All posts by Dana Smith

Author and Entertainer

Going to the dump

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is scheduled to close. The first reactor will shut down by 2024, the second reactor goes offline by 2025. Since events in Fukushima on March 11, 2011 concerns a tsunami could deliver a knockout blow and scatter radioactive contamination across the coast of Central California is all too real. Earthquake faults and nuclear power are a match made in probability hell. There is no win, lose or draw. Consequences of a catastrophic event are unimaginable.

Fully decommissioning Diablo Canyon will demand eye watering sums of money and a span of time even Chaplin’s Great Dictator failed to grasp. Moving the spent fuel rods to a safer storage site will be litigious, expensive and one of the most hazardous engineering feats ever attempted. Containers with spent fuel rods will be hoisted onto trucks, reloaded onto trains then unloaded into an underground storage vault where the radioactive waste will slowly decay for the next one quarter of a million years.

The twin reactor buildings at Diablo Canyon will be sealed and guarded by security officers and monitored by technicians for decades. Radiation levels will drop over time and then the removal of the reactors will come at the end of this century.

Closing Diablo Canyon is pegged at $3.9 billion, a phantom number, a sprawling untethered guess. How and if PG&E, California, or humanity completes this job remains unanswered. Ratepayers should have been warned.  

In 1981 in Nevada the Department of Energy began studying a remote and isolated Yucca Mountain, then scientists described underground aquifers and seismic activities that after 27 years rendered the proposed storage site unworkable. Seventy miles south 2.3 million mortal Nevadans and one pugnacious former senate majority leader Harry Reid all breathed a sigh of relief. Las Vegas residents wouldn’t be subjected to being an experimental randomized statistical study on the incidence of cancers caused by a leaky radioactive storage facility.

A second repository has been proposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a facility between Carlsbad and Hobbs, New Mexico. Locating a suitable underground storage vault where all North America’s nuclear waste can be safely stored for the next 250,000 years exceeds the limits of any previous human endeavor.  

Nuclear waste disposal is a complex yet to be solved problem. Keeping track of the materials, making sure storage containers remain sealed, monitoring the site for earthquakes, guarding against a fluke fiery meteorite plunging into the atmosphere and like a tsunami striking the disposal site, a cosmic bullseye of all bullseyes, worries of this kind are on the short list of what might go wrong and could go wrong.

Plate tectonics, continental drift, or an earth in a bad mood might trigger unforeseen radioactive extinction events. Unimagined flooding such as happened when Hurricane Harvey stalled over Houston is followed by drought, what was thought to be a stable underground vault might become plagued by swarms of earthquakes, a vent opens and there is a volcanic eruption where none had been anticipated. Scenarios such as these sound as if they were found on the pages of comic books. Setting aside all the ways a storage containment site could be breached there is the technological challenge of building a warning sign that could hold up to howling wind, sun, rain, snow, and ice over the course of tens of thousands of years. Experts have created a short list of languages and universal symbols to be placed on the mother of all sign’s that must hold up to the father of all tests of time.

The National Energy Laboratory in Idaho has cooked up a plan to build what are called miniature nuclear reactors. Utah, Montana, and Wyoming with coal going the way of the dodo bird are all considering deploying the 5-megawatt reactors across their states. Nuclear power interests who believe in this technology know that even small miniature nuclear reactors are by the billions and billions of dollars too expensive, their costs make the technology uncompetitive, even still the industry can’t seem to stop trying.     

Failure is not an option and so it has become a feature. Plutonium contamination at Rocky Flats near Denver haunts the former bomb making facility. Radiation at Nevada’s Atomic Test Site isn’t going away anytime soon. Atomic waste at the Hanford site where our nuclear arsenal was built is a mess wrapped in a riddle inside of an unsolvable conundrum. Politics, science, and journalism have no words to describe the severity of this situation. There is every reason to be concerned that a radioactive spill could work its way into the Columbia River, spread downstream to Portland, beyond to Anacortes, out into Pacific and then by ocean currents the remains of our atomic bomb making materials could be swept around the world.

The debate over whether the climate is changing is over. Dismantling last century’s fossil fuel energy system and replacing it with this new century’s decarbonized energy system is under enormous time pressure. The world must move faster than has ever been done before. It is as fantastical as sending a man to the moon, but this time, we are all going, and if it doesn’t work out, none of us will be coming back.     

