Greenhouse gas pollution caused by human activities trapped 49% more heat in the atmosphere in 2021 than they did in 1990, according to NOAA scientists.
NOAA’s Annual Greenhouse Gas Index, known as the AGGI, tracks increases in the warming influence of human emissions of heat-trapping gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and 16 other chemicals. The AGGI converts the complex scientific computations of how much extra heat these gases capture into a single number that can easily be compared to previous years and tracks the rate of change.
The AGGI is indexed to 1990, the baseline year for the Kyoto Protocol and the year the first IPCC Scientific Assessment of Climate Change was published.
“The AGGI tells us the rate at which we are driving global warming,” said Ariel Stein, the acting director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory (GML). “Our measurements show the primary gases responsible for climate change continue rising rapidly, even as the damage caused by climate change becomes more and more clear. The scientific conclusion that humans are responsible for their increase is irrefutable.”
In 2021, the AGGI reached a value of 1.49, which means that human-emitted greenhouse gases trapped 49% more heat in the atmosphere than in 1990. Because it is based primarily on highly accurate measurements of greenhouse gases in air samples collected around the globe, the result contains little uncertainty.
The biggest culprit
Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is by far the most abundant human-emitted greenhouse gas. Roughly 36 billion metric tons of CO2 are emitted each year by transportation, electrical generation, cement manufacturing, deforestation, agriculture, and many other practices. A substantial fraction of CO2 emitted today will persist in the atmosphere for more than 1,000 years. Not surprisingly, it is also the largest contributor to the AGGI in terms of both amount and rate of increase.
NOAA measurements showed the global average concentration of CO2 in 2021 was 414.7 parts per million (ppm). The annual increase was 2.6 ppm during this year, about the average annual increase for the previous decade, and much higher than the increase measured during 2000-2009. CO2 levels have risen by 61 ppm since 1990, accounting for 80% of the increased heat tracked by the AGGI since that year.
“CO2 is the main player because it stays in the atmosphere and oceans for thousands of years and it is by far the largest contributor to global warming,” said GML Senior Scientist Pieter Tans. “Eliminating CO2 pollution has to be front and center in any efforts to deal with climate change.”
Methane: Is warming feeding warming?
One of the most important scientific questions for climate scientists is what’s been driving the sharp, sustained increase of the second-most important greenhouse gas – methane – since 2006.
Levels of atmospheric methane, or CH4, averaged 1,895.7 parts per billion during 2021. The 16.9 ppb increase recorded for 2021 was the fastest observed since the early 1980s, when a more rigorous measurement regime was initiated. Methane levels are currently around 162% greater than pre-industrial levels. From NOAA’s observations, scientists estimate the amount of methane emitted in 2021 was 15% greater than the 1984-2006 period.
Methane is the second-most important greenhouse gas in warming the globe. The warming influence of CH4 since pre-industrial times is about a quarter of that from CO2. Causes for the dramatic post-2007 increase are not fully understood, but NOAA scientists have concluded that changes in isotopic composition of atmospheric methane over time point to microbial sources, likely from wetlands, agriculture and landfills, as the dominant driver. Fossil fuel emissions, they suggest, have made a smaller contribution.
“We should absolutely target man-made methane emissions – especially those from fossil fuel – because it is technologically feasible to control them,” said Xin Lan, a CIRES scientist working in the Global Monitoring Lab. “If wetlands are giving off more methane because of warming and changes in global precipitation caused by rising CO2 levels , that’s something we can’t control directly. And that would be very concerning.”
No laughing matter
The third-most important greenhouse gas is one you may have encountered as an anesthesia in the dentist’s chair. Nitrous oxide, or N2O, is another long-lived climate forcing pollutant primarily emitted by people. It is rising every year. But it’s different in that it’s being driven by expanding populations, not energy demands. N2O pollution is primarily a result of fertilizer use to support agriculture and food production, especially for an expanding global population .
“We can find alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels,” said Stephen Montzka, the GML scientist who leads the AGGI report each year, “but cutting emissions associated with producing food is a very difficult task.”
These three greenhouse gases, plus two banned ozone-depleting chemicals, account for about 96% of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere due to human activity since 1750. The remaining 4% is from 16 other greenhouse gases also tracked by the AGGI. In aggregate, they trapped an amount of heat equivalent to 508 ppm of CO2 in 2021.
One number to track human impact on climate
NOAA scientists released the first AGGI in 2006 as a way to help policymakers, educators, and the public understand the cumulative impact of greenhouse gases on climate over time.
Scientists benchmarked the AGGI to the year 1750, the onset of the Industrial Revolution, assigning it a value of zero. An AGGI value of 1.0 was assigned to 1990.
The AGGI is based on thousands of air samples collected from sites around the world each year from NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network. Concentrations of these greenhouse gases and other chemicals are determined through the analysis of those samples at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. Scientists then calculate the amount of extra heat being trapped in the Earth system by these gases and how much that has changed over time to understand the contribution from human activity.
For more information, contact Theo Stein, NOAA Communications, at email@example.com.
The North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan would have allowed 35 new fracking wells in the North Fork Valley and Thompson Divide areas
A U.S. District Court judge vacated a federal plan that allowed fracking across 35,000 acres of Colorado’s Western Slope on May 20.
The North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan would have allowed 35 new fracking wells in the North Fork Valley and Thompson Divide areas of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests that provide habitat for elk, black bear and the imperiled Canada lynx and drinking water for downstream communities. Judge Marcia K. Krieger’s order prevents new drilling and fracking in the area.
“This is a victory for the integrity of a biologically and economically diverse area,” said Melissa Hornbein, a senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “It reinforces that the federal government can’t skirt disclosing the environmental impacts of its actions. The Bureau of Land Management has to confront the dissonance between its proposal for fracking in an area already disproportionately affected by climate change and the reality that, to maintain any chance of keeping warming below the critical 1.5°C threshold, the government cannot approve any new fossil fuel projects.”
Today’s order stems from a 2021 lawsuit by conservation and climate groups challenging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service for failing to analyze potential water and climate pollution, or plan alternatives that would prevent such harm. The plan would have caused about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, equivalent to the annual pollution from a dozen coal-fired power plants.
“In this case, BLM acknowledged deficiencies in its analysis. Based on the court’s ruling, the agency must start over if they’re going to approve fossil fuel development in the area,” said Peter Hart, an attorney with Wilderness Workshop. “This will give BLM a chance to reconsider whether this is the right decision in the first place, and to contemplate alternatives that don’t destroy the headwaters of the North Fork, pristine roadless areas and our climate.”
Colorado’s Western Slope is already suffering from severe warming. The Washington Post featured the area as the largest “climate hot spot” in the lower 48 states, where temperatures have risen more than 2 degrees Celsius. The temperature rise is reducing snowpack and drying Colorado River flows that support endangered fish, agriculture and 40 million downstream water users.
“Today’s ruling is an important victory for the North Fork Valley community because it ensures government accountability and protects our vital public lands, water resources and climate from misguided oil and gas development plans,” said Natasha Léger, executive director, Citizens for a Healthy Community. “The government’s concession that its analysis of the project was inadequate would not have occurred without this citizen-led lawsuit.”
“We’re thrilled that today’s decision protects the spectacular public lands, wildlife and waters of the Upper North Fork,” said Matt Reed, public lands director for Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “Furthermore, this ill-conceived project would have impacted critical headwaters that sustain a significant organic agriculture industry immediately downstream in Delta County, whose farms are an important source of produce for Gunnison County individuals and businesses.”
Several analyses show that climate pollution from the world’s already-producing fossil fuel developments, if fully developed, would push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius, and that avoiding such warming requires ending new investment in fossil fuel projects and phasing out production to keep as much as 40% of developed fields in the ground.
“The judge’s order has spared forests, creeks and wildlife from fracking industrialization and prevented dangerous climate pollution along Colorado’s spectacular Western slope,” said Taylor McKinnon at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Now It’s time for President Biden to keep his promise and stop all new oil and gas expansion on our public lands and waters. His urgent action can help save the Colorado River basin, and the planet, for future generations.”
Thousands of organizations and communities from across the United States have called on President Biden to halt federal fossil fuel expansion and phase out production consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“Climate action starts in places like Colorado’s North Fork Valley, where it’s absolutely vital to keep fossil fuels in the ground and protect the region’s clean air and water, public lands and wild places,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “This lawsuit win is a critical victory for the climate and for western Colorado’s North Fork.”
Plaintiffs Citizens for a Healthy Community, Wilderness Workshop, High Country Conservation Advocates, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians are represented in this litigation by Western Environmental Law Center.
Background: Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide fossil fuel leasing ban on federal lands and oceans would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals.
Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroy habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have inflicted immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.
Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from the world’s already producing oil and gas fields, if fully developed, would push global warming well past 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who oversaw management of the river under President Clinton, said it’s become clear that the 1922 Colorado River Compact should be revamped to adapt to the reduced amount of water that is available as global warming compounds the 22-year megadrought in the watershed. Babbitt said that a few years ago, he had thought the seven states could get by while leaving the agreement unchanged. But the Colorado River Basin has been drying out so rapidly with rising temperatures, he said, that the pact should be updated to allow the states to proportionally scale back their water use to deal with what scientists describe as the aridification of the West.
“While I once thought that these aridification scenarios were kind of abstract and way out in the future, I don’t think that anymore,” Babbitt said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s absolutely urgent that we start thinking now, while there’s time, about how we adjust the compact, the regulations, the necessary reductions, in the most careful way so that we limit the damage, which can really be extreme.”
Babbitt said problems in the Colorado River Compact include how it was written, based on assumptions of much larger flows, and how certain provisions become unworkable under such dry conditions…One big reason they no longer work, Babbitt said, is that the century-old agreement includes a provision requiring the Upper Basin states to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the Lower Basin, the largest share of which goes to California. The Upper Basin states face future scenarios in which they would be required to make huge and disproportionate reductions in water use, Babbitt said.
Last year, the U.S. Department of the Interior [dropped the reservoir level] 8 feet…from Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison to be sent downstream to Lake Powell. The emergency action was needed to prop up water levels in the nation’s second-largest reservoir, which has hit its lowest level on record amid a 20-year, climate change-fueled megadrought in the Colorado River basin. The drop in water levels led to an early closure of the marinas, cutting six weeks out of the lake’s five-month tourism season. The National Park Service told everyone who stored their boats at the marinas that they had 10 days to remove their boats from the reservoir.
Federal and state officials said the plan is to leave Blue Mesa alone this year so it can start to recover. But they acknowledge the Colorado reservoir might be tapped again if Lake Powell needs more water to protect its ability to produce hydropower for millions of people across the West. Because of this possibility, the National Park Service has decided not to open Blue Mesa’s marinas this year…
Loken worries that the closures will hurt the local economy, which depends on recreation and tourism. While the ramp at Elk Creek will remain open, closing the docks means hundreds of people won’t be able to keep larger boats in the water for summer. Loken said many of those boat owners live out of town and don’t want to drive back and forth with their boats each time they want to visit.
Lake Powell does need more water to protect its ability to keep producing hydropower. This year, the federal government plans to take water out of the Flaming Gorge reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border while also holding back releases to downstream states. Loken said since projections show the drought will remain and likely worsen with human-caused climate change, people need to change how the Colorado River and its reservoirs are used.
The water in Lake Powell, one of the nation’s largest reservoirs, has fallen so low amid the Western drought that federal officials are resorting to emergency measures to avoid shutting down hydroelectric power at the Glen Canyon Dam.
The Arizona dam, which provides electricity to seven states, isn’t the only U.S. hydropower plant in trouble.
In the Northeast, a different kind of climate change problem has affected hydropower dams – too much rainfall all at once.
The United States has over 2,100 operational hydroelectric dams, with locations in nearly every state. They play essential roles in their regional power grids. But most were built in the past century under a different climate than they face today.
As global temperatures rise and the climate continues to change, competition for water will increase, and the way hydropower supply is managed within regions and across the power grid in the U.S. will have to evolve. Westudy the nation’s hydropower production at a systems level as engineers. Here are three key things to understand about one of the nation’s oldest sources of renewable energy in a changing climate.
Because it can quickly be turned on and off, hydroelectric power can help control minute-to-minute supply and demand changes. It can also help power grids quickly bounce back when blackouts occur. Hydropower makes up about 40% of U.S. electric grid facilities that can be started without an additional power supply during a blackout, in part because the fuel needed to generate power is simply the water held in the reservoir behind the turbine.
In addition, it can also serve as a giant battery for the grid. The U.S. has over 40 pumped hydropower plants, which pump water uphill into a reservoir and later send it through turbines to generate electricity as needed.
So, while hydroelectricity represents a small portion of generation, these dams are integral to keeping the U.S. power supply flowing.
Climate change affects hydropower in different ways in different regions
In areas where melting snow affects the river flow, hydropower potential is expected to increase in winter, when more snow falls as rain, but then decrease in summer when less snowpack is left to become meltwater. This pattern is expected to occur in much of the western U.S., along with worsening multiyear droughts that could decrease some hydropower production, depending on the how much storage capacity the reservoir has.
The Northeast has a different challenge. There, extreme precipitation that can cause flooding is expected to increase. More rain can increase power generation potential, and there are discussions about retrofitting more existing dams to produce hydropower. But since many dams there are also used for flood control, the opportunity to produce extra energy from that increasing rainfall could be lost if water is released through an overflow channel.
The effect these changes have on the nation’s power grid will depend on how each part of the grid is managed.
Agencies known as balancing authorities manage their region’s electricity supply and demand in real time.
The largest balancing authority in terms of hydroelectric generation is the Bonneville Power Administration in the Northwest. It can generate around 83,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually across 59 dams, primarily in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The Grand Coulee Dam complex alone can produce enough power for 1.8 million homes.
Much of this area shares a similar climate and will experience climate change in much the same way in the future. That means that a regional drought or snowless year could hit many of the Bonneville Power Administration’s hydropower producers at the same time. Researchers have found that this region’s climate impacts on hydropower present both a risk and opportunity for grid operators by increasing summer management challenges but also lowering winter electricity shortfalls.
In the Midwest, it’s a different story. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, has 176 hydropower plants across an area 50% larger than that of Bonneville, from northern Minnesota to Louisiana.
Since its hydropower plants are more likely to experience different climates and regional effects at different times, MISO and similarly broad operators have the capability to balance out hydropower deficits in one area with generation in other areas.
Understanding these regional climate effects is increasingly essential for power supply planning and protecting grid security as balancing authorities work together to keep the lights on.
More change is coming
Climate change is not the only factor that will affect hydropower’s future. Competing demands already influence whether water is allocated for electricity generation or other uses such as irrigation and drinking.
Laws and water allocation also shift over time and change how water is managed through reservoirs, affecting hydroelectricity. The increase in renewable energy and the potential to use some dams and reservoirs for energy storage might also change the equation.
The importance of hydropower across the U.S. power grid means most dams are likely here to stay, but climate change will change how these plants are used and managed.
A new agreement calls for Western states to leave their drinking water in the reservoir — and act as if they didn’t.
Late last week, the states agreed to forfeit their water from Lake Powell in order to ensure that the reservoir can still produce power. The deal puts a finger in the metaphorical dike, postponing an inevitable reckoning with the years-long drought that has parched the Colorado River — and a wrenching tradeoff between power access and water access for millions. It does so, in part, through an unusual act of hydrological accounting.
The deal has two parts. The first and more straightforward part is that the federal government will move 500,000 acre-feet of water (about 162 billion gallons) from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir into Lake Powell, bumping up water levels in the latter body. Flaming Gorge, which stretches across Wyoming and Utah, is mostly used for water recreation, so the immediate effects of the transfer will be minimal. The feds could do more of these water transfers later in the year if things get worse, drawing on water from other nearby reservoirs.
The second part is more complicated — and less helpful. In ordinary circumstances, the Bureau of Reclamation releases water from Lake Powell into an even larger reservoir called Lake Mead, from which it then flows to households and farms across the Southwest. As part of the deal, the states that rely on Mead water are agreeing to leave about 480,000 acre-feet of that water in Lake Powell, thus lowering the water levels in Mead. (Reclamation already announced earlier this year that it would delay the release of 350,000 acre-feet of water in Powell in anticipation of spring snow runoff.)
