Michael Flynn pushed to share nuclear tech with Saudis, report says

WASHINGTON — Senior White House officials pushed a project to share nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia despite the objections of ethics and national security officials, according to a new congressional report citing whistleblowers within the Trump administration.

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns that Saudi Arabia could develop nuclear weapons if the U.S. technology were transferred without proper safeguards.

The Democratic-led House oversight committee opened an investigation Tuesday into the claims by several unnamed whistleblowers who said they witnessed “abnormal acts” in the White House regarding the proposal to build dozens of nuclear reactors across the Middle Eastern kingdom.

The report raises concerns about whether some in a White House marked by “chaos, dysfunction and backbiting” sought to circumvent national security procedures to push a Saudi deal that could financially benefit close supporters of the president.

The report comes at a time when lawmakers are increasingly uneasy with the close relationship between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia, which has raised alarms even among members of the president’s party in Congress. Trump has made the kingdom a centerpiece of his foreign policy in the Middle East as he tries to further isolate Iran. In the process, he has brushed off criticism over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudis’ role in the war in Yemen.

At the same time, Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is developing a Middle East peace plan that could include economic proposals for Saudi Arabia.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the report, the nuclear effort was pushed by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired in early 2017. Derek Harvey, a National Security Council official brought in by Flynn, continued work on the proposal, which has remained under consideration by the Trump administration.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, announced the investigation Tuesday.

Relying on the whistleblower accounts, email communications and other documents, the committee’s report details how NSC and ethics officials repeatedly warned that the actions of Flynn and a senior aide could run afoul of federal conflicts of interest law and statutes governing the transfer of nuclear technology to foreign powers.

Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation.

On Tuesday, a person close to Flynn’s legal team said that Russia special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has reviewed the matters raised in the congressional report and no charges related to it have been filed. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the ongoing investigation.

Congressional investigators are also probing the role of Tom Barrack, a proponent of the nuclear proposal who ran Trump’s presidential inaugural committee, which is under separate investigation by federal prosecutors in New York. Rick Gates, a former Barrack employee and cooperator in Mueller’s investigation, was also involved in advocating for the nuclear proposal.

A spokesman for Barrack said in a statement that he will cooperate with the House probe.

“Mr. Barrack’s engagement in investment and business development throughout the Middle East for the purpose of better aligned Middle East and U.S. objectives are well known, as are his more than four decades of respected relationships throughout the region,” the statement said, noting that Barrack never joined the Trump administration.

Harvey did not immediately return a request for comment.

According to the report, the whistleblowers came to the committee because they had concerns “about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the Atomic Energy Act and without review by Congress as required by law — efforts that may be ongoing to this day.”

A 2017 article by the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica detailed some of the concerns raised inside the National Security Council about the nuclear proposal — known as the “Marshall Plan for the Middle East” — advocated by a company called IP3 International.

IP3 is led by a group of retired U.S. military officers and national security officials, including retired Rear Adm. Michael Hewitt, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and former Reagan National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane.

IP3 and other proponents of nuclear power in the Middle East argue that the U.S. needs to be involved because otherwise it will lose out to Russia, China and others on billions of dollars in business. They also say that U.S. involvement — and the limits on nuclear fuel that come with it — are essential to stem an arms race in the region.

“The only way to address concerns over development of weapons of mass destruction is for the U.S. to participate in the introduction and secure operation of international nuclear power plants,” the company said in a statement Tuesday. It also said it “looks forward to sharing what we know” with the House committee.

Up until the month before he joined the Trump administration, Flynn listed himself on public documents as a consultant to a previous iteration of Hewitt’s company advocating a similar nuclear power proposal, though the company told The Washington Post that Flynn was offered a role as an adviser but never formally came aboard.

Still, according to the report, Flynn served as a conduit for IP3 inside the White House.

Just days after Trump’s inauguration, the company sent Flynn a draft memo for the president’s signature that would have appointed Barrack as a “special representative” in charge of carrying out the nuclear power proposal and called on the director of the CIA and the secretaries of State, Energy, Treasury and Defense to lend him support. The report also quotes former Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland as saying Trump personally told Barrack he could lead the plan’s implementation.

The report also catalogs the actions of Harvey, the Flynn confidant who was put in charge of the NSC’s Middle East and North African affairs.

According to the report, upon entering the White House in January 2017, Harvey saw his mission as getting Trump to adopt the nuclear proposal despite the objections of ethics and national security officials.

Even when H.R. McMaster, who replaced Flynn as national security adviser, and NSC lawyer John Eisenberg directed that work stop on the proposal because of concerns about its legality, Harvey continued pursuing the proposal, according to the report.

Harvey was fired from the NSC in July 2017. He then joined the staff of GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California, a Trump ally and the former Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee.

Denver CEO of oil and gas firm accused of defrauding Weld County landowner

A Denver man and founder of an oil and gas royalty consulting firm has been accused of defrauding a Weld County landowner out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in mineral royalties.

via Greeley Tribune
Adam Ferrari

Adam Ferrari, 36, CEO and managing partner of Denver-based Ferrari Energy LLC, was arrested Feb. 7 and booked into Denver City Jail on suspicion of 14 felony charges, including four counts of identity theft, four counts of forgery, three counts of attempting to influence a public servant and three counts of theft.

Ferrari is accused of attempting in 2016 to defraud Jennifer Davis and Anadarko Petroleum Corporation out of about $305,000 Anadarko held in a suspense account for the Rice Family Trust. Davis, a resident of Oregon, is the daughter of Dale and Theora Rice, also of Oregon, and a beneficiary of the trust, which owned four parcels of land in Weld County being developed by Anadarko.

Ferrari is free on a personal recognizance bond. He has a preliminary hearing scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Feb. 25 in Denver District Court.

Read more at greeleytribune.com.

Crestone Peak working toward four new well pads in Firestone

Crestone Peak Resources is working with Firestone officials to ensure a new multi-well horizontal drilling operation planned for a southeast portion of the town’s Central Park Disc Golf Course will be shielded from the view of park users.

Oil and gas crews work on a well
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Oil and gas crews work on a rig about a mile north of the Oak Meadows subdivision where there was a recent fatal house explosion, on April 27, 2017 in Firestone.

Plans for that drilling site are still being finalized with the town; it is one of four multi-well pads Crestone is seeking to establish that will bring 51 new wells to Firestone in the coming months.

Crestone projects its four well pads throughout town will generate $135 million in property tax revenue for the town and 12 other taxing entities over the 25-year lifespans of the wells, including $101.3 million in their first seven years. The figures were calculated using a $50 per barrel price point for oil and a $3 per million British thermal units price point for natural gas.

The company this month started drilling wells on one location — the 19-well Bighorn pad northeast of Pine Cone Avenue and Del Camino Lane — marking the first new oil and gas extraction site in the town since the fatal 2017 home explosion that was caused by a leaky flowline attached to a vertical well owned by Anadarko Petroleum Corp.

While some Carbon Valley residents have been more on edge regarding oil and gas operations since the explosion that killed brothers-in-law Joey Irwin and Mark Martinez, the technology Crestone is planning to use has been applauded by some who believe it will be safer.

Read more at timescall.com.

Englewood-based Westmoreland Coal can scrap health care, contract to sell mine

CASPER — A bankruptcy judge says Englewood-based Westmoreland Coal Co. can eliminate health care for retirees and its union contract to sell a southwestern Wyoming mine to a Virginia businessman.

The Casper Star-Tribune reports that Friday’s ruling will likely mean retired miners who worked at the Kemmerer mine will lose their company health benefits. However, the judge delayed entering a final order until Tuesday to give the United Mine Workers of America and the company time to negotiate a deal.

Westmoreland, one of the nation’s oldest coal operators, filed for bankruptcy in October.

The man trying to buy the mine, Tom Clarke, says the changes in employee benefits are “painful” but necessary.

The vice president of the union in Kemmerer, Mike Dalpiaz, says the contract must remain strong or miners will refuse to work.

Denver oil tycoon Jack Grynberg loses family fight to keep control of his empire

Denver oil tycoon Jack Grynberg is trying to convince an Arapahoe County district judge that the octogenarian’s family owes him as much as $400 million for the lifetime of work he’s done building a billion-dollar empire for them.

Grynberg Petroleum Co. CEO Jack Grynberg. ...
Oil tycoon Jack Grynberg lost his court fight to control his companies.

That’s because an Arapahoe County jury last week determined Grynberg never had a legitimate contract to run the companies he created, but had placed them in the names of his then-wife and three children and, as a result, they can fire him if they want to.

And they do.

In a lawsuit that’s dragged on for nearly three years, Grynberg’s ex-wife, Celeste, 83, and the couple’s three children – Rachel, 58, Stephen, 56, and Miriam, 54 – mounted what was essentially a hostile takeover of several companies they own but Grynberg operated without oversight for decades.

They asserted – and the jury agreed – that Grynberg never had a formal agreement with them to run the companies and that the 87-year-old’s advancing years are getting in his way of making good judgments that keep the operations profitable.

In his defense, Grynberg asserted the agreement was he could run the companies, most of which have copious investments in oil and gas reserves around the globe, until he died.

But he also said he’s done this without any formal salary. Now that he’s lost the first leg of the lawsuit, he claims he’s entitled to back-pay from his labors.

By his calculations, that’s around $400 million.

Lawyers for both sides of the case are precluded from discussing it publicly and much of the details remain hidden because of dozens of orders by District Judge Charles Pratt to seal thousands of pages of documents from the public.

The family has steadfastly protected its privacy, saying in court filings that are public that any of the inside details, if known, could seriously damage the Grynberg dynasty that is worth more than $1 billion.

The bulk of the case hinged on the family’s assertion that Grynberg wasn’t the Jack of old, the man who had frequently taken on the likes of BP, Conoco, Shell and a handful of other petroleum conglomerates and foreign governments around the globe with accusations of cheating and wrongdoing. It was through that prolific use of the courts that Grynberg, a brilliant graduate of the Colorado School of Mines and survivor of the Holocaust, pocketed a fortune and built an empire.

“In recent years, Jack’s increasingly questionable judgment and erratic decision-making have caused Jack’s wife and children mounting concern,” court papers filed by the family state. “Jack’s words … reveal a troubling absence of ethical business judgment …” and his reckless business decisions are merely personal whims that are costing them millions, the family said in the filings.

For example, during court testimony it was shown Grynberg is often the target of shysters with elaborate schemes targeting his money. One of them involved a fictitious Princess Esperanza of the House of Bourbon and Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Though the title Princess of the Two Sicilies actually exists and there are 19 living today, none is named Esperanza.

Another scheme involved claims of billions of dollars in returns for Romanian gold bonds issued in 1928. Testimony showed there were no such bonds and no returns to be expected.

Grynberg testified that he was not taken in by any of the schemes and lost no money on them.

“I expected to get $2 billion, but I never got a cent,” Grynberg testified. “I paid no money. I trusted them, but they never got a cent out of me.”

The battle has cost him his marriage – the couple divorced last year – and strained even further the already tenuous relationship he had with his children. Paperwork showed he was bitterly disappointed that his family would “scheme” to wrestle from him control of the companies he created with them in mind.

At the center of the dispute are three companies Grynberg created — Gadeco, Pricaspian and RSM — that manage his vast oil holdings, each owned by his children.

At one point during trial testimony, it was revealed that assets within just one of the companies make as much as $30 million each quarter, mostly in royalty payments that come from oil fields that stretch through countries as far off as Kazakhstan.

Even though Colorado law has a provision that entitles people over the age of 70 to an expedited trial, the case is expected to stretch at least another year or two, with appeals likely to be taken to the state’s highest courts.

The lawsuit alleged Grynberg had paid $600,000 to buy a home for his secretary, Candice Dee Smith, who asserts in her own Douglas County lawsuit that her former boss repeatedly forced her to have sex as a way of paying off the gesture. Three other female former employees came forward in Smith’s case with allegations Grynberg sexually harassed them. That lawsuit is pending.

Groups suing over gas drilling near homes in Battlement Mesa on the Western Slope

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — A group of residents has filed a lawsuit to stop a plan to drill for natural gas near mobile homes in western Colorado.

The Daily Sentinel reports that Battlement Concerned Citizens and the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance sued the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in Denver District Court.

They are asking that the court intervene on a plan by Ursa Resources to drill 24 gas wells and operate a wastewater injection well a little more than 500 feet (152 meters) from homes.

The groups contend that the location presents a hazard to the Battlement Mesa community, an unincorporated community of several thousand.

Travis Duncan, of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, declined comment.

Ursa spokesman Don Simpson said the company believes there is no basis for the suit.


Click here to view the map on its own page.

Oil and gas well permit map

Tri-State loses bid to keep Colorado Public Utilities Commission out of contract dispute

A Colorado rural electric association won an important round Thursday in its effort to sever ties with Tri-State Generation and Transmission when state regulators agreed to hear the dispute.

The Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association's ...
Andy Cross, The Denver Post
The Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s Nucla coal-fired power plant on Oct. 17, 2017.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission denied Tri-State’s request to dismiss a complaint filed by the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, which wants to break its contract with the wholesale power supplier. The electric cooperative has said it wants out of its contract with Tri-State because of its rates and the desire to get more power from renewable energy sources.

Tri-State argued the utilities commission doesn’t have the authority to weigh in on a contractual matter between it and a member association. Tri-State is a member-owned association, not an investor-owned utility like Xcel Energy-Colorado, and the commission usually doesn’t hear cases involving it.

