Suncor reports chemical sheen on Sand Creek, breach of containment area at refinery north of #Denver — The Broomfield Enterprise

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Broomfield Enterprise:

Company officials say tests show contaminants did not exceed state standards for surface water

Contaminated water has been seeping into Sand Creek just up from where it meets the South Platte River near the Suncor Energy oil refinery north of Denver, and company officials on Wednesday said they were monitoring conditions and “will make any necessary repairs” to a spill containment pool behind sandbags where crews were pumping out water.

A sheen of benzene and other chemicals was detected on the surface of Sand Creek on May 7 and again on May 15, company officials said.

Sunday’s heavy rains raised water levels along the creek, leading to a breach of the containment area.

Suncor contractors have drawn water samples from Sand Creek and the South Platte, and tested these for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and methyl tertiary butyl ether, company officials said. The results showed concentrations did not exceed state standards for surface water in those waterways, officials said.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials did not respond to queries about conditions at the refinery. It is located just north of Denver in Commerce City, along the creek and the Sand Creek Greenway public bicycle path, near where the creek flows into the South Platte.

“Who is watching this?” Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said. “I’m concerned about the problems that continue to occur.”

#Colorado joins multistate lawsuit challenging federal government’s reckless rollback of national clean car standards — @PWeiser #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Denver’s Brown Cloud via the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

Here’s the release from Phil Weiser’s office (Lawrence Pacheco):

Attorney General Phil Weiser today joined a multistate coalition in filing a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s final rule rolling back the national clean car standards.

“The administration’s illegal rollback rejects sound science, ignores environmental harms caused by carbon pollution, and will cost consumers more at the pump. Colorado is joining this lawsuit challenging the administration’s illegal action in order to defend our state’s fuel emission standards that are stronger than the national standards,” Weiser said. “By making more zero-emission vehicles available to Coloradans, we can address climate change and protect our air quality.”

In 2010, the EPA, states and automakers established a unified national program harmonizing improvements in fuel economy and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from passenger cars and light trucks and then applied those standards to vehicle model years 2017-2025. The administration took its first step toward dismantling the national clean car standards in 2018, alleging that the standards were no longer appropriate or feasible despite the fact that the auto industry was on track to meet them.

On March 31, 2020, the EPA announced its final rule rolling back the clean car standards. The rule takes aim at the corporate average fuel efficiency standards, requiring automakers to make only minimal improvements to fuel economy on the order of 1.5 percent annually instead of the previously anticipated annual increase of 5 percent. The rule also diminishes the requirements to reduce vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions, allowing hundreds of millions of metric tons of avoidable carbon emissions into our atmosphere over the next decade.

In the lawsuit filed today, the coalition argues that the final rule unlawfully violates the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

Attorney General Weiser joins the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia. The California Air Resources Board and the Cities of Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Denver also joined the coalition in filing the lawsuit.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Broomfield Enterprise:

Led by California, the states and major cities — including Denver — have asked federal judges to reverse Trump’s Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicle Rule, which was finalized in March and loosened requirements set under the Obama administration to make cars and light pickup trucks about 5% more efficient each year.

Trump’s rule means vehicles over the next decade would emit hundreds of millions more tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Instead of making cars that can cover 54 miles per gallon by 2025, automakers could make cars that cover 40 mpg by 2026.

Federal officials argue this will make new cars more affordable, encouraging more Americans to upgrade to relatively cleaner cars.

This lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, contends the Trump rule violates the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

“We so depend on protecting our land, air and water for our lifestyle,” Weiser said in a conference call Wednesday with attorneys general Xavier Becerra of California and Dana Nessel of Michigan.

“Climate change is not a theoretical, looming challenge. It is there today,” Weiser said, referring to “less natural snowpack than ever before” and a growing burden on future generations to deal with climate change impacts.

He cited a U.S. Supreme Court case that, more than a decade ago, established EPA power to regulate pollution that causes climate change.

“It is the job of the courts to get the EPA on track,” Weiser said.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, in a prepared statement, noted that vehicle emissions are a top contributor to air pollution over the city and are fueling climate change — causing harm to the public’s health and prosperity.

“If these rules are rolled back, the Trump administration will negate the progress that has happened across the country in these areas during a critical point in history,” Hancock said. “We are past due for our country taking more meaningful action, which is why Denver joined this important lawsuit.”

