State of Colorado Files Lawsuit Against U.S. BLM to Invalidate Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan

Uncompahgre Plateau

Here’s the release from Governor Polis’ office (Chris Arend):

The State of Colorado, through the Department of Natural Resources, filed a complaint today in Colorado federal court challenging the approval of the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Uncompahgre Field Office. The Uncompahgre RMP, finalized in April 2020, governs mineral extraction and other land use activities on federal lands spanning five counties in southwestern Colorado. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) protested the proposed RMP in July 2019, and Governor Polis also submitted inconsistencies between the RMP and state policies, but those concerns were dismissed by the BLM in the final plan.

The State’s complaint details how William Perry Pendley, a BLM deputy director, violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA) when he improperly exercised the authority to resolve DNR’s protest while unlawfully occupying the role of the agency’s acting director. Resolving such protests is a responsibility reserved exclusively to the Secretary of Interior, a U.S. Senate-approved BLM Director, or a legitimate acting director nominated by the President.

Mr. Pendley’s appointment by Secretary David Bernhardt was never reviewed by the U.S. Senate and had extended beyond the legal 90-day limit for temporary officials at the time when the plan was finalized. Colorado’s lawsuit follows a recent ruling in a federal lawsuit in Montana that invalidated two RMPs and an RMP amendment that were approved based on a similar unlawful protest resolution by Mr. Pendley.

“The unfortunate fact is that if the Trump Administration had followed the law in appointing a Senate-confirmed nominee to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado and other western states would not be in this predicament,” said Governor Jared Polis. “It is now Colorado communities and the State of Colorado who face unnecessary uncertainty and potential impacts to local recreation and outdoor industry jobs.”

“The Department of Natural Resources raised legitimate concerns in its protest that the final Uncompahgre RMP runs counter to Colorado’s goals to protect sensitive habitat for big game species and other wildlife, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The complaint provides facts demonstrating that these concerns were not addressed appropriately, and the approval of the plan by Pendley’s BLM was invalid. We are hopeful that the uncertainty caused by the questionable appointment can be clarified by the court so that Western Slope and Southwest Colorado communities can reliably plan for the future.”

Attorney General Phil Weiser said: “In Colorado, our public lands are critical to our quality of life and economy. Over the years, the Bureau of Land Management has taken a series of illegal actions in developing the resource management plan that harms and conflicts with our state’s policies. We are bringing this lawsuit to address those harms and safeguard public lands and wildlife in Colorado.”

A copy of the filed complaint can be found here.

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

The state’s argument that Pendley, the BLM’s “acting director,” did not have the authority to approve anything mirrors a federal case in Montana that overturned three resource-management plans.

Gov. Jared Polis didn’t like the Bureau of Land Management’s long-range management plan for the Uncompahgre Plateau, saying the expansion of oil drilling in the region did not jibe with state laws and regulations protecting water, air, wildlife and recreation.

And because the agency did not resolve those issues in its Resource Management Plan, Polis on Friday sued the BLM, as well as agency bureaucrat William Perry Pendley and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, asking a federal judge to overturn the Resource Management Plan (or RMP) for nearly 680,000 acres of federal land in western Colorado.

The state is following the lead of Montana, arguing not just that the management plan conflicts with state laws, but that Pendley, who was never formally approved by the U.S. Senate as director of the BLM, did not have the authority to approve the RMP in April.

“The unfortunate fact is that if the Trump Administration had followed the law in appointing a Senate-confirmed nominee to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado and other western states would not be in this predicament,” said Polis in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “It is now Colorado communities and the state of Colorado who face unnecessary uncertainty and potential impacts to local recreation and outdoor industry jobs.”

The final plan approved by Pendley was the first resource management plan approved under the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” agenda to bolster domestic oil, gas and coal industries. It did not limit drilling in the North Fork Valley and expanded energy development across 675,800 acres of land and 971,200 acres of mineral estate in Montrose, Gunnison, Ouray, Mesa, Delta and San Miguel counties. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns about energy projects potentially injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality.

The preferred plan that was on track in the fall of 2019 — crafted after many years of BLM meetings and work with local communities — was replaced by a new Trump Administration alternative in the spring of 2020 that identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues alongside reducing regulatory burdens for extractive industries and economic development. The BLM said the plan would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity to the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next two decades.

Earlier this month the BLM approved two oil and gas drilling projects in the North Fork Valley that allow up to 226 wells.

Colorado’s lawsuit, being handled by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, says the plan’s conflicts with state laws were never resolved, so the approval should be overturned.

#Colorado’s top #energy stories in 2020 — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate #JustTransition

Photo credit: Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

In 2020, the raft of bills passed by Colorado legislators in 2019 began altering the state’s energy story. Too, there was covid. There was also the continued movement of forces unleashed in years and even decades past, the eclipsing of coal, in particular, with renewables. Some Colorado highlights:

1) Identifying the path for Colorado’s decarbonization

Colorado in 2019 adopted a goal of decarbonizing its economy 50% by 2030 (and 90% by 2050).

The decarbonization targets align with cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that climate scientists warn must occur to reduce risk of the most dangerous climatic disruptions.

In September 2020, the Colorado Air Quality Control Division released its draft roadmap of what Colorado must do to achieve its targets. The key strategy going forward is to switch electrical production from coal and gas to renewables, then switch other sectors that currently rely on fossil fuels to electricity produced by renew able generation. But within that broad strategy there are dozens of sub-strategies that touch on virtually every sector of Colorado’s economy.

A core structure to the strategy is to persuade operators of coal-fired power plants to shut down the plants by 2030, which nearly all have agreed to do. It’s an easy argument to make, given the shifted economics. The harder work is to shift electrical use into current sectors where fossil fuels dominate, especially transportation and buildings.

It’s a lot—but enough? By February, environmental groups were fretting that the Polis administration was moving too slowly. During summer months, several members of the Air Quality Control Commission, the key agency given authority and responsibility to make this decarbonization happen, probed both the pace and agenda of the Polis administration.

This is from the Jan. 5, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at bigpivots.com

ohn Putnam, the environmental programs director in the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, and the team assembled to create the roadmap have defended the pacing and the structural soundness, given funding limitations.

Days before Christmas, the Environmental Defense Fund filed a petition with the Air Quality Control Commission. The 85-page document calls for sector-specific and legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. It’s called a backstop. The proposal calls for a cap-and-trade system of governance, similar to what California created to rein in emissions. New England states also have used cap-and-trade to govern emissions from electrical generation. In this case, though, the emission limits would apply to all sectors. EDF’s submittal builds on an earlier proposal from Western Resource Advocates.

“The state is still far from having a policy framework in place capable of cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the pace and scale required—and Colorado’s first emissions target is right around the corner in 2025,” said one EDF blog post.

This proposal from EDF is bold. Whether it is politically practical even in a state that strongly embraces climate goals is the big question, along with whether it is needed. All this will likely get aired out at the Air Quality Control Commission meeting on Feb. 18-19.

Martin Drake Coal Plant Colorado Springs. The coal plant in downtown Colorado Springs will be closed by 2023 and 7 gas-fired generators moved in to generate power until 2030. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

2) Coal on its last legs as more utilities announce closures

It was a tough year for coal—and it’s unlikely to get better. Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Colorado Springs Utilities both announced they’d close their last coal plants by 2030. Xcel Energy and Platte River Power Authority had announced plans in 2018.

That will leave just a handful of coal plants operated by Xcel Energy puffing, but who knows what state regulators will rule or what Xcel will announce in 2021. It has a March 31 deadline to submit its next 4-year electric resource plan.

Meanwhile, Peabody, operator of the Twentymile Mine near Steamboat Springs, furloughed half its employees in May, partly because of covid, and in November announced it was considering filing for bankruptcy. If so, it will be the second time in five years.

It was an image from Arizona, though, that was iconic. The image published in December by the Arizona Republic, a newspaper, showed three 750-foot stacks at the Navajo Generating Station at Paige beginning to topple.

3) How and how fast the phase-out of natural gas?

Cities in California and elsewhere have adopted bans on new natural gas infrastructure in most buildings. Several states have adopted bans against local bans. Colorado in 2020 got a truce until 2022.

But the discussion has begun with a go-slow position paper by Xcel Energy and heated arguments from environmental hard-hitter Rocky Mountain Institute. It’s insane to build 40,000 new homes a year in Colorado with expensive natural gas infrastructure even as Colorado attempts to decarbonize its economy, Eric Blank, appointed by Polis in December to chair the PUC, told Big Pivots last summer. The PUC held an information hearing in November on natural gas.

State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, sponsored a bill that would have created a renewable natural gas standard, to provide incentives to dairies and others to harness their methane emissions. The bill got shelved in the covid-abbreviated legislative session. Expect to see it in 2021.

But even without the incentive, Boulder in July completed a biogas conversion project at its sewage treatment plant. It was the fourth such project in Colorado in the last several years.

Rich Meisinger Jr., business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, explains an aspect of the coal economy to Gov. Jared Polis in March. Photo credit: Allen Best

4) Colorado begins effort to define a Just Transition

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis spent the first Friday in March in Craig and Hayden, two coal towns in northwest Colorado. Legislators in 2019 created an Office of Just Transition. The goal is to help communities and workers in the coal sector affected by the need to pivot to cleaner fuels create a glide path to a new future. No other state has the same legislative level of ambition.

There are many places in Colorado where the impacts of this transition will be felt, but perhaps no place quite as dramatically as in the Yampa River Valley of northwest Colorado.

Polis and members of the Just Transition team created by legislators spent the afternoon in the Hayden Town Hall, hearing from disgruntled coal miners, union representatives, and local elected and economic development officials. That very afternoon, the first covid case in Colorado was reported.

Legislators funded only an office and one employee. That remains the case. Some money will have to be delivered in coming years to assist workers and, to a lesser degree, the impacted communities. As required by law, a final report to legislators was posted in late December.

Legislators will have to decide whether the task force got it right and, if so, where the money will come from to assist workers and communities in coming years.

Meanwhile, in Craig, and elsewhere, the thinking has begun in earnest about the possibilities for diversification and reinvention. But it will be tough, tough, tough to replace the property tax revenues of coal plants in the Hayden, Craig, and Brush school districts.

For more depth, see the first and second stories I published on this (via Energy News Network) in August.

The question driving the upcoming investigation is whether Xcel customers, who represent 53% of electrical demand in Colorado, would be better served by shuttering this coal plant well ahead of its originally scheduled 2060-2070 closing.

Work got underway in October 2020 for a massive solar farm that will satisfy nearly all the power requirements of the Evraz steel mill. Photo credit: Allen Best

6) Work begins on giant solar farm that will power steel mill

In October, site preparation work began on the periphery of Pueblo on 1,500 acres of land owned by Evraz, the steel mill, for a giant 240-megawatt solar farm. Keep in mind that nearby Comanche 3 has a generating capacity of 750 megawatts. Commercial operations will begin at the end of 2021.

Evraz worked with Xcel Energy and Lightsource BP to make the giant solar installation happen. The company expects the solar power to provide nearly all of its needs. See artist depiction on page 15. See August story.

7) A new framework for oil and gas and operations

Colorado’s revamped oversight of oil and gas drilling and processing continued with a new legislatively-delegated mission for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: protecting public safety, health, welfare, and the environment. The old mission: fostering development.

Guiding this is a new 5-member commission, only one of whom can be from the industry. The 2019 law also specified shared authority over oil and gas regulation with water and other commissions to also have say-so. And local governments can adopt more restrictive regulations.

The specifics of this came into sharp focus in November with 574 pages of new rules adopted after 10 months of proceedings, including what both industry and environmental groups called cooperative and collaborative discussions.

The new rules simplify the bureaucratic process for drilling operators, require that drilling operations stay at least four blocks (i.e. 2,000 feet) from homes; old regulations required only a block. The new rules also end the routine venting of natural gas.

The new rules likely won’t end all objections but the level of friction may drop because of the rules about where, when, and how.

Both idle fleet pickup trucks and drilling rigs were abundant in Weld County in June, 2020. Photo credit: Allen Best

8) Covid clobbers the drilling rigs and idles the pickups

Oil prices dove from near $60 a barrel in January to $15.71 in May. All but 7 drilling rigs in Colorado’s Wattenberg Field had folded by then, compared to 31 working a year before. Covid-dampened travel had slackened demand, and supply was glutted by the production war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Unemployment claims from March to November grew to 8,425, compared to 30,000 direct jobs in 2019. The full impact may have been 230,000 jobs in Colorado, given the jobs multiplier. Dan Haley, chief executive of Colorado Oil and Gas Association, at year’s end reported cautious optimism for 2021 as prices escalated and vaccines began to be administered.

Covid slowed the renewable sector, too, causing Vestas to announce in November it would lay off 185 from its blade factory in Brighton.

9) Utilities mostly hold onto empires—for now

Xcel Energy got a big win in November when Boulder voters approved a new franchise after a decade-long lapse while the city investigated creating its own utility. Black Hills Energy crushed a proposed municipal break in Pueblo. And Tri-State Generation & Transition stalled exit attempts by two of its three largest member cooperatives, Brighton-based United Power and Durango-based La Plata Energy, through an attempt to get jurisdiction in Washington D.C.

But there was much turbulence. Xcel lost its wholesale supplier contract to Fountain, a municipality. Canon City voters declined to renew the franchise with Black Hills. And Tri-State lost Delta-Montrose, which is now being supplied by Denver-based Guzman Energy, a relatively new wholesale supplier created to take advantage of the flux in the utility sector. Low-priced renewables have shaken up the utility sector – and the shaking will most certainly continue as the relationship between consumers and suppliers gets redefined.

10) Two utilities take lead in the race toward 100% renewables

Xcel Energy in December 2018 famously announced its intent to reduce carbon emissions from its electrical generation 80% by 2030 (as compared to 2005 levels), a pledge put into law in 2019. In 2020, nearly all of Colorado’s electrical generators mostly quietly agreed to the same commitment.

Meanwhile, several utilities began publicly plotting how to get to 100%. Most notable were Platte River Power Authority and its four member cities in northern Colorado. Holy Cross Energy, the electrical cooperative serving the Vail-Aspen, Rifle areas, announced its embrace of the goal in December. CEO Bryan Hannegan said the utility sees multiple pathways to this summit.

A fast-charger for electric vehicles can now be found near the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument. Photo credit: Allen Best

11) Gearing up for transportation electrification

You can now get a fast-charge on your electric car in Dinosaur, Montrose, and a handful of other locations along major highways in Colorado, but in 2021 that list will grow to 34 locations.

Colorado is gearing up for electric cars and trying to create the infrastructure and programs that will accelerate EV adoption, helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, now the No. 1 source, while delivering hard-to-explain-briefly benefits to a modernized grid.

Also coming will be new programs in Xcel Energy’s $110 million transportation electrification program approved by the PUC just before Christmas. It creates the template going forward.

Now comes attention to medium- and heavy-duty transportation fleets. Easy enough to imagine an electrified Amazon van. How about electric garbage trucks?

Colorado and 14 other states attempted to send a market signal to manufacturers with a July agreement of a common goal of having medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sold within their borders be fully electric by mid-century. Of note: Other than Vermont, Colorado was the only state among the 14 lacking an ocean front.

Many await arrival of the first Rivian pickup trucks in 2021, while Ford is working on an electric version of its F-series pickup.

12) Disproportionately impacted communities

The phrase “disproportionately impacted communities” joined the energy conversation in Colorado in 2020.

In embracing the greenhouse gas reduction goals, in 2019, state legislators told the Air Quality Control Commission to identify “disproportionately impacted communities,” situations where “multiple factors, including both environmental and socio-economic stressors, may act cumulatively to affect health and the environment and contribute to persistent environmental health disparities.”

The law goes on to describe the “importance of striving to equitably distribute the benefits of compliance, opportunities to incentivize renewable energy resources and pollution abatement opportunities in disproportionately impacted communities.”

Specific portions of Air Quality Control Commission meetings were devoted to this. What this will mean in practice, though, is not at all clear.

A version of this was previously published by Empower Colorado. IT was published in the Jan. 5, 2020, issue of Big Pivots.

Say hello to The Land Desk newsletter from Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace

From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

With the dawning of a new year comes a new source of news, insight, and commentary: the Land Desk. It is a newsletter about Place. Namely that place where humanity and the landscape intersect. The geographical center of my coverage will be the Four Corners Country and Colorado Plateau, land of the Ute, Diné, Pueblo, Apache, and San Juan Southern Paiute people. From there, coverage will spread outward into the remainder of the “public-land states” of the Interior West, with excursions to Wyoming to look at the coal and wind-power industries and Nevada to check out water use in Las Vegas and so on.

This is the time and the place for a truth-telling, myth-busting, fair yet sometimes furious journalism like The Land Desk will provide. This is where climate change is coming home to roost in the form of chronic drought, desertification, and raging wildfires. This is where often-toxic politics are playing out on the nation’s public lands. This is the sacrifice zone of the nation’s corporate extractive industries, yet it is also the playground and wilderness-refuge for the rest of the nation and the world. This is the headwaters for so many rivers of the West. And this is where Indigenous peoples’ fight for land-justice is the most potent, whether it be at Bears Ears or Chaco Canyon or Oak Flat.

