What a bipartisan solution to climate change might look like

Most of us bemoan the lack of civility, negotiation, and compromise in politics. We’re so polarized that government does almost nothing to solve our most critical problems.

What’s particularly frustrating to those of us who see climate change as a major threat to the future of human civilization is that the clock is ticking. Global temperatures have risen about 1.5° Celsius since the beginning of the industrial age and are continuing to rise. Science tells us that humans are the primary cause.

The impacts will accelerate with each uptick in temperature: rising seas and coastal flooding, longer and more damaging wildfire seasons, more extreme and destructive weather, more frequent and intense heat waves, widespread forest death, costly and growing health impacts, severe drought, stress on clean water systems, disruption of food supplies, and much more.

And yet government does little or nothing to reduce carbon emissions, leaving our children to suffer the consequences.

Bipartisan solutions exist
What makes this so frustrating is that simple and elegant bipartisan solutions to this problem exist.

Just last week a group of conservative Republicans proposed such a solution. The proposers aren’t ideologues or hacks, they’re Republicans with impeccable credentials, including, among others:

  • James Baker, who served in the cabinets of Presidents Reagan and George HW Bush
  • Henry Paulsen, the Secretary of the Treasury under President George W Bush
  • George Schultz, who served in the cabinets of Presidents Nixon and Reagan
  • Martin Feldstein, the Chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors
  • Gregory Mankiw, Chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors

The solution they propose is one on which many people on the left and right could find common ground if they were willing to sit down and debate it. The final outcome may not be exactly what the group proposes, but it could be the general framework for a solution to the climate change problem.

PPL Montana's Corette power plant, south of I-90 along the Yellowstone. Photo: James Woodcock, Billings Gazette

PPL Montana’s Corette power plant, south of I-90 along the Yellowstone. Photo: James Woodcock, Billings Gazette

The proposal
The group proposes a “carbon dividends plan,” which has four key components:

  1. A gradually increasing carbon tax. This is a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, to be implemented at the refinery or the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy, meaning the mine, well or port. They propose that a sensible carbon tax might begin at $40 a ton and increase steadily over time, sending a powerful signal to businesses and consumers, while generating revenue to reward Americans for decreasing their collective carbon footprint.
  2. Carbon dividends for all Americans. All the proceeds from the tax would be returned to the American people on an equal and quarterly basis. A family of four would receive approximately $2,000 in carbon dividend payments in the first year. This amount would grow over time as the carbon tax rate increases, creating a positive feedback loop: the more the climate is protected, the greater the individual dividend payments to all Americans.
  3. Border carbon adjustments. Price adjustments for the carbon content of  imports and exports would protect American competitiveness and punish free-riding by other nations, encouraging them to adopt carbon pricing of their own. Exports to countries without comparable carbon pricing systems would receive rebates for carbon taxes paid, while imports from such countries would face fees on the carbon content of their products.
  4. Significant regulatory rollback. The plan assumes that a rising carbon tax would change behavior, and allow for the elimination of regulations that are no longer necessary. For example, much of the EPA’s regulatory authority over carbon dioxide emissions would be phased out, including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

clean-power-planWhy a carbon tax?
The price of energy from fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) is determined by market forces.  Oil prices, for example, are set by commodities traders, who bid on oil futures contracts in the commodities market. These contracts are agreements to buy or sell oil at a specific date in the future for an agreed-upon price.

Very simplistically, the primary factors that commodities traders use to develop their bids are:

  • The current supply of oil, based on OPEC quotes, and, increasingly, US shale oil production.
  • The amount of oil reserves held in refineries, in the US strategic oil reserve, or in Saudi Arabia.
  • Oil demand from markets around the world.

However, there is an additional cost of fossil fuels that is not factored into the price. It is the societal cost of releasing carbon into the atmosphere as a byproduct of fossil fuel production. This contributes to global warming, which has significant societal cost (extreme weather, drought, agricultural disruption, sea level rise, and so on).

In economic terms, this cost is called a “negative externality,” a cost that is suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction. Society suffers because of the purchase of fossil fuels.

A carbon tax is one mechanism that would price the externality of carbon emissions to make the price of fossil fuels an accurate reflection of all costs. If set correctly, a carbon tax will decrease fossil fuel usage and cause consumers to seek other sources of energy.

