Environment: Mercury deposition increasing in West and Midwest

Summit County Citizens Voice

asf Mercury emissions from power plants are a global issue.

Asia’s power plants affect U.S. environment

Staff Report

Mercury levels in precipitation are increasing in the central U.S. but steadily dropping along the East Coast, scientists reported in a new study.

The findings suggest that mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants in Asia are on the rise, while they are decreasing in North America, according to Peter Weiss-Penzias, an environmental toxicologist at UC Santa Cruz who was the lead author of the study.

Mercury is a toxic element released into the environment through a variety of human activities, including the burning of coal, as well as by natural processes. Rainfall washes mercury out of the atmosphere and into soils and surface waters. Bacteria convert elemental mercury into a more toxic form, methyl mercury, which becomes increasingly concentrated in organisms higher up the food chain. Mercury concentrations in some predatory fish are…

View original post 481 more words

#ClimateChange: Carbondale carbon tax — The Mountain Town News

Carbondale is a town of 6,500 people located 30 miles west of Aspen. That’s Mt. Sopris, Colorado’s loveliest mountain, in the background. Photo source/Wikipedia - See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/01/15/carbondale-carbon-tax/#sthash.tUbLVIZh.dpuf
Carbondale is a town of 6,500 people located 30 miles west of Aspen. That’s Mt. Sopris, Colorado’s loveliest mountain, in the background. Photo source/Wikipedia – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/01/15/carbondale-carbon-tax/#sthash.tUbLVIZh.dpuf

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Carbondale proposes to levy tax on carbon in electric, heat bills

Although one resident has called it ridiculous, residents in Carbondale in April will decide whether to adopt a carbon tax. If approved by voters in the town of 6,500 people, it would be among just a handful of municipal carbon taxes in the United States.

Proponents estimate that the tax would add an estimated $5 to $7 per month to the utility bill of an average home and $20 to $40 for an average business. It would not apply to sale of gasoline.

Under the plan approved by town trustees on Wednesday, revenue would be used to continue and expand programs to improve energy efficiency in homes and businesses and incentivize renewable energy. Funding has ranged from $65,000 to $100,000 for such programs, but the source of that funding—the town’s share of proceeds from natural gas and oil extraction in Garfield County—is expected to diminish in future years.

“It actually started with the trustees,” says Erica Sparhawk, of the non-profit advocacy group Clean Energy Economy for the Region, or CLEER. “This is a very educated group of trustees, dedicated to sustainability, and they take their clean energy goals seriously. So they asked us to help them research and analyze different potential funding sources, so that these kinds of programs without the town having to tap their general funds.”

With just a modest business and industrial sector, 60 percent of Carbondale’s greenhouse gases come from the town’s 2,400 homes. The town’s climate action plan envisions upgrades to those homes so that they use less energy and, coincidentally, are more comfortable to live in. The program being envisioned would address 1,000 homes in the next five years.

Trustees, as the elected members of the town board are called, believe it’s important to create n income-qualifying program, so that lower-incomer residents can benefit from the carbon tax.

Other potential use of revenues could include a large solar farm and a local micro-grid with battery storage.

Once a coal-mining town

The irony of Carbondale adopting a carbon tax is obvious. Mid-Continent Resource’s coal mine was a major payroll in the town for decades. The mine closed in 1991.

“What better place than a town called Carbondale to implement a local carbon fee and put talk into action?” asks Mayor Stacey Bernot, a native, who grew up in Carbondale when it was still a mining town.

But the demographics of the town have changed dramatically in the last 25 years, and Carbondale is now home to wide variety of innovators, creators and activists but also to a large population of immigrants who work in the construction and service sector of the Aspen-area economy. Latinos, mostly immigrants, compose 30 to 40 percent of the town’s population, and they tend to live in trailers and other lower-end housing.

Lately, carbon of another sort has concerned town residents, because of the potential for drilling for natural gas in nearby Thompson Creek Valley. It’s part of the broad swathe of the mineral-rich Piceance Basin that arcs across west-central Colorado.

