Such a short time ago, 80% emissions reduction seemed such a bold goal. A new report says far more is possible.
It seems like many years ago since Ben Fowke, chief executive of Xcel Energy, standing on a podium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, announced that his company was confident it could decarbonize the electrical generation across its six-state operating area 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. This, he said, could be done using existing technology.
That declaration in December 2018 was national news. So was the company’s disclosure in December 2017 of the bids for renewables to replace the two coal-fired units it intended to retire at Pueblo, Colo. They came in shockingly low.
Now, 80% plans by 2030 are becoming almost commonplace. Consider the trajectory of Colorado Springs. The city council there, acting as a utility board, in June accepted the recommendation of city utility planners to shut down the city’s two coal plants, the first in 2023 and the second in 2030.
That was the easy decision. But the Colorado Springs City Council, in a 7-2 vote, also accepted the recommendation to bypass new natural gas capacity. Xcel is adding natural gas capacity to its portfolio in Colorado, although the plant already exists.
Colorado Springs is now on track to get to 80% reduction by 2030.
As a municipal utility, Colorado Springs was not required by Colorado to reduce its emissions 80% by 2030. That applies to those utilities regulated by the state, and municipalities are exempt. It is subject to broader economy wide goals of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
A city utility planner says he believes the city can achieve 90% reduction by 2050.
“I do believe personally that in the next 10 years we will see some major advancements in the technology that will allow those technologies to go down and be more competitive,” says Michael Avanzi, manager of energy planning and innovation at Colorado Springs Utilities.
This, the study notes, can be done even while electricity costs decline. This finding contrasts sharply with studies completed more than 5 years ago, which found deep penetration of renewables would elevate costs. These lower costs are being reported across the country, the study found, even in those areas considered resource-poor for renewable energy generation. Colorado is the converse: It has excellent renewables, among the best mix in the nation.
The study is important and rich with detail. Among the seven members of a technical review committee was Steve Beuning, of Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy.
The findings, though, are best understood in terms of the policy assumptions, which are found in a separate study conducted by Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based consultancy. Colorado gets several mentions, and it’s important to note that the chief executive is Hal Harvey, who grew up in Aspen. (Harvey has connections in high places; he inspired a column in late June by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times: “This Should Be Biden’s Bumper Sticker.”)
The conclusions describe an optimal set of policies to get the United States to 90% by 2035, including:
federal clean energy standards and, especially in the absence of that, extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar.
strengthening of federal authority to improve regional transmission planning by the Federal Energy Regulatory Authority.
reform wholesale markets to reward flexibility.
Researchers in California did not specifically examine the case of Colorado Springs but more broadly found that U.S. electrical utilities can tap existing gas-fired plants infrequently along with storage, hydropower, and nuclear power to meet demands even during times of extraordinarily low renewable energy generation or exceptionally high electricity demand. All told, natural gas can contribute 10% of electrical generation in 2035. That would be 70% less than the natural gas generation in 2019.
How did the California researchers decide how much natural gas would be needed to firm supplies? As the saying goes, the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow. And when would these times of low renewables intersect those of high demand? The researchers studied weather records for seven years, 60,000 hours altogether, and in 134 regional zones within the United States, from earlier in this century. That worst-case time, during the seven years examined, was on the evening of Aug. 1, 2007, a time when solar generation had declined to less than 10% of installed solar capacity, and wind generation was 18% below installed capacity
Based on this, they found a maximum need for 360 gigawatts of natural gas capacity. In other words, no new natural gas generation was needed. We have enough already.
Peak demand in Colorado Springs usually occurs late on hot summer afternoons. The all-time record demand of 965 megawatts occurred on July 19, 2019. As Colorado Springs grows during the next three decades, it will possibly become Colorado’s largest city, with demand projected to push 1,200 megawatts (1.2 gigawatts) at mid-century.
For Avanzi and other utility planners charged with creating portfolios for consideration by elected officials, closing coal plants was an easy case to make. Coal has become expensive, severely undercut by renewables.
Also considered were 100% emission-free portfolios by 2030, 2040, and 2050. But they were seen as too risky and too costly, at least at this time.
Portfolio 17, the one ultimately adopted by the city council on June 25, calls for the Martin Drake plant to be closed in 2023 and the Ray Nixon plant in 2030.
Seven portable gas generators are to be installed at the Drake plant for use from 2023 to 2030, a need dictated by the existing transmission and not the inadequacy of renewables. Colorado Springs already has a gas plant, but the city council members accepted the recommendation of utility planners that no new plant will be needed. That vote was 7-2.
Writing in PV Magazine, Jean Haggerty pointed out that Colorado Springs was part of a trend among utilities to avoid building new natural gas bridges to renewable energy. Tucson Electric Power also plans to skip the gas bridge. And, on the East Coast, Florida Power & Light and Jacksonville’s municipal utility reached agreement to rely on existing natural gas and new solar generation when they retire their jointly owned coal plant, the largest in the United States.
In creating the portfolios, Avanzi says he relied upon mostly publicly available reports, especially the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s annual technology baseline and U.S. Energy Information Administration documents. For battery storage, he relied upon a study by energy consultant Lazard.
Colorado Springs’ plan calls for 400 megawatts of battery storage by 2030. Previously plans for a 25-megawatt battery of storage are expected to come on line in 2024.
All types of storage were examined. The single largest storage device in Colorado currently is near Georgetown, where water from two reservoirs can be released to generate up to 324 megawatts of electricity as needed to meet peak demands. The water then can be pumped uphill 2,500 feet to the reservoirs when electricity is readily available.
Colorado Springs studied that option. It has reservoirs in the mountains above the city. It found the regulatory landscape too risky.
The most proven, least risky, technology is lithium-ion batteries that have four-hour capacity and flow batteries with six hours capacity. They can meet the peak demand of those hot, windless summer evenings after the sun has started lessening in intensity.
FromThe New York Times (Hiroko Tabuchi and Brad Plumer):
They are among the nation’s most significant infrastructure projects: More than 9,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States are currently being built or expanded, and another 12,500 miles have been approved or announced — together, almost enough to circle the Earth.
Now, however, pipeline projects like these are being challenged as never before as protests spread, economics shift, environmentalists mount increasingly sophisticated legal attacks and more states seek to reduce their use of fossil fuels to address climate change.
On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil route from North Dakota to Illinois that has triggered intense protests from Native American groups, must shut down pending a new environmental review. That same day, the Supreme Court rejected a request by the Trump administration to allow construction of the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry crude from Canada to Nebraska and has faced challenges by environmentalists for nearly a decade.
The day before, two of the nation’s largest utilities announced they had canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have transported natural gas across the Appalachian Trail and into Virginia and North Carolina, after environmental lawsuits and delays had increased the estimated price tag of the project to $8 billion from $5 billion. And earlier this year, New York State, which is aiming to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, blocked two different proposed natural gas lines into the state by withholding water permits.
The roughly 3,000 miles of affected pipelines represent just a fraction of the planned build-out nationwide. Still, the setbacks underscore the increasing obstacles that pipeline construction faces, particularly in regions like the Northeast where local governments have pushed for a quicker transition to renewable energy. Many of the biggest remaining pipeline projects are in fossil-fuel-friendly states along the Gulf Coast, and even a few there — like the Permian Highway Pipeline in Texas — are now facing backlash.
“You cannot build anything big in energy infrastructure in the United States outside of specific areas like Texas and Louisiana, and you’re not even safe in those jurisdictions,” said Brandon Barnes, a senior litigation analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence…
In recent years…environmental groups have grown increasingly sophisticated at mounting legal challenges to the federal and state permits that these pipelines need for approval, raising objections over a wide variety of issues, such as the pipelines’ effects on waterways or on the endangered species that live in their path…
Strong grass roots coalitions, including many Indigenous groups, that understand both the legal landscape and the intricacies of the pipeline projects have led the pushback. And the Trump administration has moved some of the projects forward on shaky legal ground, making challenging them slightly easier, said Jared M. Margolis, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
For the Dakota and Keystone XL pipelines in particular, Mr. Margolis said, the federal government approved projects and permits without the complete analyses required under environmental laws. “The lack of compliance from this administration is just so stark, and the violations so clear cut, that courts have no choice but to rule in favor of opponents,” he said…
Between 2009 and 2018, the average amount of time it took for a gas pipeline crossing interstate lines to receive federal approval to begin construction went up sharply, from around 386 days at the beginning of the period to 587 days toward the end. And lengthy delays, Mr. Barnes said, can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of such projects…
A slump in American exports of liquefied natural gas — natural gas cooled to a liquid state for easier transport — has also weighed heavily on pipeline projects. L.N.G. exports from the United States had boomed in recent years, more than doubling in 2019 and fast making the country the third largest exporter of the fuel in the world, trailing only Qatar and Australia. But the coronavirus health crisis and collapse in demand has cut L.N.G. exports by as much as half, according to data by IHS Markit, a data firm.
Erin M. Blanton, who leads natural gas research at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said the slump would have a long-term effect on investment in export infrastructure. The trade war with China, one of the largest growth markets for L.N.G. exports, has also sapped demand, she said…
Last year in Virginia, a coalition of technology companies including Microsoft and Apple wrote a letter to Dominion, one of the utilities backing the Atlantic Coast pipeline, questioning its plans to build new natural gas power plants in the state, arguing that sources like solar power and battery storage were becoming a viable alternative as their prices fell. And earlier this year, Virginia’s legislature passed a law requiring Dominion to significantly expand its investments in renewable energy.
“As states are pushing to get greener, they’re starting to question whether they really need all this pipeline infrastructure,” said Christine Tezak, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners…
Climate will also play a larger role in future legal challenges, environmental groups said. “The era of multibillion dollar investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is over,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney at the environmental group Earthjustice. “Again and again, we see these projects failing to pass muster legally and economically in light of local opposition.”
Delta-Montrose Electric splits the sheets with Tri-State G&T. Will others follow?
At the stroke of midnight [July 1, 2020], Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric Association officially became independent of Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
The electrical cooperative in west-central Colorado is at least $26 million poorer. That was the cost of getting out of its all-requirements for wholesale supplies from Tri-State 20 years early. But Delta-Montrose expects to be richer in coming years as local resources, particularly photovoltaic solar, get developed with the assistance of the new wholesale provider Guzman Energy.
The separation was amicable, the parting announced in a joint press release. But the relationship had grown acrimonious after Delta-Montrose asked Tri-State for an exit fee in early 2017.
Tri-State had asked for $322 million, according to Virginia Harmon, chief operating officer for Delta-Montrose. This figure had not been divulged previously.
The two sides reached a settlement in July 2019 and in April 2020 revealed the terms: Guzman will pay Tri-State $72 million for the right to take over the contract, and Delta-Montrose itself will pay $26 million to Tri-State for transmission assets. In addition, Delta-Montrose forewent $48 million in capital credits.
Under its contract with Guzman, Delta-Montrose has the ability to generate or buy 20% of its own electricity separate from Guzman. In addition, the contract specifies that Guzman will help Delta-Montrose develop 10 megawatts of generation. While much of that can be expected to be photovoltaic, Harmon says all forms of local generation remain on the table: additional small hydro, geothermal, and coal-mine methane. One active coal mine in the co-operative’s service territory near Paonia continues operation.
The dispute began in 2005 when Tri-State asked member cooperatives to extend their contracts from 2040 to 2050 in order for Tri-State to build a coal plant in Kansas. Delta-Montrose refused.
Friction continued as Delta-Montrose set out to develop hydropower on the South Canal, an idea that had been on the table since 1909, when President William Howard Taft arrived to help dedicate the project. Delta-Montrose succeeded but then bumped up against the 5% cap on self-generation that was part of the contract.
This is the second cooperative to leave Tri-State in recent years, but two more are banging on the door to get out. First out was Kit Carson Electrical Cooperative of Taos, N.M. It left in 2016 after Guzman paid the $37 million exit fee. There is general agreement that the Kit Carson exit and that of Delta-Montrose cannot be compared directly, Gala to Gala, or even Honeycrisp to Granny Smith.
Yet direct comparisons were part of the nearly week-long session before a Colorado Public Utilities Commission administrative law judge in May. Two Colorado cooperatives have asked Tri-State what it will cost to break their contracts, which continue until 2050. Brighton-based United Power, with 93,000 customers, is the largest single member of Tri-State and Durango-based La Plata the third largest. Together, the two dissident cooperatives are responsible for 20% of Tri-States total sales.
The co-operatives say they expect a recommendation from the administrative law judge who heard the case at the PUC. The PUC commissioners will then take up the recommendation.
In April, Tri-State members approved a new methodology for determining member exit fees. But United Power said the methodology would make it financially impossible to leave and, if applied to all remaining members, would produce a windfall of several billion dollars for Tri-State. In a lawsuit filed in Adams County District Court, United claims Tri-State crossed the legal line to “imprison” it in a contract to 250.
Tri-State also applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a bid to have that body in Washington D.C. determine exit fees. FERC recently accepted the contract termination payment filing—rejecting arguments that it did not have jurisdiction. Jessica Matlock, general manager of La Plata Electric, said the way FERC accepted the filing does not preclude the case in Colorado from going forward.
Fitch, a credit-rating company, cited the ongoing dispute with two of Tri-State’s largest members among many other factors in downgrading the debate to A-. It previously was A. Fitch also downgraded Tri-State’s $500 million commercial paper program, of which $140 million is currently outstanding, to F1 from F1+.
“The rating downgrades reflect challenging transitions in Tri-State’s operating profile and the related impact on its financial profile,” Fitch said in its report on Friday. It described Tri-State as “stable.”
Closing coal plant is an easy decision. But Colorado Springs also decided against buying a shiny new natural gas plant
Colorado Springs will close down both of its coal-fired power plants within the next decade. That’s not surprising. It’s becoming easier to count the number of coal plants still scheduled to remain standing in 2030 as compared those that will be retired.
The surprise is how quickly the tide has shifted.
Tom Strand, a city councilman, recalled that he was on the utility’s board of directors in 2015-16. Evaluating the Martin Drake plant, which sits near the city’s center, he said, a majority of directors would commit to a statement closing Drake by 2035. He hoped for a closing by the late 2020s.
Instead, the city close by the plant 2023 and the city’s second coal unit, the Ray Nixon plant, no later than 2030.
More noteworthy is the limited role of natural gas that Colorado Springs sees going forward. Six 30-megawatt natural-gas generators will be installed at the site of the Drake plant to take advantage of existing transmission during the next decade.
But the approved plan – unlike the primary alternative—sees no need a new combined cycle natural gas plant. Colorado Springs has one, and this plan sees it as sufficient.
The approach approved by the council on a 7-to-2 vote leaves the city nimble, able to seize opportunities in the rapidly shifting energy landscape—a key point of Aram Benyamin, the chief executive of the city utility since November 2018. The two dissenting members expressed reservations about the city’s ability to ensure reliable power without the additional natural gas generation.
The plan gets Colorado Springs Utilities to 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, in accordance with a state law adopted in 2019, and to 90% by 2050.
Additional modeling and study during the next few years will continue to reveal how new technology and shifted economics may alter what is possible, said Amy Trinidad, public affairs lead at Colorado Springs Utilities.
Colorado Springs will add 500 megawatts of new wind generation plus solar and also 400 megawatts of battery storage. That compares with the 275 megawatts of large-scale battery storage planned by Xcel Energy as it dismantles two of its three coal-burning units at Pueblo as part of its Colorado Energy Plan.
This decision puts Colorado Springs, which drifts hard right politically, in lockstep with Colorado’s most left-leaning neighborhoods. There was nary a mention of climate change by the elected officials, although plenty of talk about environmental quality.
“It strengthens our brand as one of the most desirable places to live and continue to build a city that matches our scenery,” said Mayor John Suthers in a statement.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis nodded at climate change in his statement.
“Colorado continues to set an example for the rest of our country when it comes to renewable energy and climate action, and this announcement comes in the wake of numerous electric utilities across the state committing to a transition to clean energy,” he said. “The pathway toward achieving our goals of protecting our environment and our communities is driven by a bold, swift transition to renewable energy.”
Polis ran for governor in 2018 on a platform of achieving 100% renewable energy in electrical production by 2040.
The shift in the last decade can still astonish. Several city council members, in explaining their positions, referenced a decision made by Colorado Springs in 2011 to retrofit the Drake plant with scrubbers to reduce nitrous oxide and other air pollutants. The eventual cost was $2o2 million.
Some said they were OK with the decision given the context. “Neumann scrubbers for Drake was the right decision at that time,” said Council member David Geislinger. Today, though, the city needs flexibility, he added.
The worry is that natural gas investments now will be stranded by new technologies and economics by the 2030s. “We made that mistake with the Neumann scrubbers,” said Council President Richard Skorman. Council member Yolanda Avila suggested investing “millions and millions of dollars” in a natural gas plant would be unfair to future generations. “It’s not about us. It’s about the babies that are being born and what we’re giving them.”
Natural gas was often touted as a bridge fuel. Several years ago, at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association summer meeting, a speaker who apparently didn’t get the memo about carbon emissions got lathered up and said heck, why does it have to be a bridge fuel? Let it be the fuel of the future.
The vote by the Colorado Springs City Council was a triumph for environmental groups, including 350.org and the Sierra Club. That latter several weeks ago began sending out e-mail blasts to its 1,200 members in its Pikes Peak Chapter urging support for the eventually triumphant portfolio.
Economic groups also supported the less-gas approach, among them the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC. In a message to members, it emphasized “resiliency, reliability, cost, and environmental stewardship.”
Still, Lindsay Facknitz said she found the vote to be a “little bit of a nail-biter.” She’s a member of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign who began attending the monthly planning meetings of the utility in January 2019.
An advisory council composed in part of former utility members favored a major new gas plant to replace the generation from the Nixon plant. This, she suggested, was the thinking of the previous administration at the utility.
In addition to the two plants being retired by Colorado Springs, Tri-State Generation and Transmission in January announced two of its three coal units at Craig will be retired by 2030. One was previously scheduled to shutter by 2025. Platte River Power Authority also announced definitive plans to close its Rawhide plant by 2030.
In previous years, Xcel announced plans to close Comanche 1 and 2 units at Pueblo in 2023 and 2025.
The only units currently scheduled to remain in operation in Colorado beyond 2030 are Pawnee at Brush, the two units at Hayden, and Comanche 3, all of them either fully or primarily owned by Xcel Energy.
That’s ironic, points out the Sierra Club’s Anna McDevitt, senior campaign representative for the Beyond Coal campaign in Colorado and New Mexico, given that Xcel Energy in 2018 drew national attention when it announced it intended to reduce carbon emissions by 80% compared to 2005 levels by 2030 and 101% by mid-century.
Xcel will share its plans in Colorado next spring when it files its electric resource plan with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
“The Drake decision is unbelievably historic,” Colorado Springs Utilities board member Richard Skorman said. “…This is a time for huge celebration.”
The Colorado Springs Utilities Board, which is also Colorado Springs City Council, supported closing the coal-fired generators at the downtown Drake Power Plant 12 years earlier than previously planned because it is no longer economical to operate them…
Utilities plans to replace the coal-fired power at Drake with natural gas generators that will be set up on the power plant site temporarily. Employees working at Drake will be moved into other positions and no layoffs are expected, CEO Aram Benyamin said…
The Utilities Board looked at two plans Friday for future energy. Both set the closure of Drake at 2023; achieve 80% carbon reduction by 2030, as called for under new state rules; and set a course for 90% renewable energy generation by 2050.
The two plans differed in what energy sources will be used to replace the coal-fired generation at Ray Nixon Power Plant near Fountain by 2030, with one relying more heavily on natural gas and the other relying more on renewable energy. The board voted 7 to 2 to back the latter plan, which proposes wind turbines and battery storage.
Board members who backed the greater focus on renewable energy said it provides more flexibility and in the long-term avoids some of the risk associated with the cost of natural gas going up. In the short term, the renewable-energy focused plan is also expected to be slightly cheaper, board members said…
The chosen plan envisions the utility relying much more heavily on wind turbines and large-scale battery storage to help meet the city’s needs…
If battery storage does not develop as expected ,the utility could fall back on natural gas generation, Benyamin said. But the utility needs to be ready to implement the battery storage if it advances as expected, he said. Battery storage is key because it allows excess energy from solar and wind generation to be stored until it’s needed, he said.
Most of the residents who spoke to the board Friday backed greater renewable energy generation, citing the health and climate benefits of moving away from fossil fuels.
“It makes sense to set our sights high and set our sights on technological innovation,” resident Benedict Wright said…
Colorado Springs Utilities is planning to add 180 megawatts of natural gas generation produced by six modular units to the Drake power plant site where they will replace the coal-fired generation, Benyamin said. The units can be maintained by four people, instead of the 80 needed to run the coal-fired generation, thus cutting costs, he said.
The natural gas generators need to be located at the Drake site because the electrical transmission system is set up to carry large amounts of energy from that site out to the city, he said. When the transmission system is upgraded, the new generators will be moved to another site, which could be announced in the next month.
Utilities plans to dismantle Drake completely between 2024 and 2025, if not sooner, Benyamin said. The future appropriate uses of the site are yet to be determined, he said.
“Almost anything would be better than a coal power plant,” Utilities board Chairwoman Jill Gaebler said.
The Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety (DRMS) issued a cessation order to Mountain Coal Company, a subsidiary of Missouri-based Arch Coal and operator of the West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley near Paonia, to prevent further road construction or tree removal within the protected Sunset Colorado Roadless Area (CRA). The 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule, one of two state rules adopted by the U.S. Forest Service in lieu of the 2001 federal roadless rule, limits road-building and other activities within undeveloped roadless areas.
The cessation order was issued following the construction of a new road in the Sunset CRA by Mountain Coal Company earlier this month. Mining activities have been allowed in the Sunset CRA in the past as a result of the “North Fork Exception” to the Colorado Roadless Rule.
However, in March, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service had not followed procedures required by the National Environmental Protection Act when it reinstated the exception in a 2016 land use plan, and ordered the exception be vacated by the District Court of Colorado. On Monday, the District Court issued an order formally vacating the North Fork Exception.
With the North Fork exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule vacated this week, the company must comply with the provisions of the Colorado Roadless Rule which precludes road building, other construction, and most surface disturbance. As a result, DRMS issued an order for the company to cease road building and other associated activities in the Sunset CRA. DRMS’ order does not prohibit the company from continuing its current operations below the surface at the mine.
Platte River Power Authority seeking to define pathway to 100% non-carbon energy
The Platte River Power Authority plans to cease production of electricity from its 280-megawatt Rawhide power plant north of Fort Collins by 2030, 16 years before its original retirement date.
The utility delivers electricity to Fort Collins and also three other owner communities: Loveland, Longmont, and Estes Park.
The decision to set the retirement resulted from a confluence of several factors. One of them, a new survey of customers this spring in the four towns and cities, once again affirmed broad support for non-carbon energy resources. The survey found 63% of residential customers viewed the non-carbon resources as somewhat or very important.
Platte River also has an 18% interest in two coal-burning units at Craig Generating Station. Unit one is scheduled to end production in 2025 and unit 2 no later than 2030.
The stage for today’s announcement was set in December 2018 when Platte River directors adopted a policy calling for 100% non-carbon energy mix by 2030. The resource diversification policy identified nine advancements that must occur in the “near term” to achieve that 2030 goal. They include active participation by Platte River in an organized regional market; matured battery storage performance and declined costs; and increased investment in transmission and distribution infrastructure.
Platte River is among most Colorado utilities who will be joining energy imbalance markets in the next two years. There is common agreement, however, that deep decarbonization such as planned by Platte River and other Colorado utilities will require participation in a robust regional transmission organization, or RTO, such as operate in other parts of the country.
Xcel Energy in December 2018 gained national attention when it announced its intentions to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. It operates in six states and supplies more than 60% of energy consumed in Colorado. Xcel said it planned to achieve emission-free electricity by 2050, but like Platte River, said technology must continue to evolve for it to achieve that goal.
Holy Cross Energy, the co-operative serving Vail and Aspen, has shown innovation that has attracted national attention, but nonetheless has committed only to a 70% carbon-free goal called Seventy70Thirty. It could, however, achieve that in 2021.
Several coal plants in Colorado have already been retired, and many more large units will be retired in the next decade. Only the plants at Hayden and Brush and Comanche 3 at Pueblo are currently scheduled to remain in operation. Xcel is the sole or majority owner of the three plants.
Spread of covid-19 interrupted Platte River’s integrated resource planning process, which had been scheduled to include public meetings. But managers of the utility decided it was best to announce the retirement to support state regulatory timelines. Colorado last year adopted a law that identified a target of 80% emissions reduction from the electrical sector by 2030 and 50% more broadly in the state’s economy.
“Although circumstances associated with the coronavirus prevent us from making this announcement in alignment with our current IRP process, we need to continue moving forward to reach our Resource Diversification Policy’s 100% noncarbon goal,” said Jason Frisbie, chief executive of Platte River.
“Rawhide Unit 1 has served us extremely well for the past 36 years,” said Wade Troxell, Platte River Board chair and Fort Collins mayor, “but the time has come for us to move toward a cleaner future with grid modernization and integration while maintaining our core pillars of providing reliable, financially sustainable and environmentally responsible energy and services.”
