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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

On this week's evergreen-scented weekly Independent comics page: Red Meat sends Milkman Dan's truck in for repairs; Apoca Clips quizzes Li'l Trumpy about the immigrant caravan; Jen Sorensen looks at what's not changing following the midterms; The K Chronicles has a modest proposal for coal mines; and This Modern World brings us the latest mystery for the detective-in-chief.

Published in Comics

This summer’s statistics on electricity use and generation included a significant gem: Over the last 12 months, power generation from coal has dropped to a three-decade low.

That’s party-worthy news for the climate, for air quality, for folks who live near power plants and for the natural-gas industry, which is partly responsible for coal’s decline. Just days later, however, the Trump administration crashed the shindig, causing a major buzzkill.

No, the president’s attempts to revive coal have not succeeded. But on Sept. 18, the Interior Department snuffed out new rules aimed at lowering the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, just days after the Environmental Protection Agency started the process of euthanizing its own methane regulations. This is a bummer not only for the planet, but also for the natural-gas industry’s efforts to portray its product as the clean fossil fuel.

Coal began its climb to dominate the electricity mix in the 1960s, peaking in the mid-2000s, when power plants burned about 1 billion tons per year, generating about half of the nation’s electricity—and an ongoing disaster. Donald Trump likes to talk about “clean, beautiful coal.” It’s anything but. The smokestacks that loom over coal power plants kick out millions of tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide annually, along with mercury, sulfur dioxide, arsenic and particulates, all of which wreak havoc on human health. What’s left over ends up as toxic (sometimes radioactive) piles of ash, clinkers and scrubber sludge.

When natural gas is burned to produce power, however, it emits only about half the carbon dioxide of coal, and virtually none of the other pollutants associated with burning coal. So during the 2008 election season—when climate politics were less polarized than now—both parties pushed natural gas in different ways, with Republicans chanting, “Drill, baby, drill,” and Democrats calling natural gas a “bridge” to greater reliance on renewable energy sources. At the same time, advances in drilling were unlocking vast stores of oil and gas from shale formations, driving down the price of the commodity and making it more desirable to utilities.

As a result, natural gas gobbled up a growing share of the nation’s electricity mix, while coal’s portion withered. In 2008, natural gas generated 21 percent of the electricity in the United States; now, its share is 33 percent. Coal use, meanwhile, plummeted from 48 percent to 29 percent over the same period. In consequence, the electric-power sector’s total carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by 700 million metric tons over the last decade, with an attendant decrease in other harmful pollutants. Every megawatt-hour of coal-fired electricity that is replaced by gas-fired electricity is a net win for the planet—and the humans who live on it.

Except when it’s not. Natural gas has an Achilles’ heel: When it is sucked from the earth and processed and moved around, leaks occur. The main ingredient in natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas with 86 times the short-term warming potential of carbon dioxide. Every punctured pipeline, leaky valve and sloppy gas-well completion eats away at any climate benefits. And if methane’s leaking, so, too, are other harmful pollutants, including benzene, ethane and hydrogen sulfide. And so the fuel’s green credentials, and one of the industry’s main marketing tools, end up wafting into thin air.

When the Obama administration proposed rules that would make the oil and gas industry clamp down on methane emissions, it was a gift, not a punishment. Not only would people and the climate benefit; the natural gas industry would be able to sell itself as a clean fuel and a bridge to the future.

The Obama-era rules are similar to those passed in Colorado in 2014, with the industry’s support. Far from being onerous, they simply require companies to regularly look for and repair leaks and to replace faulty equipment. Some companies already do this on their own; the Obama rules would simply mandate this responsible behavior across the board. That’s why the Republican-controlled Congress ultimately decided not to kill the rules. That, however, did not discourage Trump.

Trump is not being “business-friendly” by ending the rules. Rather, he is once again indulging his own obsession with Obama and destroying his predecessor’s legacy, regardless of the cost to human health and the environment. Trump’s own EPA estimates that its rule rollback will result in the emission of an additional 484,000 tons of methane, volatile organic compounds and other hazardous pollutants over the next five years. Meanwhile, the death of the Interior Department’s methane rule will add another half-million tons of pollutants to the air. In the process, it will erode the pillars of the once-vaunted natural gas bridge.

