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Utah Lawmakers Scheme to Fund California Coal Terminal

By Center for Biological Diversity

SALT LAKE CITY­— Republican lawmakers in Utah are attempting an eleventh-hour maneuver that would use $53 million in state sales tax money to pay for a California coal-export terminal.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams (R-Layton) has proposed using $53 million in sales-tax revenue targeted for highway improvements to fund a proposed coal terminal in Oakland. The scheme would ship millions of tons of coal from four Utah counties to be burned abroad, further deepening the climate crisis. Under legislative rules, Wednesday is the last day bills can be taken up in committee to be considered this session, which has eight scheduled days remaining.

The redevelopment of the waterfront in Oakland, California, is generating new controversy over a proposed coal export terminal. Image: "Port of Oakland 'Round Sunset" by Russel Mondy/CC BY-NC 2.0

The redevelopment of the waterfront in Oakland, California, is generating new controversy over a proposed coal export terminal. Image: “Port of Oakland ‘Round Sunset” by Russel Mondy/CC BY-NC 2.0

“This is clearly a cynical maneuver to sneak legislation into the waning days of the session,” said Wendy Park of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It makes no sense to use highway-improvement money from Utah to build a coal terminal in California. On top of that, Utah would be doubling down on coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet and one of the primary reasons our climate’s in serious trouble.”

“With China’s coal consumption falling, and coal exports down more than 20%, this bill is a risky bet,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney at Earthjustice.  “Apparently, one of the few places it’s legal to gamble in Utah is at the state legislature, where it’s OK to raid taxpayers’ wallets to wager on an industry in historic decline.”

Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund, designed to offset the effects of mining on rural communities, last year agreed to loan $53 million to four Utah coal-producing counties, which planned to invest the money in the coal terminal. The state agency asked state Attorney General Sean Reyes to review the deal’s legality. The results of the review have not been made public.

“The lack of transparency in the attorney general’s office on this review makes one wonder whether there is a legal reason that the Community Impact Board review has not been made available and could explain this last-minute attempt to shift the burden of this scheme to taxpayers,” Park said.

“It’s clear this bill is being pushed because there’s concern that the CIB loan is illegal,” said Zukoski. “The Attorney General should release his analysis now – before the bill is considered – so the public can know whether SB 246 is also vulnerable to challenge.”

In a letter to Reyes in November, environmental groups, including the Center, Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Grand Canyon Trust, argued that the $53 million loan violated federal and state laws.

The proposed coal terminal that is to be built on a former Army base in Oakland has been vigorously opposed by Mayor Libby Schaaf and many city officials, faith leaders, residents and environmental groups in the Bay Area who do not want to see trainloads of dusty coal pass through their neighborhoods. Several bills have been introduced in the California legislature to block funding for the $1.2 billion terminal project over concerns about effects of transporting coal locally and the burning of coal globally.

China announced last week that it is closing more than 1,000 coal mines due to a “price-sapping supply glut” and the government’s new determination to clean up dangerous air pollution across the country.

The Obama administration has also paused all new federal coal leasing until a comprehensive review of the federal coal-leasing program is completed. Some of the coal that would supply the Oakland terminal could come from the publicly owned coal from the Greens Hollow mine, but the president’s coal moratorium offers no guarantee that this coal will be mined, making the legislature’s gambit to bet state sales tax revenue on the coal-export terminal a very questionable move.

Washington Post: Four Corners Methane Plume

By Joby Warrick, The Washington Post
CUBA, N.M. — The methane that leaks from 40,000 gas wells near this desert trading post may be colorless and odorless, but it’s not invisible. It can be seen from space.

plume_full

Satellites that sweep over energy-rich northern New Mexico can spot the gas as it escapes from drilling rigs, compressors and miles of pipeline snaking across the badlands. In the air it forms a giant plume: a permanent, Delaware-sized methane cloud, so vast that scientists questioned their own data when they first studied it three years ago. “We couldn’t be sure that the signal was real,” said NASA researcher Christian Frankenberg.

The country’s biggest methane “hot spot,” verified by NASA and University of Michigan scientists in October, is only the most dramatic example of what scientists describe as a $2 billion leak problem: the loss of methane from energy production sites across the country. When oil, gas or coal are taken from the ground, a little methane — the main ingredient in natural gas — often escapes along with it, drifting into the atmosphere, where it contributes to the warming of the Earth.

