From here and there
It’s Monday. And the Land Desk’s coffee isn’t having the desired effect, so we’ll just briefly touch on a few things today.
The New Mexico fires continue their devastating march through forests desiccated by climate change-exacerbated aridification. The Hermits Peak fire is now about 290,000 acres in size and is advancing in the direction of Angel Fire. It almost certainly will surpass 300,000 acres today, making it the largest wildfire in the state’s history, a distinction currently held by the Whitewater-Baldy Fire of 2012. The Cerro Pelado fire in the Jemez Mountains has grown to 45,000 acres. And the Bear Trap fire in the San Mateo Mountains southwest of Socorro is at 11,550 acres. All of this and May is only halfway over. This is a terrifying view of the smoke clouds from the Hermits Peak fire:
I’ll tell you what, the dearth of soil moisture sure isn’t helping things. Some parts of the West are looking nearly as dry as in 2002 or 2018. Look at this:
There are many ways to gauge what kind of winter it was and what kind of summer we might have. There are drought maps like the one above. There are SNOTEL snow water equivalent stations scattered all over the place. There are streamflow gages. And then there’s the San Juan County, Colorado, high country road report, which is my favorite. Every year the county road crew, long led by Louie Girodo, takes the dozers up into the mountains and clears the snow from the high mountain passes. Back in the day some passes wouldn’t be open until mid-June, sometimes even as late as July 4, and even then the roads in places were like narrow gorges cut through snowbanks a dozen feet high or more. But the roads seem to be opening up earlier and earlier each year (with notable exceptions, such as 2019). Here’s Louie’s latest report:
Along similar lines, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is not running trains to Silverton today and yesterday due to high fire danger. They’re following a plan adopted as part of a settlement with the feds stemming from the 2018 416 Fire. Read more here:
High Country News recently launched a fortnightly e-newsletter, the Landline, focusing on public land, water, environment, and climate, and I’ve been asked to supply the words. Below is a sampling from the first edition. It’s sort of like a slower version of the Land Desk with a broader geographical scope (the entire Western U.S. as opposed to the Land Desk’s Four Corners-esque focus). And it’s free! Sign up here.
This originally appeared in the May 12 edition of HCN’s Landline.
Three decades ago, when I was a carefree 20-year-old, I took a year off college, and my friend and I set out for Mexico in my 1967 AMC Rambler, eager to camp on the beach and flourish on fish, sunshine and lots of cheap beer. We made it as far as Tucson, where we watched President George H.W. Bush announce that the U.S. had commenced bombing Iraq to eject Saddam Hussein from oil-rich Kuwait. We postponed our Mexico sojourn and hit the anti-war protest trail, forsaking the beach for the couches of friends and trading fish for free meals with the Hare Krishnas. The slogan chanted in the streets — from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Tucson to Colorado Springs — was simple: “No Blood for Oil!”
Now, as Russia rains artillery on Ukrainian civilians and Californians drive to Mexico to buy cheap gas, an inverted version of it rings through the streets of social media: “No Oil for Blood!” Just about everyone, war hawks and climate hawks, Democrats and Republicans, wants the world to stop buying Russian oil and gas (and uranium, nickel and palladium — even vodka) and thereby defund Putin’s war machine. And most will loudly say, “We need energy independence!”
7.5 billion barrels
Amount of petroleum the United States consumed in 2021, making it by far the world’s most gluttonous oil-guzzler.
2.24 billion barrels
Amount of oil the U.S. imported from all countries last year.
72.6 million barrels
Amount of that oil that came from Russia.
We might agree on Ukraine, but the harmony ends when we try to define energy independence and the best way to achieve it. I can’t help getting a bit anxious, not because I disagree with the sentiment, but because history shows that whatever path we take toward energy independence — whether by upping fossil fuel production or transitioning to green power — it’s likely to plow through the Western U.S. and its public lands.
The competing factions include:
Rep. Lauren Boebert, the pistol-packing, tantrum-throwing Colorado Republican congresswoman. At this year’s State of the Union address, she wore her faction’s slogan emblazoned on her black satin shawl — “Drill, Baby, Drill!” This camp, comprising mostly Republicans and industry flacks, has weaponized high energy prices, blaming them on the Biden administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and its oil and gas leasing pause (which is over, by the way). They see the Ukraine crisis as an excuse to “unleash” drill rigs on the public lands, echoing former Halliburton CEO and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s industry-friendly, environment-wrecking policies in the wake of 9/11 and the second Iraq War.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the unflinching Arizona Democrat, responded by calling “bullshit on oil and gas industry claims” — his words, not mine. He pointed out that public-lands energy policy has virtually zero effect on how much you’ll have to fork out to fill up your SUV, because gasoline prices follow oil prices, and oil prices are determined by global supply and demand. Green energy-transition folks like Grijalva and other Democrats and Western environmental groups hope that high pump prices will shock Americans into trading in gargantuan gas-guzzlers for solar- and wind-powered electric cars, bikes and public transit, because the only way to disentangle ourselves from the sticky web of the global petroleum market — and avert the worst of the climate crisis — is to wean ourselves off all fossil fuels.