Town residents have loudly opposed drilling, as they generally see drilling incompatible with the hunting and recreational uses of the valley. by one study, the Thompson Divide provides 300 jobs in the Carbondale-area economy.

Sparhawk says trustees recognize what some—including this writer—called out as an inconsistency: How can you oppose drilling in your backyard while using natural gas to heat your homes and, increasingly, to produce your electricity?

Trustees recognize the need to walk their talk, says Sparhawk. “If we are going to oppose drilling in the Thompson Divide, then we in the community need to lessen our demand for natural gas.”

Six funding mechanisms were evaluated as dedicated revenue sources for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements in Carbondale, but after a series of work sessions with town trustees, efforts narrowed to the tax on carbon used for home heating and that proportionate of the electricity that comes from carbon sources.

Trustees are scheduled to finalize the ballot proposal at their Jan. 13 meeting.

Modeled on Boulder

Carbondale’s plan is modeled on the tax adopted in 2007 by the municipality of Boulder, Colo.. It is described on the Boulder’s website as the “nation’s first voter-approved tax dedicated to addressing climate change.”

The tax costs the average household about $1.33 a month and now generates $1.8 million a year. The tax is administered through Xcel Energy, which also provides electricity to Carbondale.

Boulder sustainability officials claim to that use of the tax money has been used to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

“What’s really interesting about Boulder’s carbon tax,” says Will Toor, a former mayor, “is just how popular it has been.” Boulder is deeply divided about whether to get a divorce from electrical provider Xcel Energy, but the 77 percent of voters last November decided to extend the tax through March 2023.

The tax applies only to electricity, and it exempts any energy produced without burning fossil fuels.

Other jurisdictions also have carbon taxes. In Arcata, Calif., a college town two hours north of San Francisco, voters in 2012 passed, by a margin of 68 percent to 32 percent, what they call an excessive electricity use tax. According to the city’s website, the 45 percent tax is assessed on residential household meters that use more than 600 percent of baseline electricity or more than an average of three residential households from one meter.

Washington D.C. also has a carbon tax levied on natural gas and electric bills. The tax in 2014 delivered $20 million to the Sustainable Energy Trust Fund, which is used to improve energy efficiency and expand renewable energy.

Just one mountain town in Colorado has flirted with a carbon tax. Joan May, an elected commissioner in San Miguel County, proposed a carbon tax on electricity and natural gas that would have generated $100,000 a year. Few towns are as liberal as Telluride, but the tax lost badly at the polls.

May says she failed to do her work in advance, leaving voters confused about the administration and use of the money. “I would solicit more support before we put it on the ballot,” she says. “It was basically ready, fire, aim.”

She says she wouldn’t change the proposal itself, though. Similar to Boulder and other programs, the money would have gone into a fund that could be tapped for energy efficiency improvements.

Argument against

In Carbondale, CLEER avoided May’s mistake in Telluride by holding community meetings. Still, there’s a bit of pushback. In a letter published in the Sopris Sun, Carl Ted Stude, a retired environmental engineer and a 10-year resident of the town, dismissed the idea as impractical.

It’s not the idea of a carbon tax that dismays him. He supports phasing in of a carbon tax at the national level. “I believe the preponderance of scientific evidence that emissions of carbon dioxide are contributing to global warming that will have long-term consequences that are more catastrophic than, say, a reduced ski season at Aspen.”

Stude sees a national tax being phased in

while subsidies and mandates for ethanol, wind turbines and cultured algae are phased out. But a municipal carbon tax in a small town like Carbondale makes no sense, he argues.

“A carbon tax at the local level would involve substantial administrative effort (read ‘economic waste’) in calculating and assessing the tax.”

Allyn Harvey, a trustee in Carbondale, doesn’t think administration will be inefficient. CLER has met with Xcel Energy, Holy Cross Electric and Source Gas, the three energy utilities, and it’s not a difficult process. A greater concern, he says, is the impact on Latino and other poor families, especially if nobody speaks English. “They may be leery of people knocking on their odors to talk about energy,” he says,.

