Glass half full?

This editor’s note, for the feature “Unite and conquer,” appeared in the Mar. 2, 2015 issue of High Country News:

On Jan. 1, I joined 15 friends on a raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. That morning, our boats were covered in snow; the canyon’s red cliffs, capped with white, looked like giant slabs of frosted carrot cake. The ranger said locals had never seen the place so wintry.

So we were delighted to return to Colorado — thousands of feet higher, where the river’s Rocky Mountain headwaters lie — and find no sign of winter. “Mountain biking in a tank top. Suck it, New England,” one of our trip leaders crowed from Durango on Facebook as a blizzard battered the East Coast.

But as the endless warm days slushed snow into mud and turned mud into hardpan, a growing alarm replaced our lizard-like impulse to bask. Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 8, 174 Colorado communities met or broke high temperature records. A few on the state’s eastern plains even neared or surpassed 80 degrees Fahrenheit. More…

Searching for the sacrifice zone: Where can we say yes to oil and gas development?

This feature originally appeared in the Jan. 19 print edition of High Country News:

Oil and gas waste pits at Danish Flat, Utah, just across the Colorado border.
Oil and gas waste pits at Danish Flat, Utah, just across the Colorado border.

Kaye Fissinger collects Don Quixote.

I met the diminutive 70-year-old at her home in a quiet subdivision of Longmont, Colorado. Amid memorabilia from her work in musical theater, black-and-white portraits and an eye-popping snapshot of her body-builder daughter, the man of La Mancha stared from prints and paintings, posed in wooden statuettes and porcelain figurines.

“Why Quixote?” I asked.

She regarded me over gold-rimmed glasses, a smile quirking her mouth. “Because he tilts at windmills,” she said.

In a way, so does Fissinger, but hers are the oil-drilling rigs that have popped up lately in her area. She looked computer-tired, clad in a white turtleneck, her hair pulled into a ponytail. She led me upstairs to a cluttered home office, cleared a stack of documents from a chair and urged me to sit. When she came here from L.A. in 2006, she explained, she was worried about the separation of church and state.

She didn’t yet realize that the plains further to the northeast were pin-cushioned with tens of thousands of wells, many of them hydraulically fractured, or fracked — a process that involves firing water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet underground at incomprehensible pressures — or that the boom had intensified in recent years.

Then one day in 2011, an automated phone survey asked her an odd question: How would she feel if drilling took place on Longmont open space? “Radar, radar!” she exclaimed. A company, it turned out, had proposed drilling around a local reservoir. The more she learned, the more she worried. She thought of her great-grandkids. A lung cancer survivor, she thought of her respiratory health. She thought about the flat lot near her house that might be a perfect place for a rig.

And in 2012, she helped found the nonprofit Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, which spearheaded a ballot initiative that made the city the first in Colorado to ban fracking. The next fall, despite industry’s expensive counter-campaign, several other Front Range communities followed suit. Places across the West and the country have also joined in, from rural Mora County, New Mexico, in 2013, to, most recently and significantly, the state of New York, which overlays a booming shale gas formation.

Though many bans face long odds in court — Longmont’s and others have already been shot down and are headed for appeals — activists and local officials keep fighting. “We’re in it for the long haul,” Fissinger told me emphatically. “Fracking is a toxic, extreme energy extraction method. I don’t think it can be made safe.”

The prospect of a drill rig towering over one’s home would terrify just about anyone, me included. But I still felt conflicted: A near-term transition from oil and gas is profoundly unlikely. Natural gas is slowly supplanting coal as a primary electricity-generating fuel. Petroleum runs our planes, trains and automobiles. Both make it into a dizzying array of plastics and personal care products.

The corporate machine of hydrocarbon development contains a ghost. And the ghost in that machine is us. Until that changes, every fracking ban — Longmont’s, Mora County’s, New York’s — no matter how heroic and justified, simply pushes drilling somewhere else. I wanted to know: Where are we saying yes to such development, and how can we say it in a way 0that lessens impacts on landscapes and people?

