FromThe High Country News (Jonathan Thompson) [July 23, 2020]:
By February, the spread of COVID-19 was already eroding the global economy. First, global travel restrictions depressed the oil market. Then, as the virus reached pandemic proportions, it began hurting even the healthiest industries, throwing the global economy into the deepest rut since the Great Depression.
The recession has been hard on clean energy, which was thriving at the end of last year despite unhelpful, even hostile, policies from the Trump administration. Between 2009 and 2019, solar and wind generation on the U.S. electrical grid shot up by 400%, even as overall electricity consumption remained fairly flat. Renewable facility construction outpaced all other electricity sources, but the disease’s effects have since rippled through the sector, wiping out much of its previous growth.
Global supply chains for everything from solar panels to electric car components were the earliest victims, as governments shut down factories, first in China, then worldwide, to prevent transmission of the disease. Restrictions on construction further delayed utility-scalesolar and wind installations and hampered rooftop solar installations and energy efficiency projects. The setbacks are especially hard on the wind industry, because new wind farms must be up and running by the end of the year to take advantage of federal tax credits. Meanwhile, the general economic slowdown is diminishing financing for new renewable energy projects.
Clean energy, which has shed more than 600,000 jobs since the pandemic’s onset, is only one of the many economic sectors that are hurting. In just three months, COVID-19 wiped out more than twice as many jobs as were lost during the entire Great Recession of 2008. The impacts have reverberated throughout the Western U.S., from coal mines to tourist towns, and from casinos to dairy farms. Some industries, including clean energy, bounced back slightly in June, as stay-at-home orders were dropped and businesses, factories and supply chains opened back up. But a full recovery — if it happens — will largely depend on government stimulus programs and could take years.
In just three months, COVID-19 wiped out more than twice as many jobs as were lost during the entire Great Recession of 2008.
Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey; Graphics by Minus Plus; Sources: Solar Energy Industries Association, BW Research Partnership, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, New Mexico Workforce Connection, Utah Department of Workforce Services.
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.
Colorado begins conversation about how to crimp natural gas use in new buildings
Colorado has started talking about how to curtail natural gas in new buildings necessary to achieve the dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions during the next 10 to 30 years as specified by state law.
Agreement has been reached among several state agencies and the four distribution companies regulated by the state’s Public Utilities Commission to conduct discussions about future plans for pipelines and other infrastructure projects of more than $15 million. The agreement proposes to take a long view of 10 to 20 years when considering natural gas infrastructure for use in heating, cooking and hot-water heating.
The four utilities—Xcel Energy, Black Hills Colorado, Atmos Energy, and Colorado Natural Gas—altogether deliver gas to 1.73 million customers, both residential and business.
Unlike a toaster or even a kitchen stove, which you can replace with relative ease and cost, gas infrastructure comes with an enormous price tag—and expectation of a long, long time of use. For example, it would have cost $30,000 per unit to install natural gas pipes at Basalt Vista, an affordable housing project in the Roaring Fork Valley. Alternative technology is being used there.
Gas infrastructure is difficult to replace in buildings where it exists. As such the conversation getting underway is primarily about how to limit additional gas infrastructure.
“Given the long useful lives of natural gas infrastructure investments, the (Colorado Energy Office) suggests that this type of forward-looking assessment should include any significant upgrades to existing natural gas infrastructure or expansion of the gas delivery system to new residential developments,” the state agency said in a June 8 filling.
This is adapted from the July 23, 2020, issue of Big Pivots. Subscribe for free to the e-magazine by going to Big Pivots.
Meanwhile, the three Public Utility Commission plans one or more informational session later this year to learn about expectations of owners of natural gas distribution systems by Colorado’s decarbonization goals and the implications for the capital investments.
HB 19-1261, a Colorado law adopted in May 2019, charged state agencies with using regulatory tools to shrink greenhouse gas emissions from Colorado’s economy 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
Utilities in Colorado have said they intend to close most of the coal plants now operating no later than 2030. The coal generation will be replaced primarily by renewables. That alone will not be nearly enough to meet the state’s ambitious decarbonization goals. Carbon emissions must also be squeezed from transportation—already the state’s leading source of carbon dioxide— buildings, and other sectors.
“No single strategy or sector will deliver the economy-wide greenhouse gas reductions Colorado needs to meet its science-based goals, but natural gas system planning is part of the silver buckshot that can get us there,” said Keith Hay, director of policy at the Colorado Energy Office in a statement.
“When it comes to gas planning, CEO is focused on opportunities to meet customers’ needs that will lead to a more efficient system, reduce overall costs, and reduce greenhouse gas pollution.”
Roughly 70% of Coloradans use natural gas for heating.
While gas utilities cannot refuse gas to customers, several real estate developers from Arvada to Pueblo and beyond have started crafting homes and other buildings that do not require natural gas. Instead, they can use electricity, passive solar, and a technology called air-source heat pumps to meet heating, cooling and other needs. Heat pumps provide a key enabling technology.
A glimpse of this low-carbon future can be seen at Basalt Vista, a housing project in Pitkin County for employees of the Roaring Fork School District and other local jurisdictions. The concept employed there and elsewhere is called beneficial electrification.
In setting out to ramp down growth in natural gas consumption, Colorado ranks among the front-tier of states, lagging only slightly work already underway in California, Minnesota and New York.
In the background of these discussions are rising tensions. In California, Berkeley a year ago banned natural gas infrastructure in new developments, and several dozen other cities and counties followed suite across the country.
Protect Colorado, an arm of the oil-and-gas industry, had been collecting signatures to put Initiative 284 on the ballot, to prevent restrictions on natural gas in new buildings. The group confirmed to Colorado Public Radio that it was withdrawing that and other proposals after negotiations convened by Gov. Jared Polis and environmental groups.
Emissions of methane—the primary constituent of natural gas and one with high but short-lived heat-trapping properties—can occur at several places along the natural gas supply chain beginning with extraction. Colorado ranked 6th in the nation in natural gas production in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
In 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States were the result of extraction, transmission, and distribution of natural gas. However, several studies have concluded that the EPA estimate skews low. One 2018 study 2018 estimated that methane emissions from the oil and gas supply chain could be as much as 60% higher than the EPA estimates.
Greenhouse gas emissions also occur when natural gas is burned in houses and other buildings, creating carbon dioxide. An inventory released in December 2019 concluded that combustion of natural gas in houses was responsible for 7.7% of Colorado’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.
Just how the shift from natural gas to electricity will affect utilities depends upon the company. For Atmos Energy, a company with 120,000 customers in Colorado, from Greeley to Craig, from Salida to Cortez, gas is just about everything.
Xcel’s talking points
Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, sells both gas and electricity. In theory, it will come out whole. But it has been leery about moving too rapidly. Technology advances and costs declines have not yet arrived in the natural gas sector, observed, Jeff Lyng, director of energy and environmental policy for Xcel, in a June 8 filing with the PUC.
Still, Xcel is willing to have the conversation. Lyng pointed to efforts by Xcel to improve efficiency of natural gas use. The company is also participating in industry programs, including One Future, which are trying to limit methane emissions from the natural gas supply chain to less than 1%. For Xcel, he explained, that includes replacing older pipes with new materials that result in fewer emissions. It also means using the company’s purchasing power to push best practices that minimize emissions.
The company intends to offer options to customer, including incentives for electric water heaters programmed to take advantage of renewable energy when it is most readily available. That tends to be at night.
Xcel sees an opportunity to work with builders and developers to design all-electric new building developments to avoid the cost of installing natural gas infrastructure.
“This may require high-performance building envelope design, specifying certain appliances and, especially load management,” Lyng wrote in the filing. “Load management is key to ensuring these new electric devices interact with the power grid and are programmed to operate as much as possible during times when there is excess renewable energy or the lowest cost electricity on the system.”
Not least, Xcel conceded a role for air-source heat pumps, the crucial piece of technology employed in most places to avoid natural gas hookups. Heat pumps can be used to extract both cool and warm air from outdoor air as needed. Xcel sees the technology being an option when customers upgrade air conditioning units with spillover benefits for heating.
“Through this option, given the cooling and heating capacity of air source heat pumps, some portion of customer heating load can be offset through electrification, while maintaining their natural gas furnace or boiler as a back-up.”
Others think air-source heat pumps can have even broader application, especially in warmer areas of the state.
Short-term costs may be higher for electrified buildings. “This will improve over time as electric technologies decline in cost and as the electric system becomes cleaner,” Lyng said. Xcel, he added, favors a voluntary approach: pilot programs that expand.
Lyng, in his testimony, warned against trying to ramp up electrification too quickly. In 2019, he pointed out, the maximum daily demand for natural gas had the energy equivalent of 26,000 megawatts of electricity—more than three times the company’s electrical peak demand.
An unintended consequence may be adverse impacts to people of low income. The thinking is that as the demand for natural gas declines, the cost will actually go up per individual consumer.
“As a smaller and smaller pool of customers is left to pay for infrastructure costs, the large the cost impact will be for each remaining customer,” explained Dr. Scott England, from the state’s Office of Consumer Counsel, in a filing.
Social cost of methane?
Xcel has also explored the opportunities with renewable natural gas. At its most basic level, renewable natural gas involves harvesting biogas from wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairies. In its first such venture in Colorado, Xcel last fall began getting 500,000 cubic-feet per day of methane from the treatment plant serving Englewood, Littleton and smaller jurisdictions along the South Platte River in metropolitan Denver.
A bill introduced in Colorado’s covid-shortened legislative proposed to create a renewable gas standard, similar to that first specified by voters in 2004 for electricity. SB-150 proposed targets of 5%, 10% and 15% for regulated utilities, encouraging greater use of biogas from landfills, dairies and other sources.
The sponsor, Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, said he plans to reintroduce the bill the next session,
Hansen said he may also introduce a bill that would require the PUC to apply the filter of a social cost of methane to its decisions when evaluating alternatives. This would be similar to the cost of carbon, currently at $46 a ton, now applied to resource generating alternatives.
Longer term, Xcel wants to explore opportunities to produce hydrogen from renewable energy to blend into the natural gas distribution system at low levels or converted back to synthetic gas.
The Sierra Club may push back on efforts to convert to synthetic gas. The organization recently released a report that found significant problems with renewable natural gas, a phrase that is now being used by some companies—not necessarily Xcel—to include far more than the biogas from landfills. The Sierra Club estimates that there’s enough “natural” biogas to meet 1% of the nation’s current needs for natural gas. Other estimates put it far higher.
There will be implications left and right from this transition from gas to electricity. Lyng pointed out that solar energy will have lower value, because of its inability to replace natural gas on winter nights.
For the testimony of Jeff Lyng and Keith Hayes and a few dozen more, as well as the filings as of July 29, go to the Colorado PUC website and look up case 20AL-0049G.
Energy policy expert Leah Stokes explains who’s pushing climate delay and denial — it’s not just fossil fuel companies — and what we need to do now
The first official tallies are in: Coronavirus-related shutdowns helped slash daily global emissions of carbon dioxide by 14% in April. But the drop won’t last, and experts estimate that annual emissions of the greenhouse gas are likely to fall only about 7% this year.
After that, unless we make substantial changes to global economies, it will be back to business as usual — and a path that leads directly to runaway climate change. If we want to reverse course, say the world’s leading scientists, we have about a decade to right the ship.
That’s because we’ve squandered a lot of time. “The 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s were lost decades for preventing global climate disaster,” political scientist Leah Stokes writes in her new book Short Circuiting Policy, which looks at the history of clean energy policy in the United States.
But we don’t all bear equal responsibility for the tragic delay.
“Some actors in society have more power than others to shape how our economy is fueled,” writes Stokes, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We are not all equally to blame.”
Short Circuiting Policy focuses on the role of one particularly bad actor: electric utilities. Their history of obstructing a clean-energy transition in the United States has been largely overlooked, with most of the finger-pointing aimed at fossil fuel companies (and for good reason).
We spoke with Stokes about this history of delay and denial from the utility industry, how to accelerate the speed and scale of clean-energy growth, and whether we can get past the polarizing rhetoric and politics around clean energy.
What lessons can we learn from your research to guide us right now, in what seems like a really critical time in the fight to halt climate change?
What a lot of people don’t understand is that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we actually have to reduce emissions by around 7-8% every single year from now until 2030, which is what the emissions drop is likely to be this year because of the COVID-19 crisis.
So think about what it took to reduce emissions by that much and think about how we have to do that every single year.
It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be some big sacrifice, but it does mean that we need government policy, particularly at the federal level, because state policy can only go so far. We’ve been living off state policy for more than three decades now and we need our federal government to act.
Where are we now, in terms of our progress on renewable energy and how far we need to go?
A lot of people think renewable energy is growing “so fast” and it’s “so amazing.” But first of all, during the coronavirus pandemic, the renewable energy industry is actually doing very poorly. It’s losing a lot of jobs. And secondly, we were not moving fast enough even before the coronavirus crisis, because renewable energy in the best year grew by only 1.3%.
Right now we’re at around 36-37% clean energy. That includes nuclear, hydropower and new renewables like wind, solar and geothermal. But hydropower and nuclear aren’t growing. Nuclear supplies about 20% of the grid and hydro about 5% depending on the year. And then the rest is renewable. So we’re at about 10% renewables, and in the best year, we’re only adding 1% to that.
Generally, we need to be moving about eight times faster than we’ve been moving in our best years. (To visualize this idea, I came up with the narwhal curve.)
How do we overcome these fundamental issues of speed and scale?
We need actual government policy that supports it. We have never had a clean electricity standard or renewable portfolio standard at the federal level. That’s the main law that I write all about at the state level. Where those policies are in place, a lot of progress has been made — places like California and even, to a limited extent, Texas.
We need our federal government to be focusing on this crisis. Even the really small, piecemeal clean-energy policies we have at the federal level are going away. In December Congress didn’t extend the investment tax credit and the production tax credit, just like they didn’t extend or improve the electric vehicle tax credit.
And now during the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of the money going toward the energy sector in the CARES Act is going toward propping up dying fossil fuel companies and not toward supporting the renewable energy industry.
So we are moving in the wrong direction.
Clean energy hasn’t always been such a partisan issue. Why did it become so polarizing?
What I argue in my book, with evidence, is that electric utilities and fossil fuel companies have been intentionally driving polarization. And they’ve done this in part by running challengers in primary elections against Republicans who don’t agree with them.
Basically, fossil fuel companies and electric utilities are telling Republicans that you can’t hold office and support climate action. That has really shifted the incentives within the party in a very short time period.
It’s not like the Democrats have moved so far left on climate. The Democrats have stayed in pretty much the same place and the Republicans have moved to the right. And I argue that that’s because of electric utilities and fossil fuel companies trying to delay action.
And their reason for doing that is simply about their bottom line and keeping their share of the market?
Exactly. You have to remember that delay and denial on climate change is a profitable enterprise for fossil fuel companies and electric utilities. The longer we wait to act on the crisis, the more money they can make because they can extract more fossil fuels from their reserves and they can pay more of their debt at their coal plants and natural gas plants. So delay and denial is a money-making business for fossil fuel companies and electric utilities.
There’s been a lot of research, reporting and even legal action in recent years about the role of fossil fuel companies in discrediting climate science. From reading your book, it seems that electric utilities are just as guilty. Is that right?
Yes, far less attention has been paid to electric utilities, which play a really critical role. They preside over legacy investments into coal and natural gas, and some of them continue to propose building new natural gas.
They were just as involved in promoting climate denial in the 1980s and 90s as fossil fuel companies, as I document in my book. And some of them, like Southern Company, have continued to promote climate denial to basically the present day.
But that’s not the only dark part of their history.
Electric utilities promoted energy systems that are pretty wasteful. They built these centralized fossil fuel power plants rather than having co-generation plants that were onsite at industrial locations where manufacturing is happening, and where you need both steam heat — which is a waste product from electricity — and the electricity itself. That actually created a lot of waste in the system and we burned a lot more fossil fuels than if we had a decentralized system.
The other thing they’ve done in the more modern period is really resisted the energy transition. They’ve resisted renewable portfolio standards and net metering laws that allow for more clean energy to come onto the grid. They’ve tried to roll them back. They’ve been successful in some cases, and they’ve blocked new laws from passing when targets were met.
You wrote that, “Partisan polarization on climate is not inevitable — support could shift back to the bipartisanship we saw before 2008.” What would it take to actually make that happen?
Well, on the one hand, you need to get the Democratic Party to care more about climate change and to really understand the stakes. And if you want to do that, I think the work of the Justice Democrats is important. They have primary-challenged incumbent Democrats who don’t care enough about climate change. That is how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected. She was a primary challenger and she has really championed climate action in the Green New Deal.
The other thing is that the public supports climate action. Democrats do in huge numbers. Independents do. And to some extent Republicans do, particularly young Republicans.
So communicating the extent of public concern on these issues is really important because, as I’ve shown in other research, politicians don’t know how much public concern there is on climate change. They dramatically underestimate support for climate action.
I think the media has a really important role to play because it’s very rare that a climate event, like a disaster that is caused by climate change, is actually linked to climate change in media reporting.
But people might live through a wildfire or a hurricane or a heat wave, but nobody’s going to tell them through the media that this is climate change. So we really need our reporters to be doing a better job linking people’s lived experiences to climate change.
With economic stimulus efforts ramping up because of the COVD-19 pandemic, are we in danger of missing a chance to help boost a clean energy economy?
I think so many people understand that stimulus spending is an opportunity to rebuild our economy in a way that creates good-paying jobs in the clean-energy sector that protects Americans’ health.
We know that breathing dirty air makes people more likely to die from COVID-19. So this is a big opportunity to create an economy that’s more just for all Americans.
But unfortunately, we really are not pivoting toward creating a clean economy, which is what we need to be doing. This is an opportunity to really focus on the climate crisis because we have delayed for more than 30 years. There is not another decade to waste.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
FromThe High Country News (Carl Segerstrom) [July 22, 2020]:
As extinction and climate crises loom, the Great American Outdoors Act and recreation industry continue to rely on oil money.
On July 22, Congress passed the biggest public-lands spending bill in half a century. The bipartisan bill, called the Great American Outdoors Act, puts nearly $10 billion toward repairing public-lands infrastructure, such as outdated buildings and dysfunctional water systems in national parks. It also guarantees that Congress will spend the $900 million it collects each year through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF. The legislation boosts access to nature, funds city parks and will pay for a significant chunk of the massive maintenance backlog on public lands in the U.S.
But it all comes at a cost to the climate. To pay the bill’s hefty price tag, Congress is tapping revenue from the fossil fuel industry. Though the new law has been cheered by conservation groups, it fails to address either the modern crisis of climate change or the impacts of the West’s growing recreation and tourism economy on wildlife. In this way, the Outdoors Act exposes the gaps between conservation and climate activism, while providing a grim reminder of the complicated entanglements of energy, economics, climate — and now, a pandemic.
