Recreating our way out of Global Warming?

Although bread and butter conservation groups like the National Wildlife Federation are lauding her outdoor credentials, the idea of Sally Jewell, the current CEO of REI, as the next Secretary of the Interior raises serious questions over whether the Obama Administration has any sense at all about how to confront our nation’s mounting energy and climate crisis.

Don’t get me wrong; the Interior Department manages more than 1/5 of the land in the United States, making the Agency the top provider of outdoor recreation opportunities.  In this regard, Sally Jewell is a stellar candidate when it comes to advancing appreciation and protection of the Interior Department’s outside world.  After all, as CEO of REI (that’s Recreational Equipment, Inc.), she’s shown that outdoor recreation is not only good for the environment, but good for business.

But recreation isn’t all that the Interior Department does.  It’s a sliver of what it does.

In fact, at its heart, the Interior Department is an energy agency.  Overseeing all federally owned coal, oil, and natural gas, Interior is an energy juggernaut, and most of that energy is fossil fuel-based.  Consider that nearly 60% of all coal burned in the U.S. and more than a third of all oil and gas produced in nation comes from federal reserves (and that’s not even taking into account the fact that Interior’s Office of Surface Mining oversees virtually 100% of all coal mining in the nation, and that Interior’s Bureau of Land Management authorizes scads of private and state oil and gas drilling on its lands).

Interior isn’t just a fossil fuel peddler, it’s a fossil fuel overlord, making it one of the most influential and important government agencies when it comes to energy policy in the U.S.

It also makes the Interior Department one of the most important agencies when it comes to confronting the effects of global warming, which is being fueled by greenhouse gas emissions from coal, oil, and gas.  After all, but for Interior’s approval, much of our fossil fuels would not be produced for consumption, making the Agency one of the largest contributors to our nation’s overwhelming greenhouse gas footprint.

Put another way, in the face of global warming and its disastrous effects on our environment and economy, including extreme weather, drought, deforestation, and rising air pollution, the Interior Department is on the most wanted list of those responsible.

Which is why Sally Jewell’s nomination for Interior Secretary is a shock.  Here is an agency that stands to play a critical role in transitioning our nation to clean energy, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and meaningfully addressing the threat of global warming.  And what does the President do?  He nominates an outdoor enthusiast who refused to take a stand on climate change for fear of upsetting customers with a “broad array of political views.”

To be fair, the President asserted she is an “expert” on energy and climate issues.  However, the only relevant “expertise” seems to be a stint as an oil company engineer.  Cutting through the rhetoric, it seems apparent that her appointment stems from her support for outdoor recreation initiatives, not any leadership on solving our nations’ climate and energy challenges.

Despite the hullabaloo over the President’s renewed commitment to confronting global warming, his appointment of Sally Jewell as Interior Secretary seems to send the signal that we should expect more business as usual.

That’s disturbing.  Although Interior has made much about its efforts to develop 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands, its most recent coal leasing decisions alone will fuel more than 300,000 megawatts of fossil fuel energy generation.

To say things are lopsided, as former Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, commented, would be an understatement.

Fundamentally, we can’t continue on a path that is wholly dependent on coal, oil, and natural gas, and expect to have any chance of reversing, or at least stabilizing, the effects of global warming.  This means the Interior Department must make transitioning away from fossil fuels a number one priority.  Given her background and the rhetoric around her nomination, it seems extremely unlikely that priorities will shift at all at Interior if Sally Jewell is confirmed.

With the latest Secretary of Interior nomination, it seems we can expect great conservation initiatives, collaboration with recreational interests, and perhaps greater protection for lands and wildlife in the U.S.  It seems unlikely that with Sally Jewell, we can expect any change when it comes to leading our nation forward on clean energy and in truly confronting the climate crisis.

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Colorado Coal Welfare at its Worst

Arch Coal is poised for big breaks in Colorado, even as this giant coal company is sliding toward failure and facing an increasingly uncertain future.

The latest handout comes from the U.S. Forest Service, which last week finalized a plan to give Arch and other coal companies a special “exemption” to mine into Colorado’s backcountry.

