Delta-Montrose Electric splits the sheets with Tri-State G&T. Will others follow?
At the stroke of midnight [July 1, 2020], Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric Association officially became independent of Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
The electrical cooperative in west-central Colorado is at least $26 million poorer. That was the cost of getting out of its all-requirements for wholesale supplies from Tri-State 20 years early. But Delta-Montrose expects to be richer in coming years as local resources, particularly photovoltaic solar, get developed with the assistance of the new wholesale provider Guzman Energy.
The separation was amicable, the parting announced in a joint press release. But the relationship had grown acrimonious after Delta-Montrose asked Tri-State for an exit fee in early 2017.
Tri-State had asked for $322 million, according to Virginia Harmon, chief operating officer for Delta-Montrose. This figure had not been divulged previously.
The two sides reached a settlement in July 2019 and in April 2020 revealed the terms: Guzman will pay Tri-State $72 million for the right to take over the contract, and Delta-Montrose itself will pay $26 million to Tri-State for transmission assets. In addition, Delta-Montrose forewent $48 million in capital credits.
Under its contract with Guzman, Delta-Montrose has the ability to generate or buy 20% of its own electricity separate from Guzman. In addition, the contract specifies that Guzman will help Delta-Montrose develop 10 megawatts of generation. While much of that can be expected to be photovoltaic, Harmon says all forms of local generation remain on the table: additional small hydro, geothermal, and coal-mine methane. One active coal mine in the co-operative’s service territory near Paonia continues operation.
The dispute began in 2005 when Tri-State asked member cooperatives to extend their contracts from 2040 to 2050 in order for Tri-State to build a coal plant in Kansas. Delta-Montrose refused.
Friction continued as Delta-Montrose set out to develop hydropower on the South Canal, an idea that had been on the table since 1909, when President William Howard Taft arrived to help dedicate the project. Delta-Montrose succeeded but then bumped up against the 5% cap on self-generation that was part of the contract.
This is the second cooperative to leave Tri-State in recent years, but two more are banging on the door to get out. First out was Kit Carson Electrical Cooperative of Taos, N.M. It left in 2016 after Guzman paid the $37 million exit fee. There is general agreement that the Kit Carson exit and that of Delta-Montrose cannot be compared directly, Gala to Gala, or even Honeycrisp to Granny Smith.
Yet direct comparisons were part of the nearly week-long session before a Colorado Public Utilities Commission administrative law judge in May. Two Colorado cooperatives have asked Tri-State what it will cost to break their contracts, which continue until 2050. Brighton-based United Power, with 93,000 customers, is the largest single member of Tri-State and Durango-based La Plata the third largest. Together, the two dissident cooperatives are responsible for 20% of Tri-States total sales.
The co-operatives say they expect a recommendation from the administrative law judge who heard the case at the PUC. The PUC commissioners will then take up the recommendation.
In April, Tri-State members approved a new methodology for determining member exit fees. But United Power said the methodology would make it financially impossible to leave and, if applied to all remaining members, would produce a windfall of several billion dollars for Tri-State. In a lawsuit filed in Adams County District Court, United claims Tri-State crossed the legal line to “imprison” it in a contract to 250.
Tri-State also applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a bid to have that body in Washington D.C. determine exit fees. FERC recently accepted the contract termination payment filing—rejecting arguments that it did not have jurisdiction. Jessica Matlock, general manager of La Plata Electric, said the way FERC accepted the filing does not preclude the case in Colorado from going forward.
Fitch, a credit-rating company, cited the ongoing dispute with two of Tri-State’s largest members among many other factors in downgrading the debate to A-. It previously was A. Fitch also downgraded Tri-State’s $500 million commercial paper program, of which $140 million is currently outstanding, to F1 from F1+.
“The rating downgrades reflect challenging transitions in Tri-State’s operating profile and the related impact on its financial profile,” Fitch said in its report on Friday. It described Tri-State as “stable.”
Closing coal plant is an easy decision. But Colorado Springs also decided against buying a shiny new natural gas plant
Colorado Springs will close down both of its coal-fired power plants within the next decade. That’s not surprising. It’s becoming easier to count the number of coal plants still scheduled to remain standing in 2030 as compared those that will be retired.
The surprise is how quickly the tide has shifted.
Tom Strand, a city councilman, recalled that he was on the utility’s board of directors in 2015-16. Evaluating the Martin Drake plant, which sits near the city’s center, he said, a majority of directors would commit to a statement closing Drake by 2035. He hoped for a closing by the late 2020s.
Instead, the city close by the plant 2023 and the city’s second coal unit, the Ray Nixon plant, no later than 2030.
More noteworthy is the limited role of natural gas that Colorado Springs sees going forward. Six 30-megawatt natural-gas generators will be installed at the site of the Drake plant to take advantage of existing transmission during the next decade.
But the approved plan – unlike the primary alternative—sees no need a new combined cycle natural gas plant. Colorado Springs has one, and this plan sees it as sufficient.
The approach approved by the council on a 7-to-2 vote leaves the city nimble, able to seize opportunities in the rapidly shifting energy landscape—a key point of Aram Benyamin, the chief executive of the city utility since November 2018. The two dissenting members expressed reservations about the city’s ability to ensure reliable power without the additional natural gas generation.
The plan gets Colorado Springs Utilities to 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, in accordance with a state law adopted in 2019, and to 90% by 2050.
Additional modeling and study during the next few years will continue to reveal how new technology and shifted economics may alter what is possible, said Amy Trinidad, public affairs lead at Colorado Springs Utilities.
Colorado Springs will add 500 megawatts of new wind generation plus solar and also 400 megawatts of battery storage. That compares with the 275 megawatts of large-scale battery storage planned by Xcel Energy as it dismantles two of its three coal-burning units at Pueblo as part of its Colorado Energy Plan.
This decision puts Colorado Springs, which drifts hard right politically, in lockstep with Colorado’s most left-leaning neighborhoods. There was nary a mention of climate change by the elected officials, although plenty of talk about environmental quality.
“It strengthens our brand as one of the most desirable places to live and continue to build a city that matches our scenery,” said Mayor John Suthers in a statement.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis nodded at climate change in his statement.
“Colorado continues to set an example for the rest of our country when it comes to renewable energy and climate action, and this announcement comes in the wake of numerous electric utilities across the state committing to a transition to clean energy,” he said. “The pathway toward achieving our goals of protecting our environment and our communities is driven by a bold, swift transition to renewable energy.”
Polis ran for governor in 2018 on a platform of achieving 100% renewable energy in electrical production by 2040.
The shift in the last decade can still astonish. Several city council members, in explaining their positions, referenced a decision made by Colorado Springs in 2011 to retrofit the Drake plant with scrubbers to reduce nitrous oxide and other air pollutants. The eventual cost was $2o2 million.
Some said they were OK with the decision given the context. “Neumann scrubbers for Drake was the right decision at that time,” said Council member David Geislinger. Today, though, the city needs flexibility, he added.
The worry is that natural gas investments now will be stranded by new technologies and economics by the 2030s. “We made that mistake with the Neumann scrubbers,” said Council President Richard Skorman. Council member Yolanda Avila suggested investing “millions and millions of dollars” in a natural gas plant would be unfair to future generations. “It’s not about us. It’s about the babies that are being born and what we’re giving them.”
Natural gas was often touted as a bridge fuel. Several years ago, at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association summer meeting, a speaker who apparently didn’t get the memo about carbon emissions got lathered up and said heck, why does it have to be a bridge fuel? Let it be the fuel of the future.
The vote by the Colorado Springs City Council was a triumph for environmental groups, including 350.org and the Sierra Club. That latter several weeks ago began sending out e-mail blasts to its 1,200 members in its Pikes Peak Chapter urging support for the eventually triumphant portfolio.
Economic groups also supported the less-gas approach, among them the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC. In a message to members, it emphasized “resiliency, reliability, cost, and environmental stewardship.”
Still, Lindsay Facknitz said she found the vote to be a “little bit of a nail-biter.” She’s a member of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign who began attending the monthly planning meetings of the utility in January 2019.
An advisory council composed in part of former utility members favored a major new gas plant to replace the generation from the Nixon plant. This, she suggested, was the thinking of the previous administration at the utility.
In addition to the two plants being retired by Colorado Springs, Tri-State Generation and Transmission in January announced two of its three coal units at Craig will be retired by 2030. One was previously scheduled to shutter by 2025. Platte River Power Authority also announced definitive plans to close its Rawhide plant by 2030.
In previous years, Xcel announced plans to close Comanche 1 and 2 units at Pueblo in 2023 and 2025.
The only units currently scheduled to remain in operation in Colorado beyond 2030 are Pawnee at Brush, the two units at Hayden, and Comanche 3, all of them either fully or primarily owned by Xcel Energy.
That’s ironic, points out the Sierra Club’s Anna McDevitt, senior campaign representative for the Beyond Coal campaign in Colorado and New Mexico, given that Xcel Energy in 2018 drew national attention when it announced it intended to reduce carbon emissions by 80% compared to 2005 levels by 2030 and 101% by mid-century.
Xcel will share its plans in Colorado next spring when it files its electric resource plan with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
“The Drake decision is unbelievably historic,” Colorado Springs Utilities board member Richard Skorman said. “…This is a time for huge celebration.”
The Colorado Springs Utilities Board, which is also Colorado Springs City Council, supported closing the coal-fired generators at the downtown Drake Power Plant 12 years earlier than previously planned because it is no longer economical to operate them…
Utilities plans to replace the coal-fired power at Drake with natural gas generators that will be set up on the power plant site temporarily. Employees working at Drake will be moved into other positions and no layoffs are expected, CEO Aram Benyamin said…
The Utilities Board looked at two plans Friday for future energy. Both set the closure of Drake at 2023; achieve 80% carbon reduction by 2030, as called for under new state rules; and set a course for 90% renewable energy generation by 2050.
The two plans differed in what energy sources will be used to replace the coal-fired generation at Ray Nixon Power Plant near Fountain by 2030, with one relying more heavily on natural gas and the other relying more on renewable energy. The board voted 7 to 2 to back the latter plan, which proposes wind turbines and battery storage.
Board members who backed the greater focus on renewable energy said it provides more flexibility and in the long-term avoids some of the risk associated with the cost of natural gas going up. In the short term, the renewable-energy focused plan is also expected to be slightly cheaper, board members said…
The chosen plan envisions the utility relying much more heavily on wind turbines and large-scale battery storage to help meet the city’s needs…
If battery storage does not develop as expected ,the utility could fall back on natural gas generation, Benyamin said. But the utility needs to be ready to implement the battery storage if it advances as expected, he said. Battery storage is key because it allows excess energy from solar and wind generation to be stored until it’s needed, he said.
Most of the residents who spoke to the board Friday backed greater renewable energy generation, citing the health and climate benefits of moving away from fossil fuels.
“It makes sense to set our sights high and set our sights on technological innovation,” resident Benedict Wright said…
Colorado Springs Utilities is planning to add 180 megawatts of natural gas generation produced by six modular units to the Drake power plant site where they will replace the coal-fired generation, Benyamin said. The units can be maintained by four people, instead of the 80 needed to run the coal-fired generation, thus cutting costs, he said.
The natural gas generators need to be located at the Drake site because the electrical transmission system is set up to carry large amounts of energy from that site out to the city, he said. When the transmission system is upgraded, the new generators will be moved to another site, which could be announced in the next month.
Utilities plans to dismantle Drake completely between 2024 and 2025, if not sooner, Benyamin said. The future appropriate uses of the site are yet to be determined, he said.
“Almost anything would be better than a coal power plant,” Utilities board Chairwoman Jill Gaebler said.
The Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety (DRMS) issued a cessation order to Mountain Coal Company, a subsidiary of Missouri-based Arch Coal and operator of the West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley near Paonia, to prevent further road construction or tree removal within the protected Sunset Colorado Roadless Area (CRA). The 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule, one of two state rules adopted by the U.S. Forest Service in lieu of the 2001 federal roadless rule, limits road-building and other activities within undeveloped roadless areas.
The cessation order was issued following the construction of a new road in the Sunset CRA by Mountain Coal Company earlier this month. Mining activities have been allowed in the Sunset CRA in the past as a result of the “North Fork Exception” to the Colorado Roadless Rule.
However, in March, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service had not followed procedures required by the National Environmental Protection Act when it reinstated the exception in a 2016 land use plan, and ordered the exception be vacated by the District Court of Colorado. On Monday, the District Court issued an order formally vacating the North Fork Exception.
With the North Fork exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule vacated this week, the company must comply with the provisions of the Colorado Roadless Rule which precludes road building, other construction, and most surface disturbance. As a result, DRMS issued an order for the company to cease road building and other associated activities in the Sunset CRA. DRMS’ order does not prohibit the company from continuing its current operations below the surface at the mine.
Platte River Power Authority seeking to define pathway to 100% non-carbon energy
The Platte River Power Authority plans to cease production of electricity from its 280-megawatt Rawhide power plant north of Fort Collins by 2030, 16 years before its original retirement date.
The utility delivers electricity to Fort Collins and also three other owner communities: Loveland, Longmont, and Estes Park.
The decision to set the retirement resulted from a confluence of several factors. One of them, a new survey of customers this spring in the four towns and cities, once again affirmed broad support for non-carbon energy resources. The survey found 63% of residential customers viewed the non-carbon resources as somewhat or very important.
Platte River also has an 18% interest in two coal-burning units at Craig Generating Station. Unit one is scheduled to end production in 2025 and unit 2 no later than 2030.
The stage for today’s announcement was set in December 2018 when Platte River directors adopted a policy calling for 100% non-carbon energy mix by 2030. The resource diversification policy identified nine advancements that must occur in the “near term” to achieve that 2030 goal. They include active participation by Platte River in an organized regional market; matured battery storage performance and declined costs; and increased investment in transmission and distribution infrastructure.
Platte River is among most Colorado utilities who will be joining energy imbalance markets in the next two years. There is common agreement, however, that deep decarbonization such as planned by Platte River and other Colorado utilities will require participation in a robust regional transmission organization, or RTO, such as operate in other parts of the country.
Xcel Energy in December 2018 gained national attention when it announced its intentions to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. It operates in six states and supplies more than 60% of energy consumed in Colorado. Xcel said it planned to achieve emission-free electricity by 2050, but like Platte River, said technology must continue to evolve for it to achieve that goal.
Holy Cross Energy, the co-operative serving Vail and Aspen, has shown innovation that has attracted national attention, but nonetheless has committed only to a 70% carbon-free goal called Seventy70Thirty. It could, however, achieve that in 2021.
Several coal plants in Colorado have already been retired, and many more large units will be retired in the next decade. Only the plants at Hayden and Brush and Comanche 3 at Pueblo are currently scheduled to remain in operation. Xcel is the sole or majority owner of the three plants.
Spread of covid-19 interrupted Platte River’s integrated resource planning process, which had been scheduled to include public meetings. But managers of the utility decided it was best to announce the retirement to support state regulatory timelines. Colorado last year adopted a law that identified a target of 80% emissions reduction from the electrical sector by 2030 and 50% more broadly in the state’s economy.
“Although circumstances associated with the coronavirus prevent us from making this announcement in alignment with our current IRP process, we need to continue moving forward to reach our Resource Diversification Policy’s 100% noncarbon goal,” said Jason Frisbie, chief executive of Platte River.
“Rawhide Unit 1 has served us extremely well for the past 36 years,” said Wade Troxell, Platte River Board chair and Fort Collins mayor, “but the time has come for us to move toward a cleaner future with grid modernization and integration while maintaining our core pillars of providing reliable, financially sustainable and environmentally responsible energy and services.”
Platte River Power projects that 55% of electricity will come from coal this year, supplemented by 19% from hydropower, 17% from wind, 3% from solar. Another 1% comes from natural gas; and 5% comes from purchased power, which could include fossil fuels.
Construction to build Rawhide Unit 1 began in 1979 and commercial operations started in 1984 and has performed with exceptional reliability, capacity and environmental performance. It had been scheduled to retire in 2046.
“Unit 1 has outperformed nearly every other coal plant of its type in the nation and that is a testament not only to its design but also to the people who run it,” noted Frisbie, who began his career at the Rawhide Energy Station and became its plant manager before being promoted to chief operating officer, then general manager and CEO of Platte River.
In addition to Unit 1, the 4,560-acre Rawhide Energy Station also hosts five natural gas combustion turbines and a 30 MW solar farm, along with another 22 MW of solar power (with battery storage) currently under construction. Energy from the 225 MW Roundhouse wind farm located in southern Wyoming will be delivered to the Rawhide Energy Station and then to the owner communities.
Frisbie said plans will be developed to smoothly transition 100 workers to new roles at the other generation resources at Rawhide after the coal-plant closure. Following its retirement, Unit 1 will undergo a lengthy decommissioning process.
Coal for Rawhide comes from the Antelope Mine near Gillette, Wyo.
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303.463.8630.
Disturbing reports that Republicans plan to sow fears of climate change solution
Merchants of fear have already been at work, preparing to lather up the masses later this year with disturbing images of hardship and misery. The strategy is to equate job losses with clean air and skies, to link in the public mind the pandemic with strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s as dishonest as the days of May are long.
“This is what a carbon-constrained world looks like,” Michael McKenna, a deputy assistant to Trump on energy and environment issues, told The New York Times.
“If You Like the Pandemic Lockdown, You’re Going to Love the Green New Deal,” warned the Washington Examiner. “Thanks to the pandemic lockdown of society, the public is in a position to judge what the ‘Green New Deal’ revolution would look like,” said the newspaper in an April editorial. “It’s like redoing this global pandemic and economic slump every year.”
What a jarring contrast with what I heard during a webinar conducted in Colorado during early May. Electrical utility executives were asked about what it will take to get to 100% emissions-free generation.
It’s no longer an idle question along the lines of how many angels can dance on a pinhead. The coal plants are rapidly closing down because they’re just too darned expensive to operate. Renewables consistently come in at lower prices. Engineers have figured out how to deal with the intermittency of solar and wind. Utilities believe they can get to 70% and even 80%, perhaps beyond.
Granted, only a few people profess to know how to achieve 100% renewables—yet. Cheap, long-lasting storage has yet to be figured out. Electrical transmission needs to be improved in some areas. Here in the West, the still-Balkanized electrical markets need to be stitched together so that electrons can be moved across states to better match supplies with demands.
This won’t cost body appendages, either. The chief executives predict flat or even declining rates.
Let’s get that straight. Reducing emissions won’t cost more. It might well cost less.
That’s Colorado, sitting on the seam between steady winds of the Great Plains and the sunshine-swathed Southwest. Not every state is so blessed. But the innovators, the engineers, and others, are figuring out things rapidly.
