Our nation’s bedrock environmental law–the National Environmental Policy Act–is under attack by corporate polluters and their cronies in the Trump Administration, threatening our right to a healthy environment in the United States.
Fortunately, we have a chance to fight back against this brazen assault and defend our health and communities.
Most people have no clue what the National Environmental Policy Act is, but virtually everyone knows what it does.
Passed 50 years ago, the law ensures federal agencies analyze and fully disclose the environmental impacts of their activities. More importantly, it gives the public the right to be involved and to influence federal actions that may affect their environment.
Described as “our basic national charter for protection of the environment,” the National Environmental Policy Act has been a critical check on the activities of our federal government.
Often called NEPA (that’s pronounced “nee-puh”), the law enshrined the goal of environmental protection in the United States and enforced the need to involve the public in federal decisions. And since its passage, NEPA has worked tremendously.
It’s given communities a voice and sway when new highways are proposed through neighborhoods. It’s empowered local and state governments to stand up to federal agencies. It’s provided Tribes the tools needed to defend sacred lands. And it’s enabled watchdogs across the country to make a difference for people and the planet.
The law has truly been a ray of sunshine and for Americans.
For WildEarth Guardians, NEPA is absolutely key to protecting and restoring wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health in the American West.
For over 30 years, we’ve relied on the law to confront proposals by federal agencies to log old growth forests, dam rivers, decimate wildlife, destroy the climate, and desecrate sacred lands. We’ve relied on the law to mobilize support for safeguarding endangered species, protecting wilderness, and saving lands and waters throughout the American West.
Just last month, we filed suit in federal court to block the sale of nearly two million acres of public lands for fracking in five western states over the federal government’s failure to comply with NEPA. The case confronts the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s refusal to account for the climate impacts of authorizing more fossil fuel production and more greenhouse gas emissions.
For WildEarth Guardians, as well as countless other environmental, health, community, justice, Indigenous, and other advocates, NEPA is the backbone of our accountability efforts. It’s given us all the tools needed to stand up to private, often well-financed efforts to exploit our environment at the expense of our health and well-being.
Sadly, because groups like WildEarth Guardians have successfully used NEPA to defend our environment, it’s come under fire by polluters who view the law as an impediment to their ability to exploit communities and public resources.
Claiming the law is inefficient, cumbersome, and ineffective, corporate interests have for many years called for its gutting. Now, with Trump and his pro-polluter cadre in the White House, these interests are launching an unprecedented strike on our nation’s basic charter for environmental protection.
In a draft released on January 10, the White House Council on Environmental Quality published a proposed set of regulations that, if adopted, would effectively roll back and destroy NEPA as we know it (watch our recent Facebook Live check-in to learn more about these rollbacks).
The rules would completely rewrite regulations originally promulgated in 1982 and in doing so, completely upend our ability to hold our federal government accountable to protecting our environment. It’s not surprising that lobbyists for the nation’s polluters have described the rules as “exactly” what they recommended to the Trump administration.
Among the sweeping changes, the Trump administration’s proposal would:
- Strike language describing NEPA as “our nation’s basic charter for environmental protection” and instead describe the law as procedural and only requiring federal agencies to minimally disclose the environmental impacts of their actions;
- Severely restrict opportunities for public involvement in federal agency actions affecting the environment;
- In many situations, exempt federal agencies from having to complete environmental reviews;
- Let agencies shortcut environmental reviews and to reject science and public comments;
- Undermine transparency by allowing agencies to withhold environmental information from the public;
- Make it more difficult for watchdogs to enforce NEPA before administrative appeals boards or federal courts; and
- Prohibit federal agencies from analyzing and disclosing cumulative environmental impacts, or the impacts of their actions when added to the impacts of other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable activities.
That last proposed change is particularly distressing. The duty for the federal government to address the cumulative impacts of its actions is a critical and powerful means of ensuring agencies don’t worsen environmental problems, like climate change.
By eliminating the duty to account for cumulative impacts, the proposed changes would completely erase the federal government’s responsibility to protect our environment.
In keeping with the anti-public spirit of the proposal, the Council on Environmental Quality has also provided only 60 days for people to provide comments on the draft regulations and scheduled only two public hearings–one in Denver and one in Washington, D.C.–where only a little more than 100 people will be allowed to comment.
There’s no doubt that if approved, the proposed rules would effectively shut the American public out of the operations of the federal government, leaving our environment, our communities, our health, and our families more vulnerable than ever.
In response to Trump’s attack on NEPA, a massive coalition of advocates across the country are gearing up to fight back.
The resistance is kicking off in Denver, Colorado this Tuesday, February 11. That day, the Trump administration is holding its first of two public hearings on the proposed rollbacks.
While many will be speaking at the formal hearing, the Council on Environmental Quality provided only 112 speaking slots that were filled in less than five minutes due to extremely high demand. That’s why most people will be speaking and rallying across the street as part of the “Peoples Hearing to Protect NEPA,” an all-day action meant to uplift and empower the voices that were excluded by the Trump administration.
Groups are also pushing back in other critical ways. Last month, WildEarth Guardians joined hundreds of other groups in demanding the Trump administration extend the public comment period for the proposed rollbacks and calling for more public hearings.
Congressional leaders are also rising up to defend NEPA. In a bipartisan letter last month, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, a Democrat, and Representative Francis Rooney of Florida, a Republican, were joined by hundreds of other members of the U.S. House in calling on the Council on Environmental Quality to back down from the proposed rollbacks.
In the meantime, now, more than ever, we need your voice to help derail these terrible rollbacks to NEPA. If you haven’t yet, sign our petition and join thousands of others who are rising up to speak out for our environment and our voice.
Together, we can thwart Trump and his gang of polluters in the White House. Together, we can #ProtectNEPA.
The reason? The economics of coal and natural gas just don’t work anymore.
That’s great news for our climate, clean air and water, and for the future of the western U.S.
Even better news is that while utilities are moving fast from fossil fuels, they seem to be picking up the pace.
After our report last week, more huge energy news came down with big implications for the American West, including:
- Colorado Springs Utilities is Shutting Down the Martin Drake Power Plant
We previously flagged that the municipal utility, which serves Colorado Springs, Colorado and surrounding communities, had been surprisingly quiet on its future plans for the downtown coal-fired power plant.