In 2010, EPA officials, state leaders and automakers began working to improve vehicle fuel efficiency and reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases and other pollution from passenger cars and light trucks made after 2017. Automakers have been working to meet these standards. Since 2018, Trump administration officials have been saying the standards are inappropriate and no longer feasible.

Rush hour on Interstate 25 near Alameda. Screen shot The Denver Post March 9, 2017.

Here’s a release about a coalition that has also filed a lawsuit from Environment Colorado (Ellen Montgomery, Hannah Collazo, Mark Morgenstein):

Environment America, an affiliate of Environment Colorado, along with ten other public interest organizations, filed a lawsuit today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit opposing the Trump administration’s action to weaken federal clean car standards. This lawsuit follows litigation that Environment America and the other public interest groups previously filed challenging part one of the action, which attempts to block California and other states from setting stronger tailpipe emissions standards.

The petition challenges a final rule issued jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agencies’ action violates several federal statutes, including the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

“The EPA’s own analysis shows that this will reverse climate progress. The clean car standards should protect our climate, our health and the future of our children and grandchildren,” said Hannah Collazo, State Director with Environment Colorado. “This plan is unacceptable. Not only does it fail to adequately address the climate crisis — it sets us back years when we have no time to lose.”

The previous federal clean car standards would have doubled vehicular fuel economy and would have cut global warming pollution in half for cars sold in 2025. The weakened standards could result in more than 900 million additional metric tons of global warming pollution in our atmosphere.

The other petitioners are the Center for Biological Diversity, Communities for a Better Environment, Consumer Federation of America, Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Denver photo courtesy of Michael Levine-Clark, Flickr Creative Commons.

OPINION: Colorado’s farm-to-table capital is under threat from drilling — The Montrose Press

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From The Montrose Press (Molly Moore):

A Saturday morning stroll through your local farmers market, is there anything like it? It’s a popular way that many Front Range people decide to spend their weekends, where you get to peruse the abundance and score some of the best food you can buy.

They fill their baskets with organically grown produce, chat with a farmer, walk over to a food truck for a coffee and a pastry and head home with their bounty. These brief interactions allow people to connect with where their food is grown, and put a face to the people who run these farms. But those interactions are threatened, and no, not because of COVID-19.

I am the Board President of the Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), representing over 125 farmers, ranchers, vineyard owners and related business operators in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado, many of whom travel to the Front Range to provide food to residents, restaurants, and breweries.

We take pride in being able to grow high-quality food, carefully tended and responsibly grown without additives or chemicals.

We also take pride in providing that food to Coloradans throughout the state. For many of us farmers, the food we grow is an extension of our personalities and represents us and our businesses.

VOGA’s vision is to create a vibrant community of prosperous, local farms that sustain the land and provide healthy agricultural products. To achieve this vision, we are dependent on our public lands.

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration approved a plan that puts the farms in our watershed at serious risk. The Bureau of Land Management’s final plan for the North Fork Valley opens our public lands to oil and gas drilling while removing protections for everything else that matters to us in the North Fork Valley.

For the past 10 years, the Bureau of Land Management has been rewriting a plan to manage the public land in the North Fork Valley. Our area is approximately 40% public land, which includes the headwaters of streams, rivers and ditches that supply irrigation water to our local farms.

VOGA has been participating and commenting on the BLM’s plan every step of the way. We even helped write our own proposal, called the North Fork Alternative, for how public land should be managed in our watershed.

The North Fork Alternative represents a locally grown vision for the North Fork Valley that would keep energy development away from sensitive areas and fosters a diverse, resilient economy. We were glad to see that the BLM included the North Fork Alternative in the planning process in 2016.

In the name of energy dominance, however, the Trump Administration completely dismissed our proposal last week and opened the entirety of our watershed to oil and gas development, without proper restrictions to protect our farms, our food or our livelihoods.

If resource extraction takes off in our watershed, our waterways may become polluted, ruining our region’s model for farm-to-table community agriculture.

Earlier this year, VOGA received a grant to conduct a study on our member’s economic impact within Delta County. For the 167 members of our association, we found the estimated total market value of our farms to be $50-60 million, with estimated annual gross sales to be $4.1 million.