But Harvey sees this as a major opportunities, not just for poor people to ultimately benefit from more comfortable, energy efficient homes, but for Carbondale to take control of its own destiny.

“If we wait for the federal government to take action and for partisanship to end so that we can enact a carbon tax nationwide, ti will be generations form now,” he sways. “I think there’s an opportunity for the local community tot take actions and do something about a problem that we all recognize.”

Turning the Corner on #ClimateChange in 2016 — Western Resource Advocates

From Western Resource Advocates (Jon Goldin-Dubois):

As we begin the New Year I am filled with hope for real and concrete progress to protect the incredible place we call home. The past year has provided a strong foundation that we can build upon to reduce climate pollution and to protect western rivers and landscapes. Here’s what I mean:

Coming out of the climate agreements negotiated by 195 countries in Paris that concluded in December, many of the world’s nations are expected to take their first steps to address climate change. For the U.S. and most developed nations, this means cutting carbon emissions. For developing nations, the accord calls for financial incentives that will help them leapfrog carbon intensive development. Importantly, the agreement endeavors to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (scientists argue we must keep warming to under 2 degrees Celsius to stop climate change’s most devastating impacts).

Certainly, some advocates have argued that the agreement didn’t do enough. To be truthful, I would have liked to see stronger commitments to cut carbon pollution more quickly as well. But I think the agreement provides reason for hope. I say this for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that earlier in 2015 the EPA issued the Clean Power Plan, mandating carbon pollution reductions from U.S. power plants of about 33%. Clearly that’s not enough to address the U.S. share, but it does send a very strong message to the rest of the world that the U.S. is prepared to take action. In issuing the new standards earlier this year on coal-fired power plants, the Obama administration and EPA have taken our nation’s first real steps to address the carbon pollution that we know is leading to climate change. The rules have some other compelling attributes, including cleaning up air quality in communities across the country, substantial reductions in asthma attacks and other negative health impacts of dirty air, and saving consumers money.

The Paris Agreement, coupled with the Clean Power Plan, sends a strong message to power providers but also offers some predictability (which utilities want) and sets the stage for a carbon restrained, if not a carbon free, future.

I’m also optimistic because we now know that clean energy sources such as wind and solar can compete with coal on a cost basis, and that they are getting cheaper every day. This is a big part of the reason that in 2014, far more clean, renewable energy than fossil fuel-based energy was added to the electric grid in the United States. We will soon see the 2015 numbers, but this trend is projected to continue. In 2015 major utilities in our western region stated clearly that clean, renewable wind energy is now predictably their lowest-cost source for energy generation. And several solar projects are beating coal and gas on a head-to-head basis, leading to new projects that will come on line in 2016.

My hope goes beyond recent action on climate change. The end of 2015 provided some expectation that we will begin to face up to some of the severe challenges to the health of our western rivers. In Colorado, Governor Hickenlooper signed the state’s first water plan. This year presents the first opportunity to take action that forwards the plan’s goals of conservation, reuse and water sharing. 2015 also saw Governor Sandoval in Nevada addressing the region’s water challenges as he convened a drought forum to develop solutions for Nevada. While it is still unclear what the ultimate impact of the current El Nino weather system (which can bring above average precipitation to the Colorado River Basin) will mean to the West and our water supply, it seems like it is finally sinking in that we shouldn’t rely on the weather when it comes to water. We need to take action throughout the Colorado River states to ensure that we have the water we need to serve 40 million people that rely on the River. But we also must ensure that our rivers not only sustain life in our cities, but also can continue to provide the thrilling opportunities to raft and fish, and the habitat to sustain abundant wildlife – just a few of the things that make the West so spectacular.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of challenges.

  • The nations of the world need to respond to the Paris agreement in the spirit with which it was crafted. Individual countries (and our states here in the West) need to respond by developing aggressive plans to reduce carbon pollution.
  • Our western states similarly need to take smart steps to protect and restore our rivers, as we plan for population and economic growth. This includes conservation, reuse, recycling, sharing water between urban and agriculture users, and smart storage solutions.
  • There are several ill-advised – okay, let’s be honest – flat out stupid plans to develop oil shale and tar sands throughout wilderness-quality lands in northeastern Utah that are still on the table. These plans need to be stopped.

