Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Battle to Stop Strip Mining in the Colorado River Basin

DENVER – A massive oil shale project is being planned on the border between Colorado and Utah that would take a lot of water out of the Colorado River Basin. The proposal by a European company, was authorized to proceed by the federal government; however, it may now find itself between a rock and a hard place because of a lawsuit recently filed by eight environmental organizations.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s oil shale reserves are in the Green River Formation, where Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming meet, according to the website for Enefit, an energy company. Enefit is a subsidiary of a state-owned company located in the Baltic Sea country of Estonia, and it wants to strip mine about 27,000 of its acres in Utah to access the oil in the rock that’s at the surface, or just below. The rock would be heated to high temperatures to release crude oil, which would then be ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

The mine would be located in a remote and rugged part of Utah about 40 miles from of Dinosaur National Monument in the Uintah Basin. It would be the first of its kind in the U.S. However, on May 16, eight different environmental groups represented by attorneys at Earthjustice banded together and sued the federal government to stop it.

Michael Toll, an attorney with the Grand Canyon Trust, one of the groups suing, said that the Bureau of Land Management did a completely inadequate analysis of the massive impacts of the planned oil shale development.

The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity joined with the Grand Canyon Trust and five other conservation groups claiming that, in issuing its permit, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not fully analyze issues like the impacts on wildlife and particularly water depletions from the Green River, an important tributary in the already stressed Colorado River Basin. Instead, the agencies looked only at the limited effects of a 14-mile water pipeline—not the whole operation.

Toll said that it’s difficult to identify the most significant impact of the proposed operation. He said that it’s a unique project with several impacts that are so egregious it is hard to pick just one. The project’s water consumption stands out because the region is so arid and, obviously, all through the West water is such a precious commodity. The mine would take about 11,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Green River. Toll said he thinks the company wants to take the water from the Green because that amount is oftentimes more than the entire flow of the nearby White River, another tributary in the basin. In a statement, Earthjustice said that depletions from the Green would harm critical habitat for endangered fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker.

In addition to the effects on water and wildlife, the environmental groups say the government needs to consider the enormous amounts of carbon emissions from burning the more than 500 million barrels of oil produced from the mining. A release by the Grand Canyon Trust says that oil shale is one of world’s most carbon-polluting fuels, with lifecycle carbon emissions up to 75 percent higher than those of conventional fuels.

And, there is the problem of the region’s air quality. The process of baking the rock to get the oil will emit huge amounts of ozone precursors, according to Earthjustice. Toll said that the Uintah Basin, where the mining operations could be located, was recently designated as out-of-attainment with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standards. He said there are many days when the air in the basin is unsafe to breathe, and it would be dramatically degraded by the mining.

In addition, the sheer size of the project will have huge impacts. According to the Grand Canyon Trust, Enefit is proposing to dig out more that 28 million tons of oil shale per year for 30 years or more. Rains would potentially cause salts and other pollutants to infiltrate into ground water and nearby surface waters, affecting various species. The amount of ground disturbance from the mine itself is another significant impact, according to Toll.

The plaintiffs in the case filed in Federal District Court in Salt Lake City want the court to order the Trump administration to do a comprehensive analysis of all the impacts for the proposed operation, instead of only considering a small feature of the project—a utility corridor including a water pipeline.

Enefit responded by email to a request for comment from H2O Radio. Ryan Clerico, the CEO of Enefit American Oil, said that the company is still conducting engineering and permitting in advance of commencing commercial operations. He also said that the government’s approval is only about a corridor for utilities and not for the project itself, which would be done by other state and federal agencies.

For now, the environmental groups have not asked the court to stop the project because the company has not started to dig up any ground, but if they get wind of that happening they will ask the court to halt it.

This story was first published by H20Radio.org on May 22, 2019. Read the original report here.

Storage of Commercial Honeybees on Federal Land May Protect Hives, Threaten Diversity

MANTI-LA SAL NATIONAL FOREST, Utah – Although a beehive adorns Utah’s state seal, honeybees have not always lived in the “Beehive State.” They arrived in Utah with Mormon settlers, who held the honeybee in high regard for what they considered its industrious nature and collective spirit, virtues they saw embodied in their own community. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader Brigham Young initially named the region “Deseret,” the Book of Mormon’s word for honeybee.

The 1876 Utah territory coat of arms features a beehive. (Image via Henry Mitchell/Wikipedia Commons)

Less celebrated is the state’s notable native bee diversity. In Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument alone, more than 650 native bee species have been identified. By comparison, just 750 documented native bee species exist in total east of the Mississippi River.

