Coal boosters are fond of decrying the Obama Administration’s supposed “War on Coal” – and to be sure, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants aren’t doing industry any favors. But if there truly exists a federal campaign to depose King Coal, somebody in the administration forgot to tell the Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM, of course, is the branch of the Department of the Interior that administers America’s public lands – and leases out the resources, including coal, that lie beneath the surface. Around a billion tons of coal are extracted from federal lands annually (98 percent of which comes from Western states), and leases on those tracts generate around $1 billion in public revenues. That might sound like a good deal for citizens, but according to two recent government investigations, BLM’s coal leasing program is actually riddled with flaws – nearly all of which benefit mining companies at taxpayers’ expense.
The first investigation, a February 4 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), depicts a BLM that has failed to fully consider the global market. The agency is supposed to account for export potential in setting the value of leases, which stands to reason: If companies are bringing in extra revenue by shipping resources overseas (and despite an incipient downturn in international markets, coal still fetches higher prices abroad than domestically), they should pay more for the opportunity. As the GAO report reveals, however, most BLM offices don’t consider exports when establishing the value of tracts.
Agency officials in many states, including Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, say that’s because exports are insignificant. But that’s a dubious claim: In 2013, for example, a full 50 percent of the coal removed from the West Elk Mine in Colorado’s North Fork Valley wound up being shipped abroad. Driven by Asian demand, coal exports have spiked in recent years; in 2012, 126 million tons, or around 12 percent of all coal produced in the U.S., left the country. (There are signs that the export explosion was predicated on a Chinese bubble that has since burst, forcing companies to scale back plans. But while exports have come down from their peak, they’re still very high by historic standards.)
"Taxpayers are losing out so that coal companies can reap a windfall and export that coal overseas where it is burned, worsening climate change,” said Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who estimates the leasing program’s flaws have cost the public up to $200 million since 1990. “This is a bad deal all around.”
The failure to account for exports is symptomatic of a broader problem: the BLM’s propensity to sell leases for below fair market value, which is a violation of the federal Mineral Leasing Act. That issue is identified in another noteworthy report that appeared last month, a letter by the Interior Department’s Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a critic of the leasing program. Kendall’s letter, published February 6, describes how, in a sample of 15 sales, 2 in Colorado and 2 in New Mexico were sold at prices below market value. Between them, those four illegal leases cost the public around $2 million.
“Recovering fair market value for the American public is the key underpinning of the entire coal leasing program,” says Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director at environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “These are extremely disturbing revelations.”
So where is the BLM going wrong? And what should the agency do to rehabilitate its ailing program?
Let’s consider how the BLM calculates the value of coal tracts. The agency uses two methods for estimating fair market value: the comparable sales approach – which estimates value based on the price of other, similar coal tracts – and the income approach, which calculates value by projecting the mining operation’s lifetime costs and revenues. The GAO advises that the two methods be employed together when possible; in practice, some states’ BLM offices only use comparable sales.
But both methods are gravely flawed. “I call the comparable sales approach the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ approach,” says Mark Squillace, director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado Law School. Comparing new sales to existing ones, says Squillace, is only valid if those old leases were themselves priced fairly. But in the Powder River Basin, for instance, the formation spanning Montana and Wyoming that produces more coal than any other region in the country, companies apply to lease tracts where they’re the only ones that can profitably operate. The result is a rash of single-bidder auctions that have historically suppressed prices. According to the GAO, 90 percent of lease sales since 1990 have received only one bid.
Under a comparable sales approach, those single-bidder leases are used as precedent for new coal prices. “The way we determine fair value in a free market is competition, ideally robust,” says Squillace. “We’ve never really had any in the Powder River Basin.” Other coal-producing areas have suffered from a similar lack of competition.
Is the income approach any better? Hardly. When government figures the future value of resources, it applies a discount rate, a calculation that accounts for the fact that goods are worth less in the future than they are in the present (just like you’d rather have $100 today than ten years from now). But because the coal leasing program uses an atypically high discount rate, explains Squillace, companies may pay very little now for coal properties that could be worth a ton down the line. Once again, the public loses.
What’s the solution? The GAO report offers a number of conservative recommendations for reforming leasing practices, like making more information public, setting better guidelines for export accounting, and hiring independent analysts to look over BLM lease appraisals. Squillace suggests that the government experiment with setting minimum bid prices. “On average, the government has sold Powder River Basin coal for around 50 cents a ton,” he says. “If you’d increased that to five dollars, we’re talking about billions of additional dollars in public revenue.”