Platte River Power projects that 55% of electricity will come from coal this year, supplemented by 19% from hydropower, 17% from wind, 3% from solar. Another 1% comes from natural gas; and 5% comes from purchased power, which could include fossil fuels.
Construction to build Rawhide Unit 1 began in 1979 and commercial operations started in 1984 and has performed with exceptional reliability, capacity and environmental performance. It had been scheduled to retire in 2046.
“Unit 1 has outperformed nearly every other coal plant of its type in the nation and that is a testament not only to its design but also to the people who run it,” noted Frisbie, who began his career at the Rawhide Energy Station and became its plant manager before being promoted to chief operating officer, then general manager and CEO of Platte River.
In addition to Unit 1, the 4,560-acre Rawhide Energy Station also hosts five natural gas combustion turbines and a 30 MW solar farm, along with another 22 MW of solar power (with battery storage) currently under construction. Energy from the 225 MW Roundhouse wind farm located in southern Wyoming will be delivered to the Rawhide Energy Station and then to the owner communities.
Frisbie said plans will be developed to smoothly transition 100 workers to new roles at the other generation resources at Rawhide after the coal-plant closure. Following its retirement, Unit 1 will undergo a lengthy decommissioning process.
Coal for Rawhide comes from the Antelope Mine near Gillette, Wyo.
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at email@example.com or 303.463.8630.
Experts have recommended how the United States can drastically curb the use of throwaway plastics with new federal legislation.
According to legal analysts who advised Congress at a briefing in January, the United States could reduce its contribution to the global plastic pollution crisis by implementing sweeping federal policies that restrict plastic use and hold manufacturers accountable for responsibly handling waste.
The expert group, composed of members from Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic at UCLA and ocean conservation organization Surfrider Foundation, specifically recommended that Congress craft federal legislation banning single-use plastic products such as bags, straws and expanded polystyrene foam food containers. They also called for establishing “extended producer responsibility” schemes, which hold plastic manufacturers responsible for the waste they create.
Their recommendations, along with a new report, drew on research into existing legislation targeting plastic pollution in the United States and across the world. The experts found that the key to reducing plastic pollution is curbing consumption. The report and its presentation resulted from a semester-long project by UCLA students Charoula Melliou and Divya Rao, in collaboration UCLA attorney Julia E. Stein, Surfrider’s legal expert Angela Howe and plastic bag legal expert Jennie Romer…
There are currently no federal laws restricting single-use plastics, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good examples that could serve as useful templates.
According to Stein, Congress could shape federal policy by following existing local and state laws that have already been crafted to tackle plastic problems with bans on all types of single-use plastic items, from bags to expanded polystyrene foam food containers to straws. California made headlines in February after lawmakers proposed a phaseout of all plastic products that aren’t completely recyclable.
Such laws are grounded in scientific evidence that plastics are problematic because they don’t break down in the natural environment and pose a danger to wildlife and probably people.
There’s a precedent for using state and local laws to help craft national legislation: microbeads. After several states and municipalities banned the sale and manufacture of health and beauty products containing these ecologically damaging exfoliating plastic beads, the United States passed a federal act doing the same.
Most experts agree banning single-use plastic products is a more useful strategy for reducing plastic use and pollution than recycling, which is much less effective. A ban also tackles the issue at the source, helping to curb greenhouse gases coming from the rapidly expanding petrochemical industry that uses fossil fuels to produce plastic.
Commonly Used Plastics
With plastic so ubiquitous, where to start? Experts say that banning just the most commonly used and littered items could cut pollution significantly.
That puts single-use plastic bags front and center…
Besides banning common problematic single-use plastic products, the expert group also recommends Congress pass legislation that would hold corporations accountable for handling plastic waste at the end of its life.
Extended producer responsibility regulations require manufacturers of plastic products to take their items back for reuse, recycling or disposal to increase recycling rates and prevent plastic waste from entering landfills and the natural environment. Container-deposit legislation is one example of such a program that’s widespread — though not ubiquitous — around the United States.
Telesetsky says these schemes may be useful when designed to manage long-lasting plastic products, but they’re trickier to implement and incentivize when plastic packaging is involved. “The problem with applying extended producer responsibility principles to existing single-use plastic is that there is simply no market for all of the reprocessed cheap packaging plastics that are being generated,” says Telesetsky. “Cheap plastics have a finite usable life before they are inevitably landfilled or burned.”
Telesetsky praises the new briefing because it raises awareness of a critical problem. But unlike the briefing group, she proposes banning single-use plastic products outright, on a global scale, in addition to incentivizing innovation in creating new biodegradable products and packaging, which she argues would stop plastic pollution more closely to its source. And it would address the issue on what she sees as a more radical and international — and thus more impactful — scale.
Yet Stein emphasizes that while her briefing has a national focus specifically tailored to U.S. Congress, the wider view is international.
“We support international efforts to address plastic pollution, but the United States also needs to take responsibility at home for its own contribution to the problem.”
Will Congress take up that challenge?
Stein says she and other members from the UCLA-Surfrider group who traveled to Washington, D.C. in January held several legislative briefings for Congressional members and staff, including those involved with last year’s 2018 Save Our Seas Act.
The act provides some funding for federal marine cleanup and waste-prevention efforts through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. Already, two of the bill’s cosponsors, Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), have begun working on a revamped “2.0 version.”
“Overall, we felt the reception was positive — plastic pollution is a topic that is on the minds of the American public and the congresspersons who represent them,” Stein says. “We’re hopeful that Save Our Seas 2.0 legislation in the Senate may provide a chance to think about comprehensive federal strategies to reduce plastic pollution.”
FromThe Denver Post (Judith Kohler) via The Broomfield Enterprise:
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved the rules Wednesday as part of ongoing revisions to oil and gas regulations mandated by Senate Bill 181, approved by the legislature in 2019.
The regulations deal with the well bore, or the hole that’s drilled to access oil or gas as well as the pipes and casings installed to inject fluids to make fractures in rocks and sand and bring up the oil and gas. The casings and cement that are part of the construction are also meant to ensure that no fracking fluids, oil or gas escape and flow into groundwater.
Heading into the hearing, there was general agreement among the parties on the proposed changes. Since the COGCC and the state Air Quality Control Commission began writing new rules, oil and gas industry representatives, community and environmental groups have clashed with each other and with agency staffers in hearings and meetings over how far the regulations should go.
But Julie Murphy, COGCC deputy director, said the agency was able to consider new rules on well bores earlier than expected thanks to a broad consensus among the various parties. She said the “top-line” change is the new requirement that the pressure in all wells across the state be tested annually to ensure that the casings and cement are still in good shape.
The annual testing and regular monitoring approved put Colorado at the head of the pack among oil- and gas-producing states, said Adam Peltz, an attorney with Environmental Defense Fund who has reviewed and worked on similar regulations across the country. He noted that the COGCC has tried to incorporate as many recommendations as possible from a 136-point list put together by a multi-state body of regulators and policy makers.
Another important change is a more precautionary approach to making sure that groundwater no matter, how far down it is located, is protected by isolating the oil, gas and fracking fluids with casings and cement, Murphy said…
The new rule is consistent with Colorado state groundwater standards, Freeman said. The COGCC staff added language saying that groundwater with less than 10,000 parts per million total dissolved solids in it must be protected, Freeman said.
The standard addresses the amount of salt in the water is and is the same one in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and used by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, Freeman said.
Water with 3,000-10,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids is often called “brackish,” or saltier than fresh water, but it can be treated to use for drinking.
We will intervene, again, in the FERC preliminary permit process, but you can help too.
As we wrote in October, a Phoenix-based developer has proposed to build a pumped hydropower facility on and above the Little Colorado River in Arizona, one of the major tributaries to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Because this is an energy-related project, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is the federal agency that would permit the project. The developer, Pumped Hydro Storage, LLC, actually applied for preliminary permits for two complete projects within the canyon, holding their place in line for two possible locations in the same area.
In November, we filed our comments with FERC, opposing the projects on a number of grounds. First and foremost, the idea of building new dams, reservoirs, and other related infrastructure (imagine the pipes, wires, roads, and other structures needed for such a facility) on such a major tributary of the Colorado River would be a destructive, resource intensive, and in all likelihood, impossible, endeavor. Secondly, the facilities would be situated firmly within the Navajo Nation, on Navajo land – yet the Navajo were barely even consulted on the project prior to the permit applications being submitted to FERC, and have since come out strongly against the projects being built on their lands, and very close to one of the most significant cultural sites to the Hopi as well. Lastly, the Little Colorado River is home to a major humpback chub recovery project, a fish on the brink of being down-listed from Endangered to Threatened due to the success of the program.
Including from American Rivers, the proposal generated a wide body of opposition from sources who don’t often speak out against projects like this, such as the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Interior, multiple Tribal Nations and the two local Navajo Chapters in the area, multiple conservation groups, and even Arizona’s Department of Game and Fish. Basically, nobody outside of the developer feels that these projects are warranted, or even a very good idea, let alone feasible.
Now, Pumped Hydro Storage has applied for a new project with FERC (Permit 15024-000), which would be located not within the Little Colorado River, but in Big Canyon, a tributary to the Little Colorado about 23 miles west of Tuba City, Arizona. Unlike the original proposal, in this new one Pumped Hydro Storage is proposing to extract groundwater, bring it to the surface where it would rest in three different surface reservoirs, and build a fourth, lower reservoir and a variety of pipes and penstocks and other infrastructure to generate electricity. Here is how it is described in the permit application:
The proposed project would be located entirely on Navajo Nation land and consist of the following new facilities:
A 450-foot-long, 200-foot-high concrete arch dam (Upper West Dam)
A 1,000-foot-long, 150-foot-high earth filled dam (Middle Dam)
A 10,000-foot-long, 200-foot-high concrete arch dam (Upper East Dam)
each of which would impound three separate upper reservoirs with a combined surface area of 400 acres and a total storage capacity of 29,000 acre-feet of water
A 600-foot-long, 400-foot-high concrete arch dam (Lower Dam) that would impound a lower reservoir with a surface area of 260 acres and a total storage capacity of 44,000 acre-feet of water
Three 10,000-foot-long, 30-foot-diameter reinforced concrete penstocks;
An 1,100-foot-long, 160-foot-wide, 140-foot-high reinforced concrete powerhouse housing nine 400-kilowatt pump-turbine generators
And a whole lot more associated infrastructure, including a new 15-mile paved road, powerlines, a 30-ft diameter tunnel, and more.
Finally, an additional twist, as reported in a recent Associated Press article, the developer concedes that there was overwhelming opposition to his original proposal, and that he would consider pulling the proposals in the Little Colorado River if this Big Canyon proposal were allowed to move forward. From the article:
The article then goes on to say:
Many of the reasons that Pumped Hydro Storage, LLC’s initial proposal shouldn’t move forward apply to this new proposal as well; namely that the project would be built on Navajo Nation lands, and neither the local Chapter, nor the Navajo Nation government, have given their permission to construct the project on their lands. Second, the idea of pumping significant volumes of groundwater from one of the most arid regions of the country to profit from cheap electricity is misguided, at best. And just like the first round of proposals, destruction of significant Hopi holy sites, as well as threatening critical humpback chub and other fish habitat, through the massive extraction of local groundwater, is simply not acceptable.
In addition to how environmentally destructive and wasteful these projects are, this proposal is especially tone-deaf and exploitive at this moment in our history. The Navajo Nation is grappling with some of the highest number of cases, and deaths per capita, from the novel Coronavirus pandemic. One of the reasons why the outbreak has impacted the Navajo so heavily is the lack of readily available clean water. In fact, in the western Navajo Nation, the lack of basic infrastructure to deliver water to people’s homes is sorely lacking, and most of the people in that area have to haul water themselves many miles to have any at all. The idea of building expansive infrastructure to extract scarce groundwater for a hydropower project that extracts the resource and the capital from it, when people around the project who lack that access to that very resource are working hard to defend their communities against a deadly virus, could not be more misguided.
It is important to understand that a preliminary permit only allows the developer to hold a location for a potential future proposal. It is not a license application. In fact, a preliminary permit is not even required to submit a license application or receive a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) hydropower license. To learn more about hydropower licensing, visit the Hydropower Reform Coalition’s website.
We will intervene, again, in the FERC preliminary permit process, but you too can help by taking action here.
Havasupai Vice Chairman Matthew Putesoy is worried that a federal court decision regarding a uranium mine could lead to environmental catastrophe for his community and surrounding lands.
A U.S. District Court judge ruled May 22 against the tribe and two environmental groups in a seven-year-old lawsuit that sought to close the Canyon Mine, a uranium mine located about 10 miles south of the Grand Canyon’s south rim.
Putesoy said the tribe is not prepared to abandon its fight.
“From Havasu Baaja’s point of view,” he said, using the traditional name of his people, “the Guardians of the Grand Canyon will continue to battle the mining companies and someway, somehow, stop the mine from happening. Once the water is gone there’s no replacing it.”
The Canyon Mine lies within 1 million acres of federal lands surrounding the Grand Canyon that was withdrawn from any new mining for 20 years by the Interior Department in 2012.
The ban’s intent was to allow the U.S. Geological Survey to study the effects of such mines in the area to determine if environmental damage was likely to occur. The U.S. Forest Service determined that Canyon Mine, owned by Canadian firm Energy Fuels, could still operate because it could show a profit, as theMining Law of 1872 requires for a valid claim to be honored.
Disturbing reports that Republicans plan to sow fears of climate change solution
Merchants of fear have already been at work, preparing to lather up the masses later this year with disturbing images of hardship and misery. The strategy is to equate job losses with clean air and skies, to link in the public mind the pandemic with strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s as dishonest as the days of May are long.
“This is what a carbon-constrained world looks like,” Michael McKenna, a deputy assistant to Trump on energy and environment issues, told The New York Times.
“If You Like the Pandemic Lockdown, You’re Going to Love the Green New Deal,” warned the Washington Examiner. “Thanks to the pandemic lockdown of society, the public is in a position to judge what the ‘Green New Deal’ revolution would look like,” said the newspaper in an April editorial. “It’s like redoing this global pandemic and economic slump every year.”
What a jarring contrast with what I heard during a webinar conducted in Colorado during early May. Electrical utility executives were asked about what it will take to get to 100% emissions-free generation.
It’s no longer an idle question along the lines of how many angels can dance on a pinhead. The coal plants are rapidly closing down because they’re just too darned expensive to operate. Renewables consistently come in at lower prices. Engineers have figured out how to deal with the intermittency of solar and wind. Utilities believe they can get to 70% and even 80%, perhaps beyond.
Granted, only a few people profess to know how to achieve 100% renewables—yet. Cheap, long-lasting storage has yet to be figured out. Electrical transmission needs to be improved in some areas. Here in the West, the still-Balkanized electrical markets need to be stitched together so that electrons can be moved across states to better match supplies with demands.
This won’t cost body appendages, either. The chief executives predict flat or even declining rates.
Let’s get that straight. Reducing emissions won’t cost more. It might well cost less.
That’s Colorado, sitting on the seam between steady winds of the Great Plains and the sunshine-swathed Southwest. Not every state is so blessed. But the innovators, the engineers, and others, are figuring out things rapidly.
Remember what was said just 15 years ago? You couldn’t run a civilization on windmills! Renewables cost too much. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. You had to burn coal or at least natural gas to keep the lights on and avoid economic collapse. Most preposterous were the ambitions to churn vast mountains to extract kerogen, the vital component of oil shale. This was given serious attention as recently as 2008.
The economics have rapidly turned upside down, and the technology just keeps getting better along with the efficiency of markets.
As detailed in Big Pivots issue No. 10, Colorado utilities are now seriously talking about what it will take to get to 100% emission-free energy. Most of that pathway is defined by lower or at least flattened costs.
Now that same spirit of ingenuity has been turned to redirecting transportation and, more challenging yet, buildings. It will likely be decades before we retrofit our automotive fleet to avoid the carbon emissions and other associated pollution that has made many of our cities borderline unhealthy places to live. Buildings will take longer yet. Few among us trade in our houses every 10 to 15 years.
It’s true that we need to be smarter about our energy. And we are decades away from having answers to the heavy carbon footprint of travel by aircraft.
But run with fright from the challenge? That’s the incipient message I’m hearing from the Republican strategists. These messages are from old and now discredited playbooks of fear. People accuse climate activists of constantly beating the drum of fear, and that’s at least partly accurate. But there’s also a drive to find solutions.
Too bad the contemporary Republican Party dwells in that deep well of fear instead of trying to be a beacon of solutions.
Do you have an opinion you wish to share? Shorter is better, and Colorado is the center of the world but not where the world ends. Write to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
FromThe Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Broomfield Enterprise:
Company officials say tests show contaminants did not exceed state standards for surface water
Contaminated water has been seeping into Sand Creek just up from where it meets the South Platte River near the Suncor Energy oil refinery north of Denver, and company officials on Wednesday said they were monitoring conditions and “will make any necessary repairs” to a spill containment pool behind sandbags where crews were pumping out water.
A sheen of benzene and other chemicals was detected on the surface of Sand Creek on May 7 and again on May 15, company officials said.
Sunday’s heavy rains raised water levels along the creek, leading to a breach of the containment area.
Suncor contractors have drawn water samples from Sand Creek and the South Platte, and tested these for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and methyl tertiary butyl ether, company officials said. The results showed concentrations did not exceed state standards for surface water in those waterways, officials said.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials did not respond to queries about conditions at the refinery. It is located just north of Denver in Commerce City, along the creek and the Sand Creek Greenway public bicycle path, near where the creek flows into the South Platte.
“Who is watching this?” Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said. “I’m concerned about the problems that continue to occur.”
Here’s the release from Phil Weiser’s office (Lawrence Pacheco):
Attorney General Phil Weiser today joined a multistate coalition in filing a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s final rule rolling back the national clean car standards.
“The administration’s illegal rollback rejects sound science, ignores environmental harms caused by carbon pollution, and will cost consumers more at the pump. Colorado is joining this lawsuit challenging the administration’s illegal action in order to defend our state’s fuel emission standards that are stronger than the national standards,” Weiser said. “By making more zero-emission vehicles available to Coloradans, we can address climate change and protect our air quality.”
In 2010, the EPA, states and automakers established a unified national program harmonizing improvements in fuel economy and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from passenger cars and light trucks and then applied those standards to vehicle model years 2017-2025. The administration took its first step toward dismantling the national clean car standards in 2018, alleging that the standards were no longer appropriate or feasible despite the fact that the auto industry was on track to meet them.
On March 31, 2020, the EPA announced its final rule rolling back the clean car standards. The rule takes aim at the corporate average fuel efficiency standards, requiring automakers to make only minimal improvements to fuel economy on the order of 1.5 percent annually instead of the previously anticipated annual increase of 5 percent. The rule also diminishes the requirements to reduce vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions, allowing hundreds of millions of metric tons of avoidable carbon emissions into our atmosphere over the next decade.
In the lawsuit filed today, the coalition argues that the final rule unlawfully violates the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
Attorney General Weiser joins the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia. The California Air Resources Board and the Cities of Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Denver also joined the coalition in filing the lawsuit.
FromThe Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Broomfield Enterprise:
Led by California, the states and major cities — including Denver — have asked federal judges to reverse Trump’s Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicle Rule, which was finalized in March and loosened requirements set under the Obama administration to make cars and light pickup trucks about 5% more efficient each year.
Trump’s rule means vehicles over the next decade would emit hundreds of millions more tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Instead of making cars that can cover 54 miles per gallon by 2025, automakers could make cars that cover 40 mpg by 2026.
Federal officials argue this will make new cars more affordable, encouraging more Americans to upgrade to relatively cleaner cars.
This lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, contends the Trump rule violates the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
“We so depend on protecting our land, air and water for our lifestyle,” Weiser said in a conference call Wednesday with attorneys general Xavier Becerra of California and Dana Nessel of Michigan.
“Climate change is not a theoretical, looming challenge. It is there today,” Weiser said, referring to “less natural snowpack than ever before” and a growing burden on future generations to deal with climate change impacts.
He cited a U.S. Supreme Court case that, more than a decade ago, established EPA power to regulate pollution that causes climate change.
“It is the job of the courts to get the EPA on track,” Weiser said.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, in a prepared statement, noted that vehicle emissions are a top contributor to air pollution over the city and are fueling climate change — causing harm to the public’s health and prosperity.
“If these rules are rolled back, the Trump administration will negate the progress that has happened across the country in these areas during a critical point in history,” Hancock said. “We are past due for our country taking more meaningful action, which is why Denver joined this important lawsuit.”
In 2010, EPA officials, state leaders and automakers began working to improve vehicle fuel efficiency and reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases and other pollution from passenger cars and light trucks made after 2017. Automakers have been working to meet these standards. Since 2018, Trump administration officials have been saying the standards are inappropriate and no longer feasible.
Here’s a release about a coalition that has also filed a lawsuit from Environment Colorado (Ellen Montgomery, Hannah Collazo, Mark Morgenstein):
Environment America, an affiliate of Environment Colorado, along with ten other public interest organizations, filed a lawsuit today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit opposing the Trump administration’s action to weaken federal clean car standards. This lawsuit follows litigation that Environment America and the other public interest groups previously filed challenging part one of the action, which attempts to block California and other states from setting stronger tailpipe emissions standards.
The petition challenges a final rule issued jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agencies’ action violates several federal statutes, including the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
“The EPA’s own analysis shows that this will reverse climate progress. The clean car standards should protect our climate, our health and the future of our children and grandchildren,” said Hannah Collazo, State Director with Environment Colorado. “This plan is unacceptable. Not only does it fail to adequately address the climate crisis — it sets us back years when we have no time to lose.”
The previous federal clean car standards would have doubled vehicular fuel economy and would have cut global warming pollution in half for cars sold in 2025. The weakened standards could result in more than 900 million additional metric tons of global warming pollution in our atmosphere.
The other petitioners are the Center for Biological Diversity, Communities for a Better Environment, Consumer Federation of America, Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission doesn’t feel a sense of urgency in deciding what will happen to its water rights after 2030, when the plant closes. But it does feel everyone else’s.
“Tri-State and our members are acutely aware of the importance of water to communities,” the company said in a January statement, “as a key element of future economic drivers.”
…Tri-State uses 16,000 acre-feet of water a year…Residents are concerned about it being pumped over to serve the Front Range based on the Western Slopes past water history, and others hope that it’s reserved for local agriculture or even for turning Dinosaur Monument into a national park.
Tri-State had a meeting with those community leaders to start the process of figuring out who may get those water rights and was planning more when the virus hit, meaning things are on hold for now. But that is OK, Stutz said, as he’s reminded officials, repeatedly, that the plant has quite a bit of time to reach a decision.
That’s a decade, if you’re counting, and even after the plant closes, it will need the water to complete reclamation, which should last until early 2030 and maybe longer, Stutz said. That was the tone of the first meeting, said Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck, one of the more heavily involved local officials in Tri-State affairs, as well as one of its biggest supporters…
As with any discussion about water, it’s complicated, as Tri-State’s water rights are junior, meaning others have rights that take priority, and are for industrial purposes and therefore cannot be automatically transferred to another user, Beck said. Tri-State acknowledges that, stating that there’s more than one owner of the station as well as those other water rights to consider.
Federal officials have issued preliminary permits for two hydro-storage proposals on the Little Colorado River. The projects would include four dams and four reservoirs east of Grand Canyon National Park. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval doesn’t allow the Phoenix-based company Pumped Hydro Storage to enter any lands or create ground disturbance. But it does let the company conduct feasibility studies for the combined 4,700-megawatt projects that would include dams up to 240 feet high across the Little Colorado River on the Navajo Nation…
Groups like the Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity say it would destroy the Little Colorado’s ecosystem and the habitat of the endangered humpback chub. The U.S. Interior Department has also objected.
The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade announced a total of $7.3 million in Advanced Industries Accelerator grants Thursday to companies and educational institutions around the state, including in Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley…
Sandbox Solar, Fort Collins — $250,000 — Currently, agriculture and renewable energy compete over the remnants of land space in our urban centers across the U.S. Sandbox Solar is developing a method, service, and technology for the two industries to exist compatibly and enable optimal land use. More distributed solar energy will be able to be deployed in strategic locations that keep agriculture in production. This relationship will increase the overall economics to the farmer and to solar developers…
Why Cycles dba Revel Bikes, Carbondale — $250,000 — Revel Bikes designs and builds the best, and most fun, full-suspension mountain bikes you’ll ever ride, and they do it in the most sustainable way possible. Their bikes, as well as their wheels and other high quality bike products, are created with superior materials for strength and performance, unique engineering for comfort and speed, and cutting edge technology for advancing the industry and diminishing the environmental footprint throughout the process.
A Saturday morning stroll through your local farmers market, is there anything like it? It’s a popular way that many Front Range people decide to spend their weekends, where you get to peruse the abundance and score some of the best food you can buy.
They fill their baskets with organically grown produce, chat with a farmer, walk over to a food truck for a coffee and a pastry and head home with their bounty. These brief interactions allow people to connect with where their food is grown, and put a face to the people who run these farms. But those interactions are threatened, and no, not because of COVID-19.
I am the Board President of the Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), representing over 125 farmers, ranchers, vineyard owners and related business operators in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado, many of whom travel to the Front Range to provide food to residents, restaurants, and breweries.
