The American West, Fueling Global Warming

In case you haven’t seen it, High Country News shows us the link between the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the United States and the American West. Check out the image below, and click on it to visit their website and learn more.

The irony in all this? As High Country News explains:

And though our region’s inhabitants feel fewer of the impacts of burning it, we’re not in the clear: Already-arid Western regions will become disproportionally drier than the more verdant East as a result of climate change.

Even more ironic is that American West has the greatest potential for renewable energy development in the nation (just check out our solar potential).

I like to look at it as an opportunity, though. It’s not often the source of such a big problem holds both the greatest incentive to solve the it and the tools to actually solve it. That’s a recipe for big and bold change. Only question is, will the West rise to the challenge? From my perspective, we can’t afford not to.

On Winners, Losers, and All of the Above

After the President’s State of the Union address and his call for an “all of the above” energy policy (actually, to quote, “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy”), I tweeted:

 

I wasn’t kidding.  This “all of the above” approach to energy policy makes me cringe.  It’s a baseless and believes by mixing everything together, somehow we’ll come out with the best of everything on the other end.

The problem is, by mixing everything together, we rarely come out with anything good in the end (pancakes and sausage on a stick, anyone?).

And in the case of our energy, there’s a good reason for this.   It’s because an “all of the above” energy policy includes all of the worst kinds energy.   While my son mixing his sodas is gross, yet cute, an “all of the above” energy policy is downright disturbing.

Take coal, for example, which as I wrote before, actually costs our society more than the benefits it provides.

Or take natural gas, which scientists are increasingly finding can release significant amounts of greenhouse gases, to say the least about the water and air contamination it can cause.

And off-shore drilling?  Really?

I suppose “all of the above” makes for a good slogan.  Yet energy policy based on sloganeering is reckless.  It’s about as wise as making health care policy based on which pharmaceutical company has the hippest name for their prescription drugs.  That’s insane.

Which is the real problem here, that the President’s energy policy isn’t based on any rational assessment of what sources of energy really are good for our society.  It’s pure political pandering.

Sure, some would say that we shouldn’t pick winners and losers when it comes to our energy portfolio, but that’s absurd.  It’s like saying we shouldn’t pick winners and losers when dating.  Of course we should pick winners and losers, especially when it comes to something as important as our energy (or long-term relationships, for that matter).

In fact, I’ll take the liberty and help the President out here.  Below, I pick our nation’s energy winners and losers.  Simple enough.

Winners

Losers

Non-fossil fuels (e.g., wind solar, efficiency, conservation)

Fossil Fuels (e.g., coal, oil, oil shale, natural gas)

Tongue in cheek aside, I get that it’s laudable to want to keep all options on the able.  It’s like trying to spend a Friday night hanging out with friends at the bar and going out on a date.  Laudable, perhaps.  But perhaps not wise.

But what’s really bad about the President’s call for an “all-out, all-of-the-above” approach to energy development is that his Administration can’t even live up to this messed up ideal.

Take the latest decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to auction off more than 467 million tons of coal in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, which produces 43% of the nation’s coal.  That brings the total amount of Powder River Basin coal recently auctioned or slated to be auctioned by the BLM to more than 6.8 billion tons.

Even though the President was recently in Denver pushing for 10 gigawatts of renewable energy development on public lands, the amount of coal slated to be mined in the Powder River Basin would be enough to power 100 gigawatts–10 times that amount–for nearly 25 years (an average 500 MW plant burns 1,430,000 tons of coal annually).

That’s on top of the fact that every mine in the Powder River Basin already has around 10 years of reserves to mine through.  Basically, under the Obama Administration, we’re being locked into another lifetime of coal.

Putting aside the grossness of an “all of the above” energy policy, it ultimately just seems to be a euphemism for “fossil fuels above all else.”  This isn’t an energy policy, it’s business as usual.

It’s time to pick winners.  And it’s time to embrace an energy policy that includes all the best sources energy.  President Obama can start by finally saying enough to this country’s destructive dependence on fossil fuels.

Unbelievably, in the wake of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, President Obama has actually called for more off-shore drilling.

Colorado’s Impending Climate Catastrophe

It seemed reasonable and achievable when announced by former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter in 2007.  For the state to do its part to confront climate change, greenhouse gas emissions had to be cut 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

Unfortunately, meeting this modest goal is facing considerable hurdles in Colorado.  What’s even more unfortunate is that those hurdles seem to be coming from our new Governor, John Hickenlooper, who appears poised to hand the fate of our energy future (or at least 2/3 of it) over to the fossil fuel industry.