Then again, maybe the time has come to let that bridge burn. We get 70 times more electricity from solar sources now than we did in 2008, and renewables hold 11 percent of the total share of power generation. Perhaps just as significant is a less-noticed fact: Electricity consumption in the U.S. has held steady for the last decade, even dropping during some years, despite a growing population, a burgeoning economy, harder-working air conditioners and more electric devices. That means we’re becoming more efficient and smarter about how we use energy. If we keep this up, we’ll be able to cross that fossil fuel chasm—no matter how many bridges Trump burns down.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

Published in Community Voices

One week after the presidential election, on a summery November day, I phoned Denver-based climate activist Jeremy Nichols.

Nichols has pressured the government to keep its fossil-fuel reserves in the ground, with some success: In January, the Obama administration put a moratorium on federal coal leasing, something unimaginable during the heady drilling years of Bush and Cheney. I called to ask what Nichols expected from the next president. He remarked on the unseasonably warm weather, then lamented, “I’m going to yearn for the George W. Bush days.”

Environmentalists have good reason to worry about President-elect Donald J. Trump. In 2012, Trump tweeted that climate change was a “concept” ginned up by the Chinese. Now, he’s appointed a prominent critic of climate science and policy to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition. On his new website, Trump promises to grease the permitting skids for fossil fuel production, end the “war on coal,” support renewable energy and scrap the Clean Power Plan. At the same time, he professes a commitment to “our wonderful natural resources.”

The energy industry is delighted. “I think what we’re looking for right off the bat is simply having an administration that is not openly hostile to us,” says Kathleen Sgamma, of the Western Energy Alliance.

Meanwhile, conservationists expect to spend the next four years defending their Obama-era gains. But Obama’s environmental achievements are considerable, and Trump can’t vanquish them with a snap of his fingers. Many power plants have already taken steps to rein in toxic mercury emissions and pollutants that cloud parks and wilderness with brown haze. Obama’s clean car rules have already stood up in court. So far, Obama has designated 27 national monuments—more than any other administration—and the new president has no clear legal authority to erase those protections.

Still, the carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan, one of the president’s most significant accomplishments, is in peril. And the rarely used Congressional Review Act allows Congress to weigh in on any rule finalized after May 30 of this year, according to a Congressional Research Service estimate, by giving it 60 days in session to pass something called a “joint resolution of disapproval.” If the president signs the resolution, the rule is nullified, and agencies are forbidden to issue similar rules.

Here are some of the Obama administration’s achievements and Trump’s position on them, if known, and explain how Trump could attempt to undo them.


Federal Coal Leasing Moratorium

What Obama did: In January, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a “secretarial order” directing the department to stop leasing federal coal reserves, pending a review of the program. Environmentalists like Nichols had pushed for this, arguing that leasing federal coal was inconsistent with Obama’s climate goals, and that the program didn’t deliver fair returns to taxpayers.

Trump’s take: One of the few specific promises Trump has made is to lift the moratorium.

Trump’s options: Trump’s administration can scrap the moratorium with the stroke of a pen—the same way the Obama administration created it.


BLM and EPA Methane Rules

What Obama did: Both the EPA and Bureau of Land Management finalized rules this year to limit the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, vented or flared by oil and gas drilling. The rules would limit those emissions at both new and existing facilities and funnel additional royalties to taxpayers, who don’t currently earn revenue on methane that’s burned as waste.

Trump’s take: We don’t know. However, Trump has positioned himself as a staunch ally of the industry, which vigorously opposes the rules. The BLM’s rule, finalized on Nov. 15, was met immediately with an industry lawsuit. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, released a statement saying he looks forward to helping the new administration rescind the rules.

Trump’s options: Congress could use the Congressional Review Act to ask Trump to nix the rules, or include language in appropriations bills temporarily prohibiting the agencies from using funds for implementation or enforcement. Whatever happens, Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, of the Western Environmental Law Center, notes that waste prevention is a core principle of federal oil and gas law, and says his group will continue to ensure that BLM fulfills its legal obligations.


Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms

What Obama did: In the early days of the George W. Bush administration, The Wilderness Society’s Nada Culver says, you had to visit BLM field offices in person to keep tabs on oil and gas lease sales. Coordinates for parcels up for auction were posted, but you had to map them yourself and protest within a short window. As public-land drilling intensified, encroaching on places like Dinosaur National Monument, environmentalists protested more and filed more lawsuits. The result, says Culver, frustrated everyone: Environmentalists felt that the BLM put too little thought into leasing, and some offices became burdened with multi-year backlogs, a burden for industry.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sought to break the gridlock by increasing public participation and including more upfront planning. Public comment periods now precede lease sales, and the BLM is starting to give citizens more insight into its thinking before it drafts management plans. Master leasing plans, which try to resolve conflicts between industry and others ahead of leasing, are another product of Salazar’s reforms.

Trump’s take: We don’t know. Trump has promised to “lift restrictions” on energy development on public lands, but the Western Energy Alliance says it’s hard to know exactly what that means. Litigation still bogs down leasing and protests continue, Sgamma says, pointing to a WildEarth Guardians lawsuit challenging all leases sold in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming since the start of 2015. She hopes for changes that speed up leasing and permitting.

Trump’s options: The reforms were created through memoranda issued by Salazar, and they could be changed in the same fashion. But whether the new administration will do so is anyone’s guess. Culver notes that the reforms have been incorporated into BLM’s management handbooks, and that reducing public involvement could be politically tricky. “It’s going to be hard to say, ‘Never mind; don’t pay attention to that man behind the curtain making all of the oil and gas decisions.’” Culver contends that there aren’t that many restrictions on development anyway; the market is the primary limiting factor.

Nichols expects some change: “I think we will see Interior move to limit BLM’s discretion to reject leases,” he says.


Waters of the U.S. Rule

What Obama did: This supremely wonky rule allows the feds to regulate pollution in small and intermittent wetlands and streams under the Clean Water Act.

Trump’s take: Trump has promised to eliminate what he calls a “highly invasive” rule, opposed by energy companies, agriculture groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many Republicans, who say it represents an egregious expansion of federal regulatory power.

Trump’s options: Since the rule is currently tied up in court, Trump could let the legal system decide its fate. It’s likely to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which may soon tilt in the GOP’s favor. He could also ask the court to send the rule back to the EPA for revision. However, that process would be open to public comment and ultimately to more litigation.


Offshore Oil Leasing

What Obama did: On Nov. 19, the Obama administration finalized its five-year plan for offshore oil leasing, which determines where leases will be offered through 2022. It canceled proposed lease sales in the Arctic Ocean and put the Atlantic and Pacific coasts off-limits to new leasing.

Trump’s take: We don’t know, but industry groups and Alaska Republicans aren’t happy, and an “infuriated” Sen. Lisa Murkowski has promised to fight the decision.

Trump’s options: The new administration could write a new plan, but probably not quickly. Obama’s plan was developed over two years, and industry interest in Arctic drilling has cooled amid low oil prices. Shell abandoned its exploratory efforts in the Chukchi Sea in 2015, citing disappointing results.

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

On the day after Election Day, the biggest newspaper in the oil and gas patch in northwestern New Mexico ran a story headlined: “Trump win has energy industry leaders hopeful.”

Most of the local industry folks quoted by the Farmington Daily Times said that President-elect Donald Trump would relax regulations on drilling on public land. Meanwhile, over on Facebook, energy workers were ecstatic, convinced that a President Trump would put them back to work almost immediately.

They should know better.

The San Juan Basin’s energy-reliant communities have been hit especially hard in recent years. The first blow came in 2008, after horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing opened up huge shale formations in the East.

Shortly thereafter, oil prices skyrocketed to as high as $150 per barrel, prompting drill rigs to pop up again all over North Dakota’s Bakken formation and, a little later, in the San Juan Basin’s Gallup shale. The fossil fuel mojo was back … until it wasn’t. As global supply increased faster than demand, prices started dropping, and OPEC declined to cut production. In 2014, prices crashed, and the oil boom was busted.

It’s a simple equation: When demand outpaces supply, prices increase. When prices get high enough to make drilling profitable, companies invest in development and put people to work. When all that drilling increases supply, prices crash, as do the drill rigs. Today, oil prices are stubbornly stuck below $50 per barrel.

Just one rig is working in the San Juan Basin, and the vast equipment yards in Farmington and Aztec, N.M., are crammed full of idle rigs. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs.

