Smoggy Skies in the American West Point to Fossil Fuels

Benjamin Storrow with the Casper Star Tribune reported this past weekend on the prospect of eight Wyoming counties (effectively 1/3 of the state) falling into violation of federal limits on ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

The report coincides with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent release of ozone data for the years 2011-2013 and a recent statement from agency staff that federal ozone limits–now set at 0.075 parts per million–should be strengthened to between 0.070 parts per million and 0.060 in order to effectively protect public health.  The agency is currently under court order to promulgate new ambient air quality standards for ozone in 2015.

The revelations piqued our curiosity about the broader impacts of stronger health standards for ozone in the American West.  Taking recently posted data from the Environmental Protection Agency, we mapped out which counties in the west are violating current ozone air quality standards and which counties would be in violation of stronger ozone standards, depending on where they’re ultimately set.  As the map below shows, the clean air landscape of the west stands to change dramatically.  More importantly, what the map below shows is that areas throughout the west are already experiencing unhealthy levels of smog.

You can check out an interactive version of this map here >>

Western Areas Violating Ozone Standards

Western U.S. Counties Violating Current and Proposed Ozone Air Quality Standards

The landscape stands in stark contrast to what the Environmental Protection Agency found in 2012.  As the map below shows, only a handful of areas in the west were violating ozone limits and designated “nonattainment” (a nonattainment designation under the Clean Air Act spurs a mandatory clean up).  Effectively, only parts of central and southern California, the Phoenix metro area in Arizona, the Denver metro area of Colorado, and a portion of western Wyoming were deemed to have unhealthy smog levels.

map8hr_2008

Based on more recent data, it appears that a number of new areas are violating current standards, including Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and northwest Colorado and northeastern Utah.  More importantly, it appears that under the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed standards, the number of areas likely to be designated nonattainment would be greatly expanded, including areas in every state except Montana.  Put another way, the American West is facing a serious health crisis and an unprecedented smog clean up challenge.

Not exactly what you would expect for a region renowned for its big skies and clean air.

The big question, though, is what is the cause of this burgeoning smog problem?  While California has its unchecked urban development, cars, trucks, and industrial agriculture, in the interior west, booming oil and gas drilling and fracking is a key driver.  In fact, earlier this year, we put together a map showing the overlap between active oil and gas wells and areas likely to violate the Environmental Protection Agency’s new ozone standards.  The overlap is uncanny.

Western_OilGas_OzoneAq_2014Wells (1)

Overlap between potential ozone nonattainment areas and active oil and gas wells in the western U.S.

The reason for this overlap is due to the fact that oil and gas drilling and fracking operations are huge sources of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, which are key ozone forming pollutants.  Take the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado.  Recent studies found that oil and gas operations in this rural region release as much volatile organic compound pollution as 100 million cars, an absolutely shocking amount of pollution.  In Colorado, even with the adoption of recent rules to limit pollution, oil and gas operations are still predicted to release 64% of all volatile organic compounds by 2018.  Even in an urban region like Denver, oil and gas operations are projected to release more than 60% of all smog forming compounds, far more than all the cars and trucks in the area.

Even in areas without high ozone levels, drilling and fracking is filling the atmosphere with immense amounts of pollution.  Most recently, the Western Regional Air Partnership reported that oil and gas operations in the Bakken shale region of North Dakota stand to release 367,000 tons of volatile organic compounds by 2015.  That’s equal to the amount released annually from 27 million cars (according to the Environmental Protection Agency, an average car releases 27.33 pounds of volatile organic compounds annually).  This is in a region with a population of less than a million.

Certainly, in other parts of the West, like in Nevada, Salt lake City, Washington, and Oregon, the challenge has more to do with increasing population and urban development.  More people means more cars, more trucks, etc.  But whether linked to fracking or population, the fact is that the western United States is going to have to come to terms with the need to keep growth in check.

