfront, which ain’t exactly cheap but also isn’t $31 billion. The reactors would be manufactured in a facility, then trucked to the installation; what NuScale lost in economies of scale, it hoped to offset with the volume of reactors produced. NuScale’s main investor, the Fluor corporation, also benefited from oodles of federal subsidies.
NuScale managed to clear a number of regulatory hurdles, but the project would only come to fruition if UAMPS succeeded in selling the concept to its members. This wasn’t easy: It ran into early resistance in Price, Utah, where leaders feared it would help kill the local coal industry; in Truckee, California, because it would hamper the community’s efforts to go 100 percent renewable; and in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where residents were leery of investing in unproven technology, not to mention the high projected operating costs relative to other energy sources. Anti-nuclear activists in Utah and Idaho battled the project, too, mostly because it would use a lot of water and add to the growing stockpile of radioactive waste.
In the ensuing half-decade, projected costs continued to rise, scaring off more of the potential subscribers. And several major wind and solar and battery storage projects have also moved forward, making such a plant less desirable — even if it is “carbon free.”
The euphemistically named Carbon Free Power Project was supposed to fit the bill. It was pushed by a Portland startup called NuScale, which would include 12 60-megawatt reactors installed on the vast Idaho National Laboratory, and the Utah Association of Municipal Power Suppliers, or UAMPS. With 46 members scattered across the Interior West, UAMPS would own and operate the plant, while NuScale would build the reactors.
When I wrote about the project five years ago, NuScale claimed that its small modular reactors, or SMRs, would be safer and use less water than conventional reactors. But the big selling point was their relatively low buy-in cost. A utility could, theoretically, build a micro-nuke plant for less than $2 billion upfront, which ain’t exactly cheap but also isn’t $31 billion. The reactors would be manufactured in a facility, then trucked to the installation; what NuScale lost in economies of scale, it hoped to offset with the volume of reactors produced. NuScale’s main investor, the Fluor corporation, also benefited from oodles of federal subsidies.
NuScale managed to clear a number of regulatory hurdles, but the project would only come to fruition if UAMPS succeeded in selling the concept to its members. This wasn’t easy: It ran into early resistance in Price, Utah, where leaders feared it would help kill the local coal industry; in Truckee, California, because it would hamper the community’s efforts to go 100 percent renewable; and in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where residents were leery of investing in unproven technology, not to mention the high projected operating costs relative to other energy sources. Anti-nuclear activists in Utah and Idaho battled the project, too, mostly because it would use a lot of water and add to the growing stockpile of radioactive waste.
In the ensuing half-decade, projected costs continued to rise, scaring off more of the potential subscribers. And several major wind and solar and battery storage projects have also moved forward, making such a plant less desirable — even if it is “carbon free.”
KEMMERER—TerraPower, backed by billionaire Bill Gates and the U.S. Department of Energy, plans to build the pilot “Natrium” liquid-sodium-cooled nuclear energy plant here, hoping its success will spur the deployment of Natrium and other small nuclear reactors throughout the nation and around the world.
The next-generation technology presents myriad considerations for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has authority over the safety, security and environmental implications of such facilities. It would also be the first industrial nuclear facility in Wyoming, and locals have many questions:
Does the NRC take seismic activity into account? When might the spent radioactive fuel waste be shipped off to a permanent storage facility? Will there be regular NRC inspections, and how often?
Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), however, shares another concern that is top-of-mind for locals who are eager for the economic boost that developers promise: Can the NRC speed up the approval process “if you get the right people in place?
“I’m running out of time planning and creating legislation to make sure this all comes together,” he said.
Dockstader was among more than 100 local residents who attended the NRC’s two information sessions here Tuesday. The agency sent a dozen staff members to this isolated southwestern Wyoming town of 2,400 to field questions about what many anticipate will be an expedited review process.
TerraPower and its contractors have already drilled more than 100 boreholes here to help “investigate” the suitability of the location, according to the company, and it plans to begin construction of the sodium testing facility and other non-nuclear portions of the 345-megawatt Natrium nuclear reactor energy plant in 2024.
The nuclear plant will be “co-located” next to PacifiCorp’s Naughton power plant just outside of Kemmerer. One coal-burning unit at the plant was converted to natural gas, and the two remaining units there will be converted to natural gas in 2026.
Before the company can begin assembling the nuclear components, however, it must complete a licensing application that can pass the NRC’s review process, which includes several opportunities for the public to weigh in on the proposal. The NRC expects to receive TerraPower’s application, and initiate the official review process in March.
“Now is an opportune time to conduct this initial outreach and to explain the analysis process of reviewing applications for construction and operation,” NRC’s Chief of Advanced Reactor Licensing William Jessup said.
Although the NRC is developing a new review process specific to “advanced” reactors such as Natrium, which uses molten sodium as a coolant instead of water, TerraPower has tentatively agreed to seek approval via the long existing “Part 50” review, according to Jessup. It includes multiple review tracks, each with a safety and environmental component: one to consider a construction permit, and another to consider an operating license. The process requires the NRC to produce an environmental impact statement — all of which include public input and multiple opportunities for the normal administrative and legal challenges that come with large federal permitting activities, Jessup explained.
Typically, the arduous NRC review can take up to seven years or more to complete — with no guarantee of final approval. Last year, the NRC denied Oklo Power, LLC’s application to build a “fast reactor” in Idaho for allegedly failing to provide sufficient information on the facility’s design.
TerraPower — which is embarking on its first NRC licensing attempt — hopes to win approval much sooner, however, thanks in part to the 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. The law — championed by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) — set a maximum review timeline of 36 months. Additionally, TerraPower expects to help the NRC trim that timeline even further by filing information ahead of schedule.
It all depends on TerraPower submitting thorough information that doesn’t require many requests to fill in unanswered questions, according to the NRC.
“If we have all of these discussions and address all of these topics before the application even comes in, then you would expect that it may make the review go faster,” Jessup told WyoFile.
Many locals are eager for the potential economic boon the $4 billion project might bring to this region, which has long relied on the diminishing coal industry to power its economy. But many of the same people, and others, are concerned about the high-stake risks that come with a nuclear facility.
Does the NRC take seismic activity into account?
Yes, NRC officials said, adding that they are aware that there is seismic activity in the Rocky Mountain Region.
Several residents, including Rep. Scott Heiner (R-Green River), asked when the radioactive spent fuel might be transported to a permanent storage facility.
“Is there a permanent solution for waste that is being worked on at this time?” Heiner asked.
No, there is no permanent nuclear fuel waste repository in the U.S. at the moment, NRC officials said. Though NRC staff in attendance indicated they “anticipate” one will be built, others have long indicated that there’s no clear path to building a permanent repository, which has been discussed for decades.
For now, that means spent nuclear fuel will be “temporarily” stored on site — for how long, nobody knows.
The NRC also fielded questions about how nuclear fuel will be transported to the facility and how safety of those radioactive materials will be ensured. The NRC, along with several other federal agencies, closely manage the transport of such materials in cooperation with state agencies, according to staff members. A specific plan, however, will be worked out in the NRC’s review, they said.
NRC representatives also assured locals that they will maintain partnerships with local emergency managers and state environmental authorities.
Many questions about TerraPower’s Natrium design, however — such as water consumption and where the company will find enough construction and permanent workers — are up to the company to answer. However, most of those details — with the exception of information that the NRC agrees to deem proprietary — will be included in the application and public review, according to NRC staff.
“That’s the reason we’re here tonight,” Jessup said. “We’re here to get the message out early about our process and how to interact.”
Study finds that existing technology can get Colorado to near-zero electricity without need for breakthroughs in geothermal, nuclear or other realms. It will require a bit of natural gas.
Colorado can decarbonize its electricity very deeply by 2040 without busting the bank. But there’s a catch.
To hit this 98.5% decarbonization level will require accepting natural gas as 1% of the mix along with a small percentage of carbon-based electricity imported into Colorado. And getting there will not require still-costly emerging technologies.
That’s the take-away from a modeling study commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office.
How about 100% emissions-free electricity? That can be achieved, and in several different ways — all of them at a higher price, according to the modeling conducted by Ascend Analytics, a Boulder-based company.
The company modeled two other scenarios deploying deep levels of geothermal, hydrogen, and advanced nuclear reactors as well as other emerging technologies. Still another scenario examined the cost of using simply wind, solar, and existing battery technology. And one scenario emphasized local generation.
These five other scenarios came in at prices of $47.1 billion to $56.2 billion in net-present value — all substantially higher than the $37.5 billion of the less-than-perfect scenario using some natural gas.
Burning natural gas on an as-needed basis to ensure reliability will produce 565,000 metric tons of emissions in 2040. That compares with 40 million tons in 2005, according to the modeling study. This scenario also envisions a higher share of electricity , about 17%, being imported into Colorado.
All the scenarios in the modeling assume substantial amounts of improved energy efficiency, in effect partially eliminating the need for new generation. All models also assume that Colorado utilities will, as required by a state law, be participating in some sort of regional market for electricity by 2030.
Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office, called the study results “huge.”
“The biggest takeaway of the study is understanding that we can get very deep emissions reductions, nearly zero emissions by 2040 while minimizing costs to utility customers. That is not something that we understood going into this study,” he said in an interview.
“As we look at developing the policy framework for 2040, it will be very much informed by that understanding,” he added.
The modeling study will likely deliver the justification for a bill in the legislative session beginning in January that would propose a new emissions-reduction target for Colorado’s electrical utilities. Laws adopted in 2019 and in subsequent years tasked those utilities with reducing emissions 80% by 2030. Most and perhaps all seem to be on track to get there with relative ease.
Some moving higher more quickly
Some utilities expect to get far higher—and soon. Notable is Holy Cross Energy, the electrical cooperative based in Glenwood Springs. It expects to achieve 92% emissions-free electricity by early in 2024 and has a goal of 100% by 2030.
Bryan Hannegan, chief executive of Holy Cross, has long said that the path to 90% was reasonably clear. The hard part, with answers still unknown, he has said, will be that final 10%. And unlike the path to 90%, that final leg will likely be more expensive.
The modeling has any number of assumptions. Some likely are further out on the limb than others.
All the scenarios assume a 40% increase in electrical demand across Colorado during the next 17 years. Population growth will drive some of this new demand. Increased demand will also result from electricity replacing fossil fuels in both transportation and building and water heating.
To satisfy this increased demand will require new generation. Just how much new generation will depend upon the type. Wind and solar exclusively from generators within Colorado coupled with battery storage would require 74,492 megawatts of installed capacity. Having natural gas available will require far less, 44,474 megawatts.
On a more micro level and with a concrete challenge, Platte River Power Authority — the supplier to Fort Collins, Loveland, Estes Park and Longmont — is putting together its resource plan looking out to 2030. Directors in 2018 identified a goal of 100% renewables by 2030 but also attached a handful of conditions to that goal. Five years later, Platte River’s planners don’t see a way to 100% by 2030, at least not without risking reliability or absorbing considerable costs. One scenario calls for 85% renewables. The plan, however, is not scheduled to be completed until June.
Transmission, seen by many as critical to deep levels of emissions reductions, gets relatively little mention in the modeling report. Arguably, an entire scenario could be built around potential for transmission upgrades, such as greater ease of moving electricity between the Western Interconnection grid, of which Colorado is a part, and the Eastern Interconnection, which starts at Kansas and Nebraska.
Ascend Analytics had conducted similar modeling about deep, deep decarbonization of electricity for Los Angeles Water and Power. The question in that study was what would it take for Los Angeles to achieve zero-emissions electricity?
Twenty years ago Colorado and its electrical utilities almost entirely embraced coal generation as the cheapest energy source far into the future. By 15 years ago, that resolve had weakened. Voters had adopted the state’s first renewable energy mandate and legislators had upped it. Wind prices were swooping down. Not least utilities had become confident of keeping lights on while deploying wind and solar.
A watershed year was 2017. Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, which supplies roughly half of the electricity in the state, sought bids for new electrical generation. The low prices for wind and solar dramatically undercut those of fossil fuels. Proponents of renewables were elated. A year later, Xcel Energy announced its plans for 80% decarbonization by 2030. The paradigm had shifted.
Most of those wind, solar, and storage projects bid in 2017 have now or soon will go on line. Statistics for 2023 are not yet available. However, as of 2022, renewable energy accounted for 37% of the state’s electrical generation, with wind power accounting for four-fifths of that renewable generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Two coal plants have closed since 2017 and now eight more will be laid down before the end of 2031. One, Pawnee, located at Brush, is to be converted to natural gas.
Toor said his agency began having discussions in 2022 about the next steps beyond 2030. The questions guided creation of the modeling study. The state called in utilities, environmental groups, industrial sectors, and others for conversations about how to frame the study.
What some said
Ean Tafoya, the Colorado director for GreenLatinos, a national advocacy group, said he remembers the first meeting occurring in May. Based on the number of those interested in environmental justice invited to participate as stakeholders, he suspects dozens of stakeholders were involved.
The results of the modeling Tafoya described as “very promising.”
“It shows me that the emerging technologies that my community has been very concerned about, that we don’t need them,” he said, referring to hydrogen, carbon capture and sequestration and direct-air capture as well as deep-well geothermal. “And if we can do this by 2040 without change of policy, that is very exciting.”
If Colorado can find ways to leverage capital through green infrastructure banking and address workforce training, Colorado “can truly be a leader nationally and globally,” he added.
Xcel Energy issued a statement that said the company was “encouraged by the Colorado Energy Office’s findings.”
“We agree there is a need for new 24/7 carbon-free technology to achieve deep carbon reductions. The state’s policies will enable us to reduce carbon emissions greater than 80% by 2030 and will inform our future investments into the local infrastructure necessary to move clean energy reliably into our customers’ homes – while keeping bills low.”
Do Colorado’s modeling results suggest a template for other states or regions of the United States, even other countries? Toor thinks so.
“It is saying that you can get to near-zero greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from electricity generation within the next 20 years —with no incremental cost to customers. That’s true with other states, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a red state or blue state. “Regulators and utilities should be excited about the ability to minimize costs to customers while nearly entirely eliminating emissions. I think that is a really important conclusion.”
That said, added Toor, other states are starting at different places. “We have already had substantial progress.”
Colorado also is blessed with renewable resources. It has wind – not the best, but among the best. It also has strong solar. Again, not the best, but very good.
“I want to be careful about claiming insight into other states, but I do think it is a very striking result that you can achieve such deep pollution reductions simply by developing the lowest-cost resources,” said Toor.
In creating the documents, Ascent based its projected costs of various technologies on projections by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory but also Ascend’s Market Intelligence Team.
How fast will technology move?
Even with those presumably careful calculations based on strong information, how good are they? After all, 20 years ago, the cost numbers argued for coal. Incredibly, some people still try to make that argument.
Also 20 years ago, many smart people projected the imminent arrival of both peak oil and, by extension, peak natural gas. Those projections, based on rear-view mirror data, failed to anticipate the rapid incremental advances in hydrofracturing, horizontal drilling and other extraction technology. From $14.50 per million Btu in 2008, natural gas prices plummeted to $2.50 with the recession – but never returned to the stratospheric levels that justified poking very deep holes across the Piceance Basin southwest of Craig. Meantime, the U.S. became a net exporter of oil.
Of course, we have had similar cost curves with wind, then solar, and now storage prices.
Might the same thing occur with geothermal, using underground heat to produce electricity, as is already done in California and some other places? Sarah Jewett, vice president for strategy at Fervo Energy, suggested cause for similar optimism in her industry during her remarks at the Colorado Rural Electric Association conference on Monday. The cost curve in recent projects in Utah and Nevada has been bending downward, she said.
Earlier that same day, a panel of experts about nuclear energy reported cause for optimism about nuclear, while yet another panel predicted reason to believe hydrogen will play an important role in the future.
Toor acknowledged the unexpected cost declines for many technologies. “It’s quite possible that hydrogen and other technologies will be lower cost than now projected,” he said.
Regardless, he added, these near-zero or zero-emissions pathways should become the baseline.
“I think it would be important that utilities are looking at new technologies and that utility regulators are able to look at getting to even deeper reductions based on what the actual cost trajectories turn out to be,” he said.
Colorado’s energy regulation framework is well suited to achieving those deep reductions —even deeper than the low-cost 98.5% emissions-free that this modeling suggests will be possible.
A final report, after review by stakeholders, is expected in December.
Following are what the modeling study cites as its key findings. The language is verbatim from the report:
The Economic Deployment scenario, which relies on current state and federal policies and is projected to meet demand at the lowest cost, is projected to reliably meet electricity needs in 2040 while achieving 98.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2040 from a 2005 level while also achieving near zero emissions reduction in nitrous oxide and sulfur oxide.
Wind and solar will be the main source of electricity in Colorado in 2040. In the Economic Deployment scenario, 76% of electricity comes from in-state wind and solar; 16% comes from out-of-state imports of near zero-emissions electricity (mostly wind from a wholesale electricity market); and 10% from energy efficiency, with the rest coming from other sources. Across all other scenarios, in-state wind and solar account for more than 90% of electricity.
In the Economic Deployment scenario, gas-fired electricity generation meets only about 1% of total need for electricity.
Under current cost assumptions, the Optimized 100 scenario, which achieves zero emissions by 2040 using a technology-neutral, least-cost approach, selects a substantial amount of hydrogen and a modest amount of geothermal to complement wind, solar, and batteries. It is 25% more expensive than the economic deployment scenario.
The Wind, Solar and Battery scenario is 20% more expensive than the Optimized 100 scenario and 50% more expensive than the least cost Economic Deployment scenario. The Accelerate Geothermal scenario is 11% more expensive than the Optimized 100.
The Optimized 100 scenario retires all gas-fired generation by 2040. It replaces retiring gas capacity primarily with clean hydrogen starting in 2032. By 2040, this scenario has 5,061 MW of clean hydrogen and 125 MW of geothermal generation.
The model does not select gas with carbon capture or advanced modular reactors in any scenario because of the cost.
The Accelerated Geothermal scenario adds a requirement to have 10% of demand met with geothermal in 2040, which results in 1,989 MW of installed capacity (compared to 125 MW in the Optimized 100 scenario).
Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Alex Wigglesworth and Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:
The expanse of Sierra National Forest near Shaver Lake is a relic of the climate before global warming. Scientists believe that the conifers won’t be able to survive the current conditions. Researchers at Stanford University found in a recent study that roughly one-fifth of all conifer forests in the Sierra are mismatched with the warmer climate and have become “zombie forests.”
