“The world will be moving away from fossil fuel production,” David Gutzler, a professor at the University of New Mexico and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told members of the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Gutzler went on to paint a stark picture of New Mexico in a changing climate.
The mountains outside Albuquerque will look like the mountains outside El Paso by the end of the century if current trends continue, he said.
There will not be any snowpack in the mountains above Santa Fe by the end of the century, Gutzler added.
We have already seen more land burned by wildfires, partly because of changes in forest management and partly because of climate change, Gutzler said.
Water supply will be negatively affected in what is already an arid state, he said.
“It’s real. It’s happening. We see it in the data. … This is not hypothetical in any way. This is real and we would be foolish to ignore it,” Gutzler said.
The professor warned lawmakers that the state must get serious about greenhouse gas emissions now by expanding clean energy sources and mitigating the societal costs of moving away from fossil fuels.
That cost, though, will be a sticking point for Republicans. Many of them represent southeastern New Mexico and the Four Corners, where oil and mining are big industries.
The initiative, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is ambitious, but some in the outdoor industry argue it’s the only hope for saving wild places from climate change
When 27-year-old climate activist Evan Weber thinks about climate change, he thinks about his childhood in Hawaii. He spent those years in the mountains, on beaches, and in the ocean. “Now the beaches that I grew up on don’t exist anymore,” he says. “Sea-level rise has swallowed them into the ocean. The mountains are green for much less of the year. The coral reefs are dying from ocean acidification killing both marine life and surf breaks.”
That’s what brought him, on November 13, to march on soon-to-be House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office with around 150 other activists from a progressive group he cofounded called Sunrise Movement. They were demonstrating for a sweeping policy plan championed by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the Green New Deal. It is pitched as an economy-wide climate mobilization to connect environmental, social, and economic policies through legislation and would create everything from investment in federal green jobs for all who want them to a massive green-infrastructure program. The end result would be an overhauled national economy run on 100 percent renewable energy.
While these are lofty goals, and many are skeptical of the plan’s feasibility, advocates see it as setting the bar for a sufficient response to climate change that politicians can be held to. And the proposal is already gaining steam in Washington, D.C., as a platform to rally around heading into 2020: more than 40 lawmakers have endorsed Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a congressional select committee to map out the Green New Deal. Many in the outdoor industry are also paying attention to what could be the best hope to save our ski seasons and protect our public lands.
“It’s an approach that’s so comprehensive that it could be a way for the United States to lead in the direction of stabilizing the climate at two degrees Celsius,” says Mario Molina, executive director of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters. According to a climate assessment put out by the federal government last month, warming above that threshold (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) could shorten ski seasons by half in some parts of the U.S. before 2050.
Climate change is already impacting snowpack, and ski resorts across America are scrambling to adapt. This past year, Aspen Snowmass launched a political campaign called Give a Flake to get its customers engaged in climate action, Squaw Valley spent $10 million on snowmaking equipment in 2017, and Vail is pursuing a sweeping program to weatherproof its operations. But, Molina explains, there’s a long way to go to address the ski industry’s fossil-fuel-intensive operations. He believes that something like the economy-wide transition to renewable energy proposed in the Green New Deal is the best way ski resorts will be able to significantly lower their carbon footprints. It would allow them, for example, to hook their resorts up to a central power grid that would spin their lifts with renewable energy and create more sustainable transit options to and from the slopes.
Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), also sees the opportunity to link this kind of large-scale climate action with the outdoor economy, especially when it comes to public lands. An economy powered on 100 percent renewables would obviously erase any incentive for fossil-fuel companies to drill in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Bears Ears National Monument. But the OIA is still watching to see how the politics around the Green New Deal shape up. The early support from lawmakers is encouraging, but they’re mostly Democrats. Roberts insists that policies to protect the climate and public lands need bipartisan support, but she thinks that the outdoor industry can help make that happen. “When you look at who takes part in our activities, whether it’s hiking, camping, hunting, or fishing, there are both Republicans and Democrats,” she says. “That’s an opportunity to unite and bring a compelling message that’s separate and apart from what the environmental community is doing.”
As proof, she points to the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act. In November, Peach State voters passed the measure, in which sales tax from sporting goods and outdoor equipment is used to fund parks and trails, with 83 percent support. In the same election, the governor’s race was so divided that it went to a recount.
Even with glimpses of bipartisan support for the environment, Molina worries that the main hurdle Green New Deal legislation will face is influence from the fossil-fuel industry. Its lobbyists donated more than $100 million to campaigns in the 2016 election, and in 2018 raised $30 million to defeat a Washington State ballot measure that would have added a modest carbon tax on emissions and used the revenue to fund environmental and social programs. Additionally, former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt was tapped to replace Ryan Zinke as interior secretary in December.