We’ll take on these and other issues, like protection of Great Salt Lake and other iconic landscapes in the West, while working to find smart solutions on the climate, clean energy and river- and water-related efforts described above by building on the many successes of 2015.

Six days in to 2016, and yes, I am truly excited and hopeful about the prospects for making even more progress to protect the many places that we care about here in the West.

From left, President François Hollande of France; Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister; and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during the climate change conference on Saturday in Le Bourget, near Paris. (Credit Francois Mori/Associated Press)
From left, President François Hollande of France; Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister; and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during the climate change conference on Saturday in Le Bourget, near Paris. (Credit Francois Mori/Associated Press)

USGS: Using the Markets for Environmental Science

Honeybees are important pollinators, an ecosystem service that is not always adequately accounted for in traditional markets. Image credit: Marisa Lubeck, USGS.
Honeybees are important pollinators, an ecosystem service that is not always adequately accounted for in traditional markets. Image credit: Marisa Lubeck, USGS.

From the United States Geological Survey (Alex Demas):

The invisible hand of the market might seem a strange player for environmental science, but it’s an emerging force for regulators and land managers. It’s these markets that have inspired USGS scientists Emily Pindilli and Frank Casey to explore how earth science and economics can join forces to achieve meaningful impacts for decision-makers.

Their research falls under a concept known as environmental markets. These markets won’t be found in Wall Street, but rather out on the landscape, as the natural environment provides many amenities that aren’t included in traditional markets. For example, when bees pollinate farmers’ crops, they’re providing an ecosystem service that benefits the farmer and society with a higher crop yield.

Emissions trading is one example of a market-based solution to an environmental problem. Image credit: Arnold Paul/Gralo via Wikipedia.
Emissions trading is one example of a market-based solution to an environmental problem. Image credit: Arnold Paul/Gralo via Wikipedia.

The Economics of Earth Science

So how does earth science fit in with the idea of environmental markets? The answer is information. Markets function most efficiently when buyers and sellers have as much information as possible. In the realm of environmental markets, that takes the form of scientific information about ecosystems, habitats, animals and plants, and other ecological players that help the environment operate.

USGS, then, is perfectly situated to provide information along those lines to emerging environmental markets. From water levels, use, and quality data from thousands of streamgages across the country to bird surveys that have spanned decades, USGS can provide important materials for these markets to function as effectively as possible. Agencies like the USDA’s Office of Environmental Markets can then take USGS data and use it to help foster and coordinate environmental markets.

However, that then raises the question of what kind of markets are being implemented and how do they work? Pindilli and Casey decided to take that on, using the lens of biodiversity to frame their investigation.

Sagebrush landscapes are important habitat for maintaining biodiversity in much of the United States. Image credit: Steve Knick, USGS.
Sagebrush landscapes are important habitat for maintaining biodiversity in much of the United States. Image credit: Steve Knick, USGS.

In the Market for a Solution

Biodiversity is under increasing threat, both in the United States and all around the world. Species are going extinct at a rapid rate, which is an indication of the larger issue of biodiversity and habitat loss. Biodiversity and habitat provide important ecosystem functions and their loss represents a significant risk to the stability of these systems.

So how can environmental markets help protect biodiversity? A first, and significant, step is to understand the economic values associated with biodiversity. Even more important is to align those values with reasons to actually protect and restore biodiversity. Enter the concept of environmental markets. These markets are designed to allow environmental goods and services to be produced and traded similar to goods and services in traditional markets.

A good example of a created environmental market is the sulfur dioxide trading market. Here, a set number of sulfur dioxide credits are issued which caps sulfur dioxide emissions at a certain level each year. These credits can be traded between parties, with the idea being that some facilities can reduce emissions at a lower cost than others. Those facilities can then sell those credits to facilities who would otherwise have to pay even more money to reduce emissions. By making money from the sale of the credits, those facilities that could most cost-effectively reduce emissions have a good reason to do so. This is a win-win, whereby the environmental goal is attained and it is accomplished at the lowest cost.

