Maybe the Bureau of Land Management thought they could dodge two decades of Nevada water controversy by releasing a crucial decision just two days after Christmas. Last week’s approval of a water pipeline “right of way” puts the Southern Nevada Water Authority -- who hailed the decision as a "milestone" -- one step closer to breaking ground on the project, which would suck groundwater from beneath three eastern Nevada counties and pump it to Las Vegas. Ever since the plan was unveiled in 1989, it's been met by stiff resistance from ranchers, local governments, environmentalists, and Native Americans, who have issued tens of thousands of public comments saying that the environmental and economic costs will be severe and far-reaching.
Schell Creek Range as seen from southeast of Ely, Nev., just west of the project area.
The decision came on the heels of a Bureau of Reclamation report another BLM document that paints a dire future for the Colorado River basin if population growth and water use remain unchecked. For all the conservation measures it’s put in place, Las Vegas still can't get around the fact that 90 percent of its water comes from the Colorado. That's a scarily nondiverse portfolio, especially given that the BLM report says Colorado River supplies could fall short of demand by up to 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. (That's the annual amount used by 6.4 million households.) For decades, that frightening prospect has fueled the authority's ambitions to tap water in other parts of the parched state. As HCN reported in 2009, the SNWA, led by the shrewd Patricia Mulroy, has spent millions buying up ranches and their water rights, even ending up with several thousand cows and sheep as a result.
You are a High Country News reader, and thus, unlikely to be a subscriber to People magazine. But try as you might to stay above the pop culture fray, you’ve probably heard by now: Princess Kate is pregnant. She craves lavender shortbread. She is not, it turns out, too thin to be pregnant, though the jury of public opinion is still out on whether it’s a bit unseemly for her parents to cash in with their new line of baby shower products.
This week, thankfully, at least one thread in the royal baby storyline took on a serious tone: The prospect of becoming a grandfather has steeled Prince Charles' resolve to beat the drum about climate change. “Now that we will have a grandchild,” the longtime proponent of cutting carbon emissions said in an interview, “it makes it even more obvious to try and make sure we leave them something that isn’t a totally poisoned chalice.” (The British have such a way with words, don't they?)
The prince’s plea is timely, in a sense. There’s something about the turning of the New Year that prompts people to think, ‘Maybe this will be the year we start to take our carbon problem seriously.’ Headlines like this run with abandon: “2013: A Tipping Year for Climate Change?”
The more precise question to ask, though, is whether people will collectively care about climate change any more this year than they did last? Research released this fall concluded that 70 percent of Americans now believe that climate change is a real thing – an encouraging reversal of the recent decline in belief in its reality. “So why,” Bill Moyers recently asked Anthony Leiserowitz, of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, “isn’t the message (that we should do something about it) getting through?”
It feels weird to write about this in a blog -- a purely digital format. Hell, the fact that I’m typing this on a computer makes me feel like a full-on techno-weenie. That’s because the subject of this little article, a guy named Dean Coombs, puts out a newspaper every week without the benefit of the internet, a computer or even a digital camera.
Coombs is the editor, publisher and janitor of the Saguache Crescent, the official paper of Saguache County, a sparsely populated land on the northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The entire publishing process is totally unsullied by the digital. The Crescent is, as far as I can tell, the last all letterpress newspaper in the nation.
I wandered through the streets of Saguache, population 500 or less, while driving through the frigid San Luis Valley. I’ve always liked the town and its cottonwood-lined streets, sheltered as it is from the valley’s harsh elements by low treeless hills. It was founded by Otto Mears, a Russian Jew who became known as the Pathfinder of the San Juans for his ambitious road and railroad building projects, back in 1867. The town originally served as a supply center for the mining camps in the San Juan Mountains.
If a U.S. company sells coal overseas, should it pay royalties based on the price of that coal if it was sold domestically, or on the actual price it is sold for overseas?
Mining companies have been paying royalties based on the first price, that of domestically-sold coal. That's never been much of an issue, since most coal mined in the U.S. has historically been sold in the country. But the price of coal in the U.S. has plummeted this year due to abundant natural gas supplies and other factors. The value of coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin fell nearly 20 percent in 2012, to around $13 per ton.