But activists like Weber are not giving up. As part of their push for a Green New Deal, they have called for members of the Democratic leadership to reject campaign contributions from fossil-fuel interests. And a few weeks after Weber was in Nancy Pelosi’s office, he and more than 1,000 young people were back in Washington, D.C., this time storming Capitol Hill in a daylong push to get lawmakers to endorse the Green New Deal, an effort that resulted in nearly 150 arrests. They remain unfazed by claims that the plan’s goals are too large. “A Green New Deal is the only proposal put forth by an American politician that’s in line with what the latest science says is necessary to prevent irreversible climate change,” Weber says. “It could mean the difference between whether future generations around the world get to have the same formative experiences in nature that I did—or not.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Elizabeth Warren. Beto O’Rourke. Those are just a few of the high-profile names either leading the development of or jumping to endorse today’s environmental cause célèbre, the Green New Deal. Inside congressional halls, at street protests, and, of course, on climate Twitter — it’s hard to avoid the idea, which aims to re-package ambitious climate actions into a single, wide-ranging stimulus program.
The Green New Deal is being promoted as a kind of progressive beacon of a greener America, promising jobs and social justice for all on top of a shift away from fossil fuels. It’s a proposal largely driven by newcomers to politics and environmental activism (and supported, however tentatively, by several potential presidential candidates and members of the Democratic political establishment). The plan aspires to bring together the needs of people and the environment, outlining “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty.”
But within the broader environmental movement, not everyone was initially gung-ho on the Green New Deal — at least not without some stipulations.
To understand the debate surrounding the Green New Deal, you need to look beyond its recent prominence in Beltway political circles to the on-the-ground organizations that make up the environmental justice movement. Newcomers like Ocasio-Cortez may be leading the charge, but grassroots leaders who have spent years advocating for low-income families and neighborhoods of color most impacted by fossil fuels say their communities weren’t consulted when the idea first took shape.
For all the fanfare, there isn’t a package of policies that make up a Green New Deal just yet. And that’s why community-level activists are clamoring to get involved, help shape the effort, and ensure the deal leaves no one behind.
Something Old, Something New
Although the term “Green New Deal” has evolved over time, its current embodiment as a complete overhaul of U.S. energy infrastructure was spearheaded by two high profile entities: progressive darling and first-term Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement, an organization formed in 2017 by young people hellbent on making climate change the “it” issue.
In November 2018, Ocasio-Cortez, with support from Sunrise, called for a House select committee to formulate the package of policies. More than 40 lawmakers signed on to support the draft text. Then shortly before the end of the year, Nancy Pelosi, now the speaker of the House, announced the formation instead of a “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.”
It wasn’t exactly a win for the leaders of the new environmental vanguard. Sunrise tweeted its displeasure at the committee’s pared-down ambition, taking umbrage with its lack of power to subpoena (a condition for which Ocasio-Cortez had advocated) and the fact that politicians who take money from fossil fuel interests would not be excluded from sitting on it.
The fuss over who gets a say in the formation of the Green New Deal goes back further than Ocasio-Cortez’s or Sunrise’s friendly-ish feud with establishment Democrats. The Climate Justice Alliance, a network of groups representing indigenous peoples, workers, and frontline communities, says its gut reaction to the Green New Deal was that it had been crafted at the “grasstops” (as opposed to the grassroots).
Shortly after Ocasio-Cortez put out her proposal for a select committee, the alliance released a statement largely in support of the concept, but with a “word of caution”: “When we consulted with many of our own communities, they were neither aware of, nor had they been consulted about, the launch of the GND.”
Leaders at the alliance surveyed its member organizations — there are more than 60 across the U.S. — and put together a list of their concerns. Unless the Green New Deal addresses those key points, the alliance says, the plan won’t meet its proponents’ lofty goal of tackling poverty and injustice. Nor will the deal gain the grassroots support it will likely need to become a reality.
“What we want to do is strengthen and center the Green New Deal in environmental justice communities that have both experience and lived history of confronting the struggle against fossil fuel industries,” Angela Adrar, executive director of the alliance, told Grist.
Grist asked several indigenous and environmental justice leaders: If the Green New Deal is going to make good on its promises, what will it take? Here’s what they said.
A more inclusive and democratic process that respects tribal sovereignty
As details get hashed out on what a Green New Deal would actually include, longtime environmental justice organizers say their communities need to be the ones guiding the way forward. “The way that the plan was developed and shared is one of its greatest weaknesses,” Adrar says. “We want to be able to act quickly, but we also want to act democratically.”
She adds that involving the grassroots is especially important in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, which ushered in many new congressional members pledging to focus on the underrepresented communities they come from. The Climate Justice Alliance is calling for town halls (with interpreters for several languages) to allow communities to help flesh out policies to include in the Green New Deal.
Some of the disconnect could be generational, says Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Many of the leaders espousing the Green New Deal are young people. He says that he and his colleagues were caught off-guard when they saw the plan on social media and that when his network reached out to its members, there was little familiarity or understanding of the Green New Deal.