But the commission agreed with its staff that it has authority under state laws dealing with electric utilities to hear Delta-Montrose’s complaint. The cooperative said the contract buy-out fee Tri-State wants is unjust and unreasonable.

The commission scheduled a hearing on the cooperative’s complaint for June 17-21.

Commissioner John Gavan, a former Delta-Montrose board member, recused himself.

“The Commission is right to reject Tri-State’s claim that it can force rural Coloradans to pay whatever Tri-State wants when co-ops like (Delta-Montrose) exercise their right to leave the association,” Bill Patterson, the association board president, said in a statement.

Patterson said Delta-Montrose has wide support as it tries to negotiate a reasonable exit from the contract. The cooperative says the agreement with Tri-State locks it into high rates at a time when other utilities are taking advantage of falling solar and wind energy prices.

More than 50 legislators signed a letter in January in support of the association. The Colorado Energy Office and several organizations filed motions opposing Tri-State’s request that the state utilities commission stay out of the matter.

Tri-State has rallied its supporters, too. Some of the Westminster-based power supplier’s members have signed petitions saying the conflict should be decided by the courts.

Tri-State has filed a complaint asking Adams County District Court to clarify Tri-State’s rights and Delta-Montrose’s obligations under the bylaws that govern Tri-State and its 43 member electric associations.

The state utilities commission’s assertion of authority is “unnecessary and unwarranted,” Rick Gordon, Tri-State chairman and president said in a statement.

“A private contract dispute, even between utilities, does not belong at the commission. This matter appropriately belongs in the courts,” Gordon said.

Tri-State has criticized Delta-Montrose, saying it should have worked to resolve the dispute rather than take it to the utilities commission.

But the Montrose-based cooperative has said it has talked to Tri-State for more than a decade about stabilizing the association’s rates, which it said have jumped 56 percent since 2005. The cooperative also wants out of its contract, which would run another 21 years, so it can increase its use of renewable energy.

Delta-Montrose and other Tri-State members have complained about a 5-percent limit on the amount of energy that members can generate on their own. Delta-Montrose is at the cap and wants to generate more renewable energy from local sources, but the contract prevents it, association officials have said.

Tri-State supplies electricity to its member associations in Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Wyoming. It has come under fire from some of its members and renewable-energy advocates for relying too much on coal at a time when the costs of wind and solar energy are falling and concerns about climate-changing emissions from fossil fuels are increasing.

But Tri-State said nearly a third of its power comes from renewable sources. The energy supplier announced Tuesday that it is adding a 104-megawatt wind farm in eastern Colorado. The wind project, expected to start operating in 2020, will generate enough power to supply on average more than 47,000 rural Colorado homes.

In January, Tri-State announced it was doubling the power it will get from solar energy with the 100-megawatt Spanish Peaks Solar Project north of Trinidad.

Colorado regulators say backlog of oil, gas permits could take three years to clear

A flurry of drilling permit applications late last year and a rising number of challenges to the requests have helped create a backlog that state regulators say could take up to three years to clear.

At the end of January, hearings officers at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had 406 pending applications on their docket. Of those, 30 percent of the applications have been protested, the COGCC staff told commissioners in a recent meeting.

The COGCC is down one hearing officer. But even if there were more hearing officers and more cases ready for the commission’s agenda, it would likely take about three years to clear the backlog of hearings, assuming none of the protests are settled, said Mimi Larsen, the COGCC hearings and regulatory affairs manager.

“Once a protest is filed, we have seen over the last year, 18 months, an increased litigation style tactic, I guess one could say, of how these cases are approached,” Larsen said.

Lawyers are filing different kinds of motions and challenging expert testimony, Larsen added.

Many of the applications are for drilling and spacing units, which map out the subsurface area a company wants to access and must be approved before drilling permits are approved.

In addition, there was a jump in the number of drilling permit applications submitted last year in the lead-up to the Nov. 6 election, when voters considered stricter buffers around new oil and gas wells. Voters soundly defeated Proposition 112, but by Dec. 18, there were 6,307 applications on the books.

By contrast, the backlog totaled 2,151 permits on Dec. 17, 2017.

The majority of the protests of the drilling and spacing unit applications are filed by oil and gas companies challenging other companies’ plans, said Jeff Robbins, acting COGCC director.

However, James Rouse, the COGCC hearings supervisor, said during a Jan. 28 meeting that challenges to permit applications by towns, cities and counties “are becoming a big issue and difficult to resolve.”

Commission member Howard Boigon suggested exploring ways to streamline the protest process to reduce what he called “lawyer games” and encouraging operators to settle their disputes with each other.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on and a lot of it I think is unnecessary, frankly,” said Boigon, a lawyer who has represented oil and gas companies.

The COGCC is exploring various ways to tackle the backlogs, including asking companies to prioritize their projects so staffers can address those first, Robbins said.

The state saw a similar surge in applications for drilling permits in 2008 and 2009. That’s when the COGCC wrote rules requiring that the environment, wildlife and public health and safety be given more consideration when approving oil and gas development.

Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, expressed frustration with the backlog. He said in an email that the increase in permit applications was a natural reaction to “the uncertain run-up to the election on a ballot measure aimed at shutting down the industry in Colorado.”

Some delays are a normal part of the regulatory process and the result of natural competition among companies, Haley added.

“However, the biggest challenge we see is the result of fear mongering by activists that has been directed at the volunteer leadership of the commission itself for the past several months,” Haley said. “The process is grinding at a much slower pace, fueled by political transition, uncertainty, and the aggressive tactics of those who want nothing more than to shutter one of Colorado’s cornerstone industries.”

Gov. Jared Polis, who took office in January, supports giving communities more input into oil and gas development. Legislative leaders are expected to consider bills on stronger protections for public health and safety.

The answer to reducing the backlog of permits is not to reduce the public’s ability to comment on plans for more drilling, said Matt Sura, an attorney who represents local governments, landowners and mineral owners in oil and gas cases.

“The COGCC is behind in its hearing schedule due to the fact that the industry is extraordinarily litigious,” Sura said in an email. “Right now the industry is fighting for every remaining square mile in the Wattenberg Field, the area the rest of us refer to as the Front Range.”

Most of the recent new drilling has taken place in areas north of Denver, sometimes in and around fast-growing cities and towns.

“The COGCC needs to hear more from impacted residents, not less,” Sura added.

Colorado co-op’s fight for renewable energy could upend how rural communities are powered

A battle between a Western Slope rural electric cooperative and one of the country’s largest co-op power providers has intensified, setting the stage for what may be a significant change in how and where some rural communities get their electricity.

On one side is the Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), the Montrose-based co-op serving about 33,000 members, and on the other is the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which provides power to 43 cooperatives in four states, including 18 in Colorado.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is set to weigh in on the issue Thursday, and its decision on whether it has jurisdiction could lead to an unprecedented level of oversight on Tri-State and open the way for more renewable energy in the state’s rural co-ops.

DMEA wants to quit Tri-State, seeking to develop more renewable and local energy generation, spurred by lower market prices for wind and solar. Tri-State says that to protect the association’s other members, DMEA must fulfill the 21 years left on its contract for debt and revenue.

DMEA officials call Tri-State’s undisclosed exit fee “discriminatory” and are asking the PUC to set the fee.

“The world is changing,” said John Parker, CEO of Brighton-based United Power, a Tri-State member supporting DMEA at the PUC. “Tri-State is not going to be able to hold back the change. Tri-State is not going to be the little boy with his finger in the dike holding back change.”

For its part, Tri-State has added 475 megawatts (MW) of wind, solar and small hydro in the past 10 years and in the past 30 days has announced plans for another 100 MW of solar in 2023 and 104 MW of wind to come online in 2020. It is closing three coal-fired plants, and at the association’s April meeting, the board will consider a new, more flexible membership plan.

“Tri-State is considering by-law changes allowing for members to take more local generation,” said Jeff Wadsworth, CEO of the Fort Collins-based Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association, which is supporting Tri-State. “Tri-State is looking to add renewables. I think it is a question of the pace of change.”

State clean-energy goals at odds with Tri-State contracts

Supporters are lining up on both sides of the PUC case. More than 35 Tri-State member co-ops, most of them out-of-state, have filed in support of Tri-State. United Power and the Durango-based La Plata Electric Association are supporting DMEA, as are the ski industry’s trade association, the libertarian Independence Institute, environmental groups and the Colorado Energy Office (CEO).

“The CEO works with communities in Delta, Montrose and Gunnison counties and DMEA to promote ‘clean and renewable energy,’ ‘energy efficiency technologies and practices,’ and ‘energy storage systems,’” the office said in its PUC filing. “These changes may only be possible if the commission sets a just and reasonable charge for DMEA to withdraw from Tri-State.”

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Sixty-two state lawmakers also signed a letter to the PUC in support of DMEA and the commission’s intervention.

“As members of the Colorado General Assembly who care about rural economic development and allowing all Coloradans access to less expensive power from local and diverse generation sources, we urge the commission to strongly consider exercising its jurisdiction under Colorado law and setting an exit charge fair to both DMEA and Tri-State’s remaining members,” the letter said.

“I don’t think Tri-State has been a good neighbor,” said state Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who signed the letter. “We’ve tried to talk to Tri-State about renewable energy. We’ve got great resources in our region. DMEA could do 30 to 40 percent renewables. It is a question of jobs for my community, so it is time for an equitable divorce.”

Tri-State says it has the support of 35 of its members, including 11 in Colorado.

The core reason for the clash is the 40-year contracts Tri-State signs with its members. The contracts require the cooperatives to buy 95 percent of their electricity from Tri-State.

Tri-State maintains this is a contract dispute with DMEA and the PUC doesn’t have jurisdiction, a position backed by its supporters. “DMEA is complaining about a contractual term, contained in the Tri-State Bylaws, which would only take effect if DMEA is no longer receiving electric service from Tri-State,” Limon-based Mountain View Electric Association said in a PUC filings.

Trying to short-circuit the PUC

In January, Tri-State filed a complaint in Adams County District Court seeking a ruling on whether it is in fact a contract dispute ruled by Tri-State’s bylaws. Tri-State’s headquarters is in Adams County.

“Tri-State is trying to short-circuit the PUC,” said Virginia Harman, DMEA’s chief operating officer. DMEA has cast the dispute as a rate case in that the exit fee will have to be paid through consumer rate increases.

“We are not wanting to get out for free,” Harman said. “We are not asking for something that’s not fair. We want to pay our fair share. The number that Tri-State has proposed is not fair.”

Tri-State, as an interstate cooperative entity, has only been lightly reviewed by the PUC. The association serves cooperatives in Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, but increasingly Colorado co-ops, environmental groups and legislators have raised questions about its governance.

Two-thirds of the people Tri-State serves live in Colorado and the five largest co-ops are based here, led by United Power with nearly 80,000 members.

“PUC is charged with protecting the public interest, including rural Coloradans, like our members,” Harman said.

The calculation for Tri-State is complex. Based on those long-term contracts Tri-State developed 5,562 miles of high-voltage lines, has interests in six coal-fired and five natural-gas electric plants and $3.2 billion in debt. Tri-State reported revenues of nearly $1.4 billion in 2017.

Tri-State depends upon coal (through its plants and power purchases) for nearly half its electricity. It gets 30 percent of its power from renewables when all the local co-op projects and hydro power purchased from the federal Western Area Power Administration are included.

For some co-ops and environmental critics, the continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels presents financial risk, as the price of wind and solar generation continue to decline.

Delta-Montrose Electric Association, which serves 33,000 Western Slope customers, is trying to get out of its 40-year contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, citing consumer demand for power produced from renewable sources such as solar and wind. About half of Tri-State’s power is generated using coal. State Sen. Don Coram says conditions on the Western Slope are ripe to generate 30 to 40 percent of required electricity from low-cost renewable sources, but DMEA is obliged to purchase 95 percent of its power from Tri-State. “It is time for an equitable divorce,” Coram says. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

An analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Boulder-based energy consultant, calculated that Tri-State could save $600 million between now and 2030 if it shuttered its coal plants and moved to cheaper renewable generation. Tri-State disputed the calculation.

“While other utilities are moving away from coal, Tri-State’s continued reliance on coal poses a risk,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program for the environmental group Wild Earth Guardians, which filed in the PUC case in support of DMEA.

Tri-State’s debt-to-asset ratio is about 60 percent, and the company terms the debt load “substantial,” in federal filings. A high debt-to-asset ratio is not uncommon in the utility industry, where predictable income streams make lenders more comfortable with a larger debt load.

“Our debt-to-capitalization ratio is in line with other G&Ts (generation and transmission associations),” Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey said.

But anything that roils that predictable revenue stream is a risk.

“If we underestimate the monetary value of a member’s obligation or a significant number of our members withdraw, our ability to satisfy our financial obligations could be adversely affected,” the company said in its annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Tri-State’s position is that only its board, made up of representatives of the 43 co-ops, can approve a member quitting the co-op. “If such permission is granted, the board must ensure that the withdrawing member satisfies its contractual obligations so as not to harm the remaining members,” Boughey said.

That could include all the debt service and revenue obligations left on the contract.

“DMEA appears to propose a buyout of its contract at an amount that will not come close to making the remaining members financially whole,” Boughey said.