The findings indicate that these lower-elevation Sierra conifer forests, which include ponderosa pine, sugar pine and Douglas fir, are no longer able to successfully reproduce. Conditions have become too warm and dry to support conifer saplings, whose shallow roots require plenty of water if they are to survive into adulthood, Hill said. Giant sequoias also grow in lower-elevation areas of the Sierra Nevada, but the researchers didn’t analyze the risks specific to those trees.
When these forests burn in high-severity wildfires — or are wiped out by drought, disease or pests — they will likely be replaced by other types of trees and brush, the scientists said. That could dramatically slash how much carbon the region can store; provide a habitat for invasive species; and displace plants and animals that call the forests home.
Negotiations are underway in Colorado to purchase one of the oldest, largest water rights on the Colorado River within state lines, expanding that water’s legal use to include environmental benefits, and creating one of the most significant opportunities in the state to protect streamflows for fish, habitat and wildlife.
Led by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, the proposed $98.5 million deal would allow a coalition of West Slope entities to purchase from Xcel Energy the most senior water right on that segment of the river and lease it back to Xcel’s Shoshone Hydropower Plant eight miles east of Glenwood Springs.
“It feels like the biggest investment we could make for water security for this side of the mountain,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, chair of the river district board and an Eagle County Commissioner. She was referring to the Western Slope of the Continental Divide.
“I know it’s a big price tag, but in the future it will feel like a bargain,” she said.
That’s true in part because the volume of water is so large. According to Colorado River District documents, the water right generates anywhere from 41,000 to 86,000 acre-feet of water in a dry year. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons. For comparison, Cheesman Reservoir, a Denver Water reservoir 50 miles southwest of the metro area, holds 79,000 acre-feet.
West Slope water interests have been trying for decades to find a way to purchase or at least control the Shoshone plant water right because it provides an important buffer for the river itself and for West Slope water users, Chandler-Henry said. If another electric company or water utility won control of the water right, West Slope interests worried that the water would not be managed in their interests.
But Xcel has never agreed to a sale of the water right and as recently as 2018 has said it wasn’t interested in changing the status quo.
Xcel declined to comment on this proposed purchase, but Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said a draft agreement with the utility is in place and that Xcel is ready to support the change, in part to help protect the crisis-ridden Colorado River system.
“Xcel has shown a renewed interest in the health and viability of the Colorado River,” Mueller said via email.
In Colorado, water rights are tied to a particular stream segment and are regulated, or administered, based on the date they were first legally established. The Shoshone water right has a 1902 date.
Under the terms of the current proposal from the River District and its West Slope partners, which include 17 local governments and water entities, Xcel would continue to use the water to drive the turbines in the hydropower plant. When the plant isn’t operating, if it’s temporarily shut down for repairs for instance, the water would remain in the river, protected from upstream diverters by its 1902 water right.
Denver Water is one of those upstream diverters and, in years past, when the power plant wasn’t operating, has been able to use water it would otherwise need to leave in the river to flow downstream to fulfill the plant’s more senior water right. Whether the utility will back the purchase isn’t clear. Denver Water declined to comment, saying it was waiting to learn more about the proposal.
In or out of the stream?
In the water arena, a water right can have one of several designated rights to use, including agricultural, industrial, municipal and, just since the 1970s, instream or environmental.
Water rights are also classified based on whether they take water out of the stream for the intended use, termed a consumptive use, or whether they protect water from diversion so it can continue flowing in the stream for a prescribed benefit, which is referred to as a nonconsumptive use. Most uses fall in the consumptive use category. But the Shoshone water right, because the water returns to the stream once it passes through the hydropower plant, is nonconsumptive, as are environmental and recreational flow water rights, which keep water in the stream for the benefit of fish, wildlife, habitat and recreation.
“The whole state benefits from having a good, strong environment. And because this is the most senior nonconsumptive water right on the Colorado River, its ecological and environmental benefits are huge, especially with drought and climate change,” Chandler-Henry said.
The river district has agreed to contribute $20 million to the $98.5 million purchase, and is asking the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) for an additional $20 million grant. Another $10 million would be contributed by 17 governments and water agencies. The river district is seeking another $48 million from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has $4 billion set aside for drought resiliency in the Colorado River Basin, according to the grant proposal submitted to the CWCB.
The negotiations are likely to take months, Mueller said, and will require approvals from the CWCB and potentially state legislators, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation and eventually a state water court, which will have to approve the expansion of legal uses from industrial to both industrial and environmental.
Another benefit of the Shoshone Water right is that its bountiful flows help support the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a federal initiative that works to protect four endangered fish species on the river. Water utilities are obligated to help support the program as well and can face harsh penalties if there isn’t enough water in the stream to support the fish.
“Importantly, upstream and downstream water users all benefit from Shoshone’s contributions to the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program,” Mueller said.
A unifying effect
Environmental groups such as American Rivers see the proposed purchase as a major opportunity to help stabilize the Colorado River within state lines and across its seven-state basin.
Matt Rice is southwest regional director for American Rivers. “I see this as a real opportunity to do a really big transformative thing for the river and the state, and an opportunity to unify the state around the river. A big thing like this has a way of bringing people together,” he said.
Chuck Ogilby is a long-time river advocate and former member of the Colorado (River) Basin Roundtable, a public group that represents local water users reliant on the Colorado River mainstem within Colorado and that helps decide how state funding is spent within the basin.
“It’s the best news the Western Slope could ever have,” Ogilby said. “All we can do now is cross our fingers and hope the West Slope gets those water rights.”
The clean-energy transition may be inevitable, but may not happen fast enough, IEA says
The flagship annual report from the International Energy Agency, dubbed the World Energy Outlook, offers a rosy prediction of the growth of clean-energy technologies around the world. It portrays the decline of fossil fuels, the main driver of rising global temperatures, as all but inevitable.
“The transition to clean energy is happening worldwide and it’s unstoppable,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement. “It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘how soon’ — and the sooner the better for all of us.”
The IEA envisions green technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars taking off in the coming years, thanks to both supportive governmental policies and market forces. By 2030, it predicts:
Renewables’ share of the global electricity mix will approach 50 percent, up from around 30 percent today.
Three times as much investment will flow to offshore wind projects as to new coal- and gas-fired power plants.
The share of fossil fuels in the global energy supply will fall to 73 percent, down from about 80 percent today.
Still, demand for fossil fuels will remain too high for humanity to meet the goal of the Paris climate accord: limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, the report says. On the supply side, the United States is churning out record amounts of oil. Yet negotiators at this fall’s United Nations climate summit, known as COP28, can make certain commitments that help keep the Paris target within reach, the IEA said. They include pledges to triple global renewable energy capacity and double the rate of energy efficiency improvements.
The Colorado River District is leading a coalition in what would be a history-making purchase involving historic water rights that are pivotal to Colorado River flows and water uses in western Colorado. The district and others in the Western Slope coalition are proposing spending potentially $98.5 million to acquire the rights from Xcel Energy for operation of the Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon. According to the river district, Shoshone holds the most senior major water rights on the river, dating back to the early 1900s and totaling 1,408 cubic feet per second…
When river flows drop below 1,408 cfs the plant puts a “call” on the river, preventing access to water by many junior rights holders above the plant to ensure flows to it. That also keeps more water flowing for recreational purposes such as fishing and whitewater boating, and to benefit the environment. Because the flows used by the plant return to the river, they continue downstream, along with the benefits they provide, which also include access to the water by junior water rights holders downstream, and improved water quality for communities and water utilities that rely on the river for their supply. The improved water quality results from higher river flows that dilute pollution. Critically, the water also helps shore up flows in what is called the 15-mile reach of the river starting in the Palisade area, which is important habitat for fish federally listed as endangered or threatened.
”Preserving the Shoshone call permanently secures the flow of the Colorado River and the health of that river for our economies and our environment, literally from the headwaters in Grand County all the way down to the border with Utah,” said river district General Manager Andy Mueller.
Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen “You got the story right, without going too long” Best):
Colorado’s Just Transition legislation intends to help coal-dependent communities like this one ease into an economy after coal
Yampa, the town of 400 near the headwaters of the river of the same name in northwest Colorado, recently got a small grant from the state’s Just Transition program designed for coal-reliant communities.
You won’t immediately see the presence of coal in Yampa. You will quickly recognize that for hunters, wilderness hikers, and anglers, it’s a gateway to the Flat Top mountains with all of their wilds and mysteries plus the reservoirs that store their melted snow. At the head of one of the creeks is a narrow bridge of land above timberline called the Devil’s Causeway. Those with acrophobia need not cross.
Yampa also lies amid a valley of hay ranches, emerald in some seasons but always comforting in their relative emptiness. This is a valley that to some is best described as “Colorado as it used to be.” It’s not crowded, nor is there a rush. Not surprisingly, Yampa is on a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway.
The coal is less obvious. The closest active mine, Twentymile, Colorado’s fourth largest, is actually about 50 minutes to the north along sometimes winding roads choked by oak brush.
Yampa’s economy is intertwined closely with that of coal extraction at Twentymile. Some coal miners and others directly associated with the mine live in Yampa. Others work on the railroad. There’s even a motel for railroaders built in the 1990s and a café, Penny’s Diner, created specifically to ensure that railroaders can get a square meal at all hours of the day.
The coal economy of northwest Colorado is on the decline. Most of the coal mined at Twentymile travels only a short distance, to be burned at the two units at Hayden operated by Xcel Energy. The same is true for mines in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, whose coal mostly if not entirely gets burned at the three units of the Craig Generating Station. That plant is operated by Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
All five coal-burning units are scheduled to cease operations from 2025 to 2030.
Will the coal mines continue operations? That’s unclear. Peabody Energy, the owner of Twentymile, has not said for certain what it plans.
Without reservation it can be said that the shipments of coal from Routt County through Yampa and to markets elsewhere have significantly declined in the last 20 years. The official evidence is scant. Coal companies don’t release such reports. But the anecdotal evidence—what locals can report about the frequency of passing trains —is abundant.
In recognition of this impact, Colorado has awarded Yampa a $105,000 grant for implementation of a business support program. The money is to be used for purchase of new and upgraded equipment for local businesses.
Some of the money will also be used to install signs along Highway 131, which passes on the edge of town. Many travelers use the highway to get between Steamboat Springs and the I-70 corridor.
Colorado also awarded a $600,000 grant to the Pioneers Medical Center in Meeker for implementation of a new electronic medical health record system. That was identified as the first step to expand healthcare services and long-term plans to develop medical tourism. See: “Medical tourism in a land of fishing poles & orange vests”
Both grants come from state funding allocated to smooth the transition of coal-dependent communities during the energy pivot underway in Colorado.
New jobs will be the end result of the grants, according to a press release issued by Gov. Jared Polis’s administration.
“As the economy moves away from the high cost of coal power, Colorado is helping local communities diversify their economies and creating new opportunities for their residents to be successful,” said Polis.
Paul Bonnifield, a resident, rejects the characterization of the new grant for Yampa as being a “nod of the hat.” In the context of Yampa’s municipal government, “it’s a pretty danged big chunk of money,” he said when asked for his on-the-ground observations.
As a history professor at a college in Oklahoma, he had several books to his credit, including “Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt and Depression,” which was published in 1979.
While never completely abandoning his interest in history, Bonnifield decided to pursue a life of railroading on Colorado’s Western Slope. He was based in the nearby railroad community of Phippsburg for 25 years while working as a conductor on trains from Grand Junction to Denver before retiring in 2002. This writer became familiar with him when we met during the early 1990s at the Turntable, a railroad restaurant located adjacent to newspaper offices of The Vail Trail in Minturn. Both of us were regulars there for awhile.
At one time, far more trains traveled through Yampa, he said. A train from northwest Colorado, for example, delivered coal to a plant along the South Platte River near downtown Denver. That plant, Arapahoe Station, ceased electrical production in 2014. Trains also delivered coal from northwest Colorado to Texas.
Now, maybe one train a month exports coal out of the Yampa Valley. One train a week may travel through the town ferrying wheat and other goods from northwestern Colorado and delivering pipes and other supplies.
But the valley no longer has a maintenance crew and other railroad employees like it once did. As for the diner for railroad employees, it has had trouble finding enough local help to maintain reliable hours.
At the same time, local governments will enormously suffer from the eroded tax base if the mine closes.
These grants are an expression of Colorado’s commitment to ease coal-dependent communities economically as the era of coal, now more than 125 years old in Colorado, ebbs even more rapidly through the end of this decade. By 2031, the state’s remaining last eight coal-fired electricity-generating plants will be closed, casting doubt on the viability of Colorado’s six remaining coal mines.
The legislative roots were in 2019, when Colorado adopted what was then seen as ambitious—too ambitious, in the minds of at least some Republican legislators—decarbonization goals: 50% economy-wide decarbonization by 2030 and 90% by 2050, both compared to 2005 levels. The law was HB 19-1261.
In HB 19-1314, Colorado legislators declared that they did not want to throw coal workers in the mines, power plants, or on the railroad under the energy transition bus. Colorado had been mindful of impacts, the law said, and state government had a role in helping provide a transition for those people and their communities.
The state, Colorado’s law declared, had a “moral commitment to assist the workers and communities that have powered Colorado for generations” by supporting a “just and inclusive transition” away from coal.
It also noted that resources existed at neither the state nor federal levels sufficient to assist workers and communities impacted by the transition. That included the absence of coordinated leadership within Colorado’s state government.
The law appropriated a thin sum for staffing, not quite $157,000, with the understanding that more would come. Wade Buchanan, a veteran of several state positions, was hired to run the new Office of Just Transition.
Meetings in early March 2020 were held in Craig and Hayden. I attended all three. In Craig that first evening, I heard anguish and dismay about the announcement two months before by Tri-State Generation and Transmission that the three coal units it operated there would all be closed by 2030. Only one had been announced previously.
The third day, the governor arrived in Craig. First he toured a small shop, Good Vibes, that produces gear for river boaters. It was just the governor by himself with the two co-owners and me the observer.
That afternoon, he sat in the Hayden Town Hall listening to testimony when the news arrived. One coal miner from Twentymile pleaded with the governor to see a future that included coal. Polis seemed to be listening, but likely he had been told just a few hours before that Colorado had its first case of covid. Surely, he was thinking many thoughts.
Colorado put together a 20-page action plan by the end of 2020 that outlined 13 strategies for communities, workers, and funding. It also gained state funding.
Between the Office of Just Transition and its parent agency, the Office of Economic Development & International Trade, $9.62 million in funding in the form of coal transition community grants had been issued. They were:
Yampa Valley, $5,152,538
West end of Montrose County (Nucla and Naturita), $3,058,192
Pueblo County, $471,423
Morgan County, $471,423
$471,423 for Delta, El Paso, Gunnison, La Plata and Larimer counties collectively
So, money is getting distributed, lots and lots of meetings are being held now, and the Office of Just Transition is no longer a one-man office, as it was for the first year.
Yampa’s main street, Moffat Avenue, is wide and still largely without pavement. It has never had a large population, hovering between 300 and 400 in recent decades. None of the busyness of Steamboat Springs 40 miles to the north, or the Vail Valley communities, 40 miles to the south, can be found in Yampa. To most locals, that’s fine.
Still, a little more activity would also suit the locals, and that is how the town intends to use the money, to bolster business activity. Part of that plan is to ensure that the community has a restaurant open to the public on a year-round, not just seasonal basis.
Yampa has had a very fine restaurant called Antlers. The business was established in 1904, just before the rails arrived from Denver through the Moffat Tunnel on their way to Moffat County, and has been in operation continuously since then with the exception of 2005-2009.
The restaurant has now returned to operating hours year-round with some help from the town government.
The opening of Yampa Garage Eatery is another bright spot in the town’s economic story. The money will also help expand the space and variety of goods at the local grocery store and mercantile.
But 90% of the town’s workers leave to work elsewhere, points out Mary Alice Page-Allen, the town planner and treasurer.
The goal of her work, she said, is to “retain what we have, but also to expand and attract.” The town core lies just a block off the highway, but for many travelers, there may be no particular reason to pause on their journeys.
Oak Creek, a one-time coal-mining town 10 miles to the north, which Page-Allen formerly managed, has had some success in creating more buzz in its commercial district. It even has a parking problem a couple days a week.
That’s a hard problem to imagine for Yampa, but a few more cars on that big, broad street would be welcome.
Colorado’s fast-growing clean energy sector today employs more than twice as many workers statewide as the fossil fuel industry, a report released this week by a trade association found.
The Clean Jobs Colorado report, released annually by clean energy business group E2, analyzed 2022 federal employment data and counted nearly 64,000 Coloradans employed across a range of categories including energy efficiency, renewable electricity generation and clean vehicles. That’s more than double the roughly 30,000 Coloradans directly employed by coal, oil and natural gas, according to E2’s analysis.
“Clean energy jobs are not only critical to the health of the energy industry but also increasingly important driving Colorado’s overall economy forward,” Susan Nedell, E2’s Mountain West advocate, said in a press release. “And this trend will only increase in the coming years as clean energy jobs make up more and more of new jobs.”
Clean energy employers in Colorado aded 2,700 jobs last year, and employment has grown about 11% faster within the industry than in the state’s economy as a whole since 2020.
“If our lawmakers want to keep and continue attracting these good paying jobs to Colorado we need their support for policies that can ensure Colorado workers and businesses reap the economic benefits from the clean energy transition,” Nedell added.
Amid a push by Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic lawmakers to accelerate the transition to 100% renewable energy, Colorado is one of only six states in the country to have more than 5,000 workers employed in both solar and wind energy, and ranks 7th nationwide in total renewable generation jobs.
The energy efficiency sector, which includes both traditional HVAC services and renewable or high-efficiency alternatives, accounted for about half of Colorado’s total clean energy jobs in 2022, according to E2’s analysis.
Though hardly a traditional car manufacturing hub, Colorado now has nearly 5,000 workers in the clean vehicle sector. State leaders have touted the jobs created by new and expanded facilities planned by EV battery manufacturers, including a lithium-ion factory in Brighton and an innovative solid-state battery plant in Thornton.
“Proven by these new numbers, Colorado remains one of the most promising regions for renewable energy and energy storage development,” said Mike Kruger, president of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association. “And as the new clean energy projects announced in the past year have shown, Colorado is proving it can compete with anyone for future workers and investment.”
Colorado and Wyoming are collaborating to support a regional team working to power innovative pathways toward climate resiliency by utilizing data, predictive modeling and cutting edge technology to address key challenges. The Colorado-Wyoming Regional Innovation Engine (CO-WY Engine) is one of 16 finalists in the first-ever National Science Foundation (NSF) Regional Innovation Engines Competition, which will award up to $160 million in funding over the next ten years.