A tax of $40 per ton on carbon is substantial. According to Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, who did an analysis of a study by the  Energy Information Administration, it is the equivalent of 40 cents per gallon of gas, and 10 cents per kilowatt-hour of coal-fired power. Such a tax would just about put coal out of business, accelerating existing market forces. It would set natural gas at just about the same price as clean energy sources such as wind and solar, but those prices are coming down. A 40 cent tax on gas would not have as significant an impact, since gas prices are volatile anyway.

Drum estimates that such a tax would enable the United States to meet it 2025 commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. The US has pledged to cut emissions between 26 and 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025.

Wind turbines at Judith Gap

Wind turbines at Judith Gap

Whether behavior would be changed enough to justify the elimination of regulations such as President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the EPA’s  Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards is more difficult to calculate. Drum calculates that the $40 carbon tax would be similar in impact to power plant regulation, but not sufficient to justify removal of CAFE standards.

Areas for debate
There are many areas of the Republican plan that I would debate. A carbon tax is not the only way to approach climate change, but it is a rational place to begin the debate.

  • I would push for a tax greater than $40 to accelerate the impact, or corresponding incentives to businesses for energy research and development or to consumers for the purchase of electric cars or solar energy. This would accelerate the changeover of our energy infrastructure and the increase in global termperatures.
  • A carbon tax would be a regressive tax because it would impact those who spend a greater proportion of their incomes on energy. For that reason I would suggest that the rebate program offer more to people with lower incomes to make it progressive.
  • I would argue that some regulations be saved. An example is a tax on methane leakage or oversight for oil and gas activities. I would also want the removal of regulation to be slow — after economic benefits have been clearly proven.

    Colstrip coal plant

    Colstrip coal plant

  • If you’re going to accelerate the demise of fossil fuels, you need to invest in helping individuals and communities deal with the transition. In Montana, there has been a great deal of consternation over the demise of the Colstrip coal facility. This is an inevitability as coal continues its death throes. A plan that takes jobs needs to help people find new ones — training, subsidies and so on.

But…climate denial
So here you have a proposal made by conservative Republicans that Democrats would be willing to debate and compromise on to find a solution to a critical problem.

But it can’t happen. It can’t happen because Republicans in Congress refuse to accept climate change and would never consider such a tax, reasonable as it may be.

And why do Congressional Republicans deny climate change? Well, in large part it’s because they are owned by contributions from the oil and gas industry. The US government provides huge subsidies to Big Oil, and they reciprocate by showering members of Congress with big contributions. Montana Senator Steve Daines, a climate denier, is one of the worst offenders.

Science denial is killing us, and one party is responsible for it. Bipartisan solutions that serve the interests of liberals, conservatives, and all people exist. Reasonable people could agree on them.

And liberals and environmentalists need to get on board with this solution as well, even if it did come from a group of Republicans. A coalition of Democrats and traditional conservative Republicans could tip the scale for action away from the deniers.

It’s time for all of us to take our heads out of the sand, recognize science, and get to work saving the planet.

Posted in Climate change | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Learning opportunity: Earthworks activist training, Thursday, 2/9 at 6pm

Earthworks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development, is offering an online training webinar for environmental activists this Thursday, February 9, at 6pm Mountain.

This webinar will cover:

  • What important environmental protections are under threat
  • The most influential ways to make your voice heard on Capitol Hill
  • Effective tools for engaging the Trump administration
  • How your voice in state and local politics is more important than ever

Register for the webinar. If you can’t make this time, you can sign up anyway to receive a recording of the training.

If you’re trying to figure out how to make a difference, this would be a good use of an hour of your time.

EPA employees and environmental activists gather in Chicago, Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, to protest the nomination of Scott Pruitt for administrator of the agency. (AP Photo/Carla K. Johnson)

EPA employees and environmental activists gather in Chicago, Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, to protest the nomination of Scott Pruitt for administrator of the agency. (AP Photo/Carla K. Johnson)

Posted in Community Organization | Tagged , | Leave a comment

24 US Senators are trying to preserve the BLM methane rule. Why isn’t Jon Tester one of them?

Montana Senator Jon Tester did not sign letter regarding repeal of BLM methane rules

Montana Senator Jon Tester did not sign letter regarding repeal of BLM methane rules. Contact him today to make sure he supports retaining these rules (see below)

Twenty-four Senate Democrats, led by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), have sent a letter to Senate leaders asking them to defend the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Methane and Natural Gas Waste Prevention Rule. Montana Senator Jon Tester was not among the signees.