Looking for contract flexibility and more renewable power sources

In 2016, the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, in Taos, New Mexico, paid a $37 million exit fee to leave Tri-State. The fee was financed through Guzman Energy, an energy management and contracting firm, that is also working with DMEA.

“The G&T model has two problems,” said Chris Riley, Guzman’s president. “There is the assets mix. They built these large, centralized coal plants. Now distributed renewable generation is an option. …  They have both of those problems and they have them simultaneously.”

DMEA, La Plata and United have all tried to add more renewable generation or energy storage and butted heads with Tri-State. Proposals by La Plata proposals to increase the 5 percent cap on local generation to 10 percent was rejected by the board, as was a proposal to pool the 5 percent limit so co-ops could trade it amongst themselves.

Still, not all cooperatives are seeking to leave Tri-State. Many are very small, including the 3,100-customer Northern Rio Arriba Electric Co-op, in Chama, New Mexico, and the Southeast Colorado Power Association, which has 5,000 members scattered over 13,000 square miles.

“This issue with DMEA should be settled by the board,” said Jack Johnston, CEO La Junta-based Southeast Colorado Power Association.

Even the larger co-ops say they are just looking for a little more flexibility in their contracts with Tri-State.

“I don’t how we got so far apart,” said Parker, the United CEO. “We are not looking to leave Tri-State. … We are looking to work together to address change.”

Rising Sun

More from The Colorado Sun

Colorado oilfield fight over forced drilling — even when property owners object — spills into federal court

Colorado’s teetering 67-year-old law that lets fossil-fuel companies drill inside neighborhoods even when residents who own mineral rights object could not be buttressed one way or the other Tuesday as a state oilfield fight spilled into federal court in Denver.

U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson told state attorneys and disgruntled mineral property owners from Broomfield — one of the municipalities around Denver where oil and gas firms are expanding industrial operations — that he lacked jurisdiction to weigh in.

The case at issue challenges as unconstitutional Colorado’s “forced pooling” statute, which allows oil and gas firms to extract — for a price — minerals belonging even to those unwilling to sell.

Extraction Oil and Gas, currently constructing a drilling pad and installing infrastructure for 19 new wells that would span 1,600 acres near homes, was not a party in Broomfield residents’ lawsuit, Jackson pointed out. And the residents had yet to protest at the state level because the regulatory Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had delayed a required “forced pooling” hearing.

But Jackson assumed the role of a crisis diplomat, brokering peace between parties in this property rights dispute.

Jackson told attorneys for the Broomfield residents that, while he couldn’t grant their request to temporarily block Extraction and stop the COGCC from allowing forced pooling, he would hear from them in the future following a state hearing if necessary.

And when Kyle Davenport, Colorado’s assistant attorney general, couldn’t immediately guarantee that no drilling would begin until after that hearing, now set for March 11, Jackson ordered Davenport out of the courtroom to a hallway — “right now, please” — to extract a commitment from an Extraction executive that no drilling would happen before June 1.

Davenport did so and returned with that assurance. Jackson smiled. “I do not anticipate that the commission or Extraction will renege on what they agreed to in this courtroom.”

At issue is a 1951 Colorado forced-pooling law that favors extraction of fossil fuels — a law made long before horizontal drilling technology widened the industry’s reach across multiple properties, and before the oil and gas boom led to companies pushing to establish industrial operations inside communities north of Denver.

Oil and gas industry officials contend forced pooling of mineral property rights is essential to enable efficient fossil-fuel production. And the COGCC, a regulatory agency simultaneously charged with promoting efficient exploitation of resources, has granted permits for large-scale drilling with bore holes as long as two miles to tap hundreds of different underground mineral properties.

“We remain on track to begin drilling… in early June and will appear before the COGCC pooling hearing in March as previously planned as part of that established process,” Extraction Oil and Gas spokesman Brian Cain said in a prepared statement.

Extraction has leased rights to, or obtained consent for, removing 80 percent of the minerals in the area, Cain said. “By the time this unit is drilled, we’re hopeful that percentage will be even higher.”

COGCC officials declined to comment.

The Broomfield residents of the Wildgrass community own rights to minerals under their homes. Many are opposed to the drilling, and some cite global warming concerns as a factor.

“What bothers us is that we are being forced, by Colorado’s ‘forced pooling’ statute, to lease our mineral property rights to a private company. That seems unconstitutional,” Wildgrass Oil and Gas Committee co-chairperson Jean Lim said. “And we do have health, safety and environmental concerns. Those concerns haven’t been addressed by the COGCC permit conditions for those wells.”

Technological development and companies’ inclination to expand industrial operations inside cities render the existing law inappropriate, Lim said. “The forced-pooling law has to be changed.”

Next month, COGCC must hold a forced-pooling hearing, without further delay, under the deal that Jackson hashed out orally in court. Broomfield residents must be allowed to raise concerns involving health, safety, the environment and fairness in a forced-pooling protest before the COGCC.

Former Colorado lawmaker Joe Salazar, helping to represent Broomfield mineral property owners, said legislators ultimately must deal with intensifying strains on an outdated law.

“This is the business of the legislature. It needs to be addressed,” Salazar said.

The problem is that oil and gas companies likely will try to block any action, he said. “It is the lobbying problem. There is a power imbalance.”

Tri-State announces new CEO and new Colorado wind farm to power 47K homes

In dual announcements Tuesday, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association said it has named a new CEO and is adding its fifth utility-scale wind farm in Colorado.

Westminster-based Tri-State, which serves member electric cooperatives in Colorado and other states, has named Duane Highley as its new CEO. Highley, the current president and CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., will start April 5.

He will succeed Mike McInnes, who is retiring.

In a separate announcement, Tri-State said it plans to install a 100-megawatt wind farm in eastern Colorado, which it said will boost its total power from wind in Colorado to 471 megawatts.

Duane Highley, Tri-State’s new CEO

Tri-State has come under fire from some of its member associations and renewable-energy advocates for relying too much on coal at a time when the costs of wind and solar energy are falling and concerns about climate-changing emissions from fossil fuels are increasing.

But Tri-State says nearly a third of its power comes from renewable sources.

McInnes said in a statement that Tri-State has “worked to address the challenges of an ever-changing industry” while staying true to its mission.

Rick Gordon, Tri-State board chairman and president, commended McInnes for his work and said the energy supplier is “well-positioned for the future.

“As CEO, (Highley) will work with our board of directors to advance a strong vision for the association’s future,” Gordon, said. “He has spent the past 35 years working with two financially strong cooperatives and demonstrates leadership collaborating with members, key stakeholders and public officials.”

Highley said in a statement that the Tri-State board, members and staff will work to “bolster what remains our key focus — serving the needs of our members so they can deliver on their promise to rural communities across the West.”

McInnes joined Tri-State in 2000 and became executive vice president and general manager in March 2014. The board changed his title to CEO in 2015.

Before working for Tri-State, McInnes was executive vice president and general manager of Plains Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative in Albuquerque, N.M.

Tri-State supplies wholesale power to 43 member electric associations in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Tri-State’s new wind project is a joint effort with EDP Renewables to install a 104-megawatt turbine farm about 20 miles south of Seibert in eastern Colorado.

The Crossing Trails Wind Farm, expected to start operating in 2020, will produce enough electricity annually to supply on average more than 47,000 rural Colorado homes, Tri-State said in a news release. It will be in the service territory of the K.C. Electric Association.

Critics of Tri-State have noted plans by Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest electric utility, to shut down some of its coal plants early and produce more electricity from renewable sources. Late last year, Xcel started operating the Rush Creek Wind Project, a 600-megawatt wind facility in Cheyenne, Elbert, Kit Carson and Lincoln counties that can produce enough electricity for about 325,000 homes.

In January, Tri-State announced it was doubling the power it will get from solar energy with the 100-megawatt Spanish Peaks Solar Project north of Trinidad.

Tri-State is also reducing its coal-generating capacity, spokesman Lee Boughey said in an email.

“We have retired our capacity in the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico, and will retire Nucla Station by the end of 2022 and Craig Station Unit 1 by the end of 2025,” Boughey said.

“They’re absolutely taking steps in the right direction. Kudos to them,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “But we’re just not seeing the bold moves” on reducing the use of coal.

Nichols added that Tri-State isn’t addressing its members’ concerns about the economics of coal compared to the declining costs of wind and solar.

Tri-State’s mix of energy sources has been a point of contention with some of its member cooperatives. In 2015, the Taos, N.M.-based Kit Carson Electric Cooperative paid $37 million to break its contract with Tri-State, citing rising electric rates and a desire to use more renewable energy sources.

The Delta-Montrose Electric Association wants to buy out its contract with Tri-State in part because its rates have increased 56 percent since 2005. The Montrose-based association asked the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in December to intervene, saying the exit fee Tri-State wants is “unjust, unreasonable, and discriminatory.”

Tri-State responded  in January with a lawsuit asking the Adams County District Court to clarify the Delta-Montrose association’s obligations under its contract and the state public utilities commission’s jurisdiction in the dispute.

Denver-based Antero agrees to $3.15 million fine in pollution settlement

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Denver-based natural gas producer has agreed to pay a $3.15 million civil penalty to resolve pollution violations at 32 drilling sites in West Virginia.

The U.S. Department of Justice says in a news release that the agency and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection reached a proposed settlement with Antero Resources Corp. over allegations of Clean Water Act violations at sites in Doddridge, Harrison and Tyler counties.

In addition to the fine, the settlement filed in federal court for the state’s northern district requires the company to conduct restoration, stabilization and mitigation work at impacted sites as well as provide mitigation for aquatic resource impacts.

The violations involved the unauthorized disposal of dredged and fill materials into waters near sites where Antero built well pads and other structures involved in hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

BLM asking for public comment on proposed Colorado mine expansion

DURANGO — The public now can comment on an environmental analysis that looks to evaluate the potential impacts of expanding operations of a Colorado coal mine.

The Durango Herald reports GCC Energy, which has operated the King II coal mine near Hesperus since 2007, asked the Bureau of Land Management in 2018 for a lease to expand the mine by 3.85 square miles.

The company has said if expansions were not approved, the mine would run out of coal and be forced to shut down, laying off 100 employees and cutting local tax revenue.

Before approving the proposed expansion for at least another 20 years, the Bureau of Land Management must first conduct an analysis to look at the potential impacts it would have on the environment.

Comments regarding the expansion will be accepted until March 11.

Colorado energy director Will Toor to drive push toward renewables, electric vehicles

For Will Toor, it’s an exciting time to be on the front lines of energy and transportation issues.

Dropping prices are encouraging utilities of all sizes to switch to wind and solar. Options are increasing for drivers who want to go electric.

Colorado Energy Office executive director Will ...
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Colorado Energy Office executive director Will Toor in his office on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.

For six years, Toor worked on those issues as transportation program director at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, as a member of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, as a Boulder County commissioner and as Boulder mayor. He has taken the helm at the Colorado Energy Office at a time when changes in energy and transportation are among the top agenda items of a new governor.

“Gov. (Jared) Polis has articulated some bold goals around clean energy and climate change, with the goal of 100 percent clean energy in the electric sector by 2040,” Toor said in a recent interview.

On Toor’s fourth day on the job, Polis signed an executive order reaffirming the previous administration’s goal of having nearly 1 million electric vehicles on Colorado roads by 2030.

However, the order makes a significant change in the 2018 Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan by directing that tens of millions of dollars to replace older gas- and diesel-fueled trucks and fleet vehicles be used only for electric vehicles — not newer diesel and propane-fueled vehicles, as originally allowed. The money comes from the state’s nearly $70 million share of the national settlement with Volkswagen over allegations that it modified software to cheat on emissions tests.

[RELATED: Colorado’s electric car dream: More charging stations, less smog]

“I do believe it’s a very strategic investment,” Toor said. “I think we’re on the threshold of major market innovations where the medium- and heavy-duty vehicle fleet may be able to move toward electrification quite rapidly.”

Toor also thinks there will be plenty of options for Colorado drivers if the state Air Quality Control Commission adopts a rule based on California’s requirement that a certain percentage of vehicles sold in the state be electric.

The Colorado Automobile Dealers Association isn’t reassured. The trade group says 75 percent of the vehicles sold in the state are trucks and sports utility vehicles, and there aren’t a lot of those yet.

The association is suing to repeal tougher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards approved in late 2018 and has pledged to speak out if an electric-vehicle standard is considered.

“I understand their concerns,” Toor said, “but it’s important to recognize that when we talk about 75 percent of new vehicles being trucks, that actually includes everything from small crossovers up through pickup trucks.”

Manufacturers plan to add more electric SUVs to their lineups, Toor said, so there should be more choices by the time the Colorado standard would take effect. Having an electric-vehicle requirement on the books will encourage automakers to offer a wider array of vehicles in Colorado, he said.

An Associated Press story saying cold weather can temporarily sap an electric vehicle’s power, reducing its range by more than 40 percent, shouldn’t be a big concern, said Heatheryn Higgins, Colorado Energy Office spokeswoman. Cold weather is more of an issue with the first generation of electric vehicles, and the state’s commitment to building more public charging stations will help alleviate drivers’ ‘range anxiety,’ ”  she said.

Toor acknowledges that batteries for electric vehicles and storage come with their own environmental problems. The mining of metals and minerals used to make batteries can create significant, negative environmental damage. Disposal of batteries creates problems with the toxic waste.