Officials in both states recognize the opportunity to secure federal funding that will transform the region into a national leader in developing climate-resilient and sustainable technologies and expand economic opportunities and workforce development in these key areas.
To elevate the CO-WY Engine, Colorado and Wyoming have both committed to align resources that will support the Engine’s goals, including increased engagement of the business community with the region’s research institutions and Federal Labs; attracting more funding to support the commercialization and monetization of new technologies; and growing diversity within the region’s workforce to include rural communities.
“We are thrilled to partner with Wyoming on this plan as Colorado is leading our country on environmental tech to help address climate challenges. This funding will grow the work of our universities and federal labs while creating more jobs,” said Gov. Jared Polis.
“The pathway to a prosperous global future will be paved with adequate, affordable energy and a rigorous commitment to a healthy environment,” Gov. Gordon said. “Wyoming understands the urgency of addressing climate challenges. Our unequaled leadership in innovating and developing needed technologies supports Wyoming’s all-of-the-above energy strategy. This approach will grow our economy, develop our workforce and support thriving communities.”
The CO-WY Engine, spearheaded by Innosphere Ventures, looks to transform the region into a leader in the development and commercialization of climate-resilient and sustainable technologies. These technologies will support communities across the region and the country to monitor, mitigate and adapt to climate impacts. They are expected to have direct applications to water resource management, agriculture technology, and extreme weather, including wildfires and flooding.
“We can solve so many climate-related challenges with technology-driven solutions, and NSF funding will dramatically increase what we can accomplish,” said Mike Freeman, CEO of Innosphere Ventures and lead of the CO-WY Engine’s proposal to the NSF. “We are pleased to have the support of both Colorado and Wyoming, which have such a strong history of collaboration and share our commitment to creating an inclusive, nationally and internationally relevant Engine that employs a diverse workforce and benefits rural and urban communities alike.”
Among the initiatives being explored by Colorado and Wyoming, the Wyoming Business Council, Wyoming Venture Capital, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, and Colorado’s Venture Capital Authority are assessing the possibility of a venture capital fund or funds that will invest in startups commercializing technologies that emerge from the CO-WY Engine.
These commitments build upon existing collaboration between the two states, including a four state Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with New Mexico and Utah to create the Western Inter-State Hydrogen Hub to advance a regional hydrogen economy. Colorado and Wyoming have also signed an MoU outlining the states’ commitments to explore the development of direct air capture to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“Across the Midwest and Mountain States, Wyoming and Colorado rise to the top as one of only a handful of regions that have the talented workforce, collaborative business ecosystem, and research and development capabilities to become a national leader in developing climate resilient technologies. NSF funding will accelerate that growth exponentially, and we are committed to working with Colorado to seize this opportunity,” said Josh Dorrell, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council.
“In Wyoming, Colorado has found a nimble partner equally committed to growing a strong, diversified economy, engaging urban and rural communities alike, and leveraging our regional strengths to create new commercial opportunities that also create climate resiliency. Elevating shared priorities and resources like a regional venture capital fund will directly support the development of the CO-WY Engine as a national and global leader in climate-resilient technologies,” said Eve Lieberman, OEDIT Executive Director. The NSF Engines program envisions supporting multiple flourishing regional innovation ecosystems across the U.S., spurring economic growth in regions that have not fully participated in the technology boom of the past few decades.The NSF is expected to announce successful Regional Innovation Engines this fall.
Across the globe, people are turning to the courts to combat the worsening climate emergency. Since 2015, cases around the world have doubled to over 2,000, according to a recent United Nations report.
In a landmark trial in Montana, a judge ruled this summer that the state had violated the young plaintiffs’ “right to a clean and healthful environment” — a fundamental right enshrined in the Montana Constitution.
The case, Held v. Montana, is the first constitutional climate suit in U.S. history to make it to trial. The nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust brought the legal challenge on behalf of 16 young people, ranging in age from five to 22, against the state’s pro-fossil fuel policies.
They argued that Montana’s energy policy had harmed Montana’s environment and failed to protect their rights, citing a law that prevented state agencies from considering climate impacts when approving projects. The court sided with the plaintiffs and held that this restriction violated the state’s constitution.
Throughout the trial, experts testified to the public health threats from climate change. And the plaintiffs, many of them children, provided impactful testimonies on how Montana’s changing climate had hurt them both physically and mentally.
Some described experiencing severe allergies and respiratory illnesses due to increased air pollution and wildfire smoke. Others had witnessed their homes damaged by floods, suffered isolation from not being able to safely recreate outside, and expressed anguish over their futures knowing that glaciers are melting in the state they call home.
The Montana court set an important precedent by recognizing that a safe and stable climate is integral to the enjoyment of all other rights. This decision can inform other cases seeking to hold governments — along with fossil fuel companies — accountable for harms caused by climate change.
Young people are also pursuing constitutional climate cases in Hawaii, Virginia, and Utah.
Other states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island, along with cities like Boulder and Baltimore, Maryland, are suing for damages from Big Oil for allegedly concealing or misrepresenting the dangers of burning fossil fuels.
California filed suit this September against five of the largest oil and gas companies in the world for engaging in a “decades-long campaign of deception” about climate change. California is the largest oil-producing state and economy to take such legal action against Big Oil.
The lawsuit alleges that Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, and their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, have all known for more than 50 years that burning fossil fuels would lead to global warming.
Yet rather than warn the public, the complaint details how the companies chose to publicly downplay and deny the dangers to the environment while aggressively promoting their products in California.
Through this lawsuit, California Attorney General Rob Bonta seeks to hold the fossil fuel companies financially responsible for contributing to climate-related damages in the state, create a fund to finance climate mitigation, and prevent these companies from further misleading the public. This approach is similar to that used against the tobacco industry.
Climate-related lawsuits face complex legal obstacles, like proving causality between fossil fuel industry practices and resulting harms. But if successful, they can make Big Oil pay for its well-documented role in the climate disaster — and ultimately transform how these companies do business.
Litigation alone won’t solve the climate emergency. The environmental justice movement will need to keep sustained pressure on our elected officials, many of whom have either enabled this crisis or been far too reluctant to act on it.
Together, this combination of litigation and grassroots advocacy sends a powerful message to policymakers that, in the words of Montana plaintiff Rikki Held, “We can’t keep passing on the climate crisis to future generations.”
Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):
To summarize the last three posts on this site – we have been looking at the generally ambiguous relationships between the United States federal government, the seven not-very-united states in the Colorado River region, and 30 recognized First People nations who inhabit the Colorado River Basin. The 30 nations, still primarily using Stone Age technology, were overrun, conquered and thoroughly dominated by the global Holocene expansion of European peoples with much superior technology and firepower – plus some nasty diseases that moved out ahead of the invaders, eliminating maybe as much as two-thirds or three-fourths of the First People populations.
The overrunning of the First Peoples was not done through any long-standing animus, as against ancient enemies; the hundreds of First People nations were just in the way. The Euro-Americans came in waves of ‘settlers’ who wanted to settle in and farm the land, and ‘unsettlers’ who wanted to rip into the land for the minerals, trees, grasses and waters that were the substance of a kind of wealth. To their ostensibly civilized perspective, the First Peoples wandering over those landscapes hunting and gathering what they could under a policy of usufruct (own the fruits but not their sources) were inefficient wastrels.
The spectrum of options for getting the post-pandemic remnant First Peoples off the land ranged from just killing them all – never really the official policy, although it was a practice mostly excused when the lunatic fringe took that bit in their teeth – to finally concentrating First Peoples forcibly on out-of-the-way reservations that were a fraction of their former land, or maybe even moving them on to a new place beyond the settlement frontier, thus freeing up most or all of their former land for the settlers and unsettlers of the ever-expanding urban-industrial civilization.
This reservation policy was accomplished under the guise of a paternalistic ‘trust’ arrangement, whereby the government would provide the supplies and education for ‘civilizing’ the First Peoples – ultimately a process of forced assimilation: ‘kill the Indian’ modified to ‘kill the Indian culture to save its people.’ This was often carried out through official policies like breaking the reservations up into individual allotments to teach a proper European respect for private property; it was also contracted to zealous faith-based organizations collecting souls for Jesus, and private sector suppliers collecting wealth for themselves, resulting in practices like pretty literally starving the First Peoples’ communal cultures on the reservation, and removing all the children to boarding schools where they were force-fed Christian-industrial culture.
These practices prevailed more or less unchallenged into the 1960s, until the Second People began to take a deeper look at their own consequences on the land, where the finally unignorable and increasingly deadly ‘smell of money’ – the air and water pollution, the forest-land erosion, the hidden or buried barrels of chemical wastes, all excused as the unavoidable consequences of wealth generation – caused growing doubts about the manifested destiny of the American way. And that led to a growing interest in exploring alternatives, including nostalgic reflections on Indian ways. The limited success of the American Indian Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s probably depended more on popular support from the Second People than from the First Peoples themselves.
Many of the reservations remain impoverished messes today – rural slums with high unemployment, high drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, physical and mental health challenges, and a general air of hopelessness and despair. At best the paternalist trust relationship has mostly been an embarrassment of inattention and indifference; at worst it has been at least passively corrupt, allowing leasing to outside companies of resource development on the reservations with little oversight, poor bookkeeping and wrongful diversion of funds, cheating the First Peoples out of billions in royalties.
Nonetheless, at this point in time, I think it can be said that most of the remaining 700-plus First Peoples in the United States have survived the centuries of efforts to kill their cultures – and have survived as still culturally distinct ‘nations.’ Their spiritual, economic and political heritages have been modified in many respects by the global overwhelm of industrial culture everywhere, but they are still relatively small and tight communal societies with internal spiritual bonding that helps them to resist some of the pressures of the mass society and industrial culture. The most successful tribal nations have taken control of their own futures (and resources), and become successful as much in spite of as on account of their Great Father trustees.
There’s probably no better example than the Southern Ute People, descendants of the Muache and Capota Ute bands who had ranged over the southern San Juan mountains and the San Juan River basin, but were finally confined around the turn of the 20th century to a 75 mile by 15 mile reservation in the extreme southwestern corner of Colorado. The Utes were one of the First Peoples who had responded to the Holocene ‘trauma of success’ – population growth and its pressure on traditional territories – by rejecting the turn toward farming (defensive concentration of food supplies), and instead had chosen to fight for their hunter-forager way of life, pitting their bands against bands of Comanches and Apaches, and Navajos after they arrived, who also rejected the conversion to farming – and then against the Spanish when they tried to move into El Norte, and finally against the mass of Euro-Americans moving westward.
Once they had stolen or otherwise ‘found’ the Spanish horses, these retro hunter-foragers developed a serious warrior culture, raiding and terrorizing the farming Peoples, and the Spanish land-grant settlers. But their main battles appear to have been against each other, all wanting to expand their old territories into each other’s territories; they often formed shifting alliances to gang up on each other.
Only the massive unstoppable wave of Euro-Americans from the east – the U.S. Army first, backed by the army of settlers and unsettlers – managed to gradually wear down, contain and eventually confine the remnants of the warrior Peoples to reservations. The Ute reservation for all their bands went from basically everything west of the Continental Divide in an 1850s agreement through several shrinking short-lived ‘in perpetuity’ treaties, to the small strip of land in southwestern Colorado for the Muache and Capota bands, an even smaller adjacent block of land (Ute Mountain Ute Reservation) for the Wiemenuche band, and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah for all the northern Ute bands. The Southern Utes today have a total tribal membership between 1,500-2,000, with about two-thirds living on the reservation; the Ute Mountain Utes have around 2,000 members, about half on the reservation; the Uintah Reservation is home for about half the tribal membership around 3,000.
The Southern Ute Reservation, however, turned out to be one of those pieces of worthless land given to the First Peoples that had significant resources hidden underground – fossil fuels, mostly natural gas and coalbed methane. In its paternalistic way – the Great Father from Washington taking care of his children – the Bureau of Indian Affairs began leasing access to those resources to outside interests, collecting royalties they then distributed to the members of the tribe – sums on the order of $1,000 a year plus or minus.
But the Southern Utes still had enough of their fighting spirit to question the accounting of the companies and the BIA’s oversight on the companies, and in the 1960s, in the spirit of the American Indian Movement, they set about taking control of the development of the reservation’s resources themselves, under the leadership of tribal chairman Leonard Burch. I haven’t the space here to give a detailed account of how the Southern Ute People did that; Jonathan Thompson did a good job of that in a High Country News article, for those interested in pursuing it further.
Suffice it to say, over the decades since Burch’s leadership, the tribal council has succeeded in taking control of the People’s destiny, with help from friends among the Second People – notably a Durango attorney, Sam Maynes, and his protege Tom Shipps who still works with the tribe, as well as a number of hired consultants and managers with experience in the gas industry. A lawsuit against the government by the neighboring Jicarilla Apaches established a tribal right to negotiate directly on royalties with the outside companies – which quickly resulted in the Southern Utes discovering that the companies had been shorting the tribe, with lackadaisical oversight from the BIA as the most charitable explanation.
Then in the 1990s, the council decided there was no reason they couldn’t do as well as the outside companies in developing their own resources, again with a little help from knowledgeable outsiders, and they set up the Red Willow Production Company to put tribal members to work drilling and piping for new wells; they began buying up existing wells, and created Red Cedar Company to ‘gather’ their produced gas and get it into the regional distribution pipelines.
This became a big enough business so it was becoming a bit hamstrung by being run by the tribal council, which as a democratic body, changed members frequently, and had too many other responsibilities to be also managing a growing corporate structure, so Red Willow was set up as a separate corporation, owned by the tribe but free to operate as an independent business with ultimate tribal council oversight. Its substantial earnings were divided between two funds: a Growth Fund under management of the corporation, and a Permanent Fund administered by the tribal council, essentially an endowment generating income from investment sufficient for tribal community governance. The Growth Fund pays annual dividends to every tribe member aged 26-59 and retirement benefits for those over 60 – substantially larger payments than the $1,000 plus or minus under BIA administration. The tribe gives out no information on the sums, but bits of information picked up by Thompson in his research put them in the middle tens-of-thousands of dollars. The Permanent Fund builds medical facilities and provides health care for the people. The Utes believe education is important and take schools seriously; they like the Montessori system for their young children. But they are still – or maybe it’s once again, with no ‘trustee’ resistance – raising the children as Utes, learning the language and doing the annual Bear Dance and other traditional festivals with the adults. And – sustaining a cross-cultural balance – anyone who wants to go to college gets a full-ride scholarship.
Realizing that they wanted to sustain the tribe well beyond the depletion of their unsustainable gas reserves, Growth Fund earnings beyond the direct distribution to the People are being invested in a variety of other activities, including oil and gas production on other reservations, a substantial investment in deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, a wide range of real estate investments as far away as San Diego, and a private equity division that buys struggling companies to improve them (one hopes, rather than gutting them) and resell them. It is also into some more exploratory environmental things like carbon-reduction forest restoration work in the area’s ponderosa stands (part of the reservation extends into San Juan National Forest), using new technology to shred rather than burn thinned biomass and mixing it with sludge from sewage plants, creating a compost to return to the land; the tribe hopes that this plus some other strategies will help move them toward carbon-neutral status.
There is a minority in the tribe that worries that the Red Willow Production corporation is taking a turn toward the dark side – too much investment in gas and oil at a time when an environmental sensibility argues that responsible governments should be cutting back on that and investing in renewables. And the practices of private equity organizations have generally earned a bad reputation among anyone concerned about true cultura; equity. Is the tribal council still really in control, or is the tail wagging the dog? Our mainstream American experience of being politically and economically dominated by too-big corporations suggests that’s a question the Southern Utes should confront soon.
Still – anyone with a true democratic sensibility cannot look at this melding of First People communal culture and 20th-century industrial capitalism without a twinge of longing. The Southern Utes have a true ‘commonwealth’ – the land is a commons and its wealth belongs to everyone on the land. Those who work for Red Willow or the tribal government obviously get paid according to their level of responsibility and skill, above and beyond the Growth Fund dividends, but the dividends provide a well-woven safety net, their helth care is not an impenetrable mess, and no one has to assume a lifetime debt to get the education they need to pursue their personal vision.
One tries to imagine what we might be today if we had not allowed a comparative handful of We the People to keep almost all of the wealth extracted from the nation’s commons, but had instead invested it in We the People through a Ute-like form of social capitalism rather than mainstream American private capitalism…. One wonders, at this point, who should be learning civilized living from whom.
“But – where’s the water, the river that runs through it all? Next time back to that – another problem of western living in which the Utes look pretty good. Civilized means citified, trained, faithful to some regimen deliberately instituted. Civilization might be taken as a purely descriptive term, like Kultur, rather than a eulogistic one; it might simply indicate the possession of instruments,material and social, for accomplishing all sorts of things,whether those things were worth accomplishing or not.” – George Santayana, ‘Marginal Notes on Civilization in the U.S.’
Early analyses show global warmth surged far above previous records in September — even further than what scientists said seemed like astonishing increases in July and August. The planet’s average temperature shattered the previous September record by more than half a degree Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit), which is the largest monthly margin ever observed. Temperatures around the world last month were at levels closer to normal for July according to separate data analyses by European and Japanese climate scientists. September’s average temperature was about 0.88 degrees Celsius (1.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above 1991-2020 levels — or about 1.7 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal from before industrialization and the widespread use of fossil fuels.
A lot of money, of course, and a lot of new transmission in and around metropolitan Denver. What else is there in this package?
What an exciting time for Colorado.
We’re reinventing energy at a brisk pace that puts us in the front tier of states engaged — and also guiding — this necessary and critical transition.
And now we have specifics of what our largest electrical utility, Xcel Energy, with 1.6 million customers, prefers to do in meeting expanding demands for electricity while complying with a raft of state laws adopted beginning in 2019.
“This plan is transformational,” says Xcel in its filing from Monday night with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Yep.
You can download the report, “Our Energy Future: Destination 2030” Or go to the PUC e-files in proceeding 21A-0141E and look for Public 2021 ERP & DCEP.. There are several dozen related documents in the docket.
You’ve probably read the about this in the Denver Post or elsewhere. Lots of statistics. The most important one in 184 pages of statistics is this:
Xcel expects to be at 80% to 85% emissions-free energy by 2030. That not just a reduction as compared to 2005 levels. The law adopted in 2019 required it to achieve 80% reduction. This plan, if adopted and executed, goes higher. This is more than reduction. It goes roughly 10% higher.