There’s no beating around the bush on this.  The plan expressly sacrifices publicly owned wild forest lands (that means owned by all Americans) purely for Arch Coal’s financial benefit.  It’s a sad giveaway, especially given that these untrammeled wild places are truly one of a kind and really reflect what makes Colorado so special.

Like the Sunset Roadless Area, which skirts the iconic West Elk Wilderness.  Although WildEarth Guardians has been able to keep this area safe from Arch’s coal mining, the Forest Service’s giveaway ensures its destruction.

And as if the public lands giveaway wasn’t enough for Arch, the company’s also poised to get a break on its royalty payments.

Royalties of course, are what Arch pays you and me for the privilege of mining publicly owned coal.  Under the company’s latest request, the federal government would lose $3.1 million while Colorado would lose $1.75 million.

To boot, the request comes as Arch recently raised its CEO’s salary by 58%.  So not only are we losing money, we’re subsidizing a CEO pay increase.

Yet, in spite of these handsome handouts, Arch’s profits are still sliding downward.  Tumbling is how it was described in The Wall Street Journal.  And to top it all off, the coal giant was just stung by a Standard and Poor’s downgrade, from B+ to BB-.

The reason?  Declining demand for coal.

All the bailouts in the world can’t cover up the fact that coal is dying.  As Arch continues to tumble toward failure, one can only hope that these latest welfare payments in Colorado–our public lands and our public revenues–amount to nothing in the end.

The thought of subsidizing a giant coal company’s profits is bad enough.  But the thought of footing the bill for a coal company’s failure is outrageous.

DSCN2084

Adding insult to injury, Arch Coal vents more than $10 million worth of methane gas into the air every year from dozens of wells drilled above its West Elk coal mine in Colorado.  Arch has so far thwarted efforts to require the company to capture and utilize the gas.

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Decorative Coal Landscaping? Anyone?

Coal is mined for one reason:  to be burned.

It’s not used for decorative landscaping.  It’s not used for building material.  It’s certainly not used for jewelry.  Whether it’s for power (the primary use) or industrial purposes (steel, cement, etc.), the bottomline is, coal is mined to be burned.

So it was curious, if not utterly bizarre, to see the U.S. Interior Department’s latest response to concerns over the environmental impacts of authorizing more coal mining in northwestern Colorado.  That response?

“Combustion of the coal is too speculative.”

Too speculative.  In other words, according to the Interior Department, even though coal is mined for one reason and one reason alone–to be burned–it is too speculative to conclude that more coal mining will lead to more coal burning.

This has to be the most purposefully incompetent, willfully ignorant, and deliberately reckless responses to public concerns over coal burning.

And sadly, it gets worse.

The decision at issue is a new coal lease for Peabody Energy’s new Sage Creek coal mine in northwestern Colorado.  As I’ve blogged about before, Sage Creek is intended to fuel Xcel Energy’s nearby Hayden power plant.  Peabody is gunning for a federal coal lease to lock in the mine as a long-term source of coal for Hayden and potentially even for export to Europe.

Last fall, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency charged with managing federal coal, proposed to auction off a new coal lease for Peabody to complete its Sage Creek mine.  Before doing so though, the agency had to analyze the environmental impacts of the new coal lease and solicit public input.

WildEarth Guardians responded.  And, of course, we called on the Bureau to address the fact that the coal from the Sage Creek mine would not only be burned in the nearby Hayden power plant, but fuel more coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and possibly abroad, leading more greenhouse gases and other harmful air pollution.

It goes without saying that more coal leasing means more coal mining, which of course means coal burning.  So, it also goes without saying that the Bureau of Land Management has a duty to address these impacts and perhaps temper its decision to better protect our health and the environment.

At least, that’s what we thought.

Because when the Bureau finally responded to our comments, it wasn’t a thoughtful analysis of environmental impacts or a meaningful effort to, perhaps, minimize the global warming impacts of its coal leasing decision.  No, it was this:

“Combustion of the coal is too speculative.”