The clock is running on the climate crisis, but we have the tools and knowledge — and the crickets — that we need
The climate crisis is here, and heartbreak is all around us. The early promise of dramatic action from President Biden is sinking in the old mud bog of fossil-fuel politics. Meanwhile, despite 40 years of warnings from scientists and the decline in the cost of clean energy, carbon pollution is still increasing and the world is heating up as fast as ever. The final sentence of last February’s U.N.’s latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impacts of that warming is stark and unequivocal: “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.” Or as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres put it after an IPCC report on the mitigation of climate change was released this month: “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
1. Tax carbon.
In February, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse took to the Senate floor for his 280th “Time to Wake Up!” speech about the climate crisis. The centerpiece of Whitehouse’s plan was the need for a tax on fossil fuels. It is an argument that speaks to a truism of economics: to make something scarce, tax it…
2. Electrify everything.
In the U.S. there are roughly 290 million cars and trucks, 70 million fossil-fueled furnaces, 60 million fossil-fueled water heaters, 20 million gas dryers, and 50 million gas stoves. What if all those were electrified? Saul Griffith, an Australian American engineer and author of Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future, thinks electrification can reduce 80 percent of U.S. emissions by 2035…
3. Go local with solar.
It’s now obvious: The future is solar on homes, solar on apartment buildings, solar on malls, solar on parking lots, solar on fast-food joints, burrito stands, and strip clubs. With the sun, small is beautiful. Wasted space becomes a platform for power generation. With solar, cost has always been a problem, but that is ending now as the price of solar panels has plummeted over the past decade. Nobody pretends that you are going to make steel from solar, or that it will be the best way to generate power in every situation,but it is clean and reliable and won’t go down in a blackout like the one in 2021 that left 11 millions Texans freezing in the dark for days and was responsible for as many as 700 deaths…
4. Buy out coal plants.
Coal is the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, responsible for 30 percent of global carbon emissions. The biggest coal burner is China, which consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. Here in the U.S., coal is slowly being displaced by cheap gas, wind, and solar. But there are still 179 active coal plants, generating 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Shutting them down and replacing them with cleaner, cheaper energy is the fastest way to lower carbon emissions and slow the climate crisis. “The transition beyond coal is inevitable,” says Justin Guay, director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project. “But the timeline on which it happens isn’t.”
5. Start telling the truth about the climate crisis.
How much is that $2 million house on the beach going to be worth when there’s an octopus swimming through the living room? What’s going to happen to all those refineries on the Gulf Coast as the demand for oil plummets? Banks and corporations face huge financial risks as the age of climate disruption accelerates. One just-published report found around $343 billion in weather- and climate-related economic losses in 2021 alone, the third-costliest year on record. A 2019 study concluded that 215 of the world’s largest companies face nearly $1 trillion in climate-related risk as soon as 2024. Very little of this is disclosed in corporate financial reports. “The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare just how vulnerable the United States is to sudden, catastrophic shocks,” Sarah Bloom Raskin, Biden’s nominee to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, wrote in The New York Times. “Climate change poses the next big threat.”
6. Build denser, fairer, more humane cities.
Urban life is far gentler on the planet than suburban life. People who live in cities spend less time stuck in traffic in their SUVs; they have better access to local food; they live in buildings that are more efficient. But cities need a climate upgrade too: more bikes, better public transit, more green space…
7. Get loud and hit them where it hurts.
The biggest roadblock to climate action has always been the cowardice and complicity of our political leaders. For many, the lack of significant accomplishments at last year’s Glasgow climate talks and the failure of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda have been a brutal awakening. “Activists have become jaded because there’s been a lot of promises from politicians without a lot of action to back it up,” says Dana Fisher, an environmental-activism expert at the University of Maryland and author of American Resistance. “A lot of young people are looking at other tactics now.”
8. Fund small-scale geo-engineering research.
Maybe Dr. Evil wants to deliberately fuck with the Earth’s climate, but nobody else does. Nevertheless, it’s probably inevitable, given the risks we face. There are many potential forms of geoengineering, from brightening clouds to stabilizing glaciers, but the technology that gets the most attention is solar engineering, which amounts to scattering particles in the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the Earth. Scientists know it works because it’s essentially what volcanoes do (particles injected into the stratosphere from Mount Pinatubo, which erupted in 1991, cooled the planet 0.6 C for more than a year, until they rained out of the sky)…
9. Eat crickets!
America’s (and, increasingly, the world’s) appetite for meat is barbecuing the planet. Livestock eat up a lot of land, drive deforestation, and are carbon-intensive in their own right. Without reforming industrial agriculture and reducing meat consumption, it will be virtually impossible to limit warming to 2 C, much less 1.5 C…
10. Fight and win the culture war.
Much has been said about the failure of Big Media to cover the climate crisis. It’s too often pigeonholed as an environmental issue rather than a slow-rolling planet-wide catastrophe. Or it’s infused with “both-sidesism,” in which journalists are duped into the false idea that there is any real debate about the fundamentals of climate science. Or it’s just not discussed at all. When Hurricane Ida slammed into the Gulf Coast late last summer, six of the biggest commercial TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, and MSNBC — ran 774 stories about Ida, an analysis by the watchdog group Media Matters found. Only 34 of those stories mentioned climate change. Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now, an initiative dedicated to improving climate reporting, calls it “media malpractice.”
The coldest temperature this winter at the new home of Joe Smyth and Kristen Taddonio was 17 below. They live in Fraser, the Colorado town that used to get far, far colder.
Still, that February night was cold enough to test the design and technologies employed in construction of the couple’s 1,176-square-foot house. They insulated carefully, of course, and have solar panels. Even after charging their electric car, their house produces more energy than it consumes.
An air-source heat pump was central to their mission in creating a net-zero home, one gutted of emissions from fossil fuels. It extracts heat from outside, even on chilly nights, to warm the interior.
The Mitsubishi model used at the Fraser house promises to deliver the necessary indoor heat even when outside temperatures dip to 13 below. To supplement the air-source heat pump should temperatures dive to 30 below, as was once common, the couple also installed electrical-resistance heating. It wasn’t needed.
Colorado needs many more air-source heat pumps — and fewer carbon emissions from buildings — to meet its mid-century decarbonization target goals of 90%.
Getting this right during housing construction costs less in the not-very-long term. Building permits for 48,200 housing units, both single-family and multi-family, were issued last year, according to the Colorado Business Economic Outlook. That’s like adding a new Greeley each year along with a few small towns.
Retrofitting our older buildings is laborious and expensive. I know, because my house was built in 1889. You don’t swap out buildings the way you would computers or cars.
Several bills working their way through the Colorado Legislature this spring would nudge Coloradans toward low- and no-carbon technologies. All cost more upfront, but save money, sometimes lots of it, over time, while reducing or eliminating emissions.
Carrots would be offered by SB22-051 to those who purchase air- and ground-source heat pumps. Purchasers would be allowed income-tax exemptions of up to 10% of the purchase price.
Other provisions in the bill approved by the House Energy and Environment Committee offer tax incentives for energy storage and buildings materials with low levels of embodied carbon.
Christine Brinker, representing the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, testified that her family’s air-source heat pump paid for itself in six years because of lower energy costs. Air-source heat pumps help residents of Geos, a project in Arvada, to pay as little as $6 a month in energy costs.
“It is just more efficient to move heat than to create heat,” said Rep. Mike Weissman, a Democrat from Louisville and a bill supporter. “I think we can do some good here by amending that pay-off time curve just a little bit. That’s something that we need to do to facilitate our transition” from fossil fuels.
Air-source heat pumps can also move heat from inside buildings during summer, effectively becoming air conditioners. Even in Winter Park, real estate buyers expect air conditioning.
The second bill, HB-1362, would require towns, cities, and counties to adopt the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code before 2025. This latest code advances efficiency 8% to 9% compared to the 2018 iteration.
Natural gas will still be allowed, but air-source heat pumps more efficiently meet the 2021 code’s elevated standards.
The Colorado Municipal League objected to loss of local control. Two representatives of rural areas described it as onerous for small towns despite $3 million earmarked for training. Homebuilders argued that the advanced standards would make already expensive housing less affordable.
Howard Geller, representing the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, cited a study from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that found the latest code would indeed add $200 to the cost of an average mortgage in Colorado built to this latest code. Lower energy costs will more than recoup that extra cost, he said, even in the first year.
Rep. Tracey Bernett, a Democrat from Longmont whose district includes nearly half the 1,084 homes destroyed by the Marshall Fire, said she sponsored the bill with full confidence it will help, not harm, her constituents.
These bills both moved from the House committee on strictly party-line votes, Democrats in support. A third bill, HB22-1381, has bipartisan sponsors — and bipartisan support. It would allocate $20 million for grants to further geothermal development by tapping the year-round heat of 55 degrees found 8 to 10 feet below the surface.
As with air-source heat pumps, sponsors said the market needs to be nudged to adopt technology that costs more upfront than installing natural gas infrastructure but pays off in the long term. “This is something we don’t do enough of,” said Rep. Hugh McKean, a Republican from Loveland, who is installing geothermal in a house he is constructing.
“I really like this bill,” said Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, citing the experiences of family members with the technology at Rulison and elsewhere.
Click the link to read the call to action on the Audubon website (Jennifer Pitt):
The Colorado River Basin is inching ever closer to “Day Zero,” a term first used in Cape Town, South Africa when they anticipated the day in 2018 that taps would run dry. Lakes Powell and Mead, the Colorado River’s two enormous reservoirs, were full in 2000, storing more than four years of the river’s average annual flow. For more than two decades water users have been sipping at that supply, watching them decline. Long-term drought and climate change is making this issue potentially catastrophic.
Today the entire Colorado River reservoir storage system is 2/3 empty.
What happens if little to no water can be released from Lake Powell? Water supply risks multiply for everyone who uses water downstream. That includes residents of big cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, and farmers and ranchers in Arizona, California and Mexico who grow the majority of our nation’s winter produce, as well as numerous Native American tribes. Some of these water users have alternative supplies, but some—including Las Vegas residents, Colorado River tribes and most farmers—do not. Day Zero for these water users might not happen immediately as Lake Mead, the reservoir fed by Lake Powell still has some water in it. But without flows from upstream to replenish it, Lake Mead would also be at risk of no longer being able to release water.
There is also the river itself. Think of it—no water flowing through the Grand Canyon. No water flowing in the Colorado River for hundreds of miles downstream from Hoover Dam. That’s an ecological disaster in the making for 400 bird species and a multitude of other wildlife, exceeding the 20th century devastation of the Colorado River Delta.
In recent days, state and federal officials have announced plans to address the immediate crisis. These plans will help, but only to avert the immediate danger looming over the basin for the current year. They do nothing to decrease the unrelenting risks of Colorado River water supplies and demands out of balance, because all they do is move water from one place to another. The federal plan to reduce water releases from the Glen Canyon Dam will help this year, as Lake Powell will hold onto water that would otherwise have flowed downstream to Lake Mead. Notably, Lower Basin water users will calculate their uses as if the water was in Lake Mead anyway, delaying deeper cuts and further depleting the reservoir. The Upper Basin states also plan to release additional water from Flaming Gorge reservoir upriver in Wyoming to increase the inflow into Lake Powell. This too will help Powell, but it will reduce the supply in Flaming Gorge reservoir. The plan acknowledges this supply may not be recovered unless and until storage at Lake Powell considerably improves. Both of these plans will move water and help protect the Glen Canyon Dam’s operations in the near-term.
Moving water does not address the fundamental challenge in the Colorado River Basin and does not offer any real certainty for water users or the river itself in any corner of the basin. Colorado River water demands exceed supplies. Audubon knows that fundamentally, because we work on restoring habitat in the Colorado River Delta, where the river has not flowed regularly for half a century. With major reservoirs only one third full, plans that continue to drain them are not sustainable plans.
Climate change is drying out the Colorado River. In the last two decades, the river’s flow has been 20 percent less than the average flow recorded in the 20th century. Hoping for a rainy season won’t fix this. Today’s water supply conditions are likely to be among the best we see over the coming decades.
What’s needed now, urgently, is for federal and state water managers to work, in partnership with tribes and other stakeholders, to take the steps necessary to build confidence in the enduring management of the Colorado River. This will require focus and dedicated resources to develop and implement plans that put water demands into balance with supplies. That means moving beyond year-to-year reactions to imminent risks to engage in planning that promotes water conservation. Water conservation means using less water, preferably managed in a way that both respects our system of water rights and supports society’s 21st century values, including economic stability for urban and rural communities, allowances for Native American tribes to realize benefit from their water rights, and reliable water supplies for nature.
People and birds rely on the Colorado River, and Audubon will continue to work with partners to advocate for and implement solutions. We know what works. Water conservation pilots implemented throughout the basin and across municipal and agricultural sectors have been successful. Investments in infrastructure upgrades have durably made water uses more efficient, and investments in habitat restoration have benefited ecosystems and the birds that rely on them. Flexible water sharing mechanisms have modernized water uses while protecting legal water rights and helped Tribes secure benefits. There is no time like the present to begin implementing these solutions at scale. They should be the foundation for new rules for how we use and protect the Colorado River.
It's official – the top of Intake No. 1 is now visible and the low lake level pumping station is now operational. The new low lake pumping station was completed in 2020 to ensure the delivery of high-quality water in Southern Nevada. Learn more at https://t.co/o0rJqlXiFXpic.twitter.com/vPqULBlrCb
A settlement agreement proposes an earlier coal plant retirement and a way way to evaluate need for new natural gas plants. It also punts some key decisions.
An agreement filed Tuesday with state regulators proposes a sharper, faster pivot by Colorado’s largest electrical utility from coal to renewables and alternative technologies.
The settlement agreement filed by Xcel Energy and other parties calls for retirement of Comanche 3, the state’s youngest and most powerful coal plant, “no later than” Jan. 1, 2031. Retirement could actually occur sooner.
As for new natural gas generation, the agreement calls for a new measuring stick: How cost-effective can the gas plant be if it operates only 25 years?
This could potentially result in Xcel Energy reducing carbon emissions from its electrical generation 88% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. As of 2021 Xcel’s electrical generation in Colorado was 39% carbon free.
But the proposal would also kick some major decisions down the road to 2024 and 2025. “The modeling and technologies need just a little more time to improve,” said Gwen Farnsworth, managing senior policy advisor in Colorado for Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates.
Among the items almost certain to be taken up in 2024 are questions of whether new programs and business models can be used to configure demand for electricity to better match supplies. For example, can batteries of electric cars be charged during the middle of night, when wind turbines in eastern Colorado most reliably whirl? Can peak demand be shaved more on hot summer afternoons? Such strategies and new technologies could reduce need for new generation, both fossil and renewables,
Those decisions include when exactly Comanche 3 needs to close. When the $1 billion plant opened in 2010, it was projected to operate until 2070. It has had a troubled history, a largely unreliable source of electricity with massive amounts of debt remaining. The 750-megawatt plant has been idled – again – since January, with no certain date for reopening.
Noting that lack of reliability, two of the three PUC commissioners in March indicated that they saw no good reason for the plant to remain operational beyond 2029.
Xcel last year proposed continuing operations to 2040, then agreed to a 2034 closing. This moves up the no-later-than date to the end of 2030.
“No-later-than is a key phrase, because it allows for flexibility and even improving the results of this settlement over time,” said Farnsworth. She said the accelerated retirement of Comanche 3 by just four years will save Xcel ratepayers up to $39 million.
And having Comanche off-line this year has helped save money because otherwise production from wind farms and other renewable generation would have been curtailed.
As for new natural gas, Xcel originally proposed 1,300 megawatts of “dispatchable” resources, meaning natural gas or other fossil fuels. Dispatchable resources can – at least in theory – be turned on quickly to meet demand. In practice, it’s more complicated. See Comanche 3.
How much natural gas?
Some of Xcel’s plans for natural gas remain. The coal-burning Pawnee Power Plant near Brush, about 90 miles northeast of Denver, is to be converted to natural gas no later than January 2026. Still in question is how much additional natural gas generation Xcel will acquire.
Xcel could still propose new burn natural gas plants to go on line in 2030, for example, but they would have to cease producing emissions by 2050.
But the settlement agreement also will result in new modeling that the Sierra Club’s Anna McDevitt says will allow battery storage coupled with renewable generation to better compete with natural gas in giving Xcel the confidence it can meet demands. Previous modeling used what the Sierra Club believes were flawed assumptions that favored natural gas.
“There is much in the settlement that will result in less likelihood of building new gas plants,” she said.
Xcel, in a presentation to investors in November 2021, estimated its Colorado division, would spend $9.9 billion from 2022 through 2026, not quite two-thirds for electric distribution and transmission but almost a quarter for natural gas.
Another major component of the plan calls for Xcel to continue property tax payments to Pueblo and Pueblo County districts from 2031 through 2040, the previous retirement date.
Holy Cross Energy, the electrical cooperative serving the Vail and Aspen areas, owns 8% of Comanche 3. That translates to a potential 60 megawatts of production.