The company says it can deliver this with a rate impact of about 2.25% annually. This compares with the projected rate of inflation of 2.3% during the remainder of the 2020s.
Too much? Well, Xcel does look out after its own financial interests. Robert Kenney, the president of Xcel’s Colorado division, made the case for reward for capital invested in an exchange Tuesday night with self-appointed and dedicated Xcel watchdog Leslie Glustrom at Empower Hour.
“I do believe we have seen the investor-owned utilities (around the country) spur innovation for nascent technologies into maturity,” said Kenney, who before his arrival in Colorado in June 2022 spent seven years with PG&E in California and, before that, as a PUC commissioner in Missouri for six years.
Xcel is moving boldly with the $14 billion in energy investments identified in this plan, but it may not even be the most impressive feat in Colorado. Holy Cross still says it expects to be at 100% emissions-free energy by 2030. And Tri-State, too long the epitome of a drag-your-feet G&T, is not terribly far behind — if it can keep its members. But that’s another story.
Keep in mind, this is not just fuel switching. It’s also fuel expansion. We will need double or triple the electricity as we electrify buildings and transportation. We’ve barely begun.
This is on top of population expansion within metro Denver, the primary market for Xcel Energy. Xcel projects increased demand (called load, in the terminology of electrical providers) at 300 megawatts by 2026.
Xcel’s report notes that the population growth in the Denver metro area has consistently outpaced the national rate in every decade since the 1930s.
That said, much in Xcel’s preferred plan was unsurprising. It lays out a broad program for 6,545 megawatts of new renewable projects, broken down in this way:
3,400 megawatts for wind;
1,100 megawatts of solar;
1,400 megawatts of solar combined with storage;
19 megawatts of biomass (forest trees at a plant in Hayden);
600 megawatts of standalone storage.
And to think, aside from the 340-megawatt Cabin Creek pumped-storage hydro at Georgetown, Colorado’s largest battery storage facility last winter was still only 5 megawatt-hours (at the Holy Cross project between Glenwood Springs and Basalt).
This year, Xcel has added 225 megawatts of battery storage to Front Range locations. That was the result of a 2016 resource plan. These things do take time.
Xcel said it proposes six times more storage as compared to its contemplation earlier in this process — a result directly of incentives provided by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
That federal package also delivers other benefits. It will, says Xcel, bring “billions of dollars in federal support to Colorado.” It estimates $10 billion in IRA benefits to customers.
Big investment in transmission
Transmission figures prominently in this plan.
PUC commissioners last fall approved the Power Pathway Project, a $1.7 billion string of high-voltage transmission lines looping 560 miles from near the Pawnee power plant at Brush and around the eastern plains and back to the Front Range. Construction began in June.
Xcel says its “existing transmission system is capable of reliably serving our customers today, but the energy transition cannot be accomplished with only minor changes to the transmission system.”
This plan proposes an additional $2.82 billion in transmission investments.
Part of that is the May Valley-Longhorn extension from the May Valley substation north of Lamar to Baca County, in the state’s southeastern corner. The 50-mile extension, called Longhorn — as most everything is called in the Springfield area — would cost $252 million. It figures prominently in Xcel’s plans because, as this report explains, Xcel finds the wind to be of low cost and its characteristics complementary to wind in other locations.
“Wind generation in the southeast portion of Colorado exhibits materially different generation patterns and will thus be a useful improvement to our system in adding geographic diversity to our overall renewable generation portfolio.”
Or, to paraphrase what I heard from locals in a visit there last week: the wind always blows in Baca County. They can describe the different winds with the expertise that a wine connoisseur might apply to various vintages.
Xcel says the Longhorn transmission extension will deliver 1,206 megawatts of wind. It also says that this wind will save the company – and hence consumers – a great deal of money: $282 million.
That deserves a wow!
However, if that Baca County wind were excluded, there would be more solar and storage.
The San Luis Valley also stands to get transmission upgrades. Appendix Q in the filings says this:
“The area has rough, remote, and challenging geography and weather, significant permitting issues due to a patch work of state and federal land use designations (conservation easements, U.S. Forest Service-managed land, National Park Service managed lands, and multiple state-protected areas).”
Electrical deliveries arrive almost entirely via three transmission lines crossing Poncha Pass. The valley residents are served by both Xcel and by Tri-State members. Both utilities have tried to create solutions since a 1998 study identified the problems. Some Band-Aids have helped.
Xcel proposes to spend $176 million to improve the situation in the San Luis Valley. Additional transmission would also open the door to development of new solar.
Most surprising to me — likely because I do not read the filings on the PUC dockets religiously – is how much Xcel believes it needs to spend in metro Denver: $2.146 billion.
It justifies the expense with this explanation.
“The company’s analysis shows that a new phase of the transition is emerging – reliably managing power transmission within and around the metropolitan area,” says the report. (Page 33).
“Delivery of remote resources is still an important consideration of transmission planning, as evidenced by the critical role that the CPP (Colorado Power Pathway) plays in enabling the preferred plan. However, as the company moves toward a grid powered primarily by renewable resources, and less reliant on legacy urban power plants, transmission investments are increasingly focused on enhancing the capacity and resiliency of the entire transmission grid —including those parts of the grid located closest to our customers’ homes and businesses.”
Why so much money for transmission upgrades in metro Denver? In part, says Xcel, it’s because of the lack of bids for resources within the metro area. The report and an accompanying appendix do not discuss reasons why the company failed to get those close-in resources.
That takes us to natural gas —and the related issue of how well Xcel can meet peak demands caused by extreme weather. The environmental community has been insistent that Xcel needs to reduce or eliminate its investment in natural gas generation. Xcel has maintained that natural gas must remain part of the equation, at least in this planning period, because alternatives have not yet been firmed up.
The company proposes to have 628 megawatts of capacity. This, it says, will solve the “reliability and resiliency variables” of a hot period in the summer of 2028.
In short, Xcel has to prepare for hot summers and cold winters. The base case is a hot spell in July 2022 and Winter Storm Uri of 2021. At both times, renewables underperformed. (I might have thought reference cases to a much hotter time of the future would have been used, but maybe I’m missing something).
What enables Xcel to meet the peak demands for cooling or heating? It could add on even more proven storage, altogether 3,700 megawatts worth, and over 13,000 megawatts of renewables, but at a cost of $5.4 billion more than this plan.
Instead, Xcel sees natural gas being the answer. The company emphasizes modeling that shows the new 400 megawatts of natural gas-created electricity will be needed only 5% of the time. Most of the time, they will sit idle. But, when needed, some can ramp up in a matter of 2 to 10 minutes, others as long as 30 minutes. This compares with coal plants, which mostly took 18 hours to ramp up.
Xcel is proposing a reserve margin of 18%. That’s how much capacity it plans on top of what it thinks it needs. All utilities have some reserve margins.
Game changers in next few years?
Storage is a major component of this part of this Xcel pivot and energy transition story altogether.
“The availability of cost-competitive utility-scale storage is reducing, but not eliminating, the need for new carbon emitting capacity resources – namely in inclement weather and during long-duration high-load situations,” says Xcel.
Will we get a break-through that will change the narrative?
Xcel plans a demonstration project at Pueblo that it expects to get underway in late 2024 to test the efficacy of a new storage technology called iron-rust that the developers believe can store energy for up to 100 hours. Along with its partner, Form Energy, it received a $20 million grant in April from the Breakthrough Energy Catalyst. This week, Xcel announced a grant of up to $70 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. Both grants are to be split between the Pueblo project and a parallel project in Minnesota.
If this proves out, does this change the ball game, largely eliminating the need for natural gas?
Xcel nods at this question, pointing to modeling results that “Highlighting the need for further advancements in technology and a more diverse portfolio of resources may be needed to help economically reach our clean energy goals in the future.”
It also talks about using fuels other than natural gas – think hydrogen and ammonia and biogas —in these plans.
This natural gas component will be the most hotly disputed element of the Xcel plan—as it has been for the last two years.
Also raising my eyebrows in this 120-day report:
A recent Colorado law sought to nudge utilities into accelerating new technology. The rule-making by the PUC in regard to this Section 123 provision specified that the resources must be “new, innovative, and not commercialized technology, and provide unique, scalable and beneficiation attributes as to future costs, emissions, reduction, or reliability benefits.” “Wind, solar or lithium-ion based battery storage,” concluded the PUC, do not qualify.
Xcel solicited bids and got a variety of proposals, including:
a plant in the San Luis Valley that could burn a variety of clean fuels including hydrogen and ammonia;
a hydrogen fuel cell project near Brush that would use salt-storage caverns to deliver 10-hour storage;
a 5-megawatt geothermal power plant in Weld County that would mine the 135 degree C (275 degrees F) non-potable water found deep underground.
Xcel found all of these proposals from bidders wanting for one reason or another. However, that’s not a solid no in all the cases, the company added.
Biomass at Hayden
The company proposes a 19-megawatt biomass plant at Hayden, burning dead trees from northwest Colorado to produce electricity. Colorado has an existing biomass plant at Gypsum, which is a little smaller, 11.5 megawatts, in capacity. It burns wood from as far away as the Blue River Valley between Silverthorne and Kremmling.
The company points out that it has closed 18 generating units across its service territory during the last 15 years without any forced workforce reductions.
It says it will leverage natural attrition and worker retirements, and the remaining workers will be “up-skilled to operate and maintain the new clean energy assets or, if they choose, relocated and or transited and reskilled into another job.”
For example, it says, workers at the Hayden coal-burning plant have 80% of the skills, on average, needed to operate and maintain a biomass unit. The company says it will work with the biomass unit vendor, Colorado Northwestern Community College, and others to identify the additional training needed.
As part of its plans for Pueblo, where the Comanche 3 coal-burning plant is scheduled for retirement by 2031, Xcel plans to solicit bids that will fill out what the company needs in that final segment of 2028-2030.
The projects need to help out Pueblo County economically, even though Xcel has already committed to paying taxes on Comanche 3 in lieu of its operation until 2040.
Will it be nuclear? Xcel has not ruled out nuclear, but neither does it see nuclear as an option for 2030.
Xcel Energy Colorado’s CEO Kenney, in his remarks at Empower Hour, said the company sees small modular reactors and related technology under development as having promise.” But, he added, “It is unlikely such technologies will be trued up on a timeline to replace Comanche 3. But it will absolutely be a technology that we will continue to explore.”
Social cost of carbon
The planning considerations for this are so much more complex than those of the past. Decisions must be filtered through the social cost of carbon and also the social cost of methane. There are considerations about disproportionately impacted communities. And, as noted above, we have “just transition” as a consideration.
The simile of a triathlon race
Such documents are not ordinarily noted for their literary flourishes, and this one is no exception. But it must be noticed that aa simile found on page 62 is worth calling out:
“Getting to this point is like training to get to the starting line of a triathlon. We are excited, we have a support team at the ready, we understand the challenges, and we are looking forward to taking them on with a good plan in place. But that does not mean that implementation and execution of the plan will be easy, and unknown challenges lie ahead given the breadth of generation and transmission development contemplated by this plan.”
Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:
Federal land managers have proposed blocking future oil and gas development on more than a million acres of Colorado’s Western Slope as they reshape how they handle energy development in the face of a drying and warming West. The Bureau of Land Management’s draft management plan for a swath of land between the Utah border and Eagle would close 1.6 million acres to potential oil and gas leasing. If approved, the plan would forestall the drilling of hundreds of future wells.
“What we’re seeing here is a draft management plan that is really reflecting the changing economy of the region, which is becoming less dependent on oil and gas extraction,” said Erin Riccio, advocacy director for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop…
The management plan would drastically reduce the percentage of land available for leasing — from 85% of the area to 20%. It would block roughly 599 new oil and gas wells over the next 20 years, according to the BLM. Currently, 125,400 acres in the area already are closed to oil and gas leasing. If the BLM enacts its proposed plan — called “Alternative E” based on its review of multiple possibilities — an additional 1.4 million acres would be closed…
There was another option considered by the BLM, labeled Alternative F, that would close even more land to oil and gas leasing. That plan would block about 95% of the Western Slope area at issue to leasing, leaving only 104,100 acres open to development. Alternative F would add protections for habitats of endangered species such as the humpback chub, a river fish, as well as for recreation areas, the Dolores River corridor, watersheds for municipal water supplies and habitats for trout, birds and bighorns. The plan would block the creation of about 779 wells, the BLM estimated.
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Anne MacKinnon):
Climate change poses challenges for Wyoming water law, seen these days on the Grand Encampment River southwest of Saratoga.
The Encampment River valley is like many small, irrigated valleys in Wyoming. It was once the home of a few pioneer ranches that built a network of ditches, but the ranches have been divided up, the river has moved over time, and people have kept irrigating using the old ditches, sometimes with a little jerry-rigging. The Encampment valley is also narrow, with usually more than enough water, so state water officials haven’t had to “regulate” to keep water use in line with water rights.
Enter the Sinclair Refinery near Rawlins, Carbon County’s biggest employer. Its workforce includes people from the Encampment valley, located some 40 miles away. In just the last year and a half, the oil company that took over the refinery bought a ranch on the Grand Encampment River.
The attraction: the old water rights on the ranch. The goal: to bolster the refinery’s water supply in the face of climate change.
Two years out of the last six, the Upper North Platte Basin has seen climate change in low snowpack. It has meant that in spring, the refinery couldn’t legally use its own 100-year-old water rights. Refinery managers had to arrange for temporary use of older water rights from elsewhere. Buying the Encampment ranch offers the new refinery’s owners, called HF Sinclair, a more permanent solution for those low snow-pack years.
That has some neighbors worried. Now, how water works in the Encampment valley — which lands are irrigated or not, when and through what ditch — must be examined.
It might seem neighboring irrigators wouldn’t care if a ranch won’t use its water rights in some years. But in a classic Wyoming spot like the Encampment valley, where the water rights and ditches and the irrigation practices and the water table and the water runoff from irrigation are interwoven, the refinery’s water use could disrupt the current pattern.
HF Sinclair’s plan will test the capacity of Wyoming water law to serve both the refinery and the Encampment irrigation community in the era of climate change. Will water officials’ decisions start to unravel the fabric of the community, as some fear, or will it leave that fabric substantially intact?
Most climate change headlines in Wyoming have focused on the Colorado River Basin, but the Upper North Platte River Basin — embracing both the Sinclair refinery on the North Platte and the Encampment River, a North Platte tributary upstream — has also gotten steadily hotter in the last 20 years.
HF Sinclair’s proposal to move water rights from one location to another — in response to the impending climate crisis — is a prospect that has long alarmed Wyoming irrigators. The fear is that “drying up” a ranch can damage local economies. Such moves were once mostly illegal in Wyoming, and many irrigators believe they still are. But 50 years ago in another national crisis — rising energy prices, creating demand for power plants in Wyoming — the state changed its law to allow such moves if they meet strict standards. There must, for instance, be proof of how much water was consumed at the original spot — no more can be consumed at the new spot, and the amount of water that used to return to the stream from the original irrigation must be left in the stream at that point.
Notably, HF Sinclair is not proposing to dry up its ranch with any such permanent move of water rights. Only in low snowpack years would the refinery activate a new arrangement — a proposed “exchange.” The plan is that in those years the refinery would legally get to use its rights on the North Platte despite low flows, while it would not irrigate its Encampment ranch at all in spring or summer. That would allow Encampment water unused at the ranch to flow down the North Platte to Pathfinder Reservoir as “makeup” water, as required by the Wyoming water exchange law.
HF Sinclair also says it will invest in the interconnected headgate and ditch system on the Encampment to make sure that when the ranch does not tap the Encampment River at all for a year, neighbors still get water for their rights.
There is heavy pressure for an uncomplicated review of HF Sinclair’s plan. The company does not hesitate to underline the implications for sustaining local jobs. To get approval, the company has hired a phalanx of high-powered law and technical people, including a former Wyoming State Engineer.
But leading irrigators on the Encampment have asked state officials for a thorough review — they don’t, however, want the cost and trouble of hiring lawyers and engineers to fall on them. The Wyoming Stock Growers, meanwhile, this summer called for public meetings on water changes as a review of Sinclair’s plans got underway.
Neighbors don’t have grounds to complain if a ranch just decides not to irrigate in a few years. But because HF Sinclair is proposing a legal change, the ranch neighbors have brought concerns to the state water officials who must decide whether to approve the exchange.
To get that approval, HF Sinclair must take two steps: first clean up the water rights on the ranch, and then get the exchange petition granted.
Cleanups are standard in places like the Encampment River, since actual use of old water rights in Wyoming often changes over decades, as streams move a little and ditches fall into disuse. Often old water rights must be identified and nailed down to the current use, at the expense of the right-holder. Sometimes, cleanups get complicated. The strict standards of Wyoming’s water-moves law can apply, if change over time includes water moving some distance.
HF Sinclair is asking for a simple cleanup, which could avoid that scrutiny. The company has filed documents to show that only relatively insignificant changes in irrigation have taken place in over a century of ranch operations — nothing that should invoke the scrutiny required for serious movements of water rights.
There are, of course, all kinds of questions that could arise in HF Sinclair’s cleanup: How much of the ranch’s Encampment River rights have actually been used, where and from what headgates? Does the groundwater level in low-lying lands mean that water consumption there can’t really be stopped, and maybe fields there haven’t required much irrigation water? Has enough irrigation water been used on other ranch fields to provide the proposed “makeup” water for the exchange?
How intensely to review HF Sinclair’s cleanup is a decision for the state Board of Control (the State Engineer and the superintendents of Wyoming’s four geographical water divisions). Then HG Sinclair’s separate request for an exchange – a transaction expressly encouraged by state law – goes to the State Engineer alone to decide.
It will take months or years to see how Wyoming’s water rights review process plays out in this case. And the practical impact may finally depend on how many low snowpack years the future holds for the North Platte Basin. But ultimately, what happens on the Encampment will say a lot about how the state’s water law system will handle the pressures on water that are brought by climate change.
Relatively smooth approval of an exchange on the Encampment could encourage towns and industries in Wyoming’s Green and Little Snake River basins to seek their own exchanges. For them, exchanges could be a solution to water supply shutdowns threatened by climate change on the Colorado River. In recent years the State Engineer’s Office has suggested that exchanges could be useful for that purpose, using reservoirs as makeup water.
On the Encampment, HF Sinclair’s experts include former State Engineer Pat Tyrrell, former Division I Water Superintendent Brian Pugsley, and veteran water lawyer Dave Palmerlee.