Remember what was said just 15 years ago? You couldn’t run a civilization on windmills! Renewables cost too much. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. You had to burn coal or at least natural gas to keep the lights on and avoid economic collapse. Most preposterous were the ambitions to churn vast mountains to extract kerogen, the vital component of oil shale. This was given serious attention as recently as 2008.
The economics have rapidly turned upside down, and the technology just keeps getting better along with the efficiency of markets.
As detailed in Big Pivots issue No. 10, Colorado utilities are now seriously talking about what it will take to get to 100% emission-free energy. Most of that pathway is defined by lower or at least flattened costs.
Now that same spirit of ingenuity has been turned to redirecting transportation and, more challenging yet, buildings. It will likely be decades before we retrofit our automotive fleet to avoid the carbon emissions and other associated pollution that has made many of our cities borderline unhealthy places to live. Buildings will take longer yet. Few among us trade in our houses every 10 to 15 years.
It’s true that we need to be smarter about our energy. And we are decades away from having answers to the heavy carbon footprint of travel by aircraft.
But run with fright from the challenge? That’s the incipient message I’m hearing from the Republican strategists. These messages are from old and now discredited playbooks of fear. People accuse climate activists of constantly beating the drum of fear, and that’s at least partly accurate. But there’s also a drive to find solutions.
Too bad the contemporary Republican Party dwells in that deep well of fear instead of trying to be a beacon of solutions.
Do you have an opinion you wish to share? Shorter is better, and Colorado is the center of the world but not where the world ends. Write to me: email@example.com.
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.
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.
FromThe High Country News [April 23, 2020] (Jonathan Thompson):
COVID-19 reverberates across the energy world.
In mid-January, when the epidemic was still mostly confined to China, officials there put huge cities on lockdown in order to stem the spread. Hundreds of flights into and out of the nation were canceled, and urban streets stood empty of cars. China’s burgeoning thirst for oil diminished, sending global crude prices into a downward spiral.
And when oil prices fall, it hurts states like New Mexico, which relies on oil and gas royalties and taxes for more than one-third of its general fund. “An unexpected drop in oil prices would send the state’s energy revenues into a tailspin,” New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee warned last August. Even the committee’s worst-case scenario, however, didn’t look this bad.
Now, with COVID-19 spanning the globe, every sector of the economy is feeling the pain — with the exception, perhaps, of toilet paper manufacturers and bean farmers. But energy-dependent states and communities will be among the hardest hit.
At the end of December, the U.S. benchmark price for a barrel of oil was $62. By mid-March, as folks worldwide stopped flying and driving, it had dipped to around $20, before falling into negative territory, and then leveling off around $10 in April. The drilling rigs — and the abundant jobs that once came with them — are disappearing; major oil companies are announcing deep cuts in drilling and capital expenditures for the rest of the year, and smaller, debt-saddled companies will be driven into the ground.
COVID-19 and related shocks to the economy are reverberating through the energy world in other ways. Shelter-in-place orders and the rise in people working from home have changed the way Americans consume electricity: Demand decreased nationwide by 10% in March. As airlines ground flights, demand for jet fuel wanes. And people just aren’t driving that much, despite falling gasoline prices, now that they have orders to stay home and few places to go to, anyway.
The slowdown will bring a few temporary benefits: The reduction in drilling will give landscapes and wildlife a rest and result in lower methane emissions. In Los Angeles, the ebb in traffic has already brought significantly cleaner air. And the continued decline in burning coal for electricity has reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
But the long-term environmental implications may not be so rosy. In the wake of recession, governments typically try to jumpstart the economy with stimulus packages to corporations, economic incentives for oil companies, and regulatory rollbacks to spur consumption and production. The low interest rates and other fiscal policies that followed the last global financial crisis helped drive the energy boom of the decade that followed. And the Trump administration has not held back in its giveaways to industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is already using the outbreak as an excuse to ease environmental regulations and enforcement, and even with all the nation’s restrictions, the Interior Department continues to issue new oil and gas leases at rock-bottom prices. [ed. emphasis mine]
The impacts on energy state coffers will unfold over the coming weeks and months. But the shock to working folk from every economic sector has come swiftly. During the third week of March, more than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment — more than 10 times the claims from a year prior.
Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey. Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, California Independent System Operator, Baker-Hughes, Unacast, FlightRadar24, Wyoming Department of Revenue, Carbon Footprint, International Air Transport Association, OAG.
Here’s the release from Columbia University (Kevin Krajik):
With the western United States and northern Mexico suffering an ever-lengthening string of dry years starting in 2000, scientists have been warning for some time that climate change may be pushing the region toward an extreme long-term drought worse than any in recorded history. A new study says the time has arrived: a megadrought as bad or worse than anything even from known prehistory is very likely in progress, and warming climate is playing a key role. The study, based on modern weather observations, 1,200 years of tree-ring data and dozens of climate models, appears this week in the leading journal Science.
“Earlier studies were largely model projections of the future,” said lead author Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We’re no longer looking at projections, but at where we are now. We now have enough observations of current drought and tree-ring records of past drought to say that we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”
Reliable modern observations date only to about 1900, but tree rings have allowed scientists to infer yearly soil moisture for centuries before humans began influencing climate. Among other things, previous research has tied catastrophic naturally driven droughts recorded in tree rings to upheavals among indigenous Medieval-era civilizations in the Southwest. The new study is the most up-to-date and comprehensive long-term analysis. It covers an area stretching across nine U.S. states from Oregon and Montana down through California and New Mexico, and part of northern Mexico.
Using rings from many thousands of trees, the researchers charted dozens of droughts across the region, starting in 800 AD. Four stand out as so-called megadroughts, with extreme aridity lasting decades: the late 800s, mid-1100s, the 1200s, and the late 1500s. After 1600, there were other droughts, but none on this scale.
The team then compared the ancient megadroughts to soil moisture records calculated from observed weather in the 19 years from 2000 to 2018. Their conclusion: as measured against the worst 19-year increments within the previous episodes, the current drought is already outdoing the three earliest ones. The fourth, which spanned 1575 to 1603, may have been the worst of all — but the difference is slight enough to be within the range of uncertainty. Furthermore, the current drought is affecting wider areas more consistently than any of the earlier ones — a fingerprint of global warming, say the researchers. All of the ancient droughts lasted longer than 19 years — the one that started in the 1200s ran nearly a century — but all began on a similar path to to what is showing up now, they say.
Nature drove the ancient droughts, and still plays a strong role today. A study last year led by Lamont’s Nathan Steiger showed that among other things, unusually cool periodic conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean (commonly called La Niña) during the previous megadroughts pushed storm tracks further north, and starved the region of precipitation. Such conditions, and possibly other natural factors, appear to have also cut precipitation in recent years. However, with global warming proceeding, the authors say that average temperatures since 2000 have been pushed 1.2 degrees C (2.2 F) above what they would have been otherwise. Because hotter air tends to hold more moisture, that moisture is being pulled from the ground. This has intensified drying of soils already starved of precipitation.
Nature drove the ancient droughts, and still plays a strong role today. A study last year led by Lamont’s Nathan Steiger showed that among other things, unusually cool periodic conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean (commonly called La Niña) during the previous megadroughts pushed storm tracks further north, and starved the region of precipitation. Such conditions, and possibly other natural factors, appear to have also cut precipitation in recent years. However, with global warming proceeding, the authors say that average temperatures since 2000 have been pushed 1.2 degrees C (2.2 F) above what they would have been otherwise. Because hotter air tends to hold more moisture, that moisture is being pulled from the ground. This has intensified drying of soils already starved of precipitation.
All told, the researchers say that rising temperatures are responsible for about half the pace and severity of the current drought. If this overall warming were subtracted from the equation, the current drought would rank as the 11th worst detected — bad, but nowhere near what it has developed into.
“It doesn’t matter if this is exactly the worst drought ever,” said coauthor Benjamin Cook, who is affiliated with Lamont and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “What matters is that it has been made much worse than it would have been because of climate change.” Since temperatures are projected to keep rising, it is likely the drought will continue for the foreseeable future; or fade briefly only to return, say the researchers.
“Because the background is getting warmer, the dice are increasingly loaded toward longer and more severe droughts,” said Williams. “We may get lucky, and natural variability will bring more precipitation for a while. But going forward, we’ll need more and more good luck to break out of drought, and less and less bad luck to go back into drought.” Williams said it is conceivable the region could stay arid for centuries. “That’s not my prediction right now, but it’s possible,” he said.
Lamont climatologist Richard Seager was one of the first to predict, in a 2007 paper, that climate change might eventually push the region into a more arid climate during the 21st century; he speculated at the time that the process might already be underway. By 2015, when 11 of the past 14 years had seen drought, Benjamin Cook led a followup study projecting that warming climate would cause the catastrophic natural droughts of prehistory to be repeated by the latter 21st century. A 2016 study coauthored by several Lamont scientist reinforced those findings. Now, says Cook, it looks like they may have underestimated. “It’s already happening,” he said.
The effects are palpable. The mighty reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell along the Colorado River, which supply agriculture around the region, have shrunk dramatically. Insect outbreaks are ravaging dried-out forests. Wildfires in California and across wider areas of the U.S. West are growing in area. While 2019 was a relatively wet year, leading to hope that things might be easing up, early indications show that 2020 is already on a track for resumed aridity.
“There is no reason to believe that the sort of natural variability documented in the paleoclimatic record will not continue into the future, but the difference is that droughts will occur under warmer temperatures,” said Connie Woodhouse, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who was not involved in the study. “These warmer conditions will exacerbate droughts, making them more severe, longer, and more widespread than they would have been otherwise.”
Angeline Pendergrass, a staff scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that she thinks it is too early to say whether the region is at the cusp of a true megadrought, because the study confirms that natural weather swings are still playing a strong role. That said, “even though natural variability will always play a large role in drought, climate change makes it worse,” she said.
Tucked into the researchers’ data: the 20th century was the wettest century in the entire 1200-year record. It was during that time that population boomed, and that has continued. “The 20th century gave us an overly optimistic view of how much water is potentially available,” said Cook. “It goes to show that studies like this are not just about ancient history. They’re about problems that are already here.”
The study was also coauthored by Edward Cook, Jason Smerdon, Kasey Bolles and Seung Baek, all of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; John Abatzaglou of the University of Idaho; and Andrew Badger and Ben Livneh of the University of Colorado Boulder.
Warmer temperatures and shifting storm tracks are drying up vast stretches of land in North and South America.
The American West is well on its way into one of the worst megadroughts on record, a new study warns, a dry period that could last for centuries and spread from Oregon and Montana, through the Four Corners and into West Texas and northern Mexico.
Several other megadroughts, generally defined as dry periods that last 20 years or more, have been documented in the West going back to about 800 A.D. In the study, the researchers, using an extensive tree-ring history, compared recent climate data with conditions during the historic megadroughts.
They found that in this century, global warming is tipping the climate scale toward an unwelcome rerun, with dry conditions persisting far longer than at any other time since Europeans colonized and developed the region. The study was published online Thursday and appears in the April 17 issue of the journal Science.
Human-caused global warming is responsible for about half the severity of the emerging megadrought in western North America, said Jason Smerdon, a Columbia University climate researcher and a co-author of the new research.
“What we’ve identified as the culprit is the increased drying from the warming. The reality is that the drying from global warming is going to continue,” he said. “We’re on a trajectory in keeping with the worst megadroughts of the past millennia.”
The ancient droughts in the West were caused by natural climate cycles that shifted the path of snow and rainstorms. But human-caused global warming is responsible for about 47 percent of the severity of the 21st century drought by sucking moisture out of the soil and plants, the study found.
The regional drought caused by global warming is plain to see throughout the West in the United States. River flows are dwindling, reservoirs holding years worth of water supplies for cities and farms have emptied faster than a bathtub through an open drain, bugs and fires have destroyed millions of acres of forests, and dangerous dust storms are on the rise.
A similar scenario is unfolding in South America, especially in central Chile, a region with a climate similar to that in western North America. Parts of the Andes Mountains and foothills down to the coast have been parched by an unprecedented 10-year dry spell that has cut some river flows by up to 80 percent.
In both areas, research shows, global warming could make the droughts worse than any in at least several thousand years, drying up the ground and shifting regional weather patterns toward drier conditions. This is bad news for modern civilizations that have developed in the last 500 years, during which they enjoyed an unusually stable and wet climate. And assumptions about water availability based on that era are not realistic, said climate scientist Edward Cook, another co-author on the study who is also with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
The impacts of a long-lasting drought in the West could also affect adjacent regions. A 2019 study showed that dry conditions in upwind areas may be intensifying agricultural droughts. With west winds prevailing across North America, hot and dry conditions in the Southwest could reduce the amount of atmospheric moisture available to produce rainfall farther east, in Oklahoma and Texas, for example. The study found that such drought linkages accounted for 62 percent of the precipitation deficit during the 2012 Midwest drought…
In North and in South America, researchers have identified natural climate cycles as key drivers of historic megadroughts. The most important are a combination of a warm North Atlantic Ocean and cooler-than average conditions in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, as well as decreased solar and volcanic activity.
“Arid periods over the last several millennia have dwarfed anything we’ve seen so far,” Smerdon said. And when the soil-drying effect of human-caused warming is added into the climate equation, the outlook is not good. Previous studies by Columbia University researchers predicted that the 21st century has a 90 percent chance of seeing a drought that lasts 25 years or longer.
He said that prospect will require people to rethink how to manage resources.
“On a regional level, this means being more proactive about water management,” Smerdon said. “There are things we can do if you recognize that the West will probably be much drier. You can start thinking about transitioning to less water intensive crops, or about beef production, which is incredibly water intensive.”
Other features “that go part and parcel with these droughts are things like forest fires and beetle infestations,” he added, noting that there were also impacts to winter recreation and tourism, with less snow for skiing and water for rafting.
Smerdon said he’s also concerned that the drought impacts are being underestimated because of an over-reliance on groundwater as a temporary buffer to the decline of river flows, and the drop of reservoir water levels. If you look at simultaneous droughts in North and South America, he said, you could also anticipate potential impacts to global food supply networks, as both regions are important for agricultural production.
The only real long-term solution is to halt greenhouse gas pollution, he said.
FromThe Washington Post (Andrew Freedman and Darryl Fears):
A vast region of the western United States, extending from California, Arizona and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought observed in the past 1,200 years, a study shows. The finding means the phenomenon is no longer a threat for millions to worry about in the future, but is already here.
The megadrought has emerged while thirsty, expanding cities are on a collision course with the water demands of farmers and with environmental interests, posing nightmare scenarios for water managers in fast-growing states.
A megadrought is broadly defined as a severe drought that occurs across a broad region for a long duration, typically multiple decades.
Unlike historical megadroughts triggered by natural climate cycles, emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities have contributed to the current one, the study finds. Warming temperatures and increasing evaporation, along with earlier spring snowmelt, have pushed the Southwest into its second-worst drought in more than a millennium of observations.
The study, published in the journal Science on Thursday, compares modern soil moisture data with historical records gleaned from tree rings, and finds that when compared with all droughts seen since the year 800 across western North America, the 19-year drought that began in 2000 and continued through 2018 (this drought is still ongoing, though the study’s data is analyzed through 2018) was worse than almost all other megadroughts in this region.
The researchers, who painstakingly reconstructed soil moisture records from 1,586 tree-ring chronologies to determine drought severity, found only one megadrought that occurred in the late 1500s was more intense.
Historical megadroughts, spanning vast regions and multiple decades, were triggered by natural fluctuations in tropical ocean conditions, such as La Niña, the cyclic cooling of waters in the tropical Pacific.
“The megadrought era seems to be reemerging, but for a different reason than the [past] megadroughts,” said Park Williams, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.
Although many areas in the West had a productive wet season in 2019 and some this year, “you can’t go anywhere in the West without having suffered drought on a millennial scale,” Williams said, noting that megadroughts contain relatively wet periods interspersed between parched years.
“I think the important lesson that comes out of this is that climate change is not a future problem,” said Benjamin I. Cook, a NASA climate scientist and co-author of the study. “Climate change is a problem today. The more we look, the more we find this event was worse because of climate change.”
A severe drought that has gripped the American Southwest since 2000 is as bad as or worse than long-lasting droughts in the region over the past 1,200 years, and climate change has helped make it that way, scientists said Thursday.
The researchers described the current drought, which has helped intensify wildfire seasons and threatened water supplies for people and agriculture, as an “emerging megadrought.” Although 2019 was a relatively wet year, and natural climate variability could bring good luck in the form of more wet years that would end the drought, global warming increases the odds that it will continue.
“We know that this drought has been encouraged by the global warming process,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, and lead author of a study published Thursday in Science. “As we go forward in time it’s going to take more and more good luck to pull us out of this.”
While the term megadrought has no strict definition, it is generally considered to be a severe dry period persisting for several decades or longer. Many climate researchers and hydrologists have long thought that a Southwestern megadrought was highly likely. A 2016 study put the probability of one occurring this century at 70 percent or higher…
“Ancient megadroughts have always been seen by water managers as worst-case scenarios,” Dr. Williams said, “and we just have to hope that there’s some kind of protection measure in the climate system that’s not going to allow one of those to repeat itself. And what we’re seeing is that we’re actually right on track for one.”
since the beginning of the 20th century, when large-scale emissions of heat-trapping gases began, warming has played a role as well. Using 31 computer climate models, the researchers estimated that climate change contributed nearly half to the severity of the current drought.
Put another way, without global warming the current drought would be only of moderate severity rather than one of the worst.
While the natural variability of La Niña conditions continues, Dr. Williams said, “all of that is being superimposed on what appears to be a pretty strong long-term drying trend.”
The current drought has followed a pattern that is similar to the ancient ones, he said. Rather than one or two extremely dry years that would suddenly throw the region into drought, dry conditions have been nearly continuous and the drought has built up over time…
Brad Udall, a water and climate research at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study, said that tying the current drought to a longer-term context “fits what a lot of people have been thinking.”
Dr. Udall said the researchers’ finding that climate change accounted for about half of the drought’s severity was strongly supported by his and others’ recent studies of the shrinking flow of the Colorado River, which attribute about half of the decline to global warming.
“I love the focus on soil moisture,” Dr. Udall said of the new study. “People underappreciate how important soil moisture is.”
Soils have a buffering effect that can allow problems of water scarcity to persist even after a relatively wet year, because soils that are dry from years of drought soak up more water that would normally run into rivers and streams.
The wetter weather in 2019, for example, resulted in a deep mountain snowpack across much of the West. “But it’s increasingly clear we didn’t get the runoff we had expected,” Dr. Udall said.