The biggest windfall from the Great American Outdoors Act — up to $6.5 billion over five years — will go to the National Park Service. National parks are the public lands’ top tourist attraction, receiving more than 327 million visits in 2019 alone, but dwindling annual funding has left the agency with about $12 billion in overdue projects. These projects include everything from a $100 million pipeline to bring water to visitors and communities on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to routine campground and trail maintenance.
The money will also benefit gateway communities in the West. A National Park Service analysis projects that the new legislation will create an additional 100,000 jobs over the next five years, on top of the 340,500 jobs the parks already support in nearby towns. For many places reeling from the pandemic’s economic toll on tourism, such as Whitefish, Montana, a gateway community to Glacier National Park, the bill will be a shot in the arm. Glacier has more than $100 million in overdue projects, and the infusion of money will bring new jobs after a dismal tourist season.
The impacts also stretch beyond immediate job gains because of the way access to recreation drives economic growth in the rural West. Communities that have more protected lands nearby generally grow faster and have higher income levels, said Mark Haggerty, who researches rural economies for Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit think tank in Montana. That growth is driven by both tourism and new arrivals looking to live closer to the outdoors. “Residents and businesses want to be close to public lands,” Haggerty said. “Recreational amenities can attract high-wage jobs.”
Federal public lands aren’t the only places that will benefit from the bill. Since 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has paid for a variety of outdoor projects around the country with taxes and royalty payments from oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The Outdoors Act obliges the LCWF to spend the entire $900 million it collects each year, something that’s happened only twice in the past 50-plus years.
With full LWCF funding, more money will be flowing from federal coffers to local projects. In urban areas, like the South Park neighborhood in Seattle, the fund recently paid for new playground equipment and a spray zone at a local park. Out in the country, the program typically finances projects to protect habitat and improve public access, as at Tenderfoot Creek in Montana, where the fund paid for more than 8,000 acres to be transferred from private to public ownership by 2015.
BUT RISING RECREATION COMES AT A COST for critters. Recent studies have shown that it poses a serious threat to the very wildlife that draws people to backcountry trails. In Vail, Colorado, a town built around access to nature and outdoor sports, local elk herds have been in precipitous decline, a phenomenon biologists attribute to more people tromping through the woods. In Idaho, snowmobilers and federal land managers are battling over whether to reroute the machines to save wolverines. And a recent review by the California Department of Fish and Game found that vulnerable species can be pushed to extinction by expanding human activity on public lands.
Supporters of the Outdoors Act see securing LWCF funding as vital for conservation. “It’s the best and virtually only tool for protecting land for wildlife,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, the leader of the National Wildlife Federation’s public-lands program. But that doesn’t mean that recreation’s impacts are being ignored, Stone-Manning said. “We need to protect open spaces, then we need to get smart about managing the impact of recreation on wildlife.”
Even as many rural Western communities grapple with an economic future tied to recreation, the Outdoors Act underlines the enduring legacy of American dependence on fossil fuels. The $9.5 billion set aside for the public-lands maintenance backlog will come from revenue paid by private companies that produce energy — from both fossil and renewable sources — on federal lands and waters. At first glance, this appears to be a shift away from the LWCF’s funding model, which depends solely on offshore oil and gas income. But for now at least, most of the money will still come from fossil fuel production: In 2019, for example, federal offshore wind energy generated just over $410 million in revenue, a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly $9 billion from fossil fuels on federal land and waters.
Reliance on oil production to pay for parks ignores the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to preserve a livable climate. “You have to give kudos to the Republicans for shifting the conversation so far to the right that the premise has been agreed to that we should fund conservation with the destruction of the earth,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Because they depend on the oil and gas industry, the LWCF and park maintenance are vulnerable should the U.S. transition away from fossil fuels, or if production drops for another reason, like the current pandemic. (Compared to the same time period in 2019, onshore oil and gas royalty receipts dropped 53% and offshore royalties plummeted by 84% in April 2020.) The arrangement also provides rhetorical cover for energy executives. “These programs underscore the need to continue safe development of domestic offshore energy reserves,” said American Petroleum Institute Vice President Lem Smith in a press release cheering the Senate passage of the bill. “Policies that end or limit production in federal waters would put these essential conservation funds in doubt.”
Even as Congress relies on the fossil fuel industry to pay for conservation projects, legislative frameworks that recognize the climate and extinction crises are intertwined are emerging. Recently proposed initiatives like the “roadmap for climate action” put forward by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and the 30 by 30 resolution, a Senate push to protect 30% of U.S. land and oceans by 2030, tie climate action to land and wildlife conservation. And proposals for different funding models for conservation, including a “backpack tax” on outdoor apparel and equipment that would shift some conservation costs to recreationists, have been proposed for decades.
All of these plans are a far cry from the bill currently being celebrated as a major win for conservation and public lands. “We need to be sure we’re not pretending our work is done; this money is not a panacea for reaching conservation goals,” said Kate Kelly, the director of public lands for the Center for American Progress and an Obama-era Interior Department senior adviser, who supports the bill. “The funding model needs to be re-examined and reimagined.” Moving forward, addressing climate change and biodiversity loss requires acknowledging that the crises are inextricable. “The climate and conservation communities haven’t always coordinated, and that needs to change,” Kelly said. “They’re two sides of the same coin.”
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.
A coalition of 20 states is suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a rule that weakens states’ ability to block pipelines and other controversial projects that cross their waterways…
The suit from California and others asks the courts to throw out the rule, which was finalized in June.
The Clean Water Act essentially gave states veto authority over projects by requiring projects to gain state certification under Section 401 of the law.
It applies to a wide variety of projects that could range from power plants to waste water treatment plants to industrial development.
But that portion of the law has been eyed by the Trump administration after two states run by Democrats have recently used the law to sideline major projects.
New York denied a certification for the Constitution Pipeline, a 124-mile natural gas pipeline that would have run from Pennsylvania to New York, crossing rivers more than 200 times. Washington state also denied certification for the Millennium Coal Terminal, a shipping port for large stocks of coal…
The new policy from the Trump administration accelerates timelines under the law, limiting what it sees as state power to keep a project in harmful limbo. The need for a Section 401 certification from the state will be waived if states do not respond within a year.
ut states argue the new rule won’t give them the time necessary to conduct thorough environmental reviews of massive projects.
And on Monday, Becerra complained the Trump administration wants states to evaluate only the most narrow impacts of a project, while issues like downstream flows from a hydroelectric plant or impacts on nearby wetlands are overlooked.
Along with California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin also joined the suit.
A federal court late Wednesday struck down a Trump administration rule that weakened restrictions on methane gas releases from drilling on public land, restoring an Obama-era rule.
In 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rolled back parts of the prior rule that limited the release of the greenhouse gas. The change was expected to allow for more methane leaks in a process called flaring and add to air pollution.
On Wednesday, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers determined that the rulemaking process used by the BLM was “wholly inadequate.”
“In its haste, BLM ignored its statutory mandate under the Mineral Leasing Act, repeatedly failed to justify numerous reversals in policy positions previously taken, and failed to consider scientific findings and institutions relied upon by both prior Republican and Democratic administrations,” wrote the Obama appointee.
“In its zeal, BLM simply engineered a process to ensure a preordained conclusion,” she added in the decision’s conclusion. “Where a court has found such widespread violations, the court must fulfill its duties in striking the defectively promulgated rule.”
Congratulations to friend of Coyote Gulch, Grace Hood.
Here’s the release From the University of Colorado:
The Center for Environmental Journalism is proud to welcome its 24th class of Ted Scripps Fellows, who will spend nine months at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information working on long-term, in-depth journalistic projects and reflecting on critical questions.
The group brings a depth of experience across a range of media, with backgrounds covering local issues as a public radio reporter and a photojournalist, overseeing a non-profit news organization and a science magazine, and reporting abroad as a Moscow correspondent.
“We’re thrilled to welcome these incredibly accomplished journalists to the Center for Environmental Journalism,” said Tom Yulsman, CEJ director. “We gain as much from their presence as they do from spending a year at the university.”
Stacy Feldman, co-founder of InsideClimate News (ICN), a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-profit news organization providing reporting and analysis on climate change, energy and the environment. Serving as executive editor from 2015 to 2020, she’s spent the past 13 years helping to build and lead ICN as it transformed from a two-person startup to an operation with nearly 20 employees and a model for national and award-winning non-profit climate journalism.
As a fellow, she plans to study new approaches to local journalism that could help people connect environmental harm and injustice to their own health and their communities’ well-being.
Grace Hood, who has covered water, science and energy topics across the American southwest as Colorado Public Radio’s environment and climate reporter since 2015. Throughout more than a decade in public radio, she’s profiled octogenarian voters worried about climate change, scientists tracking underground mine fires, a visually impaired marijuana farmer and a homeowner who lives next door to Colorado’s first underground nuclear fracking experiment.
As a fellow, she plans to study how cities and states monitor air quality near oil and gas sites. She has a particular interest in the rise of citizen science when it comes to measuring air pollution across the West.
Alec Luhn, an independent journalist with a focus on the changing communities and ecosystems of the far north. Previously a Moscow correspondent for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, he’s been published in The Atlantic, GQ, The Independent, MAXIM, The Nation, The New York Times, POLITICO, Reuters, TIME, Slate and WIRED, among others. During a decade abroad, he’s reported from the coldest permanently inhabited place on earth and covered the conflict in eastern Ukraine, annexed Crimea, war-torn Syria and Chernobyl reactor four, as well as covering oil spills, permafrost thaw, reindeer herding, polar bear patrols, Gulag towns and the world’s only floating nuclear power plant in the Arctic.
As a fellow, he plans to study how climate change and resource extraction are altering the fragile environment of the north, with deep repercussions for reindeer and caribou and the indigenous peoples that depend on them.
Amanda Mascarelli, managing editor of Sapiens, an award-winning digital magazine that covers anthropology and archaeology for the general public. She has led the publication since before its 2016 launch and has overseen the production of hundreds of stories on topics including Holocaust archaeology, schizophrenia, fracking, cultural appropriation, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, she spent more than a decade as a freelance science journalist specializing in health and the environment. She’s been published by outlets including Audubon, Nature, New Scientist, Science, Science News for Students and The New York Times and worked as a health columnist for the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
As a fellow, she will study the social inequalities of health in vulnerable communities in the Denver metro region and elsewhere in Colorado, with an eye to exploring the health and social impacts of industrial expansion, fossil fuel extraction, and a planned massive urban redesign.
RJ Sangosti, who has been a photojournalist at The Denver Post since 2004, where he’s covered events spanning from Hurricane Katrina to presidential elections. Over more than a decade, he has documented the people and landscape of eastern Colorado, where years of drought and a loss of agricultural earning power continue to hurt farmers. Most recently, he completed a story about a Denver neighborhood in one of the country’s most polluted urban zip codes, whose residents continue to be impacted by a huge interstate construction project. His work was included in the 2012 Time Magazine top 10 photos of the year, and he was honored to be part of the 2016 jury for the centennial year of The Pulitzer Prizes.
As a fellow, he will report on the effects pesticides and fertilizers have on aquifers and groundwater, and he hopes to gain new skills in research and writing.
A new report insists that ‘renewable natural gas’ has too many problems for widespread use. And in Colorado, natural gas may be on the November ballot
Several years ago, a speaker at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association annual conference became exuberant. At the time, natural gas was hailed as a bridge fuel, one that burned cleaner than coal. That simple fact had produced a tenuous alliance between environmental groups and drillers, who both saw advantages in dismantling coal, with Democratic governors Bill Ritter and John Hickenlooper enjoying support in both camps.
Enough talk about natural gas as a bridge, the speaker at the Denver conference exclaimed. It was the future.
Now, that future is being challenged as renewables, not natural gas, fills the void created in the retreat of coal. And, with climate scientists issuing throat-clearing warnings about the grave risk if emission are not tamed rapidly, environmental advocates have turned their attention to gas. The bridge, they say, has been crossed.
This new tension has flared prominently in California, where scores of jurisdictions last year banned natural gas in new buildings. None have done so in Colorado—yet. But the Colorado oil and gas industry has taken preemptory action to ensure it doesn’t, hurrying to get a ballot measure that would preclude local bans of natural gas.
The fundamental problem is the tendency of methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, to leak. Methane is far more potent in the shorter term than carbon dioxide. The report cites research published in the journal Science in 2018 that found the leakage rate in the U.S. gas supply chain equaled 2.3% of U.S. gross gas production, 60% higher than the EPA’s official estimate.
The Sierra Club is particularly worried about the rise of what it calls fossil gas alternatives, including what some companies are calling RNG, or renewable natural gas. RNG can include biogas, such as comes from wastewater treatment plant, landfills and livestock operations, or—using thermal gasification – forest and agriculture residues. There’s also synthetic gas, in which electricity is turned into hydrogen and then synthetic methane.
Of these, the only one that meets the smell test, so to speak, is biogas, as it would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere. But the study estimates that only enough methane from landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and similar sources could be captured to meet less than 1% of current gas demand.
“The rest must be intentionally produced and will pose the risk of additional methane leakage that can offset any potential emission reductions.”
The Sierra Club report says these fossil gas alternatives have roles, but very limited ones, such as for delivering high industrial heat for steel production or powering air or marine transportation.
“Biogas and synthetic gas as well as other renewable liquid fuels, have several advantages over electricity. Though costly, limited and inefficient to produce, they are energy dense, can be stored and transported more readily than electricity, and work with existing infrastructure that must rely on combustion,” the report says.
“In optimizing their use, the advantages of renewable fuels (e.g. flexible, combustible, dispatchable) should be weighed against their disadvantages (cost, leakage, limited supply) and the availability of alternatives such as electrification and demand management. Because heat pumps and electric vehicles offer super efficiency and eliminate end-use air pollution, direct use of electricity should be used to the maximum extent feasible in buildings and transport.”
Building electrification is not the same as that which occurred in the 1970s. With the aid of efficient air-source heat pumps, which can extract heat from the outside air, and better understanding of circulation, natural gas is being eliminated from some buildings. Geos neighborhood in Arvada, Colo., is one such project, and the Basalt Vista in Basalt, Colo., another. Boulder and Bouilder County are using a program called Comfort 365 to encourage fuel and technology switching.
Those are voluntary. Now come bans of new natural gas infrastructure. In California, Berkeley in July 2019 adopted the first ban in the country on natural gas in new buildings. By February, when the New York Times took note of the trend, 22 other California cities and counties had also adopted similar bans, as had several jurisdictions across the country.
None have in Colorado, although a climate change task force report to Denver’s elected officials issued last week calls for building electrification when natural gas infrastructure fails but also net-zero homes and buildings being part of all new buildings in the 2027 base building code.
In California, battle lines have been drawn. The Los Angeles Times in October 2019 reported that Southern California Gas Co., which has 22 million customers in California, had already started working to convince local officials that policies aimed at replacing gas with electricity would be wildly unpopular. Called SoCalGas, the company had already released a strategy paper that calls for the company to replace 20% of the fossil gas in the company’s pipelines with renewable gas by 2030 and later adding large amounts of hydrogen and other non-fossil fuels. It makes its case on this web page.
Maximilian Auffhammer, an environmental economist at UC Berkeley, compared SoCalGas’ dilemma to that of a company selling hay to feed horses at a moment in time when horse-drawn carriages were being replaced by cars. Electrification, he said, posed a similarly existential threat to gas utilities.
Colorado looks to be hurrying toward a similar battle over public minds. In a July 6 posting, S&P Global Platts reported that a group backed by the Colorado oil and gas industry is pursuing a ballot initiative meant to prevent local governments from banning the use of natural gas in new residential and commercial developments. The ballot initiative must get signatures from 142,632 registered voters by Aug. 3 to qualify for Colorado’s election ballot in October.
Protect Colorado bundles the ballot initiative as a message for consumer choice.
“Initiative 284 prevents governments from removing your consumer choice when it comes to what energy is used in homes and businesses for cooking, heating homes and water, and generators,” it says on its website. “If passed, local and state governments could not enact any laws banning natural gas usage in new construction.”
The measure has already received support from the dominant newspaper in Colorado Springs, the Gazette. Stop the fringe from prohibiting natural gas.”
But the majority of the Colorado Legislature in 2019 adopted laws calling for rapid decarbonization of Colorado’s economy. The first target of 26% by 2025 can be met by closing coal plants and some other measures. Much harder will be the 50% reduction by 2050. For that, decisive steps will be required in the built environment. This is even more true of the 2050 deadline of 90% reduction.
Even if no local jurisdictions have been reported to be considering natural gas bans, the issues will likely arise in the next legislative session. State Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, says he is considering legislation that would, if adopted, create a social cost of methane, similar to the social cost of carbon adopted by Colorado in 2019. That cost, $46 a ton, has legally become a consideration for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission when considering plans proposed by regulated electrical utilities.
Hansen also expects to reintroduce a bill, SB20-150, which got shelved in the covid-crimped 2020 session. The bill proposed to create a renewable natural gas standard, to spur the use of existing methane emissions from landfills, dairies and other such sources.
See this and other stories in a free e-mail newsletter/magazine called Big Pivots. Subscribe for free by going to Big Pivots.
A federal appeals court ruled Friday that an emissions-heavy section of northern Weld County that’s currently excluded from limits on air pollution imposed on the Denver metro area should be counted, potentially ratcheting up pressure on the oil and gas industry to operate more cleanly or cut output.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit determined that the Environmental Protection Agency incorrectly left a swath of Weld County abutting the Wyoming state line out of the nine-county “nonattainment” area that centers on Denver, meaning emissions from hundreds of oil and gas wells in that part of the county could soon be added to the metro area for air pollution measurement purposes.
Robert Ukeiley, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the ruling effectively means that Weld County energy operations near the Wyoming border will have to “comply with the more protective standard” that the metro area is under in terms of their emissions output.
“Oil and gas, including in northern Weld County, is responsible for our smog problem, and the court told the EPA enough is enough,” Ukeiley said. “You have to get (the industry) to reduce their pollution.”
The ruling from the appeals court sends the matter back to the EPA for further consideration. The lawsuit against the EPA was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Boulder County Board of Commissioners.
Heat and sunlight bake pollutants, including some of the chemicals emitted by oil and gas operations, to form ozone, or smog. For more than 15 years, Colorado has flunked federal air quality health standards with ozone air pollution exceeding a decade-old federal limit of 75 parts per billion, which was tightened to 70 parts per billion under President Barack Obama.
The World Health Organization recommends no more than 50 parts per billion to protect human health.