The looming smog crisis in the American West presents an opportunity to get it right for our health and future.  Without a doubt, we should be alarmed at the prospect of such a vast amount of the region falling into violation of ozone health limits.  However, the solution isn’t to bemoan the challenge, it’s to embrace it.

Its time for all states in the west to start taking steps to limit fossil fuel pollution, especially from fracking, and to keep growth and urban development in check.  Our goal everywhere should be to keep the west smog-free.

Interior Department: Carbon Costs “Misleading”

In July, the Obama Administration was called out over its utter hypocrisy in curtailing carbon pollution in the U.S.

On the one hand, the Administration says that delaying carbon clean up will cost us billions.  On the other, the U.S. Department of Interior, head by Secretary Sally Jewell, is selling millions of tons of coal in the American West and not only refusing to account for carbon costs, but defending their decisions in spite of the climate impacts.

Thankfully, we’re making some progress in reining in the Department’s unwillingness to share in the responsibility to combat climate change.

Just yesterday, a federal judge overturned a coal leasing decision in Colorado over the agency’s failure to assess the social cost of carbon emissions associated with the leasing.  The order comes on the heels of a June ruling where the court held Interior illegally refused to use the “social cost of carbon” protocol, an interagency method of assessing the cost of carbon emissions, when analyzing the environmental and economic impacts of leasing more coal.  The judge was especially perturbed that the agency touted the supposed economic benefits of more mining while completely downplaying (actually, outright denying) the climate costs, which the court noted could be as high as $1 billion (as the court observed, “in effect the agency prepared half of a cost-benefit analysis”).

Cognitive dissonance doesn’t even begin to explain the disconnect here.  What the Interior Department is doing is completely (and literally) undermining our efforts to combat climate change.  Even as President Obama empowers the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gases, Sally Jewell’s coal decisions are unleashing massive amounts of carbon.

Either President Obama isn’t really serious about curtailing carbon or the Department of Interior is completely out of line.  It doesn’t take a genius to know where the problem lies.

The federal coal leasing program has been called the “elephant in the room” that, unbelievably, has yet to be noticed.  Yet all indications are that Interior is well aware that coal leasing is detrimental to our climate.  What’s worse, everything indicates that they are deliberately turning their backs on the issue, going so far as to continue denying carbon costs.

Case in point, on August 15, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management approved 15.75 million tons of new coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.  Coal is mined for one reason, to be burned, and when burned, this coal stands to unleash 26 million metric tons of carbon pollution (in case there’s any question about the significance of this amount, it equals the annual carbon emissions of 5.4 million cars according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy carbon calculator).

So what did the agency have to say about the cost of these carbon emissions?  Complete denial.

In fact, in response to concerns over carbon costs, Interior not only argued that the social cost of carbon protocol is inappropriate for assessing the impacts of coal leasing (an assertion rejected by the federal court in Colorado), but argued that such an analysis would be “unbalanced” and “misleading” (see their decision at bottom of page 2 to page 3).

It gets worse.  For instance, while the Department argued that they are not required to do a cost-benefit analysis, and therefore not obligated to assess carbon costs, they actually did prepare a cost-benefit analysis that again, only touted the purported economic benefits of mining.  In the underlying Environmental Impact Statement for the lease, they estimated hundreds of millions increased revenue and dozens of new jobs (see Environmental Impact Statement at p. 3-160).  In other words, they put together the same “half of a cost benefit analysis” overturned by the federal court in Colorado.

Adding absurdity to the mix, they assert that the social cost of carbon impacts would be “negligible” when compared to the costs of carbon from coal nationwide or globally.  Of course, no actual analysis was completed to support this “negligible” claim and, not surprisingly, they didn’t take such a big picture view when assessing the supposed benefits of more coal mining (after all, using Interior’s logic, wouldn’t the addition of dozens of jobs be “negligible” when compared to all the jobs provided by other industries nationwide or globally?).

