Our best environmental reporting of 2016

As an environmental reporter, I’m finishing out this year with a nagging fear. The why, of course, is obvious: The federal government soon will be in hands that value profit over preservation, that remain skeptical of science, that likely will boost fossil fuel development at the expense of the air, water and public lands that drew many of us to Colorado. What’s harder to answer is how, exactly, all of this will play out in 2017.

In the wake of the Paris Climate Change Conference last year, Colorado environmentalists joined in international calls for a focus on state and local leadership. Heading into 2017, this is all the more important: Coloradans who want to reduce our climate impact, implement sustainable energy policies, and prevent increased drilling on public lands and in residential areas will have to fight for it. Doing so may require not only standing up to national leaders, but also to the governor, state lawmakers, and local officials.

Our best environmental reporting in 2016 raised questions about state and local powers that have been prioritizing political and industry interests over environmental preservation. Here are the stories that made us proudest.


Colorado’s weak climate plan

In fall 2015, Gov. John Hickenlooper announced a new Colorado Climate Plan, to much fanfare. In the lead-up to the Paris climate talks, it seemed like the kind of collaborative, state-level effort needed to achieve emissions reduction goals. But upon closer inspection, the 93-page document turned out to be little more than a discussion of potential climate threats in Colorado, with no measurable or quantifiable goals for the state. The plan was a step backwards from the one former Gov. Bill Ritter signed in 2008, which set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets for the short and long term. In mid-summer this year, a draft order by the Hickenlooper administration surfaced that proposed cutting statewide power plant emissions by 35 percent by 2030. But the order, which faced criticism from both sides, didn’t go any further, and the governor told the Denver Post earlier this month that “I’m not sure we need it.” In a year when energy leaders look forward to industry-friendly federal policies under President-elect Donald Trump and environmentalists want stricter environmental regulations at the state level to mitigate them, Hickenlooper could be a key influencer in 2017.


Coal mine methane

Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, and one of the most widely-discussed threats to climate stability. Colorado has a statewide policy to cut methane emissions, an ahead-of-its-time set of rules that ultimately served as a model for the Environmental Protection Agency’s national policy. But because both Colorado’s and the EPA’s regulations focus only on methane emissions from oil and gas development, they’re missing the big picture: In Colorado, the largest single methane polluter is the West Elk coal mine near Paonia in Delta County. Each year, through normal mining processes, the mine emits enough of the gas to power almost 30,000 homes.

In the late spring mud, I made the hike up the steep trails in the Gunnison National Forest behind the mine with an infrared camera operator to film the otherwise imperceptible methane vented from West Elk’s shafts. My story, “The Invisible Plume,” took a close look at the all-too-overlooked problem of coal mine methane emissions. Earlier this month, the Forest Service passed a policy that will open up more national forestland to mining. West Elk Mine already has applied to expand its leases into 1,200 acres of those forests in a move that would further prolong its methane emissions. We’ve questioned why Gov. Hickenlooper has supported that expansion despite his professed concern about huge amounts of planet-warming gas spewing into Colorado’s sky.


Rain barrels

The Colorado Legislature’s decision to allow rain barrels was perhaps the most significant environmental law passed last session. After a prolonged fight that drew water-rights holders and homeowners into contentious debate, the state ruled that homes are allowed to collect rain in two 55-gallon containers. Reporter Marianne Goodland, who followed the bill’s tumultuous journey from proposal to final passage and implementation, wrote an explainer to every question a Coloradan might have about rain barrels. Among them: Why such controversy surrounds a common-sense practice that could save homeowners 1,200 gallons of water every year.

In the context of Colorado’s looming water woes, legalizing the use of rain barrels is mostly symbolic. The state faces a shortfall in 2050 that will require it to glean enough new water supplies to serve about 2 million people a year. The bigger solution, as some see it, is water storage, and keeping millions of gallons of water in the South Platte that flows to Nebraska in Colorado. Water savings from rain barrels will be just a — sorry — drop in the bucket of what Colorado needs to quench its long-term needs.


Big Oil in politics

Colorado’s environmental activists had felt defeated and mislead after the 2014 election cycle when anti-fracking measures were pulled from the ballot in exchange for what they saw as a disappointing attempt at a compromise. So, this year, the tried to float two statewide anti-fracking ballot measures. One would have increased the mandatory distance between wells and residences. The other would have given local governments the ability to regulate fracking. But after an expensive opposition campaign funded by the oil and gas industry, the activists failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Undeterred, they turned their energies towards defeating Raise the Bar, an amendment that sought to make it harder (and more expensive) for grassroots groups like them to qualify citizen-led measures for future ballots. The pro-Raise the Bar effort, too, drew big money from the oil and gas industry, including almost $3 million from front group Protect Colorado. Now that the measure has passed, groups seeking to change Colorado’s Constitution will find it nearly impossible to do so without multi-million dollar campaigns.


Oil and gas development

Ongoing tension between Coloradans and the oil and gas industry ramped up in 2016 as drilling companies increasingly expanded their operations into residential neighborhoods. Faced with the prospect of wells, trucks and storage tanks within sight of their homes, residents from all political stripes found themselves embroiled in fights to take back control of their properties. The Independent covered this struggle in a series we called “Fractured.” In writing these stories, journalist Dan Glick and I went to suburban housing tracts threatened by drilling, city council meetings in which residents of Greeley’s Triple Creek neighborhood fought in vain to keep a 22-well development out of their backyards, and deep into the archives of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where we learned that it took the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency more than a decade to shut down a rogue drilling operator. Our series inspired Glick to pursue an investigation into forced pooling, a term for the state’s ability to force homeowners to lease their mineral rights even when they don’t want to. In January, state regulators will meet to rule on one drilling operator’s request to pool more than 15,000 Colorado mineral owners, many of them in Greeley.

The incoming Trump administration has made it clear that the balance between oil and gas interests and environmental preservation will tip in the favor of the former. Such a shift, coupled with an anticipated surge in oil and gas prices, no doubt will affect Colorado’s land, water and air in 2017 and beyond. You can bet that The Independent will be watching.


Photo credit: Adam Baker, Creative Commons, Flickr