We take pride in being able to grow high-quality food, carefully tended and responsibly grown without additives or chemicals.
We also take pride in providing that food to Coloradans throughout the state. For many of us farmers, the food we grow is an extension of our personalities and represents us and our businesses.
VOGA’s vision is to create a vibrant community of prosperous, local farms that sustain the land and provide healthy agricultural products. To achieve this vision, we are dependent on our public lands.
Earlier this month, the Trump Administration approved a plan that puts the farms in our watershed at serious risk. The Bureau of Land Management’s final plan for the North Fork Valley opens our public lands to oil and gas drilling while removing protections for everything else that matters to us in the North Fork Valley.
For the past 10 years, the Bureau of Land Management has been rewriting a plan to manage the public land in the North Fork Valley. Our area is approximately 40% public land, which includes the headwaters of streams, rivers and ditches that supply irrigation water to our local farms.
VOGA has been participating and commenting on the BLM’s plan every step of the way. We even helped write our own proposal, called the North Fork Alternative, for how public land should be managed in our watershed.
The North Fork Alternative represents a locally grown vision for the North Fork Valley that would keep energy development away from sensitive areas and fosters a diverse, resilient economy. We were glad to see that the BLM included the North Fork Alternative in the planning process in 2016.
In the name of energy dominance, however, the Trump Administration completely dismissed our proposal last week and opened the entirety of our watershed to oil and gas development, without proper restrictions to protect our farms, our food or our livelihoods.
If resource extraction takes off in our watershed, our waterways may become polluted, ruining our region’s model for farm-to-table community agriculture.
Earlier this year, VOGA received a grant to conduct a study on our member’s economic impact within Delta County. For the 167 members of our association, we found the estimated total market value of our farms to be $50-60 million, with estimated annual gross sales to be $4.1 million.
If we want to maintain these numbers and build upon them to support a sustainable, resilient local economy, we need strong protections for our lands, air and water. And that begins with stipulations set forth in the BLM’s plan.
Luckily, Sen. Michael Bennet is on our side. Time and again, his commitment to working with local farmers, ranchers, business owners and conservationists has shined through in the face of this terrible plan.
And now it is no different. Sen. Bennet, thank you for your commitment to protecting the North Fork Valley, and we hope to work with you on a path forward, as farmers and as the local community.
Legislative mandates, plunging costs, but also consumer demand push shift
The rapid shift to renewables has three, and perhaps four powerful guiding forces. First were the legislative mandates to decarbonize electrical supplies. Colorado in 2019 set targets of 50% reduction economy wide by 2030 and 90% by 2040. New Mexico, a second state where Tri-State operates, has comparable goals.
A second and now more powerful driver pushing renewables have been plunging prices.
“It’s no longer just a green movement, it’s an economic movement,” said Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which delivers electricity to 43 member cooperatives in Colorado and three other states.
Tri-State recently signed contracts for 1,000 megawatts of wind and solar energy that will be coming online by 2024 at average price of 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.
“That’s an amazing price. That’s lower than anything we can generate with fossil fuels. It automatically gives us the head room, because of the savings just on energy, to accelerate the retirement of coal and do that affordably with no increases in rates,” said Highley. “We see downward rate pressure for the next 10 years, and beyond 2030, we see increases below the rate of inflation.”
The economics prevail in states that have not adopted mandates designed to reduce emissions.
“We see a green energy dividend that allows us to accelerate the closure of coal without raising rates. That’s a key and it’s a key for Tri-State to getting support from our board, which covers four states. Nebraska and Wyoming don’t have the same intensity of passion behind the renewable energy movement that New Mexico and Colorado do. But one thing all of our members can agree upon is low rates and low costs.”
At Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative that is not supplied by Tri-State, chief executive Bryan Hannegan sees the same downward price pressures.
“The price of new power supply from the bulk grid is coming in below where we are today in the marketplace. That is actually putting downward pressure on rates,” he said. At Holy Cross, the cost of electricity accounts for half of what consumers pay, with the other half going to the poles, wires, trucks and overhead.
“We at Holy Cross are saying we will get to 70% clean energy by 2030 with no increase in our power supply costs. If we can do it—which is a big if—we will try to do it in a way that keeps our rates predictable and stable.”
A third driver of the move to renewables has been bottom-up pressure from customers. Both Vail Resorts and the Aspen Skiing Co. have pushed Holy Cross Energy to deliver energy untainted by carbon emissions. So have individual communities. Six of the member communities in Colorado Communities for Climate Action are served by Holy Cross. “That is driving us forward. We are hearing it from our customer base,” said Hannegan.
Yet a fourth driver may be choice, as consumers can demand to pick and choose their energy sources as is proposed in a bill about community choice aggregation introduced in the Colorado Legislature this year. Holy Cross has to deliver that clean energy “frankly before somebody else does.”
All three utilities represented on the webinar retain ownership in coal plants. Holy Cross Energy, however, has consigned the production from its small ownership of Comanche 3, located in Pueblo, Colo., to Guzman Energy. Both Tri-State and Platte River have plans to be out of coal in Colorado by 2030, although Tri-State has no plans yet announced to end importing coal from a coal plant at Wheatland, Wyo.
As a teenager, amid the hardwood forests, waterfalls and wildflower meadows of the Parklands of Floyds Fork, Benjamin Myles took a liking to nature.
At the University of Louisville, Myles merged his libertarian-leaning politics with a curiosity about climate change, a subject that kept coming up in English class and in debates with his friends.
Such discussions led him to a new national movement of young conservatives who are working to persuade their Republican elders to put forward a climate agenda, without sacrificing traditional GOP principles like market competition and limited government.
Myles, a junior studying political science and economics, has joined the American Conservation Coalition, which last month unveiled its American Climate Contract, a self-described response to the Green New Deal for the political right.
The coalition has issued its manifesto in a presidential election year, when the stakes couldn’t be higher. While President Trump remains a resolute climate change denier, there is a wide consensus among scientists, and also in the military, that climate change is happening now, causing higher temperatures and heat waves, sea-level rise, an increasing frequency of extreme rains, wetter and more intense hurricanes, and longer droughts.
Myles now finds himself questioning another icon of the Republican party and one of the country’s most powerful political figures: U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader also from Louisville known for working to block the president who achieved the most on climate change, Barack Obama.
Myles, the president of the local college libertarian group, Young Americans for Liberty, is no fan of the Democrats’ approach to the issue, or the Green New Deal’s proposed massive shift in federal spending to create jobs and hasten a transition to clean energy by 2050. But Myles said he is frustrated by any established Republican who does not take climate change seriously, including McConnell.
“There is definitely frustration for myself and younger people who look at this issue and see the Republican Party, especially older GOP members, just ignoring it instead of offering an alternative,” he said.
“Our political system is all about providing multiple options,” Myles said. “But when one side decides it doesn’t want to discuss the truth of the problem at all, it feeds into the other side getting a monopoly on the discussion. That is really damaging.”
Across the South, Climate Change Divides Democrats and Republicans
In the South and across much of the United States, one way to try to tell a Republican from a Democrat is to invite a discussion about climate change.
Pew Research Center polling in February found that a growing number of Americans say tackling climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. But that change in views is mostly among Democrats: roughly 4 out of 5 say dealing with climate change should be a top priority, compared to just 1 out of 5 Republicans, Pew found.
Climate change wasn’t always so divisive.
In 2008, for example, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, famously sat on a couch in front of the U.S. Capitol, declaring they both agreed the country needed to take action on climate change. And they did it for Al Gore, the former vice president and global warming evangelist from Tennessee, who became conservatives’ climate-change punching bag
Today, young climate activists, led by Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement—a grassroots youth climate action group that formed after Trump’s 2016 election—are the defiant voice for the climate, calling for a transformation of the global economy. They are carrying out global student strikes and persuading mayors to declare climate emergencies.
The demographics of climate politics are shifting, said Ed Maibach, professor and director of the George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communications.
While young Democrats and their parents and grandparents are “more or less all apoplectically concerned” about the climate, he said, a new report from the George Mason center and the Yale Program on Climate Communication identifies how young Republicans are becoming emboldened by the issue. In contrast to older Republicans, they have become more accepting of the human causes of climate change, rejecting the climate science denial that has taken hold in the party, Maibach said.
“The more young Democrats get involved in the issue, the more young Republicans get pulled along,” he added.
Both parties will have plenty to debate this year as voters in November decide whether to give Trump and his fossil fuel agenda another four years. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the former vice president, has described the Green New Deal as “a crucial framework” for climate action as he tries to convince climate voters he’s a true believer.
A Market Approach to Climate Change Mitigation
The American Conservation Coalition was founded in 2017 by Benji Backer, a 22-year-old from Appleton, Wisconsin, who was already a veteran in national political circles.
In 2014, at 16, Backer delivered a fiery speech at the influential American Conservative Union conference, defending former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bitter and successful battle against unionized teachers and declaring it “OK to stand up to those on the left that would scream us into quiet submission.”
But in September, he testified before Congress with Thunberg, arguing that “we cannot regulate our way out of climate change.”
The group and its climate contract have supporters ranging from natural gas lobbyists and libertarians to conservation and energy efficiency groups.
One of them is the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based clean-energy think tank founded by physicist Amory Lovins. The institute’s Paul Bodner, who worked on energy and climate in the White House for President Obama, is on the coalition’s advisory board. He hopes he can help the young conservatives find their voice on climate issues.
The institute, he said, agrees with the Green New Deal’s “call to action” and shares its vision of “radical decarbonization of the U.S. economy,” but also agrees with the coalition’s “focus on unleashing market forces.”
The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington based think tank, also supports the young conservatives.
“When we see historically controversial policies that are pushed through by one party in a very politicized or polarized manner, those policies are more at risk of being undone, or vilified, at some point in the future,” said Sasha Mackler, the center’s director of energy projects. “For policies to be enduring over the long term, which is really what we need for a climate solution to be effective, bipartisanship is essential.”
‘We Would Rather Not Get Caught up in Debates’
The young conservatives’ contract makes no mention of the 2016 Paris climate agreement, with its goal of limiting rising global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Nor does it share the sense of urgency expressed by scientists, who, in 2018, concluded that the world had about 12 years to get on a path toward zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Instead, the contract merely acknowledges the need to “move towards the goal of global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.”
The Green New Deal envisions a rapid transition to a carbon-free economy, promising jobs and economic security and explicitly supporting an economic transition in communities that have long lived on incomes from fossil fuel industries.
By contrast, the contract modestly calls for “targeted investment and regulatory streamlining;” increasing clean transportation; creating a more energy-saving electrical grid; maximizing carbon storage in forests and farms; planting trees; supporting nuclear power; and establishing private-public partnerships.
“We would rather not get caught up in debates on targets that are too much for one side of the aisle or the other,” said Danielle Butcher, chief operating officer of the American Conservation Coalition. “We view this not as a silver bullet to climate policy.”
The contract also does not recommend a carbon tax, which some moderates and Republicans have begun to embrace as a way to put a price on carbon and steer the economy toward a lower-carbon future.
“We want to focus on the steps we can take right now,” Butcher said.
The contract’s modest scope is its failing, critics counter.
Fighting climate change and economic injustice go hand-in-hand, said Sophie Karasek, a spokeswoman for the Sunrise Movement, which has rallied around the Green New Deal.
“A lot of young people have grown up with the fear of the climate crisis, and we already lived through the great recession, and remember what that felt like,” Karasek said.
What’s needed are “bold solutions from the government at the scale of the problems we face, and right now (with the Covid-19 pandemic) we are facing a great depression while also staring down the barrel of climate change,” she said. “We don’t have time to talk about private-public partnerships, or whatever.”
Mitch McConnell Has Been Setting the GOP Agenda on Climate
In Tennessee, Sage Kafsky, a 23-year-old volunteer with the American Conservation Coalition, echoed her young colleagues’ calls for market based, limited government solutions. But she also declared an admiration for Thunberg, the Swedish teenager whose defiance before the most powerful business and political leaders on the planet became the face of a new generation fighting climate change.
“I 100 percent believe in climate change,” Kafsky said in a telephone interview from her home in Ducktown, Tennessee, in the southern Appalachian Mountains, where she works as a paraprofessional in an elementary school. “I believe in people like Greta, who are having their voice, saying this is a major issue, and we need to fix it.”
But, she went on to say, “how to get there gets lost in translation” amid political polarization, even though “we have similar goals in mind.”
In Washington, D.C., it has been McConnell, 78, the coal-friendly Senate Republican Leader since 2006 and Majority Leader since 2015, who has, in effect, been setting the Republican legislative agenda on climate.
For example, he led the opposition to Obama’s climate and coal policies, then backed Trump on pulling out of the Paris agreement. Last year McConnell went out of his way to force Democrats to make a premature and what he hoped would be a politically damaging vote on the Green New Deal, while not offering alternative climate legislation.
McConnell is up for reelection to a seventh term in November. A spokesman declined to comment on the young conservatives’ efforts, except to say that the way to address climate change “is through technology and innovation.”
But words alone may not be enough for the GOP’s new generation.
Butcher, of the conservation coalition, said the group has met with White House and McConnell staff to find policies that will reduce emissions and create economic prosperity. “Given the overwhelming consensus among young Republicans that climate is a top priority, we expect they’ll increasingly engage on the issue, and if not, we’ll push harder,” she said.
Myles, the libertarian-climate activist from the University of Louisville, came to see climate change as an issue the GOP couldn’t ignore or deny. “Getting into college and seeing how many other people care about it made me realize this is going to be a major issue and something that has the ability to affect all of us,” he said. “The GOP is moving on some issues, as more and more young people get involved. Climate change should be one of them.”
The report by the International Energy Agency points out that South Africa’s lockdown initially disrupted 75% of the global output of platinum, which is used in many clean energy technologies and emissions control devices.
Copper mining in Peru — which accounts for 12% of global production — ground to a halt, according to the report. Indonesia, which is the world’s top supplier of nickel, banned nickel ore exports earlier this year.
The report also points out that when it comes to lithium, cobalt and various rare earth materials, the top three producers control well over three quarters of the global output.
There are also stark vulnerabilities in the geographic concentration of refining operations, with China alone accounting for 50% to 70% of global lithium and cobalt refining. China is also responsible for 85% to 90% of processing rare earth materials into metals and magnets.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is again reinforcing the importance of responsible U.S. mineral development. During trade negotiations in June 2019, China threatened to cut off our access to rare earth minerals. Now, the COVID-19 shines a bright light on China’s dominance of critical mineral and other supply chains,” said the caucus’ executive vice chairman, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo. ”This report should serve as a reality check that supporting a true all-of-the-above energy future in the U.S. will require strong investments in domestic mining,”
The rising installation of clean energy technologies is set to “supercharge” the demand for critical minerals, the agency predicts, and the already rapid growth was putting strains on supply even before the global pandemic.
Clean energy technologies, the report said, generally require more minerals than their fossil fuel counterparts.
As an example, an electric car uses five times as many minerals as a conventional car and an offshore wind plant requires eight times as many minerals as a gas-fired plant of the same capacity…
The most efficient coal-fired power plants, too, require a lot more nickel than the less efficient ones to produce higher combustion temperatures.
Since 2015, the report points out, electric transport and grid storage have become the largest consumers of lithium, accounting for 35% of the demand. And likewise, those users have driven demand for cobalt from 5% to nearly 25% in that same period.
Those demands, however, come with costs.
Congo, which controls the majority of the world’s supply of cobalt, nearly tripled its royalty rate in 2018 and has come under harsh scrutiny for its extraction practices in harsh conditions amid reports it also relies on child labor.
In its report, the agency recommends government and companies take a number of steps to ensure a steady supply chain and greater independence in the arena of critical minerals, including timely investments in new mines, periodic assessments, promotion of recycling of end of life materials to capture valuable minerals, and stepping up research and development in substitution materials…
Utah is the only state in the country that produces magnesium metal and is one of two U.S. states that produces potash.
While lithium is not being mined in Utah at this point, there is potential for U.S. Magnesium to produce it as a byproduct.
In a paper she wrote for the survey on battery metals’ demand, Mills details the potential of some of these elements to be “mined” in Utah as a byproduct of other metals, such as copper or uranium deposits revealing cobalt.
Utah hosts the only operating uranium and vanadium mill in the United States, Mills points out, and while there is not any uranium mining going on, the mill began producing vanadium from stockpiles in 2019. Vanadium can be used in high-capacity batteries used for large-scale energy storage applications.
Finally, Rio Tinto’s Kennecott operations in Utah puts it as the nation’s second largest producer of copper, which is unmatched in its ability to conduct electric currents.
In addition to copper, Kennecott is one of the largest producers of gold, silver, platinum group metals and molybdenum in North America, and could be a potential source of critical minerals such as rhenium and tellurium.
Rio Tinto is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute and is jointly investigating with its experts on ways to extract additional critical minerals from the existing refining and smelting process.
Rhenium, one of the rarest elements, has the third-highest melting point and its nickel-based alloys are used in exhaust nozzles of jet engines. Its alloys are also used in oven heating elements and X-ray machines.
Mills said the state is engaged in research related to the production of tungsten — another critical mineral — which is the only other metal element with a higher melting point than rhenium.
And then a clandestine project, co-named Blue Sky II, which the electrical cooperative United Power claims was the project designed by its wholesale supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, to explore ways to get jurisdiction by regulators in Washington D.C.
To keep United Power, the largest among Tri-State’s 43 members that are spread across Colorado and three adjoining states, as a member—and contributing fistfuls of dollars for decades to come. And also to keep the Colorado Public Utilities Commission from exercising authority over determining what would constitute a fair and reasonable exit fee.
Or so goes the argument in the lawsuit filed by United Power against Tri-State and three of its new, associated members.
This lawsuit adds specificity to the complaints coupled with colorful language.
La Plata Electric is not a party to the lawsuit.
Tri-State dismisses the lawsuit as so much folderol, calling the assertions “false and reckless.”
“United Power’s most recent complaint smacks of desperation and is completely without merit,” the wholesaler said in a statement yesterday evening, after hours after copies of the lawsuit were disseminated by Untied Power.
“Tri-State will vigorously defend its members and its board of director’s lawful, appropriate, and open decisions and actions to seek federal regulation,” the statement added. “Further, United Power’s complaint insults our other cooperative members, who clearly understood the direction of the association.”
It accused United of trying to foist off onto other members $1 billion in costs.
United Power is the largest among the 43 members in Colorado and three adjoining states that together constitute Tri-State, alone responsible for 17% of electrical demand from Tri-State. United serves the fast-growing suburbs north of Denver but also the electricity-heavy hydrocarbon extraction operations in the Wattenberg field.
The lawsuit says that United Power has purchased in excess of $200 million in wholesale electricity annually from Tri-State in recent years that it then distributes to its individual members as well as the oil and gas customers. This power is sold by Tri-State under its “Class A” rate, which is “materially higher now—and has been for years—than what United Power would be required to pay if it purchased electricity on the open market.”
Included in this $200 million per year is a built-in margin, which United Power calls profit. It might also be called overhead. That so-called profit has totaled $45 million to $70 million among all of Tri-State’s members in recent years. United, however, pays the lion’s share, $150 million during the past four years alone, it says.
In the future? More of the same, several hundred million dollars in just the next decade. The current contract does not expire for three decades.
Not a fair deal, says the lawsuit – and to avoid that fair deal Tri-State has “misused the cooperative governance structure in an effort to deprive United Power of its right to exit Tri-State.”
That effort to leave began in August 2018, when United Power asked for a buyout. Tri-State came up with a figure of $1.2 billion. That’s what Tri-State said United Power would have to pay to leave its so-called all-requirements contract before 2050. That contract allows members to procure only 5% or less of their own power.
One other member co-op, Kit Carson Electrical Cooperative in Taos, N.M., had already left in 2016, and Delta-Montrose Electric had started negotiating with Tri-State to leave. That agreement was reached last July and will take effect on July 1, 2020.
United Power didn’t want out. That’s what the lawsuit says, and that’s also consistent with what this writer reported at the time. It only wanted the ability to generate more of its own power and take advantage of emerging opportunities for cleaner and cheaper sources.
Now comes the equine subterfuge. The lawsuit says that Tri-State amended the bylaws to allow for partial requirements contracts, allowing more self-generation than the 5% allowed under the all-requirements contracts. Coupled with this was a new classification proposed by Tri-State managers in April 2019. This new class allowed members who weren’t electrical co-operatives.
To what end the new class of membership?
United alleges duplicitous behavior by Tri-State.
“Tri-State staff knew that Tri-State’s loss of all, or even part, of United Power’s load would have enormous adverse effects on Tri-State’s financial health,” the lawsuit says. “Tri-State staff also knew that other Tri-State member-owners were, for similar reasons, interested in retaining United Power as a Tri-State member. So Tri-State saw its opportunity, using United Power as a Trojan horse to convince Tri-State’s membership to amend Tri-State’s bylaws in a way that members believed would benefit them.”
Tri-State had been consulting with the lawyers, in-house and outside, about becoming FERC jurisdictional for at least six months and possibly much longer. This effort was called Blue Sky II. More about Blue Sky later.
Why did United, as a voting member of Tri-State go along with all this—indeed, by its own admission, champion it? United claims naiveté. Or, more precisely, deception.
“Tri-State concealed the existence of Blue Sky II from its members. By December 2018, Tri-State already had drafted the tariffs that it would need to file with FERC if it were to seek to become FERC regulated. Tri-State concealed from United Power and even from the Colorado PUC the existence of those draft tariffs,” the lawsuit says. The intent of all this was to “displace the Colorado PUC’s jurisdiction over member withdrawals.”
Why did Tri-State want to avoid the Colorado PUC jurisdiction in this matter? That is never explicitly stated.
But United Power says that it believed Tri-State’s good intentions throughout 2018 and 2019, even voting for the new bylaws that are now being used against its own best interests. Those bylaws allowed Tri-State to expand its membership to include:
MIECO, which sold natural gas to Tri-State.
Ellgen, which rented land from Colowyo Coal Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Tri-State.
Olsons, a greenhouse in Fort Lupton, which purchases steam from Tri-State.
Each “received additional payment from Tri-State for engaging in the scheme to deprive the Colorado PUC of its jurisdiction over Tri-State through purported “patronage capital’ and, in the case of Olson’s, an increased discount in the price it paid for steam.”
Tri-State argues that these new additional members pre-empt the PUC’s jurisdictions over member withdrawals. They are also named as defendants in the lawsuit by United Power.
Tri-State all along has maintained that it added the members in order to gain FERC jurisdiction over rates. Because it has members in four states, it has explained, and so it’s easier to have one rate-reviewing body, even if in Washington D.C., than four in state capitols. However, in practice, Colorado’s jurisdiction is the one that matters. Wyoming and Nebraska do not exercise rate jurisdiction and New Mexico has not consistently done so.
Tri-State explains its case somewhat differently: “Tri-State and its member cooperatives have been open and transparent about their desire to be regulated by the FERC, to eliminate inconsistent rate treatment across the states. In recent years both Colorado and New Mexico have exercised rate jurisdiction, which resulted in increased costs, unrecovered revenue and inconsistent rates to its members.”
And in seeking FERC rate regulation, says Tri-State, it’s doing what almost all “other similarly situated wholesale generation and transmission providers” already do. That also includes Xcel Energy and its contracts with non-Tri-State Colorado cooperatives, which includes Yampa Valley Electric and Holy Cross Energy, among others.
Meanwhile, an administrative law judge at the PUC is scheduled to hear the case of both United Power and La Plata on May 18-22. Tri-State wants the FERC to hurry up and take on the same case. United portrays this as a sinister conspiracy:
“Notwithstanding that imminent proceeding, it has become completely clear that Tri- State has declared war on the Colorado PUC and literally will stop at nothing to try to prevent it from deciding a just, reasonable and non-discriminatory charge for United Power to withdraw as a member-owner of Tri-State. Tri-State’s legion of attorneys―whose fees are paid by Tri-State member-owners―are desperately seeking the expedited assistance of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in creating a conflict that Tri-State will then use to claim that the PUC’s jurisdiction has been pre-empted.”
As for Blue Sky II, if United is correct that it existed, what’s with the name? One hypothesis would be that it alludes to an area of the Vail ski resort, the one newest and most remote from the base-area ski lifts, closer to the town of Red Cliff than to the town of Vail.
Blue sky thinking can refer to brainstorming no limits.
Grace, 16, says in the complaint that drought has dried up the Clark Fork River for rafting.
Georgianna F., 17, fears shortened winters have reduced snow she needs to train for Nordic skiing.
Ruby D., 11, of Crow descent, claims frequent wildfires have scarred lodgepole pines needed for the teepees essential for the ceremonies that are part of her identity.
While lawyers for the state responded last week in briefs that the courts aren’t the right place to fix the climate crisis, attorneys for the children say they are suing Montana not for failing to act on climate change, but for harming the environment by promoting the use of coal, oil and gas.
The Montana case, led by the non-profit public interest firm, Our Children’s Trust, is part of a 50-state campaign to put government policy contributing to climate change before the courts.
A landmark national climate change suit, Juliana v. USA, was thrown out in January by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where judges ruled 2 to 1 that climate change is not an issue for the courts. The plaintiffs, also led by Our Children’s Trust, have since petitioned for a rehearing.
The Montana case is one of seven state actions, including lawsuits filed in Alaska, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.