To underscore the absurdity, assuming the 26 million metric tons of carbon is produced in 2015, this would lead to costs as low as $260 million and as high as $2.8 billion (for 2015, estimated carbon costs range from $11 per metric ton to $109, depending on the discount rate).  Put another way, Interior is actually claiming that a cost of $2.8 billion is negligible.

Topping it all off, the agency continued to stand by its claim that, “The tools necessary to quantify climatic impacts from projects such as a lease modification are presently unavailable” (see Environmental Assessment at p. 27).  Yet the federal court in Colorado affirmed that there is a tool, the social cost of carbon protocol (see ruling at p. 17).

Why would Interior argue such deceit?  It’s unclear, but the only reason for the agency to describe a social cost of carbon analysis as “unbalanced” and “misleading” is because it would show that the cost of leasing coal isn’t worth it.

Ultimately, the Department of Interior is either one of America’s most dangerous climate deniers or the they’re truly of the mind that they must lease coal at any cost.  Either way, it’s clear that the agency has no intention of stepping up to address the carbon impacts of coal leasing.

To put it bluntly, the U.S. Interior Department isn’t ignoring the elephant in the room, they’re simply trying to hide it.

We’re making progress in cutting carbon, but so long as Sally Jewell and the Department of Interior keep flouting our nation’s commitment to safeguarding the climate, it’s clear we can never fully succeed.

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Saving our climate is as easy as keeping carbon underground, something the U.S. Interior Department has yet to embrace.

Your Land is Fracked: The Untold Story of Drilling on Our Public Lands

Note: Tim Ream is WildEarth Guardians’ new Climate and Energy Campaign Director. He’ll be joining me in blogging here from time to time.  Enjoy his first post!  — Jeremy Nichols

I’ve spent a whole lot of days and nights in my life enjoying the beautiful public lands we have been blessed with across this nation. I’ve experienced the awe of waking in subalpine forests covered in new snow, incredible morning birdsong along desert riverbanks, and the diverse life and landscapes of myriad other wonderful places on our National Forests and on lands managed for us by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Still, my first night out with WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols, was brand new to me. We set camp in a coal-bed methane drilling field that was unlike anything I had ever seen on public lands.

Think of your favorite wild place and then imagine one of these plopped in every direction.

Think of your favorite wild place and then imagine one of these plopped in every direction.

I had just started my first week as Guardians’ new Climate and Energy Campaign Director and Jeremy decided I needed some intimate acquaintance with the land it was now my job to protect. Guardians’ vision is that our U.S. public lands should be completely free of fossil fuel development. After all, more than one in three Americans rely on public lands as a source of their drinking water. If you travel just about anywhere in this country, you surely drink water that originates on our public lands. The last thing any of us want is to have our families contaminated by chemical concoctions used to frack for oil and gas – often secret chemical combinations that companies refuse to identify to doctors or researchers.

 

Well pads don't just make your public lands hike ugly, they can kill you.

Well pads don’t just make your hike on public lands look ugly, they can kill you.

Along with clean water, we expect our National Forests and other public lands to be sources of clean air. Just the opposite is happening in many rural communities near frack jobs on our public lands. Rural communities in Utah and Colorado have already been federally declared as unhealthy air zones with fracking, oil and gas transport, and oil and gas processing the culprit for excessive smog. Air monitors in rural regions in some other Western states, otherwise free from industrial sources or heavy traffic except for oil and gas production, are also beginning to ring alarms over their decline in clean air. I personally had a hard time breathing in the worst of the areas we visited.

Great open spaces aren't so great when tracking invades.

Great open spaces aren’t so great when fracking invades.

But even if public lands oil and gas could be magically fracked (and nearly all oil and gas produced in this country nowadays is fracked) in some pristine way that didn’t pollute our air and drinking water, we’d still have to fight it. That’s because just about every serious scientist who has weighed in on global warming policy prescriptions agrees that the bulk of the fossil fuel left in the world has to be kept in the ground.

The simple truth is most fossil fuels must be left in the ground or we risk runaway global warming.

