Putting the West on a low-carb(on) diet


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

The day after the University of Colorado Law School’s annual summer conference -- “A Low Carbon Energy Blueprint for the American West” -- had ended, I was walking in downtown Fort Collins, when something above the foothills caught my eye. The dense white puff looked like a blooming thunderhead but the black tendrils rising quickly around it confirmed the worst -- wildfire. Since that morning, the High Park fire has exploded to more than 68,000 acres, killing one person and destroying at least 189 homes. The fire’s ravaging of that area and those lives is a great sadness, but it is no surprise.

Image of the High Park Fire's smoke plume on June 9 courtesy Flickr user Sam Cox.

Throughout the spring we were warned that this perfect storm was brewing. Our warm, dry winter left us with a record low snowpack and high spring temperatures exacerbated the situation. Colorado's Water Availability Task Force reported that last April was the fourth warmest on record in Colorado (since record-keeping began in 1895), and March was the third warmest. As a result, 96 percent of Colorado was experiencing some level of drought conditions last month. Seventy percent of 11 Western states currently are considered “abnormally dry.” A recent study showed that the Southwest in the fastest-warming region in the country.

Months ago, the federal wildfire forecast warned of an increased risk for catastrophe this year, particularly on the Front Range. Last week, there were 20 wildfires burning in eight Western states. (The U.S. Forest Service’s map of active wildfires paints a sobering picture of the West ablaze.) Yet another recent study predicts that, if left unchecked, climate change will increase the number and ferocity of wildfires in the West over the next 30 years.

With deference to all the creative carbon-reducing schemes out there (including sequestration and the like) we can’t be serious about reducing CO2 in the atmosphere without burning less fossil fuels. While cars, trucks and trains belched out 1,746 million metric tons of CO2 in 2010, generating electricity for and powering homes, businesses and industries contributes over 3,600 million metric tons. As global energy demand is predicted to increase 30 percent from 2010 to 2040, addressing these particular source points provides an opportunity to put the West, in particular, on a low-carbon diet.

Which brings me back to the conference, where analysts, strategists, professors and lawyers addressed the challenge of supplying energy to more people with less environmental repercussions.

Former governor Bill Ritter, who now heads the Center for the New Energy Economy, kicked off things by saying there’s an unfortunate divide between what he has seen as broad support for clean energy across the West (Most Western voters of all stripes -- yes, even in Wyoming and Montana -- support energy policy that prioritizes an increased use of renewables) and what’s going on with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. “What we’ve seen is clean energy getting wrapped around the axles of the climate change debate,” he said.

My apologies to Gov. Ritter for directly linking the two in this blog but, the fact is, we’re glimpsing our future in the smoke plumes blotting out the sun near Fort Collins. By not aggressively pursuing clean energy we are gambling the very resources that make us want to live in the West.

The good news is that a low-carbon future is possible, and the West is already leading the way. Colorado was the first state to create a renewable portfolio standard by ballot initiative (when voters approved Amendment 37 in November 2004), now most Americans live in states with such policies that mandate replacing traditional fuels with clean ones, and emissions have declined significantly as a result.

Conference speakers were also agreed that, despite the impression we’ve gotten recently from the mainstream media, the death of renewables has been greatly exaggerated. As Gov. Ritter pointed out, the clean energy sector has continued to grow despite the recession. And, now, when our inefficient, century-old electric grid is on its last legs, is the perfect time to rebuild with the emphasis on renewable energy transmission. The technology already exists to role out renewables in a meaningful way, and our resources are many in the West: large tracts of public land suitable for siting and transmitting renewables, sun (Colorado is the sixth sunniest state) and wind (we are the ninth windiest).

The bad news is that we’re not transitioning fast enough, and we’re getting distracted by shiny objects like cheap shale gas which, despite the powerful PR push, is not a clean alternative. By some estimates, its massive methane emissions make it dirtier than coal. It may, as some at the conference suggested, be a suitable bridge or firming resource to back up renewables, but it is no panacea.

And while some good things are happening on the national level to reduce emissions and to improve air quality (including the new EPA rules that will retire toxic coal-burning plants and regulate pollution from oil and gas operations), we’re still encouraging private industry to dig up tons of federal coal in Wyoming on the cheap and sell it to China, for considerable profit, so that they can burn it instead. If we value our air, water, wildlife and landscapes (not to mention our ski season) in the West, we have to start acting like it and stand against unethical and counterintuitive uses of our collective resources.

If our national imperatives are, as several speakers at the conference catalogued: energy security, economic stability and environmental health, then renewables are a no-brainer. While few conference participants expressed confidence that our transition to clean energy will progress on Capitol Hill, it’s clear that that we’ll have to use every tool in the box to significantly slow climate change -- investment in innovation to bring down the cost of renewables; more efficient permitting of renewable siting and transmission; and a carbon levy to make sustainability profitable.

We will also need -- and this may be the toughest bill to fill -- strong leadership, especially among conservatives. But, if the U.S. military understands the security necessity of transitioning to renewables, and is committed to both a 30 percent reduction in non-tactical fleet fossil fuel use by 2020 (thanks to Executive Order 13423, signed by George W. Bush) and to meeting 25 percent of its energy needs with renewables by 2025, then surely some moderates could break away from the pack and speak up.

If independence is something we value in the West, imagine how would we feel to be less reliant on others for our energy needs. For one thing, we may feel less helpless when we look, as I did, to the burning foothills.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

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