Tag: Colorado

‘Orphaned’ oil and gas wells are on the rise

‘Orphaned’ oil and gas wells are on the rise

Abandoned gas well pump (Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

“Orphaned” oil and gas wells, those left behind by companies without proper cleanup or maintenance, are more likely than properly plugged “abandoned” wells to leak pollutants. That includes methane gas, which can contaminate groundwater and even trigger explosions. So it’s troubling that the number of such wells in the West has soared. A downturn in energy prices starting back in 2008 has led energy companies to orphan thousands of wells across Western states struggling even to tally them, let alone remediate them. And with a new drilling boom unfolding, some worry that the next bust will saddle the public with thousands more.

‘Orphaned’ oil and gas wells are on the rise”

High Country News, January 16, 2018

LNG project rises again, with support from Mountain states

LNG project rises again, with support from Mountain states

Rendition of the proposed Jordan Cove liquid natural gas terminal in Oregon, which could ship gas from Rocky Mountain states to Asia (Photo: Jordan Cove LNG)

The Jordan Cove Energy Project would include the Pacific Coast’s first liquified natural gas port, where gas is chilled and liquefied for easier and cheaper storage and transport, including to customers overseas. Denied a permit by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2016, the project received new life following the presidential election, as Trump administration officials said the project will be the “first thing” to now permitted.

The $7.5 billion project, at Coos Bay, Oregon, would give Western producers access to the world’s largest gas market, consisting of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other Asia-Pacific countries. The 235-mile Pacific Connector pipeline is also part of the project. It would cross Oregon and provide a critical link between the export terminal and the rest of the West’s pipeline network, which stretches into gas-rich basins in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

If FERC commissioners green-light Jordan Cove, it could set off a massive new drilling boom on public lands within Colorado’s Piceance Basin, Wyoming’s Jonah Field and Utah’s Uintah Basin. Industry is already nominating more leases for drilling on public lands under Trump. And to win approval for the project, the company behind Jordan Cove and its Oregon supporters seeking new jobs have forged a powerful alliance with Rocky Mountain states eager to enter the export market. State government and industry officials from Colorado and Wyoming have even traveled to Asia to woo potential investors and customers.

Still, even under Trump, the project isn’t a sure bet. Stagnating gas prices, caused by a supply glut in recent years, raise questions about the viability of Jordan Cove.

“LNG project rises again, with support from Mountain states”

High Country News, May 31, 2017

Fatal Colorado home explosion reignites drilling safety debate

Fatal Colorado home explosion reignites drilling safety debate

Fire burns a home toppled by a natural gas explosion in Firestone, Colorado on April 17, 2017. The blast was linked to a pipeline running from a nearby gas well (Photo YouTube channel White Fire)

On April 17, 2017, Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joey Irwin went down to the basement to replace a water heater in Martinez’s home in Firestone, Colorado, a fast-growing bedroom community 25 miles north of Denver. Moments later, a fiery explosion destroyed the house and shook the neighborhood. Both men were killed. Erin Martinez, Mark’s wife, and their son survived.

Following a two-week investigation, the local fire department has linked the blast to a recently restarted gas well, drilled in 1993 and located just 178 feet behind the house and operated by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. A department statement said gas entered the house from a cut, abandoned flowline still connected to the well.

The fatal explosion reignited the fierce debate over the pace and proximity of oil and gas development along Colorado’s Front Range, where booming energy fields have collided with a rapidly growing urban corridor. For years, environmentalists and community activists have furiously pushed to limit drilling near suburban Front Range communities, while the state government and industry leaders have resisted tougher restrictions.

“Fatal Colorado home explosion reignites drilling safety debate”

High Country News, May 3, 2017

What should a community do to protect its immigrants?

What should a community do to protect its immigrants?

Supporters of refugees and immigrants march in Greeley, Colorado, on March 4, 2017 (JZ)

On a sunny morning in early March 2017, over 400 people hit the sidewalks of Greeley, a small city on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. A diverse crowd in sweatshirts, blue jeans, robes, ankle-length skirts and headscarves, they marched to show their support for the city’s sizable refugee and immigrant population. They started at the University of Northern Colorado, wound toward downtown and ended up at the Global Refugee Center, a local nonprofit.

The route was no coincidence: Greeley is an island of cultural and intellectual diversity in a conservative, rural county. Refugees and undocumented workers help keep the agricultural economy afloat, and the university’s international student population has grown in recent years. By most accounts, these new residents have settled in with relative ease.

But as the targets of President Donald Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and new security measures, many have spent the last few months anxious about possible deportations, arrests and general hostility. Though Trump’s latest “travel ban,” which would have suspended immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries, has been blocked, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is stepping up detainments, arresting hundreds of immigrants nationwide. In Greeley, this new political reality has presented local leaders with sometimes uncomfortable choices: What can — and should — the community do to make its new residents feel safe?

