BLM halts leases after sage grouse, climate legal brawls #KeepItInTheGround #ActOnClimate

From E&E News (Niina H. Farah):

Federal officials have withdrawn thousands of acres of land slated for sale to the oil and gas industry after courts demanded that the government take a closer look at greater sage grouse habitat protections and climate change impacts.

Conservation groups opposing the Bureau of Land Management’s actions say a recent slate of deferred lease sales in Colorado, Nevada and Utah illustrate the problems with the Trump administration’s aggressive push to encourage energy development on public lands…

“The broader pattern we’ve seen from this administration has been a headlong rush to get as much remaining sage grouse habitat under lease as possible,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program.

He said the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” approach has led BLM to violate federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act.

“That needs to stop,” Saul said. “They are not simply a real estate sales agency. Under congressional statute, they have multiple obligations, which include duties to conserve wildlife habitat.”

BLM yesterday added to its growing list of delayed leases when it deferred its Dec. 19 Colorado sale in response to a federal court order temporarily blocking implementation of the Trump administration’s greater sage grouse plan.

Judge B. Lynn Winmill, a Clinton appointee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, required BLM to revert to evaluating leases under sage grouse plans the Obama administration finalized in 2015…

The six parcels covered 4,259 acres and were subject to sage grouse habitat restrictions.

Conservation groups lauded the move, while urging BLM to take more permanent action to stop lease sales on the birds’ habitat. Other state offices could defer or cancel leases as more sales approach next month…

The BLM office was responding to a lawsuit filed in September by the Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which raised claims that the agency had not adequately considered the impacts of climate change from leases in the central and northeast portions of the Beehive State.

The lawsuit encompassed eight different parcels finalized between 2014 and 2018. The leases fit into a pattern of BLM failing to adequately consider climate impacts, said Diana Dascalu-Joffe, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Altogether, Utah has had over 300,000 acres of leases suspended in response to similar litigation…

In addition to challenges over sage grouse protections and climate change, Dascalu-Joffe said concerns about analysis of cumulative water withdrawal impacts could also become an area of legal vulnerability for BLM.

She noted that while the preliminary injunction forced BLM to look at sage grouse impacts in a more programmatic way, the same was not true for assessing climate impacts.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence that this is going to drive any programmatic analysis of climate impacts from the entire oil and gas program because that’s not how this agency works right now,” Dascalu-Joffe said.

Geothermal energy potential update

Subsurface Temperature Map at 20,000 ft. Map via the University of Utah FORGE project.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Joe Vaccarelli):

New research in Milford, Utah led by the University of Utah will study geothermal reservoirs. The university received $140 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) site.

John McLennan, a research scientist and associate professor with the Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah, shared his insights into the new facility and the potential for geothermal energy in the U.S. during an energy briefing Wednesday hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce at the DoubleTree Hotel.

FORGE will be an underground lab that will drill wells in an effort to extract geothermal energy. Geothermal power can help with agriculture, aquaculture, space heating and more. The site is near the intersection of Interstate 70 and Interstate 15 in central Utah…

Utah has three geothermal plants producing energy at the moment. Colorado does not have any, McLennan said. However, he pointed out that Colorado Mesa University heats and cools its buildings on campus using a geothermal system that includes seven well fields and 171,000 feet of pipes. He noted it could save the university upward of $1 million.

During his presentation Wednesday, McLennan pointed to the benefits and challenges of geothermal energy, noting that many of the areas that have used it are along the so-called “Ring of Fire” of the Pacific Rim or in areas with natural hot springs. He did say that it takes a great deal more water to create energy than oil, but it is a cleaner energy source.

However, the drilling can create a problem and he pointed to several failures over the past 40 years. He said new technology with drilling and connecting wells could have a positive impact on the industry, especially at the FORGE site.

The University of Utah has studied the site since 1980, particularly on seismic level as drilling can spur some activity. He said FORGE is in an area of low seismic activity and small populations of both animals and people.

As for its potential, McLennan said geothermal isn’t in line to replace other forms of energy, but could be a nice supplement of power for communities around the country.

Aurora Organic Dairy commits to 100% carbon-neutral energy in its fourth Sustainability Report #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Here’s the release from Aurora Organic Dairy:

Aurora Organic Dairy today published its 2019 Sustainability Report. The report provides a detailed and transparent update on the Company and its progress toward goals to improve its sustainability performance around three core pillars of Animals, People and Planet.