In Montana, lawyers for the plaintiffs offer vivid examples of how their young clients’ lives are being shattered by a warming planet to underscore the state’s failed constitutional obligation: guaranteeing all citizens an inalienable right to a healthy environment.
“What we’re trying to do is uphold our constitutional rights,” said Grace, in an interview. (None of the minor plaintiffs used their last names in the lawsuit).
A sixth-generation Montanan, she spends a lot of time outdoors, playing soccer, rafting nearby rivers and hiking the Rattlesnake Wilderness north of where she lives in Missoula. Perhaps her favorite place is the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park, which is sometimes called the American Serengeti because of its rich wildlife: bison, antelope, elk, trout and a famous wolfpack.
But now she’s worried enough about the climate impacts she already sees—the wildfire smoke that nixed soccer practice, the drought that’s dried up the rivers—that she wonders whether her own children will have the chance to experience the place she loves so much, and even whether it’s ethical for her to have children.
“What we want is for the courts to encourage or institute a climate recovery plan that lowers our fossil fuel rates to the point where we’re not harming the environment anymore,” she said, “and to uphold our constitutional rights for a clean environment.”
Nate Bellinger, one of the childrens’ lawyers, acknowledged the storytelling strategy. “A central part of that story is how the youth plaintiffs … are currently being impacted by climate change,” he said, “and how they are expected to be impacted by climate change if it’s not addressed.”
Two brothers, Lander B., 15, and Badge B., 12, say the changing climate is making it harder to hunt the elk and deer that their family depends on for food and that warm temperatures and low stream waters make it harder to fish for cutthroat, rainbow and bull trout.
Kian T., 14, reports in the complaint that trees on his family’s property—birch, spruce, aspen, cottonwood and firs—are dying because warmer winters have led to increased insect activity.
The young plaintiffs’ concerns are exactly the sort of complaint you’d expect from Montanans whose shared identity is bound up in the wildness and beauty of the Big Sky state’s breathtaking mountains and plains.
In some ways, the lawsuit itself is the latest chapter in the 50-state, coming of age story about the legal fight to combat climate change that began eight years ago. In Utah that year, children were among 20 petitioners who pressed environmental regulators to start accounting for climate change in state regulations.
In Wyoming, a case called Kids v. Global Warming pressed environmental agencies to begin restricting and reducing fossil fuel emissions enough to limit CO2 to 350 ppm by 2100. The petitions were denied in both cases.
An earlier Montana case asked the state Supreme Court to rule that the atmosphere should be held in trust for citizens, but justices declined to take up the case.
“We aren’t suing Montana or the other states for their failure to act on climate change,” Bellinger said, trying to correct a misperception about the cases. “It’s because the state is actively harming the environment it’s constitutionally mandated to protect.”
It’s this constitutional provision that gives the Montana suit its unique strength, Bellinger and other legal experts agreed. The preamble to the state’s constitution says: “We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.”
Montana’s unique approach to the environment is also part of a learning curve that builds upon the lessons of past setbacks and failures in the youth climate cases, said Richard Frank, a law professor, blogger and director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center.
The Montana case, he noted, focuses on particular injuries being suffered by the 16 plaintiffs rather than simply making sweeping, heady arguments about violated “atmospheric trust litigation” as past legal and administrative actions did. The more recent cases are also stronger because they rely on new sophisticated, scientific conclusions that were not available to lawyers involved in the earlier cases, he said.
“The key point for me is that it’s a lot more strategic,” Frank said. “It’s more tactical, it’s more science.”
In the Montana lawsuit, the children argue that Montana undermines their birthright in two significant ways: with a state energy policy that explicitly promotes fossil fuels, and a prohibition on accounting for climate change in decision making. As a result, models project annual average daily maximum temperatures in the state will increase by as much as 6.0 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century, “a temperature increase that would imperil human civilization,” and go up by as much as 10 degrees by the end of the century.
“It is as if the Earth has a constant fever,” the lawsuit says, “and just as in the human body, even a slight rise in temperature weakens the organism, increases the vulnerability of the organism, and can have dangerous long-term effects on the system.”
The lawsuit contends that the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation “has authorized, permitted, licensed, and encouraged fossil fuel exploitation, extraction, and production, and forestry practices and activities that have caused and contributed to dangerous concentrations of atmospheric GHGs and the climate crisis and harmed Youth Plaintiffs.”
Allowing refineries to spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, permitting the 1,210-mile Keystone XL Pipeline to traverse the state, and approving a 977-acre expansion of the state’s largest coal mine are just some of the ways in which Montana has bowed to fossil fuels, the lawsuit says.
Regulators did not examine emissions impacts for the coal mine, nor did they estimate the climate impact of the 90 percent of Montana-mined coal that was burned out of state, the suit says
“Defendants—who manage, operate, and regulate the energy sector by and through the State Energy Policy—have the authority to produce renewable energy sources,” the lawsuit says, noting that state agencies authorized almost seven times as much fossil fuel energy as renewables. “Nevertheless, Defendants are manifestly indifferent to Youth Plaintiffs’ injuries and continue to authorize energy from fossil fuels as opposed to renewables.”
Bellinger, the childrens’ attorney, pointed out that as early as 1968, Montana leaders were discussing the implications of growing greenhouse gas emissions. “That’s just not really compatible with the future that these youth want to live in Montana and protect the environment,” he said.
Even with the more narrowly drawn claims in the Montana lawsuit, some still doubt it will be successful. Sam Kazman, general counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a non-profit libertarian think tank, cited the state’s constitutional provision when he said: “I think it does have a slightly better shot than the Juliana case.”
But, ultimately, he’s not convinced that the Montana case will go any farther than the better-known national case. In an echo of the criticism leveled against the Juliana case, he said developing and implementing an energy policy is not something that courts are well-equipped to do.
“Ultimately, I think it is still trying to get a court to take over what really is a host of legislative functions,” Kazman said, echoing arguments made by the state’s attorneys.
Montana environmental lawyer Jack Tuholske said the case shines a compelling spotlight on the state constitution’s healthy environment provision. The guarantee of environmental health, he said, was added in 1972 because of historic mining pollution in a state where industry had outsized influence on lawmakers.
“This [case] is very much in a context of the history and culture of the state,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the court approaches this case, based on the Constitution.”
Pueblo voters on May 5 will decide whether to stick with their existing electrical utility, Black Hills Energy, or municipalize operations.
Proponents and opponents frame their arguments in terms of opportunity and risk. The fulcrum for the debate is the high cost of electricity in Pueblo, which is among the highest in Colorado and some say the nation.
The most immediate comparison is to Colorado Springs, which has a municipal utility, similar to what is proposed for Pueblo. Residential rates in Pueblo are 36% higher, 33% higher for large commercial customers, and 41% higher for small commercial.
In metropolitan Denver, rates charged by Xcel Energy are also substantially lower. In fact, nearly all of Colorado’s several dozen utilities charge less than those charged by Black Hills, according to rate surveys conducted by the Colorado Association of Municipal Utilities. Steve Andrews, a proponent of municipalization, says those who get their power from public-power sources across Colorado similar to what he supports in Pueblo paid $82 per 700 kilowatt-hours of electricity compared to $112 for Pueblo.
Could Pueblo residents and businesses do better if the city—through its parallel agency, the Pueblo Board of Water Works—took over operations? That’s what voters must decide.
How much it would cost to take over Black Hills operations depends upon what portion of the service territory is included. A study completed last October by EES Consulting calculated the debt service for Black Hills operations only within Pueblo at $348 million over a 30-year period.
There are also provisions for creating a regional utility to deliver electricity to all of the current Black Hills electrical customers in Colorado, if they want to join Pueblo. All of Pueblo County, including Pueblo, would be $461 million. The estimated cost was $848 million for acquisition of the full Black Hills service territory in Colorado, which stretches from Cripple Creek and Westcliffe on the west to Rocky Ford and beyond to the east.
These figures include Black Hills’ generating assets, but whether they would be acquired would depend upon negotiations.
The Board of Water Works would be responsible for negotiating with Black Hills or, if necessary, for condemning the assets in legal proceedings. The board would also be responsible for financing the acquisition costs and court costs. The board members would continue to be elected by city voters.
The Water Board pointed to relatively simple arithmetic. The city had commissioned two studies. The first one established that a public power utility would reduce rates and costs over time. The Phase 2 study delivered in October offered more specifics. It said Black Hills generates between $250 million and $260 million in revenues, and after expenses, enough revenue would be left to cover bonds of $900 million to $1 billion. It also concluded that a community-owned electric utility could deliver current customer savings of 10% to 14%.
Electrical utilities are wonky things, so a brief primer might be useful. First, Colorado has two investor-owned utilities that deliver electricity: Black Hills and Xcel Energy. The latter serves metropolitan Denver and some other areas in Colorado. The remainder of Coloradans get their electricity from electrical co-ops or municipal providers.
Black Hills, which is based in Rapid City, S.D., in 2008 purchased Aquila, the previous utility serving Pueblo, for $282 million, according to a filing on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission website. It soon got out of coal, replacing that with a gas-fired power plant east of Interstate 25 near the airport and industrial park. Pueblo’s franchise agreement with Black Hills continues to 2030.
Opponents of municipalization have a sturdy voice in the Pueblo Chieftain. Its just-vote-no editorial on April 10 reminded readers of instructions issued by judges in criminal cases: “Don’t vote to convict unless the prosecutors have proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt.” Proponents had failed that test, it said. Most of the information came from a single consultant’s report – and one tainted in the Chieftain’s telling by the guidance of the city officials who “were very transparent about their interest in hearing the virtues of municipal electric services,” the newspaper said.
“Relying so heavily on one source of information on a subject this complicated is a bit like reading the CliffsNotes on “Moby Dick” and then claiming to be an expert on whale hunting,” the newspaper said. “Proponents say a municipal electric company would save money, but it’s not clear how.”
Risks outweigh potential rewards, in the newspaper’s view. “It seems extremely unwise to put the city’s future at risk based on some vague hopes that it would all work out well in the end.”
The city council also adopted a resolution, on a 4-3 vote, opposing municipalization. Among those in the majority was Dennis Flores, the city council president. “Do not be fooled. This is not the panacea the other side would have you believe,” he wrote in the Chieftain.
The most prominent supporter of municipalization is Nick Gradisar, the mayor. He took office in January 2019, winning 57% of votes.
“Black Hills is an investor-owned utility and, as such, its primary allegiance and legal duty is to its shareholders to generate profits,” he wrote in a Jan. 28 op-ed published in the Chieftain. “A public electric company would have no shareholders, would not have to generate profits, and its primary legal duty would be to its customers and ratepayers.” But he warns against expecting lower rates immediately.
“Based on its current rates, over the remaining 10 years of the franchise agreement, Black Hills would take out of this community $130 million in profits. This is one of the reasons that we have the highest electric bills on the Front Range.”
The business community in Pueblo mostly seems to favor municipalization. The Pueblo Chamber of Commerce points to the consultant’s study—the same one seen by the Chieftain as wanting in depth and honesty—as showing transition to a community owned electric works would achieve “significant rate savings over a 20-year period.”
“When it comes to attracting new businesses to Pueblo, these rates can be a deal breaker,” says Andrew Lang, chief operating officer of TR Toppers, a Pueblo-based food processing and distribution company, in an op/ed in the Chieftain.
The Pueblo Chieftain in that story described her comments as “often scorching.” She sees Black Hills as taking actions that are scorching.
That strong language is tame in comparison with her remarks in an interview conducted by municipalization proponents on a Facebooks stream last Friday night. There she accused Black Hills of chicanery at every turn, describing the company as an “energizer vampire.” (See a partial abridged transcript.)
Much has been made by opponents of municipalization about Boulder’s much longer attempt to break away from Xcel Energy and form its own municipal utility. “Our neighbors in Boulder have spent a decade and millions of dollars in an attempt to municipalize their electric service, without an end in sight,” points out the Chieftain. Opponents also point out that many efforts to municipalize around the country have come to nothing.
But proponents say that Boulder went about things differently, and Pueblo has a better approach and has learned from Boulder’s mistakes. Too, Pueblo’s later start works in favor of Pueblo, while creating a drag on Boulder’s efforts. Prices of renewable energy have plunged in the last decade, allowing Pueblo more options and undermining the reason why Boulder sought independence: To more rapidly green up its power supply. Xcel Energy, its supplier, is now rapidly doing so—ironically by closing two of the three coal plants that are the city’s backdrop.
Boulder’s attempted break a decade ago was precipitated by a desire to accelerate the transition to emissions-free energy. In Pueblo, the municipalization effort has been almost purely about rates. That’s ironic, given that Pueblo was the first municipality in Colorado to formally embrace a 100% renewable energy goal. That was in 2016.
Larry Atencio, a city council member who initially was the public face of the 100% renewable goal, getting national attention, opposes municipalization but instead points to the work of Black Hills. It’s building a 200-megawatt renewable energy system, probably solar, that will result in a 5% decrease in rates. Proponents, however, question whether the solar farm will ever get built, given how much generation Black Hills already owns. As for the 100% renewable goal adopted by Pueblo, Gradisar, the mayor, says that municipalization should allow Pueblo to hit that target by 2035.
A poll conducted by the city in early March, part of a broader survey about municipal issues, found 70% favoring a new public-power utility. But that was before a public relations campaign was launched by a new group called Pueblo CARES with a barrage of TV and radio advertisements challenging municipalization. The Chieftain on April 16 reported that the group had received over $1.5 million in contributions from Dec. 19 through April 13. Several council members and others had contributed $250 or less to the group, and Black Hills Energy said it has contributed, but not exactly how much.
The proponent group, Bring Power Home 2020, a campaign-issue committee that grew out of the all-volunteer Pueblo’s Energy Future, reported $21,000 in contributions for the same period. That mismatch in the campaign war chest is one reason that Andrews, of Bring Power Home 2020, describes his group’s efforts as one of David vs. Goliath.
Still, municipal proponents mostly express optimism they will prevail. “I think we’re still in the running,” says David Cockrell, a former city planner and college administrator and a key figure for several years in the municipalization effort. “We are not convinced we’re going to lose. It’s still possible we may win substantially.”
And if David should win the vote next Tuesday? Koncilja, the former PUC commissioner, says it will be national news. It will also be the big pivot that will allow Pueblo, which even now remains best known in Colorado for its steel mill, to more fully participate in the great energy transition.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the Executive Summary:
In 2018, Colorado released its first electric vehicle (EV) plan,1 setting forth goals, actions and strategies to develop EV fast-charging corridors across the state and establishing a target of 940,000 EVs by 2030. The state has seen significant achievements in the two years since the plan’s release, including:
Award of a contract to ChargePoint for the build-out of EV fast-charging stations at 33 sites along Colorado’s major transportation corridors;
State investment to install 351 EV chargers across Colorado;
Adoption of a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) standard in August 2019 with the support of the auto manufacturing industry;
Dedication of all remaining state Volkswagen diesel settlement funds to ZEV charging infrastructure and zero emission buses, shuttles and trucks including first round grant awards totaling $13.9 million to six transit agencies for 23 battery electric buses and supporting infrastructure— with a second round of awards to be announced in spring 2020; and
More than doubling the number of EVs registered in Colorado from 11,238 in August 2017 to over 24,000 in June 2019.
Despite these achievements, more needs to be done. Environmental impacts from the transportation sector— and the resulting health and economic consequences— are a major concern. Greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles will soon be the top source of emissions in Colorado and a significant portion of the state is classified as an ozone non-attainment area by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Transportation is one of the two largest sources of ozone precursors along with oil and gas production, and reducing transportation emissions is a critical strategy to meet federal health-based air quality standards.
The vision for the Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan 2020 is: Large-scale transition of Colorado’s transportation system to zero emission vehicles, with a long-term goal of 100% of light-duty vehicles being electric and 100% of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles being zero emission.
This will be accomplished by taking actions to meet five goals:
Increasing the number of light-duty EVs to 940,000 by 2030;
Developing plans for transitioning medium-duty (MDV), heavy-duty (HDV) and transit vehicles to ZEVs;
Developing an EV infrastructure goal by undertaking a gap analysis to identify the type and number of charging stations needed across the state to meet 2030 light-duty vehicle (LDV), MDV and HDV goals;
FromThe High Country News [April 23, 2020] (Jonathan Thompson):
COVID-19 reverberates across the energy world.
In mid-January, when the epidemic was still mostly confined to China, officials there put huge cities on lockdown in order to stem the spread. Hundreds of flights into and out of the nation were canceled, and urban streets stood empty of cars. China’s burgeoning thirst for oil diminished, sending global crude prices into a downward spiral.
And when oil prices fall, it hurts states like New Mexico, which relies on oil and gas royalties and taxes for more than one-third of its general fund. “An unexpected drop in oil prices would send the state’s energy revenues into a tailspin,” New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee warned last August. Even the committee’s worst-case scenario, however, didn’t look this bad.
Now, with COVID-19 spanning the globe, every sector of the economy is feeling the pain — with the exception, perhaps, of toilet paper manufacturers and bean farmers. But energy-dependent states and communities will be among the hardest hit.
At the end of December, the U.S. benchmark price for a barrel of oil was $62. By mid-March, as folks worldwide stopped flying and driving, it had dipped to around $20, before falling into negative territory, and then leveling off around $10 in April. The drilling rigs — and the abundant jobs that once came with them — are disappearing; major oil companies are announcing deep cuts in drilling and capital expenditures for the rest of the year, and smaller, debt-saddled companies will be driven into the ground.
COVID-19 and related shocks to the economy are reverberating through the energy world in other ways. Shelter-in-place orders and the rise in people working from home have changed the way Americans consume electricity: Demand decreased nationwide by 10% in March. As airlines ground flights, demand for jet fuel wanes. And people just aren’t driving that much, despite falling gasoline prices, now that they have orders to stay home and few places to go to, anyway.
The slowdown will bring a few temporary benefits: The reduction in drilling will give landscapes and wildlife a rest and result in lower methane emissions. In Los Angeles, the ebb in traffic has already brought significantly cleaner air. And the continued decline in burning coal for electricity has reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
But the long-term environmental implications may not be so rosy. In the wake of recession, governments typically try to jumpstart the economy with stimulus packages to corporations, economic incentives for oil companies, and regulatory rollbacks to spur consumption and production. The low interest rates and other fiscal policies that followed the last global financial crisis helped drive the energy boom of the decade that followed. And the Trump administration has not held back in its giveaways to industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is already using the outbreak as an excuse to ease environmental regulations and enforcement, and even with all the nation’s restrictions, the Interior Department continues to issue new oil and gas leases at rock-bottom prices. [ed. emphasis mine]
The impacts on energy state coffers will unfold over the coming weeks and months. But the shock to working folk from every economic sector has come swiftly. During the third week of March, more than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment — more than 10 times the claims from a year prior.
Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey. Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, California Independent System Operator, Baker-Hughes, Unacast, FlightRadar24, Wyoming Department of Revenue, Carbon Footprint, International Air Transport Association, OAG.
The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley.
For nearly a decade, a group of farmers in the North Fork Valley joined with local tourism businesses and conservation groups to craft a resource management plan that could help the Bureau of Land Management shepherd the multiple uses of the valley’s public lands for the next 20 years.
More than 600 mining jobs disappeared in that decade of planning as the coal industry contracted and mines closed. Entrepreneurs in the lush communities around Paonia and Hotchkiss helped diversify the local economy from reliance on a single, extractive industry to an eclectic mix of organic agritourism and outdoor recreation.
The group’s North Fork Alternative Plan proposed energy development on 25% of the valley’s public lands, with increased protections for water and recreational attractions in the region.
“We put a lot of effort into negotiating with the BLM with what we thought was a pretty constructive way to share our values and how they should consider those values in managing the lands here,” said Mark Waltermire, whose Thistle Whistle farm is among 140 members in the North Fork’s Valley Organic Growers Association.
The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns over energy projects injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality. But as the first resource management plan released under the Trump Administration, it did represent the president’s pivot toward “energy dominance” by reducing regulations and greenlighting exponentially more coal mining.
“I feel betrayed by the system,” said Waltermire this week after spending the day fixing a tractor on his Delta County farm. “Most definitely this is a step backward. Really it’s even worse. We have lived with coal for 100 years and coal has proven to be compatible with the agriculture we practice here. But gas and the oil development is a different beast. It is a much more substantial threat to our economy, with increased traffic and the potential for spills. That could destroy our reputation that we have built for our valley. It could change everything.”
Earlier this month the agency released the final plan for managing the vast swath of the Western Slope, which is an update to the region’s 1989 RMP. Many of the wildlife, habitat and environment-focused objections to the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” push to loosen regulations around domestic energy production — including those from Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, county commissioners, conservation groups and local residents — were dismissed.
As Colorado’s local BLM officials honed the preferred alternative — Alternative D — for the RMP last fall, the agency’s higher-ups crafted a new alternative. Alternative E identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues, and promoted access and a reduced regulatory burden alongside economic development as top priorities.
The BLM said the RMP would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity into the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next 20 years.
The Alternative E plan:
Increased coal available for leasing by 189%, to 371,250 acres from 144,790 acres.
Added 13,020 acres to the region’s 840,440 acres open for mineral development.
Removed more than 30,000 [acres] from development in areas previously identified for leasing.
Cut acres the BLM could sell from 9,850 to 1,930.
Added six special recreation management areas and three extensive recreation management areas, setting aside 186,920 acres for recreation management.
The final draft of the proposed RMP conflicted with new state laws protecting wildlife, recreation access and improving air quality, so Polis last year sent a letter to the BLM’s Colorado director expressing his concerns as part of a consistency review that makes sure the agency’s plan aligned with state policies.
Specifically the state wanted the agency to limit the density of development — including oil and gas facilities — to one structure for every square mile to help protect wildlife corridors. It also asked the agency to develop a comprehensive plan to protect and conserve the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat. Polis noted that the BLM plan allowed an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas development that conflicted with last year’s House Bill 1261, which aims to cut those emissions by 90%. The BLM plan also conflicted with Senate Bill 181, which allows the state to consider public health and the environment when regulating oil and gas development.
The BLM’s final plan released this month did not include the state’s push for limiting the density of development or creating a region-wide wildlife and sage grouse conservation plan. But it did agree to protect 33,000 acres of riparian habitat from surface development and initiate a future statewide planning effort to study density on BLM land. The agency also agreed to coordinate with the state over potential development in sage grouse habitat.
“Our issue is that we worked on the preferred alternative, Alternative D and we sent that to Washington for approval. Alternative E was never contemplated and that’s what came back from D.C. We were not able to weigh in on that option,” said Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, who joined Polis in the only process available for commenting on the final proposal: a protest letter to the BLM over its proposed RMP.
Gibbs said he was happy the agency heard a portion of the state’s protests and the final decision included plans to work more closely with the state on a border-to-border plan for limiting development density…
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility group uncovered a BLM document summarizing an October 2018 meeting where the agency’s Washington D.C. leaders told Uncompahgre Field Office managers that their preferred alternative “misses the mark” and was “not in line with the administration’s direction to decrease the regulatory burden and increase access.”
San Miguel County, for example, asked the BLM to expand areas of critical concerns in the San Miguel River watershed and remove those riparian areas from mineral leasing. The final plan reduced the size of those areas and kept them open for mineral leasing. Montrose County asked for some areas inside Camelback, Dry Creek and Roc Creek to be managed for wilderness protection, but the final plan did not set aside any land in the county for wilderness protection.
San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said that while the plan is slightly improved by the promise to work with Parks and Wildlife on a density-limiting plan, “it still feels like the BLM is not a willing partner in the management of our land.”
This month he blasted the plan as “completely inadequate.”
“You see what happened today?” he said this week, after the price of a barrel of oil collapsed to below $0 for the first time as a stalled nation sits at home and oil stockpiles swell.
“That is really good news. I bet they are not going to look to develop new rigs for 10 years now,” Schwartz said. “We seem to have bought ourselves some time. Gas and oil are looking to survive right now. And if they look to fracking in our valley, they know we will fight them tooth and nail every step of the way. They don’t want that.
“And really, who knows what will happen in the future,” he said. “We will have a new administration in a year or four years and this whole thing could change. Either way, we are coming out the end of this solid and safe.”
FromThe High Country News [April 14, 2020] (Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss):
Since time immemorial, the Havasupai have lived inside the natural wonder. We face yet another peril.
If you were one of the 6.3 million people who visited Grand Canyon National Park last year, chances are you stood on the rim and noticed a green ribbon of trees thousands of feet below you. The National Park Service calls it “Indian Garden.” And it was truly a garden, once: Our Havasupai relatives, the Tilousi family, lived and gardened there a century ago, until the National Park Service kicked them out. The Bright Angel Trail hikers use to reach this area today is an old Havasupai trail. When the Fred Harvey Company set up its hospitality industry on the South Rim near the turn of the 20th century, they hired Havasupai and created a work camp for them called Supai Camp.
Last year, the park celebrated its centennial. There were special events, but I doubt you heard anything about us, the Havasupai — the Guardians of the Grand Canyon. You may not even know about Canyon Mine, the proposed uranium mine that threatens Havasu Creek, the entire water supply of the Havasupai Reservation. Historical erasure has made us invisible. Now, our very survival is at stake, and we are asking for your help.
