By Tara Lohan
We're living beyond our means when it comes to groundwater. That's probably not news to everyone, but new research suggests that, deep underground in a number of key aquifers in some parts of the U.S., we may have much less water than previously thought.
"We found that the average depth of water resources across the country was about half of what people had previously estimated," said Jennifer McIntosh, a distinguished scholar and professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona.
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By Tara Lohan
In the last few weeks of 2018, the Trump administration set the stage for a big battle over water in the new year. At stake is an important rule that defines which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration seeks to roll back important protections for wetlands and waterways, which are important to drinking water and wildlife.
A federal judge on Thursday halted the first Yellowstone-area grizzly bear trophy hunts in four decades.
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The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission approved an expanded wolf hunting season Wednesday, with a goal of reducing the population to the bare minimum required to keep it off the endangered species list, Defenders of Wildlife reported.
Twenty-nine uncontained wildfires are blazing in the Western U.S. right now, raising concerns that 2018's fire season could rival 2017's record-breaking season for devastation, The New York Times reported Monday.
The fast-moving County Fire in Northern California, which started Saturday and has burnt more than 60,000 acres of land as of late Monday, has belched smoke into the skies over San Francisco, Napa, Sonoma and San Mateo counties, National Public Radio (NPR) reported.
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The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the largest grizzly bear hunt in the lower 48 states, despite opposition from environmental groups, tribal nations and wildlife photographers, The Washington Post reported.
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A federal judge Tuesday struck down the city of Oakland's ban on coal shipments through a planned export terminal.
U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ridiculed the city for violating its contract with the developer of the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal in its 2016 ban, writing in his opinion that there is no "substantial evidence" that coal shipments "would pose a substantial health or safety danger" to Oakland residents.
By Joe McCarthy
Wyoming produces 40 percent of the U.S.'s coal, nearly quadruple the amount produced by West Virginia, the second highest producer.
So far this year, production in the state has increased by 15 million tons.
Yet Wyoming hasn't opened a new coal mine in decades—long-standing mines are filling the demand.
By Jeremy Deaton
There's the Wyoming you see on postcards—the snow-dusted mountains and caramel-colored prairies where movie stars build their second homes. But there's another Wyoming—the one that powers America's homes and businesses. The Cowboy State churns out more coal than all of Appalachia, and it's home to some of the strongest winds on the continent. The Rocky Mountains funnel air across flat, open prairies, producing winds that rival the most powerful ocean gales.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint last week on behalf of a Wyoming resident in an attempt to stop an upcoming coyote-killing contest. The "Wyoming Best of the Best" involves teams of hunters vying to kill as many coyotes as possible from sunup to sundown.
Non-hunting participants place bets on the teams they think will kill the most coyotes. The complaint alleges the event constitutes a nuisance in the form of illegal gambling, since participants wager money and the outcome is based predominantly on chance. Illegal gambling is a violation of the state nuisance statute, designed to prevent activities that put the moral integrity and safety of the community at risk.
The Rock Springs event is scheduled for this coming weekend, Feb. 3 – 4. The rules encourage people of all ages and experience to enter, including children.
Wyoming Best of the Best involves betting opportunities for most coyotes killed, biggest coyote killed, littlest coyote killed, a rifle raffle and a Calcutta—a form of betting pool where participants pick winners and the pool of funds is distributed according to a prearranged scale of percentages, to those who selected winners. Hunting participants wager $50 per person for the chance to win cash prizes and advance to the state championship for killing the most coyotes. Teams may also wager an extra $20 per team to enter the "Big Dog/Little Dog" contests, for the chance to win extra cash prizes for killing the biggest and/or littlest coyote.
OMG! #Trump Sons Auctioning Off $1 Million #Hunting Trip to Celebrate Inauguration https://t.co/05pOgnH1JS @CenterForBioDiv @PETA @NWF @NRDC— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1482243854.0
The killing contest is not regulated by any government agency, hunting licenses are not required in Wyoming to kill coyotes and there is no limit on the number of coyotes a hunter may slaughter. The plaintiff worries the influx of hunters, whose goal is to win cash prizes for the indiscriminate and uncontrolled killing of coyotes, will negatively impact Sweetwater County's wildlife.