If we want to maintain these numbers and build upon them to support a sustainable, resilient local economy, we need strong protections for our lands, air and water. And that begins with stipulations set forth in the BLM’s plan.

Luckily, Sen. Michael Bennet is on our side. Time and again, his commitment to working with local farmers, ranchers, business owners and conservationists has shined through in the face of this terrible plan.

And now it is no different. Sen. Bennet, thank you for your commitment to protecting the North Fork Valley, and we hope to work with you on a path forward, as farmers and as the local community.

Molly Moore is the Board President of the Valley Organic Growers Association.

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

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

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

COVID-19 reverberates across the energy world.

Graphic credit: The High Country News

In mid-January, when the epidemic was still mostly confined to China, officials there put huge cities on lockdown in order to stem the spread. Hundreds of flights into and out of the nation were canceled, and urban streets stood empty of cars. China’s burgeoning thirst for oil diminished, sending global crude prices into a downward spiral.

And when oil prices fall, it hurts states like New Mexico, which relies on oil and gas royalties and taxes for more than one-third of its general fund. “An unexpected drop in oil prices would send the state’s energy revenues into a tailspin,” New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee warned last August. Even the committee’s worst-case scenario, however, didn’t look this bad.
Now, with COVID-19 spanning the globe, every sector of the economy is feeling the pain — with the exception, perhaps, of toilet paper manufacturers and bean farmers. But energy-dependent states and communities will be among the hardest hit.

Graphic via The High Country News

At the end of December, the U.S. benchmark price for a barrel of oil was $62. By mid-March, as folks worldwide stopped flying and driving, it had dipped to around $20, before falling into negative territory, and then leveling off around $10 in April. The drilling rigs — and the abundant jobs that once came with them — are disappearing; major oil companies are announcing deep cuts in drilling and capital expenditures for the rest of the year, and smaller, debt-saddled companies will be driven into the ground.

Graphic via The High Country News

COVID-19 and related shocks to the economy are reverberating through the energy world in other ways. Shelter-in-place orders and the rise in people working from home have changed the way Americans consume electricity: Demand decreased nationwide by 10% in March. As airlines ground flights, demand for jet fuel wanes. And people just aren’t driving that much, despite falling gasoline prices, now that they have orders to stay home and few places to go to, anyway.

Graphic via The High Country News

The slowdown will bring a few temporary benefits: The reduction in drilling will give landscapes and wildlife a rest and result in lower methane emissions. In Los Angeles, the ebb in traffic has already brought significantly cleaner air. And the continued decline in burning coal for electricity has reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Graphic via The High Country News

But the long-term environmental implications may not be so rosy. In the wake of recession, governments typically try to jumpstart the economy with stimulus packages to corporations, economic incentives for oil companies, and regulatory rollbacks to spur consumption and production. The low interest rates and other fiscal policies that followed the last global financial crisis helped drive the energy boom of the decade that followed. And the Trump administration has not held back in its giveaways to industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is already using the outbreak as an excuse to ease environmental regulations and enforcement, and even with all the nation’s restrictions, the Interior Department continues to issue new oil and gas leases at rock-bottom prices. [ed. emphasis mine]

Graphic via The High Country News

The impacts on energy state coffers will unfold over the coming weeks and months. But the shock to working folk from every economic sector has come swiftly. During the third week of March, more than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment — more than 10 times the claims from a year prior.

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

Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey. Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, California Independent System Operator, Baker-Hughes, Unacast, FlightRadar24, Wyoming Department of Revenue, Carbon Footprint, International Air Transport Association, OAG.

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

A Western Slope community wants to move beyond its #coal legacy. The @POTUS Administration wants “energy dominance.” — The #ColoradoSun #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Gunnison River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley.

For nearly a decade, a group of farmers in the North Fork Valley joined with local tourism businesses and conservation groups to craft a resource management plan that could help the Bureau of Land Management shepherd the multiple uses of the valley’s public lands for the next 20 years.

More than 600 mining jobs disappeared in that decade of planning as the coal industry contracted and mines closed. Entrepreneurs in the lush communities around Paonia and Hotchkiss helped diversify the local economy from reliance on a single, extractive industry to an eclectic mix of organic agritourism and outdoor recreation.