In Las Vegas, the honorable Peter Guzman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce makes the case we must continue heating our homes with natural gas, that to do otherwise would damage the economy and the pocketbooks of the people he represents. Guzman took on the work of being a leader for this organization, for the people he’s been elected to speak for. The responsibility of how to respond to the climate emergency hasn’t made it into his job description, but that is going to change. All of us will be asked to participate in the solution. Deploying the new energy system is the responsibility of leaders higher up the chain of command. Powerful storms, floods and wildfire have changed minds. A sizable majority, not all but most support efforts to fight climate change.

Trust what this change means to our survival, embrace the challenges, volunteer to be part of a citizens brigade willing to try new things. Raise your hand, sign up to go work elsewhere, be a willing participant, hold up your end of the bargain, there is no free lunch, no easy way out.

Building Confidence thru Play

A path to a better world, a more whole and healthier American West, walking this trail doesn’t happen by accident. A moral compass is made of hearts and minds, understanding there is an opportunity in making a measure of sacrifice, acknowledging the journey is difficult, that our prevailing against the odds is- good trouble, that this inner guidance system, the climate challenge we face, the path we walk, asks of us that we give the best of who we are. To plant a tree, start a family, mend the roof, cook a tasty wholesome meal, remind the children by deed and word, how you believe that in their hearts, between what they trust and know and doubt and fear, that you have confidence in their power to steer their fate, that this power to imagine animates the path they will choose, it is their story that our children are creating, with their magic pen, it is the story of their life. If only we have the willingness to nurture in this new generation the most renewable of renewable energies, the power to have faith in who we truly are.  

survivals gameboard

Getting it done, doing it right

Environmental risks stack up floor to ceiling when you are in the business of hard rock open pit mining. If you start messing with underground salt domes and something goes wrong, you are in a Fukushima without the hazardous radiation Armageddon mess.

The lithium mine on Thacker Pass in Humboldt County Nevada will remain in operation until 2070. When finished the 18,000 acres will undergo a process of remediation. There is a lot to be concerned about, and we have to get this right.

In Delta, Utah there are a different set of worries. Using salt caverns to store diesel, gasoline, hydrogen, and natural gas all could make trouble. Nearby earthquake faults, relatively active, could damage a dome and trigger all manner of environmental mayhem.

Extracting lithium from ore requires the use of sulfur dioxide. Same stuff found in common car batteries. For safety trains will bring the separate components for making sulfur dioxide to Winnemucca, each separate part is then trucked to the processing facility up at the mine where it is mixed before the start of the manufacturing process. Evaporation ponds are more common to lithium refining, extracting lithium from ore with sulfur dioxide has proven harder to scale commercially. In October 2022, about 18 months from now construction will be complete, processing will begin, and we’ll soon know if this is going to pencil out. The world needs this to work.

The technological leap in Delta, Utah is no sure thing either. Timeline is longer, the experimental Mitsubishi turbines won’t be ready to start spinning until 2025. Over the next 48 months a large scale electrolyzer will begin producing hydrogen from water, separating and storing the green hydrogen in the salt domes while releasing the two oxygen molecules harmlessly into the atmosphere. This bit of magic has never been attempted at scale and there are a million ways this can go off the rails. All living creatures on earth have a dog in this hunt, we need this new technology to work.

Mitsubishi will first try to spin the turbines using a blend of 30% hydrogen with 70% methane. The combustion process is complex, hydrogen burns hotter, the turbines and exhaust gases create new challenges. To fuel with pure hydrogen special stainless intake and exhaust manifolds will need to be designed, metallurgically refined turbine blades capable of withstanding the heat generated by the hydrogen will be installed. Engineers are working to zero out nitrogen oxide exhaust gases created in the combustion process. Mitsubishi is confident this technology can work, it’s just that nobody has done it yet. There’s a first time for everything.

It’s what is underground…

The 18,000 acre mine on Thacker Pass is potent environmental problem solver. Imagine the thousands of offshore oil platforms scattered across thousands of miles in the Gulf of Mexico all being safely shutdown. Imagine the fossil fuel operations in West Texas, Eastern New Mexico, Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming, Louisiana and Oklahoma all no longer being needed. Mining for other metals will be necessary, the electricity for this new century isn’t cost free, but it will be cleaner, the atmosphere will begin to heal, we have a path, we can do this right.

In the United States there remain about 75 coal fired generating stations to shutter. Job losses will devastate the communities where these facilities and workers are located. As of now without salt domes adjacent to a power station the cost of repowering with hydrogen doesn’t pencil out. The energy transition is a term of art for the creative destruction the climate emergency has unleashed. Our fragile politics is that red flashing light on our dashboard. The fossil fuel industry isn’t going to go quietly. Not here, not anywhere, those working on the transition have to build out a new energy system and build out a glide path for all the businesses and people disrupted by this change.

