High Country News has reported on the Bush administration’s "midnight deregulations," the host of hurried laws issued in the waning days of the administration, which – whether aimed at fisheries, air pollution, or oil shale – generally promise to benefit big business while undercutting environmental protections. But now that Obama’s in the oval office, some of those last minute rules might be overturned, and one such reversal could begin today.
This morning, a coalition of Navajo and Hopi groups and environmental activists appealed a permit revision issued to Peabody Energy on December 22 by the Office of Surface Mining. The coalition argues that the permitting process violated federal mining and environmental statutes. Among the concerns: complaints that the environmental review was inadequate and included little mention of coal mining's impact on climate change; and contentions that public participation was squelched by the fast pace of the final approval process.
"This is a huge mine," said the Sierra Club's Andy Bessler. "The communities that deal with these mines need time to deal with the complexity."
The controversial permit rearranges Peabody’s coal rights in the Black Mesa Complex – a massive coal operation that encompasses two separate strip mines and straddles Navajo and Hopi land. Under the recently issued life-of-mine permit, 5,950 acres of coal reserves formerly included in the permit area of one mine (which is currently closed and showing no sign of reopening) have been transferred into the permit area of the other mine on the Mesa (which is currently active and promises to remain so for another 18 years).
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Westerners can see that there's trouble in the woods -- these days, it seems like there's a beetle-killed lodgepole stand around every corner -- but here's some especially sobering evidence of forest die-offs, just published in the journal Science. A long-term study of almost 59,000 trees in plots throughout the region shows that tree deaths in old-growth forests have more than doubled in the past three decades -- and that young trees aren't filling in all the gaps. The likely causes, say top forest researchers, are familiar culprits: warming temperatures and drought.
There are lots of implications here for forest ecology -- study authors speculate that the deaths could kick off a cascade of effects on plant and animal species. And the study offers yet another warning to people living in or near the increasingly fire-prone woods (a demographic that includes, er, me -- see here). It's worth noting that the data analyzed in this paper date back to 1955 -- ecologists looking for big-picture trends have to cultivate plenty of patience.
HCN's story Unnatural Preservation talks about some of the management dilemmas raised by such trends, and includes some interesting perspective on Sequoia National Park from one of this study's authors, USGS researcher Nate Stephenson.
On Jan. 16, outgoing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne authorized the Bureau of Land Management to create renewable energy offices in Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada. The offices are meant to speed permitting for wind, solar, biomass and geothermal projects, as well as transmission lines. The feds are acting on a 2005 directive to develop 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2015.
That sounds noble, but with a huge number of projects in queue – there were 125 solar applications on almost 1 million acres of public land as of June 2008, for example – the effort could ultimately leave an environmental footprint as deep in some ways as that of the West’s last energy rush. After 9/11, the Bush administration made expediting fossil fuel production from public lands one of its highest priorities. In Western areas rich in natural gas, that meant churning out drilling permits, often at the expense of other resources. Roads, wellpads and drill rigs fragmented habitat and marred views; diesel fumes and volatile organic compounds fogged the air, punching ozone to dangerous levels in some places.
Any industrial-scale energy development on public land should proceed with caution. The last thing we need is for our efforts to solve the biggest environmental problem -- global warming -- to set off cascades of other environmental problems.
In his inaugural address to the nation Barak Obama said: “We will restore science to its rightful place.” This is a reference to pledges made during the campaign which were directed primarily toward the environmental community. Environmentalists have been outraged by Bush Administration interference in endangered species, clean air and clean water decisions. These Bush Administration misdeeds became high profile when they received major media attention. Reference to them in the Inaugural Address signals that restoring scientific integrity in environmental decision making is a primary and initial “pay out” which the Obama Administration will make to the environmental community. We can expect big changes at EPA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
But how far will this pledge extend? The misuse and abuse of science was not limited to the issues which received major media attention and actions which ignored or adjusted science to conform to political desires were not practiced only by Bush appointees. Many line officials in federal agencies ignored or “adjusted” scientific information during the past eight years in order to do the bidding of the Bush appointees. These officials are still in their jobs.
In early August, retired English professor Al Schneider was in the foothills of Lone Mesa State Park, surveying rare native plants in the inhospitable Mancos shale barrens for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. He was on his belly photographing the recently discovered species Physaria Pulvinata when he realized he was crushing another lovely plant.
The flower was "delicate, with masses of brilliant yellow flowers topping gracefully arching stems." It had escaped his notice at first, but on closer inspection he found it wasn't quite like any other plant he knew. Al consulted Weber and Whitman's guide to Colorado flora on the Western slope, following the key two times without a successful ID. He then called botanist Peggy Lyons over, and she couldn't find it either.
He referenced other botanical keys and emailed photos of the plant to several experts. No one had seen the shrub before. Finally, he got a definitive answer from Colorado plant guru Bill Weber: "Your new Gutierrezia is beautiful."Read More ...
If you squinted hard at the brief and fuzzy “State of the State” address California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered Thursday morning you might have detected a glimmer of good news for environmentalists: A controversial water conveyance project the governor has been pushing for – a canal that would suck water from the Sacramento River to feed the state’s thirsty southern half – may have been forced on hold. The partisan budget rift has gone so deep – indeed, said the governor, “Conan’s sword could not have cleaved our political system in two so cleanly” – that all talk of “infrastructure or water,” among other things, has been suspended. At least for now.
Little comfort that is, though, for conservationists enduring what should have been a busy and well-funded winter. California voters have scarcely ever said no to a single ballot measure funding clean water and parks, and the last eight years of elections have piled up a healthy kitty for everything from wetland restoration to trail repair to city aquariums, all funded with grants tied to bonds. But since a state without a budget and a $42 billion deficit looks about as good to an investor as a vagrant without a van or a bank account does to a bank, California hasn't been selling many bonds lately. “Unfortunately, the nationwide credit crunch and State budget woes have combined to close the bond market to California,” State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said in a statement. And “until the Legislature and Governor adopt a budget that keeps California out of the poorhouse,” that’s not likely to change much.