The group’s North Fork Alternative Plan proposed energy development on 25% of the valley’s public lands, with increased protections for water and recreational attractions in the region.

“We put a lot of effort into negotiating with the BLM with what we thought was a pretty constructive way to share our values and how they should consider those values in managing the lands here,” said Mark Waltermire, whose Thistle Whistle farm is among 140 members in the North Fork’s Valley Organic Growers Association.

The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns over energy projects injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality. But as the first resource management plan released under the Trump Administration, it did represent the president’s pivot toward “energy dominance” by reducing regulations and greenlighting exponentially more coal mining.

“I feel betrayed by the system,” said Waltermire this week after spending the day fixing a tractor on his Delta County farm. “Most definitely this is a step backward. Really it’s even worse. We have lived with coal for 100 years and coal has proven to be compatible with the agriculture we practice here. But gas and the oil development is a different beast. It is a much more substantial threat to our economy, with increased traffic and the potential for spills. That could destroy our reputation that we have built for our valley. It could change everything.”

[…]

Earlier this month the agency released the final plan for managing the vast swath of the Western Slope, which is an update to the region’s 1989 RMP. Many of the wildlife, habitat and environment-focused objections to the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” push to loosen regulations around domestic energy production — including those from Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, county commissioners, conservation groups and local residents — were dismissed.

As Colorado’s local BLM officials honed the preferred alternative — Alternative D — for the RMP last fall, the agency’s higher-ups crafted a new alternative. Alternative E identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues, and promoted access and a reduced regulatory burden alongside economic development as top priorities.

The BLM said the RMP would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity into the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next 20 years.

The Alternative E plan:

  • Increased coal available for leasing by 189%, to 371,250 acres from 144,790 acres.
  • Added 13,020 acres to the region’s 840,440 acres open for mineral development.
  • Removed more than 30,000 [acres] from development in areas previously identified for leasing.
  • Cut acres the BLM could sell from 9,850 to 1,930.
  • Added six special recreation management areas and three extensive recreation management areas, setting aside 186,920 acres for recreation management.
  • The final draft of the proposed RMP conflicted with new state laws protecting wildlife, recreation access and improving air quality, so Polis last year sent a letter to the BLM’s Colorado director expressing his concerns as part of a consistency review that makes sure the agency’s plan aligned with state policies.

    Oil and gas leasing sites near Paonia. Courtesy of EcoFlight via The High Country News.

    Specifically the state wanted the agency to limit the density of development — including oil and gas facilities — to one structure for every square mile to help protect wildlife corridors. It also asked the agency to develop a comprehensive plan to protect and conserve the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat. Polis noted that the BLM plan allowed an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas development that conflicted with last year’s House Bill 1261, which aims to cut those emissions by 90%. The BLM plan also conflicted with Senate Bill 181, which allows the state to consider public health and the environment when regulating oil and gas development.

    The BLM’s final plan released this month did not include the state’s push for limiting the density of development or creating a region-wide wildlife and sage grouse conservation plan. But it did agree to protect 33,000 acres of riparian habitat from surface development and initiate a future statewide planning effort to study density on BLM land. The agency also agreed to coordinate with the state over potential development in sage grouse habitat.

    “Our issue is that we worked on the preferred alternative, Alternative D and we sent that to Washington for approval. Alternative E was never contemplated and that’s what came back from D.C. We were not able to weigh in on that option,” said Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, who joined Polis in the only process available for commenting on the final proposal: a protest letter to the BLM over its proposed RMP.

    Gibbs said he was happy the agency heard a portion of the state’s protests and the final decision included plans to work more closely with the state on a border-to-border plan for limiting development density…

    The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility group uncovered a BLM document summarizing an October 2018 meeting where the agency’s Washington D.C. leaders told Uncompahgre Field Office managers that their preferred alternative “misses the mark” and was “not in line with the administration’s direction to decrease the regulatory burden and increase access.”

    […]

    Aerial view of the San Miguel River. Photo credit: The Montrose Daily Press

    San Miguel County, for example, asked the BLM to expand areas of critical concerns in the San Miguel River watershed and remove those riparian areas from mineral leasing. The final plan reduced the size of those areas and kept them open for mineral leasing. Montrose County asked for some areas inside Camelback, Dry Creek and Roc Creek to be managed for wilderness protection, but the final plan did not set aside any land in the county for wilderness protection.