The Company announced updated goals that encompass three key areas:

  • Caring for the comfort and well-being of its cows and calves, always putting animal care at the forefront of farming practices.
  • Employee safety and wellness, and local community support.
  • Commitments to greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, water efficiency and waste reduction, and one important new goal to commit to 100% carbon-neutral energy by the end of 2020.
  • “At Aurora Organic Dairy, we have a longstanding commitment to continuous improvement when it comes to our animals, people and planet,” said Scott McGinty, CEO of Aurora Organic Dairy. “While we are proud of our achievements, in today’s world, we cannot rest. We must continue to do more to support our animals and people, the environment and our local communities. Our updated sustainability goals strengthen this commitment.”

    The Company’s sustainability goals – established against 2012 baseline data – include many initiatives that have bolstered Aurora Organic Dairy’s sustainability performance:

  • Aurora Organic Dairy farms improved the overall welfare of its animals through goals to reduce lameness, to perform fewer dehorning procedures, to used paired calf housing and to increase video monitoring.
  • Significant progress against People goals was made with increased training programs, communications around the value of benefits, bilingual communication and community centers in remote farm locations. Going forward, Aurora Organic Dairy will continue its focus on safety and on employee volunteerism.
  • For the Planet, Aurora Organic Dairy achieved significant reductions in water and energy. Its milk plant achieved a 71% solid waste landfill diversion rate, and normalized GHG emissions were down 11%. The Company is committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 30% by 2025. Given the urgent need to address climate change globally, Aurora Organic Dairy has made an important commitment to 100% carbon-neutral energy by the end of 2020.
  • “This last year was a milestone for Aurora Organic Dairy in terms of environmental stewardship,” said Craig Edwards, Director of Sustainability for Aurora Organic Dairy. “We installed solar arrays at our High Plains and High Ridge Dairies in Gill, Colo. and we committed to 100% carbon-neutral energy by the end of 2020. To get there, we will invest in renewable energy projects directly and will support additional projects by purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates and Verified Emission Reductions to address 100% of our electricity and fuels use across our Company farms, raw milk transport, milk plants and headquarters.”

    Court halts mine expansion over methane flaring issue — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    One coal mine remains open in the North Fork Valley. Photo/Allen Best

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    The decision Friday by Judge R. Brooke Jackson in the U.S. District Court of Colorado applies to the West Elk Mine’s efforts to begin mining as early as January beneath some 2,000 acres in what’s known as the Sunset Roadless Area in the Gunnison National Forest.

    Ruling in a lawsuit brought by conservation groups, Jackson found that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement violated federal law by failing to consider requiring the mine to burn off the methane produced during mining operations. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. A supplemental environmental impact statement issued by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had estimated that flaring could reduce the total global warming potential of the gas by about 87%.

    That document didn’t draw conclusions about the feasibility or economic viability of flaring, saying it was premature to consider at the coal leasing stage and should be considered later.

    But in recommending that the Interior Department approve the mining plan for the expansion, the mining reclamation office said the earlier environmental document sufficiently addressed the methane flaring alternative.

    Jackson found that neither the mining reclamation office, the BLM or the Forest Service “put on the record any conclusions that justify excluding methane flaring from consideration as an alternative. Instead, it appears that one agency drew a faulty conclusion on the basis of other agencies’ explicit lack of conclusion.”

    The mine is the largest single industrial point source of methane pollution in the state. The Forest Service has estimated the mine expansion would result in the release of nearly 12 million tons of methane. While the mining will take place underground, the mine has begun surface work in the roadless area, where it plans to build about 8.4 miles of roads and install 43 methane drainage wells.

    The mine is owned by Arch Coal. It began pursuing the expansion a decade ago but has faced protracted legal challenges.

    Jackson previously ruled that federal agencies failed to account for the environmental costs of leasing and other decisions related to the mine expansion. That led to the supplemental environmental document being released.

    Conservation groups then sued to challenge that new environmental analysis and another federal judge ruled against them. That ruling is under appeal.

