U.S. Senator Michael Bennet held a telephone town hall event on Friday, Sept. 3 to answer questions and address concerns for Coloradoans. Though Bennet spends a lot of time in Washington D.C., he has been back in Colorado for the past few weeks. He has held 30 events in 13 different counties across the state and came away observing three things in need of attention: climate change, both man-made and natural infrastructure, and affordable healthcare, housing and education.
“I think the United States has not been investing in our people or our infrastructure for a very, very long time, and it shows. But things are beginning to change. Last month, the Senate passed a historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on a bipartisan vote,” said Bennet…
Bennet is focusing on both paid family leave and climate change, as well. He advocates for paid parent leave so Coloradoans can stay home with a sick child or an elderly family member without losing his or her job.
As for climate change, Bennet recognizes the problems at hand: “We’ve got to act urgently on climate. If we don’t, I really worry that we’re not going to recognize our own state in a few years, and I think all of us refuse to hand our kids and grandkids a state where you can’t see the mountains or you can’t go outside half the summer and families live in fear of wildfire… droughts… There’s a lot of work to do ahead, and I’m more optimistic than I’ve been in a long time that the agenda in Washington (D.C.) reflects our priorities in Colorado. And that’s, in large part, thanks to the feedback I receive in conversations like this that I can carry back to Washington (D.C.).”
A caller from Westminster in Adams County, Ellen, expressed her disappointment in Bennet’s lack of actions taken to combat climate change: “I appreciate you saying you feel urgency over the climate crisis, but you need to act in line with that urgency. Your vote to prohibit banning fossil fuel development on public lands and your vote to support a liquefied natural gas export terminal in Texas (were) so unacceptable. To prevent more severe climate crises than we already face, we have to end extracting and burning fossil fuels.”
While Bennet made it clear he did not regret those votes, he did explain his reasoning for them: “I believe very strongly that if we are ever going to actually get off of fossil fuels, we have to have a plan to transition off of fossil fuels. I don’t believe that we could just get off them tomorrow and be done with it without driving energy prices through the roof… what we need is a thoughtful approach over the next 10, 20, 30 years to get this economy to a net zero carbon economy. If we don’t have a plan to get to net zero by 2050, then we’re not ever going to do it.”
A woman named Irma submitted an online question asking Bennet how he is protecting Colorado’s watershed and water supply.
From his research over the past year or so, Bennet discovered that it would cost $60 billion to protect the west’s watershed. While that seems like a steep price, Colorado has spent $60 billion in the past four to five years fighting fires. Bennet wrote a bill called the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act which pushes to use funds for forest mitigation and watershed restoration. Bennet sits on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, and he hopes his bill will be passed as part of the reconciliation package…
Marti from Lafayette in Boulder County, originally from Ohio, moved to Colorado to be closer to her family and enjoys the Colorado weather. She called with a question about poor air quality and frequent ozone alerts. More specifically, she shared her research on Suncor Energy in Denver and how it has not met federal admission standards for toxic gasses. She questioned how the company could be held accountable. Bennet was not as familiar with Suncor and made a note to look into whether or not that problem could be solved on a state or federal level or instead handled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Bennet also shared his wish to reinstate a law from when Hickenlooper was in office with a goal to capture fugitive methane from pipelines and drilling rigs, a law which President Trump removed.
A new study in Nature reports that oil, gas and coal production must begin falling immediately to have even a 50 percent chance of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
After a summer of weather extremes that highlighted the urgency of limiting global warming in starkly human terms, new research is clarifying what it will take to do so. In order to have just a 50 percent chance of meeting the most ambitious climate target, the study found, the production of all fossil fuels will need to start declining immediately, and a significant majority of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves will have to remain underground over the next few decades.
While the research, published Wednesday [September 8, 2021] in the journal Nature, is only the latest to argue that meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement goals to limit warming requires a rapid pivot to clean energy, it lays out with clear and specific figures exactly how far from those targets the world remains.
“The inescapable evidence that hopefully we’ve shown and that successive reports have shown is that if you want to meet 1.5 degrees, then global production has to start declining,” said Daniel Welsby, a researcher at University College London, in the United Kingdom, and the study’s lead author. As part of the Paris Agreement, nations agreed to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times.
The study found that nearly 60 percent of global oil and gas reserves and about 90 percent of coal reserves must be left unexploited by 2050, though a portion of those fuels could be produced in the second half of the century. Total oil and gas production must begin declining immediately, the research said, and continue falling at about 3 percent annually through 2050. Coal production must fall at an even steeper rate.
While the authors noted a few signs of change, including that coal production is already on the decline, the current course is far off what’s needed. In March, the International Energy Agency warned that oil production was on track to rebound from a pandemic-driven dip and would surpass 2019 levels within a couple of years. That projection came on the heels of a separate report in December by the United Nations Environment Program, which said energy producing countries are set to expand fossil fuel output for years.
The new paper builds on these studies and other related work to estimate the “unextractable” portion of the fossil fuel stores that are currently considered profitable to exploit—so-called proven reserves. Put another way, the research effectively says that most of the fossil fuels that energy companies currently list as financial assets, or that governments report as strategic ones, would be rendered worthless if the world is to have a shot at limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Fire in the West is expected, and not so long ago, it seemed something the West experienced more than anywhere else. Nationally, big fires were treated as another freak of regional violence, like a grizzly bear attack, or another California quirk like Esalen and avocados.
Now wildland fires flare up everywhere. There are fires in Algeria and Turkey, Amazonia and Indonesia, and France, Canada and Australia. Last year even Greenland burned.
Fire seasons have lengthened, fires have gotten meaner and bigger; fires have begun not just gorging on logging slash and prowling the mountainous backcountry, but also burning right into and across towns. Three years ago in northern California, the Camp fire broke out along the Feather River and, burning southwest, incinerated the town of Paradise. This summer’s Dixie fire, starting 20 miles north in the same drainage, is burning in the opposite direction, after taking out the historic town of Greenville. The fires have us coming and going, and now Lake Tahoe is under the gun.
The causes have been analyzed and reanalyzed, like placer miners washing and rewashing tailings. Likewise, the solutions have been reworked and polished until they have become clichés, ready to spill into the culture wars.
The news media have fire season branded into their almanac of annual events. Scientific disciplines are publishing reports and data sets at an exponential rate. So far as understanding the fire scene, we’ve hit field capacity. What more can we say?
One trend is to go small and find meaning in the personal. But there is also an argument to go big and frame the story at a planetary scale that can shuffle all the survival memoirs, smoke palls that travel across the continent, melting ice packs, lost and disappearing species and sprawling frontiers of flame, in much the way we organize the swarm of starlight in a night sky into constellations.
I’m a fire guy. I take fire not just as a random happening, but as an emergent property that’s intrinsic to life on Earth.
So I expect fires. All those savanna fires in Africa, the land-clearing fires in Brazil and Sumatra, the boreal blowouts in Siberia and British Columbia, the megafires in the Pacific Northwest — all the flames we see.
But then there are fires that should be present and aren’t — the fires that once renewed and stabilized most of the land all over our planet. These are the fires that humanity, with its species monopoly on combustion, deliberately set to make living landscapes into what the ancients termed “a second nature.”
But it was not enough. We wanted yet more power without the constraints of living landscapes that restricted what and when we could burn. We turned to fossil fuels to burn through day and night, winter and summer, drought and deluge. With our unbounded firepower we remade second nature into “a third nature,” one organized around industrial combustion.
Our fires in living landscapes and those made with fossil fuels have been reshaping the Earth. The result is too much bad fire and too little good, and way too much combustion overall.
Add up all those varieties of burning, and we seem to be creating the fire equivalent of an Ice Age, with continental shifts in geography, radical changes in climate, rising sea level, a mass extinction, and a planet whose air, water, soil and life are being refashioned at a breakneck pace.
It’s said that every model fails but some are useful. The same holds true for metaphors. What the concept of a planetary Fire Age — a Pyrocene — gives us, is a sense of the scale of our fire-powered impact. It suggests how the parts might interact and who is responsible. It allows us to reimagine the issues and perhaps stand outside our entrenched perspectives.
What we have made — if with unintended consequences — we can unmake, though we should expect more unknown consequences.
We have a lot of fire in our future, and a lot to learn about living with it.
Steve Pyne is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is the author of The Pyrocene. How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next.
If there’s one thing most Coloradans can agree on, it’s that our communities and public lands need to be protected. Laws and regulations are there to make that happen, but there are instances where the federal government could be doing more.
One example: The federal oil and gas program has been failing Coloradans, undermining our communities, and harming our public lands. Fortunately, there are aspects of the program our leaders in Congress can fix right now.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
To start, they can address the growing number of orphaned oil and gas wells on our public lands that will cost taxpayers millions, if not billions, to clean up. Putting these costs back where they belong — on the oil and gas companies who made the mess — is something Congress can do today by strengthening the financial assurance requirements for drilling on public lands.
They can also update the more than 60-year-old rates oil and gas companies are required to pay when they lease public lands, which have cost all of us billions in lost revenues over the last decade. Updating these requirements will finally hold irresponsible oil and gas companies accountable. Instead of Coloradans paying to cap orphaned wells, we can invest that money in schools, health care, and other priorities.
According to the Government Accountability Office, as many as 99% of the bonds posted by oil and gas companies are inadequate, leaving taxpayers with billions of dollars in potential clean-up costs when companies go bankrupt due to the highly volatile oil market.
It’s not right that oil and gas companies get to extract resources from publicly owned lands, profit on them for years, then leave behind toxic wells that we, the owners of the lands, must pay to clean up. By a conservative estimate, there are more than 600 wells on federal public lands in Colorado that are at risk of being orphaned. We shouldn’t be left with that tab.
According to the Government Accountability Office, as many as 99% of the bonds posted by oil and gas companies are inadequate, leaving taxpayers with billions of dollars in potential clean-up costs.
Colorado is working to fix this problem at the state level but needs the federal government to do its part and adopt solutions. Luckily, Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper are two of the champions in Congress working on a fix.
Bennet recently introduced a bill, co-sponsored by Hickenlooper, that would require oil and gas companies to actually set aside enough money to clean up wells before they start drilling. Bennet’s bill would also provide federal funding to address wells that are already orphaned.
Congress has a great opportunity to step up and get common-sense reforms like these done, and it’s critically important they do so now. The Department of the Interior recently announced that it will resume oil and gas leasing on federal public lands. If the government continues to let oil and gas companies off the hook, nothing will prevent this problem from getting much worse. It’s not enough to just provide funding to clean up wells, as the bipartisan infrastructure deal did. Congress must also modernize bonding rates, as outlined in Bennet’s bill, so that Coloradans aren’t using our valuable public dollars to pay for a mess we didn’t create.
Coloradans and our neighbors across the West deserve federal leasing policies that serve our best interests, not those of irresponsible actors in the oil and gas industry. These federal oil and gas leasing program reforms should be a priority for Congress and the White House, and we’re all counting on Bennet and Hickenlooper to make it happen.
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.
The Martin Drake Power Plant will burn its last load of coal this Friday, Aug. 27, ending more than a century of coal-burning near downtown Colorado Springs for electrical generation.
Closing of coal plants will become a regular thing in coming years. By decade’s end, only one plant, Comanche 3, is scheduled to remain in operation in Colorado, if at much reduced capacity. Even that limited use scenario remains in doubt.
What will replace the electricity generated by coal combustion in times when neither the wind blows nor the sun shines or—increasingly problematic—the dams that produce hydroelectric generation whither to dead pool?
The answers remain unclear. In the case of Colorado Springs, six natural gas-burning units have been erected at the power plant along Interstate 25. But as Colorado Springs Utilities has made clear, these units costing $100 million, are to be temporary, while energy technology and economics shift further.
Like Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission and other utilities, Colorado Springs continues to wait for technological and perhaps political breakthroughs.
Coal has been a mainstay for the last century. At first, the plants were small. A practiced eye can see those brick buildings erected along rivers in Fort Morgan and Fort Collins.
Then, coal plants became larger and then larger yet. Cameo Station, located along the Colorado River east of Grand Junction, had generating capacity of 73 megawatts when it went on line in the late 1950s. At Hayden, the two units that went on line in the ‘60s and ‘70s together have 441 megawatts of capacity. Then came the true behemoths at Craig and Pueblo, the former with 1,283 megawatts of generating capacity and the latter, called Comanche, with 1,410 megawatts.
Now, the closings have started. The smaller and older ones came first, and Cherokee, located north of downtown Denver, was converted from coal to burn natural gas. Hayden will be shut down by 2028 and Craig by 2030.
What a lot of change. In 2010, utilities were still very tentatively clinging to the past, unsure how much renewable generation they could absorb and still ensure your refrigerator had juice. Too, renewables were still expensive.
Then came 2014-2018, during which a profound shift occurred as wind generation became the lost cost resource, but solar prices rapidly declined, too, both aided by federal tax policies. And now coal has become the expensive fuel in almost all cases.
Utilities also were learning to integrate higher levels of renewables without sacrificing reliability. This was easier done in the middle of the night, when wind was blowing hard across Colorado’s eastern plains, but it applied to all hours of the day, too.
A hallmark of this progression came in December 2018, when Xcel Energy assembled Colorado’s political leaders, reporters and others at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to announce a goal worthy of national attention. The company said it would cut carbon emissions from its electrical generation 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.
Days later, directors of Platte River Power Authority—the power provider for Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland and Estes Park—announced a 100% goal for 2030, if with a list of caveats.
Tri-State, Colorado’s second largest electrical distributor, with 18 member cooperatives from Cortez to Holyoke, in January 2020 announced closings that will allow it to reduce emissions 80%.
Colorado Springs is a microcosm of this expansion of more than a century and now rapid shrinking of coal-based electrical generation. Electricity was introduced into the town in the 1880s, a light bulb at the end of a dangling cord representing the ritziest convenience in the city, a later brochure said. It was enormously expensive to operate, 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Demand was small: a 60-kilowatt-generation plant met the needs of the 350 customers.
In 1968, when the Drake plant was dedicated, cost of electricity has declined to 2 cents per kilowatt hour, but demand had grown, as a brochure noted, to include everything from color TVs to electric blankets.
In June 2020, Colorado Springs Utilities announced that first Drake and then the Ray Nixon Plant, the latter a newer power plant, would close. The passage of Drake will be marked Friday afternoon with remarks by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and Aram Benyamin, the chief executive of Colorado Springs Utilities since 2015.
Colorado Springs has been adding solar and wind generation but, at least during the coming decade, expects to remain reliant on natural gas. Natural gas in 2020 was responsible for 49% of electrical generation. In 2030, according to the municipal utility’s current plan, it will still be 42%. But on that, refer back to 2011 when some utilities were still theoretically planning to build more coal plants. It is, at this point, a placeholder.
What will it take to decarbonize electricity completely? Xcel says it believes it can hit 100% emissions-free energy by mid-century if the answers are not yet clear about that last 10% to 20%. Holy Cross Energy, the electrical cooperative serving Vail, Aspen, and Rifle areas, made its goal of 100% by 2030 unconditional.
Answers must be found. The vulnerability of the electrical grid was exposed by the windless days of February. That winter storm paralyzed Texas, exposing the fallacy of short cuts no matter what the fuel source. Colorado was not immune, though. Xcel Energy spent $600 million buying suddenly expensive natural gas. Tri-State spent only $11 million in extra costs, but turned to burning fuel oil when wind farms that produced an average of 51.2 megawatts of electricity fell to just 0.9 megawatts.
Storage has become the Holy Grail of the 100% quests. Lithium-ion batteries, which have about a four-hour storage life, will be inadequate when the wind doesn’t blow several days in a row on the Eastern Plains.
A regional transmission organization that allows Colorado to use electricity being generated in California or Arizona or even wind from Iowa, might help a lot. Tri-State wants such an organization. So does Holy Cross Energy—and, it would appear, Colorado Springs Utilities. In 2021 Colorado legislators approved a bill that requires integration of the state’s utilities into such an organization within a decade. One energy attorney, Mark Detzsky, calls it the most important energy or climate bill among Colorado’s 30-plus bills adopted in the 2021.
Other storage technologies may deliver the answers. Xcel Energy says molten salt tops the list of storage technologies when it closes its coal units at Hayden in 2027 and 2028. It also is considering green hydrogen, which can use electricity—presumably from renewable sources—to create hydrogen from water (venting the oxygen into the atmosphere). That technology faces cost and other hurdles.
As for Comanche 3, Colorado’s youngest coal plant, completed in 2010, and also its largest. Xcel Energy wants to keep it operating until 2040 at about a third of capacity or just seasonally. Pueblo and Pueblo County have also registered their support. They want the tax base.
But will a new energy storage technology make Comanche 3 obsolete? Maybe not, but that’s a bet I’d take.
A state effort to measure air pollution levels near the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City found elevated levels of hazardous particulate matter in the area, officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a communication to residents Thursday.
The new data were collected by CDPHE’s mobile air monitoring lab, which was stationed at the Eagle Pointe Recreation Center in Commerce City between May 14 and July 17. They showed that levels of fine particle pollution — an air pollutant known as PM2.5 because it consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter — were higher in the Commerce City and north Denver area in early summer than at many other monitoring stations along the Front Range.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
“CDPHE sent the mobile lab to the area because of department and community concerns regarding air quality in the area,” the department said. “Fine particle pollution in the area comes from local sources, such as Suncor and vehicles, and more distant sources, such as wildfire smoke. The mobile lab is not able to determine the sources of pollution it measures.”
The mobile lab was stationed less than a mile from the boundaries of the Suncor refinery, closer than any of the state’s permanent monitoring stations are located. The refinery and other industrial facilities in the north Denver metro area are known to emit high levels of pollutants, but environmental activists and residents, many of whom are low-income and people of color, have long complained that the area has lacked adequate air-quality monitoring.
The results of the state’s air monitoring investigation suggest that PM2.5 is the “most prominent pollutant of health concern in the area,” CDPHE said. Levels of another common pollutant, ozone, were lower on average than in many other parts of the Denver metro area.
The effort also found that levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, “did not reach levels experts expect would cause health impacts,” though CDPHE officials cautioned that scientists don’t yet fully understand how VOCs may interact with each other or other pollutants to cause or exacerbate health impacts. “Whether someone might experience health impacts depends on many factors, including the amount they are exposed to and for how long,” said a CDPHE website showing the results of the investigation.
The department says that it’s planning to send the mobile lab back to the Commerce City area in the future. It’s one of several efforts to improve air monitoring in the area surrounding the Suncor facility, including a grant-funded community program operated by the nonprofit Cultivando; new requirements for “fenceline” monitoring mandated by legislation passed earlier this year; and a voluntary monitoring website recently launched by Suncor itself.
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: email@example.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.
Fossil fuels don’t just damage the planet by emitting climate-warming greenhouse gases when they are burned. Extracting coal, oil and gas has a huge impact on the surface of the earth, including strip mines the size of cities and offshore oil spills that pollute country-sized swaths of ocean.
Years of research has shown how the fracking boom has contaminated groundwater in some areas. But a study published on Thursday in the journal Science suggests there is also a previously undocumented risk to surface water in streams, rivers and lakes.
After analyzing 11 years of data, including surface water measurements in 408 watersheds and information about more than 40,000 fracking wells, the researchers found a very small but consistent increase in three salt compounds—barium, chloride and strontium—in watersheds with new wells that were fracked. While concentrations of the three elements were elevated, they remained below the levels considered harmful by the EPA.
Such salts are commonly found in water coming from newly fracked wells, making changes in their levels good markers for fracking impacts on surface water, said co-author Christian Leuz, professor of international economics at the University of Chicago. The three economists who did the research specialize in studying the effectiveness of environmental regulations.
Though the impact the researchers detected was small, the data came from diluted water in rivers and streams that were often far from wells, Leuz said, so the concentrations could be higher farther upstream and closer to the fracking operations.
The findings suggest that the rapid pace of “unconventional oil and gas development,” like fracking, may be outrunning scientists’ ability to monitor its impacts on surface water. “Better and more frequent water measurement is needed to fully understand the surface water impact of unconventional oil and gas development,” said economist co-author Pietro Bonetti, with the University of Navarra, Spain.
The researchers said they couldn’t determine human health impacts from the elements for two reasons, Leuz said.
First, “there is not enough public data to analyze potentially more dangerous substances,” he said, and second, ”there are limitations in available water-quality measurements.” Even though some states require fracking companies to disclose chemicals in their fluids, they aren’t always listed in public water monitoring databases, Leuz added.
The 2005 amendment to the Safe Water Drinking Act, known as the Halliburton Loophole, also made tracking harder by exempting hydraulic fracturing fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act, preventing the EPA from regulating fracking fluids…
The data needs to be further analyzed to understand if requiring drilling companies to be transparent about what’s in their fracking fluids led them to clean up their operations, she said, but the study published today also provides important information for drafting regulations and focusing future monitoring and research on potential trouble spots that are more vulnerable to pollution.
Early research on fracking impacts was mostly on groundwater contamination, but in 2016, the EPA published a report with a “more complete record of localized evidence,” that found the potential for surface water pollution under certain circumstances, Michelon said.
New Mexico, the third-ranking U.S. oil producer, has moved to curtail methane pollution from the oil and gas industry, moving it closer to neighboring Colorado’s leadership. Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change and also damages human health.
With the United States among the world’s top methane polluters and the Biden administration promising tighter nationwide rules, these two Western states set a bar for other states to follow.
For decades, the oil and gas industry has freely discharged the colorless pollutant from tens of thousands of wells as a cost-savings measure. Then, this March, New Mexico banned the wasteful venting and flaring of natural gas, which is comprised almost entirely of methane. New Mexico is only the third state, after Colorado and Alaska, to ban the practice.
This May, New Mexico also proposed a final rule to staunch the leaking of methane from across the state’s oil and gas supply chain, which includes part of the mammoth Permian Basin it shares with Texas. The leaking occurs at well pads, pipelines, compressors, storage facilities, and more.
It’s a system-wide problem that generates methane plumes large enough to detect from space.
The proposed rule on leaking, now up for public comment, improves on a December draft that offered broad loopholes. When it’s made final, it will require regular inspection and repair of leaky equipment, which today goes largely unmitigated as yet another industry cost-savings measure.
The state effort means New Mexico is catching up with Colorado. In 2014, Colorado became the first state to regulate methane and has twice strengthened its original rule. Colorado has also modernized its oil and gas regulatory agency’s mission so that it includes safeguarding public health. And it is reworking oil and gas bonding requirements so taxpayers don’t get burdened with plugging leaky “orphan wells” abandoned by producers.
Colorado’s rules were a model for the first national methane regulations, implemented under President Obama in 2016. Unfortunately, the Trump administration dismantled those rules.
Controlling methane is a climate imperative. Because the gas has 80 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide, it’s a potent driver of climate change. NASA says it has fueled a whopping 25 percent of the human-caused global warming that today increasingly jeopardizes Western water, agriculture, and recreation.