The current BLM methane rule was finalized in November, 2016 after months of public comment and industry input. It requires oil and gas producers to use currently available technologies and  processes to cut flaring in half at oil wells on public and tribal lands. Operators also must periodically inspect their operations for leaks, and replace outdated equipment that vents large quantities of gas into the air. Other parts of the rule require operators to limit venting from storage tanks and to use best practices to limit gas losses when removing liquids from wells.

The rule also protects the environment. Without government action, U.S. methane emissions are projected to increase substantially. The rule projects cutting methane emissions by as much as 35%, an important factor in achieving the US commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

What’s wrong with flaring
There are many reasons to be concerned about flaring, the deliberate open-air burning of natural gas:

Gas flaring in the Bakken. Courtesy National Geographic

Gas flaring in the Bakken. Courtesy National Geographic

  • Flaring releases methane, a greenhouse gas that, when released directly into the air, traps heat in the atmosphere. The process of flaring contributes directly to global warming.
  • Flaring has a substantial impact on the health and environment of landowners who live near a flared well. The methane release is smelly, noisy, and, according to the Natural Institute of Health, exposure causes “headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of coordination” in people and animals. It creates a 24×7 bright light, blocking out the night sky.
  • Flaring is a waste of a precious natural resource. In oil plays, where natural gas is an unwanted byproduct of oil extraction, flaring is common because oil is 30 times more valuable than natural gas. So rather than capture it and take it to market, it is destroyed — hardly an efficient way to treat precious natural resources.

House votes to cut rule
Last Friday the House voted 221-191 to roll back the Interior Department rule that had clamped down on oil companies that burn off natural gas during drilling operations on public lands. The vote was not strictly along party lines, with three Democrats voting in favor of repealing the rule and 11 Republicans opposing. Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, who is awaiting confirmation as Secretary of the Interior, did not vote.

Proponents of cutting the rule argue that it is causing job losses in energy-dependent states across the West and is undercutting domestic energy production. This is a dubious claim that is not backed up by independent data.

In addition to Udall and Wyden, the letter was signed by Senators Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Cory A. Booker (N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

If the Senate votes to cut the rule, it will go to President Trump for signature.

Contact Senator Tester today
The fact that Tester didn’t sign this letter is concerning. To find out where he stands on this issue and to urge him to vote against stopping this important legislation, call him (202) 224-2644, fax to (202) 224-8594, and/or email him here.

The full text of the letter can be found by clicking the link.

Posted in Community Organization, Politics and History | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Action Alert: Prevent the Montana Senate from taking landowner rights

A bill currently being considered in the Montana State Senate significantly reduces landowner rights in protecting property from damage from oil drilling on or near occupied buildings. SB93, currently before the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee, would reduce notification requirements approved last year by the Montana Board  of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC). Those regulations require oil and gas operators to notify owners of “occupied structures” within a quarter mile of a well before drilling.

The BOGC rule, passed last December, was the result of a 20-month process involving Montana environmental groups, with input from the Montana Petroleum Association. The process grew out of the Legislature’s rejection in the 2015 session of SB177, which would have established a 1000 foot minimum buffer zone, or setback, between wellheads and a home, water well, or surface water. The bill did not make it out of committee.

Following the failure of the bill, Northern Plains Resource Council and others petitioned the BOGC to establish minimum setbacks to protect landowners. After 20 months of hearings, testimony by landowners, and committee meetings, the BOGC passed its new rule last December. The rule requires notification in advance of drilling to any landowner within a quarter mile of a wellhead.

This rule is not particularly landowner-friendly. It does not establish setbacks preventing drilling a certain distance from a wellhead. Montana remains far behind many oil producing states (Wyoming, North Dakota, Colorado, and Mexico, to name a few) in establishing setbacks, as shown in the graphic below.

Source: Resources for the Future, "The State of State Shale Gas Regulations," June 2013

Source: Resources for the Future, “The State of State Shale Gas Regulations,” June 2013

But it is a step forward, and credit should be given to those who put in the hours working on it. The rule does require notification and allows landowners the opportunity to protest if they feel they will be harmed.



SB93 would overturn this rule
But now along comes State Senator Tom Richmond (R-26) with SB93. Richmond is a former administrator of the BOGC, who represents no constituency more than the oil and gas industry. Residents along the Beartooth Front may remember him for his appearance at an oil and gas forum at the Elks Club in Red Lodge in 2015. He got almost universally negative reviews.