The Land Desk will provide a voice for this region and a steady current of information, thought, and commentary about a wide range of topics, from climate change to energy to economics to public lands. Most importantly, the information will be contextualized so that we—my readers (and collaborators) and I—can better understand what it all means. Perhaps we can also help chart a better and more sustainable course for the region to follow into the future, to try to realize Wallace Stegner’s characterization of this place as the “native home of hope.”

https://landdesk.substack.com

I’ve essentially been doing the work of the Land Desk for more than two decades. I got my start back in 1996 as the sole reporter and photographer for the weekly Silverton Standard & the Miner. I went from there to High Country News fifteen years ago, and that wonderful publication has nurtured and housed most of my journalism ever since. But after I went freelance four years ago, my role at HCN was gradually diminished. While I have branched out in the years since, writing three books as well as articles for Sierra, The Gulch, Telluride Magazine, Writers on the Range, and so forth, I’ve increasingly run up against what I call the freelancer bottleneck, which is what happens when you produce more content more quickly than you can sell it. That extra content ends up homeless, or swirling around in my brain, or residing in semi-obscurity on my personal website.

I’m not messing around. The Land Desk is by no means a repository for the stories no one wants. It is intended to be the home for the best of my journalism and a place where you can find an unvarnished, unique, deep perspective on some of the most interesting landscapes and communities in the world. My hope is that it will give me the opportunity to write the stories that I’ve long wanted to write and that the region needs. If my hopes are realized, the Land Desk will one day expand and welcome other Western journalists to contribute.

That’s where you come in. In order for this venture to do more than just get off the ground, it needs to pay for itself. In order to do that, it needs paying subscribers (i.e., you). In other words, I’m asking for your support.

For the low price of $6/month ($60/year), subscribers will receive a minimum of three dispatches each week, including:

  • 1 Land Bulletin (news, analysis, commentary, essay, long-form narrative, or investigative piece);
  • 1 Data Dump (anything from a set of numbers with context to full-on data-visual stories); and,
  • 1 News Roundup, which will highlight a sample of the great journalism happening around the West;
  • Reaction to and contextualization of breaking news, as needed.
  • Additionally, I’ll be throwing in all sorts of things, from on-the-ground reporter notebooks to teasers from upcoming books to the occasional fiction piece to throwbacks from my journalistic archives.

Can’t afford even that? No worries. Just sign up for a free subscription and get occasional dispatches, or contact me and we can work something out. Or maybe you’ve got some extra change jangling around in your pocket and are really hungry for this sort of journalism? Then become a Founding Member and, in addition to feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, you’ll receive some extra swag.

I just launched the Land Desk earlier this week and already subscribers are getting content! Today I published a Data Dump on a southwestern indicator river setting an alarming record. Also this week, look for a detailed analysis tracing the roots of the recent invasion of the Capitol to the Wise Use movement of the early 1990s. In the not-so distant future I’ll be publishing “Carbon Capture Convolution,” about the attempt to keep a doomed coal-fired power plant running by banking on questionable technology and sketchy federal tax credits. Plus the Land Desk will have updated national park visitor statistics, a look back on how the pandemic affected Western economies, and forward-looking pieces on what a Biden administration will mean for public lands.

Please subscribe to The Land Desk. Click here to read some of Thompson’s work that has shown up on Coyote Gulch over the years.

Navajo Generating Station Demolished

From The Arizona Republic (Ryan Randazzo). Click through for the photo gallery:

The demolition of the largest coal burner in the West is a milestone for environmentalists who fought, and continue to fight, to shift the country to renewable energy. But it was a somber moment for the hundreds of people who worked at the plant, some following multiple generations of family members before them, who benefited from the good-paying jobs.

When the plant was running at full capacity, the 775-foot-tall stacks were the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation, but the coal-burning days for the station ended last year as utilities decided to purchase cheaper power from natural-gas plants and renewables like solar.

Now the stacks will no longer linger in the background of tourists’ photos at the famous Antelope Canyon slot canyons and Lake Powell.

The coal plant, and mine 80 miles away that fed it, employed about 750 people before operations began to wind down two years ago, and nearly all of the workers were Navajo and Hopi.

Hundreds of people lined the highways and cliff sides outside Page on Friday to watch the demolition, which sent a huge plume of dust creeping across the landscape…

…environmentalists have urged the plant’s closure for years, noting its contribution to climate-warming greenhouse gasses, the impact from the coal mine on the land and water, and the other pollutants that came out of the emissions stacks creating haze over the region.

#Colorado mountains bouncing back from ‘acid rain’ impacts — CU #Boulder Today

Meadows, forests and mountain ridges create the high alpine landscapes of Niwot Ridge in the Rocky Mountains, 25 miles northwest of Boulder. Forty percent of the City of Boulder’s water is sourced from the Green Lakes Valley within Niwot Ridge, which the researchers analyzed in this study. (Credit: William Bowman)

From the University of Colorado (Kelsey Simpkins):

A long-term trend of ecological improvement is appearing in the mountains west of Boulder. Researchers from CU Boulder have found that Niwot Ridge—a high alpine area of the Rocky Mountains, east of the Continental Divide—is slowly recovering from increased acidity caused by vehicle emissions in Colorado’s Front Range.

Their results show that nitric and sulfuric acid levels in the Green Lakes Valley region of Niwot Ridge have generally decreased over the past 30 years, especially since the mid-2000s. The findings, which suggest that alpine regions across the Mountain West may be recovering, are published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.

This is good news for the wildlife and wildflowers of Rocky Mountain National Park to the north of Niwot Ridge, which depend on limited levels of acidity in the water and soil to thrive. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are also the source of a lot of water for people living in the Mountain West, and the integrity of these ecosystems influences both the quantity and the quality of this water.

“It looks like we’re doing the right thing. By controlling vehicle emissions, some of these really special places that make Colorado unique are going back to what they used to be,” said Jason Neff, co-author on the paper and director of the Sustainability Innovation Lab at Colorado (SILC).

Meadows, forests and mountain ridges create the high alpine landscapes of Niwot Ridge in the Rocky Mountains, 25 miles northwest of Boulder. Forty percent of the City of Boulder’s water is sourced from the Green Lakes Valley within Niwot Ridge, which the researchers analyzed in this study. (Credit: William Bowman)

Almost every area in the world, including Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, has been affected in the past 200 years by increased acidic nutrients, like nitrogen, contained in rain and snow. Nitrogen oxides, like nitrate, are produced primarily from vehicles and energy production. Ammonium is a main ingredient in common agricultural fertilizers.

Nitrogen is a fundamental nutrient required in ecosystems. But when nitrogen levels increase too much, this changed soil and water chemistry can make it difficult for native plants to thrive or even survive—leading to a cascade of negative consequences.

In the summer, the sun heats up the Eastern flanks of the Front Range, causing the warmer air to rise—bringing nitrogen from cars, industry and agriculture with it. As this air cools, it forms clouds over the Rocky Mountains and falls back down as afternoon thunderstorms—depositing contaminants, explained Neff.

In the 1970s, so-called “acid rain” hit East Coast ecosystems much harder than the Mountain West, famously wiping out fish populations and killing trees across large swaths of upstate New York. But scientists are still working to understand how increased levels of acidic nutrients affect the alpine region and how long these ecosystems take to recover.

To fill this gap of knowledge, the researchers analyzed data from 1984 to 2017 on atmospheric deposition and stream water chemistry from the Mountain Research Station, a research facility of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and CU Boulder located on Niwot Ridge. They found that around the early 2000s, levels of nitric and sulfuric acid stopped increasing in the Green Lakes Valley. In the mid-2000s they started decreasing.

Their findings were not all good news, however. Levels of ammonium from fertilizer have more than doubled in rainfall in this area between 1984 and 2017, indicating a need to continue monitoring this agricultural chemical and its effects on the mountain ecosystem.

From field work to statistics

This work builds on decades of field work by Colorado researchers at CU Boulder and beyond.

Niwot Ridge is one of 28 Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network sites in the U.S., funded by the National Science Foundation. Its 4 square miles stretch from the Continental Divide down to the subalpine forest, 25 miles northwest of Boulder. Researchers at CU Boulder, as well as Colorado State University and the United States Geological Survey, have been collecting data here since the mid-1970s, hiking through snow, sleet and rain to get it.

In the 80s, 90s and 2000s they worked to bring attention to increasing acidification in Colorado mountain ecosystems as a need for pollution regulation in the Front Range.

This new research was made possible by these dedicated scientists, stresses Neff.

“We used water quality modeling and statistical approaches to analyze the long-term datasets that Niwot researchers have been collecting for decades,” said Eve-Lyn Hinckley, a co-author on the paper and fellow of INSTAAR. “The data are available for anyone to download. Our modeling approaches allowed us to evaluate the patterns they hold in a rigorous way.”

Since 1990, Bill Bowman, director of the Mountain Research Station and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been looking into how nutrients like nitrogen affect plants in mountain ecosystems. He’s found that alpine environments are unique in how they respond to these nutrients.

“It’s a system that is adapted to low nutrients, as well as a harsh climate and a very short growing season—and frost in the middle of the season. These are very slow growing plants. And they just simply can’t respond to the addition of more nitrogen into the system,” said Bowman, also a fellow in INSTAAR.

He has also found that these ecosystems recover quite slowly, even after acidic elements like nitrogen are no longer being added. But like Neff, who completed his undergraduate honors thesis with Bowman in 1993 using Niwot Ridge data, he sees this research as encouraging.

Even if it’s slow going, they said, these results show that the ecosystem has a chance to recover.

“We still have air quality issues in the Front Range. But even with those air quality issues, this research shows that regulating vehicle and power plant emissions is having a big impact,” said Neff.

Additional authors on this paper include lead author John Crawford of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and CU Boulder.

A new era for Tri-State — The Mountain Town News

Laramie River power plant at Wheatland. Photo credit: Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Colorado’s second biggest electrical utility will soon identify its path to 80% reduced emissions by 2030. Surely this map will include Arizona and Wyoming.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission last week promised to deliver what Colorado wants, an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. As for how it will deliver on that pledge, it remains a bit of a mystery.

Less coal production, obviously. More wind and solar, ditto. And, as has been highlighted in recent filings, more transmission to get electricity from renewable sources to its 16 member co-operatives in Colorado.

But how exactly?

For that, a more definitive answer will likely have to wait until Dec. 1 and perhaps beyond. That’s when Tri-State is scheduled to deliver an electric resource plan to state regulators. This plan is to explain in detail how it intends to procure electricity in coming years for its Colorado cooperatives. Colorado’s co-ops together account for about two-thirds of Tri-State’s demand across a four-state area.

Tri-State is Colorado’s second largest utility based on the amount of electricity it delivers in the state. In 2019 it delivered 38% as much electricity as compared to Xcel.

This electric resource plan will be a first for Tri-State. The utility has never been directly regulated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. SB 19-236, one of the many laws passed by Colorado legislators in 2019 to complement new economy wide carbon reduction targets adopted in the same session, makes it clear that the PUC has jurisdiction over Tri-State’s resource planning activities. A September filing by the Colorado PUC staff asserted that the “overriding concern” in evaluating Tri-State’s plan is how the utility “can meet Colorado’s emissions reduction cost effectively.”

Foundational to Colorado’s efforts to decarbonize its economy 50% by 2030, with even deeper cuts by mid-century, is removing carbon emissions from the electrical sector and then using electricity for other uses now fulfilled by fossil fuels in the transportation, industrial, and building sectors.

The 2019 legislation laid out an explicit requirement of 80% emissions reductions of Xcel Energy, which had by then agreed to do so. The state’s authority over other utilities, however, is more fuzzy.

In recent months, Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, has secured commitments from Platte River Power Authority, the wholesale provider for four municipalities along the Front Range, and also Colorado Springs Utilities. This commitment by Tri-State binds the overwhelming majority of Colorado electrical production to the emissions reductions identified by legislators.

A smaller utility, Holy Cross Energy, has adopted a more restrained goal of 70% by 2030 but is almost certain to hit that target within the next year.

Tri-State announced in January it would close its Escalante coal plant in New Mexico this year. It did so in September. 2019 photo/Allen Best

Tri-State in January announced it would close the Escalante coal plant in New Mexico this year, which it did in September, and that it would have all the three units near Craig that it operates closed by 2030.

Still, Tri-State has a long, long way to go. Baseline modeling done by the utility in advance of its Dec. 1 filing showed a 34% reduction in Colorado in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 as compared to a 2005 baseline.

Last week, after Tri-State’s announcement, Tri-Harder, a new coalition of Tri-State members, issued a statement. Speakers were cautious in their praise.

“Telluride can’t meet its carbon reduction goals unless Tri-State takes the lead on carbon reductions, so we’re thrilled with this news,” said Todd Brown, mayor pro-tem of Telluride. “I hope this means that Tri-State will invest in local, clean energy in our communities so that our local economies can benefit as well as the climate.”

Wyoming and Arizona

With Colorado Gov. Jared Polis rubbing virtual elbows, video-conference style, Tri-State chief executive Duane Highley took questions about his utility’s pathway.

Highley said the utility will be adding thousands of megawatts of new generating capacity in wind and solar and expects to be at 50% renewables across its entire system by 2023; in 2019 it was about 30%, about the same as Xcel.

But what will it do about imported power into Colorado? Tri-State imports power to meet needs of Colorado consumers from the Laramie River Station at Wheatland, Wyo., and from the Springerville 3 plant in Arizona. Tri-State is a minority owner in the Laramie River Plant but owns all the output from the unit at Springerville.

Highley said that Tri-State will diminish the power from the Wyoming plant over time, but did not give a time line.

The PUC staff report in September pointed out that aside from natural-gas generation, almost all the other carbon dioxide emissions in 2030 are from these out-of-state coal units.

“According to Tri-State, there are no provisions for modification or early termination” of the contracts” and Tri-State “has not analyzed such an action. The staff report went on to say that the resource planning review before the PUC “may include clear evidence that for Tri-State to meet its cumulative Colorado GHG reduction obligations, it cannot continue to serve Colorado load (demand) using those out-of-state resources.”

Tri-State, in an Oct. 2 filing, said it is developing several scenarios as part of its planning. “These scenarios will address the social cost of carbon on a system-wide basis, as well as specified carbon reduction goals in the state of Colorado,” the filing said. “These scenarios include aggressive levels of renewable energy additions and energy storage, allow for demand-side management, limit thermal additions, allow for retirement of existing resources, and incorporate either base or low-load forecast.”

What its load—the demand for its electricity—will be could be impacted by changes in the oil-and-gas sector, as Tri-State is a major supplier to oil-and-gas fields, but also the potential for existing cooperatives to leave or transition to partial requirements, Tri-State says.

In other words, there are a lot of uncertainties about just how much electricity Tri-State will need.

Another electric resource planning process will commence in 2023, not long after the current one is settled.

This is from the Nov. 20, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, which chronicles the great energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Sign up for copies at BigPivots.com.

Electric resource plans are wonky but rigorous things. Xcel Energy and Black Hills are required to file them. In addition to the filings of the utilities, laying out their plans and answering questions, intervening parties, including environmental groups, independent power producers, and the Office of Consumer Counsel, chip in statements, sometimes lengthy. Printing out all the filings in some of these cases can cost you a box of paper. The plans can drag on for years. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, the job is completed and then begins from the other side again.

The Tri-State filing will be a first for the utility itself. It will also be the first time for any resource plan since state legislators adopted the suite of energy laws in 2019. None was more expansive than SB 19-236, which reauthorized existence of the PUC but also delivered new criteria for how commissioners are to evaluate plans by utilities.

One example: The lengthy bill—it runs 64 pages—specifies that the commission must establish the cost of carbon dioxide emissions produced by electric generation resources, starting at not less than $46 per ton. The rate must be escalated based on the work by the federal interagency working group. This is called the social cost of carbon.

The PUC commissioners, at their weekly meeting on Nov. 12, ruled that Tri-State must use cost escalators in the models it submits for future electrical generation on Dec. 1.

Necessarily, the Colorado PUC will be examining Tri-State’s four-state operating system. Already, there are questions.

Reacting to Tri-State’s 80% announcement, Eric Frankowski, director of the Western Clean Energy Campaign, warned against any attempt to make this “an accounting exercise by shipping its expensive, dirty coal to its members outside of Colorado.”

Western Resource Advocates will also be watching carefully how Tri-State explains its accounting of greenhouse gas emissions in the review process.

Gwen Farnsworth, WRA’s senior energy policy advisor, says Tri-State’s announcement puts it at a better starting point for the electric resource plan in December as compared to the data provided by the utility earlier this year. That process before the PUC, she added, “provides a rigorous, evidence-based process to review Tri-State’s plan and emissions reductions claims.”

Tri-State’s cases will be different from the filing by Xcel Energy next March 1 in that the PUC has clear authority over setting rates in the case of Xcel. Tri-State sought oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission because it operates in four states.

One important area is that of transmission. Transmission has been constructed in a piecemeal fashion in Colorado over the decades. This new push for rapid development of renewable generation calls for a more unified and systematic approach to thinking about both new resources and transmission, instead of considering them separately.

Transmission, too

Transmission was also the subject of Highley’s second significant announcement last week. He said Tri-State and four other power providers have sent letters committing to evaluate expansion of the Southwest Power Pool’s regional transmission organization, or RTO, into the West. The other utilities are Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, and the Western Area Power Administration.

Duane Highley via The Mountain Town News

In essence, Tri-State has assembled buddies to challenge the more dominant idea in Colorado that the most logical way to realize benefits of managed markets will be to join with the California and other utilities in the West. Like Tri-State, generation and transmission associations, the one larger and the other much smaller, MEAN is a public power provider of many Colorado towns and cities.

For a deeper dive on RTOs and EIMs and other wonky stuff considered by utilities crucial to achieve deep penetration of renewables electricity, see Lower electricity bills in Colorado, and also Why Colorado needs an RTO.