The agreement specifies that Holy Cross will be able to continue to use Xcel Energy’s transmission lines from eastern Colorado for an equal amount of electrical production, either from the resources owned by Holy Cross or from the new generating resources being brought on-line by Xcel in coming years.
Xcel’s plans for new generation, to be determined by competitive bidding, are estimated to include 2,400 megawatts of new wind, 1,600 megawatts of large-scale solar, 400 megawatts of energy storage, and nearly 1,200 megawatts of distributed solar resources.
“In a way, we are held harmless by the early retirement” of Comanche 3, said Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive of Holy Cross.
Holy Cross is currently projected to pay off its portion of the Comanche 3 debt in 2042.
Sedalia-based CORE Electric Cooperative, the state’s largest electrical cooperative, which serves Castle Rock and other suburban and exurban communities on the south flanks of metropolitan Denver, owns 25% of Comanche 3.
Hannegan and many others credited Xcel with a major achievement in getting a diverse set of parties – Boulder, Pueblo and other cities, as well as labor and business groups, environmental organizations, and still others – to come to a compromise.
Release of the agreement was accompanied by press releases from many organizations with a chorus of hosannahs.
“This agreement is a significant step toward meeting Colorado’s climate goals,” said Will Toor, chief executive of the Colorado Energy Office. “We’re so proud to lead the charge on reducing carbon emissions in Colorado,” said Alice Jackson, president of Xcel’s Colorado division. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Noah Long also saluted a future of “savings for Xcel Energy customers and cleaner skies for Colorado.”
Farnsworth, of Western Resource Advocates, offered similar praise, but also pointed to a strong motivation: “I think the parties all made it possible because there’s a common understanding of the urgency of addressing climate change and also the urgency of moving this resource planning process forward in time to benefit from the federal tax credits for wind and solar.”
That, she added, made everybody want to reach compromise and avoid litigation.
The key word used by many was “flexible.”
Forward movement, but…
Not all were equally enthused. “Any date for shutting Pueblo unit 3 that isn’t 2022 is the wrong date,” said Leslie Glustrom of Boulder-based Clean Energy Action, referring to Comanche 3. “The climate crisis now clear to everyone.”
The Colorado Renewable Energy Society policy committee members were miffed that the social cost of methane was not used in the agreement as they had advocated.
“A big move forward, but there are pieces missing,” said the group’s Laurent Meillon. He charged that the plan still favors Xcel building generating facilities – that it can then use to justify higher rates to customers than necessary.
“Xcel is orienting itself toward the construction of unnecessary gas plants, thus maximizing its investments and profits, right before it becomes entirely too obvious that only renewables and efficiencies are worthy of more investments. A repeat of its profitable coal mistakes, despite the current early coal closures with decades left to amortize those stranded assets,” he wrote in an e-mail.
CRES members, Glustrom and others say that Xcel must more aggressively pursue strategies that shave peak demands. Others involved in the agreement said they believe that those programs will become a central component of discussions in the middle of this decade. Xcel is beginning an update this summer of the thinking behind its programs.
All in all, how might this settlement be seen in a broader context – say, the United States? Farnsworth offers what must be considered a hometown view but one worth considering.
“Colorado might be on a smaller scale than some other states, but Xcel and this settlement are really on the leading edge.”
Western Resource Advocates signed on to a revised settlement agreement filed today in Xcel Energy’s Electric Resource and Clean Energy Plan proceeding before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. The new settlement includes accelerated dates for retiring the Comanche 3 coal unit, helps avoid building unnecessary and potentially stranded new fossil gas generation, and establishes commitments to achieve interim carbon emission reductions in 2024 and 2027.
“If approved, this settlement secures the next stage of Colorado’s energy transition, ensuring commitments from Xcel to reduce its harmful fossil-fuel emissions that contribute to climate change,” said Gwen Farnsworth, Western Resource Advocates’ managing senior policy advisor in Colorado. “The earlier date for retiring Comanche 3, plus cutting the assumed lifetime for any new fossil gas generation and establishing interim targets for reducing carbon emissions, will all help Colorado reach its climate goals. Important provisions also extend community assistance to the Pueblo community for 10 years and will help in the transition to new economic opportunities as the coal-fired Comanche unit closes.”
These are all key improvements to the settlement WRA has advocated for during the commission proceeding on Xcel’s plan. WRA opposed a previous version of the settlement signed by other parties late last year. Specifically, the new settlement calls for Xcel to:
Retire Comanche 3 by January 1, 2031 — four years earlier than the original settlement, which will avoid an additional 3.5 million tons of carbon emissions compared to the original settlement filed in November and will cut toxic local air pollutants in Pueblo;
Commit to interim reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, with targets of a 50% reduction by 2024 and 65% by 2027, compared with the utility’s 2005 levels;
Cut the modeled lifetime for any new fossil gas generation to 25 years; and
Expand Xcel’s Just Transition Plan, by extending the community assistance benefits for Pueblo to 10 years.
The settlement overall will provide more than 17 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions reductions. Reducing these fossil-fuel emissions will help curb the harmful effects of climate change. The Comanche generating station is also responsible for over 80% of all toxic chemicals released into the surrounding community of Pueblo.
Several provisions in the revised settlement reduce the utility’s expected future reliance on fossil-fuel gas generation. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reducing methane emissions from fossil-fuel gas is one of the biggest and fastest strategies for slowing climate change.
The Xcel settlement today follows the utility’s February 2021 announcement of its Clean Energy Plan committing to achieve an 85% reduction in carbon emissions and 80% renewable energy generation by 2030, as well as 100% clean energy by 2050. A 2019 Colorado law requires Xcel to reduce its emissions by 80% below 2005 levels by 2030. In 2019, the Colorado Legislature also passed House Bill 1261, requiring the state to reduce its economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 50% below 2005 levels by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
We’re into that time of year again where the CO2 at Mauna Loa is higher than last year’s peak – so we’re now seeing the highest CO2 ever recorded and for at least 2 million years. Data and graphics from – https://t.co/pEcJRegDaMpic.twitter.com/CKQjxt3p2t
President Joe Biden’s climate agenda took a hit this month when the Interior Department said it would open 144,000 acres of federal land up for oil and gas development to comply with a court order to restart fossil fuel development.
The announcement marked yet another setback for a presidential climate plan that was once seen as historically ambitious.
Biden’s signature climate bill has gone nowhere in the U.S. Senate, he’s called for more domestic fossil fuel production to combat rising gas prices, and members of his own party doubt whether he can meet goals for a U.S. transition to electric vehicles.
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After noting climate as one of four crises facing the nation during his 2020 campaign, Biden gave it only a passing mention in his State of the Union address in March.
The White House defense on the oil and gas leases is that a court order forced adoption of a policy contrary to Biden’s climate objectives. Accompanying the move was a raise in the royalty rates for energy companies drilling on federal land, a reform long sought by environmental advocates.
But it still represented a departure from the president’s campaign rhetoric that promised no more drilling on federal lands, and it was met with derision by some environmental advocates.
Randi Spivak, the public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, called it “a reckless failure of climate leadership.”
Other advocacy groups were more understanding — the National Wildlife Federation, for example, stressed provisions of the restart that raised rates for fossil fuel development and limited the area that would be available.
As the nation having celebrated Earth Day on Friday, the administration has said it is still committed to climate action.
The evidence? Biden’s move to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, funding to target carbon reduction and electric vehicles in last year’s transportation infrastructure law, and a goal set to reduce carbon emissions by 50 to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030.
“The press and the pundits may want to declare President Biden’s climate agenda dead,” an administration official said at a press briefing Monday. “But this week, we will show how it is very much alive and well.”
Thursday, the Transportation Department announced a $6.4 billion program funded by the infrastructure law to help state transportation departments limit greenhouse gases from vehicles. Biden addressed climate issues in an Earth Day speech in Seattle Friday.
Here are three big reasons why the White House has struggled with its climate agenda:
During the presidential campaign, Biden pledged to end new fossil fuel development on federal lands. He followed through on that promise on his first day in office, issuing an executive order to pause new oil and gas leases as the administration reviewed the program and its impact on climate change.
A federal judge, though, U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in Louisiana, found the executive order was illegal and ordered the administration to restart leasing.
In a tweet, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said that the order forced the new oil and gas lease sales.
She noted the parcels available for lease were decreased 80% from what had been nominated for leases in 2021 and touted the raise in royalty rates from 12.5% to 18.75%.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the move “was the result of a court injunction that we continue to appeal. And it’s not in line with the president’s policy.”
House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who has pushed the Biden administration for more ambitious climate action, accepted that the court order forced the administration’s hand and credited Haaland with the reforms.
“I’m glad we finally have an administration that recognizes that the status quo for our oil and gas leasing program is a rip-off for the American people,” Chair Grijalva said.
But some outside groups called it a violation of Biden’s campaign pledge.
Kyle Tisdel, director of energy and climate at the environmental legal group Western Environmental Law Center, said in an interview the administration had options, even after the “flawed” injunction from Doughty.
The court order only said the administration could not issue a blanket pause on new leases, he said. But the Bureau of Land Management could still decline to issues new leases on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Bipartisan members of the House and Senate passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that the administration helped steer and Biden signed last year.
A group of progressive lawmakers almost sank the measure over concerns it would exacerbate — not solve — the climate crisis. The administration and congressional leaders promised to pair the infrastructure bill with a sweeping $3.5 trillion bill that would include major climate provisions.
The House passed the larger bill, but the Senate never took it up. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III came out against the legislation in December. With no Republican support, Manchin’s opposition doomed the bill in the evenly divided Senate.
“What the last year has shown us is that the Biden administration trying to calibrate action to the whims of certain senators or congresspeople or midterm elections has been sort of a fool’s errand,” Tisdel said.
Some members of Congress remain optimistic that a climate bill can be passed. Manchin has indicated an openness to supporting the clean energy tax credits in the Biden plan, but also has said that negotiations on the so-called Build Back Better plan must start from scratch.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who earlier this year called for passing the climate provisions of the Biden spending plan, said in a Thursday statement he remained focused on expanding clean energy, funding conservation work and supporting fish and wildlife protections.
“All eyes are rightly on the Biden administration and on Congress to pass transformative climate investments,” Heinrich said. “We need to deliver.”
His top priority, he said, was “getting prices under control.”
The drive to cut costs seemed to displace climate action, which he only mentioned twice, once in the context of lowering energy prices.
To address rising prices in the short term, Biden has also called on domestic producers to pump more oil and has released millions of barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a complex of underground storage caverns in Louisiana and Texas.
Biden, in Iowa, also waived a regulation banning sales of the ethanol blend E15 during the summer months. The Environmental Protection Agency normally doesn’t allow sales from June to mid-September due to concerns over air pollution.
Julie McNamara, a deputy policy director with the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a climate advocacy group, said using rising energy prices to make the case should be an opportunity to hasten a transition away from fossil fuels to less volatile energy sources.
“We’re seeing a push from the fossil fuel industry and their supporters to increase our dependence on fossil fuels, to increase production and fighting back against clean energy,” she said.
“When every indicator says now is the time to be doubling down on our commitment to this clean energy transition.”
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Late last summer, on a work trip through the Southwest, I sought refuge from triple-digit temperatures in an air-conditioned Page, Arizona, motel room, offered at a discount because, I presume, the hotel and motel companies built way too many rooms for a declining number of visitors.
As I’m prone to do when in a hotel room, I flipped on the television. A bona fide, decades-old disaster movie, in the vein of Airport or Avalanche, played on the vast, flat screen. A dam—and everyone downstream—were in peril, threatened by hubris, Nature, faulty weather forecasting, and, most ominously, cavitation. The heroes were played not by Burt Lancaster or Jean Seberg, but by themselves—mustachioed, wire-rim-glasses-wearing engineers. Real ones.
It wasn’t a feature flick after all, but The Challenge at Glen Canyon, a Bureau of Reclamation-produced documentary about a real disaster, narrowly averted, that played out in the summer of 1983, when a snow-swollen Lake Powell jeopardized one of the nation’s largest dams.
The narrative was certainly enthralling. But maybe more stunning were the images of of a Lake Powell full to the brim, water nearly lapping at the crest of the dam. It provided an eerie contrast to the scene outside my hotel room window: the hulking figure of Glen Canyon Dam and, behind it, the pale bathtub ring on the sandstone indicating just how far the water levels had dropped since the documentary was made.
Another disaster is underway at Glen Canyon Dam, a slow-motion one, caused by too little water rather than too much. Yet in a bizarre twist, some of the potential effects may mirror those in 1983. Now Bureau of Reclamation engineers once again are scrambling to keep reservoir levels from falling further in hopes of preserving the dam’s hydropower production capacity—and maybe even the dam, itself.
I watched the documentary to its end, switched off the television, and gazed back out the window—the surreal greenish-brown grass on the golf course, the transmission infrastructure sprouting from red rock, the still water of the reservoir. I thought I could see Lake Powell’s murky green water evaporating into the smoky blue sky.
I’m no fan of dams. They turn living rivers into stagnant puddles, kill fish, drown canyons and communities. Glen Canyon may be the most heartbreaking of all. So much was lost when the tempestuous waters of the Colorado backed up behind it into countless canyons and coves, inundating a million marvels, cultural sites, monkey-flower strewn alcoves.
And yet, from a more pragmatic viewpoint, I understand Lake Powell’s value, not just as a big water bank, but also as an indispensable tool for grid operators. Hydropower was chosen to run the first electricity grids for a reason: It’s reliable and flexible and you don’t have to mine or burn anything.
Glen Canyon Dam’s eight giant turbines have a generating capacity of about 1,300 megawatts when the reservoir is full, on par with a large coal-burning power plant, which act as a “baseload” power source, like a nuclear or coal power plant, cranking out a steady stream of juice delivered to some 3.2 million customers, including utilities, tribal nations, and federal agencies. Even more critical—and lucrative—the dam’s power output is highly adjustable, making it ideal for “following the load,” or ramping up or down quickly to meet a spike in energy demand or a void in generation if another power plant goes down (1). Glen Canyon Dam electricity sales generate as much as $200 million annually—the only direct form of revenue from the dam or reservoir, since the water is not sold—a portion of which is used to fund endangered species recovery, salinity control and water studies on the Colorado River.
With that in mind, the 710-foot tall dam was designed so that all of the water routinely flowing downstream from Lake Powell goes through eight penstocks, or big pipes leading to the turbines. That way all of the released water generates electricity, and therefore revenue. The dam is also equipped with “river outlets,” positioned below the penstock openings, to allow water to be routed around the turbines if needed or for larger releases than the penstocks, alone, can handle. There are also two spillways, giant tunnels carved through the sandstone cliffs on either side of the dam, for rare instances when the water level exceeds “full pool” and needs to be spilled. But neither the outlets nor the spillways were designed for long-term, continuous use. In fact, wrote W.L. Busho, a longtime PR person for the Bureau of Reclamation, “a well-managed reservoir should almost never spill.”
Construction on the dam began in 1956 and it started backing up water in 1963. It took 17 years to fill Lake Powell, finally reaching its storage capacity in 1980. From then on, dam managers would release just enough water during the winter to meet downstream obligations and to leave enough room in the reservoir for the projected spring runoff. But during the winter of 1982-83, they misread the signs.
For most of the winter, snowfall throughout the 108,000 square mile watershed that feeds Lake Powell was just a little above average. Then an especially robust El Niño kicked in, and in April and May snow piled up in the mountains to depths not seen since the early 1950s. The Basin-wide snowpack finally peaked in late May, several weeks later than normal. Then temperatures shot up suddenly, accompanied by heavy, snow-melting June rain that put nearly every stream and river in the region well above flood stage.
Caught off guard by the deluge, dam operators had not left enough room in the reservoir to contain the sudden surge of Colorado River inflows, which reached 120,000 cubic feet per second—about 10 times the volume of an average spring runoff. Dam operators cranked open the penstocks, sending about 29,000 cfs through the turbines, as well as the river outlets for an additional 15,000 cfs. It wasn’t nearly enough. So, with water literally lapping at the crest of the dam, operators opened the left spillway for the first time ever, sending another 32,000 cfs through the concrete-lined tunnel, which then shot out of the cliff hundreds of feet below to spectacular effect (and giving river runners a wild ride). For a day or two, all seemed fine. Then, things got scary, as described by T.J. Wolf in a harrowing feature in High Country News:
“If you were on the bridge below the canyon that spans the dam that June morning … you would have seen a sight terrifying enough to put the fear of God into anyone, but especially into an engineer. You would have seen the steady sweep of the spillway mouths suddenly waver, choke, cough and then vomit forth half-digested gobbets of steel-reinforced concrete (bad, very bad), spew out blood-red water (My God, it’s into bedrock), and finally disgorge great red chunks of sandstone into the frothy chaos below the dam. You would have seen the Colorado River going home, carving rock, moving deeper, as it has always done.”