Bumping up lease prices would surely eat into the profits of coal companies, which is why groups like the National Mining Association have been quick to minimize the report’s findings. And given the uncertainty surrounding coal’s future, you can’t blame the industry for bridling against anything that would hike the cost of doing business. As Squillace points out, though, making it slightly more expensive to mine coal could help alleviate the current glut, thereby boosting the black rock’s sagging market value.
To Jeremy Nichols’ mind, the situation calls for dramatic action: a full timeout to review and reform leasing policies. “There’s a lot of coal currently moving forward toward being sold, and it’s doing so under a broken system,” he says. Indeed, the present moment, with international markets stumbling and plenty of coal already leased, could be an ideal time to pump the brakes.
Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.
Scattered throughout California’s public forests, authorities found 315,000 feet of plastic hose, 19,000 pounds of fertilizer and 180,000 pounds of trash on more than 300 illegal marijuana plantations in 2012 alone.
The tally comes from a new video by the U.S. Forest Service, describing the extensive and alarming damage caused by “trespass grows” hidden within the state’s public forested land. According to the video, the nation’s high demand for weed and paradoxical policies are exacting an “overwhelming” price on the environment, to the point where trespass grow investigations now comprise the bulk of Forest Service law enforcement work in the region, which includes California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.
But for a moment, put aside the fact that the crop in question is marijuana. For Rick Fleming, director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew and a devoted trespass grow cleanup partner in the Sierra region featured in the film, it might as well be illegal corn or strawberries.
“They’re killing our animals, trashing our forest and destroying our water supply,” Fleming said of the illegal growers. “It’s not so much a political issue as it is just trying to preserve public lands.”
Since 2008, Fleming has been organizing volunteer crews to work with the Forest Service and local law enforcement to clean up illegal grow sites. In 2013, the Forest Service and law enforcement officials removed nearly one million marijuana plants across hundreds of sites in California. “Sometimes it’s 10,000 plants (at a site). Sometimes it’s 50 plants,” he said. “That doesn’t matter so much for us. What matters is the infrastructure that’s left,” like makeshift reservoirs filled with diverted water from streams.
But for Fleming’s volunteer cleanup crews, the most remarkable thing is always “just how much trash – tons and tons of trash.” Among the waste typically hauled out: tents, sleeping bags, stoves, propane tanks, clothing, food packaging, even discarded weapons.
The thousands of pounds of herbicides and pesticides used by trespass growers pose another threat; most of them are applied in dangerously high doses, and some of them have even been banned in this country. California’s Eastern District U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner notes that his office is “increasingly charging marijuana growers not only with drug crimes, but with environmental crimes,” including dozens of indictments of trespass growers on public lands in 2012 and 2013.
Mourad Gabriel, wildlife pathologist and another trespass grow cleanup expert in the film, has been tracking the harmful effects of some of the toxins on Pacific fishers, small carnivorous mammals already being considered for the endangered species list now being pushed to the edge by pesticide poisoning.
And what about those hundreds of thousands of feet of hose? In a state plagued by drought, trespass growers illegally obstruct and divert water, sometimes from miles away. At about 6 gallons of water per plant per day over 150 watering days, a trespass grow site with 10,000 plants diverts 60,000 gallons of water per day, or 9 million gallons in a season. Herbicides and pesticides added to irrigation water seep into the ground and back into the local water supply, causing everything from algal blooms to total ecosystem destruction. In the coho salmon habitat of Humboldt County’s Mattole watershed, hundreds of trespass grow sites threaten to undo millions of dollars of habitat preservation efforts.
How could this all happen? The answers, of course, reflect the fact that we aren’t dealing with illegal plantations of corn or strawberries after all – but a contentious, high-value substance, and during a historic moment when societal views are shifting in its favor but regulations lag behind. In a video report by Dan Rather released last October, U.S. Representative for California’s 2nd District Jared Huffman said that ultimately the problem stems from the conflict between state and federal law.
In February, Huffman and 17 other members of Congress, including Colorado’s Jared Polis and Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, urged President Obama to demote marijuana on the federal Controlled Substance Act, or remove it altogether. Marijuana is listed as a Schedule I substance – the strictest classification, higher than cocaine or methamphetamine. “Classifying marijuana as Schedule I at the federal level perpetuates an unjust and irrational system,” wrote the congressmen. With marijuana now legal for recreational use in two states and for medical use in 21 states and D.C., not to mention the trespass grow dilemma, “This makes no sense.”