“There’s no free lunch. Every form of energy has impacts,” Toor said. “But when you compare the environmental impacts of lithium batteries to the impacts of burning fossil fuels, I think it’s a much smaller impact.”

Working to extend the life of batteries and effective recycling efforts will be important, Toor said.

While interest in electric cars is rising, there’s even more momentum to boost the amount of electricity generated by renewable energy sources, Toor said. Dramatically declining prices for wind and solar power and batteries to store that power are big reasons.

Xcel Energy Colorado, the state’s largest electric utility, is retiring two coal-fired plants early and intends to increase renewable energy sources to 55 percent of its supply mix by 2026. It’s working to cut its carbon-dioxide emissions to zero by 2050.

[RELATED: Tri-State Generation and Transmission faces loss of member over rates, renewables]

City-owned utilities and rural electric cooperatives in Colorado have set goals of cutting carbon-dioxide emissions and expanding the use of renewable energy sources.

Amy Oliver Cooke of the Independence Institute, a Colorado libertarian think tank and advocacy organization, would like state policy to focus more on decentralized “micro” electric grids, which she believes would “empower people rather than enrich Xcel Energy.”

“Oftentimes Gov. Polis and Will Toor are well-intentioned, but my concern is that I think they’re asking the wrong questions,” said Cooke, director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Center at the Independence Institute. “In 2050, will the grid be powered 100 percent by industrial wind and utility-scale solar and batteries? The question we should be asking is: Will we still have a massive, centralized grid with behemoth power plants?”

Cooke also wonders if discussions of energy use will include looking at nuclear power.

“If you want carbon-free power on demand, nuclear has to be on the table,” she said.

Moving forward, Toor said the energy office will meet with community members and engage a variety of stakeholders. Utilities and industries of all types, auto manufacturers and dealers and local governments will be important partners, he added.

A major focus of the office is energy efficiency, and Toor said he wants to work with the oil and gas, building and other industries in that area. A blog by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Toor’s former employer, cites federal data saying recent reductions in carbon dioxide emissions nationwide has resulted from energy efficiency, which drives down demand for electricity.

The energy office has launched a program aimed at helping large industrial facilities improve their energy management to reduce use and costs.

With oil and gas, the bulk of the state’s interaction with the industry is through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Department of Natural Resources, Toor said. However, he sees opportunities to work with the industry on increasing the efficiency of its operations.

The appointment of Toor as director of the state energy office “gives me great faith in what can be accomplished,” said Suzanne Jones, Boulder mayor and the executive director of Eco-Cycle. She has known Toor since he was director of the University of Colorado Environmental Center. Toor, who has a doctorate in physics, served with Jones on the board of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, now Conservation Colorado.

“I don’t always agree with him, but I’m always impressed by the intellectual rigor he brings to issues and his thoughtfulness,” Jones said. “He’s able to explain issues and bring people together around common values.”

Summit County power outages close schools, impact ski resorts, lead to rolling brownouts

Power outages in Summit County on Friday morning closed schools and affected several ski resorts and community buildings.

Elementary schools in the district were closed for the day, the Summit School District announced via Twitter. People have been asked to check the district website and email for updates about plans for Monday.

The outages occurred due to an issue with a natural gas line, according to an Xcel Energy statement posted by the town of Breckenridge.

“As a result, rolling 30-minute electric outages (brownouts) are being implemented to reduce usage across the natural gas system,” Xcel said in the statement. “The brownouts will be implemented across Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Dillon and possibly Keystone.”

Affected customers will be contacted directly, the statement said. Xcel said it could not estimate when power will be fully restored.

Keystone and Breckenridge resorts have limited runs open as of 11 a.m, the resorts said.

Xcel asks said that if residents detect a sulfur or “rotten egg” smell inside their home, it could be the odorant they put in natural gas to help detect leaks.

“If you notice that smell, leave your home immediately,” the energy company said. “Do not turn any electrical devices on or off and never use any phone until you are outside and safely away from the area.”

People who do smell this odor are asked to call Xcel at 1-800-895-2999.

 

Pivot Energy developing community solar projects in Denver metro

A company that wants to see Colorado become a national leader in community solar projects is installing three new arrays in the Denver area, including one in the River North district.

Provided by Pivot Energy
Denver-based Pivot Energy has installed three new community solar gardens in Denver, including this rooftop array on a River North mixed-use development.

Denver-based Pivot Energy’s new projects include a 140-kilowatt rooftop “community solar garden” on the roof of S*Park — Sustainability Park — a mixed-use development in Denver’s River North, or RiNo. The array could produce enough electricity for about 35 homes.

Another new solar garden is a 100-kilowatt array on the roof of Stanley Marketplace in the Stapleton neighborhood. It could supply the equivalent of 25 homes.

A third installation, in Denver’s Green Valley Ranch, has roughly 3,070 panels and will generate about 1 megawatt of electricity, enough to supply 250 homes, when the power starts flowing.

Community solar gardens, which Colorado helped pioneer, are centralized arrays of solar panels that users “subscribe” to. They are aimed at people who want to use solar power but whose roofs aren’t suitable, who live in an apartment or can’t afford to install a system. Between 50 percent and 75 percent of U.S. electric customers can’t access traditional rooftop solar systems, according to a 2018 report by Green Tech Media Research.

Subscribers to community solar projects pay the owner or manager of the solar garden and get credits on their utility bills. It’s typical for subscribers to pay about 10 percent less than they normally would, said Jon Sullivan, Pivot Energy’s vice president of project development.

RELATED: Solar energy company makes Pivot to new name, services as it expands

A state law approved in 2010 requires that a certain percentage of subscribers be low-income. At least 10 people must sign up for a solar garden.

“A community solar garden is a perfect blend of localized solar and utility-scale solar (power),” said Rick Hunter, Pivot Energy CEO.

Community solar projects are also the fastest-growing sector of the solar-energy industry, Hunter added. Green Tech Media Research reported in 2018 that community solar projects had reached a five-year compound annual growth rate of 53 percent, compared with 26 percent for all solar installations.

However, the report also noted that community projects made up less than 2 percent of all operating solar projects.

A bill in the Colorado General Assembly could help open new opportunities for community solar ventures in the state, Sullivan said. The legislation, House Bill 19-1003, by Rep. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, would increase the maximum size of a solar garden to 10 megawatts from 2 megawatts. It would also drop the requirement that subscribers be in the same or adjacent county as the project’s physical location.

The subscribers to Pivot Energy’s new projects are a mix of public agencies, including a metro-area recreation district and low-income housing units.

The proposed changes to the law would allow Pivot Energy and other companies building and financing community solar gardens to build bigger projects in areas outside cities, where there is more space, and sell the electricity to urban customers, Sullivan said.

“It would drive down the costs overall. It would catapult the program,” Sullivan said.

Hunter said the benefits of decentralized, distributed generation of electricity include less need for more, expensive infrastructure and development of a more resilient system in the face of storms and other problems that could otherwise knock out power to many people all at once.

Pivot Energy, which also has offices in Chicago and St. Louis, builds, finances and manages community solar gardens in Colorado and other states. It has developed a total of 22.4 megawatts of the projects across Colorado, with 6 megawatts of the energy serving low-income subscribers.

Small hydropower providers are hoping it’s their time to shine as Colorado moves toward a renewables future

OURAY — The summer was dry. The water is low. So the acidity in the trickling Uncompahgre River, after it percolates through the mine-pocked Red Mountain Pass, is so high that it’s eating through the pipes that feed Eric Jacobson’s turbines.

This means his small hydropower plant isn’t cranking out much electricity. But even in the dead of winter, the Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant — one of the oldest operating power plants in the country — can generate more than 4 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually or enough to power about 40 homes.

“It’s a very old system, that’s for sure,” says Jacobson as the century-old Pelton wheels whir in the riverside plant that started sparking electricity in 1886. “It’s kicking and screaming as we drag it into the 21st century, but it still works great.”

Since he bought the Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant in 1992, Eric Jacobson has spent more than $1 million into restoring the dam, replacing pipes and modernizing the power house. The plant is one of the oldest hydroelectric generating stations in the U.S., producing enough power to light 40 homes for a year. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As the West grapples with a warmer, drier climate emaciating rivers and threatening major hydropower projects at reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell, independent hydropower providers are hoping their time to shine finally has arrived — especially as Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pushes to have the whole state running on renewable power by 2040.

MORE: Colorado power companies bet big on net-zero emissions as state debates 100% renewable energy future

Small-hydropower proponents have been championing the power hiding in moving water for almost two decades with little success, their cheers bouncing off solar arrays, wind turbines and the giant dams on major rivers. In the last 15 years, the number of hydropower facilities in Colorado has stayed around 60, with capacity of about 680,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year.

Hydropower provides about 5 percent of all the electricity used in Colorado, a sliver that hasn’t really changed in the last decade.

Even after more than 15 years of federal and state legislation, incentives and programs designed to encourage more small hydroelectric projects, growth in Colorado hydropower is stalled.

Antique brass gauges in the Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant. (Nina Riggio, special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado voters in 2004 approved the nation’s first Renewable Energy Standard, requiring major providers to have 10 percent of their electricity come from renewable sources by 2015. The state legislature has increased that minimum percentage of renewable energy three times since 2004, with the current legislation requiring 20 percent of the energy provided by cooperative-owned utilities to come from renewable energy by 2020.

The federal 2013 Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act, authored by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver and mirroring similar legislation in Colorado, allowed small hydropower projects — up to 5 megawatts — planned for existing conduits, such as tunnels, canals and other manmade structures, to secure licensing approval in as a little as 60 days.

The next year Congress passed legislation streamlining the Bureau of Reclamation approval process for hydropower projects as well as funding a lengthy list of incentives for developers.

The Gunnison Tunnel, opened in 1909, has fed the agriculture farmland of the Uncompahgre Valley for over a century. The tunnel carries water from the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon to a canal system east of Montrose. Water from the tunnel powers small hydro electric power plants. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still, it wasn’t enough to kickstart a wave of next-gen hydropower. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved 107 small, conduit projects since 2014, with a capacity of about 33 megawatts of electricity.

Last fall DeGette and North Carolina Republican Rep. Richard Hudson shaved even more regulation from no-longer tiny hydropower projects. The America’s Water Infrastructure Act enabled conduit hydropower projects up to 40 megawatts to sidestep even more of the costly and burdensome FERC requirements and qualify for faster licensing, with approval in only 45 days.

Colorado, where water pours off mountains and is diverted through thousands of miles of manmade structures, has emerged as a national leader for small hydropower projects, changing the paradigm from big dams to sedan-sized generators in ditches.

A newly built hydro electric power plant generates electricity inside a DMEA hydro power facility using water from the Gunnison Tunnel on June 4, 2013 near Montrose. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Last summer a U.S. Department of Energy-funded assessment of conduit hydropower potential in municipal water systems showed that simple hydroelectric generators built in existing tunnels, canals and pipelines could generate more than 34 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 25,000 to 34,000 Colorado homes. The Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Hydropower Partnership Project shows hydroelectric potential in existing pressurized irrigation systems could generate another 30 megawatts of electricity.

So, lurking in the way Colorado moves water, is enough power for upwards of 65,000 homes.

“We are just getting to the point now where people even understand that this exists as an opportunity. Hydropower development has been stifled for decades by our current regulatory regime,” said Kurt Johnson, a hydropower advocate who co-authored the Colorado Energy Office’s “2015 Small Hydropower Handbook.”

MORE: Jared Polis wants Colorado 100 percent powered by renewable energy, but talk is easier than the walk

Johnson pushed hard for Congress to shave approval for certain hydropower projects in existing water systems down to zero days, which would allow farmers, ranchers and municipalities upgrading existing pipelines to install small hydropower systems with a quick phone call. His mission for the last decade has been to ease the regulatory costs and burdens that have buried hydropower projects.

When Johnson looks at the new federal legislation, the many incentives, the increased focus on renewables and drought-ravaged water users set on improving efficiency, he hopes the dawn of small hydropower has arrived

“My dream is to get to the world where hydropower is like rooftop solar,” he said.

Water is diverted into a hydro electric power plant located on a canal fed with water from the Gunnison Tunnel June 4, 2013 near Montrose. (William Woody, special to The Colorado Sun)

That requires a jump in hydro technology, where a modular system can simply be plugged into existing pipelines just as a solar array can be installed a home’s roof. And the time for that technology is nigh, as water efficiency becomes mandatory in the grips of a 19-year drought that appears to be the new normal. So, for example, when a farmer is upgrading to a pipeline irrigation system why not think about tapping that pressure to turn a small turbine that can generate electricity that feeds the grid, Johnson said.

“We need to get the point where it is plug and play and you can take one piece of pipe out and replace it with a section that generates power and plug it into the wall,” said Johnson, noting that the economic opportunities from selling power back to energy providers — net metering — is yet another incentive for water users to install conduit hydropower. “Kudos to the new governor for setting such ambitious goals, but if I have a message right now, it’s ‘Time is wasting here people.’ Hydro will need to be a part of our renewable goals. With so many projects with zero environmental impact, it just makes sense to get them built.”

Hydropower is not complex. Moving water turns turbines. Turbines generate electricity.

Back on the banks of the Uncompahgre River, Jacobson is using century-old equipment to generate electricity for the San Miguel Power Association, which has been buying his power since 2011. He bought the plant at the Colorado-Ute Electric Association bankruptcy auction in 1992 for $10.

