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Beyond Boardman

Sightline | Nov 04, 2010 12:00 AM

By Jennifer Langston

Oregon has been having a robust debate over the appropriate date for closing the state's lone coal power plant. The Boardman plant could theoretically operate until 2040, but its owners have proposed an earlier closure to avoid investing in expensive pollution controls.

There's been a lot of discussion about whether the plant should close in 2015 or 2020 (and how much its owners must spend in the meantime.) But that disagreement has become so central to the discussion that it's overshadowed what may be a much more important question: What happens after the coal plant closes?

Will Portland General Electric adopt another outdated fossil fuel strategy, building natural gas plants that will continue to release greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come? Or will the utility think creatively to pursue low-carbon options that reduce demand in the first place and then fill it with clean wind, solar or geothermal energy? If your chief concern is addressing Oregon's largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, the replacement strategy matters. While burning natural gas is less polluting than coal, that process can release roughly half the carbon emissions. And if a utility invests millions of dollars to build a new gas plant, they'll want to run it for a long time.

Here's some rough math to illustrate the point that long-term thinking should matter most.

  • On average, Boardman releases roughly 4 million tons of CO2 each year. If the coal plant keeps running from 2015 to 2040, it would release 100 million tons of CO2 during that time period.
  • If you close the coal plant in 2015 and replace its power with a new natural gas plant that releases about half the pollution, you'd emit 50 million tons of CO2 over that same period. Sounds better!
  • But say you keep the coal plant running until 2020, at which point you replace the coal power with completely clean energy sources. In that scenario you’d emit just 20 million tons of CO2 over the period from 2015 to 2040. 

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California state parks funding measure fails

Felice Pace | Nov 03, 2010 03:50 AM

Dominated by the Sierra Club, California’s "Environmental Establishment" operates politically largely as a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. This fact plays heavily in what sorts of environmental initiatives this establishment chooses to put on the California ballot.

This year, the state’s environmental establishment put Proposition 21 on the ballot. It proposed a surcharge on vehicle license fees to provide stable funding for state parks. Proposition 21 was soundly defeated; 42 percent voted yes; 58 percent voted no.

California voters defeated the other anti-environmental initiative on the ballot. Backed by out of state oil companies, Proposition 23 sought to suspend Assembly Bill 32, the state’s landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Less than 39 percent of voting Californians cast a ballot to suspend the law -- which is the most far reaching and progressive climate legislation in the nation.

What do these results tell us about the environmental movement in California and what that movement should work to put on the ballot in 2012?

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We, the American people, are united by our divisions

Mark Trahant | Nov 03, 2010 03:13 AM

All election night the message was about how the people have spoken with a clear voice and returned Republicans to power.

In Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul called it the “Tea Party tidal wave.”

Or the soon-to-be Speaker of the House, John Boehner, said “it’s clear tonight who the real winners are, that’s the American people.” He said change begins again because the “American people are demanding a new way forward.”

Sorry. I beg to differ. Division won. A Republican House of Representatives, a Democratic Senate and White House. (And, if you want to get snippy about it, I would add a Republican-controlled Supreme Court to this list).

We, the American people, are united by our divisions.

The urban core of the United States remains, essentially, a base for Democrats. It’s a similar story for African American, Native American and Latino communities. On the other hand the rural West, Midwest and South remain Republican. Independent voters play the field. This time they went Republican. Last time they favored the Democrats.

Elections are one thing, governing is another. Divided government creates all sorts of problems.

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River course restored after recovery diversion

Ed Quillen | Nov 01, 2010 05:20 AM

The Arkansas River is back on course after a diversion last week to recover the body of Kimberly Appelson, a 23-year-old Breckenridge woman who fell out of a raft on July 11 and had been missing ever since.
It happened two miles north of Buena Vista at a spot known as Frog Rock Rapids. Beneath Frog Rock is a "sieve" -- a chamber through which water can pass, but little else. Divers found her body trapped amid debris about a dozen feet below the surface.
The location had been suspected since the accident. Fellow raft passengers saw where she fell out, her body had not appeared downstream, and cadaver dogs had picked up scent in the area.