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Raymond "Squeak" Hunt is not one to be ignored. He's not afraid to speak his mind (even if it means building a giant billboard to do so). More often than not, he's holding a large, sharp knife (he butchers sheep for a living). And he's prone to spouting aphorisms which, though they don't always make sense and are highly irreverent, can be pretty damned funny.
Yet, a lot of people have ignored him for a long time. Squeak, as his friends call him, has for decades been battling the owners of the San Juan Generating Station, a massive coal-burning power plant that sits just up the road from Hunt's house and business in Waterflow, N.M.. Enviros have long taken issue with the smoke from the plant's stacks (and the haze it blankets the region with). But only a few activists have listened when it comes to Hunt's big fight: Against the solid waste that comes out of coal plants.
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President-elect Barack Obama says he favors nuclear energy, and yesterday his Energy secretary nominee Steven Chu said he intends to fast-track the construction of new domestic nuclear plants. At the same time, Obama is against the proposed high-level nuclear storage facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. With just days remaining before Obama takes office, Western politicians are staking out their own positions on nuclear issues.
This week Nevada's Democratic Sen. Harry Reid and his Republican colleague Sen. John Ensign stressed unity in their opposition to Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"At this time when we have the best chance of killing Yucca Mountain once and for all, we should not be divided as a state," said Ensign. Reid said Yucca Mountain -- already costing more than $15 billion -- is "a symbol of everything bad about government waste," and pledged to make deep budget cuts to the project, even if some Nevadans employed there may lose their jobs.
"Yucca Mountain is a safety issue for the people of this country. We are not going to be deterred from where we think the Yucca Mountain waste should go. It should stay where it is," said Reid, advocating that each nuclear facility provide its own storage.
Meanwhile Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) proposed up to $7 billion in a national economic recovery package for cleanup work at Hanford -- a bomb factory during World War II -- and other DOE nuclear sites. The DOE has also offered a $6 billion proposal to reduce the size of large contaminated sites and complete cleanup at smaller sites. Murray made her comments a confirmation hearing for Peter Orszag, nominated for director of the Office of Management and Budget.
In 2008, the DOE estimated total cleanup costs at $225 billion -- $100 billion more than the year before.
This past year, the West’s wolves have had an even rougher time of it than usual. In the Northern Rockies, they’ve been bounced on and off the endangered species list, and in Yellowstone, more than usual have died. In the Southwest, it’s back to the drawing board after reintroduction plans failed miserably.
After the Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the gray wolf in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming last February, hunters immediately shot more than a dozen. Enviros sued, and last September the agency agreed to keep the predators listed until it could determine whether wolves would survive long-term without Endangered Species Act protections. That decision apparently didn’t require much extra thought – the agency just announced that it will again take wolves off the list (except in Wyoming, where the state has yet to come up with a reasonable management plan). Expect another lawsuit.
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Setbacks are an ongoing theme for NGOs and renewable energy companies that are promoting the use of sustainable resources. Now wind farms are hearing about another setback – a physical one, that is, and for justifiable reasons. The funny thing is, they’re hearing it from other renewable energy advocates.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that an off-the-grid community is resisting the development of a wind farm just west of Taos, NM. Residents are concerned about health risks from low-frequency vibrations, flashing strobe lights, annoying shadows, turbines killing birds and bats, and landscape blight. However, a larger issue is at hand.
Keely Meagan’s opinion article in a December issue of The New Mexican is headlined, “Regulation must precede wind-power building.” She’s referring to the state and federal regulations that need to be created in order to facilitate our nation’s switch from nonrenewable to renewable energy sources. Meagan notes that county regulations have no influence on wind farms proposed on state-leased land.
Many residents in the Cielito Lindo subdivision of Taos, where homes rely primarily on solar energy, have vocalized their objections online at talkingwind.com and also at a Taos County Planning Commission meeting. The group of 18 solar-powered homes lies adjacent to the proposed site. In December, the Commission approved variances for the towering turbines, a move that many feel violate county land-use regulations.
The county limit for structure height is 27 feet, but anyone can apply for exemptions. And though the bulk of the citizens at the meeting were against the wind farm, according to The New Mexican, the commission granted a 425-foot limit for the proposed turbines – a height almost 16 times the county limit.
David Carpenter, president of the Cielito Lindo subdivision, says, “An industrial anything is not appropriate out here.”
A similar situation in Wisconsin led concerned citizens to draw up wind ordinances. And now a couple of wind energy companies have signed the New York Wind Power Code of Ethics.
Taos Wind Power, the wind energy company whose 27 wind turbines are in development, has thousands of acres of land in New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana slated for future wind development. But proposed wind farms may see new hurdles in the near future.
A meeting last week in Santa Fe brought residents, clean energy advocates, state officials, and two wind industry representatives together for a conversation. Regarding the meeting, Meagan, who represents the New Mexico Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy and Sustainability, said in an email, "Big wind is no longer quite so clean, green and easy as portrayed by the corporations profiting from wind." She stressed that community needs must be considered for alternative energy development.
Bill Lockwood, president and CEO of Taos Wind Power, says he was unaware about last week's meeting. "I live here, I have a wife here, I have a son here. I've lived out there on the mesa with solar panels. I'm walking the talk."
A book by medical practitioner Nina Pierpont about the health impacts of wind turbine noise is due later this year. Her clinical name for it is Wind Turbine Syndrome. Lockwood maintains that Pierpont's research has no scientific evidence.