“What should a community do to protect its immigrants?”

High Country News, March 28, 2017

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Keepers of the Flame

Keepers of the Flame

Prairie burn at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, Washington (Photo via UWFWS – Pacific Region)

Across the West, a century of vigilant fire suppression has left many forests and prairies dangerously overgrown and degraded, prone to catastrophic wildfires that destroy homes and habitat. Members of The Nature Conservancy’s Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module, a traveling fire crew of specially trained experts, spend their share of time wrangling wildfires. But they are also applying a science-based strategy to reintroduce and manage fire on the landscapes that naturally need it.

There are just a dozen or so certified Type 1 Wildland Fire Modules across the country, highly trained groups of firefighters prepared to dispatch quickly to remote terrain, equipped with enough gear and food for at least two weeks. Most are run by the National Park Service or Forest Service. The Conservancy’s module is unique for being nongovernmental, and it is dedicated to not only fighting fires but also lighting them. Its members are trained to use prescribed burns—blazes ignited under carefully controlled conditions—and to manage, rather than just suppress, naturally occurring fires as part of a healthy ecosystem.

Since its creation in 2008, this Colorado-based crew has carried out about 60 prescribed burns on some 16,000 acres, and trained hundreds to tackle similar work.

 

“Keepers of the Flame”

Nature Conservancy Magazine, August/September 2016

Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects

Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects

Cars drive on County Road 43, in Larimer County, Colorado, past a road reconstruction project after the 2013 floods. Some bridge-building may have contributed to a fish die-off (Photo via Larimer Country Road 43 Public Infrastructure Project)

In March 2016, a resident of the small Colorado towns of Drake and Glen Haven — situated within northern Colorado’s Big Thompson River Canyon — reported noticing funky gray water in a side creek of the river and a murder of crows picking at a few dead fish. A few days later, March 7, a large plume of more cloudy water ran down the Big Thompson, leaving behind a massive fish kill. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials now confirm that more than 5,600 fish, mostly rainbow and brown trout, died in the Big Thompson and its North Fork, and are blaming concrete from a bridge reconstruction project, part of the state’s massive recovery and reconstruction effort following the devastating September 2013 floods.

The die-off is alarming news for the Big Thompson, a popular fly fishing river among tourists and locals, which formerly generated an annual $4.3 million for the region. Larry Rogstad, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Manager, says the “iconic” fishery is also important as one of the only rivers in Colorado with wild rainbow trout free of whirling disease. The 2013 floods had already knocked back the river’s fish populations, and Rogstad estimates the recent incident killed more than half of the estimated fish within an eight-mile-long downstream stretch of river.

Jeff Crane, a consulting river hydrologist and restoration expert, says he’s surprised at the magnitude of the fish kill. But he adds that it’s also important to recognize the complexity and ambition behind recovery projects aiming to improve rivers’ natural functions and flood resiliency.

For instance, the previously straightened river now bends and courses through the middle of the canyon, while several new bridges are replacing buried culverts that typically get blocked or exceed capacity during flooding. “We’re actually ‘building’ a whole new river,” says Crane, a proponent of “natural channel design” that mimics natural landforms and uses less grouted rock, or riprap, than conventional flood-protection measures. Despite the fish kill, the local restoration should improve fish and aquatic habitat and reduce flooding damage in the long run, Crane says.

“Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects”

High Country News, April 26, 2016

In bison recovery, scientists start small

In bison recovery, scientists start small

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, at the City of Fort Collins’ Soapstone Prairie Natural Area (Photo: City of Fort Collins Natural Areas)

Up to 60 million bison once wandered the plains. The largest land mammal in North America, the bison is now recognized as a keystone species that helps maintain the ecology of grasslands. Their grazing habits influence the diversity of forbs and grasses, and their hooves help aerate the soil. Even their dirt wallows create seasonal habitat for birds and affect how fire moves through grasslands.

Today, there are an estimated 500,000 scattered across the plains but nearly all are managed as livestock, destined to become buffalo burger. Fewer than 21,000 are part of 62 “conservation herds” that are managed for environmental purposes with limited human intervention, and many of those have cattle genes. Even fewer genetically pure animals are considered truly free-roaming and “wild.” Many scientists consider the species to be ecologically extinct, meaning that its functional role in the landscape has been eliminated.

So while the reintroduction of 10 bison in Colorado’s Laramie Foothills may not sound like that big a deal, genetically pure conservation herds like this one are a crucial step toward restoring wild bison to the Western landscape. They could help calm ranchers’ longstanding worries about disease, and over time new herds have the potential to become self-sustaining populations that more closely resemble historic herds — if, that is, state and local managers are willing to give them room to grow.