An arctic blast knocks Texas out. In the Atlantic the Gulf Stream is stalling. All around the world promised targeted reductions in carbon dioxide are missed. The urgency of our circumstances keeps confronting us. The mine up on Thacker Pass, the salt domes in Utah offer us a way forward, a chance to work mankind’s magic. Traveling between California and Colorado getting a firsthand look at the efforts that are underway, the work being done. We are in a climate emergency, the world is responding, the efforts give hope, we have a path, a way to walk this crisis back, there is still much to do.

sexy salt cavern talk

This is the beast of central Utah. This is a voracious coal fired one-thousand-eight-hundred-megawatt (1800 MW) climate emergency inducing power station. Broke ground in 1981, went online in 1986. Most of the electricity for the last 35 years has been destined for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power some 600 miles to the south.

Delta, Utah is the biggest town in Millard County. Milk cows outnumber the towns 3500 citizens, and not by a few but by a lot. This is Great Basin Desert. This piece is called the Sevier Desert with a river of the same name running from north to south out into a miles wide sink. To the west you’ve got Sawtooth and Swase Mountain, Whirlwind Valley and Swasey Bottom. East there are the Church, Canyon and Gilson Mountains. You got Fool Creek Flat and Oak Creek Sinks scattered beneath the picturesque steep terrain. Much of the Sevier Desert is less scenic, dryer. Beyond the hay fields and dairies is a parched desolation that displeases the eye.

Intermountain Generating Station

I have been traveling through Delta for many decades. North of town the Intermountain Power Station had never caught my eye. The smokestack towers 700 feet high is visible from 20 miles away. There is a direct current high voltage powerline that run from the plant to Los Angeles. Buried underground is a natural gas pipeline that runs from Wyoming to Delta then to Las Vegas, connecting with oil fields in Bakersfield. Union Pacific Railway hauls diesel, gasoline, and coal here. This is a major energy hub, a vital piece of America’s energy system.

Los Angeles Department of Power and Water has been under orders to decarbonize. Unwilling to renew a purchase agreement with Utah’s Intermountain Power Station the managers with offices in Salt Lake City found there were no takers for power produced from coal.

California’s effort to decarbonize forced Utah, the owners of the power station to adapt. In 2017 a decision was taken to retrofit the coal powered turbines with a pair of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power System (MHPS) turbines capable of being fueled by natural gas and then green hydrogen.

Injection Well/Salt Cavern Below

Below the Sevier Desert there is a rare series of salt dome formations. Magnum Development in 2010 had initially bought rights from the state of Utah to expand and develop the below ground caverns to store fossil fuel.

The caverns purpose is being reconfigured. This initiative is called the Advanced Clean Energy Storage (ACES) project. “ACES is planning to use four types of clean energy storage technologies including renewable hydrogen, compressed air energy storage, large scale flow batteries and solid oxide fuel cells.” The scale of this project is enormous. “A single cavern can contain enough pressurized hydrogen to produce 150,000 megawatt hours of energy. You would need 40,000 shipping containers of lithium-ion batteries for the same megawatt hours.” Magnum expects to develop 100 such storage salt caverns.

Let’s talk about green hydrogen. It is created from water that is run through an electrolyzer. As more and more solar and wind turbines have been deployed across the American West there occur times when there is excess power that ends up wasted. The surplus energy will be diverted to an electrolyzer for making carbon free hydrogen. The hydrogen is stored adjacent to the power station to use anytime the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Proximity to the power station, not needing to transport the gas is key.

Remember Moore’s Law is in effect here even though in this instance it isn’t about doubling the number of transistors on a circuit board every two years, but instead is describes the decreasing cost of capturing energy by sun and wind, and how those costs predictably decrease each year. Since 2010 renewable energy costs have gone from $2.00 a watt to $0.20. A decade ago, the cost of making electrolyzed green hydrogen while technically possible remained cost prohibitive and out of reach.

What about all those good paying coal mining jobs in Wyoming? Come to Delta is my suggestion. Can’t find work here try Thacker Pass in Nevada where the new lithium mine is breaking ground. To send energy from Delta new powerlines will help distribute more power to more markets across the American West. Maybe hire on as a high power line worker, drift the Great Basin, live in a travel trailer, breathe fresh air, take weekends off, live day to day in a world without traffic.