The latest ancient megadrought the researchers found was the long one in the 16th century. That finding reinforces the widely held idea that conditions were relatively wetter in the Southwest for centuries before the current drought.
The Trump administration on Thursday gutted an Obama-era rule that compelled the country’s coal plants to cut back emissions of mercury and other human health hazards, a move designed to limit future regulation of air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.
Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler said the rollback was reversing what he depicted as regulatory overreach by the Obama administration. “We have put in place an honest accounting method that balances” the cost to utilities with public safety, he said.
Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist whose previous clients have gotten many of the regulatory rollbacks they sought from the Trump administration.
Environmental and public health groups and Democratic lawmakers faulted the administration for pressing forward with a series of rollbacks easing pollution rules for industry — in the final six months of President Donald Trump’s current term — while the coronavirus pandemic rivets the world’s attention.
With rollbacks on air pollution protections, the “EPA is all but ensuring that higher levels of harmful air pollution will make it harder for people to recover in the long run” from the disease caused by the coronavirus, given the lasting harm the illness does to victims hearts and lungs, said Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The EPA move leaves in place standards for emissions of mercury, which damages the developing brains of children and has has been linked to a series of other ailments. But the changes greatly reduce the health benefits that regulators can consider in crafting futures rules for power plant emissions. That undermines the 2011 mercury rule and limits regulators’ ability to tackle the range of soot, heavy metals, toxic gases and other hazards from fossil fuel power plants.
The Trump administration contends the mercury cleanup was not “appropriate and necessary,” a legal benchmark under the country’s landmark Clean Air Act.
The Obama rule led to what electric utilities say was an $18 billion cleanup of mercury and other toxins from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. EPA staffers’ own analysis said the rule curbed mercury’s devastating neurological damage to children and prevented thousands of premature deaths annually, among other public health benefits.
Controversy over pollutants from coal-fired power plants moved to a higher level Thursday after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had revised a cost benefit analysis over the impacts of mercury emissions regulations imposed during the Obama era.
The federal agency said the restrictions on mercury emissions through technology controls were not justified, backing a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that directed the agency to complete another review.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, in a teleconference, said the 2012 Obama-era rule remains in place and no additional mercury emissions will happen due to the revised analysis.
He added that critics of the Thursday announcement are either purposefully misreading the revisions or don’t understand…
In a major victory for the energy industry, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against federal regulators’ attempts to curb mercury emissions from power plants in 2015, saying the government wrongly failed to take cost into consideration.
The 5-4 decision overturned the landmark rule, which was the first attempt by the EPA to curb mercury and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants.
Michigan’s lawsuit against the regulation was joined by 21 other GOP-led states, including Utah, in a fight to get it tossed.
The new “supplemental cost finding” announced by the federal agency found compliance costs for mercury emissions at power plants ranging from $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually due to the rule and the benefits in terms of reduction in costs such as health care to be around $6 million.
Wheeler added that the Obama administration’s approach was that any new regulation could be justified, regardless of the cost…
Moms Clean Air Force issued a statement expressing its outrage over the move.
“While America suffers devastating public health impacts of the coronavirus outbreak — a lethal respiratory pandemic — Andrew Wheeler and the Trump administration continue their cynical campaign to protect industrial polluters and undermine lifesaving pollution protections,” said co-founder Dominique Browning.
The organization added that the EPA is gambling with the health of children by giving any sort of nod to coal-fired power plants.
Wheeler dismissed any criticism, again reiterating the revision released Thursday was the result of a court-directed action to correct flaws of a previous administration’s conclusions over costs and benefits.
The coronavirus is scrambling Virginia’s budget and economy, but it didn’t prevent Gov. Ralph Northam (D) from signing legislation that makes it the first Southern state with a goal of going carbon-free by 2045.
Over the weekend, Northam authorized the omnibus Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state’s biggest utility, Dominion Energy, switch to renewable energy by 2045. Appalachian Power, which serves far southwest Virginia, must go carbon-free by 2050.
Almost all the state’s coal plants will have to shut down by the end of 2024 under the new law. Virginia is the first state in the old Confederacy to embrace such clean-energy targets.
Under a separate measure, Virginia also becomes the most Southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a carbon cap-and-trade market among states in the Northeast.
FromThe Columbia Journalism Review (Savannah Jacobson):
The story of oil company propaganda begins in 1914, with the Ludlow Massacre. In Ludlow, Colorado, a tent city of coal miners went on strike, and officers of the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company responded violently. At least sixty-six people were killed in the conflict, turning popular opinion against John D. Rockefeller Jr., who owned the mine in Ludlow. To recover public trust, Rockefeller hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a public relations agent, to peddle falsehoods disguised as objective facts to the press: the strikers were crisis actors; the violence was the fault of labor activist Mother Jones; there was no Ludlow Massacre.
Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, evolved into what is now ExxonMobil, and its original PR strategy remains. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Exxon commissioned scientific reports that documented the potentially catastrophic effects of carbon dioxide emissions. But in the decades that followed, Exxon buried those reports and told the public the opposite: that the science was inconclusive, that regulation would destroy the American economy, and that action on climate change would mostly cause harm.
Exxon’s public mouthpiece was the press. For more than thirty years, from at least 1972 until at least 2004, the company placed advertorials in the New York Times to cast doubt on the negative effects of fossil fuel emissions. Over the same time span, ExxonMobil gave tens of millions of dollars to think tanks and researchers who denied the science of climate change. Taken in sum, Exxon’s media shrewdness and its aggressive political lobbying have set back climate action for decades—putting the nation, and the world, dangerously close to a point of no return.
Year by Year
Humble Oil, a subsidiary of what would become Exxon, buys an advertisement in Life magazine reading, “Each Day Humble Supplies Enough Energy to Melt Seven Million Tons of Glacier!”
Exxon executives learn from James F. Black, a scientist employed by the company, that the practice of burning fossil fuels releases such large amounts of carbon dioxide as to imperil the planet.
Exxon’s researchers confirm published scientific findings: the level of CO2 output from fossil fuels could eventually raise the global temperature by up to 3 degrees Celsius.
Spring: An Exxon tanker crashes into a reef, spilling 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The disaster will be the second-largest spill in US history. In the following months, Exxon publishes a number of advertisements in the Times apologizing for the spill and asking readers to reject boycotts.
Summer: Mobil runs its first advertorial on global warming in the Times. It reads in part, “Scientists do not agree on the causes and significance of [warming]—but many believe there’s reason for concern…we’re hard at work along all these fronts. We live in the greenhouse too.”
Fall: The Global Climate Coalition forms with the mission to oppose action against global warming and to advocate for the interests of the fossil fuel industry by promoting doubt about climate science. Exxon is a founding member.
The Kyoto Protocol is signed.
Mobil places an advertorial in the New York Times reading, “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”
Exxon pledges to stop funding climate denialist public policy groups; however, a 2015 Guardian investigation showed funding did not stop.
New York State pursues a civil case against ExxonMobil for defrauding investors about the risks of climate change, the first against the company to reach trial. The state asks for as much as $1.6 billion in damages; Exxon wins.
By the Numbers
Amount ExxonMobil spent, through 2012, to fund think tanks and researchers who denied aspects of climate change.
Minimum amount that ExxonMobil has paid since 2007 to lobbyists and members of Congress opposed to climate change legislation.
Percent of scientific studies ExxonMobil conducted internally from 1977 to 2014 that state climate change is man-made.
Percent of ExxonMobil’s advertorials published in the New York Times in the same time frame that cast doubt on the idea that climate change is man-made.
Exxon’s annual research budget during the height of the company’s climate science research, in the late 1970s to mid-1980s.
Years that Mobil placed weekly advertorials in the New York Times. After merging with Exxon in 1999, Mobil reduced advertorial placement in the Times to every other week.
Number of television networks and national and local newspapers that have cited Myron Ebell, a leading climate denialist, or published his opinion pieces from 1999 to the present.
Amount ExxonMobil gave to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank of which Ebell was a director, from 1998 to 2005.
Percent of Americans who opposed, in 2009, a significant clean energy bill.
Percent of Americans who opposed the same bill after the Heritage Foundation, an ExxonMobil-funded think tank, published a study that misleadingly claimed the bill would increase gas prices to
$4 per gallon.
Endangered species of fish in the Yampa River may benefit as coal-fired power stations close in the next 10 to 15 years.
Water demand in the Yampa River valley has been flat, and only modest population growth is expected in coming decades. Unless new industries emerge, the water will probably be allowed to flow downstream.
And that will be of value in recovering populations of fish species.
The Yampa River downstream from Craig has been designated as critical habitat for four species of fish listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act: Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail and humpback chub.
The Yampa River can fall to very low levels, especially during late summer in drought years, but the water now consumed by power plants at Craig and Hayden could possibly help augment those flows.
The power plants at Craig and Hayden together use about 10% of the water in the Yampa River basin. Municipalities, including Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, use about 10%, and irrigation accounts for 80% of the use, which is common on Western Slope rivers.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the dominant owner of the 1,283-megawatt Craig Station, located just outside of Craig and not far from the Yampa River, will close the first unit in 2025 and unit 3 by the end of 2030.
The retirement date for unit 2 isn’t entirely clear. Tri-State has said 2030, but former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who convened stakeholder discussions last year that led to the shutdown plan, told a congressional committee in late February that unit 2 will be closed by 2026. Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said the wholesale provider’s partners still need to agree on a retirement date.
Thermoelectric power generation plants in Moffat County, which includes the Craig plants, used 17,500 acre-feet of water in 2008, according to a 2014 study. Routt County used 2,700 acre-feet.
Xcel Energy, the dominant owner of 441-megawatt Hayden Station, will make its plans more clear in early 2021 when it submits its electric resource plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission as it is required to do every four years, said Xcel spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo.
Nobody knows for sure yet how the water will be used once those plants close and remediation is completed. But Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, expects the water will be allowed to flow downstream. He points out that demand in the Yampa Valley has been flat.
“What will happen with that water being used? Probably nothing,” Kuhn said.
And that could help the endangered fish, which are struggling to survive in a river depleted by humans.
“We have a hard time meeting our flow recommendations, particularly in dry years,” said Tom Chart, program director for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
“As water becomes more available through the closure of those power plants, we could improve performance in meeting our flow recommendations, and that would certainly benefit the aquatic environment and the endangered fish,” he said.
Tri-State, however, has not divulged plans for future use of water from Craig Station. Tri-State spokesman Stutzsays Tri-State will continue to use the associated water during the decommissioning of its power plants and mines.
Steamboat-based water attorney Tom Sharp sees the water from the power plants mattering most in low-water years, such as 2002, 2012 and 2018.
And in the pinch time of August and early fall, Sharp said, the water from the coal plants could make a difference for endangered fish if the water is left in the river or held in storage for release during low-flow times.
Front Range ‘water grab’?
Diversions by Front Range cities remains a worry by many in Craig, but experts see no cause for fear of a “water grab” by Front Range cities.
“I don’t want to see these water rights sold to the highest bidder on the Front Range,” a woman told the Just Transition workshop in Craig on March 4, provoking sustained applause from many among the more than 200 people in attendance. The state’s Just Transition advisory committee was created by and tasked by the state legislature in House Bill 19-1314 with creating reports, first this July and then December, about how to best assist coal-dependent communities as mines and plants close.
Not to worry, say experts. Geographic barriers between the Yampa Valley and the Front Range that have precluded diversions over the past century remain.
Also, experts point out that rights associated with the power plants are relatively “junior,” in the lexicon of Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine of prior appropriation. The oldest right, from 1967, belongs to the Hayden plant. More valuable by far are water rights that predate the Colorado River Compact of 1922.
“If Front Range entities were inclined to a water grab, they would be looking for something a little more useful, and pre-compact rights are on the ranches,” said John McClow, a water attorney in Gunnison and an alternate commissioner from Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Water Commission.
The compact governs allocations by Colorado and the other six states in the basin, and pre-compact rights will be most valuable in avoiding a compact curtailment, should the Colorado River enter even more extended and deeper drought.
Hayden rancher Doug Monger, a member of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, similarly downplays worries about Front Range diversions.
“I don’t think it will be as much of a threat in the bigger scheme of things,” he said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers in the upper Colorado River basin. This story ran in the April 7 online edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today.
It’s a good thing I got over my claustrophobia. I was in the bowels of Hoover Dam, the giant plug of the Colorado River, trying not to think about the mass of concrete around me or the volume of water behind me.
The concrete poured during the 1930s into that narrow chasm of Black Canyon 24 miles from Las Vegas was enough to pave a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York City. The dam is 660 feet thick at the bottom, wider than two football fields narrowing to 45 feet at the top. It is shaped like a huge curved axe-head.
Our guide on a special tour for reporters shared a subterranean wormhole in the concrete. Hunched down, I made my way toward the glint of sunshine. There, I laid my hands on the face of the great 776 feet-tall dam.
Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik several years ago captured the magnificence of the human endeavor with the title of his book: “Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.”
In the early 20th century, the river was a beast, its spring floods of water from the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah predictably unruly, its water an anomaly in the arid American Southwest. In the baking but fertile sands of the Mojave Desert, agriculturalists saw great potential. Los Angeles saw water but also the hydroelectric power needed to create a great city.
LA could not do it on its own. An agreement among the seven states of the Colorado River Basin to apportion the waters was needed. That compact forged in 1922 delivered the political foundation for federal sponsorship of the dam’s construction, which began in 1930.
The December day we visited was coolish. The canyon can become an oven, though. During construction, 112 deaths were reported. But that does not include 42 people who died from pneumonia, many from tunnels bored into the canyon with equipment that produced thick plumes of exhaust gases and helped produce heat of up to 60 degrees C ( 140 degrees F).
Still, the dam’s construction represented triumph during a time of despair. The United States and much of the world was in depression. In the American heartland, giant clouds of dust caused misery and literally suffocated fowl and beast, but humans, too. Hoover Dam—at first called Boulder Canyon Dam—represented a story of human success. Look at what we’re capable of doing, it said, when we set our minds to it!
Water from the dam has been filled to overflowing just twice. One of those times was in 1983. I remember it very well. I was working at the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Colorado resort town of Winter Park. We had an average winter. Spring was anything but. It started snowing in March and didn’t quit until mid-June. The water that gushed downstream took dam operators by surprise.
Since 2002, the principal problem has been too little water. Droughts, as severe as any before recorded, have repeatedly left Colorado’s slopes snowless when normally they would be thick with snow. New evidence also comes of rising temperatures, which rob streams and meadows of water through increased evaporation and transpiration.
Then there was the faulty promise of that compact struck in 1922, an assumption of far more water than the river has routinely delivered. That, however, did not stop the cities and farmers from inserting their straws into the river and its reservoirs. When I visited in December, the reservoir was 40% full—or, if you prefer, was 60% empty.
Energy, not water, powered my desire to see Hoover. When completed, the 13 hydroelectric generators provided a large amount of electricity in the Southwest. Now, the output is dwarfed by other sources, increasingly renewables. Increasingly, our guide said, the water is released to generate electricity in ways that shore-up the intermittent renewables.
Hoover Dam may also play a role in our future of renewable energy. Los Angeles Water and Power has been investigating whether the dam’s generators and Lake Mead can be used to create what constitutes a giant battery. The water would be released again and again, when power is needed most to fill the gaps between renewable energy, then pumped back into the reservoir when renewable power is plentiful, such as during sunny afternoons.
The answer is of interest far beyond Los Angeles. In places like Denver, utilities say they can now see the way to 80% emission-free power generation by 2030. But to 100%? Lithium-ion batteries may be part of that answer, but they can store energy for just four hours. Maybe another, partial solution can be found at Hoover and other dams. We do need the answers soon, as the need to reduce our emissions has become pressing.
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Rebecca Sobel):
Response to Trump Administration’s Plan to Relax Public Health Protections for Oil Refineries and Other Industries
WildEarth Guardians joined a coalition of environmentalists objecting to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) new Trump administration policy that relaxes environmental compliance rules for petrochemical plants and other big polluters during the coronavirus crisis.
“Relaxing pollution controls in the midst of a deadly health crisis is an obscene new low for the Trump administration,” said Rebecca Sobel, Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner for WildEarth Guardians. “While the pandemic worsens, the administration is propping up polluters in poisoning clean air, instead of focusing on the health and safety of Americans.”
The environmental organizations voiced their concerns in response to an announcement yesterday that the Trump administration EPA will “provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions.”
“It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws,” said the statement, which was written by Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project, former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA.
The Environmental Integrity Project released a report last year documenting the sharp drop in environmental enforcement during the Trump administration.
In February, WildEarth Guardians joined the Environmental Integrity Project in publishing a report documenting EPA air monitoring data at the fencelines of oil refineries which demonstrated excessive release of cancer-causing benzene into nearby communities at concentrations far above federal action levels. The second worst refinery in the U.S. was the Holly Frontier Navajo Artesia refinery in Artesia, New Mexico, where monitors at the plant’s fenceline detected benzene in amounts four times the EPA action level.
“Instead of reining in illegal polluters, this administration is propping them up, further endangering the health of New Mexicans and all Americans in the process,” continued Sobel. “We are all in this together, and now is the time to protect people, not polluters.”
Large electricity generators use lots of water to cool their coal-fired plants. As those units shut down, expect to see battles heat up over how the massive amounts of water can be repurposed.
Any newfound source of water is a blessing in a state routinely stricken by drought and wildfire, where rural residents can be kept from washing a car or watering a garden in summer, and where farm fields dry up after cities buy their water rights.
State water planners long assumed that the amount of water needed to cool major power plants would increase with the booming population. Planners in 2010 predicted that, within 25 years, major power plants would be consuming 104,000 acre-feet per year of their own water. The Colorado Sun found that their annual consumption will end up closer to 10% of that figure.
The 94,000 acre-feet of water that major power plants won’t be consuming is enough to cover the needs of 1.25 million people, according to figures included in the Colorado Water Plan of 2015. (That’s counting water permanently consumed in cities, and not counting water consumed by agriculture and certain giant industries, or water returned to rivers through runoff and wastewater treatment plants.)
Already, water once used by now-defunct power plants is flowing to households, shops and factories in Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder and Palisade, because the local water utilities owned the water and supplied the plants. When the plants closed, the cities just put their own water back into municipal supplies, officials in those cities said…
In Pueblo, Black Hills Energy shut down a 100-year-old, coal-then-gas-fired power plant downtown. After decommissioning stations 5 and 6 near the Arkansas River in 2012, Black Hills donated the water to public use. Water that once cooled the plant now flows in the Arkansas through the city’s Historic Riverwalk, where gondoliers paddle and picnickers gather in the sun for art and music. Renowned Denver historic preservationist Dana Crawford has partnered with a local developer on plans to revive the art deco power plant as an anchor for an expansion of the Riverwalk, with shops and restaurants.
