The San Juan County commission voted two-to-one in favor of a resolution that rescinds the county’s previous opposition to the monument and condemns its reduction by Donald Trump.
The county commission of Utah’s San Juan County—home of Bears Ears National Monument, which President Donald Trump vastly reduced in 2017—has historically opposed the designation of the land as a national monument. But it has now changed its tune: On Tuesday, the commission voted two-to-one in favor of a resolution that rescinds the county’s previous opposition to the monument and condemns its reduction.
Specifically, the https://www.utah.gov/pmn/files/467927.pdf rescinds all prior resolutions opposing the establishment of the monument, or calling for the dissolution or reduction of it. Most notably, it also “condemn[s] the actions of President Donald Trump in violating the Antiquities Act of 1906 by unlawfully reducing the Bears Ears National Monument” in his December 4th, 2017, proclamation, and “call[s] upon the United States to fully restore” the monument.
The vote does not signal a change of heart, but rather reflects a major shift in the county commission’s make-up: Thanks to recent redistricting, it is now Utah’s first-ever majority-Navajo county commission. Previously, the county’s three districts were drawn such that most Native American voters were grouped into one district, but in 2016, a federal judge ruled that the voting districts were unconstitutional and ordered the county to redraw them. (According to the census, Navajos make up the majority of the county’s population by a small margin.) In response to the shift in representation, Utah state representative and former San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman—notorious for the time he rode an ATV down a trail that was closed to motorized vehicles in protest of federal land control—has raised the possibility of splitting the county in two to bring power back to his white-majority hometown of Blanding.
Both of the Navajo members of the commission, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, voted in favor of the Bears Ears resolution. The dissenting vote came from the commission’s white member, Bruce Adams. (When I was in San Juan County for then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s visit to Bears Ears during his monuments review in 2017, Adams greeted Zinke wearing a white “MAKE SAN JUAN COUNTY GREAT AGAIN” cowboy hat—and gave Zinke one too.)
State House and Senate Democrats say they plan to introduce a sweeping bill in coming weeks to redefine the mission of the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, placing a higher priority on public health and safety.
In addition, the measure is likely to seek to give local governments more control over incoming oil and gas permits rather than maintaining that oversight at the state level
“Local development and zoning are the bread and butter issues of local city councils and county commissions,” said Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette. “Only oil and gas is exempt from that currently. They should have the same power [over that industry].”
Democrats have been talking about such legislation since the 2019 session opened, but their plans have been firming up lately.
The move most likely will be contained in just one bill rather than many, said House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder. A concerted effort is more likely to succeed, she said.
“That’s better than throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks,” Becker said.
Working alongside Becker on the measure is Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, who said the state hasn’t passed any substantial legislation on oil and gas regulation in six years and spoke optimistically of the incoming bill.
“It’s actually probably the most meaningful reform that Colorado will have ever seen in oil and gas,” Fenberg said.
The legislation could be introduced into the House as early as March, Fenberg said. He and Becker anticipate opposition from the oil and gas industry.
Energy analysts used power demand data from the Midwest’s January deep freeze and wind and solar conditions to find the gaps in an all-renewable power grid.
In the depths of the deep freeze late last month, nearly every power plant in the Eastern and Central U.S. that could run was running.
Energy analysts saw a useful experiment in that week of extreme cold: What would have happened, they asked, if the power grid had relied exclusively on renewable energy—just how much battery power would have been required to keep the lights on?
Using energy production and power demand data, they showed how a 100 percent renewable energy grid, powered half by wind and half by solar, would have had significant stretches without enough wind or sun to fully power the system, meaning a large volume of energy storage would have been necessary to meet the high demand.
“You would need a lot more batteries in a lot more places,” said Wade Schauer, a research director for Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, who co-wrote the report.
How much is “a lot”?
Schauer’s analysis shows storage would need to go from about 11 gigawatts today to 277.9 gigawatts in the grid regions that include New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and parts of the South. That’s roughly double Wood Mackenzie’s current forecast for energy storage nationwide in 2040.