This news is a big deal and it means the people of Colorado Springs are finally going to get some relief from this dirty power plant. It’s also good news for ratepayers, who stand to reap huge savings as the Utilities move to replace Martin Drake with renewables.
We’ve been cautiously optimistic around the shut down of Martin Drake and the prospect of a full transition to renewables by Colorado Springs Utilities. This latest announcement is a big step in the right direction.
- PNM is Eliminating its Coal Footprint in New Mexico
Also last week, PNM (a.k.a. Public Service Company of New Mexico) announced plans to shut down its coal-fired San Juan Generating Station by 2022 and to divest its ownership of the Four Corners Power Plant by 2031.
We’ve long tangled with the San Juan Generating Station, as well as the San Juan coal mine, which fuels the power plant. We led the charge to secure stronger clean air safeguards for the power plant, which ultimately convinced PNM to start shuttering it.
Lately, we’ve taken aim at the Trump Administration’s plans to approve an expansion of the San Juan coal mine. The proposal is ludicrous, but thankfully, not even Trump is going to be able to bail out the mine as it loses its only customer.
We agree with our allies at New Energy Economy that PNM could be doing much more to invest in renewables and that the company’s talk of investing in new natural gas is an economic misstep.
However, the move away from coal is a huge step in the right direction.
- New Energy Leadership in Colorado
Finally, more big news from Colorado as Governor John Hickenlooper and Governor-elect Jared Polis announced the appointment of John Gavan to the Public Utilities Commission.
As a board member of the Delta Montrose Electric Association, Gavan has been a staunch supporter of renewables and rural energy independence.
As a Public Utilities Commissioner, he stands to bring a critical eye to the need to ensure renewable energy development enriches urban and rural communities alike, and helps create a new future of prosperity for Colorado.
His appointment should definitely give pause to Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
The wholesale power provider is facing increasing resistance from its rural electris co-op members who are sick of rising rates. And, as the company remains heavily reliant on coal, it’s increasingly at odds with its members’ environmental goals.
We’ve already reported that the future of Tri-State is very uncertain right now. With this latest change in energy leadership, that uncertainty has escalated exponentially.
So, wow. Unbelievable changes afoot for the American West’s energy future.
December 2018 may just go down as the month that fossil fuels died in the western United States.
The month of December 2018 is probably going to go down in history as the month when all things climate and energy truly and irreversibly changed for the better in the American West.
From bold carbon reduction commitments by big utilities to the fact that the economics of renewables are unbelievably great (and seem to be getting better by the day), this month has been a watershed moment.
Given this, we thought it’d be useful to dive in more deeply and really explore what all these announcements mean. Below, our top ten takeaways from these latest developments:
The big news in early December was Xcel Energy’s announcement of its goals to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2030 and to become completely carbon-free in its generation of electricity by 2050.
Bold. There’s no other way to put it. Xcel Energy is not only the first utility in the nation to commit to becoming carbon-free, but did so even as the company currently generates power from many coal-fired power plants.
This was not an announcement from some flaming progressive utility. This was an announcement from a utility that still generates huge amounts of power from carbon-intensive fossil fuels. In fact, Xcel still generates more than 50% of its power from coal in Colorado.
And in the wake of this bold commitment, there’s really no escaping the real implications. If Xcel has any chance of reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2030 and going carbon-free by 2050, the company is going to have to shutter all of its remaining coal-fired power plants in Colorado.
And in all likelihood, to meet their 2030 goal of reducing carbon emissions 80%, it means these plants are going away by 2030.
It may seem drastic, but there’s really no other viable option. As Xcel’s CEO commented, this is about doing something for the climate. And as the economics of coal worsen, Xcel will surely soon be followed by other utilities looking to shed the mounting liabilities of fossil fuels.
9. Platte River Power Authority Will be Shutting Down its Coal-fired Power Plant north of Fort Collins, as well as Divesting its Share of Craig
Xcel’s announcement was big, but Platte River Power Authority’s was bigger.
The Colorado power agency, which serves Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park, announced its goal of eliminating 100% of its carbon emissions by 2030.
While that’s an astounding goal that almost puts Xcel’s commitments to shame, what’s more significant about Platte River Power Authority’s announcement is that will mean a wholesale transformation in the utility’s generating portfolio.
Currently, nearly 90% of Platte River Power Authority’s electricity is generated by coal or natural gas. And of its fossil fuel-generating portfolio, more than half is provided by the Rawhide power plant north of Fort Collins and a portion of the Craig power plant in northwest Colorado.
The utility’s announcement all but guarantees the Rawhide plant will be shut down and that it will divest of its ownership in the Craig plant, all by 2030.
Coupled with Xcel’s plans, it means that Colorado will be virtually coal-free by 2030.
Pacificorp, a Portland, Oregon-based utility, owns all or portions of 10 coal-fired power plants in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming (they used to own 11, but shut down an aging plant in Utah in 2015).
To boot, they own coal mines in both Utah and Wyoming.
Yet even this captain of coal in the American West is coming to terms with the reality that its massive fossil fuel enterprise makes no economic sense.
Earlier in the month, the company released a report showing that 60% of its coal-fired generating units are more expensive to operate than developing new alternative sources of power, namely renewable energy.
However, that was just the headline. A closer look at Pacificorp’s report actually reveals that, taken together, all of the company’s coal-fired units are not remotely cost-effective.
Under a base scenario, while some of the company’s coal-fired units are cheaper to operate than alternatives, the savings from retiring uneconomic units would actually offset the costs of retiring the utility’s entire fleet of coal.
Pacificorp has made no decisions or announcements yet. However, in the wake of Xcel Energy’s carbon-free commitment, it seems inevitable the utility will make a similarly bold proclamation in 2019.
Ultimately, we’re likely to see Pacificorp make a big move away from coal in the very near future. Because of the company’s massive coal footprint in the American West, this move promises a massive move to renewable energy in the western U.S.
Colorado Springs Utilities serves the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado and surrounding communities. And while the municipal utility seems innocuous, they generate more than 40% of their power from coal from two coal-fired power plants, including one—Martin Drake power—right in the middle of the City’s downtown.