“Maybe the way of communication of youth is different than what we’ve found in the environmental justice movement and our native movement around the value of human contact — face-to-face human contact,” he says. “We’re asking that leadership of the Green New Deal meet with us and have a discussion how we can strengthen this campaign with the participation of the communities most impacted.”
Any retooling of America’s energy infrastructure will undoubtedly venture into Native American tribes’ lands, where there are already long-standing battles over existing and proposed pipeline expansions, as well as fossil fuel facilities. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for “free, prior, and informed consent” from tribes before developers begin any project on their land. So indigenous environmental groups say there needs to be respect for tribal sovereignty and buy-in from tribes for a Green New Deal to fulfill its promise of being just and equitable.
Green jobs should be great jobs
There has been a lot of talk in Green New Deal circles about uplifting poor and working-class communities. Advocates have floated ideas ranging from a job-guarantee program offering a living wage to anyone who wants one to explicitly ensuring the rights of workers to form a union.
But as workers’ rights organizations point out, energy and extractive industries have provided unionized, high-paying jobs for a long time — and they want to make sure workers can have the same or a better quality of life within green industries.
“There’s been a long history of workers that have been left hanging in transition in the past,” says Michael Leon Guerrero, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which has been working to bridge divides between labor and environmental issues. “For that reason, there’s quite a bit of skepticism in the labor sector.”
Joseph Uehlein, who founded the Labor Network for Sustainability, adds that there needs to be more than just the promise of jobs to entice labor to support a Green New Deal. “Every presidential candidate in my lifetime talks about job creation as their top priority,” he says. “Over the last 40 years, those jobs have gotten worse and worse. A lot of jobs are not so good, requiring two or three breadwinners to do what one used to be able to do.”
Uehlein hopes an eventual Green New Deal will ensure not just jobs that guarantee a living wage, but will go one step further. “We always talk about family-supporting jobs,” he says. “It’s not just about living, it’s about supporting families.”
Do No Harm
Any version of a Green New Deal would likely ensure that the U.S. transitions away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy — with Ocasio-Cortez setting the bold target of the nation getting 100 percent of its energy from renewables within 10 years.
But defining what exactly counts as “renewable energy” has been tricky. There are plenty of sources of energy that aren’t in danger of running out and don’t put out as many greenhouse gases as coal or oil, but are still disruptive to frontline communities. Garbage incineration is considered a renewable energy in some states, but it still emits harmful pollutants. And when it comes to nuclear energy or large-scale hydropower, the associated uranium extraction and dam construction have destroyed indigenous peoples’ homes and flooded their lands.
The Climate Justice Alliance is also pushing to exclude global warming interventions like geoengineering and carbon capture and sequestration, which they believe don’t do enough to address the root causes of global warming. Both technologies have to do with re-trapping or curbing the effects of greenhouse gases after they’ve been produced. “Carbon capture and sequestration, it’s a false solution from our analysis,” Goldtooth says. The focus needs to be on stopping greenhouse gases from getting into the atmosphere in the first place, he and other critics argue.
As the alliance sees it, a future in which the planet survives requires a complete transition away from fossil fuels and an extractive economy, and toward a regenerative economy with less consumption and more ecological resilience.
Goldtooth and his colleagues are calling for solutions that rein in damaging co-pollutants on top of greenhouse gases. And they support scalable solutions — like community solar projects — that are are popping up in some of the neighborhoods that are most affected by climate change.
A good start
Even though the Green New Deal faces many political obstacles, its proponents are still pushing forward at full speed. “We are calling for a wartime-level, just economic mobilization plan to get to 100% renewable energy ASAP,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on New Year’s Day.
Scientists recently estimated that the world has only 12 years to keep average global temperatures from increasing beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — the upper limit which many agree we can’t surpass if we want to avoid a climate crisis. The urgency around the latest climate change timeline has brought a lot of new advocates to the table.
According to John Harrity, chair of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs and a board member at the Labor Network for Sustainability, the labor movement is becoming more willing to engage on ways to address climate change. “I think the Green New Deal becomes a really good way to put all of that together in a package,” he says. “That evokes for a lot of people the image of a time when people did all pull together for the common good.”
Elizabeth Yeampierre, steering committee co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance and executive director of the Brooklyn-based grassroots organization, UPROSE, which works on issues cutting across climate change and racial justice, calls the Green New Deal “a good beginning for developing something that could really have lasting impacts and transformation in local communities and nationwide.”
Since the alliance put out its recommendations, Yeampierre says she’s been in regular contact with both the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez’s office. “To their credit they were responsive and have made themselves available to figure out how we move forward in a way that doesn’t really step over the people,” she explains.
The language in Ocasio-Cortez’ draft proposal has already changed — it now includes clauses to “protect and enforce sovereign rights and land rights of tribal nations” and “recognize the rights of workers to organize and unionize.” The document has doubled in length since it was put out in November (at time of publication, it is 11 pages long) and will likely include new edits in the coming days.
