In the summer of 2010, construction began on the Ruby Pipeline, a 680-mile interstate artery for carrying as much as 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Opal Hub in southwestern Wyoming to the Malin Hub in southern Oregon. The project crossed sensitive sagebrush plains and something like 1,000 creeks and rivers, and the Center for Biological Diversity and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe tried to stop the line in the courts due to its impact on endangered fish and sacred lands. Yet unlike, say, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Ruby garnered very little national or even regional attention or controversy. After all, it was just another strand in the web of pipelines and transmission lines that crisscross the Western landscape.
At the same time, another proposed project was moving forward in southern Oregon. The Jordan Cove LNG import terminal, on a spit in Coos Bay, had received Federal Energy Regulation Commission approval several months earlier to unload liquefied natural gas from special tanker ships coming from Asia, Russia or the Middle East, re-gasify it, and then put it in the still-to-be-built Pacific Connector pipeline, which would carry it back down to the Malin Hub — the Ruby’s termination point. From there, the imported natural gas would be shipped to California and the Pacific Northwest.
A few years earlier, when planning began on both projects, demand for natural gas was high and domestic supplies limited. But by the time the Ruby Pipeline was under construction, the two projects together didn’t make a lot of sense. The demand for all that natural gas simply wasn’t there any more, and by 2010, prices had crashed from a high of nearly $11 per thousand cubic feet to just $4, rendering the notion of importing LNG absurd. It was nothing a change of a couple of letters couldn't fix: After long pooh-poohing the idea of natural gas exports, the Jordan Cove proponents changed their import terminal proposal into one for an export terminal.
In late March, the Department of Energy granted conditional approval to Jordan Cove to export up to .8 billion cubic feet of LNG per day to nations that do not have a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Though the approval — the first of its kind on the West Coast aside from Alaska — was not a surprise, it did come a bit more quickly than anticipated, perhaps due to new pressure from politicians from natural gas-producing states who are trying to use the crisis in Ukraine to globalize U.S. natural gas, ostensibly in order to weaken Russia, the main supplier of gas to Europe.
By no means is the terminal a done deal. Proponents of the $7.5 billion project still must navigate oodles of federal and state red tape before they can begin construction, not to mention stiff opposition from various quarters.
Rancher Cliven Bundy claims he fired the Bureau of Land Management about 20 years ago.
“When I decided that I was paying grazing fees for somebody to manage me out of business, I said, ‘Hell no,’ ” Bundy says in a video of a presentation he gave in February. “And what did I tell them? I no longer need your service as a manager over my ranch, and I’m not going to pay you for that no more.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” he adds, “the BLM don’t exist.” The federal government might as well not, either.
Despite a running tab of court injunctions, complaints and conservation conflicts involving the BLM, the National Park Service, Clark County and environmental groups, and nearly $1 million in fines, Bundy has continued to run cattle on the federally-owned Bunkerville Allotment in the southern tip of Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas. Over the years, the Department of Justice has more than once canceled BLM plans to round up the trespass cattle after blatant threats of violence from Bundy and his supporters, says Alan O’Neill, retired superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area adjacent to the allotment. The sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco that fueled the ‘90s anti-government militia movement were fresh, he explains. “We were trying everything we could to resolve the issue peacefully. But he got more and more recalcitrant.”
This week, though, the BLM finally began rounding up Bundy’s estimated 900 cattle from a 1,200 square-mile area, putting an end to the illegal grazing once and for all. The agency isn’t saying exactly why now is the time to act; O’Neill suspects that the threat of lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity against the local and federal government for not implementing existing court orders may have forced the agency’s hand.
The situation quickly escalated. One of Bundy’s sons was arrested Sunday for refusing to stay off the lands BLM has closed during the cattle roundup. Videos from Wednesday show Bundy family members and supporters, including out-of-state militia members, angrily cursing and gesturing at BLM agents attempting to contain them within a “First Amendment Area” set up for protesting. More out-of-state militia members claim to be on the way, saying “they’re going in with force.” While Gov. Brian Sandoval disapproves of BLM’s handling of the situation, others applauded the agency for showing restraint in the face of threats. It was Bundy’s own promise to “be more physical” with the BLM during the impoundment operation, after all, that led the agency to set up strict public protest areas and press policies in the first place. “This is incendiary stuff,” former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan said on a Nevada news show Thursday, expressing fear of more violence on the way. “Some of these folks are frankly half a bubble off...People really believe that the federal government has no jurisdiction over anything.”