Tri-State and WAPA — the distributor of electricity generated by federal dams in the West— in September 2019 announced they were forming an energy imbalance market with the aid of the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool. Xcel Energy and three partners—Platte River Power, Black Hills Energy, and Colorado Springs Utilities—three months later said they were doing the same but with the aid of CAISO, the California-created operator.

Creation of these imbalance markets is seen as a low-risk, low-reward investment in coordinating supplies, especially low-cost renewables, to meet demands. Highley has said that Tri-State can earn back its investment within three years. The far greater benefits will be found in an RTO.

A recent study by Vibrant Clean Energy found that a regional transmission organization, whether operated by SPP or by CAISO, could greatly benefit Colorado consumers, but concluded that the somewhat greater benefits were to be found with the alliance with California.

Asked about that study, Highley disagreed with the conclusion about CAISO but also said that whatever the regional alignment, there will be benefits of integrated transmission and scheduling to share wind, solar, and other resources across broader regions.

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

#Water lease agreement could help fish and help meet #ColoradoRiver Compact requirements — The Farmington Daily Times #COriver #aridification #endangeredspecies

From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy hope to demonstrate that the strategic water reserve can help endangered fish recover while also providing the ability to meet water compact requirements in the San Juan Basin.

San Juan River. Photo credit: USFWS

The Interstate Stream Commission approved allowing ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen to continue negotiations with the Jicarilla Apache Nation to lease up to 20,000 acre feet of water annually that became available as it is no longer needed for operation of the San Juan Generating Station.

San Juan Generating Station. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

The Jicarilla Apache Nation acquired rights to water stored in Navajo Lake in 1992 and has the authority to lease this water to other entities to help the tribe. Up until recently, the nation has leased water to Public Service Company of New Mexico to operate the San Juan Generating Station.

Navajo Lake

But the potential of the power plant closing in 2022 as well as a reduction in the amount of water needed to operate it due to the closure of two units in 2016 means that this water is now available for the state to potentially lease.

The water would be placed in the strategic water reserve, which has two purposes: assisting with endangered species recovery and ensuring the state meets its obligations under water compacts. When needed, the water could be released from the reservoir to help with the fish or to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact…

Terry Sullivan, the state director of The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico, said the organization has been working on the San Juan River for 15 years trying a variety of restoration projects to help create habitat. The fish rely on slow backwaters for reproduction…

Sullivan said the water lease is a great step forward to achieve both compact requirements and benefits to endangered species.

The amount leased each year would depend on funding available. One of the details of the lease agreement that has not yet been determined is the price…

Peter Mandelstam, the chief operating officer for Enchant Energy, said in a statement that the company believes it has enough water rights without the Jicarilla Apache lease to successfully retrofit the San Juan Generating Station with carbon capture technology and operate it.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

@Boulder and @CañonCity have been going in opposite directions since the 1870s. They did so again in their utility franchise votes — The Mountain Town News

Skyline Drive at night Cañon City. Photo credit: Vista Works via Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From the Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Beyond both being in Colorado and along the state’s Front Range, Boulder and Cañon City could not be more different. The differences go back to the state’s founding.

Cañon City had the choice of getting the state penitentiary or the state university. It chose the former, so Boulder got the latter.

In both cities, a franchise vote with the existing utility provider was on the ballot on Nov. 2. This time, they went in different directions once again. The fulcrum in both cases was cost, if the formula was more complex in the case of Boulder.

Boulder voters, after exploring municipalization for a decade, agreed to a new 20-year franchise agreement with Xcel Energy. Xcel had continued to supply the city’s residents with electricity after the last franchise agreement lapsed in 2010.

The new agreement garnered 56% voter approval. Even some strong supporters of the effort to municipalize had agreed that the effort by the city to create its own utility had taken too long and cost too much money, more than $20 million, with many millions more expected. They attributed this to the power of Xcel to block the effort.

Boulder’s effort had been driven primarily by the belief that a city utility could more rapidly embrace renewables and effect the changes needed to create a new utility model. In short, climate change was the driver, although proponents also argued that creation of a city utility would save consumers in the long run. Consumers just weren’t willing to wait long enough.

Going forward, Boulder will have several off-ramps if Xcel stumbles on the path toward decarbonization of its electrical supply. The city will also retain its place in the legal standings, if you will, should that be the case. Also, Xcel agreed to a process intended to advance microgrids and other elements, although critics describe that as toothless. Undergrounding of electrical lines in Boulder will not commence anew as a result of the new franchise agreement.

Cañon City is Colorado’s yin to Boulder’s yang. Located along the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado, it has become more conservative politically even as Boulder has shifted progressive. In the November election, 69% of votes in Fremont County—where Cañon City is located—went for Donald Trump, who got 21% of votes in Boulder County

Economically, they walk on opposite sides of the street, too. The statewide median income in Colorado in 2018 was $68,811. Boulder County stood a shoulder above (and Boulder itself likely even more) at $78,642. Fremont County was at waist level at $46,296.

And along the Arkansas River…

Cañon City also went in the opposite direction of Boulder in the matter of its franchise. There were differences, of course. Boulder turned its back on municipalization in accepting a new franchise.

In Cañon, about 65% of voters rejected a franchise agreement with Black Hills Energy, Colorado’s second investor-owned electrical utility. The city council had approved it, but the city charter also required voter approval.

Unlike in Boulder, decarbonization and reinvention was not overtly among the topic points. Some people in Cañon City do care about decarbonizing electricity, says Emily Tracy, the leader of a group called Cañon City’s Energy Future, which she put together in January 2018. But the cost of electricity was the fulcrum and, she believes, a reflection of how the community feels about Black Hills.

The old franchise agreement with Black Hills expired in 2017. Tracy and other members of Cañon City’s Energy Future persuaded council members to put off a new agreement but failed in their bid to have a community dialogue.

“The power industry, the electric industry, are so different than they used to be, and we simply want the city to explore its options,” she says.

In stories in the Pueblo Chieftain and Cañon City Daily Record, city officials said they had evaluated options before seeking to get voter approval of the franchise.

Partially in play was the effort underway in nearby Pueblo to break away from Black Hills and form a municipal utility. The thought was that if Pueblo voters approved that effort, Canon City could piggyback to the new utility. The proposal lost by a lopsided May vote after a campaign that featured $1.5 million in advertising and other outreach by a pro-Black Hills group.

Black Hills rates are among the highest in Colorado. Tracy illustrates by citing those she pays to Xcel Energy in Breckenridge, where she has a second home.

“I pay 77% more for a kilowatt-hour of electricity for my house in Cañon City than I do to Xcel in Breckenridge,” she says.

This is from the Nov. 20, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, which chronicles the great energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Sign up for copies at BigPivots.com.

Opponents of the franchise renewal were heavily outspent in the campaign. Records that Tracy’s group got from the city clerk showed $41,584 in spending by Power Cañon City, the pro-Black Hills group, through mid-October. Tracy’s group spent less than $5,000, counting in-kind contributions. Tracy suspects that Black Hills didn’t entirely take the vote seriously.

Now it’s back to the drawing board for the Cañon City Council. Tracy hopes for more transparent discussion about the options.

But it’s all about the money.

“You take a poor community like Cañon City or Pueblo, then add in the fact that we’re paying the highest electricity rates in the state, and there’s no doubt it has an impact on families, businesses and attempts to do economic development,” says Tracy.

Frances Koncilja, a former member of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission has offered her legal assistance to Cañon City’s Energy Future.

As for why Cañon City wanted the state prison instead of the state university in the early years of Colorado’s statehood, keep in mind the times. Crime did pay for Cañon City in the 19th century, when few people had or needed college degrees. It was well into the 20th century before this shift toward greater education began.

Platte River Power’s 100% goal — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Rawhide Energy Station. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Did Platte River Power just take a big step backward? Or was it big step forward?

The Sierra Club describes Platte River Power Authority as reneging on a commitment. Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who ran on a platform of 100% renewables by 2040, issued a statement applauding the electrical power provider for four northern Colorado cities with setting a new bar for electrical utilities.

Do you detect any dissonance?

Directors of Platte River representing its member cities—Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland and Estes Park—in December 2018 adopted a goal of 100% renewable generation by 2030. The 2018 resolution was hinged to a long list of provisos: if a regional transmission authority was created, if effective energy storage became cost effective, if…

You get the idea.

Platte River in recent months has been engaged in a planning process similar to what Xcel Energy does when it goes before the Public Utilities Commission every four years with updated plans for how it will generate its electricity.

Looking out to 2030, Platte River’s planners can see how they can get to 90% or above by 2030. That is, hands down, as good as it gets in Colorado right now. Aspen Electric in 2015 was able to proclaim 100% renewable generation. But that claim is predicated upon purchase of renewable energy certificates. Platte River’s goal goes further.

Steve Roalstad, who handles public relations for Platte River, says utilities in the Pacific Northwest with easy availability of hydroelectric power or those utilities relying upon nuclear power, can claim more. Not so those utilities, like Platte River, that have traditionally relied heavily on coal.

Rawhide, Platte River’s coal-fired power plant, has historically provided 60% to 65% of electricity to customers in the four cities. It’s being used less than it was. Platte River expects coal to provide 55% of Platte River’s power generation this year but less than 40% by 2023. The utility also uses “peaker” gas plants, to turn on quickly to meet peak demands, for 2% to 3% of annual generation.

Platte River plans another 400 megawatts of renewable generation in the next three years.

Still unresolved is the combination of technologies and market structures that will allow Platte River and other utilities to get to 100%. As backup, it has adopted a plan that could result in new natural gas generation, a technology called a reciprocating internal gas engine. That’s not a given, though. When exactly that decision will have to be made is not clear. Presumably it must be a matter of years, conceivably toward the end of the decade.

The Sierra Club issued a statement decrying the decision to use gas-fired generation as a place holder in the plans for 2030. In a release, the organization said the directors had “voted to build a new gas-fired power plant” and this decision “derails the utility’s 2018 commitment to 100% carbon-free power by 2030.”

Wade Troxell, the mayor of Fort Collins and chairman of the board of directors for Platte River, dismissed the statement.

Platte River, he wrote in an e-mail, “is not pulling away from our 2030 commitment in any way.” He directed attention to the resolution passed by directors.

That resolution, beginning on page 169, insists that Platte River “will continue to proactively pursue a 100% non-carbon energy mix by 2030, seeking innovative solutions… without new fossil-fueled resources, if possible.” The resolution describes fossil-fueled resources as a “technology safeguard.”

In other words, Platte River thinks it can figure out a way to avoid this gas plant. But it’s impossible to know now.

That’s likely a realistic assessment. Nobody knows absolutely how to get to 100% today. Will cheaper and—very important—longer-lasting energy storage create the safeguards that Platte River and other utilities want?

Technology in the last 10 years has done amazing things in some areas. Solar prices dived 87% between 2010 and 2020 while wind prices plummeted 46%, according to FactSet. Battery prices are now following a similar trajectory, although nobody has solved the challenge of energy storage for days and weeks.

Other technologies—think carbon capture and sequestration—have yielded almost nothing of value, despite billions of dollars in federal investment.

This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine. To get on the mailing list, go to BigPivots.com

In Boulder, advocates of a municipal utility have cited the progress of Platte River in arguing that a separation from Xcel Energy would benefit that city’s decarbonization goals. See, Boulder’s fork in the road.

In Denver, the governor’s office issued a statement Thursday afternoon applauding Platte River.

“This is the most ambitious level of pollution reduction that any large energy provider in the state has announced, and it sets a new bar for utilities. Today’s decision will save Platte River Power Authority customers money with low cost renewables while maintaining reliability, and this type of leadership from our electric utilities is a critical part of our statewide efforts to reduce pollution and fight the climate crisis,” said Governor Polis in a statement on Thursday afternoon.

Switching from fossil fuels to renewables to produce electricity is crucial to Colorado’s plan to achieve a 50% decarbonized economy by 2050. If electricity is decarbonized, it can then be used to replace petroleum in transportation and, more challenging yet, heating of homes and water.

State officials have limited authority to achieve this directly. Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office, cited Platte River as the only utility in the state to voluntarily commit to a clean energy plan to achieve the state’s goals. Others, however, likely will also, he said.

Platte River is Colorado’s fourth largest utility, behind Xcel Energy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and Colorado Springs Utilities.

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

Why Colorado needs an RTO — The Mountain Town News

NASA image acquired April 18 – October 23, 2012 via Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Speakers say regional transmission organization crucial to economic decarbonization of electrical supplies

If you’re interested in how Colorado will achieve its climate change goals, prepare to wrap your mind around the concept of an RTO, or regional transmission organization.

Colorado in 2019 set economy-wide carbon reduction goals of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. Getting there will require electrifying many uses that now depend upon fossil fuels. Think cars and then trucks, but eventually houses, too, and more.

This only works if emissions are largely removed from the production of electricity. Colorado legislators in 2019 understood that. They set a target of 80% fewer emissions by 2030 among electrical utilities. They did not tell utilities how to get there.

On a September morning in which smoke was wafting eastward across the Great Plains from the wildfires in the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast, I sat in a cabin near Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy to hear representatives of Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities and one state legislator explain how they thought Colorado might get an RTO or its close relative, an ISO.

The former once again stands for regional transmission organization, and the latter an independent system operator. The function in both cases is much the same. These organizations pool electrical generation resources and also consolidate transmission.

Colorado currently has neither an RTO nor an ISO, although it has been talking about it for several years. Instead, the state remains composed of fiefdoms. These utilities do share electricity to a point, but the system is archaic, little more advanced than one utility calling a neighboring utility and asking if they have a little extra sugar to share.

Now think more broadly of Western states and provinces. There are wide open spaces, the stuff of calendars and posters. That’s the image of the West. The reality in which 80% or more of Westerners live lies in the dispersed archipelagoes of urban development: Colorado’s Front Range, Utah’s Wasatch Front, and Arizona’s Phoenix-Tucson, the mass of Southern California, and so on.

These islands define and determine the West’s electrical infrastructure. You can see them in the nighttime photographs taken from outer space, including this 2012 image from the NASA Earth Observatory/NOSAA NGDC. These 38 islands represent more-or-less autonomous grids, only loosely connected to the other islands and archipelagoes.

RTOs pool commitments and dispatch of generation, creating cost savings for participating utilities. An RTO also consolidates transmission tariff functions under one operator, resulting in more efficient use of high-voltage transmission.

In the 20th century, this pattern of loosely linked islands worked well enough. Each island had its big power plants, most of them coal-fired generation. The intermittency of renewables was not an issue, because there were few renewables. And, of course, there was less need for transmission. In keeping with the fiefdom theme, transmission providers levied charges for electricity that moves through those wires.

Much has changed. Renewables have become the lowest-cost generation. Prices of wind and solar, plus batteries, too, dropped 90% in the last 10 to 15 years. Utilities have figured out how to integrate wind and solar into their resource mix. Xcel Energy, in its Colorado operations, has used more than 70% of wind at certain times, for example.

Coal earlier this year remained the source of 40% of electrical generation in Colorado, but will decline rapidly in the next five years. Two coal-fired units at Pueblo, two in or near Colorado Springs, and one at Craig will cease production by 2025.

Beyond 2025, more closings yet will occur. Tri-State Generation & Transmission, Colorado’s second largest electrical supplier, will close the two remaining plants it operates in Craig by 2030. Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, will almost certainly have closed additional units, either Hayden or Pawnee, conceivably both, by 2030. Platte River Power Authority also plans to shutter its Rawhide plant north of Fort Collins.

To take advantage of low-cost renewables but also ensure reliable delivery of electricity, utilities will have to do more sharing. That was the common theme of the webinar sponsored by the Colorado Rural Electric Association on Sept. 14.

A must for decarbonization

The subject of RTOs was “a very important topic, and one that the average voter knows absolutely nothing about, in my experience,” said State Sen. Chris Hansen, an engineer who has a Ph.D. in economic geography from Oxford University. He has been involved with most of Colorado’s most important energy legislation of recent years.

Chris Hansen via The Mountain Town News

Hansen pointed out that 80% of energy use in the West is aligned with decarbonization goals. He foresees a $700 billion investment in the next 20 years needed to reinvent electrical generation, transmission, and distribution across the Western grid, including British Columbia and Alberta.

“If we stay with 38 unintegrated grids, I just don’t think we can physically get there (to achieve climate targets) without a hugely expensive overbuild of wind and solar, and nobody wants that,” said Hansen on the webinar.

While decarbonizing the grid, an RTO will deliver strong economic benefits. “Just leave climate change aside for the minute—which is hard to do as fires rage across the West—we are looking at a minimum $4 billion in savings in the West if we have an integrated grid,” he said.

What’s the snag? As Hansen has pointed out, the smart phone took only two years from introduction into the market to broad adoption.

The short answer is that creating markets in the West is relatively new and this stuff gets very, very complicated, as was pointed out by Carrie Simpson, who looks after markets for Xcel’s Colorado operations.

She cited the devilish details involving charges on electricity transmission, how utilities make money, who makes the money and who doesn’t, and then a massive rejiggering of the electrical grid through invention of sophisticated software intended to deliver lowest-cost electricity while keeping the lights on.

Hansen was asked by webinar host Thomas Dougherty, an attorney for Tri-State Generation and Transmission, whether Colorado’s utilities might expect legislative direction in the coming session.

He prefaced his answer by pointing to the ability of an RTO or ISO to reduce needed reserves to ensure reliability. Currently, utilities need backup generation of 16% or 17%. With an RTO, said Hansen, that could be lowered to 10% or 11%. It’s like needing 9 pickups in your fleet instead of 10.