Research also shows that methane is entering the atmosphere from sources such as wetlands or thawing permafrost. In the latter, warming tied to methane begets more methane. It is the ominous type of feedback loop that global warming alarmists have warned us about for decades.
But the good news is that methane only survives in the atmosphere for about 10 years, unlike the centuries-long lifespan of carbon dioxide. Consequently, methane rules today could produce swift returns on climate as the world grapples with the harder problem of carbon dioxide.
But methane and associated pollutants also contribute to harmful ground-level ozone, which is linked to premature birth, respiratory sickness, and other illnesses. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made this part of her campaign for regulation, pointing out that poor air quality disproportionately harms poor communities.
That concern helped build support from Indigenous and other groups, outweighing fears that new regulations would detract from drilling royalties, which provide over a third of New Mexico’s revenue for education, health, and other services.
Part of the New Mexico governor’s strategy in winning support for methane control was focusing on fiscal accountability. Venting, flaring, and leaking — all monumentally wasteful practices — send an estimated $43 million in potential state revenue into New Mexico’s thin air every year.
At the national level, President Biden campaigned on restoring federal methane regulations rolled back under Trump. Biden issued executive orders on his first day in office that set a September goal for proposing a new strategy. Crafting new federal rules is expected to take years, but New Mexico and Colorado now offer strong examples. By applying rules to both new and existing oil and gas infrastructure, they exceed the original Obama regulations, which only addressed new permits.
Today, Western states, along with heavy oil producers Texas and North Dakota, offer only a patchwork of tax incentives and voluntary targets. Limited rules, however, often tilt in industry’s favor. Now, with fossil fuel production ramping back up and global temperatures rising, New Mexico and Colorado show that tougher regulations are the way to go.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, http://writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He writes from Alaska.
Two years ago, more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries declared a climate emergency. They did so in a report that said scientists have “a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.'”
The study evaluated 31 variables, like ocean changes and energy use. It found that over half are at new all-time record lows or highs.
For example, in April 2021, carbon dioxide concentration reached 416 parts per million—the highest monthly global average concentration ever recorded. Glaciers are losing 31% more snow and ice per year than they did just 15 years ago, a rate that is much faster than previously believed.
And for the first time, the world’s ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) passed four billion, which represents much more mass than all humans and wild mammals combined.
The findings were shocking to lead author William Ripple of Oregon State University…
With so many variables moving in the wrong direction, the paper calls for big, transformative changes. That includes eliminating fossil fuels and switching to mostly plant-based diets.
The group plans to update its findings on a regular basis.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Ending the use of fossil fuels to heat homes and buildings is a key challenge for cities hoping to achieve net-zero emissions. Nowhere is that more evident than in Philadelphia, where technical and financial hurdles and a reluctant gas company stand in the way of decarbonization.
In 1836, Philadelphians mostly used whale oil and candles to light their homes and businesses. That year, the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works caused a stir when it lit 46 downtown street lamps with gas made from coal in its plant on the Schuylkill River. By the end of the Civil War, public thoroughfares and private dwellings in the core of most large Eastern cities were illuminated by gas, supplied through cast iron pipes buried beneath the busy streets — and the whale oil lighting industry was nearly dead.
Philadelphia’s own pipe network has expanded over the past 185 years to encompass 6,000 miles of gas mains and service lines. But today, Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) — the largest municipal gas utility in the country — is the incumbent business staring down existential threats, facing challenges from new technologies, upstart rivals, and a quickening 21st-century energy transition that aims to convert many buildings from gas to electricity.
In recognition of these forces and the city’s own climate action plan, Philadelphia has commissioned a “diversification study” to find a new low-carbon business model for the nation’s oldest gas utility, which delivers natural gas to 510,000 customers.
Earlier this year, Philadelphia announced a target of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “There’s just no way that can happen without PGW changing,” said Tom Shuster, clean energy program director of the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter, which advocates for wider building electrification. Gas sold by the utility is the single biggest source of the city’s climate-warming pollution, accounting for 22 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions.
Charting a path forward that ensures both PGW’s survival and the city’s carbon neutrality will be a heavy lift, many advocates acknowledge. The task is even more daunting when considered on a national scale. While many cities are adopting or considering rules that require new construction to be all-electric, the much thornier problem is how to get fossil fuels out of existing buildings, which account for about 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Of the country’s 120 million households, about 58 percent are heated primarily with natural gas. To zero out carbon emissions from those homes, all of their furnaces, water heaters, and other appliances will have to be fueled with “green molecules” (such as biogas, hydrogen, and synthetic gases) instead of fossil gas, or swapped out for heat pumps and other devices powered by renewable electricity.
Several states have already begun formally planning their long-term transition away from natural gas. Last June, the attorney general of Massachusetts petitioned the state’s utility regulators to investigate how to transition away from natural gas. Spurred by their own climate action goals, California and New York have launched similar efforts. New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan has set a goal of electrifying 90 percent of buildings’ heating and cooling demand by 2050.
The menu for building decarbonization includes heat pumps powered with renewable electricity, geothermal systems, hydrogen fuels, and biogas generated from organic waste. Some of these solutions are in the early stages of development and deployment. Air-source heat pumps are the most mature technology, with decades of use in parts of Europe and Japan, and in the U.S. South, where heat pumps make up more than 20 percent of building heating systems. A few gas utilities are experimenting with blending hydrogen into their gas mix and testing how appliances handle it, in the hopes that “green hydrogen,” created with renewable electricity, will help them wring the carbon out of their operations. And Eversource, New England’s largest energy utility, is partnering with Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit focused on cutting emissions from the building sector, to build an innovative pilot geothermal district heating and cooling system in the Boston area this summer.
In any scenario, a massive transformation of the way we use energy in buildings will be required to meet ambitious city, state, and federal emissions targets. Perhaps nowhere are these challenges as stark as in older cities in the Northeast, which remain heavily reliant on natural gas for heating and have some of the oldest, least energy-efficient housing stock.
In Philadelphia, overhauling PGW entails navigating a thicket of competing imperatives beyond cutting greenhouse gas emissions: plugging dangerous methane leaks, retaining or retraining the utility’s 1,600-strong workforce, and ensuring that the most vulnerable Philadelphians aren’t left carrying the burden of propping up an increasingly expensive gas grid.
Even before the pandemic led to a recent spike in unpaid bills, many Philadelphians faced an energy affordability crisis. Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of any major U.S. city; roughly one third of PGW’s customers are low-income. To be equitable, any transition for the utility must “make sure every last person reliant on natural gas has a way to keep warm in winter, cook their food, and heat their water,” said Elizabeth Marx, executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, which represents the interests of low-income utility customers. “If you’re talking about shifting away from a system that’s been built out with ratepayers for decades, you can’t shift away easily without leaving people behind.”
As more affluent customers abandon gas to install heat pumps and other clean-energy upgrades with higher upfront costs, many advocates for a “just transition” worry that lower-income ratepayers will be left to foot the bill for maintaining PGW’s aging gas infrastructure.
“What you want to avoid is the situation where you have to maintain and spend money on the whole system, even while you sell less gas,” said Mike Henchen, who leads the building decarbonization program at the energy thinktank RMI.
Meanwhile, some of that maintenance can’t wait, for safety and environmental reasons. In December 2019, a leak from a 92-year-old gas main caused an explosion that killed two people and leveled five rowhouses in South Philadelphia. The methane in those leaks is also a potent climate-warming agent; a 2019 study that sampled air over Philadelphia and five other East Coast cities found methane levels 2.5 times higher than suggested by emissions inventories from the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Gas utilities are in a difficult bind,” said Audrey Schulman, the founder and co-executive director of HEET, the nonprofit that initiated the Massachusetts geothermal project. “At the same time that they have to decarbonize, they have to replace these aging gas pipes.”
The larger dilemma for Philadelphia’s officials — and for other municipal leaders around the country — is how long, and how much, to keep spending on gas infrastructure before “leapfrogging” to wider building electrification.
When Philadelphia Gas Works applied for an increase in its base rate to the state’s Public Utility Commission last year, the Sierra Club intervened, claiming that spending on pipe maintenance beyond what’s required by immediate safety concerns is unwise. “You’re asking for money to replace this entire system,” said the Sierra Club’s Shuster, “but in doing so you are likely putting in infrastructure that will not see the end of its useful life before it’s taken offline.”
The city commissioned the diversification study to address those kinds of tough tradeoffs. “There’s no clean silver bullet,” said Christine Knapp, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability. “It will probably wind up being a piecemeal strategy that gets us to our goals — a certain amount of renewable natural gas, geothermal, electrification, and weatherization, for example, that add up to having a bigger impact.”
Philadelphia Gas Works did not respond to requests for comment. But in testimony at a 2019 City Council hearing about the proposed diversification study, a PGW official emphasized regulatory and legal limits on the utility’s ability to evolve beyond its narrow mission of delivering natural gas. Through its own direct advocacy and its membership in the American Gas Association, an industry trade group, the utility has opposed the updating of building codes that would have encouraged state and city governments to require more efficient appliances and electrification-ready wiring.
In one of the paths being studied, PGW would keep its pipe-based system and simply add more low-carbon gas molecules to its fuel mix. For instance, SoCalGas, the nation’s largest gas utility, has heavily pushed the promise of wider use of biogas (also known as “renewable natural gas”) made from organic waste as a rationale for preserving and expanding gas infrastructure, and for resisting calls to ban the use of gas in new construction. Many other gas utilities have been promoting their nascent efforts to decarbonize by blending biogas and hydrogen into their natural gas supply.
But that path would still mean pumping molecules of climate-warming methane through leak-prone pipes. And there are physical and financial limits on how much hydrogen and biogas could substitute for fossil gas. Various estimates peg the total potential supply of renewable natural gas at anywhere from 2 to 12 percent of total natural gas demand. Renewable natural gas and hydrogen are also still expensive fuels to manufacture.
Several recent studies have found that fully electrifying buildings is a lower-cost way to decarbonize than going the “green molecules” route. In one, researchers estimated that the monthly cost of running a heat pump would range from $34 to $53, whereas running a gas furnace on renewable natural gas would cost $160 to $263. Heat pumps’ appeal to both homeowners and policymakers is on the rise even in the cold Northeast: Maine, for example, has a mandate to install 100,000 heat pumps in homes and businesses by 2025.
But even if operating a heat pump is likely cheaper over the long run than firing a furnace with biogas, the upfront cost of buying and installing one — including upgrading wiring and circuit breakers to handle heavier loads — remains high relative to a conventional gas heater. Those costs are still well beyond what many Philadelphians can afford.
One company is advancing a new way to overcome that hurdle. BlocPower is a Brooklyn-based startup that specializes in energy retrofits of large urban buildings, with a focus on converting affordable housing and multi-family buildings from fossil fuel heating to renewably powered heat pumps. With over 1,000 building retrofits in New York under its belt, BlocPower is expanding to cities across the country, including Los Angeles and Chicago. The company sees Philadelphia as fertile terrain.
“Philadelphia has many pre-war-era walkups and multifamily buildings in dense areas that we deem to be very similar and applicable to the work we’ve been doing to date,” said Ian Harris, BlocPower’s business manager.
BlocPower began working with Philadelphia in 2014, participating in a multi-family housing pilot project led by the Philadelphia Energy Authority. This month it plans to launch BlocMaps Philly, a software tool that helps city planners and individual building owners model the potential for reducing both emissions and energy bills by installing air-source heat pumps and other systems, such as batteries and solar microgrids. Within the next 12 months, the company aims to complete 500 projects in Philadelphia.
BlocPower manages every stage of the project, from design to installation, and offers building owners the option to lease the system. BlocPower’s model seeks to remove the traditional barriers to greening low-income urban housing, including the challenge of securing loans. The company uses algorithms to estimate a building’s potential energy savings, and then uses those projected savings to secure financing from institutions like the New York Green Bank and Goldman Sachs. It aims to demonstrate that investors can earn stable, long-term returns on investments in urban heat pumps, not unlike what they would expect from municipal infrastructure bonds.
“We see a great opportunity to transition as many as people as possible off fossil fuels in Philadelphia,” said Harris.
Others still see a role for pipes in the city’s energy future. This summer, Eversource Gas, the investor-owned private utility in the Boston area, will break ground on the first demonstration of HEET’s innovation. The nonprofit has developed a concept called the GeoMicroDistrict, which would link buildings on a given street or block into a networked geothermal energy system. The system is powered by ground-source heat pumps, extremely energy-efficient devices that use water as a medium for sharing thermal energy between buildings, sending heat where it’s needed and away from where it isn’t. The geothermal districts tap the constant temperature of the ground, and can themselves be further linked together into larger networks.
The biggest upfront costs are associated with installing the system, including the drilling of shallow, six-inch-wide boreholes; after that, operating costs are low. Utilities like PGW could absorb those steep capital costs and spread them out over time and over their wide user base, taking advantage of economies of scale, said Zeyneb Magavi, the co-executive director of HEET. The geothermal pipes could be laid in the same rights-of-way already used for gas pipes. Geothermal systems could also preserve more jobs, she added, leveraging the expertise of utility workers, many of whom are trained to install the same kind of plastic pipes.
“We have to work with the pieces we have,” said Magavi. “The fastest way forward is to flip utilities’ financing mechanisms and customer networks, all these pieces that we can redirect toward building a better energy system.”
Whatever decarbonization path Philadelphia chooses, as a first step Mike Henchen of RMI would like to see PGW identify one segment of the city’s gas network — a neighborhood, a street, a discrete block of buildings — to shut off. “They can work to support every building served by that portion to convert to a carbon-free alternative to gas, and then decommission an actual pipe in the ground,” Henchen said. “Close the valve.”
This kind of strategic abandonment, he argues, would be the most transformative step that PGW could take — one that would acknowledge that a smaller gas delivery system is needed in any likely scenario, and that would signal to city, state, and utility leaders around the country where the future is heading for the entire gas distribution industry. “If they could do that,” said Henchen, “that would really be ground-breaking.”
Reporting for this story was made possible through a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
From the Environmental Defense Fund blog (Dan Grossman and Ben Hmiel):
Newly released research is shedding more light on the largest sources of methane emissions in the nation’s largest oilfield.
Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas and has a huge impact on the current rate of global warming. The oil and gas industry is one of the biggest emitters.
Using a helicopter equipped with an infrared camera, we surveyed over a thousand sites across the Permian Basin to get specific information about the types of facilities, equipment and events that make the Permian Basin the highest-polluting oilfield in the country. Three things immediately stood out.
More equipment equals more emissions
We wanted to learn more about emissions from “marginal wells” — those that typically produce less than 15 barrels of oil or 60,000 cubic feet of gas a day. Despite the fact that marginal wells make up the vast majority of wells across the country, operators often seek to have them exempted from emissions standards. The argument is based on an assumption that because they produce less, they pollute less. But that is not the case. Our research indicates it is the volume of equipment — not the volume of production — that is likely to impact emissions levels.
We looked at two types of marginal well sites:
Simple sites — those with just a pumpjack or well head and no other equipment.
Complex sites — those with tanks, flares, compressors and other machinery.
The simple sites with fewer pieces of equipment had virtually no large emissions. Comparatively, we measured emissions at about 16% of more complex sites, and about 80% of the emissions were coming from tanks. Cumulatively, these emissions add up. About half of emissions from the Permian Basin well sites come from these smaller, lower producing wells.
Flares malfunction at a much higher rate than previously thought
We also examined emissions from flares. Our previous surveys of Permian flares indicated that about 10% are malfunctioning — leading to large emissions of methane. However, those surveys mostly looked at high-production sites that rely upon routine flaring. When we expanded our survey to include marginal wells with more intermittent flares, we found that number tripled. Approximately 30% of flares were pumping methane emissions into the air rather than burning the methane as they are designed to do. Regularly checking these marginal facilities for equipment failures could help substantially reduce the rate of flare malfunctions.
Oil and gas production is not the only problem
The other significant finding from this research confirms that the midstream sector — sites that process and move oil and gas through the system — is just as much of an emitter as the production sites. We detected large emissions at nearly 40% of midstream sites surveyed. Data released last week from researchers at the University of Arizona and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory similarly confirmed that about half of all Permian emissions are from the midstream sector.
Congress is currently debating whether it should use the Congressional Review Act to reinstate sensible methane standards that would limit this pollution from newer well sites and lay the groundwork for next-generation standards for new and existing facilities. Doing so would be an important step to help address this pollution.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose new rules this fall that could and should go even further to reduce emissions. Applying these rules to older facilities, complex marginal well sites and midstream operations will be necessary for the U.S. to meet its climate goals.
A sensible path forward
Reducing emissions from oil and gas facilities is one of the fastest, cheapest and most effective ways to slow the rate of climate change. Many reduction measures pay for themselves, since they result in more gas being captured and delivered to customers.
Methane mitigation is also a huge job creator. Research shows that policies requiring companies to reduce emissions produce a net increase in jobs. In fact, the methane mitigation industry already employs thousands of high-paying individuals across the country and is projected to grow as companies and regulators increase their focus on methane reductions.
The good news is we know that programs designed to reduce emissions are incredibly effective. In 2014, Colorado started regulating methane from its oil and gas industry, and in the year after regulations were implemented, operators reported a 75% drop in the number of methane leaks detected during routine field surveys.
Strong, national standards to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is achievable and is supported by some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies. Ensuring that methane standards are as effective and encompassing as possible is critical to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.
Here’s the release from the Natural Resources Defense Council:
Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed SB21-246 [Electric Utility Promote Beneficial Electrification] today, making his state the first in the nation to pass an electrification policy with support from organized labor. The Colorado BlueGreen Alliance-backed legislation will help Coloradans upgrade to efficient electric appliances, furnaces, and water heaters that keep their bills low and air clean.
“Colorado has done a great job setting up tools for building owners to make their homes and businesses more efficient and climate-friendly,” said BlueGreen Alliance Director of Colorado and State Economic Transition Policy Chris Markuson. “The Colorado Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) program, which allows homeowners to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, is another great example of our state making it easy to upgrade. This bill will make efficient electric appliances even more affordable and help households and businesses connect with local qualified contractors to get the job done.”
The Colorado BlueGreen Alliance unites 20+ labor unions and environmental organizations committed to creating clean energy jobs and preserving a healthy and livable climate. SB21-246, which was sponsored by Senator Stephen Fenberg and Representatives Alex Valdez and Meg Froelich, works toward these goals in 3 key ways:
Saving money: SB21-246 will direct utilities to create incentives for households and businesses to upgrade to efficient electric appliances that reduce their bills—especially critical support for low-income families and seniors on fixed incomes
Reducing air pollution: By choosing to upgrade their appliances, households and businesses can eliminate a major source of indoor air pollution that is uniquely harmful for children, the elderly, and people with asthma
Creating good jobs: When households and businesses take advantage of these new incentives, they will support local family-sustaining jobs at a time when the economy needs them the most
“Colorado union members are hard at work fitting Colorado homes and businesses for the climate-friendly, cost-saving technologies of the future,” said Colorado AFL-CIO Executive Director Dennis Dougherty. “Because this legislation ensures that Coloradans participating in new upgrade programs work with licensed contractors who adhere to strong workforce standards like good training programs and livable wages, we can create new union jobs and new work for our existing union members at the same time.”
“The success of new climate-friendly technologies such as heat pumps and other heat transfer systems hinges on quality installation,” said Pipefitters Local 208 Business Manager Gary Arnold. “Pipefitters and plumbers have been helping Coloradans improve their household energy efficiency and reduce their utility bills for many years. This bill will help us bring our technical expertise to support even more homeowner investments, ensure optimal performance, and continue to guide the state in the transition to the clean energy economy.”
“The transition to pollution-free buildings is a once-in-a-generation job creation opportunity for our members,” said IBEW Local 68 Business Manager Jeremy Ross. “As businesses and industry take advantage of new rebates and incentives to upgrade to modern and clean electric systems, they create demand for local, qualified electrical workers.”
“Apprenticeship programs and living wages are two building blocks of a qualified local workforce,” said International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Local 9 Business Manager Dwayne Stephens. “With this legislation in place, businesses looking for efficient and electric heating, cooling, and ventilation systems can trust that we’ll have a qualified contractor on the job.”
“Our members are ready to rebuild Colorado for a clean energy future,” said Colorado Building and Construction Trades Council Business Manager Jason Wardrip. “We’ve been equipping local homes and businesses with efficient electric appliances for a while now, and we feel confident that the new incentive programs and labor protections in this legislation will kick our work into high gear.”
“Partnerships between clean energy advocates and organized labor are essential for bold climate action,” said NRDC Building Decarbonization Advocate Alejandra Mejia Cunningham. “Climate policy is job creation policy, and climate progress relies entirely on the workers who are swapping out our old appliances, improving our energy efficiency, and producing the homegrown clean energy we need to power our future. When we coordinate with our partners in organized labor to write worker protections right into the legislation—from guaranteeing family-sustaining wages and benefits to creating workforce development opportunities—we can make sure our transition to pollution-free homes and buildings best serves Colorado’s rapidly-growing clean energy workforce.”
More information about this historic legislation is available here.
Humanity must solve the climate and nature crises together or solve neither, according to a report from 50 of the world’s leading scientists.
Global heating and the destruction of wildlife is wreaking increasing damage on the natural world, which humanity depends on for food, water and clean air. Many of the human activities causing the crises are the same and the scientists said increased use of nature as a solution was vital.
The devastation of forests, peatlands, mangroves and other ecosystems has decimated wildlife populations and released huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Rising temperatures and extreme weather are, in turn increasingly damaging biodiversity.
But restoring and protecting nature boosts biodiversity and the ecosystems that can rapidly and cheaply absorb carbon again, the researchers said. While this is crucial, the scientists emphasise that rapid cuts in fossil fuel burning is also essential to ending the climate emergency.
They also warned against action on one crisis inadvertently aggravating the other, such as creating monoculture tree plantations that store carbon but are wildlife deserts and more vulnerable to extreme weather.
“It is clear that we cannot solve [the global biodiversity and climate crises] in isolation – we either solve both or we solve neither,” said Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s climate and environment minister.
The peer-reviewed report was produced by the world’s leading biodiversity and climate experts, who were convened by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, both which report to the world’s political leaders.
The report identified actions to simultaneously fight the climate and nature crises, including expanding nature reserves and restoring – or halting the loss of – ecosystems rich in species and carbon, such as forests, natural grasslands and kelp forests.
Food systems cause a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, and more sustainable farming is another important action, helped by the ending of destructive subsidies and rich nations eating less meat and cutting food waste…
Protecting and restoring natural ecosystems was the fastest and cheapest way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, the scientists said. Cutting fossil fuel emissions was essential, but not enough at this point in the climate crisis, said Parmesan. “We cannot avoid dangerous climate change without soaking up some of the carbon that we’ve already put into the atmosphere and the best way to suck up carbon is using the power of plants,” she said.