Amazingly enough, SB93 would throw out the results of this 20 month process and reduce notification requirements from a quarter mile to an eighth of a mile. (Download bill).

Committee hearing
At the Energy and Telecommunications Committee hearing earlier this month, Richmond justified the new notification distance as more appropriately passed by the legislature than an administrative agency like the BOGC, and reducing the distance for notification to 660 feet because “it is a common distance used in spacing in horizontal wells.” In response to a question, he denied that water is ever at risk in drilling, and played down noise and other negative impacts because of “modern equipment.”

The only speaker at the hearing in favor of the bill was Alan Olson, Executive Director of the Montana Petroleum Association, who had the temerity to say that if setbacks were installed, “there wouldn’t be any room in the state to drill a well.”

Several groups spoke against the bill, including Northern Plains, Montana Environmental Information Center, and the Tongue River Water Users Association.

“I mostly consulted me”
This bill should not become law
. It is a unilateral attempt by the oil and gas industry to take power away from Montana landowners. As opposed to the 20-month public process that created the new BOGC rule, SB93 arose solely from the brain of Tom Richmond. As he said at the hearing, and I’m not making this up, “I mostly consulted me.”

Listen for yourself (total hearing time is about 40 minutes; Richmond’s comment at about 26:00):

Action alert: what you can do
Here’s what you can do to help get this bill rejected:

The bill is currently before the Senate Telecommunications and Energy Committee. If it is approved by the committee, it will be voted on by the entire Senate. Please call or write one or more of the Senators who sit on this committee, letting them know you are opposed to the bill because it reduces landowner notification protections.

(Update 1/31/2017: You can send one message to the entire committee — see below.)

(Update 5/9/2017): Good news. After the bill passed both the Senate and the House, Governor Bullock today vetoed Senate Bill 93, which will not become law.

Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen (R-Culbertson) refused to sign SB 93 until sine die(last day of the Legislature) in order to prevent the Governor the Governor from issuing an amendatory veto. Faced with the choice of signing the bill as passed or vetoing it, Governor Bullock vetoed it.

Please act this week.

Duane Ankeny (R-20)
(406) 740-0629
Send an Online Message

Pat Connell (R-43)
(406) 370-8682
Send an Online Message

Dick Barrett (D-45)
(406) 396-3256
Send an Online Message

Mark Blasdel (R-4)
(406) 261-3269
Send an Online Message

Doug Kary (R-22)
(406) 698-1478
Send an Online Message

Sue Malek (D-46)
(406) 370-2424
Send an Online Message

Mary McNally (D-24)
(406) 671-1376
Send an Online Message

Keith Regier (R-3)
(406) 756-6141
Send an Online Message

Tom Richmond (R-28) (sponsor)
(406) 208-5588
Send an Online Message

Jason Small (R-21)
(406) 690-0923
Send an Online Message

Russ Tempel (R-14)
Information Office: (406)444-4800
Send an Online Message

Gene Vuckovich (D-39)
(406) 563-2313
Send an Online Message

Cynthia Wolken (D-48)
Send an Online Message

To send one message to all members of the committee:

  1. Click on the “send an online message” link for one of the senators above.
  2. Fill in your personal information at the top
  3. Fill in the legislator information as indicated below and type in your message. Your message will go to every member of the committee.


Posted in Fracking Information, Politics and History | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

“Changed circumstances”: Montana Board of Oil and Gas reconsiders rulemaking on fracking chemical disclosure

Citing “changed circumstances,” the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC) has decided to reconsider rulemaking on fracking chemical disclosure at its next meeting on February 1.

While the Board didn’t specify what had changed, one new circumstance is the legal action filed against the BOGC on January 17 by a coalition of Montana property owners, public health advocates, and conservation groups. The suit seeks more transparent disclosure of information to the public on chemicals used in the fracking process.

The coalition had originally petitioned the Board in July 2016 to close gaps in the existing disclosure rules and ensure that Montanans who live, ranch, and farm near fracking operations have access to chemical information they need to safeguard their property rights, health, and environment. The petition specifically requested that the rules be changed to require operators to disclose specific chemical information before fracking occurs and require operators to justify their trade secret claims. But on September 23, 2016, the Board denied the petition in a one-page decision.

The current Montana rules, adopted in 2011, do not require companies to reveal the chemicals to be used in fracking until after drilling occurs, and allow companies to withhold the names of chemicals they regard as “trade secrets.” There is no review or oversight of trade secret claims under these rules.

The Board of Oil and Gas Conservation considering but not acting. Photo: Casey Page, Billings Gazette

The Board of Oil and Gas Conservation considering but not acting. Photo: Casey Page, Billings Gazette

The decision to review rulemaking on February 1 is not the same as agreeing to begin the rulemaking process, however. The agenda item is stated only as “Consideration of initiating rulemaking on hydraulic fracturing disclosure.”

Chemical disclosure is just one example of an area in which Montana fracking rules lag behind other oil and gas producing states. Wyoming, for example, requires companies to submit to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission a full list of chemicals they plan to use in fracking operations on a well-by-well basis. Companies also have to report the concentration of each chemical used once the job is done. In addition, any trade secret claim in Wyoming is reviewed to determine whether it is legitimate. Not surprisingly, the Commission instituted the last rule in response to a lawsuit by environmental groups.

In Montana the BOGC is not even informed of the identities of chemicals excluded as trade secrets.

Montana remains one of the only oil and gas states that requires no minimum distance, or setback, between wellheads and occupied dwellings. In response to a petition for rulemaking last year, the BOGC refused to establish a minimum setback, opting only to require notification in advance of drilling near an occupied dwelling.

For those desiring to attend, the BOGC hearing will be held on Wednesday, February 1 at the BOGC hearing room at 2535 West St. Johns Avenue in Billings.


On Preserve the Beartooth Front:
Montana coalition sues BOGC over fracking chemical disclosure
Billings Gazette editorial on fracking chemical disclosure
Time for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas to step forward on setbacks
What’s wrong with the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation

Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation documents:
Docket for February 1-2 meetings
Information on BOGC’s previous consideration of rulemaking on fracking chemical disclosure

Download the lawsuit filed earlier this month

Posted in Fracking Information | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Montana coalition sues BOGC over fracking chemical disclosure

A coalition of Montana property owners, public health advocates, and conservation groups today filed a legal challenge to the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC), which refused last September to grant the public greater access to information about the chemicals used in fracking.

Leaking storage pit near Lindsey, MT

Leaking storage pit near Lindsay, MT

Many chemicals used in fracking are toxic or carcinogenic to humans, who may be exposed to the chemicals through surface spills of fracking fluids, groundwater contamination, and chemical releases into the air. As we have documented on this site, numerous studies have documented adverse health effects in people who live or use water wells near fracking operations.

In 2011 the BOGC put rules in place regarding chemical disclosure. These rules have two major shortcomings:

  1. They allow oil and gas operators to withhold the identities of specific chemicals they use for fracking from the Board and the public until after fracking occurs.
  2. Even after fracking occurs, operators may continue to withhold the identity of any fracking chemical information they claim is a trade secret. They can do this, according to the rules, without providing any evidence demonstrating that withheld chemical information actually qualifies as a trade secret under state law and with no oversight by the BOGC.
Spill at Cutbank Creek. Photo; Destini Vaile

Spill at Cutbank Creek. Photo; Destini Vaile

“Montanans have the right to know what chemicals oil and gas operators plan to pump into the ground on their farms and ranches and near their homes so they can take steps to protect their property and health,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien, who is representing the coalition in the lawsuit. “Operators just down the road in Wyoming already are required to disclose this information, so we know that broader disclosure is workable for industry.”

The coalition petitioned the Board in July 2016 to close these gaps in the existing disclosure rules and ensure that Montanans who live and farm near fracking operations have access to chemical information they need to safeguard their property rights, health, and environment. The petition specifically requested that the rules be changed to require operators to disclose specific chemical information before fracking occurs and require operators to justify their trade secret claims. But on September 23, 2016, the Board denied the petition in a one-page decision.

“My family home is less than a mile away from numerous fracked oil wells on the edge of the Bakken oil field,” said plaintiff Dr. Mary Anne Mercer, a public health expert who has witnessed fracking operations on her family ranch. “I worry about what the potentially toxic solutions used for fracking are doing to the soil and water of the land that I’ll always call home.”

Matt Skoglund, director of National Resources Defense Council’s Northern Rockies office in Bozeman said, “As it stands today, the Board of Oil and Gas is approving fracking chemicals for use in Montana without even knowing what the chemicals are. That is completely unacceptable, and it needs to change.”

The BOGC has 40 days to file a response. We’ll keep you updated on developments.

Download the lawsuit.

Posted in Legal | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Update on Stillwater River Road rockslide

The Stillwater County Commissioners have issued an update on the Stillwater River Road rockslide. Standing rock from the slide has closed the road to through traffic from Absarokee to Nye since June 3, 2015.

Photo: Carol Arkell

According to the update, Stillwater County has awarded a contract to HI TECH Rockfall Construction, a general contractor specializing in rockfall mitigation and slope stabilization systems located in Forest Grove, Oregon.

The contracted work includes:

  1. removing (scaling) loosened and/or unstable blocks of rock from a near-vertical, approximately 250- to 300-foot-high slope adjacent to Stillwater River Road
  2. drilling weep holes into the rock slope
  3. making reasonable effort to prevent scaled material from entering the Stillwater River
  4. removing, hauling, and disposing of existing slide debris covering the road
  5. removing, hauling, and disposing of debris generated by the scaling operations
  6. removing any rocks which land or come to rest in the channel of the Stillwater River below the ordinary high water mark.

Stillwater River Road rockslide photo2

Work will begin on January 9, weather permitting. Once the project has begun, the contract allows for a sixty day project time, with possible delays for poor weather.

When the work is complete, the road will be reopened, approximately two years after the slide occurred. Not a shining example of effective county government, but residents will welcome the completion of the work.

The County Commissioners ask that residents recognize that this is dangerous work, and request that people stay out of the area while the work is being performed.

Previous posts on this topic:
Stillwater River rock slide reminds us of the dangers of drilling
Stillwater County residents: public meeting on Stillwater River Road closure this Thursday
Important documents for Thursday’s meeting on the Stillwater River Road closure
Stillwater County Commissioners ignore County residents on issue after issue. This has to change

Update, January 11
The Commissioners have updated the status to indicate that work on the road project is delayed due to weather conditions. Work is now scheduled to start on February 20.

Update, February 27:
I received a communication from County Commissioner Mark Crago that the start of work has been postponed to March 27.

Update, April 3:
The County Commissioners sent out the following update on April 3:

            On March 23, 2017, DES State Hazard Mitigation Officer Nadene Wadsworth was in Columbus to discuss progress on the FEMA grant for the rockslide project.  The FEMA grant is a “Pre-Disaster Mitigation” grant or PDM grant.  Stillwater County began the application process for this grant in May 2016.  Please recall Stillwater County also applied for this type of FEMA grant in 2015 but the application was denied so the County had to re-apply again in 2016.

            As with most grant requests, it is a time consuming process.  Stillwater County’s rockslide project was one of ten grant applications received from various entities in Montana in 2016 and fortunately, Stillwater’s project was identified as one which FEMA wanted to further review.  The grant applied for is $1.86 million dollars.

            At this time, FEMA is conducting a final environmental review of the proposed project.  According to Officer Wadsworth, this review is progressing well because the grant application contained a great deal of environmental information.  The only minor set-back has been with the area the County identified as the dump site for the rocks from the project.  The original site was to be at the Moraine Fishing Access, however, FEMA determined the site has tipi rings, and is a protected area.  Once the County was given that information, the County worked with Stillwater Mine to locate an alternative site for the rocks.  The County has now proposed an area near the Mine’s Hertzler Tailings Pond and is awaiting FEMA approval.

            The County stands ready to begin the project, however, the County cannot begin actual rock-moving work until the PDM grant has been officially awarded.  Crews were slated to begin rock removal this week, however, if crews were to begin now, the grant award of $1.86 million could potentially face denial.  The projected costs of the rock project is at $2.48 million so the grant award is a crucial component.

            The County Commissioners and Mark Schreiner expressed concerns about this delay to Officer Wadsworth.  She fully understands that all of you have been waiting for a resolution for a long time and assures the Commissioners, they are working as quickly as possible on their end to get this process finalized.  The County remains hopeful FEMA will provide us an answer within the next few weeks so work can begin.

Frankly, I’m confused. On January 4, the job was awarded and work was to begin in five days, weather permitting. Now there are impediments and the County is “hopeful FEMA will provide us an answer within the next few weeks so work can begin.”

Everyone understands that weather and government grants can slow things down, but the County is wildly inconsistent in its communications on this project.