The contest also causes a serious disruption in the ecosystem leading to an unbalanced and unhealthy natural system. When coyote populations are disrupted by lethal means, younger pups have no adults to help them acquire food. This in turn causes many pups to prey on sheep and livestock. The disruption can also affect smaller predator populations by destabilizing entire ecosystems.
"Killing contests are simply blood sports," said Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. "They are completely inconsistent with appropriate conservation goals or effective wildlife management. Coyotes are essential members of healthy ecosystems, not targets to be killed for 'fun.'"
Republican lawmakers in Wyoming have introduced a bill that would block the use of renewable energy in the state. If passed, utilities that use wind or solar to produce power for Wyoming residents would be penalized with a costly fine of $10-per-megawatt-hour.
Under Senate File 71, only six resources—coal, hydroelectric, nuclear, oil, natural gas, and net metering systems such as rooftop solar or backyard wind projects—are considered "eligible" generating resources. Electric utilities will have one year to be 95 percent compliant with the approved resources and 100 percent compliant by 2019.
As InsideClimate News pointed out, the bill was filed last Tuesday on the first day of the Wyoming's 2017 legislative session. Its sponsors, who largely come from top coal counties, include climate change deniers such as Rep. Scott Clem who once said, "I don't believe that CO2 is a pollutant, and am furious of the EPA's overreach."
How deeply embedded are the Koch brothers in the Trump administration? @EcoWatch’s take: https://t.co/ExLEOYsiE9— EDF (@EDF)1484135926.0
Wyoming is by far the nation's largest coal producer and a major producer of natural gas and crude oil. But the state also has some of the best on-shore wind resources the U.S., with wind power constituting 8 percent of the state's energy.
Still, Wyoming has waged a quasi-war on wind. Wyoming is the only state in the country that taxes wind energy production, and a proposed tax increase has effectively stalled a Wyoming power company's plans to build the largest wind farm in the country. Like most of the wind power already generated by the state, the power generated by the massive Carbon County wind farm will head to other states. While this new bill would allow out-of-state wind power sales to continue, it certainly discourages future renewable energy development.
"Wyoming is a great wind state and we produce a lot of wind energy," bill co-sponsor Rep. David Miller explained to InsideClimate News about the motivation behind the bill. "We also produce a lot of conventional energy, many times our needs. The electricity generated by coal is amongst the least expensive in the country. We want Wyoming residences to benefit from this inexpensive electrical generation."
"We do not want to be averaged into the other states that require a certain [percentage] of more expensive renewable energy," Miller continued.
Miller, however, is not confident the bill will pass, putting its chances at "50 percent or less." Still, Republicans overwhelmingly outnumber Democrats 51-9 in the state House and 27-3 in the Senate.
It's Official: Solar Is Becoming World's Cheapest Form of New Electricity https://t.co/xOQV304pca @votesolar @solarcity— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1482186306.0
"Why would [legislators] try to drag down solar and wind, two potentially successful industries that could make a home in the state?" editors at the Casper Star-Tribune asked, adding that the lawmakers are "shutting out potential sources of revenue."
Others have remarked that this law is completely unsound and even unprecedented.
"It would be very difficult to implement, difficult to regulate," Shannon Anderson, lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, told the Star-Tribune. "It goes against longstanding precedent to choose least-cost resources, and it ignores the reality of a multi-state grid."
Anderson also told told InsideClimate News, "I haven't seen anything like this before. This is essentially a reverse renewable energy standard."
By Ted Auch
The New York Times' Diane Cardwell and Clifford Krauss recently published a piece on the interaction between the Greater Sage Grouse (GSG, Centrocercus urophasianus) and fracking in Big Sky country. We thought it might be helpful to dig a little deeper into the issue given the sensitivity of this species' as well as the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) to habitat disturbance and the inevitable conflict between “energy independence" and the Endangered Species Act—the purpose of which “is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend."
Gunnison Sage Grouse
We looked at the GSG's range relative to hydrocarbon wells in Colorado and Wyoming keeping in mind the bird's range encompasses 11 states and “more than 165 million resource-rich acres." This analysis encompasses much of the bird's range accounting for 52 percent (134,149 square miles) of the aforementioned acreage (Figures 1 and 2) and 37 and 373 GSG habitat parcels in Wyoming and Colorado, respectively.