“The science of restoration of ecosystems has really blossomed over the last 40 years. We are now able to efficiently and effectively restore complex systems, tropical rainforest, coastal wetlands, kelp forests and seagrass meadows, natural American prairie, and UK meadows back to their near historical diversity.”
Prof Mark Maslin, of University College London, said the report was seminal: “The science is very clear that climate change and biodiversity are inseparable. To stabilise climate change we need massive rewilding and reforestation.”
The UK environment minister, Zac Goldsmith, said: “This is an absolutely critical year for nature and climate. With the UN biodiversity [and climate summits], we have an opportunity and responsibility to put the world on a path to recovery. This hugely valuable report makes it clear that addressing biodiversity loss and climate change together offers our best chance of doing so.”
Temperatures soared to 98 degrees in Denver Monday afternoon – way above the average high of 82 degrees for mid-June, but shy of the record of 102 degrees, set on June 14, 2006.
Colorado is on the eastern edge of a huge bubble of hot, dry air that covers all of the southwestern United States. This hot, dry airmass has little thunderstorm potential, just a few hit or miss storms to bring brief relief from the heat…
Western Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California are all experiencing extreme drought conditions. The drought exacerbates the heat wave as the sun’s heat is simply heating up ground as opposed to evaporating water. This compounds the cycle of heat and dryness and is not likely to break for most of the summer.
The hottest weather of the year is typically in mid-July, so this is an early heatwave. With global warming we are seeing hotter weather earlier, so this type of event will become more frequent…
If we reach 100 degrees Tuesday and Wednesday, it would be the earliest ever Denver has had two straight days of triple digits.
June 2012 had 6 days of 100 degrees or hotter, with 2 days reaching 105 degrees – the all-time hottest temperature for Denver. (It has been reached several different days in June, July and August.)
Our hottest weather is typically in July, but we are seeing heatwaves coming earlier in the warm season, while our mid-summer heatwaves are tending to become longer and hotter in recent decades.
The role of climate change cannot be left out of the equation in this weather pattern. As the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) increases in our atmosphere, our world is getting warmer. The effect of increased CO2 in our atmosphere is well understood and has been known for over 150 years…
The role of carbon dioxide (CO2) in determining the temperature of our planet is established science, regardless of efforts to discount the impact of CO2.
In 1825, a French mathematician — Joseph Fourier — calculated that given the distance from the Sun, the Earth should be much colder. He theorized that it was the atmosphere that trapped enough heat to make our planet habitable.
In 1856, Eunice Foote, an American researcher, filled glass jars with different gases and set them in the sun. The jar filled with CO2 warmed the most.
In 1863, John Tyndall, an Irish physicist, did more elaborate experiments with carbon dioxide and discovered that CO2 was very effective at trapping long-wave or Earth energy.
In 1895, a Swedish researcher named Svante Arrhenius theorized that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause the Earth’s average temperature to increase by several degrees. The greatest impact would be in the far northern latitudes – which is exactly what we are seeing!
In the 1970s – CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who was famously known as the most trusted man in America, reported on the threat of global warming.
Even though CO2 is a TRACE gas in our atmosphere, it is highly effective at capturing infrared (Earth) energy from escaping into space. The CO2 molecule vibrates a little when infrared energy passes by, this tiny “wiggle” serves to trap that energy in the atmosphere instead of letting it pass through into outer space…
On timescales of millions of years, CO2 is mostly a balance between volcanoes that create it and “chemical weathering” (dissolving) of rocks that destroy it. The weathering of rocks creates calcium carbonate that returns the carbon to the soil, the oceans and the Earth’s crust.
When volcanic emissions exceed rock dissolving, CO2 increases and vice versa when volcanic emissions decline.
CO2 was extremely high (maybe 5 times current levels!) 55 million years ago (more volcanoes than dissolving rocks), and it fell steadily for 50 million years straight.
The main reason that CO2 dropped was that India crashed into Asia, raising the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau. All that fresh rock dissolved fast, sucking down CO2.
When the CO2 got low enough about 2 million years ago (about 300 ppm), we started having ice ages. We have had at least 20 since then.
During ice ages, about ⅓ of all the CO2 dissolves into the oceans, so CO2 drops to around 200 ppm. Then, when the ice melts, it shoots back up to about 300 ppm again. It’s done this 20 times in 2 million years.
During the last great global warming, CO2 rose from 180 to 280 ppm between 18,000 years ago and 8,000 years ago. That’s a rise of 0.01 ppm per century.
Now, as we dig up fossil carbon and light it on fire, the CO2 rises 3 ppm per year, 300 times as fast as it during deglaciation! It is not just the fact that the world is getting warmer, it really is the rate at which the warming is occurring. Since 1800, the CO2 has risen more than it did in 100 centuries after 16,000 BC.
With things changing so quickly, the big concern is how will we deal with the rapid change and whether many species will be able to survive, as there is not time for them to evolve…
Even though an individual severe weather event cannot be blamed on Global Warming, a warmer climate adds energy to the system — “juicing up” the atmosphere and will cause more frequent and extreme severe weather events in the future.
We can expect more intense rain events, such as the Front Range Flood in September 2013, but also more wildfires as the changing climate creates stress on our forests.
Our Colorado climate will become warmer over the next 100 years. Denver will have temperatures more like Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The result will be less snowpack, lower reservoirs and more frequent droughts. We know the population will increase and therefore the demand for water – we need to plan ahead! We have been blessed to have a few big snow years recently, the long-term prospects may not be so rosy.
The Geos Neighborhood packs dense, energy-smart homes against a forested creek in Arvada. Some of its green design elements are obvious. Unlike hulking mansions nearby, the units are long and narrow, so large windows can soak up winter sunshine. Each roof boasts a solar array. A herd of goats even grazes a shared open space…
Less noticeable is the complete lack of natural gas hookups. Klebl smiled as he opened the door to the utility closet in his townhome. Inside is an all-electric climate control system, which the Austrian-born engineer designed and perfected himself.
“Gas should be stopped in new developments,” Klebl said. “We have to learn to live in fully electric homes.”
Many energy experts have come to a similar conclusion. To meet international climate goals, a recent International Energy Agency report found almost all gas appliances must be replaced with electric alternatives. The thinking is electric stoves and water heaters can take advantage of renewable energy. Without rapid development of technologies like “renewable natural gas,” anything with a burner tip guarantees emissions.
Klebl said the Geos Neighborhood shows the transition is possible, but some recent events at the housing project show it won’t be easy. A divorce forced Klebl to sell the 25-acre site last year, where he has only built 28 of 282 planned homes.
The new developer has committed to carry out Klebl’s vision with one major exception. Despite objections from residents, the remaining units will likely include natural gas hookups.
An All-Electric Community
Jim Horan, a retired [fuel] cell researcher who lives in the Geos Neighborhood, said the concerns about natural gas hookups started after another resident spotted a worker with Xcel Energy. A conversation revealed the utility was looking for the best place to bring in gas lines.
Residents and Klebl quickly sought answers from the new developer.
Peak Development Group, a Denver-based housing developer, bought the land. In a press release last November, owner Chad Ellington said he planned “to build upon the project’s sustainability-driven vision” by building additional net-zero homes.
A group of residents wrote Ellington a letter last May to express their frustration. In correspondence shared with CPR News, Ellington explained he had conducted an “exhaustive process” to survey the market for home builders. All required natural gas to be part of the development.
He also noted the addition would not violate the design book used for the initial block of homes, which he had committed to follow. While it said the neighborhood should aspire to avoid fossil fuels, nothing in the standards forbids natural gas lines.
“The very passionate existing residents were apparently misled by the prior developer about what are ‘requirements’ vs. ‘goals,” Ellington later wrote in an email to CPR News.
Ellington added Dream Finders, a major national homebuilder, had been selected to build the remaining homes. Matt Childers, a vice president for the company’s Colorado division, declined to explain why the company had insisted on natural gas service but said it would include other green-building elements like solar panels and south-facing windows.
Many of the residents aren’t convinced all builders would require new natural gas hookups. In the last few weeks, they have pushed Ellington to consider some smaller local home builders, but he said those companies lack the “financial capacity” to take on the project.
Two oil stains within eight days at Sand Creek near the Sankoa Energy Refinery have caused state health officials to worry that the 20-year-old underground clay wall containing toxic chemicals isn’t working. ing.
More than a year ago, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ordered Sanko to replace a wall that stretched about 2,000 feet below about 30 feet parallel to Commerce City’s creek, records show. That mission came after a similar oil slick, And Suncor is set to begin designing wall modifications at the end of July.
“The refinery is in the final stages of planning to improve the boundary barrier system and is working with CDPHE on these plans. Work is expected to be completed in 2021 and will be more effective along Sand Creek. A barrier system will be built, “said Suncor spokeswoman Mita Adesanya in an email.
This is a sensitive moment for Suncor.Colorado officials Review Company application to update Outdated business license. Due to equipment failures and other failures at the refinery, 15 accidents occurred between March 27 and April 22 this year, and more than 100 failures occurred at the refinery in the last five years. , Air pollution has exceeded the permissible range. Since 2011, Colorado has settled at least 10 proceedings against Suncor.
A Sanko official said in an email on Friday that he was investigating the cause of the recent oil slick. On May 22 and May 31, Sand Creek’s public bike paths and green roads popular for fishing Occurred along.
Sanko and state officials do not expect permanent effects on creeks and wildlife, but “trends in groundwater data indicate that walls are less effective.” Was sent by director Jennifer Opira, according to a June 2 email received by The Denver Post, to local government officials in CDPHE’s Hazardous and Waste Management Department.
The cause of the May 22 spill has not been identified, Opila said in an email, but said it could have been due to a “May 20 power outage.” The refinery side of the wall, she said.
“It’s likely that groundwater levels have risen during this closure,” she wrote, and petrochemicals “flowed on and through walls,” she wrote. An emergency generator was installed to pump contaminated groundwater from the refinery side of the wall.
On May 31, a fuel leak at the refinery flowed down the road into an outdoor basin and then reached a stream, according to state officials. Suncor deployed three orange booms and vacuum trucks to clean them.
Along the green road on Thursday, fisherman Mike Medina threw a fishing line for carp in a Burlington irrigation ditch near the spill site…
According to state records, benzene levels at the time of the spill were as high as 3,900 ppb in refinery groundwater. This is more than the federal drinking water standard of 5 ppb. Colorado’s current water quality standards have been relaxed in industrial areas, allowing up to 5,300 ppb of benzene in Sand Creek.
Benzene levels found in pipes discharged to Sand Creek first soared beyond Sanko’s permit limits in the first week of June, but soon disappeared, according to state officials.
FromThe Washington Post (Juliet Eilperin and Joshua Partlow):
The Biden administration on Tuesday suspended oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, targeting one of President Donald Trump’s most significant environmental acts during his last days in office.
The move by the Interior Department, which could spark a major legal battle, dims the prospect of oil drilling in a pristine and politically charged expanse of Alaskan wilderness that Republicans and Democrats have fought over for four decades. The Trump administration auctioned off the right to drill in the refuge’s coastal plain — home to hundreds of thousands of migrating caribou and waterfowl as well as the southern Beaufort Sea’s remaining polar bears — just two weeks before President Biden was inaugurated.
Now the Biden administration is taking steps to block those leases, citing problems with the environmental review process. In Tuesday’s Interior Department order, Secretary Deb Haaland said that a review of the Trump administration’s leasing program in the wildlife refuge found “multiple legal deficiencies” including “insufficient analysis” required by environmental laws and a failure to assess other alternatives. Haaland’s order calls for a temporary moratorium on all activities related to those leases in order to conduct “a new, comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the oil and gas program.”
The step, coming just days after the Justice Department defended another drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, underscores the balancing act the new administration aims to strike as it slows fossil fuel development on public lands. While Biden has paused new federal oil and gas leasing and pledged to drastically cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, he has taken a much more cautious approach toward most oil and gas operations approved under his predecessor.
Last week, Justice Department attorneys filed a brief defending ConocoPhillips’s Willow project, an oil reservoir on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that could hold up to 300 million barrels of oil. The administration also has defended the Trump administration’s decision to issue oil and gas leases in Wyoming and declined to press for the shutdown of the Dakota Access pipeline, a project Haaland protested while serving in Congress.
But Tuesday’s move signaled that the new administration was willing to take aggressive action in an area that has been a rallying cry for environmentalists for decades.
The three biggest wildfires in Colorado history all occurred last year. The biggest fire in 2020 — that is, the state’s biggest fire ever — was more than 50% bigger than the biggest fire in any other year in the state’s history. The 20 biggest fires in state history have all occurred in the past 20 years.
And it’s no secret why: climate change.
Fire officials say a decades-long regional drought and forests plagued by bark beetles were largely to blame for the ferocious fire season, and those conditions, according to scientists, in turn are attributable to rising average temperatures. Many parts of Colorado have gotten hotter by almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.
Climate change has battered the state in other ways. Warming can cause river flows to decrease, and nowhere is this phenomenon a greater emergency than in the Colorado River, the headwaters of which are near Grand Lake. The river supplies water for more than 5 million acres of farmland and about 40 million people in seven states, including Colorado. But it’s drying up. It could lose a quarter of its flow by 2050, scientists say. So little water is expected to run down through the Southwest states this year that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation could declare the first official shortage for the river.
Wildlife populations throughout the country are suffering from drought and other climate change impacts. In Colorado, climate change threatens deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, birds and other familiar creatures. Birds are especially vulnerable. Half of the birds in Colorado are said to be in decline because of changing climate conditions.
This is all due to human activity, mostly related to oil and gas extraction and consumption, which releases greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Colorado is one of the country’s top five oil-producing states and among the top natural gas producing states. The scale of fossil fuel production that occurs in Colorado gives the state a colossal carbon footprint.
That’s why Colorado has an administrative and moral duty to rigorously regulate oil and gas extraction. Available to Coloradans are at least three avenues by which to better resist this toxic industry — local fracking bans, robust severance taxes, and more money for environmental clean-up…
If oil and gas companies are going to rip natural resources from the Earth and pollute public spaces, it’s only fair for the public to ask those companies for just compensation. “What we are talking about is the oil and gas industry’s social license to operate — if they are using public resources and polluting a public good, our environment, our communities, they need to be paying into the system,” said Jessica Goad, the deputy director of Conservation Colorado, according to The Colorado Sun.
But these companies don’t pay a fair amount. Not in Colorado.
The minimal sums Colorado collects from oil and gas companies in the form of severance taxes was detailed in stark terms early last year when the Colorado Office of the State Auditor released a report on severance taxes. For years extraction companies have received hundreds of millions of dollars in savings due both to government leniency and systemic problems. The audit found that Colorado offers enormous gifts to fossil fuel interests in the form of exemptions, credits and deductions.
When a company takes something of nonrenewable value from the Earth, such as oil and gas, coal and metals, that value is lost to the public and accrues to private interests in the form of profits. Governments apply severance taxes to capture some of that lost wealth.
Colorado’s severance tax system imposes rates between 2% and 5%, depending on gross income, against oil and gas sales. These rates roughly align with those found in other comparable states. However, the state’s severance tax system is objectionable in ways that go beyond the base rates. The auditor’s office found that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission failed to collect from extraction operators tens of thousands of required monthly well production reports, and some submitted reports were incomplete. The reports are a key component in the severance tax calculation system.
Furthermore, state rules call for a fine of $200 a day per well for missing reports, but for the years reviewed — 2016 to 2018 — the commission demanded no fines. The auditor’s office estimated that the failure to fine companies for delinquent reports alone amounted to a loss of more than $300 million.
A bigger giveaway to oil and gas companies comes in the form of an ad valorem tax credit, which allows company owners to claim a credit against their severance tax bill at a rate of 87.5% of the ad valorem property taxes they paid to local governments. Only two other oil and gas-producing states allow for this type of credit against the severance tax. And Colorado’s method of calculating the credit is extremely complex, which itself leads to problems. The auditors wrote that “the application of the ad valorem tax credit is the most problematic aspect of severance tax returns and frequently contributes to taxpayer noncompliance.”
Colorado allows a severance-tax exemption for low-producing wells, also known as “stripper” wells. This equates to a massive gift to the industry. The auditor’s report found that 70% of the wells in Colorado in 2016 met state law’s definition of a stripper well. Exempting all these producing wells cost the state up to $55 million that year. This isn’t some industry norm — few states offer such special treatment of polluters, according to the report.
All together, the exemptions, credits and deductions that Colorado grants to industry meant the state’s effective severance tax rate was estimated in the report at only 0.54%. That was the lowest effective severance tax rate among nine oil and gas-producing states analyzed by the auditor.
Some lawmakers have long understood the untenable state of severance taxes in Colorado, but a combination of ineffective leadership, complications foisted by the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, and the deep-pocketed industry lobby so far has put reform out of reach. Early last year members of the General Assembly had planned to convene a study committee to examine oil and gas taxes. But such committees were canceled due to COVID-19, and none are planned for this year, according to a spokesperson for Colorado Senate Democrats.
Following the audit, the oil and gas commission implemented an automated system that sends an email to operators when a well production report is overdue. But the commission has yet to issue any fines for delinquent reports. In the current state legislative session, House Bill 21-1312 and Senate Bill 21-281 propose improvements to the way the severance tax is applied. But even if they become law they’re tweaks, not reform. The stupendously generous ad valorem tax credit remains Colorado law, as does the freebie on stripper wells.
It is intolerable for the state to behave with such generosity and permissiveness toward a whole industry, but it is also self-destructive when that industry is responsible for planet-wide ruin. State lawmakers must not put off severance tax reform any longer.
In squeezing natural gas from the built environment, Colorado is unlikely to adopt hard mandates, as have been enacted by local governments in California and a few other states. But can Colorado figure out a gentler approach that achieves the same results?
Members of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission didn’t get any simple instructions along the lines of “just-add-water” during a meeting on May 20 with experts from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Regulatory Assistance Project, two national organizations engaged in the transition from natural gas.
”I am sorry I am not giving you a simple answer,” they were told at one point by Meghan Anderson of the Washington state-based Regulatory Assistance Project. “There are lot of things coming together.”
That was in response to a question from Commissioner John Gavan. He had alluded to SB21-200, the bill submitted by Sen. Faith Winter and others that would give the state’s Air Quality Control Commission more authority to achieve greenhouse gas reductions through new regulations.
Environmental groups have insisted that Colorado needs to move more rapidly in wringing out greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s economy. A 2019 law specified targets of 50% by 2030 and 90% by mid-century.
Gov. Jared Polis has vowed to veto the bill if it lands on his desk. Despite running on a platform of 100% renewables, Polis argues for an approach that is not seen as heavy handed regulation. He’s not against prodding the market, as was evident in a legislative hearing on the same day as the PUC meeting. Will Toor, the director of the state energy office, testified in support of a bill that would steer state funding toward building materials with lower carbon emissions embedded in their production or extraction.
“We have this raging battle going on in Colorado on that issue, do we do it through mandates or market forces?” Gavan said at the PUC session. “What do you see from around the country and the world?”
Colorado most certainly needs both mandates and market forces, Christie Hicks, the lead counsel for energy markets and utility regulation with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in response to the question by Gavan. She emphasized the importance of transparency and accountability in a stakeholder processes with utilities and others.
In Washington state, demand for natural gas has actually dropped, the result of improved energy efficiency, more stringent building codes, and deliberate efforts to displace fossil fuels in buildings with electricity.
Colorado’s largest gas-distribution utility, Xcel Energy, said in a PUC filing that it expects a 1% annual growth in demand for natural gas for building use. Xcel, in a November position paper titled “Transitioning Natural Gas for a Low-Carbon Future,” also argued against too aggressively transitioning from natural gas to electricity, even though it will sell more electricity.
For Colorado to meet its decarbonization targets, it must shut down coal plants and aggressively electrify transportation. More difficult yet will be the weaning of buildings from their dependence on natural gas—and, in some places, propane—for space heating, warming of water and appliances such as kitchen stoves.
The PUC commissioners were told that natural gas combustion in buildings causes 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Eric Blank, the PUC chairman, asked the same question in a different way. Even before joining the PUC, he has been talking about the 40,000 to 50,000 housing units being built each year in Colorado along with perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 commercial units, virtually all with natural gas hookups.
Even beyond what the PUC can do, he asked, do you have any advice about what Colorado can do as we begin shifting toward all-electric, particularly with deployment of incentives?
Colorado very definitely is not California, he said, a reference to the natural gas bans in new construction by local governments in California, led by Berkeley beginning in 2019.
“It’s just not how Colorado operates,” said Blank.
Education will be foundational, answered Natalie Karas, also of the Environmental Defense Fund. She pointed to a website-based planning device created by a utility in New York that can instantly spit out the emissions associated with fuel decisions.
And can the natural gas lines be repurposed, say to hydrogen? “We have a 50- or 60-year gas system, and to keep that system safe requires hundreds of millions of dollars of ongoing investment in coming months and years,” Blank pointed out. “Is there any clean energy value in those assets going forward in terms of using it for hydrogen or other clean energy molecules?”
Blank got an indirect answer. “It’s all about meeting end uses,” said Megan Anderson of the Regulatory Assistance Project. The question, she said, is whether it’s good idea to make upgrades or are there better ways to meet customer needs.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal that tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To subscribe, go to http://BigPivots.com.
PUC Commissioner Megan Gilman, who assembled the session, asked a central question about motivations and accountability. Current models used in Colorado and elsewhere reward investor-owned utilities with returns based on investments they make in energy generation and distribution. That gives utilities incentives to make investments that don’t necessarily align with climate goals. “That’s a fundamental problem,” she said.
Hicks said the best example of using regulation to achieve broad societal goals can be found in the electric sector, where states have been nudging utilities firmly to abandon coal-fired generation in favor of those that cause less pollution.
One technique is called performance-based ratemaking. Rates the privately-owned utilities are allowed to charge customers depend upon utilities achieving social goals. In this case, the allowed utility revenues would be tied to reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
Hicks also urged a wholistic view of energy systems, seeing natural gas along with electric—which, in a way, is exactly what the Xcel position document issued in November urged.
The EDF’s Karas talked about the need for “rigorous analysis” of “every new piece of gas infrastructure being put into the ground. The experts all talked about the importance of planning.
The future of energy illustrated by Basalt Vista October 19, 2019
Also explored during the session was the question that Blank described as the “economic rock.” In short, how does this transition from natural gas in buildings occur across all economic sectors, not just among the well-heeled or, for that matter, not just in new homes and buildings?
The Xcel paper in November also drew attention to this problem. The scenario is what if only those of most modest means, unable to retrofit their homes, are left holding the bag of the stranded asset and hence required to pay much higher cost.
If there are no easy answers, the best equity will be borne of both well-crafted.
Colorado has some of the United States’ most ambitious climate goals, targeting 50% remissions reductions in 2030 and 90% emissions reductions by 2050. These goals are bolstered by sector-specific policies enacted in 2019 including legislation requiring the state’s dominant utility Xcel to cut emissions 80% by 2030, along with tax credits and partnerships to build charging stations and accelerate the zero-emission vehicle transition.