The U.S. threshold has placed much of the metro area and areas immediately around it in “nonattainment” status when it comes to meeting the requirements of the Clean Air Act. The EPA in December reclassified Colorado as a “serious” violator of federal air quality laws, forcing stricter state efforts to reduce air pollution…
Friday’s ruling revolved around two primary issues: Weld County’s outsized role in oil and gas production in Colorado — the county has nearly half of the state’s more than 50,000 active wells — and a finding that EPA had erroneously cited a topographical feature, Cheyenne Ridge, as a reason for excluding the northern section of the county from the nonattainment area.
EPA, the court wrote, claimed that the ridge effectively acted as a blockade to emissions emanating from the northern reaches of Weld County. The problem is, Cheyenne Ridge is on the Colorado/Wyoming border, the court said, not further south, as EPA asserted.
“EPA literally moved mountains to try and cut oil and gas a break from having to reduce pollution,” Ukeiley said Friday.
The court also faulted EPA’s reasoning for excluding the northern portion of Weld County based on the federal agency’s conclusion that that section of the county only contributed a quarter of the nitrogen oxide and 18% of the volatile organic compounds that the county overall emits.
“Given that Weld County sources generate exceptionally high amounts of VOCs and NOx — mostly from oil and gas operations — the fact that northern Weld contributed only a quarter of those emissions does not support EPA’s decision not to consider them,” the court ruled.
The court determined that according to 2011 data, Weld County produced approximately six times as many VOCs as the next-highest county included in the Denver nonattainment area. And compared to the lowest-emitting county, Weld County produced about 60 times as many VOCs and 20 times more nitrogen oxide.
Such a short time ago, 80% emissions reduction seemed such a bold goal. A new report says far more is possible.
It seems like many years ago since Ben Fowke, chief executive of Xcel Energy, standing on a podium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, announced that his company was confident it could decarbonize the electrical generation across its six-state operating area 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. This, he said, could be done using existing technology.
That declaration in December 2018 was national news. So was the company’s disclosure in December 2017 of the bids for renewables to replace the two coal-fired units it intended to retire at Pueblo, Colo. They came in shockingly low.
Now, 80% plans by 2030 are becoming almost commonplace. Consider the trajectory of Colorado Springs. The city council there, acting as a utility board, in June accepted the recommendation of city utility planners to shut down the city’s two coal plants, the first in 2023 and the second in 2030.
That was the easy decision. But the Colorado Springs City Council, in a 7-2 vote, also accepted the recommendation to bypass new natural gas capacity. Xcel is adding natural gas capacity to its portfolio in Colorado, although the plant already exists.
Colorado Springs is now on track to get to 80% reduction by 2030.
As a municipal utility, Colorado Springs was not required by Colorado to reduce its emissions 80% by 2030. That applies to those utilities regulated by the state, and municipalities are exempt. It is subject to broader economy wide goals of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
A city utility planner says he believes the city can achieve 90% reduction by 2050.
“I do believe personally that in the next 10 years we will see some major advancements in the technology that will allow those technologies to go down and be more competitive,” says Michael Avanzi, manager of energy planning and innovation at Colorado Springs Utilities.
This, the study notes, can be done even while electricity costs decline. This finding contrasts sharply with studies completed more than 5 years ago, which found deep penetration of renewables would elevate costs. These lower costs are being reported across the country, the study found, even in those areas considered resource-poor for renewable energy generation. Colorado is the converse: It has excellent renewables, among the best mix in the nation.
The study is important and rich with detail. Among the seven members of a technical review committee was Steve Beuning, of Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy.
The findings, though, are best understood in terms of the policy assumptions, which are found in a separate study conducted by Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based consultancy. Colorado gets several mentions, and it’s important to note that the chief executive is Hal Harvey, who grew up in Aspen. (Harvey has connections in high places; he inspired a column in late June by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times: “This Should Be Biden’s Bumper Sticker.”)
The conclusions describe an optimal set of policies to get the United States to 90% by 2035, including:
federal clean energy standards and, especially in the absence of that, extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar.
strengthening of federal authority to improve regional transmission planning by the Federal Energy Regulatory Authority.
reform wholesale markets to reward flexibility.
Researchers in California did not specifically examine the case of Colorado Springs but more broadly found that U.S. electrical utilities can tap existing gas-fired plants infrequently along with storage, hydropower, and nuclear power to meet demands even during times of extraordinarily low renewable energy generation or exceptionally high electricity demand. All told, natural gas can contribute 10% of electrical generation in 2035. That would be 70% less than the natural gas generation in 2019.
How did the California researchers decide how much natural gas would be needed to firm supplies? As the saying goes, the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow. And when would these times of low renewables intersect those of high demand? The researchers studied weather records for seven years, 60,000 hours altogether, and in 134 regional zones within the United States, from earlier in this century. That worst-case time, during the seven years examined, was on the evening of Aug. 1, 2007, a time when solar generation had declined to less than 10% of installed solar capacity, and wind generation was 18% below installed capacity
Based on this, they found a maximum need for 360 gigawatts of natural gas capacity. In other words, no new natural gas generation was needed. We have enough already.
Peak demand in Colorado Springs usually occurs late on hot summer afternoons. The all-time record demand of 965 megawatts occurred on July 19, 2019. As Colorado Springs grows during the next three decades, it will possibly become Colorado’s largest city, with demand projected to push 1,200 megawatts (1.2 gigawatts) at mid-century.
For Avanzi and other utility planners charged with creating portfolios for consideration by elected officials, closing coal plants was an easy case to make. Coal has become expensive, severely undercut by renewables.
Also considered were 100% emission-free portfolios by 2030, 2040, and 2050. But they were seen as too risky and too costly, at least at this time.
Portfolio 17, the one ultimately adopted by the city council on June 25, calls for the Martin Drake plant to be closed in 2023 and the Ray Nixon plant in 2030.
Seven portable gas generators are to be installed at the Drake plant for use from 2023 to 2030, a need dictated by the existing transmission and not the inadequacy of renewables. Colorado Springs already has a gas plant, but the city council members accepted the recommendation of utility planners that no new plant will be needed. That vote was 7-2.
Writing in PV Magazine, Jean Haggerty pointed out that Colorado Springs was part of a trend among utilities to avoid building new natural gas bridges to renewable energy. Tucson Electric Power also plans to skip the gas bridge. And, on the East Coast, Florida Power & Light and Jacksonville’s municipal utility reached agreement to rely on existing natural gas and new solar generation when they retire their jointly owned coal plant, the largest in the United States.
In creating the portfolios, Avanzi says he relied upon mostly publicly available reports, especially the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s annual technology baseline and U.S. Energy Information Administration documents. For battery storage, he relied upon a study by energy consultant Lazard.
Colorado Springs’ plan calls for 400 megawatts of battery storage by 2030. Previously plans for a 25-megawatt battery of storage are expected to come on line in 2024.
All types of storage were examined. The single largest storage device in Colorado currently is near Georgetown, where water from two reservoirs can be released to generate up to 324 megawatts of electricity as needed to meet peak demands. The water then can be pumped uphill 2,500 feet to the reservoirs when electricity is readily available.
Colorado Springs studied that option. It has reservoirs in the mountains above the city. It found the regulatory landscape too risky.
The most proven, least risky, technology is lithium-ion batteries that have four-hour capacity and flow batteries with six hours capacity. They can meet the peak demand of those hot, windless summer evenings after the sun has started lessening in intensity.
FromThe New York Times (Hiroko Tabuchi and Brad Plumer):
They are among the nation’s most significant infrastructure projects: More than 9,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States are currently being built or expanded, and another 12,500 miles have been approved or announced — together, almost enough to circle the Earth.
Now, however, pipeline projects like these are being challenged as never before as protests spread, economics shift, environmentalists mount increasingly sophisticated legal attacks and more states seek to reduce their use of fossil fuels to address climate change.
On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil route from North Dakota to Illinois that has triggered intense protests from Native American groups, must shut down pending a new environmental review. That same day, the Supreme Court rejected a request by the Trump administration to allow construction of the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry crude from Canada to Nebraska and has faced challenges by environmentalists for nearly a decade.
The day before, two of the nation’s largest utilities announced they had canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have transported natural gas across the Appalachian Trail and into Virginia and North Carolina, after environmental lawsuits and delays had increased the estimated price tag of the project to $8 billion from $5 billion. And earlier this year, New York State, which is aiming to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, blocked two different proposed natural gas lines into the state by withholding water permits.
The roughly 3,000 miles of affected pipelines represent just a fraction of the planned build-out nationwide. Still, the setbacks underscore the increasing obstacles that pipeline construction faces, particularly in regions like the Northeast where local governments have pushed for a quicker transition to renewable energy. Many of the biggest remaining pipeline projects are in fossil-fuel-friendly states along the Gulf Coast, and even a few there — like the Permian Highway Pipeline in Texas — are now facing backlash.
“You cannot build anything big in energy infrastructure in the United States outside of specific areas like Texas and Louisiana, and you’re not even safe in those jurisdictions,” said Brandon Barnes, a senior litigation analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence…
In recent years…environmental groups have grown increasingly sophisticated at mounting legal challenges to the federal and state permits that these pipelines need for approval, raising objections over a wide variety of issues, such as the pipelines’ effects on waterways or on the endangered species that live in their path…
Strong grass roots coalitions, including many Indigenous groups, that understand both the legal landscape and the intricacies of the pipeline projects have led the pushback. And the Trump administration has moved some of the projects forward on shaky legal ground, making challenging them slightly easier, said Jared M. Margolis, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
For the Dakota and Keystone XL pipelines in particular, Mr. Margolis said, the federal government approved projects and permits without the complete analyses required under environmental laws. “The lack of compliance from this administration is just so stark, and the violations so clear cut, that courts have no choice but to rule in favor of opponents,” he said…
Between 2009 and 2018, the average amount of time it took for a gas pipeline crossing interstate lines to receive federal approval to begin construction went up sharply, from around 386 days at the beginning of the period to 587 days toward the end. And lengthy delays, Mr. Barnes said, can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of such projects…
A slump in American exports of liquefied natural gas — natural gas cooled to a liquid state for easier transport — has also weighed heavily on pipeline projects. L.N.G. exports from the United States had boomed in recent years, more than doubling in 2019 and fast making the country the third largest exporter of the fuel in the world, trailing only Qatar and Australia. But the coronavirus health crisis and collapse in demand has cut L.N.G. exports by as much as half, according to data by IHS Markit, a data firm.
Erin M. Blanton, who leads natural gas research at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said the slump would have a long-term effect on investment in export infrastructure. The trade war with China, one of the largest growth markets for L.N.G. exports, has also sapped demand, she said…
Last year in Virginia, a coalition of technology companies including Microsoft and Apple wrote a letter to Dominion, one of the utilities backing the Atlantic Coast pipeline, questioning its plans to build new natural gas power plants in the state, arguing that sources like solar power and battery storage were becoming a viable alternative as their prices fell. And earlier this year, Virginia’s legislature passed a law requiring Dominion to significantly expand its investments in renewable energy.
“As states are pushing to get greener, they’re starting to question whether they really need all this pipeline infrastructure,” said Christine Tezak, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners…
Climate will also play a larger role in future legal challenges, environmental groups said. “The era of multibillion dollar investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is over,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney at the environmental group Earthjustice. “Again and again, we see these projects failing to pass muster legally and economically in light of local opposition.”
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.
Experts have recommended how the United States can drastically curb the use of throwaway plastics with new federal legislation.
According to legal analysts who advised Congress at a briefing in January, the United States could reduce its contribution to the global plastic pollution crisis by implementing sweeping federal policies that restrict plastic use and hold manufacturers accountable for responsibly handling waste.
The expert group, composed of members from Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic at UCLA and ocean conservation organization Surfrider Foundation, specifically recommended that Congress craft federal legislation banning single-use plastic products such as bags, straws and expanded polystyrene foam food containers. They also called for establishing “extended producer responsibility” schemes, which hold plastic manufacturers responsible for the waste they create.
Their recommendations, along with a new report, drew on research into existing legislation targeting plastic pollution in the United States and across the world. The experts found that the key to reducing plastic pollution is curbing consumption. The report and its presentation resulted from a semester-long project by UCLA students Charoula Melliou and Divya Rao, in collaboration UCLA attorney Julia E. Stein, Surfrider’s legal expert Angela Howe and plastic bag legal expert Jennie Romer…
There are currently no federal laws restricting single-use plastics, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good examples that could serve as useful templates.
According to Stein, Congress could shape federal policy by following existing local and state laws that have already been crafted to tackle plastic problems with bans on all types of single-use plastic items, from bags to expanded polystyrene foam food containers to straws. California made headlines in February after lawmakers proposed a phaseout of all plastic products that aren’t completely recyclable.
Such laws are grounded in scientific evidence that plastics are problematic because they don’t break down in the natural environment and pose a danger to wildlife and probably people.
There’s a precedent for using state and local laws to help craft national legislation: microbeads. After several states and municipalities banned the sale and manufacture of health and beauty products containing these ecologically damaging exfoliating plastic beads, the United States passed a federal act doing the same.
Most experts agree banning single-use plastic products is a more useful strategy for reducing plastic use and pollution than recycling, which is much less effective. A ban also tackles the issue at the source, helping to curb greenhouse gases coming from the rapidly expanding petrochemical industry that uses fossil fuels to produce plastic.
Commonly Used Plastics
With plastic so ubiquitous, where to start? Experts say that banning just the most commonly used and littered items could cut pollution significantly.
That puts single-use plastic bags front and center…
Besides banning common problematic single-use plastic products, the expert group also recommends Congress pass legislation that would hold corporations accountable for handling plastic waste at the end of its life.
Extended producer responsibility regulations require manufacturers of plastic products to take their items back for reuse, recycling or disposal to increase recycling rates and prevent plastic waste from entering landfills and the natural environment. Container-deposit legislation is one example of such a program that’s widespread — though not ubiquitous — around the United States.
Telesetsky says these schemes may be useful when designed to manage long-lasting plastic products, but they’re trickier to implement and incentivize when plastic packaging is involved. “The problem with applying extended producer responsibility principles to existing single-use plastic is that there is simply no market for all of the reprocessed cheap packaging plastics that are being generated,” says Telesetsky. “Cheap plastics have a finite usable life before they are inevitably landfilled or burned.”
Telesetsky praises the new briefing because it raises awareness of a critical problem. But unlike the briefing group, she proposes banning single-use plastic products outright, on a global scale, in addition to incentivizing innovation in creating new biodegradable products and packaging, which she argues would stop plastic pollution more closely to its source. And it would address the issue on what she sees as a more radical and international — and thus more impactful — scale.
Yet Stein emphasizes that while her briefing has a national focus specifically tailored to U.S. Congress, the wider view is international.
“We support international efforts to address plastic pollution, but the United States also needs to take responsibility at home for its own contribution to the problem.”
Will Congress take up that challenge?
Stein says she and other members from the UCLA-Surfrider group who traveled to Washington, D.C. in January held several legislative briefings for Congressional members and staff, including those involved with last year’s 2018 Save Our Seas Act.
The act provides some funding for federal marine cleanup and waste-prevention efforts through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. Already, two of the bill’s cosponsors, Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), have begun working on a revamped “2.0 version.”
“Overall, we felt the reception was positive — plastic pollution is a topic that is on the minds of the American public and the congresspersons who represent them,” Stein says. “We’re hopeful that Save Our Seas 2.0 legislation in the Senate may provide a chance to think about comprehensive federal strategies to reduce plastic pollution.”
FromThe Denver Post (Judith Kohler) via The Broomfield Enterprise:
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved the rules Wednesday as part of ongoing revisions to oil and gas regulations mandated by Senate Bill 181, approved by the legislature in 2019.
The regulations deal with the well bore, or the hole that’s drilled to access oil or gas as well as the pipes and casings installed to inject fluids to make fractures in rocks and sand and bring up the oil and gas. The casings and cement that are part of the construction are also meant to ensure that no fracking fluids, oil or gas escape and flow into groundwater.
Heading into the hearing, there was general agreement among the parties on the proposed changes. Since the COGCC and the state Air Quality Control Commission began writing new rules, oil and gas industry representatives, community and environmental groups have clashed with each other and with agency staffers in hearings and meetings over how far the regulations should go.
But Julie Murphy, COGCC deputy director, said the agency was able to consider new rules on well bores earlier than expected thanks to a broad consensus among the various parties. She said the “top-line” change is the new requirement that the pressure in all wells across the state be tested annually to ensure that the casings and cement are still in good shape.
The annual testing and regular monitoring approved put Colorado at the head of the pack among oil- and gas-producing states, said Adam Peltz, an attorney with Environmental Defense Fund who has reviewed and worked on similar regulations across the country. He noted that the COGCC has tried to incorporate as many recommendations as possible from a 136-point list put together by a multi-state body of regulators and policy makers.
Another important change is a more precautionary approach to making sure that groundwater no matter, how far down it is located, is protected by isolating the oil, gas and fracking fluids with casings and cement, Murphy said…
The new rule is consistent with Colorado state groundwater standards, Freeman said. The COGCC staff added language saying that groundwater with less than 10,000 parts per million total dissolved solids in it must be protected, Freeman said.
The standard addresses the amount of salt in the water is and is the same one in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and used by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, Freeman said.
Water with 3,000-10,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids is often called “brackish,” or saltier than fresh water, but it can be treated to use for drinking.
Disturbing reports that Republicans plan to sow fears of climate change solution
Merchants of fear have already been at work, preparing to lather up the masses later this year with disturbing images of hardship and misery. The strategy is to equate job losses with clean air and skies, to link in the public mind the pandemic with strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s as dishonest as the days of May are long.
“This is what a carbon-constrained world looks like,” Michael McKenna, a deputy assistant to Trump on energy and environment issues, told The New York Times.
“If You Like the Pandemic Lockdown, You’re Going to Love the Green New Deal,” warned the Washington Examiner. “Thanks to the pandemic lockdown of society, the public is in a position to judge what the ‘Green New Deal’ revolution would look like,” said the newspaper in an April editorial. “It’s like redoing this global pandemic and economic slump every year.”
What a jarring contrast with what I heard during a webinar conducted in Colorado during early May. Electrical utility executives were asked about what it will take to get to 100% emissions-free generation.
It’s no longer an idle question along the lines of how many angels can dance on a pinhead. The coal plants are rapidly closing down because they’re just too darned expensive to operate. Renewables consistently come in at lower prices. Engineers have figured out how to deal with the intermittency of solar and wind. Utilities believe they can get to 70% and even 80%, perhaps beyond.
Granted, only a few people profess to know how to achieve 100% renewables—yet. Cheap, long-lasting storage has yet to be figured out. Electrical transmission needs to be improved in some areas. Here in the West, the still-Balkanized electrical markets need to be stitched together so that electrons can be moved across states to better match supplies with demands.
