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The costs of coal

Jodi Peterson | Jan 25, 2010 09:05 AM

A controversial new report on the economics of Powder River Basin coal was written by a University of Wyoming economist -- and paid for by the Wyoming Mining Association. As you might expect, the report provides some boosterish facts about coal:

  • The Powder River Basin, which stretches across 20,000 square miles of Wyoming and Montana, boasts nearly nine times the energy resources of Saudi Arabia
  • Annually, it would take one of the following to replace the energy produced by burning PRB coal:
    • 95 1,000-megawatt capacity nuclear power plants operating at 85 percent capacity.
    • 177 hydroelectric plants the size of Hoover dam producing 4 billion kilowatts an hour per year.
    • 201,922 wind turbines each operating at 2 megawatts.

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Of routes and rotors

Nicholas Neely | Jan 25, 2010 08:05 AM

Before migrating to Paonia, I spent time in the backwoods of southwestern Oregon, occasionally on the porch of a cabin with a colony of bats living under its shingles. Each afternoon, the walls began to creak and moan like old floorboards. Then the bats — hundreds of furry clamshell bodies — would slip out, unfurl, and fly off for their nightly dose of mosquitoes. They arrived in July, and left in November for warmer climes. This morning, as I walked to the HCN office in sub-20-degree weather, they probably were falling asleep in the dark thatching of a Mexican cabana.

They’ll be back in Oregon next summer, hopefully. But bats, like birds, face risks as they travel — one of which is the increasing number of wind turbines in the West (see our short article "Blades, birds, and bats").

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It may be the apocalypse. . .

Sarah Gilman | Jan 25, 2010 07:50 AM

2012? Whatever.

Clearly the apocalypse is nigh-er than that. First, there's the weather to consider. Wave after wave of Pacific storms have left Southern California's beaches a creepy Mad-Maxian mess of shopping carts, plastic toys and other manmade flotsam that's washed down from various megalopoli. It's been the worst series of storms in five years, reports Reuters, unleashing torrents of rain that have spurred evacuations in mudslide-prone communities outside of Los Angeles, as well as

heavy hail, snow, gale-force winds and even tornadoes, flooding streets, closing highways, canceling airline flights at several airports and pounding beaches with waves as high as two-story buildings. The storms were blamed for at least two deaths, including a 21-year-old man who was crushed by a falling tree.

Tornadoes?! In California?! Indeed. At least one touched down in Ventura County, according to the LA Times, leaving a mile-long path of destruction:

“It picked a Chrysler Sebring off the ground, it hovered for second and spun it around," (said Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jack Richards). “It hit a tree and blew out the rear and side windows.” He said it also uprooted some trees. “It plucked them right out of the ground like a eyebrow,” Richards said. “It also tore the roofs off some sheds.”

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Frackin' Fears

Rachel Waldholz | Jan 20, 2010 09:49 AM

Yet another group is demanding that the federal government regulate hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), the process used to extract oil and natural gas, because it threatens human health.

In a report released yesterday, Drilling Around the Law, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) argues that fracking could contaminate drinking water supplies "from Pennsylvania to Wyoming," but is largely ignored by state and federal regulators.

When fracking, drillers shoot a mix of water, sand, and (here’s the rub) possibly toxic chemicals into a well to create thousands of tiny fissures in the rock and release the gas bubbles caught within. The process has opened up new sources of natural gas across the U.S.; EWG reports that it is now used in 90% of the nation’s oil and natural gas wells.

But fracking fluid has been linked to multiple cases of water contamination and health issues and the chemicals in it remain largely undisclosed – guarded by companies (and the law) as proprietary information.

In 2005, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act -- except, EWG points out, fracking with diesel. Companies must get state or EPA approval to include diesel in fracking fluid.

But it turns out that most state and federal regulators aren’t even tracking the use of diesel.

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Attack of the dromedaries

Lisa Song | Jan 20, 2010 08:20 AM

It's sunrise on the Colorado River, and a dozen sand-colored lumps stir by the banks. Bodies rise on spindly legs. Mouths open with a sound like pulling dentures. In a flash of gums, twelve sets of teeth clamp down on the nearest tamarisk plants. Chomp. Chomp. Leaves, bark and thorns disappear in a rhythm of steady chewing. The year is 2011, and the camel invasion has begun.

