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Know the West

Two weeks in the West


Maybe it’s the weather; drought or abnormally dry weather is afflicting 70 percent of the West. Maybe the creeks gushing with unseasonably early snowmelt inspired lawmakers. Or maybe it’s just that last month marked the end of the legislative season. Whatever the reason, May was a big month for states — from Utah to California — to initiate measures that target greenhouse gas emissions.

On May 21, as his state languished under moderate drought, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., R, signed on to the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative, joining five other states in an effort to establish greenhouse gas emission limits by this fall. A year after that, they hope to implement a market-based carbon-trading system for the region. However, some Utahns worry that the move may up their electric rates, currently only half of what Californians pay.

Utah’s air will also benefit from another law implemented two states away, where extreme drought holds sway. On May 23, the California Energy Commission banned municipal utilities from entering into new contracts to purchase electricity emitting more than 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour generated (the commission imposed a similar ban for private utilities this year). That effectively eliminates coal from California’s power portfolio. Currently, about 20 percent of the electricity used in the state comes from coal-burning power plants. But none of those plants is in the Golden State. Rather, they are located in places like Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

Similar coal bans are included in a bill signed by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, D, on May 3. The law, which commits the state to reducing both its release of greenhouse gases and its dependence on fossil fuels, mimics the Global Warming Solutions Act passed in California last year.

Montana, itself a big coal producer, wasn’t so hard on fossil fuels — lawmakers started off their legislative session by shooting down a handful of measures that would have upped environmental standards for the energy industry and limited greenhouse gas emissions. But Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D, signed a “green and clean” energy bill in May granting tax breaks to renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind. It also gives breaks to coal-gasification and coal plants that capture their emissions.


Colorado also stood up to the energy industry in May. Drilling rigs are popping up all over the state, and many of them are on so-called split-estate lands, where different parties own the surface and mineral rights. In the past, the mineral owners have had the upper hand, building roads and drill pads and generally running roughshod over property while landowners stood by helplessly. After years of unsuccessful attempts, legislators finally passed a bill that will give landowners a bit more say over how drilling is done on their land, and Gov. Bill Ritter, D, signed it May 29. New Mexico passed a similar bill in March; landowner-rights activists hope the bills will set a national precedent.

Ritter also signed a bill mixing up the membership of the state’s oil and gas regulatory board. In the past, it was dominated by industry reps. Now it will be expanded to include the directors of the state health and natural resources departments, as well as representatives from the environmental and agricultural sectors.

In other Western news:

  • Environmental activists who burned buildings at the Vail ski resort, torched a horse slaughterhouse, knocked down power lines and damaged other property — but didn’t injure anyone — between 1996 and 2001, were sentenced as “terrorists” in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Ore., in May. Judge Ann L. Aiken sentenced three members of “the family” to nine to 13 years in prison; their terms would have been about half that had they not acted against the government.
  • The U.S. Forest Service will spend $1.5 million this year on its “Kids in the Woods” program, aimed at getting children off the couch and into nature. An estimated 23,000 kids will participate in programs in 15 states, mostly in the West.
  • The West is the land of McMansions and mobile homes, says a new survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. Americans in general are opting for bigger houses, but Utah leads the nation in homes with more than four bedrooms. Meanwhile, New Mexico and South Carolina each have more trailers than any other state in the U.S.