President-elect Trump promised to “lift restrictions on … energy reserves” and to dismantle environmental regulations. But will the drill rigs go back up as a result? No. Will laid-off energy workers get their jobs back? No. Regulations have nothing to do with this bust. Commodity booms and busts are driven by supply and demand, not regulations.

The only way to kick-start the faltering industry would be to increase oil and natural gas prices. And the only way to do that is to curtail supply or increase demand—no easy task with a global commodity.

Natural gas supply and demand, and therefore prices, would be somewhat easier to manipulate, since the commodity is regional, not global, meaning we export and import very little of the stuff. A president could boost demand by subsidizing a nationwide fleet of natural gas-burning long-haul trucks, which might make gas drillers happy, but not the oil drillers (since it would displace gasoline-burning trucks). He could ram through liquefied natural gas export-terminal permits, opening up foreign markets to domestic natural gas. If foreign demand was high enough, that might do the trick, but Trump’s promise to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership would damage, not help, efforts to sell natural gas overseas.

A president could regulate power plant emissions in such a way that encourages utilities to replace coal with natural gas in the electricity generation mix. Oh, wait, that one’s already in the works. It’s called the Clean Power Plan, which Trump has pledged to repeal.

The San Juan Basin is also coal country, so at least the workers at the mines and two massive power plants will get to go back to work, right? Wrong. Coal-burning units at both plants have been shut down. The curtailments came from settlements with the Environmental Protection Agency over Clean Air Act violations, and because California didn’t want to buy coal power anymore. Killing the Clean Power Plan—even eliminating the EPA—won’t restore these plants to their former smog-spewing, coal-burning glory.

While the environment and the people who live near the rigs are getting a break during this bust, the economic pain in the oil patch these days is real, and deep. Individuals who just a few years ago were raking in $80,000 or more per year are struggling to hang on. City, county and state governments have watched revenues plummet. It’s the sort of malaise that breeds resentment and that spurs people to vote for the likes of Trump.

It is maddening and tragic to see these people put so much hope in one person, particularly when that person is clearly so unequipped to deliver on his promises, and so likely, in the long run, to make their lives more miserable by removing what few social safety nets exist.

What will they do after Trump has finished rolling back all the regulations, dismantling the rules that keep us safe and our environment healthy—and they still don’t have a job? Who will they blame then?

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in Community Voices

On the 10th floor of Xcel Energy’s downtown Denver office building, energy traders sit before banks of screens filled with flickering, colored digits, as they buy and sell electricity for the utility’s sprawling service areas. In one corner, a trader monitors the Midwest wholesale market, and in another, the Southwest Power Pool—an odd name, given that it actually covers the Great Plains, not the Southwest.

On a recent day, an electronic map showed North Dakota in blue; the price of the state’s wind power was near zero. On the other hand, southern Indiana was burnt orange, with the price of a kilowatt-hour near 8 cents. Five minutes later, Ohio turned pale green as the price dropped to 5 cents.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, the trader handling Colorado had no fancy, color-coded price map. When he needed to buy or sell, he had to get on the phone and call around to other utilities to find out what they had, at what prices. Then he had to fix the price, coordinate the dispatch of the electricity, and file the paperwork—all things being done automatically across the room by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, and the Southwest Power Pool, which covers all or parts of seven states.

There, in a nutshell, is the state of affairs when it comes to Western electricity markets. While 60 percent of the nation’s electricity is handled through computerized regional markets, the West is stuck in the 1980s.

Electricity sales in the West are Balkanized among 38 “balancing authorities,” or local markets.

All provisions for necessary plants and power, including backup reserves, must be made by the utilities in each local market, while the companies in the neighboring market do the same. Electrons don’t flow between them.

But in a bigger market, electricity—a perishable commodity that moves at the speed of light—can travel wherever there is demand. There is less need for redundant backup systems, as someone is always making electricity, and someone is always buying.

“If Iowa wants to go to 80 percent (wind), they can, because they belong to the Midwest ISO,” says Steve Berberich, chief executive officer of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), an in-state wholesale market.

But the day of a Western electricity market, also known as a regional transmission organization (RTO), may be at hand. CAISO and Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp, which operates power plants in six Western states, are looking to form a regional market. Berberich says he hopes that market can be extended across the entire West.