Read for yourself on page 63 of their Environmental Assessment (or see the bottom of page 25).

The disconnection from reality is stunning.  Even Peabody has said coal from Sage Creek is intended to be a long-term fuel source for the Hayden coal-fired power plant, and has invested millions to make it happen and is locking in contracts as I write.

We know the U.S. Interior Department refuses to admit that its coal leasing and mining decisions have any greenhouse gas implications, but this latest claim–that combustion of Sage Creek coal is speculative–takes the cake.

This isn’t just an agency that’s avoiding responsibility, it’s an agency that’s demented.

Because if coal from the Sage Creek mine in Colorado isn’t burned, perhaps the Interior Department thinks it’s going to be used for decorative landscaping.  Or maybe building material.  Or maybe jewelry.

We can only hope.

In the meantime, that’s f-ing crazy.
Coal Mine

Coal mining…for decorative landscaping?

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We Can’t Frack our Way to Clean Air

With mounting revelations that air pollution from fracking threatens public health, you’d think that the Obama Administration would be rushing to ensure these harmful emissions are kept in check.

After all, reducing this pollution actually makes the oil and gas industry money.  Companies including BP, Williams (now WPX), Anadarko, and more all report enormous paybacks.

The reason?

It’s simple.  Reducing pollution means capturing gas that is usually just vented into the air, wasted.  More gas means more money.  In other words, controlling harmful air pollution means being more productive.

And it doesn’t end with fracking.  A recent NRDC report confirms companies can make money by reducing air pollution at every step of the process of producing oil and gas.  From the wells downstream to the distribution system, the industry is blessed with an array of options to make money while at the same time keeping our air safe to breathe.

It’s no surprise that when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year proposed updates to a suite of rules to limit air pollution from fracking, they found the proposal would actually yield millions for the oil and gas industry.

Win-win would be an understatement.  Even investors are calling on industry to control its pollution, noting the “financial risks” of wasting gas.  It’s the no-brainer of all no-brainers.  And given the enormous public health benefits we stand to reap, there’s absolutely no reason to delay.

Yet sadly, delay is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing.

As was reported earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency is putting off new clean air rules for fracking for another two weeks.  These rules were spurred after WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance filed suit against the Agency over its failure to meet deadlines under the Clean Air Act.

Now two weeks isn’t that much time, but it comes as the Administration is seemingly bent on appeasing the oil and gas industry in a cynical move to score political points with the electorate, even at the expense of our health and the environment.

Take for example, the Environmental Protection Agency recently backing down from efforts to protect clean water from fracking.  Or U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s recent announcement that the Administration was “speeding up” federal drilling (nevermind that there’s a glut in natural gas right now that has pushed prices to record lows and tempered drilling plans across the country).

In fact, WildEarth Guardians has heard that the delay on the clean air rules may very well be due to a White House demand to scrap key provisions over concerns about how the safeguards would affect Obama’s re-election campaign.

More to the point, it seems that Obama’s re-election campaign has the perception that regulating fracking will somehow be viewed as being responsible for high gasoline prices.

Ergo, ditch the clean air rules.

If true, it would not only stand as an abhorrent attempt to let politics trump public health, but it would be one of the most monumental miscalculations by this Administration.  Nevermind that more drilling–and certainly environmental regulation–hasn’t had any effect on gasoline prices.  Ultimately, it would amount to the President turning a win-win opportunity into a loser for all.

Without a doubt, it would be an abandonment of any and all leadership.

For Americans dealing firsthand with air pollution from fracking, this outcome could be devastating.

Like for parents of Erie, Colorado, which is north of Denver, who are facing the prospect of wells being fracked near two elementary schools and a daycare center.

Sure, I suppose there’s a chance the President may score political points for rhetoric, speculation, sloganeering, fear, and hype.  But for those of us living in the real world where facts and reason rein, this does nothing to protect our clean air.