Inside what you call Grand Canyon National Park, the Havasupai have lived since time immemorial. We still live here. Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe Railway reached the Grand Canyon in 1901, and thousands of tourists came in their wake. Billy Burro was the last Havasupai to live in Indian Garden, a place that had been enjoyed by our people for centuries. But industry began to dictate where Indians could and couldn’t be, and public areas were forbidden because it was considered bad for business. Discrimination was rampant. At the Grand Canyon, we Havasupais were no longer welcome on our own land, because now it was reserved for tourists. Eventually, it was taken away altogether. Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919, and Billy, together with all Havasupais, were kicked out of Indian Garden. The people were relocated to the Indian work camp, with little option but to work for the railway. These were heartbreaking times for us, as our home became a tourist attraction. We had to endure constant racism; people like Billy were given the last name “Burro,” for example, as if we were no more than pack animals.
It’s time Grand Canyon officials took some responsibility and helped educate visitors about our history, land and water. The South Rim was taken by the federal government to create Grand Canyon National Park, and Havasupai voices were ignored when we pleaded for our homeland. In the early 1930s, the Park Service burned Supai Camp to the ground, and our people, including elders and children, were loaded into covered wagons in the snow, taken to the canyon’s rim and forced to walk down a grueling 17-mile trail to Supai Village. That is where the Havasupai Reservation was created in 1880. Before that, however, Supai Village was used as our summer home. Our longtime winter home had always been the newly designated park, but now we had lost it forever. In the 1970s, the park hired a new superintendent, who shut off our food, septic and water supply. Fortunately, we already relied on the springs in the canyon, and so we weathered the assault.
Now we have a new threat to deal with. Fifteen miles from the park boundary is a uranium mine that threatens the entire water supply for the 426 permanent residents of the Havasupai Reservation. The mine shaft at Canyon Mine is 1,470 feet below the surface, and if it leaks, it will contaminate the Redwall-Muav aquifer, which discharges into Havasu Creek — our only source of water. We have been fighting uranium mining for 40 years, but we cannot do it alone, especially if we continue to be erased.
Havasuw’ Baaja means the people of the blue-green waters. Those waters are the waters of Havasu Creek, and we are the original Guardians of the Grand Canyon. Thousands of more recent arrivals have since settled this land, built homes and raised families on our ancestral lands, and we know they love the canyon, too. Like us, they’ve come to know the names of the mountains, trails and waters in the region. The Grand Canyon has called them here, to make their lives in this incredible corner of the world. We are not so different after all.
And now it’s time for them — and for everyone who loves the Grand Canyon — to stand with us, to get to know who we are, and to work with us toward a just and shared vision for the next 100 years of this national park. We want the park to recognize our histories and to share that story permanently at the visitor center — to find a place for us in all their exhibits and in permanent signage throughout the park. Let us rechristen the landscape here, changing the names of places, trails and springs back to the Indigenous names, the ones the tribes are comfortable sharing with the public. All park rangers, personnel, outfitters and river runners should receive cultural sensitivity training, so they can teach visitors about the true history of the land.
Congress should pass S.3127 – the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act. This law will protect the 1 million acres of public land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from the catastrophic impacts of uranium mining; it will also protect our homes in Supai Village.
Often, we gather at Red Butte, one of our sacred sites, to protest the project. There, we educate people about the many efforts to shut down the Canyon Mine, which is just three miles away. We invite you to join us here.
You are invited to stand strong with us and help us protect this landscape we all love, which is also the place we call home — the Grand Canyon. We have been trying to do this for many years, and we will continue to do for all generations to come. Please join us.
Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss is a Havasupai tribal councilwoman. Email High Country News at email@example.com.
The electric cooperative serving the cities of Delta and Montrose has agreed to a $136.5 million fee to exit the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association – showing that breaking up is not only hard to do, but expensive.
The Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) has since 2016 been sparring over renewable energy with Tri-State, a wholesale power production company serving 43 member electric cooperatives in Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Tri-State and DMEA reached an agreement in principle in July 2019, just days before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission was set to begin proceedings to set an exit fee for the cooperative.
Under the exit agreement, which would have DMEA leave Tri-State on June 30, the cooperative would pay a $62.5 million exit fee, $26 million for local Tri-State infrastructure and forgo the $48 million in equity the cooperative held as a member of Tri-State.
The DMEA-Tri-State agreement still must be submitted for final approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is now the regulator for Tri-State.
A number of Tri-State cooperatives have chafed under the association’s long-term contracts that limit local generation to 5% of demand, as they hoped to add more local renewable generation. DMEA’s contract ran to 2040. Tri-State was also criticized for still being heavily dependent on coal-fired generation.
The $88.5 million will be paid by DMEA or a third party, according to Tri-State. When the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, in Taos, New Mexico, left Tri-State in 2016, its new electric wholesaler, Guzman Energy paid the $37 million exit fee, which it is recouping in the first few years of its contract with the co-op.
DMEA has about 28,000 members and Kit Carson has 29,000, but DMEA has more commercial and industrial members and about twice the electricity demand as Kit Carson, with an annual peak of 95 to 100 megawatts, according to Virginia Harman, a DMEA spokeswoman.
DMEA is in the final steps of completing a 12-year wholesale power purchase agreement with Guzman Energy, Harman said, adding that there would be no further comment until the agreement is completed…
Tri-State has also established a procedure for setting exit prices as several other members have asked for estimates, the association said. FERC must approve the methodology for future exit fees
“This will be the methodology going forward,” Boughey said. “Kit Carson and DMEA were one-offs.”
Here’s the release from Columbia University (Kevin Krajik):
With the western United States and northern Mexico suffering an ever-lengthening string of dry years starting in 2000, scientists have been warning for some time that climate change may be pushing the region toward an extreme long-term drought worse than any in recorded history. A new study says the time has arrived: a megadrought as bad or worse than anything even from known prehistory is very likely in progress, and warming climate is playing a key role. The study, based on modern weather observations, 1,200 years of tree-ring data and dozens of climate models, appears this week in the leading journal Science.
“Earlier studies were largely model projections of the future,” said lead author Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We’re no longer looking at projections, but at where we are now. We now have enough observations of current drought and tree-ring records of past drought to say that we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”
Reliable modern observations date only to about 1900, but tree rings have allowed scientists to infer yearly soil moisture for centuries before humans began influencing climate. Among other things, previous research has tied catastrophic naturally driven droughts recorded in tree rings to upheavals among indigenous Medieval-era civilizations in the Southwest. The new study is the most up-to-date and comprehensive long-term analysis. It covers an area stretching across nine U.S. states from Oregon and Montana down through California and New Mexico, and part of northern Mexico.
Using rings from many thousands of trees, the researchers charted dozens of droughts across the region, starting in 800 AD. Four stand out as so-called megadroughts, with extreme aridity lasting decades: the late 800s, mid-1100s, the 1200s, and the late 1500s. After 1600, there were other droughts, but none on this scale.
The team then compared the ancient megadroughts to soil moisture records calculated from observed weather in the 19 years from 2000 to 2018. Their conclusion: as measured against the worst 19-year increments within the previous episodes, the current drought is already outdoing the three earliest ones. The fourth, which spanned 1575 to 1603, may have been the worst of all — but the difference is slight enough to be within the range of uncertainty. Furthermore, the current drought is affecting wider areas more consistently than any of the earlier ones — a fingerprint of global warming, say the researchers. All of the ancient droughts lasted longer than 19 years — the one that started in the 1200s ran nearly a century — but all began on a similar path to to what is showing up now, they say.
Nature drove the ancient droughts, and still plays a strong role today. A study last year led by Lamont’s Nathan Steiger showed that among other things, unusually cool periodic conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean (commonly called La Niña) during the previous megadroughts pushed storm tracks further north, and starved the region of precipitation. Such conditions, and possibly other natural factors, appear to have also cut precipitation in recent years. However, with global warming proceeding, the authors say that average temperatures since 2000 have been pushed 1.2 degrees C (2.2 F) above what they would have been otherwise. Because hotter air tends to hold more moisture, that moisture is being pulled from the ground. This has intensified drying of soils already starved of precipitation.
Nature drove the ancient droughts, and still plays a strong role today. A study last year led by Lamont’s Nathan Steiger showed that among other things, unusually cool periodic conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean (commonly called La Niña) during the previous megadroughts pushed storm tracks further north, and starved the region of precipitation. Such conditions, and possibly other natural factors, appear to have also cut precipitation in recent years. However, with global warming proceeding, the authors say that average temperatures since 2000 have been pushed 1.2 degrees C (2.2 F) above what they would have been otherwise. Because hotter air tends to hold more moisture, that moisture is being pulled from the ground. This has intensified drying of soils already starved of precipitation.
All told, the researchers say that rising temperatures are responsible for about half the pace and severity of the current drought. If this overall warming were subtracted from the equation, the current drought would rank as the 11th worst detected — bad, but nowhere near what it has developed into.
“It doesn’t matter if this is exactly the worst drought ever,” said coauthor Benjamin Cook, who is affiliated with Lamont and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “What matters is that it has been made much worse than it would have been because of climate change.” Since temperatures are projected to keep rising, it is likely the drought will continue for the foreseeable future; or fade briefly only to return, say the researchers.
“Because the background is getting warmer, the dice are increasingly loaded toward longer and more severe droughts,” said Williams. “We may get lucky, and natural variability will bring more precipitation for a while. But going forward, we’ll need more and more good luck to break out of drought, and less and less bad luck to go back into drought.” Williams said it is conceivable the region could stay arid for centuries. “That’s not my prediction right now, but it’s possible,” he said.
Lamont climatologist Richard Seager was one of the first to predict, in a 2007 paper, that climate change might eventually push the region into a more arid climate during the 21st century; he speculated at the time that the process might already be underway. By 2015, when 11 of the past 14 years had seen drought, Benjamin Cook led a followup study projecting that warming climate would cause the catastrophic natural droughts of prehistory to be repeated by the latter 21st century. A 2016 study coauthored by several Lamont scientist reinforced those findings. Now, says Cook, it looks like they may have underestimated. “It’s already happening,” he said.
The effects are palpable. The mighty reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell along the Colorado River, which supply agriculture around the region, have shrunk dramatically. Insect outbreaks are ravaging dried-out forests. Wildfires in California and across wider areas of the U.S. West are growing in area. While 2019 was a relatively wet year, leading to hope that things might be easing up, early indications show that 2020 is already on a track for resumed aridity.
“There is no reason to believe that the sort of natural variability documented in the paleoclimatic record will not continue into the future, but the difference is that droughts will occur under warmer temperatures,” said Connie Woodhouse, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who was not involved in the study. “These warmer conditions will exacerbate droughts, making them more severe, longer, and more widespread than they would have been otherwise.”
Angeline Pendergrass, a staff scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that she thinks it is too early to say whether the region is at the cusp of a true megadrought, because the study confirms that natural weather swings are still playing a strong role. That said, “even though natural variability will always play a large role in drought, climate change makes it worse,” she said.
Tucked into the researchers’ data: the 20th century was the wettest century in the entire 1200-year record. It was during that time that population boomed, and that has continued. “The 20th century gave us an overly optimistic view of how much water is potentially available,” said Cook. “It goes to show that studies like this are not just about ancient history. They’re about problems that are already here.”
The study was also coauthored by Edward Cook, Jason Smerdon, Kasey Bolles and Seung Baek, all of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; John Abatzaglou of the University of Idaho; and Andrew Badger and Ben Livneh of the University of Colorado Boulder.
Warmer temperatures and shifting storm tracks are drying up vast stretches of land in North and South America.
The American West is well on its way into one of the worst megadroughts on record, a new study warns, a dry period that could last for centuries and spread from Oregon and Montana, through the Four Corners and into West Texas and northern Mexico.
Several other megadroughts, generally defined as dry periods that last 20 years or more, have been documented in the West going back to about 800 A.D. In the study, the researchers, using an extensive tree-ring history, compared recent climate data with conditions during the historic megadroughts.
They found that in this century, global warming is tipping the climate scale toward an unwelcome rerun, with dry conditions persisting far longer than at any other time since Europeans colonized and developed the region. The study was published online Thursday and appears in the April 17 issue of the journal Science.
Human-caused global warming is responsible for about half the severity of the emerging megadrought in western North America, said Jason Smerdon, a Columbia University climate researcher and a co-author of the new research.
“What we’ve identified as the culprit is the increased drying from the warming. The reality is that the drying from global warming is going to continue,” he said. “We’re on a trajectory in keeping with the worst megadroughts of the past millennia.”
The ancient droughts in the West were caused by natural climate cycles that shifted the path of snow and rainstorms. But human-caused global warming is responsible for about 47 percent of the severity of the 21st century drought by sucking moisture out of the soil and plants, the study found.
The regional drought caused by global warming is plain to see throughout the West in the United States. River flows are dwindling, reservoirs holding years worth of water supplies for cities and farms have emptied faster than a bathtub through an open drain, bugs and fires have destroyed millions of acres of forests, and dangerous dust storms are on the rise.
A similar scenario is unfolding in South America, especially in central Chile, a region with a climate similar to that in western North America. Parts of the Andes Mountains and foothills down to the coast have been parched by an unprecedented 10-year dry spell that has cut some river flows by up to 80 percent.
In both areas, research shows, global warming could make the droughts worse than any in at least several thousand years, drying up the ground and shifting regional weather patterns toward drier conditions. This is bad news for modern civilizations that have developed in the last 500 years, during which they enjoyed an unusually stable and wet climate. And assumptions about water availability based on that era are not realistic, said climate scientist Edward Cook, another co-author on the study who is also with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
The impacts of a long-lasting drought in the West could also affect adjacent regions. A 2019 study showed that dry conditions in upwind areas may be intensifying agricultural droughts. With west winds prevailing across North America, hot and dry conditions in the Southwest could reduce the amount of atmospheric moisture available to produce rainfall farther east, in Oklahoma and Texas, for example. The study found that such drought linkages accounted for 62 percent of the precipitation deficit during the 2012 Midwest drought…
In North and in South America, researchers have identified natural climate cycles as key drivers of historic megadroughts. The most important are a combination of a warm North Atlantic Ocean and cooler-than average conditions in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, as well as decreased solar and volcanic activity.
“Arid periods over the last several millennia have dwarfed anything we’ve seen so far,” Smerdon said. And when the soil-drying effect of human-caused warming is added into the climate equation, the outlook is not good. Previous studies by Columbia University researchers predicted that the 21st century has a 90 percent chance of seeing a drought that lasts 25 years or longer.
He said that prospect will require people to rethink how to manage resources.
“On a regional level, this means being more proactive about water management,” Smerdon said. “There are things we can do if you recognize that the West will probably be much drier. You can start thinking about transitioning to less water intensive crops, or about beef production, which is incredibly water intensive.”
Other features “that go part and parcel with these droughts are things like forest fires and beetle infestations,” he added, noting that there were also impacts to winter recreation and tourism, with less snow for skiing and water for rafting.
Smerdon said he’s also concerned that the drought impacts are being underestimated because of an over-reliance on groundwater as a temporary buffer to the decline of river flows, and the drop of reservoir water levels. If you look at simultaneous droughts in North and South America, he said, you could also anticipate potential impacts to global food supply networks, as both regions are important for agricultural production.
The only real long-term solution is to halt greenhouse gas pollution, he said.
FromThe Washington Post (Andrew Freedman and Darryl Fears):
A vast region of the western United States, extending from California, Arizona and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought observed in the past 1,200 years, a study shows. The finding means the phenomenon is no longer a threat for millions to worry about in the future, but is already here.
The megadrought has emerged while thirsty, expanding cities are on a collision course with the water demands of farmers and with environmental interests, posing nightmare scenarios for water managers in fast-growing states.
A megadrought is broadly defined as a severe drought that occurs across a broad region for a long duration, typically multiple decades.
Unlike historical megadroughts triggered by natural climate cycles, emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities have contributed to the current one, the study finds. Warming temperatures and increasing evaporation, along with earlier spring snowmelt, have pushed the Southwest into its second-worst drought in more than a millennium of observations.
The study, published in the journal Science on Thursday, compares modern soil moisture data with historical records gleaned from tree rings, and finds that when compared with all droughts seen since the year 800 across western North America, the 19-year drought that began in 2000 and continued through 2018 (this drought is still ongoing, though the study’s data is analyzed through 2018) was worse than almost all other megadroughts in this region.
The researchers, who painstakingly reconstructed soil moisture records from 1,586 tree-ring chronologies to determine drought severity, found only one megadrought that occurred in the late 1500s was more intense.
Historical megadroughts, spanning vast regions and multiple decades, were triggered by natural fluctuations in tropical ocean conditions, such as La Niña, the cyclic cooling of waters in the tropical Pacific.
“The megadrought era seems to be reemerging, but for a different reason than the [past] megadroughts,” said Park Williams, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.
Although many areas in the West had a productive wet season in 2019 and some this year, “you can’t go anywhere in the West without having suffered drought on a millennial scale,” Williams said, noting that megadroughts contain relatively wet periods interspersed between parched years.
“I think the important lesson that comes out of this is that climate change is not a future problem,” said Benjamin I. Cook, a NASA climate scientist and co-author of the study. “Climate change is a problem today. The more we look, the more we find this event was worse because of climate change.”
A severe drought that has gripped the American Southwest since 2000 is as bad as or worse than long-lasting droughts in the region over the past 1,200 years, and climate change has helped make it that way, scientists said Thursday.
The researchers described the current drought, which has helped intensify wildfire seasons and threatened water supplies for people and agriculture, as an “emerging megadrought.” Although 2019 was a relatively wet year, and natural climate variability could bring good luck in the form of more wet years that would end the drought, global warming increases the odds that it will continue.
“We know that this drought has been encouraged by the global warming process,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, and lead author of a study published Thursday in Science. “As we go forward in time it’s going to take more and more good luck to pull us out of this.”
While the term megadrought has no strict definition, it is generally considered to be a severe dry period persisting for several decades or longer. Many climate researchers and hydrologists have long thought that a Southwestern megadrought was highly likely. A 2016 study put the probability of one occurring this century at 70 percent or higher…
“Ancient megadroughts have always been seen by water managers as worst-case scenarios,” Dr. Williams said, “and we just have to hope that there’s some kind of protection measure in the climate system that’s not going to allow one of those to repeat itself. And what we’re seeing is that we’re actually right on track for one.”
since the beginning of the 20th century, when large-scale emissions of heat-trapping gases began, warming has played a role as well. Using 31 computer climate models, the researchers estimated that climate change contributed nearly half to the severity of the current drought.
Put another way, without global warming the current drought would be only of moderate severity rather than one of the worst.
While the natural variability of La Niña conditions continues, Dr. Williams said, “all of that is being superimposed on what appears to be a pretty strong long-term drying trend.”
The current drought has followed a pattern that is similar to the ancient ones, he said. Rather than one or two extremely dry years that would suddenly throw the region into drought, dry conditions have been nearly continuous and the drought has built up over time…
Brad Udall, a water and climate research at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study, said that tying the current drought to a longer-term context “fits what a lot of people have been thinking.”
Dr. Udall said the researchers’ finding that climate change accounted for about half of the drought’s severity was strongly supported by his and others’ recent studies of the shrinking flow of the Colorado River, which attribute about half of the decline to global warming.
“I love the focus on soil moisture,” Dr. Udall said of the new study. “People underappreciate how important soil moisture is.”
Soils have a buffering effect that can allow problems of water scarcity to persist even after a relatively wet year, because soils that are dry from years of drought soak up more water that would normally run into rivers and streams.
The wetter weather in 2019, for example, resulted in a deep mountain snowpack across much of the West. “But it’s increasingly clear we didn’t get the runoff we had expected,” Dr. Udall said.
The latest ancient megadrought the researchers found was the long one in the 16th century. That finding reinforces the widely held idea that conditions were relatively wetter in the Southwest for centuries before the current drought.
The Trump administration on Thursday gutted an Obama-era rule that compelled the country’s coal plants to cut back emissions of mercury and other human health hazards, a move designed to limit future regulation of air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.
Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler said the rollback was reversing what he depicted as regulatory overreach by the Obama administration. “We have put in place an honest accounting method that balances” the cost to utilities with public safety, he said.
Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist whose previous clients have gotten many of the regulatory rollbacks they sought from the Trump administration.
Environmental and public health groups and Democratic lawmakers faulted the administration for pressing forward with a series of rollbacks easing pollution rules for industry — in the final six months of President Donald Trump’s current term — while the coronavirus pandemic rivets the world’s attention.
With rollbacks on air pollution protections, the “EPA is all but ensuring that higher levels of harmful air pollution will make it harder for people to recover in the long run” from the disease caused by the coronavirus, given the lasting harm the illness does to victims hearts and lungs, said Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The EPA move leaves in place standards for emissions of mercury, which damages the developing brains of children and has has been linked to a series of other ailments. But the changes greatly reduce the health benefits that regulators can consider in crafting futures rules for power plant emissions. That undermines the 2011 mercury rule and limits regulators’ ability to tackle the range of soot, heavy metals, toxic gases and other hazards from fossil fuel power plants.
The Trump administration contends the mercury cleanup was not “appropriate and necessary,” a legal benchmark under the country’s landmark Clean Air Act.
The Obama rule led to what electric utilities say was an $18 billion cleanup of mercury and other toxins from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. EPA staffers’ own analysis said the rule curbed mercury’s devastating neurological damage to children and prevented thousands of premature deaths annually, among other public health benefits.
Controversy over pollutants from coal-fired power plants moved to a higher level Thursday after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had revised a cost benefit analysis over the impacts of mercury emissions regulations imposed during the Obama era.
The federal agency said the restrictions on mercury emissions through technology controls were not justified, backing a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that directed the agency to complete another review.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, in a teleconference, said the 2012 Obama-era rule remains in place and no additional mercury emissions will happen due to the revised analysis.
He added that critics of the Thursday announcement are either purposefully misreading the revisions or don’t understand…
In a major victory for the energy industry, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against federal regulators’ attempts to curb mercury emissions from power plants in 2015, saying the government wrongly failed to take cost into consideration.
The 5-4 decision overturned the landmark rule, which was the first attempt by the EPA to curb mercury and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants.
Michigan’s lawsuit against the regulation was joined by 21 other GOP-led states, including Utah, in a fight to get it tossed.
The new “supplemental cost finding” announced by the federal agency found compliance costs for mercury emissions at power plants ranging from $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually due to the rule and the benefits in terms of reduction in costs such as health care to be around $6 million.
Wheeler added that the Obama administration’s approach was that any new regulation could be justified, regardless of the cost…
Moms Clean Air Force issued a statement expressing its outrage over the move.
“While America suffers devastating public health impacts of the coronavirus outbreak — a lethal respiratory pandemic — Andrew Wheeler and the Trump administration continue their cynical campaign to protect industrial polluters and undermine lifesaving pollution protections,” said co-founder Dominique Browning.
The organization added that the EPA is gambling with the health of children by giving any sort of nod to coal-fired power plants.
Wheeler dismissed any criticism, again reiterating the revision released Thursday was the result of a court-directed action to correct flaws of a previous administration’s conclusions over costs and benefits.
The coronavirus is scrambling Virginia’s budget and economy, but it didn’t prevent Gov. Ralph Northam (D) from signing legislation that makes it the first Southern state with a goal of going carbon-free by 2045.
Over the weekend, Northam authorized the omnibus Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state’s biggest utility, Dominion Energy, switch to renewable energy by 2045. Appalachian Power, which serves far southwest Virginia, must go carbon-free by 2050.
Almost all the state’s coal plants will have to shut down by the end of 2024 under the new law. Virginia is the first state in the old Confederacy to embrace such clean-energy targets.
Under a separate measure, Virginia also becomes the most Southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a carbon cap-and-trade market among states in the Northeast.
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From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):
When Water Justice is Absent, Communities Speak Up
Two years ago, a company that analyzes property data crunched the numbers on more than 8,600 zip codes in the United States and found that America’s most polluted neighborhood was in northeast Denver. The study, from ATTOM Data Solutions, shows that Denver’s 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, topped its “environmental hazard index.” As of 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory reported that 22 facilities were still releasing toxic chemicals in 80216, chemicals such as nickel, lead, methanol, creosote and more.
“The neighborhood is parked between gas refineries, the former airport, and then, also, what was at one time an Army base making mustard gas,” says University of Denver law professor Tom Romero, II, who has spent his career dissecting the factors behind environmental injustices in Colorado. There are two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in 80216, plus the knot of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 severs the neighborhood from the rest of Denver and increases pollution from highway traffic. The area is also home to a predominantly low-income, Hispanic and Latinx community, says Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilwoman for northeast Denver’s District 9.
Last year, CdeBaca became the first person from the neighborhoods to represent on the Denver City Council, ever. She points to an opposition campaign to the Central 70 Project as the beginning of the neighborhood rallying to achieve representation against environmental inequities.
The Central 70 Project broke ground in 2018 to widen the highway through Denver. It will demolish the viaduct that carries I-70 over Elyria-Swansea, replacing it with a below-grade highway. Residents had a list of worries: losing their homes to eminent domain, living even closer to the highway, and unearthing a Superfund site, which they feared would re-expose harmful heavy metals and increase health risks, CdeBaca says.