But new research shows the state’s existing policies, excluding those that are planned but not enacted as part of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap, will only reduce emissions 18% by 2050 – falling far short of Colorado’s climate ambition.
As debate intensifies around Colorado’s next steps on climate policy, new modeling from Energy Innovation and RMI shows implementing stronger policies, many of which are included as part of the state’s GHG Roadmap, can be a climate and economic boon. Ambitious decarbonization of the state’s electricity, transportation, industry, building, and land-use sectors can help limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius while adding more than 20,000 new jobs and $3.5 billion in economic activity per year by 2030 – and up to 36,000 jobs and $7.5 billion annually by 2050.
Cheap clean energy empowers decarbonization – but policy still needed
Colorado embodies the clean energy transition accelerating across the U.S. – a state where fossil fuels once underpinned energy supply and economic activity, but where fast-falling clean energy prices have made decarbonization the cheapest option.
Those favorable economics have made Colorado’s climate ambition possible, but the state is now embarking on the tougher task of determining how to achieve its emissions reductions goals..
Colorado could reap billions in economic growth from its climate ambition
So how can Colorado meet its climate action goals and build a clean energy economy? New modeling using the Colorado Energy Policy Simulator (EPS) developed by Energy Innovation and Colorado-based RMI outlines a policy package that can decarbonize the state’s economy and put it on a pathway to achieve the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommended target of limiting warming to 1.5°C – while generating sustainable economic growth. Some of these policies overlap with those outlined in the state’s GHG Roadmap.
The free, open-source, peer-reviewed Colorado EPS empowers users to estimate climate and energy policy impacts on emissions, the economy, and public health through 2050 using publicly available data. All model assumptions, key data sources, and scenario development used by the EPS are documented online for full transparency. EPS models have been developed for nearly a dozen countries and several subnational regions, including California, Minnesota, Nevada, and Virginia. The Colorado EPS is one of at least 20 planned state-level EPS models being developed by EI and RMI…
Fortunately, the Colorado EPS finds implementing stronger policies across the state’s electricity, transportation, buildings, industrial, land-use, and agricultural sectors can put it on a 1.5°C -compliant pathway that meets Colorado’s emissions reductions goals. The associated air pollution reductions would also prevent 350 deaths and more than 10,000 asthma attacks per year by 2030, and more than 1,400 deaths and nearly 44,000 asthma attacks per year by 2050 – even with a conservative estimate, these monetized health and social benefits reach $21 billion annually by 2050.
This low-carbon transition would supercharge the state’s economy, generating more than 20,000 new jobs and $3.5 billion in economic activity per year by 2030, and adding nearly 36,000 new jobs and more than $7.5 billion to the economy per year by 2050. These jobs would be created by building new solar and wind projects, retrofitting buildings, installing vehicle charging infrastructure, and more. Increased economic activity would come from new jobs paying wages 25% higher than the national media wage, as well as savings from reduced expenditures on volatile fossil fuel supplies.
A policy pathway for Colorado to achieve its climate goals
The 1.5°C policy package introduced by the Colorado EPS incorporates all existing state policy that has been enacted into law, legally enforceable power plant retirements, improvements in building and transportation energy efficiency, and electric vehicle adoption; it then goes further to address the state’s unique emissions profile.
While electricity and transportation lead emissions in most states, industry generates the largest percentage of emissions with 32 percent, primarily from oil and gas production. A mix of electrification, energy efficiency, hydrogen fuel switching, and methane leak reduction drive industrial emissions reductions under this 1.5°C Scenario. Several regulations have been proposed and legislation has been introduced in the state legislature to address these sectors, particularly methane leak reduction and beneficial electrification.
Rapid decarbonization of the state’s electricity sector is foundational to reducing emissions across all other sectors as an increasingly clean grid powers electrification of demand from buildings, industry, and transportation. The 1.5°C Scenario implements an 80% clean electricity standard by 2030 which rises to 100 percent by 2035. This would expand Xcel’s 80% emissions reduction target to cover all state utilities, accelerate the target date from 2035, and make the target legally enforceable – in line with Biden administration efforts to implement an 80% by 2030 clean energy standard. Under this scenario battery storage would increase seven-fold over existing state targets, transmission capacity would double, and additional demand response capacity would increase grid flexibility and reliability.
Colorado is already targeting a 40% reduction in transportation emissions by 2030, which would add 940,000 light-duty electric vehicles on the road. The 1.5°C Scenario would go even further, primarily by requiring all new passenger car and SUV sales be electric by 2035 and all new freight truck sales be electric by 2045. These goals align with ambitious zero-emission light-duty vehicle goals adopted by 10 states as well as the multi-state agreement targeting zero-emission medium- and heavy-vehicles signed by 15 states (including Colorado) and the District of Columbia, would add nearly 1.5 million electric vehicles by 2030, and ensure most on-road vehicles are electric by 2050.
Buildings would be transitioned away from fossil fuels through increased efficiency targets for new buildings and deep efficiency retrofits of existing buildings, along with a sales standard requiring all new building equipment sales be fully electric by 2030 to shift gas heating and cooking equipment to highly efficient electric alternatives.
Here’s the release from the International Energy Agency:
World’s first comprehensive energy roadmap shows government actions to rapidly boost clean energy and reduce fossil fuel use can create millions of jobs, lift economic growth and keep net zero in reach
The world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally, the International Energy Agency said in a landmark special report released today.
Climate pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – would fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to net zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C, according to the new report, Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.
The report is the world’s first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth. It sets out a cost-effective and economically productive pathway, resulting in a clean, dynamic and resilient energy economy dominated by renewables like solar and wind instead of fossil fuels. The report also examines key uncertainties, such as the roles of bioenergy, carbon capture and behavioural changes in reaching net zero.
“Our Roadmap shows the priority actions that are needed today to ensure the opportunity of net-zero emissions by 2050 – narrow but still achievable – is not lost. The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal – our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5 °C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “The IEA’s pathway to this brighter future brings a historic surge in clean energy investment that creates millions of new jobs and lifts global economic growth. Moving the world onto that pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments, underpinned by much greater international cooperation.”
Building on the IEA’s unrivalled energy modelling tools and expertise, the Roadmap sets out more than 400 milestones to guide the global journey to net zero by 2050. These include, from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants. By 2035, there are no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars, and by 2040, the global electricity sector has already reached net-zero emissions.
In the near term, the report describes a net zero pathway that requires the immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation. The pathway calls for annual additions of solar PV to reach 630 gigawatts by 2030, and those of wind power to reach 390 gigawatts. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020. For solar PV, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. A major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is also an essential part of these efforts, resulting in the global rate of energy efficiency improvements averaging 4% a year through 2030 – about three times the average over the last two decades.
Most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 in the net zero pathway come from technologies readily available today. But in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase. This demands that governments quickly increase and reprioritise their spending on research and development – as well as on demonstrating and deploying clean energy technologies – putting them at the core of energy and climate policy. Progress in the areas of advanced batteries, electrolysers for hydrogen, and direct air capture and storage can be particularly impactful.
A transition of such scale and speed cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens, whose lives will be affected in multiple ways.
“The clean energy transition is for and about people,” said Dr Birol. “Our Roadmap shows that the enormous challenge of rapidly transitioning to a net zero energy system is also a huge opportunity for our economies. The transition must be fair and inclusive, leaving nobody behind. We have to ensure that developing economies receive the financing and technological know-how they need to build out their energy systems to meet the needs of their expanding populations and economies in a sustainable way.”
Providing electricity to around 785 million people who have no access to it and clean cooking solutions to 2.6 billion people who lack them is an integral part of the Roadmap’s net zero pathway. This costs around $40 billion a year, equal to around 1% of average annual energy sector investment. It also brings major health benefits through reductions in indoor air pollution, cutting the number of premature deaths by 2.5 million a year.
Total annual energy investment surges to USD 5 trillion by 2030 in the net zero pathway, adding an extra 0.4 percentage points a year to global GDP growth, based on a joint analysis with the International Monetary Fund. The jump in private and government spending creates millions of jobs in clean energy, including energy efficiency, as well as in the engineering, manufacturing and construction industries. All of this puts global GDP 4% higher in 2030 than it would reach based on current trends.
By 2050, the energy world looks completely different. Global energy demand is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people. Almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70%. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power. Solar is the world’s single largest source of total energy supply. Fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain are used in goods where the carbon is embodied in the product such as plastics, in facilities fitted with carbon capture, and in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce.
“The pathway laid out in our Roadmap is global in scope, but each country will need to design its own strategy, taking into account its own specific circumstances,” said Dr Birol. “Plans need to reflect countries’ differing stages of economic development: in our pathway, advanced economies reach net zero before developing economies. The IEA stands ready to support governments in preparing their own national and regional roadmaps, to provide guidance and assistance in implementing them, and to promote international cooperation on accelerating the energy transition worldwide.”
The special report is designed to inform the high-level negotiations that will take place at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention in Glasgow in November. It was requested as input to the negotiations by the UK government’s COP26 Presidency.
“I welcome this report, which sets out a clear roadmap to net-zero emissions and shares many of the priorities we have set as the incoming COP Presidency – that we must act now to scale up clean technologies in all sectors and phase out both coal power and polluting vehicles in the coming decade,” said COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma. “I am encouraged that it underlines the great value of international collaboration, without which the transition to global net zero could be delayed by decades. Our first goal for the UK as COP26 Presidency is to put the world on a path to driving down emissions, until they reach net zero by the middle of this century.”
New energy security challenges will emerge on the way to net zero by 2050 while longstanding ones will remain, even as the role of oil and gas diminishes. The contraction of oil and natural gas production will have far-reaching implications for all the countries and companies that produce these fuels. No new oil and natural gas fields are needed in the net zero pathway, and supplies become increasingly concentrated in a small number of low-cost producers. OPEC’s share of a much-reduced global oil supply grows from around 37% in recent years to 52% in 2050, a level higher than at any point in the history of oil markets.
“Since the IEA’s founding in 1974, one of its core missions has been to promote secure and affordable energy supplies to foster economic growth. This has remained a key concern of our Net Zero Roadmap,” Dr Birol said. “Governments need to create markets for investments in batteries, digital solutions and electricity grids that reward flexibility and enable adequate and reliable supplies of electricity. The rapidly growing role of critical minerals calls for new international mechanisms to ensure both the timely availability of supplies and sustainable production.”
The full report is available for free on the IEA’s website along with an online interactive that highlights some of the key milestones in the pathway that must be achieved in the next three decades to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The social cost of carbon is mentioned twice in the 196-page transportation bill that was introduced into the Colorado’s legislative session in early May. It’s not clear exactly how it will have any more effect than the 55-mph speed limit on one of the interstate highways through Denver. Likely, if this bill passes, it’s part of a bigger puzzle.
But the mention frames transportation differently than ever before in Colorado. Transportation always was about the balance between mobility and the ding to the public treasury, the taxes we pay. This adds a new metric to the discussion, a new dimension of costs.
I wouldn’t advise wading through the 107-word sentence in Senate Bill 21-260 where social cost of carbon is first mentioned. It’s not exactly the sort that Gabriel Garcia Marquez would craft. The gist is that our vehicles pollute, and the pollution has a social cost. It goes on to instruct the methodology of the social cost of carbon be employed, to get an assessment of the environmental costs over time and put into dollar figures. Alone, this does not alter Colorado’s path on transportation, but it does set a new tone.
More telling is “greenhouse,” a word that shows up 42 times in the bill along with 3 mentions of “ozone,” a component greenhouse gas and part of the unhealthy air found along the northern Front Range.
This is a climate bill. It has to be. Transportation will become the No.1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado as the big coal-fired power plants begin closing in 2022. Gina McCarthy, speaking at the recent 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium, called transportation the “big kahuna.” She was speaking from her federal perch as Biden’s climate advisor, but it’s also true in Colorado.
Colorado has taken steps to produce small waves in decarbonization of transportation. Now it needs a big wave, say those involved in transportation efforts, and this is it.
It’s also a congestion bill. I’m guessing I heard the word “congestion” used or alluded to a dozen times when Gov. Jared Polis, legislators, and several others spoke on the interior steps of the Capitol on May 4. Alec Garnett, the House speaker, talked about the ability to immediately tell you’re leaving Utah or Wyoming when entering Colorado. This bill provides for new funding sources that aim to deliver more asphalt and concrete.
The bill is also a compromise, as was best described by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a Republican. He talked about highway expansions he wants to see in Colorado Springs, the widening of Powers Boulevard and more. “These simply cannot be accomplished without a much greater infusion of state and federal dollars,” he said. Suthers, a former state attorney general in Colorado, also said he is a political realist—suggesting compromise is inevitable.
“Transportation can’t be a partisan issue. It’s too important to the quality of life of our residents in Colorado Springs,” he said.
Kevin Priola, a Republican state legislator from the Brighton area, also spoke on behalf of the bill. He’s been a big booster of transportation electrification in Colorado, showing up at a bill signing with Gov. Jared Polis in 2019 near East High School in Denver.
At the Capitol, he spoke about congestion on Interstate 76, now bumper to bumper instead of the occasional car that he saw from his grandfather’s farm when he was a boy. But highway widening cannot be the whole answer. “We can’t just continue to bulldoze mountains and widen lanes,” he said.
Most bills run 10 to 20 pages. This one runs to 196 pages. This is Longs Peak, not Rabbit Mountain outside of Lyons. Or, for those in Durango, Engineer Mountain instead of Perins Peak. It’s sweeping, with a little bit for everybody, most fundamentally new ways to collect revenue. But there’s a distinct shift in direction, a big pivot, if you will.
Are there comparable pivots? Others might point to funding changes of the last 30 years, including 1992, the last time Colorado passed a gas tax increase. A case may be made for 1973, the year when the first bore of the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel Complex was opened, followed by the second bore in 1978.
This is from the May 12, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal. To sign up, go to http://BigPivots.com
I’d make the argument for 1930. That’s the year that the state began plowing snow on Berthoud Pass, a clear recognition of the ascendancy of the automobile. Before, there was no way to drive across the Continental Divide during winter.
Now the pivot is toward electrification and, more broadly yet, decarbonization through a variety of pathways. And, in an odd reversal of my thesis about 1930, it opens the door partway to the idea of a Front Range passenger train. Carl Smith, representing the railway workers’ union, pointed out that rail workers losing their jobs on ferrying coal from mines to markets could transfer their skills to passenger rail.
Elise Jones, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, emphasized electrification of transportation. The bill proposes to put more than $730 million toward electric vehicle solutions. That, she said, represents “one of the biggest investments in transportation electrification by any state anywhere in the country.”
The bill, said Jones, recognizes the scale of the challenge as Colorado seeks to expand the number of electric vehicles – currently 36,000 on state highways – to nearly a million by the end of the decade.
“To support these new EVS, Colorado will need 111 times more charging stations by 2030, and this bill would put a significant down payment on that infrastructure,” she said.
Jones also noted the funding proposed by the bill for all types of electric mobility, from electric bikes and transit to school buses and trucks, but also rideshare vehicles like Uber and Lyft. “It includes money to replace the dirtiest vehicles on the road with zero-emissions buses and delivery trucks.”
Travis Madsen, who runs the transportation program at SWEEP, elaborated on this theme when I talked to him. “I think the bill is an essential piece of achieving Colorado’s climate targets,” he said.
“We need to step up the pace, and this bill will provide some needed juice to get this (transition) moving faster,” he said.
Madsen directed my attention beyond our cars to the fleets of trucks and delivery vehicles. Section 11 of the bill proposes a clean-fleet enterprise within the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment – the agency given the most significant responsibility for creating rules to decarbonize the economy – to provide incentives for the shift in fuels. This new clean-fleet enterprise will be allowed to “impose a delivery fee to be paid” by those getting the goods by delivery of motor vehicle. Nudge, nudge.
A personal aside here: I live on the edge of one of metropolitan Denver’s small but up-and-coming commercial areas. There’s a daily parade of diesel-powered trucks delivering wine, beer, fruits, and all other manner of items to be consumed in the restaurants of Olde Town Arvada. Moreover, I have wheeled around the warehouse districts along I-70 and I-76 on Denver’s east and north side. The size of the fleets of Amazon and others astound me.
But then there’s the issue of how we wheel about on a daily basis. In September 2020 the Denver Regional Council of Governments issued the 2019 Annual Report on Roadway Traffic Congestion in the Denver Region, which noted that vehicles miles traveled per capita had actually declined in 2019, a second straight year. On weekends, the VMT per person was down to 25.4 miles.
Of course, with population growth of 1.4%, there was just as much travel.
Some people seem to think covid will dent this, perhaps permanently. I’m skeptical.
This transportation bill aims to deliver leverage. Section 28 would require the Colorado Department of Transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (think RTD) to “engage in an enhanced level of planning, analysis, community engagement, and monitoring with respect to transportation capacity projects and specifies what that entails and also requires CDOT to conduct a road usage charge study and an autonomous vehicle study.”
To me, this doesn’t say I’ll have to ditch my car. But there’s some jostling here.
Madsen sees this as a crucial section, along with the AQCC rulemaking on transportation emissions that is expected this summer. “I think there’s going to be a lot of push and pull over whether and how Colorado invests in transportation differently to reach the GHG roadmap targets,” he says. He points out that the state roadmap calls for growth in vehicle travel to be cut in half.
In Denver itself, densification is rapidly underway. Some people don’t feel the need to have their own cars. “That will be an important way we can accommodate more people without causing a dramatic increase in everyone driving,” says Madsen.
I’m skeptical—not about the goals, but whether local governments can be nudged into making land use decisions that actually impact greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. I’ve been hearing this conversation for decades with no real gain.
A couple of weeks ago I drove to the western precincts of Arvada amid the rolling hills just short of Highway 93, the road between Golden and Boulder. These huge projects — Candelas and Leyden Ranch—have wonderful open spaces and uplifting views, exactly what people from elsewhere expect in Colorado. (If you don’t mind some wind occasionally).
These housing projects are also absolutely car centric. They’re VMT disasters. In this, they are more typical than not among the 40,000 to 50,000 houses being built in Colorado annually, the number of which have been going up during the last 4 or 5 years.
The bill got its first legislative hearing on [May 10, 2021], dragging on for 7.5 hours in the Senate Finance Committee before being passed, with amendments, on a 4-3 party-line vote. So much for Sutherland’s pitch for bipartisanship.
The social cost of carbon mention remained intact. Colorado first began using that metric as a result of 2019 legislation, which requires the Public Utilities Commission to evaluate electrical generation projects with the federal social cost of carbon, which was then $46 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions. This tilts the table against coal generation, although as a practical matter, the table is heavily tilted toward lower cost renewables. Two other bills being considered by legislators this session would also add social cost of carbon to the PUC matrix when evaluating programs that would reduce natural gas use in buildings and elsewhere.
But the practical effect of social cost of carbon in the transportation bill?
In response to my questions, Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, said the goal of the social cost of carbon is to provide “a consistent approach across relevant agencies. We are ensuring that we are doing cost benefit analyses and accounting using an appropriate social cost of carbon and making sure in multiple pieces of legislation that we use the same social cost of carbon at the PUC, C-DOT, CDPHE, etc.”
Madsen—who took Toor’s job at SWEEP when Toor joined the Polis administration in early 2019—said he thinks the practical effect will depend on a future rulemaking at the Air Quality Control Commission. That may occur later this year.
“The social cost of carbon will help illustrate the value of reducing emissions (either through transportation and land-use planning to reduce overall vehicle travel, or through electrification measures),” he said.
Have a different take on this transportation bill? Happy to publish other viewpoints. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s a gust column from Scott Fetchenhier that’s running in The Durango Herald:
State leaders need to take action to protect the places in Southwest Colorado that we know, love and call home from the pollution that threatens our air, water and climate.
I live in and represent San Juan County, where my constituents and I are reliant on Tri-State Generation and Transmission for our electricity. As the second largest electricity provider in the state, Tri-State is a key player in reducing greenhouse gas pollution in our state, which is why we need Senate Bill 200.
Our rural mountain communities are dependent on bold steps toward climate pollution reductions for our visitor-based, snow-reliant economies. We have seen the impacts of climate change in our county: unprecedented beetle kill, the 416 Fire in 2018 and the Ice Lake Fire in October 2020. Wind-blown dust from the Four Corners lands on our snowpack and causes the snow to melt off more quickly. We often see rain in December and March instead of snow because of higher temperatures.
We know that without big actions to reduce emissions, we will continue to see increasingly severe and frequent natural disasters.
With these impacts in mind, it’s great that Tri-State seems to have heard its members’ calls for carbon reductions of at least 80% by 2030. Last fall, Tri-State announced a commitment to 80% carbon reductions by 2030 from electricity delivered to Colorado customers as part of its Responsible Energy Plan. This Responsible Energy Plan is a big step in the right direction for Tri-State and the communities it serves, and we want to make sure it happens. However, the plan is currently only a voluntary commitment and my constituents need certainty that Tri-State will honor that commitment.
In fact, last fall San Juan County passed a county resolution urging state leaders to hold Tri-State accountable to 80% emissions reduction by 2030. Part of that resolution reads: “The evidence of climate change is impacting daily lives in San Juan County with near-historic drought, unprecedented smoke from fires across Colorado and the U.S., and rapidly increasing temperatures, and the urgency for our electric utility to take bold, immediate steps toward reducing emissions couldn’t be more clear.”
And we’re not the only ones. Four other communities in Tri-State’s service territory have also passed similar resolutions, including the Town of Telluride, Summit County, the Town of Rico and San Miguel County.
Southwest Colorado can better prepare to combat and be resilient to climate change if we know we can count on our power provider to reduce carbon emissions significantly in the next 10 years. I thank Tri-State for its voluntary commitment to 80% reductions by 2030 in response to its member communities’ advocacy, and I ask our state leaders to ensure that Tri-State gets there in a timely and equitable way that allows Coloradans to generate clean electricity locally rather than import coal from other states. SB-200 takes care of that.
Tri-State is one among several utilities and industries that we need to be able to count on to do their part to reduce emissions in Colorado. While I appreciate the efforts that state leaders have underway to reduce carbon emissions, the reality is that Colorado’s utilities are not on track to meet our climate goals. In fact, we are at risk of increasing climate pollution in Colorado in the coming years, especially with the volume of people predicted to be moving to our state in the next 20 years.
To successfully meet the state’s climate pollution targets, we need not only the incentives and rule-makings that state leaders are working on now, but also clear and enforceable targets in each sector of our economy, starting with electricity.
Our mountain communities need to be able to count on utilities like Tri-State to reduce emissions and there is language in SB 200 that will ensure just that. I urge Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Legislature to support SB 200 in order to keep us on track to cut greenhouse gas pollution and protect the communities we all love.