Methane accounts for about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest single source of it — nearly 30 percent — is the oil and gas industry, government figures show. All told, oil and gas producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year, enough to provide power to every household in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

As early as next month, the Obama administration will announce new measures to shrink New Mexico’s methane cloud while cracking down nationally on a phenomenon that officials say erodes tax revenue and contributes to climate change. The details are not publicly known, but already a fight is shaping up between the White House and industry supporters in Congress over how intrusive the restrictions will be.

Republican leaders who will take control of the Senate next month have vowed to block measures that they say could throttle domestic energy production at a time when plummeting oil prices are cutting deeply into company profits. Industry officials say they have a strong financial incentive to curb leaks, and companies are moving rapidly to upgrade their equipment.

But environmentalists say relatively modest government restrictions on gas leaks could reap substantial rewards for taxpayers and the planet. Because methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas — with up to 80 times as much heat-trapping potency per pound as carbon dioxide over the short term — the leaks must be controlled if the United States is to have any chance of meeting its goals for cutting the emissions responsible for climate change, said David Doniger, who heads the climate policy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

“This is the most significant, most cost-effective thing the administration can do to tackle climate change pollution that it hasn’t already committed to do,” Doniger said.

Methane’s hot spot

The epicenter of New Mexico’s methane hot spot is a stretch of desert southeast of Farmington, N.M., in a hydrocarbon-soaked region known as the San Juan Basin. The land was once home to a flourishing civilization of ancient Pueblo Indians, who left behind ruins of temples and trading centers built more than 1,000 years ago. In modern times, people have been drawn to the area by vast deposits of uranium, oil, coal and natural gas.

Energy companies have been racing to snatch up new oil leases here since the start of the shale-oil boom in recent years. But long before that, the basin was known as one of the country’s most productive regions for natural gas.

The methane-rich gas is trapped in underground formations that often also contain deposits of oil or coal. Energy companies extract it by drilling wells through rock and coal and collecting the gas in tanks at the surface. The gas is transported by pipeline or truck to other facilities for processing.

But much of this gas never makes it to the market. Companies that are seeking only oil will sometimes burn off or “flare” methane gas rather than collect it. In some cases, methane is allowed to escape or “vent” into the atmosphere, or it simply seeps inadvertently from leaky pipes and scores of small processing stations linked by a spider’s web of narrow dirt roads crisscrossing the desert.

For local environmental groups, gas-flaring is a tangible reminder of the downsides of an industry that provides tens of millions of dollars to local economies as well as to federal tax coffers. Bruce Gordon, a private pilot and president of EcoFlight, an environmental group that monitors energy development on federally owned land, recently banked his single-engine Cessna over a large oil well near Lybrook, N.M. He pointed out two towers of orange flame where methane was being burned off, a practice that prevents a dangerous buildup of pressure on drilling equipment but that also wastes vast quantities of methane.

“For these companies, the gas is worthless — the oil is what they want,” Gordon said. The burning converts methane into carbon dioxide — another greenhouse gas — while contributing to the brown haze that sometimes blankets the region on sunny days, he said.

Other environmental groups have documented leaks of normally invisible methane using infrared cameras that can detect plumes of gas billowing from wells, storage tanks and compressors. All of it contributes to the giant plume “seen” by satellites over northwestern New Mexico, a gas cloud that NASA scientists say represents nearly 600,000 metric tons of wasted methane annually, or roughly enough to supply the residential energy needs of a city the size of San Francisco.

The NASA analysis estimated the average extent of the gas plume over the past decade at 2,500 square miles — and that was before the recent energy boom from shale oil and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, said Frankenberg, the NASA scientist.

Possible remedies

But spotting the leaks is far easier than fixing them. The Obama administration is reviewing a host of possible remedies that range from voluntary inducements to more costly regulations requiring oil and gas companies to install monitoring equipment and take steps to control the loss of methane at each point in the production process. The announcement of the administration’s new policies has been repeatedly delayed amid what officials describe as internal debate over the cost of competing proposals and, indeed, over whether methane should be regulated separately from the mix of other gases given off as byproducts of oil and gas drilling.

The American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry, contends that companies are already making progress in slashing methane waste, installing updated equipment that reduces leaks. New regulations are unnecessary and would ultimately make it harder for U.S. companies to compete, said Erik Milito, API’s director of upstream and industry operations.

“Every company is strongly incentivized to capture methane and bring it to the market,” Milito said. “We don’t need regulation to tell us to do that.”