“You could easily take 5% out of reserve margins in Colorado,” he said. “That is worth more than $100 million dollars per year.”

“I think you will see the Legislature really try to push this, because there is so much at stake for the ratepayers,” Hansen replied.

Later, in an email interview, Hansen confirmed his plans to introduce legislation next winter that “will address both the near-term and longer-term issues in CO around transmission. I believe we need a clear policy direction for Colorado to join a well-structured RTO or ISO and transmission owners. To accomplish that goal, we may need incentives and disincentives for operators.”

Hansen also confirmed that he believes even existing coal plants are less foundational than they once were.

Why Tri-State needs it

Duane Highley, the chief executive of Tri-State, has practical experience in the benefits of regional markets. A veteran of 38 years in electrical cooperatives in the Midwest, he recalled being in Arkansas a few years ago when he drew on the power of the Midwest Independent System Operator, or MISO, to deliver wind power from Iowa during winter to Arkansas customers.

Duane Highley via The Mountain Town News

This enabled coal-fired power plants to be shut down. He called it “decommitting” of resources.

Tri-State must decommit coal resources in coming years to meet Colorado’s decarbonization targets. The utility, Colorado’s second largest, behind Xcel, has started shifting from coal. It closed one small plant in Colorado, at Nucla, in September 2019, and Escalante, in New Mexico, in September 2020. The three much larger units at Craig, of which Tri-State shares ownership with other utilities, will close between 2025 and 2030.

On the flip side, Tri-State is adding 1,000 megawatts of renewable generation before the end of 2024. That will get Tri-State to 50% renewables across its four-state operating area. It then has plans for more than 2,000 megawatts of additional renewable generation from 2025 to 2030.

That won’t be enough to get Tri-State to the 80% emission reduction by 2030 that Colorado lawmakers want to see. In preliminary filings with the PUC, Tri-State has not shown its cards about how it intends to get there. Environmental groups have started making noise. In a filing with the PUC, Western Resource Advocates pointed out that current plans will get Tri-State to only a 34% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.

Crucial will be what Tri-State intends to do with its share of two other coal-fired power plants, the Laramie River Station in Wyoming and the Springerville plant in Arizona.

Highley, in the webinar, did not acknowledge the critique directly. He did, however, say that Tri-State needs an RTO to get across the finish line.

“We see a strong need for an RTO to get us past that 50% renewable level as we try to integrate larger and larger amounts of renewables,” he said.

Colorado and its neighbors in the Rocky Mountains currently operate bilateral markets. Highley described it as getting “on the phone and calling your neighbors. That’s sort of the way the West operates. It’s very inefficient,” he said.

This is from the Oct. 2, 2020 issue of Big Pivots. If you want to be on the subscription list, go to BigPivots.com

Utilities in Colorado in 2017 began getting together in an ad hoc organization called the Mountain West Transmission Group to talk about how to do it more efficiently. That effort fell apart in spring 2019 when Xcel pulled out. The company said the benefits weren’t obvious relative to the cost.

Tri-State, which delivers about roughly a quarter of electricity in Colorado, and Xcel, which has more than 60% of market share, have gone their separate ways. Both have led efforts to create energy imbalance markets, or EIMs. These are best described as the first step toward an RTO or ISO, with smaller risk and smaller rewards.

The first, small step

Only five months after arriving from Arkansas to chart a new course for Tri-State, Highley in September 2019 announced formation of an energy imbalance market, or EIM, in conjunction with the Western Area Power Authority, the federal agency that delivers electricity from federal dams. The federal government makes the low-cost hydroelectric power available to co-operatives and municipal utilities, but not to Xcel and other investor-owned utilities.

Think of an energy imbalance market, or EIM, as being like a 100-level class in energy markets. It is a low-cost, low-gain endeavor. RTOs are a graduate-level course.

With an EIM, utilities can share power, but on a somewhat limited basis. There is sub-hourly balancing, but not the day-ahead planning that begins to deliver big benefits.

“We wanted to get something going. It may not be the ultimate solution for the West, but we can recover the cost from the savings in three years. Maybe this is the first step toward an ultimate market or restarting the Mountain West conversation,” Highley said.

Graphic via The Mountain Town News

This new EIM will go on-line in February 2021 and will be administered through the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool.

Xcel and its three partners—Platte River, Colorado Springs Utilities, and Black Hills Energy—are looking west. Are you ready for more alphabet soup? They will have CAISO creating an EIM for them. CAISO stands for California Independent System Operator. It was established in 1998. An ISO, like an RTO, is motivated to produce efficiency. They’re often compared to air traffic controllers, because they independently manage the traffic on a power grid that they don’t own, much like air traffic controllers manage airplane traffic in the airways and on airport runways. CAISO has advanced services to utilities north and east. This, however, will not be an RTO.

Highley said that the “real prize will be getting the RTO,” and then he threw down a spade in the conversation.

“About 90% of transmission (in Colorado) is controlled by Tri-State and our partner, the Western Area Power Authority,” he said. “We are key to what happens regionally and not just in the state of Colorado.”

It’s been conventional wisdom that an RTO will look either east or west. There are problems in both directions.

Graphic via The Mountain Town News

One challenge is that of political control. Do you think for a second that Wyoming will allow control of its electrical grid in the hands of appointees of the governor of California? Colorado, which of late has aligned more comfortably with California in its politics, nonetheless has its own hesitancy about that sort of arrangement. It’s not a hypothetical example. California legislators in 2019 refused to put administration of CAISO into independent hands. In other words, the better acronym for CAISO would be CASO. Forget about Independent.

Tooting the horn

Highley, coming from Arkansas, toots the horn of the Southwest Power Pool. “It would make sense in some ways for us to help SPP to move west, and CAISO, of course, is moving east. Think of it like the great railroad days.”

The golden spike completing the transcontinental railroad was hammered down in the salt flats along the Great Salt Lake in 1869. Highley describes a different geography, with a fortune yet to be made – or costs reduced – depending upon who can get wind-generated electricity of the Great Plains to markets.

“There’s an extremely large amount of wind in SPP area that needs to go somewhere, and it has negative pricing now at some points in time. And they haven’t built all the wind that will be built in Kansas yet,” he said. “It’s going to be an opportunity for whoever manages the DC ties to better tie together the grids east and west. Everything east of those ties is currently managed by SPP,” said Highley.

The DC stands for direct-current. The DC ties provide portals between the Eastern Interconnection Grid and the Western Interconnection, which hum along not quite on the same tune and both on alternating current. (Surely you have experience with this part of the alphabet soup). Think of narrow gates along a very tall fence. There are eight such DC portals between Artesia, N.M., and Miles City, Mont. One is north of Lamar, Colorado. There are also two in the Nebraska panhandle.

The afternoon of the webinar, I drove to the one near Stegall, Neb., which is about 35 minutes southwest of Scottsbluff. How would I not? I had been hearing about this for near 40 years. You leave the valley of the North Platte River and its fields of corn and climb into the landscape out of a Remington painting. There was a flock of wild turkeys and then, just over the hill, the focus of all the electrical lines: the David Hamil Tie.

It’s owned and operated by Tri-State, but used exclusively to get electricity from the Laramie River Station at Wheatland, about an hour to the west, to its customers in the Eastern grid. I was neither thrilled nor disappointed by what I saw. An electrical engineer probably understood what was evident to the eye, but I did not.

There has been much talk about creating greater permeability between this giant electrical wall just beyond eyesight of the Rocky Mountains and the energy resources of the Great Plains. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory was devoted to that idea, with the goal being to integrate greater quantities of renewables. It was called the Seams study, but it got smothered by Trump administration officials. It is likely to re-emerge.

“Yes, that study will be very helpful in guiding our policy discussions in this area, as will the DoE study being done by Utah on western grid options,” said Hansen in an e-mail after the webinar.

The David Hamil DC Tie in western Nebraska is one of eight portals between the Eastern and Western alternating current grids. Photo/Allen Best

Optimizing the east-west gates

These portals currently can accommodate transmission of 1,300 megawatts. Highley suggested – but did not go into details – about figuring out creating wider gates at these portals.

“Who best could manage those DC ties and optimize them than possibly SPP,” he asked rhetorically, referring to the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool.

(The Colorado Public Utilities Commission will host an information meeting devoted specifically to transmission on Oct. 22, and I would be shocked if this is not addressed. I also expect much discussion of the infamous Seams Study squelched by the coal-happy Trump administration.)

Highley said the real benefit of renewables will be realized by creating opportunities to move them east and west – and in different time zones. “The person who sits on the seams will have the opportunity to either make a lot of money or lower prices, however you look at it,” he said.

Much has been made about seams in Colorado (including a story I did that was published in March). “I do think there will be a seam somewhere,” Highley said. Too much has been made of seams, too much “fear” expressed. “If you look east of us, there are seams all over the place. This problem has been solved any number of times. We can figure this out, too.”

Carrie Simpson via The Mountain Town News

Simpson, representing Xcel, suggested a third option for an RTO, one that does not explicitly look either east or west but instead uses Colorado as a focal point. But, she said, Colorado alone cannot deliver the market efficiencies. The footprint must be somewhat larger, but she did not specify exactly how large.

When may Colorado become part of an RTO? That was the parting question, and all three panelists answered much alike,

“Five years might be a little quick, but I would love to see this happen in the 2025-2028 time-frame,” said Hansen.

Xcel’s Simpson largely agreed. “Five years may be a little aggressive, but I do think that the EIM will open up new opportunities for us to learn about our system and how we can interact with the rest of the West more efficiently.”

Tri-State’s Highley was the most sporting. He offered to bet a bottle of wine that a quicker pace can occur, delivering an RTO by the end of 2025.

“I will keep that wine bottle bet out there,” he said.

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

Energy dominance or climate action: Trump, Biden and the fate of public lands — @HighCountryNews #VOTE #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Book Cliffs and Mt. Garfield (on right, approximate altitude 6,600′) in Mesa County, Colorado. By User Skez on en.wikipedia – Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here03:31, 2 March 2006 Skez 992×708 (137,232 bytes) (Near Grand Junction, CO Taken by Sean Davis http://flickr.com/photos/skez/32161524/), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=835434

From The High Country News [This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) October 1, 2020] (Paige Blankenbuehler):

In Grand Junction, Colorado, the presidential election is a choice between two distinct energy futures.

On July 13, in Grand Junction, Colorado, a day after the coronavirus pandemic hit a local three-month peak, 45 elderly women flouted the state’s “safer-at-home” directive and withstood temperatures that reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit to meet at the Grand Vista Hotel for the Mesa County Republican Women’s Luncheon.

Officially, the event was meant to spotlight an issue on this year’s ballot in Colorado, a contentious measure on wolf reintroduction in the state. But as the women milled about the hotel’s conference room, discarding their masks and embracing each other, the scene looked more like a reunion. Although the group, which was founded in 1944, typically gathers monthly in Grand Junction, Mesa County’s largest city, the meetings had been on forced hiatus since March, and the women were excited to be together, excited by their shared disobedience.

The featured speaker was Denny Behrens, co-chair of the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, but the true star of the day was Lauren Boebert, a feisty MAGA Republican who had just beaten a longtime incumbent, Rep. Scott Tipton, in the Republican primary. Boebert moved from table to table for introductions, handshakes and hugs, a sidearm holstered at her hip. At 33, she was the youngest there by decades. In Rifle, Colorado, where she has lived since the early 2000s, Boebert owns the Shooters Grill, where waitresses in tight flannel shirts and denim serve burgers and steaks with loaded handguns strapped to their hips or thighs. The Grill was shut down in May for repeatedly violating public health orders restricting in-person dining, but the publicity Boebert received from the conflict — and a GoFundMe petition for the Grill that raised thousands of dollars — assisted her bid for Congress.

After a lunch of barbecued chicken, potato salad and corn muffins, the group’s president officially began the meeting. She recited a prayer, quoted Abraham Lincoln, and led the room in the Pledge of Allegiance. Then she introduced key people in the room: candidates for the county commission, a representative from President Donald Trump’s Mesa County campaign office, and Boebert.

Speaking to the room, Boebert described a conversation she had had with Trump, who called her after she won. “President Trump said that he was watching this from the very beginning,” Boebert said. “He said, ‘I knew that something big was going to happen with you, and now I get to call and congratulate you.’ He said, ‘Every day I’m fighting these maniacs, but now I have you to fight them with me.’”

Her audience laughed and applauded. Boebert smiled brightly. “We are going to win this fight against the liberal socialist agenda and restore the potential for our community to develop our rich natural resources right here in the ground in Mesa County,” she said.

Boebert is partly right; this election could mean a change in how much fossil fuels are extracted from public lands. Currently, a quarter of the crude oil produced in the United States comes from federal lands, and almost three-quarters of Mesa County is federally owned. Public land also accounts for 20% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, making it key to any national energy (or climate) policy.

If he wins in November, Trump promises to further his agenda of “energy dominance,” which has already opened millions of acres of federal land across the Western U.S. to energy extraction. But if his opponent, Joseph Biden, wins the presidency, he’ll bring with him the most progressive environmental platform ever proposed by a major party candidate. And, as with so many issues in this election, the stakes are high for communities that rely on public lands — and nowhere are these themes more amplified than in Grand Junction, the home of the new Bureau of Land Management headquarters.

The Government Highline Canal, near Grand Junction, delivers water from the Colorado River, and is managed by the Grand Valley Water Users Association. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

THERE ARE 1,260 OIL WELL SITES scattered throughout Mesa County. The scene is not apocalyptic; the sites don’t dominate the landscape, and the machinery is tucked away from highways and out of view from the city center. In the rural communities that orbit Grand Junction, pumpjacks, compressors and pipes sit amid a mosaic of farms and ranchland, orchards and winery towns, and numerous biking and hiking trails.

Some 63,000 people live in Grand Junction, more than 80% of them white, and around 15% Latino. The city is named for its location at the junction of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers, and has a long history of mining, including uranium. In the 1970s, thousands of homeowners were warned that their homes had been built on non-mediated radioactive sites, marked by gray, sand-like waste from a defunct uranium mill downtown.

Over the last decade, Grand Junction has developed a reputation for outdoor recreation and wineries. It is a city defined by two distinct identities: new liberal-leaning outdoor enthusiasts and a more rooted, conservative population. The different groups coexist amid the expansive public land with all its multiple uses: hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, motorized off-roading and skiing, as well as ranching and the extraction of oil, gas and coal.

Downtown Grand Junction is home to more than 20 outdoor gear stores. Photo credit: AHolidayAway.com

There are nearly 20 outdoor gear stores in the downtown vicinity alone, reflecting the myriad approaches to life here. Brochures, maps and pamphlets at places like Hill People Gear — a family-run institution that sells hand-sewn goods and promotes gun rights on its website — and Loki Outdoor gear — where an 18-year-old sales associate told me she was “definitely” voting for Biden — tout the many nearby places where one might recreate. About 73% of Mesa County is public land, but only 18% of it is protected from natural resource development. So far, Grand Junction has had enough room for a variety of perspectives and competing interests. Since Trump took office, however, he has offered more land for oil and gas development in his first two years as president than Obama did in his entire second term, auctioning off more than 24 million acres of public lands. If Trump is re-elected and continues to lease land at the rate of the last few years, opponents fear that land that could be managed for recreation, wildlife or conservation will wind up under the control of energy companies. At best, it will remain idle, but be inaccessible to the public. At worst, it will be immediately developed and directly contribute to greenhouse emissions in a world that is already nearing the critical threshold for the climate crisis.

Even as Grand Junction has changed, the Trump years have widened the political and cultural divide between liberals and conservatives here. Multiple use and the concept of space for all have given way to sharpened political ideologies and divisiveness, and attitudes have hardened around the pandemic and its restrictions, while protests have arisen concerning police brutality.

The Lunch Loops Trail System on the outskirts of Grand Junction, Colorado, was developed on public land by the Bureau of Land Management and the local mountain bike trail association. About 73% of Mesa County is public land, and about 18% of it is protected from natural resource development. Photo credit: Andrew Miller/High Country News

AFTER I LEFT THE REPUBLICAN WOMEN’S Luncheon, I drove west to the trailhead of Lunch Loops, a popular mountain biking trail network just outside Colorado National Monument. I was there to meet Sarah Shrader and Scott Braden, two of the town’s most prominent conservationists.

Shrader and Braden represent an alternate vision for Grand Junction, a future in which a sustainable economy is built around abundant access to public lands. Both are relative newcomers to the area, but they’ve invested their personal and professional lives in the Colorado canyon country.

I waited for them by a picnic table in the sweltering heat. Behind me, a rocky mesa hulked over the system of singletrack trails, extending out from narrow ledges and scarcely visible breaks in the canyons — the kind of landscape whose scale outflanks the mind’s ability to absorb it.

The area is managed jointly by the Bureau of Land Management and the city of Grand Junction. The local BLM office, with the help of the city and a number of other land-use agencies, is extending a connector trail all the way to the monument. Once it’s finished, a person will be able to bike from the heart of downtown Junction all the way to the monument in about 25 minutes.

Soon, Braden arrived and shared some relief: iced black coffee sweetened with agave nectar, which he poured from a glass jar into a tin mug for me. Braden is 44, with a friendly smile and a dark goatee. He has worked for many conservation organizations and served a stint on a resource advisory council for the BLM. Now, he runs his own firm where he provides advocacy-for-hire for Western environmental and conservation groups.