    Jackson also ruled Friday in favor of conservationists over their contention that the mining reclamation office didn’t take a hard look at impacts to water resources from mining activities. The mining reclamation office both relied on the supplemental environmental review’s conclusion that there are no known perennial springs in the expansion area, and said perennial springs likely exist there.

    Collapse of drilling industry in #Colorado? It hasn’t happened yet, despite fearful comparisons to Black Sunday — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Drilling rigs along the northern Front Range in 2013. Photo/Allen Best

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    A year ago Colorado voters rejected Proposition 112, the proposal to sharply curtail oil-and-gas drilling. But it was clear that legislators would take up the issue of further restraints on drilling, if not as Draconian as those outlined in Proposition 112.

    But what would be the economic effects of clipping the wings of this business sector just a bit? That was the good question I set out to answer. The obvious comparison was to the giant economic shudder of the early and mid-1980s, one triggered by what is still remembered on the Western Slope as Black Sunday.

    There had been a boom of rare proportions as Exxon and other oil companies threw money at the hope that the vast kerogen deposits of the Piceance Basin would finally be squeezed successfully (and economically) to yield hydrocarbons. That effort had begun in 1918, but with little success.

    Then, the Saudis opened the spigot, prices plunged, and Exxon pulled out. One result: In 1985, when I moved to Vail, I got a condominium that was very affordable. If Vail’s real estate got pricey in coming years, the hangover in Glenwood Springs lasted longer. And in Denver, although I was not living there then, my impression was of a certain darkness. Cities altogether struggled in the ’70s and ’80s, but Denver may have had a darker edge to it.

    A year ago, my journalistic question was just how dependent Colorado was on oil-and-gas extraction? Colorado Biz magazine commissioned the inquiry.

    The answer, published in late December under the heading of Addition by Extraction, indicated that if all the drilling rigs went away, there would be great pain in some areas, Greeley more than Fort Collins, but even in downtown Denver, a lot more vacant offices. But in no way was the comparison to the oil shale bust valid. Colorado’s economy had become far more diversified in the almost 30 years since Black Sunday. Predictions of economic collapse were just ridiculous.

    (Just the same, I saw exactly those sorts of prediction in February as state legislators considered rules to give local governments more say in regulation and, inevitably, restriction).

    Now, some months since the restrictions have gone into place, I don’t know their effect. My impressions, though, is that the oil-and-gas sector is doing just fine. The bigger problem, one similar to that of the early 1980s, similar to that of the early 1980s, when the Saudis turned on the spigot. But this time the plentitude is from domestic sources, particularly the Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico

    Let me add this: I had an interesting conversation with somebody at a conference this week. He had been in the oil-and-gas sector, made good money, and moved on. Given what we know about climate change, he said, it was immoral of the oil and gas company executives to keep plunging ahead, business as usual.

    Now, I can’t get into that dimension in a business magazine that favors cheerleading stories about economic growth, at least not in that direct way. For them, I can sing the praises of alternatives, such as economic opportunities for electric cars (and I have a story in the current issue of Colorado Biz on that very topic). But that’s an important discussion to have.

    Bill McKibben has been pushing that discussion since at least 2012, when he passed through Denver on one of his many “Do the Math” stops. His 6,000-word piece in Rolling Stone about “the terrifying new math of global warming” had been published the previous year. At the time, I called it, with understatement, “brilliant and and disturbing.”

    “Those fossil fuels, if they are burned in the same way others have been burned, will produce five times the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than can be absorbed if rise of global temperatures is to be kept within a two degree increase. In other words, as McKibben put it, if the fossil fuels sector carries out its business plan, the planet tanks.”

    Almost eight years later, we’ve made much progress. The coal plants are being shuttered rapidly, and we’re now on the verge of a big, big increase in electric cars. but oh so much work remains. And McKibben is right. Unless we figure out a way to sequester the carbon from the emissions, we can’t burn these fossil fuels. — Allen Best, Nov. 9, 2019

    #Colorado’s cleanest energy options are also its cheapest: New modeling shows the state can decarbonize, at a savings — Vox

    Wind farm Logan County

    From Vox (David Roberts):

    Of all the states in the US, Colorado may be the best prepared for a genuine, large-scale energy transition.

    For one thing, thanks to its bountiful sunlight and wind, Colorado has enormous potential for renewable energy, most of which is untapped. The state currently generates only 3 percent of its electricity from solar and just under 18 percent from wind.