In Cañon City, water that cooled the closed W.N. Clark power plant is going down the Arkansas River as well, Black Hills Energy spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez said. It is likely being picked up by the user with the next legal right in line.
The San Miguel River on the Western Slope is gaining some water from closure of the coal power plant in Nucla — at least temporarily until Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which owns the plant, finishes the tear down and reclamation, which requires some water. Spokesman Mark Stutz said Tri-State has made no decision on what to do with the water rights after that, but “we will listen to the input of interested stakeholders.”
Major power plants’ water consumption peaked in 2012 at about 60,000 to 70,000 acre-feet. It has dropped to about 47,000 acre-feet now and will fall further to about 27,000 acre-feet over the next 15 years, just from closures already announced. By the time the last coal plant closes, major power plant water consumption will have plummeted to about 10,000 acre-feet…
In the past 10 years, 13 coal power plant units in Colorado have shut down. Another 10 will close by 2036 or much earlier. The remaining four units are under review by their owners.
The last gas power plant built in Colorado was in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. All new power generation in Colorado since then has been renewable…
In the past 10 years, 13 coal power plant units in Colorado have shut down. Another 10 will close by 2036 or much earlier. The remaining four units are under review by their owners.
The last gas power plant built in Colorado was in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. All new power generation in Colorado since then has been renewable.
Technology has driven down the cost of wind and solar, and they now can provide power at a lower price per kilowatt-hour than coal-fired power in Colorado. Even accounting for the need to store electricity, bids to provide renewable energy have come in lower than the cost of coal-fired power.
Closure dates have been accelerating. Utilities are running scenarios on how they could shut down the last four coal-burning units in Colorado not already set for closure. They are Xcel Energy’s Pawnee in Brush and Comanche 3 in Pueblo, Platte River Power Authority’s Rawhide 1 near Wellington, and Colorado Springs Utilities’ Ray D. Nixon unit 1 south of the city.
Emissions controls and customers’ climate concerns are also driving the change, utility officials said.
For example, Platte River Power Authority already expects to be 60% wind, solar and hydro by 2023, and its board said it wants to reach 100% by 2030, spokesman Steve Roalstad said. A public review process started March 4 to discuss how best to achieve that. Closing the coal plant at Rawhide and even the adjacent gas plants by 2030 are options, but not certain, he said.
Early closing dates set for other coal plants could move up. PacifiCorp, a partial owner of three coal power units in Craig and Hayden in northwest Colorado, is pushing its partners, Tri-State and Xcel, for faster shut-downs. It wants to move more quickly to cheaper renewables…
As more power plants close in coming years, much of the water no longer needed will be water owned by the power companies themselves. Many were reluctant to talk about their water rights in detail.
Water court records show Xcel owns water from wells all over the metro area, and draws from Clear Creek. Xcel also owns 5,000 to 10,000 acre-feet in the Colorado River. That water is diverted to northern Colorado through the Colorado-Big Thompson tunnel under the mountains.
Xcel did say it is holding onto its water rights for now. It has been cutting its water purchases from cities, switching to its own water as power plants close.
On a smaller scale, Tri-State is now switching its J.M. Shafer power plant in Fort Lupton from city well water to its own water rights, city administrator Chris Cross said.
Water court records show another example of what can happen to utility-owned water: Xcel wants to use some of its Clear Creek water rights at a hydroelectric plant above Georgetown that is being renovated to produce more megawatts.
Some water might become available for other uses as more Xcel coal plants close, spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said…
Closure of the power plants could open up arguments over where that water should go instead, explained Erin Light, state water engineer for the northwestern district.
“Every water right is decreed for an amount, a use and a place of use,” Light said. With the power plant gone, utilities can try to sell their rights, but other water users may dispute that in court.
Xcel, for example, owns 35,000 acre-feet of conditional water rights in reservoirs in the Yampa Valley that have never been built, she said. But “conditional” means the company gets the water only if it is actually needed, she explained. So when the Hayden power plant closes in the 2030s, Xcel would have to go back to water court to change the use or sell the rights, she said.
“Those conditional water rights become a lot more speculative if they are not operating a power plant,” she said. “Arguably, they would lose their conditional rights.”
Legislators are sufficiently concerned about speculators making money on Colorado’s water shortage that in March they passed Senate Bill 48 asking water officials to give them suggestions on how to strengthen current law against it.
Click here to read the paper. Here’s the abstract:
The relationship between human health and well-being, energy use and carbon emissions is a foremost concern in sustainable development. If past advances in well-being have been accomplished only through increases in energy use, there may be significant trade-offs between achieving universal human development and mitigating climate change. We test the explanatory power of economic, dietary and modern energy factors in accounting for past improvements in life expectancy, using a simple novel method, functional dynamic decomposition. We elucidate the paradox that a strong correlation between emissions and human development at one point in time does not imply that their dynamics are coupled in the long term. Increases in primary energy and carbon emissions can account for only a quarter of improvements in life expectancy, but are closely tied to growth in income. Facing this carbon-development paradox requires prioritizing human well-being over economic growth.
Steve Lowe gazed into a gaping pit in the heart of the California desert, careful not to let the blistering wind send him toppling over the edge.
The pit was a bustling iron mine once, churning out ore that was shipped by rail to a nearby Kaiser Steel plant. When steel manufacturing declined, Los Angeles County tried to turn the abandoned mine into a massive landfill. Conservationists hope the area will someday become part of Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds it on three sides.
Lowe has a radically different vision.
With backing from NextEra Energy — the world’s largest operator of solar and wind farms — he’s working to fill two mining pits with billions of gallons of water, creating a gigantic “pumped storage” plant that he says would help California get more of its power from renewable sources, and less from fossil fuels…
At Eagle Mountain, one of several abandoned mining pits would be filled with water, pumped from beneath the ground. When nearby solar farms flood the power grid with cheap electricity, Lowe’s company would use that energy — which might otherwise go to waste — to pump water uphill, to a higher pit.
When there’s not enough solar power on the grid — after sundown, or perhaps after several days of cloudy weather — the water would be allowed to flow back down to the lower pit by gravity, passing through an underground powerhouse and generating electricity…
The Eagle Mountain plant wouldn’t interrupt any rivers or destroy a pristine landscape. But environmentalists say the $2.5-billion facility would pull too much water from the ground in one of the driest parts of California, and prolong a history of industrialization just a few miles from one of America’s most visited national parks.
Lowe rejects those arguments, saying his proposal has survived round after round of environmental review and would only drain a tiny fraction of the underground aquifer.
The project’s fate may hinge on a question with no easy answer: How much environmental sacrifice is acceptable — or even necessary — in the fight against climate change?
FromThe Guardian (Patrick Greenfield and Jonathan Watts):
The world’s largest financier of fossil fuels has warned clients that the climate crisis threatens the survival of humanity and that the planet is on an unsustainable trajectory, according to a leaked document.
The JP Morgan report on the economic risks of human-caused global heating said climate policy had to change or else the world faced irreversible consequences.
The study implicitly condemns the US bank’s own investment strategy and highlights growing concerns among major Wall Street institutions about the financial and reputational risks of continued funding of carbon-intensive industries, such as oil and gas.
JP Morgan has provided $75bn (£61bn) in financial services to the companies most aggressively expanding in sectors such as fracking and Arctic oil and gas exploration since the Paris agreement, according to analysis compiled for the Guardian last year.
Its report was obtained by Rupert Read, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson and philosophy academic at the University of East Anglia, and has been seen by the Guardian.
The research by JP Morgan economists David Mackie and Jessica Murray says the climate crisis will impact the world economy, human health, water stress, migration and the survival of other species on Earth.
“We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened,” notes the paper, which is dated 14 January.
Drawing on extensive academic literature and forecasts by the International Monetary Fund and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the paper notes that global heating is on course to hit 3.5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. It says most estimates of the likely economic and health costs are far too small because they fail to account for the loss of wealth, the discount rate and the possibility of increased natural disasters.
The authors say policymakers need to change direction because a business-as-usual climate policy “would likely push the earth to a place that we haven’t seen for many millions of years”, with outcomes that might be impossible to reverse.
“Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.”
The investment bank says climate change “reflects a global market failure in the sense that producers and consumers of CO2 emissions do not pay for the climate damage that results.” To reverse this, it highlights the need for a global carbon tax but cautions that it is “not going to happen anytime soon” because of concerns about jobs and competitiveness.
The authors say it is “likely the [climate] situation will continue to deteriorate, possibly more so than in any of the IPCC’s scenarios”.
Without naming any organisation, the authors say changes are occurring at the micro level, involving shifts in behaviour by individuals, companies and investors, but this is unlikely to be enough without the involvement of the fiscal and financial authorities.
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/
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.
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 CEO Susan Eubanks said she has seen a decrease in revenue at the hospital, which decreases the facility’s access…
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.”
FromThe 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The Colorado generation and transmission co-op announced a major renewable expansion it thinks can save money.
Duane Highley arrived in Colorado last year with a mission: Transform one of the nation’s heaviest coal-based wholesale electricity providers to something different, cleaner and greener.
As the new chief executive of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Highley began meeting with legislators and other state officials, whose general reaction was of skepticism and disbelief, he recalled.
“‘Just watch us,’” he says he answered. “We will deliver.”
Last week, Highley and Tri-State took a step toward that goal by announcing plans for a major expansion of renewable generation. The power wholesaler will will achieve 50% renewable generation by 2024 for its Colorado members, up from 32% in 2018. Unlike its existing renewables, much of which comes from federal dams, Tri-State plans six new solar farms and two more wind farms.
With continued retirement of coal plants, Tri-State expects to achieve 70% carbon-free electricity for its Colorado customers by 2030. Those customers represent two-thirds of the wholesaler’s demand across four states.
“The prices of renewables have fallen dramatically in the last 10 years,” Highley said in an interview with the Energy News Network. Solar and wind have dropped “significantly below the operating costs of any other project. It gives us the headroom to make these changes,” he said, adding that he expects downward pressure on rates for member cooperatives.
The politics and the economics of clean energy have aligned. “It helps us accelerate the ride off coal,” Highley said. The temptation, he added, was not to wait, but rather to announce the shift sooner, before details had been lined up.
Here’s the release from Western Resource Advocates (Julianne Basinger):
Western Resource Advocates today welcomed Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s announcement that it plans to add more than 1,000 megawatts of renewable wind and solar resources to its energy generation.
Tri-State announced more details of its Responsible Energy Plan today at a news conference featuring Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
“Tri-State’s plan signals a welcome and important shift toward a clean, lower-cost energy future,” said John Nielsen, director of Western Resource Advocates’ Clean Energy Program. “Tri-State’s coal plant retirements and increased investments in renewable energy will save its customers money and will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change and other harmful air pollution. We look forward to continuing to work with Tri-State to develop ways to achieve further carbon reductions and increased energy efficiency, while also seeking ways to help coal-reliant communities transition to new economic opportunities.”
Tri-State’s Responsible Energy Plan sets a target of 50 percent renewable energy generation by 2024 that will be achieved, in part, through the development of the more than 1,000 megawatts of new wind and solar generation announced today. The renewable energy plan comes after Tri-State last week announced it will close two coal-fired power plants in Colorado and New Mexico.
Tri-State announced its board has created a contract committee to discuss changes to its existing member contracts that would allow distribution cooperative members to self-supply more of their own electricity through locally sited renewable generation. The results of that discussion are expected to be announced in April. Tri-State also said it will increase electric vehicle infrastructure in the rural areas it serves.
From Conservation Colorado (Garrett Garner-Wells):
New polling released today highlighted climate change as the top issue in Colorado’s upcoming presidential primary, 10 points higher than health care and 15 points higher than preventing gun violence.
The survey of likely Democratic presidential primary voters conducted by Global Strategies Group found that nearly all likely primary voters think climate change is already impacting or will impact their families (91%), view climate change as a very serious problem or a crisis (84%), and want to see their leaders take action within the next year (85%). And by a nearly three-to-one margin, likely primary voters prefer a candidate with a plan to take action on climate change starting on Day One of their term over a candidate who has not pledged to act starting on Day One (74% – 26%).
Additionally, the survey found that among likely primary voters:
85% would be more likely to support a candidate who will move the U.S. to a 100 percent clean energy economy;
95% would be more likely to support a candidate who will combat climate change by protecting and restoring forests; and,
76% would be more likely to support a candidate who will phase out extraction of oil, gas, and goal on public lands by 2030.
These responses are unsurprising given that respondents believed that a plan to move the U.S. to a 100 percent clean energy economy will have a positive impact on future generations of their family (81%), the quality of the air we breathe (93%), and the health of families like theirs (88%).
Finally, likely primary voters heard a description of Colorado’s climate action plan to reduce pollution and the state’s next steps to achieve reductions of at least 50 percent by 2030 and at least 90 percent by 2050. Based on that statement, 91% of respondents agreed that the Air Quality Control Commission should take timely action to create rules that guarantee that the state will meet its carbon reduction targets.
Here’s the release from Tri-State Corp (Lee Boughey, Mark Stutz):
Increasing renewables to 50% of energy consumed by members by 2024, adding 1 gigawatt of renewables from eight new solar and wind projects.
Reducing emissions with the closure of all coal plants operated by Tri-State, cancelling the Holcomb project in Kansas and committing not to develop additional coal facilities.
Increasing member flexibility to develop more local, self-supplied renewable energy.
Extending benefits of a clean grid across the economy through expanded electric vehicle infrastructure and beneficial electrification.
In the most transformative change in its 67-year history, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association today announced actions of its Responsible Energy Plan, which dramatically and rapidly advance the wholesale power supply cooperative’s clean energy portfolio and programs to serve its member electric cooperatives and public power districts.
“Our cooperative and its members are aligned in our transition to clean power,” said Rick Gordon, chairman of Tri-State and director at Mountain View Electric Association in eastern Colorado. “With today’s announcement, we’re poised to become a new Tri-State; a Tri-State that will provide reliable, affordable and responsible power to our members and communities for many years to come.”
Tri-State’s clean energy transition significantly expands renewable energy generation, meaningfully reduces greenhouse gas emissions, extends the benefits of a clean grid to cooperative members, and will share more flexibility for self-generation with members, all while ensuring reliable, affordable and responsible electricity.
“We’re not just changing direction, we’re emerging as the leader of the energy transition,” said Duane Highley, Tri-State’s chief executive officer. “Membership in Tri-State will provide the best option for cooperatives seeking a clean, flexible and competitively-priced power supply, while still receiving the benefits of being a part of a financially strong, not-for-profit, full-service cooperative.”
Accelerated additions of renewable projects drive 50% renewable energy by 2024
Tri-State today announced six new renewable energy projects in Colorado and New Mexico, which along with two projects previously announced and yet to be constructed, will result in more than 1 gigawatt of additional emissions-free renewable resources being added to Tri-State’s power supply portfolio by 2024.
For the first time, four solar projects will be located on the west side of Tri-State’s system, including near Escalante Station and Colowyo Mine, which are scheduled to close by the end of 2020 and by 2030, respectively.
The eight long-term renewable energy projects of varying contract lengths to be added to Tri-State’s resource portfolio by 2024 include:
• Escalante Solar, a 200-megawatt (MW) project located in Continental Divide Electric Cooperative’s service territory in New Mexico. Tri-State has a contract with Turning Point Energy for the project. The solar project is on land near Escalante Station, which will close by the end of 2020.
• Axial Basin Solar, a 145-MW project in northwest Colorado in White River Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with juwi for the project. The project is located on land near the Colowyo Mine, which will close by 2030.
• Niyol Wind, a 200-MW project located in eastern Colorado in Highline Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with NextEra Energy Resources for the project.
• Spanish Peaks Solar, a 100-MW project, and Spanish Peaks II Solar, a 40-MW project, located in southern Colorado in San Isabel Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has contracts with juwi for both solar projects.
• Coyote Gulch Solar, a 120-MW project located in southwest Colorado in La Plata Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with juwi for the project.
• Dolores Canyon Solar, a 110-MW project located in southwest Colorado in Empire Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with juwi for the project.
• Crossing Trails Wind, a 104-MW project located in eastern Colorado in K.C. Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with EDP Renewables for the project.
The construction and operation of these projects will result in hundreds of temporary construction jobs and contribute to permanent jobs and tax base within Tri-State members’ service territories.
“By 2024, 50% of the energy consumed within our cooperative family will be renewable,” said Highley. “Accelerating our renewable procurements as technology improved and prices dropped results in the lowest possible renewable energy cost today for our members, and likely of any regional utility.”
Since 2009, Tri-State has contracted for 15 utility-scale wind and solar projects, as well as numerous small hydropower projects. By 2024, Tri-State will have more than 2,000 megawatts of renewable capacity on its 3,000-megawatt peak system, including:
800 megawatts of solar power from 9 projects (3 existing, 6 to be constructed by 2024)
671 megawatts of wind power from 6 projects (4 existing, 2 to be constructed by 2022)
600 megawatts of large and small hydropower (Including federal and numerous small projects)
Collectively, Tri-State’s renewable portfolio can power the equivalent of nearly 850,000 average homes.
Greenhouse gas emissions significantly reduced to meet Colorado, New Mexico goals
Tri-State is significantly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions to meet state laws and goals, and with the closures of all coal facilities it operates, will eliminate 100% of its greenhouse gas emissions from coal in New Mexico by the end of 2020 and in Colorado by 2030. The early closures of Escalante Station, Craig Station and Colowyo Mine were announced last Thursday, following the early retirement of Nucla Station in 2019.
By closing Craig Station, Tri-State is committed to reducing carbon emissions from units it owns or operates in Colorado by 90% by 2030, and reducing emissions from Colorado electric sales by 70% by 2030.
Tri-State also is committing to not develop additional coal facilities, and has cancelled its Holcomb coal project in southwestern Kansas. The air permit for the project will expire in March 2020.
“With the retirements of all coal facilities we operate, a commitment to not pursue coal in the future, and a significant increase in renewables, Tri-State is making a long-term and meaningful commitment to permanently reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Highley.
Plan extends benefits of a clean grid and electric vehicles to rural areas
As Tri-State rapidly transitions to a clean grid, it is working with its members to extend the benefits of low-emissions electricity to replace higher-emission transportation, commercial and residential energy uses.
“By extending the benefits of a cleaner power supply to vehicles, homes, farms and businesses, we ensure that rural energy consumers save money while further reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Highley.
To expand rural electric vehicle charging networks, Tri-State will fund electric vehicle charging stations for each member, and will work with members to further promote electric vehicle usage. Tri-State will promote and increase its beneficial electrification, energy efficiency and demand-side management programs with its members, including support through the new Beneficial Electrification League of Colorado and other state chapters, and will study potential emissions reductions associated with beneficial electrification.