The largest shaded areas on the map are the bird's “Current Distribution" (67,879 square miles) in Wyoming and “Historic Habitat" in Colorado (24,505 square miles). GSG's range in Colorado is far more spread out than in Wyoming with discrete north- and southwest concentrations. Important Birding Areas (IBAs) as defined by the Audubon Society often overlap with oil and gas extraction sites as well as endangered species habitat. Thanks to the Audubon Society's Connie Sanchez and Tom Auer we were able to determine how many hydrocarbon production wells exist within these states' IBA parcels. Wyoming is home to 39 IBAs, while Colorado contains 53 of these designated parcels. The average Wyoming IBA is 257 square miles, however, while Colorado's average 59 mi2. In total these two states are home to 13,154 mi2worth of IBAs. These figures account for 3.7 percent of U.S. IBAs and 2.2 percent of IBA acreage.
1. Wyoming: 51 unconventional hydrocarbon wells in IBAs, 2,238 in primary GSG habitat, and for some perspective 1,983 of the latter are in what EIA has designated primary shale plays. At the present time 97 percent of Wyoming's production wells lie within some segment of the GSG's habitat.
2. Colorado: 163 unconventional hydrocarbon wells in IBAs
- Southwest: 7,838 wells in primary GSG habitat
- Northwest: 16,609 wells in primary GSG habitat
- EIA Shale Plays: 24,178 wells
- 53 percent of Colorado's production wells lie within some segment of the state's GSG habitat.
In Colorado, the GSG's historical habitat has already been overrun by hydrocarbon wells with 20,809 across the bird's north- and southwest range. The bird's production/brooding area in the northwest contains 1,142 wells while its winter range contains 662 wells.
Figure 2. Wyoming hydrocarbon production laterals and Greater Sage Grouse Habitat.
Table 2. Colorado hydrocarbon production wells in various sectors of the Greater Sage Grouse's range.
Another way to look at the interaction between hydrocarbon production and GSG in the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest is to investigate the density of wells in the bird's historic range. That is precisely what we did for the 16 states where GSG once roamed. The bird's historic range is 2.21 times the size of its current range, while the acreage we analyzed is slightly more than the often-reported “165 million resource-rich acres" (Cardwell and Krauss, 2014). On average each of the 16 states was home to 35,580 square miles of GSG habitat and are now home to a mere 28 percent of that figure.
While GSG habitat in these states has decreased, hydrocarbon production has skyrocketed. There are currently 153,358 hydrocarbon wells across the 16 states and an average of 12,780 wells per state—excluding the four states devoid of wells in GSG habitat. These wells and associated infrastructure occupy approximately 39,649 square miles which is a disturbing 7 percent of the species' historic range and nearly 15 percent of its current range. From an historic GSG range perspective, Kansas has the highest density of wells with 3.5 per square mile of habitat. Unsurprisingly North Dakota, has the highest density of wells in the bird's current range, with 6.1 wells per square mile of habitat. Colorado was second in both departments with 1.1 and 2.9 wells per square mile of historic and current GSG habitat, respectively.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC)—along with GSG—is hardly what anyone would call charismatic mega-fauna but it's habitat is coming under pressure in the name of drill baby drill “energy independence" across many of the same Great Plains states. The Prairie-Chicken's range once spread across 97,977 square miles in five states with 43 percent of that acreage in Kansas alone. The bird's range has declined by 68 percent and as much as 78-79 percent in Colorado and New Mexico. In terms of US hydrocarbon production the Prairie-Chicken's historic range is home to 58,152 wells, while its current extent contains 22,049 wells.
On average the four states we investigated sans Texas contain 14,538 and 5,512 wells in this bird's historic and current range, respectively, with the largest values for both not surprisingly in the state that contains most of the bird's primary grassland habitat Kansas's southwest corner. Across these states the density of wells in Prairie-Chicken habitat is 0.603-0.682 hydrocarbon wells per square mile with as many as 1.06-1.25 wells per square mile of Prairie-Chicken habitat in New Mexico. These wells and related infrastructure have an approximate footprint of 22,378 square miles, which is 23 percent the LPC's historic range and 72 percent of its current range.