Delaying common sense protections for public health and the environment is bad enough, especially when those protections will make the oil and gas industry more productive and profitable.  The prospect of the Obama Administrating using delay to scuttle what are arguably some of the most reasonable fracking safeguards ever would be unconscionable.

Watch this great documentary on Hydrofracking and Air from Kyle Montgomery on Vimeo, which focuses on the Marcellus shale in the northeast.

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Coalorado Plateau

Superlatives are an understatement on the Colorado Plateau.

Home to Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, and more, the region is the American West’s defining collision of contrasts pushed to some of the most beautiful extremes.  The land, the water, the people, the air–they’re a mélange of unlikely proportions that over time (lots of time) have come together to create one of the most iconically paradoxical joinders of culture and geology, water and desert, even life and death.

(just check out this Flickr album of bryandkeith’s bike tour of the Colorado Plateau, wonderful point of view and awesome photography!)

Yet even in this landscape marked by stark contrasts, there’s some things that seem out of place.

Like coal.

Not the natural seams of coal that streak buttes with black stripes of a carboniferous past, but the mines and the power plants concentrated in the region that have turned this past into a present-day environmental disaster.

By our count, the Colorado Plateau, which spans five states and encompasses most of the Colorado River watershed, supports 12 coal-fired power plants that collectively account for 44% of all coal-fired electricity generated in the Western United States (check out our map below, as well as another one like it on our Flickr site).  Unlike many plants in the nation that get their coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, these 12 are fueled entirely by mines on the Plateau.

Collectively, these plants take a huge toll on the region’s air, water, and land.  And this where another set of less appealing superlatives come in.

Like largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi River, a distinction that belongs to the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona.  At 2,400 megawatts, the power plant is capable of providing energy to more than 1.5 million households annually.

Or largest source of nitrogen oxide emissions, a byproduct of coal combustion that forms smog and haze, a distinction that belongs to the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico.  In 2011, the plant released more than 37,500 tons, as much as 1.96 million cars.

Or three of the top 25 largest sources of carbon dioxide in the United States–the Navajo Generating Station, Four Corners Power Plant, and Jim Bridger Station in Wyoming (13th, 24th, and 14th, respectively).

To that end, the largest source of carbon dioxide in every state in the region (with the exception of Utah) is located on the Plateau:  Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, New Mexico’s Four Corners Power Plant, Colorado’s Craig Generating Station, and Wyoming’s Jim Bridger Station (the Hunter Power Plant in Utah is the second largest in the State).

But even more distressing is the fact that these plants collectively report more than 20.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals released annually into the air and water, and on the land.  To put that into perspective, that’s almost as much as was released in the entire State of Colorado in 2010 (23 million tons reported to EPA).

In other words, these 12 power plants spew almost as much toxic pollution as an entire state.  These toxic releases include more than 1,800 pounds of mercury emitted into the air from the plant’s smokestacks.

Perhaps it’s no wonder the Colorado Plateau has some of the highest concentrations of mercury in the West.  Studies in Mesa Verde National Park, an icon of the region’s rich pre-Puebloan history, have even confirmed the link between the region’s power plants and mercury contamination.

Check out our detailed chart of toxic releases for every one of these coal-fired power plants.

Not surprisingly, haze and smog are becoming major concerns.  Air monitors throughout the region have reported dozens of exceedances of federal limits on ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of urban smog.  In an area defined and treasured because of its remoteness, it’s clear vistas, and it’s lack of urbanity, that’s a big problem.

And while power plants aren’t the only source of pollution in the region, it’s becoming all too clear that the key to solving these problems is to tackle coal on the Colorado Plateau.

This imperative is especially urgent given there are still looming plans to expand the region’s coal footprint.  The proposed Desert Rock power plant in New Mexico is still on the table and there’s been a recent surge in Obama Administration support for expanding coal development on Navajo lands.  And Colorado has at least three new coal mine proposals developing, Oak Mesa, Red Cliff, and Sage Creek.

The list, unfortunately, is expanding.

Certainly, the Colorado Plateau is defined by its contrasts, but there’s been a certain harmony in all this.  The irony with coal is that is stands to overshadow even this region’s rich contradictions, especially as global warming makes this land ever drier, hotter, even dustier.

