Taking Aim at Utah’s Coal Polluters

Last week, WildEarth Guardians joined the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association in calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finally clean up the Bonanza coal-fired power plant in northeastern Utah.  This latest volley comes on the heels of ongoing efforts to hold the power plant’s owner, Deseret Power Co-op, accountable after years of violating the Clean Air Act.

The Bonanza power plant is one of the last remaining coal-fired power plants in the American West to be retrofitted with up-to-date pollution controls.  Located in the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah, a region struggling with smog and other pollution, the plant is hammering local communities with foul emissions.  It’s also choking iconic landscapes with its haze, including nearby Dinosaur National Monument.  Not surprisingly, even the National Park Service has called out the Environmental Protection Agency for not doing more to clean up the plant.

Our message to the Environmental Protection Agency has been simple:  if the power plant can’t operate in compliance with our clean air laws, it shouldn’t be allowed to operate.  We’ll see if the agency follows through or if the Bonanza power plant will get another free pass to pollute.

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The Bonanza coal-fired power plant sports a 600-foot smokestack that rises ominously above the Uinta Basin. It’s the fourth largest source of carbon pollution in the state of Utah and every year fills the skies with tens of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals.

New Greenhouse Gas Data: Carbon Creeping Up and Methane Still Underestimated

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday released its annual report on greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s largest sources of pollution, revealing that we still have enormous progress to make in cutting carbon.

The big bombshell was that in 2013, greenhouse gas emissions actually increased.  That’s right, increased.  Not only that, but the increase was tied to increased coal burning.

It’s a shameful reminder of how the fossil fuel industry continues to dig our nation deeper into climate debt.  With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calling for a 40-70% reduction in carbon emissions below 2010 levels by mid-century, the last thing we need is an increase in emissions.  It underscores that the fossil fuel industry’s resistance to limiting its pollution needs to be countered more fiercely than ever if we have any hope of making progress.

This is especially the case with regards to methane.  Sure, the EPA yesterday hyped its claim that methane emissions from fracking have decreased 73% since 2011.  But as Bobby Magill at Climate Central noted, the agency’s report fails to fully account for methane leaks at oil and gas wells, which studies have found can approach 12% in some regions.

What’s more, EPA’s data relies on a faulty assumption that methane has a global warming potential of 25.  The global warming potential is a measure of how potent a greenhouse gas is compared to carbon.  Yet as we reported before, the latest findings from the IPCC indicate that over a 20-year timeframe, methane actually has a global warming potential of 86.

In other words, the world’s leading body of climate scientists say that one ton of methane equals 86 tons of carbon dioxide.

For EPA’s report, it means that estimates of carbon dioxide equivalency associated with methane are more than half a billion metric tons too low, an error of 70%.  The EPA may be correct that there was a reduction in methane since 2011, but with such grossly inaccurate emissions reported, it seems like the hole we’re trying to dig out of is just getting deeper (this is confirmed by the latest studies finding that more fracking for gas not only won’t reduce carbon emissions, but will also undermine renewable energy).

methane

Total methane emissions reported by EPA in 2013 and carbon dioxide equivalency based on a global warming potential of 25 and 86. The difference is more than half a billion tons of carbon.

Another bombshell is that underground coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.  The industry reported methane emissions equal to 41 million metric tons of carbon in 2013 (of course, with a global warming potential of 86, it would actually be more than 141 million metric tons).

coal mine

Coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.

No matter how you slice it, though, the data shows that coal mines are responsible for nearly 20% of all methane emissions in the U.S., a staggering figure.

In case you’re wondering, where these gassy coal mines are located, the majority are in Appalachia, but a few mines in the West–namely the San Juan mine in northwestern New Mexico, the Westridge mine in Utah, and Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in Colorado–made the top 20.  The top emitter, the Walter Energy mine in Alabama, reportedly released nearly 5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.  That’s more than an average coal-fired power plant.   Here’s the full list of gassy mines >>  

More than anything, the latest greenhouse gas reporting data confirms that we can’t afford to delay carbon reductions.  It’s why last week, WildEarth Guardians joined a coalition of organizations in calling on the Obama Administration to stay firm in its commitment to curtail methane from oil and gas operations, and it’s why we’re digging in more aggressively than ever on our challenges to more coal mining and burning, and more fracking, in the American West.

We have major challenges ahead, but also major opportunities.  It’s time to step it up.

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The San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico is fueled by the San Juan coal mine, one of the top emitters of coal mine methane in the United States. WildEarth Guardians just filed an opening brief in federal court to stop an expansion of this mine.

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.

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 100 Years Over 20 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.

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

 

UPDATE:  Unfortunately, EPA changed course when issuing the final permit for the Bonanza plant, eliminating any requirement that Deseret comply with the Clean Air Act.  Instead, EPA embarked upon a separate process to issue a “corrected” PSD permit, with no deadline for final action and no promise of real accountability.  On January 7, 2015, WildEarth Guardians appealed the EPA’s latest permitting decision to the Environmental Appeals Board.

Greed Trumps Clean Energy at PNM

At last, the truth is coming out.

PNM is fighting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to clean up the company’s coal-fired San Juan Generating Station not because they want to protect ratepayers and not because they have a better plan.

It’s because they don’t have any money.