Varshini Prakash, a founding member of the Sunrise Movement (and a 2018 Grist 50 Fixer), says she agrees with the Climate Justice Alliance’s recommendation that a Green New Deal prioritize the needs of workers, frontline communities, communities of color, and low-income communities. “Their critiques,” Prakash tells Grist, “are fully valid, and I appreciate what they’re bringing.”
The broad overview of a Green New Deal in Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a select committee, Prakash says, was hashed out quickly after the representative’s team approached Sunrise late last year. (Ocasio-Cortez did not immediately respond to Grist’s inquiry). “This was very rapid fire, it happened on an extremely tight timescale,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of time to do the broad consultation we wanted.”
But Prakash, Yeampierre, and other leaders in the movements for environmental and climate justice are working to make sure there are more folks on board moving forward.
“Climate change isn’t just going to threaten our communities — it’s also going to test our solidarity, it’s going to test how we build relationships with each other,” Yeampierre says. “So I think the Green New Deal can be used as an opportunity to show that we can pass that test.”
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is more likely to give polluters a pass when they violate laws intended to keep the air healthy and water clean, according to recent reporting by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), a watchdog group.
By analyzing public data and interviewing past and current EPA employees, EDGI documented notable declines in agency law enforcement this year, particularly in EPA Region 8, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and 27 Indigenous nations. According to an internal EPA report, by mid-year Region 8 had opened 53 percent fewer enforcement cases in 2018 than in 2017. And it concluded only 53 civil cases in 2018, less than half the number in any year since at least 2006. Nationally, EDGI found a 38 percent drop in the number of orders requiring polluters to comply with the law, and a 50 percent drop in the number of fines.
EDGI’s analyses are based on provisional numbers, which the EPA routinely cleans up at the end of each year, so the exact figures could change when the agency’s annual enforcement report is released. Still, EDGI expects the general trend to hold.
“It’s another iteration of EPA’s industry-friendly approach,” said EDGI member Marianne Sullivan, a public health expert at William Paterson University. “It says we’re prioritizing industry’s needs and desires over the health of our environment and the health of our communities.”
In the short term, dialing back enforcement could be a particularly effective way to relieve industry of the burdens of environmental protections. Donald Trump’s EPA appointees have tried to formally roll back regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan and a rule safeguarding water from toxic coal ash. But it’s a slow and public process that invites lawsuits. Simply declining to enforce the law, however, can subtly accomplish the same thing, because it happens largely out of public view, and EPA administrators have wide discretion over it.
EPA officials deny ignoring violations of the law. “There has been no retreat from working with states, communities, and regulated entities to ensure compliance with our environmental laws,” spokesperson Maggie Sauerhage wrote in an email. “Focusing only on the number of federal lawsuits filed or the amount of penalties collected fails to capture the full range of compliance tools we use.”
Still, the agency acknowledges a shift in focus from “enforcement” to “compliance.” That means it’s likely to work less as a cop than an adviser with the companies it regulates, an approach critics say could incentivize companies to cut corners.
“Focusing on compliance instead of enforcement is a way of saying, ‘We might make people get back into compliance, but we’re resistant to the idea of punishment,’ ” explained David Janik, an attorney who managed Region 8’s legal enforcement program until 2011. But punishment helps you achieve compliance, Janik added. It deters polluters from spoiling the air and water in the first place, just as traffic tickets make drivers think twice about speeding. “If I go 90 and I get caught, I’m paying $200 for punishment,” he said. “If one chemical company has a big case and they pay $40 million to settle it, other companies will say, ‘Maybe I should hire another guy to make sure we don’t slip into noncompliance.’ ”
In some cases, lackluster enforcement since Trump took office appears to have been a boon to corporate pocketbooks, while the environmental benefits remain murky. Consider the difference in how a series of oil and gas cases were handled under President Barack Obama.
In 2015, the EPA and the state of Colorado jointly entered into a landmark settlement agreement with Noble Energy covering thousands of gas storage tanks that were leaking volatile organic compounds. VOCs are part of the toxic soup that contributes to smog levels on Colorado’s Front Range that exceed federal limits, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory diseases.
The settlement required Noble to pay a nearly $5 million fine, spend $60 million to reduce VOC emissions, and report its progress to the public. Two parallel cases resulted in smaller, but still substantial costs to companies in Colorado and North Dakota.
But under EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, three similar cases came with remarkably cushier terms, according to the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. In all three, the EPA declined to assess fines for the violations at all. And it’s unclear what, if anything, the companies were required to do to fix the problems. The companies were all Oklahoma-based, raising questions of favoritism from Pruitt, a pro-oil-and-gas Oklahoman.
The Noble case was part of an Obama-era National Enforcement Initiatives program focused on air pollution from oil and gas drilling. National initiatives historically targeted problems particular to certain industries and they’re where big enforcement cases were often made. But in August, Susan Bodine, EPA’s current head of enforcement, announced that the program was being renamed “National Compliance Initiatives,” and that the agency would discontinue the campaign on oil and gas in 2019, a move industry pushed for.