For years now, residents and ratepayers have sounded the alarm over the Martin Drake power plant, which sours the skies with toxic emissions.
Equally alarming is the fact that Martin Drake is one of the least efficient and most expensive municipally owned power plants to operate in the United States.
In spite of this, the utility seems to have no plans for addressing the rising costs of power except a vague and unenforceable commitment to retire Martin Drake by 2035. What’s more, the utility seems to have no plans to retire its other coal-fired power plant, the Ray Nixon plant located south of Colorado Springs.
So, while other utilities in Colorado are making big moves away from coal, Colorado Springs Utilities is staying firmly committed, at least for the time being, to costly coal.
It’s no wonder why people in Colorado Springs are increasingly incensed over their utility’s inaction.
The unrest will only grow as Colorado Springs Utilities delays providing its customers with cleaner and more affordable power.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission is a utility company that provides wholesale power to 43 member rural electric cooperatives in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
And while Tri-State has a noble goal of energizing rural communities within its service area, the company is facing growing resistance over rising costs.
The reason for rising costs: the company’s heavy reliance on coal-fired power, as well as Tri-State’s investments in coal mines.
Because of this, the utility is facing the prospect of a mass exodus of its customer base.
In 2016, one of its former members, the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in northern New Mexico, bought out its contract with Tri-State. This month, another member, the Delta Montrose Electric Association in western Colorado, filed a complaint with state utility regulators to do the same.
Not only that, but other members, including the United Power Cooperative, La Plata Electric Cooperative, and the Poudre Valley Electric Cooperative, all of which are major revenue generators for Tri-State, are also exploring alternatives to the utility company.
Coupled with the fact that Tri-State’s utility partners, including co-owners of the Craig coal-fired power plant in northwestern Colorado, are moving away from coal, the company is facing a bleak future.
As its members and partners bail, Tri-State’s business model seems doomed to collapse.
That’s not all bad news. As Tri-State declines, its members stand to enjoy more energy freedom and to reap the economic rewards of local renewable energy development.
Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service are both large utilities primarily serving Arizona. And both utilities know that the economics of coal simply aren’t worth it.
As the primary owner of the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, the largest coal-fired power plant in the American West, Salt River Project decided to shutter the facility by the end of 2019.
Arizona Public Service, is also getting out of the Navajo Generating Station after retiring portions of the nearby Four Corners power plant in northwest New Mexico.
So far, neither Salt River Project nor Arizona Public Service has made any further announcements to move away from coal. However, given that both of the utilities are clearly seeing the reality of coal costs, we should see some additional major shifts away from coal in the west.
Arizona Public Service also owns a portion of the Cholla coal-fired power plant in Arizona. The other owner of Cholla is Pacificorp. And with Pacificorp already seemingly making a move away from coal, it’s hard to believe Arizona Public Service won’t follow.
Salt River Project owns portions of the Hayden and Craig power plants in western Colorado, as well as portions of the Four Corners power plant in New Mexico and Springerville power plant in Arizona. They also fully own the Coronado power plant in Arizona.
Every one of these power plants has been identified as economically costly and risky by financial analysts.
Given all this, it’s hard to believe that Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project will continue to maintain their investments in coal.
This is beyond huge.
With the decline in renewable prices, new utilities are actually emerging in the American West.
And just last week, Guzman released a request for proposals to build 250 megawatts of renewable energy in the American West, including 200 megawatts of wind and 50 megawatts of solar.
Guzman has emerged as the wholesale power provider for the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in northern Mexico and also has ambitions to be the provider for the Delta Montrose Electric Association in western Colorado.
They also have serious capital behind their endeavors.
For a new utility to emerge in the American West is almost unheard of in recent times. For a utility to emerge that is singularly focused on transition to renewables is revolutionary.
Seriously, Guzman Energy’s plans could very well give utilities like Xcel Energy and Pacificorp a run for their money.
More renewable energy means more economic development, particularly in rural communities.
Already in Colorado, the state’s move away from coal to more renewable energy promises more jobs, more local revenue, and overall a huge net economic benefit.
It’s really a no-brainer when you think about it.
For one, developing renewable energy means developing more distributed generating sources, including rooftop solar, wind, and batteries, which are ideally situated in the communities they serve.
For another, as more renewable energy takes hold, energy prices stand to stabilize, if not decline, saving communities in the long run.
Colorado rural electric cooperative Delta Montrose Electric Association’s effort to break free from Tri-State is in fact being driven by the prospect of greater economic prosperity. As the co-op’s CEO stated:
The decision to separate from Tri-State allows for significant economic benefit for our members – including stabilized rates, development of diverse and low-cost local energy, and the creation of new local jobs.
– Jasen Bronec, Chief Executive Officer, Delta Montrose Electric Association
As utilities throughout the American West make the transition to clean energy, it will inevitably open the door for more economic opportunity.
Rural communities in particular stand to reap big rewards as more generation is built locally, sustaining affordable energy, creating jobs, and creating new revenue.
Don’t think natural gas is getting a pass in all this.
The reality is, in the face of utilities’ carbon-free announcements and acknowledgment of economic truths, there does not seem to be a future for this fossil fuel.
It’s telling that although Xcel Energy announced in 2017 plans to construct new natural gas-fired generating facilities in Colorado, the company ultimately abandoned that plan and instead forecasts a decline in natural gas burning.
It’s no wonder. While the economic of coal are the worst, the economics of natural gas aren’t far behind. Xcel’s own data showed that gas simply couldn’t compete with renewables.
Although natural gas is often thought of as a “bridge” from coal to renewables, it seems the whole notion of a bridge is absurd at this point.
And with the economics being what they are, it seems that utilities are going to start shutting down existing gas plants, effectively demolishing the bridge.
That’s great news for the climate. Despite the assertion that natural gas is cleaner than coal, it actually has an outsized carbon footprint largely because of methane releases associated with fracking.
Methane has 86 times more heat-trapping capacity than carbon dioxide, making it a potent climate pollutant.
Given that all the American West’s most significant coal burning utilities are making or will very likely make big near-term moves away from coal, there’s no doubt that we are likely to see a coal-free American West within a decade.