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Add this to the list of why deserts are awesome: they can suck a bunch of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
For ten years, researchers in southern Nevada piped extra carbon dioxide into the Mojave Desert’s air. Their goal was to learn about the capacity of arid ecosystems to absorb carbon dioxide as we continue to burn fossils fuels. In their study published this week in journal Nature Climate Change, they discovered that when they suffused the air above research plots with carbon dioxide levels equivalent to those anticipated by 2050, plants still removed lots of carbon from the atmosphere.
Upon digging up the plots at the end of the experiment, researchers found that the areas living in a simulation of 2050’s carbon-rich atmosphere stored about 20 percent more carbon in the soil compared to untreated desert. That storage came from plants using carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, which they then pumped into the soil through their roots. It may not sound surprising that more carbon dioxide in the air leads to more of it stored in the soil, but there are limits to how much carbon ecosystems can absorb. And with scrappy shrubs instead of massive trees, it wasn't a given that the desert could take up quite so much.
And if arid and semi-arid ecosystems worldwide are as carbon-hungry as the Mojave, that’s good news. It means those dry lands, which cover about 47 percent of the non-ocean Earth, have a great potential to mop up the carbon dioxide we’re adding to the atmosphere. The study’s authors estimate that deserts and semi-arid places may absorb four to eight percent of global carbon emissions by 2045, assuming they all act like the Mojave did between 1999 and 2009. The researchers also estimate that deserts already account for 15 to 28 percent of the current land-based uptake of carbon emissions today.
Last January, in the snowbound mountains that crease northern Idaho’s Boundary County, an unnamed trapper found what he thought was a live bobcat in his baited wire cage. He shot the creature on sight, hoping for a pelt that would fetch up to $2,000 on the fur market. But when he lifted the carcass from the snow and saw its enormous paws, he realized he’d made a terrible mistake: he’d just shot a threatened Canada lynx.
To his credit, the man reported his error to the state’s Fish and Game Department and eventually paid around $400 in fines and court costs. While the trapper’s restitution didn’t save that particular feline, here’s some solace for lynx-lovers: Conservation groups now plan to sue the state of Idaho for permitting trapping that leads to lynx bycatch.
Incidental capture isn’t an everyday occurrence. Over the last two years, there have been just three such incidents, and in the other two cases the lynx were released unharmed. Still, with habitat fragmentation and climate change threatening the cat’s environs, every lost lynx is a blow. “The population in Idaho is down to as few as 100 individuals,” says Ken Cole, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), one of the groups behind the litigation. “When you’ve got so few animals, each and every one matters.”
In their declaration of intent to sue, WWP and its co-litigants, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Clearwater, argue that by allowing trapping that harms lynx, even accidentally, the state is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. To avoid liability, Idaho could apply to the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for an Incidental Take Permit, which would require the state to develop a conservation plan to reduce mistaken trapping. Such a plan, say environmental groups, should include restrictions on lethal traps, increased monitoring, and a mandate to check traps daily in lynx habitat to prevent the rare cats from languishing for days.
Those rigorous measures are even more important given the resurgence of trapping, an industry that once appeared as dead as the beaver-hat craze. Fifteen years ago, High Country News ran a story that prophesied the demise of commercial and recreational trapping at the hands of animal-rights groups. Today, though, it’s clear that reports of the practice’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Spiking fur demand has pelt prices at a 30-year high, providing $2.7 million in income for Montana’s trappers in 2012 alone. In Idaho, the ranks of registered trappers have doubled. “The market is strong and improving,” Toby Walrath, president of the Montana Trappers Association, told The Missoulian in December. “It’s a good time to be a trapper right now.”