“In bison recovery, scientists start small”

High Country News, April 6, 2016

How not to forget the West’s past atrocities

How not to forget the West’s past atrocities

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (Photo: National Park Service)

I stood on a bluff in southeastern Colorado, overlooking the lonesome prairie, 180 miles southeast of Denver. Bare cottonwoods lined the dry bed of Big Sandy Creek. Otherwise, there was nothing but grass, earth, rocks and sky. The only sounds that November day were the wind and the singing of LaForce “Lee” Lonely Bear, a Northern Cheyenne spiritual adviser.

This was the site of the notorious Sand Creek Massacre. At dawn on Nov. 29, 1864, a 675-man Colorado militia, led by Col. John Chivington, a Methodist minister, attacked a small, peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho camped along the creek. Without provocation, the militia charged and killed at least 150 Indians, mostly women and children. According to militiamen and survivors, soldiers chased unarmed Indians down the creek bed, raped and bayoneted women, hacked off limbs and genitals. Cheyenne Chief White Antelope was scalped and mutilated as he pleaded for peace. The Cheyenne say that White Antelope repeated his final journey song as he lay dying: “All my relations, remember / Only the rocks on earth stay forever.”

Braided Hair, Lone Bear and the others who brought me to the site in 2005 had been working to change that, partly by establishing Sand Creek as a national historic site managed by the National Park Service. Along with other Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, they envisioned it becoming a place of remembrance and healing for their own people and the nation. “So the history may live on,” Lone Bear told me.

“How not to forget the West’s past atrocities”

High Country News, March 7, 2016

How some Western cities are leading on climate action

How some Western cities are leading on climate action

This community solar farm in Fort Collins will reduce CO2 emissions by 39,500 tons over its 50-year lifetime (Photo courtesy: Poudre Valley REA)

A college town of 155,000 people known for its beers and bike lanes, Fort Collins, Colorado, adopted an ambitious climate action plan this past spring to cut its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 and be carbon-neutral by 2050. The initiative lacks worldwide reach, but it outpaces the goals of the Paris pact, with an aggressive timeline matched by only a few other cities, including Seattle, Copenhagen and Sydney. Even as world leaders have dragged their feet, taking 21 frustrating years and annual conferences to finally set some climate goals,  cities like Fort Collins have charged ahead, determined to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid ecological catastrophe. 

The city passed its first action plan and started measuring its emissions in 1999. With its purple political background and acknowledged need to wean itself from coal power, Fort Collins could serve as a blueprint for other, similarly sized communities.

Even though the city’s last four mayors have all leaned to the right politically, they have all generally supported climate action. Current Mayor Wade Troxell, a Republican, was among 27 mayors who penned a letter to President Obama this June, asking him to “fight for the strongest possible climate agreement” in Paris and “for federal action to establish binding national greenhouse gas emissions reductions here at home.” While other politically fraught issues, from a city fracking moratorium to relaxed public-nudity laws, have recently split the council, it unanimously approved the aggressive new climate-action plan this spring.

“How some Western cities are leading on climate action”

High Country News, January 13, 2016

The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

An oil rig on the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado (Photo via US Forest Service)

An hour’s drive northeast of Denver and encompassing an area twice the size of the city, the Pawnee National Grassland’s whopping diversity of songbirds and raptors has earned the area a reputation as a birder’s paradise. Some people drive hundreds of miles and fly in from around the world each summer to view mountain plovers and burrowing owls, lark buntings and McCowns’s longspurs.

But in recent years, birders have begun spotting a whole other family of beasts nesting in the Pawnee. Oil and gas drilling has skyrocketed in the area over the past decade, part of a nationwide industry boom that has tapped underground shale formations up and down Colorado’s Front Range. Just as he tracks the birds he sees, Gary Lefko notes the pump jacks and well pads that have sprung up on the grassland. On some outings, he has seen dozens of tall blue flames from flare stacks, burning off unused methane and glowing in the half dark in and around the Pawnee. Along state highway 14, which runs through the grassland, Lefko and his wife count the tank batteries — silos that store oil — and other industry equipment that keeps filling in pieces of the prairie. “There’s more every time,” Lefko says.

Amid the massive grassland, the industry impacts may not seem like much. The Pawnee still mostly looks like an empty, undeveloped canvas of greens and browns. But each new well pad and scraped patch of ground and every truck that rumbles along and kicks up dust from the dirt roads affects this subtly beautiful ecosystem. The piecemeal energy development destroys bird and wildlife habitat and alters the shortgrass prairie in ways that even scientists don’t fully understand. Some compare the impacts to death by a thousand cuts for the flora and fauna of grasslands already in decline.

“The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds”

Westword, July 28, 2015