Obama’s Climate Action Plan: A View from the West

By Gail Reitenbach

Santa Fe, N.M., June 26, 2013 — If you’re looking for an example of just how complex—and critical—the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change can be, look west.

Those involved in the power generation industry are understandably focused on a single element of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan (CAP)—the promise of carbon dioxide emission restrictions on not just new but also existing fossil-fueled power plants. But the reality is that the CAP, if it has any hope of success, will have to achieve goals across multiple dimensions. (It’s that “web of life” complexity that humans aren’t very good at comprehending or “managing.”) Coordination among agencies and strategies will be essential but, I suspect, less than ideal. Whether the strategies announced on June 25 will be effective is another matter.

The CAP has three main goals: cut U.S. carbon emissions, prepare the U.S. for climate change impacts, and lead international efforts to address global climate change. Under each goal you’ll find several strategies.

What struck me immediately when I reviewed the first two goals of the plan—cutting emissions and mitigating climate change effects—is that some strategies are intertwined and potentially in conflict. Here are three power-related tensions I see in the CAP from my first-hand view of record-setting drought, wildfires, and cattle conundrums in the West.

Fuel for the Fire

One strategy under emissions cutting is titled “Preserving the Role of Forests in Mitigating Climate Change.” As someone who loves the outdoors in general and forest hikes in particular, I’m all for that goal. Here’s the bulk of that section:

America’s forests play a critical role in addressing carbon pollution, removing nearly 12 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year. In the face of a changing climate and increased risk of wildfire, drought, and pests, the capacity of our forests to absorb carbon is diminishing. Pressures to develop forest lands for urban or agricultural uses also contribute to the decline of forest carbon sequestration. Conservation and sustainable management can help to ensure our forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere while also improving soil and water quality, reducing wildfire risk, and otherwise managing forests to be more resilient in the fact of climate change. The Administration is working to identify new approaches to protect and restore our forests …

The CAP also calls for electricity generation from renewables, including biomass, to double by 2020. “Forest products” are the primary fuel for biomass boilers. Trouble is, they’re also fuel for wildfires, which destroy forests and reduce their GHG capturing potential.

Finding feasible ways to both protect forests and fuel renewable generation could prove tricky. There could be a win-win here if all the beetle-killed trees in the West (the combination of drought and warmer winters is largely blamed for the ferocity of the destructive bark beetles) were harvested for biomass boilers. However, that’s not an easy solution logistically. It also raises the question of the net GHG effect of transporting all that dead wood to a willing buyer, which may be an ocean away.

The promise that conservation and “sustainable management” can protect forests and reduce wildfire risk is an empty one unless not just the administration and federal agencies (which control vast swaths of U.S. forests) but also state and local authorities develop “new approaches,” because the old ones have proven to have limited effect.

For decades, the U.S. Forest Service and state and local agencies have conducted “controlled burns” designed to simulate nature’s cyclical forest housecleaning by reducing fuel buildup and thereby minimizing the likelihood of larger, hotter fires. The problem is that “controlled burns” have far too often turned into “uncontrolled burns” (usually due to unexpected high winds or wind direction shifts), resulting in unintended damage to public and private property and, sometimes, loss of life.

Even with the best possible forest thinning, clearing, and replanting management, the three main causes of wildfire cannot be completely managed: lightning, human negligence, and power lines. Optimal forest management might limit the extent of fires caused by lightning and careless or malevolent humans, but the actions of those sources are unpredictable. More preventable would be forest fires along power line corridors.

If it surprises you to learn that power lines cause wildfires, consider that the Las Conchas Fire, which burned 150,000 acres in 2011—making it New Mexico’s largest fire—started when a tree fell on a power line. Two recent fires in the state—the Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge blazes—have been blamed on contact between trees and downed power lines. New Mexico is in its second year of record-setting drought, so that should give you some indication of tinder-dry conditions in Santa Fe National Forest, where these fires, plus a lightning-ignited one, all started. To date, just those three fires have burned more than 42,000 acres; statewide, 192 square miles have burned already this year. Most other western states have also seen early season wildfires.

Burying distribution lines to prevent electrically sparked fires is often discounted as being too expensive, but in western states, the public is starting to ask regulators and utilities to weigh the costs of line burial against the also-massive costs of firefighting and lost property, businesses, and lives. Wider easements might also help, but gaining permission for them can involve coordination with conflicting regulations, including the Endangered Species Act.

Why should all Americans care about more, larger, hotter, and less-manageable wildfires in the West? Without getting into the details of how recent wildfires are different from historical, all-natural ones, wildfires are one of the “feedback” effects of climate change. At least some wildfires could be said to have climate change as a contributing factor, but in turn, they also contribute to climate change by the combustion of carbon dioxide–emitting fuel.

