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Nine States Report Record Low Snowpack

By Cole  Mellino, for Ecowatch

California gets most of the attention in drought news coverage because so much of the state is in exceptional drought—the highest level—but 72 percent of the Western U.S. is experiencing drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor data.

usdrought
72 percent of the West is experiencing drought conditions and 25 percent is in extreme or exceptional drought. Photo credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

When California’s snowpack assessment showed that the state’s snowpack levels were 6 percent of normal—the lowest ever recorded—it spurred Gov. Brown’s administration to order the first-ever mandatory water restrictions. California’s snowpack levels might be the lowest, but the Golden State is not the only one setting records. A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finds that nine states reported record low snowpack. The report states:

The largest snowpack deficits are in record territory for many basins, especially in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada where single-digit percent of normal conditions prevail. Very low snowpacks are reported in most of Washington, all of Oregon, Nevada, California, parts of Arizona, much of Idaho, parts of New Mexico, three basins in Wyoming, one basin in Montana and most of Utah.

Only high elevation areas in the Rocky Mountains and Interior Alaska had normal or close to normal snowpack levels. “The only holdouts are higher elevations in the Rockies,” said Garen. “Look at the map and you’ll see that almost everywhere else is red.” Red indicates less than half of the normal snowpack remains. Dark red indicates snowpack levels are less than 25 percent of normal.

Much of the West is in red, which indicates snowpack levels are below 50 percent of normal. Photo credit: USDA NCRS
Much of the West is in dark red, which indicates snowpack levels are below 25 percent of normal. Photo credit: USDA NCRS

And not only is the snowpack drastically reduced in many states, but it’s melting earlier now, too. “Almost all of the West Coast continues to have record low snowpack,” said David Garen, a hydrologist for USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service. “March was warm and dry in most of the West; as a result, snow is melting earlier than usual.”

Historically, April 1 is the peak snowpack. But this year, the peak came earlier because there was very little snow accumulation in March and much of the existing snow had already melted. Streamflow will be reduced even sooner in spring and summer, leaving reservoirs—already well below average in many areas—that much more depleted, the report finds. As of April 1, reservoir levels are below average in at least five western states: Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah,” according to Reuters. That doesn’t include California, which NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti said has about a year’s supply of water in its reservoirs.

NASA: Satellite Data Shows U.S. Methane ‘Hot Spot’ Bigger than Expected

By US National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Methane emissions from the Four Corners region of the United States
The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher).
Image Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan

One small “hot spot” in the U.S. Southwest is responsible for producing the largest concentration of the greenhouse gas methane seen over the United States – more than triple the standard ground-based estimate — according to a new study of satellite data by scientists at NASA and the University of Michigan.

Methane is very efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere and, like carbon dioxide, it contributes to global warming. The hot spot, near the Four Corners intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, covers only about 2,500 square miles (6,500 square kilometers), or half the size of Connecticut.

In each of the seven years studied from 2003-2009, the area released about 0.59 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. This is almost 3.5 times the estimate for the same area in the European Union’s widely used Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research.

In the study published online today in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers used observations made by the European Space Agency’s Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography (SCIAMACHY) instrument. SCIAMACHY measured greenhouse gases from 2002 to 2012. The atmospheric hot spot persisted throughout the study period. A ground station in the Total Carbon Column Observing Network, operated by the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, provided independent validation of the measurement.

To calculate the emissions rate that would be required to produce the observed concentration of methane in the air, the authors performed high-resolution regional simulations using a chemical transport model, which simulates how weather moves and changes airborne chemical compounds.

Research scientist Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, first noticed the Four Corners signal years ago in SCIAMACHY data.

“We didn’t focus on it because we weren’t sure if it was a true signal or an instrument error,” Frankenberg said.

The study’s lead author, Eric Kort of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, noted the study period predates the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, near the hot spot. This indicates the methane emissions should not be attributed to fracking but instead to leaks in natural gas production and processing equipment in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, which is the most active coalbed methane production area in the country.

Natural gas is 95-98 percent methane. Methane is colorless and odorless, making leaks hard to detect without scientific instruments.

“The results are indicative that emissions from established fossil fuel harvesting techniques are greater than inventoried,” Kort said. “There’s been so much attention on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but we need to consider the industry as a whole.”

Coalbed methane is gas that lines pores and cracks within coal. In underground coal mines, it is a deadly hazard that causes fatal explosions almost every year as it seeps out of the rock. After the U.S. energy crisis of the 1970s, techniques were invented to extract the methane from the coal and use it for fuel. By 2012, coalbed methane supplied about 8 percent of all natural gas in the United States.

Frankenberg noted that the study demonstrates the unique role space-based measurements can play in monitoring greenhouse gases.

“Satellite data cannot be as accurate as ground-based estimates, but from space, there are no hiding places,” Frankenberg said.

In March 2014 the Obama Administration announced a strategy to reduce methane emissions under its Climate Action Plan. The strategy includes improving the measurement and monitoring of methane emissions and assessing current methane emissions data.

The Mother of All Anti-Fracking Tools

The first county in the United States to outlaw fracking has an idea that could give environmentalists the upper hand—and deliver a major setback to big oil.

