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Climate change by any other name ...

Jodi Peterson | Dec 10, 2009 08:00 AM

In towns from Pocatello, Idaho, to Las Cruces, N.M.,  local governments are responding to the West's changing climate. They're cutting energy consumption, insulating homes, reducing water usage, and more -- but often without ever mentioning "global warming" or "climate change", loaded terms that can trigger heated debates.

Instead, they're promoting their policies under the auspices of "sustainability" or "economic efficiency." In some cases officials are deliberately trying to avoid provoking negative reactions from residents, and in other cases they're simply addressing what they see as more pressing problems (sprawl, transportation). Either way, their actions help to mitigate climate change.

A new report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy-Sonoran Institute describes this trend:

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Desert Rock on hold

Ariana Brocious | Dec 09, 2009 07:04 AM

The proposed Desert Rock power plant on the Navajo Nation near Farmington, N.M., will need to find a new source of cash after the U.S. Department of Energy denied a $450 million stimulus funding bid for carbon-capture controls last week. The funding would have covered about 43 percent of the cost of those controls.

The joint project between the Navajo Nation and Sithe Global has been long contested: supported by Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley because of the job and revenue flow it will bring, opposed by groups like Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment due to air pollution and other environmental concerns in a region already rife with coal emissions. Desert Rock would be the third coal-powered plant in the Four Corners area.

In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pulled the air quality permit it granted the project last summer, pushing developers to pursue the carbon capture model, a more rigorous, but much more expensive, method to control air pollution. At the time, the New Mexico Independent reported that Shirley was disgruntled by the EPA’s decision, calling it “further proof that the U.S. government isn’t ‘honest and truthful in its dealings with Native America.’ ”

A firm supporter of Desert Rock, Shirley has been making waves lately in the debate about the environment versus jobs (see my November blog). Yet Navajo Nation attorney Doug MacCourt said the funding bid was denied because of paperwork problems, and shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the DOE’s opposition to the project, reported the Farmington Daily Times.

Opponents hope funding constraints will cause developers to rethink the Desert Rock project, perhaps even kill it completely. But project officials are continuing to look at their options, reported the Farmington Daily Times, considering an appeal to the DOE since it seems unlikely better alternatives lie in the offing. If completed, the 1,500 megawatt plant would provide 17 percent of the new energy that will be required in the region by 2015, states the Desert Rock Energy Project Web site.

For more information, read Laura Paskus’s essay: “It’s Time to Abandon Desert Rock.”

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A golden ruling

Arla Shephard | Dec 09, 2009 06:01 AM

It’s not often that the world’s largest gold mining company doesn’t get what it wants, especially in the nation’s largest gold-producing state.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that Barrick Gold’s proposal to dig a 2,000-foot deep open pit at the Cortez Hill mine on Mount Tenabo lacks sufficient environmental review. The mountain, which is considered sacred among many of the area’s tribes (much like New Mexico’s Mount Taylor, featured in HCN’s recent cover story by Laura Paskus), is about 250 miles east of Reno, Nev.

The Associated Press reports:

In reversing an earlier ruling, the judges in San Francisco said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately analyze the mine's potential to pollute the air with mercury emissions and dry up scarce water resources in Nevada's high desert…

The appellate judges concluded BLM's review was inadequate under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a thorough examination of large-scale projects on federal land. They said the agency didn't fully consider the air quality impacts resulting from transporting ore to an off-site processing facility 70 miles away.

The judges also said the review didn't do enough to examine the likelihood that pumping water out of the pit would cause the groundwater level to drop and potentially dry up more than a dozen streams and springs.

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The fight over cap and trade

Marty Durlin | Dec 09, 2009 03:55 AM

The carbon emissions trading scheme known as cap-and-trade is on the global table as the United Nations Climate Change conference gets underway this week in Copenhagen.  Cap-and-trade is also a feature of the Waxman-Markey bill currently being reshaped by the U.S. Senate after passage in the House in June. Hailed by supporters as "an important first step" and "better than nothing" in the fight against global warming, cap-and-trade has become a bit of a hot potato in the green community.

Environmental justice groups and many climate activists hate the concept, not only because it allows coal-fired plants to continue to operate, but because it is an invitation to fraud -- many believe cap-and-trade will allow companies to rig the system (two of the biggest players in carbon trading are the scandal-ridden Enron and Goldman-Sachs), while more CO2 is pumped into the atmosphere.

On the other side of the argument are most of the Democratic Party and some big conservation groups, including the Natural Resource Defense Council, which see cap-and-trade as a practical tool in dealing with the climate crisis. Set the emissions cap, they argue, and allow trades to achieve it while creating green jobs.