Here’s the scoop.  The Governor recently announced his goals for the Governor’s Energy Office.  Among them:

To develop and deliver a plan for a balanced energy portfolio.
Through a stakeholder engagement process, we will work to develop an energy portfolio to promote sustainable economic development by advancing the State’s energy market and industry, folding the New Energy Economy into a Balanced Energy Portfolio of 1/3 coal, 1/3 natural gas, and 1/3 renewable energy.

In other words, Governor Hickenlooper intends to literally divvy up Colorado’s energy future like a pie, with equals parts going to coal, natural gas, and renewables.

It seems very Solomon-like, proposing to split the baby three ways like this.  But remember, King Solomon never actually split the baby.  He simply wanted to find a solution.

In this case, Hickenlooper’s idea of a “balanced” energy portfolio would be a disaster, both for advancing clean energy and meeting our greenhouse gas reduction targets.  It would effectively cap renewable energy development and sustain coal and natural gas at levels that would prevent meaningful progress toward reducing greenhouse gases.

Consider that according to the Governor’s Energy Office, coal already provides 56.7% of our total electricity.  Lowering that to 33% amounts to a 42% reduction in coal-fired electricity in Colorado.


And coal-fired electricity generation is already the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado.  The most recent inventory shows that by 2020, emissions are expected to reach 44.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.  Roughly speaking, a 42% reduction in coal could mean an 18 million metric ton reduction in 2020 carbon dioxide levels.

Of course, that doesn’t consider the natural gas increase.  The bump from 27 to 33% would amount to a 22% increase in gas.  And while natural gas doesn’t release as much carbon dioxide as coal, by 2020 gas-fired electricity is still projected to release 5.8 tons of carbon dioxide.  A 22% increase bumps that up to a little more than 7 million metric tons.

So in total, we’re looking at a reduction of possibly (and roughly) around 17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in Colorado.  Now, a reduction is great, but consider that to meet our goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20% below 2005 levels by 2020, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization recently reported in its Colorado Climate Scorecard that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 54.6 million tons.

Obviously, 17 million is far short of the 54.6 million tons of greenhouse gases we need to cut just to meet our modest, near-term goal by 2020.  It also means we have little hope of meeting our 80% greenhouse gas reduction goal by 2050.

Now admittedly, this is all back of the envelope calculation, but it raises serious questions over the wisdom of Governor Hickenlooper’s vision of a “balanced” energy plan.  Clearly, when it comes to meeting our climate imperative, a 2/3 giveaway to the fossil fuel industry is about as imbalanced as it gets.  It really underscores the fact that the metrics used to develop a “balanced” energy plan can’t be as simple as divvying up a pie.  After all, if our goal is ultimately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, then a three-way split is probably the worst thing we could lock ourselves into.

Some will say Hickenlooper is just being pragmatic.  Yet being pragmatic means coming up with real solutions that both address our need for a smooth transition to cleaner energy and our need to combat global warming.  Sadly, Hickenlooper’s “pragmatism” in reality just seems to be another sign of political interference on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.

Just take his latest factually questionable pandering to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association a few weeks ago.  And let’s not forget what may be one of his most unnerving flip flops on global warming.  While schmoozing the coal industry, he purposefully distanced himself from climate science to appease his audience.  This, despite acknowledging during his campaign that:

In addition to carbon pollution’s causal connection to climate change — with all the potentially devastating impacts on our global environment — we also face challenges in Colorado, where warmer winters have led to the bark beetle infestation of our forests. That’s one reason I was proud to attend the international conference on climate change in Copenhagen.

He usually laughs it off, making some comment like, “Somehow I generally manage to get both sides upset.”  But he’s got it wrong.  He’s not making both sides upset.  He’s making policy calls that give the fossil fuel industry dominance over our energy portfolio at the expense of meeting our climate goals.

He can laugh off his pandering and flip-flops all he wants, but the metrics that matter are a stinging indictment.

And I’m not alone in pointing out that reducing carbon dioxide is what really matters.  Just take this recent (and frankly surprising) quote from Dick Kelly, the outgoing leader of Xcel:

I’d be OK if there were never any more coal….We have a problem with CO2.  The science is done. It is clear that CO2 is not good.

And while it’s true that Kelly believes that we may be able to clean up coal at some point (which I have some differences with), his statements are certainly enlightening and on-point.  I adamantly disagree with Dick Kelly’s leadership past at Xcel Energy, but I can’t deny that statements like this are exactly the kind of leadership we need right now.

Unfortunately, the only leadership Hickenlooper seems to be showing is his willingness to ensure Colorado never meets its 20% or its 80% greenhouse gas reduction target.  The 2/3 giveaway to the fossil fuel industry is a catastrophe in the making for Colorado.  Hickenlooper would do well to stick to science and common sense as he charts our energy future here in Colorado.

Hell, maybe he should tap Dick Kelly to head the Governor’s Energy Office.