    San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said that while the plan is slightly improved by the promise to work with Parks and Wildlife on a density-limiting plan, “it still feels like the BLM is not a willing partner in the management of our land.”

    […]

    Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, also sent a letter to the BLM and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last fall, urging the agency to “reengage with local stakeholders” before moving forward with its new Alternative E.

    This month he blasted the plan as “completely inadequate.”

    […]

    “You see what happened today?” he said this week, after the price of a barrel of oil collapsed to below $0 for the first time as a stalled nation sits at home and oil stockpiles swell.

    “That is really good news. I bet they are not going to look to develop new rigs for 10 years now,” Schwartz said. “We seem to have bought ourselves some time. Gas and oil are looking to survive right now. And if they look to fracking in our valley, they know we will fight them tooth and nail every step of the way. They don’t want that.

    “And really, who knows what will happen in the future,” he said. “We will have a new administration in a year or four years and this whole thing could change. Either way, we are coming out the end of this solid and safe.”

    Dolores River watershed

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

    Here’s the release from Columbia University (Kevin Krajik):

    With the western United States and northern Mexico suffering an ever-lengthening string of dry years starting in 2000, scientists have been warning for some time that climate change may be pushing the region toward an extreme long-term drought worse than any in recorded history. A new study says the time has arrived: a megadrought as bad or worse than anything even from known prehistory is very likely in progress, and warming climate is playing a key role. The study, based on modern weather observations, 1,200 years of tree-ring data and dozens of climate models, appears this week in the leading journal Science.

    “Earlier studies were largely model projections of the future,” said lead author Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We’re no longer looking at projections, but at where we are now. We now have enough observations of current drought and tree-ring records of past drought to say that we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”

    Reliable modern observations date only to about 1900, but tree rings have allowed scientists to infer yearly soil moisture for centuries before humans began influencing climate. Among other things, previous research has tied catastrophic naturally driven droughts recorded in tree rings to upheavals among indigenous Medieval-era civilizations in the Southwest. The new study is the most up-to-date and comprehensive long-term analysis. It covers an area stretching across nine U.S. states from Oregon and Montana down through California and New Mexico, and part of northern Mexico.

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

    Using rings from many thousands of trees, the researchers charted dozens of droughts across the region, starting in 800 AD. Four stand out as so-called megadroughts, with extreme aridity lasting decades: the late 800s, mid-1100s, the 1200s, and the late 1500s. After 1600, there were other droughts, but none on this scale.

    The team then compared the ancient megadroughts to soil moisture records calculated from observed weather in the 19 years from 2000 to 2018. Their conclusion: as measured against the worst 19-year increments within the previous episodes, the current drought is already outdoing the three earliest ones. The fourth, which spanned 1575 to 1603, may have been the worst of all — but the difference is slight enough to be within the range of uncertainty. Furthermore, the current drought is affecting wider areas more consistently than any of the earlier ones — a fingerprint of global warming, say the researchers. All of the ancient droughts lasted longer than 19 years — the one that started in the 1200s ran nearly a century — but all began on a similar path to to what is showing up now, they say.

    Nature drove the ancient droughts, and still plays a strong role today. A study last year led by Lamont’s Nathan Steiger showed that among other things, unusually cool periodic conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean (commonly called La Niña) during the previous megadroughts pushed storm tracks further north, and starved the region of precipitation. Such conditions, and possibly other natural factors, appear to have also cut precipitation in recent years. However, with global warming proceeding, the authors say that average temperatures since 2000 have been pushed 1.2 degrees C (2.2 F) above what they would have been otherwise. Because hotter air tends to hold more moisture, that moisture is being pulled from the ground. This has intensified drying of soils already starved of precipitation.

    Nature drove the ancient droughts, and still plays a strong role today. A study last year led by Lamont’s Nathan Steiger showed that among other things, unusually cool periodic conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean (commonly called La Niña) during the previous megadroughts pushed storm tracks further north, and starved the region of precipitation. Such conditions, and possibly other natural factors, appear to have also cut precipitation in recent years. However, with global warming proceeding, the authors say that average temperatures since 2000 have been pushed 1.2 degrees C (2.2 F) above what they would have been otherwise. Because hotter air tends to hold more moisture, that moisture is being pulled from the ground. This has intensified drying of soils already starved of precipitation.