Energy storage is a key piece of the power puzzle as cities, states and supporters of the Green New Deal talk about a transition to 100 percent carbon-free energy sources within a few decades. The country would need to transform its grid in a way that could meet demand on the hottest and coldest days, a task that would involve a huge build-out of wind, solar and energy storage, plus interstate power lines.
The actual evolution of the electricity system is expected to happen in fits and starts, with fossil fuels gradually being retired and the pace of wind, solar and storage development tied to changing economic and technological factors. The Wood Mackenzie co-authors view their findings, part of a larger analysis of utility performance during the polar vortex event, as a way to show, in broad strokes, the ramifications of different options.
We’ll Need More Than Just Today’s Batteries
A grid that relies entirely on wind and solar needs to be ready for times when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
During the Jan. 27 – Feb. 2 polar vortex event, a 50 percent wind, 50 percent solar grid would have had gaps of up to 18 hours in which renewable sources were not producing enough electricity to meet the high demand, so storage systems would need to fill in.
The grid would have to be designed to best use wind and solar when they’re available, and to store the excess when those resources are providing more electricity than needed, a fundamental shift from the way most of the system is managed today.
“In a modern power grid, all these advanced technologies are driving the need for more flexibility at all levels,” said David Littell, principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project and a former staff member for Maine’s utility regulator. Grid operators have to meet constantly changing electricity demand with the matching amount of incoming power. While fossil fuel power plants can be ramped up or down as needed, solar and wind are less controllable sources, which is why energy storage is an essential part of planning for a grid that relies on solar and wind.
Much of the current growth in energy storage is in battery systems, helped by plunging battery prices. A large majority of the existing energy storage, however, is pumped hydroelectric, most of which was developed decades ago. Other types of systems include those that store compressed air, flywheels that store rotational energy and several varieties of thermal storage.
Schauer points out that advances in energy storage will need to be more than just batteries to meet demand and likely will include technologies that have not yet been developed.
And that won’t happen quickly. He views the transition to a mostly carbon-free grid as possible by 2040, with the right combination of policy changes and technological advances. He has a difficult time imagining how it could be done within the 2030 timeframe of the Green New Deal.
‘This Is a Solvable Problem’
The larger point is that such a transition can be done and is in line with what state and local governments and utilities are already moving toward.
Feasibility is a key focus of the research of Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor, who has looked at how renewable energy and storage can provide all of the energy the U.S. needs.
He says an aim of using all renewables by 2030 is “an admirable goal” but would be difficult to pull off politically. He thinks it’s more realistic to get to 80 percent renewables by 2030, and get to 100 percent soon after.
“This is a solvable problem,” Jacobson said, adding that it must be solved because of the urgent need to reduce emissions that cause climate change.
Local politics may be the most challenging part of quickly making an all-renewable electricity system, Schauer said. To handle a big increase in wind, solar and storage, communities would need to be willing to host those projects along with the transmission lines that would move the electricity.
Interstate power lines are essential for moving electricity from places with the best solar and wind resources to the population centers. As more solar and wind farms are built, more lines will be needed. Schauer’s analysis assumes that there would be enough transmission capacity.
“I’m not here to say any of this is impossible, but there are some basic challenges to pull this off in a short period of time, mainly NIMBYism,” he said, referring to the not-in-by-backyard sentiment that fuels opposition to transmission lines.
Another important element is managing electricity demand, which is not discussed in the Wood Mackenzie report. Littell says some of the most promising ways to operate a cleaner grid involve using technology to reduce demand during peak periods and getting businesses to power down during times when the electricity supply is tight. Energy efficiency improvements have a role, as well.
Nuclear Power Would Lower Storage Needs
In addition to the 50-50 wind-solar projection, Schauer and co-author Brett Blankenship considered what would happen with other mixes of wind and solar power, and if existing nuclear power plants were considered as part of the mix.