“It’s really about who’s going to benefit,” Sullivan said. “If industry doesn’t have to capture as much pollution, that may be good for their bottom line. But it puts the burden on the public. You can’t pollute for free. Either industry pays to capture it, or people pay with their health.”
Contributing Editor Cally Carswell writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Follow @callycarswell. Email High Country News at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor.
In early December, Xcel Energy, a sprawling utility that provides electricity to customers in eight states, including Colorado and New Mexico, announced that it planned to go carbon-free by 2050. In what has been a rough year for climate hawks, this was welcome news. After all, here was a large corporation pledging to go where no utility of its scale has gone before, regardless of the technical hurdles in its path, and under an administration that is doing all it can to encourage continuing use of fossil fuels.
At the Dec. 4 announcement in Denver, Xcel CEO Bob Fowkes said that he and his team were motivated in part by the dire projections in recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. “When I looked at that and my team looked at that, we thought to ourselves, ‘What else can we do?’ ” Fowkes said. “And the reality is, we knew we could step up and do more at little or no extra cost.”
It was a big step, and apparently inspiring. A couple of days later, the Platte River Power Authority, which powers four municipalities on Colorado’s Front Range, pledged to go carbon-free by 2030. Here are seven things to keep in mind about Xcel’s pledge:
Xcel is going 100-percent carbon-free, not 100 percent renewable. There’s a big difference between the two, with the former being far easier to accomplish, because it allows the utility to use not only wind and solar power, but also nuclear and large hydropower. It can also burn some fossil fuels if plants are equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technology.
No current power source is truly clean. Solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower plants have zero emissions from the electricity generation stage. However, other phases of their life cycles do result in greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants — think uranium mining, solar panel manufacturing and wind turbine transportation. Even the decay of organic material in reservoirs emits methane. But even when their full life cycles are considered, nuclear, wind, solar and hydropower all still emit at least 100 times less carbon than coal.
Carbon capture and sequestration techniques don’t do a lot for the big picture. Even if all of the carbon emitted from a natural gas- or coal-fired power plant is captured and successfully sequestered without any leakage — and that remains a big “if” — huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are released during the coal mining and natural gas extraction, processing and transportation phases.
Even though carbon sequestration qualifies as “clean energy,” Xcel is unlikely to utilize the technology on any large scale with coal because of the cost. Even without carbon capture, coal is more expensive than other power sources, so why spend all that money just to keep burning expensive fuel? On the other hand, natural gas is relatively cheap, so it makes more sense for Xcel to continue burning the fossil fuel with carbon capture.
Economics play as much a role in this decision as environmentalism. Even as Xcel was making its announcement, executives from PacifiCorp, one of the West’s largest utilities, were telling stakeholders that more than half of its coal fleet was uneconomical, and that cleaner power options were cheaper. So even without the zero carbon pledge, Xcel likely would have abandoned coal in the next couple of decades, regardless of how many regulations the Trump administration rolls back. Meanwhile, renewable power continues to get cheaper, making it competitive with natural gas. And without some kind of big gesture, Xcel risked losing major customers. (The city of Boulder, Colorado, defected from Xcel, a process that has been going on for the last several years, because the utility wasn’t decarbonizing quickly enough.)
Xcel’s move, and others like it, will pressure grid operators to work toward a more integrated Western electrical grid. A better-designed grid would allow a utility like Xcel to purchase surplus power from California solar installations, for example, or the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, and to sell its wind power back in that direction when it’s needed.
Xcel needs better technology to meet its goal. Xcel admits that “achieving the long-term vision of zero-carbon electricity requires technologies that are not cost-effective or commercially available today.” It is banking on the development of commercially viable utility-scale batteries and other storage technologies to smooth out the ups and downs of renewable energy sources. If Xcel is serious about its goal, though, it will need to embrace approaches that don’t necessarily boost the bottom line. That could mean incentivizing efficient energy use, promoting rooftop solar, and implementing rate schedules that discourage electricity use during times of peak demand. It will also need to get comfortable with paying big customers not to use electricity during certain times.
Xcel’s pledge is a big step in the right direction, and it has the potential of becoming a giant leap if other major utilities follow suit. But it also underscores a sad fact: While our elected officials twiddle their thumbs and play golf with oil and gas oligarchs, the very corporations that helped get us into this mess are the ones who are left to take the lead on getting us out.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at email@example.com or submit a letter to the editor.
…the state is using money from a national settlement with Volkswagen to build fast-charging stations at 33 sites across Colorado to give electric-vehicle drivers the confidence they can travel anywhere in the state.
Colorado received $68.7 million from the deal between Volkswagen and the federal government over allegations that the auto company modified computer software to cheat on federal emissions tests. In addition to adding charging stations, the state proposes using the money to convert medium- and heavy-duty trucks, school, shuttle and transit buses, railroad freight switchers and airport ground support equipment to alternative fuels or replace them with electric vehicles.