I had one hunch. To see if it bore out, I rented a red Chevy Cruze, filled the tank, and got behind the wheel. “Remaining Oil Life: 97%” blinked on the dash. How appropriate, I thought, and drove west, toward Energy Country. More…(subscription required.)

Four women joyride the flood that will revive the Colorado River Delta

This web exclusive appeared on hcn.org on March 28, 2014

The guides warned us, of course. Or they sort of did.

It was sometime after the river outfitter’s shuttle van had passed through the latticework of gates and fences that guards the steep, hairpinned road to the boat-launch at the base of the Hoover Dam, and possibly right before we realized that we had left our two-burner stove back in Alison’s truck, in the parking lot of a casino hotel towering beigely over an otherwise nearly buildingless swath of desert around Lake Mead.

March 19 had dawned beautiful and bluebird in what we had dubbed Baja, Nevada – a 12-mile stretch of clear turquoise water with intermittent hotsprings through the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, where my three college lady friends and I planned to kayak at a luxuriantly sluggish pace for four days. Green rattlesnakes will chase you, the guides told us as we wound into the steep gorge. Scorpions will roost in your sandals. Brain-eating amoebas will Swiss-cheese your frontal lobes if you’re stupid enough to snort the hotspring water. And in the afternoon and at night, the water level can rise without warning as dam operators let more or less through Hoover’s hydroelectric turbines to feed fluctuating power demands in Arizona, Nevada and California. Make sure your gear is secure, the guides fingerwagged, and your kayaks well-tied overnight. Yes, of course, but the stove? we clamored. The eating of delicious things was, after all, a top priority. The guides exchanged glances. Tight federal security around the dam meant there would be no driving back for it. That left hoofing it out from the first side canyon, about a mile downriver. More…

L.A. is here to stay

This essay introduced a special double issue of High Country News, published January 20, 2014, on urban sustainability that I assembled and edited

Paul set his mug of wine down and glowered at me over his glasses. Los Angeles? Why would any magazine editor include Los Angeles in a special issue on environmental sustainability?

My friend and former professor had good reason to ask. The camper Paul calls home, where I had stopped for dinner that October night, is parked on the upper edge of the sprawling sage-furred desert of California’s Owens Valley. In the early 1900s, L.A. drained the water from Owens Lake, about 80 miles south of here, to feed its own booming growth and glitz. Its thirst left behind toxic dust storms and a bitter grudge among the area’s rural residents.

I encountered similar sentiments when I told others about the stories of urban environmental innovation I was editing for High Country News‘ annual Future issue. Las Vegas? A city like that in a desert is a crime against nature, an environmentalist friend scoffed to me at the local brewery. Phoenix? That, too. Even our student-writing contest got a rise: “While I am very interested in writing an essay that would further our efforts to achieve sustainability in Western Colorado, there is one big problem,” wrote one prospective participant. “A modern industrial society will NEVER be sustainable (here). Virtually all our essential supplies are imported from outside our area.” More…

If the gas industry wants enviro cred, it should embrace methane regulation

This web exclusive appeared on hcn.org on January 15, 2014

Shift more of the nation off coal-powered electricity and onto that supplied by natural gas, and what do you get? A significant reduction in the carbon emissions driving the alarming climatic shifts we already experience in our daily lives. That’s the theory anyway, based on the fact that natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does when burned. And if you put aside concerns about drilling’s impacts to air and water quality, it’s an important one, since this electricity switch may account for a significant portion of the overall decrease in U.S. greenhouse gas releases that’s occurred over the last few years.