The simple truth is most fossil fuels must be left in the ground or we risk runaway global warming.

So, how are we going to lockdown hundreds of billions of dollars of fossil fuel that every greedy oilman and gas developer in the world wants to get their paws on? The same way we have created large open spaces free from industrial or residential development; the same way we have preserved landscapes big enough for bison and wolves; the same way we have kept forests uncut for miles in every direction. Our precious public lands, and the fossil fuels found under them don’t belong to the federal government. They belong to us; they’re our birthright as citizens. The government only manages them at our direction. Those are our fossil fuels. That’s our carbon. And the way I read the polls, most Americans don’t want that carbon burned up into our atmosphere, speeding the pace to an unlivable world of runaway global warming for our kids and grandkids.

The biggest most protected landscapes in our country are all on our public lands because that is where we the people have the most influence to protect them. So it only makes sense that the place we will have the most influence in locking down the first extensive sources of carbon, and thereby turning the tide on climate change, is on public lands that hold publicly-owned carbon. We have to keep the oil and gas and coal industries from burning our carbon and destroying our climate. And as the greatest historical climate polluter, it only makes sense that the U.S. has the responsibility to lead on this carbon lockdown issue by locking down our public lands fossil fuels first.

Your public lands or just another cash cow for Big Oil and Gas?

Your public lands or just another cash cow for Big Oil and Gas?

With that as our mission, Jeremy took me out for a tour of what we are up against, specifically focusing on oil and gas. It isn’t pretty. We did an 1800-mile loop from Denver up through southern Wyoming, through Utah’s Uinta Basin, down to northwestern New Mexico and then back to Colorado. Despite the distance, we still only saw a tiny fraction of public lands oil and gas drilling. In fact, the U.S. currently has more than 32 million acres under lease. That is an area of public lands fossil fuel development leasing bigger than the size of New York State. Thankfully, not all of it is being developed at this time, but that is only because oil and gas companies bid on and then hold these leased public lands in speculation. One of Guardians’ goals is to stop this lease speculation on public lands by Big Oil and Gas.

Checkerboard land ownership can put public lands fracking right next to farms and ranches.

Checkerboard land ownership can put public lands fracking right next to farms and ranches.

Despite lease speculation, the amount of active development is still huge. About 25% of fossil fuels burned in this country come from public lands, those are fossil fuels that you own. Think about that: the overwhelming majority of Americans–heck, even a majority of Republicans–have told pollster after pollster that we want the government to do more to stop global warming, but what the Obama Administration is doing instead is selling off the public’s fossil fuels to speed the rate of global warming. Sarah Palin’s “drill baby, drill” turned into Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy and the result is undoing all other government efforts taken to stop global warming combined.

Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy is making global warming worse.

Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy is making global warming worse.

Jeremy and I traveled landscape after landscape riddled with gas wells, pump jacks, pipelines and processing plants. We saw hundreds of miles of new roads built across vast, previously unroaded landscapes, with the sole purpose to let Big Oil and Gas pull money out of the ground. There are huge sections of public lands that have an oil well pad every quarter of a mile in every direction for hundreds of square miles. Where there are gaps, projects are proposed to fill in the blank spaces. These well pads are eyesores, dangerous, and dominate the landscape. You can’t hunt near gas tanks. You won’t picnic next to toxic industrial facilities. And you don’t camp in well fields, maybe with the exception of Jeremy and me on a mission. For all intents and purposes, we haven’t just sold Big Oil and Gas our fossil fuels, we have given away our birthright of public land.

It has to stop. Now.

Picnic anywhere you like, but please keep the kids and pets out of the toxic waste.

Picnic anywhere you like, but please keep the kids and pets out of the toxic waste.

On these pages, Jeremy has been describing what Guardians has been doing to fight coal, oil, and gas development project by project throughout the West. We are going to step up that work, with an added focus on oil and gas. We will expand on recent court wins and we have a few novel legal approaches to help us take back our lands.