Sure, not every utility has stepped up to announce bold climate action or a move toward more renewable energy. However, the writing on the wall seems very clear that if utilities don’t go down this path, it could mean their demise.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission is already staring at a bleak future due to its unwillingness to move beyond coal.
Other coal burning utilities in the western U.S., including Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, Basin Electric, Idaho Power, Black Hills Corporation, and others are undoubtedly be staring at the same future. Their failure to move beyond coal could very well be their undoing.
That means whether they like it or not, utilities face the prospect of their coal going away and soon.
And that’s why the American West is very likely to be 100% coal-free as early as 2030.
Amidst the big energy announcements, there’s a conspicuous lack of focus on utilities’ natural gas services. Xcel, Pacificorp, and others aren’t just electricity providers, they also provide gas to homes, businesses, and industry for heating, cooking, and other uses.
While natural gas systems are more distributed and less high profile than huge, filthy coal-fired smokestacks, they’re equally destructive and disconcerting from a climate standpoint.
In fact, from the point of fracking to the point at which natural gas is consumed, massive amounts of carbon emissions are released from our natural gas systems.
While nationwide, methane leaks and combustion at natural gas well and processing plants release more than 200 million metric tons of carbon annually in the U.S., the consumption of natural gas at homes, businesses, and factories releases nearly 800 million metric tons.
In total, carbon pollution associated with natural gas production and consumption in non-power plant sources accounts for more than 15% of all U.S. climate emissions.
Cleaner electricity generation is critical to saving our climate. However, utilities can’t ignore their overall carbon footprints. That means Xcel, Pacificorp, and others need to start paying attention to natural gas.
And who better than to take action to help our nation move away from natural gas than our electric utilities?
They, more than anyone else, have the means to develop the renewable energy to generate the power needed to run electric furnaces, stoves, ovens, hot water heaters, and other appliances.
Truly, utilities like Xcel and others can transition their customers from gas to electricity and ultimately, be as lucrative as ever.
What a month it’s been. Here’s hoping for more progress for the climate, for 100% fossil fuel-free, and for real economic prosperity in the American West. Stay tuned for more!
There’s no sugar-coating it. Last week’s report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change painted a grim outlook for our climate and the future of this planet.
Aside from acknowledging the reality that human-caused climate change is already wreaking havoc around the globe, the Panel also acknowledged that confronting this crisis will require unprecedented action to curb fossil fuel consumption, mitigate climate disruption, and even to reverse climate impacts by removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Admittedly, the findings from this Nobel Peace Prize-winning panel of thousands of scientists were discouraging, to put it mildly. The take home message was essentially, we’re screwed.
The truth is, we’re screwed only if we do nothing. And as disturbing as it may be, the reality is, the report is immensely liberating.
That’s because what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did is effectively make the case for the boldest, most aggressive, most radical action for the climate that we’ve ever seen or thought about.
WildEarth Guardians has always brought “no bullshit” when it comes to fighting for the climate. Remember, we’re the group that notoriously said “tough shit” when the coal industry whined that the federal government wouldn’t appeal a lawsuit win we secured over a coal mine expansion in northwest Colorado.
We received some blowback from the quote (an effigy even appeared as well as colorful bumper stickers!), but we never backed down. We meant it at the time and we’d say it again in a heartbeat.
But in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, it’s clear that even our “no bullshit” approach to climate advocacy needs to crank up.
We already make no bones about the fact that our aim is to shut down the fossil fuel industry in the American West, to transition to 100% renewable eleecticity by 2035, and to help communities get the resources they need to move away from fossil fuels and to more prosperous and sustainable economies.
Moving forward, however, it’s clear we need to turn the pressure up on the fossil fuel industry more than ever and bring forward more creative and hard-hitting tactics. Here’s some of our thinking on how to do that:
We will not settle for anything but 100% transition to renewable energy by western utility companies.
As we confront fossil fuel-fired power plants in the American West, our aim will be to secure commitments to move completely away from fossil fuels.
We will engage to secure concrete commitments from utilities to shutter all coal and gas-fired power plants. We will not accept compromise. We will oppose deals between utilities and other environmental groups unless they call for 100% renewable energy.
We will not tolerate companies like Xcel Energy, which in spite of shuttering some coal, continues to fall short of retiring all their fossil fuel-fired power plants, even though renewable energy would be cheaper.
We will be stepping up our efforts to foment local development of renewable energy in the rural west.
Locally developed distributed renewable energy is not only good for economies, it’s literally and figuratively empowering for communities. It puts control of electricity generation into the hands of locals, keeps money from leaving, and creates a more resilient electric grid.
Already, many rural electric co-ops are eyeing opportunities to develop wind, solar, and other sources of power. We will actively support these efforts and also step up our campaign to help rural communities break free of having to purchase costly fossil fuel-fired electricity from wholesale providers, like Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which is already in WildEarth Guardians’ crosshairs.
We will be even more relentless in pushing back against fracking on our public lands and lend more support to local and state efforts to rein in the oil and gas industry.
Already we’ve launched unprecedented initiatives to confront fracking on our public lands, including suing over the failure of the Interior Department to account for the climate impacts of oil and gas and challenging the Department of Transportation over its failure to ensure pipeline safety on public lands.
It’s clear, however, especially under President Trump and his Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, that we need to be even more aggressive in exposing and confronting the going climate destruction being perpetrated by companies like Exxon and BP. And it’s clear we need to empower local and state action as well, especially where oil and gas development is not occurring on public lands.
Our plan is bring more and bigger lawsuits, throw our weight behind state and local citizen initiatives to limit fracking, and galvanize even greater opposition to the oil and gas industry among the climate movement. We especially need to foment more climate action in places like southeast New Mexico’s Greater Carlsbad Caverns region, where fracking is consuming every acre of land and releasing more climate pollution than coal-fired power plants.
We will be investing more heavily in advancing initiatives to electrify our transportation system in the western U.S.
Our dependence on oil is driven by the fact that most all of us have no affordable or viable alternative to fossil fuel-powered internal combustion engines. Quite simply, we’re in a forced addiction that won’t be resolved unless and until we make electric vehicles and charging infrastructure more affordable, accessible, available, and reliable.