Such a future would make rancher Maggie Repp proud. While camels are known for three things -- they spit, they have humps, and they can survive for long periods without water -- Repp, the owner of 15 camels in Loma, Colo., believes they could be great at controlling tamarisk. The tough, salty tamarisk bushes are perfect camel food. "They will eat all day if given the opportunity," says Repp, who  plans to set up a demonstration project this spring. "My camels have killed every tamarisk on our place, so why not give it a whirl?" 


Photo credit: Ltshears

The invasive tamarisk is notoriously hard to kill. First introduced from Eurasia to the U.S. in the 1800s, it spread relentlessly across the West, choking up rivers and out-competing native plants (for a history of the tamarisk, see Paul Larmer's 1998 article "Tackling Tamarisk"). Tamarisk has survived chainsaws, fire and chemical herbicides. In 2001, scientists released the foreign Diorabda beetle to control the plant's spread. Since then, the leaf-eating beetles have attacked thousands of acres of tamarisk (see Michelle Nijhuis' 2007 story Beetle Warfare).

But even a brown, leafless tamarisk can spring back to life. It sometimes takes several years of de-leafing by beetles to kill a tamarisk, and camels would work in much the same way. Repp hopes the camels will eat away at any new growth until the tamarisk finally dies. In an effort to publicize her plan, she left some pamphlets at the 2010 Tamarisk Symposium, where hundreds of people had gathered to discuss tamarisk beetles and their effects on the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

"I've heard of people using goats," said one scientist. "But it would take a LOT of goats [to really get anywhere]." Camels, he said, would likely pose the same problem.

Repp estimates that 10 camels could destroy half an acre of tamarisk in 2 days. That's small-scale compared to tamarisk beetles, which can spread over a hundred miles in two years. So for full riparian restoration, stick with the beetle. But if you want to clear the odd tamarisk patch off your pasture, it might be easier to rent a camel.


Returning soon to a bookstore near you

Ed Quillen | Jan 16, 2010 05:17 AM

      By now you've likely read about the new movie Crazy Heart, which is getting good reviews and some Oscar buzz.
    Not having seen the movie (in my backwater, it will likely be on DVD before it gets to a theater near me), I can't address it. But it's based on the book by Thomas Cobb, and his Crazy Heart one of my favorite novels of all time.
    It's the story of Bad Blake, a broken-down has-been country singer who's still on the road, playing at honky tonks, roadhouses, gin mills, and other down-scale haunts of the American West. It opens with Bad at a bowling alley in Pueblo, Colo., performing in front of a local garage band, and not real sure where he is. His next stop, as he chugs along in his old truck with a bad engine valve, is Santa Fe.
    It's a hard and well-told story. I encountered it about 20 years ago after my wife read it and told me "Ed, I know you don't like country music much, but you've got to read this book." I did and started pressing it on my friends, especially musicians, who talked about how true it rang with them even though they were rock 'n' rollers.
    My mother is a country fan -- I grew up listening to her Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams 78s -- and she loved the book, even though she's a Baptist who generally frowns on novels with drugs and sex.
    Thomas Cobb is one of my favorite writers; a couple of years ago, he produced another fine novel, Shave Tail, set on an Army post in frontier Arizona.
    As for his Crazy Heart, it's been long out of print. But with the movie now out, it appears that the book will be re-issued. It's a wonderful tale of low-life night-life, mostly set in our part of the world. Bad Blake is so well-drawn that it seems possible that some afternoon, I'll go down to the Victoria Tavern for a cold one, and on the next barstool, there will be Bad, getting primed for a performance while he muses about his travails with his agent and his ex-wives.
    Read it and weep -- and laugh a lot, too.

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Map test

Jonathan Thompson | Jan 15, 2010 09:43 AM



View Untitled in a larger map

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Water Bargain

Rachel Waldholz | Jan 15, 2010 02:44 AM

It’s one more step in what’s been a long, slow trudge. But this step’s a big one.