Increasing member flexibility for developing local renewable energy resources
As a cooperative, Tri-State’s members are working together to increase local renewable energy development and member self-supply of power. In November 2019, Tri-State expanded opportunities for member community solar projects up to 63 megawatts system-wide, and is finalizing recommendations for partial requirements contracts.
“Our membership has moved quickly over the past six months to advance recommendations for flexible partial requirements contracts, which will be considered by our board by April 2020 and which Tri-State will implement upon the board’s approval,” said Gordon.
Partial requirements contracts provide flexible options for members that desire to self-supply power, while ensuring other members are not financially harmed. A Contract Committee of the Tri-State membership is currently reviewing partial requirements contract options.
Center for the New Energy Economy advisory process informs plan
To develop the Responsible Energy Plan, Tri-State collaborated with a diverse advisory group, facilitated by Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy (CNEE) and former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter. This group included representatives from the states Tri-State serves including academic, agricultural, cooperative, environmental, rural and state government interests.
“These advisors rolled up their sleeves to work with us on the details that make our energy transition vision a reality,” said Highley. “We are grateful to Governor Ritter and the CNEE advisory group for their good-faith contributions and efforts to find common ground in the pursuit of ambitious but actionable commitments, and challenging but attainable goals.”
Tri-State maintains financial strength and stable rates through transition
Tri-State’s strong financial position and cooperative business model helps ensure wholesale rates remain stable, if not lower, during its transition.
“We are favorably positioned to successfully transition to clean resources at the lowest possible cost,” said Highley. “The low costs of renewable energy and operating cost reductions help to counterbalance the cost to retire coal generation early, keeping our wholesale rates stable with even cleaner electricity.”
Tri-State is a not-for-profit cooperative of 46 members, including 43 electric distribution cooperatives and public power districts in four states that together deliver reliable, affordable and responsible power to more than a million electricity consumers across nearly 200,000 square miles of the West. For more information about Tri-State and our Responsible Energy Plan, visit http://www.tristate.coop.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. said by 2024 it will draw from renewable sources at least half of the energy it sends to member power cooperatives.
In a news conference also attended by Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday, the Westminster-based power generator said it would build two wind farms and four solar farms in Colorado and New Mexico to generate an additional gigawatt of energy for its 43 member co-ops in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and New Mexico.
Tri-State CEO Duane Highley said the plan puts the company at the forefront of the shift away from fossil fuels.
“Membership in Tri-State will provide the best option for cooperatives seeking a clean, flexible and competitively-priced power supply, while still receiving the benefits of being a part of a financially strong, not-for-profit, full-service cooperative,” he said at the news conference.
The partial shift away from non-renewable sources of power comes amid ongoing disputes among Tri-State, Brighton’s United Power Inc. and La Plata Energy Association Inc. at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. The two co-ops filed suit in November, claiming Tri-State is refusing to give them permission to explore deals with other power suppliers and effectively holding them hostage while it tries to become a federally regulated entity…
Tri-State has maintained it cannot release United and La Plata while other co-op customers revise the rules for terminating contracts…
In a statement, La Plata said it supports Tri-State’s push toward renewable energy, but said the power provider’s rules are preventing it from creating its own series of renewable energy sources to meet its local carbon reduction targets.
“While Tri-State’s future goal will help meet our carbon reduction goal, we do not yet know what the costs of its plan will be to our members and what LPEA’s role will be for producing local, renewable energy into the future,” said La Plata Energy Association CEO Jessica Matlock.
Member co-ops are required to buy 95% of their power from Tri-State.
Tri-State Generation continues to make changes that are hitting the Yampa Valley hard.
On Thursday, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced it will close all of its coal-fired power plants and mines in New Mexico and Colorado by 2030. The power provider serves nearly 20 rural electric cooperatives.
Tri-State announced the closure of its Escalante Power Plant in Prewitt, New Mexico, by the end of 2020. It plans to close Craig Station Units 2 and 3, and the Colowyo Mine in Northwest Colorado by 2030.
The announcement from the Westminster-based power provider comes on the heels of pressure by two of its rural electric co-op members, including Brighton-based United Power and Durango-based La Plata Electric Association, in hopes of making a faster transition to renewable energy in recent years. The pair have sought to break up with Tri-State as a result of the power wholesaler’s reluctance to use more renewables and in seeking more say over their power sources, according to previous Craig Press reporting.
The power provider officially announced the following information on the closures during a teleconference Thursday:
Closures will result in 100% reduction of coal emissions in Colorado and New Mexico while increasing Tri-State’s competitiveness with cleaner portfolio and stable rates.
Major changes in generation portfolio include closure of Escalante Station near Prewitt, N.M., by end of 2020, and closure of Craig Station and Colowyo Mine in Northwest Colorado by 2030.
Tri-State is working with state and local leaders to support affected employees and communities, and will seek legislation in Colorado to provide certainty on state greenhouse gas reduction rules.
In total, the closure of the power plants and mine impacts roughly 600 power plant and mine employees, who have been key to Tri-State’s and its predecessor generation and transmission cooperatives’ ability to supply reliable and affordable power to cooperatives for decades…
Tri-State will work with state and local officials to support affected employees and their communities during the transition…
Craig Station and Colowyo Mine in Colorado retiring by 2030
Craig Station, a 1,285-megawatt, three-unit power plant in Moffat County, will close by 2030, based on Thursday’s Tri-State announcement. The power plant’s units were constructed by Colorado Ute Electric Association and began operations between 1979 and 1984.
Tri-State acquired Craig Station and other assets from Colorado Ute in 1992. The power plant currently employs 253 people.
Tri-State previously announced that the 427-megawatt Unit 1 will close by the end of 2025. Despite Thursday’s announcement for Units 2 and 3, the closing date for Unit 1 remains unchanged.
The 410-megawatt Unit 2 and the 448-megawatt Unit 3 will close by 2030, according to Highley. Tri-State operates Craig Station and owns 24% of Units 1 and 2. Tri-State owns 100% of Unit 3. Tri-State is working with the other plant owners to determine the specific details for the retirement of Unit 2.
Colowyo Mine, located in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, produces coal used at Craig Station and will cease production by 2030, at which time operations will turn entirely to reclamation. Tri-State purchased Colowyo Mine from Rio Tinto in 2011. The mine currently employs 219 people.
Tri-State is working with the Governor and legislative leaders on proactive legislation that ensures the closures meet greenhouse gas compliance obligations in Colorado, while also maintaining stable rates and reliable power for Tri-State members. This legislation would give Tri-State the ability to transition resources in a timely and financially responsible manner while providing certainty.
Tri-State previously retired its coal capacity at Nucla Station in Western Colorado in 2019.
Escalante Station in New Mexico retiring by the end of 2020
Escalante Station, a 253-megawatt coal power plant near Prewitt, N.M., will close by the end of 2020. The power plant was constructed by Plains Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative and began operations in 1984. Plains Electric merged with Tri-State in 2000. The closure of the power plant will impact 107 employees.
“The timeline to retire Escalante Station by the end of 2020 is driven by the economics of operating the power plant in a competitive power market, and by Tri-State’s addition of low-cost renewable resources,” said Highley. “Our Escalante Station employees work safely and tirelessly to serve our cooperative’s members, and we’re committed to support them through this difficult transition.”
Escalante Station employees will receive a generous severance package, the opportunity to apply for vacancies at other Tri-State facilities, assistance with education and financial planning, and supplemental funding for health benefits.
Tri-State will also provide $5 million in local community support, and is working with the New Mexico Governor’s Office, legislative leaders and local communities in Cibola and McKinley counties to address the impacts of the transition, including workforce retraining and other economic development efforts. Tri-State will also address issues related to the McKinley Paper Company, which purchases steam and water from Escalante Station.
Tri-State previously retired its coal ownership capacity in Unit 3 of San Juan Generation Station in New Mexico in 2017.
On Thursday, following the State of the State address in Denver, Speaker KC Becker (D-Boulder) reacted to an announcement from the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association outlining the retirement of all coal generation in Colorado and New Mexico.
“I applaud Tri-State’s commitment to Colorado’s clean energy future and am impressed by the bold carbon emissions reduction target they set. Meeting our state’s targets requires immediate collective action, and I’m happy to see Tri-State take their role seriously,” Speaker Becker said. “As our state transitions toward a clean, renewable energy future, we must always keep in mind that this change will bring difficult transitions for Colorado’s energy workers, their families and communities.
A commitment to a clean energy future also requires a commitment to a fair and just transition for Colorado’s workers. Protecting and supporting workers and communities through these shifting economic tides remains a top priority for the legislature. I look forward to continuing to work with a broad array of stakeholders to find ways to support and protect working families affected by a changing energy economy. The Just Transition Office created by the legislature last year will continue to work with impacted communities and worker representatives across the state on a plan to support those impacted by the transition away from coal.”
Tri-State has been pressured by its rural electric co-op members — including Brighton-based United Power and Durango-based La Plata Electric Association — to make a faster transition to renewable energy in recent years. The pair have sought to break up with Tri-State as a result of the power wholesaler’s reluctance to use more renewables and in seeking more say over their power sources.
Two co-ops have already negotiated exits from Tri-State. They are the Delta-Montrose Electric Association and the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos, N.M.
Tri-State, a Westminster-based, nonprofit power provider, retired its Nucla Station coal-fired power plant in September. The utility says the closures won’t cause electric rates to rapidly rise.
“Serving our members’ clean energy and affordability needs, supporting state requirements and goals, and leading the fundamental changes in our industry require the retirement of our coal facilities in Colorado and New Mexico,” Rick Gordon, chairman of the board of Tri-State and a director of Mountain View Electric Association in eastern Colorado, said in a written statement. “As we make this difficult decision, we do so with a deep appreciation for the contributions of our employees who have dedicated their talents and energy to help us deliver on our mission to our members.”
“That Tri-State announcement is a good business decision,” reflected Republican State Sen. Bob Rankin who represents the region. “But believe me, there are going to be people crying in Craig, Colorado.”
While Tri-State hasn’t committed to an economic lump sum payment for Craig yet, early indications suggest that the money could be substantial. A company-owned coal-fired power plant closure announced in Escalante, New Mexico resulted in $5 million of support. Tri-State is encouraging officials to match dollars from public and private sources…
Along with financial support from Tri-State, Barela said Craig can expect help from Colorado’s newly formed Just Transition Office. It’s in the middle of a fact-finding mission guided by Keystone Research Center to discover what job transition programs in coal communities have been successful.
Barela, the state of Colorado and Tri-State will continue to work with Craig officials in the coming months. If there’s one silver lining to the Tri-State announcement, it ’s that it comes at a time of tremendous state economic prosperity. Colorado’s unemployment hovers around 2.5 percent.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association will shut down its 253 megawatt coal-fired generating station near Grants by the end of 2020 as part of the wholesale electric supplier’s efforts to transition to a clean energy grid over the next decade, according to a Thursday announcement.
The closure will eliminate 107 jobs at the plant, and potentially scores more at a nearby coal mine that supplies fuel for the generating station.
The association has run the Escalante plant in Prewitt since 2000, after it merged with Plains Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, which constructed and opened the plant in 1984. Escalante was built to operate through 2045, but Tri-State is closing it 25 years early as part of a broad plan to eliminate all the association’s coal-fired generation in New Mexico and Colorado to meet new regulations in both states that mandate a transition to a carbon-free grid…
“We understand it’s a shock for our employees,” said Tri-State CEO Duane Highley in a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon. “We will work with them and the local communities where they work to help minimize the negative impacts.”
Tri-State said employees will receive “generous” severance packages, opportunities to apply for vacancies at other Tri-State facilities, supplemental funding for health benefits, and educational and financial planning assistance.
The association will also provide $5 million in local community support in New Mexico, Highley told reporters. The association has been working with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office and with state legislators to collaborate on assistance programs and retraining for workers, he said…
Workforce Solutions Cabinet Secretary Bill McCamley said his office will meet with local officials and workers next week to assess needs and ways the state can help…
Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst said the government will work with Tri-State to help locate renewable generation facilities that replace Escalante in the affected communities, if possible, to offset some of the economic impacts there.
Apart from 107 employees at the Escalante plant, it’s unclear how many workers could lose their jobs at the nearby coal mine, which is run by Peabody Coal Co. But Robert Castillo, CEO of Continental Divide Electric Cooperative in Grants, said mine layoffs will likely double the impact…
The impact will be felt throughout the state’s northwestern region, since it comes on top of the partial shutdown of the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington and current efforts to completely close the nearby San Juan Generating Station, Castillo said.
“The problem is much broader, because it’s not just the Grants area,” Castillo said. “We’re talking about the whole northwest quadrant of New Mexico with the Four Corners plant, San Juan, and now Escalante. The whole area is going to be in bad shape.”
Castillo, who is also a board member of the Cibola Communities Economic Development Foundation, said local leaders want to work with state government to recruit more industry to the area. That’s critical for economic development assistance to have an impact, since retraining workers is only effective if alternative jobs are available…
Tri-State said closing Escalante will help the association meet New Mexico’s new Energy Transition Act, which requires state electric cooperatives to derive 50% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030, and from 100% renewable and carbon-free generation by 2050.
Tri-State expects to meet the 50% renewable milestone by 2024, six years in advance of the 2030 deadline. Currently, about 30% of its electricity comes from renewables.
Rapidly declining prices for solar and wind generation will greatly offset the costs of shutting down coal operations, allowing Tri-State to maintain moderate prices – and possibly even lower its rates – for member cooperatives going forward, Highley said.
“We have new requests for proposals for additional renewable resources and the costs are coming in at such low rates that it allows us to save money even while accelerating the write-off of coal assets,” Highley said.
Tri-State will make announcements about replacement resources next week.
“By year 2030, Tri-State will not operate any coal-based assets,” CEO Duane Highley said during a Thursday conference call with reporters. “These closures will have a huge impact on our employees.”
Although the Colorado closure is more gradual, giving time to to work with the Legislature for the transition, “the work starts now,” Highley also said.
He said the company is working proactively with the Legislature to make sure it meets greenhouse gas obligations, while also maintaining stable rates, transitioning resources responsibly and providing certainty for members…
Tri-State had three units at Craig. Station 1 was already shutting down, under a settlement agreement related to the state’s regional haze plan. Closure is still online for 2025.
The regional haze settlement also included the shuttering of Nucla Station on Montrose County’s West End, where closure had originally been set for completion in 2022. Tri-State, under the direction of its board, finished closures early by taking it offline in 2019.
Highley said in response to questions asked during the teleconference that Tri-State worked with affected communities and recognizes the need for support.
Craig Unit 2 had been set for closure in 2038 and Unit 3 was set for closure in 2044. The units now will close by 2030 and Colowyo will go into reclamation that year…
Highley during the teleconference said Thursday was “a solemn day,” especially for employees, whose dedication he praised.
“As we make this difficult decision, we do so with a deep appreciation for the contributions of our employees who have dedicated their talents and energy to help us deliver on our mission to our members,” Rick Gordon, chairman of Tri-State’s board of directors said, in an official announcement.
Tri-State provided wholesale power to Delta-Montrose Electric Association, which last year secured a buy-out for its power contract and is departing the Tri-State cooperative.
“That’s a move they should have taken a long time ago,” DMEA board president Bill Patterson said, adding he is not certain where Tri-State will obtain the capital to close the plants. “It really doesn’t impact DMEA that much. We made our deal. We’re working on getting the final details done,” he said.
Why Tri-State will shelve coal in Colorado and New Mexico and the big challenges that remain: Will Tri-State ‘family’ stay intact?
Tri-State Generation and Transmission announced [January 9, 2020] that it will close its Escalante Station coal-burning units in New Mexico in 2020 and all of its coal-burning units at the Craig Station in Colorado by 2030. One and probably two coal mines near the Craig units will be closed.
Sharply widened price disparities between aging coal plants and new renewable resources play a prominent role in the closures. So do the growing pressures of member cooperatives to decarbonize and take advantage of lower-cost and more distributed renewable resources. Yet another factor was the pressure exerted by advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club, with its extensive grassroots-organizing efforts.
New laws setting decarbonization goals in both Colorado and New Mexico figure into the closures. Legislatures in both states adopted laws last year calling for economy wide decarbonization, in Colorado’s case a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 95% by 2050. New Mexico’s law requires 80% electrical generation be renewable by 2040 and 100% carbon free by 2045.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, in his State-of-the-State address Thursday morning, said Tri-State’s plans within Colorado will reduce the utility’s greenhouse gas emissions 90% by 2030.
As of 2018, renewables—including hydropower—constituted 32% of Tri-States sales to members, while coal represented at least 47% and possibly more, depending upon the source of electricity purchased from other sources. Tri-State expects to be at 50% by 2024 and higher yet by 2030, said Duane Highley, the chief executive of Tri-State, at a Thursday tele-press conference.
The closures were not particularly surprising. Highley, who took the reins at Tri-State last April, told Colorado Public Utilities Commissioners in October to “watch our feet” while promising decarbonization by 2030.
But major questions remain for Tri-State, including perceptions of its long-term financial viability. S&P Global Ratings in November lowered ratings for Tri-State and for Moffat County, where Craig Station is located, from A to A-. Reading the news, some were reminded of another Colorado wholesale supplier, Colorado Ute. Overbuilt in coal generation, it went into a death spiral and then bankruptcy in 1991. Tri-State got the Craig units from that bankruptcy
Most prominent of Tri-State’s challenges will be to hang onto its existing members in what in the past has been described as a family. The family has been squabbling, particularly among Colorado’s 18 member cooperatives. One will soon leave, two more are negotiating to leave, and a fourth has informally asked for a buy-out number. Together, they represent 33% of Tri-State’s electrical demand.
Next Wednesday, Tri-State will announce details of what it calls its aggressive and transformative Responsible Energy Plan. The plan results from a process convened in July 2019 and overseen by former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s Center for the New Energy Economy. The task force included multiple environmental groups as well as Tri-State.
The extent and location of new local resources in Tri-State’s generating portfolio may not be answered immediately, says Erin Overturf, deputy director Western Resource Advocates’ clean energy program. The group was among those who participated in development of the Responsible Energy Plan.
Some of those not at the table remain unhappy that they were not.
“From our perspective, we want Tri-State to clean up their carbon footprint, but we would like to be part of this,” said Jessica Matlock, the chief executive of Durango-based La Plata Electric, one of two co-ops that have formally asked the price of breaking their current all-requirements contracts. “We haven’t been involved in any of the discussions, the formulation of strategies. We would actually like to develop a large amount of renewable energy in the Four Corners and supply that to Tri-State. We don’t think they should just develop large-scale resources on the Eastern Slope. They should diversify their resources and look to the co-ops to be partners.”