The five states that contain LPC habitat are also home to 2,978 square miles worth of IBAs across ten parcels averaging 596 square miles, with Kansas home to the most IBA acreage (1,793,845 acres) and New Mexico the most parcels (4 parcels). These values equate to 0.40 percent of US IBAs and 0.99 percent of IBA acreage.
What this analysis means for the GSG and LPC is hard to discern. It stands to reason, however, that their already sensitive mating behavior and plummeting/disconnected populations have not seen the last of energy independence's encroachment. In contrast to the well-noted battle in the Pacific Northwest between environmentalists, loggers, developers and cattle grazers over the much smaller range of the Spotted Owl—and the US Fish and Wildlife Service's “"God Committee"—the GSG's range includes much of the U.S.'s primary wind and mineral resource acreage. GSG's habitat requirements overlap with US shale resources in a significant way with 29 percent of its range in shale basins and 11 percent in currently active shale plays. For a more detailed legal perspective on this issue the reader is referred to our friends at the Center for Biological Diversity and their long-term commitment to protecting and increasing suitable GSG habitat.
Meanwhile the historic and current range of the LPC is like the Spotted Owl in that it is quite small amounting to 97,978 and 31,237 square miles, respectively, which is approximately 11-17 percent of the GSG's range. Similar to GSG we found that 31 percent of LPC's historic range lies within shale basins while only percentage of its habitat is within currently active shale gas plays.
Table 3. Historic and Current Range of Greater Sage Grouse along with the number of producing hydrocarbon wells in that range by state.
Table 4. Historic and Current Range of Lesser Prairie-Chicken along with the number of producing hydrocarbon wells in that range by state (Note: Texas well location data is not available at the present time).
Table 5. Square mileage and number of Important Birding Areas (IBAs) in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken's historic range.
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Wyoming environmental officials continue investigating water wells and whether fracking is the source of water contamination in the tiny town of Pavillion, but some groups in the area are concerned about the credibility of that investigation.
That's because it's being funded by Encana, the oil and gas firm those groups believe is responsible for adding methane, hydrocarbons, lead and copper into the local water supply. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency handed the investigation over to the state a year ago, and things have been downhill ever since, according to groups like Earthworks and Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens.
State regulators held a meeting late last week that was meant to provide an update to residents. Instead, it reinforced their lack of confidence in the process.
“This meeting didn’t provide us anything except more questions,” John Fenton, an impacted rancher and president of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, said in an Earthworks statement. "The EPA study was ready for peer review when Wyoming took over. The state’s closed door process, funded by Encana, doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Encana provided a $1.5-million grant to the Wyoming Natural Resource Foundation to be used for the investigation, Jeff Wojahn, president of the company said a year ago. Now, the state says it will allow Encana to provide feedback on data regarding wellbore integrity, surface pits, domestic water wells and a project to install cisterns project before the public views that data, County10.com reported.
In response to the website's report, Gov. Matt Mead’s communication director, Renny MacKay, said Encana cannot edit findings after an independent expert review, but can suggest corrections regarding mistakes, particularly if a mistake pertains to one of the company's wells.
“EPA has the same opportunity, if a mistake is found, they can suggest a correction, it then goes back for further review before it is finalized,” MacKay said.
Still, some residents don't have faith in the independence of that review because of Encana's funding. Encana also said last year that it would be providing interim funding to the Wyoming Association of Rural Water System (WARS), which had been providing water for some of the area's residents. Back in 2011, Miles Edwards, a WARS water specialist argued that energy development didn't "have to create and wreak havoc, but can be done in such a way that it benefits the community," according to the Torrington Telegram.
Earthworks energy program director Bruce Baizel called on the EPA to reopen an investigation separate of the state.
“Frankly, the industry has long tried to block independent investigations from documenting contamination, and Encana’s ability to review these studies before they go public continues this pattern,” Baizel said. “The EPA should never have given in to this outside pressure. EPA should reopen its investigation into Pavillion-area fracking groundwater pollution.”