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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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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