Along with a spending plan, the state has a road map for electrification of its transportation sector. The state electric vehicle plan looks at “electrifying” key travel corridors and touts the ensuing economic, health and environmental benefits.
In 2017, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order on promoting clean energy that directed the air quality council, state energy office, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Transportation to work together on developing the statewide electric vehicle plan and taking feedback from the public. The health department is the lead agency on overseeing how the Volkswagen funds are distributed.
How near is the future?
Is the dream of 1 million electric vehicle replacing gas-burners too big? State Sen. Kevin Priola doesn’t think so. The Adams County Republican sees the transition to electric vehicles as the next chapter in the history of monumental, and inevitable, societal changes.
“Once wood and coal were used for heating houses and transportation. Then people realized natural gas and petroleum were cleaner and more efficient,” Priola said. “Once people realize that electricity produced and stored from solar panels and wind farms is much more efficient, cleaner and better for transportation, it will be adopted.”
For Priola, the future is now. He owns a Tesla sedan and has solar panels on his house. His electric utility, United Power, gives customers a break for using electricity during slow times so he charges the car overnight. He figures he ends up paying 2 cents a mile to run his car.
The month of December 2018 is probably going to go down in history as the month when all things climate and energy truly and irreversibly changed for the better in the American West.
From bold carbon reduction commitments by big utilities to the fact that the economics of renewables are unbelievably great (and seem to be getting better by the day), this month has been a watershed moment.
Given this, we thought it’d be useful to dive in more deeply and really explore what all these announcements mean. Below, our top ten takeaways from these latest developments:
10. Xcel Energy Will be Shutting Down all its Remaining Coal-fired Power Plants in Colorado
The big news in early December was Xcel Energy’s announcement of its goals to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2030 and to become completely carbon-free in its generation of electricity by 2050.
Bold. There’s no other way to put it. Xcel Energy is not only the first utility in the nation to commit to becoming carbon-free, but did so even as the company currently generates power from many coal-fired power plants.
This was not an announcement from some flaming progressive utility. This was an announcement from a utility that still generates huge amounts of power from carbon-intensive fossil fuels. In fact, Xcel still generates more than 50% of its power from coal in Colorado.
And in the wake of this bold commitment, there’s really no escaping the real implications. If Xcel has any chance of reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2030 and going carbon-free by 2050, the company is going to have to shutter all of its remaining coal-fired power plants in Colorado.
That includes the Hayden power plant outside of Steamboat Springs, the Pawnee power plant northeast of Denver, and the entirety of the Comanche 3 plant in Pueblo.
And in all likelihood, to meet their 2030 goal of reducing carbon emissions 80%, it means these plants are going away by 2030.
It may seem drastic, but there’s really no other viable option. As Xcel’s CEO commented, this is about doing something for the climate. And as the economics of coal worsen, Xcel will surely soon be followed by other utilities looking to shed the mounting liabilities of fossil fuels.
9. Platte River Power Authority Will be Shutting Down its Coal-fired Power Plant north of Fort Collins, as well as Divesting its Share of Craig
Xcel’s announcement was big, but Platte River Power Authority’s was bigger.
The Colorado power agency, which serves Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park, announced its goal of eliminating 100% of its carbon emissions by 2030.
While that’s an astounding goal that almost puts Xcel’s commitments to shame, what’s more significant about Platte River Power Authority’s announcement is that will mean a wholesale transformation in the utility’s generating portfolio.
Currently, nearly 90% of Platte River Power Authority’s electricity is generated by coal or natural gas. And of its fossil fuel-generating portfolio, more than half is provided by the Rawhide power plant north of Fort Collins and a portion of the Craig power plant in northwest Colorado.
The utility’s announcement all but guarantees the Rawhide plant will be shut down and that it will divest of its ownership in the Craig plant, all by 2030.
Coupled with Xcel’s plans, it means that Colorado will be virtually coal-free by 2030.
8. Pacificorp Has no Economic Choice but to Retire a lot of Coal
Pacificorp, a Portland, Oregon-based utility, owns all or portions of 10 coal-fired power plants in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming (they used to own 11, but shut down an aging plant in Utah in 2015).
To boot, they own coal mines in both Utah and Wyoming.
Yet even this captain of coal in the American West is coming to terms with the reality that its massive fossil fuel enterprise makes no economic sense.
Earlier in the month, the company released a report showing that 60% of its coal-fired generating units are more expensive to operate than developing new alternative sources of power, namely renewable energy.
However, that was just the headline. A closer look at Pacificorp’s report actually reveals that, taken together, all of the company’s coal-fired units are not remotely cost-effective.
Under a base scenario, while some of the company’s coal-fired units are cheaper to operate than alternatives, the savings from retiring uneconomic units would actually offset the costs of retiring the utility’s entire fleet of coal.