So a lot of the fuel is being shipped to China and India, where it fetches about 10 times as much per ton (see our coverage Coal-export schemes ignite unusual opposition, from Wyoming to India and The Global West: how foreign investment fuels resource extraction in western states). The companies sell coal destined for overseas markets to agents affiliated with the companies. These brokers add in transportation costs and jack up the price. Politicians and industry watchers say that system means that the federal government is getting far lower royalties than it ought to (companies pay a 12.5 percent royalty on the value of coal taken from public lands).
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Early into the new year, researchers measuring methane leaks from natural gas fields in Utah found that far more of the climate-forcing gas was being emitted than they thought (methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat). Preliminary results from that research, in the Uinta Basin, show that 9 percent of the total methane produced there is being leaked to the atmosphere.
To put that percentage into context, in order for natural gas operations (from well to city) to produce less climate impact than the life cycle carbon emissions of a new coal-fired power plant, leakage from natural gas operations needs to be under 3.2 percent. Given that, 9 percent is a little crazy.
Uinta gas field, viewed from above. Image courtesy Flickr user SkyTruth.
"We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see," says Colm Sweeney, part of the research team and a scientist at NOAA's Earth Systems Laboratory in Boulder.
On many a summer evening in the small, former mining town of Silverton, Colo., the staccato sound of gunshots echoes through the otherwise quiet streets. Follow the shots and you’ll come across a cast of stereotypical Old West characters riddling one another with bullets, as folks no doubt did once upon a time in these parts. Except that they didn’t. Not really.
Back in the 1950s, those Silverton gunfights (they’re shooting blanks, by the way) were held when you’d expect them to be: As the narrow gauge train, loaded down with tourists, rolled into town in the middle of the day. Theatrical value aside, the gunfights were no more by the 1970s. A group of history-minded citizens had gained influence, and rejected the charade as an inaccurate portrayal of their town’s history.
The West is and always has been a land of myths, a big blank spot on the map into which the rest of the world can put their misconceptions. Today, in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, one of the most persistent, and perhaps most false, myths is being bandied about again in the public conversation: that of the Wild gunslinging West. In a recent piece on National Public Radio, commentators equated a society in which people pull guns to settle minor disputes, or take guns into theaters and schools, with the “Wild West.” So ingrained into our collective consciousness is this myth that we repeat it without a second thought: The West was a place where the citizenry was armed to the teeth, the only law and order came from each individual and his or her Colt .45, and that gun-loving trait persists in our culture today, even to the point of being an integral part of Western identity.
Like most myths, the gun-filled Wild West one, and the Silverton gunfights it has spawned, were born out of a bit of truth. Yet, nourished by pop culture and a sort of snowball effect of falsehood, the Western gun myth has grown up to look very little like the true story from which it comes.
Dear Readers: I have grim and terrible news to share with you. I was taking a look at my trusty wall calendar, the one put out by local electric coop, to see what kind of photo of a lineman playing with high voltage lines was on the next page, when I noticed there was no next page. That’s right, my calendar ENDS after December 31. Nothing more. Nada. Which means that the Mayans were right, they just had their dates mixed up.
So there I was, in the type of contemplative, retrospective mood that the apocalypse tends to inspire, when I realized that if I could cobble together the right combination of numbers, I would unlock some celestial vault, in which the secret to saving the world -- a 2013 calendar from the local coop -- was waiting. So here goes: Some of my favorite and least favorite numbers from 2012. Most have to do with energy, but some have to do with, well, other stuff (yet it’s all related, of course).
1: My ranking of “Energy Independence” amongst the most overhyped buzzwords uttered in 2012. Politicians have been touting their desire to achieve independence from foreign oil imports since the days of Nixon, but this year, as new drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques hit paydirt across the nation, the phrase took on new meaning.Read More ...
There’s nothing new about a natural resource boom and its ugly twin, the bust. When reporting on how these economic hurricanes blow through communities, writers tend to tell similar narratives.
First, there’s the sepia-toned photo of what the place used to look like, maybe a quote or two from some old-timer at the local diner who remembers when the streets were quiet and everyone knew each other’s name. Then the newcomers show up: the speculators, land men, company men, all rolling through town with their shiny cars and pockets full of investors. They usher in a wave of rapid growth. There's hastily-constructed housing developments and roads. Then come even more newcomers, usually young men from somewhere else. Next the story shifts to impacts of the boom: traffic, drugs, violence, high rent and environmental degradation. Finally (wait for it!), the inevitable bust. Prices drop, the man camps empty out and rigs and wells rust away. Locals are left wondering: were we better off with the boom, or without it?