“Grand Junction is really the perfect place to be for me,” he told me as we drank. “This is a place with an economic identity built around cattle and sheep, oil and gas, uranium mining. But you look out on places like this, and you see the ability of outdoor rec as an industry to transform it.”

Just then, Shrader drove up, parked, and walked towards us. Shrader is the head of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition, a local interest group she founded in 2015 to help outdoor recreation businesses work together to market the area as an international destination.

The three of us stood on the sandy pavement drinking our coffee, using the picnic table to reinforce social distancing. The trails were empty except for one mountain biker, who was climbing a steep ascent to the edge of the ridge; we watched, half in awe, half concerned that the rider might collapse from heat exhaustion. Shrader thought she recognized the cyclist as a pro she knew. “I was riding my bike up the monument the other day, and she lapped me going up,” Shrader said, “and she lapped me again going down.”

Shrader’s cheeks were moist with perspiration above a royal blue bandanna that she pulled down to drink her coffee. She moved from Prescott, Arizona, to Grand Junction in 2004 with her husband. In addition to running the coalition, Shrader owns a company called Bonsai Design, which builds adventure courses — hard-core mountain playgrounds with ziplines, obstacle courses, Indiana Jones-type bridges — for resorts, state parks and adventure-recreation companies. She started it in her basement in 2005, and her business grew quickly. She bought a building downtown, but outgrew that space, too. Just recently, she broke ground on a new location by the Colorado River — part of a revitalization project that features a water park designed to accommodate low-income families and encourage them to recreate on the river.

Shrader said the Outdoor Recreation Coalition was formed to grow adventure-based industries and the higher quality of life that goes with them. “I did that to really start talking publicly and visibly about the outdoor rec economy here and to shift focus on primarily getting our wealth from the surface of the land, instead of underneath it,” she said.

Recently, the president of Colorado Mesa University asked Shrader to develop and head a new outdoor rec industry program, which offers students experience and coursework on adventure programming, guide services and the fundamental accounting and finance classes needed to run an outdoor recreation business. This fall is its first semester. Shrader serves as the program’s director and also teaches a few classes. “It came from the demand of so many outdoor industry businesses here saying, ‘We need a talented and skilled workforce,’ ” she said. “I really created the program classes to be a reflection of what businesses need and what businesses want.”

She envisions training a new workforce for outdoor-recreation businesses in what has become an $887 billion industry — creating stable, green, good-paying jobs in fields tied to conservation and landscape preservation.

Shrader views the coming election as a crucial moment for Grand Junction. “When we’re talking about the economy, we’re talking about creating a quality of life that is bringing people here,” she told me. “Location-neutral workers, doctors, manufacturing companies — they don’t have to work in the outdoor rec industry, but they’re coming here and raising their families here, buying houses, buying commercial property here, paying their employees here because of this” — she motioned to the rocky mesas surrounding us.

Braden and Shrader worry that Trump’s desire to develop more natural resources here could significantly alter the local landscape. “This place — along with Book Cliffs, Dolores Basin, Grand Mesa, the national monument — is the critical infrastructure of our community, if you’re thinking about creating that quality of life,” Braden said. “If an oil well and a surface oil truck is one picture of an economy future, this place would be the picture of the other economy future. We have a choice as a community, which one we want to run towards.”

As Shrader drank her iced coffee, Braden continued. “Grand Junction is an avatar for this choice,” he said. “This is a place that, not too long ago, our picture of our economic future was an oil field. Now we have a choice.”

FOR DECADES, the Bureau of Land Management has struggled to disentangle the two contradictory directives that make up its mission: management of the landscape for conservation, and a quota for sustained yield of that landscape’s natural resources. Its direction sways back and forth, reflecting the interpretation of the administration currently in charge of the agency’s mandate for multiple uses. The idea is that the political appointees who run the agency have a responsibility to take a balanced approach that keeps in mind the public land’s many resources — timber, energy, habitat and more — and its various other uses, including recreation, mining and grazing. The BLM’s mission, in its own words, is to balance these at-odds uses “for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

But ever since the BLM was formed in 1946 by President Harry Truman, to act as the guardian of the public lands, it has served as more of a purveyor than a preserver of land, water and minerals. It was established to administer grazing and mineral rights, and it largely benefited ranching interests, officially combining the General Land Office and the U.S. Grazing Service — both of which aided in the exploitative conquest of the Western United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The agency has never found its balance. In 1996, President Bill Clinton made history by designating the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, the first national monument to be overseen by the BLM. Then, under George W. Bush, millions of acres of public land were leased for oil and gas drilling and logging, and “Drill, baby, drill!” became a 2008 Republican campaign slogan. Barack Obama’s tenure over Western public lands was marked by the implementation of policies meant to rein in extraction and focus on preservation. The result was a record of compromise and small gains: He delisted 29 recovered species, but weakened the Endangered Species Act; he designated over two dozen national monuments, more than any other president, but left other important public lands unprotected; he promoted tribal sovereignty, but failed to address systemic inequalities in Indian Country. And even though Obama is considered the first leader to seriously address climate change, he also oversaw surges in oil and gas production.

Neil Kornze, who served as BLM director under Obama, told me that the agency acted as crucial connective tissue in addressing climate change. “As we think about climate solutions and the way that plants and animals are reacting to these really strong changes in our environment, the BLM becomes the bridge to other areas of refuge,” he said. “Questions about sustainable use and conservation are going to be really, really important for the next administration.”

But while the Obama administration’s policies were aimed at protecting more public lands from energy development, the rollout of those regulations was difficult for Bureau of Land Management field offices across the West. Jim Cagney, the BLM’s former Northwest district manager, based in Grand Junction, told me that the administration was too ambitious, and it overreached. Effective land management, he said, happens over decades, not over the course of a single administration.

“I don’t want to burst any environmentalist bubbles or anything, but those guys were really calling the shots from up above,” Cagney said. “My feeling at that time was that we can’t take on this many battles and win them. We’re going to get more pushback than we can handle. Can we slow down and bring this along at a sustainable pace? The Obama administration would have none of that.”

Cagney, who worked for the BLM for three decades, retired before Trump became president. “It’s plainly obvious that (the Trump administration’s) public-lands approach is rooted in the denial of any science that conflicts with their extractive agenda,” Cagney said. “I’ve spent my lifetime trying to maintain a balanced, unbiased approach to public lands. I think both parties overplay their hand, and the ever-increasing pendulum swings associated with administration changes are making management of the public lands unaffordable and impractical.”

SINCE HIS INAUGURATION IN 2017, Trump has worked hard to undo Obama’s legacy, especially when it comes to the environment. I interviewed more than a dozen former Interior Department employees, BLM directors and staff, conservationists, environmentalists and Washington insiders, and by most accounts, Trump has narrowed the vision of the beleaguered agency far more than any of his predecessors. “Energy dominance is not the same thing as multiple use,” Nada Culver, vice president of public lands and senior policy counsel for the National Audubon Society, told me. “It’s a very, very radical tug on the balancing act. There is a thumb on the scale.”

Back in October 2016, I attended a campaign rally for then-candidate Trump on the tarmac of the Grand Junction airport. Ten thousand people waited more than four hours outside the arena. The scene was rowdy, joyous, like an energized fan base at a music festival. Although public lands account for nearly three-quarters of the land inside Mesa County’s limits, a place known as the gateway to the canyonlands and the home of Colorado’s first national monument, Trump never mentioned them explicitly. But he knew that energy development would resonate with his constituency. “We’re going to unleash American energy, including shale, oil, natural gas, clean coal,” he told the crowd. “That means getting rid of job-killing regulations that are unnecessary. … We’re going to put the miners right here in Colorado back to work.

“We are going to dominate,” he said, as his audience whistled and whooped.

Trump won Mesa County by 64% — 28 points more than Clinton. And so began what critics call his “frontal assault” on regulation and public-lands protections, and a chaotic remaking of the Bureau of Land Management. Just one week into his presidency, in his second executive order, Trump took aim at the National Environmental Policy Act — the bedrock environmental legislation that safeguards public land and resources for future generations by requiring thorough environmental impact analyses — and ordered expedited environmental reviews for high-priority infrastructure projects. A few months later, Trump ordered public-land agencies to remove regulatory burdens that blocked projects to develop the “nation’s vast energy resources,” giving agencies 45 days to review ongoing projects.

According to an analysis by The New York Times, in the past few years, Trump has reversed 68 environmental rules; more than 30 similar rollbacks are currently in progress. Many of these moves impact the BLM. In April 2017, Trump signed an executive order to review all designations under the Antiquities Act; later that year, he shrank the boundaries of both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. In December 2017, he scrapped a rule that required mines to prove that they could reclaim their mines; a month later, he ordered Interior to expedite rural broadband projects on public lands. Trump has exempted pipelines that cross international borders, such as the Keystone XL project, from environmental review. In April 2019, he lifted an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on public lands; that summer, he nixed a ban on drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The new headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management in Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management

Trump has also refused to hire a BLM director. Instead, he selected William Perry Pendley, a controversial conservative with a history of lobbying to transfer public lands to local private interests, to serve as acting director in 2019. Trump sidestepped the nomination process altogether until this June, when he formally nominated Pendley to lead the agency in an official capacity. After months of outrage and opposition — notably from vulnerable Western politicians like Colorado’s Republican senator, Cory Gardner, who is up for re-election this year — Trump withdrew the nomination. Still, Pendley remained at the helm of BLM until a federal judge in Montana ordered Pendley to leave his post in late September. The judge concluded that Pendley served unlawfully as acting director for 424 days.

By most accounts, Trump has been successful in advancing his agenda of energy dominance. Though American energy production set records during Obama’s tenure, according to the Interior Department, the revenue from federal oil and gas output in 2019 was nearly $12 billion — double that produced during Obama’s last year in office. The courts — and the uncertain economic situation — have acted to temper abrupt change, but Trump has done everything in his power to clear the way for development.

“Four more years of Trump means a steady stream of oil and gas lease sales and locking in leases and fossil fuel emissions when we can’t afford it,” Kate Kelly, public-lands director for the Center for American Progress, an advocacy organization for progressive policies, told me. “We will continue to see every acre that could potentially be leased, leased, and the hollowing out of the agencies that are there to protect these landscapes.”

In late summer, Trump revealed one of his most extreme changes yet: Amid the widespread economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, his administration finalized a “top-to-bottom overhaul” of NEPA. Trump’s change would fast-track infrastructure and result in shorter reviews and a narrower comment process, thereby limiting what the public is allowed to scrutinize. Already, 17 environmental groups have sued. “(NEPA) is a tool of democracy, a tool for the people,” Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the firm representing the groups, wrote in the suit. “We’re not going to stand idly by while the Trump administration eviscerates it.”

And Trump has promised to continue what he started if he’s re-elected in November. He remains skeptical of climate change, calling the crisis a “make-believe problem,” a “big scam” and a “Chinese hoax.” In countering Trump on the issue, Biden has been able to make his most compelling argument for the presidency yet: “There’s no more consequential challenge that we must meet in the next decade than the onrushing climate crisis,” he said at a virtual town hall in July. “Left unchecked, it is literally an existential threat to the planet and our very survival. That’s not up for dispute, Mr. President. When Mr. Trump thinks of climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax.’ When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs’ — green jobs and a green future.”

Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the public lands are the battleground for the climate crisis. The United States is the world’s largest emitter of fossil fuels after China, meaning that the country must play an outsized role to curb the climate crisis. In order to keep rising temperatures within the critical 2 degrees Celsius threshold that scientists deem necessary to prevent the worst environmental impacts, the U.S. must decrease its total emissions by 25% by 2025. We are not on track to meet this benchmark, but reducing the 20% of emissions that occur on public lands would significantly help the nation to limit catastrophic ripple effects from the worsening crisis. The fight between Biden and Trump is really a fight over keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

IN LATE OCTOBER 2019, Joe Biden traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a campaign rally. There, he encountered Lily Levin, an 18-year-old climate activist with the Sunrise Movement, an international coalition of more than 10,000 young people fighting for immediate action on climate change and skyrocketing inequality. “I’m Lily from Sunrise,” she said as Biden turned around to face her. “I’m terrified for our future. Since you’ve reversed and are now taking super PAC money — ”

Biden held up a phone, pointed it toward himself and Levin, and took a selfie, as Levin continued: “How can we trust that you’re not fighting for the people profiting off climate change?”

“Look at my record, child,” Biden responded.

A few days earlier, Levin had learned that Biden was walking back an earlier promise that his campaign would not accept dark money from super PACS — interest groups that influence politics without regulations to require disclosures of the identities of their donors. “This lack of transparency is a problem, because young people simply cannot trust that politicians — who have kicked the can down the road for decades when it comes to climate change — will be on our side, unless we also know that they’re not taking a single dollar from the merchants of our planet’s destruction,” Levin wrote in an op-ed for BuzzFeed News a few days after the encounter.

Biden has struggled to capture the support of the progressive arm of the Democratic constituency, and his exchange with Levin deepened the doubts of the Sunrise Movement, which, since its creation in 2017, has become an influential force in Democratic politics. The group was an early champion of the Green New Deal, which was initially mocked by politicians, including Nancy Pelosi, as being overly ambitious and impractical. By 2019, however, 16 of the Democrats running for president had endorsed it. Biden was not among them.

A few days earlier, Levin had learned that Biden was walking back an earlier promise that his campaign would not accept dark money from super PACS — interest groups that influence politics without regulations to require disclosures of the identities of their donors. “This lack of transparency is a problem, because young people simply cannot trust that politicians — who have kicked the can down the road for decades when it comes to climate change — will be on our side, unless we also know that they’re not taking a single dollar from the merchants of our planet’s destruction,” Levin wrote in an op-ed for BuzzFeed News a few days after the encounter.

Biden has struggled to capture the support of the progressive arm of the Democratic constituency, and his exchange with Levin deepened the doubts of the Sunrise Movement, which, since its creation in 2017, has become an influential force in Democratic politics. The group was an early champion of the Green New Deal, which was initially mocked by politicians, including Nancy Pelosi, as being overly ambitious and impractical. By 2019, however, 16 of the Democrats running for president had endorsed it. Biden was not among them.

When Biden released his initial climate plan in June 2019, it fell far below what youth climate activists demanded, focusing more on market-driven changes rather than federal mandates to limit emissions. It shied away from a carbon tax, for example, instead favoring policies that finance emission-cutting efforts by the private sector. That December, the Sunrise Movement gave Biden an “F” rating, deriding his plan for its lack of specificity and saying it fell far short of promises made by other presidential candidates, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Polls from the time showed that Biden lost more than three-quarters of voters younger than 45. “We don’t have to beat around the bush,” one Sunrise member said. “Young people ain’t voting for Joe Biden.”

But in the months following the primaries, Biden abandoned his moderation in favor of a bolder, more progressive climate stance, largely as a result of pressure from the Sunrise Movement. In late July, Biden released a radically progressive, $2 trillion climate plan, the most ambitious blueprint ever released by a major party nominee and the culmination of months of collaborating with members of the Sunrise Movement.

Just days after releasing his plan, Biden held a virtual fundraiser. “I want young climate activists, young people everywhere, to know: I see you,” he said. “I hear you. I understand the urgency, and together we can get this done.”

In his plan, Biden calls for the complete elimination of carbon pollution by 2035. He also promises to rejoin the international Paris climate accord, which Trump withdrew the U.S. from in 2017. While Trump continues to dismiss the science behind climate change, Biden’s plan uses climate science and the projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a foundation. Biden’s plan will focus on investing in renewable energy development and creating incentives for industry to invest in energy-efficient cars, homes and commercial buildings. Biden has pledged to end new oil, gas and coal leases on public land and has said he will emphasize more solar and wind energy projects on BLM land.

Despite their initial reservations, many environmental organizations and climate activists have been won over by Biden’s new approach. In August, the Sierra Club officially endorsed him. The Sunrise Movement, which agonized publicly over the choice, said that though it would not formally endorse Biden — the group has an endorsement process with specific benchmarks, including requiring candidates to sign a “no fossil-fuel money pledge,” in which lawmakers promise not to accept money from PACs or from donors in the extractive energy sector — it would campaign for him. “What I’ve seen in the last six to eight weeks is a pretty big transition in upping his ambition and centering environmental justice,” Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the group, told the Washington Post.

In August, Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate — a signal to his constituency that she would bring accountability to the promises he has made regarding climate action. Harris, who has a strong record of environmental action, made it a centerpiece of her own failed run for the presidency. She and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman from New York, introduced the Climate Equity Act, which would establish an executive team and an Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability to police the impacts of environmental legislation on low-income and communities of color. Harris has also said that she wants to eliminate the filibuster — which is a tool most often used for hyper-partisan gridlock — in order to clear the way for the passage of the Green New Deal, a progressive package that aims to mitigate the worse impacts of climate change while transforming the U.S. economy toward equity, employment and justice in the country’s workforce.

If Biden is elected, his nomination to lead the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management will have great significance for his climate agenda. Potential nominees include Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; Ken Salazar, Obama’s Interior secretary; and John Podesta, a lifelong Democratic operator and former chief of staff under Obama, who is credited with envisioning that era’s most memorable conservation and environmental achievements, such as the Climate Action Plan and an economic recovery bill that invested $90 billion in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Biden has signaled that he’d name a preservation-minded Interior secretary. When Trump withdrew William Perry Pendley’s nomination, Biden responded on Twitter. “William Perry Pendley has no business working at BLM and I’m happy to see his nomination to lead it withdrawn,” Biden wrote. “In a Biden administration, folks who spend their careers selling off public lands won’t get anywhere near being tapped to protect them.”