Pacificorp has made no decisions or announcements yet. However, in the wake of Xcel Energy’s carbon-free commitment, it seems inevitable the utility will make a similarly bold proclamation in 2019.
Ultimately, we’re likely to see Pacificorp make a big move away from coal in the very near future. Because of the company’s massive coal footprint in the American West, this move promises a massive move to renewable energy in the western U.S.
7. People Served by Colorado Springs Utilities Should be Worried
Colorado Springs Utilities serves the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado and surrounding communities. And while the municipal utility seems innocuous, they generate more than 40% of their power from coal from two coal-fired power plants, including one—Martin Drake power—right in the middle of the City’s downtown.
For years now, residents and ratepayers have sounded the alarm over the Martin Drake power plant, which sours the skies with toxic emissions.
Equally alarming is the fact that Martin Drake is one of the least efficient and most expensive municipally owned power plants to operate in the United States.
In spite of this, the utility seems to have no plans for addressing the rising costs of power except a vague and unenforceable commitment to retire Martin Drake by 2035. What’s more, the utility seems to have no plans to retire its other coal-fired power plant, the Ray Nixon plant located south of Colorado Springs.
So, while other utilities in Colorado are making big moves away from coal, Colorado Springs Utilities is staying firmly committed, at least for the time being, to costly coal.
It’s no wonder why people in Colorado Springs are increasingly incensed over their utility’s inaction.
The unrest will only grow as Colorado Springs Utilities delays providing its customers with cleaner and more affordable power.
6. This is the Beginning of the End for Tri-State Generation and Transmission
Tri-State Generation and Transmission is a utility company that provides wholesale power to 43 member rural electric cooperatives in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
And while Tri-State has a noble goal of energizing rural communities within its service area, the company is facing growing resistance over rising costs.
The reason for rising costs: the company’s heavy reliance on coal-fired power, as well as Tri-State’s investments in coal mines.
Because of this, the utility is facing the prospect of a mass exodus of its customer base.
In 2016, one of its former members, the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in northern New Mexico, bought out its contract with Tri-State. This month, another member, the Delta Montrose Electric Association in western Colorado, filed a complaint with state utility regulators to do the same.
Not only that, but other members, including the United Power Cooperative, La Plata Electric Cooperative, and the Poudre Valley Electric Cooperative, all of which are major revenue generators for Tri-State, are also exploring alternatives to the utility company.
Coupled with the fact that Tri-State’s utility partners, including co-owners of the Craig coal-fired power plant in northwestern Colorado, are moving away from coal, the company is facing a bleak future.
As its members and partners bail, Tri-State’s business model seems doomed to collapse.
That’s not all bad news. As Tri-State declines, its members stand to enjoy more energy freedom and to reap the economic rewards of local renewable energy development.
5. Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service Likely to be Next to Announce Big Moves from Coal
Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service are both large utilities primarily serving Arizona. And both utilities know that the economics of coal simply aren’t worth it.
As the primary owner of the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, the largest coal-fired power plant in the American West, Salt River Project decided to shutter the facility by the end of 2019.
Arizona Public Service, is also getting out of the Navajo Generating Station after retiring portions of the nearby Four Corners power plant in northwest New Mexico.
So far, neither Salt River Project nor Arizona Public Service has made any further announcements to move away from coal. However, given that both of the utilities are clearly seeing the reality of coal costs, we should see some additional major shifts away from coal in the west.
Arizona Public Service also owns a portion of the Cholla coal-fired power plant in Arizona. The other owner of Cholla is Pacificorp. And with Pacificorp already seemingly making a move away from coal, it’s hard to believe Arizona Public Service won’t follow.
Salt River Project owns portions of the Hayden and Craig power plants in western Colorado, as well as portions of the Four Corners power plant in New Mexico and Springerville power plant in Arizona. They also fully own the Coronado power plant in Arizona.
Every one of these power plants has been identified as economically costly and risky by financial analysts.
Given all this, it’s hard to believe that Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project will continue to maintain their investments in coal.
4. New Utilities Emerging, Giving Old a Run For Their Money
This is beyond huge.
With the decline in renewable prices, new utilities are actually emerging in the American West.
At the forefront is Guzman Energy, whose stated goal is to “transition an outdated energy economy into the renewable age.”
And just last week, Guzman released a request for proposals to build 250 megawatts of renewable energy in the American West, including 200 megawatts of wind and 50 megawatts of solar.
3. This isn’t Just a Climate Opportunity, it’s a Huge Economic Development Opportunity
More renewable energy means more economic development, particularly in rural communities.
Already in Colorado, the state’s move away from coal to more renewable energy promises more jobs, more local revenue, and overall a huge net economic benefit.
It’s really a no-brainer when you think about it.
For one, developing renewable energy means developing more distributed generating sources, including rooftop solar, wind, and batteries, which are ideally situated in the communities they serve.
For another, as more renewable energy takes hold, energy prices stand to stabilize, if not decline, saving communities in the long run.