Although Guardians hasn’t engaged much around transportation, that has to change. With western states already banding together to promote more effective and reliable electrification of transportation systems, there will be enormous opportunities to engage and make a difference.
We will make justice a priority.
Climate change disproportionately threatens people of color, indigenous peoples, and “economically disadvantaged” populations. What’s more, fossil fuels, both their consumption and production, invariably pose greater negative impacts to low income communities, to indigenous communities, and to communities of color. Put another way, climate change is an environmental justice issue and it needs to be confronted as such.
Our aim is to ensure that as we’re confronting the fossil fuel industry, we’re both empowering impacted peoples and communities to push back, and spurring solutions that rectify environmental injustice. In all honesty, our climate crisis is the result of old white men being in power. Solving it means taking them out of power.
We will take direct action.
It’s time to take it to the streets and use our power of protest to challenge the fossil fuel industry and their cronies in the government.
If we truly are committed to “no bullshit” advocacy, then we need to do more than just file comments, lawsuits, and write up blog posts. We need to energize, empower, and activate a movement. And we need to fully exercise our right to free speech. This means we need to be willing to put ourselves directly in the way of those who are disregarding and perpetuating our climate crisis.
Our goal is to bring forward more people power than ever before and do more to disrupt the fossil fuel status quo than ever before. Given the stakes, we simply can’t afford to be timid.
Things are not hopeless. Despite the challenges we face, we have solutions at hand.
Are they hard? Yes.
Are they unprecedented? Yes.
Do they involve risk? Yes.
Might they be uncomfortable? Yes.
But as much as confronting the climate crisis may be challenging and daunting, we know it will be liberating and empowering.
Will it make a difference for our future? Yes.
Will your kids be proud? Yes.
Will you leave a legacy? Yes.
Will you feel fulfilled? Yes.
Will you feel the joy of uplifting your fellow human beings and saving the planet? Yes.
So our question for you is, will you join us in our “no bullshit” campaign to confront the climate crisis? Because we need you and we want you. We believe our future is ours to make and we welcome anyone who agrees to stand with us and help us advance climate progress.
In spite of dire findings from scientists, our ability to effect social change has only grown more resolute. We can deal with this. It won’t be easy, but we can do it.
This is great news for Colorado Springs and the American West.
Colorado Springs Utilities so far has been reluctant to budge from a planned 2035 retirement date, even though the plant has been mired in legal controversy over clean air violations, faced intense and growing scrutiny from citizens and former City officials, and has been identified as one of the costliest municipally owned coal-fired power plants in the entire country.
The news comes as earlier this month, a federal judge signed off on an agreement between WildEarth Guardians and Colorado Springs Utilities resolving thousands of air quality violations at the power plant.
As part of our agreement, the City of Colorado Springs committed to vote by 2020 on whether to go 100% renewable. This vote will present a major opportunity to lock in the shut down of Martin Drake, but also to pave the way for shutting down Colorado Springs Utilities’ other coal-fired power plant, the Ray Nixon power plant.
Ray Nixon is a 200 megawatt power plant located south of Colorado Springs and like Martin Drake, is a clean air nightmare. Every year the plant releases thousands of tons of toxic air pollution, including particulate matter, sulfuric acid mist, mercury, and lead.
The truth is, coal costs. With renewable energy prices continuing to plummet and other Colorado utilities shifting quickly away from coal to more affordable wind and solar, Colorado Springs Utilities would be crazy not to go 100% renewable.
Hopefully this latest move to accelerate the retirement of Martin Drake is a sign that the City of Colorado Springs has finally seen the writing on the wall.
Last year, utility experts were stunned when Xcel Energy’s request for renewable proposals brought record-low bids for wind and solar in Colorado – the lowest ever received by a utility, nationally. Extraordinarily, these low bids meant that wind sources with storage were now cheaper than coal!
This week, in a packed room on a hot August day, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission approved Xcel’s “Colorado Energy Plan”, which proposes pivoting away from coal-based energy and moving towards cheaper energy resources like wind and solar. During the hearing, one commissioner noted that, for the first time, would be able to consider the idea that the least cost portfolio is not one dominated by fossil fuels.
The plan would partially retire the Comanche Generating Station in Pueblo, Colorado, 10 years early. Commissioner Wendy Moser said “considering the age of these plants, they most certainly warrant being shut” and Commissioner Frances Koncilja agreed that closing Comanche 1 & 2, is “the right thing to do.” These units in Pueblo emit about 4.5 million tons of carbon pollution each year.
Instead of burning fossil fuels for power, it would use a mix of solar, wind, and storage, along with existing natural gas plants. All told, the plan would retire 660 megawatts of coal generation and add 1,100 megawatts of new wind capacity, 700 megawatts of solar generation, and 225 megawatts of energy storage.
Not only does this mix of renewables relieve the health impacts from coal-fired power and reduce Carbon Dioxide pollution by 60% (by 2026), it will also boost the local rural economy to the tune of $2.5 billion (The plan features a total of five solar power plants, three of which include energy storage. Three of these plants are located in the Pueblo, Colorado area and another in Park, the western part of the state. A large energy storage would be located in Adams, Colorado).
All numbers aside, the big news here is that coal-fired generation is being laid to rest, and gas plants are explicitly not being built, in favor of renewables and storage projects. The great story here is that customers will actually save millions of dollars by closing coal plants a decade early because these generating stations are no longer economically viable. What this means, is that the old way of thinking – that renewables are too costly – is going the way of the dinosaurs.
While this is major progress, we still have plenty of dirty-coal-years to make up for and we just don’t think this plan goes far enough.
Why aren’t we ready to celebrate? Let me explain.
While Xcel did back away from its coal-fired generation somewhat, it also missed out on a major opportunity to switch to renewables in favor of keeping coal afloat. Xcel received 16,949-megawatts of bids for new wind projects. Colorado’s electric generating capacity is 16,046-megawatts. That means that the company received enough wind bids to power the entire state (and then some)!