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

    All told, the researchers say that rising temperatures are responsible for about half the pace and severity of the current drought. If this overall warming were subtracted from the equation, the current drought would rank as the 11th worst detected — bad, but nowhere near what it has developed into.

    “It doesn’t matter if this is exactly the worst drought ever,” said coauthor Benjamin Cook, who is affiliated with Lamont and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “What matters is that it has been made much worse than it would have been because of climate change.” Since temperatures are projected to keep rising, it is likely the drought will continue for the foreseeable future; or fade briefly only to return, say the researchers.

    “Because the background is getting warmer, the dice are increasingly loaded toward longer and more severe droughts,” said Williams. “We may get lucky, and natural variability will bring more precipitation for a while. But going forward, we’ll need more and more good luck to break out of drought, and less and less bad luck to go back into drought.” Williams said it is conceivable the region could stay arid for centuries. “That’s not my prediction right now, but it’s possible,” he said.

    Lamont climatologist Richard Seager was one of the first to predict, in a 2007 paper, that climate change might eventually push the region into a more arid climate during the 21st century; he speculated at the time that the process might already be underway. By 2015, when 11 of the past 14 years had seen drought, Benjamin Cook led a followup study projecting that warming climate would cause the catastrophic natural droughts of prehistory to be repeated by the latter 21st century. A 2016 study coauthored by several Lamont scientist reinforced those findings. Now, says Cook, it looks like they may have underestimated. “It’s already happening,” he said.

    The effects are palpable. The mighty reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell along the Colorado River, which supply agriculture around the region, have shrunk dramatically. Insect outbreaks are ravaging dried-out forests. Wildfires in California and across wider areas of the U.S. West are growing in area. While 2019 was a relatively wet year, leading to hope that things might be easing up, early indications show that 2020 is already on a track for resumed aridity.

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

    “There is no reason to believe that the sort of natural variability documented in the paleoclimatic record will not continue into the future, but the difference is that droughts will occur under warmer temperatures,” said Connie Woodhouse, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who was not involved in the study. “These warmer conditions will exacerbate droughts, making them more severe, longer, and more widespread than they would have been otherwise.”

    Angeline Pendergrass, a staff scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that she thinks it is too early to say whether the region is at the cusp of a true megadrought, because the study confirms that natural weather swings are still playing a strong role. That said, “even though natural variability will always play a large role in drought, climate change makes it worse,” she said.

    Tucked into the researchers’ data: the 20th century was the wettest century in the entire 1200-year record. It was during that time that population boomed, and that has continued. “The 20th century gave us an overly optimistic view of how much water is potentially available,” said Cook. “It goes to show that studies like this are not just about ancient history. They’re about problems that are already here.”

    The study was also coauthored by Edward Cook, Jason Smerdon, Kasey Bolles and Seung Baek, all of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; John Abatzaglou of the University of Idaho; and Andrew Badger and Ben Livneh of the University of Colorado Boulder.

    From Inside Climate News (Bob Berwyn):

    Warmer temperatures and shifting storm tracks are drying up vast stretches of land in North and South America.

    The American West is well on its way into one of the worst megadroughts on record, a new study warns, a dry period that could last for centuries and spread from Oregon and Montana, through the Four Corners and into West Texas and northern Mexico.

    Several other megadroughts, generally defined as dry periods that last 20 years or more, have been documented in the West going back to about 800 A.D. In the study, the researchers, using an extensive tree-ring history, compared recent climate data with conditions during the historic megadroughts.

    They found that in this century, global warming is tipping the climate scale toward an unwelcome rerun, with dry conditions persisting far longer than at any other time since Europeans colonized and developed the region. The study was published online Thursday and appears in the April 17 issue of the journal Science.

    Human-caused global warming is responsible for about half the severity of the emerging megadrought in western North America, said Jason Smerdon, a Columbia University climate researcher and a co-author of the new research.

    “What we’ve identified as the culprit is the increased drying from the warming. The reality is that the drying from global warming is going to continue,” he said. “We’re on a trajectory in keeping with the worst megadroughts of the past millennia.”