Where’s all that demand coming from? Asia: the world’s most ravenous consumer of exotic animals and their disembodied parts. “When I started in this business the world’s biggest fur fair was in Frankfurt,” the CEO of one fur company told Canada’s National Post. “Now the biggest is in Hong Kong and the biggest after that is Beijing.”
As more trappers take to the woods, incidental kills have climbed. In Idaho, where a certain livestock-predating canine is considered Public Enemy No. 1, the prevalence of wolf traps means even more unintentional captures. According to documents the state released last year in response to Cole’s records request, 15 fishers, 13 mountain lions, a black bear, and what was undoubtedly a very surprised goose were among the 118 non-target animals killed by trappers during the 2011-2012 season.
That sounds like a lot of critters, and bycatch certainly deserves addressing – especially when threatened species, such as the lynx, are among the casualties. Just to keep things in perspective, though: in 2012, Idaho’s motorists ran down over 5,000 animals.
Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.
When I finally got a hold of John Diener, the busy 62-year-old farmer was en route to his organic broccoli field in central California's San Joaquin Valley. I could picture the scene: a truck bouncing over a dusty track, golden morning sunlight, rows of bright green plants meeting a blue sky.
The vision was idyllic. But this area, one of the nation’s most agriculturally productive, has a problem: in places, the soil is killing the crops it’s meant to grow. Before a maze of irrigation ditches transformed it into an agricultural belt, the San Joaquin Valley was an ancient seabed, a vast stretch of arid soil high in salt, selenium and boron. Now, decades of irrigation and poor drainage have concentrated the naturally-occurring minerals to toxic levels, and the current drought is only exacerbating the problem – without rain to drive them deeper into the water table, the soil is growing even less hospitable.
Even the irrigation water is briny; 57 railroad cars worth of salt are pumped into the valley each day, and environmental concerns prohibit farmers from funneling the wastewater back into rivers and ditches as they once did – meaning the minerals accumulating on their land have nowhere else to go. Roughly 400,000 acres are at risk of becoming unusable because they’re too salty.
Some of his neighbors have taken land out of production, but Diener – who recycles 99 percent of his water and has won national conservation awards – would like to live out his days on the farm his family has worked since the 1920s. “I don’t think of land as a disposable resource,” he says. “I don’t want to sell the farm. So the reality is, what are we going to do to remediate the soil?”
Enter U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Gary Bañuelos, who’s built a career of figuring out what grows best in some of the world’s worst soils. (Chernobyl cabbage, anyone?) Bañuelos says the worst part of the drought for San Joaquin farmers isn’t that there’s not enough water for irrigation, but that there’s not enough water to leach the minerals out. “If you don’t push the salt out of the roots (with water), the molecules migrate toward the surface and bring the salt with them,” he explains. “That’ll eventually kill the plant.”
At least, it kills most plants. But what if there were a plant that thrived in sodium- and selenium-rich soil? One that required very little water and even improved soil conditions by volatilizing selenium – sucking it up and off-gassing it? After decades of research, Bañuelos has patented four new varieties of just such a plant: Botanists call it opuntia ficus-indica. Hispanic-food lovers know it as nopales. See also: prickly pear cactus.
On New Year’s Eve, 2012, Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk drilling platform ran aground off a southern Alaskan island called Sitkalidak. Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard released a 152-page report dissecting the incident in minute detail and squarely pinning the blame on the oil company and its contractors.
The company had used the Kulluk – a 266-foot wide, conical-hulled drilling vessel completed in 1983 – for exploratory drilling off Alaska’s north coast that fall, then hitched it to a specialized ship called the Aiviq and sent it on Dec. 21 towards a Seattle shipyard for the winter. On the 1,700-mile journey along the coast from Captain’s Bay in the Aleutians, the two vessels were beset by a brutal, multi-day storm in the Gulf of Alaska, with up to 50-knot winds and 25-foot seas. On the 27th, the towline broke loose, and shortly after the crew managed to hook up an emergency line, the Aiviq’s engines failed.