The facts on the ground may well be such that the refinery’s proposal would easily survive any tough scrutiny. But the way the consultants have couched the requests makes it appear they’re betting they won’t trigger that kind of review, so they get approval — and relatively quickly.
The Encampment community’s fear of local damage has brought an audience to the normally unnoticed Board of Control meetings, however.
Nearby ranchers would like to see Sinclair offer a signed contract for the investment in headgates and ditches to secure access to all neighbors’ water rights. They don’t want to contend with Sinclair’s experts in formal hearings or appeals. But they do want a very careful state review.
Recent flights over Colorado’s historic Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fire burn scars revealed a troubling observation: Three years after the state’s largest wildfires scorched nearly 400,000 acres, nearly half of those acres are still so severely burned that little to no regrowth has taken place. That has caused concern among a cadre of local researchers from federal and state governmental agencies, Colorado State University, conservation groups and private industry studying the vast scar from 2020.
Sarah Beck, Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests fire recovery coordinator, said more precise aerial mapping of the scar will be forthcoming, but for now, large areas of the burn scar are not seeing expected revegetation recovery.
“These patches of high burn severity are so large there is a real possibility of recovery taking 50 years or longer,” she said. “It’s really concerning. I don’t think we have seen this in North America. I think this is a new condition in complexity.”
With the enormity and complexity of post-fire impacts still looming three years later to human safety, critical water supplies, recreational facilities and fish and wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service has begun a new approach. In August, it announced a partnership with the nonprofit conservation organization American Forests to develop a longer-term reforestation strategy for the burn scars. The planning will continue to be developed collaboratively with input from community-connected partners, research institutions and local and state agencies.
“The problem is really big, and it is not something we have the capacity to tackle alone,” Beck said.
Solar energy will be an integral part of a more sustainable future, but with current technology, generating the amount of power needed in Colorado alone would require using roughly the land area of Denver.
That’s a lot of space – and potential disturbance to ecosystems, especially when you consider that in the past, energy companies have typically first graded the land and then put gravel or short, easy-to-mow turf grass beneath their solar panels.
Agrivoltaics – the dual use of land for both solar installations and agriculture – offers an alternative way to generate renewable solar energy. Now, two Colorado State University researchers are proposing taking this a step further through what’s known as “ecovoltaics,” which co-prioritizes energy production and ecosystem services during the design and management phases of solar development.
“It’s important to talk about the sustainability of the solar industry so it doesn’t make the same environmental oversights as oil and gas,” said Matt Sturchio, a Ph.D. student in Biology and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology. “With ecovoltaics, we hope to encourage an ecologically informed approach to solar array design and operation.”
“It will take a lot of solar panels and a lot of land to produce the electricity our society needs,” Knapp said. “As a land-grant institution, we see ourselves as stewards of the land, and it’s our job to offer sustainable solutions about how to use land wisely.”
Solar panels create unique microenvironments
While agrivoltaics is a step in the right direction, Sturchio said in many applications, it still prioritizes producing the most electricity possible in a given land area. This allows for the use of land beneath solar panels but overlooks opportunities to manipulate array designs in ways that might benefit the plants and animals beneath, especially in water limited ecosystems like the grasslands of Colorado.
With ecovoltaic designs, solar energy production and preserving the landscape go hand-in-hand.
The ecovoltaic concept is partly informed by the researchers’ current work at Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont, which is the largest commercially active site for agrivoltaics research in the U.S.
Here, the CSU team studies how solar panels affect sunlight patterns and redistribute rainfall to create microenvironments that influence grassland ecosystem processes. These microenvironments promote diversity within solar installations and are a cornerstone of the ecovoltaics concept.
“What we’re trying to do is show the potential impacts of solar energy on our land, and how we can mitigate and potentially leverage them to reach desired outcomes,” he said.
And perhaps most importantly, these approaches can be used to restore severely degraded or abandoned agricultural lands – which are prime candidates for large solar installations.
“Ecovoltaic approaches could help restore and even enhance biodiversity in these places, while providing much-needed clean energy,” Sturchio said.
“It’s a climate solution”
Sturchio and Knapp will continue their research at a new facility in the plains east of CSU’s campus in Fort Collins.
Here, solar panels will be installed in a native grassland environment – offering new insights about how they impact the ecology of places that are known to be harsh and dry, and where conditions are expected to become more volatile as climate change worsens in the future.
“Building our own research solar arrays will allow us to discover better ways to use this amazing energy source and will help us determine what we can do to make sure large-scale solar installations have less of a negative impact,” Knapp said. “We will study the impacts of placing solar panels farther apart, changing their orientations, and orienting panels vertically during rainstorms – there are many potential options.”
Sturchio said he’s hopeful that energy companies will use some of these principles as they build future installations.
“This research is really important because it’s a land use solution for a climate solution,” he said.
The climate crisis is no longer a looming threat – people are now living with the consequences of centuries of greenhouse gas emissions. But there is still everything to fight for. How the world chooses to respond in the coming years will have massive repercussions for generations yet to be born.
In my book How to Save Our Planet, I imagine two different visions of the future. One in which we do very little to address climate change, and one in which we do everything possible.
This is what the science suggests those very different realities could look like.
Year 2100: the nightmare scenario
The 21st century draws to a close without action having been taken to prevent climate change. Global temperatures have risen by over 4°C. In many countries, summer temperatures persistently stay above 40°C. Heatwaves with temperatures as high as 50°C have become common in tropical countries.
The extra heat in the ocean has caused it to expand. Combined with water from melting ice sheets, sea levels have risen by more than one metre. Many major cities, including Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro and Miami, are already flooded and uninhabitable. The Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and many other small island nations have been abandoned.
Fish stocks have collapsed. The acidity of the ocean has increased by 125%. The ocean food chain has collapsed in some regions as the small marine organisms that form its base struggle to make calcium carbonate shells and so survive in the more acidic waters.
This is what our planet could look like if we do everything in our power to contain climate change.
Global temperatures rose to 1.5°C by 2050 and remained there for the rest of the century. Fossil fuels have been replaced by renewable energy. Over a trillion trees have been planted, sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The air is cleaner than it has been since before the industrial revolution.
Global diets have shifted away from meat. Farming efficiency has greatly improved during the transition from industrial-scale meat production to plant-based sustenance, creating more land to rewild and reforest.
Half of the Earth is dedicated to restoring the natural biosphere and its ecological services. Elsewhere, fusion energy is finally set to work at scale providing unlimited clean energy for the people of the 22nd century.
Two very different futures. The outcome your children and grandchildren will live with depends on what decisions are made today. Happily, the solutions I propose are win-win, or even win-win-win: they reduce emissions, improve the environment and make people healthier and wealthier overall.
Backed by the promise of billions in federal dollars, energy companies are lining up to accept an invitation by Wyoming officials to collect industrial sources of carbon dioxide and pump it deep underground.
Essentially, the vision is to build a new low-carbon energy industry that scrubs the planet-warming gas from fossil fuels, keeping those fuels in the energy mix and simultaneously helping to address the climate crisis in a way that pays dividends to developers and the state.
Wyoming, according to Gov. Mark Gordon and other state officials, is primed to launch the industry. Not only has the state spent years testing its subterranean capacity to permanently store carbon dioxide, it has devoted more than a decade to building a legal and regulatory framework to win the federal government’s approval. Only Wyoming and North Dakota have won primacy over the federal program to permit such activities.
Now, the state’s top environmental regulator is considering the first in what many expect to be a wave of permit applications to drill the deep wells necessary to launch the new industry.
“Since 2010 [Wyoming has] been working on how to ensure this particular program could get off the ground and be protective of the environment with a lot of the risks that are involved with these kinds of projects,” said Lily Barkau, natural resources program manager at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
The agency is soliciting public comments on three carbon dioxide injection well permit applications submitted by Frontier Carbon Solutions. Two more “Class VI” permits are under review at the agency, but not yet ready for public feedback.
Industry and regulatory officials eagerly note that pumping carbon dioxide underground isn’t fantasy. For decades, oil and gas developers have pumped the gas into oilfield formations to squeeze out more oil. Wyoming even has a “backbone” carbon dioxide pipeline that delivers the gas from southwestern and central Wyoming to multiple oilfields in the northeast corner of the state and into Montana.
While Wyoming still hopes to expand “enhanced oil recovery” via carbon dioxide injection, officials are also eager for companies to pump the gas deeper underground into saline formations. Here, at depths of 10,000 to 15,000 feet, carbon dioxide — compressed into liquid form — can be pumped and stored permanently, according to state and industry officials.
There are skeptics, however, and many questions about the logistics of deep carbon dioxide “sequestration,” as well as whether all of the public resources invested are justified.
Skepticism and questions
So far, capturing carbon dioxide from industrial smokestacks — be they attached to trona processing plants, cement factories or coal-fired power plants — hasn’t proven economical at large scale. However, industry officials point to the federal 45Q tax credit — which was expanded under the Inflation Reduction Act — for vastly improving the economics of carbon capture and storage.
Until industrial facilities in the southwest region of the state — including in corners of Colorado and Utah — are fitted with carbon capture, Frontier Carbon Solutions plans to collect its carbon dioxide from a “direct air capture” project still in development.
Other questions remain:
How will facilities such as direct air capture farms get carbon-free power without sprawling renewable energy development on sensitive landscapes?
How much will it cost to safely manage highly saline water displaced by carbon dioxide in deep geologic formations?
And, is all the time and public resources merely a distraction from proven renewable energy and the declining costs of installing wind and solar energy?
“Billions of dollars have been wasted trying to prove that this technology is real,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, told the Associated Press in May. “And all we have to show for it are a series of spectacular failures.’’
Projects under review
Texas-based Frontier Carbon Solutions is a partner in the Sweetwater Carbon Storage Hub project in southwest Wyoming. The effort is part of the federal CarbonSAFE Initiative led by the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, which won $40.5 million in support from the U.S. Department of Energy. UW and Frontier Carbon Solutions will contribute another $10.1 million to the project for a total of $50.6 million, according to DOE and university officials.
The “storage hub” will have a minimum storage capacity of 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the life of the project — about 20 years, according to Frontier Carbon Solutions. For context, Wyoming’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from industrial fossil fuel consumption — excluding motor vehicle pollution — was 54.6 million metric tons in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The company is seeking three permits under the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Underground Injection Control program. Public comment closes Oct. 19.
Click here for more information about the company’s permit applications. Comments can be submitted electronically via DEQ-online portals for each of the three permits: permit 242, permit 243 and permit 244. Comments may also be submitted by mail to: Ms. Lily Barkau, P.G., Groundwater Section Manager, Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Water Quality Division, 200 West 17th Street, 2nd Floor, Cheyenne, WY 82002.
DEQ will also hold a public hearing on the Class VI well permits, with dates yet to be announced. If the permits are approved, the company will still have to submit more information from initial drilling activities before DEQ can grant Frontier Carbon Solutions a permit to actually inject carbon dioxide, Barkau said.
Tallgrass Energy is also seeking a Class VI injection well permit for its Eastern Wyoming Sequestration Hub in Laramie County. That permit is not yet up for public comment. However, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is seeking public comment regarding the company’s application for rights-of-way on federal surface in Laramie County.
Public comment has been extended to Oct. 10. More about the project and how to comment can be found on the BLM’s project website.
Tallgrass was awarded $4.1 million for the project from the Wyoming Energy Authority in 2022, which the company will match in full, according to the agency. The grant comes from a $10 million legislative appropriation for carbon capture, storage and utilization projects.
First round of carbon dioxide injection permitting
The state won authority over the program after more than a decade of legislation to establish a legal and regulatory framework to allow for the geologic storage of carbon dioxide.
That framework includes settling the question of who owns the underground “pore space” where carbon dioxide will be stored. The state declared it belongs to the surface estate, which clarifies who gets paid for use of the pore space and who is liable. The state also set out to appease potential developers by giving them an opportunity to transfer their liability for carbon dioxide injections to the state if they meet post-closure requirements intended to protect water and human health, according to Barkau.
Wyoming, with primacy over the federal Class VI injection well permitting program, can shave years off the permitting process, Barkau said. And that makes Wyoming an attractive place to launch carbon dioxide storage projects.
“I think we’ve been able to prove that if the operator is willing to work collaboratively, it can be done in a very expedited time frame and still meet all of the rules and regulations and be protective of human health and the environment,” Barkau said.
Uinta Basin Railway (UBR) opponents floated a portion of the Colorado River on Aug. 26 to celebrate a setback to the UBR. Organized by two citizen groups — Colorado Rising and 350 Roaring Fork — a flotilla of about 30 boats and 100 activists put in at Grizzly Creek in the Glenwood Canyon and landed at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs for a rally and picnic. The flotilla was originally planned as a protest to draw attention to the river and what would happen if a train carrying waxy crude derailed in the Glenwood Canyon.
“We’re not fighting a train. We’re not fighting increased train traffic. We’re a rail town,” said former Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes, who is now a City Council member and who emceed the rally. “We’re fighting a train that is full of toxic, waxy crude. To think that five trains, two miles long, every day would not derail in one of the most difficult, sensitive places on the entire line is crazy.”
The Colorado River is the lifeblood for local communities and provides water to 40 million people across the western U.S. and parts of Mexico. The proposed UBR — an 88-mile line that would connect oil fields in the Uinta Basin to the national rail network near Price, Utah, in order to access Gulf Coast refineries — would increase the amount of waxy crude shipped east by rail to between 130,000 to 350,000 barrels per day. The federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) approved the UBR in December 2021, which was followed by two separate lawsuits — one filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) on behalf of four other conservation groups, and another by Eagle County. They were consolidated in February 2022. On Aug. 18, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Judge Robert L. Wilkins overturned the STB’s decision, transforming the planned flotilla from a protest to a celebration. Five Colorado counties and five municipalities along the national railway — the proposed route for eastbound Uinta Basin waxy crude — signed on to an amicus brief in support of Eagle County in October, making the Aug. 18 decision a victory across the state.
Ted Zukoski, CBD attorney, told Aspen Journalism that the STB and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), whose flawed biological opinion (BiOp) informed the STB’s decision, must go back to the drawing board. “The existing approvals from the STB and FWS are null and void,” he said. “The UBR has been knocked back a number of steps.”
A CBD news release summarized Wilkins’ ruling by stating that the STB “violated the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] by failing to fully analyze the railway’s potential harm to the climate, wildlife, the Colorado River and people, including environmental justice communities along the Gulf Coast.” Key findings show a mixed bag of what counted as a violation and what did not.
According to the ruling, NEPA violations include ignoring the risk to endangered fish in the Colorado River and failure to take a hard look at upstream and downstream impacts of oil production, accident data and downline wildfire risk. The court’s discussion of the UBR’s impacts from production in the Uinta Basin and the downstream impacts on communities near refineries continues a line of precedent and keeps federal agencies accountable, said Zukoski.
“When federal agencies are the on/off switches for climate impacts, air pollution impacts, surface impacts of wildlife habitat, they can’t say, as the [STB] did here, ‘Oh, no, not our problem. We don’t control who develops oil in the Uinta Basin. We don’t know where the oil is going. We’re just approving the railway,’” he said. “The court saw through that.”
In the December 2021 decision, STB Chair Martin Oberman cast the sole dissenting vote, stating that “the environmental impacts outweigh the transportation merits.” Oberman’s opinion questioned his colleagues’ evaluation of the downstream impacts of the UBR and the overall contribution to climate change. He also cited the financial viability of the project given volatile oil prices and the shifting fossil fuel industry.
Wilkins found that the STB violated its own rail policies by looking at the UBR’s economic benefits while ignoring the full significance of the UBR’s environmental costs. He did not uphold plaintiffs’ claims about failure to address landslide risks, violation of the National Historic Preservation Act, downline impacts on biological resources, land use and recreation, or increased noise and potential impacts to the Tennessee Pass rail line.
Glenwood Springs pleased with outcome
Glenwood Springs City Attorney Karl Hanlon, who worked on the amicus brief in support of Eagle County, told Aspen Journalism that the circuit court opinion was a “huge, huge win,” particularly for the process. “There were things that [the court] did accept and things that they didn’t,” he said. “But at the core of it, NEPA requires a more detailed analysis than [the STB] did. You can’t just sort of gloss over it and rubber-stamp a NEPA process.”
Hanlon said the money and time that Glenwood Springs and other towns spent working on the amicus brief was well spent. “I think [the ruling] lays out three really big areas,” he said. “Quantifying the reasonably foreseeable upstream and downstream impacts from increased drilling in the Uinta Basin on vegetation and special status species, the increased oil train traffic along the UP line, and the issue of environmental justice on the Gulf Coast.”
According to a 2018 feasibility study conducted as part of the EIS, most of the refineries equipped for Uinta Basin waxy crude are in MIssissippi and Louisiana, including Marathon Petroleum in Garyville, Louisiana. On Aug. 25, a massive fire at that refinery, caused by a leaky naphtha tank, produced a plume of black smoke and forced nearby evacuations. “This is the kind of harm the Uinta Basin Railway will worsen by pouring billions of gallons of crude per year into Gulf Coast refineries,” said Zukoski. “And the kind of harm that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly held that the [STB’s] EIS failed to take a hard look at.”
Hanlon is satisfied with the ruling and how comprehensive it was. He said it’s a win for those who work on conservation and environmental issues. “I think it affirms the rules that we all thought we were operating under, right? That these agencies have to take these analyses seriously,” he said.
Godes added that he’s proud of the stance that many Colorado communities have taken. “We are in a really good space with a recent victory,” he said at the rally. “We have a lot of support. This flotilla is proof of that. All of the neighboring communities and jurisdictions, save for Garfield County, have come out against this.”
“While we disagree with the D.C. Circuit Court’s recent decision, we respect the authority of the U.S. Court of Appeals,” the statement said. “We firmly believe that the railway’s environmental impact statement (EIS) contains appropriate and thorough analysis of the highlighted concerns, as it stands today. Nonetheless, we are ready, willing and capable of working with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to ensure additional reviews and the project’s next steps proceed without further delay. We look forward to bringing this railway to the basin in a safe and cost-effective way to enable economic stability, sustainable communities and an enriched quality of life to Utahns and beyond.”
Zukoski said there are strategies the SCIC could use as result of the Wilkins ruling, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. “But they are better off just saying, ‘Well, now we have a roadmap from the courts on what we need to fix. Let’s go fix it.” He added that the “fix” would be, more or less, a do-over. “They’re going to need approval from the STB again,” he said.”They’re going to need to go through a supplemental environmental impact statement process and get a new biological opinion from the FWS that looks at the spill risk to endangered fish.”