Their opposition campaign didn’t stop the highway work, but the community came together and won in one sense—the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study, collecting data to determine whether toxins in the air, soil and water are making residents sick. They also gained a louder voice. “Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism,” says CdeBaca. “Now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted.” She points to the importance of local voice and representation in all issues, particularly for communities that want to bring about environmental justice. “There is nothing that I support more than activating people power,” CdeBaca says.
With water affordability, access and quality challenges—all of which can translate into health impacts—the role of water in Colorado isn’t always one of fostering healthy communities, yet it could and should be. What contributes to these less-than-whole communities? And what does it take to recognize the issues and how they evolved, address power imbalances, engage the community, and restore equity where it’s been missing?
What is Environmental Justice?
Environmental injustices in Colorado, or anywhere, can span cities and suburbs, sovereign tribal lands, and rural communities. They have their roots in narratives of immigration, development and industry, and political power dynamics, further influenced by evolving legal and regulatory frameworks.
In 1990, EPA Administrator William Reilly created an Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess evidence that “racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.” The agency, which went on to establish an Environmental Equity office in 1992, later changing its name to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994, defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” It has since expanded to offer a range of programs that provide services from grant funding to technical assistance and training. It also runs a National Environmental Justice Hotline.
Another early definition of environmental justice came from University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant, who said it refers to places “where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential.”
Scholars add additional layers to the term—it’s not just about identifying who is or isn’t harmed but includes some form of restitution, says Kelsea MacIlroy, an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in the sociology department at Colorado State University.
“There are a lot of different ways to talk about justice that aren’t just about who and how but also about a long-term social justice component,” MacIlroy says. “Does the community actually have an authentic seat at the table in addressing the ills?”
80216 may feel it all. “Denver was segregated, and that segregation manifested itself in a variety of ways in terms of water,” Romero says. “It meant that Denver’s communities of color, particularly African Americans and Mexican Americans, were living in close proximity to the areas with heavy industry, where the affordable housing is.” That’s a pattern and practice, he says, that was established in the 20th century and continues today. Many environmental justice cases have similar roots, as repeated practices that ultimately create winners and losers.
When Government Fails
Americans watched one of the most high-profile environmental justice cases unfold in Flint, Michigan, in 2015 and 2016 when corroded lead pipes poisoned the population.
To save money, in April 2014, the city switched its drinking water source and began supplying residents with Flint River water that wasn’t treated under federal anti-corrosion rules. The population was predominantly black, and more than 40 percent of residents were below the poverty threshold. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no level of lead exposure is safe but higher lead exposure leads to more health challenges including anemia, kidney and brain damage, heart disease, decreased IQ and more. In children, the impacts are especially toxic.
Residents began noticing a rusty tint to their tap water in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until October 2015 that the governor ordered Flint’s water source switched. By then, though the new water was safe, the plumbing wasn’t—corroded pipes continued to leach lead into drinking water. Bottled water and free faucet filters to remove lead at the point of use were distributed.
More than five years after the crisis in Flint began, the city and its residents are still recovering. The city’s FAST Start program is removing and replacing lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, but it’s a big, expensive job. FAST Start has been funded with $25 million from the State of Michigan and $100 million allocated by Congress through the Federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act of 2016. As of December 2019, less than 40 percent of the city’s pipes had been replaced, with many residents still relying on faucet filters or bottled water.
Fifteen state and local officials were charged with various crimes, including involuntary manslaughter—some took plea deals and most cases were dropped. Residents now mistrust their water and water providers. That mistrust has flooded the nation, with many more communities now coping with elevated lead levels and lead pipe replacement.
According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released in 2016, breakdowns in protocol, dismissal of problems, and failure to protect people occurred at nearly every level of government. Not only were customers supplied with unsafe drinking water, government officials were slow to acknowledge the problems and rectify the issue by providing safe water. According to the 2016 report, the Flint water crisis is a “story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental justice.” Had there been local control of resources and decisions, they write, the problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.
Coping with Forever Chemicals
Flint’s toxic water is not unlike the water quality issues discovered in 2016 in the Colorado towns of Fountain and Security-Widefield. That’s when water providers and residents learned that PFAS chemicals, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were detected at levels above EPA’s new 2016 health advisory levels. The source of the chemicals: firefighting foam used for decades to extinguish training fuel fires at the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force now uses a replacement foam at the base, and in 2019, the Colorado Legislature enacted restrictions and bans on PFAS foam, but the damage has been done. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate and remain in the environment for a long time, with half lives (the amount of time it takes the chemical to decrease to half its original value) in humans of two to eight years, depending on the chemical. They have been linked to cancers, liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, and other ailments.
“We ended up having 16 family members that lived within that area that had cancer, and five of them died of kidney cancer,” said Mark Favors, during a public event on PFAS at Colorado School of Mines in January 2020. Favors is a former resident of Security, a U.S. Army veteran, a PFAS activist, and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. “A lot of [my family] are military veterans. One of my cousins, while he was doing two combat tours in Iraq, the Air Force was contaminating their drinking water. That’s the crazy part. How they’ve admitted it and it’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” Favors says.
These southern El Paso County towns aren’t home to what are often considered disadvantaged populations—the poverty rate is between 8 and 9 percent, slightly less than the statewide average; about 60 percent of residents are white, and about 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. However, census numbers don’t represent military personnel who temporarily reside in the area. According to El Paso County’s Health Indicators report, published in 2012, four military bases in the county employ 40,500 military personnel and about 21,000 contract personnel.
When EPA tightened its health advisory levels in 2016, they were 10 times more restrictive than what the agency had previously advised, and water providers realized they had a problem. They acted quickly to provide residents with free bottled water and water filling stations while they suspended use of the aquifer, then worked to broker deals to purchase clean water from other municipalities. Some of those deals were only temporary. Since June 2018, the City of Fountain has worked to get back on its groundwater supply, treating the groundwater with granular activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Now it is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a full, permanent groundwater treatment plant. The story in Security is similar—the Security Water and Sanitation District has been importing water, primarily from Pueblo Reservoir, to meet the needs of its residents since 2016, which involved building new pipelines and purchasing extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities—an added cost. Security avoided raising water rates for a time, paying those costs out of its cash reserves. By 2018, residents had to absorb a 15 percent rate increase, with another 9.5 percent increase in 2019.
The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a treatment facility in Security, too, which should be complete by the end of 2020. Once the plant is finished, Security will switch back to a combination of groundwater and surface water, and rates should stabilize once the costs of those pipelines are recovered, says Roy Heald, general manager at Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
Who pays to protect the health of those who rely on this water? “What responsibility did [the Air Force] have in rectifying this? What about the local sanitation districts? They have to deal with this. It’s not their fault but they’re tasked with giving clean water,” says MacIlroy at Colorado State University.
“The Air Force really has stepped up,” Heald says. But they may have to step up further—in 2019, the Security Water and Sanitation Districts and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, another affected entity, sued the Air Force to recoup the costs of purchasing and piping in clean water. Their lawsuit cites negligence for disposal of chemicals, remediation of contamination, and breaching a responsibility to prevent dangerous conditions on the defendant’s property. Heald wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but says, “As long as [cash] reserves are at an adequate level, if we received a windfall there would be no place else for it to go besides back to our customers.” Those recouped costs would likely take the form of lower or stabilized rates.
Residents are also pushing for justice through a class-action lawsuit brought by the Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Lawfirm, which has teamed up with a personal injury law firm in New York to file against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and other manufacturers of the firefighting foam.
“There’s going to have to be some sort of accountability and justice for these people who unknowingly, for years, drank colorless, odorless high amounts of PFAS,” says Favors. He calls for better oversight and demands that polluters are held accountable.
As for coping with PFAS-related health challenges, there are still a lot of unknowns, but El Paso County was selected to participate in two national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to better assess the dangers of human exposure to PFAS, and to evaluate exposure pathways.
Locally, the study and lawsuits might help recoup some financial damages—but PFAS-related water contamination isn’t isolated to these Colorado communities. In July 2019, the Environmental Working Group mapped at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states. Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoping to implement a national PFAS drinking water standard, estimate the number is even higher: 1,400 communities suffer from PFAS contamination. A U.S. Senate version of a PFAS-regulating bill has yet to be introduced. But in February, EPA released a draft proposal to consider regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the thousands of PFAS.
Justice through Water Rights
Environmental justice isn’t exclusively an urban issue. Injustices involving pollution, public health, access, affordability and water can be wrought anyplace—including rural and suburban areas. For rural communities, the issue comes to a head when people, organizations or entities in power seek more water for their needs at the cost of others.
In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, acequia communities fought for years to protect their water rights and way of life. Acequias are an equity-based irrigation system introduced by the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of southern Colorado. “What it means is that the entire community is only benefitted when all resources are shared,” says Judy Lopez, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. There, Lopez works with landowners to preserve wildlife habitat, forests, culturally significant lands, and ag lands—including those served by acequias.
The Town of San Luis, the heart of Colorado’s acequia community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the state. It’s in Costilla County, where more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx—more than any other county in Colorado—and 25 percent of the population live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. But the people there are long-time landowners, never separated from the land their ancestors settled, four to seven generations back, Lopez says. They have the state’s original water rights to match, including Colorado’s oldest continuously operated water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, an acequia established in 1852.
Prior to statehood, the territorial government recognized acequia water rights. But when the Colorado Constitution established the right of prior appropriation, the priority scheme of “first in time, first in right” became the law, challenging communal rights.
“It was very difficult for [acequias] to go to water court and say, ‘This guy is taking my water,’” Lopez says. “It was very difficult to quantify the use and who was using it.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Colorado Legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. The law was developed by Rep. Ed Vigil with the help of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, an entity that represents more than 73 acequias and 300 families who depend on them. Amended in 2013, the law solidifies the rights of acequia users. According to the Colorado Acequia Handbook, it allows “acequias to continue to exercise their traditional roles in governing community access to water, and also strengthens their ability to protect their water.”
In order to be recognized under the Acequia Recognition Act, acequias needed bylaws. Over the past six years, Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, and the University of Colorado Boulder have partnered to help 42 acequias write bylaws, thereby protecting their water. “The bylaws were still based, in large part, on those oral traditions,” Lopez says, “and included protective language that said, ‘If a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights.’”
Even having water rights doesn’t guarantee water access: Over the past few decades, the federal government has settled longstanding water rights cases with sovereign tribes, in many cases backdating tribal water rights to the dates of their reservations’ establishment. Although the tribes now have the nation’s oldest established water rights, they haven’t always, and they still come up against structural and financial barriers that prevent them from developing water and getting the real benefit of those rights.
Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as of 2019 only 36 tribal water rights settlements had been federally approved. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado are among that small number, but despite their long journey, the tribes still don’t have access to all the water they own.
Tribal water rights have their roots in the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 case which established tribal water rights based on the date the federal government created their reservations—thereby moving tribal water rights to “first in line” among users.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government filed and worked through claims on behalf of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes to surface waters in southwestern Colorado. In the 1980s, Congress approved a settlement between the tribes, the federal government and other parties; in 2000, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was amended, entitling tribes to water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), as well as from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir. Construction on A-LP began in 2001, and the project’s key feature, Lake Nighthorse—named for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—began filling in 2009.
Prior to the Dolores Project, many people living in Towaoc, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, did not have running water and instead trucked it in to fill water tanks at their homes, says Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director with the Keystone Policy Center and former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. His late father, Ernest House, Sr., was pivotal in that fight for water. “I was fortunate, my father was able to see A-LP completed. I think he probably, in his own right, couldn’t believe that it would have been done and could be done,” he says. But even today, some Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute communities still lack access to water, and aging infrastructure from the 1980s needs updating and repairs.
“Our tribes as sovereign nations cannot maintain or move forward without access to water,” House says. “We have to remind people that we have tribal nations in Colorado, and that we have other tribes that continue to call Colorado home, that were removed from the state, either by treaty or forced removal,” he says, adding that acknowledging the difficult past must be a part of conversations about the future.
Those conversations include state, regional, and federal-level water planning. The Colorado tribes are engaged in Colorado’s basin roundtable process, with both tribes occupying seats on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says Greg Johnson, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning Section (and serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). Through the roundtables, local stakeholders conduct basin-wide water planning that is eventually integrated into the statewide Colorado Water Plan. However, until recently, tribal involvement in regional Colorado River negotiations between the seven U.S. basin states and federal government has been nonexistent. Change is brewing—a 2018 federal Tribal Water Study highlighted how tribal water resources could impact Colorado River operations, while a new Water and Tribes Initiative is working to build tribal capacity and participation in water negotiations throughout the basin.
“The Utes have been in what we call Colorado for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House says. “It would be a shame if we were left out of the conversations [about water].”
The External Costs of Industry
Government is vital to addressing the legacy of environmental injustice, and preventing future problems, but finding solutions also demands reconsidering how business is done.
Consider Colorado’s relationship with the extraction industry, visible in the 19th-century mines that pock mountain towns, uranium-rich communities like Nulca, and the escalation of oil and gas drilling today. Colorado is an “epicenter” of extraction and environmental justice issues, says Stephanie Malin, associate professor at Colorado State University and a sociologist who studies energy development and extraction.
Lack of local control in the past has been especially frustrating, Malin says, since private corporations earn profits off the resources but then outsource the impacts. In the end, extractive industries have a track record of leaving communities and governments to bear the costs of cleanup.
Take Gold King Mine as one high-profile example. In August 2015, wastewater from an abandoned mine in San Juan County contaminated the Animas River between Silverton and Durango. Contractors hired by EPA accidentally caused 3 million gallons of mine waste, laden with heavy metals, to wash into the Animas. New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation all filed to sue EPA, with farmers reporting that they couldn’t water their crops and others saying they had to truck in alternative water supplies. But those responsible for the contamination were long-gone. Like tens of thousands of other mines in the region, the Gold King Mine was abandoned in the early 20th century.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly called Superfund—which Congress passed in 1980, was originally set up as a “polluter tax” on oil, gas and chemical companies at risk of contaminating communities or the environment. But Congress never reauthorized the tax, which expired in 1995. By the early 21st century, the fund was bankrupt. Today, these cleanups are funded entirely by taxpayers.
“It’s part of a bigger pattern of privatizing profit and nationalizing, or socializing, risk,” Malin says. “Then, communities and the environment are left holding the ‘external’ costs.” Those external costs, she says, are nearly unquantifiable: “The intergenerational impacts in particular are so hard to gauge, in terms of what the communities are absorbing.”
While these problems can seem intractable, there are solutions, Malin says. For example, the bond amounts companies are required to pay up-front should better reflect the actual cost of cleanup, she says. Last year, Colorado lawmakers made strides to unburden taxpayers in just that way, with an update to Colorado’s old mining law.
The new Colorado law, HB19-1113, makes sure water quality impacts from mining are accounted for and long-term impacts are avoided. The law says that the industry can no longer self bond—a practice that allowed mine operators to demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover clean-up costs rather than providing the resources up front. Without self bonding, taxpayers won’t be left paying for remediation if the company goes bankrupt. It also requires mine operators to factor water quality protection costs into their bond—and requires most to develop a water quality treatment plan. This means that reclamation plans must include a reasonable end date for any needed water quality treatment, hopefully ensuring Colorado will avoid new perpetually polluting mines.
State lawmakers are currently looking at a more encompassing environmental justice bill, HB20-1143, introduced in January 2020. At press time the bill was still under consideration. If it moves forward as introduced, the bill would increase the maximum civil fine for air and water quality violations—from $10,000 per day to $47,357 per day, which would be adjusted annually according to the consumer price index—reallocating some of the financial burden back on polluters. It would also authorize the use of the money in the state’s water quality improvement fund, which is where those water quality violation fines go, to pay for projects addressing impacts to communities. The bill would also bolster the state’s environmental justice efforts, with a new environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson who would run the advisory board and advocate for environmental justice communities.
Speaking up for Tomorrow’s Climate
Environmental justice can’t be about a single issue, says Lizeth Chacón, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial-justice, member-led organization based in Denver and Pueblo. That means looking at water-focused environmental justice alongside related issues such as climate change, racial justice, inequities, poverty, housing, power dynamics, and more.
“When we are talking to our members, we are talking to them about the fact that they are working two jobs and still cannot put dinner on the table in the week, talking that they live in fear of being deported and being separated from their families, talking about the fact that they are sick, or have headaches, or have to spend money on water because they can’t drink the water coming out of their tap like other people can,” she says. “It can’t be seen as one issue … This work has to be holistic.”
Currently, the Colorado People’s Alliance is working on a climate campaign directed by its members in Commerce City. “They said, ‘This is something that’s impacting all of us, regardless of where we’re from, whether we’re undocumented or documented, what our economic status is,’” she says. The Alliance is focused on greenhouse gas emissions, which have immediate health impacts and long-term water effects.
Another approach in northeast Denver is proceeding thanks to an EPA environmental justice grant, in which organizers will convene youth, local leaders, and scientists to create a community science project that leads to a more fishable and swimmable Denver South Platte River. The river flows through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, but it used to be a dumping ground, with a landfill beside its banks. Clean ups and improved recreational access, much of which has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation since its founding in 1974, have created opportunities for kayakers downtown, but river access in northeast Denver, beyond the popular Confluence Park, is limited. In addition, E. Coli levels are often high, making swimming inadvisable. Access to a healthy waterway makes communities more vibrant and whole, supporting health, wellbeing, recreation, and cultural and spiritual practices, but also connection. This may be the only recreational water access available to some urbanites.
“Rivers are one of the major pathways to healing the environment and healing ourselves,” said Jorge Figueroa at an initial workshop for this project in December 2019, where they began to establish a youth advisory board. Figueroa runs El Laboratorio, an organization that brings people together from different disciplines and cultures to creatively solve environmental challenges. (He is also on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) He’s working on this project with Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit that provides outdoor education, recreation and experiences to youth who may not otherwise have these opportunities; and Colorado State University, which is developing a new campus at the National Western Center, called Spur, in the neighborhood. The partners expect to have a plan ready by the end of 2020, and the project should begin in 2021.
Figueroa, who grew up and has family in Puerto Rico, also witnessed, up close, the wave of climate refugees who left his home state after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.
“It’s critical for us to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and in the reliability of our municipal potable water systems,” Figueroa says. “But from an equity perspective, we need to ensure that the more than a trillion dollars that will be invested in the nation’s public water systems provide the most benefit to the most people.” His suggestion to build climate resiliency in an equitable way: water conservation. “Water conservation can be a supreme water equity tool: It provides cheaper water for the community and more resiliency and reliability for the system. It’s not only an ideal climate change adaptation strategy but also is one of the top, by far, equity water strategies.” When you don’t consider equity in water decisions, you can make vulnerable communities more vulnerable, he says.
Whether working to improve environmental justice structurally and physically through conservation and resiliencies, or politically and financially through new regulations, bonding or taxation, there are many opportunities to do better. But there are also social justice elements to work on. Chacón recommends involving community members at the beginning of a process—not at the end. She says it’s important to listen—and to not dismiss people when they disagree.
Looking forward, it’s up to everyone in positions of power to actively create space for disadvantaged communities to lead, says Chacón. “To us, the people who are closest to the pain are the ones closest to the solution because they know what’s happening in their community best of anyone.”
Some of the principles of engaging communities in these situations are “almost universal,” says Colorado’s Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Environmental Justice Program. Wenstrom worked in Flint over the course of a year following the water emergency, “assisting them to connect with processes, in understanding what their rights are, and helping them learn how to raise their voices effectively,” he says.
He says that where communities and families are already overburdened—with poverty, crime, racism—they often don’t have time, expertise or resources to recognize the problems, nevermind address them. “In addition, people in low-income communities may be less inclined to raise their voices for various reasons,” Wenstrom says. Reasons could include racism, job discrimination, or, for some, the fear of being identified as an illegal resident.
He says officials like him who come into communities as outsiders must be careful, persistent, and work to build trust. “As trust builds, we can then start pointing people toward tackling issues related to pollution or public health,” he says. But, Wenstrom cautions, if people don’t believe they can make a difference, they won’t raise their voices in the first place.
Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque N.M., where her show, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” airs on New Mexico PBS. Caitlin Coleman is editor of Headwaters magazine.
FromThe Columbia Journalism Review (Savannah Jacobson):
The story of oil company propaganda begins in 1914, with the Ludlow Massacre. In Ludlow, Colorado, a tent city of coal miners went on strike, and officers of the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company responded violently. At least sixty-six people were killed in the conflict, turning popular opinion against John D. Rockefeller Jr., who owned the mine in Ludlow. To recover public trust, Rockefeller hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a public relations agent, to peddle falsehoods disguised as objective facts to the press: the strikers were crisis actors; the violence was the fault of labor activist Mother Jones; there was no Ludlow Massacre.
Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, evolved into what is now ExxonMobil, and its original PR strategy remains. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Exxon commissioned scientific reports that documented the potentially catastrophic effects of carbon dioxide emissions. But in the decades that followed, Exxon buried those reports and told the public the opposite: that the science was inconclusive, that regulation would destroy the American economy, and that action on climate change would mostly cause harm.
Exxon’s public mouthpiece was the press. For more than thirty years, from at least 1972 until at least 2004, the company placed advertorials in the New York Times to cast doubt on the negative effects of fossil fuel emissions. Over the same time span, ExxonMobil gave tens of millions of dollars to think tanks and researchers who denied the science of climate change. Taken in sum, Exxon’s media shrewdness and its aggressive political lobbying have set back climate action for decades—putting the nation, and the world, dangerously close to a point of no return.
Year by Year
Humble Oil, a subsidiary of what would become Exxon, buys an advertisement in Life magazine reading, “Each Day Humble Supplies Enough Energy to Melt Seven Million Tons of Glacier!”
Exxon executives learn from James F. Black, a scientist employed by the company, that the practice of burning fossil fuels releases such large amounts of carbon dioxide as to imperil the planet.
Exxon’s researchers confirm published scientific findings: the level of CO2 output from fossil fuels could eventually raise the global temperature by up to 3 degrees Celsius.
Spring: An Exxon tanker crashes into a reef, spilling 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The disaster will be the second-largest spill in US history. In the following months, Exxon publishes a number of advertisements in the Times apologizing for the spill and asking readers to reject boycotts.
Summer: Mobil runs its first advertorial on global warming in the Times. It reads in part, “Scientists do not agree on the causes and significance of [warming]—but many believe there’s reason for concern…we’re hard at work along all these fronts. We live in the greenhouse too.”
Fall: The Global Climate Coalition forms with the mission to oppose action against global warming and to advocate for the interests of the fossil fuel industry by promoting doubt about climate science. Exxon is a founding member.
The Kyoto Protocol is signed.
Mobil places an advertorial in the New York Times reading, “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”
Exxon pledges to stop funding climate denialist public policy groups; however, a 2015 Guardian investigation showed funding did not stop.
New York State pursues a civil case against ExxonMobil for defrauding investors about the risks of climate change, the first against the company to reach trial. The state asks for as much as $1.6 billion in damages; Exxon wins.
By the Numbers
Amount ExxonMobil spent, through 2012, to fund think tanks and researchers who denied aspects of climate change.
Minimum amount that ExxonMobil has paid since 2007 to lobbyists and members of Congress opposed to climate change legislation.
Percent of scientific studies ExxonMobil conducted internally from 1977 to 2014 that state climate change is man-made.
Percent of ExxonMobil’s advertorials published in the New York Times in the same time frame that cast doubt on the idea that climate change is man-made.
Exxon’s annual research budget during the height of the company’s climate science research, in the late 1970s to mid-1980s.
Years that Mobil placed weekly advertorials in the New York Times. After merging with Exxon in 1999, Mobil reduced advertorial placement in the Times to every other week.
Number of television networks and national and local newspapers that have cited Myron Ebell, a leading climate denialist, or published his opinion pieces from 1999 to the present.
Amount ExxonMobil gave to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank of which Ebell was a director, from 1998 to 2005.
Percent of Americans who opposed, in 2009, a significant clean energy bill.
Percent of Americans who opposed the same bill after the Heritage Foundation, an ExxonMobil-funded think tank, published a study that misleadingly claimed the bill would increase gas prices to
$4 per gallon.
Endangered species of fish in the Yampa River may benefit as coal-fired power stations close in the next 10 to 15 years.
Water demand in the Yampa River valley has been flat, and only modest population growth is expected in coming decades. Unless new industries emerge, the water will probably be allowed to flow downstream.
And that will be of value in recovering populations of fish species.
The Yampa River downstream from Craig has been designated as critical habitat for four species of fish listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act: Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail and humpback chub.
The Yampa River can fall to very low levels, especially during late summer in drought years, but the water now consumed by power plants at Craig and Hayden could possibly help augment those flows.
The power plants at Craig and Hayden together use about 10% of the water in the Yampa River basin. Municipalities, including Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, use about 10%, and irrigation accounts for 80% of the use, which is common on Western Slope rivers.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the dominant owner of the 1,283-megawatt Craig Station, located just outside of Craig and not far from the Yampa River, will close the first unit in 2025 and unit 3 by the end of 2030.
The retirement date for unit 2 isn’t entirely clear. Tri-State has said 2030, but former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who convened stakeholder discussions last year that led to the shutdown plan, told a congressional committee in late February that unit 2 will be closed by 2026. Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said the wholesale provider’s partners still need to agree on a retirement date.