President Joe Biden and his administration seem to want it both ways. On the one hand, Biden talks about tackling the climate crisis, phasing out internal combustion engines, streamlining renewable energy projects on public lands, reforming oil and gas leasing and upgrading environmental protections. On the other, he hands out drilling permits at a rate that even a Cheney could love, pleads with oil and gas executives to get off their duffs and put those permits to use, and — perhaps most significantly — plans to increase U.S. natural gas exports to Europe to replace Russian gas. He wants to reform antiquated mining laws, but he also invoked the Defense Production Act to expedite mining for the so-called “green metals” used in electric vehicles and has asked Congress for $500 million to fund the effort.
Biden’s all-of-the-above approach is reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s during his White House tenure. Carter was elected during an energy crisis, sparked by Middle East conflict. Global crude prices shot up, sending fuel costs and inflation sky-high. Motorists emptied their wallets to fill up their giant gas-guzzlers — sometimes to find the pumps dry by the time they got there.
Carter spent most of his single term trying to solve the crisis by achieving energy independence. He’s probably best remembered for his desire to protect public lands and promote conservation (and for wearing a beige cashmere cardigan during his first televised address to the nation). But he envisioned an even bigger role for fossil fuels — as long as they were produced at home.
He laid out his plan most passionately in his now-famous 1979 “crisis of confidence” speech (during which he wore a suit, not a cardigan), a heartfelt homily that castigated America’s worship of “self-indulgence and consumption.” He urged people to stop driving so damned much, to turn down the thermostat and to take public transport, because “every act of energy conservation … is an act of patriotism.”
But then the energy-independence crazy-sauce kicked in. He urged oil companies to drill more, promised to invoke the Defense Production Act and asked Congress for billions in taxpayer subsidies to kickstart mass-production of “synfuels,” such as oil shale, gasohol — a mix of gas and ethyl alcohol — and coal converted to diesel. And he repeatedly called on mining companies to develop the Interior West’s vast coal deposits. Yes, you read that right: Sweater-wearing, thermostat-lowering, White House solar panel-installing Jimmy Carter was hot for coal. And who can blame him? It was cheap and abundant, and it wasn’t Middle Eastern oil.
$69 per barrel
Price of Brent crude, the global benchmark for oil, on March 15, 2021.
The price on March 6, 2022.
The amount BP executive Robert Horton said — in the lead-up to the first Iraq War — that each dollar increase in the price of oil adds to his company’s bottom line.
Just to be clear: The U.S. is not in a 1970s-style energy crisis, Biden’s ban on Russian oil — which accounts for just 1% of the nation’s total consumption — is largely symbolic, and he’s unlikely to sign an executive order to revive the coal industry. But it’s a different story in Europe, where a serious dependence on Russian fossil fuels already has caused utility bills to triple, or even quadruple. Biden wants to ease the pain by increasing trans-Atlantic exports of LNG, or liquefied natural gas — something Western politicians urged back in 2014, after Russia invaded Crimea.
It’s unlikely that methane from Wyoming or Utah will cross the Atlantic anytime soon because the U.S. has only a handful of LNG export terminals in the U.S. and none on the West Coast. But the push to send it to Europe could expedite a proposed new terminal in Baja, Mexico, that would pull from Western gas fields. Once LNG starts flowing overseas, supplies will diminish here in the U.S., driving up the price of natural gas. And that could spark new drilling in natural gas-rich but oil-poor fields, ending a decade-long slump due to low commodity prices.
On the electricity side of things, rising natural gas prices will prod utilities to switch to less expensive sources of power, such as solar, wind, hydropower and, yes, nuclear and coal. The Biden administration is permitting renewable energy development on public lands at a rapid rate and has offered a $6 billion bailout to soon-to-retire nuclear plants like Diablo Canyon in California — though, unlike Carter, he is not pushing coal.
And whereas Carter hoped that synfuels would replace petroleum in cars, Biden is fostering electric vehicle adoption by subsidizing charger station construction and encouraging domestic mining for lithium and other minerals used in EV batteries. This could boost controversial “green metal” extraction projects across the West.
Carter’s initiatives helped spark an unprecedented public-lands oil- and gas-drilling boom. His synfuel subsidies hatched an oil-shale-retorting industry that flamed out spectacularly in its infancy, taking western Colorado’s economy down with it. And his hankering for coal set Wyoming’s Powder River Basin on the path to becoming America’s coal bin. It all took a toll on the West’s land, people and air, but didn’t bring the nation any closer to being energy independent.
Nevertheless, it might behoove Biden to borrow one or two chapters from Carter’s energy playbook. The pleas for conservation coupled with ambitious fuel-economy standards lowered petroleum consumption — for a little while — and oil imports decreased proportionally. Americans began installing rooftop solar (as clunky as the technology was in those years), a trend that continues. And the idea of energy efficiency found a home in the nation’s collective consciousness, even if we sometimes get distracted.
Oh, and the cardigan; don’t forget the cardigan! Ideally cashmere, so you can stay warm and stylish when your thermostat’s down.