Category: Energy

Stories about oil, gas, coal, solar, wind, biomass, nuclear… you get it

‘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

Can coal remain the bedrock of Wyoming’s economy?

Can coal remain the bedrock of Wyoming’s economy?

Wyoming officials view construction at the Integrated Test Center site, July 2017 (JZ)

In recent years, the coal industry has employed one in every 10 workers in Gillette and surrounding Campbell County, Wyoming. But coal is declining as a power source. It can’t compete with cheaper, cleaner natural gas, and eventually, climate change regulations are expected to worsen its prospects.

With roughly 6.6 billion tons of recoverable coal still in the ground, and an economy hooked on mining and burning it, Wyoming can’t seem to quit coal. Instead, state leaders are trying to clean it up and find new uses for it at the Integrated Test Center, where researchers hope to capture carbon dioxide emissions and eventually turn those emissions into plastic, carbon-fiber materials, concrete or fuels.

So far, though, most “clean coal” initiatives have failed. Carbon-based rubbers, asphalts and chemicals have never achieved large-scale commercial success, partly because it’s easier and cheaper to just use petroleum. Highly touted efforts to capture and store emissions from coal plants have also fizzled because costs spiraled out of control. Even in Wyoming, it’s hard not to wonder: Is it smart to keep betting on coal?

“Can coal remain the bedrock of Wyoming’s economy?”

High Country News, September 18, 2017

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

A tax on carbon pollution faces surprising opposition

A tax on carbon pollution faces surprising opposition

Initiative 732 supporters get ready to canvass in Seattle (Photo courtesy of CarbonWA campaign)

Soon, Washingtonians will vote on Initiative 732. It would be the first statewide carbon tax in the U.S., and a major step toward reducing climate-changing pollution. For Court Olson, a civil engineer and long-time Sierra Club member, voting ‘yes’ on the measure is a no-brainer. “We desperately need to get off fossil fuels and incentivize clean energy,” he says. “And the most effective first step is to put a price on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.” Initiative 732, in his view, is “the right thing to do.”

And yet the proposal has run into some surprising opposition — from environmentalists, social-justice groups and the state Democratic Party. The Sierra Club and Washington Environmental Council have taken formal positions opposing the measure, while the climate activist group 350 Seattle endorsed and then unendorsed it this summer. Meanwhile, many of these groups’ members, including Olson, are campaigning for I-732. 

“A tax on carbon pollution faces surprising opposition”

High Country News, October 25, 2016

‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions

‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions

Climate activists protest a BLM oil and gas lease sale in Denver in May 2016 (JZ)

Lease sales, where energy companies bid for the right to drill for oil and gas on federal land, used to be mundane events. But lately they’ve become raucous, with climate activists in Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno urging the government to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Eventually, they hope to end public-lands drilling altogether.

In response, some industry leaders want auctions to move online — eBay style. The Bureau of Land Management agrees, and will host its first online sale this September. Explaining the move to Congress this March, BLM Director Neil Kornze said online sales are cheaper to host and will speed up transactions. He added that the agency is on “heightened alert” and concerned about safety as a result of incidents like the militia occupation at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “And so a situation that we are not used to — separating out who is a bidder and who is not — gives us pause,” Kornze said.

So far, environmentalists are uncertain whether an online system will help or hurt their cause. “If this is part of a broader effort to make BLM processes more efficient and transparent, it’s a great idea,” says Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. But if it simply allows energy companies to escape growing scrutiny, “it’s not progress.”

“‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions”

High Country News, July 20, 2016

How will Trump act on conservation and public lands?

How will Trump act on conservation and public lands?

Donald Trump Jr. speaks with Field & Stream editor Mike Toth at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Western Media Summit, June 2016 (JZ)

While speaking at a media summit in June 2016 in Fort Collins, Colorado, Donald Trump Jr. defended keeping federal lands managed by the government and open to the public. He also reiterated his father’s strong support for U.S. energy development, proposed some corporate sponsorships in national parks, questioned humans’ role in climate change, and criticized Hillary Clinton for “pandering” to hunters with “phoniness.”