He came to the auction prepared to pay fair market value, but when he realized he was the only bidder who was prequalified with a FERC license — from his operation of the iconic Bridal Veil Powerhouse above Telluride — he low-balled. He spent plenty getting the neglected power plant running, but the plant has hummed along for the past quarter century with a couple staffers keeping things in check.

“These little independent power plants should be important parts of any energy portfolio because our peak in the spring and summer is in the evening, when solar and wind are pretty well fading, so you don’t need power storage like you do with only wind or solar,” Jacobson said.

Water from the Gunnison Tunnel flows through a canal system near Montrose on June 4, 2013. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jacobson’s Ouray plant is part of a network of historic power plants that ignited the electrification of America. The Ames Hydro Generating Station near Ophir was built in 1890 by Telluride power entrepreneur Lucien L. Nunn and George Westinghouse. It was the first power plant in the world to transmit AC current, using technology invented by Nikola Tesla.

A 1905 hydropower plant built near the original Ames hydro station remains in service for Xcel Energy today. The rotors from that original Ames plant were moved to the Ouray power plant to convert it to AC power. Today, the rusting rotors sit near the edge of the plant’s driveway.

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

The legacy generating plants like Ames and Ouray may not be delivering huge loads of electricity — not like the hydro projects at Ridgway Reservoir or the Delta-Montrose Electric Association’s five generators in Montrose County on the Uncompahgre Water Users Association’s South Canal. But the historical plants — as well as the newer projects — show how even a few spinning turbines can tap passing water to help meet Western Slope communities’ demands for clean power.

The San Miguel Power Association, which serves customers in seven Western Colorado counties, has seen a growing number of its members using their personally developed hydropower generators, said Alex Shelley, spokesman for the association.

“Hydro is a good opportunity in our region,” Shelley said. “All these sort of partnerships are a wonderful way for people to take advantage of the power we have all around us.”

Rising Sun

More from The Colorado Sun


Democrats plan bills to protect environment

DENVER — Even with rare control of the Colorado House, Senate and governor’s office, Democrats appear to be taking a rather disciplined approach to introducing legislation regarding climate change and oil and gas drilling. So far the key legislation regarding O&G drilling appears to be a bill that will be introduced by Sen. Mike Foote, D-Longmont. The bill, which had not yet been introduced by the last week of January, will establish local control over drilling locations. “We have been working on local control for some time, and I know there are a lot of local communities interested in this issue,” Foote said. “Local governments decide land use, and oil and gas drilling should not be the exception.” Gov. Jared Polis has already indicated he would support such legislation in his first state of the state address. “We stand up for our communities and their right to have a voice when it comes to industrial activities within their borders,” Polis said. Currently, the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission has final jurisdiction over drill location, and on Jan. 14 the Colorado Supreme Court made a crucial decision upholding the commission’s mandate. Essentially, the commission was sued for not taking human health and environmental concerns into consideration for drill location; the commission held that was not part of its mandate and the court upheld the commission’s stance. Essentially, Foote’s legislation would make that ruling profoundly less important, because towns, cities and counties could essentially eliminate drilling on locations deemed unsuitable. “We need to make sure that oil and gas drilling occurs in areas that really are industrial areas,” Foote said. Scott Prestidge, the director of communications for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said he could not offer comment on a bill the organization has yet to see, though he did offer a statement that COGA President Dan Haley had previously made. “Local governments have a significant amount of local control on several fronts. And many of the communities where we operate will tell you right now that they have the ‘local control’ they need,” said Haley in this statement. “For the communities that desire a greater level of local authority within the statewide regulatory framework that already exists in Colorado, we’re open to those discussions and look forward to a positive exchange of ideas.” In less controversial measures, state Rep. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, has his hand in at least a couple of measures. One bill that has already made it out of committee upgrades the state’s Solar Community Gardens, allowing increased power generation for these shared resources. Hansen is also expected to weigh in on how the state may move away from outdated or unwanted power grid assets, such as coal-burning power plants, a process known as assets securitization. Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, said she is working on a bill that will address setting new state goals in carbon reduction. She was still working with stakeholders and legislative leaders on language in late January. “Both the governor and myself ran […]

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Xcel Energy, Colorado regulators weigh utility’s role in electric-vehicle market

Advocates of getting more electric vehicles on Colorado roads say the effort could gain even more traction if Xcel Energy and other utilities take on a larger role, and it appears that could happen.

Xcel Energy officials indicated during a public meeting last week with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that they will likely file a case this year on rates for public, fast-charging stations and for stations handling vehicle fleets. Another potential case would address providing part of the infrastructure for charging stations.

On another front, three legislators are sponsoring a bill to remove a block on investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy from owning and operating charging stations.

“Our piece of legislation is going to allow a company like Xcel and, of course, the (Public Utilities Commission), to work together in a public-private way so we can build the infrastructure to try to boost electric-vehicle usage in our state,” said Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver.

The legislation, Senate Bill 19-077,  co-sponsored by Sen. Kevin Priola, an Adams County Republican, and Rep. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, would allow investor-owned utilities to own and operate charging stations as part of their regulated services, which would permit a return on their investment.

Similar bills failed in the previous two legislative sessions, but the sponsors said they think chances of passage are good this year.

Although there are different interpretations of the current law, Xcel Energy believes it is prohibited from owning and operating the charging equipment for electric vehicles, Jack Ihle,() the utility’s director of regulatory and strategic analysis, said in an email.

Xcel Energy is moving forward with projects in Minnesota, which doesn’t have a law limiting investor-owned utilities’ involvement in the electric-vehicle industry.

Critics say the Colorado law, enacted in 2012, was meant to define electric providers’ roles but had unintended consequences and is now a drag on efforts to boost the number of charging stations. The law doesn’t apply to rural electric utilities, some of which are working with homeowners and businesses to install chargers.

States across the country are exploring policies to develop the electric-vehicle market and encourage the expansion of private and public infrastructure, according to a report written by a group of industry and environmental organizations as well public agencies. The group presented the report to the state utilities commission last week.

Members of the commission had sought input on the challenges and opportunities of expanding the use of electric vehicles in Colorado. Jeffrey Ackermann, commission chairman, said the panel is trying to determine what its role might be.

During his first few days as Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis signed an executive order reaffirming the previous administration’s goal of seeing nearly 1 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2030. His order builds on work by former Gov. John Hickenlooper to build charging stations across the state and to help convert fleets and public transit to electric vehicles with the state’s share of a settlement with Volkswagen.

Colorado received nearly $70 million from the deal between Volkswagen and the federal government over allegations that the auto company modified computer software to cheat on federal emissions tests. About $10 million is being used to build 33 high-speed charging stations along the state’s major transportation corridors, said Will Toor, () executive director of the Colorado Energy Office.

Colorado ranks seventh in the nation in the number of electric-vehicle charging stations — 710 — according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Of those, 650 are open to the public.

The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission is expected to consider a zero-emission standard, which would mandate that a certain percentage of manufacturers’ vehicles sold in the state be electric. The requirement would likely be between 6 percent and 10 percent and apply initially to the 2023 model year.

“There’s clearly been support for the electrification of the transportation sector (in Colorado) for a number of years,” Toor said.

The governor’s executive order doesn’t attempt to issue directives to the utilities commission, Toor said, but does “encourage the commission and utilities to work toward implementing programs and policy” supporting use of electric vehicles.

“I think it’s driven both by a sense that utilities have a really important role to play in being able to achieve a deep penetration of electric vehicles, but also that there are specific benefits to the electric system,” Toor said.

During last week’s discussion of the electric-vehicle report, the commission encouraged Xcel Energy to submit filings to start charting what the utility could do.

“That’s a really great next step. When utilities file an application, the commission and other interested stakeholders can really dig in and review what does this mean, what can utilities accomplish and do to help remove barriers to electrification,” said Gwen Farnsworth, senior energy policy adviser for Western Resource Advocates.

Farnsworth said utility customers would benefit as the number of electric vehicles increase, especially if the vehicles are charged during low-demand periods, because utilities could spread their fixed costs across more ratepayers.

A  2017 report by consulting firm M.J. Bradley & Associates said widespread use of electric vehicles could generate $43 billion in benefits for Coloradans by 2050 in the form of lower utility bills and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. Other benefits include lower vehicle maintenance and fuel costs.

While acknowledging the benefits of electric vehicles, commission members voiced concerns about ensuring that low-income and rural areas are not overlooked when building charging stations.

“We still have vast areas of rural Colorado that are unserved,” said commissioner John Gavan.() “I look at this as almost analogous to the problem that we had with broadband (internet). How are we really going to drive ubiquitous charging deployment more aggressively in the rural areas? I think that’s going to be very key.”

Sen. Bennet: Collaboration that led to CORE Act could model a cure for “partisan disease” ailing politics

Sen. Michael Bennet is sure his new Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act could be a national model not only for preserving public lands, but for the collaborative process that went into creating it.

Noting that “partisan disease” has corroded national politics, Bennet on Friday said his CORE Act legislation — which would protect more than 400,000 acres of public land across Colorado — said the nearly decade-long process behind the legislation “is a good model” for getting back to more functional government.

“This bill was not written in Washington D.C.,” Bennet said Friday during a public meeting with outdoor recreation and conservation leaders in Denver for the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show. “This bill was written night after night after night in rooms and county commission buildings all over the state of Colorado, as neighbors sat together to iron out their differences and do something special for the next generation of Colorado.”

Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, joined forces this week to announce the CORE legislation, which merges four previously introduced public-lands bills, some of which have been proposed annually for more than a decade.

The act creates 73,000 acres of new wilderness in Colorado, 80,000 acres of new recreation and conservation management areas, removes more than 200,000 acres from oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide region and includes a program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in coal mines in the North Fork Valley.

“It has required compromise and it’s required people with disagreements to sit across the table and work out those disagreements. It’s required patience and it’s required people to be diligent and it’s required people to remember the legacy we are trying to fulfill that we want to pass down to our kids and to our grandkids,”

U.S. Rep. Diana Degette, D-Denver, has proposed legislation every year for nearly 20 years that would protect more than 1 million across the state as wilderness. Bennet’s CORE plan allows for many areas to maintain existing uses with less restrictive designations than wilderness.

Bill considers protection and existing uses

Amy Roberts, the head of the Outdoor Industry Association said the proposal supports the economic engine of recreation, which spurs $28 billion in consumer spending in Colorado and employs 129,000 workers.

“We like this title because it has both outdoor recreation and economy in the title,” Roberts said. “This bill actually sets aside and recognizes existing uses so it really is well put together and it drives the message that you can preserve public lands and drive economies in rural areas at the same time.”

Bennet’s unveiling of his CORE Act on Friday followed Colorado College’s State of the Rockies annual Conservation in the West Poll, which showed voters in eight states across the West increasingly supportive of public lands, the outdoor recreation economy and legislation reversing the impacts of climate change.

The poll showed 69 percent of Colorado residents consider themselves to be conservationists and 73 percent call themselves outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Researchers also reported that 90 percent of Colorado residents consider the outdoor recreation economy important to the future of the state.  

The poll showed growing concern over the impacts of climate change. In Colorado, 77 percent of those polled said climate change was a serious problem, the highest percentage of any Western state in the poll and a 14 percentage point increase over the poll’s results in 2016.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse introduced the CORE Act, or Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, on Jan. 25, 2019, to protect about 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado. “It’s all about protecting the landscapes we love,” Bennet said on Feb. 1, 2019, at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show. He told outdoor recreation and conservation leaders that the process that led to the bill “will be used to organize and keep branding this idea. For 10 years, night after night, this bill was created by neighbors and citizens of Colorado.” (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

On Wednesday at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show, three of the outdoor industry’s largest trade groups — the National Ski Areas Association, SnowSports Industries America and the Outdoor Industry Association — united to form the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership. The first-of-its-kind collaboration will not only encourage sustainable practices to reduce carbon emissions, but will lobby for climate policies and renewable energy at federal and levels.

While the gridlock in Washington is troubling, Bennet said in an interview with The Colorado Sun that he is optimistic that businesses will drive policies to reduce the impacts of climate change.

“Washington can’t stop innovation from happening,” he said. “That is policy innovation at the local level and it’s also business innovation and innovation in retrofitting our built environment and our houses. There is a huge opportunity here and people are going to seize it. My problem with Washington is that if we are not careful we are going to lose our leadership to the rest of the world and that would be a shame because the folks who have a very established position and own the clean energy economy in the 21st century are going to the the ones that lead the world.”

Scott Braden with Conservation Colorado said decades of evolving conservation work in Colorado has yielded legislation like the CORE Act, which protects public lands while working with residents who rely on those lands for their livelihoods and recreation.

“We had to get innovative on conservation in the last 20 years and it’s allowed us to … really be able to fine tune the conservation and balance it with recreation,” Braden said. “Really, the difference with this bill is the incredible on-the-ground support you see for the CORE Act. That local support is why we are bullish on its chances in Congress.”

Still, the legislation has an uphill battle to get through the Republican-controlled Senate and win the signature of President Donald Trump, who reduced the size of Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument in 2017, signaling the administration’s tepid appreciation for public lands.

Bennet said winning support from Republican Sen. Cory Gardner would be helpful in getting CORE to pass in the Senate. Bennet said Gardner and his staff were studying the proposal.

