Last September, Citigroup quietly released a report declaring that cheap natural gas was engaged in a “symbiotic relationship” with intermittent renewable forms of energy -- i.e. solar and wind -- and that together the two would displace enough coal to take a big bite out of carbon emissions. Over the past month, the report has resurfaced and caught the interest of both greens and natural gas pushers as a sort of road map for the way forward.
The report is noticeable because it is, at first glance, counterintuitive: Just as cheap natural gas, by virtue of its cheapness, is displacing coal, one would expect it to also displace all other means of generating electricity, including renewables. Yet the report reminds us that because solar and wind are intermittent -- their power output bobbles up and down over the course of a day thanks to clouds and wind fluctuations and sunset -- they need some other sort of quick-ramping power to back them up. And, aside from hydropower, the best option is a natural gas turbine, much like a jet engine, that can be fired up and putting power into the grid in mere minutes. Thus, the more renewables that are added to the grid, the more natural gas will be needed to back them up.
The backup -- or reserve -- has a cost, just like anything. And since it’s necessitated by the intermittency of solar and wind, the utility will typically add that cost to the price they’re paying for the solar or wind. So, the lower the cost of natural gas, the lower these so-called ancillary costs. The lower the ancillary costs, the cheaper the solar and wind, making them more desirable. Hand in hand, cheap and plentiful natural gas and renewables will topple dirty coal.
That was six months ago. This is now. Last week, another report was released that takes a bit of the sheen off this scenario. This one was from the Energy Information Administration, and it shows an interesting trend, nicely illustrated by this graph:
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High in eastern Nevada’s Snake Mountain Range, just below treeline, live gnarled bristlecone pines as old as 4,900 years. Core samples taken from the trees have helped researchers understand how the region has changed over millennia. That's part of the reason why the Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco-based group whose mission is to "creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years," bought 180 acres of former mining land on the flank of the mountains as a possible site for its ambitious project: building a massive "10,000 Year Clock."
Ultimately, the group decided to construct the clock in the mountains of west Texas, but the Long Now is using its Nevada land for another long-term purpose: the Nevada Climate-Ecohydrological Assessment Network, or NevCAN. Long Now allowed researchers to install three monitoring stations there that will collect temperature and precipitation data, plus a variety of other information, over future decades in order to better understand climate change. That's particularly relevant here, where snowmelt from the Snake Range replenishes groundwater in the Spring Valley below. That groundwater, along with water beneath three other nearby valleys, will be piped to Las Vegas under a controversial Southern Nevada Water Authority plan.
The NevCAN project is not directly linked to the SNWA pipeline, but it does address a lack of good long-term hydrological and climate data in the area that has made the pipeline more controversial. When the Nevada State Engineer first approved the pipeline scheme in 2007, he ordered SNWA to create a comprehensive monitoring and mitigation plan to address uncertainties about how pumping groundwater would impact the valleys' springs, wetlands and agricultural community. But in 2009, a district judge found the State Engineer's decision "arbitrary, oppressive, and a manifest abuse of discretion," saying it wasn't based on concrete scientific evidence.
Just before 11 p.m. on November 5, 2011, the biggest earthquake in Oklahoma’s history hit the small town of Prague. It buckled a highway, exploded windows, collapsed homes and left terrified residents clutching their beds as they waited for the shaking to stop. Ripples from the 5.7 magnitude quake were felt as far as 800 miles away, and smaller temblors continued to rock the area the next day.
The quake shook the house of University of Oklahoma seismologist Katie Keranen, who rushed to Prague the next morning and installed three seismometers, just in time to record the aftershocks. Her recordings showed the quake had originated in the near-by Wilzetta fault, long thought to be inactive.
But less than 650 feet from the fault were old oil wells, used by the oil industry to dispose of chemical-laden water deep underground. When Keranen looked at the wellhead’s records, she found that the pressure in the well had risen 10-fold from 2001 to 2006. These findings, published March 26 in the journal Geology, led her to conclude that the wells had triggered the earthquake.
The findings raise questions about the safety of deep injection wells, which have been used by the oil industry long before the recent natural gas boom, but have increased along with the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing. In 2011, a group of USGS scientists documented “a remarkable increase” in seismic activity in the oil and gas regions of the Plains. “A naturally-occurring rate change of this magnitude is unprecedented outside of volcanic settings or in the absence of a main shock, of which there were neither in this region,” they noted, although they couldn’t conclusively link the increase to oil and gas activity. A 2012 study by researchers at University of Texas at Austin found that the majority of earthquakes recorded between fall 2009 and 2011 in Northern Texas occurred within a few kilometers of a highly-active injection well.
