More Gas Pains on the Climate Front

A new study slated to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research reports that natural gas producers in the Denver-Julesberg Basin north of Denver are losing 4% of their gas to the air because of leaks and venting.

That lost gas is primarily methane (and a bit of other harmful pollutants, including volatile organic compounds, which contribute to Denver’s smog problem), which of course is not only a valuable product, but a potent greenhouse gas.

How potent?  It depends on the time frame.  Over a 20 year period, in other words the “short-term,” scientists report that methane has 105 times the heat trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.  In the “long-term,” or over 100 years, methane is 33 times more potent than carbon dioxide (this is because methane breaks down over time in the atmosphere, so after 100 years, is less potent).

So what does 4% mean in terms of actual greenhouse gas emissions?  Well, just looking  at Weld County, which is where the bulk of natural gas development has occurred in the Denver-Julesberg Basin, total production in 2011 was 212,958,693 thousand cubic feet according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, most of it methane.

4% of 212,958,693 thousand cubic feet is 8,518,347 thousand cubic feet.   And using the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy online methane converter, we can calculate that 8,518,347 thousand cubic feet equals 361,689,000 pounds, or 180,840 tons.

Now, greenhouse gases are usually measured in metric tons.  So again, using EPA’s handy converter, we can calculate that 180,840 tons of methane equals 164,056 metric tons.  That means that just in Weld County, the heart of the Denver-Julesberg Basin, natural gas producers are losing 164,056 metric tons of methane annually.

From a greenhouse gas standpoint, 164,056 metric tons of methane has the same impact as 17,225,880 metric tons of carbon dioxide, at least when considered over a 20 year period.  Over a 100 year period, it would equal 5,413,848 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Regardless of whether one looks at the 20-year or 100-year time-frame, that’s a lot of greenhouse gases.

According to another one of EPA’s handy online calculators, 17,225,880 metric tons of carbon dioxide is the same amount released annually by 3,377,624 passenger vehicles (check out the chart below).

In other words, losing 4% of all produced gas every year in the Denver-Julesberg Basin is like adding more than 3 million vehicles to the road.  That’s a potent punch to the climate.

Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas production in Denver-Julesberg Basin and equivalent number of passenger vehicles.

Of course, this is based on natural gas production just in Weld County.  And, as the authors of this latest article point out, their estimates of lost gas don’t include “additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system.”

Is this an indictment of natural gas?  Certainly not.  But it continues to undermine its reputation as a cleaner alternative to coal, or a “bridge” to renewable energy.  It also emphasizes that the greenhouse gas footprint of this “cleaner” fuel may be stomping out the very progress we need to be making in the fight against global warming.

Wasted Opportunity

I wrote previously on Xcel Energy’s plans to lock into long-term coal contracts for coal that, well, didn’t seem to exist.

Well, the hype continues.  Most recently, Peabody Energy announced plans to invest $200 million to move its Twentymile coal mining operations in northwestern Colorado to the new Sage Creek coal, which boosters claim will produce 12 million tons of new coal a year. Of course, this would make it the biggest coal mine ever in Colorado, which is surprising given that according to U.S. Energy Information Administration coal production reports, no mine in the State has ever produced more than 10 million tons annually.

According to both Peabody and Xcel, the new coal investment will fuel long-term contracts for 40 million tons of coal from the Sage Creek mine to keep the Hayden coal-fired power plant in northwestern Colorado burning for 16 years.

Putting aside the hyperbole, though, including the fact that Peabody still doesn’t have its crucial federal coal lease to ensure its long-term supply, all I can say is, really?

Both Xcel and Peabody are digging in, literally, in what has to be one of the most backward investments in the U.S. right now.  Just in terms of air impacts, economists are saying that coal-fired electricity costs us up to more than 5 times the value that it provides.  And the trend for coal right now?  To paraphrase The Economist, it’s not good.

And as I wrote before, even Xcel admits that so far to date, coal costs for the Hayden plant have climbed by 70%.  This is on top of the $170 million the company and the other owners of the plant intend to spend on clean air retrofits at Hayden.  Even then, the company plans to shutter half of Hayden by 2025 and the other half by 2036.

It’s an admirable goal of retrofitting the plant with up-to-date pollution controls.  But with costs and uncertainty mounting, the only thing that seems certain is that this investment is fast becoming a toxic asset.

Even Peabody seems to be hedging its bets, claiming that coal from Sage Creek will also fuel exports to Europe.  So much for homegrown energy.

Xcel claims that retrofitting Hayden, in other words making its coal plant cleaner, is the lowest cost alternative for meeting Clean Air Act.  Yet at the same time, the company is distancing itself from renewable energy development.  This is the epitome of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Despite all the hype, the signs aren’t good for Sage Creek and the Hayden power plant.  Peabody and Xcel can justify millions in short-term coal investments all they want, but in the end, it seems like wasted money and wasted opportunity.