This won’t cost body appendages, either. The chief executives predict flat or even declining rates.
Let’s get that straight. Reducing emissions won’t cost more. It might well cost less.
That’s Colorado, sitting on the seam between steady winds of the Great Plains and the sunshine-swathed Southwest. Not every state is so blessed. But the innovators, the engineers, and others, are figuring out things rapidly.
Remember what was said just 15 years ago? You couldn’t run a civilization on windmills! Renewables cost too much. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. You had to burn coal or at least natural gas to keep the lights on and avoid economic collapse. Most preposterous were the ambitions to churn vast mountains to extract kerogen, the vital component of oil shale. This was given serious attention as recently as 2008.
The economics have rapidly turned upside down, and the technology just keeps getting better along with the efficiency of markets.
As detailed in Big Pivots issue No. 10, Colorado utilities are now seriously talking about what it will take to get to 100% emission-free energy. Most of that pathway is defined by lower or at least flattened costs.
Now that same spirit of ingenuity has been turned to redirecting transportation and, more challenging yet, buildings. It will likely be decades before we retrofit our automotive fleet to avoid the carbon emissions and other associated pollution that has made many of our cities borderline unhealthy places to live. Buildings will take longer yet. Few among us trade in our houses every 10 to 15 years.
It’s true that we need to be smarter about our energy. And we are decades away from having answers to the heavy carbon footprint of travel by aircraft.
But run with fright from the challenge? That’s the incipient message I’m hearing from the Republican strategists. These messages are from old and now discredited playbooks of fear. People accuse climate activists of constantly beating the drum of fear, and that’s at least partly accurate. But there’s also a drive to find solutions.
Too bad the contemporary Republican Party dwells in that deep well of fear instead of trying to be a beacon of solutions.
Do you have an opinion you wish to share? Shorter is better, and Colorado is the center of the world but not where the world ends. Write to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
FromThe Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Broomfield Enterprise:
Company officials say tests show contaminants did not exceed state standards for surface water
Contaminated water has been seeping into Sand Creek just up from where it meets the South Platte River near the Suncor Energy oil refinery north of Denver, and company officials on Wednesday said they were monitoring conditions and “will make any necessary repairs” to a spill containment pool behind sandbags where crews were pumping out water.
A sheen of benzene and other chemicals was detected on the surface of Sand Creek on May 7 and again on May 15, company officials said.
Sunday’s heavy rains raised water levels along the creek, leading to a breach of the containment area.
Suncor contractors have drawn water samples from Sand Creek and the South Platte, and tested these for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and methyl tertiary butyl ether, company officials said. The results showed concentrations did not exceed state standards for surface water in those waterways, officials said.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials did not respond to queries about conditions at the refinery. It is located just north of Denver in Commerce City, along the creek and the Sand Creek Greenway public bicycle path, near where the creek flows into the South Platte.
“Who is watching this?” Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said. “I’m concerned about the problems that continue to occur.”
Here’s the release from Phil Weiser’s office (Lawrence Pacheco):
Attorney General Phil Weiser today joined a multistate coalition in filing a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s final rule rolling back the national clean car standards.
“The administration’s illegal rollback rejects sound science, ignores environmental harms caused by carbon pollution, and will cost consumers more at the pump. Colorado is joining this lawsuit challenging the administration’s illegal action in order to defend our state’s fuel emission standards that are stronger than the national standards,” Weiser said. “By making more zero-emission vehicles available to Coloradans, we can address climate change and protect our air quality.”
In 2010, the EPA, states and automakers established a unified national program harmonizing improvements in fuel economy and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from passenger cars and light trucks and then applied those standards to vehicle model years 2017-2025. The administration took its first step toward dismantling the national clean car standards in 2018, alleging that the standards were no longer appropriate or feasible despite the fact that the auto industry was on track to meet them.
On March 31, 2020, the EPA announced its final rule rolling back the clean car standards. The rule takes aim at the corporate average fuel efficiency standards, requiring automakers to make only minimal improvements to fuel economy on the order of 1.5 percent annually instead of the previously anticipated annual increase of 5 percent. The rule also diminishes the requirements to reduce vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions, allowing hundreds of millions of metric tons of avoidable carbon emissions into our atmosphere over the next decade.
In the lawsuit filed today, the coalition argues that the final rule unlawfully violates the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
Attorney General Weiser joins the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia. The California Air Resources Board and the Cities of Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Denver also joined the coalition in filing the lawsuit.
FromThe Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Broomfield Enterprise:
Led by California, the states and major cities — including Denver — have asked federal judges to reverse Trump’s Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicle Rule, which was finalized in March and loosened requirements set under the Obama administration to make cars and light pickup trucks about 5% more efficient each year.
Trump’s rule means vehicles over the next decade would emit hundreds of millions more tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Instead of making cars that can cover 54 miles per gallon by 2025, automakers could make cars that cover 40 mpg by 2026.
Federal officials argue this will make new cars more affordable, encouraging more Americans to upgrade to relatively cleaner cars.
This lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, contends the Trump rule violates the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
“We so depend on protecting our land, air and water for our lifestyle,” Weiser said in a conference call Wednesday with attorneys general Xavier Becerra of California and Dana Nessel of Michigan.
“Climate change is not a theoretical, looming challenge. It is there today,” Weiser said, referring to “less natural snowpack than ever before” and a growing burden on future generations to deal with climate change impacts.
He cited a U.S. Supreme Court case that, more than a decade ago, established EPA power to regulate pollution that causes climate change.
“It is the job of the courts to get the EPA on track,” Weiser said.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, in a prepared statement, noted that vehicle emissions are a top contributor to air pollution over the city and are fueling climate change — causing harm to the public’s health and prosperity.
“If these rules are rolled back, the Trump administration will negate the progress that has happened across the country in these areas during a critical point in history,” Hancock said. “We are past due for our country taking more meaningful action, which is why Denver joined this important lawsuit.”
In 2010, EPA officials, state leaders and automakers began working to improve vehicle fuel efficiency and reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases and other pollution from passenger cars and light trucks made after 2017. Automakers have been working to meet these standards. Since 2018, Trump administration officials have been saying the standards are inappropriate and no longer feasible.
Here’s a release about a coalition that has also filed a lawsuit from Environment Colorado (Ellen Montgomery, Hannah Collazo, Mark Morgenstein):
Environment America, an affiliate of Environment Colorado, along with ten other public interest organizations, filed a lawsuit today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit opposing the Trump administration’s action to weaken federal clean car standards. This lawsuit follows litigation that Environment America and the other public interest groups previously filed challenging part one of the action, which attempts to block California and other states from setting stronger tailpipe emissions standards.
The petition challenges a final rule issued jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agencies’ action violates several federal statutes, including the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
“The EPA’s own analysis shows that this will reverse climate progress. The clean car standards should protect our climate, our health and the future of our children and grandchildren,” said Hannah Collazo, State Director with Environment Colorado. “This plan is unacceptable. Not only does it fail to adequately address the climate crisis — it sets us back years when we have no time to lose.”
The previous federal clean car standards would have doubled vehicular fuel economy and would have cut global warming pollution in half for cars sold in 2025. The weakened standards could result in more than 900 million additional metric tons of global warming pollution in our atmosphere.
The other petitioners are the Center for Biological Diversity, Communities for a Better Environment, Consumer Federation of America, Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
A Saturday morning stroll through your local farmers market, is there anything like it? It’s a popular way that many Front Range people decide to spend their weekends, where you get to peruse the abundance and score some of the best food you can buy.
They fill their baskets with organically grown produce, chat with a farmer, walk over to a food truck for a coffee and a pastry and head home with their bounty. These brief interactions allow people to connect with where their food is grown, and put a face to the people who run these farms. But those interactions are threatened, and no, not because of COVID-19.
I am the Board President of the Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), representing over 125 farmers, ranchers, vineyard owners and related business operators in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado, many of whom travel to the Front Range to provide food to residents, restaurants, and breweries.
We take pride in being able to grow high-quality food, carefully tended and responsibly grown without additives or chemicals.
We also take pride in providing that food to Coloradans throughout the state. For many of us farmers, the food we grow is an extension of our personalities and represents us and our businesses.
VOGA’s vision is to create a vibrant community of prosperous, local farms that sustain the land and provide healthy agricultural products. To achieve this vision, we are dependent on our public lands.
Earlier this month, the Trump Administration approved a plan that puts the farms in our watershed at serious risk. The Bureau of Land Management’s final plan for the North Fork Valley opens our public lands to oil and gas drilling while removing protections for everything else that matters to us in the North Fork Valley.
For the past 10 years, the Bureau of Land Management has been rewriting a plan to manage the public land in the North Fork Valley. Our area is approximately 40% public land, which includes the headwaters of streams, rivers and ditches that supply irrigation water to our local farms.
VOGA has been participating and commenting on the BLM’s plan every step of the way. We even helped write our own proposal, called the North Fork Alternative, for how public land should be managed in our watershed.
The North Fork Alternative represents a locally grown vision for the North Fork Valley that would keep energy development away from sensitive areas and fosters a diverse, resilient economy. We were glad to see that the BLM included the North Fork Alternative in the planning process in 2016.
In the name of energy dominance, however, the Trump Administration completely dismissed our proposal last week and opened the entirety of our watershed to oil and gas development, without proper restrictions to protect our farms, our food or our livelihoods.
If resource extraction takes off in our watershed, our waterways may become polluted, ruining our region’s model for farm-to-table community agriculture.
Earlier this year, VOGA received a grant to conduct a study on our member’s economic impact within Delta County. For the 167 members of our association, we found the estimated total market value of our farms to be $50-60 million, with estimated annual gross sales to be $4.1 million.
If we want to maintain these numbers and build upon them to support a sustainable, resilient local economy, we need strong protections for our lands, air and water. And that begins with stipulations set forth in the BLM’s plan.
Luckily, Sen. Michael Bennet is on our side. Time and again, his commitment to working with local farmers, ranchers, business owners and conservationists has shined through in the face of this terrible plan.
And now it is no different. Sen. Bennet, thank you for your commitment to protecting the North Fork Valley, and we hope to work with you on a path forward, as farmers and as the local community.
FromThe High Country News [April 23, 2020] (Jonathan Thompson):
COVID-19 reverberates across the energy world.
In mid-January, when the epidemic was still mostly confined to China, officials there put huge cities on lockdown in order to stem the spread. Hundreds of flights into and out of the nation were canceled, and urban streets stood empty of cars. China’s burgeoning thirst for oil diminished, sending global crude prices into a downward spiral.
And when oil prices fall, it hurts states like New Mexico, which relies on oil and gas royalties and taxes for more than one-third of its general fund. “An unexpected drop in oil prices would send the state’s energy revenues into a tailspin,” New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee warned last August. Even the committee’s worst-case scenario, however, didn’t look this bad.
Now, with COVID-19 spanning the globe, every sector of the economy is feeling the pain — with the exception, perhaps, of toilet paper manufacturers and bean farmers. But energy-dependent states and communities will be among the hardest hit.
At the end of December, the U.S. benchmark price for a barrel of oil was $62. By mid-March, as folks worldwide stopped flying and driving, it had dipped to around $20, before falling into negative territory, and then leveling off around $10 in April. The drilling rigs — and the abundant jobs that once came with them — are disappearing; major oil companies are announcing deep cuts in drilling and capital expenditures for the rest of the year, and smaller, debt-saddled companies will be driven into the ground.
COVID-19 and related shocks to the economy are reverberating through the energy world in other ways. Shelter-in-place orders and the rise in people working from home have changed the way Americans consume electricity: Demand decreased nationwide by 10% in March. As airlines ground flights, demand for jet fuel wanes. And people just aren’t driving that much, despite falling gasoline prices, now that they have orders to stay home and few places to go to, anyway.
The slowdown will bring a few temporary benefits: The reduction in drilling will give landscapes and wildlife a rest and result in lower methane emissions. In Los Angeles, the ebb in traffic has already brought significantly cleaner air. And the continued decline in burning coal for electricity has reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
But the long-term environmental implications may not be so rosy. In the wake of recession, governments typically try to jumpstart the economy with stimulus packages to corporations, economic incentives for oil companies, and regulatory rollbacks to spur consumption and production. The low interest rates and other fiscal policies that followed the last global financial crisis helped drive the energy boom of the decade that followed. And the Trump administration has not held back in its giveaways to industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is already using the outbreak as an excuse to ease environmental regulations and enforcement, and even with all the nation’s restrictions, the Interior Department continues to issue new oil and gas leases at rock-bottom prices. [ed. emphasis mine]
The impacts on energy state coffers will unfold over the coming weeks and months. But the shock to working folk from every economic sector has come swiftly. During the third week of March, more than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment — more than 10 times the claims from a year prior.
Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey. Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, California Independent System Operator, Baker-Hughes, Unacast, FlightRadar24, Wyoming Department of Revenue, Carbon Footprint, International Air Transport Association, OAG.
The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley.
For nearly a decade, a group of farmers in the North Fork Valley joined with local tourism businesses and conservation groups to craft a resource management plan that could help the Bureau of Land Management shepherd the multiple uses of the valley’s public lands for the next 20 years.
More than 600 mining jobs disappeared in that decade of planning as the coal industry contracted and mines closed. Entrepreneurs in the lush communities around Paonia and Hotchkiss helped diversify the local economy from reliance on a single, extractive industry to an eclectic mix of organic agritourism and outdoor recreation.
The group’s North Fork Alternative Plan proposed energy development on 25% of the valley’s public lands, with increased protections for water and recreational attractions in the region.
“We put a lot of effort into negotiating with the BLM with what we thought was a pretty constructive way to share our values and how they should consider those values in managing the lands here,” said Mark Waltermire, whose Thistle Whistle farm is among 140 members in the North Fork’s Valley Organic Growers Association.
The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns over energy projects injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality. But as the first resource management plan released under the Trump Administration, it did represent the president’s pivot toward “energy dominance” by reducing regulations and greenlighting exponentially more coal mining.
“I feel betrayed by the system,” said Waltermire this week after spending the day fixing a tractor on his Delta County farm. “Most definitely this is a step backward. Really it’s even worse. We have lived with coal for 100 years and coal has proven to be compatible with the agriculture we practice here. But gas and the oil development is a different beast. It is a much more substantial threat to our economy, with increased traffic and the potential for spills. That could destroy our reputation that we have built for our valley. It could change everything.”
Earlier this month the agency released the final plan for managing the vast swath of the Western Slope, which is an update to the region’s 1989 RMP. Many of the wildlife, habitat and environment-focused objections to the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” push to loosen regulations around domestic energy production — including those from Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, county commissioners, conservation groups and local residents — were dismissed.
As Colorado’s local BLM officials honed the preferred alternative — Alternative D — for the RMP last fall, the agency’s higher-ups crafted a new alternative. Alternative E identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues, and promoted access and a reduced regulatory burden alongside economic development as top priorities.
The BLM said the RMP would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity into the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next 20 years.
The Alternative E plan:
Increased coal available for leasing by 189%, to 371,250 acres from 144,790 acres.
Added 13,020 acres to the region’s 840,440 acres open for mineral development.
Removed more than 30,000 [acres] from development in areas previously identified for leasing.
Cut acres the BLM could sell from 9,850 to 1,930.
Added six special recreation management areas and three extensive recreation management areas, setting aside 186,920 acres for recreation management.
The final draft of the proposed RMP conflicted with new state laws protecting wildlife, recreation access and improving air quality, so Polis last year sent a letter to the BLM’s Colorado director expressing his concerns as part of a consistency review that makes sure the agency’s plan aligned with state policies.
Specifically the state wanted the agency to limit the density of development — including oil and gas facilities — to one structure for every square mile to help protect wildlife corridors. It also asked the agency to develop a comprehensive plan to protect and conserve the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat. Polis noted that the BLM plan allowed an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas development that conflicted with last year’s House Bill 1261, which aims to cut those emissions by 90%. The BLM plan also conflicted with Senate Bill 181, which allows the state to consider public health and the environment when regulating oil and gas development.
The BLM’s final plan released this month did not include the state’s push for limiting the density of development or creating a region-wide wildlife and sage grouse conservation plan. But it did agree to protect 33,000 acres of riparian habitat from surface development and initiate a future statewide planning effort to study density on BLM land. The agency also agreed to coordinate with the state over potential development in sage grouse habitat.
“Our issue is that we worked on the preferred alternative, Alternative D and we sent that to Washington for approval. Alternative E was never contemplated and that’s what came back from D.C. We were not able to weigh in on that option,” said Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, who joined Polis in the only process available for commenting on the final proposal: a protest letter to the BLM over its proposed RMP.
Gibbs said he was happy the agency heard a portion of the state’s protests and the final decision included plans to work more closely with the state on a border-to-border plan for limiting development density…
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility group uncovered a BLM document summarizing an October 2018 meeting where the agency’s Washington D.C. leaders told Uncompahgre Field Office managers that their preferred alternative “misses the mark” and was “not in line with the administration’s direction to decrease the regulatory burden and increase access.”
San Miguel County, for example, asked the BLM to expand areas of critical concerns in the San Miguel River watershed and remove those riparian areas from mineral leasing. The final plan reduced the size of those areas and kept them open for mineral leasing. Montrose County asked for some areas inside Camelback, Dry Creek and Roc Creek to be managed for wilderness protection, but the final plan did not set aside any land in the county for wilderness protection.
San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said that while the plan is slightly improved by the promise to work with Parks and Wildlife on a density-limiting plan, “it still feels like the BLM is not a willing partner in the management of our land.”
This month he blasted the plan as “completely inadequate.”
“You see what happened today?” he said this week, after the price of a barrel of oil collapsed to below $0 for the first time as a stalled nation sits at home and oil stockpiles swell.
“That is really good news. I bet they are not going to look to develop new rigs for 10 years now,” Schwartz said. “We seem to have bought ourselves some time. Gas and oil are looking to survive right now. And if they look to fracking in our valley, they know we will fight them tooth and nail every step of the way. They don’t want that.
“And really, who knows what will happen in the future,” he said. “We will have a new administration in a year or four years and this whole thing could change. Either way, we are coming out the end of this solid and safe.”
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 coronavirus is scrambling Virginia’s budget and economy, but it didn’t prevent Gov. Ralph Northam (D) from signing legislation that makes it the first Southern state with a goal of going carbon-free by 2045.
Over the weekend, Northam authorized the omnibus Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state’s biggest utility, Dominion Energy, switch to renewable energy by 2045. Appalachian Power, which serves far southwest Virginia, must go carbon-free by 2050.
Almost all the state’s coal plants will have to shut down by the end of 2024 under the new law. Virginia is the first state in the old Confederacy to embrace such clean-energy targets.
Under a separate measure, Virginia also becomes the most Southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a carbon cap-and-trade market among states in the Northeast.