FOLDED NEATLY ON THE COUNTERTOP that divides Tye Hess’s kitchen from his living room was a large navy flag decorated with stars and a bright red stripe and the declaration: TRUMP 2020, NO MORE BULLSHIT. It was a sunny afternoon in July in Redlands, a suburb of Grand Junction. The streets and culs-de-sac in Hess’ neighborhood are named after the local wine scene; Hess lives on Bordeaux Court.

“How many flags have you sold this week?” I asked. He exhaled loudly. “Quite a few, probably like 20,” he said.

Hess has short brown hair, bright blue eyes and a small gap between his teeth. He was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt and casually sipped a ruby grapefruit White Claw as we spoke.

“On Friday, I’m getting much more in, and I’m just going to start handing them out to people saying that if they want to donate to buy more, they can,” he told me. “I feel guilty, ya know?” He laughed. “It’s just something I believe in, so I don’t feel like charging for them. I’ve made plenty of money off these, and I can afford to give some away. But if somebody wants to donate money to buy another one, I’ll do that. Just keep it going.”

Hess typically sells the flags for $25. When I met him, he had already sold more than 200, hand-delivering each one, and setting up the deals through social media. Previously, he worked for a coal mine, overseeing methane flaring outside of Paonia, Colorado, and then working as an independent contractor, installing granite countertops, carpet and tile. He supplements his income by running his own e-commerce store. He views his flags project as a personal campaign trail. “We have to do everything we can to get him re-elected,” he said. Hess, who is 42, only registered to vote a few months before we met, and this election will be his first.

We were waiting for a customer named Eric Farr, who was picking up today’s flag. Hess threw away the White Claw, opened his refrigerator, and grabbed a Coors Light. The doorbell rang.

Farr seemed surprised to see me, even though Hess had told him a reporter would be at the handoff. “You’re not some super liberal lady who is going to spin everything I say, are you?” he asked. I promised him that I wouldn’t. “OK,” he said.

Farr was born in the mid-1980s at St. Mary’s Medical Center, in Grand Junction. He grew up riding a Yamaha YZ125 motorbike, honing a talent and a love for motocross on the dips and yaws of the town’s bluffs, managed for motorized use by the BLM. He had traveled widely, competing professionally on his Yamaha and sponsored by Jägermeister. “I have been all over the world, but never wanted to live anywhere else,” he told me. “I just want to keep the public lands open, like the BLM area. It’s just free and open space. I just want to keep a lot of it open for the motorcycles and side-by-sides.”

As we talked about the land, I asked Farr what he thought of Trump’s refusal to fill the position of director at the BLM. “With everything going on, I haven’t seen anything about (Trump’s) approach to public lands,” Farr replied, referring to the pandemic and the ongoing demonstrations for Black lives. “It seems like Trump is about letting the states do what they feel is best with their public lands. So I think he’s got enough on his plate that he doesn’t really have time. As important as public lands are, there are a million other things that are just as important that he’s focused on.”

I asked whether Farr was worried about future generations being able to mountain bike, e-bike and dirt-bike the rocky plateaus and canyons, the same lands that have been such a large part of his own life.

“I get real upset when people dump their trash out there, because that’s going to get them shut down quicker than anything probably,” he said. He thought Trump was the country’s best hope for a return to aspects of his childhood he values: “constitutional values,” he said, “what the founding fathers tried to instill into our country.” He told me that he wants his children — he has two children under 7 and a baby on the way — to experience the same freedom that he feels he grew up with. “I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican,” Farr told me. “I’m a patriot. Trump is like our savior basically. He’s our only hope.”

“Yep, I just barely registered (to vote) because of Trump and seeing these idiots,” Hess said, referring to the social justice activists protesting in Grand Junction following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. “I’ve had plenty of disagreements, and I never seen such rude comments (on social media). Then you fight back and they play the victim.”

Hess took another Coors out of the refrigerator and handed it to Farr. “It’s just ignorance and — like you said — victim mentality,” Farr said to Hess, taking the beer.

I tried to steer the conversation back to the Interior Department, but they wanted to focus on what they called the gall of the “radical socialist left.” Though both Hess and Farr’s lives have been intimately connected to the public lands in the Grand Junction area, the fate of those landscapes has not factored into their calculus for November’s election.

Firefighters on the march: The Pine Gulch Fire, smoke of which shown here, was started by alighting strike on July 31, 2020, approximately 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado. According to InciWeb, as of August 27 2020, the Pine Gulch Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado State history, surpassing Hayman Fire that burned near Colorado Springs in the summer of 2002. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Mangement-Colorado, via InciWeb and National Interagency Fire Center.

About a week later, a lightning bolt 18 miles north of Grand Junction ignited the Pine Gulch Fire, a blaze that became the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history. By early September, it had burned around 140,000 acres, mostly on BLM land. It pushed northwest, forcing evacuations for residents who live next to abandoned wells in the town of De Beque, down the road from Rifle, the home of Shooters Grill.

For weeks, Grand Junction was shrouded in wildfire smoke. Since we first talked, Hess and his fiancée had moved to the rural edges of the county. From Hess’ home, he could barely make out the rows of peach trees just beyond his property line under the dense sepia-toned sky. In a photo he sent me, the sun burned an electric scarlet; he told me he was worried for the wildlife.

I imagined what someone standing in the new headquarters of the BLM might be able to see. When I visited the office in July, the sky was bright blue and clear, with mere scraps of clouds offering a respite from the heat. From its north-facing windows, you could see the Grand Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, where Farr loves to ride. To the southeast was the place known as Lunch Loops, the mountain biking area that Shrader can pedal to in just minutes from her front door, and the entrance to Colorado National Monument.

Due to the pandemic, most employees were telecommuting, and very few people were there, save for a few construction workers fixing electrical issues on the third floor. They were from Shaw Construction, one of the BLM’s neighbors in the building. The BLM also shares the building with Chevron, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Laramie Energy and ProStar Geocorp, a mapping company. In the middle of a move, the BLM headquarters was a scene in flux, a place still trying to realize itself.

Along the halls of the BLM’s office, large murals of iconic scenery — Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison — leaned against bare walls, waiting to be hung. I remembered talking to Hess about his city as a new nexus for public-lands management, and asking him what he thought about moving the BLM headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction. Hess just laughed: “The BLM headquarters is here?”

#Colorado: Mine may have bulldozed lands without #stormwater permit — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

West Elk Mine. Photo/WildEarth Guardians via The Mountain Town News.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A state agency has informed the West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley that it may have violated the law by failing to get a stormwater permit when it built a road and well pads in a national forest roadless area this year.

The action by the state Water Quality Control Division comes as the underground coal mine remains under a cessation order by the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety prohibiting further surface-disturbing activities in the roadless area. That agency says the mine has failed to maintain a legal right to enter the roadless area.

The mine has been seeking to expand its operations beneath about 1,700 acres in the Sunset Roadless Area of the Gunnison National Forest. To do so it needs to build roads and drill wells to vent methane produced during mining.

A Colorado-specific Forest Service roadless rule includes an exemption allowing for the possibility of building of temporary roads by coal mines on some 20,000 acres in the North Fork Valley. In March, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service improperly failed to consider keeping another roadless area out of the exception area, and ordered a district court to vacate the entire exception area. But before a district court judge did that in June, the mine’s owner, Arch Resources, built about a mile of road in the Sunset Roadless Area.

Even with the district judge’s action, the company is continuing to argue to the state and in court that the appeals court upheld its coal lease rights beneath the roadless area and it can keep building roads and pads there. It has warned of a temporary mining shutdown and layoffs if it can’t proceed with that work this year…

This month, an official with the Water Quality Control Division wrote to the mine in a compliance advisory letter that an inspection showed about 3,960 feet of road and two methane vent borehole pads in the roadless area. According to the letter, a stormwater discharge permit is required for those surface disturbances. It said the state had no record of a discharge permit being applied for or obtained, and an existing permit held by the mine doesn’t authorize discharges at those locations. The letter says it “provides notification of potential violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act.”

The letter gave the mine until Aug. 20 to apply for a permit or permit modification.

Allison Melton, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group, said she spoke to the Water Quality Control Division this week and was told the mine submitted that paperwork after receiving the letter. She said she understands the discharge application will be subject to a 30-day public comment period…

The advisory letter the mine received said the letter isn’t a notice of violation, and the Water Quality Control Division will determine if formal enforcement action is deemed necessary.

If the water goes, the desert moves in: “…there’s just no low-snow anymore — and it’s not coming back (Jim Gillespie)” — Writers on the Range #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From Dave Marston (Writers on the Range):

Paonia, a small town in western Colorado with a handful of mesas rising above it, wouldn’t green-up without water diverted from a river or mountain springs. The lively water travels through irrigation ditches for miles to gardens and small farms below. But this summer, irrigation ditches were going dry, and one, the Minnesota Canal and Reservoir Company, stopped sending water down to its 100-plus customers as early as July 13.

Drought was hitting the state and much of the West hard, but a local cause was surprising: Water theft.

Longtime residents who gather inside Paonia’s hub of information trading, Reedy’s Service Station, have a fund of stories about water theft. It’s not unusual, they say, that a rock just happens to dam a ditch, steering water toward a homeowner’s field. Sometimes, says farmer Jim Gillespie, 89, that rock even develops feet and crosses a road.

But this is comparatively minor stuff, says North Fork Water Commissioner Luke Reschke, as stealing ditchwater is a civil offense. Stealing water from a natural waterway, however, is a crime that can bring fines of $500 per day and jail time. That’s why what was happening to people who depend on the Minnesota Canal company for their fields or gardens was serious: Water was being taken from Minnesota Creek before it could be legally diverted for irrigation to paying customers.

Once the ditch company “called” for its water as of June 8, only holders of patented water rights could legally touch the creek. Yet during three trips to the creek’s beginning, starting in mid-June, and then in mid-July, I noticed that two ranches – without water rights — were harvesting bumper crops of hay. How could that have happened unless they’d illegally diverted water to their fields?

At first, no one would talk about the early-drying ditch except to hint broadly that it wasn’t normal. Then one man stepped up: Dick Kendall, a longtime board member of the Minnesota canal company, and manager of its reservoir. “On July 5,” he told me, “I saw water diverted from the creek onto one of the rancher’s land. And I wasn’t quiet about it.”

Kendall reported what he saw to Commissioner Luke Reschke, who oversees the area’s 600 springs, ditches and canals. Reschke dismissed it, he told me, because “The rumor mill is something else on Minnesota Creek. The only people who give me trouble are the new people who don’t know how the system works.” But locals say that four years back, Reschke’s predecessor, Steve Tuck, investigated when locals complained.

Though it may not be neighborly, stopping any illegal diversion is important, said Bob Reedy, owner of Reedy’s Station: “Without water, you’ve got nothing around here.” Annual rainfall is just 15 inches per year, and without water flowing into irrigation canals from the 10,000-foot mountains around town, much of the land would look like the high desert it truly is.

But it’s not just a couple of high-elevation ranchers dipping into the creek. The West Elk Coal Mine runs large pumps that supply water for its methane drilling and venting operations in the Minnesota Creek watershed.

Mine spokesperson Kathy Welt, said the diversion is legal, and that they only take early-season water when the creek water isn’t on call. That early water, however, is what begins to fill the Minnesota ditch’s reservoir.

In other ways, the mine has damaged the watershed by building a sprawling network of roads in the Sunset Roadless Area (Threats at West Elk Mine). A cease and desist order from the State Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety on June 10, sought by environmental groups, halted the building of an additional 1.6 miles of new roads this spring (Colorado Sun). Satellite images of the road network resemble a vast KOA Campground: Where trees once held back water and shaded snowpack from early melting, their replacement — gravel roads –- shed water and add to early runoff.

For all of Minnesota Ditch’s challenges, warming temperatures brought about by climate change could be the real challenge. Kendall said that this spring, when he plowed out the Minnesota Reservoir road, dust covered the parched ground beneath the snow.

Water — so precious to grow grapes, hay, organic vegetables and grass-fed beef, and to keep the desert at bay — had vanished early on Lamborn Mesa above Paonia. Farmer Gillespie summed it up, “there’s just no low-snow anymore — and it’s not coming back.”

David Marston. Photo credit: Writers on the Range

David Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, (writersontherange.com), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives part-time in Colorado.

Interview: ‘Not Another Decade to Waste’ — How to Speed up the Clean Energy Transition — The Revelator #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Wind turbines, Weld County, 2015. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Revelator (Tara Lohan):

Energy policy expert Leah Stokes explains who’s pushing climate delay and denial — it’s not just fossil fuel companies — and what we need to do now

The first official tallies are in: Coronavirus-related shutdowns helped slash daily global emissions of carbon dioxide by 14% in April. But the drop won’t last, and experts estimate that annual emissions of the greenhouse gas are likely to fall only about 7% this year.

After that, unless we make substantial changes to global economies, it will be back to business as usual — and a path that leads directly to runaway climate change. If we want to reverse course, say the world’s leading scientists, we have about a decade to right the ship.

That’s because we’ve squandered a lot of time. “The 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s were lost decades for preventing global climate disaster,” political scientist Leah Stokes writes in her new book Short Circuiting Policy, which looks at the history of clean energy policy in the United States.

But we don’t all bear equal responsibility for the tragic delay.

“Some actors in society have more power than others to shape how our economy is fueled,” writes Stokes, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We are not all equally to blame.”

Short Circuiting Policy focuses on the role of one particularly bad actor: electric utilities. Their history of obstructing a clean-energy transition in the United States has been largely overlooked, with most of the finger-pointing aimed at fossil fuel companies (and for good reason).

We spoke with Stokes about this history of delay and denial from the utility industry, how to accelerate the speed and scale of clean-energy growth, and whether we can get past the polarizing rhetoric and politics around clean energy.

What lessons can we learn from your research to guide us right now, in what seems like a really critical time in the fight to halt climate change?

What a lot of people don’t understand is that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we actually have to reduce emissions by around 7-8% every single year from now until 2030, which is what the emissions drop is likely to be this year because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Lean Stokes. Photo credit: University of California Santa Barbara

So think about what it took to reduce emissions by that much and think about how we have to do that every single year.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be some big sacrifice, but it does mean that we need government policy, particularly at the federal level, because state policy can only go so far. We’ve been living off state policy for more than three decades now and we need our federal government to act.

Where are we now, in terms of our progress on renewable energy and how far we need to go?

A lot of people think renewable energy is growing “so fast” and it’s “so amazing.” But first of all, during the coronavirus pandemic, the renewable energy industry is actually doing very poorly. It’s losing a lot of jobs. And secondly, we were not moving fast enough even before the coronavirus crisis, because renewable energy in the best year grew by only 1.3%.

Right now we’re at around 36-37% clean energy. That includes nuclear, hydropower and new renewables like wind, solar and geothermal. But hydropower and nuclear aren’t growing. Nuclear supplies about 20% of the grid and hydro about 5% depending on the year. And then the rest is renewable. So we’re at about 10% renewables, and in the best year, we’re only adding 1% to that.

Generally, we need to be moving about eight times faster than we’ve been moving in our best years. (To visualize this idea, I came up with the narwhal curve.)

How do we overcome these fundamental issues of speed and scale?

We need actual government policy that supports it. We have never had a clean electricity standard or renewable portfolio standard at the federal level. That’s the main law that I write all about at the state level. Where those policies are in place, a lot of progress has been made — places like California and even, to a limited extent, Texas.

We need our federal government to be focusing on this crisis. Even the really small, piecemeal clean-energy policies we have at the federal level are going away. In December Congress didn’t extend the investment tax credit and the production tax credit, just like they didn’t extend or improve the electric vehicle tax credit.

And now during the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of the money going toward the energy sector in the CARES Act is going toward propping up dying fossil fuel companies and not toward supporting the renewable energy industry.

So we are moving in the wrong direction.

Clean energy hasn’t always been such a partisan issue. Why did it become so polarizing?

What I argue in my book, with evidence, is that electric utilities and fossil fuel companies have been intentionally driving polarization. And they’ve done this in part by running challengers in primary elections against Republicans who don’t agree with them.

Basically, fossil fuel companies and electric utilities are telling Republicans that you can’t hold office and support climate action. That has really shifted the incentives within the party in a very short time period.

It’s not like the Democrats have moved so far left on climate. The Democrats have stayed in pretty much the same place and the Republicans have moved to the right. And I argue that that’s because of electric utilities and fossil fuel companies trying to delay action.

And their reason for doing that is simply about their bottom line and keeping their share of the market?

Exactly. You have to remember that delay and denial on climate change is a profitable enterprise for fossil fuel companies and electric utilities. The longer we wait to act on the crisis, the more money they can make because they can extract more fossil fuels from their reserves and they can pay more of their debt at their coal plants and natural gas plants. So delay and denial is a money-making business for fossil fuel companies and electric utilities.

There’s been a lot of research, reporting and even legal action in recent years about the role of fossil fuel companies in discrediting climate science. From reading your book, it seems that electric utilities are just as guilty. Is that right?

Yes, far less attention has been paid to electric utilities, which play a really critical role. They preside over legacy investments into coal and natural gas, and some of them continue to propose building new natural gas.

They were just as involved in promoting climate denial in the 1980s and 90s as fossil fuel companies, as I document in my book. And some of them, like Southern Company, have continued to promote climate denial to basically the present day.

But that’s not the only dark part of their history.