Arkansas River

Image of Arkansas River courtesy Flickr user ilovemypit
Earlier efforts to recover the body had failed on account of too much current for divers to maneuver safely. This time, during a season of low water, a rock cofferdam was constructed upstream with heavy equipment, so most of the flow went around the Frog Rock sieve. Divers from Colorado Springs were able to find and recover the body on Oct. 27, though it took several tries.

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Of grizzlies and tortoises

Seth Shteir | Oct 29, 2010 04:20 AM

The towering grizzly bear and diminutive desert tortoise have something in common, and it’s not good: both animals are struggling for survival.

“The population of grizzlies in the continental United States was 50,000 at time of Lewis and Clark, and it’s down to 1600 animals today for some of the same reasons the desert tortoise has declined precipitously since 1970: habitat destruction and human caused mortality,” says Sid Silliman, an emeritus professor of political science at Cal Poly Pomona who has long tracked the fate of endangered species.

Silliman, who taught a course on the endangered grizzly bear at Cal Poly Pomona, fears that like grizzly bears, the threatened population of desert tortoises will eventually be restricted to just a few areas. And according to Silliman, projects like the Ivanpah Solar Plant, situated along the cusp of the California Nevada border and near Mojave National Preserve, are part of the problem.

Ivanpah Valley

The scenic Mesquite Mountains rise above the Ivanpah Valley - photo Sid Silliman

The Ivanpah solar project is not unique: the Bureau of Land Management and other land management agencies have received a flood of applications for utility-scale solar developments - a phenomenon many refer to as the “solar gold rush.” But many conservationists are questioning whether these projects should be sited on sensitive lands such as those in the Ivanpah Valley.

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Denver mayor accused of trashing rural residents

Ed Quillen | Oct 25, 2010 05:45 AM

The Colorado governor's race took another twist last week with the front-runner and Democratic candidate, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, getting accused  of "trashing" rural residents. 

The accusation came from his principal challenger, former GOP congressman Tom Tancredo, who entered the race in August as the nominee of the American Constitution Party. The Republican candidate, Dan Maes, is struggling at about 10 percent in recent polls.

It came about after a 2009 television interview with Hickenlooper surfaced on Oct. 22. The topic was the Matthew Shepard foundation. Shepard, a gay college student, was beaten to death by two men near Laramie, Wyo., in 1998. His parents established a foundation to combat such bigotry, and headquartered it in Denver.

The interviewer, Eden Lane, asked why they would have chosen Denver, even though "they didn’t live in Colorado, he didn’t go to school in Colorado, there really wasn’t that strong a connection. What do you think is it about the environment here in Denver that allowed them to choose this as their home?"

Hickenlooper replied that "the tragic death of Matthew Shepard occurred in Wyoming. Colorado and Wyoming are very similar. We have some of the same, you know, backwards thinking in the kind of rural Western areas you see in, you know, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico."

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Dredging Western rivers for gold

Felice Pace | Oct 20, 2010 02:00 AM

An item in the October 11th edition’s “Heard around the West” reported on an influx of “gold miners” on Southern Oregon’s Rogue River. But the article did not explain why so many miners are on the Rogue now.

The vast majority of these “miners” do not make a living mining. Rather they dredge in the summer and do other things in the winter. They are referred to as recreational miners. As HCN reported back in 2006  these “miners” flock to Oregon streams when the price of gold skyrockets as it has recently.

Gold dredges - Scott River tributary to Klamath River

Suction dredges on the Scott River, a major Klamath River tributary

The increase in “recreational” dredge mining in Southern Oregon this time, however, is also related to a successful drive by a coalition of tribes and environmentalists to end the practice of suction dredge mining in California. Those who oppose the practice say that it harms salmon runs. Led by the Klamath River’s Karuk Tribe, the drive to end the practice has resulted in litigation and a new California law which bans suction dredge mining in California until the Department of Fish and Game completes and environmental review of the practice and issues new regulations. Many of California’s suction dredgers do their thing along the Klamath River just south of the Oregon border. When dredging was banned in California these folks simply moved a bit north to the Rogue River.