By considering the role of nuclear plants, the report touches on a contentious debate among environmental advocates, some of whom want to see all nuclear plants closed because of concerns about safety and waste, and some who say nuclear power is an essential part of moving toward a carbon-free grid.
The Wood Mackenzie analysis shows that continuing to use nuclear power plants would dramatically decrease the amount of wind, solar and storage needed to get to a grid that no longer burns fossil fuels. For example, 228.9 gigawatts of storage would be needed, compared to 277.9 without the nuclear plants.
“If your goal is decarbonization, then nuclear gets you a lot farther than if you retire the nuclear,” Schauer said.
While the report focuses on a few cold days this year, Schauer has also done this type of analysis based on data for all of 2018, including summer heat waves. The lessons are similar, underscoring the scope of the work ahead for the people working for a cleaner grid.
“It gets even more challenging when you extrapolate to the entire year,” he said.
Public Utilities Commission says it has authority to hear dispute
La Plata Electric Association and other electrical co-ops may gain insight about buying out of a contract with their wholesale electrical supplier after the Colorado Public Utilities Commission ruled this week it can oversee a dispute about the buyout fee.
LPEA is exploring a buyout from its contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission, in part, because the wholesaler caps how much renewable power LPEA can purchase from outside sources at 5 percent as part of a contract that does not expire until 2050. Tri-State is a nonprofit of 43 member electric cooperatives, including LPEA and Delta-Montrose Electric Association.
DMEA is interested in buying out of its contract because Tri-State’s prices have been rising since 2005, and, at the same time, electricity costs in general have fallen, said Virginia Harman, DMEA’s chief operating officer.
DMEA is also interested in developing more local renewable energy than allowed under its contract with Tri-State, she said.
“We are not looking for a free exit; we are looking for fair exit,” she said.
DMEA brought a case to the Public Utilities Commission last year because it felt the fee Tri-State demanded to buy out of its contract is unreasonable.
DMEA is formally asking the PUC to establish an exit fee that is “just, reasonable and nondiscriminatory,” according to a news release.
Becky Mashburn, spokeswoman for DMEA, declined to name the amount Tri-State is asking for the co-op to leave its contract.
Colorado’s PUC ruled Thursday it has the authority to determine whether Tri-State is charging DMEA a just and reasonable price to buy out of its contract, said Terry Bote, spokesman for the Department of Regulatory Agencies. A hearing about the buyout charge will be held in June, he said.
Tri-State had filed a motion to dismiss the case brought by DMEA, arguing the dispute about the exit fee is a contractual dispute.
The PUC rejected Tri-State’s argument, ruling the commission has jurisdiction over the buyout charge dispute because it is a statutory issue, he said.
Without a just transition, the Navajo Generating Station closure will have harmful consequences.
Last year, climate-hawk billionaire Tom Steyer forked out more than $23 million to support an Arizona ballot initiative that would have required the state’s utilities to get half their power from renewable sources by 2035. Arizonans for Affordable Energy, a front-group for the state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service, spent nearly $38 million in opposition. The initiative — which failed — was the most expensive ballot measure campaign in the state’s history.
Meanwhile, a group called Save Native American Families, funded by the Navajo Nation, spent an additional $785,000 opposing the measure. This might seem odd. After all, it’s becoming more and more clear that the ravages of environmental degradation — climate change included — have a disproportionately large impact on Indigenous people, people of color and the poor.
Yet too often, the victims of the very efforts to stem that degradation come from disadvantaged communities. A fuel tax takes a greater portion of the income of someone driving an old beater between two jobs than it does from a wealthy, SUV-driving gas-guzzler. If you don’t own a house, you can’t take advantage of rooftop solar incentives, and yet may have to pay for your wealthier neighbors via increased electricity costs. And the great coal phase-out has failed to faze coal corporation executives, who pay themselves multimillion-dollar bonuses while yanking health insurance and retirement benefits out from under retired miners.
