Monday News Roundup
We're doomed. Or maybe not. Energy Transition and Public Lands Ticker. More.
It’s Monday and the public lands news is flying fast and thick so we’ll do our best to catch you up. But first, this: The amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now exceeds that of anytime in the last 4 million years, reaching a level that is 50% higher than in pre-industrial times due mostly to fossil fuel combustion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That puts the world on par with the Pliocene Climatic Optimum, which occurred between 4.1 and 4.5 million years ago, when sea levels were between 5 and 25 meters higher than today.
It also helps explain why we’re suffering through the most severe megadrought in the last 1,200 years, why more acreage burned in New Mexico in May than typically burns all year, why fire season is 12 months long, and, well, you get the picture.
One way to slow the carbon buildup and thus mitigate some of the most severe impacts of global warming is to stop burning fossil fuels, which really shouldn’t be that difficult, given the technology and knowledge at humans’ disposal and the catastrophic consequences of continuing on the current path.
Yet given the stuttering progress of the energy transition—which can feel a bit like two steps forward, three steps back—it can appear as if political intransigence, greed, and unbridled capitalism are stronger than the collective will to fend off planetary crisis. Plus there’s the pesky fact that climate change makes fighting climate change more difficult. Which, in a way, is the theme of today’s news roundup. Here we go:
Once again a dearth of winter snow and moisture, in general, along with evaporation, threatens hydropower production capacity across most of the West. Hoover Dam has lost at least 33% of its generation capacity due to falling levels in Lake Mead; the reservoir’s surface currently sits at 1,046 feet above sea level, which is 173 feet below full pool, or about 29% of capacity in terms of acre feet. It’s a similar situation at Glen Canyon Dam, where hydropower production will be further diminished this summer as water officials release less water in order to preserve hydropower production capabilities. Kinda weird, but hey.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts California’s hydropower production will be about half of “normal” this summer. Hydroelectricity not only provides a reliable and renewable (except when the water stops falling from the sky) baseload power source, but is also great for smoothing out the fluctuations of solar and wind. So, this is not good. While California has pushed hard to deploy grid-scale batteries and other forms of energy storage to take up the slack, it’s still not enough to offset the drought-induced loss of hydropower, meaning grid operators likely will turn to natural gas to keep the lights on and the air-conditioners humming, which will be needed due to expected high temperatures this summer, which can be traced back to climate change, which is caused by extracting and burning natural gas and coal to generate power to run the air conditioners which we need to survive in this hotter and hotter world and …. You get the picture.
This dynamic is playing out in New Mexico in even dirtier fashion. Public Service Company of New Mexico had planned to shutter the coal burning San Juan Generating Station between Farmington and Shiprock at the end of this month. But because of expected increases in power demand and construction delays on the solar projects that were supposed to replace the lost generation, PNM now will keep one of two units at the plant open until late September, at least. After that a company called Enchant Energy, in cahoots with the City of Farmington, hopes to keep the plant running full bore for years until it can scrape up the cash (at least $1.4 billion) to equip it with unproven carbon capture technology. More on that soon.
In somewhat related news: Wyoming lawmakers, hoping to stave off the death of coal, passed a bill requiring utilities to study the feasibility of equipping coal plants with carbon capture technology instead of retiring them as planned. So two utilities—PacifiCorp and Black Hills Energy—did just that (conducted studies, that is). They found that carbon capture would be outrageously expensive (adding as much as $100 per month to customers’ bills!); would dramatically increase water consumption at the plants; and probably wouldn’t work all that well to capture the carbon. Read more on Wyoming’s not so free-market, carbon capture gamble from Nicholas Kusnetz of Inside Climate News.
In more uplifting news: In May, Nevada utility regulators approved NV Energy’s plan to build a 220-megawatt, $217 million battery installation on the former site of the Reid Gardner coal power plant in Moapa, Nevada. The project, expected to be online in May of next year, will provide backup for nearby utility-scale solar arrays.
Energy Transition and Public Lands Ticker
Dustin Mulvaney takes a comprehensive look at California’s raging battle over solar power in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Really it’s two battles, or maybe just one being fought on two fronts: 1. A fight over a proposal by state regulators to slash net metering payments for rooftop solar and to charge folks extra to have residential solar. 2. The debate over where and how to site utility-scale solar installations, with a focus on the impacts to public lands, ecosystems, and wildlife. Of course, the two fights are related: If you encourage more rooftop solar (and parking canopy and canal-covering solar), you’d need to blanket less land with utility-scale developments. Mulvaney, a professor of environmental science at San Jose State University, knows his stuff. Read the story to get the nitty gritty details.
The Biden administration plans to cut costs and fees and streamline permitting for renewable energy development on public lands. They are hoping to permit 25 gigawatts of renewable power installations on federal lands by 2025.
Scott Streater of E&E News (subscription) reports that the Biden administration has given “low-priority” status to three controversial utility-scale solar projects proposed for 25,000 acres of public lands in Nevada near Death Valley National Park. This isn’t an outright rejection of the projects, but it does signal to the developers that they might have better luck building elsewhere.
Good News Department
A federal judge last week upheld three settlements requiring the Biden administration to redo the environmental analyses for thousands of oil and gas leases covering millions of acres in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. The big redo settles lawsuits brought by WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility and applies to leases issued between 2015 and the end of 2020. Courts found that the analysis of the leases—many of which were conducted by the Trump administration—failed to adequately account for development’s effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. While the redo is no guarantee that the leases will be revoked, it does give the administration an opportunity to walk its climate change talk.
Northern New Mexico’s Kit Carson Electric Cooperative brought its Taos Mesa Solar Array online recently, allowing it to meet 100% of its daytime power demand with solar energy. This is not only a win for renewables and the climate, but also for the movement to defect from Tri-State Generation & Transmission, the huge electricity wholesaler for many of the region’s cooperatives. The cooperative (I really wish they’d change the name; ol’ KC was a murderous bastard) exited its contract back in 2016 so it could have more latitude in sourcing power and generating it locally. Delta-Montrose Electric Association in Colorado defected in 2020 and La Plata County Electric Association is partially exiting its contract with Tri-State, as well.
The Land Desk is about to take the old Silver Bullet on the road to do some reporting. You know how we fund this stuff? With your subscriptions! We got no ads, no corporate sponsors, no fancy grants — just you (which is a lot). So, yeah, the Bullet is pretty darned fuel efficient, but still with gas prices these days? We sure could use your help. Thanks!.
Bears Ears Beat
Remember how Biden restored the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and it seemed as if the mission were accomplished and we could all relax? Well, yeah, kind of. But there’s a lot more to making a national monument than a proclamation and setting the boundaries, like creating a management plan, for example, and then actually managing it, which is no easy task for a swath of canyon-carved lands that cover over 1.3 million acres. Now you can have your chance to see the management-sausage getting made, as it were, and to give your input: The Bears Ears NM Advisory Committee is holding a virtual meeting on June 29 and 30, and the public is invited to Zoom on in and submit comments. This is the first such meeting since the boundaries were restored and should be interesting. More info here.