For anyone who loves the American West, there should be no question that there needs to be a move away from coal on the Colorado Plateau.

That may be the biggest understatement of them all.

Colorado Plateau Coal Map-March 2012

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All Coal Goes Back to…Portland, Oregon?

Meet Pacificorp, a utility company that owns and operates more coal-fired power plants than anyone else in the American West and that happens to be headquartered, of all places, in Portland, Oregon.

Which is kind of odd because when I think of coal, the last thing that comes to mind is Portland, Oregon.

Nevertheless, with Pacificorp headquartered in old Stumptown, it literally makes this city the coal burning capital of the American West.  It’s quite a distinction, especially for a  city that’s normally known for being the greenest in the country.

For those who don’t know Pacificorp, the company owns all or portions of 11 coal-fired power plants in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming.  Its total coal-fired electric generating capacity amounts to 6,781 megawatts, more than any other utility in the West.

Its coal-fired electricity powers a vast service area, including portions of California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.  And even though the company has other sources of electricity, including hydro and wind, coal dominates the company’s portfolio.  That means coal is powering Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.

That makes the company’s greenhouse gas footprint enormous.  Nearly 50 million tons of carbon dioxide, to be exact (based on EPA data for 2010).  That’s more than five times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced in Oregon in 2007.   Check out the table below.

Plant State Ownership Share (%) Total CO2 (tons)
Colstrip MT 7 1,311,327
Wyodak WY 100 3,199,281
Dave Johnston WY 100 5,992,189
Jim Bridger WY 66 10,743,842
Naughton WY 100 5,882,446
Hayden CO 17 700,187
Craig CO 19 2,041,915
Carbon UT 100 1,473,621
Hunter UT 85 8,349,312
Huntington UT 100 6,252,135
Cholla AZ 39 3,213,406
 TOTAL 49,159,661

What’s more, the company is a subsidiary of MidAmerican Holdings, which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway.  Buffet’s connection to Pacificorp’s western coal shadow isn’t much of a surprise, but it is increasingly odd given recent statements he made supporting a major ramp up in renewable energy development.

Making matters worse, Pacificorp is fighting to keep its coal plants alive, even despite growing costs.  And that’s where the real rub comes into play.  It’s one thing to own or operate an old coal-fired power plant.  It’s another thing to fight to keep it open as long as possible, environmental impacts be damned.

See for yourself what Pacificorp’s coal shadow looks like, check out our Google map below for more information on the company’s coal-fired power plants, some of WildEarth Guardians’ efforts to confront these coal plants, and links to other helpful websites, like SourceWatch’s amazing database of coal and coal-related information.  This map is also on our Pacificorp Coal-fired Power Plant map page.

In the meantime, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the key to confronting greenhouse gas emissions in the West is to tackle Pacificorp.  Whether in Portland or in Denver, Wyoming or California, we can’t make meaningful progress to safeguard the climate without taking on this company’s coal.

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Fair Market Secret (and Updated Powder River Basin Map)

On the heels of news that more than one billion tons of coal have been auctioned off from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming just in the last year, the Bureau of Land Management yesterday stunningly rejected a bid from Peabody Energy for one of the biggest coal leases ever to be offered.

The lease in question, called South Porcupine, would have added 400 million tons of coal to Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle mine, the second largest in the U.S.

The reason for rejecting Peabody’s bid?  According to the Bureau of Land Management, their 90¢ per ton offer for the lease was below fair market value.

But what is fair market value?  Funny you should ask, because the fact is, we don’t know.

That’s because the Bureau of Land Management won’t tell us.  In fact, not only will they not tell us what fair market value is, they won’t even tell us how they calculate fair market value.

