2013 in environmental news, from the darkest to the most hopeful


A few weeks ago, High Country News contributing editor Craig Childs dropped me a note asking for some help with his annual winter solstice production, Dark Night. Would I write and read a series of poems about descending into darkness – specifically “death, ice, fear, what is inside the deep, blue, scarier crevasses of your mind” – and then wrap up with one that clawed its way back out into exuberance or revelation or some such?

It is the purpose of the show, after all, to nod to all the dark in the world on the darkest night of the year, even as performers call back the light by sharing stories, music and a big thrasher of a dance party.

In these first lightening days after solstice, then, this seems a fitting frame to apply to some of the year’s biggest Western environmental stories. And if you care about how the burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change, 2013 has been a dark year indeed. Advances in technologies like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have cracked once troublesome shale formations and caused oil and natural gas production to surge, in the West drawing from big plays like North Dakota’s Bakken formation, Colorado’s Niobrara, the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas, and, coming down the pike, California’s Monterrey shale. According to the federal Energy Information Administration’s 2014 energy outlook, U.S. crude oil production will likely average 7.5 million barrels per day for 2013, the highest since 1991, and by 2016 will break 9.5 million barrels per day, nearing and later possibly slightly surpassing the U.S.’s all time peak production level, set in 1970. Meanwhile the EIA anticipates a 56 percent increase in natural gas production over 2012 levels by 2040.

That explosive growth led many energy experts to declare dead and irrelevant the theory of Peak Oil – the point where global oil production will max out and then steadily decline, necessitating the development of alternative fuels and approaches to transportation, now a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

In some ways all of this is good news: The U.S. is cruising towards the holy grail of energy independence, oil patch communities have been a flamingly bright spot in our otherwise guttering economy, and, in theory, we no longer have to scramble to innovate in the face of apocalyptic scenarios involving the steep decline of our favorite drug, good old crude. Except these developments also further forestall urgently needed action to curb the emissions that are warming our planet – a much larger threat to our economy in the long run than a waning fossil fuel industry could ever be. And the U.S. is encouraging yet more drilling by steadily moving towards exporting its hydrocarbons, permitting liquid natural gas terminals and even considering lifting its moratorium on exporting domestic oil.

Meanwhile, the dearth of pipeline infrastructure to move this new oil to market has meant a giant increase in train traffic, with sometimes tragic and explosive results, including a Bakken oil train derailment that killed nearly 50 people and incinerated nearly 40 buildings in Quebec. And while Americans are driving less and using a lot less gasoline than they once did, we still consume vastly more gas per capita than everyone else, with the average U.S driver being equivalent to “three Germans. Or at least 6 or 7 Frenchmen,” as Jordan Weissmann writes for The Atlantic.

As drilling intensifies in existing oil and gas fields and moves into previously untouched communities and habitats, accompanying air and water pollution, wildlife declines, and other impacts will continue to escalate across the West. And then, of course, there’s its contribution to our increasingly apocalyptic climate outlook, which is already showing itself in the region’s dying forests.

Descending into the bowels of 2013's darkest energy news. (And also, New Zealand's Harwood's Hole, courtesy Flickr user, Armchair Caver.)

Many of 2013’s other natural disasters offer hints of what to expect more of in our warmer future, as well. Record-setting drought gripped the Southwest, which was then scoured by massive, deadly flash floods, from Colorado’s Front Range all the way into Arizona. As the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to 35 million people, passed the 14th year of its own record-setting drought, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that the first ever shortage declaration on the river could occur as soon as 2015 or 2016, triggering water restrictions for Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico.

Yosemite’s high-profile Rim Fire offered a stark reminder that no precious landscape is immune to disasters like these, just as the deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire – the worst burnover toll in recent memory – made clear that our abilities to contain and control such terrible conflagrations are limited at best, and that these operations can be dangerously flawed.

So… how to climb out of this deep dark hole we’ve dug? I’ll tell you, thanks to the media’s proclivity for negative stories (HCN not excluded), it was rather more of a scrounge to find the good news of 2013 amidst all the exploding train cars and melting starfish.

The first to come to mind involves a couple brighter facets of the drilling boom, which caused natural gas prices to plummet. Pair that with various tightening regulations for power plant pollution and the looming threat of greenhouse gas regulation, and you have electrical utilities across the country continuing to switch from coal to natural gas, which burns a lot cleaner, producing half the carbon dioxide and far fewer other nasties as well. While this is a terrible hit to coal-mining dependent communities like those in HCN’s North Fork Valley, it could be very good news for the climate in the short term (depending heavily, of course, on whether energy companies can eliminate the leakage of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, from production facilities and pipelines). For better or worse, the EIA now predicts that natural gas will overtake coal as the primary source of U.S. electricity by 2035.

The proliferation of drill rigs also stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest of 'fracktivism' across the West and the nation, helping lead to big, if imperfect, local, state-level, and national improvements in how the oil and gas industry is regulated and what land it has access to.

Meanwhile, a similar groundswell of activism in the Northwest helped shelve three of that coast’s six proposed coal export terminals, intended to move Montana and Wyoming coal to countries like China and help sustain the greenhouse-gassy industry as its share of the U.S. electrical supply shrinks. Now, slumping international coal prices are calling the rest of those terminals into question, too.

Looking up from inside a crevasse in New Zealand's Fox Glacier, courtesy Flickr user Robert Stokes.

Boiling down below all this, though, are the possible beginnings of a real clean-power revolution: plain old solar photovoltaic panels are rapidly becoming cost-competitive with other power sources. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 2013 is on track to be a record-setting year in terms of residential PV installation. Add in advances in power storage technology and an increasingly friendly regulatory regime, and solar and other forms of distributed generation appear to be on the verge of undermining the very electricity production model – where political-heavyweight utilities sell power from massive centralized fossil fuel plants – that helped create our climate crisis in the first place.

Granted, solar is still a teensy part of the current overall power picture. But it has become a piercing and persistent sliver of light at the top of one of those “blue, scarier crevasses of your mind” that Craig encouraged me to write about. Perhaps someday it will grow enough to help ensure that glaciers still carve their way through the world’s higher latitude mountain ranges a century from now, ripped with deep blue crevasses that offer a glimpse into the nature of fear, mortality and even rebirth, for any brave enough to peer over their toothy edges, or descend into their depths.

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman.

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