In a motion asking the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to put the brakes on the EPA’s clean up plan, the company, which is New Mexico’s largest utility, stated that it “does not have sufficient internally generated cash flow to pay for the SCR project and will have to raise substantial funding for it in the capital markets.”

In other words, their pockets are empty.  And to pay to clean up the San Juan Generating Station’s air pollution would require fundraising in capital markets.

Now normally, that wouldn’t be a problem for a big utility, especially one that’s a regulated monopoly, like PNM.  Remember, under New Mexico law, the company is guaranteed to recover a reasonable rate of return from its customers, which makes it a “can’t lose” investment.

Except, somehow, investments in PNM are losing.

In testimony submitted to the 10th Circuit, PNM treasurer, Terry Horn, explained not only that “Standard and Poor’s currently rates PNM as below investment grade” but also that “PNM Resource, Inc. common stock trades well below its book value.”

Put another way, the company’s credit is in the pits, meaning the market has no faith that investments in PNM will pay off as expected.  As a result, the cost of acquiring new capital to pay for clean air retrofits promises to be enormous.

As if that wasn’t enough, PNM’s ability to recover the costs of financing the clean air retrofits would be questionable, at best.  Under New Mexico law, the company can only recover costs that are “reasonable and prudent.”  By any measure, it’s difficult to believe that exorbitant finance costs stemming from the company’s poor credit would be considered “reasonable and prudent.”

In the end, PNM’s shareholders will have to absorb the finance costs and possibly more.  It’s no wonder the company is freaked out.

Unfortunately, instead of coming clean with its financial predicament, PNM is resorting to greedy desperation.  Like attacking the EPA’s clean air plan.  And worse, they’re working to pass legislation that would impose a “non-bypassable surcharge” on New Mexico ratepayers, a scheme that would essentially force ratepayers to cover the costs of cleaning up the San Juan Generating Station, regardless of whether those costs are reasonable and prudent.

Worst of all, though, now they’re accusing the concerned public of being liars.

Case in point is a letter that PNM’s Executive Director for Environmental Services, Maureen Gannon, sent to WildEarth Guardians the day before Thanksgiving.

In the letter, PNM accuses WildEarth Guardians of being inaccurate.  What are these inaccuracies, you might ask?  Let’s take a look:

  • PNM claims that WildEarth Guardians is inaccurate in asserting that the “only alternative offered by PNM is to continue operating the plant as is with nominal pollution controls.”  Yet according to the numbers, this statement is not inaccurate.  PNM spurred the State of New Mexico to adopt a plan that would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by only 17%, whereas the EPA’s plan would reduce emissions by 83% (the baseline nitrogen oxide emission rate for the power plant is 0.28 pounds per million Btus—the EPA’s plan would reduce that rate to 0.05 pounds per million Btus whereas PNM’s pla would reduce that rate to only 0.23 pounds per million Btus).

I suppose “nominal” is in the eyes of the beholder, but a 17% compared to an 83% reduction in harmful emissions seems to speak for itself.

  • PNM further claims that WildEarth Guardians is inaccurate in asserting that “PNM has proposed to force ratepayers to cover the full costs of air pollution controls without determining whether such costs are reasonable and prudent,” which is interesting because, as mentioned, the company has proposed a scheme to foist a a non-bypassable surcharge upon ratepayers to cover the costs of the clean up.
  • Most significantly, PNM also takes issue with modeling showing that the San Juan Generating Station contributes to 33 premature deaths at a cost of more than $250 million annually.  The company is referring to a Clean Air Task Force report that modeled the health risks of coal-fired power plants throughout the country using the same methodologies used by the EPA to estimate the health costs of benefits of major clean air regulations.

PNM may disagree with the methods used by health and environmental regulators to estimate costs and benefits, but that doesn’t mean the modeling is flawed.  And it certainly does not mean there are no health risks from the San Juan Generating Station, as the company asserts.

Sadly, rather than face the truth, it’s just more hot air from PNM.

Despite their claims of inaccuracies, their claims that they are looking out for ratepayers, and their claims that their plan is somehow better than the EPA’s, PNM can’t hide the fact that it cares more about making money than about protecting clean air, public health, and our environment from the coal burning San Juan Generating Station.

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Fracking vs. Clean Air: Hearings Wrap-up

The EPA this week held public hearings on a proposal to ratchet up protection for public health and welfare in the face of oil and gas drilling.  In Pittsburgh, Denver, and today in Dallas, the message was resounding:  The EPA’s rules promise less air pollution, greater savings for industry, and increased scrutiny on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking.

It’s good news given that every year, 25,000 oil and gas wells are fracked, leading to huge amounts of toxic air pollution.  Even in cities like Denver and Dallas, oil and gas drilling releases more smog forming compounds than cars and trucks.  And in rural communities like Pinedale, Wyoming, oil and gas drilling is fueling smog levels higher than Los Angeles.

Even industry commented that it wasn’t opposed to the EPA’s proposal.  That’s a welcome change from the knee jerk opposition to any regulations normally espoused by organizations like the American Petroleum Institute.

And although industry is calling for an extension of the comment period and a delay in adopting the final rules, it’s wishful thinking.  Under the terms of a consent decree with WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the EPA has to finalize the rules by the end of next February.

The delay is especially uncalled for given increasing signs that ramped up drilling is taking a tremendous toll on public health.

Earthjustice‘s billboard made the rounds in downtown Denver on Wednesday.