The Sage Creek coal mine area near Hayden, Colorado (photo by John F. Russell).

Coal Continues to Take Ugly Center Stage in West

Yes, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline for now, giving us some hope that perhaps our government might be able to make the hard decisions needed to confront global warming and move beyond fossil fuels.

But then again, it’s hard to see this as real progress when the overall challenge we face seems to show no sign of diminishing anytime soon.  I’m talking about coal, of course, which as the EPA noted last week, continues to be the number one contributor to global warming in the U.S.

Here in the West, the challenge of coal seems to be mounting almost daily, with the industry digging in, literally, to keep mining and burning.  Just in the last two weeks, WildEarth Guardians has played defense on a number of new proposals, including:

Of course, there are some good signs here and there.  The latest Energy Information Administration electricity monthly report confirms that in 2011, all of Colorado’s new electricity generators were wind and solar, while all of the state’s retired generators were coal.  The retirement was a 100 megawatt coal-fired boiler at Xcel Energy’s Cherokee power plant in North Denver, which was spurred by the State’s Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act.

At the same time, however, a good friend of mine, Leslie Glustrom with Clean Energy Action, pointed out that although 16 gigawatts of new wind generation in Colorado are in the “queue,” all of it has been put on hold by Xcel until 2028.  And while the company intends to take 1,268 megawatts of coal-fired capacity offline by 2017, the company has also been seeking rate increases to keep 2,229 megawatts of coal-fired capacity operating to 2035 and beyond.

Adding to this, the company intends to repower some of its coal-fired power plants, including Cherokee and Arapahoe, both in Denver, with natural gas, yet another fossil fuel.

I’ve already pointed out the dangers of simply replacing coal with natural gas in Colorado.

We’ve beat back the XL pipeline, but in the end, it seems like we’re being beat back even more by one coal project after the next here in the West.  It doesn’t help that the Obama Administration continues to make excuses for endorsing ramped up coal mining in the Powder River Basin and elsewhere in the West.

So let’s savor the setback of tar sands, but not forget that unless and until we can rein in coal, especially in the West, our progress is fleeting, at best.

4115934072_a7ae06578f_b

In 2009, WildEarth Guardians called on Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to stop clowning around when it comes to confronting climate change and power past coal.  It’s high time to call on President Obama and others to do the same.

Fixing a Fossil Fuel Fiasco in the Forest

Amidst all the well-founded uproar over the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to lease 30,000 acres of the North Fork Valley of western Colorado for oil and gas drilling, WildEarth Guardians has taken aim at another fossil fuel fiasco: an expansion of one of Colorado’s largest coal mines.

In an appeal filed late last week with the help of Earthjustice attorney extraordinnaire, Ted Zukoski, we joined a host of other groups in challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s November decision to allow Arch Coal to expand its West Elk coal mine.

There’s nothing good to be said about this coal mine expansion. Not only does it authorize the drilling of 48 methane drainage wells and the venting of 7.5 million cubic feet of natural gas daily, but it allows these wells to be drilled on 1,700 acres of the Sunset Trail Roadless Area, effectively disqualifying the 5,880 acre area from any future protection.

Although the decision authorizes the expansion of an underground coal mine, what it literally authorizes is the drilling of a natural gas field in a beautifully undisturbed and ecologically valuable forest (not familiar with the impacts of methane drainage wells? check out some pictures here).

It’s government waste and disregard at its worst. And the Forest Service has not only defended its decision, it’s overtly insulted anyone who would dare oppose the proposal.

But what’s really disappointing is the duplicity. That while the Forest Service readily admits and recognizes that climate change is a major threat to our nation’s forests, it eagerly approved this latest coal lease modification even though it will inevitably lead to the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Their decision authorize the mining of 10.1 million tons of coal, which when burned will release more than 15 million tons of carbon dioxide. On top of that, the Forest Service estimates the inevitable methane venting will release the equivalent of more than 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

The Forest Service’s response to all of this? Unbelievably, it’s to blame you and me. Read for yourself the Agency’s attempt to explain that the CO2 created by breathing and computer use somehow release more carbon dioxide methane venting and coal combustion authorized by their decision:

A comment was received asking for meaningful equivalents of the greenhouse gases released. For comparison with this amount of coal mined, each person exhales about 0.36 tonnes of CO2 per year and an average automobile releases about 5 to 8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. The amount of CO2 emissions from sending 32,002 email form letters on this project based on average energy (generated by coal) used by computers (and assuming their owners only had their computer on for 1 hour) and the agencies having to access, file and make them part of the project record is anywhere from 9-66 tonnes of CO2 released. However we know this is unrealistic, most of us have the computer on for 8 hours per day, up to 365 days per year. This would result in CO2 emissions from these 32,002 individuals of 26,280-192,720 tonnes per year. We’ll also assume that these people drive to work or have at least one vehicle per household for another 160,000-256,016 tonnes per year and that they are in fact breathing for another 11,521 tonnes per year. These individuals have released 171,521-460,257 tonnes of CO2 emissions in a year which is more than the methane equivalent of mining coal in the E Seam for the same period of time (see the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment at page 51).