    The ancient droughts in the West were caused by natural climate cycles that shifted the path of snow and rainstorms. But human-caused global warming is responsible for about 47 percent of the severity of the 21st century drought by sucking moisture out of the soil and plants, the study found.

    The regional drought caused by global warming is plain to see throughout the West in the United States. River flows are dwindling, reservoirs holding years worth of water supplies for cities and farms have emptied faster than a bathtub through an open drain, bugs and fires have destroyed millions of acres of forests, and dangerous dust storms are on the rise.

    A similar scenario is unfolding in South America, especially in central Chile, a region with a climate similar to that in western North America. Parts of the Andes Mountains and foothills down to the coast have been parched by an unprecedented 10-year dry spell that has cut some river flows by up to 80 percent.

    In both areas, research shows, global warming could make the droughts worse than any in at least several thousand years, drying up the ground and shifting regional weather patterns toward drier conditions. This is bad news for modern civilizations that have developed in the last 500 years, during which they enjoyed an unusually stable and wet climate. And assumptions about water availability based on that era are not realistic, said climate scientist Edward Cook, another co-author on the study who is also with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

    The impacts of a long-lasting drought in the West could also affect adjacent regions. A 2019 study showed that dry conditions in upwind areas may be intensifying agricultural droughts. With west winds prevailing across North America, hot and dry conditions in the Southwest could reduce the amount of atmospheric moisture available to produce rainfall farther east, in Oklahoma and Texas, for example. The study found that such drought linkages accounted for 62 percent of the precipitation deficit during the 2012 Midwest drought…

    In North and in South America, researchers have identified natural climate cycles as key drivers of historic megadroughts. The most important are a combination of a warm North Atlantic Ocean and cooler-than average conditions in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, as well as decreased solar and volcanic activity.

    “Arid periods over the last several millennia have dwarfed anything we’ve seen so far,” Smerdon said. And when the soil-drying effect of human-caused warming is added into the climate equation, the outlook is not good. Previous studies by Columbia University researchers predicted that the 21st century has a 90 percent chance of seeing a drought that lasts 25 years or longer.

    He said that prospect will require people to rethink how to manage resources.

    “On a regional level, this means being more proactive about water management,” Smerdon said. “There are things we can do if you recognize that the West will probably be much drier. You can start thinking about transitioning to less water intensive crops, or about beef production, which is incredibly water intensive.”

    Other features “that go part and parcel with these droughts are things like forest fires and beetle infestations,” he added, noting that there were also impacts to winter recreation and tourism, with less snow for skiing and water for rafting.

    Smerdon said he’s also concerned that the drought impacts are being underestimated because of an over-reliance on groundwater as a temporary buffer to the decline of river flows, and the drop of reservoir water levels. If you look at simultaneous droughts in North and South America, he said, you could also anticipate potential impacts to global food supply networks, as both regions are important for agricultural production.

    The only real long-term solution is to halt greenhouse gas pollution, he said.

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

    From The Washington Post (Andrew Freedman and Darryl Fears):

    A vast region of the western United States, extending from California, Arizona and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought observed in the past 1,200 years, a study shows. The finding means the phenomenon is no longer a threat for millions to worry about in the future, but is already here.

    The megadrought has emerged while thirsty, expanding cities are on a collision course with the water demands of farmers and with environmental interests, posing nightmare scenarios for water managers in fast-growing states.

    A megadrought is broadly defined as a severe drought that occurs across a broad region for a long duration, typically multiple decades.

    Unlike historical megadroughts triggered by natural climate cycles, emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities have contributed to the current one, the study finds. Warming temperatures and increasing evaporation, along with earlier spring snowmelt, have pushed the Southwest into its second-worst drought in more than a millennium of observations.

    The study, published in the journal Science on Thursday, compares modern soil moisture data with historical records gleaned from tree rings, and finds that when compared with all droughts seen since the year 800 across western North America, the 19-year drought that began in 2000 and continued through 2018 (this drought is still ongoing, though the study’s data is analyzed through 2018) was worse than almost all other megadroughts in this region.

    The researchers, who painstakingly reconstructed soil moisture records from 1,586 tree-ring chronologies to determine drought severity, found only one megadrought that occurred in the late 1500s was more intense.

    Historical megadroughts, spanning vast regions and multiple decades, were triggered by natural fluctuations in tropical ocean conditions, such as La Niña, the cyclic cooling of waters in the tropical Pacific.