Hanging in the balance are the September 2022 lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) decision to allow construction of the UBR through an inventoried roadless area (IRA); the expansion of the Wildcat Loadout Facility near Price, which would allow an increase in production, storage and transport of Uinta Basin crude regardless of the success or failure of the UBR; and the use of Private Activity Bonds (PAB) issued through U.S. Department of Transportation to fund the UBR. The City of Glenwood Springs wrote a letter to U.S. Transporation Secretary Pete Buttigeig in early August against the use of PAB bonds and requesting a meeting this month. “It would be incredibly precedent-setting if we ever started allowing our tax dollars to be utilized by a private corporation for their profit and their shareholders,” Godes said at the rally. “It doesn’t benefit Colorado and it doesn’t benefit this country.”
USFS suit undecided
The USFS approved construction of the UBR in July 2022 through 12 miles of an IRA in Utah’s Ashley National Forest. Prior to the approval, CBD and other conservation groups sent a letter to USFS Chief Randy Moore, urging him to reject the Ashley National Forest’s application. But Moore refused, stating, “By definition, a railway does not constitute a road under the Roadless Rule.”
In September 2022, CBD, Living Rivers, Sierra Club and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment filed suit in D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Zukoski told Aspen Journalism at the time that the argument goes beyond whether a railroad is a road. “We raised many issues, including a failure of the Forest Service to consider the impact on roadless values,” he said. That case has not been briefed.
Legal documents show that the court on April 24 granted an abeyance request by the USFS, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition and the Uinta Basin Railway, temporarily suspending court proceedings until the Eagle County suit was decided. The original request shows that the USFS Record of Decision used portions of the same EIS and FWS BiOp that were used in the STB approval and that a decision in favor of Eagle County could make moot the USFS case.
On Aug. 18, the court requested that all parties involved in the suit file motions to govern future proceedings by Sept. 18. “The order suggests that the parties come up with a plan, or competing plans, for resolving the case in light of the decision in the Eagle County case,” said Zukoski. “So, it’s up to the parties to address that decision and seek further relief on the USFS decision. We’ll have to do that by Sept. 18.”
The outcome could also be compromised by the fact that federal approval no longer exists and that construction of the UBR cannot begin until all approvals are finalized. “One potential path forward is that the USFS voluntarily takes some action, such as withdrawing the ROD, and then one or more of the parties files a motion to dismiss the case,” said Zukoski. “Another potential outcome is the USFS believes that it can continue to litigate the case on the merits and we proceed to briefing.”
Meanwhile, Uinta Basin oil producers are upping their game. Utah’s output of crude oil has more than doubled in the past four years. Most of the state’s crude comes from Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Rich, Summit and Uintah counties — all within the Uinta Basin. Utah state Division of Natural Resources statistics show that Uinta Basin oil production has increased from a total of 31 million barrels per year in 2020 to 45.3 million in 2022. In the first five months of 2023, nearly 20.1 million barrels have come out of the ground.
Several loadout facilities currently transfer Uinta Basin oil from trucks to rail cars bound for California and the Gulf Coast. More and more tanker trucks are carrying crude over winding, two-lane highways from Myton to loadout facilities near Price, Helper, Ogden and Salt Lake City. Wildcat is one such facility near Price.
The Bureau of Land Management is considering a request from Coal Energy Group 2 to expand the capacity of the existing Wildcat Loadout Facility (WLF) to 100,000 bpd from 30,000 bpd. The project would add tank farm facilities, loading and unloading and other operations on about 13 acres of the existing right of way.
Zukoski said there are two theories about Wildcat. “One is that it’s a workaround. It’s a way to take advantage of high oil prices now,” he said. “The other is that it’s basically a proof-of-concept exercise.” The SCIC needs to show investors that there is a market for Uinta Basin crude. Mark Hemphill, who is with Rio Grande Pacific, in 2019 told the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining that a minimum of 130,000 bpd would need to come out of the basin to support the UBR. But without the UBR, the increase in production has been impossible due to caps on Salt Lake City refineries and no way to transport that much crude to other refineries. Wildcat could be a way out of the financial catch-22 that has been dogging the UBR. “If industry can show a significant boost in Uinta Basin oil production and proof that refineries will take that crude, they can take it to investors,” said Zukosky. “They’re in it to make money. That’s what this whole thing is about, and they’re just trying to figure out how to do it.”
The BLM needs to decide what kind of National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) analysis is best for the WLF expansion. ”Actions are analyzed in an EA [environmental assessment] if they are not categorically excluded, not covered in an existing environmental document, and not normally subject to an EIS,” Angela Hawkins, public affairs officer for Utah BLM, said in an email. “The EA is used to determine if the action would have significant impacts. If that is the case, then BLM would need to prepare an EIS.”
Glenwood Springs, Eagle County and conservation groups, including CBD, would prefer an EIS. Over the summer, they informed the BLM of their concerns in separate letters. CBD public lands senior campaigner Deeda Seed said in the conservation groups’ letter that the ruling in the Eagle County case “demonstrates that BLM has a duty to disclose all of the environmental harms the Wildcat Loadout Project would cause, and makes clear that BLM must weigh those harms in evaluating whether the project is in the public interest.” Zukosky told Aspen Journalism that WLF’s maximum capacity would be less than one-third of the UBR’s top capacity of 350,000 bpd. “So, presumably the upstream and downstream impacts would be reduced,” he said. ”But since they didn’t look at those [in the EIS or FWS BiOp), they have to go look at them for this project.”
Meanwhile, Colorado state Sen. Lisa Cutter (D-Senate District 20) told Aspen Journalism at the Aug. 26 rally that the state legislature has begun to take a look at rail-transport issues. She’s on the Interim Transportation Legislative Review Committee that has been meeting over the summer. One of the ideas they talked about was enhanced rail safety. But this, too, is in its initial phase.
“It’s not drafted yet, but we’re looking at several provisions,” she said. “Maybe training people along the route, training first responders, maybe having more people on board, more hazardous material specialists on board.” She figures if toxic materials are going to be transported by rail through the state, safeguards must be in place. “We’re not threatening Colorado, our forests, our water, our recreation, our hearts,” said Cutter, whose district includes Jefferson County and parts of Arvada and Lakewood. “I mean, this is the most important thing to me — the mountains, the forests and the way we live here in Colorado.”
Cutter is not sure why Colorado Gov. Jared Polis remains silent on the issue. Asked what she had to say to him about it, she replied that she knows he cares about the Colorado way of life. “Please lend your voice should the opportunity become available,” she said. Aspen Journalism has not yet received a statement from the governor’s office.
For now, citizens from Grand County to Glenwood Springs are celebrating the recent, hard-won success. But Godes urged Polis, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican who represents many of the communities that would be impacted by increased crude oil transport out of the Uinta Basin, to clarify their positions on the issue. Godes wonders if Boebert’s silence on the issue is a tacit objection to the UBR. “Congresswoman Boebert is not against it,” he said. “But she has not come out in support of this and that’s a victory.”
Thousands of homes across Indian Country are still not connected to electricity, including an estimated more than 14,000 on the Navajo Nation alone.
That accounts for more than 80% of the tribal homes in the United States that aren’t electrified.
But it could all change with the launch of the Tribal Electrification Program by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which will provide funding to help tribal nations get connected to electricity.
“The goal of the funding is to get electricity to homes,” Onna Lebeau, director of the Office of Indian Economic Development (OIED), told the Arizona Mirror. “We do see the electrification need in Indian Country is in a critical state.”
The Department of the Interior launched the Tribal Electrification Program on Aug. 15 with $72.5 million that will directly help tribal nations electrify homes and expand the availability of clean energy in Indian Country.
“This funding from the president’s Investing in America agenda will bring electricity to homes in Tribal communities that have never had it,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said in a press release. “It will have a fundamental and significant impact on businesses, communities, and families.”
Newland added that this historic investment is one of many the department is making to fund long-overdue infrastructure needs in Indigenous communities.
Regarding connecting homes to electricity within Indigenous communities, Lebeau said the need has long been there, and through the funding available from the new program, they can prioritize this need.
It will help the homes within tribal communities that not only need updating, Lebeau said, but the homes that need to be connected to the grid for the first time.
In 2022, the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy released a report about Tribal Electricity Access and Reliability, where they found 16,805 tribal homes were not connected to electricity, resulting in 54,209 residents living without electricity. The price of electricity on tribal lands, according to the report, is 56% higher than the national average.
The Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe have some of the highest numbers of homes not connected to electricity, and together account for nearly 90% of all unelectrified tribal homes nationwide.
According to the report, there are 68,101 homes on the Navajo Nation, with an estimated 14,063 without electricity and about 45,001 people living without power. For the Hopi Tribe, there are 2,508 homes located on their tribal land, with an estimated 878 homes without electricity and about 2,810 people living without power.
Between the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe, that is roughly 15,000 homes and nearly 48,000 people between just two communities living without power, compared to the approximately 16,800 homes and more than 54,000 people living without electricity in the U.S.
The funding comes via the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was signed into law last summer. It is part of an overall $150 million investment from the IRA to support the electrification of homes in tribal communities.
The new program increases efforts to electrify Indian Country to provide reliable, resilient energy that tribes can rely on, Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release. The program will also advance the department’s work to tackle the climate crisis and build a clean energy future.”
“Climate change is the crisis of our lifetimes and has left far too many communities managing for worsening water challenges, extreme heat, devastating wildfires, and unprecedented storms,” Haaland added. “Every action we take now to lessen the impacts for future generations is critical.”
The program will work to provide electricity to unelectrified homes located on tribal land through zero-emissions energy systems, and it will transition electrified tribal homes to zero-emission energy systems, including the associated home repairs within homes to install necessary systems for zero-emission energy.
The program will work to meet the unique needs of individual tribal communities, according to the Department of Interior, because the demand for electrification across Indian Country is significant, and each tribe has its own energy and electrification-related needs and implementation capacity.
Lebeau said a unique component of the program is that it will also coordinate financial and technical assistance to tribes to increase the number of tribal homes connected with zero-emission electricity.
“We do understand each of our tribes are at various levels within their development,” she said. “The technical assistants will be able to support those tribes who need additional guidance through the program.”
Lebeau said there are tribal nations that have the infrastructure set in place, such as wind power or solar energy, but then there are others that need help getting their projects off the ground, which is where the technical assistance from the program comes in.
“The technical assistance will be able to support them,” Lebeau said. “We are doing our best to meet the needs of each community.”
Lebeau said that when tribes start applying, they need to state their unique needs to meet their capacity within their community.
“The primary goal is to get electricity into the homes. That’s what’s driving this program,” Lebeau added. “The individuality of each need of each community is so important when it comes down to truly understanding how we’re going to be able to support everyone.”
The Department of the Interior stated that the program expects to obligate roughly half of the funding by the end of the year.
As part of the program, the Office of Indian Economic Development will select a range of tribal communities in stages ranging from early planning to already implementing plans and actions for household electrification.
There are two deadlines tribal nations should be aware of when applying for the program. The first deadline is for the pre-application process, due by Sept. 18, and the second is for the full application, due Dec 22.
Applications will only be accepted by eligible applications, which include federally recognized Native American or Alaska Native tribes or an approved tribal entity. Applicants must demonstrate need, community impact, and capacity.
About 10 years ago, a very thick book written by a French economist became a surprising bestseller. It was called “Capital in the 21st Century.” In it, Thomas Piketty traces the history of income and wealth inequality over the past couple of hundred years.
The book’s insights struck a chord with people who felt a growing sense of economic inequality but didn’t have the data to back it up. I was one of them. It made me wonder, how much carbon pollution is being generated to create wealth for a small group of extremely rich households? Two kids, 10 years and a Ph.D. later, I finally have some answers.
In a new study, colleagues and I investigated U.S. households’ personal responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2019. We previously studied emissions tied to consumption – the stuff people buy. This time, we looked at emissions used in generating people’s incomes, including investment income.
If you’ve ever thought about how oil company CEOs and shareholders get rich at the expense of the climate, then you’ve been thinking in an “income-responsibility” way.
While it may seem intuitive that those getting rich from fossil fuels bear responsibility for the emissions, very little research has been done to quantify this. Recent efforts have started to look at emissions related to household wages in France, global consumption and investments of different income groups and billionaires’ investments. But no one has analyzed households across a whole country based on the emissions used to generate their full range of income, including wages, investments and retirement income, until now.
We linked a global data set of financial transactions and emissions to microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly labor force survey, which includes respondents’ job, demographics and income from 35 categories, including wages and investments. People’s wages we connected to the emission intensity of the industries that employ them, and we based the emissions intensity of investment income on a portfolio that mirrors the overall economy.
The results of our analysis were eye-opening, and they could have profound implications for producing more effective and fair climate policies in the future.
A view from the top 1%
Both our consumption- and income-based approaches reveal that the highest-earning households are responsible for much more than an equitable share of carbon emissions. What’s more surprising is how different the level of responsibility is depending on whether you look at consumption or income.
In the income-based approach, the share of national emissions coming from the top 1% of households is 15% to 17% of national emissions. That’s about 2.5 times higher than their consumer-related emissions, which is about 6%.
In the bottom 50% of households, however, the trend is the exact opposite: Their share of consumption-based national emissions is 31%, about two times larger than their income-based emissions of 14%.
Why is that?
A couple things are going on here. First, the lowest earning 50% of U.S. households spend all that they earn, and often more via social assistance or debt. The top income groups, on the other hand, are able to save and reinvest more of their income.
Second, while high-income households have very high overall spending and emissions, the carbon intensity – tons of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar – of their purchases is actually lower than that of low-income households. This is because low-income households spend a large share of their income on carbon-intensive basic necessities, like home heating and transportation. High-income households spend more of their income on less-carbon-intensive services, like financial services or higher education.
Implications for a carbon tax
Our detailed comparison could help change how governments think about carbon taxes.
Typically, a carbon tax is applied to fossil fuels when they enter the economy. Coal, oil and gas producers then pass this tax on to consumers. More than two dozen countries have a carbon tax, and U.S. policymakers have proposed adding one in recent years. The idea is that raising the price of these products by taxing them will get consumers to shift to cheaper and presumably less carbon-intensive alternatives.
But our studies show that this kind of tax would disproportionately fall on poorer Americans. Even if a universal dividend check was adopted, consumer-facing carbon taxes have no impact on saved income. Generating that income likely contributed to greenhouse gas emissions, but as long as the money is used to buy stocks rather than consumables, it is excluded from carbon taxes. So, this kind of carbon tax disproportionately affects people whose income goes primarily toward consumption.
A profit-focused carbon tax
What if, instead of focusing on consumption, carbon taxes addressed greenhouse gases as an outcome of profit generation?
The vast majority of American corporations operate under the principle of “shareholder primacy,” where they see a fiduciary duty to maximize profit for their investors. Products – and the greenhouse gases used to make them – are not created for the benefit of the consumer, but because the sale of those products will benefit the shareholders.
If carbon taxes were focused on shareholder income linked to greenhouse gas emissions rather than consumption, they could target those receiving the most economic benefits resulting from these emissions.
A couple of interesting things might result, particularly if the tax was set based on the carbon intensity of the company.
Corporate executives and boards would have incentive to reduce emissions to lower taxes for shareholders. Shareholders would have incentive, out of self-interest, to pressure companies to do so.
Investors would also have incentive to shift their portfolios to less-polluting companies to avoid the tax. Pension and private wealth fund managers would have incentive to divest from carbon-polluting investments out of a fiduciary duty to their clients. To keep the tax focused on large shareholders, I could see retirement accounts being excluded from the tax, or a minimum asset threshold before the tax applies. https://www.youtube.com/embed/CgA0UgSEDjI?wmode=transparent&start=0 Jared Starr explains the new study’s findings and the implications.
Revenue generated from the carbon tax could help fund adaptation and the transition to clean energy.
Instead of putting the responsibility for cutting emissions on consumers, maybe policies should more directly tie that responsibility to corporate executives, board members and investors who have the most knowledge and power over their industries. Based on our analysis of the consumption and income benefits produced by greenhouse gas emissions, I believe a shareholder-based carbon tax is worth exploring.
Dave Marston has written a profile of friend of Coyote Gulch Allen Best. Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David Marston):
Usually seen with a camera slung around his neck, Allen Best edits a one-man online journalism shop he calls Big Pivots. Its beat is the changes made necessary by our rapidly warming climate, and he calls it the most important story he’s ever covered.
Best is based in the Denver area, and his twice-a-month e-journal looks for the radical transitions in Colorado’s energy, water, and other urgent aspects of the state’s economy. These changes, he thinks, overwhelm the arrival of the telephone, rural electrification and even the internal combustion engine in terms of their impact.
Global warming, he declares, is “the biggest pivot of all.”
Whether you “believe” in climate change — and Best points out that at least one Colorado state legislator does not — there’s no denying that our entire planet is undergoing dramatic changes, including melting polar ice, ever-intensifying storms, and massive wildlife extinctions.
A major story that Best, 71, has relentlessly chronicled concerns Tri-State, a wholesale power supplier serving Colorado and three other states. Late to welcome renewable energy, it’s been weighed down with aging coal-fired power plants. Best closely followed how many of its 42 customers — rural electric cooperatives — have fought to withdraw from, or at least renegotiate, contracts that hampered their ability to buy cheaper power and use local renewable sources.
Best’s first newspaper job was at the Middle Park Times in Kremmling, a mountain town along the Colorado River. He wrote about logging, molybdenum mining and the many miners who came from eastern Europe. His prose wasn’t pretty, he says, but he got to hone his skills.
Because of his rural roots, Best is most comfortable hanging out in farm towns and backwaters, places where he can listen to stories and try to get a feel for what Best calls the “rest of Colorado.” Pueblo, population 110,000 in southern Colorado, is a gritty town he likes a lot.
Pueblo has been forced to pivot away from a creaky, coal-fired power plant that created well-paying jobs. Now, the local steel mill relies on solar power instead, and the town also hosts a factory that makes wind turbine towers. He’s written stories about these radical changes as well as the possibility that Russian oligarchs are involved in the city’s steel mill.
Best also vacuums up stories from towns like Craig in northwestern Colorado, home to soon-to-be-closed coal plants. He says he finds Farmington, New Mexico, fascinating because it has electric transmission lines idling from shuttered coal power plants.