So much for logic and reason at the Forest Service. In the meantime, we can only hope that more level-headed minds will set the Agency straight here.

And who knows, maybe someday we can all turn off our computers and breathe easier knowing our Forest Service is actually confronting global warming, not making it worse.

sunset_trail02

Turning off my computer will apparently save the Sunset Trail Roadless Area. Keeping the area from being drilled for methane venting is probably more likely to save the area.

ClimateWest Podcast: Thank you Western Colorado Jobs Alliance!

Listen to the latest ClimateWest podcast by WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols.  Click below:

In this ClimateWest podcast, we give thanks to the Western Colorado Jobs Alliance and their success in bringing the name and work of WildEarth Guardians to so many in Colorado.  Despite their efforts to foment ire (and some pretty nasty phone calls) against WildEarth Guardians, their effort has actually led to more supportive calls, more donations, and more members.

Sure, we’ve gotten some angry phone calls that would make our grandmothers blush, but on the whole, wow.  We couldn’t have done more to get our work and our name out to so many people!

Check out their latest ad below, which we’ve heard has been running throughout Colorado, and you’ll see why so many people have responded by saying “Keep it up, WildEarth Guardians!”

Thank you to all who have taken the time to connect with WildEarth Guardians.  Your supportive calls mean more than you could ever imagine.

Listen and enjoy (and share with your grandmother, she’d definitely appreciate this more than she would some of the other messages we’ve received)!

The Forest Service Still Doesn’t Care (An Update and Lament)

I wrote last week about the Forest Service’s less than friendly response to public comments over a proposal to expand coal mining into western Colorado’s Sunset Trail Roadless Area.

As an update, the Forest Service did post an “edited” version of its response to comments on its website.  Amazingly though, many of the same snarky responses are still there (see p. 160, for example, where the Forest Service still tells the hunter to go take a hike).

As far as an apology, however, it appears as if the public shouldn’t expect the Forest Service to offer that any time soon.  Although the agency was kind enough to apologize for the “confusion,” they only described their nasty responses as “regrettable,” but apparently not worthy of an apology.

So it goes for an agency that seems hellbent on catering to big coal companies throughout the American West.  Not only is the Forest Service bending over backward to sacrifice undeveloped National Forest lands in western Colorado for more coal mining, but now they’re also signing off on coal strip mining in the Thunder Basin National Grassland of Wyoming.

That’s why WildEarth Guardians, with the help of students at the the University of Colorado Law School Natural Resources Clinic, today filed suit against the Forest Service, challenging the “South Porcupine” coal lease.  This lease would facilitate the expansion of Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine, one of the largest coal mines in the world, in turn sacrificing 2,000 acres of the Thunder Basin National Grassland and leading to more than 500 million tons of carbon dioxide.

That’s on top of the more than 11.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide threatened by pending coal leases in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, which is where the Thunder Basin National Grassland is located.

And this from an agency that’s charged first and foremost with protecting public lands, not developing coal.

Insulting comments from the Forest Service are discouraging, but what’s more discouraging is an agency that puts the interests of coal companies ahead of our climate and our public lands.

100_3250Bear claw scratches on aspen in the Sunset Trail Roadless Area of Western Colorado.  Click here for more pictures of Sunset Trail.

No Thank You for your Comment

[Editor's Note:  Read the latest ClimateWest update on this post here.]

It’s bad enough the U.S. Forest Service has greenlighted the expansion of a western Colorado coal mine into an undeveloped roadless area, now the Agency is lobbing contemptuous insults at the public.

Take this gem of a response from the Forest Service to somebody who expressed concerns that the, “Lease modification area is one of the best deer and elk hunting areas and would be destroyed by mining coal”:

Fall big game hunting season opportunities don‘t exactly scream of protecting deer or elk habitat as they are being chased out of it. We also believe that if you‘ve hunted this area, you‘ve probably accessed it using roads or trails associated with coal exploration or mining.

In other words, Mr. Public, the Forest Service could care less about your hunting concerns.

The venomous responses were published on pages 151-167 of an Environmental Assessment posted online on November 8 in which the Agency justified its decision to allow Arch coal to expand its West Elk coal mine into the Sunset Trail roadless area. And although the mine is underground, to get the coal, Arch plans to construct 6.5 miles of new road and 48 methane drainage drainage wells.