    “The megadrought era seems to be reemerging, but for a different reason than the [past] megadroughts,” said Park Williams, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

    Although many areas in the West had a productive wet season in 2019 and some this year, “you can’t go anywhere in the West without having suffered drought on a millennial scale,” Williams said, noting that megadroughts contain relatively wet periods interspersed between parched years.

    “I think the important lesson that comes out of this is that climate change is not a future problem,” said Benjamin I. Cook, a NASA climate scientist and co-author of the study. “Climate change is a problem today. The more we look, the more we find this event was worse because of climate change.”

    Drought affected Lake Mead via the Mountain Town News

    From The New York Times (Henry Fountain):

    A severe drought that has gripped the American Southwest since 2000 is as bad as or worse than long-lasting droughts in the region over the past 1,200 years, and climate change has helped make it that way, scientists said Thursday.

    The researchers described the current drought, which has helped intensify wildfire seasons and threatened water supplies for people and agriculture, as an “emerging megadrought.” Although 2019 was a relatively wet year, and natural climate variability could bring good luck in the form of more wet years that would end the drought, global warming increases the odds that it will continue.

    “We know that this drought has been encouraged by the global warming process,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, and lead author of a study published Thursday in Science. “As we go forward in time it’s going to take more and more good luck to pull us out of this.”

    While the term megadrought has no strict definition, it is generally considered to be a severe dry period persisting for several decades or longer. Many climate researchers and hydrologists have long thought that a Southwestern megadrought was highly likely. A 2016 study put the probability of one occurring this century at 70 percent or higher…

    “Ancient megadroughts have always been seen by water managers as worst-case scenarios,” Dr. Williams said, “and we just have to hope that there’s some kind of protection measure in the climate system that’s not going to allow one of those to repeat itself. And what we’re seeing is that we’re actually right on track for one.”

    […]

    since the beginning of the 20th century, when large-scale emissions of heat-trapping gases began, warming has played a role as well. Using 31 computer climate models, the researchers estimated that climate change contributed nearly half to the severity of the current drought.

    Put another way, without global warming the current drought would be only of moderate severity rather than one of the worst.

    While the natural variability of La Niña conditions continues, Dr. Williams said, “all of that is being superimposed on what appears to be a pretty strong long-term drying trend.”

    The current drought has followed a pattern that is similar to the ancient ones, he said. Rather than one or two extremely dry years that would suddenly throw the region into drought, dry conditions have been nearly continuous and the drought has built up over time…

    Brad Udall, a water and climate research at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study, said that tying the current drought to a longer-term context “fits what a lot of people have been thinking.”

    Dr. Udall said the researchers’ finding that climate change accounted for about half of the drought’s severity was strongly supported by his and others’ recent studies of the shrinking flow of the Colorado River, which attribute about half of the decline to global warming.

    “I love the focus on soil moisture,” Dr. Udall said of the new study. “People underappreciate how important soil moisture is.”

    Soils have a buffering effect that can allow problems of water scarcity to persist even after a relatively wet year, because soils that are dry from years of drought soak up more water that would normally run into rivers and streams.

    The wetter weather in 2019, for example, resulted in a deep mountain snowpack across much of the West. “But it’s increasingly clear we didn’t get the runoff we had expected,” Dr. Udall said.

    The latest ancient megadrought the researchers found was the long one in the 16th century. That finding reinforces the widely held idea that conditions were relatively wetter in the Southwest for centuries before the current drought.

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

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

    From The Washington Post (Gregory S. Schneider):

    The coronavirus is scrambling Virginia’s budget and economy, but it didn’t prevent Gov. Ralph Northam (D) from signing legislation that makes it the first Southern state with a goal of going carbon-free by 2045.

    Over the weekend, Northam authorized the omnibus Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state’s biggest utility, Dominion Energy, switch to renewable energy by 2045. Appalachian Power, which serves far southwest Virginia, must go carbon-free by 2050.

    Almost all the state’s coal plants will have to shut down by the end of 2024 under the new law. Virginia is the first state in the old Confederacy to embrace such clean-energy targets.

    Under a separate measure, Virginia also becomes the most Southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a carbon cap-and-trade market among states in the Northeast.