Thermoelectric power generation plants in Moffat County, which includes the Craig plants, used 17,500 acre-feet of water in 2008, according to a 2014 study. Routt County used 2,700 acre-feet.
Xcel Energy, the dominant owner of 441-megawatt Hayden Station, will make its plans more clear in early 2021 when it submits its electric resource plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission as it is required to do every four years, said Xcel spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo.
Nobody knows for sure yet how the water will be used once those plants close and remediation is completed. But Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, expects the water will be allowed to flow downstream. He points out that demand in the Yampa Valley has been flat.
“What will happen with that water being used? Probably nothing,” Kuhn said.
And that could help the endangered fish, which are struggling to survive in a river depleted by humans.
“We have a hard time meeting our flow recommendations, particularly in dry years,” said Tom Chart, program director for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
“As water becomes more available through the closure of those power plants, we could improve performance in meeting our flow recommendations, and that would certainly benefit the aquatic environment and the endangered fish,” he said.
Tri-State, however, has not divulged plans for future use of water from Craig Station. Tri-State spokesman Stutzsays Tri-State will continue to use the associated water during the decommissioning of its power plants and mines.
Steamboat-based water attorney Tom Sharp sees the water from the power plants mattering most in low-water years, such as 2002, 2012 and 2018.
And in the pinch time of August and early fall, Sharp said, the water from the coal plants could make a difference for endangered fish if the water is left in the river or held in storage for release during low-flow times.
Front Range ‘water grab’?
Diversions by Front Range cities remains a worry by many in Craig, but experts see no cause for fear of a “water grab” by Front Range cities.
“I don’t want to see these water rights sold to the highest bidder on the Front Range,” a woman told the Just Transition workshop in Craig on March 4, provoking sustained applause from many among the more than 200 people in attendance. The state’s Just Transition advisory committee was created by and tasked by the state legislature in House Bill 19-1314 with creating reports, first this July and then December, about how to best assist coal-dependent communities as mines and plants close.
Not to worry, say experts. Geographic barriers between the Yampa Valley and the Front Range that have precluded diversions over the past century remain.
Also, experts point out that rights associated with the power plants are relatively “junior,” in the lexicon of Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine of prior appropriation. The oldest right, from 1967, belongs to the Hayden plant. More valuable by far are water rights that predate the Colorado River Compact of 1922.
“If Front Range entities were inclined to a water grab, they would be looking for something a little more useful, and pre-compact rights are on the ranches,” said John McClow, a water attorney in Gunnison and an alternate commissioner from Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Water Commission.
The compact governs allocations by Colorado and the other six states in the basin, and pre-compact rights will be most valuable in avoiding a compact curtailment, should the Colorado River enter even more extended and deeper drought.
Hayden rancher Doug Monger, a member of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, similarly downplays worries about Front Range diversions.
“I don’t think it will be as much of a threat in the bigger scheme of things,” he said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers in the upper Colorado River basin. This story ran in the April 7 online edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today.
The coronavirus pandemic has mostly yielded bad news for renewable energy. Disruptions to supply chains and slowdowns in permitting and construction have delayed solar and wind projects, endangering their eligibility for the soon-to-expire investment tax credits they rely on. There’s another form of renewable energy, however, that might see a benefit from the recent global economic upheaval and emerge in a better position to help the United States decarbonize its electricity system: geothermal…
Unlike wind and the sun, subsurface heat is available 24/7, perpetually replenished by the radioactive decay of minerals deeper down. But compared to wind and solar farms, geothermal power plants are expensive to build. The cost can range from $2,000 to $5,000 per installed kilowatt, and even the least expensive geothermal plant in the U.S. costs more than double that of a utility-scale solar farm. Engineers have to drill thousands of feet into the ground to reach reservoirs of water and rock hotter than 300 degrees F in order for the plants to be economical. Plants generate electricity by pumping steam or hot water up from those reservoirs to spin a turbine which powers a generator.
Experts told Grist that drilling can account for anywhere between 25 to 70 percent of the cost of a project, depending on where it is, the method of drilling, and the equipment required. But now, the companies that supply the machinery and services for drilling are starting to slash rates.
That’s because they are the same suppliers the oil industry uses, but oil companies are idling drilling rigs and cutting contracts left and right. They’re getting pummeled by the largest oil price crash in decades, the result of plunging demand due to the pandemic and a glut in supply because of a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. On Tuesday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration revised its short-term outlook for crude oil production, predicting a steep decline through 2021. All of the suppliers who are normally digging for oil are now eager for new business.
Tim Latimer, a former drilling engineer for the oil and gas industry and now the cofounder and CEO of Fervo Energy, a geothermal energy company (and a 2020 Grist 50 Fixer) said suppliers have already been willing to knock 10 percent off quotes they gave him a few weeks ago. In a recent Twitter thread, Latimer predicted that drilling costs could drop by as much as 20 to 40 percent. On top of that, interest rates are down, and recovery bills with new funding for clean energy are potentially around the corner.
Lowering the up-front cost of building a geothermal power plant would allow plant operators to bring down electricity prices, which could attract new interest in geothermal from utilities. “If you can bring that price down even a little bit,” Latimer said, utility buyers “get a lot more excited about it because they want to have something in their portfolio that can produce electricity at night.”
In California, which has set a target of 100 percent clean electricity by 2045, energy providers are starting to recognize the benefits of geothermal’s round-the-clock power and have agreed to purchase power from two new plants being built in the state. But in states where there isn’t as much pressure to decarbonize, it’s a tough sell: The cost of electrons from a geothermal plant can be more than three times as high as those from solar and wind.
Part of the problem, according to Susan Petty, the chief technology officer, president, and co-founder of geothermal company AltaRock Energy, is that utilities don’t place extra value on geothermal’s ability to generate electricity all the time. She said bringing drilling costs down will help, but it would help even more if there were parity in the tax incentives for renewables: This year, geothermal electricity projects were eligible for a 10 percent investment tax credit, compared to a 26 percent credit for solar and wind.
Geothermal faces other hurdles, like a lengthy permitting process that stretches out project timelines. It can be challenging to find investors during the early, risky stages of a project, before the viability of developing a given site has been proven. Geothermal also suffers from a PR problem — people just aren’t as familiar with it as they are with wind and solar. The technology has been around in the U.S. since the 1960s, but for these reasons and others, geothermal still only makes up 0.4 percent of the U.S. electricity mix.
Here’s the release from the Western Slope Conservation Center (Ben Katz):
[On February 10, 2020]…the Bureau of Land Management released its Uncompahgre Field Office Resource Management Plan despite concerns and formal protests from stakeholders in the North Fork Valley and beyond. While Colorado’s governor and the public are focused on a major health crisis in the state, the BLM released a plan that could open up 95% of the public lands in the area to oil and gas development, threatening local farmers and businesses in the region.
Community leaders say the plan fails to protect public health, provide ecological well-being, or promote a sustainable rural economy on Colorado’s Western Slope. These leaders say that at a time when small businesses are shutting their doors and communities of the rural Western Slope are telling visitors to stay away, the Trump Administration should not be barreling forward with land use planning that harms our community and environment.
The final plan, which the BLM began revising in 2010, is meant to guide all activities and development in the Uncompahgre Field Office planning area for the next two decades. Today we see the final plan opens the entirety of the North Fork Valley to oil and gas leasing and development while removing or limiting critical protections to safeguard the local community’s air, water, wilderness, and wildlife. Despite making minor changes at the request of Governor Polis, the plan is dramatically out of step with the protections local residents have requested for a decade.
The most disappointing aspect of the final plan is that it undermines years of collaboration and local engagement, completely disregarding a community crafted plan for the North Fork Valley. In 2014, a diverse group of North Fork stakeholders, including agricultural, tourism, realty, business, and conservation organizations, came together and developed a “community alternative” – essentially a locally grown vision and set of guidelines – for oil and gas management in the area. Called the North Fork Alternative Plan, the balanced proposal would allow for the consideration of regulated energy development on up to 25 percent of the area’s federal lands with additional protections for lands important to hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation activities. The agency’s final plan ignores this community proposal, and in turn, dismisses the community’s own vision for a sustainable future and diverse economy.
Recently released documents by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) through the Freedom of Information Act show beyond a doubt the final plan is the result of political maneuvering by the Trump administration to impose its “energy dominance” agenda on Colorado. The internal documents acquired by PEER reveal that Trump administration officials at the national BLM office overruled local agency staff and ignored local public input in order to “align the preferred alternative with administration priorities” such as deregulation of the oil and gas industry. Ironically, this decision comes at a time when the BLM is relocating its headquarters from Washington, DC to Grand Junction ostensibly to allegedly “delegate more responsibility to the field,” according to acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley.
The following are quotes from several organizations and stakeholders who have been working for decades to advance conservation efforts in Colorado and have been participating in the BLM UFO RMP revision process:
“An administration that supports a resilient local economy wouldn’t move forward with a plan that clearly disrespects the best interests of the North Fork community, yet this is exactly what’s happening. This plan is a triple threat: it ignores a decade’s worth of community input, it undermines our economic future, and it endangers the very public lands and waters that our local farms, ranches, vineyards, and recreation businesses depend on. As Colorado’s Western Slope residents and the rest of the country battle with a national emergency, the BLM is charging ahead to open lands that aren’t essential for the country’s oil and gas resources. Kicking our small businesses and communities while they’re down is just plain shameful.” – Patrick Dooling, Executive Director, Western Slope Conservation Center
“It’s disgraceful that Secretary Bernhardt and BLM Acting Director William Perry Pendley are using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover for their continued efforts to sell out our public lands. Coloradans are rightfully focused on the health and safety of our loved ones during this trying time, yet the BLM is jeopardizing the livelihoods of farmers and business owners who depend on this region’s beautiful land and pristine water. Opening 95% of the lands in this area to potential development shows that the administration puts drilling above all else, no matter the cost to air, water or people’s way of life, or even our health.” – Jim Ramey, Colorado State Director, The Wilderness Society
“The Trump administration dropping this broadly opposed plan now, in the midst of a pandemic, only adds insult to the deep injury many North Fork farms and businesses are already suffering. We came together as a community and presented a plan to the BLM, which it has ignored in releasing this mess. We worked in good faith and that was betrayed, but we’re not done standing up for our farms and families.” – Pete Kolbenschlag, Executive Director, Colorado Farm & Food Alliance
“I grow food in the farm-to-table capital of Colorado, the Lower Gunnison watershed. Over the past nearly ten years I’ve worked to identify to the BLM what I need them to consider as they make their land-use decisions for the lands around and upstream of me. For my farm, and the nearly 100 other Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA) producers in this valley, this means clean air, clean water, and an understanding that our reputation for clean delicious food is easily destroyed. I am disappointed that the BLM has ignored the agricultural community of the North Fork in its RMP, and has failed to listen to and consider the input we’ve worked hard to give them.”- Mark Waltermire, owner, Thistle Whistle Farms
“The North Fork Valley has felt the impacts of oil and gas development on our local economy before and has successfully diversified its economy away from fossil fuel development. The real estate markets were thriving prior to COVID-19 and are holding steady with buyers continuing to close on properties they completed contracts on prior to the statewide lockdown. With this impending plan, the BLM is sending our community backwards, setting us up to be at the whims of the oil and gas industry development and threatening the local economy. At a time when we can’t even show homes or hold open houses due to COVID-19, the release of this plan feels like salt in the wound.” – Patti Kaech, Broker/Owner, Colorado Premier Partners Realty
“When the coal mines began to close, everyone said the sky was falling. Yet, we worked hard to build and diversify our local economy based on local business, renewable energy, sustainable outdoor recreation, and organic farming. We are stronger now and people are moving here to embrace this way of living, not to be surrounded by industrial oil and gas development. Despite that, the energy-dominance agenda the BLM has in mind is at odds with our vision of the future. Furthermore,the Trump Administration says they are here to help small businesses, yet seem to put another nail in our coffin at this unprecedented time. The BLM needs to re-engage with the community and develop a plan to protect the public lands in the North Fork Valley that support our diverse economy.” – Chelsea Bookout, co-owner, Remedy Juice and Cafe
“Right now, we have the opportunity to bolster a sustainable and long term recreation industry in the Lower Gunnison watershed. We have the wildlands, the community, and the ambition needed to develop and maintain a strong recreation sector of the local economy. Turning the valley into a short term oil and gas haven is not compatible with this local vision. The BLM must listen to the communities who will be most affected by this decision.” – Sven Edstrom, Chair, Delta Area Mountain Bikers
“President Trump has failed to take charge in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, instead leaving it to the Governors to figure it out. But as the documents acquired by PEER show, when it comes to oil and gas development and the UFO RMP, his administration is quick to overrule local wishes. The Bureau of Land Management must go back to the drawing board and consider the vision of local communities, and their own experts, in this planning process.” – Chandra Rosenthal, Rocky Mountain Director, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
“The BLM’s Uncompahgre plan is a terrible disservice to conservation and support of local economies transitioning to sustainable recreation and agriculture. Secretary Bernhardt and acting BLM director William Perry Pendley have overwritten the locally-developed earlier plan to strip out conservation protections for wildlands and to grease the skids for their friends in the oil and gas and mining industries. Our public lands and local communities like Naturita and Hotchkiss will suffer the impacts.” – Scott Braden, Director, Colorado Wildlands Project
It’s a good thing I got over my claustrophobia. I was in the bowels of Hoover Dam, the giant plug of the Colorado River, trying not to think about the mass of concrete around me or the volume of water behind me.
The concrete poured during the 1930s into that narrow chasm of Black Canyon 24 miles from Las Vegas was enough to pave a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York City. The dam is 660 feet thick at the bottom, wider than two football fields narrowing to 45 feet at the top. It is shaped like a huge curved axe-head.
Our guide on a special tour for reporters shared a subterranean wormhole in the concrete. Hunched down, I made my way toward the glint of sunshine. There, I laid my hands on the face of the great 776 feet-tall dam.
Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik several years ago captured the magnificence of the human endeavor with the title of his book: “Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.”
In the early 20th century, the river was a beast, its spring floods of water from the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah predictably unruly, its water an anomaly in the arid American Southwest. In the baking but fertile sands of the Mojave Desert, agriculturalists saw great potential. Los Angeles saw water but also the hydroelectric power needed to create a great city.
LA could not do it on its own. An agreement among the seven states of the Colorado River Basin to apportion the waters was needed. That compact forged in 1922 delivered the political foundation for federal sponsorship of the dam’s construction, which began in 1930.
The December day we visited was coolish. The canyon can become an oven, though. During construction, 112 deaths were reported. But that does not include 42 people who died from pneumonia, many from tunnels bored into the canyon with equipment that produced thick plumes of exhaust gases and helped produce heat of up to 60 degrees C ( 140 degrees F).
Still, the dam’s construction represented triumph during a time of despair. The United States and much of the world was in depression. In the American heartland, giant clouds of dust caused misery and literally suffocated fowl and beast, but humans, too. Hoover Dam—at first called Boulder Canyon Dam—represented a story of human success. Look at what we’re capable of doing, it said, when we set our minds to it!
Water from the dam has been filled to overflowing just twice. One of those times was in 1983. I remember it very well. I was working at the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Colorado resort town of Winter Park. We had an average winter. Spring was anything but. It started snowing in March and didn’t quit until mid-June. The water that gushed downstream took dam operators by surprise.
Since 2002, the principal problem has been too little water. Droughts, as severe as any before recorded, have repeatedly left Colorado’s slopes snowless when normally they would be thick with snow. New evidence also comes of rising temperatures, which rob streams and meadows of water through increased evaporation and transpiration.
Then there was the faulty promise of that compact struck in 1922, an assumption of far more water than the river has routinely delivered. That, however, did not stop the cities and farmers from inserting their straws into the river and its reservoirs. When I visited in December, the reservoir was 40% full—or, if you prefer, was 60% empty.
Energy, not water, powered my desire to see Hoover. When completed, the 13 hydroelectric generators provided a large amount of electricity in the Southwest. Now, the output is dwarfed by other sources, increasingly renewables. Increasingly, our guide said, the water is released to generate electricity in ways that shore-up the intermittent renewables.
Hoover Dam may also play a role in our future of renewable energy. Los Angeles Water and Power has been investigating whether the dam’s generators and Lake Mead can be used to create what constitutes a giant battery. The water would be released again and again, when power is needed most to fill the gaps between renewable energy, then pumped back into the reservoir when renewable power is plentiful, such as during sunny afternoons.
The answer is of interest far beyond Los Angeles. In places like Denver, utilities say they can now see the way to 80% emission-free power generation by 2030. But to 100%? Lithium-ion batteries may be part of that answer, but they can store energy for just four hours. Maybe another, partial solution can be found at Hoover and other dams. We do need the answers soon, as the need to reduce our emissions has become pressing.
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Rebecca Sobel):
Response to Trump Administration’s Plan to Relax Public Health Protections for Oil Refineries and Other Industries
WildEarth Guardians joined a coalition of environmentalists objecting to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) new Trump administration policy that relaxes environmental compliance rules for petrochemical plants and other big polluters during the coronavirus crisis.
“Relaxing pollution controls in the midst of a deadly health crisis is an obscene new low for the Trump administration,” said Rebecca Sobel, Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner for WildEarth Guardians. “While the pandemic worsens, the administration is propping up polluters in poisoning clean air, instead of focusing on the health and safety of Americans.”
The environmental organizations voiced their concerns in response to an announcement yesterday that the Trump administration EPA will “provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions.”
“It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws,” said the statement, which was written by Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project, former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA.
The Environmental Integrity Project released a report last year documenting the sharp drop in environmental enforcement during the Trump administration.
In February, WildEarth Guardians joined the Environmental Integrity Project in publishing a report documenting EPA air monitoring data at the fencelines of oil refineries which demonstrated excessive release of cancer-causing benzene into nearby communities at concentrations far above federal action levels. The second worst refinery in the U.S. was the Holly Frontier Navajo Artesia refinery in Artesia, New Mexico, where monitors at the plant’s fenceline detected benzene in amounts four times the EPA action level.
“Instead of reining in illegal polluters, this administration is propping them up, further endangering the health of New Mexicans and all Americans in the process,” continued Sobel. “We are all in this together, and now is the time to protect people, not polluters.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A 2016 agreement is helping protect Colorado River flows downstream of Glenwood Canyon despite ice jams from the Colorado River shutting down the Shoshone Hydropower Plant in the canyon.
Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, a tax-funded agency serving counties within the river basin in western Colorado, said the problem at the plant occurred around March 1. Xcel Energy, the plant’s owner, says it won’t be using Colorado River water at the plant until it is repaired.
The plant’s operations are watched closely by the water community because it has one of the oldest water rights on the river in western Colorado — a 1902 right to 1,250 cubic feet of water per second.
That right has limited the ability of Front Range water users with more junior rights to divert Colorado River water. It helps keep water flowing down-river not just to the plant, but further downstream because the plant’s water use is nonconsumptive, benefiting municipal and agricultural water users, recreational river users and the environment.
However, the river district and regional water users have worried about the potential impacts on the river and water users whenever the aging plant is out of service and not calling for water under its senior right, such as when it requires maintenance.
To address that concern, reservoir operators including the river district, Denver Water and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation agreed in 2016 to cooperate to maintain river flows at levels mimicking Shoshone’s normal operation, with certain exceptions.
Modified reservoir operations to mimic those flows are now in effect, and will remain so until snowmelt runoff causes the river flow to exceed the current outage protocol target of 1,250 cubic feet per second.
Pokrandt said that among the benefits of protecting flows, more water in the river means lower concentrations of total dissolved solids in the river due to dilution, reducing the need for water treatment by municipal water providers that rely on the river.
Kirsten Kurath, an attorney who represents the Grand Valley Water Users Association, a party to the 2016 agreement, said a big benefit of the Shoshone flows is maintaining flows in what’s known as the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River in Mesa County. Efforts to protect endangered fish in the river focus in part on maintaining adequate flows in that stretch of the river, upstream of the Gunnison River confluence…
While Grand Valley irrigators also have senior water rights on the river, Kurath said the Shoshone water smoothes out the river’s flows, making it easier for irrigators to plan and making water diversions more efficient than when flows are lower. “Everybody downstream always benefits as you keep water in the river,” she said.
The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Irrigation Co. are among other parties to the 2016 deal. As of late Monday afternoon, Xcel hasn’t yet said how long the power plant may be out of commission. According to the river district, Xcel has said that the COVID-19 outbreak is complicating repair plans…
The current outage agreement is in effect for 40 years. The river district says it and its West Slope partners are exploring ways to permanently protect the river flows.
Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant back in the days before I-70 via Aspen Journalism
Shoshone Falls hydroelectric generation station via USGenWeb
The penstocks feeding the Shoshone hydropower plant on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.
The Shoshone plant and boat ramp on the Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The blown-out penstock in 2007 at the Shoshone plant. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Shoshone hydroelectric generation plant Glenwood Canyon via the Colorado River District
Number of days the Shoshone outage protocol, or ShOP, was in effect, and stages of the agreement.
The EPA finalized a new standard requiring vehicle fuel economy to increase by 1.5 percent each year, a lower amount than the 5 percent increase put into place during the Obama administration. The rule change creates a uniform federal standard flouting more strict standards like those implemented by California.
[Phil]Weiser said in a statement the regulatory rollback “rejects science” and “will harm public health and air quality.”
“The EPA’s misguided rollback is at odds with the agency’s own science and data, which show that the weaker fuel economy standards will increase air pollution, cost consumers more at the pump, and fail to make the nation’s roads safer,” Weiser said.
Last year, Colorado followed California’s lead in adopting a strict zero emission vehicle (ZEV) standard, which requires at least 5 percent of all vehicles sold in Colorado to be ZEVs by 2023.
Weiser said the EPA’s rule change “threatens to thwart Colorado’s ZEV program, which was implemented to improve air quality, reduce harmful ozone pollution, decrease fuel costs, and increase choices that Colorado customers have when purchasing an electric vehicle.”
Large electricity generators use lots of water to cool their coal-fired plants. As those units shut down, expect to see battles heat up over how the massive amounts of water can be repurposed.
Any newfound source of water is a blessing in a state routinely stricken by drought and wildfire, where rural residents can be kept from washing a car or watering a garden in summer, and where farm fields dry up after cities buy their water rights.
State water planners long assumed that the amount of water needed to cool major power plants would increase with the booming population. Planners in 2010 predicted that, within 25 years, major power plants would be consuming 104,000 acre-feet per year of their own water. The Colorado Sun found that their annual consumption will end up closer to 10% of that figure.
The 94,000 acre-feet of water that major power plants won’t be consuming is enough to cover the needs of 1.25 million people, according to figures included in the Colorado Water Plan of 2015. (That’s counting water permanently consumed in cities, and not counting water consumed by agriculture and certain giant industries, or water returned to rivers through runoff and wastewater treatment plants.)
Already, water once used by now-defunct power plants is flowing to households, shops and factories in Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder and Palisade, because the local water utilities owned the water and supplied the plants. When the plants closed, the cities just put their own water back into municipal supplies, officials in those cities said…
In Pueblo, Black Hills Energy shut down a 100-year-old, coal-then-gas-fired power plant downtown. After decommissioning stations 5 and 6 near the Arkansas River in 2012, Black Hills donated the water to public use. Water that once cooled the plant now flows in the Arkansas through the city’s Historic Riverwalk, where gondoliers paddle and picnickers gather in the sun for art and music. Renowned Denver historic preservationist Dana Crawford has partnered with a local developer on plans to revive the art deco power plant as an anchor for an expansion of the Riverwalk, with shops and restaurants.
In Cañon City, water that cooled the closed W.N. Clark power plant is going down the Arkansas River as well, Black Hills Energy spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez said. It is likely being picked up by the user with the next legal right in line.
The San Miguel River on the Western Slope is gaining some water from closure of the coal power plant in Nucla — at least temporarily until Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which owns the plant, finishes the tear down and reclamation, which requires some water. Spokesman Mark Stutz said Tri-State has made no decision on what to do with the water rights after that, but “we will listen to the input of interested stakeholders.”
Major power plants’ water consumption peaked in 2012 at about 60,000 to 70,000 acre-feet. It has dropped to about 47,000 acre-feet now and will fall further to about 27,000 acre-feet over the next 15 years, just from closures already announced. By the time the last coal plant closes, major power plant water consumption will have plummeted to about 10,000 acre-feet…
In the past 10 years, 13 coal power plant units in Colorado have shut down. Another 10 will close by 2036 or much earlier. The remaining four units are under review by their owners.
The last gas power plant built in Colorado was in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. All new power generation in Colorado since then has been renewable…
In the past 10 years, 13 coal power plant units in Colorado have shut down. Another 10 will close by 2036 or much earlier. The remaining four units are under review by their owners.
The last gas power plant built in Colorado was in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. All new power generation in Colorado since then has been renewable.
Technology has driven down the cost of wind and solar, and they now can provide power at a lower price per kilowatt-hour than coal-fired power in Colorado. Even accounting for the need to store electricity, bids to provide renewable energy have come in lower than the cost of coal-fired power.
Closure dates have been accelerating. Utilities are running scenarios on how they could shut down the last four coal-burning units in Colorado not already set for closure. They are Xcel Energy’s Pawnee in Brush and Comanche 3 in Pueblo, Platte River Power Authority’s Rawhide 1 near Wellington, and Colorado Springs Utilities’ Ray D. Nixon unit 1 south of the city.