In the United States, there are a number of other developing environmental markets and similar mechanisms that seek to leverage market forces to achieve environmental goals. There are emerging markets in water quality, carbon emissions, wetland preservation, and for species and habitat protection. Among these are a number of market-based or market-like approaches that can benefit biodiversity. The USGS has recently evaluated the status and potential of the following mechanisms:

Bats provide important pest control by eating insects, and threats to their biodiversity imperil that ecosystem service. Photo credit: Paul Cryan, USGS.
Bats provide important pest control by eating insects, and threats to their biodiversity imperil that ecosystem service. Photo credit: Paul Cryan, USGS.

Getting What You Pay For

The first approach is known as “Payments for Ecosystem Services.” Here, a “buyer” pays a “seller” for the ecosystem service of biodiversity. The “buyer” may be anyone, such as the Federal government, a State agency, a local community, a non-profit, or even a business, while the “seller” is the individual or business that will supply protections for species and their habitats. An example of this approach might be a conservation stewardship program that pays farmers to set some land aside for wildlife, or maintain the riverbanks with trees to shelter fish. The least like a traditional market, payments for ecosystem services are essentially contracts that provide incentives to potential biodiversity suppliers with payments that don’t necessarily reflect a market-value.

The Ohlone Reserve Conservation Bank in California, one of the many conservation banks run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo credit: Robert Fletcher, Ohlone Preserve Conservation Bank
The Ohlone Reserve Conservation Bank in California, one of the many conservation banks run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo credit: Robert Fletcher, Ohlone Preserve Conservation Bank

Conservation Banking

The next approach is explicitly market-based: regulations are set up that lay the foundations for a market that includes property rights to an environmental amenity and the ability to trade. One of the best examples for biodiversity is the Conservation Banking Program run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Conservation banks are areas of habitat that are protected and managed to meet the needs of one or more threatened species in perpetuity. These banks must be approved by the FWS under stringent protocols. With this approval, the banks can sell ‘habitat’ or ‘species’ credits. Demand for credits comes from developers that are required to mitigate actions like building roads that may negatively affect threatened species and their habitats under the authority of the Endangered Species Act.

When planning suburban neighborhoods, for instance, a developer might buy land to set aside as habitat in exchange for encroaching on existing habitat. Image Credit: Roger Auch, USGS.
When planning suburban neighborhoods, for instance, a developer might buy land to set aside as habitat in exchange for encroaching on existing habitat. Image Credit: Roger Auch, USGS.

Beyond the Bank

Taking the concept of the conservation banks even further, there’s the idea of habitat exchanges. The concept of a habitat exchange is to extend the conservation banking approach to protect species or habitats that are not currently federally listed as threatened. Habitat exchanges also seek to streamline the conservation bank approval process by developing and implementing Habitat Quantification Tools. These tools are used to standardize the evaluation of the number of credits on a given plot of land and increase certainty and transparency for landowners. Habitat exchanges are an emerging concept and demonstration on the landscape has yet to be fully implemented.

Organic labeling is one such example of using a label to educate consumers.
Organic labeling is one such example of using a label to educate consumers.

It’s all in the Label

The last market-based approach evaluated goes in a different direction: the idea of eco-labeling, similar to the concepts of organic and fair-trade labeling currently seen in grocery stores. Farmers, ranchers, and others can take actions that help protect biodiversity, and in so doing receive an accreditation and label their products to signify that they are protecting biodiversity. People can then reward these businesses by selecting these ‘green products’ over comparable items, even if they cost a bit more. That extra cost compensates the farmers, ranchers, and others for implementing biodiversity protecting practices. Eco-labelling is the most like a traditional market.