    The political climate is favorable as well. As of earlier this year, Democrats have a “trifecta” in the state, with control over the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Gov. Jared Polis campaigned on a promise to target 100 percent clean electricity by 2040. In their last session, he and the legislature passed a broad suite of bills meant to boost renewable energy, reform utilities, expand EV markets, and decarbonize the state economy.

    Colorado renewable energy potential: sun on the left, wind on the right. Graphic credit: NREL via Vox

    Over the last year or so, energy systems modeler and analyst Christopher Clack, with his team at the energy research outfit Vibrant Clean Energy (VCE), has been taking a close look at what Colorado is capable of in terms of clean energy, and what it might cost. (The research was commissioned by renewable energy developer Community Energy.)

    VCE has built a model called WIS:dom (ahem, “Weather-Informed energy Systems: for design, operations, and markets”). It can simulate the Colorado electricity system with incredibly granular accuracy, down to a 3-kilometer, 5-minute range, year-round. Using that tool, they have simulated various clean-energy initiatives the state might take, and their impact.

    Xcel Energy’s Greater Sandhill Solar Farm north of Alamosa, Colo. Colorado’s San Luis Valley has some of the nation’s best solar resource. Photo/Allen Best

    Oil and gas wastewater used for irrigation may suppress plant immune systems — @ColoradoStateU #KeepItInTheGround

    Oil and gas drilling derrick. Photo credit: Colorado State University

    From Colorado State University (Anne Manning):

    The horizontal drilling method called hydraulic fracturing helps the United States produce close to 4 billion barrels of oil per year, rocketing the U.S. to the top of oil-producing nations in the world.

    The highly profitable practice comes with a steep price: For every barrel of oil, oil and gas extraction also produces about seven barrels of wastewater, consisting mainly of naturally occurring subsurface water extracted along with the fossil fuels. That’s about 2 billion gallons of wastewater a day. Companies, policymakers and scientists are on the lookout for new strategies for dealing with that wastewater. Among the most tantalizing ideas is recycling it to irrigate food crops, given water scarcity issues in the West.

    A new Colorado State University study gives pause to that idea. The team led by Professor Thomas Borch of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences conducted a greenhouse study using produced water from oil and gas extraction to irrigate common wheat crops. Their study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, showed that these crops had weakened immune systems, leading to the question of whether using such wastewater for irrigation would leave crop systems more vulnerable to bacterial and fungal pathogens.

    “The big question is, is it safe?” said Borch, a biogeochemist who has joint academic appointments in the Department of Chemistry and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Have we considered every single thing we need to consider before we do this?”

    Produced water experiments

    Typically, oil and gas wastewater, also known as produced water, is trucked away from drilling sites and reinjected into the Earth via deep disposal wells. Such practices have been documented to induce earthquakes and may lead to contamination of surface water and groundwater aquifers.

    The idea for using such water for irrigation has prompted studies testing things like crop yield, soil health, and contaminant uptake by plants, especially since produced water is often high in salts, and its chemistry varies greatly from region to region. Borch, who has conducted numerous oil and gas-related studies, including how soils fare during accidental spills, wondered if anyone had tried to determine whether irrigation water quality impacts crops’ inherent ability to protect themselves from disease.

    The experiments were conducted in collaboration with plant microbiome expert Pankaj Trivedi, a CSU assistant professor in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, and researchers at Colorado School of Mines. The team irrigated wheat plants with tap water, two dilutions of produced water, and a salt water control. They exposed the plants to common bacterial and fungal pathogens and sampled the leaves after the pathogens were verified to have taken hold.

    Using state-of-the-art quantitative genetic sequencing, the scientists determined that the plants watered with the highest concentration of produced water had significant changes in expression of genes plants normally use to fight infections. Their study didn’t determine exactly which substances in the produced water correlated with suppressed immunity. But they hypothesized that a combination of contaminants like boron, petroleum hydrocarbons and salt caused the plants to reallocate metabolic resources to fight stress, making it more challenging for them to produce disease-fighting genes.

    “Findings from this work suggest that plant immune response impacts must be assessed before reusing treated oil and gas wastewater for agricultural irrigation,” the study authors wrote.

    Read the study: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.estlett.9b00539