Emissions controls and customers’ climate concerns are also driving the change, utility officials said.
For example, Platte River Power Authority already expects to be 60% wind, solar and hydro by 2023, and its board said it wants to reach 100% by 2030, spokesman Steve Roalstad said. A public review process started March 4 to discuss how best to achieve that. Closing the coal plant at Rawhide and even the adjacent gas plants by 2030 are options, but not certain, he said.
Early closing dates set for other coal plants could move up. PacifiCorp, a partial owner of three coal power units in Craig and Hayden in northwest Colorado, is pushing its partners, Tri-State and Xcel, for faster shut-downs. It wants to move more quickly to cheaper renewables…
As more power plants close in coming years, much of the water no longer needed will be water owned by the power companies themselves. Many were reluctant to talk about their water rights in detail.
Water court records show Xcel owns water from wells all over the metro area, and draws from Clear Creek. Xcel also owns 5,000 to 10,000 acre-feet in the Colorado River. That water is diverted to northern Colorado through the Colorado-Big Thompson tunnel under the mountains.
Xcel did say it is holding onto its water rights for now. It has been cutting its water purchases from cities, switching to its own water as power plants close.
On a smaller scale, Tri-State is now switching its J.M. Shafer power plant in Fort Lupton from city well water to its own water rights, city administrator Chris Cross said.
Water court records show another example of what can happen to utility-owned water: Xcel wants to use some of its Clear Creek water rights at a hydroelectric plant above Georgetown that is being renovated to produce more megawatts.
Some water might become available for other uses as more Xcel coal plants close, spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said…
Closure of the power plants could open up arguments over where that water should go instead, explained Erin Light, state water engineer for the northwestern district.
“Every water right is decreed for an amount, a use and a place of use,” Light said. With the power plant gone, utilities can try to sell their rights, but other water users may dispute that in court.
Xcel, for example, owns 35,000 acre-feet of conditional water rights in reservoirs in the Yampa Valley that have never been built, she said. But “conditional” means the company gets the water only if it is actually needed, she explained. So when the Hayden power plant closes in the 2030s, Xcel would have to go back to water court to change the use or sell the rights, she said.
“Those conditional water rights become a lot more speculative if they are not operating a power plant,” she said. “Arguably, they would lose their conditional rights.”
Legislators are sufficiently concerned about speculators making money on Colorado’s water shortage that in March they passed Senate Bill 48 asking water officials to give them suggestions on how to strengthen current law against it.
Click here to read the paper. Here’s the abstract:
The relationship between human health and well-being, energy use and carbon emissions is a foremost concern in sustainable development. If past advances in well-being have been accomplished only through increases in energy use, there may be significant trade-offs between achieving universal human development and mitigating climate change. We test the explanatory power of economic, dietary and modern energy factors in accounting for past improvements in life expectancy, using a simple novel method, functional dynamic decomposition. We elucidate the paradox that a strong correlation between emissions and human development at one point in time does not imply that their dynamics are coupled in the long term. Increases in primary energy and carbon emissions can account for only a quarter of improvements in life expectancy, but are closely tied to growth in income. Facing this carbon-development paradox requires prioritizing human well-being over economic growth.
Steve Lowe gazed into a gaping pit in the heart of the California desert, careful not to let the blistering wind send him toppling over the edge.
The pit was a bustling iron mine once, churning out ore that was shipped by rail to a nearby Kaiser Steel plant. When steel manufacturing declined, Los Angeles County tried to turn the abandoned mine into a massive landfill. Conservationists hope the area will someday become part of Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds it on three sides.
Lowe has a radically different vision.
With backing from NextEra Energy — the world’s largest operator of solar and wind farms — he’s working to fill two mining pits with billions of gallons of water, creating a gigantic “pumped storage” plant that he says would help California get more of its power from renewable sources, and less from fossil fuels…
At Eagle Mountain, one of several abandoned mining pits would be filled with water, pumped from beneath the ground. When nearby solar farms flood the power grid with cheap electricity, Lowe’s company would use that energy — which might otherwise go to waste — to pump water uphill, to a higher pit.
When there’s not enough solar power on the grid — after sundown, or perhaps after several days of cloudy weather — the water would be allowed to flow back down to the lower pit by gravity, passing through an underground powerhouse and generating electricity…
The Eagle Mountain plant wouldn’t interrupt any rivers or destroy a pristine landscape. But environmentalists say the $2.5-billion facility would pull too much water from the ground in one of the driest parts of California, and prolong a history of industrialization just a few miles from one of America’s most visited national parks.
Lowe rejects those arguments, saying his proposal has survived round after round of environmental review and would only drain a tiny fraction of the underground aquifer.
The project’s fate may hinge on a question with no easy answer: How much environmental sacrifice is acceptable — or even necessary — in the fight against climate change?
The La Plata Electric Asso- ciation (LPEA) Board of Directors voted at its meeting last week to award the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) $13,000 from its Renewable Generation Funds Grant program to support a solar installation to generate electricity for the GGP site in Centennial Park.
Projects were selected based on visibility to the local community, level of innovation, and the potential to blend renewable technologies with educational elements and community engagement.
Grant monies are sourced from LPEA’s Local Renewable Generation Fund — an opt-in fund to which LPEA members can contribute to support the development of renewable energy generation projects in the service territory.
For more information on the program, LPEA members should call 382-3505.
FromThe High Country News, February 24, 2020 (Jonathan Thompson):
The U.S. is a net exporter of petroleum, but it is not energy-independent.
After ordering a drone strike on Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s elite forces commander, President Donald Trump told the media that the assassination was made possible by the United States’ newfound energy-independence. Previous presidents had refrained from such acts, fearing higher prices at the pump, he said, but now, “we are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.” As is often the case with Trump’s statements, this one is problematic and inaccurate. The U.S. may not need oil from the Persian Gulf, but we are not energy-independent, and never will be. But that hasn’t stopped presidents from trying to spin oil independence into policy justifications.
“Americans will not have to rely on any source of energy beyond our own,” Richard Nixon declared, seeking to quell public angst over the 1973 oil embargo. Yet Americans continued to guzzle petroleum, and oil imports rose, reaching a 10 billion-barrel peak in 2006. In 2009, a number of factors collided, reversing the trend. Americans drove less during the financial crisis; domestic consumption decreased, and imports fell. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve implemented policies that encouraged investment in high-risk endeavors, including drilling. Global oil prices rose again, as demand from Asia increased. And producers went on a debt-fueled drilling frenzy, deploying horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracking to pull oil from shale formations.
Domestic oil production climbed faster than demand, and imports continued to decline. Near the end of 2019, the U.S. exported more petroleum products than it imported for the first time in five decades. Trump had little to do with it, though, as the causal factors were in motion well before his election. Nor are we anywhere near “energy independence.” The U.S. depends on foreign countries not only to supply oil — importing more than 8 million barrels of crude per day — but also to purchase its petroleum products.
Price fluctuations are acutely felt in the Western United States. People in rural areas drive more and have fewer options for public transit, so high gas prices can break budgets. Meanwhile, the economies of many Western communities still depend on energy extraction, and drilling is driven by the price of oil. So when oil prices drop because the coronavirus has lessened demand for oil in Asia, it reverberates through Western economies.
Here’s a breakdown of U.S. entanglements in the global oil market. The data are for October 2019.
House Bill 1143 — which will be discussed in the House Finance Committee on Feb. 27 — would create a seven-member environmental justice advisory board to identify mitigation projects in affected areas. The bill also aims to add a new position in CDPHE focused on environmental justice to lead the advisory board.
“A lot of these communities have never experienced justice,” said Rep. Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat who is helping push the bill. “The health implications are substantial when it comes to air and water quality violations. These communities know what they need better than any person in the legislature.”
The current maximum fine for air quality violations is $15,000 per day, per violation; for water quality violations, it’s $10,000. The bill would increase both fines to $42,357, which is in line with the federal maximum.
Current law allocates all water quality fines to the Water Quality Improvement Fund. The new bill would authorize the use of money in that fund to pay for projects addressing impacts to environmental justice communities. Currently, all air quality fines go into the general fund. The bill would create the community impact cash fund to go toward environmental mitigation projects.
“I worked really hard, with a coalition of community members, to come up with the definition of an environmental justice community,” Jackson said. “… I just really wanted to make sure that people who didn’t feel as though they have had a voice in the conversation, who’ve been experiencing impacts in their community, generally speaking for quite some time, were able to come to the table.”
The bill defines an environmental justice community as one where residents “are predominantly minorities or have low incomes; have been excluded from environmental policy-setting or decision-making processes; are subject to a disproportionate impact from one or more environmental hazards; or experience disparate implementation of environmental regulations, requirements, practices and activities.”
“Fines are powerful enforcement tools, but they aren’t the only options available to us,” said Jessica Bralish, a state health department spokeswoman.
“Our priority is to bring facilities into compliance, resolve violations and take steps to ensure long-term compliance,” she said. “We assess the maximum daily fine in response to particularly egregious, dangerous or repeated violations. Our goal is always to enforce state laws in pursuit of our broader mandate — protecting and preserving the public health and environment in Colorado.”
One hurdle for the bill: the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which limits the amount of revenue the state can collect and spend. The bill sponsors are exploring if it’s possible to classify the fines as “damages” so that the funds won’t fall under TABOR. Other prime sponsors of the bill include Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat, and Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat.
John Putnam, the director of environmental programs at CDPHE, said the increase in fines will bring Colorado up to federal standards.
Coal-fired power plants are closing, or being given firm deadlines for closure, across the country. In the Western states that make up the overallocated and drought-plagued Colorado River, these facilities use a significant amount of the region’s scarce water supplies.
With closure dates looming, communities are starting the contentious debate about how this newly freed up water should be put to use.
That conversation is just beginning in the northwest Colorado city of Craig, home to nearly 9,000 residents and hundreds of coal industry workers. In January, TriState Generation and Transmission announced it will fully close Craig Station by 2030. The same goes for the nearby Colowyo coal mine.
The news comes on the heels of several high profile closures or closure announcements in Wyoming , New Mexico and Arizona . Each has a coal plant that taps into the Colorado River or its tributaries…
Craig’s economy is intimately tied to the coal plant. But as the conversation about the announcement continued, other nagging questions came up, [Jennifer Holloway] said. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents.
In the arid West, water, and access to it, is intertwined with local economies. Where water goes — to a coal plant, a residential tap, or down a river channel — says something about a community’s present and future economy, and its values…
Holloway wants to see Craig make a transition plenty of other Western communities have attempted over the last century, from an extractive economic base to a recreation-based one. She’s quick to name drop the region’s new slogan — “Colorado’s Great Northwest” — and list the various draws, like Dinosaur National Monument, the nearby Steamboat ski resort and the relatively free-flowing Yampa River.
“One idea that I fully support is switching Dinosaur National Monument into a national park,” she said. “And hopefully TriState would partner with that effort and maybe use some of that water as we legislated that park to guarantee that we had the water moving west.”
Without local input into what happens to Craig Station’s water rights, Holloway worries it could hurt the Yampa, which is the coal plant’s current water source. Colorado has a long history of transmountain diversion, where water from the wetter Western Slope is diverted eastward to the populous Front Range.
“That’s the biggest fear, is they’re going to go into the headwaters of the Yampa, make a pipeline going over to the eastern slope,” Holloway said.
So far TriState hasn’t tipped its hand on what it plans to do with the water. Duane Highley, TriState’s CEO, said at a news conference shortly after Craig Station’s closure announcement that his company is already fielding calls from interested buyers, but didn’t elaborate as to who has inquired.
“When you look at a typical coal facility it uses an enormous amount of water,” Highley said, “and the fact that that will be liberated and available for other reuse will be significant.”
Craig Station uses on average 16,000 acre-feet of water each year… A 2019 Bureau of Reclamation report showed thermal electric power generation in the Upper Colorado River basin accounted for 144,000 acre-feet, or about 3% of all water consumed in the watershed in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and parts of northern Arizona…
“As a legal matter, the owners of the water rights, at least in Colorado, could do something else with them. As a practical matter, there’s not much else they can do with them,” said Eric Kuhn, former head of the Colorado River District and author of Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.
TriState has limited options with the water rights, Kuhn said. The energy provider could sell them to a local municipality, though communities along the Yampa River, like Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, likely wouldn’t be able to use that much water all at once. TriState could offer them to local farmers, though most of the easily irrigable land has already been irrigated for a long time. They could turn them into in-stream flows. Or they could sell them to a user outside the Yampa basin, like a Front Range city. Any project proposed to pump the plant’s freed up water more 200 miles eastward would face significant political pushback and a multi-billion dollar price tag, Kuhn said.
According to Kuhn, these coal closures also have implications for broader Colorado River management. The recently signed Drought Contingency Plans task water leaders in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to begin exploring a conceptual program called demand management, where in a shortage, water users would be paid to use less. Coal plants using less water would alleviate the situation.
“What it’s going to do is take the pressure off of these states to come up with demand management scenarios, because where does that water go? It’ll flow to Lake Powell,” Kuhn said.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
In this election year, the 10th annual poll also found that four-fifths of those polled consider an elected official’s stance on issues involving water, air, wildlife and public lands to be important in deciding whether to support them, according to poll results issued Thursday. Forty-four percent call those factors a primary factor in their decision, up from 31 percent for states covered in the poll in 2016.
The poll found that two-thirds of respondents want their member of Congress to place more emphasis on protecting federal lands than on maximizing responsible oil and gas drilling and mining to produce more domestic energy…
The survey is a product of the college’s State of the Rockies Project. Four hundred registered voters were surveyed by phone in January in each of eight western states, including Colorado, for a total 3,200-person sample. The poll was conducted by Republican pollster Lori Weigel and Democratic pollster Dave Metz and has a margin of error of 2.65 percent overall and 4.9 percent in each state.
Thirty-seven percent of respondents were Republicans and 31 percent Democrats. Sixty-nine percent said they are conservationists. Sixty-two percent identified themselves as residents of cities or suburbs, and the rest as living in small towns or rural areas.
Respondents identified climate change as the first- or second-most-important environmental problem in each state surveyed (when adding up both climate change and global warming as concerns identified by those polled)…
Climate change/global warming as a top concern among respondents has increased dramatically over the poll’s 10 years, from 5 percent in 2011 to 32 percent today when comparing the five states polled in both years, and 35 percent today when accounting for all eight states surveyed. Thirty-six percent of respondents to this year’s poll identified pollution as a top concern. Water (29 percent) and energy/oil/gas (15 percent) ranked third and fourth among top environmental problems identified by those surveyed.
About two-thirds of surveyed voters in the eight states view climate change as a serious problem, up from 55 percent of those surveyed in 2011. Nearly three-quarters of respondents say they want their congressional representatives and state governors to have a plan to cut carbon pollution contributing to climate change, with majorities of Democrat, Republican and independent voters all voicing that view.
Sixty percent say action on climate change is needed. A majority of voters in every state polled except Wyoming backs gradually increasing the use of renewable energy sources to 100 percent, the poll found.
Metz said the degree to which climate change is becoming a more bipartisan concern is striking. He said some partisan polarization over the issue remains, with Democrats more likely to volunteer climate change as a major concern than independents or Republicans. But voters who were polled all ranked climate change among their top-three environmental concerns regardless of party, which Metz said suggests a growing consensus around the urgency of the issue.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., believes the U.S. is nearing “the tipping from where there is no return” when it comes to dealing with climate change and protecting the environment.
And a recent poll conducted in eight Western states indicates many share that opinion. Udall believes the results of the Conservation in the West Poll released Thursday should be a call to action among members of Congress. Almost 75% of the 3,200 people who participated in the poll in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming believe Congress should develop comprehensive plans to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.
“Policymakers in Washington have our marching orders,” Udall said during a press call about the poll, sponsored by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project. “Public support for conservation and climate action is stronger than ever.”
Among the findings in the poll: 70% of New Mexico residents believe significant effects of climate change will occur within the next decade. A majority of participants in the poll considered pollution, climate change and water issues among their biggest concerns, although a person’s political views reflected the order. Among Democrats, 54% considered climate change the most important issue, followed by pollution at 37% and water at 30%. Pollution was the top issue among Republicans, at 33%, water at 27% and climate change at 16%. Independents equally listed pollution and climate change as their top issue, at 39%, followed by water.
The poll said 73% of voters favor a national goal to protect 30% of America’s land and ocean areas by 2030, with majority support across party lines for the conservation goal. Udall and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., support legislation that would work towards that goal.
“A movement is growing from the ground up, with Westerners of all political stripes clamoring for action to save our way of life, starting with a national conservation goal of protecting 30% of our natural land by 2030 to stave off a looming extinction crisis,” Udall said.
In response to a question from the Journal, the senator said plans to achieve that goal should be “state-, tribal- and community-specific.”
He indicated public land should be set aside from oil and gas drilling and mineral development, rather than allowing drilling up into the 30% point.
The poll said 67% of voters consider habitat conservation a priority for their elected officials over oil and gas drilling and mining. Over half of all voters – 52% – said that microplastics in rivers, streams and drinking water supplies are serious problems affecting public lands and public health.
Udall was critical of the Trump administration, saying “it has taken a hatchet to our nation’s proud conservation legacy.”
And the poll indicated voters were concerned about recent decisions to roll back Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act protections.
The poll, which surveyed 400 Arizona voters in January, found that 77 percent of respondents oppose “allowing new uranium mining claims on existing public lands next to the Grand Canyon National Park,” while 19 percent support allowing new uranium mining.
Climate change, pollution, and water issues were the top concerns for Arizonans, the poll found.
According to the poll, 72 percent of Arizona respondents consider themselves conservationists, and 80 percent said “issues involving clean water, clean air, wildlife and public lands are important in deciding whether or not to support an elected official.”
Sixty-six percent of Arizona respondents said “Inadequate water supplies” is a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem while 25 percent said it was a “somewhat serious” problem.
On the issue of “low level of water in rivers,” 62 percent said it was a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem and 21 percent said it was “somewhat serious.” Pollution of waterways was also of concern to Arizona respondents, with 50 percent saying “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem.
Despite their opinions of water issues, 38 percent view oil and gas drilling as “not a problem” for the environment while 34 percent believed it’s a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem. On climate change, 51 percent said it’s a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem.
FromThe Guardian (Patrick Greenfield and Jonathan Watts):
The world’s largest financier of fossil fuels has warned clients that the climate crisis threatens the survival of humanity and that the planet is on an unsustainable trajectory, according to a leaked document.
The JP Morgan report on the economic risks of human-caused global heating said climate policy had to change or else the world faced irreversible consequences.
The study implicitly condemns the US bank’s own investment strategy and highlights growing concerns among major Wall Street institutions about the financial and reputational risks of continued funding of carbon-intensive industries, such as oil and gas.
JP Morgan has provided $75bn (£61bn) in financial services to the companies most aggressively expanding in sectors such as fracking and Arctic oil and gas exploration since the Paris agreement, according to analysis compiled for the Guardian last year.
Its report was obtained by Rupert Read, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson and philosophy academic at the University of East Anglia, and has been seen by the Guardian.
The research by JP Morgan economists David Mackie and Jessica Murray says the climate crisis will impact the world economy, human health, water stress, migration and the survival of other species on Earth.
“We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened,” notes the paper, which is dated 14 January.
Drawing on extensive academic literature and forecasts by the International Monetary Fund and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the paper notes that global heating is on course to hit 3.5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. It says most estimates of the likely economic and health costs are far too small because they fail to account for the loss of wealth, the discount rate and the possibility of increased natural disasters.
The authors say policymakers need to change direction because a business-as-usual climate policy “would likely push the earth to a place that we haven’t seen for many millions of years”, with outcomes that might be impossible to reverse.
“Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.”
The investment bank says climate change “reflects a global market failure in the sense that producers and consumers of CO2 emissions do not pay for the climate damage that results.” To reverse this, it highlights the need for a global carbon tax but cautions that it is “not going to happen anytime soon” because of concerns about jobs and competitiveness.
The authors say it is “likely the [climate] situation will continue to deteriorate, possibly more so than in any of the IPCC’s scenarios”.
Without naming any organisation, the authors say changes are occurring at the micro level, involving shifts in behaviour by individuals, companies and investors, but this is unlikely to be enough without the involvement of the fiscal and financial authorities.
The Kominek family farm is a green expanse of hay and alfalfa in northern Colorado. The family has planted and raked crops for half a century, but as yields declined over recent years, the farm began losing money. In late 2017, Byron Kominek went looking for more profitable alternatives, including installing solar panels and selling electricity to the utility. But Boulder County’s land-use codes made it difficult to use their 24 acres for anything but farming.
So the Komineks found a compromise: a solar array with plants growing beneath, between, and around rows of photovoltaic panels.
Construction is slated to begin this spring on a 1.2-megawatt solar array on the Kominek farm. Some 3,300 solar panels will rest on 6-foot and 8-foot-high stilts, providing shade for crops like tomatoes, peppers, kale, and beans on a five-acre plot. Pasture grasses and beehive boxes are planned for the perimeter…
If successful, the project could serve as a model for other cash-strapped farmers, by transforming underperforming fields into potentially money-making hubs of clean energy and fresh food.
Xcel Energy, the state’s biggest utility, has agreed to pay for each kilowatt-hour delivered from the Kominek’s solar array to the grid. Their neighbors can buy into the project, too. Participants invest in a percentage of the array, then receive credits on their monthly utility bills. Their investment also helps defray some of the farmers’ upfront construction costs.
The vegetables will be sold through a community farm-share program, which allows neighbors to invest in the project in exchange for boxes of produce.
This marriage of agriculture and solar photovoltaics — known by the awkward name “agrivoltaics” — is an emerging niche within the broader solar power industry.
In the United States, less than 5 megawatts’ worth of solar arrays have crops planted beneath them, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL. That’s barely a speck of the country’s 71,300 megawatts of installed solar capacity. The farm-plus-solar sector is relatively bigger in Japan, where the concept first emerged over a decade ago. Hundreds of projects now exist, including a 35-megawatt solar array that hovers over fields of ginseng, herbs, and coriander.
Proponents say that this approach could allow for widespread renewable energy development without displacing much-needed land for food. Recent studies suggest that it could lead to more efficient energy and crop production by creating a cooler, moister microclimate.
In a recent test in Arizona, scientists compared crops planted under solar panels with those grown in direct sunlight. They found that total fruit production for red chiltepin peppers was three times higher on the plots under the panels, and cherry tomatoes doubled production. Some of these plants used significantly less irrigation water, in part because the shaded soil retained more moisture. Solar panels placed with plants were also substantially cooler during the day — and therefore operated more efficiently — than the usual ground-mounted arrays, according to the study last year by NREL and the Universities of Arizona and Maryland.
A project in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, delivered similarly promising results. Early field tests showed that Swiss chard, broccoli, and similar vegetables produced about 60 percent more volume compared to plants beneath a full sun.
Kominek’s project, called Jack’s Solar Garden, will provide more opportunities to study agrivoltaics. NREL, in nearby Golden, Colorado, plans to track how plants and panels perform together in Boulder County’s hot, dry climate. “If the structures help keep in moisture, and we have less evaporation, we’ll need less water to grow the same amount or even more [crops],” said Jordan Macknick, the lead energy-water-land analyst for NREL.
Macknick leads NREL’s low-impact solar initiative along with biologist Brenda Beatty. Since 2015, researchers have developed more than 25 sites around the country that combine solar panels with food crops, native vegetation, or pollinator-friendly plants.
Jack’s Solar Garden will be the biggest of the group and the first to include all three types. NREL is also adding solar projects in Puerto Rico, including one on a coffee plantation and another one on pasture lands for cattle.
“We’re really just at the very beginning of understanding the benefits of agrivoltaics and what they could mean not only for the energy sector but also for the agricultural sector,” Macknick said.
Agrivoltaics, also called “solar sharing,” first took off in Japan in 2004, after an engineer, Akira Nagashima, developed a stilted steel structure that raises panels 10-feet high. Available land is scarce in Japan, a country with ambitious targets for developing renewable energy. (Not coincidentally, floating solar arrays — which sit atop irrigation ponds and reservoirs — also got their start in Japan, in 2007.) Recently, Nagashima has begun studying how shade-intolerant crops might fare beneath solar arrays. His research team recently found that corn yields slightly improved in a solar-sharing system.
Beyond research sites, however, pairing corn and other cash crops with solar may present significant challenges. On existing plots, smaller tractors can navigate the narrow spaces between rows of panels. But combine harvesters and other industrial equipment are too wide and bulky to fit through the gaps. Most crops grown beneath panels must be picked by hand. The work is manageable at the scale of a community garden, but it can be grueling, back-breaking work at an industrial scale. Farmers are developing machines to pick strawberries, melons, and tomatoes, which also might bump against the panels.
For farms big and small, a lack of rural infrastructure remains a “key impediment” to boosting adoption of agrivoltaics, said Chad Higgins, an associate professor of biological and ecological engineering at Oregon State University. Power lines and electrical equipment might not be equipped to handle the addition of solar power. Roads and communications networks likewise might need to be expanded to support far-flung operations, he said.
Still, if farmers and engineers can address such hurdles, the potential for agrivoltaics is immense, given how much of the planet’s land is devoted to agriculture.