As of last week, our country has five new national monuments; two of them are in the West.
The Eastern sites, controlled by the National Park Service, are cultural – new monuments in Ohio and Maryland commemorate Charles Young, the first African-American colonel in the Army, and Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, while the Delaware site tells the story of the state's settlement by Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English immigrants.
The Western monuments, on BLM land, are mostly meant to preserve natural wonders -- the 240,000-acre Rio Grande del Norte Monument in New Mexico protects elk, Rio Grande cutthroat trout, river otters and golden and bald eagles, along with petroglyphs and extinct volcanoes, and the 1,000-acre San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington State was set aside for orcas, seals, threatened marbled murrelets, peregrine falcons, great camas and historic lighthouses.
I remember when a doe collided with my mom’s tank-like 1973 Chrysler Newport, an earwax gold car we eventually dubbed the “the deer slayer.” Mom trudged to a neighbor’s and called my dad, who came out to dispatch the unfortunate animal, and take it home to eat. It became a family joke to tease Dad about the origins of our venison dinners, but no one seemed to mind dining at our roadkill café.
Those childhood memories of how my family put the car in carnivore returned when I read that Montana’s legislature passed a bill aimed to legalize scavenging the elk, deer, antelope and moose people cream with their vehicles. It’s now awaiting the governor’s signature, and Wyoming is considering a similar law.
I was surprised that my adopted state of Montana didn’t already allow roadkill salvaging. After all, it’s long been okay to scrape up dead deer in big-government Maryland, where I was raised. Not so long ago you could even do a little drinking and driving in Montana, so why not let people do something so harmless as grill what they kill? Plus, as I learned as a kid, eating roadkill is a great expression of self-determination: with a little skill (and minimal government oversight), you can turn an unfortunate death into a free meal (minus the cost of vehicle damage).
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Now that wildfire season is (already) upon us, some old-timer will surely start reminiscing about the days when “work fires” were common; when, on hot summer days, locals set forest fires in the hope that they and their buddies would get jobs on the federally-funded fire crews. A few dozen acres of brush gone up in smoke allowed the able-bodied folks in the rural community to get some decent government wages for a week or two. It’s a logical economic exchange. Or at least it was.
In these days of mega-fires that torch not 30 acres, but 300,000, the concept of wildfires as job-creators has lost some of its folksy charm. When Leonard Gregg, a seasonal firefighter, started Arizona's Rodeo Fire in 2002, it put people to work, sure, but it also burned more than 400 homes and 470,000 acres, and cost taxpayers millions. Suppression efforts for such fires can run $1 million or more per day. Add to that the cost of lost property, and a natural disaster turns into an economic one, too.
Surprisingly, though, even catastrophic fires can have an economic upside. And while a fire will never be profitable for a local community, the old idea of work fires isn’t totally obsolete after all.
Over several days in September 2010, the Fourmile Canyon Fire ripped through the suburban forests outside of Boulder, Colo. It burned a mere 6,181 acres, small by today’s standards, yet the fire was also costly. That’s in part because the flames focused on a section of wildland urban interface that was scattered with homes. According to a study by Headwaters Economics, Boulder County has one of the most heavily developed WUIs in the country, and fighting fires in such areas is far more costly than in undeveloped forests. A 2012 U.S. Forest Service postmortem estimated that $14 million was spent on suppression, management and burned-area restoration. On one especially nasty day, more than $1.5 million was spent in the effort to protect homes. The total bill for fire retardant, alone, was $343,000.Read More ...
I remember the moment when, drinking strong coffee under a tin roof pattering with the relentless southeast Alaska rain, I first cut yellow-cedar with a chisel. A clean curl of cream-colored, sharp-scented wood peeled from the big beam. My patient teacher, whose whole house was built from the stuff, just grinned through his bushy beard at my astonishment. It was the finest wood I'd ever worked.
During my weeks hanging around Petersburg, Alaska, a fishing town that clings to the narrow shoreline of a big forested island, I don't remember seeing many dead yellow-cedar except the one I helped haul out of the woods. That giant old tree had a ten-foot butt-end that four of us spent the day winching from below the dirt road and getting onto the flatbed trailer, which it filled. But dead yellow-cedar were out there. They'd been dying in great numbers for at least a century along nearly a thousand square miles of northern Pacific coast.