The problem was caused by cavitation: collapsing vapor bubbles in the water sent shockwaves through the tunnel’s innards, tearing through the concrete and then the sandstone, potentially threatening the dam, itself. Engineers had to shut off the flow into the spillways in order to assess and repair the damage inside. That was easier said than done: The lake was so full the water was spilling over the top of the spillway gates. Engineers—the stars of the 1983 disaster documentary—scrambled to find a solution.
When officials from the seven Colorado River states got together in 1922 to parcel out the river’s water, they assumed that some 15 million acre feet of water passed by the Lee’s Ferry dividing point each year, on average, based on a couple decades of streamflow measurements. When Mexico joined the party they simply added another 1.5 million acre feet. This turned out to be a significant overestimate: Tree ring studies later found that the historic average was closer to 14 million acre feet or even lower, which amounts to hundreds of billions of gallons less than was parceled out to the states.
For decades, this wasn’t cause for too much alarm. After all, that’s what dams are for, to store up water during the soggy years to carry users through the dry times. While this became more challenging as the Southwest’s population and water consumption boomed2, it generally worked. The bountiful 1980s filled Lake Powell to the brim. An ensuing string of dry years drew the surface level down nearly 100 feet, but it quickly rebounded when the snows returned in the mid-1990s. Glen Canyon Dam was doing its job, storing water while also churning out gobs of power to keep a burgeoning number of air-conditioners humming.
But over the last two decades, the dam’s storage and power-generation capacities have been compromised as climate change-induced drought shrinks the reservoir behind it. Lake Powell’s surface level has trended downward since 2001, with a brief respite in 2011. Last July it dropped below 3,555 feet—or 153 feet below the 1983 peak—the lowest since it was filling up in the 1960s and ‘70s. Since then it has continued to plummet and in mid-April appeared to level out at 3,522 feet.
As water levels drop the hydropower “head” does, too, thereby decreasing the potential energy of the falling water, which in turn lowers the generating capacity of the turbines. In other words, as Lake Powell shrinks, more water must be released to generate the same amount of power, which further lowers the lake level, and so on. In the 1990s, the dam produced as much as 7,000 gigawatt hours per year, enough to power nearly 600,000 homes. Last year, it was down to just 3,000 gigawatt hours. This phenomenon has forced Western Area Power Administration, the federal governmental organization that markets Glen Canyon Dam’s power at lower-than-market rates, to purchase more expensive power from the open market, driving up its customers’ costs.
But this chronic decline in generating capacity is about to become more acute—and potential fodder for a new disaster documentary. If the reservoir’s level drops another 33 feet, to the 3,490-foot minimum power pool level, air could get entrained in the turbine-feeding penstocks, wreaking all kinds of havoc. At that point, or perhaps even sooner, operators have no choice but to stop sending water through the turbines, killing power generation and depriving the grid of enough electricity annually to power about a quarter of a million Arizona homes. It would also drain between $100 million and $200 million annually from dam electricity sales
That would force WAPA to purchase more expensive power, including electricity generated from natural gas or even coal, to supply its millions of customers. The average utility customer might not even notice the dollar or two this adds to their monthly bill, but it could amount to a substantial price hike for the tribal nations that rely on WAPA for most or all of their power. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s yearly power bill could jump by as much as $1.3 million, according to a 2016 consultant’s study, and nine other tribes would also see significant cost increases.
Equally worrisome is how grid operators will fill the generation void left when the dam goes offline. New wind and solar power, paired with batteries or other energy storage, can replace some or all of the baseload power. But any extra generation capacity is going to be in high demand as big coal and nuclear plants retire in the next few years. Meanwhile, solar and wind can’t follow loads like a hydroelectric dam, so utilities are likely to turn to greenhouse gas-emitting natural gas “peaker” plants instead.
Then there’s the impact to the dam itself. Once the turbines are shut down, the only way water can be released is via the concrete river outlets, also known as “jet tubes” because they spray water into the riverbed like giant firehoses. These tunnels have only been used for short stints during the 1983 and 1984 high water years and for experimental high-flow releases intended to mimic natural river conditions and redistribute sediment in the Grand Canyon. No one knows how long they can be run at full throttle before cavitation begins.
“Glen Canyon Dam was not envisioned to operate solely through the outworks for an extended period of time,” wrote Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, in a letter to Colorado River state governors earlier this month, “and operating at this low lake level increases risks to water delivery and potential adverse impacts to downstream resources and infrastructure.” If levels drop much lower, the City of Page and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation would lose their Lake Powell drinking water supply.
“Glen Canyon Dam facilities face unprecedented operational reliability challenges,” Trujillo added. In other words, maybe it will all be fine. Or, maybe, it will be like 1983 all over again.
The Challenge at Glen Canyon ends on a triumphant note, major-chord music blaring in the background. The engineers jerry rigged a fix for the spillways, extending the gates’ heights with plywood, then steel, plates. They held until the raging Colorado River calmed down and the crisis was averted. Inside the tunnel workers found huge fissures in the concrete and rock and set about building an aeration slot along the tunnel floor to prevent cavitation in the future.
The multi-million-dollar upgrades3 completed after the near-disaster, the narrator says, marked, “a victory for the human spirit, for the leaders who cut through the red tape … for the men and women who worked long hours and did the job. The American people who own this dam and Lake Powell can be confident that when the flood waters run down the Colorado, Glen Canyon Dam will be ready.”
The engineers are scrambling again, this time hoping to delay the dip into minimum power pool territory. Last fall the Bureau of Reclamation upped releases from upstream dams to try to keep Powell’s levels from dropping into the 35-foot buffer zone, draining Western Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir to all-time lows in the process. Although the move failed to stop Lake Powell’s decline, it did slow it down, giving water managers more time to consider their options. This winter and spring they released less water than normal from Glen Canyon Dam, hoping to make up for it during spring runoff.
Nevertheless, outflows consistently have exceeded inflows, evaporation continues, snowpack is below median levels in the Upper Colorado watershed, and lake levels have dropped a total of 41 feet over the last year. Now water officials are exploring ways to modify the dam to enable it to continue producing power at lower levels—possibly by adding turbines to the river outlets—a sort of modern version of the plywood spillway gates of yore. And in the aforementioned letter, Trujillo floated the possibility of cutting overall releases this year to just 7 million acre feet, about 1 million less than normal, and a half-million less than planned this year, which would then cause Lake Mead’s levels to drop even further and could spur further cutbacks for downstream water users.
Unlike the floods of 1983 and 1984, the real disaster looming over the region today—human caused climate change and long-term aridification—is not going to subside in a month or year or even a decade. The question now is not whether Glen Canyon Dam will be prepared, it will not. Lake Powell will reach the dreaded dead pool, when the lake falls so low water cannot be released except by pumping it out or re-opening the tunnels excavated to divert the river during dam construction. Maybe it will happen in five years, maybe 20, but it’s coming. The real question is whether we, the residents of the West who rely on the Colorado River—and Glen Canyon Dam—for so much, will be ready for the inevitable.
(1) During the 1980s dam operators had ample leeway to “follow the load” by modulating the flow of water through the turbines. This occasionally caused huge fluctuations in the flow of water through the Grand Canyon. On one July day in 1989, for example, about 3,471 cubic feet of water per second was running through the dam at 5 a.m. By 3 p.m., it had jumped to 29,000 cfs—the maximum flow through the turbines—to provide juice to the Southwest’s power grid to keep all those air conditioners running. If you’re a river runner, you can probably imagine how disruptive—and even terrifying—this might have been to boaters in the Grand Canyon. In the early ‘80s dam operators wanted to maximize the potential for following the load by also installing turbines in the river outlets so they could generate even more power by releasing more water. The proposal was shot down and set off a string of events that ultimately led to significant changes in the way the dam is operated, including minimum and maximum release rates and maximum fluctuation rates, thereby limiting its capacity as a “peaker” plant.
(2) Water demand on the Colorado has increased substantially since the Colorado River Compact was signed, obviously, and continued to climb up until the late 1990s, when it plateaued and even dropped with the onset of the current megadrought in the early 2000s.
(3) The estimated cost to repair both spillways was about $30 million, according to one estimate, but this was offset by the $34 million in electricity sales revenue generated by running the turbines at full throttle for a good part of the summer.
San Miguel County and Boulder lawsuits against two oil companies will be heard in Colorado. That helps. But these cases will still have an uphill struggle to prove damages that might seem obvious.
Colorado has abundant evidence of destruction caused by the warming, and more volatile, climate. Wildfires, ever larger and more destructive, now happen year-round, including the ghastly Marshall Fire of late December and the much smaller fires of recent weeks. Rising temperatures have robbed flows from the Colorado River, from which Boulder and Boulder County get substantial amounts of water. Air conditioning has become more necessity than luxury.
But can Boulder and other jurisdictions show harm from burning of fossil fuels — the primary cause of warming — in their climate liability lawsuits against oil companies?
In 2018, Boulder (both the city and the county) as well as San Miguel County sued two oil giants, ExxonMobil and Suncor. These Colorado cases are among more than 20 climate lawsuits now in courts from Hawaii to Massachusetts. They’re the only cases from an inland state claiming actual damages from climate change — and after a recent legal victory, they could be among the first where substantive arguments are heard in court. (Only Honolulu’s case is on a faster track.)
Despite all the evidence of climate destruction, the legal case will be challenging, according to Pat Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School.
“In a court of law, you have to prove by the preponderance of evidence and you have to convince the jury, all 12 of them,” says Parenteau, who has advised some parties who filed similar lawsuits, but is not currently involved directly in the litigation.
He points to the difficulty of pinning health impacts on tobacco companies in the 1990s. “Cigarettes kill people. Global warming, per se, kills people: Heat waves kill people. High tides kill people.”
Proving responsibility in a courtroom will be the tricky part. “There are multiple links in the causal change that you have to prove with climate change,” Parenteau says. “It was difficult enough to prove with tobacco. It never was proven [in court]. It was just settled. Just imagine how difficult it is for climate change.”
Suncor operates a refinery in Commerce City northeast of downtown Denver that processes 98,000 barrels of oil daily. “We purchase crude oil from the Denver-Julesburg Basin, process it in Commerce City, and sell nearly 95% of our products within the state,” Suncor’s website says.
Exxon has no refinery in Colorado, but it does sell fuel in the state.
“They are the two most consequential oil companies in Colorado, given their local operations,” says Marco Simons, the lead attorney with EarthRights International, the organization representing the three jurisdictions in Colorado.
So far, the arguments in the Colorado cases (and others) have been about process, namely where the cases should be tried.
In legal cases, as in basketball, home court matters. This is likely why Exxon and Suncor wanted lawsuits filed against them by Boulder and San Miguel heard in federal courts instead of Colorado district courts.
“Basically, their argument was that you can’t let state law allow these people to seek remedy before climate change injury when federal law doesn’t provide that remedy,” Simons explains.
The oil companies lost that round. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled on Feb. 8 that the two lawsuits should be heard in Colorado. The court then ordered, on March 2, for that mandate to take effect.
“The court is basically saying there’s nothing wrong with using ordinary state law to hold oil companies accountable to their contribution to climate change,’” says Simons. “That does not in any way violate federal law. It’s not something inappropriate for states to do.”
arenteau agrees there is value to the climate cases being heard in state courts. The empirical evidence is clear: “Where do the states and cities find the best success? It’s in their own courts. The faster these cases get back to state courts from federal courts, the better.”
Colorado’s cases, originally filed as one, have been separated. San Miguel County’s case is to be heard in Denver District Court, and the Boulder and Boulder County case in Boulder County District Court.
Home-court advantage goes only so far. Attorneys for EarthRights International must now prove that the fossil fuels sold by Suncor and ExxonMobil in Colorado have produced damages from a changing climate to the local jurisdictions.
While many legal analysts say that will be difficult to prove, some observers think the Colorado lawsuits could be successful, even short of total courtroom victories.
One of those making that case is Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change & the Environment, a program embedded in the law school at the University of California Los Angeles. She has coordinated with counsel for several jurisdictions in California that filed climate change lawsuits in 2017, but is no longer involved in those other climate liability cases.
“On an even more deep level, one goal that the plaintiffs have across the set of cases is undermining the social license of the corporations to do what they have been doing for decades,” says Horowitz. “They just need one good victory to hang their hats on.”
That could help supporters of these suits win verdicts in the court of public opinion.
Neither Suncor nor Exxon responded to requests for comment, but the premise of the fossil fuel companies is that they have been doing nothing wrong by peddling gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuel products.
Climate change-related lawsuits have been filed since the mid-1980s. Early lawsuits generally sought to force actions by state governments and federal agencies. The most notable such case is Massachusetts v. EPA, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 decision that gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. Other lawsuits, such as Connecticut vs. American Electric Power in 2011, targeted energy companies. For complex legal reasons, these cases using federal courts have struggled to go forward.
Investigative reports in 2015 by Inside Climate News and independent work by the Los Angeles Times about ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil and gas company, were important in triggering the wave of lawsuits of the last five years. The journalists showed that the oil giant misled the public about what it knew about climate change and the risks posed by fossil fuel emissions decades ago. The investigative series were based largely on the company’s internal records.
Since then have come a wave of lawsuits by state and local governments.
California jurisdictions — first Marin and San Mateo counties along with the city of Imperial Beach in July 2017, followed by Oakland and San Francisco that September — were at the forefront of suits by state and local governments. Currently pending are lawsuits filed by seven states and the District of Columbia and 19 by cities and counties, according to the Center for Climate Integrity.
These lawsuits fall into primarily two overlapping buckets. The two cases in Colorado fall into both.
In one bucket of lawsuits are claims of fraud and deception by oil companies, primarily by Exxon. The second bucket consists of suits alleging the oil companies have created “nuisances” that have caused damages. In the Colorado cases, local governments have suffered harm as a result, the lawsuits say.
“It’s about fundamental principles of tort law that basically boil down to, ‘If you harm someone, you have to pay for it,’” explains Simons, the EarthRights attorney.
The 2018 lawsuits for the Colorado jurisdictions cite many climate impacts from fossil fuels. Rising temperatures will affect water supplies. Emergency management services will have to be ramped up because of increased wildfires, heavy rainfall and other extreme weather events. Warmer temperatures will worsen the already problematic ground-level ozone in Boulder County.
Some increased costs have already occurred, the lawsuit filed by the three Colorado jurisdictions in 2018 says. It points to the West Nile virus spread by mosquitoes amid rising temperatures. Prior to 2002, Boulder had no mosquito control program. That was the year the virus first appeared in Colorado. After that, costs of mosquito abatement grew steadily. By 2018 mosquito management nicked the city budget roughly $250,000. In Boulder County, the cost approached $400,000.
Buildings will have to be modified, the lawsuit says. “Due to the expected continued heat rise in Boulder County, a place that historically rarely saw days above 95 degrees, Boulder County and the City of Boulder are expected to see increased public health heat risks, such as heat stroke, and their associated costs,” the lawsuit filed in 2018 says.
This increasing heat, the lawsuit continues, will drive up costs, such as that of cooling infrastructure for buildings. “Cooling centers that are available during heat waves, and/or assisting with home air-conditioning installation, could cost Boulder County and the City of Boulder millions of dollars by mid-century.”
The lawsuit cites the $37.7 million of a $575.5 school construction bond for the Boulder Valley School District used for air-conditioning and better ventilation.
How the Colorado cases are different
Colorado’s lawsuits were the first filed in an interior state. Even now, the only other states without coastlines to have filed climate change lawsuits against oil companies are Minnesota and Vermont. They claim fraud. That makes the Colorado cases the only ones claiming damages.
This duality, an inland state claiming actual damages from climate change, sets Colorado’s cases apart from all others.
“It’s easy to imagine a city like Miami or other coastal cities being imperiled by climate change,” says Horowitz, the UCLA law professor. “The Boulder case is helping to illustrate that even inland cities, cities in the middle of America, are being harmed by climate change.”
One long-sought goal of the litigation is getting to what in courts is called the discovery phase. That’s the stage where documents, emails, other correspondence and information related to the suits could reach the public and prove devastating to the company. (That is essentially what happened to the tobacco industry, with the release of memos and documents in discovery.)
Horowitz, the law professor in Los Angeles, expects the filings and rulings to accelerate. “You will start to get state court decisions sooner rather than later, by which I mean probably in the next year,” she says. Appeals will follow, but these Colorado cases — and those similarly proceeding in other states — will move along.