In addition, we have a bigger vision. What if the young and growing climate movement, the mature and experienced public lands movement, and the fiery and surging anti-fracking movement all joined forces to shut down one-third of all oil and gas fracking in one fell swoop? Guardians is hoping to catalyze this three-way movement marriage into the biggest threat the U.S. fossil fuel industry has ever faced. Taking back our carbon on our lands is a winnable fight and would be an incredibly powerful step turning the U.S. into a leader in addressing climate change.

Stay tuned to these pages.

And of course, you can help. Please support our work in protecting our drinking water, our air, and our climate by joining WildEarth Guardians and lending your support to kicking the fossil fuel industry off our public lands for good. Become a member or make a donation today.

I look forward to working with you on this incredibly important campaign. Check out more photos of our public lands fracking tour here. And thank you for your support.

Tim Ream

Climate and Energy Campaign Director

The author is unhappy with oil and gas drilling on public lands.

The author is unhappy with oil and gas drilling on public lands.

Floating with the Coal Trains on the Colorado River

It’s always an amazing experience floating the Upper Colorado River in the summertime.  It’s not a completely wild river, but it’s remote enough, free enough, and undisturbed enough that it makes for an incredible float, whether just for a day or for several.

But it’s kind of an odd float as well.  Here, beautiful mountains, vibrant river life, and awe-inspiring river flows contrast starkly with Colorado’s main east-west railroad line, which, among other things, carries miles of coal trains on a daily basis.

These trains haul millions of tons of coal from western Colorado and central Utah mines to power plants in the Midwest, southeast, and possibly even for export from the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a crazy juxtaposition.  Here you have a river that is more threatened than ever because of climate change (one article characterized the threat as, “Nearly every climate change model puts a red bulls-eye on the Colorado River Basin”).  And right on its banks passing by en masse is the very carbon conduit fueling the climate change.

It’s a reminder of the hard work ahead of us in saving the American West from climate change.  For now, we make the best of it and whenever a coal train comes by, we wave to the engineer who gladly blows his train horn as he rumbles past.

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Coal train rumbles past rafters. 

 

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Coal train rumbling up the river, nearing Red Gore Canyon. 

 

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There’s something about a train, even if it’s monstrous noises completely disrupt the serenity of being on the river.

 

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Union Pacific locomotives proudly haul over a hundred coal cars at a time.

 

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 Our happy boat hoping for a future without carbon pollution and global warming.  We are, too.

Time for EPA to Come Clean on Methane

It’s only Wednesday and it’s already been a busy week on the issue of methane, a  greenhouse gas that’s like carbon on steroids and is released extensively in the production of fossil fuels:

  • There’s been ongoing coverage of our court victory last Friday overturning Arch Coal’s plans to expand its West Elk mine and in the process vent massive amounts of methane.  That ruling invalidated a U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management approval of Arch’s plans on the basis that the costs of carbon pollution, including the costs of venting methane gas, were ignored, a big victory for the climate.
  • And this week, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that newer gas wells being drilled into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale are leaking more methane than wells drilled into other formations.  The study has major implications for shale oil and gas drilling and fracking across the nation, which is fast taking hold as the predominant form of oil and gas development.  Indeed, we just commented this week on the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to allow 5,000 wells to be drilled into the Niobrara shale formation of eastern Wyoming.

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Methane venting well at Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in western Colorado (click to see more pictures of what methane venting at coal mines looks like, including this video of methane venting in action)

There’s a lot going on around methane, but what’s disturbingly not being discussed is how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and apparently other federal agencies, for that matter) are downplaying, if not covering up, the climate impacts of methane emissions.

Certainly, everybody recognizes that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but what seems to be obfuscated is exactly how potent it is.

The measure of a greenhouse gases potency is also called its global warming potential.  In the case of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency has for many years universally presumed a global warming potential of 21, meaning that for one part of methane equals 21 parts of carbon dioxide.  But studies are consistently confirming that this estimate is too low, particularly when assessing the short-term climate impacts of methane emissions.