In fact, just last week I received an email from a POWER reader who asked if I knew how much CO, CO2, and other pollutants are contributed by wildfires compared to manmade sources. There isn’t room here to go into all aspects of that interesting question, but a 2007 study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that “Large-scale fires in western and southeastern states can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a few weeks as the states’ entire motor vehicle traffic in a year” and “Overall, the study estimates that U.S. fires release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent of 4 to 6 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning.” (Note: The researchers “caution that their estimates have a margin of error of about 50 percent, both because of inexact data about the extent of fires and varying estimates of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by different types of blazes.”) Regardless of the long-term effects of wildfires on the climate, just the smoke and soot can have immediate respiratory effects on those in its path.

Water Management

One of the administration’s strategies for preparing the nation for climate change impacts is “Managing Drought.” The vagueness of the “how” is less than reassuring: “By linking information (monitoring, forecasts, outlooks, and early warnings) with drought preparedness and longer-term resilience strategies in critical sectors, this effort will help communities manage drought-related risks.”

To be fair, when you have little to no rainfall, stressed aquifers, and/or water use restrictions, preparedness is moot; you are forced to adapt—by planting xeric trees and plants (or none at all), by being stingy with domestic water use, and by driving a dusty vehicle. Having already adapted in all of these ways, it troubled me to find this potentially conflicting goal in the CAP: “Our scientists will design new fuels, and our farmers will grow them.”

Maybe those new biofuel crops will all be grown in regions with ample rainfall and require no irrigation, but that certainly isn’t the case for current options like corn used to produce ethanol. Power generators are familiar with the difference between water withdrawal (and return) and water use. At some point we have to ask whether withdrawal and use from aquifers and surface water sources for growing “renewable fuel” negates that energy source as renewable.

At a time when a number of factors, including sustained drought, have been behind the development and deployment of water-minimizing power generation technologies, let’s hope those scientists develop a biofuel crop that requires absolutely no irrigation.

A Different Sort of Gas Reserve

Methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so it was good to see that one of the CAP’s goals is to reduce methane emissions. It’s not clear from the public plan what exactly will be involved in minimizing those emissions, but we’re told that,  “over the last three years, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture have worked with the dairy industry to increase the adoption of methane digesters through loans, incentives, and other assistance.”

In other words, the government is incentivizing dairy farmers to convert cow manure into electricity via anaerobic manure digesters. It’s easier to capture the fuel from dairy cows, which generally stay within walking distance of their milking facility, than from free-range cattle—more commonly raised for their meat—so there’s still a lot of renewable fuel going to waste.

I suspect that vegetarian and vegan folks would argue Obama’s CAP doesn’t go far enough and that he should have created incentives for dairy and beef farmers to switch to less-gassy animals or, better yet, raising soybeans. Personally, I think the farm economy has more than enough government incentives and supports, and I do enjoy a nice steak now and then. Here’s one of the things I find interesting about the cattle-sourced methane issue: Cattle are simultaneously contributors to GHG emissions and victims of climate change effects.

According to a story in The Santa Fe New Mexican the morning of the CAP announcement, “As feed gets more expensive and arid land becomes harder to graze on, cattle ranchers around New Mexico and elsewhere in the U.S. are being forced to sell off their herds, which leads to a price spike as demand for beef remains high and supply gets lower and takes years to recharge.” Some ranchers have hauled their cattle to other states to graze, which also adds to costs.

Livestock have also been affected by wildfire. Last summer, ranchers in arid eastern Oregon had more than drought to worry about, as the fast-spreading lightning-started “Long Draw” range fire on federal lands forced them to move—or abandon—cattle. One rancher lost a third of his cows and calves to the fire.

A Side Order of Immediate Gratification

In President Obama’s introduction of his CAP at Georgetown University on June 25, he repeatedly mentioned the need to address climate change in order to ensure a habitable planet for future generations. However, he also noted that we are already coping with the consequences of climate change. Whereas Gulf (and now East) Coast residents have hurricane-preparedness plans, here in the West, many of us recently have gotten into the summer habit of packing “fire-escape” bags and have convinced ourselves that brown is the new green in gardening.

The view from the West is that dealing with the effects of climate change, let alone mitigating its extent, will be complicated and involve challenging tradeoffs.

Some will remain unconvinced that Americans should take steps to curb GHG emissions. But who says Americans can’t inventively create a more environmentally secure future while enjoying some immediate economic, environmental, and social benefits along the way?

If implementing the CAP helps us in the near term to reduce the number of preventable and beyond-control wildfires, use our limited freshwater resources more wisely, and protect grazing cattle, we will have gained something valuable in our lifetimes. And that’s why I hope the CAP will get all Americans (especially those in the private sector) thinking about creative ways to tackle GHG emissions while ensuring a healthy future— and present—for our forest, water, and bovine resources.

—Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s managing editor.