Now, a push to store commercial honeybees in Utah’s Manti-La Sal National Forest could threaten its native bee diversity. Located about 100 miles north of Grand Staircase, the national forest is home to hundreds of native bee species, including the declining western bumblebee. Scientists worry that a large influx of honeybees could bring resource competition, disease and ecosystem impacts.

According to documents acquired by the Center for Biological Diversity through Freedom of Information Act requests, Adee Farms, the largest private beekeeper in the country, has persistently applied for bee storage on several Utah national forests since 2012, boosted by a 2014 Obama administration memorandum that directed federal agencies to aid both honeybees and native bees. In the fall of 2017, Adee applied to place 100 hives each on 49 sites in Manti-La Sal, which equates to hundreds of millions of bees. To date, it has received permission to place 20 hives at just three sites each in the national forest.

Commercial honeybee populations have plummeted in recent decades, in large part due to months spent pollinating crops coated in pesticides. With immune systems weakened by chemicals, honeybees are vulnerable to diseases and pests, including the varroa mite, which latches onto honeybees and sucks them dry. Meanwhile, available land for storing bees during their off-season has shrunk, thanks to funding cuts to a federal program that paid Midwestern farmers to let land fallow. Beekeepers often stored their hives on this land.

“We are desperately trying to get out of pesticide areas due to the loss of our bees,” wrote Brian Burkett, an Adee Honey Farms employee, on one bee-storage application.

Tara Cornelisse, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, called pesticides the “common enemy” of both honeybees and native bees. “The reason honey producers want to put their hives there is that there are so few unimpacted places,” she said.

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The company has sought bee storage on at least three national forests in Utah. Honeybee storage on forest service land is not new: The practice exists in Arizona and California, as well as on Wasatch-Cache National Forest in northern Utah. Even so, scientists and conservationists fear what the spread of bee storage to southeastern Utah might do to the area’s native bee populations.

The threat to native bees stems from the same collective nature that the Mormons admired in honeybees: Honeybees, which are social, direct others in the hive to viable sources of pollen and nectar. Most of Utah’s native bees are solitary, not social, so they risk being outnumbered in the hunt for floral resources. Honeybees are also generalists; they pollinate many plants, which accounts for their value as commercial pollinators. Many native bees, meanwhile, have evolved to visit specific kinds of plants, so if they are driven away, they have fewer options, and their populations could decline from lack of food. That can affect an ecosystem’s makeup, because native bees often are better at pollinating native plants than honeybees. According to Vincent Tepedino, a retired bee biologist who has urged the Forest Service to reject honeybee storage, substantial honeybee storage in the Manti-La Sal could eventually change fruit and seed production. This would impact birds and other animals throughout the ecosystem.

Biologists also worry about the sheer magnitude of resources used by honeybee colonies. A research paper by Tepedino and James Cane, an agency entomologist based in Utah, calculated the amount of resources collected by a honeybee colony, and translated that into the equivalent number of baby solitary bees. In four months, the 4,900 hives requested by Adee would remove enough pollen to rear hundreds of millions of native bees.

Scientists say the effects of honeybees on native species, especially the potential for disease transfer, demand further study. “Absolutely there needs to be more research to learn more about competition and impacts,” said James Strange, a Forest Service research entomologist.

This story was originally published at High Country News on March 7, 2019. You can read the original story here.

Beetles vs. birds: What happens when fighting nature with nature backfires?

COTTONWOOD – Fighting nature with nature seems like a good idea – unless nature doesn’t care about geography.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the southwestern willow flycatcher as endangered in 1995. There are an estimated 600 to 800 breeding pairs of the songbird scattered across the West. (Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Conservation Service Colorado, USDA)

Today, the effects of a federal decision made 20 years ago to use Asian beetles to slow the spread of an invasive shrub across the West are reducing nesting habitat for an endangered songbird – the southwestern willow flycatcher.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, introduced tamarisk leaf beetles from China and Kazakhstan around the West to kill tamarisk trees, also known as salt cedars. Some of the beetles were released near Moab in eastern Utah.

“The goal of their program was to control tamarisk,” said Greg Beatty, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has led flycatcher recovery efforts since 1999. “Reduce it. Kill some plants. I don’t think they anticipated that it would kill all tamarisk, but that it would reduce its abundance.”

The beetles did their job, stripping the tamarisk of its feathery, green canopy, which often kills this fast-growing deciduous shrub. The tamarisk was introduced in the 1800s from Eurasia as an ornamental, for use in windbreaks and as a way to control stream-bank erosion.

The APHIS program wasn’t supposed to release beetles within 200 miles of where southwestern willow flycatchers nest. The birds can be found throughout the West; in Arizona, around Roosevelt Lake and along the upper Gila River. Experts calculated even if the beetles migrated south toward Arizona, the bugs would not survive the difference in climate.