On the eastern end of the region, seven utilities, including Xcel, have formed the Mountain West Transmission Group, which extends from Wyoming into New Mexico and Arizona. The group—a precursor to an RTO—is trying to develop a uniform transmission charge, or tariff, for the region. Currently, each utility has its own charge for moving electricity through its wires. Once it has developed a uniform tariff, it may join one of the nearby regional transmission organizations or create its own market.

Regional markets have a lot of moving parts. MISO operates a day-ahead market where wholesale power is sold from utility to utility for the coming day, as well as a real-time market to fill in for unexpected demand or outages. Electricity suppliers submit bids to MISO, which then fills orders for that power starting with the lowest price. The price at which all orders are filled is called the clearing price, calculated by algorithms and computers for the spot, or real-time market every five minutes.

In this bidding system, wind and solar, with their steadily declining prices, are becoming more attractive to utilities.

“Any time you can avoid a fuel burn, you’ve got an opportunity for savings,” says Stephen Beuning, Xcel’s director of market operations.

At the moment, however, wind power from Wyoming or solar electricity from California can’t easily move around the West. On one day, CAISO had to dump 485 megawatts of wind and 657 megawatts of solar, because there was no way to sell it to utilities outside its grid.

“We can’t get to the goal of 50 to 60 percent renewable energy by 2050 without an RTO,” says Zichella.

In theory, a West-wide RTO would have allowed California to sell that excess wind and solar to, say, Utah or Colorado, thus avoiding the need to burn natural gas there. Similarly, Colorado utilities could ship excess wind power to California to back up solar during times of peak demand.

Setting up an RTO isn’t easy, though.

“The software is a huge expense—and California has created it and is willing to share with the West,” says Nancy Kelly, a senior energy policy adviser with Western Resource Advocates, an environmental group.

California’s offer to share, however, is being met warily around the West by those who are concerned that while a Golden State-dominated system might be good for California, it may be less so for others.

CAISO is controlled by the California governor and Legislature. “That is going to have to change to be acceptable to the PacifiCorp states,” says Bryce Freeman, administrator of the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate. “Unless that is resolved, it’s a fool’s errand.” PacifiCorp operates in Oregon, Washington, California, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho.

In Utah, lawmakers are drafting a bill to give them veto power over joining the CAISO market. “We aren’t opposed,” says Jeffrey Barrett, deputy director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development. “We just want to make sure it is a good deal for Utah.”

The state has among the lowest electricity rates in the West—a competitive advantage it doesn’t want to lose, Barrett says.

Though they concede that a regional grid could help renewables, the Sierra Club is opposed to the current CAISO expansion plan, because it would bring 24 coal-fired PacifiCorp units into the regional system.

“In bumping up the productivity of these coal plants, it will throw a lifeline to some, allowing them to operate for another 16 years,” said Travis Ritchie, an attorney with Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Still, economic forces and renewable-energy policies look to be pushing the West toward a regional market. A CAISO study released in July found the proposed RTO would lead to up to $1.5 billion in savings annually in California by 2030—equal to a 3 percent cut in electricity rates.

It would also lead to a reduction in toxic and greenhouse gas emissions across the West, according to the study, although there would be a slight bump up in the early years from the PacifiCorp coal-fired plants.

The analysis, however, didn’t look at benefits outside California. “A big question is: Will costs and benefits be equal across the system,” says Elta Kolo, an analyst with GTM Research, an energy consulting firm. “It will be crucial to get consumers on board.”

The West presents some unique challenges. The New England ISO covers six states, but is an area one-thirteenth the size of the size of the West, a region with a mix of sparsely populated states and heavily urban ones, states with ambitious renewable energy standards, and those heavily tied to coal.

“They are different, but still similar in that they need electrons, they need reserve capacity, and they need to make money,” says Amanda Ormond, managing director of the Western Grid Group, which advocates for a more efficient grid to promote renewable energy.

“A Western market is almost certainly inevitable,” Ormond says. “Most of the utilities in this country and the rest of the world operate in organized markets, because it is more efficient. It is going to happen.”

Published in Environment

This week on an explosive Independent comics page: Red Meat throws dynamite off a ferry; The City reminds us what's important regarding Chelsea Manning's conviction; The K Chronicles has wishes for a child's first day at school; and Jen Sorenson examines Obama's true record on energy.

Published in Comics