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A new line of defense

Ed Quillen | Dec 05, 2009 09:25 AM

    The attorneys for Tim DeChristopher, the University of Utah student who made bogus bids at a BLM drilling-rights auction last year, have come up with a new line of defense: selective prosecution.
    DeChristopher is charged with such federal felonies as interfering with a government auction and making a false representation. If convicted, he could get up to 10 years in prison.
    DeChristopher had earlier proposed a "necessity defense" based on preventing global warming by stopping some drilling, but that was rejected by federal judge Dee Benson.
    What's selective prosecution? Suppose you're among a crowd of people jaywalking. The cop arrests only you. You might have a "selective prosecution" defense, especially if you can show you were singled out.
    According to paperwork filed by the federal prosecutors in a recent pre-trial conference (the trial is currently scheduled for March 15-17), there have been at least 25 cases where someone bid at a BLM mineral-rights auction, and then failed to pay. And not one of them was ever charged with submitting a fraudulent bid.
    So why single out DeChristopher? The prosecution might argue that the others at least intended to pay, whereas DeChristopher had no intention of coming up with the $1.7 million to cover his successful bids..
    DeChristopher might then point out that, after the action,  he began to raise money on the Internet, thus showing intention to pay, although the government refused to accept any of that money.
    Further, another federal judge later found that many of the parcels offered for auction, which were near national parks and monuments, could not be legally leased under federal law. So if the auction contained bogus parcels in the first place, how could  DeChristopher be guilty of interfering with a legitimate government process?
    This makes a lot more sense than the "necessity defense," and one might hope that, at the very least, it will inspire the BLM to prosecute all successful bidders who can't come up with the cash at closing time. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and what's law for a college student should be law for an exploration company.

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Doggone it

Jodi Peterson | Dec 02, 2009 09:15 AM

The black-tailed prairie dog won't be protected under the Endangered Species Act, the feds announced today. Despite the fact that the 'dogs now occupy about 3 percent of their original habitat, and despite plague, poisoning and "varmint hunts", the federal Fish and Wildlife Service says populations are increasing.

That's good news for farmers, ranchers, and developers, given that black-tailed prairie dogs inhabit 2.4 million acres across the West and federal protection would limit activities on that land. It's also doubtless gratifying to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who, in his former position as Colorado's Attorney General, "threatened legal action if the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened".

But it's bad news for prairie dogs and their supporters. Reports the Casper Star-Tribune:

Lauren McCain, prairie protection director for WildEarth Guardians, said she was "very, very disappointed and discouraged" by Wednesday's ruling.

The black-tailed prairie dog, she said, is a "keystone species" that helps create habitat for a variety of other species -- including the black-footed ferret, one of the rarest animals in North America. "The whole life of the prairie depends on the health of prairie dog colonies," she said.

For more perspective, see our 2000 story, when listing the dog was found to be "warranted but precluded": Dog doesn't get its day and our 1999 feature Standing up for the underdog.

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Nuclear Nevada

Cally Carswell | Nov 24, 2009 08:24 AM

"Some of you have been inconvenienced by our test operations," the Atomic Energy Commission wrote to residents living near the Nevada Test Site, in Nye County, in 1955. "At times some of you have been exposed to potential risk from flash, blast, or fall-out. You have accepted the inconvenience or the risk without fuss, without alarm, and without panic."

Inconvenience? That's hardly how Nevadans would describe their nuclear legacy today, nor are they "without alarm" about its consequences. When Yucca Mountain was shelved earlier this year, many breathed a sigh of relief that Nye County wouldn't become a nuclear dumping ground—at least for now. But as the LA Times reports, the county is unlikely to shake its nuclear past anytime soon:

Over 41 years, the federal government detonated 921 nuclear warheads underground at the Nevada Test Site, 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Each explosion deposited a toxic load of radioactivity into the ground and in some cases directly into aquifers.


In a study for Nye County, where the nuclear test site lies, [Nevada hydrogeologist Thomas] Buqo estimated that the underground tests polluted 1.6 trillion gallons of water. That is as much water as Nevada is allowed to withdraw from the Colorado River in 16 years—enough to fill a lake 300 miles long, a mile wide and 25 feet deep.

At today's prices, that water would be worth as much as $48 billion if it had not been fouled, Buqo said.