Read More:

  • Biodiversity and habitat markets: Policy, economic, and ecological implications of market-based conservation,” by Emily Pindilli and Frank Casey
  • USGS Science and Decisions Center
  • USGS Social Values for Ecosystem Services
  • Exxon, Keystone, and the Turn Against Fossil Fuels — The New Yorker (Bill McKibben)

    The grass roots, Washington DC via the Washington Post
    The grass roots in Washington, DC via the Washington Post

    From The New Yorker (Bill McKibben):

    The fossil-fuel industry—which, for two centuries, underwrote our civilization and then became its greatest threat—has started to take serious hits. At noon today [November 6, 2015], President Obama rejected the Keystone Pipeline, becoming the first world leader to turn down a major project on climate grounds. Eighteen hours earlier, New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he’d issued subpoenas to Exxon, the richest and most profitable energy company in history, after substantial evidence emerged that it had deceived the world about climate change.

    These moves don’t come out of the blue. They result from three things.

    The first is a global movement that has multiplied many times in the past six years. Battling Keystone seemed utterly quixotic at first—when activists first launched a civil-disobedience campaign against the project, in the summer of 2011, more than ninety per cent of “energy insiders” in D.C. told a National Journal survey that they believed that President Obama would grant Transcanada a permit for the construction. But the conventional wisdom was upended by a relentless campaign carried on by hundreds of groups and millions of individual people (including http://350.org, the international climate-advocacy group I founded). It seemed that the President didn’t give a speech in those years without at least a small group waiting outside the hall to greet him with banners demanding that he reject the pipeline. And the Keystone rallying cry quickly spread to protests against other fossil-fuel projects. One industry executive summed it up nicely this spring, when he told a conference of his peers that they had to figure out how to stop the “Keystone-ization” of all their plans.

    The second, related, cause is the relentless spread of a new logic about the planet—that we have five times as much carbon in our reserves as we can safely burn. While President Obama said today that Keystone was not “the express lane to climate disaster,” he also said that “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them.” This reflects an idea I wrote about in Rolling Stone three years ago; back then, it was new and a little bit fringe. But, this fall, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, speaking to members of the insurance industry at Lloyds of London, used precisely the same language to tell them that they faced a “huge risk” from “unburnable carbon” that would become “stranded assets.” No one’s argued with the math, and that math indicates that the business plans of the fossil-fuel giants are no longer sane. Word is spreading: portfolios and endowments worth a total of $2.6 trillion in assets have begun to divest from fossil fuels. The smart money is heading elsewhere.

    Which brings us to the third cause. There is, now, an elsewhere to head. In the past six years, the price of a solar panel has fallen by eighty per cent. [ed. emphasis mine] For years, the fossil-fuel industry has labored to sell the idea that a transition to renewable energy would necessarily be painfully slow—that it would take decades before anything fundamental started to shift. Inevitability was their shield, but no longer. If we wanted to transform our energy supply, we clearly could, though it would require an enormous global effort.

    Don’t you just love renewable energy capital markets moving the polluters out of the picture?

    Here’s a report about the impending bankruptcy of Arch Coal from Elizabeth Shogren writing for The High Country News. Here’s an excerpt:

    There’s no question that the president’s Clean Power Plan and his other air pollution regulations cloud the future of the industry. But coal’s bleak present has much more to do with other factors; chief among them the low price of natural gas and bad business decisions that the country’s biggest coal companies made in recent years. “These are undoubtedly difficult, if not unprecedented, times for the coal sector,” Glenn Kellow, chief executive officer of Peabody, the world’s largest coal company, reportedly said on the company’s recent earnings call.

    Both Arch Coal and Peabody Energy paid billions of dollars to acquire metallurgical coal mines when prices of this type of coal, which is used to make steel and other metals, were soaring. The price has since collapsed, leaving the companies swamped in debt and their stock prices a small fraction of what they used to be. In Arch’s case, it spent $3.4 billion in 2011 to buy International Coal Group, Inc., acquiring 13 mines in the eastern United States. At the time, the only company more invested in metallurgical coal was Alpha National Resources, (remember that name), which was buying Massie Energy for $7.1 billion. That same year, Peabody shelled out $5.2 billion for metallurgical coal mines in Australia.

    The companies borrowed to buy these metallurgical coal mines, with the expectation that Asia, especially China, would gobble up all the metallurgical coal they could produce. What they didn’t count on was the price of metallurgical coal spiraling downward due in part to increased supplies of metallurgical coal from other countries and slower growth in China. Now U.S. metallurgical coal sells for less than half what it did in 2011.