What is a methane drainage well? It’s basically a natural gas well, except that all the gas that these wells produce is just blown into the air. In other words, to get the coal, they first need to punch a natural gas well field into the Sunset Trail roadless area.

To say the least, the damage is a disgraceful use of public lands, especially considering the waste. Every year, the West Elk coal mine vents 7 million cubic feet of methane daily, enough to heat 34,000 homes a year. To really visualize the problem, check out our pictures of methane venting going on right now above the West Elk mine.

To boot, methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Over a 20 year period, it has 56 times the heat trapping ability of carbon dioxide. So 7 million cubic feet of methane? That’s actually equal to 3.04 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, the same amount released by 540,324 passengers vehicles (according to the EPA’s handy greenhouse gas converter).

The proposal rightfully drew critical comments from the public, such as this:

Blithely allowing coal mine expansion in one of our few remaining roadless areas…will thoughtlessly damage a pristine area just so King Coal can make another buck, at a time when man-made climate change due to burning such filthy fossil fuel is patently obvious and should be avoided at all cost. Such thoughtless action would also promote polluting coal when America needs to be building a clean energy economy ASAP. The American people are sick of being put at risk just so greedy and dirty industries can do whatever they please to turn an outrageous profit at our planet’s expense.

And the Forest Service’s response? Well, read for yourself:

Well, Ms. Jones, unfortunately the American people love their inexpensive, reliable electricity. The Forest Service also receives nominations for lease for other forms of energy development for which you too are able to apply. Many of these will require commitments of land in Roadless because that is where the water, wind, and geothermal resources exist and which will also have effects on local climate, fish, and wildlife, and include powerlines, ancillary development facilities, and roads. Unless you live and work offthe-grid, please cut your total power consumption by 49.61% immediately (US EPA’s estimate of power generated by coal). After all, these efforts begin at home. We’ll worry about the thousands of years of radio-active waste from your home state’s nuclear power generation and mining activities on federal lands required to support it in your next modified form-letter comment.

All I can say is, wow. You can agree or disagree with person who commented, but for this kind of flippant response to come from a federal agency charged with managing public resources is a bit out of line.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. Take these comments and responses–some snarky and some downright mean, which are quoted verbatim from the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment:

Comment from Member of Public

Response from U.S. Forest Service

Coal is filthy and dangerous. (p. 163) Coal mining is dangerous, there‘s no doubt about that.
Enough of Colorado‘s great wilderness has already been bulldozed, detonated, mined, grazed, and plowed. (p. 165) This area is not wilderness. Additionally, it was not brought forward as an area to be considered for further planning for wilderness as long as 32 years ago. Sorry to burst your bubble, this area has also been grazed for a century or more.
We are destroying more oxygenmaking forests to produce carbon dioxide making coal. (p. 164) Might be true if the aspen in the lease area weren’t dead or dying anyway.
Shouldn’t we be turning to cleaner forms of energy? (p. 164) Probably. No Forest Service issue.
I demand you stop playing lap dog to any individual, group of corporation that seeks profit from public land use when you know such use will damage the natural resources of my land. You sicken me Richmond! If you wish to stay out of court read: …With great disrespect. (p. 166) Mr. Artley, as a retired Forest Service employee, you know the mission of the agency is multiple use and that we consider issues from multiple perspectives. Congress, not the Forest Service, mandates consideration of energy development on federal lands which is in the “interest of the United States”. We also notice that the comments you’ve submitted are not necessarily in line with either Wild Earth Guardians or NRDC whose websites you used to submit two of the three of yours. Your issues seem to be of a personal or positional nature with the Forest Service and do not reflect issues specific to the lease modification parcels at hand.
Do you people do anything but sit at your desk taking orders from industry?? How is it that you don’t seem to have any say, will power, direction about protecting our public lands from thieves, muggers and greedheads that spell out “megacorporations”? (p. 167) We spend about 80% of our time implementing policy and maintaining the balancing act which is the Forest Service’s multiple use management goals and minerals management policy (this includes both desk time and field time). The other 20% is spent sitting at our desks responding to snarky rhetorical questions and comments from environmental and special interest groups.

Now could some of these public comments have been more constructive? Certainly, but that’s no excuse for the Forest Service to respond like this, especially given the significance of this latest coal decision.

And especially given that the Chief of the Forest Service himself has recognized that climate change is a significant threat to our National Forests, the Agency’s contempt of the public in this case is, to say the least, worrisome.

Perhaps these comment responses are just a cynical office joke that got a little too far outside the office. Perhaps. But perhaps they’re also a sign of the Forest Service’s real feelings about the public and their concerns over the future of their National Forest lands and resources.

Either way, it’s a shame. The public deserves an apology, but more importantly, they deserve better stewards than this.