Last Thursday, negotiators released a final agreement on water rights in the Klamath River, moving closer to a settlement of the long-running water wars in the Klamath Basin.

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement sets the terms for divvying up water rights and restoring fisheries in the river. It joins a sister compact, the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which laid out plans to tear down four dams on the Klamath starting in 2020. That agreement was released last September.

Lest you forget the tortured history of the Klamath, the two agreements are the result of over half a decade of negotiations among almost 30 parties – irrigating farmers upstream, commercial fishermen and Indian tribes downstream, and environmental groups the length of the river, not to mention local governments, state and federal agencies and PacifiCorp, which operates the dams – and they come after decades of fights, and in the midst of ongoing lawsuits. (For a sense of the key players and some history on how these perennial antagonists found themselves at the negotiating table, see Matt Jenkins’ 2008 article, Peace on the Klamath).

This most recent chapter opened with a pair of disasters at the start of the decade.

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The Bighorn-Butterfly Effect

Nicholas Neely | Jan 14, 2010 07:35 AM

Little wings can compel broad change, but it certainly doesn't hurt when they are backed up by the possibility of a head-butt, litigious or otherwise.

The presence of endangered Quino checkerspot butterflies and Peninsular bighorn sheep  on 51,000 acres of the San Jacinto Mountains--and the appeals of several prominent conservation groups--has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to scrutinize the renewal of grazing allotments in the San Bernardino National Forest of Southern California.

Though these grazing permits entail only 100 cattle, that's potentially enough to out-compete and overrun the local grass and wildflower users. Bighorns vie with cattle for forage. The Quino checkerspot--now cornered in small portions of Riverside and San Diego counties, just 25 percent of its former range--also depends on sensitive ground-cover.

Last May, HCN  explored the benefits of regular--not rampant--grazing for a population of the closely-related Bay checkerspot on Coyote Ridge, overlooking San Jose in Northern California ("Bring in the cows"). There, cud-chewers keep  exhaust-fed weeds at bay, encouraging the native flowers the butterflies rely upon above the highways of Silicon Valley.

What these two stories suggest, not surprisingly,  is that a categorical conservation approach doesn't work--grazing might be more harmful in arid SoCal than in the often-lush Bay Area. And in the San Jacintos,  the Forest Service is only reconsidering these grazing allotments, for now. Perhaps there will be room for cattle in those 51,000 acres; perhaps the proximity of bighorns, or other local factors, should keep them away.

It's one of any number of cattle and/or conservation debates around the West. Here are a few more questions  from the HCN archives:  "Can cows  and grouse coexist on the range?"  "Can cattle save the pygmy rabbit?" 

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Nicholas Neely | Jan 13, 2010 08:50 AM

In Avatar, there’s an economic reason, of course, that humans have traveled to Pandora. Early on in the movie, we’re shown the temptation: a sample of the element levitates in midair, silver, alluring—and apparently worth $20 million a kilogram. Considering the production expenses for Avatar were an estimated $230 million, it would take only 12 kilos of unobtainium to recoup the movie's costs. Spaceward Ho!

Recently bloggers at HCN have highlighted the potential uranium boom in Wyoming (will that entice extraterrestrials to the Equality State?) and the possibility of uranium prospecting around the Grand Canyon. Though yellowcake was only $44.50 a pound ($98.11 a kilo) as of January 4, this notorious -ium is pretty much as close as it gets to unobtainium on Earth. In both cases, locals—whether people or wildlife—are at risk of displacement, much like the Na'vi in James Cameron’s fantasy. 

To cite yet another example, in Weld County, Colorado, several foreign mining corporations are “waiting in the wings” of Powertech, a Canadian uranium firm. Mega outsiders chomping at the bit to dig? Small, upstart groups worried about the impact? Sounds like an Oscar in the making. (For additional plot, revisit HCN feature "Underground movement".)

In other news, you might have unobtainium behind your ears. Turns out it’s a registered trademark of the sunglasses company Oakley and, more broadly, a term used by scientists to describe . . . da, da, da, Dah . . . anything extremely scarce, expensive or impossible.


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