In the video report, Huffman emphasized that as long as it’s a federal crime, there won’t be the option to create effective institutions to regulate and tax marijuana. Until it is decriminalized, so that growers can raise their crops without hiding them deep in public forests, he said, the environmental devastation will continue. Federal regulations could create environmental and public health standards for marijuana agriculture and provide transparency for consumers who want assurance that their weed is clean and “green.”
There are, of course, less environmentally harmful ways to get weed, like growing your own. But even homegrown or indoor-grown pot brings hidden environmental costs – including six times more energy consumption than the pharmaceutical industry, according to a major national study. But perhaps this cost is preferable to the other extreme.
“It’s really different than deforesting the forest and killing the animals and contaminating our water supply,” Fleming said. “It’s supposed to be a forest. It’s supposed to be public lands.”
Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.
Last summer, I visited Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time and, to be frank, was a little disgusted. Not by the park itself – the mountains were beautiful, even if the beetle-kill and $20 backcountry permits were disheartening – but by the salt-water-taffy-munching, airbrushed-tee-shirt-wearing crowd glutting the park’s gateway community of Estes Park, Colo., turning it into a kind of Jersey Shore of the Rockies.
Yet by the estimation of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our country’s “real treasures.” Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and 133 other little-visited parks? Not so much.
Coburn’s determination of what constitutes a “real treasure” stems from his calculation of how much federal money is spent on each park visitor, leading to the conclusion that less popular parks, like Yukon-Charley, drain taxpayer resources and siphon money away from pressing maintenance at world-famous destinations like the Grand Canyon. Coburn’s report of wasted money and “misplaced priorities” in the Park Service, released last fall, laid out a kind of national-park popularity contest in which the only good ones are those making the most money. It also outlined ways to increase profitability, such as by raising senior citizens’ fees.
Yet two reports released this week by the Interior Department suggest that all parks are economic drivers, even the less popular ones. The first report, a breakdown of the economic impact of national parks in 2012, found that visitor numbers were up by 3.9 million from the previous year, to a total of 282.8 million. Visitors spent $14.7 billion in gateway communities like Estes Park, and supported 243,000 jobs – mostly in hotels, restaurants and bars.
Perhaps more striking, though, is what happens without national parks, as illustrated by the second report’s evaluation of last fall’s government shutdown. Roughly 7.88 million people were turned away during the 16-day period when the country’s 401 parks and historical sites barricaded their entrances, resulting in a $414 million loss in tourist spending.
During a symposium on natural resources and sustainability last Friday at University of Colorado, Boulder, law professor Charles Wilkinson took a look at a group of panelists that included two former secretaries of Interior, and in a moment of appreciation for their service, declared them “Western royalty.”
No one said anything particularly groundbreaking at the event. There was talk about how there should be policies to incentivize mining, oil and gas companies to innovate toward environmentally sustainable strategies, for instance, but not a lot of new ideas about exactly how to do that. Still, it was far from boring. Here are three things I learned in 10 hours last Friday (plus some extra research):
The seed of what we now call sustainability started the Civil War, took root in 1905, and blossomed in 1982.
To help put the “sustainability challenge” in perspective, two professors recapped the idea’s history – a rivetingly nerdy tale for anyone invested in ongoing issues surrounding things like forest management and sustainable agriculture.
It was Edmund Ruffin, farmer and political rabble-rouser who fired the first shot in Charleston, S.C. in 1861 that helped set the stage for the Civil War. After finding that the previous century of tobacco had depleted the ground of nutrients on his property and that of many others, Ruffin began regularly publishing studies on soil in his home region. And fed up with what associate history professor Paul Sutter described as a “pattern of impermanence” in land use, he became one of the United States’ first agricultural reformists.
The man credited as the forefather of today’s sustainability movements, the inaugural U.S. Forest Service chief, Gifford Pinchot, may never have used the word sustainability, but it’s what he meant. Following the creation of the service in 1905, the Connecticut native vastly increased acreage of national forests and instituted practical steps toward the philosophy of “greatest good for the greatest number” in the long-term. By the time he was fired in 1910, Pinchot had begun to put our forests to use in a way that would help sustain for future generations many values and resources of the land, rather than just timber. This idea marked a break from the notion that national forests should consistently provide commercial product no matter the environmental cost.