But beetles don’t follow rules.

Tamarisk trees, which aren’t native to the Western Hemisphere, can be found around water in Arizona, including Roosevelt Lake east of Phoenix, where flycatchers have been found. (Photo by Rachel Charlton/Cronkite News)

“In retrospect,” Beatty said, “seems pretty clear there wasn’t really any type of geographical boundary that would have kept them where they were at.”

From the Virgin River in southwestern Utah and into the Grand Canyon and its tributaries, the beetles spread into Arizona, Beatty said.

“It’s happened faster than anybody would have expected because we didn’t expect them to be here,” he said.

Tamarisk is reviled across the West. It is notorious for crowding out native vegetation, effectively choking riparian areas, particularly along dammed waterways. Some scientists say it hogs water, leaving less for native species, although that’s in dispute. It’s considered a noxious weed in New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming and Texas.

The USDA terminated the biological control program in 2010. But now there’s concern over what will happen to flycatcher habitat in Arizona.

The primary nesting habitat for the flycatcher, which was listed as endangered in 1995, is in willow trees surrounding riparian areas. However, researchers have found that flycatchers also use tamarisk.

Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, said flycatchers depend on foliage to protect their nestlings from the scorching Arizona sun.

“Even if there are willows, they’re still dependent on the salt cedar or the tamarisk,” Silver said. “So to denude or kill that tamarisk right now is really putting too much on the flycatcher for them to be able to survive long term.”

The songbirds – which are brownish-gray with white wing stripes and measure about 6 inches from beak to tail – are also faithful to their nesting sites, returning year after year.

The birds still are listed as endangered. In an email, Beatty said the flycatcher population is measured by territories, which include southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. There are 1,200 to 1,600 territories, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there will be a breeding pair per territory. That puts the number of breeding pairs at 600 to 800.

The Center for Biological Diversity successfully sued APHIS in 2013. The court’s ruling found that APHIS did not comply with the Endangered Species Act in the conservation of an endangered species.

APHIS declined to comment for this story, but the agency did provide documents that state the “greater than anticipated natural and intentional human-assisted movement of the beetle caused it to spread into flycatcher habitat.”

As for the future of the flycatcher, Beatty is concerned that habitat loss will have significant impacts.

“I think we’re going to have greater booms and busts … the status of the population will decline as the beetle expands throughout its range.”

Helium producer leases land near Petrified Forest in Arizona, concerning environmentalists

PHOENIX – A Canadian energy company will add to its helium operation with more than 3,000 acres of newly leased federal land near Petrified Forest National Park in northeastern Arizona. But an environmental group and Arizona U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran worry that operations could threaten key water sources and at least two endangered species.

Desert Mountain Energy Corp. of Vancouver purchased two oil and gas leases auctioned by the Bureau of Land Management late last week, paying $2 an acre. The company already leases nearly 37,000 acres of state land in the nearby Holbrook Basin, where the company has found seven helium deposits so far. Helium is critical to manufacturing, technology and aerospace industries.

Arizona does not have a rich history of natural gas deposits, but the oil and natural gas rights to land in the basin are a hot commodity to energy developers who believe “Arizona is the Saudi Arabia of helium.”

Irwin Olian, president and CEO of Desert Mountain Energy, said drilling for helium does not require heavy infrastructure, and deposits are relatively shallow.

But not everyone considers helium production to be minimally risky.

Taylor McKinnon, a public lands campaigner with the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, said he is afraid “industrialization” of the area would have a negative impact on the ecosystem by creating noise, light and water pollution.

McKinnon also said nothing in these leases prohibit fracking in the future, and that Desert Mountain Energy Corp.’s “modern drilling and production techniques” could still use some form of chemically enhanced fracturing, such as acid fracking, to get helium out of the ground.

“The use of acid chemicals in the drilling process is something that would concern anyone,” McKinnon said.

Helium is mined using vertical wells drilled straight down over likely deposits. Once the gas is found, the pressure underground pushes it up through the hollow center of the drill and into a series of pipes to separation tanks. In these tanks, water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen are removed from the gaseous mixture. The result, 99 percent pure helium, is cooled to a liquid form and transported away for use.

McKinnon also is concerned about two federally endangered species – the Little Colorado spinedace, a small, silver fish, and the western yellow-billed cuckoo – that could be in the crosshairs if fluids used in the operation got into surface or groundwater.

Several rivers and streams flow near the leased parcels and empty into the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million Americans. The Little Colorado River, one of Arizona’s major tributaries to the Colorado, is one of them. McKinnon worries that an accidental spill from the helium operation could get into these waterways and threaten human health.