Until recently, the cause of the tree's decline was unknown. Starting in the 1980s, researchers searched unsuccessfully for a killer fungus or virus. It wasn't until a couple years ago that a handful of studies concluded that the culprit is climate change. The story fits superficially into the rallying cry against global warming, but the reality is more complex. “Climate change,” as used in the studies, doesn’t refer to human-caused global warming, but natural fluctuations in climate that occurred in the pre-industrialized era. Cedars started dying well before we began pumping tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, but the effects are still being felt now.Read More ...
In 2008, Canadian researchers made a scary prediction: In our warming world, boreal forests would stop absorbing excess carbon and start contributing to climate change as soon as 2020.
What would cause this switch? The mountain pine beetles that have been eating their way though tens of millions of acres of alpine forests, leaving swaths of decaying trees in their wake. "When trees are killed, they no longer are able to take carbon from the atmosphere. Then when dead trees start to decompose, that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," study author Werner Kurz of the Canadian Forest Service told the Associated Press.
That could exacerbate the global warming that contributed to the outbreaks in the first place. Warmer temperatures have allowed beetles to survive farther north, at higher elevations and make it through the winter.
"This is the kind of feedback we're all very worried about in the carbon cycle — a warming planet leading to, in this case, an insect outbreak that increases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which can increase warming," Andy Jacobson, a carbon cycle scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., told The Associated Press.
But wait! Before you stop reading this blog and complain to your friends about how depressing environmental journalism is, hear this: A new study suggests dead trees don’t release as much carbon into the atmosphere as previously thought. Yay! Now we can get back to worrying about China’s coal consumption, methane released from natural gas wells and deforestation.
Until recently, the phrase “flash flood” conjured in my mind a racing blue wall of water, or a canyon running red as blood with sediment – a deadly natural force that smells simply and cleanly of earth and rain. But a trip with friends down the San Juan River in southeastern Utah set me straight a couple summers ago. Every time a thunderstorm parked on the horizon, tributary washes vomited filth into the main stem, creating suspensions of foul mud so thick the water left a crackly skin of dust on our bodies.
At our last campsite before the takeout, I sank to my thighs in greenish muck at the mouth of flash flood-prone Oljeto Wash. The smell was ungodly, halfway between rot and feedlot -- a landscape’s worth of refuse, from motor-oil cans and cellophane wrappers to sheep and cattle manure, scoured free by rain, super concentrated by narrow-veined drainages and deposited between us and the beach where we had hoped to enjoy a celebratory tequila shot or two.
The experience, for me, was sort of a scummy baptism into a landscape-level vision of how people affect the environment. Seemly inconsequential messes – a drizzle of coolant in your driveway, that dog poop you didn’t scoop because you forgot a bag – clearly could add up to quite a lot across a watershed packed with people and their livestock, industries and farm fields. And I had the shit-stockings to prove it.
Dense networks of logging roads in the Pacific Northwest present this sort of problem on a grand scale. Heavy, frequent rains flush sediment and gravel from the earthen roads into streams where they can harm already-struggling salmon runs by smothering eggs, scraping gills or hampering feeding.
Environmental groups’ attempts to get a firmer handle on that pollution suffered a setback March 20 when the Supreme Court supported the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to not regulate logging-road runoff as “point-source” industrial pollution under the Clean Water Act. Bringing that law to bear could have led to much stricter monitoring and water-quality standards and no-cut buffer zones around streams, among other measures.
At the Grand Canyon Skywalk, tourists can pay about $90 to shuffle along a horseshoe of glass that extends over the rim’s edge, wearing special booties to avoid scratching the surface as they peer 4,000 vertical feet down at the Colorado River. For such a snazzy feat of engineering, you would expect an equally fancy visitor’s center: maybe a gift shop with overpriced calendars or a kitschy photo booth, but at least restrooms with running water and electricity.
But no! Four years after the Hualapai Tribe opened the Skywalk, the visitor’s center remains a construction zone as legal wrangling with the attraction’s developer, David Jin, continues. In early March, the tribal corporation that runs the Skywalk declared bankruptcy to avoid paying Jin millions of dollars. And days earlier, the tribe seized another major tourism project from its non-native owners. The backhanded business maneuvers have tribal and outside observers worrying that future investors will be discouraged from doing business with not just the Hualapai, but tribes around the country.
Ready for a quick history of the Skywalk? Here we go:
In 1988, the Hualapai opened Grand Canyon West, a new vantage point on the big ditch. The attraction was rustic, to say the least. "They bladed a dirt runway and took (tourists out in) a van, and they sat freezing at Guano Point and ate a meal out there," Sheri YellowHawk, former CEO of the tribe’s business arm, told HCN in 2006.