But environmentalists point to problems with old pipelines and outdated equipment that are the source of more than 90 percent of the wasted methane, according to a report earlier this month by a consortium of five environmental organizations. The study said relatively modest curbs would result in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions over two decades comparable to closing down 90 coal-fired power plants.

The report’s authors noted that the measures would also help protect taxpayers who, after all, are the ultimate owners of the oil and gas taken from federally owned lands, including most of New Mexico’s San Juan Basin.

“The good news is that there are simple technologies and practices that the oil and gas industry can use to substantially reduce this waste,” said Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president for climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the contributors to the report.

“You don’t have to be an environmentalist to know that methane leaks are simply a waste of a valuable national energy resource,” he said.

Suit Filed Against Expansion of Navajo Coal Mine Polluting Four Corners Region

Reblogged from Earth First! Newswire:

by the Center for Biological Diversity

Click to visit the original post

Navajo Mine, by Kelly Michals

After decades of coal pollution from the 2040-megawatt Four Corners Power Plant and BHP Billiton’s 13,000-acre Navajo Coal Mine that supplies it, Navajo and conservation groups filed suit against the federal government late Tuesday for improperly rubber-stamping a proposal to expand strip-mining without full consideration of the damage and risks to health and the environment.

“The Navajo mine has torn up the land, polluted the air, and contaminated waters that families depend on,” said Anna Frazier of Diné CARE. “Residents in the area deserve a full and thorough impact analysis that is translated into the Navajo language to provide for real public participation, not another whitewash for the coal industry.”

Navajo Mine is located in San Juan County, N.M., on the Navajo Nation. Four Corners Power Plant, built in 1962, provides electricity to California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and is the largest coal-fired power plant source of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the United States. (NOx is associated with public-health impacts including respiratory disease, heart attacks and strokes). The legal action, brought under the National Environmental Policy Act, challenges the Office of Surface Mining’s decision to allow BHP Billiton to expand strip-mining operations into 714 acres of a portion of land designated “Area IV North” and the agency’s claim that the mine did not cause significant human health and environmental impacts.

The present Area IV mine expansion was proposed in the wake of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment v. Klein (Diné CARE), 747 F. Supp. 2d 1234, 1263-64 (D. Colo. 2010). In that case, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled that a previous proposal to strip-mine all 3,800 acres of Area IV North violated the National Environmental Policy Act and ordered OSM to revisit its analysis under the Act.

Unfortunately, OSM’s new analysis only exacerbates the deficiencies of its first analysis. OSM’s analysis justified a finding of no significant impact in a vacuum by focusing only on a cursory analysis of impacts within the mine expansion’s perimeter and ignoring indirect and cumulative impacts from mercury, selenium, ozone, and other air and water pollutants caused by the combustion of coal at the Four Corners Power Plant and the plant’s disposal of coal ash waste generated by the coal mined from the expansion area.

“The way the approval was rushed through and the way OSM put on blinders to the cumulative reality of coal operations at the mine and the power plant is an injustice,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator with the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “It hides the true magnitude of the damage going on with coal in our region and the risks of green-lighting more of the same with no change.”

“Mercury and selenium pollution from coal mining and combustion is driving endangered fish extinct in the San Juan River while it threatens people’s health in nearby communities,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These are massive environmental problems facing the Four Corners region and people — problems the Office of Surface Mining can’t ignore any longer. ”

“Pollution and other impacts from coal mining and coal power plants broadly impact New Mexico’s rivers and streams, in particular the Chaco and San Juan rivers,” said Rachel Conn, projects director at Amigos Bravos. “These rivers must be better protected for agriculture, drinking water and fish.”

“Ultimately, we need to transition away from coal and towards clean, renewable energy from New Mexico’s abundant sun and wind,” said Nellis Kennedy-Howard with the Sierra Club. “As we make that transition, we need to account for the true magnitude of coal’s impact to human health and the environment.”

“When the federal government gets out the rubber stamp in a situation like this, where so much is at stake for clean air, vital waterways, and the people who depend on them, that leaves no alternative but legal action to try to ensure fairness and accountability,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing the groups.

The lawsuit seeks a comprehensive analysis of the Navajo Mine and Four Corners Power Plant’s impacts to health and the environment to inform current and future coal-related decisions and help illuminate opportunities to transition away from coal toward clean, renewable energy generated by New Mexico’s abundant sun and wind.

Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (CARE), San Juan Citizens Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Amigos Bravos and the Sierra Club are represented in the case by the Western Environmental Law Center.

A copy of the filed lawsuit can be found here.