While the Four Corners has what Matlock describes as “phenomenal” solar potential, land in the United Power service territory north and east of Denver has become too valuable for 200-megawatts solar farms, says John Parker, chief executive of the 93,000-member cooperative. He’s more interested in seeing whether Tri-State can execute its energy pivot without raising rates.
Rates of Tri-State going forward matter entirely to United, says Parker, whose co-operative now is responsible for 19% of Tri-State’s total electrical demand. He said United charges 20% more for residential electricity than does Xcel Energy, a neighboring and sometimes competing utility. United has somewhat higher costs for distribution of electricity to customers owing to the more rural nature of its service territory But Tri-State’s wholesale cost to United provides the larger explanation. “Tri-State is 75% of our cost of doing business,” says Parker.
But will new transmission be needed to access new renewable supplies, as Tri-State representatives have indicated previously? If so, that could cause rates to rise further, Parker fears.
“I think the biggest question that we have as far as this announcement is how are they going to pay for it,” says Kathleen Staks, director of external affairs for Guzman Energy.
Highley, in the teleconference, repeatedly said that rates will remain stable and might even decline even as Tri-State accelerates deprecation on its plants in the two states. Asked specifically if his guarantees of stable rates also applies to the cost of new generation, he replied that yes, it does. The costs of renewable generation are just that good.
Guzman Energy financed the exit of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in 2016 from its all-requirements contract, which had been set to expire in 2040. It was the first Tri-State member to leave, a dispute that began in 2005 when Tri-State first asked members for contract extensions in order to build another coal plant, this one in Kansas. Guzman has since helped the cooperative based in Taos N.M., to build its solar potential. Luis Reyes, Kit Carson’s chief executive, says that Kit Carson will to be able to meet its peak day-time demand from locally generated solar resources by 2021. Kit Carson, says Matlock, provides La Plata the blueprint for what it hopes to achieve.
In closing the plants early, Tri-State will accelerate their financial depreciation. Value of the two generating stations at Craig at $400 million. Their original end-of-life dates were 2038 and 2044. The depreciation of those units is being accelerated to 2030. Highley suggested that retirement of one of those units, Craig Unit 2, which is co-owned with four other utility partners, could happen earlier.
Tri-State owns the 253-megawatt Escalante Generating Station without partners and values it at $270 million. Its original end of life had been put at 2045.
Still standing will be the two major generating stations in which it has a minority interest. It has 464 megawatts of the total 1,710 megawatts of capacity at Laramie River Station near Wheatland, Wyo., and 419 megawatts of the 1,629 megawatts at Springerville, in eastern Arizona. As for the future of those plants, said Highley, look at what happens legislatively in Arizona and Wyoming.
Evidence had been mounting that Tri-State, despite several relatively small additions of renewable, was being bypassed by the energy transition. The first evidence came in late 2017, after Xcel Energy had announced plans to retire Comanche 1 and 2, two aging coal-burning units at Pueblo, Colo. The bids it had received by that December for wind, solar and even storage shocked most energy analysts, drawing national attention. Conveniently, most of that new generation approved by the Colorado PUC will be located relatively close to existing transmission.
Then, in August 2018, the Rocky Mountain Institute released a report, “A Low-Cost Energy Future for Western Cooperatives,” which examined the Tri-State fleet in terms of risks, including a carbon price and load defection. That analysis concluded only the Laramie River Station in Wyoming made sense economically going forward. Key to the lower-cost of the Wyoming plant is the relative proximity to the Powder River Basin, lowering transportation costs, and a low-price contract continuing into the 2030s.
Since that 2018 study, says Mark Dyson, a co-author, prices of renewables have continued to dive. He cites one example of a project approved late last year that will deliver solar plus storage at a price of around $25 a megawatt. In some cases, he said, that’s lower the cost of coal itself delivered to a plant. And solar itself now is commonly in the lower $20s per megawatt-hour, a price unheard of even two years ago.
Tri-State in 2019 rebuffed an offer from Guzman to buy three Tri-State units (two at Craig, one at Escalante) and shut them down, replacing the 800 megawatts of lost generating capacity with wind, solar and natural gas generation.
“We would finance the early shutdown of these coal plants, giving Tri-State a substantial cash infusion, in the vicinity of a half-billion dollars, and we would replace the portfolio (that would be lost) with in excess of 70% renewables,” said Chris Riley, president of Guzman Energy, in an interview for Energy News Network. The offer included purchase of the Colowyo Mine.
Guzman said it would also cover the costs of dismantling the three units as well as remediation costs, which are expected to be substantial. The remediation, however, would be subject to negotiation, Riley said. In addition, Guzman offers to assist communities that would be affected by early retirement of the coal units. At least part of Guzman’s sources of funding were foundations.
In its announcement, Tri-State pledged $5 million in local community support in New Mexico to the affected communities, including Grants and Gallup.
It made no similar offer for the Craig community. And, some observers have noted, Tri-State has made little outreach to the affected communities under Highley. However, he said he planned to meet with community members next week. The Craig Daly Press reports that the news hit the Yampa Valley hard.
Highley also promised to continue work Gov. Jared Polis and legislative leaders in terms of the transition but did not say exactly what Tri-State is seeking with legislators. Colorado legislators last session created a Just Transition office, but the agency still lacks an executive director and also funding. Meetings of the advisory committee, which consists of state officials and legislators and local representatives, were held in October and December.
Ultimately 600 Tri-State employees directly involved in the extraction or burning of coal will be directly impacted along with 100 employees who are not directly involved in mining or combustion. It will, said Highley, “result in a significant downsizing of our company.”
However, Tri-State now expects to expand markets to accommodate the application of energy to other uses, including transportation and home heating, a concept called beneficial electrification. Just what it has in mind there will become more clear next week.
This expansion could partially offset loss of members. Delta-Montrose Electric, which represents 4% of Tri-State’s load, will leave Tri-State in May and will instead be supplied by Guzman Energy. Poudre Valley REA, the second-largest member cooperative in terms of demand, at 8%, informally asked for a buy-out number in 2018 but, unlike United and La Plata, has taken no additional action. Directors adopted a goal of 80% carbon-free electricity by 2030.
Both United and La Plata are skirmishing legally with Tri-State at both the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They have asked the Colorado PUC to determine a fair and just exit fee.
Tri-State’s response to the complaints is an offer to provide a partial-requirements contract, one that allows greater ability of local co-ops to generate their own resources. At the press conference, Highley said he is confident that the committee tasked with the details will deliver an acceptable product by April. But patience is publicly wearing thin at United Power. “We’ve spent 18 months trying to change this contract, and all that we have gotten from Tri-State is delays, evasions and excuses,” Parker said in press release issued last week.
The other big story of the decade was the environment. As the drought steadily worsened in the early teens, President Ben Shelly found himself between a rock and a hard place. A proposed settlement of the water rights on the Little Colorado River, which would have included the Nation sacrificing a portion of its water rights in exchange for infrastructure, proved so wildly unpopular that he was forced to back down, leaving the Nation to take its chances in court.
A plan to round up Dinétah’s feral horses, which ranchers accused of drinking up and fouling the ever-scarcer watering holes, stirred an international uproar from humane organizations and even actor Robert Redford. It was eventually abandoned and the animals remain a problem, now numbering in the tens of thousands with few natural predators.
Water issues continued in 2015 as an estimated several hundred Navajos — including President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer — joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in protesting the construction of an oil pipeline beneath the tribe’s main water source, braving sub-zero temperatures, tear gas and rubber bullets.
In the summer of that year, the Diné had their own water issue to contend with, watching in amazement as the Animas River ran orange with dissolved metal compounds from an abandoned gold mine near Silverton, Colorado — the result of a botched containment effort by the US. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Navajo Nation joined the states of New Mexico and Utah in suing the agency and its contractor. As of this writing the litigation is still pending.
Then there was Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama on Dec. 28, 2016, and reduced by 85 percent by President Donald Trump less than a year later. That’s also slogging through the courts.
But by far the biggest environmental story was the rapid dethronement of King Coal, which for decades had propped up state, local, and tribal economies in the Four Corners.
As prices for natural gas and renewable energy declined, power plant owners beat a hasty retreat from the dirty fossil fuel that had sustained generations of Navajo miners and a good chunk of the Navajo and Hopi tribes’ budgets.
In 2013, the Navajo Nation managed to stave off the closure of BHP Billiton’s Navajo Mine by creating a company to buy it, but there was no stopping the demise of the Navajo Generating Station and the two mines on Black Mesa that fed it.
Environmentalists had for years been pressuring the tribal government to create a plan to replace the revenue that would be lost when the plant closed, preferably by converting it to a sustainable energy producer, but as the last coal shovelful of coal was turned this past November, the only plan was to dig into the Permanent Trust Fund former President Peterson Zah had created in 1985 for just this eventuality.
Meanwhile the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, the tribal enterprise created to buy the Navajo Mine and then lead the Nation into a more sustainable energy future, purchased three more coal mines in Wyoming and Montana — a move that shocked not only environmentalists but the president and Council.
The San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow, New Mexico, is next on the chopping block, slated to close in 2022 unless the state’s Public Regulation Commission approves a plan to convert it to a carbon capture facility.
We’re reporters of the news, not prognosticators. But it’s not too risky to predict that all these environmental issues will extend into 2020 and most likely beyond, joined by ones no one has even thought of yet as irreversible climate change takes hold.
Driving down Highway 133 from the craggy wilds of the West Elk Mountains in central Colorado, one of the first signs of civilization is a mile-long coal train on a siding, along with the rusting steel framework of a canyon-spanning loading station that still dumps the black rock into trains at the rate of 50 cars per hour.
This nearly relict fossil fuel infrastructure is an improbable gateway to the orchards and vineyards of North Fork Valley. The few miles between the mine and Paonia mark a transition from the fossil fuel era into an uncertain post-carbon age, defined by climate change.
In Paonia, the air around Big B’s fruit stand is scented sweet-sour from the harvest of ripe apples. There are four types of cider on tap and nearly all the food on the menu is grown within a few miles of the local gathering spot.
The Mountain Harvest Festival is underway, and the place is buzzing, as community catalyzer Pete Kolbenschlag starts explaining how Paonia is building a sustainable future.
This community once relied heavily on coal mining jobs. Now it is developing a path toward a sustainable local economy based partly on organic agriculture and local renewable energy. It also must find ways to navigate challenges like global warming—and the growing threat of new fossil fuel development.
About eight years ago, the federal government proposed major oil and gas drilling in the North Fork Valley, and the plan roared to life this past summer, just as the organic food industry was really starting to take off. New drilling would take up land and threaten to bring more air pollution and potentially groundwater contamination that could put organic crops in jeopardy, while also contributing to climate change.
That’s not a mix that can work, said Kolbenschlag, who’s been working on community sustainability in the North Fork Valley for 20 years.
Many proposed drilling areas are right next to organic farms or ranches, and even directly on top of community drinking water springs, according to the Western Environmental Law Center, which is supporting the community’s legal challenges to fracking. Leaks from drilling could threaten local and regional water supplies. Industrial emissions and dust from increased traffic could taint fruits and vegetables, and energy infrastructure could harm wildlife habitat and diminish the area’s tourism appeal, along with the direct climate-harming impacts of more fossil fuel development.
“Leases were proposed in a ring around my house for 2 miles in every direction,” Kolbenschlag said. “We were able to stop that lease sale twice because the underlying land plan was outdated. There’s millions of dollars of agriculture on the line, even in a small area like this.”
After World War II, the federal government, utilities, and developers embarked on a project to build dams, mines, power plants, and high-transmission lines across the Interior West in order to electrify and deliver water to the cities that were sprawling across the desert. The intent of what scholar and law professor Charles Wilkinson called “The Big Buildup” was both to meet the demand created by the huge post-War migration, and to create new demand — to lure more people, and therefore more money, to the Southwest. The likes of Phoenix and Las Vegas as we know them today were made possible by the Big Buildup, and the Big Buildup, in turn, was enabled by theft of land, cheating tribal nations out of royalties, government subsidies, and lax regulations.
For five decades this coal-fired machine churned away, pumping electricity into the cities, cash into state and tribal coffers, and pollution into the water, land, and air. Those of us born during or after 1970 would never know a Four Corners Country without economies that relied on coal, or without the yellow-gray gauze that obscures every vista. The machine seemed invincible, stable, recession proof, and immune to boom and bust cycles. The growing populations of the West would continue to demand more and more electricity, meaning the plants would burn more and more coal.
In 2008, recession washed over the nation like a wave, putting a damper on demand for electricity — and thus coal. There was nothing surprising about that. But what happened next was astounding: As the economy recovered, and demand for power stopped dropping, coal consumption kept plummeting. For the first time in sixty years, for a variety of reasons, the fortunes of coal and electricity had been decoupled.
Now the machine assembled by the Big Buildup is breaking down in dramatic fashion, with coal plants retiring left and right, and those that remain burning less and less coal.
This is not merely another downward swing in the extractive industries’ boom-bust cycle. It’s the death of an entire economic sector, a paradigm shift, if you will. Its effects will be every bit as profound as the Big Buildup’s. Call it the Big Breakdown. I’ll be covering the phenomenon here and elsewhere over the coming months and years — this is not a fast death.
But for now I’ll just leave you the chart above, which so clearly illustrates the great decoupling and the underlying cause of the Big Breakdown.
A massive coal-fired power plant that served customers in the West for nearly 50 years shut down Monday, the latest closure in a shift away from coal and toward renewable energy and cheaper power.
The Navajo Generating Station near the Arizona-Utah line was expected to shutter by the end of the year, but the exact day hadn’t been certain as the plant worked to deplete a stockpile of coal.
It stopped producing electricity shortly after noon Monday when shift supervisor Fred Larson, a 41-year employee, put the plant permanently offline…
Coal was delivered to the power plant by a dedicated, electric railway that snakes 78 miles (126 kilometers) through the high desert in the Navajo Nation. By next fall, the poles and overhead electrical lines that served the railway will be gone. The Navajo Nation has not decided whether to keep the railway and use it for tourism or sell it.
A trio of towering concrete stacks with flashing lights that served as a beacon in the community will be demolished by next fall.
Decommissioning will take up to three years, after which the land is supposed to be returned to the condition it was before the plant was built.
Steve Yazzie, a former power plant employee who now works for a tribal energy company, said biologists from the Navajo Nation and the Salt River Project, which operates the plant, recently met to talk about reseeding the land with plants used for dying wool, making tea and traditional medicines.
Reclamation work also is being done at Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine, which pulled coal from land owned by the Navajo and Hopi tribes. It closed months ahead of the power plant because it had no other customers.
Aurora Organic Dairy today published its 2019 Sustainability Report. The report provides a detailed and transparent update on the Company and its progress toward goals to improve its sustainability performance around three core pillars of Animals, People and Planet.
The Company announced updated goals that encompass three key areas:
Caring for the comfort and well-being of its cows and calves, always putting animal care at the forefront of farming practices.
Employee safety and wellness, and local community support.
Commitments to greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, water efficiency and waste reduction, and one important new goal to commit to 100% carbon-neutral energy by the end of 2020.
“At Aurora Organic Dairy, we have a longstanding commitment to continuous improvement when it comes to our animals, people and planet,” said Scott McGinty, CEO of Aurora Organic Dairy. “While we are proud of our achievements, in today’s world, we cannot rest. We must continue to do more to support our animals and people, the environment and our local communities. Our updated sustainability goals strengthen this commitment.”
The Company’s sustainability goals – established against 2012 baseline data – include many initiatives that have bolstered Aurora Organic Dairy’s sustainability performance:
Aurora Organic Dairy farms improved the overall welfare of its animals through goals to reduce lameness, to perform fewer dehorning procedures, to used paired calf housing and to increase video monitoring.
Significant progress against People goals was made with increased training programs, communications around the value of benefits, bilingual communication and community centers in remote farm locations. Going forward, Aurora Organic Dairy will continue its focus on safety and on employee volunteerism.
For the Planet, Aurora Organic Dairy achieved significant reductions in water and energy. Its milk plant achieved a 71% solid waste landfill diversion rate, and normalized GHG emissions were down 11%. The Company is committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 30% by 2025. Given the urgent need to address climate change globally, Aurora Organic Dairy has made an important commitment to 100% carbon-neutral energy by the end of 2020.
“This last year was a milestone for Aurora Organic Dairy in terms of environmental stewardship,” said Craig Edwards, Director of Sustainability for Aurora Organic Dairy. “We installed solar arrays at our High Plains and High Ridge Dairies in Gill, Colo. and we committed to 100% carbon-neutral energy by the end of 2020. To get there, we will invest in renewable energy projects directly and will support additional projects by purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates and Verified Emission Reductions to address 100% of our electricity and fuels use across our Company farms, raw milk transport, milk plants and headquarters.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The decision Friday by Judge R. Brooke Jackson in the U.S. District Court of Colorado applies to the West Elk Mine’s efforts to begin mining as early as January beneath some 2,000 acres in what’s known as the Sunset Roadless Area in the Gunnison National Forest.
Ruling in a lawsuit brought by conservation groups, Jackson found that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement violated federal law by failing to consider requiring the mine to burn off the methane produced during mining operations. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. A supplemental environmental impact statement issued by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had estimated that flaring could reduce the total global warming potential of the gas by about 87%.
That document didn’t draw conclusions about the feasibility or economic viability of flaring, saying it was premature to consider at the coal leasing stage and should be considered later.
But in recommending that the Interior Department approve the mining plan for the expansion, the mining reclamation office said the earlier environmental document sufficiently addressed the methane flaring alternative.
Jackson found that neither the mining reclamation office, the BLM or the Forest Service “put on the record any conclusions that justify excluding methane flaring from consideration as an alternative. Instead, it appears that one agency drew a faulty conclusion on the basis of other agencies’ explicit lack of conclusion.”
The mine is the largest single industrial point source of methane pollution in the state. The Forest Service has estimated the mine expansion would result in the release of nearly 12 million tons of methane. While the mining will take place underground, the mine has begun surface work in the roadless area, where it plans to build about 8.4 miles of roads and install 43 methane drainage wells.
The mine is owned by Arch Coal. It began pursuing the expansion a decade ago but has faced protracted legal challenges.
Jackson previously ruled that federal agencies failed to account for the environmental costs of leasing and other decisions related to the mine expansion. That led to the supplemental environmental document being released.
Conservation groups then sued to challenge that new environmental analysis and another federal judge ruled against them. That ruling is under appeal.