“There is a lot of support out there and I think anything you can do to make sure he understands that would be helpful,” Bennet said. “I think a bipartisan lands package is something the president would want to sign.”

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Coloradans, other Westerners strongly support public lands, conservation, new poll says

A new poll showing that a majority of Coloradans consider themselves conservationists and favor protecting natural resources and wildlife on public lands meshes with priorities set by his administration, Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday.

Colorado College released the results of its ninth annual State of the Rockies Conservation in the West Poll during a call with the media. The pollsters — one who typically works with Democrats and one who typically works for Republicans — conducted 3,200 phone interviews with 400 registered voters in eight Western states.

Polis said Coloradans’ overwhelming support for conserving public lands and concerns about water supplies and wildfires, associated with hot and drier weather driven by climate change, are in line with his administration’s focus on increasing the use of renewable energy sources and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“Public lands are an enormous part of our identity and our Colorado way of life,” Polis said. “They’re why people move here, choose to live here.”

The survey found that 65 percent of Coloradans surveyed want Congress to prioritize air and water quality and wildlife on public lands, while 24 percent think the emphasis should be on increasing energy production on those lands. The result is the same across the region, which includes Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.

Polis said Colorado’s strong support for public lands helped Denver land the prestigious Outdoor Retailer trade shows, held for 21 years in Salt Lake before moving in 2018. The Outdoor Retailer Snow Show is in Denver this week.

Key outdoor businesses and organizers relocated the event after clashing with Utah politicians who supported the Trump administration’s downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Both monuments are in Utah.

The survey said 90 percent of Coloradans see outdoor recreation as an important part of the economy statewide and across the West.

The survey also shows that voters strongly reject Trump administration policies on conservation and public lands, said Corina McKendry, director of the State of the Rockies project and an associate political science professor at Colorado College.

The changes include removing some smaller streams and seasonal wetlands from federal Clean Water Act regulation and shortening the amount of time the public can comment on and protest proposed oil and gas leasing of public lands.

In Colorado, 59 percent of the respondents said shortening the comment time was a bad decision, compared to 14 percent who thought it was good.

The poll presents a limited view of public lands and the issues, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents more than 300 oil and gas companies.

“The question about public lands is taken out of context. In the lead-up, it sounds like the surveyor is talking about national park lands and critical wildlife habitat,” Sgamma said. “Oil and gas development is being done on millions of acres of working landscapes throughout the West.”

Questions on federal protections for small waterways and wetlands and the downsizing of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments simplify what are complex issues, Sgamma added.

But Tim Brass of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said the survey’s results reflect the feelings of his organization’s membership, which includes nearly the same number of Democrats and Republicans.

“They believe healthy water and air and wildlife protections are important,” said Brass, state policy and field operations director for the sportsmen’s group.”Overall, people agree with our key tenets: public lands conservation and access.”

On the issue of managing public lands, Dave Metz, one of the pollsters, said the number of people concerned about a lack of resources to take care of the lands has steadily increased over the past three years.

“Two years ago, just one-quarter saw it as (an extremely serious) problem,” Metz said. “That has almost doubled to 41 percent.”

A majority of respondents support local taxes to fund conservation efforts, Metz added. Fifty-three percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats would support local  taxes or fees to protect water, conserve wildlife habitat and provide outdoor recreation opportunities, the survey found.

There’s also strong support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, with 83 percent favoring its renewal. The national program, funded through a portion of offshore oil and gas leasing fees, generated more than $268 million for Colorado conservation and outdoor recreation projects since it started in 1964.

Jon Goldin-Dubois, president of Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based conservation group, said he was struck by the strong concern expressed about the region’s water supplies.

“It’s pretty apparent from the poll that Westerners are both aware of and really concerned about the impact that climate change is having on water and the West,” Goldin-Dubois said.

In 2017, 80 percent of the respondents said they were concerned about the low level of water in area rivers. That increased to 84 percent in the new poll, with 63 percent of those saying the situation is very or extremely serious.

The poll also shows increasing concern about climate change. Those seeing it as a problem rose to 69 percent regionwide in the new poll from 61 percent in 2016. In Colorado, 77 percent of the voters said climate change is a serious problem, up from 63 percent in 2016.

A partisan divide exists on the question of climate change. Forty-five percent of the Republicans cited climate change as a problem, while 93 percent of Democrats said it was. However, the share of Republicans is up from 2016, when 37 percent expressed concern.

“There’s a stronger mandate around this. There’s been a really clear shift,” Goldin-Dubois said. “(Gov. Polis) is right to say that we need to act on climate change and we need to act aggressively.”

The survey was conducted between Jan. 2-9, and has a margin of error of 2.65 percent overall and 4.9 percent statewide.

Electric airplanes developed by a Colorado startup take aim at global pilot shortage

A pivotal moment in George Bye’s entrepreneurial life came in 2006. As the creator of a hot new aircraft called the Javelin, Bye was getting wined and dined by Silicon Valley’s elite, who wanted one of the planes Popular Science described as “a flying sports car.”

That’s how Bye, a former Air Force pilot, ended up riding in the passenger seat of a Tesla Roadster prototype. It was before Elon Musk took over the electric car company. It’s when Bye had his “aha!” moment.

“I got a very short ride in the Roadster in the backstreets behind their warehouse, and that car accelerated faster than my jet in full afterburner. Using electrons at a few pennies compared to gasoline,” recalled Bye, whose Javelin had aimed to reach near supersonic speeds. He called the moment “a revelation not for Tesla, but for George Bye. This became part of my DNA. We can do this. We can make the world a better place.”

He started Bye Aerospace, now based at Centennial Airport, the following year. And since then, the company has made its first test flight of an all-electric Sun Flyer aircraft, added Subaru-SBI Investment and other investors, and collected 226 orders so far for planes that are expected to hit the market in late 2020.

The Javelin? RIP. After a promising start and $160 million valuation, the company failed to get enough funding and filed for bankruptcy in 2008, blaming the recession and the long wait for Federal Aviation Administration approvals.

George Bye keeps memories of aviation items present and past at his office in the Bye Aerospace headquarters in Centennial Airport. A framed photo of the the Javelin, the light weight jet he developed in the early 2000s, hangs in the corner. On the table, he’s touching a model of a Cessna 172, the top selling aircraft of all time. But he has his eyes on what he hopes will replace the Cessna, the all-electric Sun Flyer. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

There was more to changing the world of aviation than a fast, lightweight plane. Innovation had to be part of the business model too, Bye realized.

“I like innovation and avionics and structures and safety systems. That’s all very cool,” said Bye, who keeps a framed photo of the Javelin on the wall behind his desk. “…This still doesn’t solve the problem.”

Already in 2007, Bye noticed a trend that continues today. Pilots were dwindling in numbers and airlines were consolidating. The high cost of becoming a pilot was disheartening to potential recruits, as were low starting wages. To change the industry’s trajectory, Bye tackled the business problem: Make flying more affordable. By putting electric motors in planes to save on fuel costs, student pilots could better afford flight training that can cost about the same as a law school degree.

“This,” said Bye, pointing to the engine area of a Sun Flyer model he keeps in his office, “solves a problem. The electric motor and batteries. And that creates a market for this [the Sun Flyer] so that this production rate can return to where this [the Cessna 172, the top-selling airplane in aviation history] was when this was a new idea back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

The pilot shortage, explained

Cargo and passenger travel by air is on the rise. Some 8.2 billion people will fly somewhere in 2037, filling seats on more than double the number of flights made last year, the International Air Transport Association predicts. Likewise, demand for pilots will double worldwide to 790,000 over the next 20 years, according to a forecast by The Boeing Co., which is trying to sell the world more of its airplanes.

In the meantime, the number of pilots in the U.S. peaked in 1980 and has been shrinking ever since for a variety of reasons. A more recent reason: Airline pilots must retire at age 65, and the Regional Airline Association estimates that nearly half the pilots working in the U.S. today are 50 or older.

The shortage has been less of an issue for major airlines like Frontier Airlines. That’s partly due to a year-old partnership the company has to hire from regional flyer Trans States Airlines and, more recently, better pilot wages, which increased an average of 53 percent this month.  

“Since our new pilot contract was announced, our application rate has essentially tripled,” Jonathan Freed, a Frontier spokesman, said in an email. “So, we have an abundance of resumes coming in. We plan to hire more than 250 pilots this year, and our current application rates more than support it.”

But for the most part, the larger players hire from the smaller regional airlines, who face turnover and are left scrambling to find more pilots, said Louis Smith, president of Future & Active Pilot Advisors, which tracks airline hiring and wages.

“Over the next 10 years, we expect the 11 major airlines will retire 35,000 pilots and hire another 15,000,” Smith said. “And the way they get those pilots is they poach everyone below them. … For major airlines, (the pilot shortage) has not been an issue because they’re the king of the hill right now. They can fill their classes. When the airlines start paying you to learn to fly, that’s a shortage.”

Few airlines are paying students outright to learn how to fly. JetBlue offers students a chance to join its pilot corps by enrolling in its Gateway Select program — at a cost of $110,000. Similarly, American Airlines has its Cadet Academy, which costs between $72,000 to $89,000. United Airlines, which has a flight-training center in Denver for all existing pilots, partnered with Metropolitan State University on a program to fast track students to becoming pilots, though there’s no guarantee United will hire them.

Attracting new recruits has been a challenge for the industry for years. Flight-training school can run $60,000, or upwards of $250,000 if you opt for a four-year degree. Starting salaries at regional airlines had been astonishingly low — in the midteens — until recently.  

“The pilot pay is terrible. They might offer $40,000 in the first year and a $20,000 bonus, so it’s $60,000. You’re still not where you could be if you spent the time going into pre-med or law,” said Mike Boyd, who runs the airline consultancy Boyd Group International in Evergreen. “Plus, you can’t live at home. You have to live in some exotic city, like Newark.”

A newer requirement as of 2013 also added to the expense of becoming an airline pilot. They now need 1,500 flight hours, with some exceptions, before getting certified to fly for companies like United Airlines, FedEx or a smaller regional carrier. (Many pilots stick to a commercial license, which allows them to get paid to fly private tours or banners over a city and requires 250 flight hours.) And a large chunk of the cost is fuel.

Aspen Flying Club charges pilots in training $145 per “wet” hour, which means fuel is included. At about $5 per gallon, on a plane burning eight to 10 gallons an hour, “you’re talking $40 to $50 an hour of the cost of the aircraft is just in fuel,” said Danny Smith, who co-owns the flying club that started in 1977.

Cheaper fuel but other costs involved

This is where Bye Aerospace says it can help.

Its Sun Flyer can fly roughly for three and a half hours at a cruising speed of around 135 knots (155 mph) with its all-electric motor from Siemens. Power from 10 battery packs takes between 20 minutes to 8 hours to recharge, depending on the charger. It holds two or four passengers, depending on the model, making it ideal for schools where a training flight may last about an hour or so.

According to Bye’s calculations, the energy needed to power the electric plane is less than a tenth of the cost of aviation fuel.

“We’re not polluting, we’re replacing a 50-year-old obsolete airplane with a brand new high-tech airplane,” Bye said. “And we’re spending $3 a flight hour instead of $45.”

Based on those assumptions, 1,500 flight hours training in a Sun Flyer ends up costing about $4,500 for electricity, versus $67,500 in aviation fuel in a conventional plane.

Even so, Bye knows he has a long way to go to convince an industry that is used to internal combustion engines and petroleum-based fuel.

Over at Centennial Airport, which relies on the sale of aviation fuel for 40 percent of its revenues, the facility would need to install chargers for the planes. Robert Olislagers, the airport’s executive director, said that could cost $50,000 to $75,000 each.

“Who’s going to pay for that? I’ve got to amortize that,” Olislagers said.

More: More than 70 people have died in Colorado aircraft crashes since 2014. Here’s what the data tells us.

Smith, with the Aspen Flying School, said there are other costs to owning an airplane, such as overhauling the engine every 2,000 miles (Bye puts the Sun Flyer’s at 10,000 hours but likely longer). The school tends to buy used planes, which can sell for far less than $100,000, and refurbish them with new avionics and interiors. The two-seat Sun Flyer 2 costs $349,000, the four-seater is $449,000.

“But,” Smith added, “we can’t keep paying a lot for old airplanes. At a certain point, a 1978 Cessna 172 doesn’t work. Our customers want new avionics. They want newer aircraft.”

The school ordered 30 of Bye’s electric planes last August.

“With Bye’s electric aircraft, you’ll eliminate most of that (fuel cost),” Smith said. “We hope to benefit from lower operating costs, which allows us to reduce the price of flight training in general and make it more affordable for people looking at this as a career.”

Will it fly?

As the Sun Flyer took its first test flight at Centennial Airport on April 10, 2018, the weather was perfect. The company had calculated the best viewing spot on the ground to see the plane overhead, and a crowd of employees and aviation officials gathered to watch the plane fly.

“It was like looking at the dawn of a new age of aviation to see an electric airplane fly trouble free,” recalled Charlie Johnson, Bye’s chief operating officer and a retired president of Cessna Aircraft Co. “There were two phases of emotion. The satisfaction in seeing the fruits of our labor in seeing the airplane fly and seeing the tremendous opportunity of the future.”