Fortunately, there are journalists out there figuring out how to tell tired energy stories in exciting ways, hooking readers and listeners even though they’ve heard about oil and gas development hundreds of times. It’s important for people to see and feel the effect of their energy consumption—the stuff always comes from someone’s backyard—but if a story is predictable it’s less likely to have an impact. Here’s five ways to escape that trap.
The silence here is as big as the sky. It’s early December, and I’ve pulled to the side of the road, next to the shell of an old service station, its adobe walls well on their way to returning from whence they came. I listen to nothingness, and look around for signs of population in this little town way out on the high plains. One of the houses still has all its windows and a satellite dish in the yard, and across from the abandoned post office sits the USPS’s archetypal rural P.O., of the blue-grey prefab type. The light’s on, so I guess people live here after all, though they can neither be heard nor seen.
This is Yeso, New Mexico. I suppose it was thriving once, but all its good times appear to have dried up and blown away in the incessant wind, leaving an assortment of mostly empty stone and adobe buildings.
If you’re the type to watch economic monitors and forecasts and stats, you might think that New Mexico, as a whole, is going the way of Yeso. A flurry of recent statistics has indicated that the state’s economy is in deep trouble. Even as much of the rest of the nation climbs slowly out of the wreckage left by the housing bust and Great Recession, New Mexico’s economy has flatlined, or worse. Okay, the state isn’t Yeso, nor will it be anytime soon. Still, it’s worth asking: What’s the matter with New Mexico?
Executive Summary: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security proposes to allow an action described in the poem Twas The Night Before Christmas. Excerpting some quotes from the poem, the action would be "a miniature sleigh ... full of toys" hooked to "eight tiny reindeer" capable of flight, being driven through the sky over the U.S. border on the night of December 24 by a non-citizen known as "jolly ... St. Nick."
Jurisdiction: The Department has authority over this incursion of U.S. air space and territory, and therefore is the lead agency evaluating the resulting impacts on the environment, under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA, 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), in a process described by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "All federal agencies are to prepare detailed statements assessing the environmental impact of and alternatives to major federal actions significantly affecting the environment. These statements are commonly referred to as environmental impact statements (EISes)."
Background: The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and 14 other environmental groups filed appeals and lawsuits requesting that the EIS be broad in scope, evaluating the cumulative impacts of St. Nick visiting all the houses in the nation, and all the associated impacts of celebrating Christmas which are not spelled out in the poem but are implicit, such as herbicides applied to all Christmas tree farms, emissions from generating electricity for all Christmas lights, and the disposal of all used gift-wrapping paper in landfills. Those legal actions were unified in a lawsuit that proceeded from lower courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in favor of the Department's intent to keep the EIS focused only on the impacts of St. Nick visiting a single house as described in Twas The Night Before Christmas. A separate legal action filed by atheists challenging the Department's proposal as an unconstitutional violation of separation of church and state also went to the Supreme Court, and again that court ruled 5-4 that the Department can proceed because Christmas has evolved to be a non-religious celebration for many people.
The need for the proposed action: Children need Christmas presents as a reward for being nice rather than naughty the whole year, families and societies need myths, and the Christmas industry -- retail businesses and churches -- needs customers.
Consulting agencies: In the preparation of this EIS, the Department consulted with the Environmental Protection Agency for evaluation of the impacts of the action described in the poem, including (1) emissions from flying reindeer, which are bound to affect air quality and water quality, (2) pesticide use implied by the poem's opening stanza: "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house ... Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse," (3) emissions from St. Nick's pipe described as "The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth ... and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath," (4) dust pollution described as "His clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot" from descending the house's chimney, and (5) potentially extensive noise pollution described as "When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter ... St. Nick ... whistled, and shouted, and called them by name! ... 'Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! ... On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen! ... To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! ... Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!' ... I heard on the roof ... The prancing and pawing of each little hoof ... He had a broad face and a little round belly ... that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly! ... He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle ... But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight ... 'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!'"
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