Last week, Wilkinson pointed to efforts in the Yellowstone ecosystem to sustain the futures of bison, wolves, and the tourist economy as a contemporary example of Pinchot’s philosophy.
According to the professors – and a Google algorithm that analyzes every word published in millions of books that are now digitized online – it was the 1982 United Nations World Charter for Nature that marked the beginning of the use of the term “sustainability” as we know it today. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian prime minister central to a global environmental movement in the early ’80s, launched the concept with her groundbreaking 1987 report, “Our Common Future.” In it she laid a framework for long-term strategies for sustainable development, including everything from establishing national family planning policies to keep population growth under control to including, rather than ignoring, the economic consequence of forest degradation when measuring timber profits.
Sutter called this movement “sustainability synthesis, which combined environment and development strands that had been somewhat at odds before that.”
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For the third time in less than two years, I’ve been perusing the classifieds for a place for my family to rent in Durango, Colo., the town in which I grew up. Each time the pickings get slimmer, the prices get higher, and the process gets more agonizing.
We’ve been driven to this masochistic ritual because this home — like the last rental we lived in — is going on the market. Given the exorbitant amount of money they are asking for the home, we shouldn’t have to worry about it selling anytime soon, so should feel secure here. If, that is, we lived in a rational real estate universe. Durango, like so much of the West, is not a rational real estate universe.
I suppose we should feel lucky that we’re not in Williston, N.D., which made national news recently for having the highest average rent in the nation. An apartment in that little wind-blown town on the prairie can cost as much as one in San Francisco or New York and the artisan toast craze hasn’t even hit North Dakota. A 3 bedroom apartment in Williston can go for as much as $4,500 per month (granted, it’s furnished and all, but still). Bakkenrent.com offers luxurious, 250 square foot “two bedroom apartments” — which appear from the pictures to be particle board boxes wrapped in white plastic — for $2,195 per month. One of the bonuses of living here? “Alcohol consumption in moderation allowed.” “It’s the perfect housing solution for you and your workforce,” reads the ad.
And that workforce factor is key. Williston’s real estate market has gone zany thanks to relatively reasonable economic factors. There are a lot of jobs, thanks to the oil boom, and they pay well enough that even that $4,500 apartment is “affordable,” at least for the lucky family that can snag a couple of those jobs. When new jobs came to town and wages went up, so did rent. Makes sense.
That’s not the case in so many of the West’s communities. Here in Durango, for example, rents and home listing prices are increasing — by 5 percent over the last year, according to Zillow — but wages and jobs are not keeping pace. The median household income in Durango is about $53,000, some $5,000 less than the national average and $16,000 less than in Williston.
The median Durango household, then, could afford — meaning housing costs don’t eat up more than one-third of their total income — a $250,000 house, maybe a tad more. As long as they had a $10,000 down payment their monthly payment would be about $1,350. Good luck with that. There simply are no homes in Durango for that price: The median home listing price is $359,900 right now, and a 3 bedroom rental, if one becomes available, fetches $1,500 at the very least. Get a couple dozen miles from town and prices go down, but then you have to add transportation costs into the mix, since the rural surroundings are far more bereft of jobs than here in town.
In other words, Durango is like a good portion of the West: unaffordable. In fact, according to a report put out by the Center for Housing Policy last month, the West is plagued with some of the highest share of working households with a “severe housing cost burden,” meaning they pay at least half of their income on housing. California’s the worst, with 32 percent of households under the severe housing cost burden, but Washington, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado are all above the 20 percent mark. Not good. A recent Redfin Research Center study found that only 17 percent of California’s teachers can afford to buy a home in that state. Sure, they could rent, but as the NHC study found, renters are twice as likely to have a big housing cost burden than homeowners. That’s bad for the community, as it pushes out the working class. And it’s bad for the economy, because when everyone is spending all their income on rent, they don’t have enough to spend in local businesses.
If people aren’t making a ton of money, then what’s driving the market? It varies, surely, but in many cases, it’s a matter of income inequality. Though the average working person may be making less, the rich keep getting richer, and buying up real estate and jacking up prices. If the house we’re renting now sells, it won’t be to someone who gets all of their income from local work. It will be to someone who is either independently wealthy or an equity refugee who sold out in an even more wacky market and relocated here. Even more cringe-worthy — to me, at least — is the trend that a local real estate agent told me about: Wealthy parents buying their college student kids $450,000 houses and paying cash for them. Let’s just hope they don’t expect the kid to pay them back with the local job they’re going to get after graduating.