“This water flows downstream, through several communities, small farming communities, Holbrook, Winslow, and eventually finds its way into the Grand Canyon,” he said.

O’Halleran, D-Sedona, sent two letters to the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management citing “serious concerns” with the leases, including the threat of runoff into the Little Colorado and Puerco rivers.

In his second letter, sent the day after Desert Mountain Energy Corp.’s bid was approved, O’Halleran accused the BLM of conducting last week’s auction without public input.

“It is essential that any action that could contaminate or threaten water supply from the Colorado River not move forward,” he wrote.

Olian, Desert Mountain Energy’s CEO, said Arizona was first put on the map for helium production during the space race with the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The gas, for example, was used to cool the engines on Apollo 11 for the moon mission.

“Holbrook Basin has the potential to be one of the world’s leading sources of helium once again,” he said.

Today, technology companies including Google and Netflix use helium as a coolant for server banks. That’s helped put the gas, once again, at a premium.

But helium is only created during radioactive decay of such elements as uranium over millions of years, so it’s finite. Scientists are unsure exactly how much helium is left on earth, but the supply will dwindle as the gas escapes into the atmosphere.

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The U.S. produces more than half of the world’s helium supply, and much of it comes from Kansas, Texas and a federal helium reserve that was created during the 1960s.

The process of drilling for helium is relatively simple, Olian said.

“Helium does not really require huge infrastructure like a gold mine or copper mine,” he said. “The impact is relatively minimal. And these wells can be drilled very quickly.”

Desert Mountain Energy plans to conduct seismology studies in the fall to prepare for drilling once permits are approved by the federal government.

“The beauty of it is, typically, most of the helium wells are, in many cases, very shallow. For instance, only 1,500 feet,” Olian said. “These are small, shallow wells. There’s very little if any environmental impact.”

Desert Mountain Energy Corp. has not had any accidents while exploring for helium in Arizona.

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees millions of acres of public land across the country, mainly in the West, will need to approve permits before drilling can begin, according to Adam Eggers, a public affairs specialist for the agency.

Oil and natural gas leases for BLM land last for 10 years.

Desert Mountain Energy bought the leases at $2 an acre, which translates to nearly $11,000, including agency fees and other add-ons.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Feds to reconsider yellow-billed cuckoo’s threatened species status

WASHINGTON – Federal officials said they will re-evaluate the threatened species status of the western yellow-billed cuckoo, after petitions from Arizona miners, ranchers and other groups argued that the species is no different from thriving eastern populations of the bird.

The notice Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes in response to a May 2017 letter from the groups who argued that the 2014 decision to declare the bird threatened was a mistake. They also said that threats to the bird’s survival “do not now and never have risen to the level that protection under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) is warranted.”

But environmental groups said they will fight any move to remove the cuckoo, which they said “plays a unique role in an ecosystem, being up there in the canopy and ambushing caterpillars and other small invertebrates.”

“These tenacious, beautiful birds play an essential role in balancing nature in areas, but they also build a metric for how well we conserve beautiful areas that we all value,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said that while the yellow-billed cuckoo is found throughout the eastern and central U.S., the western subspecies of the bird is disappearing over much of the West. They prefer dense wooded areas with water nearby, but much of its habitat in the West has been lost to farming and housing, the government said.

It also said that the birds, as long-distance, nocturnal fliers, are “vulnerable to collisions with tall buildings, cell towers, radio antennas, wind turbines and other structures.”

The National Park Service said the western yellow-billed cuckoo has nearly vanished in the Pacific Northwest, with most of the remaining birds found in “isolated patches of riparian habitat along rivers in Arizona, California, and New Mexico.” It is found in limited numbers in every county in Arizona, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The Center for Biological Diversity said the cuckoo’s western population was “first identified as needing federal protection in 1986,” and the center first petitioned to have it listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.

But opponents – including the Arizona Mining Association and Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, among others – are challenging the listing of the western birds as a separate subspecies. Their petition said that based on “both new data and new interpretations of previously available information,” they believe the western populations of the bird are no different from the eastern segments.

The government has said that there is enough new evidence for it to begin a review.

“The crux of the petition is questioning the differentiation between the eastern and the western (yellow-billed cuckoo),” said Jennifer Norris, the field supervisor at the Sacramento office of Fish and Wildlife. “The petition was to delist it. If we got through this long process and agree with that proposal, it would be taken off the list.”

Over the next year, Fish and Wildlife officials will collaborate with state agencies and other authorities to complete a comprehensive species status assessment, looking at the fundamentals about the species and its status and threats.

But agency officials stressed that this is just the first step in what could be a long process.

“The western (population) of the yellow-billed cuckoo will remain listed as threatened pending what is realistically a two-year scientific process,” said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife