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Recovery Act-funded work at the Hanford Site. U.S. Department of Energy

The Cold War’s Toxic Legacy: Costly, Dangerous Cleanups at Atomic Bomb Production Sites

By William J. Kinsella

Seventy-five years ago, in March 1943, a mysterious construction project began at a remote location in eastern Washington state. Over the next two years some 50,000 workers built an industrial site occupying half the area of Rhode Island, costing more than $230 million—equivalent to $3.1 billion today. Few of those workers, and virtually no one in the surrounding community, knew the facility's purpose.

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An oil rig near downtown Midland, Texas. RT Eichman / Flickr

'Short-Term Folly': U.S. Adds 38 Percent More Oil and Gas Rigs

By John R. Platt

The number of oil and gas rigs in the U.S. has increased an astonishing 38 percent over the past year. That's according to S&P Global Platts Analytics, which reported this week that the country had 1,070 rigs at the end of January, up from just 773 a year earlier.

Experts expressed fear that all of this new development does not bode well for the planet. "This will have a very significant climate impact," said Romany Webb, climate law fellow with the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. "The oil and gas industry is a huge source of methane, which is a really potent greenhouse gas. And then on top of that you also have the carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of this oil and gas. So this is very concerning from a climate perspective."

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Energy

New Mexico's Largest Utility Will Stop Burning Coal, Despite Trump's Clean Power Plan Rollback

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt announced Monday that the Trump administration is rolling back the Clean Power Plan to end the previous administration's "war on coal" but there's a big problem: Obama didn't kill the coal industry—the market for cheap natural gas and increasingly affordable renewable energy did.

Case in point, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that New Mexico's largest utility still plans to phase out coal as a power source in 2031. The Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) currently uses coal for 56 percent of its energy generation but wants drop use to 12 percent by 2025.

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PNM, the largest electricity provider in New Mexico, has more than 1 million solar panels at 15 different solar sites to provide clean energy for the state.

Santa Fe Aiming for 100% Renewable Energy by 2025

New Mexico's capital has joined the growing movement of U.S. cities committing to 100 percent renewable energy.

On Wednesday, Santa Fe's City Council unanimously adopted Mayor Javier Gonzales' resolution directing City Manager Brian Snyde to develop a feasibility study on how the city can transition to renewables by 2025. Snyde will report the findings in 90 days.

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Energy
The USGS Core Research Center collaborated with the USGS Energy Resources Program to drill a core from the Mancos Shale to aid in the oil and gas assessment. Joshua Hicks, USGS

Fracking New Mexico: BP Just Found 'Significant New Source of U.S. Natural Gas Supply'

By Andy Rowell

Amidst the continued dire warnings about climate change, censored scientists and stranded assets, the oil industry keeps on doing what it does best: keeps on belligerently looking for more oil and gas.

Earlier this week, BP announced it had discovered what it is labelling a "significant new source of U.S. natural gas supply" in New Mexico in the Mancos Shale, just across from the Colorado border.

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Fracking Caused 6,648 Spills in Four States Alone, Duke Study Finds

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has long been tied to environmental risks such as spills. The frequency of spills, however, has long been murky since states do not release standardized data.

Estimates from the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) vary wildly.

"The number of spills nationally could range from approximately 100 to 3,700 spills annually, assuming 25,000 to 30,000 new wells are fractured per year," the agency said in a June 2015 report. Also, the EPA reported only 457 spills related to fracking in 11 states between 2006 and 2012.

But now, a new study suggests that fracking-related spills occur at a much higher rate.

The analysis, published Feb. 21 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed 6,648 spills in four states alone—Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania—in 10 years.

The researchers determined that up to 16 percent of fracked oil and gas wells spill hydrocarbons, chemically laden water, fracking fluids and other substances.

For the study, the researchers examined state-level spill data to characterize spills associated with unconventional oil and gas development at 31,481 fracked wells in the four states between 2005 and 2014.

"On average, that's equivalent to 55 spills per 1,000 wells in any given year," lead author Lauren Patterson, a policy associate at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, told ResearchGate.

North Dakota reported the highest spill rate, with 4,453 incidents. Pennsylvania reported 1,293, Colorado reported 476 and New Mexico reported 426. The researchers created an interactive map of spill sites in the four states.

Although North Dakota is rich in oil, the state's higher spill rate can be explained by varying state reporting requirements. North Dakota is required to report any spill larger than 42 gallons whereas requirement in Colorado and New Mexico is 210 gallons.