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From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):
When Water Justice is Absent, Communities Speak Up
Two years ago, a company that analyzes property data crunched the numbers on more than 8,600 zip codes in the United States and found that America’s most polluted neighborhood was in northeast Denver. The study, from ATTOM Data Solutions, shows that Denver’s 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, topped its “environmental hazard index.” As of 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory reported that 22 facilities were still releasing toxic chemicals in 80216, chemicals such as nickel, lead, methanol, creosote and more.
“The neighborhood is parked between gas refineries, the former airport, and then, also, what was at one time an Army base making mustard gas,” says University of Denver law professor Tom Romero, II, who has spent his career dissecting the factors behind environmental injustices in Colorado. There are two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in 80216, plus the knot of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 severs the neighborhood from the rest of Denver and increases pollution from highway traffic. The area is also home to a predominantly low-income, Hispanic and Latinx community, says Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilwoman for northeast Denver’s District 9.
Last year, CdeBaca became the first person from the neighborhoods to represent on the Denver City Council, ever. She points to an opposition campaign to the Central 70 Project as the beginning of the neighborhood rallying to achieve representation against environmental inequities.
The Central 70 Project broke ground in 2018 to widen the highway through Denver. It will demolish the viaduct that carries I-70 over Elyria-Swansea, replacing it with a below-grade highway. Residents had a list of worries: losing their homes to eminent domain, living even closer to the highway, and unearthing a Superfund site, which they feared would re-expose harmful heavy metals and increase health risks, CdeBaca says.
Their opposition campaign didn’t stop the highway work, but the community came together and won in one sense—the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study, collecting data to determine whether toxins in the air, soil and water are making residents sick. They also gained a louder voice. “Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism,” says CdeBaca. “Now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted.” She points to the importance of local voice and representation in all issues, particularly for communities that want to bring about environmental justice. “There is nothing that I support more than activating people power,” CdeBaca says.
With water affordability, access and quality challenges—all of which can translate into health impacts—the role of water in Colorado isn’t always one of fostering healthy communities, yet it could and should be. What contributes to these less-than-whole communities? And what does it take to recognize the issues and how they evolved, address power imbalances, engage the community, and restore equity where it’s been missing?
What is Environmental Justice?
Environmental injustices in Colorado, or anywhere, can span cities and suburbs, sovereign tribal lands, and rural communities. They have their roots in narratives of immigration, development and industry, and political power dynamics, further influenced by evolving legal and regulatory frameworks.
In 1990, EPA Administrator William Reilly created an Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess evidence that “racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.” The agency, which went on to establish an Environmental Equity office in 1992, later changing its name to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994, defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” It has since expanded to offer a range of programs that provide services from grant funding to technical assistance and training. It also runs a National Environmental Justice Hotline.
Another early definition of environmental justice came from University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant, who said it refers to places “where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential.”
Scholars add additional layers to the term—it’s not just about identifying who is or isn’t harmed but includes some form of restitution, says Kelsea MacIlroy, an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in the sociology department at Colorado State University.
“There are a lot of different ways to talk about justice that aren’t just about who and how but also about a long-term social justice component,” MacIlroy says. “Does the community actually have an authentic seat at the table in addressing the ills?”
80216 may feel it all. “Denver was segregated, and that segregation manifested itself in a variety of ways in terms of water,” Romero says. “It meant that Denver’s communities of color, particularly African Americans and Mexican Americans, were living in close proximity to the areas with heavy industry, where the affordable housing is.” That’s a pattern and practice, he says, that was established in the 20th century and continues today. Many environmental justice cases have similar roots, as repeated practices that ultimately create winners and losers.
When Government Fails
Americans watched one of the most high-profile environmental justice cases unfold in Flint, Michigan, in 2015 and 2016 when corroded lead pipes poisoned the population.
To save money, in April 2014, the city switched its drinking water source and began supplying residents with Flint River water that wasn’t treated under federal anti-corrosion rules. The population was predominantly black, and more than 40 percent of residents were below the poverty threshold. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no level of lead exposure is safe but higher lead exposure leads to more health challenges including anemia, kidney and brain damage, heart disease, decreased IQ and more. In children, the impacts are especially toxic.
Residents began noticing a rusty tint to their tap water in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until October 2015 that the governor ordered Flint’s water source switched. By then, though the new water was safe, the plumbing wasn’t—corroded pipes continued to leach lead into drinking water. Bottled water and free faucet filters to remove lead at the point of use were distributed.
More than five years after the crisis in Flint began, the city and its residents are still recovering. The city’s FAST Start program is removing and replacing lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, but it’s a big, expensive job. FAST Start has been funded with $25 million from the State of Michigan and $100 million allocated by Congress through the Federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act of 2016. As of December 2019, less than 40 percent of the city’s pipes had been replaced, with many residents still relying on faucet filters or bottled water.
Fifteen state and local officials were charged with various crimes, including involuntary manslaughter—some took plea deals and most cases were dropped. Residents now mistrust their water and water providers. That mistrust has flooded the nation, with many more communities now coping with elevated lead levels and lead pipe replacement.
According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released in 2016, breakdowns in protocol, dismissal of problems, and failure to protect people occurred at nearly every level of government. Not only were customers supplied with unsafe drinking water, government officials were slow to acknowledge the problems and rectify the issue by providing safe water. According to the 2016 report, the Flint water crisis is a “story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental justice.” Had there been local control of resources and decisions, they write, the problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.
Coping with Forever Chemicals
Flint’s toxic water is not unlike the water quality issues discovered in 2016 in the Colorado towns of Fountain and Security-Widefield. That’s when water providers and residents learned that PFAS chemicals, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were detected at levels above EPA’s new 2016 health advisory levels. The source of the chemicals: firefighting foam used for decades to extinguish training fuel fires at the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force now uses a replacement foam at the base, and in 2019, the Colorado Legislature enacted restrictions and bans on PFAS foam, but the damage has been done. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate and remain in the environment for a long time, with half lives (the amount of time it takes the chemical to decrease to half its original value) in humans of two to eight years, depending on the chemical. They have been linked to cancers, liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, and other ailments.
“We ended up having 16 family members that lived within that area that had cancer, and five of them died of kidney cancer,” said Mark Favors, during a public event on PFAS at Colorado School of Mines in January 2020. Favors is a former resident of Security, a U.S. Army veteran, a PFAS activist, and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. “A lot of [my family] are military veterans. One of my cousins, while he was doing two combat tours in Iraq, the Air Force was contaminating their drinking water. That’s the crazy part. How they’ve admitted it and it’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” Favors says.
These southern El Paso County towns aren’t home to what are often considered disadvantaged populations—the poverty rate is between 8 and 9 percent, slightly less than the statewide average; about 60 percent of residents are white, and about 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. However, census numbers don’t represent military personnel who temporarily reside in the area. According to El Paso County’s Health Indicators report, published in 2012, four military bases in the county employ 40,500 military personnel and about 21,000 contract personnel.
When EPA tightened its health advisory levels in 2016, they were 10 times more restrictive than what the agency had previously advised, and water providers realized they had a problem. They acted quickly to provide residents with free bottled water and water filling stations while they suspended use of the aquifer, then worked to broker deals to purchase clean water from other municipalities. Some of those deals were only temporary. Since June 2018, the City of Fountain has worked to get back on its groundwater supply, treating the groundwater with granular activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Now it is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a full, permanent groundwater treatment plant. The story in Security is similar—the Security Water and Sanitation District has been importing water, primarily from Pueblo Reservoir, to meet the needs of its residents since 2016, which involved building new pipelines and purchasing extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities—an added cost. Security avoided raising water rates for a time, paying those costs out of its cash reserves. By 2018, residents had to absorb a 15 percent rate increase, with another 9.5 percent increase in 2019.
The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a treatment facility in Security, too, which should be complete by the end of 2020. Once the plant is finished, Security will switch back to a combination of groundwater and surface water, and rates should stabilize once the costs of those pipelines are recovered, says Roy Heald, general manager at Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
Who pays to protect the health of those who rely on this water? “What responsibility did [the Air Force] have in rectifying this? What about the local sanitation districts? They have to deal with this. It’s not their fault but they’re tasked with giving clean water,” says MacIlroy at Colorado State University.
“The Air Force really has stepped up,” Heald says. But they may have to step up further—in 2019, the Security Water and Sanitation Districts and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, another affected entity, sued the Air Force to recoup the costs of purchasing and piping in clean water. Their lawsuit cites negligence for disposal of chemicals, remediation of contamination, and breaching a responsibility to prevent dangerous conditions on the defendant’s property. Heald wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but says, “As long as [cash] reserves are at an adequate level, if we received a windfall there would be no place else for it to go besides back to our customers.” Those recouped costs would likely take the form of lower or stabilized rates.
Residents are also pushing for justice through a class-action lawsuit brought by the Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Lawfirm, which has teamed up with a personal injury law firm in New York to file against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and other manufacturers of the firefighting foam.
“There’s going to have to be some sort of accountability and justice for these people who unknowingly, for years, drank colorless, odorless high amounts of PFAS,” says Favors. He calls for better oversight and demands that polluters are held accountable.
As for coping with PFAS-related health challenges, there are still a lot of unknowns, but El Paso County was selected to participate in two national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to better assess the dangers of human exposure to PFAS, and to evaluate exposure pathways.
Locally, the study and lawsuits might help recoup some financial damages—but PFAS-related water contamination isn’t isolated to these Colorado communities. In July 2019, the Environmental Working Group mapped at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states. Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoping to implement a national PFAS drinking water standard, estimate the number is even higher: 1,400 communities suffer from PFAS contamination. A U.S. Senate version of a PFAS-regulating bill has yet to be introduced. But in February, EPA released a draft proposal to consider regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the thousands of PFAS.
Justice through Water Rights
Environmental justice isn’t exclusively an urban issue. Injustices involving pollution, public health, access, affordability and water can be wrought anyplace—including rural and suburban areas. For rural communities, the issue comes to a head when people, organizations or entities in power seek more water for their needs at the cost of others.
In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, acequia communities fought for years to protect their water rights and way of life. Acequias are an equity-based irrigation system introduced by the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of southern Colorado. “What it means is that the entire community is only benefitted when all resources are shared,” says Judy Lopez, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. There, Lopez works with landowners to preserve wildlife habitat, forests, culturally significant lands, and ag lands—including those served by acequias.
The Town of San Luis, the heart of Colorado’s acequia community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the state. It’s in Costilla County, where more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx—more than any other county in Colorado—and 25 percent of the population live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. But the people there are long-time landowners, never separated from the land their ancestors settled, four to seven generations back, Lopez says. They have the state’s original water rights to match, including Colorado’s oldest continuously operated water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, an acequia established in 1852.
Prior to statehood, the territorial government recognized acequia water rights. But when the Colorado Constitution established the right of prior appropriation, the priority scheme of “first in time, first in right” became the law, challenging communal rights.
“It was very difficult for [acequias] to go to water court and say, ‘This guy is taking my water,’” Lopez says. “It was very difficult to quantify the use and who was using it.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Colorado Legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. The law was developed by Rep. Ed Vigil with the help of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, an entity that represents more than 73 acequias and 300 families who depend on them. Amended in 2013, the law solidifies the rights of acequia users. According to the Colorado Acequia Handbook, it allows “acequias to continue to exercise their traditional roles in governing community access to water, and also strengthens their ability to protect their water.”
In order to be recognized under the Acequia Recognition Act, acequias needed bylaws. Over the past six years, Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, and the University of Colorado Boulder have partnered to help 42 acequias write bylaws, thereby protecting their water. “The bylaws were still based, in large part, on those oral traditions,” Lopez says, “and included protective language that said, ‘If a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights.’”
Even having water rights doesn’t guarantee water access: Over the past few decades, the federal government has settled longstanding water rights cases with sovereign tribes, in many cases backdating tribal water rights to the dates of their reservations’ establishment. Although the tribes now have the nation’s oldest established water rights, they haven’t always, and they still come up against structural and financial barriers that prevent them from developing water and getting the real benefit of those rights.
Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as of 2019 only 36 tribal water rights settlements had been federally approved. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado are among that small number, but despite their long journey, the tribes still don’t have access to all the water they own.
Tribal water rights have their roots in the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 case which established tribal water rights based on the date the federal government created their reservations—thereby moving tribal water rights to “first in line” among users.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government filed and worked through claims on behalf of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes to surface waters in southwestern Colorado. In the 1980s, Congress approved a settlement between the tribes, the federal government and other parties; in 2000, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was amended, entitling tribes to water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), as well as from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir. Construction on A-LP began in 2001, and the project’s key feature, Lake Nighthorse—named for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—began filling in 2009.
Prior to the Dolores Project, many people living in Towaoc, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, did not have running water and instead trucked it in to fill water tanks at their homes, says Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director with the Keystone Policy Center and former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. His late father, Ernest House, Sr., was pivotal in that fight for water. “I was fortunate, my father was able to see A-LP completed. I think he probably, in his own right, couldn’t believe that it would have been done and could be done,” he says. But even today, some Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute communities still lack access to water, and aging infrastructure from the 1980s needs updating and repairs.
“Our tribes as sovereign nations cannot maintain or move forward without access to water,” House says. “We have to remind people that we have tribal nations in Colorado, and that we have other tribes that continue to call Colorado home, that were removed from the state, either by treaty or forced removal,” he says, adding that acknowledging the difficult past must be a part of conversations about the future.
Those conversations include state, regional, and federal-level water planning. The Colorado tribes are engaged in Colorado’s basin roundtable process, with both tribes occupying seats on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says Greg Johnson, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning Section (and serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). Through the roundtables, local stakeholders conduct basin-wide water planning that is eventually integrated into the statewide Colorado Water Plan. However, until recently, tribal involvement in regional Colorado River negotiations between the seven U.S. basin states and federal government has been nonexistent. Change is brewing—a 2018 federal Tribal Water Study highlighted how tribal water resources could impact Colorado River operations, while a new Water and Tribes Initiative is working to build tribal capacity and participation in water negotiations throughout the basin.
“The Utes have been in what we call Colorado for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House says. “It would be a shame if we were left out of the conversations [about water].”
The External Costs of Industry
Government is vital to addressing the legacy of environmental injustice, and preventing future problems, but finding solutions also demands reconsidering how business is done.
Consider Colorado’s relationship with the extraction industry, visible in the 19th-century mines that pock mountain towns, uranium-rich communities like Nulca, and the escalation of oil and gas drilling today. Colorado is an “epicenter” of extraction and environmental justice issues, says Stephanie Malin, associate professor at Colorado State University and a sociologist who studies energy development and extraction.
Lack of local control in the past has been especially frustrating, Malin says, since private corporations earn profits off the resources but then outsource the impacts. In the end, extractive industries have a track record of leaving communities and governments to bear the costs of cleanup.
Take Gold King Mine as one high-profile example. In August 2015, wastewater from an abandoned mine in San Juan County contaminated the Animas River between Silverton and Durango. Contractors hired by EPA accidentally caused 3 million gallons of mine waste, laden with heavy metals, to wash into the Animas. New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation all filed to sue EPA, with farmers reporting that they couldn’t water their crops and others saying they had to truck in alternative water supplies. But those responsible for the contamination were long-gone. Like tens of thousands of other mines in the region, the Gold King Mine was abandoned in the early 20th century.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly called Superfund—which Congress passed in 1980, was originally set up as a “polluter tax” on oil, gas and chemical companies at risk of contaminating communities or the environment. But Congress never reauthorized the tax, which expired in 1995. By the early 21st century, the fund was bankrupt. Today, these cleanups are funded entirely by taxpayers.
“It’s part of a bigger pattern of privatizing profit and nationalizing, or socializing, risk,” Malin says. “Then, communities and the environment are left holding the ‘external’ costs.” Those external costs, she says, are nearly unquantifiable: “The intergenerational impacts in particular are so hard to gauge, in terms of what the communities are absorbing.”
While these problems can seem intractable, there are solutions, Malin says. For example, the bond amounts companies are required to pay up-front should better reflect the actual cost of cleanup, she says. Last year, Colorado lawmakers made strides to unburden taxpayers in just that way, with an update to Colorado’s old mining law.
The new Colorado law, HB19-1113, makes sure water quality impacts from mining are accounted for and long-term impacts are avoided. The law says that the industry can no longer self bond—a practice that allowed mine operators to demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover clean-up costs rather than providing the resources up front. Without self bonding, taxpayers won’t be left paying for remediation if the company goes bankrupt. It also requires mine operators to factor water quality protection costs into their bond—and requires most to develop a water quality treatment plan. This means that reclamation plans must include a reasonable end date for any needed water quality treatment, hopefully ensuring Colorado will avoid new perpetually polluting mines.
State lawmakers are currently looking at a more encompassing environmental justice bill, HB20-1143, introduced in January 2020. At press time the bill was still under consideration. If it moves forward as introduced, the bill would increase the maximum civil fine for air and water quality violations—from $10,000 per day to $47,357 per day, which would be adjusted annually according to the consumer price index—reallocating some of the financial burden back on polluters. It would also authorize the use of the money in the state’s water quality improvement fund, which is where those water quality violation fines go, to pay for projects addressing impacts to communities. The bill would also bolster the state’s environmental justice efforts, with a new environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson who would run the advisory board and advocate for environmental justice communities.
Speaking up for Tomorrow’s Climate
Environmental justice can’t be about a single issue, says Lizeth Chacón, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial-justice, member-led organization based in Denver and Pueblo. That means looking at water-focused environmental justice alongside related issues such as climate change, racial justice, inequities, poverty, housing, power dynamics, and more.
“When we are talking to our members, we are talking to them about the fact that they are working two jobs and still cannot put dinner on the table in the week, talking that they live in fear of being deported and being separated from their families, talking about the fact that they are sick, or have headaches, or have to spend money on water because they can’t drink the water coming out of their tap like other people can,” she says. “It can’t be seen as one issue … This work has to be holistic.”
Currently, the Colorado People’s Alliance is working on a climate campaign directed by its members in Commerce City. “They said, ‘This is something that’s impacting all of us, regardless of where we’re from, whether we’re undocumented or documented, what our economic status is,’” she says. The Alliance is focused on greenhouse gas emissions, which have immediate health impacts and long-term water effects.
Another approach in northeast Denver is proceeding thanks to an EPA environmental justice grant, in which organizers will convene youth, local leaders, and scientists to create a community science project that leads to a more fishable and swimmable Denver South Platte River. The river flows through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, but it used to be a dumping ground, with a landfill beside its banks. Clean ups and improved recreational access, much of which has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation since its founding in 1974, have created opportunities for kayakers downtown, but river access in northeast Denver, beyond the popular Confluence Park, is limited. In addition, E. Coli levels are often high, making swimming inadvisable. Access to a healthy waterway makes communities more vibrant and whole, supporting health, wellbeing, recreation, and cultural and spiritual practices, but also connection. This may be the only recreational water access available to some urbanites.