“I wouldn’t think it will take five to 10 years,” she says.
And the fact that Colorado has no beach-front property could spur other similar cases. Sea level rise is not imminently threatening Boulder the way it is in Imperial Beach, a city of 26,000 people near San Diego that has also filed a climate change lawsuit.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if more jurisdictions realize they will need help in funding climate change adaptation,” Horowitz says, “and the fossil fuel companies are logical places to look as sources for that funding.”
This story was prepared in collaboration with the Boulder Reporting Lab, whose editing and suggestions enormously improved the story.
The White Mesa Mill produces refined uranium, vanadium and rare earth compounds used for nuclear fuels, the creation of steel, batteries and electric cars. Toxic compounds left over from the process, called tailings, are poured into massive ponds on site. White Mesa residents take note when smoke rises from the mill and keep close watch over the tailing ponds, Badback said. They cough painfully when the wind blows. Children suffer from respiratory problems and adults worry about cancer. Little information is shared with those in White Mesa, part of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s territory that extends into Colorado and New Mexico, Badback said. Residents are mostly on their own.
Documents obtained and analyzed by The Denver Post show that Utah regulators have cited the mill at least 40 times since 1999 for violations ranging from administrative issues and failures to adequately collect and report data to “discharging pollutants” into the state’s waterways. For all those violations the mill has paid a total of $176,874.91 in penalties. For context, in the third quarter of 2021, Energy Fuels, the company that owns and operates the mill, reported that it had more than $100 million in cash. Monitoring wells at the site show concentrations of uranium, nitrates, cadmium, nickel and more regularly testing above state limits. Uranium levels at one well spiked over 600% higher than acceptable federal limits for drinking water, data collected by the mill shows.
Tribal officials say recent protests and official appeals against contamination in the ground water only resulted in state regulators raising the thresholds for acceptable limits. Experts hired by the tribe caught leaks at the tailing ponds and say other leaks are likely. Ultimately tribal officials and residents in the area say they’re concerned the toxins will seep deeper into the ground and contaminate the Burro Canyon Aquifer — which is already showing signs of contamination — and then into the Navajo Aquifer underneath, on which some 50,000 Native Americans depend.
If climate change were a disaster film, it would likely be accused of being too over-the-top: wildfires reducing entire towns to ashes, hurricanes swamping cities, droughts draining lakes and withering fields, and raging oceans redrawing the very maps of our coasts. And now, many cities and states are asking, who’s going to pay for all of this?
“This is real; we’re on the front line of climate change right here in Charleston,” said John Tecklenburg, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The city’s been battered by an endless parade of floods due to sea level rise. Some desperate homeowners have resorted to raising their homes by several feet. So, the city is raising large parts of its existing sea wall, and the Army Corps of Engineers says Charleston should build another eight miles of wall. The city expects an estimated $3 billion in climate change-related costs…
Study after study has shown the companies’ carbon emissions from oil, coal and gas are major contributors to climate change. Charleston is one of more than two dozen cities, counties and states that are suing these companies (including ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and ConocoPhillips)…
The suits are modeled after the “Big Tobacco” cases of the 1990s, and accuse the companies and industry groups of making false and misleading claims about climate change…
William Tong, attorney general of Connecticut, said, “I’m suing ExxonMobil because they lied to us.”
Tong is suing ExxonMobil under the state’s consumer protection laws. He said internal company research done by Exxon and Mobil (which used to be separate companies) shows they were aware of the dangers of climate change since at least the 1980s.
“There’s a study from, I think, 1982 in which they produce a chart that shows, as the levels of carbon dioxide rise, the temperature of our atmosphere will rise,” said Tong. “And that chart is almost exactly right.”
And the suit also cites a 1988 internal draft memo from an Exxon spokesperson advising the company “emphasize the uncertainty” of climate science…He points to ads that look like editorials from ExxonMobil, as well as their executives’ own words, including the 1996 statement by Lee Raymond (then the CEO of Exxon) that “the scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the global climate.”
Our region hosts an abundance of abandoned mine sites and orphaned oil and gas wells.
They contaminate our water and air with acid mine drainage and leaking methane. They are the legacy of decades of resource extraction, and unfortunately, taxpayers often end up with the liability to reclaim the damage.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act passed in November includes billions of dollars for abandoned mine reclamation and plugging orphaned oil and gas wells. But more importantly, rules are needed to head off the creation of future problems.
Most of us are likely familiar with abandoned mines that dot the hillsides above Silverton and elsewhere, but the ones of most concern are those draining water laden with heavy metals. Our region also contains more 30,000 oil and gas well sites, and a surprising number are inactive with rusted equipment bleeding methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Abandoned mines and orphaned wells are derelicts without any responsible owner willing or financially capable of reclamation. These sites are not intentionally created, but creep up on us as owners change over the decades and lose interest or capacity to keep them operating. An owner might hope that metal or oil prices will spike and lead to a resurgence of extraction, but these sites have marginal reserves to begin with, and eventually owners may just walk away, leaving someone else on the hook for cleanup.
One important means to prevent these liabilities from burdening taxpayers is to require reclamation while a financially viable owner still exists. That’s the basis of Colorado’s Mined Land Reclamation Act, which allows mines to “temporarily” cease production for a limited period. If production does not resume, then it is in the interest of the state and taxpayers to make sure reclamation starts while someone responsible is still around.
The uranium mines scattered across the Dolores River basin are a case in point. Most haven’t operated for decades, but over the past 40 years owners kept hoping that uranium prices might reach a level that again spurred production. But at some point, reality needs to set in and owners should start undertaking efforts to reclaim mines. That’s the point of Colorado’s reclamation law.
Orphaned oil and gas wells are similarly vexing. A nearby example is dozens of rusting, derelict, leaking wells west of Farmington in an area called the Hogback. State and federal records list these as active, but the rust and the fact one needs a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle to even reach them is ample evidence the wells haven’t produced in many years. The companies associated with them have long since vanished, with phone numbers disconnected. If today’s price of oil hasn’t spurred any renewed activity, it seems unlikely anything would.
Colorado hopes to prevent additional orphaned wells by increasing bonds posted by oil companies. The bonds ideally should be ample enough to cover the costs of plugging and reclaiming wells in the event the companies disappear, so as to keep taxpayers off the hook.
It seems common sense to head off future problems, and forestall asking for billions in tax dollars like the Infrastructure Act provides, but not all agree. Right now, the mining industry is aggressively opposing rules about temporary cessation at hardrock mines, arguing for loopholes that allow mines to be idled and largely abandoned for decades, just in case someday they might again become profitable.
The plague of abandoned mines and orphaned wells proves the worth of Benjamin Franklin’s adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We can hope state officials to appropriately translate that advice into rules.
Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at email@example.com.
Electricity produced at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam, which serves some 50 Colorado utilities, and dozens of others in the Colorado River Basin, has been cut in half by the 20-year drought, with power levels over the next two years projected to be 47% lower than normal, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“We’re going to be generating less than we have in quite some time. It will be among the lowest years of generation ever,” said Nick Williams, power manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River Region in an interview last week.
The grim forecast comes as water officials race to bolster Lake Powell’s water levels. On April 8, Reclamation announced it would likely keep more water in Lake Powell, reducing releases from the planned 7.5 million acre-feet to 7 million acre-feet, a move that could trigger emergency water cutbacks in Arizona, California and Nevada.
At the same time, electric utilities across the West are looking for other green power options and hoping that hydropower production won’t stop altogether. According to Reclamation, there is a 27% chance that Powell will still stop generating electricity completely over the next four years.
“If Glen Canyon Dam ceases to operate, we are going to have to replace that power somewhere else and it will have a bigger carbon footprint,” said Bryan Hannegan, CEO of Holy Cross Energy, which buys Lake Powell’s hydropower to serve customers in Western Colorado.
The picture was much different 60 years ago, when the giant storage reservoir on the Colorado River was filling, its electricity helping power the West and the revenue from its power sales helping fund endangered fish protection programs across the Colorado River Basin.
Back then, Hannegan said, “We made an assumption that our WAPA (Western Area Power Administration) allocation would be firm, reliable and always there. Now, though, we know that it’s not firm, it’s not reliable, and it’s coming at a much higher cost.”
Late last fall WAPA, which operates the electric grid and distributes the power to utilities, raised rates 30% to cover reductions in power revenue. Few expected to ever see this drop in hydropower production, let alone consider what to do if Glen Canyon were to cease electricity production entirely.
“The forecast is changing daily and there are still a lot of variables,” said Lisa Meiman, a spokeswoman for WAPA. ”But it is concerning. This is the big warning bell.”
The drop in the power forecast comes as Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming prepare to finalize a new drought operations plan for the giant river system. The draft plan is expected to be released next week, according to Becki Bryant, a spokeswoman for Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River Region.
The critical issue is how to maintain the lake at 3,525, which marks an elevation that is the top of the liquid buffer zone designed to protect the lake’s mighty electricity turbines.
Last July, to protect the 3,525 buffer zone, Reclamation ordered emergency water releases from three reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo.
Despite those releases, Powell dropped below 3,525 last month, hitting 3,523, another historic drought landmark.
Though the 2022 forecast isn’t expected to be finalized until later this month, water officials expect that more water will have to be released from Upper Basin storage reservoirs this summer because inflows into the lake from the drought-stressed Colorado River are expected to be well below average again, in the 60% to 80% range.
Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water planning agency. She also sits on the Upper Colorado River Commission. Mitchell declined to discuss the pending drought operations plan. But in a statement, she said, “The Upper Basin States are working collaboratively with the Bureau of Reclamation to draft a 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan outlining potential releases from Upper Basin reservoirs in an effort to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell. The Upper Basin reservoirs have already provided 161,000 acre-feet of water pursuant to the ’imminent need‘ provision of the Drought Response Operations Agreement, including 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado. Water availability, appropriate timing of releases, and impacts on other resources are all being considered as the 2022 Plan is being drafted.”
Across the region, water utilities are in high-alert mode, preparing for another dry year on the Colorado River and holding hope that the Upper Basin reservoirs can be protected as long as possible from large-scale drought releases.
“The forecast isn’t great,” said Kyle Whitaker, Colorado River Manager for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, one of the largest diverters of water in the headwaters region of the river.
“It’s better than last year, but we’ll just have to see what the next two to four weeks holds for precipitation.”
At the same time, power producers are gearing up to craft a fallback plan for extending hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam if water levels continue to fall.
“We have to take a strong look at what we will do in the unlikely event that Lake Powell stops producing hydropower,” said WAPA’s Meiman. “It’s not a hypothetical situation anymore.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Officials had hoped snowmelt would buoy Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border to ensure [Glen Canyon Dam] could continue to supply power. But snow is already melting, and hotter-than-normal temperatures and prolonged drought are further shrinking the lake. The Interior Department has proposed holding back water in the lake to maintain Glen Canyon Dam’s ability to generate electricity amid what it said were the driest conditions in the region in more than 1,200 years.
“The best available science indicates that the effects of climate change will continue to adversely impact the basin,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science wrote to seven states in the basin [April 8, 2022].
Trujillo asked for feedback on the proposal to keep 480,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell…In the Colorado River basin, Glen Canyon Dam is the mammoth of power production, delivering electricity to about 5 million customers in seven states — Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. As Lake Powell falls, the dam becomes less efficient. At 3,490 feet, it can’t produce power…
The Pacific Northwest, and the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and Texas are facing similar strains on water supplies…
Water managers in the basin states — Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado — are evaluating the proposal. The Interior Department has set an April 22 deadline for feedback.
Democracies are making more progress than autocracies when it comes to climate action. But divestment campaigns can put pressure on the most recalcitrant of political leaders
At first glance, last autumn’s Glasgow climate summit looked a lot like its 25 predecessors. It had:
A conference hall the size of an aircraft carrier stuffed with displays from problematic parties (the Saudis, for example, with a giant pavilion saluting their efforts at promoting a “circular carbon economy agenda”).
Squadrons of delegates rushing constantly to mysterious sessions (“Showcasing achievements of TBTTP and Protected Areas Initiative of GoP”) while actual negotiations took place in a few back rooms.
Earnest protesters with excellent signs (“The wrong Amazon is burning”).
But as I wandered the halls and the streets outside, it struck me again and again that a good deal had changed since the last big climate confab in Paris in 2015 – and not just because carbon levels and the temperature had risen ever higher. The biggest shift was in the political climate. Over those few years the world seemed to have swerved sharply away from democracy and toward autocracy – and in the process dramatically limited our ability to fight the climate crisis. Oligarchs of many kinds had grabbed power and were using it to uphold the status quo; there was a Potemkin quality to the whole gathering, as if everyone was reciting a script that no longer reflected the actual politics of the planet.
Now that we’ve watched Russia launch an oil-fired invasion of Ukraine, it’s a little easier to see this trend in high relief – but Putin is far from the only case…
The cost of energy delivered by the sun has not risen this year, and it will not rise next year…
As a general rule of thumb, those territories with the healthiest, least-captive-to-vested-interest democracies are making the most progress on climate change. Look around the world at Iceland or Costa Rica, around Europe at Finland or Spain, around the US at California or New York. So part of the job for climate campaigners is to work for functioning democratic states, where people’s demands for a working future will be prioritized over vested interest, ideology and personal fiefdoms. But given the time constraints that physics impose – the need for rapid action everywhere – that can’t be the whole strategy. In fact, activists have arguably been a little too focused on politics as a source of change, and paid not quite enough attention to the other power center in our civilization: money. If we could somehow persuade or force the world’s financial giants to change, that would yield quick progress as well. Maybe quicker, since speed is more a hallmark of stock exchanges than parliaments.
And here the news is a little better. Take my country as an example. Political power has come to rest in the reddest, most corrupt parts of America. The senators representing a relative handful of people in sparsely populated western states are able to tie up our political life, and those senators are almost all on the payroll of big oil. But money has collected in the blue parts of the country – Biden-voting counties account for 70% of the country’s economy. That’s one reason some of us have worked so hard on campaigns like fossil fuel divestment – we won big victories with New York’s pension funds and with California’s vast university system, and so were able to put real pressure on big oil. Now we’re doing the same with the huge banks that are the industry’s financial lifeline. We’re well aware that we may never win over Montana or Mississippi, so we better have some solutions that don’t depend on doing so. The same thing’s true globally. We may not be able to advocate in Beijing or Moscow or, increasingly, in Delhi. So, at least for these purposes, it’s useful that the biggest pots of money remain in Manhattan, in London, in Frankfurt, in Tokyo. These are places we still can make some noise.
The world will probably burn through its carbon budget before the global climate panel issues its next update on mitigation
Whatever words and phrases the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have been parsing late into Sunday night, its new report, issued Monday, boils down to yet another dire scientific warning. Greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2025 to limit global warming close to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), as targeted by the Paris Agreement, the report says. In a way, it’s a final warning, because at the IPCC’s pace, the world most likely will have burned through its carbon budget by the time the panel releases its next climate mitigation report in about five or six years. Even with the climate clock so close to a deadline, it’s not surprising that the IPCC struggled to find consensus during the two-week approval session, said Paul Maidowski, an independent Berlin-based climate policy researcher and activist. The mitigation report may be the most challenging of the three climate assessments that are done every five to seven years under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, he said.
The first two reports of each IPCC assessment cycle, one on the physical basis of climate science, and another about impacts and adaptation, are mostly based on unyielding physics, like how much global temperature goes up for every added increment of CO2, and how fast and high sea level will rise based on that warming.
But the mitigation report, which outlines choices society can make to affect the trajectory of climate change, has to reconcile those scientific realities with economic and political assumptions that are not constrained by physics, Maidowski said. Other researchers have described the IPCC report as a mechanism to determine what is politically possible, he added. If those assumptions—for example about future availability of carbon dioxide removal technology—don’t materialize, “then you are left with illusions, essentially,” he said. The IPCC has “blinded itself” to deeper questions of sustainability and is thus asking the wrong questions, like how to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions, he added. Instead, it should be more up front about acknowledging the physical limits of the planet, and start asking how to downscale current resource consumption to a sustainable level.
The report found that “without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach.”
On the hopeful side, the panel noted that renewable energy costs have dropped by as much as 85 percent in the past decade, and that new policies in many countries have accelerated deployment of wind and solar power.
Sales of electric cars are surging in the U.S. and Britain, a reflection of growing interest in plug-in vehicles and a response to high gas prices, analysts say. And as EV sales boom, automakers are backing the Biden administration’s new, more stringent fuel standards.