Trouble is, the climate benefits of natural gas hinge on just how much is leaking from the wells, pipelines, compressor stations and other infrastructure used to extract and deliver the fuel. But due to the paucity of comprehensive data, the large margins of error in the findings and the wildly disparate conclusions of various researchers, nobody’s quite sure what the percentage is. Methane, natural gas’s primary component, is a vastly more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, though more short-lived; as Sarah Keller reported for High Country News last summer, as little as 3 percent loss could cancel out the emissions reductions achieved by moving from coal to gas. Recent studies certainly don’t stoke confidence. One based on thousands of actual air samples, published in the The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, concluded that U.S. methane emissions were actually 1.5 times higher than previously thought, and that those for the oil and gas industry in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were 5 times higher, reports The New York Times.

 

Given this, you’d think the industry would be falling all over itself to do away with leaks and thus help ensure its place in the U.S. energy pantheon long into the future, as well as improve its dismal public image. More…

The Blue Window

This essay appeared in the August 14, 2013 issue of High Country News

IMG_3462“Buy this book and read it on the plane (!)”

This was David’s advice to me for our upcoming expedition to Alaska’s Harding Icefield, emailed along with a link to Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide to Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue.

I am no stranger to mountains, having grown up in Colorado and spent several seasons building trail, backpacking, doing biological research and writing in the state’s stretch of the Rockies. But glaciers were a mystery to me — and the Harding is the largest icefield in the United States. Together with the more than 30 glaciers that flow from it, it covers 700 square miles of the Kenai Peninsula and may be a mile thick in places. A Google search yielded pictures that were both alluring and bowel-watering, but no travel accounts. What, I wondered, had I gotten myself into when I agreed to accompany author Craig Childs, David Stevenson, John McInerney and adventure photographer James Q Martin on a research trip for Craig’s book exploring ancient human migration?

I wrote back to David, an experienced mountaineer: Should I do anything else to prepare? Probably not, he replied. Then, “Full disclosure: McInerney says that my default answer is, ‘It will be fine.’ When he hears me say that, he interprets it as, ‘Stevenson is a lunatic, who has a death wish.’ “

Great, I thought, and bought the book. More…

The Fossil Record: How my family found a home in the West

3-page feature from High Country News’ October 16, 2012 Books and Essays issue

IMG_1677When I was a kid, I sometimes wished that my family went on normal vacations.

Normal was what my elementary and middle-school classmates did over spring and summer break, flying to wave-kissed beaches or hitting flashy amusement parks. Not my family: My parents would load my two half-sisters, my brother and me into a big blue Dodge van with finicky air-conditioning and drive us hundreds of sweaty miles to exciting destinations like Lusk and New Castle, Wyo., Broadus and Miles City, Mont.

Amusement parks, as far as they were concerned, held nothing but crowds, noise and cheap gewgaws, and Mom, whose fair skin burned easily, was not fond of prancing about in a bathing suit. But the broad and sparsely populated reaches of eastern Wyoming and Montana offered clear, dry air, sweeping skies, and an intoxicating sense of freedom. Best of all, their badlands and breaks were scattered with the remains of the late Cretaceous — mineralized seashells that in life, 100 to 65 million years ago, cradled tentacled creatures in the dark of an inland sea.

Decked out in long-sleeved shirts and pants, broad-brimmed cloth hats and boxy over-the-spectacles sunglasses, Mom and Dad led us across this dry country, teaching us the difference between placenticeras and scaphites, baculites and didymoceras.

To sweeten the deal, they booked rooms in motels with swimming pools, and when we were older, allowed us to bring friends who were curious (or brave) enough to join us in the baking expanses. Even so, we kids stopped going in late high school, more thrilled by the prospect of a parent-free house. With barter and bribe no longer necessary, Mom and Dad could finally pursue their obsession untroubled by our demands for normalcy.

So when, at 31, I ask whether I might tag along on a weeklong fossil trip near Casper, Dad pauses.

“How long do you think you’ll join us for?” he asks.

“A day or two?” I suggest.

“Oh, good,” he says. “We wouldn’t want you to cramp our style.”

More…