“Rivers are one of the major pathways to healing the environment and healing ourselves,” said Jorge Figueroa at an initial workshop for this project in December 2019, where they began to establish a youth advisory board. Figueroa runs El Laboratorio, an organization that brings people together from different disciplines and cultures to creatively solve environmental challenges. (He is also on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) He’s working on this project with Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit that provides outdoor education, recreation and experiences to youth who may not otherwise have these opportunities; and Colorado State University, which is developing a new campus at the National Western Center, called Spur, in the neighborhood. The partners expect to have a plan ready by the end of 2020, and the project should begin in 2021.
Figueroa, who grew up and has family in Puerto Rico, also witnessed, up close, the wave of climate refugees who left his home state after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.
“It’s critical for us to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and in the reliability of our municipal potable water systems,” Figueroa says. “But from an equity perspective, we need to ensure that the more than a trillion dollars that will be invested in the nation’s public water systems provide the most benefit to the most people.” His suggestion to build climate resiliency in an equitable way: water conservation. “Water conservation can be a supreme water equity tool: It provides cheaper water for the community and more resiliency and reliability for the system. It’s not only an ideal climate change adaptation strategy but also is one of the top, by far, equity water strategies.” When you don’t consider equity in water decisions, you can make vulnerable communities more vulnerable, he says.
Whether working to improve environmental justice structurally and physically through conservation and resiliencies, or politically and financially through new regulations, bonding or taxation, there are many opportunities to do better. But there are also social justice elements to work on. Chacón recommends involving community members at the beginning of a process—not at the end. She says it’s important to listen—and to not dismiss people when they disagree.
Looking forward, it’s up to everyone in positions of power to actively create space for disadvantaged communities to lead, says Chacón. “To us, the people who are closest to the pain are the ones closest to the solution because they know what’s happening in their community best of anyone.”
Some of the principles of engaging communities in these situations are “almost universal,” says Colorado’s Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Environmental Justice Program. Wenstrom worked in Flint over the course of a year following the water emergency, “assisting them to connect with processes, in understanding what their rights are, and helping them learn how to raise their voices effectively,” he says.
He says that where communities and families are already overburdened—with poverty, crime, racism—they often don’t have time, expertise or resources to recognize the problems, nevermind address them. “In addition, people in low-income communities may be less inclined to raise their voices for various reasons,” Wenstrom says. Reasons could include racism, job discrimination, or, for some, the fear of being identified as an illegal resident.
He says officials like him who come into communities as outsiders must be careful, persistent, and work to build trust. “As trust builds, we can then start pointing people toward tackling issues related to pollution or public health,” he says. But, Wenstrom cautions, if people don’t believe they can make a difference, they won’t raise their voices in the first place.
Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque N.M., where her show, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” airs on New Mexico PBS. Caitlin Coleman is editor of Headwaters magazine.
FromThe Columbia Journalism Review (Savannah Jacobson):
The story of oil company propaganda begins in 1914, with the Ludlow Massacre. In Ludlow, Colorado, a tent city of coal miners went on strike, and officers of the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company responded violently. At least sixty-six people were killed in the conflict, turning popular opinion against John D. Rockefeller Jr., who owned the mine in Ludlow. To recover public trust, Rockefeller hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a public relations agent, to peddle falsehoods disguised as objective facts to the press: the strikers were crisis actors; the violence was the fault of labor activist Mother Jones; there was no Ludlow Massacre.
Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, evolved into what is now ExxonMobil, and its original PR strategy remains. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Exxon commissioned scientific reports that documented the potentially catastrophic effects of carbon dioxide emissions. But in the decades that followed, Exxon buried those reports and told the public the opposite: that the science was inconclusive, that regulation would destroy the American economy, and that action on climate change would mostly cause harm.
Exxon’s public mouthpiece was the press. For more than thirty years, from at least 1972 until at least 2004, the company placed advertorials in the New York Times to cast doubt on the negative effects of fossil fuel emissions. Over the same time span, ExxonMobil gave tens of millions of dollars to think tanks and researchers who denied the science of climate change. Taken in sum, Exxon’s media shrewdness and its aggressive political lobbying have set back climate action for decades—putting the nation, and the world, dangerously close to a point of no return.
Year by Year
Humble Oil, a subsidiary of what would become Exxon, buys an advertisement in Life magazine reading, “Each Day Humble Supplies Enough Energy to Melt Seven Million Tons of Glacier!”
Exxon executives learn from James F. Black, a scientist employed by the company, that the practice of burning fossil fuels releases such large amounts of carbon dioxide as to imperil the planet.
Exxon’s researchers confirm published scientific findings: the level of CO2 output from fossil fuels could eventually raise the global temperature by up to 3 degrees Celsius.
Spring: An Exxon tanker crashes into a reef, spilling 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The disaster will be the second-largest spill in US history. In the following months, Exxon publishes a number of advertisements in the Times apologizing for the spill and asking readers to reject boycotts.
Summer: Mobil runs its first advertorial on global warming in the Times. It reads in part, “Scientists do not agree on the causes and significance of [warming]—but many believe there’s reason for concern…we’re hard at work along all these fronts. We live in the greenhouse too.”
Fall: The Global Climate Coalition forms with the mission to oppose action against global warming and to advocate for the interests of the fossil fuel industry by promoting doubt about climate science. Exxon is a founding member.
The Kyoto Protocol is signed.
Mobil places an advertorial in the New York Times reading, “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”
Exxon pledges to stop funding climate denialist public policy groups; however, a 2015 Guardian investigation showed funding did not stop.
New York State pursues a civil case against ExxonMobil for defrauding investors about the risks of climate change, the first against the company to reach trial. The state asks for as much as $1.6 billion in damages; Exxon wins.
By the Numbers
Amount ExxonMobil spent, through 2012, to fund think tanks and researchers who denied aspects of climate change.
Minimum amount that ExxonMobil has paid since 2007 to lobbyists and members of Congress opposed to climate change legislation.
Percent of scientific studies ExxonMobil conducted internally from 1977 to 2014 that state climate change is man-made.
Percent of ExxonMobil’s advertorials published in the New York Times in the same time frame that cast doubt on the idea that climate change is man-made.
Exxon’s annual research budget during the height of the company’s climate science research, in the late 1970s to mid-1980s.
Years that Mobil placed weekly advertorials in the New York Times. After merging with Exxon in 1999, Mobil reduced advertorial placement in the Times to every other week.
Number of television networks and national and local newspapers that have cited Myron Ebell, a leading climate denialist, or published his opinion pieces from 1999 to the present.
Amount ExxonMobil gave to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank of which Ebell was a director, from 1998 to 2005.
Percent of Americans who opposed, in 2009, a significant clean energy bill.
Percent of Americans who opposed the same bill after the Heritage Foundation, an ExxonMobil-funded think tank, published a study that misleadingly claimed the bill would increase gas prices to
$4 per gallon.
The coronavirus pandemic has mostly yielded bad news for renewable energy. Disruptions to supply chains and slowdowns in permitting and construction have delayed solar and wind projects, endangering their eligibility for the soon-to-expire investment tax credits they rely on. There’s another form of renewable energy, however, that might see a benefit from the recent global economic upheaval and emerge in a better position to help the United States decarbonize its electricity system: geothermal…
Unlike wind and the sun, subsurface heat is available 24/7, perpetually replenished by the radioactive decay of minerals deeper down. But compared to wind and solar farms, geothermal power plants are expensive to build. The cost can range from $2,000 to $5,000 per installed kilowatt, and even the least expensive geothermal plant in the U.S. costs more than double that of a utility-scale solar farm. Engineers have to drill thousands of feet into the ground to reach reservoirs of water and rock hotter than 300 degrees F in order for the plants to be economical. Plants generate electricity by pumping steam or hot water up from those reservoirs to spin a turbine which powers a generator.
Experts told Grist that drilling can account for anywhere between 25 to 70 percent of the cost of a project, depending on where it is, the method of drilling, and the equipment required. But now, the companies that supply the machinery and services for drilling are starting to slash rates.
That’s because they are the same suppliers the oil industry uses, but oil companies are idling drilling rigs and cutting contracts left and right. They’re getting pummeled by the largest oil price crash in decades, the result of plunging demand due to the pandemic and a glut in supply because of a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. On Tuesday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration revised its short-term outlook for crude oil production, predicting a steep decline through 2021. All of the suppliers who are normally digging for oil are now eager for new business.
Tim Latimer, a former drilling engineer for the oil and gas industry and now the cofounder and CEO of Fervo Energy, a geothermal energy company (and a 2020 Grist 50 Fixer) said suppliers have already been willing to knock 10 percent off quotes they gave him a few weeks ago. In a recent Twitter thread, Latimer predicted that drilling costs could drop by as much as 20 to 40 percent. On top of that, interest rates are down, and recovery bills with new funding for clean energy are potentially around the corner.
Lowering the up-front cost of building a geothermal power plant would allow plant operators to bring down electricity prices, which could attract new interest in geothermal from utilities. “If you can bring that price down even a little bit,” Latimer said, utility buyers “get a lot more excited about it because they want to have something in their portfolio that can produce electricity at night.”
In California, which has set a target of 100 percent clean electricity by 2045, energy providers are starting to recognize the benefits of geothermal’s round-the-clock power and have agreed to purchase power from two new plants being built in the state. But in states where there isn’t as much pressure to decarbonize, it’s a tough sell: The cost of electrons from a geothermal plant can be more than three times as high as those from solar and wind.
Part of the problem, according to Susan Petty, the chief technology officer, president, and co-founder of geothermal company AltaRock Energy, is that utilities don’t place extra value on geothermal’s ability to generate electricity all the time. She said bringing drilling costs down will help, but it would help even more if there were parity in the tax incentives for renewables: This year, geothermal electricity projects were eligible for a 10 percent investment tax credit, compared to a 26 percent credit for solar and wind.
Geothermal faces other hurdles, like a lengthy permitting process that stretches out project timelines. It can be challenging to find investors during the early, risky stages of a project, before the viability of developing a given site has been proven. Geothermal also suffers from a PR problem — people just aren’t as familiar with it as they are with wind and solar. The technology has been around in the U.S. since the 1960s, but for these reasons and others, geothermal still only makes up 0.4 percent of the U.S. electricity mix.
Here’s the release from the Western Slope Conservation Center (Ben Katz):
[On February 10, 2020]…the Bureau of Land Management released its Uncompahgre Field Office Resource Management Plan despite concerns and formal protests from stakeholders in the North Fork Valley and beyond. While Colorado’s governor and the public are focused on a major health crisis in the state, the BLM released a plan that could open up 95% of the public lands in the area to oil and gas development, threatening local farmers and businesses in the region.
Community leaders say the plan fails to protect public health, provide ecological well-being, or promote a sustainable rural economy on Colorado’s Western Slope. These leaders say that at a time when small businesses are shutting their doors and communities of the rural Western Slope are telling visitors to stay away, the Trump Administration should not be barreling forward with land use planning that harms our community and environment.
The final plan, which the BLM began revising in 2010, is meant to guide all activities and development in the Uncompahgre Field Office planning area for the next two decades. Today we see the final plan opens the entirety of the North Fork Valley to oil and gas leasing and development while removing or limiting critical protections to safeguard the local community’s air, water, wilderness, and wildlife. Despite making minor changes at the request of Governor Polis, the plan is dramatically out of step with the protections local residents have requested for a decade.
The most disappointing aspect of the final plan is that it undermines years of collaboration and local engagement, completely disregarding a community crafted plan for the North Fork Valley. In 2014, a diverse group of North Fork stakeholders, including agricultural, tourism, realty, business, and conservation organizations, came together and developed a “community alternative” – essentially a locally grown vision and set of guidelines – for oil and gas management in the area. Called the North Fork Alternative Plan, the balanced proposal would allow for the consideration of regulated energy development on up to 25 percent of the area’s federal lands with additional protections for lands important to hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation activities. The agency’s final plan ignores this community proposal, and in turn, dismisses the community’s own vision for a sustainable future and diverse economy.
Recently released documents by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) through the Freedom of Information Act show beyond a doubt the final plan is the result of political maneuvering by the Trump administration to impose its “energy dominance” agenda on Colorado. The internal documents acquired by PEER reveal that Trump administration officials at the national BLM office overruled local agency staff and ignored local public input in order to “align the preferred alternative with administration priorities” such as deregulation of the oil and gas industry. Ironically, this decision comes at a time when the BLM is relocating its headquarters from Washington, DC to Grand Junction ostensibly to allegedly “delegate more responsibility to the field,” according to acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley.
The following are quotes from several organizations and stakeholders who have been working for decades to advance conservation efforts in Colorado and have been participating in the BLM UFO RMP revision process:
“An administration that supports a resilient local economy wouldn’t move forward with a plan that clearly disrespects the best interests of the North Fork community, yet this is exactly what’s happening. This plan is a triple threat: it ignores a decade’s worth of community input, it undermines our economic future, and it endangers the very public lands and waters that our local farms, ranches, vineyards, and recreation businesses depend on. As Colorado’s Western Slope residents and the rest of the country battle with a national emergency, the BLM is charging ahead to open lands that aren’t essential for the country’s oil and gas resources. Kicking our small businesses and communities while they’re down is just plain shameful.” – Patrick Dooling, Executive Director, Western Slope Conservation Center
“It’s disgraceful that Secretary Bernhardt and BLM Acting Director William Perry Pendley are using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover for their continued efforts to sell out our public lands. Coloradans are rightfully focused on the health and safety of our loved ones during this trying time, yet the BLM is jeopardizing the livelihoods of farmers and business owners who depend on this region’s beautiful land and pristine water. Opening 95% of the lands in this area to potential development shows that the administration puts drilling above all else, no matter the cost to air, water or people’s way of life, or even our health.” – Jim Ramey, Colorado State Director, The Wilderness Society
“The Trump administration dropping this broadly opposed plan now, in the midst of a pandemic, only adds insult to the deep injury many North Fork farms and businesses are already suffering. We came together as a community and presented a plan to the BLM, which it has ignored in releasing this mess. We worked in good faith and that was betrayed, but we’re not done standing up for our farms and families.” – Pete Kolbenschlag, Executive Director, Colorado Farm & Food Alliance
“I grow food in the farm-to-table capital of Colorado, the Lower Gunnison watershed. Over the past nearly ten years I’ve worked to identify to the BLM what I need them to consider as they make their land-use decisions for the lands around and upstream of me. For my farm, and the nearly 100 other Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA) producers in this valley, this means clean air, clean water, and an understanding that our reputation for clean delicious food is easily destroyed. I am disappointed that the BLM has ignored the agricultural community of the North Fork in its RMP, and has failed to listen to and consider the input we’ve worked hard to give them.”- Mark Waltermire, owner, Thistle Whistle Farms
“The North Fork Valley has felt the impacts of oil and gas development on our local economy before and has successfully diversified its economy away from fossil fuel development. The real estate markets were thriving prior to COVID-19 and are holding steady with buyers continuing to close on properties they completed contracts on prior to the statewide lockdown. With this impending plan, the BLM is sending our community backwards, setting us up to be at the whims of the oil and gas industry development and threatening the local economy. At a time when we can’t even show homes or hold open houses due to COVID-19, the release of this plan feels like salt in the wound.” – Patti Kaech, Broker/Owner, Colorado Premier Partners Realty
“When the coal mines began to close, everyone said the sky was falling. Yet, we worked hard to build and diversify our local economy based on local business, renewable energy, sustainable outdoor recreation, and organic farming. We are stronger now and people are moving here to embrace this way of living, not to be surrounded by industrial oil and gas development. Despite that, the energy-dominance agenda the BLM has in mind is at odds with our vision of the future. Furthermore,the Trump Administration says they are here to help small businesses, yet seem to put another nail in our coffin at this unprecedented time. The BLM needs to re-engage with the community and develop a plan to protect the public lands in the North Fork Valley that support our diverse economy.” – Chelsea Bookout, co-owner, Remedy Juice and Cafe
“Right now, we have the opportunity to bolster a sustainable and long term recreation industry in the Lower Gunnison watershed. We have the wildlands, the community, and the ambition needed to develop and maintain a strong recreation sector of the local economy. Turning the valley into a short term oil and gas haven is not compatible with this local vision. The BLM must listen to the communities who will be most affected by this decision.” – Sven Edstrom, Chair, Delta Area Mountain Bikers
“President Trump has failed to take charge in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, instead leaving it to the Governors to figure it out. But as the documents acquired by PEER show, when it comes to oil and gas development and the UFO RMP, his administration is quick to overrule local wishes. The Bureau of Land Management must go back to the drawing board and consider the vision of local communities, and their own experts, in this planning process.” – Chandra Rosenthal, Rocky Mountain Director, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
“The BLM’s Uncompahgre plan is a terrible disservice to conservation and support of local economies transitioning to sustainable recreation and agriculture. Secretary Bernhardt and acting BLM director William Perry Pendley have overwritten the locally-developed earlier plan to strip out conservation protections for wildlands and to grease the skids for their friends in the oil and gas and mining industries. Our public lands and local communities like Naturita and Hotchkiss will suffer the impacts.” – Scott Braden, Director, Colorado Wildlands Project
It’s a good thing I got over my claustrophobia. I was in the bowels of Hoover Dam, the giant plug of the Colorado River, trying not to think about the mass of concrete around me or the volume of water behind me.
The concrete poured during the 1930s into that narrow chasm of Black Canyon 24 miles from Las Vegas was enough to pave a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York City. The dam is 660 feet thick at the bottom, wider than two football fields narrowing to 45 feet at the top. It is shaped like a huge curved axe-head.
Our guide on a special tour for reporters shared a subterranean wormhole in the concrete. Hunched down, I made my way toward the glint of sunshine. There, I laid my hands on the face of the great 776 feet-tall dam.
Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik several years ago captured the magnificence of the human endeavor with the title of his book: “Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.”
In the early 20th century, the river was a beast, its spring floods of water from the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah predictably unruly, its water an anomaly in the arid American Southwest. In the baking but fertile sands of the Mojave Desert, agriculturalists saw great potential. Los Angeles saw water but also the hydroelectric power needed to create a great city.
LA could not do it on its own. An agreement among the seven states of the Colorado River Basin to apportion the waters was needed. That compact forged in 1922 delivered the political foundation for federal sponsorship of the dam’s construction, which began in 1930.
The December day we visited was coolish. The canyon can become an oven, though. During construction, 112 deaths were reported. But that does not include 42 people who died from pneumonia, many from tunnels bored into the canyon with equipment that produced thick plumes of exhaust gases and helped produce heat of up to 60 degrees C ( 140 degrees F).