Jackson also ruled Friday in favor of conservationists over their contention that the mining reclamation office didn’t take a hard look at impacts to water resources from mining activities. The mining reclamation office both relied on the supplemental environmental review’s conclusion that there are no known perennial springs in the expansion area, and said perennial springs likely exist there.
The Colorado legislature has had an extraordinarily productive year so far, passing a stunning array of climate and clean energy bills covering everything from clean electricity to utilities, energy efficiency, and a just transition. The list is really pretty amazing…
It got me thinking: Just how big a role are EVs going to play in decarbonization? How should policymakers be prioritizing them relative to, say, renewable energy? Obviously, every state and country is going to need to do both eventually — fully electrify transportation and fully decarbonize electricity — but it would still be helpful to better understand their relative impacts.
Nerds to the rescue!
A new bit of research commissioned by Community Energy (a renewable energy project developer) casts light on this question. It models the carbon and financial impacts of large-scale vehicle electrification in Colorado and comes to two main conclusions.
First, electrifying vehicles would reduce carbon more than completely decarbonizing the state electricity sector, pushing state emissions down 42 percent from 2018 levels by 2040 — not enough to hit the targets on its own, but a huge chunk. Second, electrifying vehicles saves consumers money by reducing the cost of transportation almost $600 a year on average.
Rapid electrification is a win-win for Colorado, a driver of decarbonization and a transfer of wealth from oil companies to consumers — but only if charging is managed intelligently.
EVs bring carbon and consumer benefits
First, the headline: Electrifying EVs…reduces emissions a lot.
In the EV-grid scenario, electricity sector emissions fall 46 percent — the number is lower because about a third of the additional electricity demand from EVs is satisfied by natural gas — but overall state emissions drop 42 percent, more than two and a half times as much, representing 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s thanks to an 80 percent drop in transportation emissions…
As I said, that in itself is not enough to meet the state’s emissions target. The state will have to force some additional cleaning of the electricity sector (and deal with other sectors) to do that, as this year’s package of legislation reflects. (I asked Clack if Vibrant ran a scenario without any new natural gas. Yes, he said. “It was $1 billion per year more expensive [around 1¢/kWh, or 15.9 percent more] and decreased emissions by an additional 14.8 metric tons per year.”)
But the drop in transportation emissions in the EV-grid scenario is sufficient to reduce more overall emissions than the entire Colorado electricity sector produces. EVs are a vital piece of the decarbonization puzzle.
The effect of all the new EVs on electricity generation is pretty simple: There will be more of it…
As you can see, in the cleaner-grid scenario, lost coal generation is replaced by a mix of natural gas, wind, and solar. In the EV-grid scenario, it’s roughly the same mix, just a little more of each — the addition of EVs raises total electricity demand by about 20 percent.
Bonus result: “The increase in generation capacity increases employment in Colorado’s electricity sector by approximately 68 percent by 2040.”
And now, here are the fun parts.
Shifting from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV) to EVs would save Colorado consumers a whole boatload of money, for the simple reason that electricity is a cheaper fuel than gasoline. Here are the average savings for a Coloradan that switches from ICEV to EV between 2018 and 2040…
So the average Coloradan will save between $590 and $645 a year — nothing to sneeze at. “The total savings between 2018 and 2040 are estimated to be $16 billion,” Vibrant says, “which equates to a savings of almost $700 million per year.”
You might think, with all the new EV demand added to the grid, electricity rates would go up. In fact, relative to the cleaner-grid scenario, the EV-grid scenario has an extremely small impact on rates (0.7 percent difference at the extreme)…
EVs are a climate triple threat
What this modeling makes clear is that when it comes to clean energy policy, EVs are a triple threat for Colorado (and, obviously, for other states, though the impacts will vary with weather and electricity mix).
For the electricity sector, as long as their charging is properly managed, EVs can provide much-needed new tools to help manage the influx of renewable energy…
For the transportation sector, EVs can radically reduce carbon emissions and local pollution. (Yes, EVs reduce carbon emissions even in areas with lots of coal on the grid.)
And for consumers, EVs save money, not only because the fuel is cheaper (and getting cheaper all the time) but because EVs are much simpler machines, with fewer moving parts and much lower maintenance costs.
Especially in states with electricity sector emissions that are already low or falling, transportation is the next big place to look for emission reductions, and EVs are one of the few options that can reduce emissions at the necessary scale and speed. Colorado is right to encourage them.
Deal sealed for electrical co-op’s exit from Tri-State but the fee unknown
Tri-State Generation and Transmission and one of its 43 member co-operatives, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, have come to terms. Delta-Montrose will be leaving the “family,” as Tri-State members are sometimes called, on about May 1, 2022.
What it cost Delta-Montrose to exit its all-requirements contract with Tri-State, however, will remain a secret until then. The figure was redacted in the settlement agreement filed with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission last Friday. The figure can become public after the split occurs next year, according to Virginia Harman, the chief operating officer for Delta-Montrose.
The split reflects a fundamental disagreement over the future of electrical generation and the pace of change that has festered for about 15 years. Those different visions became apparent in about 2005 as Tri-State managers sought to build a major new coal plant near Holcomb, Kan., in partnership with Sunflower Electric.
The utilities were shocked when Kansas denied a permit for the plant, based on the time at the still-novel grounds of its carbon dioxide pollution. When Tri-State finally got its permit for the coal plant in 2017, it had spent nearly $100 million with nothing to show.
Meanwhile, the electrical world had turned upside down. Wind had become the cheap energy, not coal, and it was being integrated into power supplies effectively. Even solar was in cost competitive in places.
Along among the then 44 member cooperatives, only Kit Carson and Delta-Montrose had refused the 10-year contact extensions to 2050 that Tri-State had wanted to satisfy money markets for long-term loans. Their contracts remained at 2040. The contracts of other member co-ops—including those serving Durango, Telluride, Crested Butte and Winter Park—go until 2050.
Kit Carson was the first to get out. In 2016, assisted by Guzman, it paid the $37 million exit fee required by Tri-State and set out, also with the assistance of Guzman, to develop solar farms in dispersed parts of its service territory in northern New Mexico. It aims to have 100% solar capability by the end of 2022.
In November 2016, Delta-Montrose informed Tri-State it wanted to buy out its contract, too. It asked for exit figure. The negotiations did not yield an acceptable number to both, and in December Delta-Montrose asked the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to arbitrate. The PUC agreed over protests by Tri-State that the PUC had no authority. A week was set aside in June, later delayed to begin Aug. 12, for the case.
No figures have ever been publicly revealed by either Tri-State or Delta-Montrose, although a court document filed early in July reported that Tri-State’s price had been reduced 40%.
Meanwhile, Tri-State got approval from its members to seek regulation for rate making by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That could possibly have moved the jurisdiction over the Delta-Montrose exit to Washington. It would not affect review by Colorado, New Mexico or other states in which Tri-State operators of resource planning.
Delta-Montrose and Guzman have not completed plans for how the co-operative may develop its local energy resources. The co-op had reached Tri-State’s 5% allowance for local generation by harnessing of fast-moving water in an irrigation conveyance called the South Canal.
For Tri-State’s new chief executive, Duane Highley, the task at hand may be how to discourage more exits by other member co-op. Tri-State has argued that it moved slowly but has now is in a position to realize much lower prices for renewable energy generation. It is moving forward on both wind and solar projects in eastern Colorado.
Delta-Montrose, with 33,000 members, is among the larger co-ops in Tri-State. But even larger one, who together represent nearly half the electrical load supplied by Tri-STate have all dissatisfaction with Tri-State’s slow movement away from coal-fired generation.
In Southwestern Colorado, Durango-based La Plata Electric recently asked for an exit figure, too.
Along the Front Range of Colorado, United Power, by far the largest-coop, with 91,000 members and booming demand from oil and gas operators north of Denver, has wanted more renewable energy and greater ability to develop its own resources. Poudre Valley has adopted a 100% clean energy goal.
Delta-Montrose, with 33,000 members, is easily among the 10 largest co-ops.
The settlement agreement filed with the PUC says DMEA “shall not assist any other Tri-State member in pursuing withdrawal from Tri-State. The agreement also says that DMEA and Tri-State agree to not disparage each other.
More than 30% of Tri-State’s generation comes from renewables, mostly from hydropower. This total is little different from that of Xcel Energy. But Xcel in 2017 announced plans to close two of its aging coal plants, leaving it at 55 percent renewable generation in Colorado.
Tri-State, too, is closing coal plants. A coal plant at Nucla, in southwestern Colorado, west of Telluride, will close early next year, several years earlier than previously scheduled. However, it’s small by coal plant standards, with a nameplate capacity of 114 megawatts, and operates only part time.
A larger reduction is scheduled to occur by 2025 when one of three coal units at Craig, in northwestern Colorado, will be retired. But a Tri-State official, speaking at a beneficial electrification conference in Denver during June, suggested that a second coal plant could also be retired early. That second coal unit is co-owned with other utilities in Colorado and other states, all of whom have indicated plans to hasten their retreats from coal.
Tri-State last week also announced a partnership with former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s Center for the New Energy Economy to facilitate a stakeholder process intended to help define what Tri-State calls a Responsible Energy Plan. See: Tri-State Announces Responsible Energy Plan 20190717
A long-standing legal dispute in the Colorado energy industry came to an end Monday when Delta-Montrose Electric Association announced it would withdraw from its membership in Tri-State Generation & Transmission, effective May 1, 2020.
The early withdrawal is part of a definitive settlement agreement between the two energy companies.
Delta-Montrose Electric Association, a rural utility provider on the Western Slope, said it underwent the effort to secure cheaper rates for customers and purchase more renewable energy.
As demand shrinks and the industry retracts, counties and the state are in an untenable situation.
Over the last few months, Wyoming’s struggling coal industry has gone from bad to worse. In May, the third-largest mining company, Cloud Peak, filed for bankruptcy, leaving the pensions and future of hundreds of employees in jeopardy. Less than two months later, Blackjewel, Wyoming’s fourth-largest coal company, abruptly declared bankruptcy, idling mines and putting hundreds out of work.
As the hits against coal pile up, so do questions about the future of Wyoming’s coal mines and the economy they support. With even the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback’s offering no relief, the largest coal-producing state in the country is being forced to grapple with the decline of the industry that has long undergirded its economy.
Wyoming’s politicians have gone to considerable lengths to prop up the coal industry. Now, the state is walking an increasingly threadbare tightrope as it manages coal’s future. Lean too far towards promoting mining, with lax tax collection standards and cleanup requirements, and state and local governments may get stuck with cleaning up the mess the failed businesses leave behind. Tilt towards proactive tax collection and strong reclamation requirements, and risk becoming another factor pushing the coal economy into oblivion.
The depth of the current downturn was unforeseen even a couple years ago, said University of Wyoming economist Rob Godby. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sought carbon emission reductions from the power sector, was expected to deal the industry a blow, and it was discarded by the Trump administration, anyway. Instead, it was cheap natural gas and to a lesser extent renewable energy sources — and the resulting shrink in demand for coal — that ended up knocking coal companies to their knees, said Godby.
The diminishing value of coal draws ominous parallels to the subprime mortgage bubble that precipitated the Great Recession of 2008. But the coal free-fall is likely to be even worse than the housing market crash, because houses always retained some value, while coal mines could end up worthless if investors see costs that outstrip potential income, said energy analyst Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank.
With mines likely to close, Wyoming is entering a new and untested paradigm for coal — reclamation without production. Typically, mines clean up their mess as they go; if they don’t, then the state can shut down operations until they do. But once a company goes broke and the mine shuts down, the only funds for cleanup are reclamation bonds, which critics say are inadequate in Wyoming.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council has been pushing Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality to look harder at the balance sheet of companies before it allows them to buy mines. This effort has kept cleanup obligations from being transferred to Blackjewel and then possibly going unfunded during the company’s bankruptcy. Williams-Derry called that a “heroically smart move,” because now the cleanup costs are staying with the mines’ former owner instead of potentially ending up with the state.
In pushing for strong cleanup requirements, resource council Executive Director Joyce Evans said that requiring mines to do proper reclamation would create more jobs for out-of-work miners. Still, she said she doesn’t expect miners to embrace the prospect, even if the reclamation jobs pay just as well as mining, because of Wyoming’s history of “social dependency on coal and energy.”
Meanwhile, coal’s collapse is delivering a one-two punch of unemployment and unpaid taxes to Campbell County, where more than one-third of all coal in the U.S. is mined from the Powder River Basin. The Blackjewel bankruptcy put nearly 600 miners out of work, and the county may never get $37 million in taxes owed by the company, which was run by Appalachian coal executive Jeff Hoops. This is partly because of the county’s lenient approach to collecting back taxes. “We’ve been dealing with delinquent taxes and Mr. Hoops for several months in an amicable way to try and resolve (the unpaid taxes) without pushing them into what has happened now and keep our miners working,” said County Commissioner Del Shelstad in a July 3 meeting in Gillette.
Now, creditors are in line before the county to collect in bankruptcy court. For Gillette’s state Sen. Michael Von Flatern, an ex-coal miner, the delayed county tax payments and ongoing dependence on minerals “is starting not to make sense.” He described the current bankruptcies as the canary in the coal mine for the industry’s long-term decline. “We need to truly diversify our economy,” Von Flatern said. “We have a minerals, minerals, minerals economy.” But over next couple decades, it’s possible that there won’t be a market for Wyoming coal anymore, he said. “If Wyoming can’t do what we need to do to diversify our economy and change our tax structure, then we’ll be in the same place next time we go bust.”
Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at email@example.com.
“If I had to sum it up in a word, I think I’d say ‘transformative.’ It’s a real shift in our policy, and I think it really shows the direction that Colorado is headed,” said Erin Overturf, chief energy counsel for the conservation group Western Resource Advocates. “I think it shows that we’re starting to take climate change seriously and recognize the task that’s truly ahead of us if we’re going to do our part to help solve this problem.”
The bills include efforts to make houses and appliances — from refrigerators, to light bulbs to air conditioners and furnaces — more energy-efficient…
Lawmakers extended state tax credits for buying electric vehicles and allowed regulated electric utilities to own and operate vehicle charging stations to try to encourage people to buy and drive zero-emission vehicles.
One of the things that sets Colorado apart from other states working to boost the use of renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is its efforts to look out for affected workers and communities, said Anna McDevitt, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.
The bill reauthorizing the PUC has a provision requiring utilities to include a workforce transition plan when they propose shutting down a power plant. Another section on low-cost bonds to retire power plants for cleaner, cheaper alternatives also provides that a portion of the proceeds helps workers and communities affected by the closures…
Referring to the PUC bill and its carbon-reduction targets, Xcel Energy said in a statement Friday that the legislation was “heavily negotiated with a broad set of stakeholders” and protects safety reliability and customer costs…
One bill expands the size of community solar gardens, which are centralized arrays of solar panels that users “subscribe” to. They are intended for people who want to use solar power but whose roofs aren’t suitable, who live in an apartment or can’t afford to install a system.
Other legislation directs the PUC to study regional transmission organizations that would make it easier for utilities or municipalities to buy wholesale power. Another section requires regulators to take on planning to help facilitate rooftop solar and other distributed-energy installations.
The PUC also will have to look into so-called “performance-based ratemaking.” That would allow utilities to earn a certain rate of return on things such as increasing energy efficiency or installing a certain amount of rooftop solar rather than just on construction of plants or other infrastructure.
On Saturday (May 11), the levels of the greenhouse gas reached 415 parts per million (ppm), as measured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Scientists at the observatory have been measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels since 1958. But because of other kinds of analysis, such as those done on ancient air bubbles trapped in ice cores, they have data on levels reaching back 800,000 years…
During the ice ages, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were around 200 ppm. And during the interglacial periods — the planet is currently in an interglacial period — levels were around 280 ppm, according to NASA.
But every story has its villains: Humans are burning fossil fuels, causing the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which are adding an extra blanket on an already feverish planet. So far, global temperatures have risen by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) since the 19th century or pre-industrial times, according to a special report released last year by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Every year, the Earth sees about 3 ppm more carbon dioxide in the air, said Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of meteorology at Penn State University. “If you do the math, well, it’s pretty sobering,” he said. “We’ll cross 450 ppm in just over a decade.”
“CO2 levels will continue to increase for at least the next decade and likely much longer, because not enough is being done worldwide,” said Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The long-term increase is due to human-related emissions, especially the emissions of our burning of fossil fuels.”
However, he noted that the annual peak in carbon dioxide, which fluctuates throughout the year as plants change their breathing rhythms, occurs right now. The annual average value will be more like 410 to 412 ppm, he said. Which … is still very high.
“We keep breaking records, but what makes the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere most troubling is that we are now well into the ‘danger zone’ where large tipping points in the Earth’s climate could be crossed,” said Jonathan Overpeck, the dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. “This is particularly true when you factor in the additional warming potential of the other greenhouse gases, including methane, that are now in the atmosphere.”
The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were this high, way before Homo sapiens walked the planet, the Antarctic Ice Sheet was much smaller and sea levels were up to 65 feet (20 meters) higher than they are today, Overpeck told Live Science.
“Thus, we could soon be at the point where comparable reductions in ice sheet size, and corresponding increases in sea level, are both inevitable and irreversible over the next few centuries,” he said. Smaller ice sheets, in turn, might reduce the reflectivity of the planet and potentially accelerate the warming even more, he added.
“It’s like we’re playing with a loaded gun and don’t know how it works.”
From the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies:
Nearly 75 percent of coal-fired power plants in the United States generate electricity that is more expensive than local wind and solar energy resources, according to a new report from Energy Innovation, a renewables analysis firm. Wind power, in particular, can at times provide electricity at half the cost of coal, the report found.
By 2025, enough wind and solar power will be generated at low enough prices in the U.S. that it could theoretically replace 86 percent of the U.S. coal fleet with lower-cost electricity, The Guardian reported.
“We’ve seen we are at the ‘coal crossover’ point in many parts of the country, but this is actually more widespread than previously thought,” Mike O’Boyle, the co-author of the report for Energy Innovation, told The Guardian. “There is a huge potential for wind and solar to replace coal, while saving people money.”
Using public financial filings and data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, O’Boyle and his colleagues analyzed the cost of coal-fired power plants compared with wind and solar options within a 35-mile radius. The report found that North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Texas have the greatest amount of coal capacity currently at risk of being outcompeted by local wind and solar. By 2025, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin will be in a similar situation.
“Coal’s biggest threat is now economics, not regulations,” O’Boyle told CNN Business.
Coal currently makes up just 28 percent of total U.S. power generation, down from 48 percent in 2008. Renewables, meanwhile, now account for 17 percent of electricity generation, dominated by hydro and wind, with solar capacity quickly growing.
Washington blocked a coal terminal under the Clean Water Act. New rules could subvert that authority.