A Coast Guard vessel soon arrived and tried to tow the Aiviq, still attached to the Kulluk, but its line snapped too. A second ship attempted to tow the Kulluk side-by-side with the Aiviq, during which the Coast Guard managed to helicopter evacuate the Kulluk’s 18 crewmembers, but then both towlines snapped. A tugboat then managed to establish an emergency towline on the 30th, allowing the Aiviq to get a line back on the rig on the 31st, only to lose it yet again. As the seas’ heaving worsened, the Coast Guard ordered the tugboat to cut the rig loose for the safety of its crew.
Though no one was hurt, and the Kulluk’s 139,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of combined lubrication oil and hydraulic fluid stayed securely onboard, the incident added credence to environmentalist contentions that neither industry, nor the federal government, is ready for the risks of developing oil reserves beneath the harsh Arctic Ocean farther north.
"The most significant factor (contributing to the accident) was the decision to attempt the voyage during the winter in the unique and challenging operating environment of Alaska," wrote Coast Guard Seventeenth District Commander Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, “demonstrating a lack of respect” for the challenging environment with an “inadequate determination of risk” and “ineffective risk management.” Worse, the company made the decision to move the rig to Seattle in part to avoid a multi-million dollar state tax bill, which would have been assessed Jan. 1 had it stayed in Alaskan waters.
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Maybe it’s the grey creeping into my hair, or the lines around my eyes. For whatever reason, whenever the weather gets a little bit weird — maybe it doesn’t snow in December or gets really sunny in January — people ask me if it’s “normal for these parts.” No, I’m not a climate scientist or a meteorologist or even a television weather man, though sometimes I wish I were. It’s just that I’ve lived in the same region for most of my 40-some years, and my age is starting to show, so folks figure I must have a pretty good sense of what the weather’s supposed to be like around here.
In response, I typically regale my interrogator with a story of an applicable extreme weather event from my past. If it’s a dry winter, I tell him about that Christmas Eve in ’89 when we played volleyball at the family gathering instead of going sledding. If it’s especially snowy, I might recount the time, while on a mid-December backpacking trip in Utah’s canyon country, that two friends and I got buried by a sudden storm, requiring an epic trek out. If spring refuses to blossom until May, I’ll tell him about the Memorial Day blizzard of ’96 that forced hundreds of hypothermic bike racers to abandon their steeds mid-ride in exchange for a seat in a heated bus.
Usually my tales are enough to make the questioner forget his initial query, thus obscuring the fact that I didn’t even get close to answering that query. Which is a good thing. Because if you were to ask me if the remainder of that volleyball-on-Christmas winter was extraordinarily dry or warm, I would have no clue. Did that late May snowstorm follow an intensely snowy winter? No idea.
Now you can find out what “normal” weather might look like for your area, without having to listen to me blather on about ill-conceived adventures of my youth. That’s thanks to the National Drought Mitigation Center’s new Drought Risk Atlas, a Web-based clearinghouse of historic climate and drought data. While much of the information in the virtual Atlas was available to the public in various places and forms before, this tool is far easier to use, and provides a wealth of information in one quick stop.
Vladimir Putin’s Crimean escapades have politicians demanding the U.S. ramp up its natural gas export capacity, thereby breaking – or so the theory goes – Russia’s energy stranglehold on Europe. As HCN’s Jonathan Thompson and others have pointed out, though, President Obama can’t turn gas into a geopolitical weapon by snapping his fingers: Export facilities are costly, time-consuming projects, and the Department of Energy has so far approved just 6 of 21 terminal applications. While one terminal will open in Louisiana in late 2015, the rest won’t get cranking until 2017 at the earliest, and plants faced opposition even before a liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage tank blew up along the Columbia River on Monday.
As the U.S. has tiptoed toward gas exports, however, its northwestern neighbor, British Columbia, has lurched forward – not for Russophobic reasons, but for boring old economic ones. The Canadian province is in the midst of a fracking boom that’s producing 3.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day, and its shale reserves hold over 1,000 trillion cubic feet (about seven times more than the famous Marcellus Shale in the northeastern U.S.). Shipping that vast production to Asian markets is too tasty an opportunity to pass up. Provincial Premier Christy Clark predicts B.C.’s nascent LNG industry will someday contribute $100 billion to the province’s economy and transform B.C. into an energy powerhouse to rival Alberta, home of the tar sands.