Xcel received over 50,000 megawatts of wind, solar and storage bids–most under 3.5 cents/kilowatt-hour (if you’re not familiar with energy pricing, just trust me when I say that is very low; most coal averages more 3 cents/kilowatt-hour and in some areas more than 5 cents/kilowatt-hour). While we are impressed by the bids that Xcel received initially, we were disappointed that the company ended up only taking a few of these bids, leaving much of the renewable projects on the table, to languish.
Not only did Xcel let wind and solar projects slip through their fingers, they also committed to the continued operation of 1,800 megawatts of coal-fired energy in Colorado. Among the plants that will continue to stay alive in Colorado are:
- The 750-megawatt Comanche 3 power plant in Pueblo,
- The 505-megawatt Pawnee plant northeast of Denver,
- The 441-megawatt Hayden power plant west of Steamboat Springs,
- The 83-megawatt portion of the Craig power plant in northwest Colorado
And finally, as we have written before, there’s more to Xcel’s plan than simply shutting down dirty coal plants. As our friends at Clean Energy Action have exposed, Xcel’s proposal forces ratepayers to cover the costs of recent investments at Comanche. We don’t think we should have to bail out the utility’s bad business decisions.
Renewables have proven to save Coloradans so much more money than continuing to operate costly, dirty coal-fired power. Again, while we are impressed by the direction Xcel’s plan is progressing, we believe there was a missed opportunity that would have saved rate-payers money and increased protection to public health by leaps and bounds. Stayed tuned.
We won’t stop until we get the clean energy our climate and citizen deserve, and our planet needs.
While Xcel Energy is moving to shutter some of its coal-fired power plants in Colorado, a new report by the company begs the question, why not shutter all of its coal plants and save ratepayers even more money?
Without a doubt, Xcel’s latest plan, dubbed the Colorado Energy Plan, would be another good step forward for our climate and clean energy. Under the plan, the company would shutter two of three coal-fired units at the Comanche coal-fired power plant in Pueblo, as well as boost the amount of new renewable energy on its system.
Unfortunately, when it’s all said and done the company will still own and operate nearly 1,800 megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity in Colorado, still making it the largest coal burner in the state and one of the largest in the American West.
Among the plants that will continue to operate are the massive 750-megawatt Comanche 3 power plant in Pueblo, the 505-megawatt Pawnee plant northeast of Denver, the 441-megawatt Hayden power plant west of Steamboat Springs, and an 83-megawatt portion of the Craig power plant in northwest Colorado.
Even more unfortunate is that Xcel Energy has the ability to move completely away from coal-fired power right now. Not only that, it would actually save enormous amounts of money.
In a report submitted to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on June 6, Xcel disclosed it received a flood of bids to build new renewable energy as part of its latest resource planning. To boot, the bids show the cost of new renewables, including wind, solar, and even storage (i.e., utility-scale batteries), is actually cheaper than operating the company’s existing coal-fired power plants.
Below is a summary of the key details regarding the bids received by Xcel as part of its latest resource planning.
The company’s report and the bid information is extraordinary.
Take, for example, the fact that Xcel received 16,949-megawatts of bids for new wind energy projects. Colorado’s current electric generating capacity is 16,046-megawatts, meaning the company received enough wind energy project bids to more than meet the state’s entire power needs.
More stunning was the cost. Xcel received bids for new wind, wind and solar, and wind with battery storage that all averaged around $20 per megawatt-hour or less.
In comparison, the cost of generating power from Xcel’s coal-fired power plants is consistently above $30 per megawatt-hour. In fact, information from the company indicates the Pawnee coal-fired power plant may currently cost more than $50 per megawatt-hour to operate. That’s based on disclosures from the company in 2011.
Other recent reports indicate the cost generating power at the Hayden power plant is around $38 per megawatt-hour while the cost of the Craig power plant, which Xcel partially owns, is around $35 per megawatt-hour. Even the cost of the Comanche power plant is reported to be $31 per megawatt-hour.
This even makes new utility-scale solar photovoltaic development competitive with every single one of Xcel’s coal-fired power plants. As the company’s report disclosed, the average bids for new solar projects, which amounted to more than 14,000 megawatts, averaged $30.96 per megawatt-hour in cost.
In other words, Xcel’s own report shows that new solar power alone can almost entirely meet Colorado’s total electricity needs and still cost less than the company’s existing coal-fired power plants.
Of course, solar alone can’t power Colorado, there needs to be a mix of renewables and storage to ensure reliable and resilient power generation. But overall, it appears unequivocal that Xcel could move completely away from coal to renewables and storage, and be able to generate electricity much more cheaply than it currently does by relying on fossil fuels.
Most telling is where fossil fuel bids stacked up. For one thing, Xcel received no bids for new coal-fired electricity generation (surprise!). And of the bids received by Xcel for new natural gas or oil-fired generating sources, only about 5,800 megawatts were received, around 1/10th of the total renewable energy bids.
It’s also notable that even though elected officials clamored for Xcel to build a new natural-gas fired power plant in western Colorado because of the region’s oil and gas production, not a single bid for a new natural gas-fired power plant came from western Colorado. See the map below.
Xcel is touting the savings for ratepayers under its current Colorado Energy Plan, and other entities, including the University of Colorado, have touted the increase in jobs, local economic development, and tax revenue that would result.
However, the Xcel’s own reports seem to indicate that a move to shut down all of its coal-fired power plants and move to renewable energy actually stands to benefit ratepayers the most, as well as yield more jobs and more local economic development and tax revenue.
With the cost of new solar, wind, and storage so much lower than the cost of operating Xcel’s existing coal-fired power plants, it’s clear the Colorado Energy Plan, while a step forward, falls short of achieving the savings and clean energy that Coloradans really deserve.
UPDATE: Moody’s just released a companion report highlighting not only the increasing economic risks associated with coal-fired power plants operated by western rural electric cooperatives, like Tri-State Generation, but also the incredible opportunities to transition to renewables in the wind and solar-rich American West. Read more at Clean Cooperative >>
As the folks at Clean Cooperative just reported, a recent analysis by the financial firm Moody’s revealed that right now, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s coal-fired power plants cost more than building and generating new renewable energy.