Electric utilities promoted energy systems that are pretty wasteful. They built these centralized fossil fuel power plants rather than having co-generation plants that were onsite at industrial locations where manufacturing is happening, and where you need both steam heat — which is a waste product from electricity — and the electricity itself. That actually created a lot of waste in the system and we burned a lot more fossil fuels than if we had a decentralized system.

The other thing they’ve done in the more modern period is really resisted the energy transition. They’ve resisted renewable portfolio standards and net metering laws that allow for more clean energy to come onto the grid. They’ve tried to roll them back. They’ve been successful in some cases, and they’ve blocked new laws from passing when targets were met.

You wrote that, “Partisan polarization on climate is not inevitable — support could shift back to the bipartisanship we saw before 2008.” What would it take to actually make that happen?

Well, on the one hand, you need to get the Democratic Party to care more about climate change and to really understand the stakes. And if you want to do that, I think the work of the Justice Democrats is important. They have primary-challenged incumbent Democrats who don’t care enough about climate change. That is how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected. She was a primary challenger and she has really championed climate action in the Green New Deal.

The other thing is that the public supports climate action. Democrats do in huge numbers. Independents do. And to some extent Republicans do, particularly young Republicans.

So communicating the extent of public concern on these issues is really important because, as I’ve shown in other research, politicians don’t know how much public concern there is on climate change. They dramatically underestimate support for climate action.

I think the media has a really important role to play because it’s very rare that a climate event, like a disaster that is caused by climate change, is actually linked to climate change in media reporting.

But people might live through a wildfire or a hurricane or a heat wave, but nobody’s going to tell them through the media that this is climate change. So we really need our reporters to be doing a better job linking people’s lived experiences to climate change.

With economic stimulus efforts ramping up because of the COVD-19 pandemic, are we in danger of missing a chance to help boost a clean energy economy?

I think so many people understand that stimulus spending is an opportunity to rebuild our economy in a way that creates good-paying jobs in the clean-energy sector that protects Americans’ health.

We know that breathing dirty air makes people more likely to die from COVID-19. So this is a big opportunity to create an economy that’s more just for all Americans.

But unfortunately, we really are not pivoting toward creating a clean economy, which is what we need to be doing. This is an opportunity to really focus on the climate crisis because we have delayed for more than 30 years. There is not another decade to waste.

Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

20 states sue over @POTUS rule limiting states from blocking pipeline projects — The Hill

A sign along U.S. Highway 20 in Stuart, Nebraska, in May 2012. Stuart is on the edge of the Sand Hills, a few miles from Newport. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2015/11/15/rural-nebraska-keystone-and-the-paris-climate-talks/#sthash.Hm4HePDb.dpuf

From The Hill (Rebecca Beitsch):

A coalition of 20 states is suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a rule that weakens states’ ability to block pipelines and other controversial projects that cross their waterways…

The suit from California and others asks the courts to throw out the rule, which was finalized in June.

The Clean Water Act essentially gave states veto authority over projects by requiring projects to gain state certification under Section 401 of the law.

It applies to a wide variety of projects that could range from power plants to waste water treatment plants to industrial development.

But that portion of the law has been eyed by the Trump administration after two states run by Democrats have recently used the law to sideline major projects.

New York denied a certification for the Constitution Pipeline, a 124-mile natural gas pipeline that would have run from Pennsylvania to New York, crossing rivers more than 200 times. Washington state also denied certification for the Millennium Coal Terminal, a shipping port for large stocks of coal…

The new policy from the Trump administration accelerates timelines under the law, limiting what it sees as state power to keep a project in harmful limbo. The need for a Section 401 certification from the state will be waived if states do not respond within a year.

ut states argue the new rule won’t give them the time necessary to conduct thorough environmental reviews of massive projects.

And on Monday, Becerra complained the Trump administration wants states to evaluate only the most narrow impacts of a project, while issues like downstream flows from a hydroelectric plant or impacts on nearby wetlands are overlooked.

Along with California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin also joined the suit.

Report: #Coal and #water conflicts in the American West — Energy Policy Institute #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Click here to read the report from the Energy and Policy Institute (Joe Smyth). Here’s the executive summary:

Burning coal to generate electricity consumes large quantities of water, which exposes the electric utilities that operate coal plants to water supply risks. Large coal plants consume millions of gallons of water each day, which can also lead to legal disputes and conflicts with other water users, increased costs when water supplies are disrupted, and other challenges. Those water conflicts and risks are magnified in the American West, where water supplies are already scarce and increasingly threatened by persistent drought and hotter temperatures driven by climate change.

Several utilities have recently announced plans to close coal plants that they operate in order to reduce costs and meet the expectations of their customers, regulators, and investors for a cleaner power supply. Those closures will free up large quantities of water, creating potential economic and environmental benefits while also raising questions among communities, utilities, and regulators over the fate of that newly available water.

Still, many coal plants in the Western U.S. do not yet have clear closure plans, and the utilities that operate them will continue to face water supply risks and conflicts.

Recent reports by Moody’s Investors Service and BlackRock have highlighted the growing risks of climate change impacts to electric utilities and the power plants they operate, including water supply risks and drought. Major electric utilities also acknowledge those risks; in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the largest electric utilities and coal plant operators in the Western United States – including Xcel Energy, PNM, Arizona Public Service Company, Pacificorp, Talen Energy, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association – reported that drought in the region could disrupt water supplies consumed by their coal plants. Utilities that don’t disclose risks in SEC filings, like Basin Electric and Arizona G&T Cooperatives, have nevertheless faced water supply challenges at their coal plants.

Some parties propose keeping coal plants online by installing infrastructure to capture their carbon emissions. Carbon capture infrastructure nearly doubles the water consumption of a coal plant, significantly increasing the water supply risks for companies that pursue carbon capture instead of closing coal plants.

This report explores the water supply risks facing coal plants in the American West, and the conflicts and legal disputes over water that have already arisen between communities and the utilities that operate coal plants. We show how much water each coal plant in the Western U.S. consumed in recent years, and estimate how much more water each will consume until its closure. And we discuss key water supply risks facing particular coal plants in the American West, based on documents filed with the SEC and state utility regulators, annual reports, local news articles, and correspondence with utilities in the region. Those include legal disputes over water rights between Native American communities and utilities, increased water needs of a carbon capture proposal in New Mexico, groundwater consumption by coal plants in Arizona, the impacts of drought on coal plants in Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, and more.

Cumulatively, 30 coal plants in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming consumed 370,555,000,000 gallons [ed. 1,137,190 acre-feet] of water between 2014 and 2018, according to data published by the Energy Information Agency (EIA). On average, that amounts to more than 76 billion gallons of water each year, or 208 million gallons [ed. 638 acre-feet] each day. Coal capacity owned by Pacificorp consumed over 102 billion gallons of water between 2014 and 2018, 27% of the total and the most of any utility in the region.

Combining coal unit water consumption data with coal unit closure dates (announced as of July 2020) shows that coal plants in the Western U.S. could consume 886 billion gallons of water between 2020 and 2040. That figure could be reduced as more utilities announce additional coal plant closures, close coal units before their scheduled retirement dates, and operate coal plants less often.

Most coal plants in the Western U.S. consume surface water, including from the Colorado River, Yellowstone River, Green River, San Juan River, Laramie River, North Platte River, Arkansas River, Yampa River, San Miguel River, Cottonwood Creek, Sevier River, Huntington Creek, Hams Fork River, and the Bighorn River.

Nine coal plants consume groundwater, including in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, a practice that is rare outside of the Southwest. Two coal plants in Colorado consume reclaimed municipal water, which reduces but does not eliminate water supply risks. Three coal plants in Wyoming use dry cooling systems instead of water-cooled systems, which reduces water consumption but increases costs and air pollution.

Coal plant water consumption in the American West. Graphic credit: The Energy Policy Institute

Acceleration of the energy transition — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Martin Drake Coal Plant Colorado Springs. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

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.

A report issued by the Center for Environmental Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, says it shouldn’t take until 2050. Wind, solar, and battery storage can provide the bulk of the 90% clean electricity by 2035, according to the study, 2035 Report: Plummeting Solar, Wind, and Battery Costs Can Accelerate Our Clean Energy Future.

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.

Hal Harvey. Photo via The Mountain Town News

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.

    A natural gas plant located northeast of Denver operated by Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Photo/Allen Best

    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.

    This is from the July 8, 2020, issue of Big Pivots. Sign up here to get free copies.

    Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

    Legal and Environmental Setbacks Stymie Pipelines Nationwide — The New York Times #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    A sign along U.S. Highway 20 in Stuart, Nebraska, in May 2012. Stuart is on the edge of the Sand Hills, a few miles from Newport. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2015/11/15/rural-nebraska-keystone-and-the-paris-climate-talks/#sthash.Hm4HePDb.dpuf

    From The 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.”

    A power switch in Colorado — The Mountain Town News

    South Canal. Photo credit: Delta-Montrose Electric Association via The Mountain Town News

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    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 North Fork Valley, part of the service territory of Delta-Montrose Electric, has been known for its organic fruits and vegetables — including corn. Photo/Allen Best

    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.”

    For broader background see: The Delta-Montrose story is a microcosm of the upside down 21st century energy world

    Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

    How quickly the tide turns on #coal — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Martin Drake Coal Plant Colorado Springs. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    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.

    Colorado Springs with the Front Range in background. Photo credit Wikipedia.

    From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Mary Shinn):

    “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.

    State takes action against West Elk Mine expansion into protected #Colorado Roadless Area — The Crested Butte News

    West Elk Mine. Photo credit Colorado Division of Mining, Minerals and Geology.

    From The Crested Butte News:

    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.

    Rawhide coal plant to close by 2030 — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Rawhide Energy Station. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    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 allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

    Disturbing reports that Republicans plan to sow fears of climate change solution — The Mountain Town News

    Storm clouds are a metaphor for Republican strategy to politicize renewable energy for the November 2020 election. Photo credit: The Mountain Town News/Allen Best

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    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 is from Big Pivots No. 11 (5.25.2020). To be on the distribution list, send you e-mail address to allen.best@comcast.net.

    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.

    See: Getting to 100% renewable energy.

    Also: Driving the shift to renewables.

    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: allen.best@comcast.net.

    Tri-State doesn’t feel a ‘sense of urgency’ in deciding water rights — The Craig Press

    Ice breaks up on the Yampa River as Spring invites warmer temperatures. Should the water that the nearby Hayden and Craig power plants use be allowed to stay in the river once the plants cease to operate, native and endangered fish species in the river would have a higher chance of survival. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    From The Craig Press (Dan England):

    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.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

    Driving the shift to renewables — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Wind turbines, Weld County, 2015. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    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.

    The pandemic is battering oil-state economies — @HighCountryNews #COVID19 #coronavirus

    From The High Country News [April 23, 2020] (Jonathan Thompson):

    COVID-19 reverberates across the energy world.

    Graphic credit: The High Country News

    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.

    Graphic via The High Country News

    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.

    Graphic via The High Country News

    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.

    Graphic via The High Country News

    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.

    Graphic via The High Country News

    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]

    Graphic via The High Country News

    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.

    A view of the interchange of Highway 60 and Interstate 710 during the coronavirus pandemic on April 11, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. The county’s stay-at-home order has drastically decreased the traffic flow in and around Los Angeles. Photo credit: Roger Kisby/High Country News

    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.

    Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at jonathan@hcn.org

    Climate-Driven #Megadrought Is Emerging in Western U.S., Says Study — Columbia University

    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.

    Areas of southwestern North America affected by drought in the early 2000s; darker colors are more intense. Yellow box shows the study area. (Adapted from Williams et al., Science, 2020)

    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.

    Varying soil moisture in southwestern North America, 800-2018. The straight horizontal center line indicates average moisture; blue line at bottom shows 2000-2018 mean. Green bars indicate abnormally wet periods, pink ones abnormally dry. The fluctuating red moisture line is based on tree-ring data until it converts to blue at the start of modern instrumental observations. (Adapted from Williams et al., Science, 2020)

    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.

    In the Catalina Mountains in southern Arizona, forests struggle to keep up with recent increases in drought and wildfire activity, which are expected to continue due to human-caused climate change. (Park Williams/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

    “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.

    From Inside Climate News (Bob Berwyn):

    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.

    Photo of Lake Powell in extreme drought conditions by Andy Pernick, Bureau of Reclamation, via Flickr creative commons

    From The 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.”

    Drought affected Lake Mead via the Mountain Town News

    From The New York Times (Henry Fountain):

    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.

    EPA guts rule credited with cleaning up coal-plant toxic air — Associated Press #ShameOnYou

    Mercury in Colorado graphic via The Denver Post

    From The Associated Press (Ellen Knickmeyer):

    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.

    From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

    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.

    #Virginia becomes the first Southern state with a goal of #carbonfree energy — The Washington Post #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Emissions trading is one example of a market-based solution to an environmental problem. Image credit: Arnold Paul/Gralo via Wikipedia.

    From The Washington Post (Gregory S. Schneider):

    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.

    Exxon’s Snake Oil — Columbia Journalism Review #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Ruins of the Ludlow Colony near Trinidad, Colorado, following an attack by the Colorado National Guard. Forms part of the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress. By Bain News Service – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID ggbain.15859.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10277066

    From The 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

    1962

    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!”

    1977

    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.

    1982

    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.

    1989

    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.

    1997

    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.”

    2007

    Exxon pledges to stop funding climate denialist public policy groups; however, a 2015 Guardian investigation showed funding did not stop.

    2018

    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

    $30.9M

    Amount ExxonMobil spent, through 2012, to fund think tanks and researchers who denied aspects of climate change.

    $2.3M

    Minimum amount that ExxonMobil has paid since 2007 to lobbyists and members of Congress opposed to climate change legislation.

    80

    Percent of scientific studies ExxonMobil conducted internally from 1977 to 2014 that state climate change is man-made.

    81

    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.

    $300M

    Exxon’s annual research budget during the height of the company’s climate science research, in the late 1970s to mid-1980s.

    16

    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.

    74

    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.

    $2M

    Amount ExxonMobil gave to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank of which Ebell was a director, from 1998 to 2005.

    40

    Percent of Americans who opposed, in 2009, a significant clean energy bill.

    63

    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.

    Water from retired coal plants could help endangered fish in the #YampaRiver — @AspenJournalism

    Ice breaks up on the Yampa River as Spring invites warmer temperatures. Should the water that the nearby Hayden and Craig power plants use be allowed to stay in the river once the plants cease to operate, native and endangered fish species in the river would have a higher chance of survival. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

    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.

    Doug Monger, director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, shows the abandoned meander of the Yampa River that flows through his ranch, Monger Cattle Company, outside of Hayden, Colo. Monger said he isn’t too concerned about Front Range water diversions in the grand scheme of things. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    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.

    Prowling the bowels of #HooverDam — The Mountain Town News

    Hoover Dam from the Arizona side. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    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.

    Arizona power house at Hoover Dam December 2019. Each of the 17 hydroelectric generators at Hoover Dam can produced electricity sufficient for 1,000 houses. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

    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.

    Hoover Dam has enough concrete fora four-foot-wide sidewalk around the Earth at the Equator. Photo credit: The Mountain Town News/Allen Best

    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.

    Colorado River, Black Canyon back in the day, site of Hoover Dam

    Environmentalists Object to Broad @EPA Waivers for Polluters During #Coronavirus Crisis — @WildEarthGuard #COVID19

    The air pollution that industrial plants will not have to monitor damages the respiratory system, which is especially dangerous for already at-risk populations who may also become infected with COVID-19, which attacks the lungs. Photo credit: Ryan Adams via The High Country News

    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.”

    The closure of Colorado coal-fired powerplants is freeing up water for thirsty cities — The #Colorado Sun

    Craig Station is the No. 2 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, behind Comanche station at Pueblo. Photo/Allen Best

    From The Colorado Sun (Ann Imse):

    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.

    Transmission towers near the Rawhide power plant near Fort Collins, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

    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.

    Paper: Your money or your life? The carbon-development paradox #ActOnClimate

    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.

    #California: Eagle Mountain Pumped Storage Project update #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Screen shot from EagleCrestEnergy.com video

    From The Los Angeles Times (Sammy Roth):

    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…

    Pumped storage hydro electric.

    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?

    Click here to read the EIS.

    Leaked report for [JP Morgan] says #Earth is on unsustainable trajectory #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Anti-climate change lobbying spend by the five largest publicly-owned fossil fuel companies. Statista, CC BY-SA

    From The 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.

    Platte River Power Authority sets public sessions on energy options — The Loveland Reporter-Herald #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Transmission towers near the Rawhide power plant near Fort Collins, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

    From the Platte River Power Authority via The Loveland Reporter-Herald:

    Platte River Power Authority will hold public focus group meetings as the power provider works to update the plan that details how it will continue to deliver electricity to customers in Loveland, Estes Park, Fort Collins and Longmont as it moves toward more renewable resources.

    Platte River will hold sessions in each of those four communities, facilitated by Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation, to receive input from residents and business owners as it updates its Integrated Resource Plan. A new such plan is produced every five years, using input, technology and best practices to lay out a mix of power sources.

    This plan is being completed in 2020, one year early, because the power provider’s board of directors decided to pursue a 100% carbon-free energy mix by 2030. Currently, about 30% of the energy delivered by Platte River is carbon-free, a number that will increase to 50% by 2021 with new wind and solar power sources and could reach 60% by 2023, according to a press release.

    Jason Frisbie, general manager and CEO, said in a press release that Platte River made significant progress on this updated plan last year and is now looking for input from businesses and residents regarding the “energy future of Northern Colorado.”