Scott Fetchenhier is a San Juan County Commissioner based in Silverton. He originally came to Silverton to work in the mines as both a geologist and laborer. He owns a gift shop in Silverton and has been in business almost 40 years.
Editor’s Note: Tri-State Generation and Transmission is the provider of most of the power for La Plata Electric Association, the co-op that serves many of our readers.
Here’s the release from the Center for Biological Diversity (Melissa Hornbein, Taylor McKinnon, Grant Stevens, Brett Henderson, Natasha Léger, Jeremy Nichols):
Conservation groups filed a lawsuit [May 10, 2021] challenging the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service’s 2020 approval of a plan that allows fracking across 35,000 acres of Colorado’s Western Slope. The North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan allows 35 new fracking wells in the North Fork Valley and Thompson Divide areas of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests.
Today’s lawsuit says federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws by failing to fully assess the potential for water pollution and harm to the climate, and by refusing to analyze alternatives that would minimize or eliminate harm to the environment. The plan would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, equivalent to the annual pollution from a dozen coal-fired power plants.
“The Trump administration charted a course to destroy public lands and our shared climate,” said Peter Hart, a staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “This master development plan is a 30-year commitment to the disastrous ‘energy dominance’ agenda which ignored significant impacts on the communities and spectacular values of the North Fork. We are determined to hold our federal government accountable to a more sustainable future for Colorado’s public lands, wildlife, people and climate.”
“Fossil fuel development and sustainable public lands don’t mix, especially in the roadless headwaters of the Upper North Fork Valley,” said Brett Henderson, executive director of Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “This project is incompatible with necessary climate change action, healthy wildlife habitat, and watershed health, and is at odds with the future of our communities.”
“We are in a megadrought in the North Fork Valley and the Western Slope. The water used to frack in the watershed risks precious water resources and only exacerbates the climate and the water crisis,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This 35-well project is the beginning of much larger plans to extract a resource which should be left in the ground and for which the market is drying up.”
“This dangerous plan promises more runaway climate pollution in one of the fastest-warming regions in the United States,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re suing to force federal agencies to stop ignoring the climate emergency. Like the planet, the Colorado River Basin can’t survive a future of ever-expanding fossil fuel development.”
“It is past time for the federal government to meaningfully consider climate change in its oil and gas permitting decisions,” said Melissa Hornbein, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Gunnison and Delta Counties have already exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming; the project failed to meaningfully analyze impacts to climate, roadless areas, and the agriculture and ecotourism centered economies of the North Fork Valley. More drilling is projected to harm Delta County’s tax revenue, not help it. These communities need land management that serves the public interest.”
“This case is about confronting the Trump administration’s complete disregard of law, science and public lands,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We can’t frack our way to a safe climate and we certainly can’t afford to keep letting the oil and gas industry run roughshod over Colorado’s irreplaceable and vital public lands.”
Colorado’s Western Slope is already suffering from severe warming. The Washington Post recently featured the area as the largest “climate hot spot” in the lower 48 states, where temperatures have already risen more than 2 degrees Celsius, reducing snowpack and drying Colorado River flows that support endangered fish, agriculture and 40 million downstream water users.
In January 574 conservation, Native American, religious and business groups sent the then president-elect a proposed executive order to ban new fossil fuel leasing and permitting on federal public lands and waters. In February the Biden administration issued an executive order pausing oil and gas leasing onshore and offshore pending a climate review of federal fossil fuel programs. In June the Interior Department will issue an interim report describing findings from a March online forum and public comments.
Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide fossil fuel leasing ban on federal lands and oceans would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals.
Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroy habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have inflicted immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.
Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from the world’s already producing oil and gas fields, if fully developed, would push global warming well past 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the wildlife, wildlands, and communities of the American West in the face of a changing climate. As a public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for services, but relies instead on charitable gifts from individuals, families, and foundations to accomplish our mission.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Conservation groups are suing federal agencies to challenge their approval last year of a proposal by Gunnison Energy to drill 35 oil and gas wells across some 35,000 acres of the upper North Fork Valley.
The groups say the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service violated federal laws by failing to properly assess the climate impacts of the project or analyze alternatives that would have minimized environmental impacts.
The suit was brought by the Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, WildEarth Guardians, Citizens for a Healthy Community in Paonia and High Country Conservation Advocates in Crested Butte.
The project’s location is in Gunnison and Delta counties west of McClure Pass. Some 25,800 acres of the affected acreage is U.S. Forest Service land, 8,648 acres are private and 468 involve BLM land.
The company plans to drill wells down and then out horizontally into the Mancos shale formation from five well pads, three of them new. It has estimated the project could produce up to 700 billion cubic feet of gas over 30 years. That equates to about 2.5% of the gas consumed in the United States last year.
The project also would require about 21 million gallons of water to hydraulically fracture each well, the company has estimated. And conservation groups said in a news release that it would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, which they said is the same as what a dozen coal-fired power plants emit in a year…
The suit says that in evaluating the project, the BLM and Forest Service failed take a hard look at methane emissions related to the project. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The suit also says the agencies failed to use “tools or methods generally accepted in the scientific community to evaluate the impact” of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, such as the social cost of carbon and global carbon budgeting.
Details of a proposed solar farm in western Pueblo County were discussed during a virtual public meeting Thursday. The Turkey Creek Solar Farm, if approved by Pueblo County Commissioners during the permitting process, will be built by 174 Power Global of Irvine, California, to supply solar power for Black Hills Energy. It will be located just north of U.S. Highway 50 one mile east of the Fremont/Pueblo County line. Approximately 1,200 to 1,400 acres will be used for the project, according to Ed Maddox, project development lead for 174 Power Global. The land will be leased from Gary Walker of Walker Ranches.
“We do consider both lease agreements and purchase options with land owners,” on projects like Turkey Creek, Maddox said. “In this particular case the land owner is a large local land owner who wants to continue to own and operate the ranch as it is, and leasing provides the best solution.” The permitting process is expected to take the remainder of the year with construction starting in 2022. “Over the 12- to 14-month construction period for Turkey Creek, we will have an average of about 300 workers during construction and that will vary from a minimum of about 150 to 450 or more workers during peak construction,” said Stephanie Lauer, environmental permitting manager for 174 Power Global. Once the solar farm begins operations in 2023, “We will have about three to five full-time workers who are responsible for daily maintenance of the facility and monitoring of all the systems,” Lauer said.
Additional local labor will be needed several times a year for vegetation mowing and washing of the panels. The solar panels will be aligned in rows running north to south and will be attached to a tracking system which allows the panels to track the sun from east to west as it moves. “They will be 10- to 14-feet high when they are tilted to their highest position,” Maddox said. When motorists are driving on U.S. 50 they will see portions of the solar farm, but the panels will not obstruct the view of the mountains, Maddox said.
Travelers will not be affected by glint or glare from the panels because of their dark grey color which will absorb light, not reflect it. Wildlife fencing will ensure pronghorn, elk and cattle will be able to access the underpass that allows animals to move under the highway.
The solar farm will generate enough electricity to power 46,000 homes each year, said Taylor Henderson, project developer for Out- shine Energy. Only a handful of questions came from the audience. One local landowner asked how the construction will impact traffic on Stone City Road. Lauer said she did not think the road will be used as workers will get to the site at two access points along U.S. 50.
As the national climate advisor, Gina McCarthy has the ear of President of Joe Biden in all matters climate.
But in the opening session of the 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium on Tuesday, she barely mentioned climate except to vaguely affirm “the science” and to describe the Biden response to climate change as a “very different framing than we’ve had before.”
The framing she described is that of opportunity in the clean energy economy—including the potential for Colorado to be part of the solutions needed in the energy shift.
“We have to look at the opportunities (in a clean energy economy) and get people excited about the benefits it brings to them,” she said before describing cleaner air and jobs.
“(Biden) embraced this not as a wonky science problem but fundamentally a people problem,” she said.
McCarthy described her job as sitting at the table with the cabinet secretaries, making sure that there’s a climate change overlay in all matters, whether housing or transportation, and helping knit together the response. It isn’t to be just an Environmental Protection Agency problem or a Department of Energy problem.
“It has to be a whole government approach because without that we would lose these synergies and these momentums,” she said.
Biden, she said, saw the response to climate change delivering answers to how we get out of the pandemic and restart the economy. Economic strategies that result in investment of “tremendous resources in a way that wins the clean energy future” will also fuel economic growth. As for covid and climate, addressing their challenges both require acceptance of science.
Another major driver of Biden’s view of domestic policy was the new lens of equity, including that of environmental or energy justice. The pandemic showed that impacts did not hit all communities equally, and by extension, energy systems of the past had more deleterious impacts to some groups than others. This understanding should be seen less as a challenge than a reckoning, said McCarthy.
Not all answers to reducing greenhouse gas pollution are yet evident, even if there are strong winds in the sails of renewable generation of electricity. That’s OK, she said.
“We don’t always need the answer,” she said. “We need to be leaning forward and looking at where we want to go.”
That was a theme in the two-day conference. In session after session, speakers described both clear direction going forward in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy, but uncertainties that they hope will be resolved in the next 5 to 10 years.
“That we don’t have all the answers shouldn’t be a barrier to action in the short term,” said Bryan Willson, executive director of the Energy Institute at Colorado State University.
“We don’t need to let the perfect get in the way of the good,” said Steven Hamburg, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. If uncertainties should not delay forward movement of the broad strokes of action, he counseled caution to avoid “big and expensive mistakes.”
Executives at Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation & Transmission, described a similar mix of bold actions and uncertainty.
In 2020, coal-fired generation delivered 26% and natural gas 38% of electricity distributed by Xcel. The company projects coal generation will fall to 4% and natural gas 16% by 2030.
That remaining coal-fired power will come from Comanche 3, the only coal-fired plant in Colorado that Xcel plans to continue operating, but at a reduced rate. Why not also close Comanche 3?
Alice Jackson, chief executive of Xcel’s Colorado division, explained that continuing operation of Comanche 3 will ensure a softer financial transition for Pueblo County, where the plant is located. The plant will also be needed to ensure reliability, as storage needs technological advancement and lower prices. “It’s really a broad evaluation and not just one factor,” she said.
Tri-State also awaits some technological innovation. It plans to close its three units at Craig in 2025, 2028 and 2029. Duane Highley, the chief executive, said Tri-State has closely been monitoring technological innovation in hopes of technology that can store energy for days, not just hours. “We’re looking hard at hydrogen and also looking at ammonia,” he said. QUESTION
Transmission also figures prominently into the thinking about the energy systems of the next decade. One Colorado energy official calls it the “secret sauce” necessary for deep decarbonization.
In Colorado, electrical demand is projected to grow 50% in the next 30 years as we electrify transportation and, a little more slowly, replace fossil fuels in heating our homes and water. Xcel has proposed investment of $1.7 billion in new transmission lines in eastern Colorado. Other utilities have not yet played their cards.
But some energy analysts see need for even more ambitious investment in a grid that better links different parts of the country so that renewable energy can be matched with demands.
The Texas disaster in February helps illustrate why. Texas was ill-equipped for the deep freeze. It lost natural gas generation because of lack of winterization. But it almost completely lost wind generation, which plummeted from 68,000 megawatts to 2,000 megawatts as the storm began dropping a rare three-inch snowfall on Houston. Had Texas been connected with regions of the country where the sun was shining or the wind blowing, it might have imported enough power to keep on the lights.
It wasn’t just Texas, though. The same loss of wind generation that accompanied the deep freeze posed worrisome problems to Fort Collins-based Platte River Power Authority, which issued a precautionary warning. Tri-State also noted the loss of wind generation in the still atmosphere that accompanied the cold.
More transmission can allow utilities to draw on a broader menu of renewables in such situations, even on a daily basis. The Great Plains boast great winds, the Southwest blazes with solar.
How is this knitting together to be done? Transmission in western states must inevitable cross the vast public lands. In Colorado, 36.2% of the state is administered by federal land agencies, principally the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. New Mexico is close behind at 35%. Wyoming is 48%. In Utah, it’s 70%.
“On public lands, as important as they are, a balance has to be struck,” said McCarthy, “but the balance cannot get in the way of effectively addressing climate change, which is an existential threat to all of us.” And, she added, hewing to the sales pitch of the Biden administration, “to take advantage of the economic benefits that a clean energy jobs provide.”
McCarthy, a live wire herself in her public appearances, also pointed to the joint announcement by the federal transportation and energy departments of a plan to expand use of rights of way for highway and railroads for transmission. This will help more expeditious investment in transmission, she said.
“There are probably 20 areas where we would be able to immediately make investments in transmission in ways to utilize those rights of ways to open up new transmission and opportunities for renewable energy,” she said.
Colorado has a goal of 80% decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2030 and 50% decarbonization of its economy altogether. Biden had offered a far more aggressive target, 100% decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2035 and a 50% to 52% economy wide target.
To push this decarbonization of electricity, McCarthy said she leans toward a clean energy standard, as advocated by Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative, and 12 other utilities from New York to California, in a letter sent to Biden in April. The letter called for a federal requirement that electrical utilities be able to supply 80% of their power from non-carbon sources by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.
“If you nationalize, you get some terrific opportunities,” said McCarthy. “Most of us are shifting from cap and trade, because of the complexity, but looking more at direct investments and things like the clean electricity standard.”
Carbon pricing, she added, “is not something that is going away. I just find it less satisfying.”
In all this, the Biden administration sees need for more research. McCarthy mentioned technological innovations that have occurred in the last 50 years since the United States put Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. The federal government has often played a role in instigating technological innovation, she said, using federal funds to spur innovation and investment in the private sector.
McCarthy said the Department of Energy has billions of dollars of loans and an accelerator that uses the green bank model.
Colorado State University has already played a role in the Biden administration’s view of innovation, Ritter told McCarthy in what he described as a “shameless plug.”
A group of researchers and academics at CSU was the source of an idea contained in the Biden campaign Energy and Environment Platform. That idea, to create an advanced research project agency for climate, also called an ARPA-C, within the Department of Energy, has become part of the Biden budget proposal.
It would stand alongside the existing ARPA-E, which is devoted to technical solutions. For example, it recently announced a $35 million grant program for ideas to reduce emission of methane from oil and gas supply chains, coal mines and other sources.
CSU’s idea, Ritter explained, is to offer a multi-disciplinary—and not purely technical approach—to climate solutions. Those in the social sciences would be included.
“When you are making a shameless plug, it’s good to be telling the truth,” McCarthy replied. “It’s well deserved.”
Wyoming’s Integrated Test Center will host one of two projects selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for Phase III funding of a large-scale pilot carbon capture project.
DOE announced today it has awarded $99 million to two projects for Phase III of their Demonstration of Large-Scale Pilot Carbon Capture Technologies funding opportunity. Membrane Technology and Research (MTR) was awarded $51,699,939 from DOE, and with additional non-federal funding, this project will bring over $64 million in research dollars into Wyoming.
“I am delighted that Membrane Technology and Research (MTR) has been selected to move forward in this process, and that Wyoming has been chosen to host this important demonstration of cutting edge carbon capture technology,” Governor Mark Gordon said. “This is exactly the type of research that was envisioned when the ITC was developed and Wyoming will continue to support these efforts.”
“Membrane technology is a most promising version of carbon capture, and now it can move forward to the pilot project phase,” the Governor added. “This is also an example of technology that, if commercially successful, can be exported for carbon capture projects at home or abroad. The more carbon capture technologies that are available, the more likely it is that Wyoming coal will be an important part of our future electricity supply.”
The Integrated Test Center and MTR have been working together since 2018 when MTR selected the ITC as its testing location as part of the Phase II tasks related to this funding opportunity.
“We could not be more thrilled for MTR and we are excited to welcome them onsite as they start working on this next phase of testing,” said Jason Begger, Managing Director of the ITC. “At this scale, we will be able to demonstrate carbon capture technology at a sufficient level to demonstrate to utilities the next step can be a commercial version.”
MTR will be operating in the large test bay at the ITC and utilizing approximately 10MWe of flue gas from Dry Fork Station.
More information on this project is available on the DOE website. Learn more about the Wyoming Integrated Test Center here.
How Colorado legislators propose to begin crimping methane emissions in the built environment
If methane were a guest at a dinner party in Colorado, it’d be noticing that the hosts have started checking their watches and begun to make comments about a busy schedule the next day.
SB 21-246 (Electric Utility Promote Beneficial Electrification), introduced last week by Senator Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, is the latest evidence from legislators that they want methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, to begin thinking about moving on. The bill is scheduled to get its first hearing Thursday afternoon at the Colorado Capitol.
Instead of burning natural gas and other fossil fuels in buildings to provide heat, warm water and for cooking, Fenberg’s bill would encourage use of electricity for those purposes. The process is being called beneficial electrification.
“Fossil gas and petroleum products will contribute to supplying Colorado’s energy needs for many years to come,” says the bill, submitted by Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder. “Nonetheless, transitioning to clean electric homes and businesses is a critical strategy for improving public health and safety, saving energy, creating family-sustaining jobs, and helping the state meet its greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets.”
The bill is premised on the expectation of a complete reversal during the next decade in how Colorado’s utilities generate electricity. In 2020, coal and natural gas were responsible for 78% of electrical production in Colorado, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. By 2030, utilities responsible for nearly all of electrical sales expect to be at 80% renewables. Some aspire to even higher levels. Holy Cross Energy has adopted a 100% goal.
That language echoes the Colorado Decarbonization Roadmap that was issued in January by the state’s energy office. Buildings lag electrical generation and transportation among the leading sectors for greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re not far behind. Importantly, we don’t replace buildings every 10 or 15 years, the way we do cars. That’s why those working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions see need to begin work now on fuel switching in homes and other buildings.
The roadmap envisions electricity denting use of natural gas in the next 30 years. Coupled with electrification of transportation and population growth, the increased demand will cause demand for electricity to double, according to a study by the consulting firm E3 that was commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office.
Colorado’s attention to methane comes after a decade of growing concern about methane, both nationally and internationally. The New York Times on Sunday previewed what it called a “landmark United Nations report” that reflects a “growing recognition that the world needs to start reining in planet-warming emissions more rapidly, and that abating methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, will be critical in the short term.
While cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions will remain urgent, “it’s going to be next to impossible to remove enough carbon dioxide to get any real benefits for the climate in the first half of the century,” Drew Shindell, the study’s lead author and a professor of earth science at Duke University (and a consultant on efforts to abate methane from coal mines in Colorado’s North Fork Valley), told the newspaper.
“But if we can make a big enough cut in methane in the next decade, we’ll see public health benefits within the decade, and climate benefits within two decades,” Shindell said.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To get copies, sign up at https://bigpivots.com
Fenberg’s bill is not nearly as ambitious as the coming UN report might suggest is needed. However, it’s bold in that it seeks to shift the direction by nudging gas utilities to offer more carrots to customers to nudge the shift along.
The primary lever for this shift would be adoption of a relatively new metric for evaluating the cost-effectiveness of demand-management programs, something called the social cost of methane. The new metric seeks to apply the real, long-term costs of greenhouse gas pollution to deliberations about utility programs.
In this it’s similar to the social cost of carbon, an attempt to evaluate the real costs of carbon dioxide pollution.
Methane pollution, though, has a much higher price that reflects its short-term heat-trapping properties, about 80 times as powerful over the course of the first two decades, after which it has mostly dissipated. The cost assigned is $1,746 per short ton. The social cost of carbon was set by statute in Colorado at $46. Both, however, are subject to inflation.
Fenberg’s bill falls short of mandating fuel switching. The bill explicitly prohibits the PUC from requiring the removal of gas-fueled appliances or equipment from existing structures or banning the installation of gas service lines to new structures.
Instead, the bill intends for the PUC to push the utilities to offer attractive programs to customers such that they will voluntarily use electricity in new construction or replace gas fixtures such as furnaces and water heaters in existing homes and other buildings.
Several other bills also seek to tamp down emissions of methane and the combustion of natural gas.
Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, has a bill—now being reformulated—that calls for a renewable natural gas standard, somewhat similar to that adopted by Colorado voters in 2004 for electrical generation. The intent of SB21-161 (Voluntary Reduce Greenhouse Gas Natural Gas Utility) is to encourage natural gas utilities with 250,000 customers or more to capture methane from dairies, landfills, and existing and abandoned coal mines in order to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.
HB 18-1286 (Energy Performance For Buildings) would require owners and managers of buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to benchmark energy use and comply with performance standards, tamping down greenhouse gas emissions.
Separately from the legislative agenda, both the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have adopted regulations in the last year that seek to crimp emissions of methane during extraction and transmission.
As the state tries to reform its relationship to drilling, an expensive task awaits.
When an oil or gas well reaches the end of its lifespan, it must be plugged. If it isn’t, the well might leak toxic chemicals into groundwater and spew methane, carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere for years on end.
But plugging a well is no simple task: Cement must be pumped down into it to block the opening, and the tubes connecting it to tanks or pipelines must be removed, along with all the other onsite equipment. Then the top of the well has to be chopped off near the surface and plugged again, and the area around the rig must be cleaned up.
There are nearly 60,000 unplugged wells in Colorado in need of this treatment — each costing $140,000 on average, according to the Carbon Tracker, a climate think tank, in a new report that analyzes oil and gas permitting data. Plugging this many wells will cost a lot —more than $8 billion, the report found.
Companies that drill wells in Colorado are legally required to pay for plugging them. They must also put forward financial assurances in the form of bonds, which the state can call on to pay for the plugging. These bonds are meant to incentivize cleanup and to protect the state, in case a company is unable to pay. But as it stands today, Colorado has only about $185 million in bonds from industry — just 2% of the estimated cleanup bill, according to the new study. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) assumes an average cost of $82,500 per well — lower than the Carbon Tracker’s figure, which factors in issues like well depth. But even using the state’s more conservative number, the overall cleanup would cost nearly $5 billion, of which the money currently available from energy companies would cover less than 5%.
This situation is the product of more than 150 years of energy extraction. Now, with the oil and gas industry looking less robust every year and reeling in the wake of the pandemic, the state of Colorado and its people could be on the hook for billions in cleanup costs. Meanwhile, unplugged wells persist as environmental hazards. This spring, Colorado will try to tackle the problem; state energy regulators have been tasked with reforming the policies governing well cleanup and financial commitments from industry.
“The system has put the state at risk, and it needs to change,” said Josh Joswick, an organizer with the environmental group Earthworks. “Now we have a government that wants to do something about it.”
THE FIRST WESTERN OIL WELL broke ground in Colorado in 1860. Drilling has been an important part of the state’s economy ever since; as of 2019, Colorado ranked in the sixth and seventh in the nation for oil and natural gas production, respectively.