Patterson points out that the different reporting requirements are a problem.

"Our study concludes that making state spill data more uniform and accessible could provide stakeholders with important information on where to target efforts for locating and preventing future spills," she told ResearchGate. "States would benefit from setting reporting requirements that generate actionable information—that is, information regulators and industry can use to identify and respond to risk 'hot spots.' It would also be beneficial to standardize how spills are reported. This would improve accuracy and make the data usable to understand spill risks."

The reason why the researchers' numbers vastly exceeded the 457 spills estimated by the EPA is because the agency only accounted for spills during the hydraulic fracturing stage itself, rather than the entire process of unconventional oil and gas production.

"Understanding spills at all stages of well development is important because preparing for hydraulic fracturing requires the transport of more materials to and from well sites and storage of these materials on site," Patterson explained. "Investigating all stages helps to shed further light on the spills that can occur at all types of wells—not just unconventional ones."

For instance, the researchers found that 50 percent of spills were related to storage and moving fluids via pipelines.

"The causes are quite varied," Patterson told BBC. "Equipment failure was the greatest factor, the loading and unloading of trucks with material had a lot more human error than other places."

For the four states studied, most spills occurred in the the first three years of a well's life, when drilling and hydraulic fracturing occurred and production volumes were highest.

Additionally, a significant portion of spills (26 percent in Colorado, 53 percent in North Dakota) occurred at wells with more than one spill, suggesting that wells where spills have already occurred merit closer attention.

"Analyses like this one are so important, to define and mitigate risk to water supplies and human health," said Kate Konschnik, director of the Harvard Law School's Environmental Policy Initiative in a statement. "Writing state reporting rules with these factors in mind is critical, to ensure that the right data are available—and in an accessible format—for industry, states and the research community."

Animals

Another Mexican Gray Wolf Removed From the Wild, Only 97 Left in Arizona and New Mexico

Shrouded in secrecy in mid-November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured alive and removed another Mexican gray wolf from the wild in response to the killing of cattle on national forest and state lands in east-central Arizona. The removal of the male wolf accelerates the extinction threat of the unique southwestern subspecies that has already seen at least 11 deaths and one other removal this year and declined 13 percent last year, leaving only 97 animals in Arizona and New Mexico. The captured wolf had a mate who is still in the wild.

Captive Mexican Wolf at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico.Wikipedia

"The Mexican gray wolf simply can't afford more animals being removed from the wild or even killed because of the occasional cattle loss," Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, said. "The research shows that non-lethal efforts to protect livestock are far more effective than removing or killing wolves. Yet, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has steadfastly refused to require ranchers to do anything to protect their livestock prior to removing or killing wolves."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long flouted the recommendations of scientists in the management of the Mexican gray wolf. For example, in 2008 the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requested a moratorium on permanent removals of Mexican wolves "until an expert taskforce on genetic issues can be convened to provide guidance to these actions."

The service has yet to convene such a taskforce and had no knowledge of the latest captured wolf's genetic composition before removing him because he was born in the wild and had never previously been captured. The service rarely re-releases wolves once they've been taken into captivity.

Similarly in 2007 the American Society of Mammalogists, the leading association of scientists who study mammals, opposed removing Mexican wolves "at least until the interim 100-wolf goal of the current reintroduction program has been achieved" and urged the service to "protect wolves from the consequences of scavenging on livestock carcasses"—a frequent precursor to depredations.

The latest removal of a wolf follows removals of other wolves in past years on behalf of the same livestock owner. It is not known whether carcasses of non-wolf-killed stock contributed to the recent depredations. But documents received by the center under the Freedom of Information Act show that the last Mexican wolf removed by the government—a male from the Luna Pack trapped in May in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico—was drawn to vulnerable cattle through scavenging on carcasses of cows that had died due to birthing complications.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that it can recover wolves through traps and bullets—some of the same tools that the same agency used decades ago in exterminating them," Robinson said. "But appeasing the public-lands livestock industry in this manner has led to repeated population downturns and consistent failure to meet the service's own metrics for progress.

"Every trapped wolf is not just an individual animal suffering, along with a mate wandering the wild forlorn, but represents another step toward extinction."

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NASA: Methane ‘Hot Spot’ Linked Directly to Natural Gas Leaks

By Western Environmental Law Center

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released a new study Monday examining what caused a methane "hot spot" to form in New Mexico. This new study of methane emissions generated by the oil and gas industry in the state's San Juan Basin is a major step forward in understanding the causes of New Mexico's methane "hot spot." It follows up on a 2014 satellite-based study that initially found the "hot spot" and sought to identify its specific causes.