Still, the dam’s construction represented triumph during a time of despair. The United States and much of the world was in depression. In the American heartland, giant clouds of dust caused misery and literally suffocated fowl and beast, but humans, too. Hoover Dam—at first called Boulder Canyon Dam—represented a story of human success. Look at what we’re capable of doing, it said, when we set our minds to it!
Water from the dam has been filled to overflowing just twice. One of those times was in 1983. I remember it very well. I was working at the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Colorado resort town of Winter Park. We had an average winter. Spring was anything but. It started snowing in March and didn’t quit until mid-June. The water that gushed downstream took dam operators by surprise.
Since 2002, the principal problem has been too little water. Droughts, as severe as any before recorded, have repeatedly left Colorado’s slopes snowless when normally they would be thick with snow. New evidence also comes of rising temperatures, which rob streams and meadows of water through increased evaporation and transpiration.
Then there was the faulty promise of that compact struck in 1922, an assumption of far more water than the river has routinely delivered. That, however, did not stop the cities and farmers from inserting their straws into the river and its reservoirs. When I visited in December, the reservoir was 40% full—or, if you prefer, was 60% empty.
Energy, not water, powered my desire to see Hoover. When completed, the 13 hydroelectric generators provided a large amount of electricity in the Southwest. Now, the output is dwarfed by other sources, increasingly renewables. Increasingly, our guide said, the water is released to generate electricity in ways that shore-up the intermittent renewables.
Hoover Dam may also play a role in our future of renewable energy. Los Angeles Water and Power has been investigating whether the dam’s generators and Lake Mead can be used to create what constitutes a giant battery. The water would be released again and again, when power is needed most to fill the gaps between renewable energy, then pumped back into the reservoir when renewable power is plentiful, such as during sunny afternoons.
The answer is of interest far beyond Los Angeles. In places like Denver, utilities say they can now see the way to 80% emission-free power generation by 2030. But to 100%? Lithium-ion batteries may be part of that answer, but they can store energy for just four hours. Maybe another, partial solution can be found at Hoover and other dams. We do need the answers soon, as the need to reduce our emissions has become pressing.
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Rebecca Sobel):
Response to Trump Administration’s Plan to Relax Public Health Protections for Oil Refineries and Other Industries
WildEarth Guardians joined a coalition of environmentalists objecting to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) new Trump administration policy that relaxes environmental compliance rules for petrochemical plants and other big polluters during the coronavirus crisis.
“Relaxing pollution controls in the midst of a deadly health crisis is an obscene new low for the Trump administration,” said Rebecca Sobel, Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner for WildEarth Guardians. “While the pandemic worsens, the administration is propping up polluters in poisoning clean air, instead of focusing on the health and safety of Americans.”
The environmental organizations voiced their concerns in response to an announcement yesterday that the Trump administration EPA will “provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions.”
“It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws,” said the statement, which was written by Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project, former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA.
The Environmental Integrity Project released a report last year documenting the sharp drop in environmental enforcement during the Trump administration.
In February, WildEarth Guardians joined the Environmental Integrity Project in publishing a report documenting EPA air monitoring data at the fencelines of oil refineries which demonstrated excessive release of cancer-causing benzene into nearby communities at concentrations far above federal action levels. The second worst refinery in the U.S. was the Holly Frontier Navajo Artesia refinery in Artesia, New Mexico, where monitors at the plant’s fenceline detected benzene in amounts four times the EPA action level.
“Instead of reining in illegal polluters, this administration is propping them up, further endangering the health of New Mexicans and all Americans in the process,” continued Sobel. “We are all in this together, and now is the time to protect people, not polluters.”
The EPA finalized a new standard requiring vehicle fuel economy to increase by 1.5 percent each year, a lower amount than the 5 percent increase put into place during the Obama administration. The rule change creates a uniform federal standard flouting more strict standards like those implemented by California.
[Phil]Weiser said in a statement the regulatory rollback “rejects science” and “will harm public health and air quality.”
“The EPA’s misguided rollback is at odds with the agency’s own science and data, which show that the weaker fuel economy standards will increase air pollution, cost consumers more at the pump, and fail to make the nation’s roads safer,” Weiser said.
Last year, Colorado followed California’s lead in adopting a strict zero emission vehicle (ZEV) standard, which requires at least 5 percent of all vehicles sold in Colorado to be ZEVs by 2023.
Weiser said the EPA’s rule change “threatens to thwart Colorado’s ZEV program, which was implemented to improve air quality, reduce harmful ozone pollution, decrease fuel costs, and increase choices that Colorado customers have when purchasing an electric vehicle.”
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.
Since 2010, the state has fined Suncor, the oil refinery in Commerce City, $3.7 million for violating the state’s air quality laws more than 100 times, according to the state Air Pollution Control Division. Despite the hefty penalties, on Dec. 11, an equipment malfunction spewed yellow ash that settled over parts of the city. Two days later, the state sent the company a 56-page letter listing potential air quality violations from an earlier inspection, including failing to burn off cancer-causing benzene emissions and repeatedly exceeding emissions caps for the toxic gases hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide.
In the minds of some Democratic lawmakers, the current fines are not doing enough.
“A state like ours should have some of the highest air and water quality violation fines in the country,” said Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Democrat from north Denver, during a news conference this month. “Anyone who disrespects our air and water should have to pay the price.”
Gonzales-Gutierrez is sponsoring a bill that would raise the maximum penalties that air polluters like Suncor could pay three-fold from the current $15,000 per violation to the federal maximum of $47,357. It also would increase the water quality violations cap of $10,000 to the same federal maximum. The hope, lawmakers say, is that steeper fines will deter companies from violating environmental laws.
The bill is not the only effort to make polluters pay more. Another bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, would eliminate the legal limit on fees air quality regulators can charge for oil and gas and other industrial air pollution permits, potentially generating $3 million for air monitoring and health studies next fiscal year. Fenberg’s bill is yet to be introduced. The Polis administration also wants to eliminate a cap that limits fees the state can charge a company for each ton of pollution it emits. This would only affect large polluters, such as Tri-State and Xcel, both of which are electric utilities that own and operate coal-fired power plants. Eliminating the cap would raise about $116,000, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
But as lawmakers seek to hold polluters accountable through larger fees and fines they are running into a roadblock with the state’s complicated fiscal policy. That’s forcing them to work around constitutional limits on the size of the state budget.
Under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which voters passed in 1992, any revenue that the state collects from fines and fees counts toward the so-called TABOR cap, which places a limit on how much revenue the state can keep before sending some of it back to taxpayers in the form of TABOR refunds. Because revenue will exceed the cap this year, every additional dollar the state collects from fees and fines, an equal amount needs to be scraped off the top of the $30-plus-billion state budget in the form of cuts to programs or reductions in discretionary spending in order to pay for those refunds.
The move to increase maximum fines comes as the Front Range grapples with ground-level ozone pollution, predominantly stemming from emissions from people driving automobiles and drilling for oil and gas. Meanwhile, the north Denver neighborhoods of Elyria-Swansea and Globeville have the most polluted zip code in the nation, 80216, sandwiched between traffic and construction on I-70 to the south and the Suncor oil refinery and the Xcel’s Cherokee Generating Station gas-fired power plant to the north. The city of Fountain is also working to clean up toxic PFAS chemicals in its water. These neighborhoods are among the more affordable and ethnically diverse in the Front Range, drawing concerns about environmental injustices.
For Gonzales-Gutierrez’s bill, in both a strategic and semantic maneuver, sponsors have proposed dubbing the fines collected as “damages.” Doing so has the effect of avoiding additional TABOR refunds.
For Fenberg’s bill, backers want to set up an enterprise fund to hold the extra money that comes in through fees on air pollution permits. This is different than calling the fees damages but would have a similar effect of avoiding TABOR refund requirements. Enterprise funds are like bank accounts not subject to TABOR.
Even so, TABOR places some restrictions on this kind of budgeting, limiting the amount of other state money, such as general fund revenue from sales and income taxes, that can be used to pay for programs that rely on money in an enterprise fund.
Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center in Denver, a left-leaning think-tank, said TABOR makes it harder for lawmakers to use economic incentives or disincentives to address climate change or environmental pollution.
“Any additional revenue that comes in displaces other programs,” Wasserman said. “This is one more example that we can’t act like other states.”
The dilemma this year comes after voters rejected Proposition CC last November. The ballot measure, which failed by 10 points, would have allowed lawmakers to keep the money that exceeded the TABOR revenue cap.
As a result, conservatives suspected Democrats, who control the state legislature and the governor’s office, would try to skirt around TABOR by putting revenue into enterprise funds, said Michael Fields, the executive director for Colorado Rising Action, a conservative political advocacy group. Fields, whose nonprofit doesn’t disclose its donors, donated more than $12,000 to fight Proposition CC.
And on Friday, he filed a ballot measure with the Secretary of State that would require lawmakers to get voter approval for the creation of fee-based enterprises. TABOR already requires that voters approve a tax increase, and since 1992, only three out of 15 proposed tax increases have been approved.
“A lot of people are going to have complaints about those fees,” said Fields, referencing the air pollution permit fees as well as an effort to raise the gas tax by calling it a fee.
The ballot measure wouldn’t affect the bills under consideration this year. And it would change the law, not the Colorado constitution, which means lawmakers could repeal it if they wanted to. But, if the measure passed, it would make it harder politically for lawmakers to rely on enterprises in the future. “I think more than anything we would hope the legislature would listen to the will of the people,” Fields said.
Despite the legislative push to increase maximum fines, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which enforces the state and federal air quality laws, rarely imposes the existing maximum fines, according to state records. The official view is that high fines can invite costly legal fights, said John Putnam, the agency’s environmental programs manager.
Even so, Putnam said, the department sees the proposed legislation as a signal that the agency should fine companies a bit more. According to a fiscal note from nonpartisan Legislative Council, the state is expected to collect an additional $2.8 million in the fiscal year 2022-23 by raising the fine limits.
The pollution fines bill, sponsored by Gonzales-Gutierrez, would set up a seven-member board to decide how to spend that money. Four of the members would be appointed by the minority and majority parties in the legislature and three members would be appointed by CDPHE’s executive director, one of whom must be a resident from a neighborhood affected by pollution. The goal of this board is to give local communities affected by pollution a voice in how it’s spent.
“Because of my lived experience, I know how it feels to feel as though you’re not being heard and to not feel as though you’re empowered,” said Rep. Dominique Jackson of Aurora, a lead bill sponsor on the bill.
Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster, also backing the pollution fines bill, said the money could be spent on cleaning up pollution, staffing a health clinic or creating more open space for recreation.
“A lot of these communities that have more pollution also tend to have less parks, openspace and bike paths,” Winter said. “And that’s another form of environmental injustice.”
FromThe High Country News, February 24, 2020 (Jonathan Thompson):
The U.S. is a net exporter of petroleum, but it is not energy-independent.
After ordering a drone strike on Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s elite forces commander, President Donald Trump told the media that the assassination was made possible by the United States’ newfound energy-independence. Previous presidents had refrained from such acts, fearing higher prices at the pump, he said, but now, “we are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.” As is often the case with Trump’s statements, this one is problematic and inaccurate. The U.S. may not need oil from the Persian Gulf, but we are not energy-independent, and never will be. But that hasn’t stopped presidents from trying to spin oil independence into policy justifications.
“Americans will not have to rely on any source of energy beyond our own,” Richard Nixon declared, seeking to quell public angst over the 1973 oil embargo. Yet Americans continued to guzzle petroleum, and oil imports rose, reaching a 10 billion-barrel peak in 2006. In 2009, a number of factors collided, reversing the trend. Americans drove less during the financial crisis; domestic consumption decreased, and imports fell. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve implemented policies that encouraged investment in high-risk endeavors, including drilling. Global oil prices rose again, as demand from Asia increased. And producers went on a debt-fueled drilling frenzy, deploying horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracking to pull oil from shale formations.
Domestic oil production climbed faster than demand, and imports continued to decline. Near the end of 2019, the U.S. exported more petroleum products than it imported for the first time in five decades. Trump had little to do with it, though, as the causal factors were in motion well before his election. Nor are we anywhere near “energy independence.” The U.S. depends on foreign countries not only to supply oil — importing more than 8 million barrels of crude per day — but also to purchase its petroleum products.
Price fluctuations are acutely felt in the Western United States. People in rural areas drive more and have fewer options for public transit, so high gas prices can break budgets. Meanwhile, the economies of many Western communities still depend on energy extraction, and drilling is driven by the price of oil. So when oil prices drop because the coronavirus has lessened demand for oil in Asia, it reverberates through Western economies.
Here’s a breakdown of U.S. entanglements in the global oil market. The data are for October 2019.
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.
River district Director Andy Mueller presented the commission with the possibility of asking taxpayers to double the existing mill levy for Garfield and 14 other counties. Currently, the River district levies about a quarter mill on properties, which has been enough since about 1992.
Under the 2019 assessment rate, the river district’s current quarter-mill levy comes out to $1.79 on a $100,000 home. If increased, the half-mill would cost the same home $3.58 in property taxes.
But with cost increases, decreasing revenues from oil and gas development, and several crises looming over the Western Slope’s water, the current tax is simply not enough, Mueller said…
Mueller said the river district has cut costs in recent years, but sustaining current operations requires an increase.
And the district wants to support important projects that are currently unfunded, like identifying and developing small high-mountain reservoirs.
Those reservoirs could play a role in keeping streams flowing, and supplementing water for agriculture and municipalities “during times of severe hot, dry summers that we’re having more and more of,” Mueller said.
“We can’t do it with the current revenue stream,” he added, which is why he again asked the district’s board to look into placing the tax increase on the November 2020 ballot.
The Garfield County commissioners expressed support for the mill levy ballot language…
If the river district’s board approves the ballot language, and voters approve the property tax in November, it would bring in an additional $4.9 million to the district.
Mueller suggests using most of that for the special water projects. One example is the Windy Gap bypass, which would reconstruct a channel around the reservoir to preserve fish habitats and river flows.
The river district’s mission is “to make sure we have water for all of our industries and economic activity, everything from recreation to agriculture,” Mueller said, but that’s impossible without sufficient funding.
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.”
Here’s a guest column from Mark Pearson, Steve Allerton, and Leslie Robinson that’s running in The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent:
Good news for public health and the environment recently, with lots of work ahead. That’s the short version about what’s happening with oil and gas regulations in Colorado.
On Dec. 17, the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) adopted a host of new rules that will reduce ozone, methane and other noxious emissions from oil and gas operations throughout Colorado. In addition, the commissioners agreed to a rule supported by Western Colorado Alliance, Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans (LOGIC) that will require monthly inspections of wells and other infrastructure located within 1,000 feet of homes, schools and businesses, with prompt repairs when leaks are found.
The commissioners deserve a big thanks for taking decisive action to reduce emissions not only on the Front Range where ozone is a persistent problem but throughout the entire state where emissions are also problematic. In Southwestern Colorado, for instance, there is a massive methane cloud that hangs over a 2,400-square-mile area that includes Durango and Cortez. In Garfield County, the American Lung Association has documented worsening ozone levels despite claims from the county commissioners that the air is clean.
By adopting statewide rules, the AQCC recognized that air pollution knows no boundaries and that all Coloradans deserve to breathe clean air, no matter where they live. By adopting tighter regulations near homes and schools, the Commissioners responded to the legitimate concerns that people living in energy-impacted communities across the state have been raising for years.
It is also important to acknowledge that hundreds of residents living in places such as Grand Junction, Rifle, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Telluride, Durango and Bayfield took the time to craft arguments in favor of strong statewide regulations and attend hearings to have their voices heard. Their testimony had real effects on the commissioners’ opinions and deliberations. It was our democracy working at its best.
The AQCC will be picking up the mantle again in May 2020 when it considers new rules for pneumatic devices that control pressure in wells, pipelines and storage tanks. These devices are notoriously leak prone, and both industry and conservation groups have been working together for nearly three years to come up with solutions. Throughout the year, the AQCC will take up other regulatory changes that address the mandates of Senate Bill 181, the law passed last year which changes the way oil and gas is regulated in Colorado.
For too many years, state regulators have acknowledged but largely ignored the concerns of citizens living in the shadow of oil and gas wells. Communities like Battlement Mesa in Garfield County live today with wells just a little more than 500 feet from some neighborhoods. Residents regularly report noxious smells and are literally shut into their homes when the wind is blowing the wrong direction.
The new rules adopted last month are an important step in the right direction for communities like Battlement Mesa, but they are just the beginning of a process of regulatory reform that will make our air cleaner and reduce our impact on the climate. There is much work ahead, and we urge residents to remain involved in the coming year.
Leslie Robinson is chair of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, based in Garfield County; Steve Allerton is board president of the Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action, based in Grand Junction; and Mark Pearson is executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, based in Durango.
The state of Colorado is poised to adopt some of the nation’s most sophisticated and protective regulations designed to prevent its 60,000 oil and gas wells from leaking or exploding.
Colorado has a history of leading on oil and gas regulatory issues to reduce risks to families, workers and the environment, including the nation’s first regulations to address climate-damaging methane emissions from the industry in 2014. In the wake of the 2017 Firestone tragedy and the passage of a major oil and gas reform bill (SB 181) in 2019, the state has undertaken a whole slate of rule modernizations. Well integrity, for which rules have not been updated since 2008, is up next.
Ensuring that wells do not leak or explode is a top priority for any oil and gas agency. For the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission updating well integrity rules will not only reduce risks for oil and gas workers in the state, but will also help protect the 500,000 Coloradans who live within a mile of an oil or gas well in the state. Since 2016, COGCC records show around 40 well integrity incidents, including significant blowouts in Hudson and Berthoud in 2017. And that figure is likely an underreporting given how difficult it can be to determine whether a leak is occurring deep underground.
Leaks from oil and gas wells can contaminate aquifers or release methane into the atmosphere. In the most serious cases, methane can migrate into homes and pose explosion risks. Oil and gas well blowouts are dramatic fluid releases that can endanger workers, residents and the environment. They occur most often during drilling, but are possible during any phase of a well’s multidecade lifespan. Major blowouts in recent years have rocked Ohio, Oklahoma, the Gulf of Mexico and California’s Aliso Canyon.
Importantly, history shows us that smarter and better rules really work. A year after Texas adopted new well integrity regulations, including many similar policy recommendations from EDF, blowouts in Texas fell by 40% and injuries from blowouts fell 50%.
Over the last year, a stakeholder coalition that included EDF and operators representing more than 90% of the production in Colorado has been working to develop a joint set of proposed rule revisions, based on a peer review by the State Oil and Gas Regulatory Exchange, that protect workers, the environment and residents, and take into account the needs of the state’s energy businesses.