Update, May 16: The Billings Gazette today published an article on the rockslide, linking to this blog and quoting local residents Jerry Sternad and Shirley Stafford.

Update, June 8: Today’s communication from Stillwater County:

“As was announced in the media several weeks ago, FEMA awarded Stillwater County a grant to help with the cost of the Stillwater River Road rockslide situation.  The rockslide project has an estimated price tag of roughly $2.5 million, and the grant will cover approximately $1.9 million of that amount.”

Update, June 22: Stillwater County has published the work schedule for opening Stillwater River Road. Work is scheduled to begin on Monday, July 24, and is to conclude four weeks later with the opening of the road on Friday, August 18. The existing rock debris will be cleared in the first week. The largest amount of time will be spent removing (scaling) loosened and/or unstable blocks of rock from the cliff and building a containment system to prevent the scaled material from getting into the river. If the work is completed on schedule, the road will be opened 807 days from the original rockslide.

Work schedule submitted by Hi-TECH Rockfall Construction. Click to enlarge.

Update August 16, 2017: The road has been opened and is available to through traffic!

Last update September 17, 2017: A friend sent this photo of the rockslide from the air. I’ll post it for posterity’s sake, and because it shows off the beauty of this section of the Stillwater River. The rockslide looks pretty insignificant from this vantage point, yet it took 805 days to clear. Go figure.

Photo courtesy Lynn Hilten

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Tell Senator Tester what you think about Trump’s cabinet nominees

jon-testerSenator Jon Tester has launched a portal on his web site to gather opinions from Montanans about President-elect Trump’s appointees.

It is important for you to speak up. Tester will be a minority voice in the Senate, and he needs to understand how Montanans feel about the need to block appointees who represent the interests of Big Oil, who deny climate change, and who seek alliances with our enemies.

Since we focus on energy and climate change on this site, these are the appointees we are most concerned about:

Click here to make your comments.

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Trump’s EPA pick makes his intentions on climate change clear

President-elect Trump has selected Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt is a close ally of the fossil fuel industry who has been a leader of efforts to block President Obama’s climate change rules.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has been picked to head the EPA. Photo: Dylan Hollandsworth for the New York Times

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has been picked to head the EPA. Photo: Dylan Hollandsworth for the New York Times

While Trump vacillates in what he says regarding energy and climate change, this move makes his intentions very clear. His administration intends to take apart the rules the Obama administration has put in place to combat climate change, including the Clean Power Plan and US participation in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. According to the New York Times, “It will not be possible for Mr. Trump to unilaterally cancel the rules (in the Clean Power Plan), which were released under the 1970 Clean Air Act. But it would be possible for a legally experienced E.P.A. chief to substantially weaken, delay or slowly dismantle them.”

There is no question where Pruitt stands on these issues.

We have often chronicled on this site that Oklahoma has sided with the oil and gas industry at the expense of local landowners. The state has enacted legislation to take away local control over oil and gas drilling, has been slow to regulate activities that cause earthquakes, and would rather pray for oil companies than regulate them.

But Pruitt has put himself at the forefront of an alliance among state attorneys general, including Montana’s Tim Fox, who are working with energy companies and other corporate interests, which are in turn contributing large amounts of money for their political campaigns.

In 2011 Pruitt wrote a letter to the EPA that alleged that federal regulators were grossly overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by energy companies drilling new natural gas wells in his state. The letter was actually authored by attorneys from Devon Energy, one of the largest natural gas operators in Oklahoma.

In 2013, Tim Fox joined Pruitt and two other state attorneys general in protesting BLM plans to regulate hydraulic fracturing on federal land. The Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) later filed suit against Fox for failure to disclose documents related to his support of the protest.

Fox later joined Pruitt in filing suits over the EPA’s Clean Water Rules, EPA Methane Rules, and the Clean Power Plan.

Despite calling climate change a “Chinese hoax,” and railing against the Paris Agreement and the “war on coal,” on the campaign trail, Trump recently told reporters that he had an “open mind” about climate change. Yesterday he met with Al Gore on the subject, giving a bit of hope to those who care about the issue.

Don’t believe it. Actions speak louder than words.

Update 12/7/2016: Here is Scott Pruitt’s tweet on his nomination:




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Thoughts on environmental activism in a Trump presidency

Yesterday I looked at the potential environmental policy direction of the Trump Administration. Today I offer some additional thoughts about what this might mean for political action.