In fact, while studies are finding that over a 100-year period, the global warming potential of methane is more than 30 times that of carbon dioxide, they’re finding that in the short-term, methane may be as much as 105 times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas.

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (often referred to as the IPCC), probably the most authoritative (even if somewhat cautious) scientific body that is synthesizing climate information for policymakers and the public, reported methane global warming potentials under two scenarios:  the first, where climate carbon feedback is not accounted for the second, where it is.  The climate-carbon feedback factor refers to the fact that as carbon creates more warming, more greenhouse gas emissions are released.  For example, as permafrost melts, more methane is released from Arctic tundra.

Taking into account climate-carbon feedback (which is more reasonable and accurate given the very real feedback impacts of greenhouse gas-fueled warming), the IPCC reported in their most recent synthesis of climate science that methane’s global warming potential is 34 over a 100-year period and 86 over a 20-year period (you can download their report at climatechange2013.org at p. 714).  Below is the table showing the IPCC’s reported global warming potentials.

Global Warming Potential Over 20 Years Over 100 Years
Without Climate-Carbon Feedback

28

84

With Climate-Carbon Feedback

34

86

In spite of these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to assume that methane’s potency is only 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

For instance, in the agency’s latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks in the United States, which was released in April and presents 2012 data, they rely on a global warming potential of 21 (see their Executive Summary at p. ES-3).  In doing so, they report that coal mines and oil and gas operations (the fourth and first largest sources of methane in the U.S., respectively) release the equivalent of 222 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (total of 10.57 million metric tons of methane).

Yet, based on a global warming potential of 86, total carbon dioxide emissions due to methane from coal mines and oil and gas operations is actually more than 900 million metric tons, a more than four-fold difference.  

The table below shows the differences between EPA’s estimate of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from coal mines and oil and gas operations, based on the outdated global warming potential of 21,  and estimates based on the IPCC’s global warming potential factors.

Methane and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (in million metric tons) from oil and gas operations and coal mines, based on EPA’s 2012 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks, released in April 2014, and IPCC global warming potential factors.

methane and co2e emissions

What this shows is that the climate impacts of methane are being significantly underestimated, in turn giving the impression that methane emissions from coal mines and oil and gas sources are not significant sources of carbon.  In fact, just based on methane along, this data shows that oil and gas and coal mines are the fourth and fifth largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., right behind power plants, transportation, and industrial fossil fuel combustion.

Certainly, the Environmental Protection Agency has not outright discounted the significance of methane emissions from oil and gas operations, but they have refused to acknowledge that methane from coal mines is worthy of any agency attention.

And although the agency last fall officially raised the global warming potential of methane from 21 to 25, this is a far cry from reflecting the real short-term climate impacts of unchecked methane emissions.  Furthermore, in doing so, the agency rejected establishing a global warming potential based on a 20-year timeframe, essentially turning its back on the fact that methane’s climate impacts are more significant over the short-term, rather than the long-term.

By downplaying the climate impacts of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency is undermining the urgency that should be driving efforts to cut emissions of this potent greenhouse gas.  The result is that other federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management notable among them, continue to drag their feet in acknowledging the need for methane reductions and the cost of delaying action.

With President Obama himself calling for methane cuts nationwide, it’s critical that the Environmental Protection Agency get it right in curbing this potent climate threat.

Coal to Liquids = Climate Catastrophe

In the horror shop of unconventional fossil fuels, “coal to liquids” is one of the ugliest.  Yet here in the American West, this dirty energy monster might actually gain a foothold, a disturbing prospect for our climate and for the future clean energy.

If you haven’t heard of the concept of coal to liquids, that’s probably because it truly is as outlandish as it sounds.  Essentially, solid coal, which is mostly carbon, is converted to a hydrocarbon liquid like diesel or gasoline through a complex refinement.  Far from a simple conversion, the process requires immense amounts of energy, water, and chemicals.  Of course, when it’s all done, the liquid is simply burned.