When it comes to cleanup, Colorado uses a tiered system known as blanket bonding. Small operators can pay ahead with bonds on single wells. Drillers with more than 100 wells statewide pay a fixed reclamation fee of $100,000, regardless of the number of wells. A similar system also applies to wells on federal public land in the state. Large companies pay a single $150,000 bond, which covers unlimited federal public land wells throughout the country. There are about 7,400 public-land wells capable of producing oil or gas in Colorado, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
When a driller walks away or cannot pay for cleanup, the well enters the state’s Orphan Well Program, which works to identify and plug these wells. There are about 200 wells in the program right now, according to the state. But a closer look at state data reveals a large number of wells at risk. Nearly half of the state’s unplugged wells are stripper wells — low-producing operations with small profit margins often at the end of their lifespans. These wells are particularly vulnerable to shifts in oil prices. That means they change hands often. “This is a common tactic in the oil and gas industry: Spinning off liabilities to progressively weaker companies, until the final owner goes bankrupt and none of the previous owners are on the hook for cleanup,” said Clark Williams-Derry, a finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
There are also inactive wells: Nearly 10% of the state’s wells have not produced oil or gas in at least two years, according to a Carbon Tracker analysis of state permitting data. Unlike some of the neighboring oil states, Colorado requires that companies pay a single bond on each inactive well of this sort. This costs either $10,000 or $20,000, depending on the depth of the well. In theory, these payments protect the state, in case the well owner goes bankrupt. But in Colorado, it’s still far cheaper for energy companies to pay the cost of that single, unused well — and the small annual premium payments on the bond — than to actually plug it. “Colorado clearly makes it cheaper to idle a well than to clean it up,” Williams-Derry said.
In Colorado, just two companies are responsible for nearly 70% of the bonds for currently inactive wells. One is Noble Energy Inc., which was purchased by the global oil giant Chevron in October 2020. The other is Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. Kerr-McGee was responsible for the 2017 home explosion in Firestone, Colorado, that killed two people. Last year, the COGCC fined the company more than $18 million for the accident, by far the largest fine in state history. Both companies still own large numbers of wells in the Denver-Julesburg Basin, the prolific oil and gas formation beneath central and eastern Colorado. And the mass desertion of wells is not hypothetical: In fall of 2019, a small company called Petroshare Corporation went bankrupt and left about 90 wells for the state to cleanup. That alone will cost Colorado millions of dollars. Last summer, when California’s largest oil driller filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it left billions in debt and more than 17,000 unplugged wells.
The oil and gas industry is already mired in a years-long decline that raises doubts about its ability to meet cleanup costs. In six out of the past seven years, energy has been either the worst- or second-worst-performing sector on the S&P 500. And the economic fallout from COVID-19 has only accelerated the decline. Oil prices hit record lows in 2020. The industry’s debt approached record levels, and thousands of oilfield workers lost their jobs, Colorado Public Radio reported. Many companies went bankrupt, including 12 drilling companies and six oilfield service companies in Colorado, according to Haynes and Boone LLP, a law firm that tracks industry trends.
IN 2019, A NEW LAW completely overhauled the state’s relationship to oil and gas. This spring, Colorado oil and gas regulators are tasked with reforming the financial requirements for well plugging. It’s a big deal, especially in an oil state like Colorado: The law gives local governments more control over oil and gas development, and it rewrote the mission of the COGCC, the state’s energy regulator. The COGCC has subsequently banned the burning off or releasing of natural gas, a routine drilling practice, and instituted a broad range of wildlife and public health protection policies. Recently, it voted for the nation’s largest setback rule, which requires oil and gas operations to stay at least 2,000 feet from homes and schools.
The deep divide between the true cost of cleanup and what industry has so far ponied up is not news to Colorado regulators. In a 2017 letter to lawmakers, the COGCC estimated that the average costs of plugging wells and cleaning up the drilling site “exceed available financial assurance by a factor of fourteen.” With this new rulemaking process, Colorado has a chance to make up this gap.
How to handle this looming liability remains an open question, said John Messner, a COGCC Commissioner. The rulemaking process is still in its early stages and will take months. The commission is asking stakeholders of all kinds — industry, local governments, environmental groups and more — to submit suggestions and opinions to the commission. There are several different methods for how best to reform the process, Messner said. That might involve leaving the current structure in place, while increasing the bond amounts, including on individual well bonds. It might mean a revamped tiered system, where more prolific producers pay more, or a different fee structure based on the number of drilled wells. Messner mentioned the option of a bond pool, where companies pay into a communal cleanup fund and, at least in theory, provide industry-wide insurance to guard against companies defaulting on cleanup obligations. Messner stressed that no formal decisions have been made and that the final rule could involve some combination of these and other tools.
I asked Messner about balancing the pressing need to increase cleanup requirements with the possibility of companies walking away from their wells if the cost to operate in Colorado spikes. “It’s a real risk,” Messner said. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association expressed a similar concern in an email to HCN.
“When it comes to financial assurance for current or future wells, we need to ensure that the potential solution doesn’t create an even bigger problem by raising the cost of doing business in Colorado for small businesses,” said COGA President Dan Haley in a statement. “Regulatory changes in the past two years alone are costing oil and gas businesses an extra $200 million a year. For our state to stay competitive, regulators and lawmakers need to be cognizant of that growing tally and the rising cost of doing business.”
But as it stands today, oil and gas companies aren’t realistically paying anywhere near the true cost of cleaning up their drilling sites. And with the industry’s murky financial future, experts predict more and more sales of risky wells to less-wealthy operators, until the state could end stuck with the final cost.
“It’s like a game of hot potato,” Williams-Derry said, “except that when the potato goes off, it’s the public who loses.”
Nick Bowlin is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at email@example.com
In 2009, Wyoming was riding high on coal. It supplied the coal that provided roughly half the nation’s power generation. The trains out of the Powder River Basin were almost non-stop, delivering the sub-bituminous low-sulphur coal from Wyoming’s subterranean to plants as far as Florida.
The Sierra Club had mounted a campaign in which it made fun of coal as a “dirty fuel.” One striking video had a lively young couple in the upper bunk delighting in the company of one another, and in the lower bunk a more pudgy young man fondling lumps of coal.
Still, when I visited Gillette, the center of the Powder River Basin, in April 2009 for a story that was published in Planning magazine, I heard no evidence of great worry.
Renewables? Nice, but …
Since 2008, coal production in Wyoming has declined by about half. Employment in the mines fell 40% over the decade ending in 2020.
The Casper Star-Tribune reports more disturbing news yet for Wyoming’s coal economy. Coal production in last year’s final quarter dropped by over 20% across the Powder River Basin. And recently, in a span of less than three months, two mines in the basin announced plans to close.
A trio of bills introduced into the Wyoming Legislature seeks to stem this decline. The argument underlying the proposed laws is that coal-fired generation must remain to ensure grid reliability.
One bill soon to be given to Gov. Mark Gordon for his signing before becoming law takes sharp aim at Colorado legislators 100 miles to the south along Interstate 25. House Bill 207 earmarks $1.2 million for use by Wyoming’s governor and attorney general to potentially sue other states restricting the import or use of Wyoming coal.
The central nexus for this not-so-friendly fire is Laramie River Station, a coal-fired power plant located near Wheatland, which is 70 miles north of Cheyenne. Basin Electric Power Cooperative operates the 3-unit plant and had 42.27% ownership in 2018. Metro Denver-based Tri-State Generation & Transmission had 27.1% ownership.
One unit sends power eastward, and power from the other two units is distributed in the Western grid—some of this to the 8 electrical cooperatives in Wyoming who are members of Tri-State, but more of it south into Colorado.
This was published in the March 31, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine, and updated to reflect news from this morning. For a free subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com
The bill was approved by the Wyoming House last week and by the Wyoming Senate on Wednesday afternoon. The Wyoming House Thursday morning concurred with the $1.2 million allocation by the Senate in a 36-24 vote.
The authorization is described by a University of Chicago Law School professor who specializes in electricity and the grid as a “waste of money.”
Two other bills appear to be directed at PacifCorp, the largest utility in Wyoming. Last year PacifCorp announced plans to close 2 of its coal-burning units at the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Rock Springs and the two remaining units of the Naughton plant near Kemmerer. It also operates the giant but aging Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock.
House Bill 166 would require utilities to take additional steps before they can receive approval from state regulators to retire aging coal or natural gas plants. That includes proving evidence that closing of the coal or natural gas plant would not threaten power reliability and would deliver “significant cost savings.”
House Bill 155 would task state regulators with analyzing how closing a coal or natural gas plant could affect grid reliability in Wyoming and nationwide before permission can be granted for retirement.
Wyoming State Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, a freshman legislator from Wheatland and a sponsor of H.B. 207, explained his reasoning for why Wyoming needs more money allocated for lawsuits. In a recent legislative hearing, he cited Colorado’s 2019 legislation, although he didn’t get the details quite right. He said that Colorado requires Tri-State to meet 80% renewables by 2034. (Tri-State wasn’t required, but it has agreed to reduce its emissions 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels).
“We can’t hold an 80% renewable portfolio with current technology,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to Big Pivots. “And this isn’t a wind or solar battle we’re talking about. This is a power technology issue that we are having a problem with, where if we don’t have a way to produce reliable energy, then we are finding ourselves in a place where we’re going to see lives potentially lost. And so out of that came House Bill 207.”
The legal argument described by Haroldson is that Colorado’s decision about its power generation mix within Colorado constitutes a violation of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution when it has repercussions on power providers outside Colorado. He cited the precedent of North Dakota suing Minnesota over Minnesota’s requirements governing electrical power that extended to imported power.
A U.S. District Court in 2016 struck down Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act limiting electricity from coal-fired sources from North Dakota because of violation of the dormant Commerce Clause provision of the U.S. Constitution. The case is somewhat complicated but was dissected in this review by a law school professor in this 2018 posting on Energy Central.
Joshua Macey, an assistant professor at the Chicago Law School who specializes in energy law, is skeptical that Wyoming is spending its money wisely.
“I don’t see any possible way that Wyoming is going to recover the money, that (a lawsuit) will succeed,” he told Big Pivots. “It is a waste of money.”
Macey says he is intimately familiar about the court case in which North Dakota prevailed against Minnesota. An article that he co-authored called “The Federal Power Act’s Bright Line,” which was published in February by the Harvard Law Review, discusses that case at length.
In the Minnesota case, the law was written sloppily and there was the additional complication that Minnesota and North Dakota are both within the Midwest Independent System Operator system. Neither is the case with Wyoming vs. Colorado, if it comes to that.
Under the Commerce Clause, Colorado cannot say it will use only that electricity that is produced in Colorado. It can, however, say that it has environmental goals and that how the electricity is created must conform with Colorado’s laws.
Grid reliability is another tenet of the Wyoming bill.
In the Wyoming legislative committee, Haroldson said the technology capable of protecting the grid’s reliability has not been delivered and removing coal plants will impair that reliability.
Wyoming’s message to Colorado, he said, should be: “Hold on, let’s get some technology in place. Let’s do, let’s figure out carbon capture and those types of things, so we can produce clean, effective power that’s going to bring generation to the Front Range, that’s going to help make sure that we have a reliable power grid and do it in a way that’s intelligent.”
For Tri-State to meet its voluntary commitment to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 in Colorado, it must reduce imports from Wyoming. But the market for energy generation is already pushing Tri-State that way.
On Tuesday, Tri-State said that it was taking no position on HB-207.
“As an interstate power supplier operating across four states, we recognize and respect that each state has its own values on, approaches to and concerns about energy and environmental policy, and its own jurisdiction over utility facilities and resources,” said Mark Stutz, public relations specialist for Tri-State in an e-mailed statement.
The Colorado Attorney General’s office declined to comment.
In Wyoming, Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council described the allocation as a wrong-headed move for Wyoming. “It’s a chunk of change in a state strapped for cash and with limited opportunity for creating the change that bill sponsors want.
“$1.2 million may not seem like a lot of money in some places, but in Wyoming it is. It’s more than some agencies have for a whole year,” said Anderson, the staff attorney.
Wyoming’s government already is well staffed with attorneys versed in coal issues. This money will go to private sector legal firms, who tend to be costly, she said. “And what does it give Wyoming, if anything, in return?” she asked.
The bill passed on third reading in the Wyoming Senate on a 26-4 vote on Wednesday afternoon.
Tri-State’s opportunities, challenges
Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State, said at a February forum organized by the Sierra Club that Tri-State plans to cease taking power from Laramie River by 2033 and a coal plant in Arizona called Springerville by 2038.
“Those aren’t commitments,” he hastened to add, but the outcome of a single snapshot under a certain set of assumptions. Cost of power is at the bottom of it.
“The economics dictate that you can’t continue to operate some of the lowest-priced coal plants in the country,” he said.
In 2018, the Rocky Mountain Institute studied Tri-State’s coal-burning fleet and found that only Laramie River was delivering power at a rate better than what could be had from renewables.
In his Sierra Club-Zoomed presentation, Highley also emphasized the relatively low cost of coal from Laramie River, likely a consequence of its relative proximity to the strip mines of the Powder River Basin two hours to the north.
It’s a coal plant with one of the lowest operating costs in the nation, he said.
Laramie River delivers coal-fired power at 1.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. This compares with an average 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour for both wind and solar in the 1,000 megawatts of wind and solar projects that Tri-State plans in the next few years. But wind itself sometimes approaches 1 cent per kilowatt-hour, and solar is routinely less than 2 cents, he added.
Tri-State supplies customers in Nebraska via the power lines from Laramie River connected directly to the Eastern Interconnection Grid. That grid, in the Great Plains, is laden heavily with cheap wind.
“Laramie River on that side sometimes has trouble running because there is so much wind available and it’s at such a good price that even one of the lowest priced coal plants in the nation has trouble competing,” he said, referring to Laramie River.
Reliability—the core argument in the Wyoming bills—is another matter.
First, a note about the reliability of coal plants. The fuel is consistent, but they have their problems, as can be seen at Comanche 3, the relatively new coal plant at Pueblo, which was down for repairs during much of 2020.
Highley addressed reliability in his Sierra Club appearance.
“I cannot leave this subject without talking about reliability, because we can only move as fast as we can reliably make power. It’s job one for us. If we fall down on that job, literally public health and safety and lives that could be lost are on the line. We have to keep that our first and foremost priority.”
Coal, he said, does have reliability.
“What does a coal project have? it has a 30-day supply of coal on the ground at the plant site.”
As for battery storage – the lithium-ion technology hasn’t arrived yet to meet the needs of a very-low-carbon future.
“The battery that a utility can buy today lasts somewhere from 2 to 4 hours. A 6-hour battery is pretty much of a stretch,” Highley said.
He cited an example from this winter. “We had a period in Colorado when we had about 3 days of gray skies and no wind,” he said. “Those would be very difficult days for us if we didn’t have fossil fuels in the mix today.”
Batteries can help, but they need to provide storage for 24 to 48 hours, he went on to say. Too, while costs have declined, they need to continue to decrease.
“We are looking for the storage technology that is better than lithium-ion batteries and has a scalability that would be suitable for—finally— a former coal plant such as the Craig site. We think this is one of the best (sites) in the Western grid for mass storage at utility scale,” he said.
Tri-State has been working with the Electric Power Research Institute on a $100 million low-carbon research initiative in the hope of securing energy storage technology needed to fill in the gaps of renewables. Leading contenders, said Highley, are hydrogen and ammonia. Tri-State hopes to have that technology in place by 2030, when it takes the last of the Craig units off line.
Can natural gas fill the void? Perhaps. That is what Colorado Springs Utilities sees as it closes its coal plants. Highley said Tri-State is considering it—and he doesn’t see a concern about creating infrastructure that becomes an expensive stranded asset.
“When we retire Craig Unit 3, we need something that can run for those 3 or 4 days a winter—primarily winter—when we’re not getting wind and solar input. That gas plant is the plan. It runs a very small percentage of the time, and we still achieve 80% even when burning natural gas for reliability.”
Highley said Tri-State is looking at an internal-combustion type of natural gas plant introduced by General Electric. That’s the same plant that Colorado Springs plans to use.
But the plant may not necessarily have to burn natural gas. If hydrogen technology can be developed, renewable energy can be created to produce hydrogen, which can be stored and then burned as needed to fill in the gaps of storage.
FromThe High Country News [March 18, 2021] (Anna V. Smith):
Four important decisions will impact the forests, lands and waters of tribal nations.
Tribal leaders see President Joe Biden’s administration as an opportunity to increase tribal consultation regarding issues like water management, oil and gas leasing, and land conservation. Here, we look at four major projects — all of them years in the making — that the new administration is tasked with advancing in the next four years. Most fall under the Department of the Interior, now headed by its first Indigenous secretary, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo).
TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST MANAGEMENT
On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order to revisit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Trump-era decision to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from a federal rule protecting 9.3 million acres of it from logging, mining and roadways. The Trump administration raced through the process despite the pandemic. The Tongass — the largest national forest in the U.S. — serves as a massive carbon sink and is of national importance. It also supports the old-growth red cedar, Sitka black-tailed deer and salmon that the Alaska Native tribes of the region rely on. None of the Southeast Alaska Native tribes who participated in the consultation process supported the exemption, and all withdrew in protest.
In addition to reviewing the Tongass protections, the Biden administration also has to decide on a rule proposed by 11 Southeast Alaska Native tribes in July 2020. The Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule would increase the role of Alaska Native tribes in the management of the forest’s trees, wildlife and waters. The tribes proposed the rule after decades of inadequate tribal consultation on the Tongass, their ancestral and current homeland.
COLORADO RIVER BASIN GUIDELINES BY 2026
Negotiations among federal, tribal and state governments on water flows and allocations in the Colorado River Basin began last year and are set to conclude by 2026. At stake is the water supply for 40 million people.
The current set of interim guidelines was created in 2007 by the seven basin states — Colorado, Arizona, Utah, California, Nevada, Wyoming and New Mexico — and the federal government. None of the 29 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin were consulted, despite having senior water rights that account for 20% of the river’s water.
The negotiations are happening amid some of the most serious drought predictions the region has seen; in January, the river’s drought contingency plan was triggered for the first time. Climate change has brought extreme drought conditions to about 75% of the river’s Upper Basin, and that will no doubt influence the tenor of the negotiations.
KLAMATH RIVER DAM REMOVAL IN 2023
After years of political, social and regulatory barriers, the undamming of the Klamath River is within sight. When — or if — it’s completed, it will be the largest dam removal effort in U.S. history, bringing down four out of six dams on the river in southern Oregon and Northern California , including one that’s 103 years old. For now, the project is on track to begin in 2023, and by 2024 there could be free-flowing water in the river, opening up some 400 miles of habitat in California for salmon, lamprey and trout. The nonprofit charged with the dam removals, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, still needs the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee, which is headed by political appointees, to approve its current plan.
Last year’s drought created more conflict over water allocations on the Klamath. In, August, the Bureau of Reclamation cancelled promised water flows for the Yurok Tribe’s Ceremonial Boat Dance. In response, the Yurok Tribe sued the agency. The federal government will need to bring stakeholders together for a large-scale agreement to end this cycle of seasonal litigation, something the Obama administration attempted unsuccessfully to do.
OIL AND GAS LEASING PERMIT PAUSE ON FEDERAL LANDS
In late January, when Joe Biden signed multiple executive orders to address the “climate crisis,” he ordered Interior to put a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas leases on public lands and offshore waters. The administration called for a review of the leasing and royalties process, citing climate impacts and their growing cost, and specifically requested a review of leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration had opened ANWR for sale just weeks before Biden took office.
Biden’s executive orders don’t impact existing leases, or oil and gas on tribal lands. But much of the tribal opposition involves activities on ancestral territory that is currently public land, sometimes carried out without adequate tribal consultation. The Arctic Refuge and places like New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon have been flashpoints of conflict over leasing, and many advocates want Biden to extend the pause as a permanent ban. This was a key sticking point for many Republican senators during Haaland’s confirmation hearings, which Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., described as a “proxy fight over the future of fossil fuels.”
Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Senate confirmed Ms. Haaland to lead the Interior Department. She’ll be charged with essentially reversing the agency’s course over the past four years.
Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico made history on Monday when the Senate confirmed her as President Biden’s secretary of the Interior, making her the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency.
Ms. Haaland in 2018 became one of the first two Native American women elected to the House. But her new position is particularly redolent of history because the department she now leads has spent much of its history abusing or neglecting America’s Indigenous people.
Beyond the Interior Department’s responsibility for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Native people, it oversees about 500 million acres of public land, federal waters off the United States coastline, a huge system of dams and reservoirs across the Western United States and the protection of thousands of endangered species.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” she wrote on Twitter before the vote. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
Republican opposition to her confirmation centered on Ms. Haaland’s history of fighting against oil and gas exploration, and the deliberations around her nomination highlighted her emerging role in the public debates on climate change, energy policy and racial equity. She was confirmed on a 51-40 vote. Only four Republican senators — Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — voted for Ms. Haaland’s confirmation…
The new interior secretary will be charged with essentially reversing the agency’s mission over the past four years. The Interior Department, led by David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, played a central role in the Trump administration’s systematic rollback of environmental regulations and the opening up of the nation’s lands and waters to drilling and mining.
Ms. Haaland is expected to quickly halt new drilling, reinstate wildlife conservation rules, rapidly expand wind and solar power on public lands and waters, and place the Interior Department at the center of Mr. Biden’s climate agenda.
At the same time, Ms. Haaland will quite likely assume a central role in realizing Mr. Biden’s promise to make racial equity a theme in his administration. Ms. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo who identifies herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican, will assume control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, where she can address the needs of a population that has suffered from abuse and dislocation at the hands of the United States government for generations, and that has been disproportionately devastated by the coronavirus…
As the agency takes on a newly muscular role in addressing climate change, she added, the department “will have to deal with new strategies for managing more intense wildfires on public land and chronic drought in the West. It’s hard to overstate the challenges with water.”
Among the first and most contentious items on Ms. Haaland’s to-do list will be enacting Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to ban new permits for oil and gas projects on public lands…
Ms. Haaland’s ability to implement that ban successfully could have major consequences both for the climate and for the Biden administration. According to one study by Interior Department scientists, the emissions associated with fossil fuel drilling on public lands account for about a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gases. But the policy will most likely be enacted at a time when gasoline prices are projected to soar — spurring almost-certain political blowback from Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
For the drilling ban to survive legal challenges, experts say, Ms. Haaland will have to move with care.
“They may attempt a total ban, but that would be more vulnerable to a court challenge,” said Marcella Burke, an energy policy lawyer and former Interior Department official. “Or there’s the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach.”
That approach would make oil drilling less feasible by creating such stringent regulations and cleanup rules that exploration would not be worth the cost…
Ms. Haaland is also expected to revisit the Trump administration’s rollback of habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act. Under the Trump rules, it became easier to remove a species from the endangered list, and for the first time, regulators were allowed to conduct economic assessments — for instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat — when deciding whether a species warrants protection.
Such rules led to an exodus of staff, particularly from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Mr. Clement said…
The Interior Department also must submit a detailed new plan by June 2022 that lays out how the federal government will manage the vast outer continental shelf off the American coastline, an area rich in marine wilderness and undersea oil and gas resources.