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(Re)naming mountains

John Freemuth | Oct 19, 2010 07:46 AM

I having been using Tim Egan’ s book The Big Burn about the fires of 1910 that changed fire policy in the United States in my public land policy class this semester. A key part of his book is about the early days of the U.S. Forest Service, its Chief Gifford Pinchot, and the forest rangers who, new to the job, tried heroically to fight those fires in Idaho and Montana. He writes about those people in such a way that they come alive.

The legacy those and other fires left that new agency is large and still can lie heavy on it and all of us. The early Forest Service also had its enemies. One of them, Senator Heyburn of Idaho, tried to defund the new agency and have it abolished; it was that “ damn federal government” standing in the way of Heyburn and his cronies. Heyburn was also one of those Senators chosen before the passage of the 17th amendment, the one that now lets citizens elect their US senators.

Mt Heyburn

Mt. Heyburn image courtesy Flickr user aj_jones_iv

This is not a historical footnote; there are those who would repeal that amendment giving us what….more Senator Heyburns? Heyburn did not succeed, but Egan reminds us it was a battle. It is simply amazing then, that a walk around or boat ride on Redfish Lake in Idaho, reveals Mount Heyburn in the Sawtooth Mountain range, one of the Forest Service’ s most proud and important places. Shouldn’ t this mountain have a name more suited to someone who did something to protect the Sawtooths and at least dealt honorably with the agency that manages them? It is time to start the process to change the name of this peak.

John Freemuth  is a professor of political science and public policy at Boise State University.


La Niña winter expected

Ed Quillen | Oct 18, 2010 08:40 AM

The weather experts who look at the big picture say we're facing a "La Niña winter" this time around. For the West, this means it will be wet in the north and dry in the south.

But the moisture won't arrive for a while. The La Niña pattern includes relatively warm, dry days well into November, with snow and cold coming hard in December and January.

The last La Niña was in 2007-08, and it certainly followed that pattern. That November, local merchants were wondering if anyone would get into the "holiday spirit," given that we had a long string of T-shirt days and the local ski area -- which has no snow-making machinery -- had postponed its opening.

Then December arrived, and there was more winter than anybody, except perhaps the ski area, really wanted to see. 

Colorado is in the middle between north and south in the West, so fluctuations on the jet stream will determine how much of the state gets buried in December and January.

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Rants from the Hill: Them! and Us

Michael Branch | Oct 15, 2010 05:05 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.

Some of you may be fortunate—or perhaps unfortunate—enough to recall the 1954 science fiction film Them!, which, much like Earth First!, had the audacity to include the exclamation point in its title. A classic “Big Bug” B movie, Them! concerns a colony of ants that is accidentally irradiated (as were plenty of Utahans and Nevadans during the same period), producing mutated, monster-sized insects that rampage through New Mexico, crushing skulls and filling friendly westerners with deadly formic acid. The adventure ends in a subterranean labyrinth of L. A. storm sewers where, after pinching off a few human heads, the last of the creatures is destroyed, ensuring that we’ll have nothing left to fear but Iran, North Korea, and Yucca Mountain. As a cinematic romp through Cold War anxieties, Them! gives us a monster to focus on other than ourselves, whose monstrous intelligence inadvertently produced the horrors which now terrorize us. Them! somehow affirms that it is easier to have your noggin compacted in the mandibles of a giant ant than to come to terms directly with having let the nuclear genie out of the bottle.


(not a real movie poster. Although the real ones are awesome, we couldn't get Warner Bros. permission to duplicate one here. We exhort you, however, to by all means check them Them! posters out!)

Here in the high desert of western Nevada we have our own Them!, known to entomologists as Pogonomyrmex occidentalis. The western harvester ant is, at least for now, about a quarter of an inch long instead of 50 feet long, which is convenient because its venom has a lethal dose measurement of .12 mg/kg—a bug nerd’s way of saying that it is comparable in toxicity to that of a cobra. Much is made of the harvester’s painful sting, but in my experience these guys don’t attack unless you stand on them, which seems pretty reasonable. The sting itself is certainly unpleasant, though I’ve never found it so severe as to be unresponsive to the “Three Cold Beer” remedy: apply one to wound, drink two, repeat as necessary.

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