Shockingly, all of the coal-fired power plants that Tri-State primarily owns and operates all cost more than $30 per megawatt-hour to produce power from. According to Moody’s the $30 per megawatt-hour threshold is “the threshold above which coal plants are vulnerable to be displaced by cheaper generation options.”
More to the point, in their report, Moody’s acknowledged that renewables are simply more affordable than coal plants producing at this rate. Here’s what they say:
“Plants that are greater than $30/MWh are more expensive than long-term purchase power agreement (PPAs) for utility-scale renewables and renewable-plus-storage projects in some parts of the country. For example, the national average levelized price of wind PPAs is $20/MWh, and a few utility-scale solar PV PPAs have been priced as aggressively as $30/MWh (all inclusive of federal tax credits). Renewable plus storage projects are now also setting lower benchmark prices, including a recent request for proposal (RFP) median bid of $21/MWh for wind-plus-storage in Colorado.”
– Moody’s Investment Services
Put another way, if a power plant costs more than $30 per megawatt-hour to produce electricity, it really doesn’t make sense to keep operating given the lower cost of generating power from other sources, particularly renewables, which are clearly pricing out much lower than $30 per megawatt-hour.
The costs of Tri-State’s plants are notable in that half cost more than $35 per megawatt-hour. One, the Springerville 3 unit, which began operation only in 2006, costs more than $36. To put that into perspective, that’s twice the cost of building and generating power from new wind. Here’s the breakdown of Tri-State’s costs from Clean Cooperative:
The report is just the latest bombshell indiction that Tri-State, which provides power to 43 co-ops in the states of Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming, is giving its members a raw deal. And it’s the latest indication that, in spite of some moves toward renewable energy, the company’s significant investments in fossil fuels are destined to bring Tri-State nothing but financial ruin.
But the Moody’s report, which WildEarth Guardians also obtained, paints an even grimmer picture for coal-fired power plants owned by other municipal and cooperative utilities in the American West.
As the report notes, 72.3% of coal-fired power plants owned by municipal or cooperative utilities are “at risk” because their costs are higher than $30 per megawatt-hour. Of these, 10 are located in the western U.S. And while they include Tri-State’s power plants, they also include power plants owned by Salt River Project and Colorado Springs Utilities.
Among these “at risk” power plants are the Four Corners Power Plant in northwest New Mexico, which costs nearly $40 per megawatt-hour to operate, the Hayden power plant in northwest Colorado, and the Martin Drake power plant, located right in downtown Colorado Springs. Three other plants are operating above $25 per megawatt-hour and nearing the $30 per megawatt-hour threshold.
The Martin Drake plant, which WildEarth Guardians has been confronting, also has the sad distinction of having the lowest capacity factor of any municipal or co-op coal-fired power plant in the western U.S. At 46.6%, it means the power plant not only costs a lot to operate, but that Colorado Springs Utilities is getting less than half of the plant’s generating capacity.
It quite literally means that for every dollar spent generating power at Martin Drake, customers are getting less than half of what the plant is capable of generating. That would be like paying full price for a new V8 truck, but only getting a rig with four workable cylinders.
Below is an excerpt of the data from the Moodys’ report for the western power plants:The report shows that many coal-fired power plants operated by municipal and co-op utilities in the American West are no longer worth it. And it means that their owners, including Tri-State, Salt River Project, Colorado Springs Utilities, and Utah Municipal Power Agency, should shut them down, instead invest in renewables, and start saving themselves and their customers some major money.
Unfortunately, that’s not happening. With the exception of Tri-State’s Craig unit 1, not a single coal-fired power plant on the list above is slated to shut down any time in the near future.
In their report, Moody’s nails the reason why, explaining:
The unfettered ability of municipal utilities to set their own rates is a significant risk mitigant. With some exceptions, most G&T [Generation and Transmission] cooperative and their distribution cooperative customers also have this ability.
– Moody’s Investment Services
In other words, because municipal and co-op utilities have an “unfettered” ability to set rates and recover costs from their customers, they can continue to justify operating their costly coal-fired power plants. That’s disturbing.
However, in spite of Moody’s assessment, recovering rates is absolutely not a sure thing for municipal and co-op utilities. As has been reported, rather than suffer the prospect of rising costs, some members of Tri-State are now talking about divorcing themselves from the co-op.
Already, one co-op member of Tri-State (now former member), Kit Carson Electric, managed to buy itself out of its Tri-State contract in order to avoid rising costs and start investing in more affordable renewable energy.
And the reality is, if costs get too high, customers of all these utilities will start defecting. As customers leave, costs will only rise, thus initiating the same “death spiral” that’s taken down other similar utilities in the past.
The writing is on the wall that coal is no longer worth it. With this latest Moody’s report, we have yet another data point showing that in the American West, investing in renewables just makes more economic sense.
For the region’s municipal and cooperative utilities, now is the time to transition. If they don’t, their customers, including their members and their citizens, stand to suffer greatly from the cost of unaffordable power.
While Xcel Energy is proposing to take steps to move beyond coal in Colorado, the company unfortunately stands to walk away with a profitable bailout that will only keep ratepayers locked into paying for costly fossil fuels.
Under a plan being considered by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, Xcel is proposing to shutter two of three coal-fired boilers at the Comanche power plant in Pueblo.
That’s certainly good news for the climate and for clean energy. After all, the plan would retire 670 megawatts of coal-fired power generation, eliminating 4.5 million tons of carbon and thousands of tons of other toxic air pollutants, including mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, and hydrochloric acid.
Unfortunately, there’s more to Xcel’s plan than simply shutting down dirty coal plants. As our friends at Clean Energy Action have exposed, the company’s proposal would not only shutter coal, it would force ratepayers to cover the costs of recent investments in the Comanche power plant, including millions of dollars in upgrades.
The reality is, Xcel has sunk millions (if not billions) into its fleet of coal-fired power plants over the last 10 years even as coal costs have climbed and even as climate and clean air concerns have mounted.
To put it simply, by continuing to invest in coal, Xcel has made terible business decisions.
It should be the company’s shareholders, not ratepayers, who shoulder the cost of these bad business decisions.
The injustice proposed by Xcel is made worse by the fact that the company isn’t just seeking to recoup the costs of its coal investments.