At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is part of the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. Meanwhile, about a thousand miles south in Longview, Washington, on the banks of the Columbia River, decades of industrial waste mar the proposed site for the largest bulk coal terminal in North America.
On the surface, these places may not have much in common, but they’re both part of a simmering nationwide conflict over state and federal power. In the Tongass, that means the Administration deferring to Alaska’s desire to rewrite federal rules to promote logging, while in Longview, that looks like an executive order designed to limit a state’s ability to block fossil fuel projects — including the Millennium coal export terminal.
The [President’s] administration’s treatment of these areas demonstrates its all-in support for extractive industries. In the name of energy dominance, the federal government is looking to curtail state environmental reviews and promote fossil fuel exports. By doing so, it’s wading into an ongoing fight between coastal and Interior West states over permit denials for export facilities on the West Coast. Where the administration stands on that battle — and its apparent willingness to trample on some states’ regulatory authority — exposes the uniquely flexible nature of its support for states’ rights: It appears interested in shifting power to states only when the goal is less environmental protection.
[The President’s] April 10 executive order was part of a package of directives designed to pave the way for infrastructure like the Millenium coal terminal. In the order, [the President] asked the Environmental Protection Agency to rewrite the policies for how Section 401 of the Clean Water Act is implemented. That section of the linchpin federal law gives states and tribes authority over whether to permit facilities that release pollution into federally protected waters within their borders. [The President’s] directive declares that the current process “cause(s) confusion and uncertainty, leading to project delays, lost jobs, and reduced economic performance.”
While it’s unclear exactly how the EPA will change the guidelines, environmental lawyers are skeptical that the executive branch has the authority to weaken state and tribal oversight. That’s because the right of states to protect their rivers, lakes and coastal waters is fundamental to the Clean Water Act, and the 401 certification process gives affected communities a voice in that process. Andrew Hawley, a lawyer with the Western Environmental Law Center, put it bluntly: “To undermine that goes straight to the heart of the Clean Water Act.”
The orders come as states are battling over export infrastructure along the Pacific Coast. Fossil fuel-producing states in the Interior West — frustrated that local and state governments in Washington, Oregon and California have stymied a string of projects — see [the President’s] directives as a crack in the coast’s green wall. “I stand with governors across the land in asserting our states’ rights to access markets foreign and domestic,” said Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, R, following the orders’ announcement. “The states along the West Coast have abused their authority under section 401 of the Clean Water Act to unfairly discriminate against Wyoming coal.”
Gordon blamed the blocking of export facilities on climate politics, but Washington denied the Longview permit because of local impacts, not big-picture threats. In a summary of the decision, the state’s Department of Ecology wrote that the project “would cause irreparable and unavoidable harm to the Columbia River,” by driving hundreds of pilings into the riverbed, destroying nearly 30 acres of wetlands and aquatic habitat, increasing ship traffic on the Columbia River by 1,680 trips a year, and impairing tribal access to protected fishing sites.
Elsewhere, the…administration has sought to shift power to the states — so long as the end result would slash environmental protections. In the past couple years, the Interior Department has implemented policies that defer wildlife management to states, thus allowing controversial hunting practices like killing coyotes and wolves during denning season on national wildlife refuges in Alaska. And the Forest Service is working with Utah and Alaska to weaken restrictions on carving roads into roadless forests. That would mean major changes in areas like the Tongass, where most of the forest is inaccessible to industry.
As some Western states get more leeway to weaken environmental safeguards, green activists are left wondering how far the federal government will go to subvert state regulatory authority in their communities. Diane Dick, who lives just outside the Longview city limits, has spent the better part of a decade fighting the Millenium coal terminal. From the beginning, she said, the fight over the terminal felt bigger than just one project; she’s watched it become a poster child for a national debate over energy infrastructure. Now, as the executive branch tilts the scales against local environmental protection, Dick sees a larger question looming: When and based on what can a community protect itself?
Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, WA.
A spokesperson for Denver’s Department of Finance confirmed that the city’s fossil fuel investments have been sold. As of earlier this year, its various portfolios had included about $50 million in corporate bonds issued by fossil fuel giants Exxon Mobil and Chevron, though in previous years that figure had been higher.
“This is a powerful statement to our children, grandchildren and future generations that we care about them and want to invest in their future,” said 350 Colorado boardmember Barbara Donachy.
One coal mine remains open in the North Fork Valley. Photo/Allen Best
Oil and gas development on the Roan via Airphotona
Over the last few years, residents of the western Colorado town of Paonia, the longtime headquarters of High Country News, have planted yard signs, skipped ultimate frisbee to attend public meetings, and embarrassed themselves and each other during a karaoke-themed fundraiser — all in the name of preventing oil and gas development in their watershed. Despite their efforts, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service approved major fracking projects, in 2015 and 2017, just above this small community, where agritourism and a renewable energy training facility are growing as coal jobs fade.
What public pushback didn’t stop, a federal court in Denver has temporarily halted. In late March, Colorado U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock ruled the agencies failed to fully consider climate and wildlife impacts in approving the projects, and ordered them to rework their environmental reviews. It is the latest in a string of decisions regarding federal environmental planning for oil and gas development and leasing on public lands. Another judge also recently rejected oil and gas leases in Wyoming, citing an inadequate analysis of how they would harm the climate; together, the rulings have blocked development approved by both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Environmentalists see the decisions as major victories and an opportunity to slow down the “energy dominance” agenda of the Trump administration. At the same time, they’re aware that courts alone can’t prevent the administration from increasing leasing and drilling on public lands. But in the details of the decisions, and in growing public awareness and activism around climate action, they see a chance to slow or stop oil and gas development on public land.
The courts are merely delaying, rather than actually preventing fossil fuel development over climate concerns. That’s because the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA) governs process, not outcomes. The law requires disclosure, “but NEPA doesn’t have the kind of teeth to force agencies to act on climate change,” said Clare Lakewood, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Practically speaking, (BLM) will do the analysis the court directed,” and likely continue with the fracking project in western Colorado, said Laura King, a lawyer for the Western Environmental Law Center. Steven Hall, the BLM Colorado communications director, said the agency will work with the groups that sued to address the issues identified by the court.
While it would be foolhardy to expect the Trump administration to change its plans based on a climate analysis, just a few years ago the Interior Department appeared to be taking climate change more seriously. In 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a moratorium on federal coal auctions and initiated an environmental review of the entire federal coal-leasing program. Though that review was never completed — and the moratorium was overturned in short order by Trump’s then-secretary, Ryan Zinke — the data collected during it were published late last year in a report by the U.S. Geological Survey. That report shows that the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels from federal lands is responsible for approximately one-fourth of the carbon dioxide emissions produced in the United States.
The report not only showed that federal lands are a major contributor to climate change, it also demonstrated that tools exist to track and estimate how they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Now, federal judges are keen to see those tools employed to inform agency decision-making. In a ruling that is delaying 303,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Wyoming, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote that by omitting analysis of the cumulative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, the BLM failed to abide by environmental laws. He also wrote, “BLM could decline to sell the oil and gas leases at issue here if the environmental impact of those leases — including use of the oil and gas produced — would not be in the public’s long-term interest.”
The judge’s assertion is critical for activists who want to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The Interior Secretary is directed by law to hold quarterly oil and gas lease sales. But if the BLM has the power to decline to issue the leases based on their ultimate contribution to climate change, that could pave the way for future administrations to phase-out or even eliminate fossil fuel leasing on public lands. “We think the agencies have complete discretion,” to issue a moratorium on new federal fossil fuel leasing, said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.
Climate action is not coming from the current partisan Congress, an Interior Department led by former industry lobbyists, or a president who blames wind turbines for cancer while praising the beauty of coal. But recent court decisions are giving future administrations a legal footing to phase out fossil fuel development on public lands, and bolstering environmental activists like the karaoke-singers in Paonia by posing an important question: Is fossil fuel development a sensible way to manage public land for future generations?
Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, WA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Energy Transition Act could be a model for ambitious policies of the future.
On March 23, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law the Energy Transition Act, a complex bill that will move the state toward cleaner electricity generation, clear the way for the state’s biggest utility to shutter one of the West’s largest coal-fired power plants in 2022, and provide mechanisms for a just transition for economically affected communities.
The bill has the support of the state’s biggest utility — Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM — as well as environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Western Resource Advocates and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. National media are hailing it as a mini-Green New Deal.
Here’s a breakdown of what the bill does — and doesn’t — do:
Perhaps most significantly, the bill mandates that New Mexico electricity providers get 80 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2040, and 100 percent from carbon-free sources by 2045. Those are ambitious goals that will result in huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in a state that currently gets half its electricity from coal and a third from natural gas.
That said, it’s important to remember that “carbon-free” and “renewable” are not synonyms. The 20 percent of carbon-free electricity can include nuclear, since no greenhouse gases are emitted during fission, as well as coal and natural gas equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Carbon capture is prohibitively expensive — and unproven — but nuclear power is readily available from Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona, where PNM currently gets about 18 percent of its power.
Also, “electricity” and “energy” are two distinct concepts — a common source of confusion. This bill applies only to electricity consumed by New Mexicans and has no direct bearing on the state’s burgeoning oil or natural gas production. Meanwhile, the Four Corners Power Plant, located in New Mexico but owned by Arizona Public Service, can continue to burn coal under the renewable standards as long as the electricity is exported to other states. But PNM plans to divest its 13 percent ownership in Four Corners Power Plant in 2031, leaving the plant on shakier economic ground.
The bill helps pave the way for the planned closure of San Juan Generating Station, located just north of the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico.
The station’s owner, PNM, announced two years ago that it would likely shut down the plant in 2022 because it was no longer economically viable. Many aspects of this bill are a direct reaction to the pending closure, particularly the sections that allow the utility to take out “energy transition bonds” to cover costs associated with abandonment. Those bonds will be paid off by ratepayers, but not taxpayers.
This has irked New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe-based group that has been pushing PNM to clean up its act for years. The group, a critic of the bill, would rather see PNM’s investors shoulder the cost of the bonds. After all, the investors are the ones who have profited handsomely off the power plant for nearly half a century, even as it pumped millions of tons of climate warming gases into the air, along with acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide, health-harming particulates, mercury, arsenic and other toxic materials.
While the bill does not specifically force the plant’s closure, it does mandate the creation of standards that limit carbon dioxide emissions from large coal-burning plants to about half of what coal emits per megawatt-hour — effectively killing any possibility of keeping the generating station operating.
The energy transition bonds will help fund a just transition away from coal. Some 450 jobs— about one-fourth of them held by Native Americans — will be lost when the San Juan Generating Station and the associated San Juan Mine close, together with an estimated $356 million in economic activity annually.
The bill allocates up to $30 million for reclamation costs, and up to $40 million to help displaced workers and affected communities, to be shared by the Energy Transition Indian Affairs Fund, Economic Development Assistance Fund and Displaced Worker Assistance Fund. The Indian Affairs Fund will be spent according to a plan developed by the state, in consultation with area tribal governments and with input from affected communities, and the economic development fund will help local officials diversify the local economy. The bill also requires PNM to replace a portion of the area’s lost generation capacity, in the process creating jobs and tax revenue.
The new bill has some missing elements. There’s no provision for making amends to the people who have lived near the plant for years and suffered ill health, such as high asthma rates, as a result. It won’t stop Four Corners Power Plant, located just 10 miles from San Juan Generating Station, from belching out pollution (though it does provide for a just transition away from that plant if it closes by 2031), and it doesn’t address the massive climate impact from oil and gas development or transportation. The act is merely an official acknowledgment that coal is dying, and that coal communities could die, too, without help.
Nevertheless, the Energy Transition Act is remarkable in that it promises to totally decarbonize electricity in a state that has leaned heavily on fossil fuel for decades, while also lending a hand to communities that would otherwise be left behind. It is a good template, or at least a decent sketch, for a national Green New Deal.
Extra: Listen to High Country News Contributing Editor Cally Carswell’s new Hot & Dry Podcast for even more context on New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act:
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 email@example.com.
Effort worries coal counties on Western Slope; seen as duplicate by some
Lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill Thursday that orders the state to expand its tracking and possibly regulations of greenhouse gas emissions through 2050, an effort to buck the Trump administration’s disinterest in tackling climate change.
Colorado has been tracking greenhouse gas emissions by sector since 2008, but Senate Bill 096 greatly expands an existing effort by the Air Quality Control Commission. Under the bill, the commission would collect data and propose rules to address emissions by July 2020. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment would be required to collect annual greenhouse gas data by sector and publish it; the department would also be required to forecast emissions through 2050.
The bill’s opponents say it would generate more regulations that could push coal-fired power plants closer to extinction, killing jobs and further raising electricity costs on the Western Slope…
…Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, the bill’s sponsor, said the measure would help Colorado reach its 2025 goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least a quarter. It would also ensure that greenhouse gas emission data would not depend on the federal government, which under President Donald Trump has abandoned its commitment to the Paris climate change accords.
The bill passed the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee on a party-line vote of 5-2; it now heads to the Appropriations Committee…
Southwest Colorado greenhouse gas emissions attracted global attention in 2014, when NASA scientists discovered a 2,500-square-mile methane cloud over the Four Corners caused in part by natural gas production. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
Even as Colorado grapples with methane emissions from oil and gas operations and a power mix still mostly reliant on coal, Sen. Ray Scott, a Mesa County Republican, questioned why SB 096 would have the state spend nearly $2 million to duplicate data already being tracked by the federal agencies and local universities.
Local plants vow to minimize coal-ash contamination to meet new EPA rules; report finds cases much worse in other states
Since federal regulations kicked in a few years ago, coal-fired power plants are required to monitor and publicly report what happens to the residue from burning coal and determine whether chemicals are seeping from the coal-ash disposal sites into the groundwater.
But the reporting process is inconsistent between facilities and the data collected is often complicated to interpret. So a group of environmentalists culled the data from 265 coal-fired power plants or ash dumps, including seven in Colorado, and found 91 percent had unsafe levels of one or more chemicals in nearby groundwater.
“This is only the beginning of the end,” said Abel Russ, a senior attorney for The Environmental Integrity Project, which published the report as part of a collaboration between the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other environmental organizations. “If it’s gradually leaking and if you don’t do anything about it now, future generations will have to deal with it. And it’s not any one chemical but a bunch. Most had four different chemicals (contaminating groundwater). The coal-ash rule and our report are looking at drinking water standards, but there’s the whole fish and wildlife (ecosystem) that this doesn’t address.”
Where coal-state Sen. John Barrasso got it wrong in a recent New York Times op-ed.
In December, after world leaders adjourned a major climate conference in Poland, Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, penned an opinion piece in the New York Times headlined “Cut carbon through innovation, not regulation.”
Those first two words were enough to get me to continue reading. After all, when was the last time you heard a conservative Republican, particularly one who represents a state that produces more than 300 million tons of coal per year, advocate for cutting carbon?
“… the climate is changing,” he wrote, “and we, collectively, have a responsibility to do something about it.” What?! In one sentence he not only acknowledged the reality of climate change, but also admitted, obliquely, that humans are causing it — and have a responsibility to act. I had to re-read the byline. Had someone hacked the senator from Wyoming?
Unfortunately, no, as became clear in the rest of the op-ed. The “responsibility” thing was just the first of three “truths” that Barrasso gleaned from the climate conference. He continued: “Second, the United States and the world will continue to rely on affordable and abundant fossil fuels, including coal, to power our economies for decades to come. And third, innovation, not new taxes or punishing global agreements, is the ultimate solution.” Ah, yes, there’s the sophistry we have come to expect from the petrocracy.
Translation: We’ve got to stem climate change, but we have to do it by plowing forward with the very same activities that are causing it. And we have to take responsibility by, well, shirking that same responsibility and hefting it off on “innovation” instead.
Fine. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here getting rid of my growing love handles while I continue to eat three pints of Chunky Monkey per day.
Aside from the abstract answer of innovation, Barrasso offers two specific solutions to take the place of regulations or carbon taxes. The first is nuclear power. Aside from the waste and the uranium mining and milling problems, nuclear power can be a great way to cut emissions — as long as it displaces coal or natural gas, which doesn’t seem to be what Barrasso has in mind.
His primary solution, however, is carbon capture and sequestration. It sounds great. Just catch that carbon and other pollutants emitted during coal or natural gas combustion and pump it right back underground to where it came from. Problem solved, without building any fancy new wind or solar plants. But there are currently only 18 commercial-scale carbon capture operations worldwide, and they’re not being used on coal power plants, where they’re most needed, because of technical challenges and high costs.
Once the carbon is captured from a facility, it must be sequestered, or stored away somewhere, perhaps in a leak-free geologic cavern. Most current carbon-capture projects, however, pump the carbon into active oil and gas wells, a technique known as enhanced oil recovery. This widespread method of boosting an old well’s production usually uses carbon dioxide that has been mined from a natural reservoir, the most productive of which is the McElmo Dome, located in southwestern Colorado under Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Using captured carbon instead makes sense. It obviates the need to drill for carbon dioxide under sensitive landscapes, and it can help pay for carbon capture projects. But none of that changes the underlying logical flaw in the whole endeavor, which amounts to removing carbon emitted from a coal plant only to pump it underground in order to produce and burn more oil and therefore emit more carbon.
Barrasso writes: “The United States is currently on track to reduce emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, … not because of punishing regulations, restrictive laws or carbon taxes but because of innovation and advanced technology…” And he’s right. Carbon emissions from the electricity sector have dropped by some 700 million tons per year over the last decade. But it wasn’t because of carbon capture, or more nuclear power. It was because U.S. utilities burned far less coal, period.
Sure, innovation played a role. New drilling techniques brought down the price of natural gas, and advances in solar- and wind-power did the same with those technologies, making them all more cost competitive, displacing some coal. But Barrasso seems not to understand whence that innovation comes. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. More often than not, innovation is driven by money, regulations, or a combination of both. Fracking was a way to increase profits in old oil and gas fields. Renewable technologies moved forward in response to state energy requirements. Carbon taxes would encourage renewables, nuclear and, yes, carbon capture, by making them more competitive with fossil fuels.
“People across the world,” Barrasso writes, “are rejecting the idea that carbon taxes and raising the cost of energy is the answer to lowering emissions.” He mentions France, and the Gilet Jaune, or Yellow Vest, movement, the members of which have passionately protested against higher taxes on fuel, among other things. But the yellow vests aren’t opposed to carbon-cutting or environmental regulations. They were demonstrating against inequality, and against the fact that the fuel tax was structured in a regressive way, hurting the poor far more than the rich. The lesson is not that regulations are bad, but that they must be applied equitably and justly. That, in turn, will drive innovation, and hopefully more thoughtful op-eds.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.