« Return to this article

Know the West

Waking up from the holiday food coma


If you were watching TV news over Christmas weekend, you likely saw weather forecasts mapping Santa's position over the U.S., a few feel-good stories about hard-case animals finding happy homes, and a report or two about how on Dec. 26, gift-recipients thunder back into the malls to return what they got for what they REALLLY wanted.

So you can be forgiven if, like me, you chose to bury your face in the green bean casserole rather than pay much attention to the news between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2.

O' course, the world doesn't stop just because some of us drop out for a few days to stuff our faces and catch up on Zs and family time. Here's a rundown of some noteworthy events in (and affecting) the West to help you get back up to speed as we begin 2012:


Air Quality: It's been a bit disorienting (and disheartening) watching the Obama administration advance and then retract, weaken or delay key environmental policies over the last couple years (stricter ozone rules and BLM wild lands designation were key examples). In this regulatory maelstrom, the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, which was to tightens limits on emissions of sulfur and nitrogen from power plants in 27 states in order to protect people in downwind states starting Jan. 1, was something of a bright spot.

But on Dec. 30, a federal appeals court sided with several states and utility interests and stayed the rule's implementation pending further review. Utilities had argued that there wouldn't be enough time "to allow the design and installation of pollution control equipment, forcing a number of units to shut or to run only part of the time," reports Reuters. The delay is a blow to public health interests:

The EPA estimated that the Cross State rule will save up to 34,000 lives, prevent 15,000 heart attacks and prevent 400,000 asthma attacks each year, providing $120 billion to $280 billion in annual health benefits for the nation.

Sage grouse: In the wake of a September settlement that requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide by 2015 whether the ground-dwelling bird should be listed as endangered, on Dec. 27 the Bureau of Land Management issued interim management guidance to protect it while more final policies can be inked -- ostensibly with the aim of preventing the need for special federal protection (which could slam economically important industries like oil and gas, wind power and ranching). According to the Associated Press,

One memo covers mining, oil and gas leasing, grazing and other common activities on public land... (calling) for more detailed review of oil and gas leasing, for instance, if a leasing proposal doesn't include sufficient measures to offset loss of sage grouse habitat. The other says BLM must consider all applicable conservation measures in large-scale resource management planning for BLM lands that include sage grouse habitat.

Conservation groups lauded the plan as a step in the right direction, but panned it for not having any teeth. "In cases where BLM officials want to ignore the welfare of sage grouse and ram through projects that are detrimental, there will be little in the new policy to stop them,"  Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, told the Casper Star-Tribune. "The interim policy is written with such loose language that BLM officials will have the latitude to do anything they want -- or nothing at all -- to protect the grouse."

You'll find the interim guidelines themselves here.

More in 'Poltertics,' or 'She's ba-aaack': Who needs the alleged 2012 apocalypse when there's a presidential race to scare yourself with? If you thought Sarah Palin would stay out of this year's GOP fray, think again. Newt Gingrich said last week that she's worth considering as a running mate and would be an ideal candidate for Energy secretary. "I can’t imagine anybody who would do a better job of driving us to an energy solution than Gov. Palin, for example," Gingrich told conservative voters during a conference call hosted by Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, according to The Hill.


A little judicial sanity?: Thanks to the Copper Barons that once controlled Montana's politics, the state is well-versed in the need to block corporate meddling. In that vein, on Dec. 30 Montana's high court "restored the state's century-old ban on on direct spending by corporations on political candidates or committees," reports the Washington Post. The ruling seems to essentially give the finger to the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial "Citizens United" decision, which declared that, just like citizens, corporations are entitled to free political "speech," e.g., lavishly outspending actual voters to influence election outcomes.


State officials join energy companies in suggesting the EPA flubbed its Pavillion fracking study: A few weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency released what looked like a pretty damning draft report that for the first time linked significant groundwater pollution to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Now, Wyoming water officials say that EPA failed to test the water samples within the agency's own mandated time frame and didn't take enough samples to support a robust finding, reports the Star-Tribune:

The EPA also found contamination in pure water control samples, didn’t purge the test wells properly before gathering samples and didn’t mention in its report whether it tested water carried by a truck used in well drilling, say officials with the Wyoming Water Development Commission who, because of their expertise on water wells, reviewed the EPA’s publicly available information.

The news is worth taking with a grain of salt, though, given how Wyoming's complete dependence on the energy industry often influences its politics and officials. The EPA, not surprisingly, stands by its conclusions.


And yet more in Poltertics: Hey, remember Larry Craig? That conservative Idaho Senator who got pinched for soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom? Well he's back, and he's lobbying on mine safety for the coal industry. But wait, reports the Huffington Post, there's more! Remember that terrible cave-in at Murray Energy's Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah? Guess who Craig's new client is? Murray Energy. Awesome sauce. Time to go hide under a rock in dismay. Or face-plant back in the green bean casserole.


Time to break out the rock skis?: "Worst. Conditions. Ever." That's how a friend of mine described the skiing New Years weekend at a resort in the mountains above Aspen. It has been, on the whole, a pretty dry and wind-scoured winter in the Colorado high country. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, statewide snowpack is just 73 percent of what it normally is this time of year, making it the fourth driest early winter in the last 30 years, reports the Denver Post: "No year in the last three decades that has started this far below average has recovered to record normal snowpack by the start of spring, said Mike Gillespie, the snow survey supervisor for the service."

Things are much worse in Utah, though, reports the Salt Lake Tribune, with "the Wasatch Front and much of the state ... on track for the driest December since weather records have been kept." The state's snowpack is about 50 percent of normal, a sharp contrast to last winter when it exceeded 200 percent, reports USA Today.

And it's downright dismal in northern Nevada and California's Sierra, where snowpack is reportedly just 10 percent of average. Reno, Nev., broke its record for the driest December, originally set in 1883. The Lake Tahoe Basin, meanwhile, is seeing record-breaking high temperatures (in the 60s).


In other glum climate news: On Dec. 29, a federal judge dealt a setback to California's fledgling effort to reduce greenhouse gases from transportation fuels, reports the L.A. Times:

The regulations require producers, refiners and importers of gasoline and diesel to reduce the carbon footprint of their fuel by 10% over the next decade, as part of California's landmark global-warming law aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill issued the temporary injunction against the effort on the grounds that the it violates the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against fuel producers outside California. The state plans to appeal.

But relax (unless you're a rancher): 'Life finds a way': On Wednesday, Dec. 28, a young wolf was confirmed in Siskiyou County, Calif. A loner who split from a pack in northeastern Oregon, he is the first wild wolf to appear in the state in more than 90 years.

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News

Photo of green bean casserole courtesy of Flickr user popartichoke