Trump Jr. has served as an adviser to his father on natural-resources issues and has even joked with family that, should his father win, he’d like to be Secretary of the Interior, overseeing national parks and millions of acres of federal public lands. In Fort Collins, he said he’s not “the policy guy,” but repeated his frequent pledge to be a “loud voice” for preserving public lands access for sportsmen. Trump Jr. also mocked some gun-control measures, such as ammunition limits, boasting, “I have a thousand rounds of ammunition in my vehicle almost at all times because it’s called two bricks of .22 … You know, I’ll blow…through that with my kids on a weekend.”

“How will Trump act on conservation and public lands?”

High Country News, June 28, 2016

What the U.S. can learn from European coal miners’ second act

What the U.S. can learn from European coal miners’ second act

People at an outdoor plaza and café at Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, Germany. The site is an UNESCO World Heritage site (Photo by Fredrik Linge via Flickr)

People linger at an outdoor café, children run around a park, and visitors tour a former coal mine, now a thriving museum. The one-time industrial site, which includes an events center, restaurants, and even a Ferris wheel, attracted 1.5 million visitors over the past five years. Zollverein, Germany, once home to one of Europe’s largest coal mines, is now a retail and tourist destination.

The second act at Zollverein may provide inspiration — or aggravation — for down-and-out coal communities in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and elsewhere in the West. March 31, 2016 has become known as Black Thursday in Wyoming since Arch Coal and Peabody Energy announced 465 layoffs at two major mines, amid recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings by Arch, Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody. Given the combination of crashing prices, bankruptcies, and a global push to phase out fossil fuels, the layoffs are likely just beginning.

In northeastern Wyoming, where coal provides one out of every 10 jobs and has generated billions of dollars for schools, roads and other public services, plans for a popular museum or conference center seem far-fetched. Good jobs are scarce outside the energy industry, and retirement benefits from faltering companies seem uncertain. Many locals wonder how their small towns will survive.  Given all this, the official government response feels underwhelming.

While Zollverein is a long way from the Powder River Basin — the German mine is near a city of almost 600,000 people — U.S. economists and policy analysts are eyeing Europe, where governments, companies and unions are charting a different path toward life after coal. Overseas, coalfields are also facing job cuts, but unemployment benefits generally last longer, job training and economic-development programs are more extensive and retirement benefits better protected. “The safety net is much different in Europe,” says Robert Godby, a University of Wyoming economist.

“What the U.S. can learn from European coal miners’ second act”

High Country News, May 16, 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

Tar Sands Mining Hits the American West

Tar Sands Mining Hits the American West

Protestors with Peaceful Uprising at the test pit of the planned Utah tar sands mine (via Peaceful Uprising)
Protestors with Peaceful Uprising at the test pit of the planned Utah tar sands mine (via Peaceful Uprising)

Tar sands, also known as oil sands, require intensive processing to produce usable crude—it can take two tons of sand to produce just one barrel of oil. The expense of extracting and refining that oil (and the pollution the process entails) has historically kept most of it in the ground. However, beginning in 2000, rising oil prices and calls for North American energy independence set off a tar sands boom in Alberta (not to mention an endless debate in this country about the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Alberta’s tar sands oil to the States). Fifteen years later the industry has cleared or degraded nearly two million acres of boreal forest, created toxic tailings ponds and other waste, and become Canada’s fastest-growing greenhouse gas emitter. And now it’s looking south. 

In July 2015, Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining issued a permit clearing the way for the opening of this country’s first commercial tar sands mine amid eastern Utah’s Tavaputs Plateau, which sits atop an estimated 20 billion to 32 billion barrels of recoverable oil. 

At a moment of growing public consensus that it’s time to move away from dirty energy, the decision to open up Utah canyon country to the development of what many consider the dirtiest energy source of all sends a decidedly contradictory—if not perverse—message. “If the fuels are made available,” says Dan Mayhew, the chair of the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, “the amount of carbon that could be emitted is staggering”—as much as 48 billion metric tons just from the oil shale, according to a Sierra Club estimate. 

“Tar Sands Mining Hits the American West”

Audubon Magazine, September/October 2015

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