In other words, Xcel makes the bad decisions and ratepayers pay the price.
That’s not the worst of it, though. While Xcel is proposing to shutter a portion of its Comanche coal-fired power plant, the company will continue to own or operate nearly 1,800 megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity in Colorado. This includes the Hayden power plant west of Steamboat Springs, the Pawnee power plant northeast of Denver, the Comanche 3 unit in Pueblo, and a portion of the Craig generating station in northwest Colorado.
Not only that, but Xcel will continue to maintain a massive natural gas-fired power plant footprint and has signaled it intends to build more natural gas-fired generating capacity. While natural gas is cleaner than coal when burned, it still releases carbon dioxide.
Worse, it incentivizes more methane pollution, which is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. It’s irrefutable that burning natural gas for electricity is not a climate solution.
Without a doubt, it makes sense for ratepayers to help pay for the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. However, here it seems Xcel is basically looking to ratepayers to fund a bailout for bad coal investments and worse, continue to bottomline the company’s dependence on fossil fuels.
This just isn’t acceptable. Not only is it buying into meager climate progress and continued dependence on fossil fuels, it’s perpetuating the notion that Xcel’s ratepayers should shoulder the burden of paying for the company’s dirty energy mistakes.
Thankfully, there’s a better path forward and Xcel’s own data shows it. That path is a commitment to 100% renewable energy and a complete transition from fossil fuels.
In 2017, Xcel put out a request for bids for new electricity generation sources. In the words of the company itself, the bids were “unprecedented.”
Consider that while the company received a little more than 3,000 megawatts in bids for new natural gas-fired generation, they received nearly 53,000 megawatts in bids for new wind and solar.
More importantly, these renewable energy bids absolutely crushed fossil fuels on affordability. The median bid for new wind projects was $18.10 per megawatt-hour. Utility-scale solar came out at $29.50 per megawatt-hour.
The big news from the report, however, was on the cost of storage. Wind and solar can be variable, requiring storage (i.e., batteries) to make these sources more reliable and dispatchable. When storage costs were added to wind and solar, the median bids ranged from $21.00 per megawatt-hour to $36.00 per megawatt-hour.
It can’t be overstated how huge this is. As of 2017, the total average cost of generating electricity from coal was $36.08 per megawatt-hour (note: this price has fluctuated over the years, but has consistently climbed). This means that Xcel can build brand new wind, solar, and storage and still it will cost less than the price of its current coal-fired power generation.
Put another way, that means Xcel can stop burning coal, scrap its coal-fired power plants, and dispose of its properties and related assets, and ultimately save money. That savings could go a long ways to fund the transition from fossil fuels.
It doesn’t really end there, though. While Xcel is making noise about new natural gas-fired electricity generation, even that seems like an insane economic proposition.
At the low end, the cost of new natural gas-fired electricity generation is reported to be $42 per megawatt-hour. That’s according to the financial advisory firm, Lazard, who every year releases a “levelized cost of energy report,” a detailed analysis on the overall costs of energy generation.
In other words, Xcel Energy has bids in hand right now to build new wind for less than half the cost of gas and new solar for 3/4 the cost of gas. And to doubly emphasize, Xcel Energy has bids in hand to build new wind and solar, and add storage, at a median cost that’s 50%-85% cheaper than natural gas.
As I’ve said, given the economics of renewables, it would be crazy for Xcel to invest in any new natural gas-fired generation.
The solution is clear. Rather than stick ratepayers with higher electricity prices, Xcel should commit to a 100% transition away from fossil fuels that will ultimately save money for ratepayers and the company alike.
It makes no sense to pay Xcel to commit to a nominal shift away from coal. At this point, given the economics of renewable energy, including storage, it should be a no-brainer for the company and Colorado ratepayers alike to support a complete move away from coal and natural gas to wind, solar, and storage.
While utility company PacifiCorp is hatching plans for more coal mining and more burning in the American West, WildEarth Guardians is stepping up to defend the climate and clean energy and put these plans to rest.
If you recall, Portland, OR-based PacifiCorp owns and operates more coal-fired power plants in the American West than any other utility company. They even own all or portions of several coal mines. What’s more, the company has been an ardent defender of coal burning, attacker of clean energy, and is even attempting to force westerners to directly subsidize the cost of maintaining its coal-fired power plants.
It’s why the company (which interestingly, is actually owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway) has long been a target of groups like WildEarth Guardians.
And despite the company’s entreaties toward clean energy, it’s abundantly clear PacifiCorp has no intent of moving beyond coal. This is underscored by their latest plans to dig in more deeply at the Jim Bridger mine in southern Wyoming, which is a major source of coal for the massive Jim Bridger power plant.
Right now, PacifiCorp is both seeking permission to expand mining at Jim Bridger and also looking to acquire a new federal coal lease adjacent to the mine.
The company’s ultimate goal? Open the door to mine 25 million more tons of coal, enough to keep the Jim Bridger power plant operating beyond 2037.
Given that Jim Bridger is the largest coal-fired power plant in Wyoming and every year spews 13.2 million metric tons of carbon into the air (equalling the amount of carbon released annually by 2.8 million cars), keeping it operating beyond tomorrow is nothing short of a disaster. Keeping it operating beyond 2037 is a complete nightmare.
Notwithstanding the devastating climate impacts, PacifiCorp’s appetite for more mining unbelievably comes as other utilities are bailing on coal in favor of cleaner and more affordable energy.
This is happening even at Jim Bridger, where PacifiCorp’s co-owner, Idaho Power, has said they intend to shut down their half of the plant by 2032. Amazingly, even PacifiCorp’s business partners are ditching coal.
We recently called on the U.S. Department of the Interior to reject PacifiCorp’s demands to be able to mine more coal at Jim Bridger and we’re gearing up to push back on the company’s attempt to secure a new coal lease.
In spite of the political headwinds, our chances of success are good. In fact, we’ve already thwarted one attempt by PacifiCorp to expand the Jim Bridger mine.
PacifiCorp may deny the realities of coal and climate change, but that won’t stop us from holding them accountable to these realities. As the company continues its dangerous push to mine more coal, we will be there to resist.