Last week, British Columbia took a big step toward making its LNG dreams a reality. The province approved four export terminals, to be operated by energy giants like ExxonMobil, Pacific Oil & Gas, and Petronas, with the combined capacity to ship nearly 75 trillion cubic feet annually. Canada’s plants, like those in the U.S., will take years to come online. Still, it’s hard to downplay the magnitude of this act: With a few strokes of the pen, Canada’s minister of natural resources authorized more LNG capacity in British Columbia than all U.S. approvals combined.
Even as Canada’s LNG industry plows ahead, however, a critical question remains unanswered: How will all these new plants be powered?
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Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island is home to the Alexander Archipelago wolf, an extremely rare subspecies of gray wolf facing a plethora of threats. Environmental groups first petitioned to protect the animal under the Endangered Species Act nearly three years ago. The Fish and Wildlife Service finally announced this week that it will consider a listing – even as the state scrambles to come up with its own plan and head off federal protection.
As few as 100 of the predators roam Prince of Wales, down from a population of about 350 in the 1990s. The third-largest island in the U.S., Prince of Wales is part of the archipelago of forested islands clustered along Southeast Alaska’s narrow mainland. Towering western hemlock, Sitka spruce, western cedar and Alaska cedar up to 800 years old dominate the island’s temperate rainforests, where the wolves make their dens and forage for food. But after more than 60 years of intensive logging, young, dense replacement forests that lack old-growth biodiversity cover as much as half of its land area, threatening the wolf as well as its key food source: Sitka black-tailed deer, who need the food and shelter of the old growth forest to survive the harsh winter. More than 3,000 miles of logging roads crisscross the island, disrupting the natural habitat and giving access to legal and illegal hunters and trappers alike. With deer numbers down, hunters have been killing more wolves to try to restore the deer population; biologists estimate that as many as half of recent wolf deaths have been illegal catches. Now scientists say the whole predator-prey system is on the brink of collapse.
With the Coast Range Mountains and its glaciers to the east, the Fairweather Range to the north and the ocean to the west and south, the Alexander Archipelago wolves have been isolated since the last Ice Age, cut off from their larger, lighter-colored and lighter-coated North American cousins. Only around 1,000 may now exist across the entire archipelago, and their situation is especially dire on Prince of Wales Island, considered a “significant portion” of the wolf’s range, which under the ESA could justify a listing.
But the Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent response to the 2011 petition to consider the Alexander Archipelago wolf for ESA protection, while acknowledging that enough evidence exists to warrant a possible listing, still constitutes simply a strong “maybe.” Wolf advocates are hopeful that a thorough review – the final step in the ESA process – will yield a definitive yes.
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Lake City, Colo, feels like a good place to escape the rest of the world. To the south, State Highway 149 winds through the San Juan Mountains over 11,500-foot Slumgullion Pass. You’re more likely to encounter a herd of bighorn sheep licking salt off the road here than an actual traffic jam. To the north, the road meanders in a narrow, often icy canyon alongside the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. The next town is 60 miles away.
The town’s isolation conveys a sense of immunity to the problems facing much of the urbanized West. Downstream from the second largest natural lake in Colorado, there’s definitely enough water for the town’s 400 residents. And there are hardly any immigration issues, unless you count the Texans who flock here in the summers.
So it’s not surprising that some Lake City residents assume their isolation protects them from diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough. Nearly 30 percent of the children in the town’s single pre K-12 school aren’t fully vaccinated – almost seven times higher than the statewide rate of 4.3 percent.
Parents are required to vaccinate their kids in order to enroll them in public school or a licensed daycare. But Colorado allows three types of exemptions: medical, religious and personal belief. In Lake City, as elsewhere in the state, the vast majority of non-vaccinated children have personal belief exemptions. A bill in the statehouse in Denver is trying to bring that number down by making it harder to fill out a personal belief exemption form – which currently only requires parents to check a box.