Coal is already the dirtiest fossil fuel, but turning it to liquid for fuel is like creating a monster.  In fact, estimates indicate that coal to liquids is the most carbon intensive form of fuel production.  And in the face of renewables like wind and solar, which don’t require a carbon intensive refining process, aren’t burned, and don’t require water to produce, it’s laughable to think coal to liquids would remotely be considered a viable form of energy.

In spite of all this, the idea of coal to liquids has gained steam in Wyoming.  DKRW Energy, a Texas energy company, and Arch Coal have railroaded plans for a new coal to gasoline plant that would include two new coal mines, a new refinery, and a massive new industrial complex at the  foot of Elk Mountain, an iconic uplift skirted by Interstate 80.  Not surprisingly, in their apparent zeal to do anything for the coal industry, Wyoming officials have rubber-stamped DKRW and Arch’s plans.

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Coal to gasoline at the foot of Elk Mountain.

However, in what I can only describe as a prophetic sign of how outlandish the idea is in the first place, Wyoming’s green light hasn’t amounted to anything.  Not only has DKRW been unable to secure any legitimate financing for the project, Arch Coal recently announced an irretrievable $25 million loss over its investment in the project.  The lack of money has plagued the project with delays.

In fact, facing the potential withdrawal of a state issued permit for failure to construct, DKRW poured two concrete slabs on the site of its proposed plant.  Construction of these two slabs prompted the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council last fall to give DKRW 30 more months to start building in earnest.

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Two slabs to the wind.

Normally, one would reasonably view this all as a clear sign that a coal to gasoline boondoggle is not a viable prospect.  However, in Wyoming, DKRW’s utter and complete failings to date have actually and unbelievably prompted the state’s Congressional delegation to call on the Department of Energy to fund the project to the tune of $1.75 billion.

That’s nearly two billion hard-earned taxpayer dollars that Senators Mike Enzi and John Barasso and Representative Cynthia Lummis are demanding the Department of Energy pony up for a project that has done nothing but lose money so far and is so outlandish that it’s virtually toxic to the private sector.

And that’s saying nothing of the insane climate consequences that would follow should the Department of Energy’s funding come to fruition.

True, it seems too crazy to believe, but let’s not forget that the Department of Energy has already proposed to fund DKRW once (a proposal that thankfully fizzled) and is increasingly circumspect on the subject.

About the only voice of sanity throughout all of this has been that of Dr. Jason Lillegraven, a geologist, zoologist, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wyoming, and astute expert of the Rocky Mountain landscape.

As one of the most eloquent and outspoken critics of DKRW’s plans, Dr. Lillegraven has good reason to be concerned.  Sure, much of it is rooted in his scientific interest in the area, after all he’s spent years meticulously mapping its geology, discovering, for example, the existence, of several klippe (for all you non-geologists, read up on what a klippe is, I promise your life will be better for it!).  However, as he aptly explained in a recent op-ed, what DKRW has proposed is so riddled with holes, unanswered questions, and inadequate state scrutiny, that it’s simply offensive from the standpoint of a citizen to see it receive such serious consideration.

Put another way, it doesn’t take a geologist to know that DKRW’s plans are bats–t insane.

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A Rocky Mountain geologist, Dr. Jason Lillegraven, in his native habitat.

But the worst part of DKRW’s boondoggle is what it threatens to do to a remote, undeveloped, and incredibly beautiful Wyoming landscape.

Last week, I had the opportunity to tour this area with Dr. Lillegraven, who gave me both an outstanding geology lesson (it’s been a long time since I’ve used the terms “allochthonous” and “autochthonous” in conversation!) and a firsthand look at the nightmare this coal to liquids project could bring.

The area was stunning.  It contains some of the last best habitat for the imperiled sage grouse in Wyoming, miles of unimpeded views, clean water, and untrammeled high plains.  As much of Wyoming has succumbed to fossil fuel industrialization, including unchecked oil and gas drilling and coal mining, this area has become a critical vestige.