While the U.S. saw an overall dip in car sales in the first quarter of 2022, all-electric brands such as Karma, Polestar, and Tesla made significant gains, with sales of Teslas up 87 percent over the first quarter of last year. Major automakers also saw a significant EV uptick, with Ford reporting a 38 percent growth in EV sales over last year.
This trend was even more pronounced in the U.K., where automakers sold more electric cars in the month of March than they did in all of 2019, despite overall March car sales hitting their lowest point in 24 years. The growth of electric cars comes as oil prices soar, owing to problems in the supply chain and sanctions on Russia, a major oil producer, over its invasion of Ukraine.
“There was already massive growth in this segment and, if anything, the demand for vehicles is now even stronger as prices at the pumps rise on the back of the Ukraine crisis,” Ian Plummer, a director at car sales website AutoTrader, told The Guardian.
As EV sales rise, automakers are backing more stringent fuel standards recently announced by the EPA, Reuters reported. Texas and 15 other states are suing to block the new regulations, which call for a 28 percent cut in vehicle emissions by 2026. But the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents nearly every major automaker, has sided with the EPA, saying in a court filing that it wants to make sure “critical regulatory provisions supporting electric vehicle technology are maintained.”
For all electrical utilities, R is the first letter of the alphabet. Reliability, keeping the lights on, comes before A, affordability.
Colorado’s utility regulators soon will decide the role of Comanche 3, the state’s youngest but most unreliable coal-fired power plant, in ensuring reliability, and whether more natural gas generation will be required.
Xcel Energy, the operator and primary owner of the 750-megawatt coal plant, wants to keep the plant operating on limited, then seasonal-only, terms until 2034. It says the plant will meet peak demands during winter and summer. Several state agencies plus other groups have concurred.
Evidence for Comanche 3 serving this purpose is thin. All fossil fuel plants must occasionally be idled for repairs and maintenance. Comanche 3 has been first in this class. A 2021 report by the Public Utilities Commission staff found the coal unit from 2010 to 2020 “had the lowest availability” of all of Xcel’s coal and gas-fueled units in Colorado.
Comanche 3 was down for most of 2020. It’s down again this year, and until June at the earliest it won’t be generating any more electricity than a solar panel at midnight. At least the solar panels that now surround the plant on the edge of Pueblo generate electricity when the sun shines.
This should provide no comfort to people in Grand Junction, Denver, and other cities who expect air conditioning if temperatures soar to 116 degrees as happened in Portland last summer.
In a March meeting, two of the three PUC commissioners reported seeing no good argument for the plant operating beyond 2029. John Gavan, the commissioner from Paonia, was adamant in that. Megan Gilman, the commissioner from Edwards, was more inclined to kick the decision down the road until next year. Eric Blank, the chair of the PUC, who is from Boulder, observed that requiring the early retirement would in effect make the PUC responsible for ensuring reliability.
What may matter immensely is that Comanche 3 still hasn’t been paid off.
How different from just 18 years ago, when Comanche 3 was approved unanimously by a different set of PUC commissioners. Utilities and their regulators in 2004 saw a future that looked much like the past, giant coal plants gobbled coal delivered by a virtual conveyor belt from mines in Wyoming and Colorado. The plant that PUC commissioners approved was expected to continue operations until 2070.
Winds of change were even then picking up. Colorado Green, the state’s first wind farm, had begun operations between Lamar and Springfield earlier that year. That November, voters approved the state’s first renewable portfolio standard. Xcel easily met that initial 10% requirement years in advance of the deadline.
Today, Comanche 3 looks like a billion-dollar blunder. If ensuring winter lights or summer chillers is the goal, the relative grandfathers of Xcel’s coal-burning fleet, Hayden 1 and 2, completed in 1965 and 1976 respectively, might be better options for ensuring reliability. They’re currently scheduled to close in 2027 and 2028.
Xcel and other Colorado utilities now say with confidence they can achieve 80% carbon-free energy by 2030. Nobody, however, claims complete confidence in existing technologies and business models to go even higher than 90%. Holy Cross, the electrical provider for the Aspen and Vail areas, has a goal of 100%. Inconveniently, it also owns 8% of Comanche 3.
Xcel wants more natural gas generation to ensure reliability. This could potentially result in the better part of $1 billion in new infrastructure. But would those assets be stranded by new technology in another 20 years?
A decision may not be immediately necessary. In 2016, the last time Xcel submitted a plan to state regulators, it also wanted a ton of new natural gas generation. When it went shopping, it got bids for renewable generation in late 2017 that dropped jaws across the nation. The economics of renewables had become compelling.
Now, reliability remains a concern, but many ideas are percolating. Homes will likely become energy sources, the batteries of electric vehicles supplying household needs when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. The grid increasingly will be two-way and with dispersed energy sources. Today’s electric grid that relies on a few big coal plants in a decade will look as quaint as a desk phone from … well, 2004.
By late next year we’ll have a much better idea whether new natural gas plants will be needed for reliability. As for Comanche 3, if it were a car, it’d already be in the automotive graveyard.
In recent weeks President Biden and his administration have moved to increase fossil fuel production and infrastructure. These actions fly in the face of climate science, which mandates a transition off of fossil fuels right away. Now scientists are speaking out, imploring President Biden to follow through on his commitments. As a candidate, Biden promised to listen to science, but his recent actions suggest the opposite.
The increased drought, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods that we’ve experienced recently would have been reason enough to curb this plan. But the Ukraine crisis has brought into full view the dangers of continued reliance on fossil fuels. Europe is planning for dramatic cuts in Russian gas and looking toward new sources. Rather than going all-in on renewable energy, Europe wants increased U.S. gas imports — for over a decade to come. This is a recipe for climate disaster.
A Broken Promise — President Biden Moves to Increase Fossil Fuel Production and Infrastructure
When President Biden ran for office, he pledged to listen to science. He also pledged to stop new drilling on federal lands, and initiate a transition off of fossil fuels. He was already falling massively short on these promises before the Ukraine crisis, but now he has reversed course completely. He and his administration have urged increased fossil fuel production, rush approvals of its infrastructure, and ramped-up exports to Europe. And his plan envisions a huge increase of gas exports by 2030 — more than tripling a big increase this year.
What these exports mean for the U.S. is more drilling, fracking, pipelines through communities and massive, polluting industrial facilities. These come with a litany of safety risks and local pollution, which have devastating environmental justice and health impacts.
It also will have monumental climate impacts, according to the most recent IPCC scientific report. Global emissions continue to increase and the very narrow window to avoid even 2 degrees of warming is rapidly closing. Building more infrastructure will certainly lock us into decades of more emissions.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said upon the release of the IPCC report: “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
Failing on Climate: Lies From Leaders Will Be “Catastrophic”
The Biden approach to climate is, unfortunately, not unique. As the IPCC report highlights, governments worldwide have broken prior commitments even though those fell far short of requirements.
The only way to avert even worse impacts is to embrace scientific reality and adopt policies matching the rapidly escalating climate emergency. This means confronting hard truths and paying the crisis more than lip service. The only way to really achieve energy independence and security is to move off of fossil fuels. That means making quick, bold investments in renewable energy and immediately halting and rolling back fossil fuels and its infrastructure. To do otherwise fails to confront what is happening. Secretary-General Guterres said: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing – but doing another…Simply put, they are lying, and the results will be catastrophic.”
Scientists Implore Biden to Reverse Course Before It’s Too Late
While President Biden has charted a perilous course, there’s still time to reverse and confront the reality of the climate crisis. Over 275 scientists wrote Biden to implore him to act. This is directly in response to his announced plans to double down on fossil fuels and the IPCC report release. They urged him to instead take bold action to move off fossil fuels and infrastructure and reject the mad dash to increase production and exports.
The initiative for this letter is led by scientists Bob Howarth, Mark Jacobson, Michael Mann, Sandra Steingraber, and Peter Kalmus. The message is prophetic and clear in its call to action. It concludes:
“As scientists who look at data every day, we implore you to keep this promise and listen to what the scientific community is saying about fossil fuels and the climate crisis. Do not facilitate more fuel extraction and infrastructure. The impacts of climate change are already significant and we have a very narrow window to avoid runaway climate chaos. We urge you to lead boldly, take on the fossil fuel titans, and rally the country towards a renewable energy future.”
Help amplify this call to action. Join them, and all of us at Food & Water Watch in calling on President Biden to reject fossil fuels — now.
One way or another, Fort Collins City Council is interested in limiting oil and gas activity as much as possible in the city’s boundaries and growth management area. What’s less clear is how they’ll try to do it. The city could adopt regulations, currently being drafted by staff, that effectively ban new drilling in city limits. It could incentivize the plugging and abandoning of wells or leverage new state rules to do so. Or Fort Collins could pursue another idea that attracted some City Council members’ attention at a March 22 work session: What if the city bought all the mineral rights in Fort Collins?
“I’m talking about buying out the operators who own the oil and gas,” Mayor Jeni Arndt said at the work session. “That just seems like an elegant solution that is probably cheaper than all these rules and regulations and potential lawsuits for takings.”
Staff are investigating the feasibility of Arndt’s idea while continuing to work on the regulations and considering how to facilitate the plugging of inactive or low-producing wells. Ralph Cantafio, a Colorado attorney who specializes in oil and gas, told the Coloradoan the buy-out idea seems “wildly impractical.”
But first, a rundown of the city’s draft regulations. Staff have been working on them since 2019, with the process drawn out as they awaited new state regulations on everything from setbacks to financial assurances. A 2018 state law gave municipalities the right to adopt oil and gas regulations that are stricter than the state standards and triggered the overhaul of the state’s regulations. City staff are considering draft regulations that would allow drilling only in areas with industrial zoning, located at least 2,000 feet from homes, parks, natural areas, schools, hospitals and anything defined as “occupiable space.” The 2,000-foot standard, unlike the state’s regulations, would leave no room for exceptions. It’s based on a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment study that found the greatest health risks of living near oil and gas wells were for those living within 2,000 feet of the site. No land in city limits meets all the city’s draft requirements, so they would essentially prohibit new drilling. Council members haven’t expressed any discomfort at that possibility, pointing to the 2013 ballot measure where about 55% of voters supported a five-year moratorium on fracking.
Whatever words and phrases the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have been parsing late into Sunday night, its new report, issued Monday, boils down to yet another dire scientific warning. Greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2025 to limit global warming close to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), as targeted by the Paris Agreement, the report says.
In a way, it’s a final warning, because at the IPCC’s pace, the world most likely will have burned through its carbon budget by the time the panel releases its next climate mitigation report in about five or six years.
Even with the climate clock so close to a deadline, it’s not surprising that the IPCC struggled to find consensus during the two-week approval session, said Paul Maidowski, an independent Berlin-based climate policy researcher and activist. The mitigation report may be the most challenging of the three climate assessments that are done every five to seven years under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, he said.
The first two reports of each IPCC assessment cycle, one on the physical basis of climate science, and another about impacts and adaptation, are mostly based on unyielding physics, like how much global temperature goes up for every added increment of CO2, and how fast and high sea level will rise based on that warming.
But the mitigation report, which outlines choices society can make to affect the trajectory of climate change, has to reconcile those scientific realities with economic and political assumptions that are not constrained by physics, Maidowski said. Other researchers have described the IPCC report as a mechanism to determine what is politically possible, he added. If those assumptions—for example about future availability of carbon dioxide removal technology—don’t materialize, “then you are left with illusions, essentially,” he said.
The IPCC has “blinded itself” to deeper questions of sustainability and is thus asking the wrong questions, like how to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions, he added. Instead, it should be more up front about acknowledging the physical limits of the planet, and start asking how to downscale current resource consumption to a sustainable level.
The report found that “without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach.”
On the hopeful side, the panel noted that renewable energy costs have dropped by as much as 85 percent in the past decade, and that new policies in many countries have accelerated deployment of wind and solar power…
An Unrealistic Leap of Faith
The contradictions between scientific reality and hopeful political assumptions identified by Maidowski are clear in the new report, which says, on the one hand, that greenhouse emissions need to peak in the next three years, while also finding that average annual greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 to 2019 were higher than in any previous decade.
Believing that emissions can peak by 2025 on that trajectory requires an enormous and unrealistic leap of faith, and many climate scientists, including NASA researcher Peter Kalmus, are not buying it.
“This IPCC report is absolutely harrowing. Wake up everyone,” Kalmus wrote on Twitter. “Brief summary of the new IPCC report: We know what to do, we know how to do it, it requires taking toys away from the rich, and world leaders aren’t doing it,” he continued.
In the desert, few issues are as crucial as water. As a historic megadrought continues in the West, water usage is at the top of mind for many scientists. Hydrologists can help us understand how and when to enact new water policies. In this week’s column, Science Moab highlights important messages from conversations with hydrologists, speaking with Eric Kuhn, Jack Schmidt, Brian Richter, and Arne Hultquist.
Science Moab: Are we bound by water usage policies enacted years ago? If nature can’t sustain those, what then?
Eric Kuhn: One hundred years ago, we had some flexibility because the river was not very well-used. Today, not a drop of the Colorado River reaches the Gulf of California, so we don’t have that luxury. The way I look at it is: we legally allocated water based on an assumption that this river system had about 20 million acre-feet. Today, we think it’s more like 13, and it might be less in the future with climate change. Predictions and models show that increasing temperatures are going to reduce flows to the Colorado River. The drama is not how much water we’re going to have in the future — we know it’s going to be less. The drama is how we’re going to decide who gets less water, and when…
Science Moab: At the start of 2021, Lake Powell was at 41% of its capacity. Why should we be so concerned that Lake Powell levels continue to fall to all-time lows?
Brian Richter: Lake Powell serves three really important benefits. One is that it generates hydropower from the Glen Canyon Dam, which provides electricity throughout the southwestern United States. Two, Lake Powell is important for tourism, which is impacted by falling water levels. But by far the biggest concern is that if Lake Powell drops by another 85 feet — and for reference, the lake level dropped by more than 30 feet in 2020 — then the lake will drop below the hydropower outlets, so all the electricity production out of Glen Canyon Dam will stop. But even worse is that it will become physically impossible to move enough water into the Lower Basin states to provide for their water needs.
Today, Governor Polis joined legislative leadership, bill sponsors, and community leaders to unveil comprehensive legislation to preserve and protect Colorado’s air quality, and ensure Coloradans are healthy, safe, and can thrive. The Polis Administration has made record investments to improve air quality since day one, and the newly unveiled legislation is a critical step forward towards achieving a healthier, cleaner Colorado.
“We are fighting for a cleaner, healthier Colorado. I am proud that in partnership with the legislature, we are moving forward on a comprehensive plan for clean air that will benefit Colorado for years to come while helping save people and businesses money. The time is now for bold action,” said Gov. Polis.
The historic package of bills includes record investments in clean transportation, energy efficient buildings, and air quality monitoring, regulation, and incentives. The electrification of school bus fleets will protect Colorado kids from harmful pollutant exposure and save Colorado schools money on both expensive fuel and maintenance costs.
“Cleaning up our air and building a healthier Colorado requires all hands on deck,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. “That’s why we’re taking a comprehensive approach to ensure every Coloradan, particularly communities who have historically borne the brunt of air pollution, can breathe clean air. With transformative investments to reduce industrial emissions, initiatives to clean up our transportation system, and plans to improve air monitoring, we’re putting Colorado on the path to a cleaner future for all.”
The newly introduced legislation supports good-paying jobs for drivers, mechanics, and construction workers with bold investments in expanded public transit service and energy efficient buildings.
“This legislation will improve our air quality, save people money and create jobs in Colorado,” said Rep. Alex Valdez, D-Denver. “By investing in new technologies, we will reduce harmful industrial emissions, and our air will be cleaner. Our kids deserve a smog free ride to school, and electric school buses will reduce emissions and protect students’ health. I’m excited that we are taking significant action to reduce pollution and create good jobs in critical industries.”
“Every Coloradan deserves safe and healthy air to breathe, but too often we are exposed to dangerous emissions and high ozone levels that threaten our health and hit disadvantaged communities the hardest,” said Senator Julie Gonzales, D-Denver. “This legislation represents an important step toward reducing those harmful emissions and achieving true environmental justice for all.”
“Last summer Colorado had the worst air quality in the world, and we must take immediate action to address it,” said Senator Faith Winter, D-Westminster. “That’s why I am proud to bring this legislation to reduce local air pollution by offering free transit rides during peak ozone season. This commonsense bill will encourage transit ridership, reduce harmful emissions, and help us further our climate goals while giving Colorado families cleaner, healthier air to breathe.”