Republicans own climate change
Conservative Republicans now own climate change, with all its consequences.

 Over the years they have sold their party out to climate denialism in a flood of money from the Koch Brothers and the oil and gas industry. It has become an unquestioned aspect of Republican orthodoxy to deny or question whether climate change is occurring, or whether it has human causes, or, if it does, whether we can possibly consider any policy that would have an impact on jobs in the fossil fuel energy sector.

The Obama Administration was late to the game on climate change, but they have made significant positive actions to take global leadership for action to reduce the impacts of warming.

The Republicans now have the power to wipe out all of that if they choose to. They can gut the EPA, take us out of the Paris Climate Agreement, open public lands to fossil fuel development and transport, scrap the Clean Power Plan, and open the doors to the frackers to exploit the land and foul water and air in the name of economic growth.

Yes, it is a bleak picture.

It is scant comfort that what they have taken possession of is a ticking time bomb that will eventually be their undoing. Their aggressive neglect will not only accelerate the process of warming, but the lack of US leadership will empower other nations to be neglectful as well. No matter what Republicans cynically believe, the climate is warming, arctic ice is disappearing, the ocean is rising, drought and extreme weather are intensifying. In the not-too-distant future, it will be clear to all that they have ruined the only planet we have.

Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Attitudes are changing
But there is potential positive news here.

The Republican Party is out of step with the American people on this issue. According to a recent study by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, 70% of Americans now believe that global warming is occurring and public opinion is changing fairly rapidly toward acceptance. What’s more, even though there is uncertainty about whether global warming is human-caused, Americans interest in climate action outpaces their agreement that climate change exists.

Conservative Republican attitudes are changing more rapidly than the general public.

  • The share of conservative Republicans who say global warming is happening has risen from 28 to 47 percent over the last two years.
  • As a whole, 56 percent of Republicans say global warming is happening, up from 40 percent two years ago

What’s more, even though there is uncertainty about whether global warming is human-caused, interest in climate action outpaces agreement that climate change exists.

  • 84 percent of registered voters support more funding for renewable energy research (91 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans).
  • 81 percent support tax rebates for people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (91 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans).
  • 75 percent support regulating carbon dioxide emissions (88 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans).
  • A large majority (70 percent) of registered voters support setting strict carbon emission limits on existing coal power plants. But only 37 percent of conservative Republicans support such action (as opposed to 67 percent of liberal/moderate Republicans and 67 percent of Independents).

Changes in attitude present opportunities for unusual political alliances. 3 in 10 registered voters say they are ready to join a campaign to convince their elected representatives to take action to combat climate change. More education is badly needed to separate public attitudes from political orthodoxy. More experience with extreme events will continue to change attitudes.

Here is a one-hour presentation of the findings of this study.

Other developments moving us forward
What’s more, other developments can move us forward in taking climate action. Vox lists some of these:

  • States like California and New York are still pursuing their own ambitious climate policies, and it’s possible those efforts could be so successful that other states decide to follow suit.
  • Likewise, wind power, solar power, and electric cars will keep getting cheaper — it’s possible they’ll acquire a self-sustaining momentum, even without support from the US government. Or maybe some other new low-carbon technologies will emerge to shake up climate politics. (Small modular reactors, anyone?)
  • Climate activists will continue to push for action at local levels — much as they did during the George W. Bush years, when the Sierra Club began blocking a major planned expansion of coal power. It’s possible that opposition to Trump will galvanize a new generation of climate activists who find creative ways to address global warming.
  • Individuals and local communities are taking action. Recent protests regarding the Dakota Pipeline have galvanized support, and, in California, Monterey County became the first local government with a significant oil industry to ban fracking when voters took action on Tuesday.
  • Other countries still have their own reasons for tackling climate change, even China and India (which, note, is choking on deadly levels of air pollution in Delhi right now). It’s possible that Trump’s recalcitrance on climate change could motivate the rest of the world to redouble their efforts at curtailing emissions without us.
  • It’s even possible that Trump and the GOP could have a change of heart and decide that global warming is a real issue that needs to be taken seriously. It’s possible that Republicans could balk at repealing all these pollution regulations, realizing that they’re actually quite popular. Stranger things have happened.

Last, four years is not the end of time. It is critical to step up action at the local level. It is not a time to sit back and let things happen. Step up, get active, and fight for your planet.

Shutterstock images

Shutterstock images

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