And why spend so much on a Durango home? For its amenities, of course, particularly recreation-related (we’re not exactly a culinary or cultural hot spot — we don’t have artisan toast, yet, either). Durango has made more “Top Towns for …” lists than I can count, particularly those put out regularly by the likes of Outside magazine. We have been among the Best Outside Towns, the Best River Towns, the Top Western Towns and the Top Ten Emerging Ski Towns. In most cases, the accolades are warranted, but they should be qualified. Durango: "The Best …. Town, for those with a lot of cash."
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.
If there was a moment when the California drought fully entered the national media spotlight, it came earlier this month when President Obama swooped into California’s parched Central Valley and announced $200 million in federal emergency aid. The president’s visit came days after the announcement of a bill from California Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, which would provide $300 million in funds for water projects and also accelerate the approval process for water transfers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Last Friday, Governor Jerry Brown announced $687 million in drought relief from the state.
For weeks leading up to the arrival of the president and relief funds, media reports had been painting a picture of a state being laid to waste by lack of precipitation. At the beginning of the month, the Department of Water Resources announced a zero percent allocation from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta for the state's 29 public water agencies – a first in the century-long history of the state’s infrastructure that shuttles water from Northern to Southern California. And last week, the Bureau of Reclamation followed suit, declaring that no water would be coming from federal reservoirs and canals to the Central Valley. According to the California Department of Public Health, 17 communities statewide are at risk of running out of water altogether. Images of parched farms in the Central Valley and small towns in northern California with reservoirs reduced to mudflats have filled front pages of national papers and slots on nightly news broadcasts.
The trouble with the sudden rush of national media attention is the glaring lack of context that accompanies many reports.
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The Pacific fisher, a small, carnivorous forest-dwelling mammal, is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act this year, and big wildfire could be to blame – or rather, the lack of it.
Ecologist Chad Hanson’s recent research on the fisher population of the southern Sierra Nevada shows that the animals – aptly described as “the love child of a ferret and a wolverine” – actually seek out post-fire habitat, especially areas that have burned at higher severity, where most of the trees are killed. In a 2013 study, the first to ever examine the relationship between fishers and fire, Hanson used dogs trained to detect Pacific fisher scat, tracking where they eat, sleep, raise their young and otherwise use forest habitat. He has yet to decipher exactly why fishers need post-fire habitat, but he suspects that the combination of downed logs, standing burned trees and natural regrowth create an ideal environment for the small mammals that fishers prey on.
The idea that there might be a wildfire deficit might seem odd in a time when the consensus among fire managers appears to be that we are experiencing increasingly frequent and more intense wildfire in the West. But a study released this month, co-authored by Hanson, says that contrary to commonly held belief, the majority of Western forests actually had more high-severity fires before fire suppression began 100 years ago than they do now. It seems ironic, then, that current Western forest management practice is based on the belief that only low- to moderate-severity fire was common before fire suppression, and that high-severity fire is a product of that suppression, exacerbated by climate change, and is largely damaging to wildlife and habitat. So high-severity fire – which burns 70 to 100 percent of woody vegetation and climbs from the ground to the treetops – is prevented as a matter of policy.
Let me start right off by saying that I failed. Miserably. Last summer I moved to western Colorado after spending most of my 29 years in exceptionally rainy places, and amid discussions of water rights and fights and rivers drying up and unraveling, I decided it would be a good idea to limit my own water footprint. For one week, I’d live on just five gallons of water a day. Then I’d write about it.
I could envision two possible endings:
Scenario One: While standing naked in the bathtub, smugly dribbling water over my head from a cup dipped in a bucket, I conclude that I must be in the 99th percentile of environmentally conscious Americans because living on five gallons a day requires little sacrifice. My houseplants thrive, I remain clean and good-natured, and the brilliant essay I planned to write suffers because it was too easy.
Scenario Two: One week into my experiment, I am ragged and filthy. My plants have withered and I've been shunned at work for peeing in a chamber pot under my desk. I am desperate for a hot shower, and when I finally turn on the faucet and step into the tub, I experience deep revelations that lead to a brilliant essay about limiting my water supply.
Scenario Three never made an appearance in my daydreams, but this is what really happened: It's Monday night – a mere three days after my resolution to live for a week on limited water – and I am sitting in bed freshly showered. I did not shower with a bucket. In other words, I didn't even make it to the end of the week.