Colorado rural electric cooperative Delta Montrose Electric Association’s effort to break free from Tri-State is in fact being driven by the prospect of greater economic prosperity. As the co-op’s CEO stated:
“The decision to separate from Tri-State allows for significant economic benefit for our members – including stabilized rates, development of diverse and low-cost local energy, and the creation of new local jobs.” – Jasen Bronec, chief executive officer, Delta Montrose Electric Association
As utilities throughout the American West make the transition to clean energy, it will inevitably open the door for more economic opportunity.
Rural communities in particular stand to reap big rewards as more generation is built locally, sustaining affordable energy, creating jobs, and creating new revenue.
2. No New Gas is on the Horizon
Don’t think natural gas is getting a pass in all this.
The reality is, in the face of utilities’ carbon-free announcements and acknowledgment of economic truths, there does not seem to be a future for this fossil fuel.
It’s telling that although Xcel Energy announced in 2017 plans to construct new natural gas-fired generating facilities in Colorado, the company ultimately abandoned that plan and instead forecasts a decline in natural gas burning.
It’s no wonder. While the economic of coal are the worst, the economics of natural gas aren’t far behind. Xcel’s own data showed that gas simply couldn’t compete with renewables.
Although natural gas is often thought of as a “bridge” from coal to renewables, it seems the whole notion of a bridge is absurd at this point.
And with the economics being what they are, it seems that utilities are going to start shutting down existing gas plants, effectively demolishing the bridge.
That’s great news for the climate. Despite the assertion that natural gas is cleaner than coal, it actually has an outsized carbon footprint largely because of methane releases associated with fracking.
Methane has 86 times more heat-trapping capacity than carbon dioxide, making it a potent climate pollutant.
1. There’s a Good Chance the American West Will be Coal-free by 2030
Given that all the American West’s most significant coal burning utilities are making or will very likely make big near-term moves away from coal, there’s no doubt that we are likely to see a coal-free American West within a decade.
Sure, not every utility has stepped up to announce bold climate action or a move toward more renewable energy. However, the writing on the wall seems very clear that if utilities don’t go down this path, it could mean their demise.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission is already staring at a bleak future due to its unwillingness to move beyond coal.
Other coal burning utilities in the western U.S., including Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, Basin Electric, Idaho Power, Black Hills Corporation, and others are undoubtedly be staring at the same future. Their failure to move beyond coal could very well be their undoing.
That means whether they like it or not, utilities face the prospect of their coal going away and soon.
And that’s why the American West is very likely to be 100% coal-free as early as 2030.
Epilogue: What About Natural Gas Systems?
Amidst the big energy announcements, there’s a conspicuous lack of focus on utilities’ natural gas services. Xcel, Pacificorp, and others aren’t just electricity providers, they also provide gas to homes, businesses, and industry for heating, cooking, and other uses.
While natural gas systems are more distributed and less high profile than huge, filthy coal-fired smokestacks, they’re equally destructive and disconcerting from a climate standpoint.
In fact, from the point of fracking to the point at which natural gas is consumed, massive amounts of carbon emissions are released from our natural gas systems.
While nationwide, methane leaks and combustion at natural gas well and processing plants release more than 200 million metric tons of carbon annually in the U.S., the consumption of natural gas at homes, businesses, and factories releases nearly 800 million metric tons.
In total, carbon pollution associated with natural gas production and consumption in non-power plant sources accounts for more than 15% of all U.S. climate emissions.
Cleaner electricity generation is critical to saving our climate. However, utilities can’t ignore their overall carbon footprints. That means Xcel, Pacificorp, and others need to start paying attention to natural gas.
And who better than to take action to help our nation move away from natural gas than our electric utilities?
They, more than anyone else, have the means to develop the renewable energy to generate the power needed to run electric furnaces, stoves, ovens, hot water heaters, and other appliances.
Truly, utilities like Xcel and others can transition their customers from gas to electricity and ultimately, be as lucrative as ever.
What a month it’s been. Here’s hoping for more progress for the climate, for 100% fossil fuel-free, and for real economic prosperity in the American West. Stay tuned for more!
Scientists described the quickening rate of carbon dioxide emissions in stark terms, comparing it to a “speeding freight train” and laying part of the blame on an unexpected surge in the appetite for oil as people around the world not only buy more cars but also drive them farther than in the past — more than offsetting any gains from the spread of electric vehicles.
“We’ve seen oil use go up five years in a row,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford and an author of one of two studies published Wednesday. “That’s really surprising.”
Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018, according to the new research, which was published by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 100 scientists from more than 50 academic and research institutions and one of the few organizations to comprehensively examine global emissions numbers. Emissions rose 1.6 percent last year, the researchers said, ending a three-year plateau.
Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018, according to the new research, which was published by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 100 scientists from more than 50 academic and research institutions and one of the few organizations to comprehensively examine global emissions numbers. Emissions rose 1.6 percent last year, the researchers said, ending a three-year plateau.