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Celebrating Conservation Gains

Clearer skies, reduced emissions part of conservation gains

An impressive set of conservation gains over the past year has resulted in clearer skies, reduced carbon emissions and protected landscapes across our region.

Most significant is the September closure of the San Juan Generating Station, the 847-megawatt coal-fired powerplant near Farmington. The plant’s closure brings enormous climate benefits by eliminating 6 million tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions and also removed a significant contributor to hazy skies.

Some years back, the powerplant’s owners agreed to close half the then 1600-MW powerplant in order to avoid installing state-of-the-art pollution control equipment on the remaining half for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides that contribute to haze and decreased visibility. Now, with complete closure of the plant, many are noting clearer skies and longer vistas unimpaired by the plant’s prior pollution.

In August, Congress enacted sweeping climate change legislation to tackle greenhouse gas emissions on a national scale. Incentives are targeted at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and toward shifting transportation to electric vehicles to reduce pollution from fossil fuel powered engines.

Included in the so-called Inflation Reduction Act is financial assistance for electric cooperatives hoping to jump-start their transition from coal to renewable energy sources. Our wholesale electric provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, could potentially tap into financial assistance to help retire its several-billion dollar debt associated with its aging fleet of coal-fired power plants.

The Inflation Reduction Act also enacted long-awaited reforms to our nation’s oil and gas leasing program. Royalty rates were updated for the first time in 100 years, and rental rates for the use of public lands by oil companies were similarly increased. One key reform is the elimination of noncompetitive leasing where companies could lock up thousands of acres of public land without any public auction. The changes should dramatically reduce speculative leasing and focus future development on locations most likely to be productive.

In November, the U.S. Department of Interior unveiled its proposal to restrict new oil and gas development around Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The plan will place over 300,000 acres within a 10-mile radius around Chaco off-limits to expanded oil and gas drilling. Roads, well pads and pipelines have been encroaching relentlessly on the renowned culture landscape.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas 80 times more harmful than carbon dioxide over the short term. In response, New Mexico adopted vastly improved methane rules in April. New Mexico is one of the country’s largest producers of oil and gas, and the state’s leadership reigning in methane pollution from oil and gas production from over 30,000 wells around Farmington should go a long ways toward improving both health and the environment.

Area wildlife benefited immensely from the July completion of our region’s first dedicated wildlife overpass across Highway 160 west of Pagosa Springs. Colorado Department of Transportation partnered with the Southern Ute Tribe and others to build the overpass in a big-game migration corridor with frequent animal-vehicle collisions. The overpass will improve safety for drivers and help eliminate mortality for elk, deer and other wildlife by reducing collisions by an estimated 85%.

Some gains are measured by the absence of development projects. Chief among these in our region is the Village at Wolf Creek, a proposal by a Texas developer for a city of 8,000 people atop Wolf Creek Pass. In October, a federal court rejected the latest attempt to gain needed approvals from the Forest Service that would authorize the project’s development.

As the year end approaches, we’ve much to appreciate about the remarkable character of our region, and can celebrate improved vistas, undeveloped landscapes and thriving wildlife.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.