Given Mr. Biden’s pledge to ban new drilling, the new offshore management plan will quite likely reimpose Obama-era policies that barred oil exploration on the entire East and West Coasts of the United States — while possibly going further, by limiting drilling off the coasts of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. But writing the legal, economic and scientific justifications will be difficult…
As the department moves against offshore drilling, it is expected to help ramp up offshore wind farms. Last week, the agency took a major step toward approving the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm, near Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a project that had been in the works for years.
An Indigenous-led resistance raises the alarm about a tar-sands pipeline that would cut through treaty territory of Anishinaabe people, threatening wild rice, fresh water and the climate.
One of President Joe Biden’s first acts in office put an end to a decade-long fight over the Keystone XL — a pipeline that would have carried climate-polluting tar sands from Alberta, Canada into the United States.
Biden’s Executive Order said the Keystone XL’s approval “would undermine U.S. climate leadership” and that instead he would instead “prioritize the development of a clean energy economy.”
Tara Houska of Couchiching First Nation hopes the Biden administration makes good on that promise — and its implications beyond Keystone.
Houska, an attorney and Indigenous rights advocate, is the founder of the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous-led resistance against another cross-border tar-sands pipeline — Line 3. Construction has already begun on this 340-mile-long Enbridge pipeline, which would carry nearly a million gallons a day of tar-sands crude across northern Minnesota — crossing 200 water bodies — en route from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.
Environmental organizations have joined Native groups, including the nonprofit Honor the Earth, as well as the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and White Earth Band of Ojibwe in raising legal challenges and joining on-the-ground resistance efforts.
The Revelator spoke with Houska about what’s at stake with Line 3, how Standing Rock helped grow a movement, and why we should rethink what direct action means.
How did you get involved in being a water protector?
When I was in law school, I started doing tribal law work and ended up in Washington, D.C. representing tribes all over the country. At the same time there were serious environmental issues coming through D.C. My first internship was at the White House when Obama was reviewing Keystone XL and I saw a lot of breakdowns in the efficacy of the federal system and a lack of movement.
When the Cowboy Indian Alliance staged a protest in 2014 against the Keystone XL pipeline, I went. It was my first protest. After that I kept working on environmental justice issues for tribal nations, and then two years later a group of runners from Standing Rock came out to D.C. [to raise awareness about the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry Bakken crude across the Plains].
I listened to LaDonna Brave Bull Allard [from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe] on Facebook Live ask for help. I could tell she meant everything she said, so I just packed up my stuff, rented a car and drove out to North Dakota.
I planned on being out there [at the Standing Rock protest camp] for a weekend. I ended up staying six months.
Something was different about this Native tribe saying no. There’ve been lots of tribes that have said no for hundreds of years, but these guys weren’t just saying it, they were putting their bodies in front of the machines and refusing to move. The groundswell of youth, the encampment, the legal fight against the federal government — it all came together in this moment.
I think for a lot of tribal people it felt different. We were very united in the struggle.
It was also eye-opening for a lot of other people around the world. Mostly because I don’t think a lot of people are even aware that Native people still exist. And that we’re still very much engaged in an ongoing struggle for our land and water against either the United States or these foreign interests.
And now you’re engaged in a similar struggle against another Canadian energy company — Enbridge. What’s at stake with Line 3?
After the ground fight at Dakota Access ended and they bulldozed our camp, I went back to D.C., but I had a hard time coming back to the world as I understood it, because it’d been changed.
So in 2018 I founded the Giniw Collective. It was in response to the Minnesota Public Utility Commission unanimously approving Line 3 after years of work and tens of thousands of comments and engagement against the project by Minnesotans.
I started building and finding others to build with, to create a strong resistance community that was also engaging in traditional foods and establishing foundational relationships with the land.
Line 3 is much more personal because it goes through my own people’s territory. To me, the critical piece of this is not just the drinking water and the emissions and all those irrevocable harms of expanding the fossil fuel industry — particularly the tar-sands industry — but it’s also specifically about the threats to wild rice.
[Northern] wild rice is at the center of our people’s culture and connection to the world. This is the only place in the world that it grows. This is where the creator told us to come — to where the food grows on water. And to me, Line 3 is an extension of cultural genocide to put something like that at risk.
Construction has already begun. Where do things stand legally with efforts to stop it?
There’s a set of legal opinions due March 23 that are very critical in terms of the feds hearing what we are bringing forward, particularly from the tribal nations that have signed onto these lawsuits and are impacted directly by Line 3.
Then there’s also an ongoing lawsuit by the Minnesota Department of Commerce against the Minnesota Public Utility Commission. The state is actually suing itself for not being able to demonstrate that there’s a need for this project. The tar sands and oil products that will go through the pipeline are for foreign markets. They’re not for Minnesota or the United States.
What about at the federal level?
There’s also this huge push on [President Joe] Biden, who canceled Keystone XL on day one and has centered himself as the climate president. We’re looking to the administration to intervene on something that’s an obvious climate disaster.
How can we say we’ll cancel one pipeline but build another? It’s the same types of violations and the same types of climate impacts coming out of the Alberta tar sands.
Building Line 3 will have the equivalent emissions of building 50 new coal power plants. That’s insane.
We are seeing progress, though. We just secured another meeting with the Council on Environmental Quality. I had a number of meetings with members of the Biden transition team and different agencies. I know [National Climate Advisor] Gina McCarthy was just questioned a couple of weeks ago by Showtime about Dakota Access and Line 3. So the message is getting into their ears. It’s just that we need to hear some response.
Where are you finding inspiration now?
The pieces that inspire me the most and give me the most hope are seeing people engaged in resistance during a pandemic to defend the planet and defend life for someone who’s not even born yet. That’s incredibly powerful to be part of and to see that happen in real time.
To watch someone harvest wild rice for the first time, to watch someone stop destruction of a place in real time for a day — that’s really powerful. To see young people finding their voices and using their bodies to try to protect what’s supposed to be their world. They are literally fighting for life and their right to a future. That’s a really beautiful thing to see, and it’s really inspiring and hopeful.
We’ve trained hundreds of people over the last two and a half years in direct action. I try to push folks to think about direct action not just as being about getting arrested or something like that. To me, it’s about standing with the Earth in a real way, putting something at risk and being uncomfortable. I don’t think that we’re going to solve the climate crisis comfortably. I don’t think we’re going to solar panel or policy-make our way out of this massive existential threat we’re facing.
To take action is to do something in community with the Earth. To think about our own connection to her in everything that we do. I like to remind people that Native people are 5% of the world’s population and we’re holding 80% of the world’s [forest] biodiversity.
That isn’t by accident or happenstance. That is because we have a deep connection to the Earth and an understanding that the Earth is a living being, just like we are.
Local jurisdictions retain authority to restrict extension of natural gas to new buildings. But the debate will almost certainly continue.
Berkeley was first in what is fast shaping up as a national battle about national gas. In January 2019 it passed a law that crimped use of natural gas in new buildings. Since then, 42 municipalities in California have changed their building codes to make natural gas use impossible or difficult in new buildings. Seattle and a few other cities elsewhere in the country have adopted restrictions, too.
Arizona and 3 other states were quick to push back. Last year they adopted prohibitions on local bans. This year similar legislation has been introduced in 12 states, including Colorado.
At least for now, though, Colorado will be more like California than Arizona. A Colorado legislative committee on March 3 killed a proposal that would have prohibited such local actions.
The 7-5 party-line vote—Democrats opposed the proposed restriction on local authority and Republicans favored it—provided a preview of coming debates as Colorado seeks to move forward on economy wide decarbonization goals specified by a 2019 law.
The primary talking points in the Colorado House Energy & Environment Committee were about individual choice vs. local control.
Consumers should have the right to burn natural gas and propane, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dan Woog, a Republican from Erie. “I contend this is about choice and giving everyone in Colorado a choice,” he said of his bill, HB21-1034, “Consumer Right To Use Natural Gas Or Propane.”
Woog said the bill was a response to Denver’s consideration of requiring new buildings be all electric. He and supporters see Denver’s efforts as most assuredly the camel’s nose under the tent.
“This is not hypothetical,” said Dianna Orf, representing the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado. She said she had been in meetings where state officials have talked about moving people away from natural gas. “We fear that someday in the future we will see a ban on natural gas for our home use,” she said.
Others described the proposed law as a solution in search of a problem. Rep. Edie Hooton, a Democrat from Boulder, said she works with many environmental groups, and she’s not aware of plans to begin pushing natural gas bans.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Denver remains the lone jurisdiction in Colorado with an active proposal to crimp the expansion of natural gas and propane in new buildings. Despite the fears expressed by Orf and others, not even Denver proposes to force its removal from existing buildings. Instead, the proposal to be reviewed by the Denver City Council later this year would apply to homes in 2024 and other buildings in 2027. It would not apply to existing buildings.
Boulder already has a building code that effectively creates a ban on natural gas in larger homes. The maximum energy use per square foot of new residential construction of 3,000 square feet or larger leaves no room for gas. Boulder County has a similar program.
For Colorado and many of the towns and cities within the state to achieve their climate goals, they must necessarily address the emissions caused by buildings. This includes natural gas that is commonly burned to warm air and water, also in some cases for cooking.
Different than the all-electric past
Colorado’s plans to largely remove emissions from electricity while accelerating electrification of transportation. Removing emissions from the built environment was recognized as the more difficult challenge in the Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap that was released on Jan. 14.
At the committee hearing, much was made of all-electric heating in the past. “It was a nightmare,” said Rep. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, of living in an all-electric house in the 1990s.
The technology has changed completely in the last 25 years. If Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, remains skeptical that the technology is ready for prime time in Colorado, many others, including Rocky Mountain Institute, argued that houses and water can be warmed in most parts of Colorado without natural gas.
Geos, a multi-family complex in Arvada, has no natural gas connections. Basalt Vista, an affordable housing project in the Roaring Fork Valley, also has no natural gas. They use air-source heat pumps, a fast-improving technology pushed by a company called Mitsubishi. The air-source heat pumps work to -14 Fahrenheit.
Having the technology is one thing. Having technicians familiar with it is another matter. Widespread re-training will be needed for this paradigm shift.
Once a building is built with natural gas, the retrofit is indeed expensive. Colorado had been building about 40,000 houses a year, nearly all of them with natural gas space and hot-water heaters. About three-quarters of Colorado’s 1.5 million houses have natural gas.
Legislation introduced this year will tackle at least some of this. One of the bills supported by the administration of Gov. Jared Polis would institute more rigorous energy efficiency in homes to cut demand for natural gas.
Another piece of legislation would require Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, the state’s two investor-owned electrical utilities, to file plans with the PUC to support beneficial electrification in buildings. This would be similar to what was required of Xcel and Black Hills for transportation electrification. The idea is of incentives but softly pressing down the carbon intensity of the building sector.
At the committee hearing, ban-on-ban proponents also talked frequently about loss of jobs if demand for fossil fuels is suppressed. Scott Prestidge, representing the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, talked about Colorado’s front-of-class regulations that seek to minimize emissions during extraction and delivering of natural gas.
The most curious argument at the hearing was that banning new natural gas infrastructure in one jurisdiction would cause higher prices for natural gas in other jurisdictions.
Woog didn’t explain his reasoning, but it does mirror one of the talking points of a paper issued in early November by Xcel. The report examined the difficulty of rapidly electrifying buildings. One of the perceived challenges is that those with higher incomes will be able to afford to electrify and shut off their natural gas, leaving lower-income residents served by the same line to pay the higher costs for upkeep of the infrastructure.
That, however, is a very different circumstance than a ban on natural gas in new buildings in Denver having an effect in, say, Weld County.
Talking climate change—or not
Such local pre-emption legislation has followed a very similar pattern across the country, National Public Radio report in February. Gas utilities, with help from industry trade groups, have successfully lobbied lawmakers over the past year to introduce similar “preemption” legislation in 12 mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures, NRP said, citing work by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Washington Post also reported on the controversy. “Logically the natural gas industry does not want to see its business end, so it’s doing what it can to keep natural gas in the utility grid mix,” said Marta Schantz, senior vice president of the Urban Land Institute’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance. “But long term, if cities are serious about their climate goals, electric buildings are inevitable.”
In Massachusetts, State Rep. Tommy Vitolo, warned of the costs of delay. “If we install a furnace or burner in a building in 2022, will we have to take it out before the end of its useful life in order to meet emissions?” he told the Post. The important comparison is now gas vs. electric now, but gas now plus the costs of heat pumps 15 years from now. In other words, he wants to get it right the first time.
At the committee hearing at the Colorado Capitol, representatives of many cities testified in opposition to Woog’s bill, all emphasizing local control.
What’s right for Arvada is not necessarily what’s right for Boulder or some other jurisdiction, said Arvada City Councilwoman Lauren Simpson.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
In an effort organized by Colorado Communities for Climate Action, representatives from Fort Collins to Salida also talked about air quality impacts, including inside homes and in communities more generally, as well as atmospheric pollution by greenhouse gases.
“I know what my community needs,” said Katherine Goff, of the Northglenn City Council. The “proposal would hamstring our abilities” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing gas with electricity once electricity has been decarbonized, she said.
“We need every single tool available to us to address our building stock,” said Lafayette Mayor Jamie Harkins, after describing the city’s climate change goals. But there was a secondary reason, that to make buildings healthier. A growing body of research has shown deleterious effects of combustion of natural gas inside buildings.
“We take climate change very, very seriously in our community here in the mountains,” said Salida Mayor P.T. Wood. “We are feeling the effects of climate change at this moment,” going on to describe a “dry, hot winter.”
If Salida isn’t yet ready to follow in the footsteps of Berkeley and other California cities that have crimped the use of natural gas in new buildings, Salida wants to retain that authority. The bill, said Wood, “would cut away at the ability of local communities to make their own decisions. These decisions should be made locally and not in Denver.”
In a sense, the arguments were flip-flopped from the usual, when representatives of fossil fuel counties have traditionally championed local control over state authority and decried decisions made in Denver. Before votes were cast, Hooton, the legislator from Boulder, wryly noted the shift. “We’re for local control until we’re not,” she said.
Hooton went on to say she was discouraged by the “climate change denialism” she heard among fellow committee members in their questioning of bill opponents. That was met with a sharp response from Rep. Andres Pico, a Republican from Colorado Springs. “That is an insult,” he said. “I will not take it.”
Pico had declared that there is “no climate emergency.” Where the Salida mayor saw the forest fire on nearby Methodist Mountain several years ago as the result of a warming climate, Pico described it as a natural phenomenon. Ditto for the 21st century drought.
If the climate is warming, it’s almost entirely natural, Pico declared.
Pico’s assertions regarding drought contradict what is fast becoming established science about Colorado’s largest and most water-plentiful watershed, the Colorado River. Extended droughts have been documented for the last 2,000 years, but the current drought looks different, what one climate scientist calls a “hot drought,” with precipitation declines corresponding closely to rising warmth produced by accumulating greenhouse gas emissions.
The natural gas industry paints itself as the clean-burning fuel, and compared to coal, it is. But there has been sharp debate about whether unintended emissions of methane – the primary constituent of natural gas – in the supply chain actually make natural gas worse than coal in its global warming potential.
A new aerial study that found that gas pipelines represent the second largest source of methane leaks. And a 2020 study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that 3.7% of natural gas produced in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico leaked. Because of the strong heat-trapping proclivity of methane, 27 times as great as carbon dioxide when measured over a century, that loss negated any benefits of natural gas combustion over coal, the study found.
Colorado has been engaged in tightening regulations to preclude such emissions from the Wattenberg and other gas-producing fields.
The sharpest contrast during the hearing came when Christiaan Van Woudenberg, a trustee in Erie, as elected officials in statutory-rule municipalities are called, testified that Woog’s bill represented “another attempt to prop up a dying industry.” Until recently, Woog was also on the Erie Town Board.
In the voting, Rep. Mike Weissman, a Democrat from Aurora, mixed personal experience with broad musings. He said he lives in a house built in the ‘70s where natural gas provides everything: space heat, hot water, and cooking. Building new, he said he’d make different choices based on economics of the rapidly improving technology but also on the moral obligations to change. He cited evidence of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions, now up to 415 parts per million as compared to 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution.
And Weissman suggested that towns and cities should be the laboratories of innovation in Colorado, just as states were in the mind of the famed jurist Louis Brandeis.
This local-preemption bill was effectively dead on arrival but it will return. Expect, too, to see sharpened talking points, perhaps even this year as legislators take up more practical measures, including the proposal to require Xcel and Black Hills to undertake beneficial electrification plans.
The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Michael S. Regan, the former top environmental regulator for North Carolina, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and drive some of the Biden administration’s biggest climate and regulatory policies.
As administrator, Mr. Regan, who began his career at the E.P.A. and worked in environmental and renewable energy advocacy before becoming secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will be tasked to rebuild an agency that lost thousands of employees under the Trump administration. Political appointees under Donald J. Trump spent the past four years unwinding dozens of clean air and water protections, while rolling back all of the Obama administration’s major climate rules.
Central to Mr. Regan’s mission will be putting forward aggressive new regulations to meet President Biden’s pledge of eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the electric power sector by 2035, significantly reducing emissions from automobiles and preparing the United States to emit no net carbon pollution by the middle of the century. Several proposed regulations are already being prepared, administration officials have said.
His nomination was approved by a vote of 66-34, with all Democrats and 16 Republicans voting in favor..
Mr. Regan will be the first Black man to serve as E.P.A. administrator. At 44, he will also be one of Mr. Biden’s youngest cabinet secretaries and will have to navigate a crowded field of older, more seasoned Washington veterans already installed in key environmental positions — particularly Gina McCarthy, who formerly held Mr. Regan’s job and is the head of a new White House climate policy office…
But most of the opposition centered on Democratic policy. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, called Mr. Biden’s agenda a “left-wing war on American energy.”
“Mr. Regan has plenty of experience,” Senator McConnell said. “The problem is what he’s poised to do with it.”
In his testimony before the Senate last month Mr. Regan assured lawmakers that when it comes to E.P.A. policies, “I will be leading and making those decisions, and I will be accepting accountability for those decisions.”
Mr. Regan has a reputation as a consensus-builder who works well with lawmakers from both parties. North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr voted to support his nomination. Even Senate Republicans who voted against him had kind words.
As the Biden administration begins the daunting job of rebuilding U.S. climate policy, it has gotten help from an unexpected, and perhaps unlikely, source—the federal courts.
In Biden’s first few weeks in office, federal judges scrapped the Trump administration’s weak power plant pollution regulation, its rule limiting science in environmental decision-making and a decision opening vast areas of the West to new mining.
The rulings show that although President Donald Trump left his mark on the federal courts with his record-breaking pace of judicial appointments, his influence has not been great enough to prevent federal judges from playing a part in dismantling his deregulatory legacy. And the series of decisions also allows the Biden administration to move forward with some confidence about its own ambitious regulatory agenda, as White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy explained at a major energy industry conference last week.
“As time goes on, we realize how unsuccessful the prior administration was in actually rolling back good regulations,” McCarthy said in a virtual discussion session at CERAWeek by IHS Markit, an annual conclave of top oil, gas and utility executives. “In the courts, even with the new appointees under the Trump administration as judges, we still won over and over and over again, because there is a law in our country. And when you put on that black robe, you tend to want to do your job.”
Regan, Haaland and the rest of the Biden climate team may get less help from the federal courts as time goes on. Legal scholars expect that Trump-appointed judges will be skeptical of aggressive government action on climate without explicit authority from Congress, and Trump appointees now occupy one-third of the seats on the appellate bench, including three on the Supreme Court.
But for now, a confluence of factors have given the Biden administration some early legal wins—including the savvy of environmental group litigators, the desire of industry to strike a cooperative stance with the new administration and the legal missteps of the Trump administration…
The biggest break for the Biden team thus far came at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where a three-judge panel issued a decision to vacate the Trump administration’s rollback of President Barack Obama’s signature climate policy, its Clean Power Plan. The day before Inauguration Day, the judges excoriated the Trump administration for designing a toothless regulation on power plant greenhouse gas pollution based on what it said were “a tortured series of misreadings” of the Clean Air Act.
Trump’s EPA argued it had no authority to set standards that encourage steps like switching from coal to natural gas or renewable energy to cut carbon emissions. Instead, the Trump EPA said it could only mandate tweaks like efficiency improvements at individual coal plants (while not addressing natural gas plants at all.) But in reality, such improvements do little to slash carbon; the only commercial technology for achieving large cuts in power plant carbon emissions is to switch to cleaner fuels. As a result, the Trump “Affordable Clean Energy” rule would have curbed greenhouse gas emissions from power plants less than 1 percent.
The three-judge panel ruled that the Trump power plant rule “hinged on a fundamental misconstruction of … the Clean Air Act.” Judge Justin Walker, a Trump appointee on the panel, dissented on the legal reasoning but joined in the judgement with two Obama appointees, Judges Patricia Millett and Cornelia Pillard.
At his Feb. 3 confirmation hearing, Regan deflected a question on the legal issue in that case from a supporter of the Trump rollback—Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Instead, Regan indicated that under his leadership the EPA would not be returning to the Obama approach in the wake of the Trump rule being struck down by the court.
Cap-and-trade proposed as market mechanism to slash carbon emissions. Air quality commission says not now.
Curtis Rueter works for Noble Energy, one of Colorado’s major oil and gas producers, and is a Republican. That makes him a political minority among the members of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, of which he is chairman.
In his voting, Rueter, who lives in Westminster, tends a bit more conservative than his fellow commission members from Boulder County. But on the issue of whether to move forward with a process that could have yielded carbon pricing in Colorado, he expressed some sympathy.
“I am generally in favor of market-based mechanisms, so it’s a little hard to walk away from that,” he said. at the commission’s meeting on Feb. 19. But like nearly all the others on the commission, Rueter said he was persuaded that there were just too many fundamental questions about cap-and-trade system for the AQCC to embrace at this time. Only Boulder County’s Jana Milford dissented in the 7-1 vote. Even Elise Jones, until recently a Boulder County commissioner, voted no.
Just as important as the final vote may have been the advance testimony. It broke down largely along environmental vs. business lines.
Western Resource Advocates, Boulder County, and Colorado Communities for a Climate Action testified in favor of the cap-and-trade proposal.
From the business side came opposition from Xcel Energy, The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and allied chambers from Grand Junction to Fort Collins to Aurora, and, in a 7-page letter, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Most businesses echoed what Gov. Jared Polis said in a letter: “While a carbon pricing program may be one of many tools that should be considered in the future as part of state efforts to achieve our goals, our assessment of state level cap and trade programs implemented in other jurisdictions is that they are costly to administer, exceptionally complicated, risk shifting more pollution to communities that already bear the brunt of poor environmental quality, have high risk for unintended consequences, and are not as effective at driving actual emissions reductions as more targeted, sector-specific efforts,” Polis wrote.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
The cap-and-trade proposal came from the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF has been saying for a year that Colorado has been moving too slowly to decarbonize following the 2019 passage of the landmark SB-1261. The law requires 50% decarbonization by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
What does a 50% reduction look like over the course of the next 9 years? Think in terms of ski slopes, and not the dark blue of intermediates or even the ego-boosting single-black-diamond runs at Vail or Snowmass. Not even the mogul-laden Outhouse at Winter Park or Senior’s at Telluride.