Several important pieces to the energy puzzle are found here in Delta. First, green hydrogen is expensive to move where the cost of sending electricity across the grid is not. Then a lithium battery that can only store energy for a short period of time can’t compete with green hydrogen that can be stored indefinitely until the electricity is needed. Yes, you can make green hydrogen anywhere but you because of the salt domes you can store it for a fraction of what it would take to fabricate storage tanks. Delta doesn’t look like much but for a small town with nothing to do there is a lot going on.

Biden Graffiti Sentiments Abound

I’m driving across Nevada, then on into Utah on my way to Denver and this is what I’ve found going on out here. Mitsubishi has been in the business of building hydrogen fueled turbines to power rockets. That’s why they were awarded the contract. The engineering is complex, hydrogen powered turbine blades are subjected to much higher temperatures, and it is the solution to this problem that engineers are step by step solving. The new hydrogen powered turbines go online in 2025, mixing 30% hydrogen with 70% natural gas. Metallurgical development will continue, blades that withstand the heat created by burning 100% green hydrogen will be manufactured then not the entire turbine, but just the high heat blades will be retrofitted by 2040. One of green hydrogen’s byproducts is nitrogen oxide, it isn’t carbon, but it isn’t benign, and research is underway to remedy this issue.

Once the pandemic is brought under control, I’m intending to walk the sidewalks of Delta, Utah and speak to people, find out how much they know about the role their town is playing in the effort to clean up our atmosphere, walk civilization back from the precipice, to find out if they understand that they are making a life right there in the heart of one of the leading solutions to one of the world’s greatest problems. Heck, I’d buy them a drink if I could, but they’re Mormon’s and the moderately faithful don’t drink in public. 

unearthing nowhere

Out there, beyond the road’s end is the beginning of it

Nowhere doesn’t come with a street address. In the American West Nowhere abounds. You can occupy these phantom corners of the globe and never even know you are there. If you have the courage of your convictions, you may take up residence at a Nowhere place of your own choosing.

I have come close to living Nowhere. For a spell I resided in Yuma. I was offered a place on the fairgrounds to park my trailer. Strictly speaking Yuma isn’t Nowhere, but as they say living in Yuma may not be the end of the world, but you can see Nowhere from there. Nowhere near Yuma is less bleak than one might imagine at first glance.

I have had an extended stay in Queen Creek, Arizona. There was a lot of Nowhere near here. Real estate developers noticed and covered much of Nowhere with tens of thousands of homes transforming this emptiness into Somewhere. Not too many of the curmudgeons practicing the fine art of the desert hermitage life felt as if this was the right thing to do with such a glorious piece of Nowhere.

Mood enhancing skylines in the middle of Nowhere

Cherry, Arizona gets as close to Nowhere as you’ll get and still find that this piece of emptiness on earth somehow was named on a map and has been identified with a road sign. You can even look down on this piece of desolation using Google Earth and satisfy your own curiosity regarding what a place in the middle of Nowhere named Cherry might look like.

Getting stuck in the middle of Nowhere can be a misery worse than having a low paying job washing dishes or being on the receiving end of an unannounced visit from a disapproving mother-in-law. I was heading west across Montana in my 1981 Volvo, a good hour from outside Missoula up on top Lolo Pass running along a paved road known as Highway 12. This byway traced the path of the Lochsa (Lock-Saw) River, the very same trail Lewis and Clark picked while making their way into the unexplored west. Clark described this piece of Nowhere as being “steep and stoney our men and horses much fatigued.” Nowhere is obstacle strewn.

This particular Nowhere appeared up on Lolo Pass the moment my alternator failed. I flagged down a car heading west asking if they could send for a tow truck. Two hours later a car passing from the east stopped to tell me that a wrecker was headed from Kooskia. Once I was hooked onto the tow truck then hauled down the mountain to the repair shop, I could officially declare that my being trapped Nowhere had come to an end. Parts for a Volvo alternator aren’t common to anywhere near Nowhere. Parts gratefully would arrive in three days, I was convinced the parts would never arrive, I mean what’s the rush, right? Buddy of mine lived in Lewiston, not too far away. I used all three days recounting how I was convinced that this breakdown had the potential of leaving me lost in Nowhere forever.