    The meetings are scheduled for 6-8 p.m. on each of the following dates:

  • March 4, 17th Avenue Place Event Center, 478 17th Ave. in Longmont.
  • March 5, Ridgeline Hotel, 101 S. St. Vrain Ave. in Estes Park.
  • March 11, Embassy Suites, Devereaux Room, 4705 Clydesdale Parkway, Loveland.
  • March 12, Drake Centre, 802 W. Drake Road, Suite 101, Fort Collins.
  • To attend a focus group, RSVP to 970-229-5657 or online at cpd.colostate.edu/events/platte-river-power-community-focus-groups/

    Weaning off #coal: Northern #Arizona starts a painful transition — The Navajo Times #JustTransition

    navajogeneratingstationnearpageazsunrisevicathyccviaflickr

    From The Navajo Times (Krista Allen):

    The city of Page, the Navajo Nation, and the Hopi Tribe are now dealing with economic repercussions of the Navajo Generating Station shutdown.

    When Salt River Project, operator of NGS, and the participants announced on Feb. 13, 2017, they had voted to close the power plant at the end of 2019, the community of Page and both tribes knew the closure would be disastrous for their economies.

    SRP permanently shut down the three units of the plant on Nov. 18, 2019. Since then, there has been a gnawing sense of despondency and anxiety in the Page-Lake Powell area where the closure has not only affected NGS and Kayenta Mine employees but also has impacted schools, Page Hospital, businesses and the libraries in Coconino County, among others.

    Page schools

    When Rob Varner, superintendent for Page Unified School District, started his job five years ago, student enrollment was around 2,650. Today, the enrollment f is 2,530, a 4.53 percent decrease. But the data constantly fluctuates…

    There are six schools within PUSD, which covers 1,800 square miles, including five northwestern Navajo Nation chapters. The student population within PUSD is 81 percent Native American, with at least 16 tribes represented. And of that population, 179 students have parents working at NGS.

    “We have seen a slow trickle of folks leaving,” Varner said…

    PUSD has lost $772,334 in revenue since the plant closed. This is due to student loss and cash inflow, said Varner…

    Page Hospital

    Page Hospital CEO Susan Eubanks said she has seen a decrease in revenue at the hospital, which decreases the facility’s access…

    Community college

    When talks of the NGS closure first started, Colleen Smith, president of Coconino Community College, talked to SRP about the possibility of developing some re-careering programs and a center for several of the regional colleges and universities to work together to provide higher education for people who were laid off from the plant.

    “I was encouraged to write a grant to SRP, but we didn’t receive anything, and we never received notice that we weren’t receiving anything,” Smith said. “We just wanted to provide good training. And I was working with (Coconino County District 5 Supervisor Lena Fowler) who was trying to help everyone.”

    Though CCC did receive some plant equipment to use for education.

    “But you need to know, along the way the things we’ve tried,” Smith said. “I’m adamant that we do not close (CCC’s Page Instructional Site) but that we continue to work to solve problems, be innovative and figure out how to provide more education up here in the northern part of our county. And we’ve been working with a lot of people to try to do that.”

    CCC has three campuses – two in Flagstaff and one in Page – and has been covering 18,000 square miles since 1991. CCC serves about 9,500 students annually. Smith said 75 percent of CCC students are full-time students who have jobs. And 20 percent of the CCC student population is Native American.

    But that percentage isn’t the same for the Page Instructional Site, said Kay Leum, executive director of extended learning at the Page campus, where 85 percent of the student population is Native.

    From fiscal year 2008 to 2017 state aid for the community college districts decreased by 71 percent, from $164.6 million to $47.7 million.

    Smith said that’s huge because nationally it’s considered appropriate funding for a community college to get one-third of its funding from the state.

    “One-third of the fund comes from local property taxes and one-third of the fund comes from tuition and fees,” Smith explained. “So, with these massive cuts – the cuts have affected CCC more than some colleges because we depend … on those funds: state appropriations because of our tax rate being so low (46 percent), far below the next (highest) one.”

    Smith said because the tax rate is so low, those cuts in state appropriations really impacted CCC.

    “It makes a difference in the things you accomplish … and I’m very proud of our college,” Smith said. “I think we’re good stewards for public funds because I think we’ve accomplished a lot with very little.”

    When the plant closed, CCC projected a loss of about $597,813 out of a $20 million general fund budget.

    “The effect of recession and cuts that all started in 2008 were massive,” Smith said. “Since then, we’ve seen significant increases in tuition and fees at our college. There were major cuts to classified and professional tech staff. Therefore, loss of programs, reduction in the number of students in the nursing program. (CCC) almost lost the program but instead cut it in half – many cuts.”

    And the Page Instructional Site nearly closed. Fowler convinced CCC officials to keep it open. The Williams campus, however, closed its doors.

    “Instead of closing the (Page campus), CCC just cut everything to the bone,” Smith said. “But I understand why that was done. It doesn’t mean I agree. I understand.”

    CCC has only 41 full-time faculty positions appropriated for its budget. Smith says that’s not enough. There are also some part-time faculty.

    Smith added that if CCC loses the $597,813, the board will have to make some decisions a little like what happened in 2008.

    “But I’m not saying these are the decisions they (CCC board) would make,” Smith said. “If we were to increase tuition to the amount that it would take to cover this loss, it would at least be (an extra) $10 per credit hour, which would be $300 more in tuition for students who are already paying the highest tuition in the state for community colleges.”

    Smith added that she’s strongly against closing the Page Instructional Site and that the board is trying to find ways to keep the Page campus open.

    “We did get some one-time money this year and one of the things we have been wanting to do is really support this campus (for new programs).”

    Three of those programs are a marine technology maintenance program, a hospitality program, and a tourism program to serve the area.

    “And everything we’re doing, we’re trying to bring our people home and keep them here, keep families together and strengthen our communities,” Fowler said. “When we talk about our communities. We don’t think about just Page or just LeChee, it’s all of us together.”

    @POTUS targets a bedrock environmental law — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround #NEPA

    From The High Country News, February 12, 2020 (Jonathan Thompson):

    Three years of rollbacks have taken a toll, without delivering real benefits.

    “I’m approving new dishwashers that give you more water so you can actually wash and rinse your dishes without having to do it 10 times,” President Donald J. Trump told a crowd in Milwaukee in January. “How about the shower? I have this beautiful head of hair, I need a lot of water. You turn on the water: drip, drip, drip.”

    While this may sound like just another Trumpism intended to distract his base from his impeachment troubles, the words nicely encapsulate the administration’s disastrous approach to environmental policy. First, he gins up a false problem. Then he blames the false problem on “regulatory burdens.” Then he wipes out said regulations with complete disregard for any actual benefits or the possible catastrophic consequences.

    Trump followed this pattern in January, when he announced one of his most significant rollbacks yet, a drastic weakening of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA — the bedrock law passed during the Nixon era that requires environmental reviews for projects handled by federal agencies.

    Trump said the overhaul is necessary because the law imposes interminable delays on infrastructure projects, hampering economic growth. “It takes many, many years to get something built,” he said in an early January speech at the White House. “The builders are not happy. Nobody is happy. It takes 20 years. It takes 30 years. It takes numbers that nobody would even believe.”

    Maybe nobody would believe them because — like Trump’s assertion that modern toilets must be flushed “15 times” — they simply aren’t true. Every year, the nonpartisan National Association of Environmental Professionals analyzes the implementation of NEPA. The group has found that over the last decade, full environmental impact statements have taken, on average, less than five years to complete. Only about 5% of all reviews take longer than a decade, and less than 1% drag on for 20 years or more. These rare cases can be caused by a project’s complexity, or by delays or changes made by its backers that have nothing to do with NEPA or any other environmental regulations.

    Trump isn’t letting facts get in his way, however. The proposed changes would “streamline” reviews, according to the administration, and, most notably, “clarify that effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the result of a lengthy causal chain.”

    A project’s potential contribution to climate change, in other words, would be discounted. Indeed, environmental effects will no longer be considered significant — except for the most direct, immediate ones. A proposed highway plowing through a low-income neighborhood, for example, would result in more traffic, leading to more pollution, leading to health problems for residents and exacerbating global warming. But since all of that is “remote in time” and the result of a “lengthy causal chain,” it would not necessarily be grounds to stop or modify the project. By discounting long-term and cumulative impacts, this seemingly simple change would effectively gut a law that has guided federal agencies for a half-century.

    That, Trump claims, will speed up approvals and create more jobs. But a look back at the effects of his previous regulatory rollbacks suggests otherwise.

    Since the moment he took office, Trump has been rescinding environmental protections. He drastically diminished Bears Ears National Monument, he tossed out rules protecting water from uranium operations, he threw out limits on methane and mercury emissions, weakened the Clean Water Act, and, more recently, cleared the way for the Keystone XL pipeline, yet again. According to Harvard Law School’s regulatory rollback tracker, the Trump administration has axed or weakened more than 60 measures that protect human and environmental health since he took office.

    Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill from inside Bears Ears National Monument. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

    Trump often boasts that his policies have created 7 million jobs during his term. Correlation, however, does not equal causation. Even as the overall economy has boomed — a trend that was already in place when Trump took office — the sectors that should have benefited the most from Trump’s rollbacks continue to flail.

    Trump killed or weakened at least 15 regulations aimed at the coal industry in hopes of bringing back jobs. By nearly every measure, the industry is weaker now than it was when Trump was elected. Trump shrank Bears Ears National Monument to make way for extraction industries and rescinded regulations on uranium in part to help Energy Fuels, a uranium company. But in January, the company laid off one-third of its workforce, including most of the employees at the White Mesa Mill, adjacent to Bears Ears. Nearly every one of the protections that Trump killed were purportedly “burdening” the nation’s mining, logging and drilling industries. Regardless, the number of people working in that sector is down 20% from five years ago.

    Rolling back environmental regulations will no more create jobs than removing “restrictors” from showerheads will give Donald Trump a thick head of hair — it won’t. It will merely result in more waste, dirtier air and water, and a more rapid plunge into climate catastrophe.

    Now, Trump is going after energy-efficient lightbulbs, and his reasoning is as specious as ever. “The new lightbulb costs you five times as much,” he told his followers at the Milwaukee rally, “and it makes you look orange.”

    Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at jonathan@hcn.org.

    Focusing on trees as the big solution to #ClimateChange is a dangerous diversion — The New York Times

    Like many Westerners, giant sequoias came recently from farther east. Of course, “recent” is a relative term. “You’re talking millions of years (ago),” William Libby said. The retired University of California, Berkeley, plant geneticist has been studying the West Coast’s towering trees for more than half a century. Needing cooler, wetter climates, the tree species arrived at their current locations some 4,500 years ago — about two generations. “They left behind all kinds of Eastern species that did not make it with them, and encountered all kinds of new things in their environment,” Libby said. Today, sequoias grow on the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada.

    Here’s a guest column from Erle C. Ellis, Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis that’s running in The New York Times:

    One trillion trees.

    At the World Economic Forum last month, President Trump drew applause when he announced the United States would join the forum’s initiative to plant one trillion trees to fight climate change. More applause for the decision followed at his State of the Union speech.

    The trillion-tree idea won wide attention last summer after a study published in the journal Science concluded that planting so many trees was “the most effective climate change solution to date.”

    If only it were true. But it isn’t. Planting trees would slow down the planet’s warming, but the only thing that will save us and future generations from paying a huge price in dollars, lives and damage to nature is rapid and substantial reductions in carbon emissions from fossil fuels, to net zero by 2050.

    Even a 16-year-old can tell you that.

    Focusing on trees as the big solution to climate change is a dangerous diversion. Worse still, it takes attention away from those responsible for the carbon emissions that are pushing us toward disaster. For example, in the Netherlands, you can pay Shell an additional 1 euro cent for each liter of regular gasoline you put in your tank, to plant trees to offset the carbon emissions from your driving. That’s clearly no more than disaster fractionally delayed. The only way to stop this planet from overheating is through political, economic, technological and social solutions that end the use of fossil fuels.

    There is no way that planting trees, even across a global area the size of the United States, can absorb the enormous amounts of fossil carbon emitted from industrial societies. Trees do take up carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. But this uptake merely replaces carbon lost when forests were cleared in the first place, usually long ago. Regrowing forests where they once flourished can undo some damage done in the past, but even a trillion trees can’t store enough carbon to head off dramatic climate changes this century.

    In a sharp rebuttal to last summer’s paper in Science, five scientists wrote in the same journal in October that the study’s findings were inconsistent with the dynamics of the global carbon cycle. They warned that “the claim that global tree restoration is our most effective climate solution is simply incorrect scientifically and dangerously misleading.”

    The focus must shift from treating climate change as a “global carbon” problem to a “carbon pollution” problem. No matter that deforestation, tilling soils for agriculture and even methane emissions from livestock and rice paddies also contribute to global climate change. All together these account for only about 20 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon pollution from fossil fuels is the overwhelming reason global climate change is such an urgent problem. Solve this, and the need for other climate change solutions is not nearly so urgent.

    Before it was blocked by the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency was already moving in this direction, by requiring states to meet targets for cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from power plants. Combating pollution has a long track record of success in the United States and around the world — effective solutions have been pursued through an array of approaches, from direct penalties and taxes to cap-and-trade programs and government investments in new technologies that avert pollution.

    Still, carbon pollution from fossil fuels remains the greatest regulatory challenge ever. Globally, fossil fuels provide about 80 percent of the energy powering the global economy today. Yet ending fossil fuel use could also provide huge economic and employment opportunities. Through new spending on infrastructure and research for energy and transportation, the American economy could be transformed for the better and for the long run. For example, all internal flights between American cities less than 600 miles apart could be replaced by high-speed electric ‘bullet’ trains traveling over 200 miles per hour, providing a quicker, safer and cleaner way to get around and built with American technology, steel and workers. The battle against carbon pollution is also a battle for a better America and a better world.

    Everyone loves a simple solution, but it is just too tempting to say “let’s plant trees” while we continue to burn fossil fuels. We must not play foolish games with the Earth’s climate: We will all end up paying for it in the end. Regulating carbon pollution down to net zero emissions by 2050 will end the global climate crisis for good.

    And making this possible will require making clean energy cheap — through investments, incentives, regulation and research. Experience from around the world shows that decarbonizing modern societies is hard, and even harder in the face of the vested interests of industries and people still holding trillions of dollars in carbon stocks. But there is no other real solution.

    Cheap energy is a universal social good. But the reality is that fossil fuels are not cheap at all. More than $5 trillion per year is spent globally to subsidize fossil energy and the long-term costs of carbon pollution are orders of magnitude above those. Do not imagine that free markets are what sustain the fossil fuel industry either: at least 12 of the world’s 20 largest fossil fuel companies are state owned.

    The ultimate challenge in solving global climate change is to make clean energy cheap, safe and available. That and regulating fossil carbon pollution will boost innovation, employment and our health and well-being. When it comes to reducing emissions fast, let’s put the focus where it needs to be: regulating carbon pollution and making clean energy available to everyone. Planting trees can’t do that.

    Erle C. Ellis is a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of “Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction.” Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis are professors of earth system science at University College London, and the authors of “The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene.”

    #Colorado Regulators Short on Funding Amid #Climate, Clean-Air Push — Westword

    Wattenberg Oil and Gas Field via Free Range Longmont

    From Westword (Chase Woodruff):

    CDPHE’s various regulatory bodies and rulemaking commissions have been tasked with leading the state’s charge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate an economy-wide transition to clean energy; they’re helping oil and gas regulators overhaul state rules in the wake of a landmark fracking bill, and after a federal air-quality downgrade, they’re stepping up efforts to tackle the Front Range’s ozone problem; and they’re dealing with emerging public-health concerns about vaping, toxic firefighting chemicals and more…

    On Tuesday, January 21, Putnam and CDPHE executive director Jill Hunsaker Ryan delivered their annual briefing to lawmakers as required by Colorado’s State Measurement for Accountable, Responsive, and Transparent Government (SMART) Act. While touting the department’s progress in 2019, including the adoption of an electric-vehicle mandate and new oil and gas emissions rules, officials painted a picture of a department that’s increasingly underfunded and “oversubscribed” — particularly its Air Pollution Control Division, responsible for most of its climate and clean-air efforts.

    Colorado employs just one toxicologist, who is tasked with evaluating public-health risks across more than a half-dozen environmental and health divisions; by comparison, Putnam told lawmakers, Minnesota has 38 state toxicologists and California has over a hundred. CDPHE has just one mobile air-monitoring unit, which typically needs to be deployed for weeks at a time to be effective. The number of inspectors assigned to oil and gas sites, responsible for finding leaks of greenhouse gases like methane and ozone-forming pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hasn’t kept up with the industry’s explosive growth over the last decade.

    “We’re seeing a significant gap [between] our capability and what I think the public is demanding right now,” Putnam told lawmakers in a joint meeting of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the House Energy and Environment Committee.

    In its 2020-’21 budget request, CDPHE is seeking funding for 21 additional full-time employees to beef up the air-pollution division’s staff, including doubling the size of its oil and gas inspection unit. The requested staff and funding increases would also allow the department to purchase a new mobile air-monitoring unit and establish two new VOC monitoring sites in oil- and gas-producing areas along the Front Range.

    Of course, funding increases never come easy in Colorado, and department officials are also pushing for long-term solutions, including legislation this session that would allow the air-pollution division to increase the fees that it’s able to collect from polluters through its permitting and enforcement processes. A bill passed in 2018 raised the statutory cap on those fees by 25 percent, but with funding needs continuing to grow, the department now wants to eliminate the cap entirely.