This can be the result of badly crafted policies or of wily corporate polluters who have managed to shift the burden of environmental policies onto those in the lower income brackets. Regardless, the dynamic often results in environmental justice coming at the expense of economic justice. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Take the case of the Navajo Generating Station in northern Arizona. In early 2017, the majority owner of the plant, the Salt River Project, announced that it would shut down the plant at the end of this year, forcing the closure of the Kayenta Mine on Black Mesa, which is currently operated by Peabody Energy. The closure comes primarily because the plant is no longer profitable, but pollution-control requirements played an indirect role by increasing the operating costs. It is a major environmental victory, keeping more than 14 million tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere annually along with a slew of other harmful pollutants. It also represents a dire threat to the communities that have come to rely on the revenue from the plant and the mine. The closure will do away with as many as 900 jobs, 90 percent of which are currently held by Native American workers, in a region where unemployment hovers around 50 percent. It would also eliminate more than $50 million in royalties and other revenue to the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe.
As a result, members of both tribal governments have fought to keep the plant open. They’ve sought outside purchasers to no avail, and they’ve appealed to the federal government, which owns 25 percent of the plant, to intervene. And now the tribe’s own Navajo Transitional Energy Company is looking to purchase both coal mine and power plant and keep it running — and polluting — for decades to come.
Indigenous opposition groups, such as ToNizhoniAni, Diné CARE and Black Mesa Water Coalition, have made concerted efforts to stop the purchase, because it would mean taking on financial risk while also allowing the plant and mine to continue to inflict harm. Meanwhile, the major outside environmental groups that have badgered the Navajo Generating Station for years — and remain deeply invested in keeping the plant closed — are in a difficult position. Any interference with the plant’s purchase would constitute an attack on sovereignty and a continuation of the same resource colonization that brought the power plants and mines to the Navajo Nation in the first place. Yet if the environmental groups stand idly by, they risk allowing serious environmental and human harm to continue.
There is a middle way, though. Environmental groups can work with the affected communities, the polluting companies and the relevant governments to push the current owners to live up to their moral duty and repair the damage they’ve done, to make amends for historical land and resource theft, and to patch up the economic hole their departure leaves. They can help pave the way for a just transition away from coal, one in which a solid framework is provided for affected communities to exercise agency and move forward to a greener and more economically robust future.
The initial pain of closure can be soothed by ensuring that the corporate owners live up to their legal obligation to adequately reclaim both the power plant and mine sites, a commitment that will keep hundreds of jobs active for several years after closure. And even though they are not legally obliged to do so, the corporate owners have a moral duty to take the reclamation further by healing the damage caused by dumping nearly 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and poisoning the land, the air and the water — along with the people and other creatures — in the plant’s vicinity. The damage can’t be reversed, nor can much of the mess be cleaned up. But the corporations that are responsible can contribute to the healing by creating a just transition fund that could retrain power plant workers, provide loans for green energy entrepreneurs in the affected community, or perhaps go toward tribally developed utility-scale projects, such as the solar plant recently constructed by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority near Kayenta, Arizona. This healing process can begin by restoring water rights and transferring transmission lines to the Navajo and Hopi nations as soon as the plant closes.
Such an initiative does not come cheap. But the money not only exists; it is owed to the tribal citizens who have been bilked by corporations for decades. Peabody began mining on Navajo and Hopi land on Black Mesa in the 1960s, displacing families and destroying grazing lands and cultural artifacts, sucking up groundwater at a rate of 1.3 billion gallons per year, and shipping the coal — which was owned by the tribes — off to the Navajo and Mojave power plants. In return, the tribes received just 2 to 6 percent royalty for the coal, an amount that was finally increased to the still-below-standard rate of 12.5 percent in 1984. There it has stood since, another product of the bad-faith negotiations that were facilitated by the federal government.