    Arch’s debt comes due next year. Scrambling to avoid bankruptcy, Arch tried to get creditors to renegotiate its debt, but the effort collapsed at the end of last month. Peabody has until 2018, and yet its stock has fallen from more than $1,000 in 2011 to less than $13 this fall.

    The West is largely a bystander to this high drama, except that the companies that produce the most coal in the West are caught in the middle of it. Profitable mines owned by these companies in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin likely still will operate under whatever slimmed-down companies emerge from bankruptcy or under new ownership. But underground mines, where it costs more to extract the coal, may be less lucky. Peabody’s Twentymile mine in northwestern Colorado reportedly already has experienced significant reductions in production.

    Mines in the West are not immune from the other main factor vexing the coal industry: low natural gas prices. Coal’s share in electricity production dropped from 50 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2014, and natural gas overtook coal as the biggest electricity producer for two months this year. The Energy Information Agency expects an 8 percent decrease in total coal consumption in 2015 compared to 2014, mainly driven by electric companies shifting to low-cost natural gas. Retirement of coal-fired power plants due to the Obama administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards contributed, but to a lesser degree, according to the Energy Information Agency. “The big story here is gas and how cheap it is,” says Robert Godby, associate economics professor at the University of Wyoming who focuses on coal.

    @EcoFlight: Flight Across America 2015 #ColoradoRiver #drought #COWaterPlan

    ecoflightlogo

    From the EcoFlight website:

    Project Overview

    EcoFlight’s Flight Across America program dynamically engages college students about environmental issues, using a broad range of perspectives, both aerial and on the ground, to bring attention to pressing conservation issues. Students learn how such issues impact their lives and the world around them, and how to personally participate in advocacy work. Through the aerial perspective and discussions with diverse stakeholders and experts on the ground, EcoFlight offers a tangible educational experience, engaging students in the complexities of environmental issues throughout the West. It is our hope that by offering students the opportunity to delve deeply into issues central to the West, they become better prepared to participate in meaningful discussions public lands and advocate for their beliefs, as the next generation of leaders.

    Flight Across America 2015 will focus on water conservation concerns in the West, emphasizing the crucial role water plays in sustaining life, and the mega drought happening in many states across the West. The program provides an excellent learning environment for students, combining the aerial perspective of the role of water in the health of ecosystems and how watersheds connect landscapes, with on-the-ground discussions of the impact of energy development, urban planning, recreation and agriculture on our water resources. The Colorado River Basin is in its 14th year of drought, and water is a top concern for population centers and agriculture. We will discuss the coping mechanisms of multiple states in the West, as they plan for the future in an attempt to balance an already over-allocated water supply with growing domestic demand. Climate models are predicting an even drier future, with sustained periods of sparse precipitation and significant loss of soil moisture that span generations, about 10 times as long as a normal three-year drought. In the face of these “mega-droughts” it is imperative that we begin thinking in terms of the future and not just the present for water management in the West.

    In a five-day tour of four states, FLAA 2015 will engage college students with diverse conservation concerns of water in the West. EcoFlight will provide aerial tours of water storage and diversion projects, over energy development (both fossil fuel and renewable), over agriculture, and wild landscapes, and watersheds that are vulnerable to drought and water-loss. On the ground students will meet with diverse stakeholders – planners, public officials, conservation groups, sportsmen, energy industry representatives, Native Americans, recreationists and journalists to discuss the different and often competing interests in water and water conservation.

    Colorado River Basin including Mexico, USBR May 2015
    Colorado River Basin including Mexico, USBR May 2015

    Why so few water markets in the West? — The Mountain Town News

    The Four Corners Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico draws water from the San Juan River. 2014 photo/Allen Best
    The Four Corners Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico draws water from the San Juan River. 2014 photo/Allen Best

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    Water intensity of energy but also why the West has so few water markets

    The value of water depends upon context. To somebody in a desert, absent a drink for three days, nothing could be more valuable. In a flood, the value of the water would lie in its absence.