The all-electric Sun Flyer from Bye Aerospace takes its first test flight on April 10, 2018 at Centennial Airport. (Provided by Bye Aerospace)

The flight was short — “a runway hop,” Johnson said — and lifted up to about 150 feet in the air. It was really a test of the Siemens motor and making sure the basics of an electric plane in flight worked. An upgraded Siemens motor that will end up in all the future Sun Flyers will be installed in the aircraft in February, and longer flight tests will begin, he said.

There are a number of other aviation companies working on electric or hybrid-electric airplanes. The Zunum Aero, backed by Boeing and JetBlue, is working on a 12-seat hybrid-electric commercial aircraft. Airbus is working with Siemens and Rolls-Royce on the E-Fan X, another hybrid-electric.

“Electric power for aircraft is definitely a game changer for general aviation,” said Jay Lindell, who works with aerospace companies for the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade.

Electric airplanes are very possible, though technology limits the early models to small planes, said Boyd, who tracks the market potential for new aviation, including the supersonic aircraft in development by Boom Technology, also at Centennial Airport.

“This isn’t Buck Rogers stuff. What Mr. Bye is doing is really grounded technology. In Europe, ATR is building 70-seat turboprops. Boeing, Airbus, everybody is (working on electric) and not because they’re trying to save the planet,” Boyd said. “I’ve said this before, and it drives people crazy: The reason a four-passenger airplane wants to go electric is because it’s far more cost efficient than what we have today. It’s not because we want to save the planet and do away with the carbon footprint.”

Bye, who also is developing a solar-powered aircraft and is on the board of Silent Falcon, an unmanned aircraft company, wants the Sun Flyer to be the first FAA-approved, all-electric airplane serving the flight-training market. He’s hoping to get it approved and start production by late 2020.

“The electric motor is about the size of a stack of pancakes and that’s crazy,” Bye said. “All of the thrust, all of the performance comes from an efficient electric motor that weighs all of 57 pounds.”

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With Democrats in charge, Colorado now backs Obama clean air rule

DENVER — Colorado’s new attorney general said Wednesday the state will withdraw from a lawsuit challenging one of the Obama administration’s biggest climate change initiatives.

Democrat Phil Weiser’s announcement signaled a reversal from his predecessor, Republican Cynthia Coffman, who signed Colorado on to a multistate lawsuit seeking to roll back the Clean Power Plan.

“Instead, we’ll be on the side supporting it,” Weiser said.

Speaking at the Outdoor Retailer and Snow Show in Denver, Weiser promised other legal action to restore or retain environmental protections.

He said Colorado would join two other multistate lawsuits, one trying to block the Trump administration from rolling back tougher car mileage standards, and another that would preserve the right of individual states to impose higher mileage standards than the federal requirements.

“The rule of law requires a response to climate change. I will fight for that,” Weiser said.

Weiser took office this month after defeating Republican George Brauchler in November. Coffman didn’t run for re-election but made an unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for governor.

The Clean Power Plan, enacted in 2015 by President Barack Obama, would have increased federal regulation of emissions from electricity plants and promoted cleaner energy, including natural gas and solar and wind power.

Coffman decided to challenge the plan over the objection of then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. Hickenlooper asked the state Supreme Court to block Coffman, but the justices declined to step in.

The Clean Power Plan has been held up by court challenges, including the lawsuit that Colorado joined. The Trump administration said in August it planned to replace the Obama rules with new ones giving states more authority to regulate existing coal power plants.

Colorado would be at least the 18th state to sue the Trump administration over mileage standards. Trump wants to freeze the national standard at 30 miles per gallon (13 kilometers per liter), the level mandated by the Obama administration for 2020. Trump wants to block a subsequent increase to 36 miles per gallon (15 kilometers per liter) in 2025.

The Trump administration also wants to revoke a provision that allows California and other states to set higher mileage standards than the federal government.

Colorado adopted California’s standard in November. The Colorado Automobile Dealers Association filed a lawsuit in state court Monday challenging that action.

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Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP.

WATCH: Greeley’s Bella Romero school, fracking fight featured on “The Daily Show”

The years-long saga of the fracking operation near Bella Romero Academy in Greeley was featured Tuesday night in a segment on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, increasing national attention on the site that was already the subject of a New York Times article.

In the piece, “The Daily Show” correspondent Desi Lydic visited Greeley and spoke with Bella Romero parent Patricia Nelson and lawyer Tim Estep, and questioned the proximity of the site to the school. The Daily Show airs weeknights on Comedy Central.

The well pad housing 24 wells sits about 1,350 feet from the school, but just 500 feet from the school’s ballfields, according to a lawsuit related to the site.

The “Daily Show” segment focused on not only the proximity of the wells to Bella Romero, but also the disparity in how a similar proposed site was handled a few years earlier at Frontier Academy Elementary School.

To read the full story and see “The Daily Show” segment, go to The Greeley Tribune

Colorado Supreme Court denies request by Martinez oil and gas attorneys to vacate dissenting opinion by former judge

The Colorado Supreme Court has denied a request by attorneys on the losing side of the so-called Martinez oil and gas case to vacate its ruling because of the involvement of an appeals court judge who resigned under pressure over ethical lapses.

The Supreme Court denial came Monday without any explanation as to why the judges turned down the request to vacate Colorado Appeals Court Judge Laurie Booras’ dissenting opinion in the case.

Booras was accused of referring to a colleague as “the little Mexican” and to a Native American woman as a “squaw” in emails that she has argued were private.

The Colorado Supreme Court reversed a 2-1 Colorado Court of Appeals decision on the Martinez case earlier this month, siding with Booras’ dissent, and ruling that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission did not need to prioritize public health, safety and the environment when making decisions about oil and gas development.

“The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the oil and gas industry relied heavily on Booras’ dissenting opinion in their arguments to the Supreme Court and ultimately, the Supreme Court also cited her dissent and used it to find ambiguity in the law they were interpreting,” Julia Olson, chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, previously said in a statement.

Auto dealers sue state to prevent Colorado’s adoption of California’s low-emission vehicle standard

After unsuccessfully arguing against joining California’s low-emission vehicle standard, a group of local car sellers has sued the state to prevent the regulation from moving forward.

In the complaint filed in District Court in Denver, the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association said the state’s Air Quality Control Commission rushed through the process and failed to follow several statutory requirements, including studying the economic and social effect specifically on Colorado.

READ: Read the complaint filed by CADA against the state.

“We’re the state with the highest and lowest roads in the country,” said Paul M. Seby, a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig representing the automobile dealers. “We’re also a rural state where we have a large agriculture economy and we’re a truck state. … California is not. They have large population centers and people buy smaller cars. That’s fine, but we’re not California.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health and Environment said the state is unable to comment.

Camila Shannon, a 17-year-old senior from Fairview HIgh School in Boulder, testified in favor of the state adopting a low emission vehicle standard. She spoke to the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission on Nov. 14, 2018. (Provided by Camila Shannon)

Irene Gutierrez, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who worked with Colorado supporters, said the process took months and public hearings gave all parties a chance to chime in multiple times.

“The auto dealers are making the same comments and same arguments they raised in the Colorado proceeding, which we believe we thoroughly and conclusively rebutted,” she said. “… A lot of their arguments is about the state failing to follow the procedural process. Our view is the state has done what it needed to do to get the regulation in place.”

Automobile dealers were some of the loudest opponents during the five-month process as the commission held public hearings to consider adopting California’s LEV standard. It passed in November, about five months after then-Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order to join the California standard. (Gov. Jared Polis made a similar move on Jan. 17 for the state to adopt California’s standard for electric vehicles.)

The Air Pollution Control Division did present its economic impact report last fall. Accounting for technology automakers needed to implement in vehicles to meet lower emission standards, the LEV standard could push average new car prices up $1,138 starting with model year 2022. But better gas mileage would lower fuel costs and offset higher car prices by $1,216 to $1,682 in savings from fuel and other maintenance costs. It would also help Colorado reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 30 million tons through 2030.

The Automobile Dealers Association countered that in its research, the per-vehicle cost would increase more than $2,000 and cause a 4 percent to 9.4 percent decline in sales. The higher price tag would encourage consumers to buy higher-polluting used cars or buy them out of state.

“This is encouraging people to buy older, less emission-controlled vehicles, and this isn’t a positive thing for the environment,” Seby said.

Since the 1960s, California has been allowed to set its own air quality standards because of the heavy pollution in the state. States have since been able to choose whether to follow California’s rules or the nation’s. In 2012, President Barack Obama persuaded major automakers to step up their fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by the year 2025, effectively creating one national standard.

MORE: An electric car for under $10,000? Used EVs becoming a more affordable, but risky, new market

Colorado was on track to meet the same low emission regulation as California. But the Trump administration said emission goals were too strict and proposed freezing them in 2020. So, for states wishing to maintain the earlier goals after 2020, they needed to join California’s. Colorado became the 13th state plus Washington, D.C., to join California’s standard.

“There’s no question that fuel efficiency standards are what drives this,” said Jacob Smith, executive director for Colorado Communities for Climate Action. “We know when those standards go up, families, small businesses and local government, every one spends less money on the life of the vehicle.”

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Colorado car dealers sue regulators to repeal tougher vehicle fuel efficiency standards

Tougher vehicle fuel standards approved late last year by Colorado state regulators were unlawful and should be set aside, the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association says in a new lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, seeks to repeal a rule approved in November by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission that requires automakers to boost fuel efficiency. The auto dealers contend the new standards would result in onerous sticker price increases that would harm working families, and accused regulators of making up their minds before taking public input.

Then-Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order in June 2018 mandating the state adopt low-emission vehicle standards by 2025. An executive order by newly sworn-in Gov. Jared Polis builds on efforts to reduce climate-changing vehicle emissions by developing the infrastructure, including charging stations, to support more electric vehicles and to make more of the state fleet electric.

The air quality control commission also plans to consider a rule requiring manufacturers to sell a certain percentage of electric vehicles in Colorado.

The lawsuit by the car dealers association names the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division as defendants. A health department spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

To carry out the executive order on the low-emissions standard, the commission rushed through the process, ignoring timelines required by state law and not providing the public enough time to review and comment on revised economic analyses, Matthew Groves, staff counsel for the dealers association, said Tuesday.

Approval of the more stringent standards in Colorado followed the Trump administration’s proposal to roll back the Obama administration’s requirement for automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks by 2025.

California is the only state that has a waiver under the federal Clean Air Act to impose its own vehicle fuel standards. States without waivers can approve a separate standard as long as it’s identical to California’s, which Colorado’s is.

The new Colorado rule requires automakers to boost fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon, which is the target goal on paper. The actual number for vehicles in real-world conditions works out to be roughly 39 miles per gallon. The rule will start affecting new lightweight and medium-duty vehicles in 2022.

“Rather than trust the citizens of our state to choose the vehicles they need and want to drive safely in Colorado’s unique conditions, the Commission has concluded that California’s regulators, not Coloradans, should decide what vehicles must be bought and sold in our state,” the dealers association said in a written statement.

The new regulation will add $2,110 to the sticker price of average new vehicles in Colorado and even more for sports utility vehicles and trucks, the auto association said. The commission’s analysis of the rule’s costs and benefits was flawed because of inaccurate and misleading information on gas and vehicle prices, the association contended.

Groves said the commission also failed to factor in the differences between the Colorado and California markets and buyers’ preferences.

In California, 53 percent of the vehicles bought are trucks and SUVs. That figure is 75 percent in Colorado, Groves said.

Under the low-emissions standard, Colorado car buyers will have the same choices they have now, said Carol Lee Rawn, senior director of transportation at Ceres, a nonprofit working with companies and investors on solutions to social and environmental issues. The target fuel standard is the goal for the overall fleet, she added. For example, the fuel efficiency standard for a large SUV would be lower than for a sedan, she said.

“All the vehicles available now will still be available. They’ll just be more fuel efficient. It’s hard to see how that’s not a win for the consumer,” Rawn said.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s peer-reviewed analysis of the Obama administration’s fuel standard said buyers would pay an average of $1,200 more per car but save about $6,000 in fuel costs over the life of the vehicle, Rawn said. Newer studies have said the upfront costs would be even lower, she added.

Tighter rules for oil, gas emissions statewide being considered by Colorado regulators

State air regulators are hearing from environmental groups and some western Colorado counties that stronger rules for emissions from oil and gas operations in place along the Front Range should apply statewide.

The state Air Pollution Control Division is studying whether to extend some of the requirements statewide. A Jan. 17 hearing by the division marked the half-way point in a two-year process that has involved public meetings, talks among interest groups and comments from people across Colorado.

The Air Quality Control Commission, the policy-making body, directed staffers to look into potential changes to statewide rules after regulations were tightened along the Front Range in 2017.

Gary Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, the state regulatory agency, said meetings have taken place since then, and an update was scheduled for this month.

“Everybody has an opportunity to submit proposals. We’re in the midst of looking at proposals,” Kaufman said.

The commission wants to hear recommendations no later than January 2020, Kaufman added.

State regulations first approved in 2014 for oil and gas emissions were considered a national model. Colorado was the first state to regulate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Requirements included regular inspections of wells, a timeline for repairs and significant cuts in leaks of volatile organic compounds, pollutants that form ground-level ozone — smog — when heated by the sun.

Vehicle emissions also contribute to ozone pollution. Health problems linked to high ozone levels include stinging eyes and throat, chest pains, coughing and difficulty breathing.