By: Jacob Baynham, Outside Magazine, June 2014

blowout-fracking

Mora County, New Mexico, a patchwork of prairie, foothills, and high peaks on the east flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, unemployment stands at 16 percent, county workers operate out of leaky temporary buildings, and the population density is so low—just two people per square mile—that the tiny community and its largest town, 300-person Wagon Mound, are still classified as frontier by state health officials.

In short, Mora isn’t the kind of place that comes to mind for a national showdown on fracking. But in April 2013, county commissioners took center stage in the fight by passing the Community Water Rights and Local Self-Governance Ordinance, which declared it illegal for companies to extract hydrocarbons anywhere in the county, making Mora the first in the U.S. to ban oil and gas drilling outright, on public and private land.

Not surprisingly, lawsuits soon followed. The county was sued in federal district court in Albuquerque late last year by theIndependent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) and three local property owners. In January, a second suit was filed by Shell Western, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s sixth-largest oil company.

The likely outcome? Busy lawyers. But the suits could also set a nationwide precedent by settling an interesting argument: Does a community’s right to self-governance trump the rights of corporations? The county ordinance’s basic aim is to protect the water supply in a parched region of a drought-stricken state, but it also contains a bill of rights for the environment, which argues that natural ecosystems “possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist.”

The lawsuit by Royal Dutch Shell claims that Mora County’s rule denies the company its constitutional rights, chief among them corporate personhood, which states that a business has the same rights as an individual. (The controversial Citizens United Supreme Court ruling cemented corporations’ constitutional right to free speech.)

“This ordinance denies our property interest by declaring to criminalize virtually any activity undertaken by a corporation relating to oil and gas exploration and production,” says Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell.

Some environmentalists say that’s the whole point and are eager to test it. The ordinance was drafted with help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania nonprofit. CELDF cofounder Thomas Linzey acknowledges that provisions in the document contradict existing laws, but he relishes the chance to defend the self-governance statute before a judge. As the case goes into litigation, tiny Mora County, which doesn’t even have a stoplight, could help usher in a series of similar laws, and CELDF is working hard to ensure that this happens. It’s a fight Big Green groups have failed to take up, says Linzey, so it’s being waged at the grassroots level.

“Environmental folks don’t seem to give a shit,” he says. “They complain that the existing laws, which are stacked against us, are the only tools we have. We say maybe you should invent some new tools, because you’re not protecting anything.”

Banning oil and gas extraction under the purview of local government isn’t new. In 2010, Pittsburgh became the first city to ban fracking, which uses high-pressure water and chemicals to release oil and gas from subterranean shale deposits. Since then, more than 400 municipalities have instituted similar resolutions. The bans have mostly come in the form of zoning changes that keep the industry outside city limits.

But gas companies don’t drill in cities; they drill in the areas around them. That’s what makes Mora County’s ordinance unique. It bans energy extraction from a huge undeveloped area, nearly 1.2 million acres of rolling prairie, piñon and ponderosa forests, and 13,000-foot peaks.

“The oil and gas industry felt like it could contain these sorts of initiatives on a city-by-city scale,” says Eric Jantz, a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is defending Mora County in the suit brought by IPANM. “But once you start getting into countywide prohibitions, that’s something the oil and gas industry has bigger concerns about.”

John Olivas, the Mora County commission chairman who helped pass the ordinance, says county commissioners voted for the sweeping legislation because regulations and zoning rules—typical anti-fracking tools—are simple loopholes that the industry would one day march through. “If the price is right for these corporations,” he says, “they’re coming.”

Karin Foster, the executive director of IPANM, counters that Mora County has been commandeered by a rogue environmental group. “This community-rights ordinance appeals to uneducated people in small communities that feel like they need to fight the man,” Foster says. “I don’t think the people leading them have their interests in mind.”

Some locals agree. Mora County is 80 percent Hispanic, and many residents are suspicious of Anglo groups coming in with an agenda, be it industrial or environmental. “That’s a real missionary attitude, to come into a place and say, ‘We’re going to protect you,’ ” says Sofia Martinez, an environmental -justice activist from Wagon Mound. Martinez opposes fracking, but she wishes that the county had taken a regulatory approach, one that didn’t expose it to potentially lengthy and expensive lawsuits. (Though the county has pro bono representation, by CELDF, among others, it may have to pay damages if it loses.)

Mora County’s case is likely to take years to resolve. Any ruling will almost assuredly be appealed, moving the case to the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver. But for now, Mora has become a cause célèbre, with other counties—like San Miguel, in New Mexico, and Johnson, in Illinois—considering similar bans. Cities and counties are now even working on community ordinances outlawing things like factory farms and GMO crops.

“We’ve all heard about Mora County,” says Sandra Steingraber, one of the nation’s most outspoken anti-fracking activists and author of Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. Steingraber has been watching the fight all the way from upstate New York, where she’s battling at the township level. “The science is certainly on our side, and it points to the need for a nationwide ban,” Steingraber says. “Now we’ll see if the law ends up on our side.”