    In Western states, where scarcity more generally prevails, we’re still fumbling with how much value to assign water. Stacy Tellinghuisen brings this observation to her work in evaluating water issues at the nexus with energy for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental non-profit. WRA in 2011 issued a report “Every Drop Counts: Valuing the Water Used to Generate Electricity.”

    Stacy Tellinghuisen
    Stacy Tellinghuisen

    In a conference call sponsored by The Biomass Monitor, Tellinghuisen said that one of the few water markets exists in northern Colorado. There, in the area north from Denver, many cities and farms get water diverted from the Colorado River via an elaborate diversion structure called the Colorado-Big Thompson project. Completed after World War II, the C-BT was intended to provide water to expand agriculture. Now, the water has mostly been purchased for municipal use in the Boulder-Greeley-Fort Collins area.

    Water prices spiked between 2000 and 2008, said Tellinghuisen, reviewing the report that WRA did several years ago. “The price increased significantly, and that was largely due to significant drought in 2001 and 2002, combined with additional population growth in the region,” she said.

    “I think that trend is a really relevant when you think about climate change and continued municipal growth across the West,” she added.

    Why does this more highly developed market exist in northern Colorado? And why is it absent elsewhere?

    Tellinghuisen explained that she thinks it’s because of the unusual nature of the C-BT. The project was finished at one time, water becoming available in the form of shares. This is in contrast with water availability in so many other places governed by the doctrine of prior appropriations. Appropriation dates vary greatly, as do allotments and other factors.

    Tap fees are one way of measuring the value of water. They are the costs of getting the right to hook into the water-delivery infrastructure of a city or other jurisdiction. In theory, tap fees would be more-or-less uniform across a metropolitan area, just as the price of bread varies only marginally from one store to the next. In practice, said Tellinghuisen, there is great variability. She cited the example of Denver, which charges $5,000 for a tap fee, as compared with one of Boulder’s suburbs, where the cost is $25,000.

    Even within individual cities, water can be valued very differently. Southern Nevada Water Authority has specified rates for existing users. How then to explain the current efforts by Las Vegas to extend pipelines hundreds of miles away to tap aquifers along the Nevada-Utah border? The cost of that water would necessarily be much higher.

    Water consumed in generating electricity also varies greatly. Coal-fired power plants used significant quantities, typically 500 to 600 gallons per megawatt of production, while nuclear power plants use on the order of 700 gallons per megawatt. Combined-cycle natural gas plants use less, 180 to 200 gallons per megawatt.

    Dry-cooling techniques for fossil-fueled generation can reduce water use by up to 90 percent, and more electrical production now comes from natural gas, instead of coal, resulting in a net reduction in the water footprint of energy.

    In the renewable sector, biomass plants vary greatly, between 400 and 500 gallons per megawatt. Wind and solar use virtually none, except for concentrated solar—which uses a lot of water.

    Solar panels, such these at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle, Colo., need virtually no water, once they are manufactured. Photo/Allen Best
    Solar panels, such these at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle, Colo., need virtually no water, once they are manufactured. Photo/Allen Best

    Recent years have brought greater awareness of the water intensity of various forms of electrical production. Investor-owned utilities, the primary providers of electricity in Colorado and other states, are governed by state-appointed public utility commissions, and those utilities in recent years have begun describing water impacts in the resource-planning documents they are required to submit to regulators.

    Arizona Public Service was among the first to begin disclosing water impacts, but others now do so, too. Statutes delegating authority to PUCs provide authority to consider water, said Tellinghuisen, but there’s also a broadening understanding of the water-energy nexus among energy companies and government regulators.

    Why does it matter?

    “It comes back to a zero-sum game,” said Tellinghuisen. Virtually all rivers in the West are tapped out. For expansion of water use for one purpose, other water uses must be curtailed. While there are laws that govern the transfer, meaning a new power plant couldn’t just seize water, causing cities and farms to go dry, it is part of societal choices. WRA obviously thinks that the minimal water use of renewables is a major argument for increased renewables.