The COGCC’s proposed rule, which will be voted on in late February, reflects all of the coalition’s recommendations, and EDF strongly supports its passage (Colorado environmental groups are also broadly supportive of the rulemaking, and EDF supports the tweaks they seek to the definition of protected water). It addresses essentially all of the potential regulatory gaps flagged by the peer review, reduces specific risks related to Colorado’s oil and gas wells identified in the technical literature, and adheres closely to EDF’s Model Regulatory Framework on well integrity. In other words, it would bring Colorado to the head of the class on well integrity regulation nationwide.
Some highlights include:
Regular monitoring of every well in the state for leakage risks.
Improved criteria for cement placement, quality and testing.
New safety controls during hydraulic fracturing.
More comprehensive efforts to prevent frac hits.
Better plugging protocols.
New emergency response planning requirements.
Overall, there are dozens of new improvements, and many of them clearly demonstrate national leadership. EDF is excited that Colorado is getting ready to adopt such a strong rule developed in a collaborative, science and risk-based manner. Other states may find much to replicate in both process and substance, and this rulemaking establishes strong momentum in Colorado’s stead for the next rounds of rule upgrades required under SB 181.
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.
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.
The message from a forum on air quality and climate change Thursday is clear: Colorado needs to do more to accurately measure emissions from oil and gas wells.
That means better technology is needed, state health officials said. And that requires more money, which is a big hurdle.
In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency downgraded the Front Range’s air quality rating to “serious.” CPR News has also found that Colorado’s records of how much methane is in the air contain potentially flawed data.
A lot has been made of compounds released into the air by oil and gas operations that contribute to ozone pollution and health problems. The panel, with state officials, researchers and health professionals, zeroed in on this and also considered how to reduce emissions from cars. Many agreed that the state needs to improve air quality monitoring…
Air quality is a priority during this legislative session, said Democratic State Senator Steve Fenberg, who attended the panel.
“We’re going to be looking at all kinds of things,” he said. “One is simply making sure we’re regulating the right emissions. One is making sure that the fees that are put on emitters are appropriate.”
Higher fees would bring in more funding, Fenberg said. So to start, he’s drafting a bill that would bring in more money by raising the cost of air pollution permits.
Some local governments, like those in Boulder County and Broomfield, have already upgraded monitors to improve air quality measurements around oil and gas production.
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.”
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said he asked the Bureau of Reclamation to start the review at the beginning of 2020, rather than by the end of 2020, which is the deadline under the existing agreement.
The bureau’s officials will examine how the 2007 guidelines have worked as the agency prepares for negotiations among the seven states on a new set of rules that will take effect after 2026.
“It makes sense to review how well something worked before determining its replacement,” Bernhardt said Friday during a speech at a Colorado River conference in Las Vegas. “We think that starting now and not waiting until the deadline a year from now makes sense.”
Climate change, energy development
He didn’t mention the words climate change during his speech at the conference. But during a press conference afterward, reporters asked Bernhardt about the role of climate change.
“I certainly believe the climate is changing,” Bernhardt said. “I spend a lot of time with our scientists, and I spend a lot of time with our models. And you know, what the scientists tell me is that the best thing we can do is make sure that if we’re using a model, we use multiple models and multiple ranges within each model. And so that’s what I’ve insisted on when we’re looking forward to the future.”
In projecting the river’s flows into the future, he said, “we absolutely follow best practices all the time.”
President Donald Trump’s administration has begun pulling out of the landmark Paris climate agreement, and has promoted oil and gas drilling.
In California, the Trump administration is moving forward with a plan that could open up about 1.2 million acres to new oil and gas drilling. When asked about environmental groups’ opposition to the plan, Bernhardt said: “We have really strong policy guidance and laws that say that we’re supposed to develop energy, and we will develop energy responsibly.”
Before joining the Trump administration, Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry in the West.
“The president was very clear when he ran for office on his position on energy. He’s for an all-of-the-above approach,” Bernhardt said. He pointed out that oil development on federal lands has generated revenues in New Mexico for schools and other state programs.
“And so, when people tell me that they want to stop oil and gas development on federal lands, I say call the governor of New Mexico,” Bernhardt said.
A ‘disconnect’ in Trump policies
John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, said Bernhardt’s comments reflect a dichotomy within the federal government in which officials are taking steps on climate adaptation but not on combating planet-warming emissions.
On the one hand, water managers at the Bureau of Reclamation are working with scientists and using climate models to assess risks and project the river flows into the future, Fleck said.
“They’re absolutely taking climate change seriously. It’s built into the modeling work they’re doing,” Fleck said. “You don’t find water managers doubting the reality of human-caused climate change and its effects. They’re seeing it in the flow in their systems, and they’re dealing with it.”
On the other hand, he said, there is a “disconnect” in that the Trump administration isn’t taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“So that increases our risk,” Fleck said. “That’s a problem because we need to reduce greenhouse gases to mitigate the effects on the Colorado River.”
Bernhardt said the government’s review will focus on “what’s worked, what’s not worked.” He said that will include looking at lessons as the water cutbacks kick in next year under the drought deal.
Bernhardt said while the Colorado River Basin faces growing challenges, he is optimistic that parties across the region will continue working together to solve problems.
“We have a legacy here of states cooperating in a way that is absolutely incredible,” he said.
Federal officials have withdrawn thousands of acres of land slated for sale to the oil and gas industry after courts demanded that the government take a closer look at greater sage grouse habitat protections and climate change impacts.
Conservation groups opposing the Bureau of Land Management’s actions say a recent slate of deferred lease sales in Colorado, Nevada and Utah illustrate the problems with the Trump administration’s aggressive push to encourage energy development on public lands…
“The broader pattern we’ve seen from this administration has been a headlong rush to get as much remaining sage grouse habitat under lease as possible,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program.
He said the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” approach has led BLM to violate federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act.
“That needs to stop,” Saul said. “They are not simply a real estate sales agency. Under congressional statute, they have multiple obligations, which include duties to conserve wildlife habitat.”
BLM yesterday added to its growing list of delayed leases when it deferred its Dec. 19 Colorado sale in response to a federal court order temporarily blocking implementation of the Trump administration’s greater sage grouse plan.
Judge B. Lynn Winmill, a Clinton appointee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, required BLM to revert to evaluating leases under sage grouse plans the Obama administration finalized in 2015…
The six parcels covered 4,259 acres and were subject to sage grouse habitat restrictions.
Conservation groups lauded the move, while urging BLM to take more permanent action to stop lease sales on the birds’ habitat. Other state offices could defer or cancel leases as more sales approach next month…
The BLM office was responding to a lawsuit filed in September by the Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which raised claims that the agency had not adequately considered the impacts of climate change from leases in the central and northeast portions of the Beehive State.
The lawsuit encompassed eight different parcels finalized between 2014 and 2018. The leases fit into a pattern of BLM failing to adequately consider climate impacts, said Diana Dascalu-Joffe, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Altogether, Utah has had over 300,000 acres of leases suspended in response to similar litigation…
In addition to challenges over sage grouse protections and climate change, Dascalu-Joffe said concerns about analysis of cumulative water withdrawal impacts could also become an area of legal vulnerability for BLM.
She noted that while the preliminary injunction forced BLM to look at sage grouse impacts in a more programmatic way, the same was not true for assessing climate impacts.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence that this is going to drive any programmatic analysis of climate impacts from the entire oil and gas program because that’s not how this agency works right now,” Dascalu-Joffe said.
Greater sage grouse
Greater sage grouse range map via the USFWS.
Greater sage grouse via Idaho Fish and Game
Sagebrush landscapes are important habitat for maintaining biodiversity in much of the United States. Image credit: Steve Knick, USGS.
Sage Grouse in winter photo via Middle Colorado Watershed Council
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.”
A year ago Colorado voters rejected Proposition 112, the proposal to sharply curtail oil-and-gas drilling. But it was clear that legislators would take up the issue of further restraints on drilling, if not as Draconian as those outlined in Proposition 112.
But what would be the economic effects of clipping the wings of this business sector just a bit? That was the good question I set out to answer. The obvious comparison was to the giant economic shudder of the early and mid-1980s, one triggered by what is still remembered on the Western Slope as Black Sunday.
There had been a boom of rare proportions as Exxon and other oil companies threw money at the hope that the vast kerogen deposits of the Piceance Basin would finally be squeezed successfully (and economically) to yield hydrocarbons. That effort had begun in 1918, but with little success.
Then, the Saudis opened the spigot, prices plunged, and Exxon pulled out. One result: In 1985, when I moved to Vail, I got a condominium that was very affordable. If Vail’s real estate got pricey in coming years, the hangover in Glenwood Springs lasted longer. And in Denver, although I was not living there then, my impression was of a certain darkness. Cities altogether struggled in the ’70s and ’80s, but Denver may have had a darker edge to it.
A year ago, my journalistic question was just how dependent Colorado was on oil-and-gas extraction? Colorado Biz magazine commissioned the inquiry.
The answer, published in late December under the heading of Addition by Extraction, indicated that if all the drilling rigs went away, there would be great pain in some areas, Greeley more than Fort Collins, but even in downtown Denver, a lot more vacant offices. But in no way was the comparison to the oil shale bust valid. Colorado’s economy had become far more diversified in the almost 30 years since Black Sunday. Predictions of economic collapse were just ridiculous.
(Just the same, I saw exactly those sorts of prediction in February as state legislators considered rules to give local governments more say in regulation and, inevitably, restriction).
Now, some months since the restrictions have gone into place, I don’t know their effect. My impressions, though, is that the oil-and-gas sector is doing just fine. The bigger problem, one similar to that of the early 1980s, similar to that of the early 1980s, when the Saudis turned on the spigot. But this time the plentitude is from domestic sources, particularly the Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico
Let me add this: I had an interesting conversation with somebody at a conference this week. He had been in the oil-and-gas sector, made good money, and moved on. Given what we know about climate change, he said, it was immoral of the oil and gas company executives to keep plunging ahead, business as usual.
Now, I can’t get into that dimension in a business magazine that favors cheerleading stories about economic growth, at least not in that direct way. For them, I can sing the praises of alternatives, such as economic opportunities for electric cars (and I have a story in the current issue of Colorado Biz on that very topic). But that’s an important discussion to have.
Bill McKibben has been pushing that discussion since at least 2012, when he passed through Denver on one of his many “Do the Math” stops. His 6,000-word piece in Rolling Stone about “the terrifying new math of global warming” had been published the previous year. At the time, I called it, with understatement, “brilliant and and disturbing.”
“Those fossil fuels, if they are burned in the same way others have been burned, will produce five times the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than can be absorbed if rise of global temperatures is to be kept within a two degree increase. In other words, as McKibben put it, if the fossil fuels sector carries out its business plan, the planet tanks.”
Almost eight years later, we’ve made much progress. The coal plants are being shuttered rapidly, and we’re now on the verge of a big, big increase in electric cars. but oh so much work remains. And McKibben is right. Unless we figure out a way to sequester the carbon from the emissions, we can’t burn these fossil fuels. — Allen Best, Nov. 9, 2019
The horizontal drilling method called hydraulic fracturing helps the United States produce close to 4 billion barrels of oil per year, rocketing the U.S. to the top of oil-producing nations in the world.
The highly profitable practice comes with a steep price: For every barrel of oil, oil and gas extraction also produces about seven barrels of wastewater, consisting mainly of naturally occurring subsurface water extracted along with the fossil fuels. That’s about 2 billion gallons of wastewater a day. Companies, policymakers and scientists are on the lookout for new strategies for dealing with that wastewater. Among the most tantalizing ideas is recycling it to irrigate food crops, given water scarcity issues in the West.
A new Colorado State University study gives pause to that idea. The team led by Professor Thomas Borch of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences conducted a greenhouse study using produced water from oil and gas extraction to irrigate common wheat crops. Their study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, showed that these crops had weakened immune systems, leading to the question of whether using such wastewater for irrigation would leave crop systems more vulnerable to bacterial and fungal pathogens.
“The big question is, is it safe?” said Borch, a biogeochemist who has joint academic appointments in the Department of Chemistry and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Have we considered every single thing we need to consider before we do this?”
Produced water experiments
Typically, oil and gas wastewater, also known as produced water, is trucked away from drilling sites and reinjected into the Earth via deep disposal wells. Such practices have been documented to induce earthquakes and may lead to contamination of surface water and groundwater aquifers.
The idea for using such water for irrigation has prompted studies testing things like crop yield, soil health, and contaminant uptake by plants, especially since produced water is often high in salts, and its chemistry varies greatly from region to region. Borch, who has conducted numerous oil and gas-related studies, including how soils fare during accidental spills, wondered if anyone had tried to determine whether irrigation water quality impacts crops’ inherent ability to protect themselves from disease.
The experiments were conducted in collaboration with plant microbiome expert Pankaj Trivedi, a CSU assistant professor in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, and researchers at Colorado School of Mines. The team irrigated wheat plants with tap water, two dilutions of produced water, and a salt water control. They exposed the plants to common bacterial and fungal pathogens and sampled the leaves after the pathogens were verified to have taken hold.
Using state-of-the-art quantitative genetic sequencing, the scientists determined that the plants watered with the highest concentration of produced water had significant changes in expression of genes plants normally use to fight infections. Their study didn’t determine exactly which substances in the produced water correlated with suppressed immunity. But they hypothesized that a combination of contaminants like boron, petroleum hydrocarbons and salt caused the plants to reallocate metabolic resources to fight stress, making it more challenging for them to produce disease-fighting genes.
“Findings from this work suggest that plant immune response impacts must be assessed before reusing treated oil and gas wastewater for agricultural irrigation,” the study authors wrote.
Study says drilling can increase risks of short-term health problems under worst-case scenarios.
Rep. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a pharmacist and organic farmer from unincorporated Boulder County, said she can see oil and gas companies burning off excess gas into the air across the county line.
“You can smell it. You get a burning sensation,” Jaquez Lewis told The Colorado Independent.
She suspects the emissions from these oil and gas operations have caused the nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and respiratory issues her neighbors experience. Some have had their blood tested to find high levels of toxic chemicals, such as benzene, she said.
Residents living atop Colorado’s reserves of oil and gas have for years contacted state health officials to report these ailments. And now, a study published Thursday further bolsters what they have long argued: Living near oil and gas drilling could put their health at risk.
The $600,000 study conducted by the consulting firm ICF International showed people living within 2,000 feet of oil and gas drilling could be exposed to short-term health risks under worst-case scenario conditions, such as in the early stages of drilling when emissions are highest or when the wind blows toward a home.
The study estimated the risk and potential health impacts of exposures based on emissions data. The estimates are used to predict, or “model,” how pollutants might move through air.
Oil and gas operations emit volatile organic compounds, including benzene, a known human carcinogen. The study found cancer risks fall within acceptable federal exposure limits.
In response to the peer-reviewed, 380-page study, which former Gov. John Hickenlooper commissioned, state health officials and oil and gas regulators said more monitoring is needed to determine a causal relationship between exposure to oil and gas emissions and health impacts. A key limitation, state officials said, is that the study used data dating back to 2014, prior to Colorado’s adoption of limits on methane emissions. The study also did not measure health impacts near multiple well pads.
“The study indicated the possibility for short-term health impacts,” Jeff Robbins, the director for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, told reporters in Denver Thursday. “We will undertake efforts to determine causation.”
Robbins said he would put in place “stricter review measures” for all drilling location permit applications that fall within 2,000 feet of an occupied structure. Robbins also wants to ramp up monitoring of current drilling activity to test emissions.
Regulators made clear that they do not plan to halt drilling in light of the new study. In the near term, it remains unclear what will change for residents living near oil and gas operations.
“I think today’s study is at least an acknowledgment by the state of what people living with oil and gas already knew,” said Sara Loflin, the executive director for the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Citizens (LOGIC), a nonprofit organization representing residents near oil and gas drilling.
In 2018, residents filed 548 complaints over drilling near their homes, citing noise, odor and air quality concerns, according to state data. There are more than 53,000 active wells in Colorado, and the state has approved more than 1,800 drilling permits so far this year.
Several environmental groups have been advocating for a drilling permit timeout until the state updates its rules for issuing permits to reflect new protections for public health, safety, welfare and the environment, as required by Senate Bill 181, which was signed into law in April. The rulemaking process is expected to take until the summer of 2020.
In light of the report, Colorado Rising, the Sierra Club and Earthworks called for drilling permits to be put on hold.
“If more research is needed to determine the level of harm how can Jeff Robbins ensure new permits are ‘sufficiently protective?’” Anne Lee Foster, communications for Colorado Rising, said in a statement. “This study also highlights the insufficiencies of oversight and enforcement of oil and gas extraction in Colorado.”
Lawmakers who wrote Senate Bill 181 responded to the study by calling for more monitoring and studies.
“This new CDPHE study is valuable, but what we really need is a comprehensive epidemiological study that looks at real health impacts on real people who live near oil and gas wells,” said Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder.
Environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers, including Fenberg and Jaquez Lewis, want to see permits that fall within 2,000 feet of a home delayed until new rules for permitting are completed.
Jaquez Lewis stopped short of calling for greater setbacks.
“I think many of us are watching this issue closely and waiting to see the final rulemaking. Then we will be making some final decisions,” she said.
That neither lawmakers nor state officials pitched the possibility of increasing the state’s current setbacks for drilling rigs, currently at 500 feet from occupied buildings, speaks to how politically dicey the subject is. The industry touts its $30 billion contribution to the state’s economy.
Environmental groups attempted in 2014, 2016 and 2018 to pass ballot measures to increase setbacks up to 2,500 feet. All were voted down. Protect Colorado, an industry-backed political campaign committee, has spent about $60 million on advertisements and messaging in order to defeat the measures.
Such an outcome at the ballot box has likely spoiled any prospects of lawmakers passing setbacks at the state Capitol anytime soon. When lawmakers were writing new oil and gas laws earlier this year, oil and gas representatives said they were usurping the will of voters.
The study is a follow up to a 2017 health impacts study that concluded there is a low risk of harmful health impacts when living more than 500 feet from a well. That study was not peer-reviewed.
A separate 2018 peer-reviewed study by researchers with Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus found that people living in the Front Range within 500 feet of an oil and gas were at risk of cancer. When lawmakers were hearing testimony on Senate Bill 181, a representative of an oil and gas trade group cast doubt on the 2018 study, criticizing its sample size.
The oil and gas industry likewise has concerns about the study published Thursday. Lynn Granger, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, said the group will evaluate the results.
“Thorough review of existing scientific research shows that the current, robust standards and stringent state and federal regulations are in place to protect public health,” Granger said. “Using modeled exposures instead of measured air quality data introduces uncertainties and limitations that may result in erroneous estimates of risk for a population.”