“The future is coming, and we want Colorado homes to be ready so consumers don’t have to spend thousands retrofitting their properties for the technologies we know are going to be commonplace in just a few years,” said Rep. Tracey Bernett, D-Louisville. “Our building codes need to be forward looking, and with this bill, new homes are going to be ready for clean heat, solar power and electric vehicles. With these codes in place, Coloradans will benefit from cleaner indoor air and save money on their utility bills.”
“For too long, we’ve suffered from unhealthy, unsafe air in Colorado, and it’s only getting worse. That’s why I am proud to champion this legislation that will help upgrade our homes and buildings to reduce emissions throughout Colorado,” said Senator Chris Hansen, D-Denver. “This $22 million investment will help families, businesses, and communities improve buildings to reduce energy use and pollution, improve our indoor air quality, and help give more Coloradans a cleaner, healthier future.”
And — in the face of massive property loss, threatened public health, and loss of life — leaders in Colorado are proving unequal to the crisis.
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The state’s climate response looks comparatively good on paper. Its 2019 greenhouse gas emissions law, House Bill 19-1261, is one of the strongest in the country. It sets clear reduction targets compared to 2005 levels that the state must hit — 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. Gov. Jared Polis and members of his administration often employ the right rhetoric. During his State of the State address in January, Polis talked about “meeting the climate crisis head on.”
But in practice Polis prefers to meet the climate crisis only around the edges. The state is not on track to meet its own emission reduction targets, and even if it were, the targets increasingly appear too relaxed in light of the accelerating catastrophic effects of climate change throughout the world.
The Polis administration notes certain big-ticket climate-action achievements as evidence it is taking meaningful action. These include Xcel Energy’s Clean Energy Plan, new rules adopted last year that reduce dangerous methane emissions at oil and gas operations, and the state’s zero-emission vehicle standard, meant to ensure electric vehicles are available for sale in Colorado. This week Polis and several Democratic lawmakers announced a package of proposed air-quality measures at the Legislature.
But the state has delayed climate action, such as an Advanced Clean Trucks rule, or abandoned it, such as the Employee Traffic Reduction Program, on a comparable scale. The Polis administration has a maddening predilection for a “market-driven transition” to renewable energy and a feckless preference for voluntary industry action. The state is preparing for a dramatic increase in oil and gas production through about 2030. The result is that, at the current trajectory, the state likely won’t hit its own emission reduction targets.
The state must stop issuing new oil and gas drilling permits, and it must mandate a faster transition to renewable energy.
An Environmental Defense Fund analysis about a year ago concluded that the state was on track to achieve at best 16% reductions — not 26% — by 2025, and at best 26% — not 50% by 2030. Alex DeGolia, who leads EDF’s state climate strategy in Colorado and other states, told Newsline this week that a forthcoming updated analysis that accounts for the latest climate action in Colorado will show the state is still “well short of meeting its targets.”
We know what must happen if climate action is to measure up to the climate emergency.
The state must stop issuing new oil and gas drilling permits, and it must mandate a faster transition to renewable energy.
Several coal-fired power plants in the state continue to churn out pollution, and at least one coal-fired unit is projected to remain in operation beyond 2030. The state should not allow that to occur. Every coal-fired unit should be fast-tracked for closure at a quicker pace than currently planned, yet the Polis administration has an alarming tendency to favor the preferences of utilities over the health of the planet.
There are statewide efforts to encourage more electric vehicles, public transit, the electrification of home heating and appliances, and other areas that involve the participation of millions of individuals and properties. These are all worthy programs, but a transition to renewable energy would target several large sources of pollution; it’s cost-effective and it can yield significant short-term emissions reduction. What’s required to achieve such a transition is the willingness of Polis and climate advocates in the General Assembly to be bold. So far they instead have prioritized corporate interests and cowered before opposition from industry lobbyists and business advocates.
Opponents of a rapid, regulated transition to renewable energy argue that it could lead to higher costs and economic disruptions. Even if this were true in the short-term, the long-term costs of a failure to implement immediate and immense changes are incalculable, and the disruptions that should really command our attention are those endured by so many Boulder County families displaced by fire, and other climate victims throughout the state and the world. Climate action must also be more robust at the federal level and in other developed countries. But Coloradans have a responsibility to hold state leaders to account.
There will be another destructive wildfire. Drought will continue to pummel the West. Climate change will increasingly threaten public health. And with each new climate-enabled disaster, Coloradans should recall that state leaders chose half-measures and lip service over leadership.
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If wind and solar power continue the rapid growth they achieved over the last decade, rising by 20 percent annually until 2030, the global electricity sector will do its part to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, according to a new report from climate think tank Ember.
In 2021, solar power grew by 23 percent worldwide, while wind power grew by 14 percent, close to the 20 percent average yearly growth seen in recent years. The Netherlands, Australia, and Vietnam saw the biggest renewable energy gains last year, with solar growing by 337 percent in Vietnam.
“If these trends can be replicated globally, and sustained, the power sector would be on track for 1.5 C,” the report said. “But those shifts aren’t happening fast enough across all countries, and we’re far off-track in reducing power sector emissions. The result in 2021 was coal’s rise, at a time when it needs to be falling rapidly.”
Coal power grew 9 percent last year, its biggest gain since 1985, as a swift economic recovery drove up demand for power, and a spike in natural gas prices made coal more cost-competitive.
To keep warming under 1.5 degrees C, wind and solar will need provide 40 percent of the world’s power by 2030 and close to 70 percent by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Today, they supply just 10 percent of the world’s electricity.
Dave Jones, global lead at Ember, said that “with sustained high gas prices amid Russia’s war with Ukraine, there is a real risk of relapse into coal, threatening the global 1.5 degrees climate goal. Clean electricity now needs to be built on a heroic scale.”
A new study finds that the world can make the changes needed to keep warming under 1.5 degrees C while also maintaining economic growth. In one scenario modeled by researchers, renewables provide seven times as much power by the end of this century as they did in 2010, with the global economy growing by a little less than 2 percent a year from now until 2100. The paper was published in the journal Oxford Open Energy.
“Continuing global economic growth is clearly compatible with achieving the temperature target in the Paris Agreement,” said Paul Ekins, an economist at University College London and lead author of the study. “Governments now need to step up to put in place the policies to stimulate the investments that are required to turn these projections into reality.”
Residents in Big Thompson Canyon east of Estes Park became the latest Coloradans to flee their homes in fear of a nearby wildfire on Monday, just hours after the NCAR Fire forced evacuations and closures 30 miles to the south in Boulder.
It’s been three months since the Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and left two people dead, and nearly two years since Colorado’s three largest wildfires on record burned in the summer and fall of 2020, razing mountainsides, choking the skies with haze and eventually causing mudslides that killed four people in Larimer County and left Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon shut down for weeks.
The increasingly tangible impacts of the climate-driven “megadrought” that has affected much of Colorado since 2000 — stressed water supplies, more intense wildfires, losses in the agricultural and tourism sectors — have served as a rallying cry for Democrats who highlight the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the 2022 campaign season has brought little sign of a change in Colorado Republicans’ long-running pattern of denying or downplaying human-caused climate change.
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In the crowded GOP primary for U.S. Senate, misinformation, half-truths and conspiracy theories still dominate candidates’ rhetoric on climate and energy issues.
State Rep. Ron Hanks of Cañon City, the race’s only sitting lawmaker, said earlier this month that climate change is a Chinese hoax designed to “emasculate” the American economy.
Eli Bremer, a first-time candidate and former Olympic pentathlete, has spread debunked claims that wind power emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels.
And Gino Campana, a former Fort Collins city councilman who once supported the city’s emissions-cutting programs and co-founded a clean-energy startup, has joined other Republicans in blasting Democrats for holding back domestic energy production — an assertion belied by the oil and gas industry’s own statements.
Ahead of the state GOP assembly next month, climate change has rarely come up in debates and other campaign events featuring Republican Senate candidates. Several leading contenders ignored repeated requests from Newsline to comment on climate issues, and none have detailed a plan to achieve the greenhouse gas emissions cuts that an overwhelming scientific consensus says is necessary to avoid increasingly catastrophic effects. Other GOP candidates who filed to run for the Senate seat include Joe O’Dea, Deborah Flora and Peter Yu. Observers generally name Hanks, Bremer and Campana among the frontrunners.
“Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability,” wrote 270 scientists in the latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last month. “The magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions, and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages escalate with every increment of global warming.”
‘It’s called weather’
A Colorado College poll released last month found that 82% of Centennial State voters agreed that climate change is a serious problem, up from 60% in 2011. Nearly 7 in 10 Coloradans say they’re supportive of climate action, including efforts to transition to 100% clean energy within “the next ten to fifteen years,” the school’s annual State of the Rockies poll found.
Republican voters, however, are much more evenly split on the issue, with about half declaring climate change “not a problem,” according to poll results across an eight-state Western region. And despite periodicpredictions of a Republican shift on climate issues from pollsters and pundits, little about party leaders’ views has changed over the last decade.
During his six-year U.S. Senate term, former Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner acknowledged that “the climate is changing” but consistently cast doubt on the extent to which warming is human-caused. The same position is held by many Republicans in the state Legislature, including Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker, who said of “so-called climate change” during a floor debate last year: “I do not believe that it is man-made.”
In fact, virtually all of the 1.07 degrees Celsius average global temperature increase observed since 1850 has been the result of rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations “unequivocally caused by human activities,” IPCC scientists wrote last year. Non-human drivers like solar and volcanic activity and natural variability have had no quantifiable long-term effect.
Hanks, a first-term lawmaker who was present at the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and a leading proponent of conspiracy theories relating to the 2020 election, staked out the primary’s most extreme position on climate change at a candidate forum earlier this month.
Asked how he would respond to concerns about climate change in a general election matchup with incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, Hanks replied that Republicans need to “start marketing the truth.”
“I don’t want to sit here and pretend climate change is a real issue. It’s called weather,” Hanks said to laughter and applause, according to video posted by his campaign.
Echoing baseless claims made by former President Donald Trump, Hanks called climate change a “serious effort from China to emasculate us” by impeding domestic manufacturing and economic growth.
Bremer, a onetime chair of the El Paso County Republican Party, is among the only candidates in the primary to have publicly addressed the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Our approach should be led by data, science, and common sense rather than tilting to the political winds of the day,” reads a section devoted to environmental policy on his website.
But Bremer’s recent claims about emissions from renewable energy sources like wind turbines are contradicted by a vast body of existing research.
“On the yardstick of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental policies fail … If you look at windmills, there’s a lot of greenhouse gas emission cost that we gloss over,” Bremer said in a March 23 Fox News interview, claiming that the emissions resulting from the manufacture and construction of wind farms offsets their lower operating emissions. “Virtually every expert that I’ve talked to believes that the overall return is negative.”
In fact, a 2021 analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden concluded that even when “total life cycle” emissions are calculated wind energy projects produce only a tiny fraction of the emissions of fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation. Evaluating the results of hundreds of previous studies, researchers concluded that the 13 grams of CO2-equivalent emissions per kilowatt-hour produced by wind generation — nearly all the result of one-time construction emissions — are 77 times smaller than the emissions from a typical coal plant and 37 times smaller than emissions from a natural gas plant.
From smart-grid investor to ‘unleash Colorado energy’
Campana, a wealthy real estate developer who served a term on the Fort Collins City Council between 2013 and 2017, has attracted establishment support for his Senate candidacy, including endorsements from former Trump administration figures like Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Kellyanne Conway, who joined Campana’s campaign as an advisor last month.
During his city council term, Campana frequently aligned himself with Fort Collins’ ambitious emissions-cutting efforts. In 2014, he voted to approve an update to the city’s climate action plan, which aimed to reduce emissions 80% by 2030, and endorsed another resolution calling for the city to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. In 2016, he also expressed support for the “objectives” of a legal brief filed by city officials in support of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, though he didn’t vote in favor of it. The Trump administration later gutted the policy.
Years earlier, Campana had been one of four founders of Windsor-based Ice Energy, a manufacturer of thermal energy storage systems. Experts say so-called “smart grid” technologies are a key part of the transition to a fully renewable electric grid, helping improve efficiency and offset the intermittency of wind and solar resources.
In 2010, Ice Energy received millions in government funding in the form of tax credits authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the same stimulus bill under which California-based solar panel manufacturer Solyndra received a $535 million federal loan guarantee that became notorious among conservatives after the firm went bankrupt a year later. Campana reported income from Ice Energy in a financial disclosure as late as 2013; the company later moved out of Colorado and declared bankruptcy in 2019.
In a financial disclosure filed earlier this year, Campana estimated his net worth at between $44 million and $141 million, and detailed an extensive list of corporate stock holdings that include tens of thousands of dollars invested in both fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum and clean-energy firms like Tesla and Vestas Wind.
As he looks to win support from the GOP base ahead of next month’s state assembly — and fight off attacks from opponents who say his city council record makes him a “tax-and-spend-liberal” — Campana has positioned himself as a champion of the oil and gas industry, calling on policymakers to “unleash Colorado energy.”
“Biden and Bennet are stifling America’s energy production, costing us jobs and higher gas prices,” he wrote in a tweet earlier this month. That’s a widely repeated GOP attack line that’s contradicted by the thousands of approved drilling permits held by oil and gas producers in Colorado and beyond, and the repeated assurances companies have made to investors to limit production growth.
On his website, Campana touts his “background in environmental engineering” and endorses an “all of the above energy strategy” that he says can lead to reduced emissions.
Scientists, however, warn that plans for continued fossil fuel production by governments around the world are “dangerously out of sync” with the targets outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which called for limiting average global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius.
“The research is clear: Global coal, oil, and gas production must start declining immediately and steeply to be consistent with limiting long-term warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Ploy Achakulwisut, a lead author on the 2021 U.N. Production Gap report, said upon the report’s release last year. “However, governments continue to plan for and support levels of fossil fuel production that are vastly in excess of what we can safely burn.”
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Ruedi Reservoir is at about its lowest level of the year — and also of the past 19 years — according to numbers from the Bureau of Reclamation.
As of Wednesday, the reservoir on the Fryingpan River contained 54,914 acre-feet of water and was about 54% full. And according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data, outflow is currently slightly more than inflow, meaning levels may not have bottomed out yet.
The last time the level was this low was in the drought year of 2003 when Ruedi hit 46,117 acre-feet, according to Timothy Miller, a hydrologist with Reclamation, which operates the reservoir. Many reservoirs across the West are at their lowest levels of the year right before spring runoff starts, and water managers will start to see in the next month what this year will bring and whether it’s enough to fill depleted storage buckets.
Despite the current low levels, Miller said forecasts show Ruedi should be able to fill this year — but just barely. The most recent forecast from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center shows that spring inflow for Ruedi will be about 96% of average.
“If we continue to get average precipitation, we should be able to fill by the skin of our teeth,” he said. “We won’t have any extra water. It’s going to be a tight fill.”
In 2021, Ruedi, which has a capacity of about 102,000 acre-feet, was only about 80% full after spring runoff.
Something that may influence if and how Ruedi fills this year is a phenomenon called the “April hole.” Agricultural irrigators downstream in the Grand Valley usually begin filling their ditches around April 1, and if irrigation ramps up faster than the snow melts in the high country, there may not be enough water to meet their demand.
Grand Valley irrigators, with large senior water rights dating to 1912, can command the entire Colorado River and its tributaries in western Colorado by placing a call. This means water users with junior water rights have to stop taking water so that the Grand Valley irrigators can get their entire amount of water to which they are entitled. When these irrigators put a call on the river, known as the “Cameo call,” it can control all junior water rights upstream of their diversion at the roller dam in DeBeque Canyon.
The Cameo call doesn’t come in April of every year, but it did in 2021 and lasted for 16 days — the longest April hole ever. Dry soils and hot temperatures in 2020 and 2021, fueled by climate change and drought, robbed the river of flows and created conditions never before seen by water managers.
“Last year was definitely the extreme,” said James Heath, Division 5 Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “We never had a call in April last that long. The prior longest was in 2002, with five days of call.”
Instead of curbing their water use when the Cameo call is on, some water users simply release water from Ruedi that they have bought and store there as part of an augmentation plan. The problem, Heath said, is that many of these water replacement plans counted on a call lasting at most seven days.
“What we are finding is a lot of the plans were originally decreed for a worst-case call scenario of seven days in April,” he said. “Last year, they were diverting out of priority and injuring the downstream water rights.”
Heath said his office is still figuring out how to address these shortfalls and analyze different entities’ augmentation plans. He said Ruedi had to release about 1,300 acre-feet of water last year to satisfy the Cameo call in April.