For me, five gallons a day was a quirky experiment. For the 17 California communities on a list released last month by state health officials, it may become reality: As drought tightens its grip on the state, each community is at risk of running out of drinking water within 100 days. Officials are discussing trucking in water as a possible solution.
In one such place, a town of 1,200 called Lompico, water comes from underground aquifers replenished by rainwater. The problem is, there hasn’t been much rain lately: California received an average of just 7 inches in 2013, compared to their usual 22, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack that feeds many reservoirs is at 12 percent of normal. Lompico residents have been asked to cut their water usage by 30 percent, but as Water District Board president Lois Henry pointed out to the San Francisco Chronicle, “We live in the Santa Cruz Mountains. People don't have lawns. They don't have gardens. How are they going to conserve 30 percent?"
California isn’t the only state to face water shortages; residents of Magdalena, N.M., might be able to offer a few water-conserving suggestions. Last June, Magdalena’s sole well ran dry, and for several weeks Socorro County officials had to truck in water from the county seat, 30 miles away. For a while, families received two plastic water bottles and a five-gallon tank per day. The medical clinic shut its doors. Restaurants switched to disposable plates. Tourism effectively ceased, and some people living in rental properties packed their bags and moved on. It was like a glimpse into a drought-wracked dystopian future – or a not-so-distant future, if predictions that the California drought will persist for several months or longer prove accurate.
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With thick fur and snowshoe-like feet, wolverines are well-adapted to live in snow caves and run straight up mountains. Their high elevation lifestyles have helped them stay out of harm’s way in recent decades, and stage a slow comeback from the rampant carnivore persecution of the early 1900s. Though elusive and tenacious, they won’t be insulated from human impacts forever. They face a precarious future as climate change eats away at the snowpack they need.
That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to add them to the endangered species list, even as a handful of wide-ranging wolverines are venturing into states where they haven’t been seen for generations. The agency was slated to make a listing decision earlier this month as part of a legal settlement with environmental groups. But reputable wolverine biologists have criticized the scientific underpinnings of the agency’s proposed listing decision, especially the parts related to snowpack. Now, the FWS is delaying the decision for another six months so they can reconvene with scientists about wolverine habitat and climate impacts to it.
If wolverines are listed, they will join polar bears in having the dubious distinction of receiving federal protection in the name of climate change. Even if that can’t do much to curb climate impacts, it would renew discussions about federal and state wildlife managers reintroducing experimental populations of wolverines in higher elevation refuges like Colorado, to help maximize their survival prospects in the U.S.
A listing will also send a strong message about the fragile future of mountain snowpack that so many people depend on for water. But the prospect of a decision based on climate models, rather than more traditional, tangible, threats is already attracting attention. As Bob Inman, a wolverine biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Montana wrote in his peer review comments, “The magnitude of the precedent that this ruling establishes warrants careful scrutiny.”
The home of the West’s most pitched battles over oil and gas development is once more in the news for major energy policy reforms. On February 23, Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission voted in significantly stricter statewide rules governing air pollution from oil and gas development, including the nation’s first state-level controls on the industry’s emissions of methane – a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
The rules, which officials will begin implementing this year, “require companies to detect leaks and fix them (and) install devices that capture 95 percent of emissions — both volatile organic compounds and methane,” reports Bruce Finley for the Denver Post. State officials estimate that they will reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs), which contribute to the formation of lung-damaging, smog-making ozone, by 92,000 tons, and methane, by tens of thousands of tons. The measures are part of the state’s efforts to bring the urban area’s air into compliance with federal health standards.
Air quality hasn’t been helped by a recent drilling revival, driven in part by advances in the oil and gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, wherein a mix of water, sand and chemicals are fired into the ground to stimulate hydrocarbon production. With rigs moving closer to more communities, several have banned or otherwise voted to restrict the practice in hopes of avoiding accompanying air and water pollution, as well as public health impacts. A recent study in Environmental Health News has stoked those fears with the finding that women who live near gas wells in rural Colorado are more likely to have babies with congenital heart and neural tube birth defects.
With many enviros staking out hardline positions – calling for more local bans and even a statewide moratorium on fracking – the state, the industry and some environmental groups have been working to find common ground on how to lesson industry’s impacts. The new air quality rules are a good example, brokered as they were with the Environmental Defense Fund and the major energy companies Anadarko, Noble and EnCana.