The Four Corners area, in red, left, the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions shown in this map.NASA / JPL-Caltech

The NASA study found that roughly 50 percent of basin-wide methane emissions come from more than 250 very large polluters that were detected by intensive NASA aerial surveys and ground crews. According to the authors, this finding confirms researchers' earlier speculation that most of the basin's methane emissions are related to natural gas extraction and coal mining.

But this is only half of the story as the study did not determine the source of the remaining 50 percent of emissions. Given the more than 20,000 (mainly older) gas wells, myriad storage tanks, thousands of miles of pipelines and several gas processing plants in the area, NASA's finding that the oil and gas industry is primarily responsible for the "hot spot" is not surprising. In fact, the researchers found only one large source of methane not related to oil and gas operations: venting from the San Juan coal mine. This discovery renders attempts to point the finger at other potential emissions sources, like coal outcrops and landfills, definitively refuted.

Despite identifying the source of the emissions, one of the authors' key conclusions is not supported by the evidence. The report says that the small number of large methane sources, "suggests that mitigation of field-wide emissions such as those estimated for Four Corners will be less costly because it only requires identifying and fixing a few emitters."

The other 50 percent of methane emissions in the region cannot be ignored and mitigating field-wide emissions will require the oil and gas industry to cut emissions from all sources, large and small, if we are to eliminate New Mexico's "hot spot." New comprehensive oil and gas methane standards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management are currently in the works and, once completed, will require the industry to cut its methane emissions from all sources.

Energy

Big Victory for Solar Energy in New Mexico

As of Wednesday, customers of the New Mexico utility Southwestern Public Service Company (SPS) will no longer have to worry about having to pay higher fees for producing their own solar energy. Most solar customers will even see reductions in their total surcharge fees. Earthjustice and Vote Solar, in partnership with New Mexico attorney Jason Marks, fought SPS's proposal to increase a special charge on customers who produce renewable energy at their own homes, schools, farms and other locations.

A house in New Mexico with solar panels.Mary Madigan

Under a settlement agreement approved by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, SPS's solar surcharge (technically known as "Rate No. 59, Distributed Generation Standby Service Rider") will not increase and will drop for many. SPS first imposed this special charge in 2011. In October 2015, SPS proposed increasing the current charge by 31 percent for residential customers and up to 48 percent for other groups of customers.

The settlement maintains the current rate charged for producing renewable energy on a home, small business, municipal building or school. For agricultural irrigation customers with renewable energy systems, the surcharge will drop by 20 percent. In addition, the surcharge will no longer apply to a customer's "excess" energy, which is a customer's energy production that exceeds the customer's energy consumption that month. Previously, SPS imposed a charge on every kilowatt hour of renewable energy that customers produced. The result is that charges on clean, local energy will either stay the same or go down, assuming a customer's behavior does not change.

Utilities around the country have tried to restrict the growth of rooftop solar by implementing unreasonable and discriminatory fees, surcharges and other rate changes. In the SPS case, the utility sought a large and unsupported rate hike that would have threatened the sustainable growth of distributed solar and other clean energy resources in Southeastern New Mexico. In 2015, New Mexico's two other investor-owned utilities also sought to impose new fees for customers with rooftop solar systems. Earthjustice, Vote Solar and other advocates successfully intervened in both proceedings, resulting in one withdrawn and one defeated in the commission's legal proceedings.

The commission's decisions this week and last year will allow rooftop solar to continue to play a critical role in curbing fossil-fuel addiction and building a clean energy economy. The vast majority of electricity generated in New Mexico comes from burning fossil fuels, causing significant harm to human health and the environment.

"New Mexico is a sunny state that has the potential to be a solar energy leader" Earthjustice attorney Sara Gersen said. "I'm glad that we were able to stop charges from going up on clean, local energy. We want everyone to have a real opportunity to go solar. We can't let utility fees put clean energy out of reach."

"We applaud the commission for today's decision, which will prevent SPS from further penalizing solar customers for generating their own electricity, an investment that lowers energy costs, supports local jobs and improves health for families statewide," Vote Solar program director Rick Gilliam said. "This should send a clear signal to utilities around the country that are attempting to impose similar discriminatory fees that this tactic to curtail rooftop solar is as unconstructive as it is unfair."

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