“Royalty” is a euphemism that is employed to obscure what is really going on here: For nearly five decades, these corporations have paid mere pennies on the dollar to wreck tribal land, take the coal that belongs to the citizens of the Hopi and Navajo nations and burn it in power plants that, in turn, poison the land and people of those very same nations. By not adequately compensating the tribes for their coal, the coal company and its customers have cheated the tribes’ citizens out of billions of dollars.
The resulting cheap power lights up the neon of Las Vegas, while the Colorado River water that the plant’s electricity pumps has enabled Phoenix and Tucson to sprawl into the desert, enriching the operators of the Southwest’s growth machine: real estate developers, mass-production homebuilders, the automotive industry, the corporate shareholders, the ratepayers and the executives. Arizona Public Service, 14 percent owner of the generating station, raked in half a billion dollars in profit last year. Peabody’s CEO is paid $20 million a year to run a company that just emerged from bankruptcy. They are all beneficiaries of outright theft.
And then there’s that $63 million squandered on the renewable energy initiative campaign. That money could have offset a year of the tribal government revenue lost owing to the plant’s closure. That same amount could have bought and installed more than 4,000 solar systems in low-income households, providing hundreds of jobs while cutting emissions. Or the money could have been put into a just transition fund. Instead it was squandered on public relations campaigns that certainly brought no environmental gain.
The Navajo Generating Station and the coal mines on Black Mesa were built on a foundation of theft and colonialism. But closing them down will not help unless it is done in a just way, one that heals old wounds rather than opening new ones.
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.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):
Hard rock mines would have to find the money up front to show they have the ability to assure that any water supplies are protected from contamination under a bill that won preliminary approval in the Colorado House on Wednesday.
The measure, HB19-1113, stems from issues with abandoned mines throughout the state that have led to contamination of Colorado’s water supplies, not the least of which was the dramatic spill in the Animas River from the long-closed Gold King Mine in 2015.
While the measure doesn’t address similarly abandoned mines, one of its sponsors said it is an attempt to prevent future mishaps with active mines.
“Up until now, people can self-bond,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango. “They can put the money down and promise that they will pay to clean up the water after their mining operations are finished. In many, many cases they go bankrupt before they can actually clean up the mine, and you the taxpayers are left with the bill of cleaning it up.”
Under current law, mining companies can submit audited financial statements to show they have the financial wherewithal to deal with any environmental issue from their operations, and can handle proper reclamation when those operations cease.
But several companies either have walked away without doing any reclamation or went out of business and had no way to pay for the cleanup. As a result, there are more than 23,000 abandoned mines in the state, according to the Colorado Geological Survey.
The bill, which requires a final House vote before heading to the Senate, would eliminate the audited statement and require new mining permits to include sufficient bonds to handle reclamation costs. Active mines that used audited statements to get their permits would have a year to establish a bond.
McLachlan, who introduced the bill with Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, pointed to the Summitville Mine in the San Luis Valley as an example. That closed gold mine became a Superfund site because of environmental damage in the 1980s from byproducts that leaked into the Alamosa River.
“Summitville is one we’re going to be starting to pay $2.2 million,” McLachlan said. “This company went in and they showed all the paperwork saying they had the money to clean this up, but by the time the mine was done, they went bankrupt and we the taxpayers have to pay.”
Supporters of the measure say the Colorado Mining Association no longer opposes the bill, but some lawmakers still questioned it.
While Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said the state should support more mining in Colorado, if for no other reason than to stop supporting questionable mining practices in other countries, Rep. Kimmi Lewis, R-Kim, said she opposes the measure because one mining company asked her to do so.
“That one independent business owner who owns that mine, I’m going to stand with them,” she said. “And I’m going to remind you all … how much we need those small independent business owners.”
Summitville Mine superfund site
Acid mind drainage Cement Creek watershed
Commodore waste rock superfund site Creede
California Gulch back in the day
One of the many smelters that once operated in the Pueblo area. Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency
San Juan Smelter Durango via
Workers pose in front of the Boston and Colorado Smelter at Argo Photo Colorado Historical Society