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Down on copper mine

Ariana Brocious | Nov 23, 2009 09:50 AM

Plans to move forward with what would be the third- or fourth-largest copper mine in the country have been shelved for another year. The U.S. Forest Service has postponed an environmental impact study for a proposed copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, 30 miles southeast of Tucson, Ariz., until April 2010 (see our 1997 story). This will push the final decision on the Rosemont mine back to late 2010, six months later than originally planned, according to the Arizona Daily Star:

Last month the Forest Service announced it would have to delay release of the environmental analysis because of complex, controversial issues surrounding the project, including water supplies, water pollution, air quality, traffic, effects on Indian ruins and other cultural resources, and effects on wildlife habitat.

Indeed, the project has caused quite a stir in nearby communities, including Sonoita, Elgin and Green Valley, where residents came out in droves to protest the mine proposal at two public meetings in late October with Jay Jensen, a top USDA official. Concerns ranged from the economic impact on tourist destinations to the destruction of scenic views and local communities, as well as negative environmental effects. Wade Bunting of the Sonoita Community Action Alliance voiced his worries in the Arizona Daily Star:

“It’s a massive industrial project. The mine will be the death blow to our unspoiled natural environment.”

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Keeping uranium out of the Grand Canyon

Marty Durlin | Nov 23, 2009 06:53 AM

Are 21- year-old documents adequate to approve reopening a uranium mine about 15 miles north of the Grand Canyon? The Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Grand Canyon Trust say no, and they're suing the Bureau of Land Management for giving the go-ahead, claiming the agency is violating multiple federal laws by using the decades-old environmental assessment to approve the uranium mine.

The Arizona I Mine has changed ownership three times since it was permitted. It is now owned by the Canadian Denison Mines Corporation, which plans to begin mining there in the first quarter of 2010. The company proposes to extract 67,000 tons of ore, enough to produce about 900,000 pounds of yellowcake, from a 1,300-foot mine shaft that parallels an underground formation known as a breccia pipe -- a collapsed cavern filled with sediments and uranium ore.

"The breccia pipe mines are some of the highest grade mines in the United States," Denison CEO Ron Hochstein told the Arizona Daily Sun.

Hochstein told the Canwest News Service that the idea that the mine threatens the Grand Canyon ecosystem can't be justified "by any stretch of the imagination'' because of the site's distance from the park and planned environmental protection measures.

The 1988 documents do not include the southwestern willow flycatcher and four kinds of fish - all native to the Colorado River - that have since been added to the U.S. endangered species list. The conservation groups also claim the mine poses a risk to the seeps and springs at the Grand Canyon.

"If there's the potential for the mine to deplete or contaminate aquifers that discharge into the canyon, that's not a risk worth taking," said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "... Neither the mining company nor the BLM can guarantee that aquifer depletion or pollution won't happen."

In July the Department of the Interior barred new mining claims on about 1 million acres of federal land around the Grand Canyon for three years. There are as many as 10,000 existing mining claims on BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands near the Grand Canyon. Some 1,100 uranium mining claims are within five miles of the Grand Canyon National Park.

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The law of necessity

Ed Quillen | Nov 19, 2009 06:00 AM

    Tim DeChristopher won't be allowed to put global warming on trial when he's on trial.
    DeChristopher majors in economics at the University of Utah. Last fall, he went into a BLM auction and successfully bid on 13 drilling leases, also driving up prices for other successful bidders. But he didn't have the $1.7 million to pay for the leases -- he didn't even have the intention to pay. In April, he was charged with felonies like interfering with a government auction and making a false representation.
    In recent preliminary maneuvering before the trial, DeChristopher tried to raise the "necessity defense" of choosing the lesser of two evils.
    That is, committing one crime was the only way to prevent a greater crime. One oft-cited example comes from the movie "North by Northwest," where the crime of drunken driving was allowed because it was the only way to prevent the greater crime of kidnapping. It also appeared in a recent episode of "Law & Order," wherein the defendant claimed that the murder of a doctor was the only way to prevent more abortions, which were murders in the defendant's eyes.
    DeChristopher argued that sabotaging the BLM auction prevented more drilling which would have led to more global warming. If the judge accepted that, then the defense could call climate experts during the trial.
    Federal Judge Dee Benson ruled against the necessity defense because DeChristopher had other options besides his false bids. He could have filed a formal protest on the leases, demonstrated outside the auction, or joined the environmental groups who sued and kept the leases from proceeding.
    In other words, even if the court conceded that global warming was a greater offense than some false bids, DeChristopher had other means at his disposal to oppose that greater offense.
    No trial date has been set. If convicted, DeChristopher could get up to 10 years in prison, although the prosecutor, Brett Tolman, said such a long sentence was unlikely.
    Although I enjoyed the "monkey wrench" aspect of DeChristoper's actions, I have to say the judge's ruling seemed sound to me. I don't want someone disabling my pickup, then successfully pleading that the vandalism was necessary to deter global warming.


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