In 2017, the state tightened some of the requirements along the Front Range, where oil and gas development has increased significantly and where the ozone levels exceed the maximum level allowed under federal law. The nine-county, so-called “non-attainment” area includes Denver, Jefferson, Adams, Boulder, Broomfield, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, as well parts of Weld and Larimer counties.

At the time, Kaufman said there was a push to tighten the regulations statewide. That’s when the Air Quality Control Commission directed the staff to start studying potential changes. He said there is support for extending the rules statewide, but also concern from some local governments about the potential economic impacts on the industry if the regulations are expanded.

“We really want to see better protections from oil and gas pollution,” said Dan Grossman, the Environmental Defense Fund’s national director of state programs for oil and gas. “I think most of us start from the position that the statewide regulations need to be strengthened. No matter where you live, you should be entitled to the same protections.

The Environmental Defense Fund supports a requirement that a well emitting low volumes of emissions be inspected at least twice a year instead of just once over its lifetime. That change was made for wells along the Front Range in 2017.

The organization also wants to see more regulation of pneumatic devices that control valves on oil and gas equipment statewide.

For its part, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association has engaged 37 companies, four separate trade associations and emission-control-technology vendors across the state as changes are considered, said Christy Woodward, the trade organization’s senior director of regulatory affairs said in an email.

“We held over 60 meetings and spent hundreds of hours reviewing and discussing the science and data,” said Woodward, who suggested that new regulations might not be the best approach.

“One of our preliminary lessons learned in this process is that larger reductions can be achieved outside of a regulatory process, through industry working with environmental and local government stakeholders to find operational practices that work best for each company. It may take longer and require thoughtful discussion, but if the outcomes are better, why would we not choose this option,” Woodward added.

La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said in a statement that oil and gas emissions are a statewide problem that need a statewide solution. She noted that a 2016 NASA study analyzed a 2,400-square-mile methane cloud over the San Juan Basin in southwest Colorado. The study said the methane emissions were primarily associated with “the production and transport of natural gas from coal beds.”

“This methane ‘hotspot’ underscores the need for stronger rules to reduce emissions that apply across the state,” Lachelt said. “Methane is a powerful climate change pollutant that threatens Colorado’s $28 billion outdoor recreation industry, which is to say it’s harmful to our economies and our way of life.”


Map: Colorado oil and gas well permits

Updated at 10:29 a.m. Jan. 29, 2019

Pending permits: 6,322 | + 106 from last week • Approved permits: 5,734 | + 44 from last week

California’s PG&E files for bankruptcy amid wildfire lawsuits

SAN FRANCISCO — Faced with potentially ruinous lawsuits over California’s recent wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection Tuesday in a move that could drive up rates for customers of the nation’s biggest utility and reduce the size of any payouts fire victims receive.

The Chapter 11 filing allows PG&E to continue operating while it puts its finances in order. But it was seen as a possible glimpse of the financial toll that could lie ahead because of global warming, which scientists say is leading to fiercer, more destructive blazes and longer fire seasons.

The bankruptcy could also jeopardize California’s ambitious program to switch entirely to renewable energy sources.

PG&E cited hundreds of lawsuits from victims of fires in 2017 and 2018 and tens of billions of dollars in potential liabilities when it announced earlier this month that it planned to file for bankruptcy.

The blazes include the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century — the one in November that killed at least 86 people and destroyed 15,000 homes in Paradise and surrounding communities. The cause is under investigation, but suspicion fell on PG&E after it reported power line problems nearby around the time the fire broke out.

Last week, however, state investigators determined that the company’s equipment was not to blame for a 2017 fire that killed 22 people in Northern California wine country.

The bankruptcy filing immediately puts the wildfire lawsuits on hold and consolidates them in bankruptcy court, where legal experts say victims will probably receive less money.

In a bankruptcy proceeding, the victims have little chance of getting punitive damages or taking their claims to a jury. They will also have to stand in line behind PG&E’s secured creditors, such as banks, when a judge decides who gets paid and how much.

“My administration will continue working to ensure that Californians have access to safe, reliable and affordable service, that victims and employees are treated fairly, and that California continues to make forward progress on our climate change goals,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.

Legal experts say the bankruptcy will probably take years to resolve and result in higher rates for PG&E customers. The company provides natural gas and electricity to 16 million people in Northern and central California.

PG&E would not speculate about the effect on customers’ bills, noting that the state Public Utilities Commission sets rates. It said the bankruptcy filing would not affect electricity or gas service and would allow for an “orderly, fair and expeditious resolution” of wildfire claims.

PG&E also filed for bankruptcy in 2001 during an electricity crisis marked by rolling blackouts and the manipulation of the energy market. It emerged from bankruptcy three years later but obtained billions in higher payments from ratepayers.

California has set a goal of getting 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources such as wind, solar and hydropower by 2045. To achieve that, utilities must switch to buying power from renewable sources.

PG&E made agreements in 2017 to buy electricity from solar farms. But because of its bankruptcy, some experts have questioned its ability to pay what it agreed to, or to make the investments in grid upgrades and batteries necessary to bring more renewable energy online.

“PG&E’s bankruptcy is going to make it a lot more costly for California to meet its environmental goals, and could make it more challenging just to get the infrastructure built to help cut emissions and increase renewable energy,” said Travis Miller, an investment strategist at Morningstar Inc.

Consumer activist Erin Brockovich, who took on PG&E in the 1990s, had urged California lawmakers not to let the utility go into bankruptcy because it could mean less money for wildfire victims.

PG&E faced additional pressure not to move forward with the bankruptcy after investigators said a private electrical system, not utility equipment, caused the 2017 wine country blaze that destroyed more than 5,600 buildings in Sonoma and Napa counties. Newsom’s office estimated that more than half of the roughly $30 billion in potential wildfire damages that PG&E said it was facing was from that fire.

While the investigators’ finding reduced PG&E’s potential liability, it wasn’t enough to reassure investors. Its stock is 70 percent from a year ago.

Bussewitz contributed from New York.

Trump rollbacks for fossil fuel industries carry steep health, environmental costs

BILLINGS, Mont. — As the Trump administration rolls back environmental and safety rules for the energy sector, government projections show billions of dollars in savings reaped by companies will come at a steep cost: more premature deaths and illnesses from air pollution, a jump in climate-warming emissions and more severe derailments of trains carrying explosive fuels.

The Associated Press analyzed 11 major rules targeted for repeal or relaxation under Trump, using the administration’s own estimates to tally how its actions would boost businesses and harm society.

The AP identified up to $11.6 billion in potential future savings for companies that extract, burn and transport fossil fuels. Industry windfalls of billions of dollars more could come from a freeze in vehicle efficiency standards that will yield an estimated 79 billion-gallon (300 million-liter) increase in fuel consumption.

On the opposite side of the government’s ledger, buried in thousands of pages of analyses, are the “social costs” of rolling back the regulations. Among them:

— Up to 1,400 additional premature deaths annually due to the pending repeal of a rule to cut coal plant pollution.

— An increase in greenhouse gas emissions by about 1 billion tons (907 million metric tons) from vehicles produced over the next decade — a figure equivalent to annual emissions of almost 200 million vehicles.

— Increased risk of water contamination from a drilling technique known as “fracking.”

— Fewer safety checks to prevent offshore oil spills.

For the Trump administration and its supporters, the rule changes examined by AP mark a much-needed pivot away from heavy regulations that threatened to hold back the Republican president’s goal of increasing U.S. energy production. But the AP’s findings also underscore the administration’s willingness to put company profits ahead of safety considerations and pollution effects.

Siding with industry

The AP found the administration has sought to bolster the changes by emphasizing, and sometimes exaggerating, economic gains while minimizing negative impacts.

For example, when calculating future damages from greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants, the Trump administration looked only at U.S. effects, instead of globally. That drastically reduced the benefits of emission restrictions and allowed the administration to conclude the Obama-era rule was no longer justified, given costs to the coal industry.

In another instance, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to stop considering secondary benefits of controlling mercury emissions — namely reductions in other pollutants projected to prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths.

Last month, the AP revealed that the administration understated the advantages of installing better brakes on trains carrying crude oil and ethanol. Transportation Department officials acknowledged they miscalculated potential benefits by up to $117 million because they failed to include some projected future derailments.

In explaining its actions, the Trump administration said in some cases that the previous administration understated the price tag on new industry restrictions. In others, it said President Barack Obama’s administration had been overly expansive in how it defined benefits to society.

Michael Greenstone, a University of Chicago professor who served as chief economist for Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said the Trump administration was downplaying the health and environmental impacts of its actions.

“When you start fudging the numbers, it’s not that the costs just evaporate into thin air. We will pay,” Greenstone said. “They are reducing the costs for industries where pollution is a byproduct.”

The rules being targeted were largely crafted under Obama in response to climate change, the disastrous 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, massive releases from coal ash dumps and fuel train explosions.

Administration: Negligible risks

Trump’s administration has stressed that savings for companies were greater than any increased perils to safety or the environment.

“We fully recognize every significant policy decision has a consequence and that those consequences can differ,” acting U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told the AP. “I think when you look at the track record, holistically, what you see is our deregulatory efforts are still pretty protective.”

The AP’s tally of savings was derived from government projections required under a 1993 executive order. Five of the rule changes are still pending.

On rules for toxic coal ash, offshore safety and refinery pollution, the administration said companies would save hundreds of millions of dollars with little or no added risk — an assertion former federal officials and environmental groups have disputed.

The potential industry savings were projected largely over the next decade.

Sectors of the coal industry see lifting costly rules as a matter of survival because demand has plummeted as utilities switch to cleaner-burning fuels.

For the oil and gas industry, with hundreds of billions of dollars in annual revenue, the economic impact of the Obama-era rules was comparatively small. But they were vigorously opposed as restrictions on business.

“We need to make sure we’re putting together rules that are flexible enough to apply the latest, greatest technologies,” said Erik Milito, vice president for the American Petroleum institute. He said the group focused on whether rules make sense, rather than cost savings.

Critics say the impact on public health and the environment will be even worse than projected.

“I don’t think it’s well understood what the death toll of these policies will be for the American people,” said Paul Billings, of the American Lung Association.

Obama climate agenda assailed

Two sweeping changes under Trump — the rollback of the Clean Power Plan that threatened to close many coal power plants and a reversal of plans to increase vehicle fuel efficiency standards — were centerpieces of Obama’s climate change actions.

Killing the power plan would save companies up to $6.4 billion, the EPA concluded.

The trade-off is almost 61 million tons (55 million metric tons) annually of additional carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. The administration calculated that those emissions carry a maximum of $3.2 billion in “social costs,” such as flood damage and higher air conditioning costs.

Since company savings outweighed pollution costs, the administration said scrapping the power plan was justified. That conclusion was possible largely because the EPA limited social costs to effects in the U.S., instead of globally as under Obama.

EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said the analysis complied with a 2003 directive under President George W. Bush that said such reviews should focus on costs and benefits to people in the U.S.

Joe Goffman, a former EPA official who helped create the clean power plan and now at Harvard Law School, said the omission of international impacts “doesn’t track with reality” given that climate change is a worldwide problem.

The Trump administration also limited pollution cost considerations in its proposal last month on mercury emitted by coal plants.

When the mercury rule was finalized in 2012, the EPA projected up to $90 billion in benefits, including avoidance of up to 11,000 premature deaths from other power plant pollutants.

Now, the EPA says those benefits could not be considered because they are not directly tied to mercury reductions. The only benefits that should be counted, the agency said, were improvements to IQ scores as a result of less mercury exposure, valued at up to $6 million annually.

The National Mining Association had urged the change. Spokesman Conor Bernstein said Obama’s EPA misused the concept of secondary pollution benefits to justify its actions.

The rollback’s impact is unclear since utilities already have spent an estimated $18 billion on new pollution controls.

Fuel standards and drilling safety

Some experts outside government take issue with the rationale for relaxing the fuel economy rule.

The Trump administration says reducing standards would save as many as 1,000 lives annually and spare consumers and car companies hundreds of billions of dollars on vehicles with higher gas mileage. To reach that conclusion, officials lowered estimates of how many vehicles people would buy.

But economists including from the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research say that assumption was fundamentally flawed, since looser standards would make cars cheaper and therefore increase demand. The economists said the government used misleading findings to wipe out at least $112 billion in potential societal benefits while falsely claiming its change would save numerous lives.

“Every change they made was made in the direction to make the standards look more expensive and the rollback to look cheaper and better,” said Jeff Alson, who worked 40 years at an EPA lab in Michigan.

Several rules reworked under Trump tie directly to worker and public safety.

The administration rescinded requirements for improved fuel train brakes after determining the costs to industry would be higher than previously calculated. It acknowledged more spills from derailments would likely occur.

After AP’s story about the agency’s $117 million benefits understatement, spokesman Bobby Fraser said the decision to rescind the Obama rule would stand because the costs were still greater.

Two safety rules for offshore oil and gas drilling were adopted following the Deepwater Horizon accident, which killed 11 people and spilled 134 million gallons (507 million liters) of oil.

The Interior Department now says less rigid inspection and equipment requirements would save drilling companies hundreds of millions of dollars with “negligible” safety and environmental risks.

Lynn Scarlett, acting Interior Secretary under George W. Bush, said the changes ignore a government commission’s findings on the Gulf spill.

“You’re removing a tool that was developed intentionally to help reduce the risks,” Scarlett said. “The failure to have those protections raises the risk, such that actions can result in accidents like Deepwater Horizon.”