His Big Pivots may only have 1,091 subscribers, but story tips and encouragement come from some of his readers who hold jobs with clout. His feature “There Will Be Fire: Colorado arrives at the dawn of megafires” brought comments from climate scientist Michael Mann and Amory Lovins, legendary co-founder of The Rocky Mountain Institute.
“After a lifetime in journalism, his writing has become more lyrical as he’s become more passionate,” says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Ski Company. “Yet he’s also completely unknown despite the quality of his work.”
Among utility insiders, and outsiders like myself, however, Best is a must-read.
His biggest donor has been Sam R. Walton’s Catena Foundation — a $29,000 grant. Typically, supporters of his nonprofit give Big Pivots $25 or $50.
Living in Denver allows him to be close to the state’s shot callers, but often, his most compelling stories come from the rural fringe. One such place is the little-known Republican River, whose headwaters emerge somewhere on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. That’s also where Best’s grandfather was born in an earthen “soddie.”
Best grew up in eastern Colorado and knows the treeless area well. He’s written half a dozen stories about the wrung-out Republican River that delivers water to neighboring Kansas. He also sees the Eastern Plains as a great story about the energy transition. With huge transmission lines under construction by the utility giant Xcel Energy, the project will feed renewable power from wind and solar to the cities of Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins.
Best admits he’s sometimes discouraged by his small readership — it can feel like he’s speaking to an empty auditorium, he says. He adds, though, that while “I may be a tiny player in Colorado journalism, I’m still a player.”
He’s also modest. With every trip down Colorado’s back roads to dig up stories, Best says he’s humbled by what he doesn’t know. “Just when I think I understand something, I get slapped up the side of the head.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Durango, Colorado.
Elected officials in Glenwood Springs are quite certain of two realities facing the largest town between the Denver metro area and Grand Junction on Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line: Freight rail, especially for fossil fuels, is king. And climate change is an everyday reality.
“Glenwood Springs is the poster child for climate change,” said former Glenwood mayor and current City Council member Jonathan Godes, an outspoken opponent of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway oil-train project in Utah. “Something that contributes 53 million metric tons of carbon a year … is absolutely something that our community and every other mountain community in Colorado that relies on it not being 100 degrees every day in the summer or 50 degrees in the winter should be fighting on its face.”
But the fact that the new 88-mile railroad in northeast Utah would send up to five fully loaded, two-mile-long oil trains a day through Glenwood and Denver on their way to Gulf Coast refineries has prompted the Colorado River city of 10,300 in Garfield County to support Eagle County’s litigation opposing federal approval of the project, and, more recently, to fire off letters to federal officials opposing tax-exempt funding for the railway and a Utah loading facility expansion.
On Aug. 3, Glenwood Mayor Ingrid Wussow wrote U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urging him to “deny issuing funding through tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds (PABs) to the Uinta Basin Railway Project. The approval of and funding for the Railway carries grave implications for both the environmental health and economic stability of Glenwood Springs and other communities along the Railway’s corridor.”
Wussow added she’ll be in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18 to 20, with a delegation from the city and requested a meeting with Buttigieg to discuss the oil train project, which would travel along the climate-change endangered Colorado River for approximately 100 miles. In a separate letter dated Aug. 7, Wussow wrote Greg Sheehan, Utah state director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to request a full environmental impact statement for an oil truck and rail loading facility on BLM land in Utah rather than a less-intensive environmental assessment.
“Glenwood Springs is a world destination for outdoor recreation and the home for irreplaceable natural wonders,” Wussow wrote. “Given the magnitude of the Railway project, these risks to the natural environment are significant.”
Godes can doom scroll through a long list of climate calamities in Glenwood Springs he says are directly attributable to the burning of fossil fuels, rising temperatures and increased aridification of Colorado. He points to the Storm King Fire in 1994 that killed 14 wildland firefighters, the Coal Seam Fire in 2002 that burned down 29 Glenwood structures, and the Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020 that scoured Glenwood Canyon and shut down Interstate 70 for two weeks. The following summer, a 500-year rain event hit the burn scar and dumped mud and rock on the highway and train tracks below, shutting down I-70 for another two weeks.
“So climate change, it’s not just, ‘It’s hot in America right now,’” Godes said. “Climate change is something that threatens us in Glenwood Springs on a year-in and year-out basis. It’s ever-present. It is where our insurance rates are determined. It is where we allow houses to be built. It is where streets are contemplated for escape routes.”
One might think the environmental benefits of trains — up to 75% lower greenhouse gas emissions than moving freight by truck, according to the rail industry — would ease some of Glenwood’s concerns, but Godes argues that depends on the freight. The Uinta Basin oil should stay in the ground to begin with, he argues, while also scoffing at the notion of enhanced passenger trains as a potential tourism-boon side effect of increased rail traffic overall. [ed. emphasis mine]
“My mom comes from Iowa every year on the California’s Zephyr,” Godes said of the daily Amtrak service through Glenwood to Chicago and San Francisco. “She gets on near Burlington, Iowa, and then she comes out here, and it’s always four or five hours late. And most of the time it’s because somewhere in Colorado, and most likely between Denver and here, there was a train with a higher priority, whether it was oil or coal or other materials or commodities.”
“I’d love to have some kind of passenger rail like the California Zephyr be able to service the tourism industry to get tourists from the Front Range to Vail, from Pueblo, Colorado Springs, over Tennessee Pass,” Godes said. “That’s all fine and dandy. It’s a really nice, fun idea that could be helpful to our tourist economy. But if it comes with the risk of opening the door, even a crack, to regular freight rail on the Tennessee line, I think that is going to be incredibly — and it doesn’t affect me because we get that freight rail through Glenwood no matter what — but I think that is incredibly problematic for Eagle County, Chaffee County, for all the communities on that line.”
Fears about derailments
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry, whose government is the lead litigant in efforts to block the Uinta Basin project from sending oil trains through a corner of the county, was initially open to passenger rail but very leery of freight returning to the Tennessee Pass tracks along the Eagle River, which bisects the county before flowing into the Colorado River.
“If there’s going to be cargo trains and no passengers, then all we have is the impacts of noise and train crossings to deal with again,” Chandler-Henry said in 2020. “But if we also have people moving on those lines, I think this could be a great benefit to us.” A small segment of Union Pacific’s Tennessee Pass Line is currently leased by the scenic Royal Gorge Route.
Beginning in the 1950s, the United States government, at the behest of the auto and aviation industries, prioritized interstate highways and airports over passenger rail, relegating rail to primarily freight lines with little tolerance for passenger service. In 1997, the only other rail line through the Colorado Rockies — the Tennessee Pass Line — was mothballed in favor of the Central Corridor. But it had not seen passengers on its tracks since 1964.
Terry Armistead, the Minturn mayor pro tem and a member of the Minturn Railroad Committee, does not speak for the whole committee or the entire town council, but she does not want to see the revival of either freight or passenger service in the former rail and mining town off the back side of Vail Mountain.
“We’re not Europe. I just was there riding the trains, and it was incredible. But this mountain corridor is really problematic for commuter traffic and any kind of freight traffic,” Armistead said. “I have real fears about derailments, and Minturn is finally recovering from the disaster that was the Eagle Mine, with the river running orange. We can’t afford to do that again.”
“People have this romantic idea of it, but they don’t really quite understand the logistics of this rail line. I don’t think it will work for commuter traffic,” even for people who live in Leadville and work in Vail, Armistead said. “If you drove the Leadville 100 at 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. back up to Leadville, you’d understand. People aren’t giving up their cars to spend an extra hour on a train every day. I mean, people are not going to do it. They don’t have the time.”
Sal Pace, a former Pueblo County commissioner and state lawmaker who serves on the Front Range Passenger Rail board of directors, said in a previous interview that the primary focus of FRPR is passenger rail along the Front Range between Pueblo and Fort Collins, where more than 80% of the state’s population is located.
But Pace acknowledges his group has been, to a much lesser degree, exploring connectivity to the west, including the passenger trains already using Union Pacific’s Central Corridor through the Moffat Tunnel, but also by connecting to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which cuts through southeast Colorado on its route between Chicago and Los Angeles.
“We’re also going to explore other potential opportunities,” Pace said of currently active segments of the Tennessee Pass Line. “There’s already potential for connectivity from Pueblo to the Royal Gorge Route and it’s not out of the question that individuals could purchase a train ticket from Denver to the Royal Gorge after we build out Front Range Passenger Rail, where in Pueblo they’d change trains. The infrastructure is there, and it’s something that needs to be examined and explored.”
Colorado is starting another chapter in what could be a future history book, “How We Decarbonized our Economy.”
In that book, electricity will be the easy part, at least the storyline through 80% to 90% reduction in emissions. That chapter is incomplete. We may not figure out 100% emissions-free electricity on a broad scale for a couple more decades.
This new chapter is about tamping down emissions associated with buildings. This plot line will be more complicated. Instead of dealing with a dozen or so coal plants, we have hundreds of thousands of buildings in Colorado, maybe more. Most burn natural gas and propane to heat space and water.
I would start this chapter on August 1. Appropriately, that’s Colorado Day. It’s also the day that Xcel Energy and Colorado Springs Utilities will deliver the nation’s very first clean-heat plans to state regulators.
Those clean heat plans, required by a 2021 law, will tell state agencies how they intend to reduce emissions from the heat they sell to customers. The targets are 4% by 2025 and 22% by 2030.
Wishing I had a sex scandal to weave into this chapter or at least something lurid, maybe a conspiracy or two. Think Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown.”
Arguments between utilities and environmental advocates remain polite. Both sides recognize the need for new technologies. The disagreements lie in how best to invest resources that will pay off over time.
The environmental groups see great promise in electrification, particularly the use of air-source heat pumps. Heat pumps milk the heat out of even very cold air (or, in summer, coolness from hot air).
Good enough for prime time? I know of people in Avon, Fraser, and Gunnison who say heat-pumps deliver even on the coldest winter days.
Xcel says that heat pumps have a role—but cautions that cold temperatures and higher elevations impair their performance by about 10% as compared to testing in coastal areas. They will need backup gas heat or electric resistance heating. After two winters of testing at the National Research Energy Laboratory in Golden, the testing of heat pumps will move to construction trailers set up in Leadville, Colorado’s Two-Mile City next winter.
Xcel also frets about adding too much demand, too quickly, to the electrical grid.
Another, perhaps sharper argument has to do with other fuels that would allow Xcel to use its existing gas pipelines. Xcel and other gas utilities have put out a request for renewable natural gas, such as could be harvested from dairies. Xcel also plans to create hydrogen from renewable resources, blending it with natural gas. It plans a demonstration project using existing infrastructure in Adams County, northeast of Denver.
Jeff Lyng, Xcel Energy’s vice president for energy and sustainability policy, talks about the need for a “spectrum of different approaches.” It is far too early, Lyng told me, to take any possible technology off the table.
In a 53-page analysis, Western Resource Advocates sees a greater role for weatherization and other measures to reduce demand for gas. It sees renewable gas, in particular, but also hydrogen, as more costly and slowing the broad market transformation that is necessary.
“I think there’s a real tension that came out between different visions of a low-carbon future when it comes to the gas system,” Meera Fickling, an economist with WRA, told me.
We already have a huge ecosystem of energy, a huge investment in natural gas. Just think of all the natural gas lines buried under our streets. No wonder this transition will be difficult.
“It’s more difficult because everything you do in the gas sector now has a spillover effect in the electric sector,” says Jeff Ackermann, the former chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. “Each of these sectors moves in less than smooth, elegant steps. We don’t want people to fall off one and onto the other and get lost in the transition. There has to be sufficient energy of whatever type.”
Getting back to the book chapter. Colorado has nibbled around the edges of how to end emissions from buildings. With these proceedings, Colorado is moving headlong into this very difficult challenge. The foreplay is done. It’s action time.
Xcel talks about a decades-long transition and stresses the need to understand “realistic limitations in regard to both technologies and circumstances.”
Keep in mind, 25 years ago, it had little faith in wind and even less in solar.
Do you see a role for Jack Nicholson in hearings and so forth during the next year? I don’t. Even so, it promises to be a most interesting story.
The month of July 2023 just ended. It is in the record books as the hottest month in the history of the world while humans have been around; or at least in the past 120,000 years or so. It will obliterate the record for the hottest recorded month, upping the record by a formerly unheard of potential 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, according to a report from the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization and the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, it was hotter this past month than anything we’ve seen in the last 80 or so years. But then again, humans only have data for about 100 years or so; an era considered the “sweet spot” in planet livability for humans.
This past month is the latest in a string of records that have made the past nine years the hottest in the history of our planet. Anyone who can read data knows we’re in trouble. On July 27, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres made an urgent speech in New York warning that the only surprise is the speed of climate change, saying “Climate change is here, it is terrifying and it is just the beginning.” He declared that “the era of global boiling has arrived.” Add to the extreme heat, the extreme weather that feels as if it is all happening at once, and we could be forgiven for wondering what on earth is going on. The answer is that ‘on earth”, we humans continue to screw it up, pumping billions of particles of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere; fueling an accelerating climate crisis.
In the ultimate irony, as the temperatures have surged across the affluent parts of the world, people there are cranking up their air conditioning — creating an endless cycle of climate disruption.
KARACHI: The month of July has rewritten the record books as it stands out as the hottest month ever on a global scale. Unrelenting heat waves have sizzled large swathes of Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia, leaving countries grappling with severe weather conditions. From Puerto Rico to Pakistan, Iran, India, and all the way to Siberia, climate records have not just been shattered, but smashed.
In June more than 4.7 million hectares of land in Canada were scorched by wildfires, painting skylines an eerie shade of orange over Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto, where a dense haze obstructed views of the CN Tower, a 553.3-meter-tall iconic landmark that dominates the downtown skyline of one of Canada’s largest cities. However, this was not just Canada’s problem; billowing smoke traveled across continents, reaching as far as Europe, serving as a wake-up call for everyone trying to ignore the climate crisis and its far-reaching consequences.
A month later, all efforts were concentrated on dousing blazes raging on the Greek islands of Evia and Corfu, in addition to Rhodes, where wind-whipped infernos forced the government to evacuate more than 19,000 tourists and residents. The scars left behind by these fires are all too visible. Many towns in Greece were left with a severe shortage of water because of the damage to their resources. According to the country’s weather Institute, Greece faced the longest heatwave in its history, with its hottest July weekend in 50 years, with the mercury rising in some parts up to 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).
To leading scientists, none of this comes as a surprise. The likely trajectory of climate change, given the current global performance on emissions reduction, has been spelled out repeatedly by climate experts, and their cries have been falling on deaf ears for quite some time. While warming caused by greenhouse gases is not unexpected, seeing some of the climate records being broken was not anticipated. The global average temperature has been rising, and in July this year, it broke through 17 degrees for the first time. Furthermore, the record for the hottest day on earth fell not just once but three times in a week. And it is not just the land that is warmer; the oceans, which take up most of the world’s heat, have also witnessed unprecedented temperatures.
Uinta Basin rail project in Utah could result in dramatic increase of hazardous material on Union Pacific line through Colorado
State officials since last spring have quietly been reaching out to communities along Colorado’s main east-west rail line to gauge local sentiment as the state negotiates a new lease with rail giant Union Pacific, which pays $12,000 a year to send trains through the state-owned Moffat Tunnel.
Union Pacific’s 99-year lease to use the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel expires Jan. 6, 2025, and Kate McIntire, a regional manager for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, has been tasked with “developing our list of concerns, potential opportunities, roles, responsibilities, and ways stakeholders would like to ensure they’re involved in the negotiation.”
McIntire, in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the recently formed Public-Private Partnership (P3) Collaboration Unit of the Department of Personnel and Administration, will be ramping up outreach this fall and through 2024.
McIntire expects to hear more input from counties and towns along Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line between Denver and Grand Junction about the controversial 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway proposal in Utah. The project would send up to 350,000 additional barrels of oil per day along the route, which travels for about 100 miles along the headwaters of the endangered Colorado River.
“Yes, some of those comments came up and were addressed more directly to Union Pacific,” McIntire said of meetings the state has already held with Denver Water, which uses the Moffat Tunnel’s original 1922 bore hole for transmountain water diversions; Adams, Gilpin, Grand and Jefferson counties; and the cities of Arvada, Golden, Winter Park, Fraser and Kremmling.
Asked to characterize some of the comments she’s hearing on an oil train project that’s already been approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and on the high end would more than quintuple the amount of freight rail traffic on Colorado’s Western Slope, McIntire offered this:
“I’ll just kind of draw back on the fact that we’re really early in a complex process with legal considerations, roles, responsibilities, and potential opportunities that may or may not be tied to the lease,” McIntire said. “But we’re definitely aware of those concerns, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure stakeholders are engaged.”
The city of Denver estimates the Uinta Basin project will quadruple the amount of hazardous materials transported by rail through the metro area as up to five two-mile-long oil trains a day chug east through the Moffat Tunnel at the base of the city-owned Winter Park Resort ski area and then make their way down through Denver and toward Gulf Coast refineries.
Eagle County, where the Central Corridor rail line separates from Interstate 70 at Dotsero and follows the Colorado River through remote canyons northeast into Grand County, is suing the Surface Transportation Board to overturn or at least more comprehensively consider the down-the-line impacts of Uinta Basin trains from inevitable derailments, spills, wildfires and climate change.
Environmental groups have also filed suit, and Eagle County has the support of Glenwood Springs, Minturn, Avon, Red Cliff, Vail, Routt, Boulder, Chaffee, Lake and Pitkin counties.
Seeking more state support
“Still conspicuously absent in these efforts is the state of Colorado,” Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu wrote in an email. “Anything the state can do to get off the sidelines and participate would be appreciated. We would encourage the state to use all tools at its disposal, including any Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations, to protect every Colorado community along the rail corridor that will be forced to face very real risks of derailment, spills, water contamination and fires.”
Asked to characterize the comments the Nebraska-based railroad company is hearing on the Uinta Basin Railway and whether it’s appropriate for Colorado to consider opposition to the Utah project in its Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver responded: “Union Pacific is aware the Moffat Tunnel lease expires in 2025, and negotiations are underway,” Tysver wrote in an email. “Union Pacific is required by federal law to transport hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including crude oil, fertilizer and chlorine, and 99.9% of the hazardous material shipped by rail reaches its destination safely.”
Union Pacific chief safety officer Rod Doerr on Monday told the Colorado General Assembly’s Transportation Legislation Review Committee the company hasn’t specifically analyzed the risks of increased oil-train traffic from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway project. The committee will meet again in August to consider potential legislation in the next session that starts in January.