Instead, think of the serious steeps of Silverton Mountain, where an avalanche beacon is de rigueur.
Can Colorado, a novice at carbon reduction, navigate down this Silverton Mountain-type carbon reduction slope by 2030?
Colorado, says EDF and Western Resource Advocates, needs a backstop, a more sweeping mechanism to ensure the state hits these carbon reduction goals.
California has had cap-and-trade for years, and a similar device has been used among New England states to nudge reductions from the power sector. The European Union also has cap-and-trade.
Following the May 2019 signing of Colorado’s carbon-reduction law, H.B. 19-1261, the Polis administration set out to create an emissions inventory, then began structuring a sector-by-sector approach. For example, the Air Quality Control Commission has conducted lengthy rule-making processes leading up to adoption of regulations in several areas.
Hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used in refrigeration, are being tamped down. Emissions from the oil-and gas-sector are being squeezed. The commission this year will direct its attention to proposed rules that result in fewer emissions from transportation.
Meanwhile, the state has set out to hurry along the state’s electrical utilities from their coal-based foundations to renewables and a small amount of new gas. The utilities representing 99% of the state’s electrical sales have agreed to reduce emissions 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. Only one of those commitments, that of Xcel Energy, has the force of law. Others fall under the heading of clean energy plans. But state officials think that utilities likely will decarbonize electricity even more rapidly than their current commitments. That 80% is a bottom, not a top.
Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office, presented to the Air Quality Control Commission an update on the state’s roadmap. The document released in mid-January runs 276 pages, but Toor boiled it down to 19 slides, which nonetheless took him 60 minutes to explain. It was a rich explanation.
Toor explained that Colorado needs to reduce emissions by 70 million tons annually. The Polis administration thinks it can achieve close to half of the reductions it needs to meet its 2030 target by 2030 through the retirement of coal plants and associated coal mines. Those reductions alone will yield 32.3 million tons annually.
The oil and gas sector should yield a reduction of 13 million tons, according to the state’s roadmap. That process had taken a step forward the previous day when the Air Quality Control Commission adopted regulations that tighten the requirements to minimize emissions from pneumatic controllers. Later this year, the AQCC will take up more proposed regulations.
Replacement of internal-combustion technology in transportation will yield 13 million tons. The Polis administration foresees deep reductions in transportation, partly through an incentives-based approach, even if not it’s not clear what all the components of the strategy look like.
Near-term actions in buildings, both residential and commercial, and in industrial fuel use can yield another 5 million tons annual reduction.
Waste reduction—methane from coal mines, landfills, sewage treatment plants, and improved recycling—will nick another 7.5 million tons annually More speculative are the strategies designed to reduce emission from natural and working lands by 1 million tons.
Add it all up and the state still doesn’t know how it will get all of the way to the 2030 target, let alone its 2050 goal of 90% reduction. Toor and other state officials, however, have expressed confidence that the roadmap can get Colorado far down the road to the decarbonization destination and is skeptical that cap-and-trade will.
“I would agree with the characterization that cap-and-trade guarantees emissions reductions,” said Toor. In the real world, he explains, those regimes struggle to achieve reductions particularly in sectors such as transportation where there are many decisions. The more demonstrable achievement has been in producing revenue to be used for reduction strategies.
“I don’t know that the record supports that they guarantee a true pathway toward reductions of emissions.”
In contrast, the roadmap has identified “highly enforceable strategies” to achieve reduction of 58 to 59 million of the 70 million tons needed by 2030, he said.
Some actions depend upon new legislation, perhaps this year and in succeeding years.
In the building sector, for example, the Polis administration sees “very interesting opportunities” with a bill being introduced into the legislature this year that would give gas-distribution companies targets in carbon reduction while working with their customers. See, “Colorado’s legislative climate & energy landscape.”
“This isn’t something that we are going to solve through just this year’s legislative session and this and next year’s regulatory actions,” said Toor. He cited many potential pathways, including hydrogen, but also, beyond 2030, the potential for cost-effective carbon capture and sequestration.
Later in the day, Pam Kiely and Thomas Bloomfield made the Environmental Defense Fund’s case for cap and trade. They described a more significant gap between known actions and the targets, a greater uncertainty about hitting the targets that they argued would best be addressed by giving power and other economic sectors allocation of allowances, which can then best be moved around to achieve reductions in cost-effective ways.
One example of cap-and-trade actually involves Colorado. The project is at Somerset, where several funding sources were pooled to pay for harnessing of methane emissions from the Elk Creek Mine to produce electricity. The Aspen Skiing Co. paid a premium for the electricity, and Holy Cross Energy added financial incentives. But a portion of the money that has gone to the developer, Vessels Coal Gas Co., is money from California’s cap-and-trade market
Kiely said Colorado’s 2019 law directed the Air Quality Control Commission to consider the greatest and most cost-effective emissions reductions available through program design. That, she said, was explicit authority for creating a cap-and-trade program.
“We think it’s a relatively light (legal) lift,” said Bloomfield. “You have authority to charge for those emissions.”
Further, Kiely said, cap-and-trade will most effectively achieve reductions in emissions and will do so faster than the state’s current approach. It will deliver a consistent economic signal and be the most adaptable. “The program does not have to predict where the optimal reduction opportunities will be a year from now without information about the relative cost of pollution control technologies, turnover rates in vehicles and other key uncertainties,” she said.
Then the questions came in. Kiely rebutted Toor’s charge of ineffectiveness. The most telling criticism of the California program was that the price was too low, she said.
What defeated the proposal—at least for now—were questions about its legality. Colorado’s Tabor limits revenues, and commission members were mostly of the opinion that their authority revenue-raising authority needed to be explored in depth.
Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, said that doing the work to rev up for a cap-and-trade program would require a “massive increase in the division’s staff,” north of 40 to 50 new employees, and the division does not have state funding.
He and others also contended that pursuing cap-and-trade would siphon work from the existing roadmap.
Then there was the sentiment that for a program of this size, the commission really did need direct legislative authority.
Commissioner Martha Rudolph said that in her prior position as director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, she had favored cap-and-trade. Not now, because of the legal, resource, and timing issues.
Elise Jones, the former Boulder County commissioner, voted no, but not without stressing the need to keep the conversation going, which is what will happen in a subcommittee meeting within the next few years.
“This is not now, not never,” said Rueter of the vote. This is conversation that will come up again, maybe at the federal level or maybe in Colorado a few years down the road.”
A Colorado expert on climate science will lead a virtual presentation Tuesday evening to discuss the science behind, impacts of, and solutions to address climate change.
Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who has authored more than 100 papers on the subject, will deliver remarks over Zoom as the keynote speaker for a virtual event celebrating the third anniversary of the Renewable Energy Owners Coalition of America.
REOCA, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, formed in Pueblo in February 2018. Its mission is to “protect and promote distributed renewable energy resources for the economy, the environment and a sustainable future,” according to its website.
Denning’s Tuesday presentation will look at what he calls the, “Three S’s of climate change: simple, serious and solvable.”
“Simple is, ‘How does it work?’ Serious is, ‘Why is it bad?’ And solvable is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Denning said.
Although there are complex factors that contribute to an increasingly hotter climate, Denning said the phenomenon itself is simple.
“When you add heat to things, they change their temperature,” Denning said.
“This is pretty fundamental … You put a pot of water on the stove, you put heat into the bottom of the pot of water and lo and behold, it warms up. The Earth works exactly that same way. If more sun comes into the earth than heat radiation going out, then it warms up.”
Carbon dioxide (CO2) slows down outgoing heat from the earth. So the more CO2 there is on Earth, Denning said, the warmer it gets. And this poses a serious problem.
“Unless we stop burning coal, oil and gas, we’ll warm up the world 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the time our children today are old,” Denning said.
“And 10 degrees Fahrenheit is a lot. That’s like the difference between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park, or the difference between Pueblo and somewhere down in southern New Mexico — it’s the kind of difference that you would absolutely notice.”
Denning said in the future, temperatures at the tops of mountains might be similar to current temperatures on the Colorado plains, which has drastic implications for farmers and ranchers.
In Colorado, some of the most serious impacts will affect the state’s water supply.
“Depending on where you are in the world, there are different kinds of climate problems. Our problem here is that we don’t have water to spare,” Denning said.
“In the Mountain West, we support our entire culture here on mountain runoff — on the snowmelt that comes down out of the mountains every spring and fills our reservoirs, and that’s where our cities get water and where our farmers get water,” Denning said.
“If we swap out the climate of Albuquerque or El Paso (Texas) for the climate of Pueblo, what’s the biggest thing people in Pueblo would notice? Well, besides the fact that it would be hot, you wouldn’t have enough water.”
Denning said the problem is not so much about water supply, but rather demand.
“When it’s hot in the summer, our lawns need more water, our crops need more water, our livestock need more water, our forests need more water,” Denning said.
“And this is a permanent change. If we turn up the thermostat to El Paso levels … people will have to live differently, very differently, than they do today in Colorado.”
But the positive news, and the third topic of Denning’s discussion, is that climate change is solvable.
“The solution is to stop setting carbon on fire,” Denning said.
“That means learning to live well with less energy and learning to make energy that doesn’t involve setting stuff on fire.
“That means (more energy efficient) houses and lights and cars and all that stuff, it also means using solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, whatever other kinds of energy that don’t involve burning things.”
Denning said people in 2021 are “very lucky” because sustainable sources of energy are “actually cheaper than the old-fashioned” energy sources.
“It’s hard to switch off fossil fuels, like it was hard to switch off of land lines. It’s hard to switch to clean energy, like it was hard to build the internet,” Denning said.
“It’ll cost us money. But just like mobile phones and the internet, switching our energy system will create jobs and prosperity for the next generation.
“This is basically just what we’ve been doing as a civilization since the end of the middle ages. We swap out old ways of doing things with new ways of doing things, and that’s why we have jobs.”
“So our kids’ generation will have jobs rolling out new infrastructure for generating energy that doesn’t cook the world.”
Farmington, a city of 45,000 in the northwestern corner of New Mexico, has run on a fossil fuel economy for a century. It is one of the only places on the planet where a 26-kiloton nuclear device was detonated underground to free up natural gas from the rock.
The city’s baseball team was called the Frackers, and a home run hit out of their practice park was likely to land next to a pack of gas wells. The community’s economy and identity are so tied up with fossil fuels that the place should probably try a new name like Carbonton, Methanedale or Drillsville.
Over the last decade, however, the oil and gas rollercoaster here has shuddered nearly to a halt, and one of two giant coal-fired power plants is about to shut down. The carbon corporations that have been exploiting the local labor and landscape for decades are fleeing, taking thousands of jobs with them. Left behind are gaping coal-mine wounds, rotting infrastructure and well-pad scars oozing methane.
The pattern of abandonment is mirrored in communities from Wyoming to Utah to Western Colorado to the Navajo Nation. Community leaders scramble to find solutions. Some cling to what they know, throwing their weight behind schemes to keep coal viable, such as carbon capture, while others bank on outdoor recreation, tourism and cottage industries.
Yet one solution to the woes rarely comes up in these conversations: Restoration as economic development.
Why not put unemployed miners and drillers back to work reclaiming closed coal mines and plugging up idled or low-producing oil and gas wells?
The EPA estimates that there are some 2 million unplugged abandoned wells nationwide, many of them leaking methane, the greenhouse gas with 86 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, along with health-harming volatile organic compounds and even deadly hydrogen sulfide.
Hundreds of thousands of additional wells are still active, yet have been idled or are marginal producers, and they will also need plugging and reclaiming.
Oilfield service companies and their employees have the skills and equipment needed and could go back to work immediately. A 2020 report from the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy found that a nationwide well-plugging program could employ more than 100,000 high-wage workers.
Massive coal mines are also shutting down and will need to be reclaimed. Northern Arizona’s Kayenta Mine, owned by coal-giant Peabody, shut down in late 2019, along with the Navajo Generating Station, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 jobs. The Western Organization of Resource Councils estimated that proper reclamation of the mine could keep most of those miners employed for an additional two to three years.
Peabody, however, still has not begun to meet its reclamation obligations. This is a failure not only on Peabody’s part but also of the federal mining regulators who should be holding the company’s feet to the fire.
Who will pay for all of this? Mining and drilling companies are required to put up financial bonds in order to get development permits, and they’re forfeited if the companies fail to properly reclaim the well or mine. Unfortunately, these bonds are almost always inadequate.
A Government Accountability Office report found that the Bureau of Land Management held about $2,000 in bonds, on average, for each well on federal land. Yet the cost to plug and reclaim each well ranges from $20,000 to $145,000. An example: In New Mexico, a company can put up as little as $2,500 per well that costs at least $35,000 to plug.
Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet tried to remedy this last year by crafting a bill that would increase bonds and create a fund for plugging abandoned wells. Republicans kept the bill from progressing, but with an administration that touted reclamation of mines and abandoned wells in a climate-related executive order, and a new Senate in place, the bill stands a good chance of going forward.
Economic development focusing on restoring the land once miners leave is a natural fit for beleaguered towns suffering the latest bust. Plus, by patching up the torn landscape these communities will help clear the path for other types of economic development, such as tourism or recreation.
“Restoration work is not fixing beautiful machinery … It is accepting an abandoned responsibility,” wrote Barry Lopez, the renowned nature writer who died recently. “It is a humble and often joyful mending of biological ties, with a hope clearly recognized that working from this foundation we might, too, begin to mend human society.”
The San Juan structural basin is primarily in New Mexico and the southeast corner of the Colorado Plateau. By US Geological Survey – Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources of the San Juan Basin Province of New Mexico and Colorado, 2002, USGS Fact Sheet FS-147-02, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5749904
San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.
Navajo Generating Station and the cloud of smog with which it blankets the region. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson via The High Country News
Navajo Generating Station. Photo credit: Wolfgang Moroder.
Navajo Nation. Image via Cronkite News.
The Navajo Dam on the San Juan River.Photo credit Mike Robinson via the University of Washington.
Fly fishers on the San Juan River below the Navajo Dam.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Biden/Harris supporter Cindy Honani stands outside the Navajo Nation Council Chamber while holding a sign above her head to protect herself from the snow in Window Rock in late October. Sharon Chischilly/Navajo Times via The High Country News
A power crisis in Texas caused by severe winter weather exposed the need for a climate-resilient system.
The rolling blackouts in Texas were national news. Texas calls itself the energy capital of the United States, yet it couldn’t keep the lights on. Conservatives were quick to blame reliance on wind power, just as they did last summer when California faced power interruptions due to a heat wave. What really happened?
It’s true that there was some loss of wind power in Texas due to icing on turbine blades. Unlike their counterparts further north, Texas wind operators weren’t prepared for severe weather conditions. But this was a relatively minor part of the problem.
The much bigger problem was loss of power from gas-fired power plants and a nuclear plant. The drop of gas generation has been attributed to freezing pipelines, diversion of gas for residential heating and equipment malfunctioning.
Texas faced a wave of very unusual cold weather, just as California faced an unusual heatwave last summer. What’s notable, however, is that in other ways the two systems are quite different. Texas has perhaps the most thoroughly deregulated electricity system in the country.
California experimented with its own deregulation, abandoned much of the effort after a crisis, and now has a kind of hybrid system. California and Texas are in opposing camps on climate policy. Yet both states got into similar trouble.
What happened in these states points to three pervasive problems.
The first is that we haven’t solved the problem of ensuring that the electricity system has the right amount of generating capacity. In states with traditional rate regulation, utilities have an incentive to overbuild capacity because they’re guaranteed a profit on their investments. Since there’s no competition, they have no incentive to innovate either. Iinstead, they have an incentive to keep old power plants going too long, contributing to air pollution and carbon emissions.
In other states, where utilities generally buy their power on the market, the income from power sales is based on short-term power needs and doesn’t necessarily provide enough incentive for long-term investments. That could be part of the problem in both California and Texas.
Some regional grid operators have established what are called capacity markets. At least judging from its record in the largest region (PJM), this has resulted in excess capacity and has encouraged inefficient aging generators to stay in the market. In short, we’ve got too little generation or too much, but we haven’t found the Goldilocks point of “just right.”
The second problem is that we haven’t made the power system resilient enough.
The heatwave that interfered with the California grid has been linked to climate change. It’s not clear whether the exceptionally cold weather in Texas was also linked to climate change, although climate change does seem to be disrupting the polar vortex that can contribute to severe winter conditions.
In Texas, the weather didn’t just impact the electrical system: the natural gas system suffered from frozen pipes, reducing gas supply to power generators.
Climate change is throwing more and more severe weather events at energy systems from Puerto Rico to California, yet our planning has not come to grips with the need to adapt to these risks. Microgrids, increased energy storage and improved demand response may furnish part of the answer.
The third problem relates to the transmission system.
Among the causes of the California blackouts, a key transmission line to the Pacific Northwest was down for weather-related reasons. This is another example of the broad failure to make the grid resilient enough for an era of climate change. Texas has deliberately shackled itself by cutting the state off from the national power grid in order to avoid federal regulation.
This leaves it unable to draw on outside resources in times of crisis. This is all part of a much larger problem: The United States badly needs additional transmission, but political barriers have stymied expansion of the transmission system.
The term “wake up call” is over used but seems applicable here. If we don’t wake up to the need for a climate-resilient power system, we will face even bigger trouble ahead.
We see families huddling for warmth and light in Texas and wonder if the same thing can happen here. It can. And it does.
Think of every major wildfire that threatens utilities and water. Think the 2003 St. Patrick’s Day blizzard that paralyzed much of the Front Range for days. Think the 2013 northern Colorado floods.
Even more recently than that — think Sunday in Larimer County. The Platte River Power Authority sent a note to customers on that frigid day, when wind chills were forecast up to minus 20 Fahrenheit, saying its overall power supply was challenged. Customers, the utility said, should pull back their thermostats and conserve power in order to lighten the load on the grid.
Colorado GOP House Minority Leader Hugh McKean even put it in his speech to the opening of the state legislature this week, blaming the problems of his northern Colorado constituents on renewables: “All of the lofty goals of having 100% renewable energy were not sufficient to both provide the electricity we all demand as well as the heat for our homes. We should never have to make those choices, especially on the coldest day in recent history. The 21st century should not hallmark a return to the candles and wood stoves of the 19th.”
Like many things, only more so, the power grid is not that simple.
Yes, Colorado’s growing share of renewable utility energy is vulnerable to the weather. So is the “old” grid based on fossil fuels. Platte River Power did suffer a partial loss of available power Sunday. (Colorado’s utility grid drew about 25% from renewable sources in 2019, and that percentage rises every month as coal plants shut down and wind and solar farms come online.)
The Wyoming wind turbines Platte River Power buys power from iced up. Ice on the blades makes them wobble and can ruin expensive technology for the long term. So the wind farm couldn’t produce. The large solar array it takes electrical power from was covered in snow, and didn’t produce.
But the far bigger problem was that Xcel Energy, which supplies the natural gas that Platte River Power uses to fire up its backup generating plant, said it couldn’t supply enough fuel on Sunday. Other customers needed the gas for home heating. Xcel has the right to tell Platte River that.
So Platte River, which sells power wholesale to Estes Park, Fort Collins, Longmont and Loveland, sent messages to customers asking them to conserve all energy use for the day. They did. Platte River had forecast high demand that day of more than 500 megawatts, and customers cut back by about 10 megawatts, enough to avoid any strain on the system.
By Sunday afternoon, Xcel and Platte River were telling customers that normal use was fine. Also the wind farm thawed out and started sending power again. “For all intents and purposes, we were back to normal,” explained Steve Roalstad, Platte River Power’s fairly beleaguered spokesman.
Utility companies and environmental advocates know there is a reality and perception problem for renewables, and so they are working to build short-term storage at renewable sites. Current battery arrays can store significant electrical energy for four to eight hours of peak demand, or to fill in for interrupted supply. Storage technology gets better over time, and will improve. Long-term storage, at higher capacity, is possible by using off-peak power to produce hydrogen, which can be stored in massive quantities, and then drawing down the hydrogen at peaks to generate electricity.
In Texas, the problem includes politics
Fossil fuels have their weather problems, too. In Texas and elsewhere, natural gas delivery has frozen up, interrupting power for both homeowners using gas directly and power plants burning natural gas to generate electricity. Coal piles freeze up. Power lines fail under downed trees or other old-technology problems.
Texas also has issues because it has isolated itself from a regional grid that can easily and cheaply supply backup power if prior agreements are in place and a strong transmission spine is in place. Western Resource Advocates energy analyst Vijay Satyal said that years ago, Texas turned itself into an “island,” cutting itself off from most of the backup grid other states connect to. Texas leaders thought they could deliver power more cheaply if they weren’t asking customers to pay for extra regulation in other states, and they doubled down on the Lone Star mentality.
“The Texas spirit in 2002 was, we don’t want extra regulation,” Satyal said. They turned themselves into Hawaii, he added. Moreover, despite multiple recent incidents of extreme cold weather, hurricanes and more in recent years, Texas regulators have never demanded their own utilities do the kinds of grid reinforcement or maintenance that help when the next storm hits…
Colorado utilities have better connections to a backup grid in Western power consortiums. Colorado and most Western regulators also allow their utilities to ask customers to pay for more maintenance and readiness costs. Satyal and Platte River Power did say there is room for more Colorado utilities to join even more reliable emergency power consortiums that won’t gouge prices for last-minute supplies, and Platte River is doing exactly that.
It’s the nature of human-power needs that demand often peaks when supply is most threatened. In the summer at 5 p.m., people get home from work and want air conditioning all at the same time, while a thunderstorm is rolling through, clouding up solar panels and downing transmission lines. Utility companies and their regulators are supposed to plan for these contingencies, while acknowledging that planning perfectly for a 100-year storm is impossible.
Sunday’s “crisis” in northern Colorado never put supply and demand too far out of balance, Roalstad said…
Many critics of climate change control efforts continue to echo McKean’s jabs at renewable sources. Are we doomed to huddle around makeshift fires if we keep replacing reliable coal with more fickle wind and sun?
Satyal, whose organization advocates for alternative energy, said it’s true that coal and natural gas are usually extremely reliable sources that come on almost instantly, day or night. But utilities are adding battery storage with every new farm, and retrofitting older ones, while technology improvement is constantly stretching the amount of energy stored and the length of time it can last.
Even the western utilities that do plan for winter storms can do better, Satyal said, including by making sure wind turbines are outfitted with coated blades and gear warming units, and with meticulous planning of maximum loads and