It’s the essence of what makes Wyoming such a beautiful state.  Sadly, it could all be lost.

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According to DKRW’s plans, a coal strip mine would be located in the foreground.

Coal to liquids isn’t yet a reality and if common sense prevails, it never will be.  However, with Wyoming politicians clamoring for the coal industry and a Department of Energy that seems to believe an “all of the above” approach to energy means embracing even the most monstrous fossil fuels, we’re certainly not in the clear yet.

Ultimately, if DKRW can get its foot through the door in Wyoming, there’s no telling what other horrible forms of carbon intensive energy will follow.  It behooves every American who wants a safe climate, real clean energy, and real government accountability to speak out against this insanity and keep the catastrophe at bay.

Stay tuned for more on this issue from WildEarth Guardians.

UPDATE:  In early August 2014, Guardians and several other groups sent a letter to the Department of Energy calling on the Secretary to 2014-8-5 Final Coalition Letter to DOE for its liquid coal boondoggle.  Last week, the Department responded with a DOE Response on DKRW.  Notably, the Department stated its commitment to ensuring that the loan guarantee program funds projects that “reduce the harmful emissions that contribute to climate change.”  We’ll see how things unfold, but the Department of Energy is true to its word that it will only fund projects that reduce carbon pollution, then it seems incredibly unlikely that DKRW will get its loan guarantee.

It’s About Time

That I posted something, yes.  The blog has been pretty dormant for a year or so now, but I’m going to try to pick things up again now and get the word out about what’s news in the American West when it comes to climate change.  And by the way, if you don’t already, follow me on Twitter @ClimateWest.

So what’s inspired this renewed commitment to the ClimateWest blog?  It was the news yesterday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally proposed to issue a long-overdue air pollution permit for the Bonanza coal-fired power plant in northeastern Utah.

This is big news.  The 500-megawatt Bonanza power plant, with its 600-foot tall smokestack, has for years avoided complying with basic clean air standards.  Located in the high desert of the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah, the plant’s owner, Deseret Power Cooperative, upgraded the plant to burn more coal in the early 2000’s.  More coal meant more pollution and under the Clean Air Act, that meant new emission controls were required to be installed.

Unfortunately, Deseret refused to install legally required pollution controls.  Even more unfortunate, at the time, the EPA condoned this.

WildEarth Guardians detailed these violations in a notice of intent to file suit against Deseret under the Clean Air Act in 2012.

The permit proposed yesterday will finally set things straight.  As EPA acknowledges, it made a mistake:

In carrying out our Title V permitting obligations, EPA has preliminarily determined that the PSD permit EPA issued in 2001 omitted certain PSD permitting requirements and that EPA failed to analyze and apply the PSD regulations correctly when issuing that permit. Among the requirements omitted was a Best Available Control Technology (BACT) analysis for NOx.

PSD refers to “Prevention of Significant Deterioration.”  It’s a key requirement of the Clean Air Act that says if you’re a big source of air pollution and you modify your facility and you increase your pollution, you’ve got to install best available pollution controls.  What EPA’s proposal means is that, finally, Deseret will finally install legally required clean air controls.

So how overdue is this action?  Technically, EPA was required to issue this permit in the early 1990’s, more than 20 years ago.  It was only after WildEarth Guardians sued the agency to compel them to meet their legal deadline that we have the proposal today.

It’s great news for clean air in the region.  While other coal-fired power plants in the west have had to make significant clean air upgrades, Bonanza has been given a free pass to pollute.  At long last, that’s slated to change.

And with clean air comes opportunity.  Facing the prospect of having to spend millions to upgrade the Bonanza plan, one has to honestly question whether Deseret is better off shuttering the plant and investing in cleaner, more affordable energy.

In the meantime, the proposed permit is out for public comment and the EPA has proposed a hearing in Fort Duchesne, Utah on June 3.  Stay tuned for more from WildEarth Guardians.

Bonanza Power Plant