In a 2011 response to a Freedom of Information Act request from WildEarth Guardians asking for fair market value records for several coal leases that were already sold, the Agency refused to provide any documents.  Their reason?  Well, read for yourself:

In this case, the government is involved in a commercial endeavor and is statutorily required to ensure that it receives at least fair market value (FMV) for the coal being sold. We are withholding coal reservoir appraisal data, coal reservoir geological analysis data, and the FMV data that were derived from the appraisal and geological data. Disclosure of the referenced data could cause substantial harm to the competitive position of the government by creating an unfair or “gamed” bidding processt thereby suppressing the value of bids for pending sales, as well as in subsequent sales of adjacent lands.

The Agency went on to assert:

We are also withholding the information in these documents pursuant to exemption 5 because disclosure of this information could interfere with the deliberative process leading up to BLM’s final decisions on FMV estimates. The documents reveal BLM staff opinions and recommendations that are considered in development of the FMV estimate. Disclosure of that information could create confusion about the primary factors considered in FMV decisions and would have a chilling effect on the agency’s candid discussion of the various factors that influence the FMV estimates.

You can read the full response here (page 10 has their response on the fair market value data).  In other words, fair market value is secret and the process for calculating fair market value is secret.  If this sounds a bit odd, it’s because it is.

Because the Bureau of Land Management is basically claiming not only that it can’t release fair market value data for leases that have already been sold, but it can’t even release records that explain how fair market value is calculated.

It would be like an appraiser not only refusing to share with us the appraised value of our home, but also refusing to share with us the procedures for appraising our home.  That would be a huge problem, especially when it came time to, oh, I don’t know, sell our home.

Yet that’s exactly what’s going on here.  Because the coal being auctioned off in the Powder River Basin is owned by the federal government, which means it’s owned by us.  That means it’s supposed to be sold to make money for us.

Of course, how do we know we’re making money if we don’t even know the value of what we’re selling?

We don’t know.  And, unfortunately, we apparently can’t know because according to the Bureau of Land Management, the value of our public assets and the process for valuing those public assets, is secret.

While this may be convenient for the federal government, ultimately, it leaves the American public with little reason to believe that we’re actually recovering the full value of this coal.

As for all the Bureau of Land Management’s excuses about “substantial harm” to the competitive position of the government and the “chilling effect” of releasing fair market information, this all seems to be a ruse.

Although the Agency has a point that releasing fair market value data for pending leases could lead to rigged bidding (in fact, that’s exactly what happened in the late 70′s and early 80′s, read the declaration of economist Tom Sanzillo at page 18-22, which was filed in conjunction with WildEarth Guardians’ most recent lawsuit over coal leasing in the Powder River Basin), the fact is, it’s a rigged process already.  That’s because, for the most part, there is no bidding for Powder River Basin coal.  In the last 22 years, 27 coal leases have been sold and only five have had more than one bidder.  If that’s not rigged bidding in and of itself, then I don’t know what is.

Regardless, there should be no problem in releasing fair market value data for leases that have already been sold.  The only thing this data would ever “chill” is public concern over whether the government is doing its job.

So what is the Bureau of Land Management hiding?  Honestly, I think they’re hiding the fact that for years now, they’ve been offering Powder River Basin coal at bargain prices.

That’s not say they haven’t been selling the coal at fair market value.  It’s just that fair market value, in all reality, probably isn’t really, truly, actually fair market value.

Perhaps they’re waking up to this.  I hope so.  The South Porcupine coal lease threatens to lead to the release of more than 660 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s handy online greenhouse gas equivalency calculator, that’s equal to the annual emissions of 156 coal-fired power plants.

The Bureau of Land Management seems to be taking a newfound stand against artificially cheap coal and in turn, global warming.  Let’s hope this trend continues.

In the meantime, I challenge the Agency to come clean with its fair market value assessments.  Just like no reasonable homeowner would ever allow an appraiser to keep their appraisals secret, the American public has a right to know how the Bureau of Land Management is assessing our coal and what the value really is.

UPDATED MAP!

On other fronts, check out our updated interactive Powder River Basin coal map (view the larger map for easier navigation).  And if you’re into Google Earth, download this .kml file with more detailed data and learn more about this coal producing region.  The map is always available on our Powder River Basin map page.

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