Since the General Assembly first created the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District for taxing purposes in 1922 and still owns the tunnel and administers it via DOLA, the terms of the lease might logically be a topic of discussion.
“It’s crazy that Union Pacific pays Colorado far less rent for the Moffat Tunnel than the median price of a studio apartment in Denver,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing to stop the oil trains. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for (Gov. Jared Polis) to protect Colorado communities, our water, our rivers, and our public lands from hazardous materials spills from trains that travel through the Moffat Tunnel.”
Eagle County’s Treu, who said he’s yet to hear from the state on the Moffat lease, would like to see a lot more pushback from the state against federal approvals for the Utah oil-train partnership backing the project, which is still seeking funding via tax-exempt U.S. Department of Transportation bonds.
“We asked the (Colorado Attorney General’s) office to participate as an amicus party in our litigation against the Surface Transportation Board,” Treu said. “The state declined, leaving us to fend for ourselves. That response was surprising considering the crux of this litigation is STB’s complete failure to consider the downline impacts to the sensitive Colorado River corridor through all of Colorado. This isn’t just an Eagle County issue.”
The office of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser responded with the following statement:
“As the Attorney General said in his letter to the federal government, the Uinta Basin Railway proposal is as risky to our environment and communities as it is unsupported by Coloradans. It should not move forward. And it most definitely should not receive federal subsidies. The Attorney General’s Office has visited with advocates on the risks the UBR poses to our state, has collaborated with Colorado’s congressional delegation on options to prevent construction, and is committed to visiting with any group with ideas on how to protect Colorado’s environment from this risky venture.”
In various forms, both Colorado U.S. senators — Democrats Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper — and a majority of the state’s U.S. House delegation, particularly Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, have reached out to a variety of federal agencies to oppose the Uinta Basin Railway.
Jonathan Godes, a Glenwood Springs City Council member and former mayor whose term ended in April, said he has yet to be contacted by DOLA on the Moffat Tunnel lease, but he looks forward to hearing from McIntire, who is a former Grand County manager and former acting Jefferson County manager.
Godes says he doesn’t yet have enough information to comment on the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations or possibly using them to restrict hazardous material transport through Glenwood.
“But I will say that I’m really glad that both of our senators, Congressman Neguse, commissioners in Eagle County, Grand County, and leaders in dozens of municipalities all agree that this is objectively and definitively a horrible idea for our communities, for the Western Slope, the mountain communities in the state of Colorado,” Godes said. “I’m looking forward to when the state decides to join up with our congressional delegation and our local leaders in solidarity against this abomination.”
Tennessee Pass Line
Terry Armistead, a Minturn Town Council member, mayor pro tem, and a member of the Minturn Railroad Committee, made it clear she was not speaking for the whole committee or the entire town council, but she acknowledged she has spoken to McIntire.
“In regards to the Tennessee Pass Line, I heard nothing in that short meeting of any substance, unfortunately. It was kind of anticlimactic,” Armistead said of a long-dormant Union Pacific rail line that connects to the Central Corridor at Dotsero and heads southeast along the Eagle and Arkansas rivers to Pueblo — a route that if revived would avoid the Moffat Tunnel and Denver altogether.
That is one of the fears Eagle County expressed in its litigation — added pressure to restart rail traffic on the Tennessee Pass Line through Avon and the former mining and railroad towns of Minturn and Red Cliff off the backside of Vail Mountain.
Armistead said she started calling Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr, who used to be mayor and still lives in Minturn, four years ago when the TPL revival idea first came up, telling him, “Minturn is too small a voice in the room, and we can’t do this alone; the county needs to speak for all of us.” She supports the county’s position regarding the Moffat Tunnel lease and would like to see Union Pacific be allowed to formally abandon the TPL for an outdoor recreation trail.
“I’m not going to mince words. I would love to see (the Tennessee Pass) rail ripped up,” Armistead said of the line that’s been dormant since 1997 — the year after a Union Pacific and Southern Pacific merger. “I would love to see them sell us, or sell somebody the land, and develop the rail yard in Minturn. I’ve been saying it for years.”
DOLA’s McIntire could not say if the status of the Tennessee Pass Line will be at all considered in the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, since it’s a separate and active Union Pacific rail line.
“We’re still very early in this process and we really haven’t determined whether that’s a separate issue or not,” McIntire said. “I don’t want to come out and say that that’s not going to be something that we’re going to address.”
For Union Pacific, which did try to formally abandon the TPL in the late 1990s after the merger — only to be snubbed on that front by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board — it’s somewhat of a moot point.
“We have no plans of reopening the Tennessee Pass,” Union Pacific’s Tysver said.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently earned applause from environmental groups for a move that went largely unnoticed.
For the first time, the U.S. government in 2022 included methane emissions from dams and reservoirs in its annual report of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to the Inventory of Greenhouse Gases and Sinks required by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change…
While we’ve long known that coal and gas-fired power plants emit troubling amounts of greenhouse gases, research has found that reservoirs can emit significant amounts of methane, too — which has a global warming potential 85 times that of carbon dioxide over 20 years — along with smaller amounts of nitrous oxide and CO2.
Emissions from some reservoirs can even rival that of fossil fuel power plants. Yet, until now, there’s been no real accounting at the national or international level for these emissions, which fall under the category of “flooded lands.”
“To our knowledge, the U.S. is the first country to include estimates of methane emissions from flooded lands in their greenhouse gas inventory,” the EPA press office told The Revelator.
That may be in part because calculating reservoir emissions isn’t a simple task, as The Revelator reported last year:
“Tracking emissions from reservoirs is complicated and highly variable. Emissions can change at different times of the year or even day. They’re influenced by how the dam is managed, including fluctuations in the water level, as well as a host of environmental factors like water quality, depth, sediment, surface wind speed and temperature.”
EPA researchers are working to improve how they calculate those emissions, and they’re also conducting a four-year study of CO2 and methane emissions from 108 randomly selected U.S. reservoirs. This aims to “inform a greater understanding of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from U.S. reservoirs, and the environmental factors that determine the rate of greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs,” according to the agency’s website…
Last year [Save the Colorado], along with more than 100 other organizations, petitioned the EPA to begin a rulemaking to include dams and reservoirs under the United States’ Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, which currently requires 8,000 facilities, including coal- and gas-burning power plants, to declare their greenhouse gas emissions. Hydroelectric plants and other reservoirs aren’t currently included in that list.
There are a few reasons why they should report their emissions, the petitioners explain. Hydropower is largely regarded as a clean, emissions-free energy source — although research suggests otherwise.
“As a result, the federal government, states and utilities frequently make decisions regarding climate policies and advancing toward a cleaner electric sector based on incomplete information and mistaken assumptions regarding dams and reservoirs’ greenhouse gas emissions,” the petition states.
If operators of hydroelectric dams are required to regularly report emissions, that would help agencies, nonprofits and the public better assess whether current dams should be relicensed or decommissioned — and whether new projects should be built.
The result, the petitioners say, would be “better-informed climate policies and better-informed permitting decisions.” A win-win.
The United States continuing to report dam emissions to the United Nations, and at home, would also send an important international signal.
Click the link to register for the webinar on the NGWA website:
In this one-day short course, you will learn about the equipment and tools used to drill and install vertical ground loops. You will also learn the proper procedures for grouting geothermal boreholes.
The ground source heat pump industry has increased in activity with the extension of both the residential and commercial geothermal tax credits that were signed into law in 2022. As geothermal involves more work than an average water well, proper education is key for groundwater professionals to understand what is required.
Additionally, ISCO Industries will guide you through the proper methods of thermally fusing HDPE pipe. The demonstration, followed by hands-on participation, will focus on the two most common methods of thermal fusion applicable to the geothermal industry: manual butt fusion and socket fusion. All equipment and materials will be provided for your use. Upon completion, you will leave with an understanding of why HDPE is the absolute best material for geothermal installations.
A scorcher has settled over the entire Southwestern United States, with highs expected to hit the triple digits for several days in a row from Bakersfield to Las Vegas to Grand Junction. Phoenicians will be doing the Summer Solstice Swelter during that long day and short night—the minimum temperature is sticking at just below 90 degrees, to give even those used-to-be-cool predawn hours an ovenlike ambience.
That type of heat can cause the human body to go haywire, short-circuiting the renal system, causing the brain to swell, blood pressure to drop, heart-rate to increase, blood clots to form. Last year this heat-caused cascading failure proved fatal for more than 300 people in greater Phoenix.
Now, the electricity grid is not a living organism, but it can behave like one in a variety of ways. And just as excessive heat can ripple through the vital organs of the body, so too can it trigger chain reactions and feedback loops in the power system that keeps society churning along. Which is why during heatwaves like this one—that threatens to drag on in varying degrees of intensity throughout the summer—the power often goes out, right when folks need it most to keep their homes habitable.
To continue with the body metaphor, the grid has a heart, made up of all of the generators such as power plants and wind farms and so forth; a circulation system made up of arteries (high voltage transmission lines) and capillaries (distribution lines that carry power to your home or business); and organs, or the electricity consumers. The supply of power generated must always be equal to the collective demand. If demand kicks up, then the grid operators (the brain) have to increase the output of the “heart” accordingly.
In the West, we get our power from the Western Interconnect, which is actually broken up into about 38 separate grids, each with its own heart and brain and organs.
On a summer’s afternoon, as the temperature rises, thermostats signal air-conditioners to start running in order to keep homes and businesses comfortable and—in some cases—survivable. Cooling space requires a lot of energy. A 2013 study found that during extreme heat events, about half of all electricity use goes toward space-cooling of some sort. So when some 18 million residential AC units, plus all of the commercial units, kick in across the West, it increases the demand—or load—on the respective electricity grids significantly.
Some of that sudden increase in demand is offset by a corresponding uptick in solar generation, if available on the grid, and wind power—assuming the wind’s blowing at the time. The problem is, solar generation tends to peak in the early afternoon, but temperatures—and therefore AC-related demand—peak a few hours later. Grid operators need to turn to other resources in order to match that late afternoon peak.
Probably the best source of “peaking” power is a hydroelectric dam, which is essentially a big battery in that it stores energy in the form of water that can be run through turbines to generate power at the flip of a switch. Except, well, in the hottest, driest years, just when that hydropower is most needed, hydroelectricity is in short supply thanks to shrinking reservoirs.
Meanwhile, the nuclear reactors that are currently in service can’t be ramped up or down to “follow the load.” The same goes for coal power plants. Still, those sources provide important baseload, a fairly constant stream of power. Yet many thermal power plants run less efficiently when the ambient temperature is high, and nearly all of them—whether nuclear, coal, or natural gas (steam, not turbine)—need billions of gallons of water per year for cooling and steam-generation purposes, another problem during drought. And the warmer that water is, the less effective it is: Nuclear plants have been forced to shut down because the cooling water is too warm.
Since grid operators have no control over wind or solar generation and there aren’t enough batteries online yet, they have little choice but to turn to natural gas peaker plants, which can be cranked up quickly but are also expensive to run and emit more pollutants than conventional plants, including greenhouse gases that warm the climate and exacerbate heat waves and drought. Sometimes even that’s not enough to meet demand and grid operators must “shed load,” or do rolling power outages.
And that smoke? It’s not so good for solar power: Smoke from wildfires was so thick last summer that it blotted out the sun and diminished solar power generation in California, which meant grid operators had to scramble to make up for the loss.
Even when the power does make it to the air conditioners without triggering disasters, troubles remain. Air conditioners work by pulling heat from indoors and blowing it outside, as anyone who has walked past an AC vent when its running has experienced. Multiply that phenomenon by hundreds of thousands and you’ll get an increase in nighttime temperatures and exacerbate the urban heat island effect, according to a study by an Arizona State University researcher. Not only are the emissions from generating power to run the air conditioners heating things up, but so is running the air conditioners, themselves.
And heat doesn’t affect everyone equally. Various studies have found that heat disproportionately affects people of color and those who live in lower-income neighborhoods. That’s in part because those neighborhoods don’t have as many trees or green-spaces, which mitigate the urban heat islands. And it’s also due to the fact that they are less likely to be able to afford air conditioning equipment or the electricity to run them. It’s just another way in which wealth inequality ripples throughout society, creating health inequality, quality of life inequality, opportunity inequality, and so forth.
The first priority is to help the people who are most affected by the heat and the resulting grid failures, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions so as not to exacerbate the heat even further. And we need to pursue solutions for the grid, by installing more batteries and energy storage, breaking down the divisions between the balkanized grids in the West, expanding transmission in some places to enable moving clean power across big distances so that solar and wind from the Interior can match up with California’s demand peak, while also focusing on micro-grids for fire-prone areas and rooftop solar paired with batteries—for everyone, not just the wealthy—so that the grid becomes somewhat redundant.
It’s a massive challenge, but we have to take it on before it’s too late.
And on the lighter side, please witness comedian Blair Erskine’s impression of a spokesperson for the Texas grid:
Climate-driven changes in drought could disrupt electricity systems that depend heavily on hydropower, potentially increasing generation from fossil fuel sources. Impacts from the associated emissions and air pollution could represent a large and unaccounted-for social cost of climate change. We empirically quantify the impacts of drought on fossil fuel power plants in the western United States and the consequent effects on emissions and air quality. Damages through these channels are estimated to be 1.2 to 2.5x the increase in direct economic cost of drought-induced fossil fuel electricity generation. Under future climate, these drought-induced impacts likely remain large due to increasing drought risks, and we find that even rapid expansion of renewable energy has limited ability to curb these impacts.
The western United States has experienced severe drought in recent decades, and climate models project increased drought risk in the future. This increased drying could have important implications for the region’s interconnected, hydropower-dependent electricity systems. Using power-plant level generation and emissions data from 2001 to 2021, we quantify the impacts of drought on the operation of fossil fuel plants and the associated impacts on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, air quality, and human health. We find that under extreme drought, electricity generation from individual fossil fuel plants can increase up to 65% relative to average conditions, mainly due to the need to substitute for reduced hydropower. Over 54% of this drought-induced generation is transboundary, with drought in one electricity region leading to net imports of electricity and thus increased pollutant emissions from power plants in other regions. These drought-induced emission increases have detectable impacts on local air quality, as measured by proximate pollution monitors. We estimate that the monetized costs of excess mortality and GHG emissions from drought-induced fossil generation are 1.2 to 2.5x the reported direct economic costs from lost hydro production and increased demand. Combining climate model estimates of future drying with stylized energy-transition scenarios suggests that these drought-induced impacts are likely to remain large even under aggressive renewables expansion, suggesting that more ambitious and targeted measures are needed to mitigate the emissions and health burden from the electricity sector during drought.
Every transition produces winners and losers. U.S. fiscal policy shifted in the 1880s and the economy of Aspen cratered for decades. Some silver-mining towns never recovered. In the 1980s, newspapers were plentiful. Ink now stains far fewer printers and editorial wretches. Amazon thrives but Sears and Kmart, no more.\
How will Colorado’s coal-based towns transition as we quell emissions from energy production? Legislation of recent years seeks to deliver what lawmakers call a just transition, meaning that Pueblo, Craig and other coal-based communities will stay on their feet.
The newest round of job-producing investments in emission-free technologies, though, call into question how difficult that will be. Two new factories are to be created in Brighton, on metropolitan Denver’s northeastern fringe. The combined investment of $450 million will deliver more than 1,200 average- to better-paying jobs.
VSK Energy will manufacture solar photovoltaic panels and will employ more than 900 people. It is a direct result of incentives in the federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which seeks to restore U.S. manufacturing of renewable energy components.\
The second factory will produce a new generation of energy-rich lithium-ion batteries. The company, Amprius Technology, says that a new anode, which will use silicon mined in Montana, will double the range of a Tesla, allowing it more than enough capacity to roam Colorado from corner to corner and the ability to juice up to 80% capacity in six minutes. The company also says the new batteries will deliver value to drones and aircraft. Sounds like a game-changer.
Both companies cited proximity to Interstate 76 as a significant consideration in siting their factories. They also have proximity to I-25, I-70 and I-80 plus Denver International Airport. If of not immediate importance, they also have access to transcontinental rail lines.
Availability of a large, skilled workforce was also cited. The battery company also cited the proximity of the Colorado School of Mines and other universities. It will employ a half-dozen Ph.Ds. in the research facility associated with the factory.
Something more intangible was also in play. It was described as a “strong cultural fit” by Ashwini Agarwal, the leader of Vikram Solar, the parent company for the solar manufacturer. Supply chains matter, but Colorado’s initiative in accelerating the energy transition also matters.
Andrew Huie, the vice president of infrastructure for Amprius, said something similar. “Colorado and Gov. Polis are embracing clean energy, and batteries align with Colorado’s clean energy goals,” he told me. “There may be synergies.”
Other companies are also carving out futures in this new energy economy along the Front Range. The Denver Business Journal recently cited three companies from Denver to Fort Collins that hope to stake a future with new batteries. And Lightning eMotors manufactures electric vehicles in Loveland.
Brighton already has Vestas, which arrived in 2010 to manufacture nacelles, containing the gearboxes and drive trains for wind turbines. Vestas also built a factory in Pueblo, near the Comanche Generating Station.
CS Wind, now the owner of the Pueblo factory, this year began an expansion that will add 850 jobs. It cited Inflation Reduction Act provisions that encourage wind production.
Jeffrey Shaw, president of the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, said he expects announcement of other renewable-sector projects in the Pueblo area and probably throughout the state during the next 12 to 18 months. “A lot of it has to do with the Inflation Reduction Act,” he said, and in particular the law’s buy-American provision.
Already, Pueblo County has been rapidly adding both solar and storage. But so far, the new tax base for Pueblo won’t balance that from Comanche. Xcel Energy, Comanche’s primary owner, has agreed to pay taxes until 2040.
Western Slope towns dependent on coal extraction and combustion are a harder sell. At Craig, there was hope on becoming a hydrogen hub, but Colorado has pinned its highest hope for federal funding on a project involving Rawhide, the coal but soon to become gas plant near Brush. Nuclear has its fans in Craig and beyond, and the Economist notes that the Biden administration is dangling billions in financial incentives nationally. That same magazine also concludes that unresolved problems cloud the future of this technology.
As for new factories, Craig is 90 miles from the nearest interstate, at the end of a railroad and five hours from DIA. It does have a workforce with skills, but so far, no new applications for those skills.
At Nucla and Naturita, which losy their small coal plant in 2019, the challenge is even greater.
Maybe Craig, Hayden, and the other towns will figure out new careers by working with the state and the utilities. But maybe not.