A consequence of low levels in Ruedi is a reduced capacity to generate power at the hydroelectric plant, which is operated by the city of Aspen. Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager with the city, said the bottom line is this: the less water, the less power that is able to be produced. Hunter said if water levels fall below 7,700 feet elevation, utilities staff may decide to shut the unit off because the water pressure may not be generating much power. Ruedi was at 7,708.7 feet Wednesday. When Ruedi is full, the surface elevation is 7,766 feet above sea level.
When hydropower production decreases, Hunter said Aspen fills its all-renewable portfolio by buying more wind power.
“When hydro goes down, wind picks up the slack,” he said. “We are not in a terrible place right now. We are not Glen Canyon Dam.”
Hunter was referring to water levels in Lake Powell, which last week dipped to their lowest ever, hitting a target elevation of 3,525 feet, just 35 feet above the minimum level needed to generate hydropower at the dam.
“Hydropower across the board in the West is being affected by drought,” Hunter said. “This is crunch time, just watching what happens in the next month as we approach peak snow-water equivalent and see what the snowpack does.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the March 25 edition of The Aspen Times.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which submitted the 373-page permit for Suncor, has 90 days to respond to the EPA’s objections and then resubmit. The operating permit regulates the level of various toxic pollutants the refinery can release into the air. The EPA’s objections do not affect the Suncor refinery’s operations and they do not mean the agency will eventually deny the permit renewal.
The refinery has been operating under a permit that was issued in 2006. Those air-quality permits are supposed to be renewed every five years, but Suncor and the state have not applied for renewal since then, meaning the plant has been operating on an expired permit for 16 years.
The EPA’s objections focused on three sites at the refinery where Suncor uses flares to burn off excess chemicals. The state’s Air Pollution Control Division, which falls under the health department, wanted to exempt those flaring sources from regular monitoring requirements, according to a letter to the agency from KC Becker, the EPA’s regional administrator. The EPA is asking the state to do more analysis and better explain why it believes the flare sites don’t need additional monitoring. The EPA also expressed significant concern about the refinery’s environmental impact on people who live and work within a three-mile radius of the plant, and the federal agency suggested multiple steps the state can take to improve communication with the community when it comes to permitting for the plant and reporting on the pollution that comes from it, the letter said.
A story of transition and renewal in the rural west, Craig, America shares the many perspectives that encompass a community upheld by coal but looks towards a future without it. It brings to life the unique story of Craig, Colorado, and how its people, economy, and community are both resilient and adaptive.
Craig, Colorado is a small town in Northwest Colorado, about 40 miles west of Steamboat Springs. While Craig lies in the high mountain plains above the meandering Yampa River, it is a case study as a town, and region, that is in transition. Craig has traditionally been a town defined by the extraction of fossil fuels and ranching. There are multiple coal mines, and energy generating stations (power plants) in the area. Under pressure from environmental groups and government agencies state-wide and nationally, the owners of Craig Station voted unanimously to close all three units of Craig Station, one of Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plants, by 2030. The decision to close the plant will send waves of change across the city of Craig and surrounding Moffat Country for decades to come, costing the region hundreds of high-paying jobs, removing an estimated 60% of the town’s tax revenue, and forcing a reckoning with its future.
Fortunately, Craig sits in a region of abundant beauty, and accessible opportunities for outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing, rafting, hiking and mountain biking and other pursuits or plentiful. As the recreation economy grows, Craig is in an ideal position to make that transition as well. As Jennifer Holloway, the new Executive Director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce puts it, “Craig is a community with a lot of opportunities, and in a unique moment to seize them.” As the town reckons with the closure of the plant and surrounding mines, a growing coalition of leaders and community advocates are working to save their town and move from a extraction based economy to one focused in recreation, tourism, and that centers the health and well being of our planet and its inhabitants.
This situation in Craig is one in which we are currently seeing across the United States. As renewable sources of energy continue to grow in demand and the profitability of coal continues to plummet in tandem with its role in climate change, small towns and cities that depend on these industries are questioning their future. The story of Craig can be a moment of hope for many regions across the country, and potentially a guidepost for how they can embrace the natural beauty of their regions, rather than think of them only for extraction and consumption.
Click the link to read this important article that’s running on the New Yorker website (Bill McKibben). Here’s an excerpt:
On the last day of February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most dire report yet. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, had, he said, “seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this.” Setting aside diplomatic language, he described the document as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” and added that “the world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.” Then, just a few hours later, at the opening of a rare emergency special session of the U.N. General Assembly, he catalogued the horrors of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and declared, “Enough is enough.” Citing Putin’s declaration of a nuclear alert, the war could, Guterres said, turn into an atomic conflict, “with potentially disastrous implications for us all.”
What unites these two crises is combustion. Burning fossil fuel has driven the temperature of the planet ever higher, melting most of the sea ice in the summer Arctic, bending the jet stream, and slowing the Gulf Stream. And selling fossil fuel has given Putin both the money to equip an army (oil and gas account for sixty per cent of Russia’s export earnings) and the power to intimidate Europe by threatening to turn off its supply. Fossil fuel has been the dominant factor on the planet for centuries, and so far nothing has been able to profoundly alter that. After Putin invaded, the American Petroleum Institute insisted that our best way out of the predicament was to pump more oil. The climate talks in Glasgow last fall, which John Kerry, the U.S. envoy, had called the “last best hope” for the Earth, provided mostly vague promises about going “net-zero by 2050”; it was a festival of obscurantism, euphemism, and greenwashing, which the young climate activist Greta Thunberg summed up as “blah, blah, blah.” Even people trying to pay attention can’t really keep track of what should be the most compelling battle in human history…
…the era of large-scale combustion has to come to a rapid close. If we understand that as the goal, we might be able to keep score, and be able to finally get somewhere. Last Tuesday, President Biden banned the importation of Russian oil. This year, we may need to compensate for that with American hydrocarbons, but, as a senior Administration official put it,“the only way to eliminate Putin’s and every other producing country’s ability to use oil as an economic weapon is to reduce our dependency on oil.” As we are one of the largest oil-and-gas producers in the world, that is a remarkable statement. It’s a call for an end of fire.
We don’t know when or where humans started building fires; as with all things primordial there are disputes. But there is no question of the moment’s significance. Fire let us cook food, and cooked food delivers far more energy than raw; our brains grew even as our guts, with less processing work to do, shrank. Fire kept us warm, and human enterprise expanded to regions that were otherwise too cold. And, as we gathered around fires, we bonded in ways that set us on the path to forming societies. No wonder Darwin wrote that fire was “the greatest discovery ever made by man, excepting language.”
In the early 20th century Pueblo’s steel mill was owned by American oligarchs, John Rockefeller Jr., the descendants of Jay Gould, and others. Might ownership of that steel mill—and Colorado’s largest solar array—revert to American ownership as a result of the Russian war against Ukraine?
Now called Evraz, the steel mill is owned primarily by Russian oligarchs, with Roman Abramovich having the largest stake.
The United States has not yet imposed sanctions on Abramovich, unlike the United Kingdom and Canada. That leaves his ownership stake in the Pueblo steel mill intact as well as his ownership of two houses in Snowmass Village.
In Pueblo, there are doubts that the mill could end up being cut off from its Russian owners because the product is for the domestic consumption, not for export.
But then Chelsea, the soccer club in London that Abramovich owns, is no longer selling tickets, the result of sanctions applied last Thursday by the United Kingdom. As long as Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, ownership of the plant in Pueblo will remain an active question.
Evraz North America, which operates the steel mill, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Evraz, a company incorporated under laws of the United Kingdom, with shares traded on the London Stock Exchange—until last Thursday.
In sanctioning Evraz, the British government accused Roman Abramovich, the largest shareholder, of being a “pro-Kremlin oligarch” who has received preferential treatment and concessions from Putin and the Russian government and “is or has been involved in destabilizing Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”
The statement also accused Evraz of “potentially supplying steel to the Russian military, which may have been used in the production of tanks.” In response to a Financial Times inquiry, the company insisted it only made steel for the “infrastructure and construction” sectors, the Financial Times reported.
The Financial Times last Friday also reported that 10 members of Evraz had resigned after the United Kingdom’s action.
Canada last Friday also imposed sanctions on Abramovich, and on Tuesday so did the European Union.
Within hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States imposed actions against several Russian oligarchs and institutions, but not Abramovich nor Evraz.
Five Russians own two-thirds of Evraz’s shares. Second to Abramovich in holdings is Alexander Abramov, a former scientist who founded Evraz in 1992. The other three are also Russian oligarchs, reported the Pueblo Chieftain in a March 5 story.
An oligarch is defined as a very rich business leader with a great deal of political influence. An oligarchy is a country ruled by oligarchs. Forbes in 2021 ranked Abramovich as 12th wealthiest among Russia’s billionaires, with a net worth of $14.5 billion.
Evraz also has steel, mining, and vanadium operations in Russia, the Czech Republic, and Kazakhstan.
In the United States, Evraz has mills in Pueblo, which has 1,100 employees, and in Portland, Ore. It also has five mills in Canada, three in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan, according to its website.
Evraz also has scrap operations, including one along the South Platte River north of downtown Denver.
Nowhere has there been even a suggestion that the Pueblo steel mill or other operations in North America have directly supported the Russian war effort.
The Pueblo mill primarily uses recycled steel to make its products, which requires a lower temperature than is necessary when using iron ore and other raw resources. Foundry operations became electrified in the early 1970s, the result of construction of the nearby Comanche 1 and 2 coal-burning units.
Early last November, a 298-megawatt solar farm was completed on land owned by Evraz between the steel mill and beyond the Comanche units. This allowed the steel company to proclaim that it had become the first solar-powered steel mill in the world, as Big Pivots explained. Financial and other details of that claim have never been made public.
The investment in the solar farm hinged upon plans to go forward with construction of a $500 million mill that will make quarter-mile rail segments that Union Pacific, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, and other railroads want. The construction project employs 400 to 500 people.
Jeffrey Shaw, chief executive of the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, says the impact to Pueblo and the steel mill there appears to be nil.
“We have asked what the impact of the global geopolitical front will be to the facility, and the answer we have gotten back (from Evraz) is—consistent with what has been reported—that they are moving forward with the facility,” he says. He also points that the market for the products of the steel mill is domestic, not foreign.
Driving by the mill, construction work continues with no evidence of slowdown. “We’re very optimistic that it will carry on” as planned, he added.
The Pueblo Chieftain story by editor Karin Zeitvogel reported no changes evident at the steel mill in early March. “We haven’t seen anything yet, and everything is just like it was a week ago,” said Eric Ludwig, president of the United Steelworkers 2102 Union, a week after the invasion.
The Evraz annual report for 2021 noted the cloudy global horizon, referring to Ukraine five times and potential for sanctions nine times. The report mentions the “worsening situation relating to Ukraine and heightened risk of the economic sanctions.”
In modeling, the company also described a “severe downside scenario” that could cause it to reduce capital spending by $500 million a year.
Might that include the work on the new Pueblo mill? No mention there.
Abramovich was the focus of a lengthy New York Times article on Sunday that explored his ties with the United States and other western countries. An orphan who grew up in a town along the Volga River, he dropped out of college and then emerged from the Red Army in the late 1980s just as the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was opening new opportunities for private enterprise. Abramovich, says the Times, thrived as a trader—of almost anything and everything, it would seem.
The big break for Abramovich came in the mid-1990s, when he and a partner persuaded the Russian government to sell them a state-run oil company for $200 million. In 2005, he sold his stake back to that government for $11.9 billion.
His holdings include the Chelsea soccer team in London, which he bought in 2003 and which he was frantically trying to sell last week before the UK sanctions. The sanctions prohibit the club from selling tickets to matches.
The Times said leaders of cultural, educational and medical institutions, along with a chief rabbi, had sent a letter urging the United States not to impose sanctions on Abramovich, a major donor to Jewish and other causes.
A request to the American ambassador to Israel “reflects the extraordinary effort Mr. Abramovich, 55, has made over the last two decades to parlay his Russian fortune into elite standing in the West,” said the Times, going on to describe his houses, his art works, his yachts, his private 787 jet, and more.
That includes real estate in Colorado’s most elite resort community. The Aspen Times on March 1 explained that Abramovich has owned two houses in Snowmass Village since 2008. One 12,859-square-foot house has 11 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms and sits on 200 acres of land. The smaller 5,492-square-foot house sits on 1.8 acres of land.
Abramovich’s name is also prominent in Aspen, reported Rick Carroll of the Aspen Times. Lettering on the outside of a synagogue on Main Street in Aspen suggests Abramovich and his now ex-wife Dasha were major donors.
Russia’s oligarchs have “used their ill-gotten gains to try to launder their reputations in the West,” Thomas Graham, a Russian scholar from the Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times. “But the message of these sanctions is, that is not going to protect you.”
Michael McFaul, an American ambassador to Moscow during the Obama administration, described disingenuous behavior on several sides. He told the Times that while Putin’s government claimed to despise the United States and its allies, his foreign ministry was constantly trying to help the oligarchs around him, including Abramovich, obtain visas so they could ingratiate themselves with the Western elite.
“On our side, we have been playing right along,” he said, overlooking ties of the oligarchs to Putin and welcoming them and their money.
Sources also told the Times that the relationship that Abramovich and other oligarchs enjoyed with Putin cut both ways. After Putin was inaugurated president in 2000, he quickly moved to dominate the billionaires who had profited from privatization, sending a message by jailing the richest and most powerful oligarch. Abramovich is one of the few early elites who remained in Putin’s circle.
Putin’s display of force, however, also gave oligarchs freedom to establish ties in the West—as potential places to land.
As for Pueblo, it’s had ups and downs in the last 141 years it has been making steel. The mill was a consequence of Pueblo having rail connections, water, and proximity to coal, iron ore, and limestone. Coal mines at Crested Butte, Redstone, and elsewhere supplied the smoke-belching mill that was then called Colorado Fuel & Iron.
CF&I was owned by American-born oligarchs of their day. A smaller figure was John Cleveland Osgood and the larger names were John Rockefeller Jr. and Jay Gould.
There have been downsides for Pueblo, too, including a bloody strike in the coalfields south of Pueblo in 1913-1914. The strike culminated in the deaths of 21 miners and their families, including 2 women and 11 children in what is remembered as the Ludlow Massacre. In 1921, a flood killed at least 78 and likely many more while swamping the downtown district and other low-lying areas.
The steel mill at one time employed 12,000 people and, by the 1970s, paid handsomely and gave months-long vacations to employees with greater seniority. Going into 1990, CF&I teetered into bankruptcy. It was acquired by Oregon Steel in 1993 and the name was changed to Rocky Mountain Steel Mills. In 2007, it and other Oregon Steel holdings were acquired by Evraz for $2.3 billion.
Lake Powell surface level dropped below the critical 3,525-foot mark sometime on the Ides of March. You’ve probably already read that somewhere, since the national media can’t seem to get enough of the slow motion desiccation of one of the nation’s largest reservoirs. And what’s so critical about 3,525 feet?
The real critical number is 3,490 feet, otherwise known as the “minimum power pool.” When Lake Powell sinks below that elevation, Glen Canyon Dam can no longer produce hydropower. That’s a big deal because Lake Powell really only serves two purposes these days: recreation and hydropower generation (the water storage component becomes somewhat irrelevant when Lake Mead is as low as it is now). Not only are the dam’s turbines a significant source of power for the Western Grid, but they also provide resilience for the grid in a way that other generators cannot.
Lake Powell has officially dipped just below 3,525 feet in elevation, reflecting the Colorado River Basin’s dry winter season. The elevation is expected to climb back above 3,525 feet over the course of spring runoff. More info: https://t.co/IobOBURhqH#drought#coloradoriver
Water managers had hoped to keep the level at least 35 feet above minimum power pool, i.e. above 3,525 feet, so they’d have a bit of a buffer to work with. Now the level is inside the buffer zone, which is reason for concern but not immediate alarm. While the rate of decline has prompted officials to issue a more pessimistic outlook for the reservoir, they don’t expect a loss of hydropower anytime soon. Snowpack levels in the watersheds that feed Lake Powell are slightly below average for this time of year, but are tracking about 7 percent ahead of last year’s levels. Spring runoff will soon begin, inflows will increase, and the lake should begin rising again, staving off the turbine shutdown—for now.
Let’s get to the data:
3,569 feet above sea level: Lake Powell’s surface level on March 9, 2021.
3,524.9 feet: Level on March 15, 2021.
-44 feet: Twelve-month change.
3,490 feet: Level at which Glen Canyon Dam stops producing hydropower.
384 billion gallons: Amount by which Lake Powell’s storage has declined since November 2021.
855,656 megawatt hours: August 2021 output of Four Corners Power Plant.
309,640 megawatt hours: August 2021 output of Glen Canyon Dam