In British Columbia I woke up one morning near the middle of Nowhere atop Rogers Pass on the Trans-Canada Highway. Overnight, in the cloak of darkness a grizzly bear had ripped the entire backside of a camper off a pickup truck scaring the hell out of the occupants and but for the mercy of God sparing them their lives. I slept right through the whole darn thing. Flirting with Nowhere in the Canadian Rockies is not to be embarked upon without some consideration to life and limb. The story told in the campground was chilling and by all accounts the grizzly was the biggest damn bear any had ever seen.

Sunrise near Searchlight, Nevada

Nowhere isn’t such a frightful place in every instance. Last week I made a roundtrip between San Francisco to Denver. For three days I traveled with my wife and each night we sampled various flavors of Nowhere. There was one parking lot in front of a closed restaurant located by a forlorn interstate off ramp, another near a piece in the Mojave Nature Preserve to be followed by a snowbound truck stop in a frigid New Mexico. I turned around immediately in Denver. Lot of Nowhere had been in my diet. Drove over two hundred miles on packed snow- and ice-covered roads. Seems like you’ll only find slick highways while you are out in the middle of Nowhere. Almost like nature has a rule about testing a traveler’s courage, testing must be taken while you are out there where there are no named places. The most a misbegotten soul could hope for, to give you some shred of certainty, is the solitude of every now and then a mile marker post.

I had holed up in a field in Ely for the night waiting out a little snow flurry. Morning was clear as a bell. Lot of Nowhere near Ely. White Pine County doesn’t just have Nowhere written all over it, but there are ghost towns, Cherry Creek is one. The haunted abandoned bones of this abandoned mining camp will touch a sensitive Nowhere seeker to the core of their own inner solitude.

Further west I spotted mustang, I counted eight, most were dark bay, then there were a pair hued chestnut and one palomino, a fine long maned horse that wasn’t about to chance my getting any closer.

Burro discovered along highway in middle of Nevada…

Another hour westbound and I slammed on the brakes pulled off the side of the road beneath Woodpecker Peak. Yonder of my truck to the south all alone in Antelope Valley there was a wild burro grazing. This is a glorious animal. Smarter than a seditious Republican and twice as stubborn. I had to raise my voice to be heard, but I spoke with appreciation. Asked questions too. Explained how he was just the second wild burro I’d ever found, and like the first was located smack dab the middle of Nowhere. My burro friend twitched its ears, looked at me several times, gave me a long look too, pretty much concluded I had to be about the stupidest human encounter it had ever had to put up with. I mean this burro understood things, could survive out here on this harsh environment, find food, chase predators off, have fun, go explore, see places, find water, dream of partnering up with a prospector, enjoy exploring, have a relationship with someone completely unsuited to being around other people. I mean the hopes and dreams burros hold deep in their braying heart is a dear and fervent manifestation to roam beyond the barbwire, beyond the cattle grates, to set out each day a free and unburdened beast, no cart to pull, no load to lug, this was a burro enjoying all that is right and good about living free.

For twenty minutes I shared my thoughts with the burro, and the time spent speaking was divine. The encounter altered the quality of my day, I am still under the sway of this burro’s palpable dignity, the inner mortal compass. There I stood, eye to eye, as equals in a way, within me I had a tangible sense of this Nowhere idea being something the two of us could form a bond over, that like me the burro was just as ready to strike out on his own path to go over that next mountain range, to discover what fortunes might await his new next day out there, way out there, beyond the limit, over the horizon in the middle of Nowhere.

falling water, failing leaders

Kern River

Bakersfield wants more water. Everyone out west wants more water. Water grabbing is a preternatural feature of this water starved place. Agriculture’s profits are tied to the amount of water they can use. Rainfall is tight, and because of climate change slightly higher temperatures and lower humidity is shrinking our reservoirs and underground aquifers. The American West is drying up, wildfires are one of the symptoms.

Cotton should not be grown here in the American West, cotton needs to be planted where there is sufficient rainfall. That is not California. Privileged Kern County cotton growers refuse to give back one drop in this fight. Between 1995-2020 big agriculture cotton growers in Kern County have received $495,413,000 in cotton crop subsidy payments.

Federal tax dollars incentivize over 1500 Kern County farms to grow a water intense cotton crop that is then exported to markets offshore. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s family grew cotton.

“Water is protected for the use and benefit of all Californians. California’s waters cannot be owned by individuals, groups, businesses, or governmental agencies. But permits, licenses, and registrations give individuals and others the right to beneficially use reasonable amounts of water.” California Water Resources Board.

McCarthy tweets in support of the fossil fuel industry, “Overturn your ban on American oil & gas immediately or come talk to the blue-collar workers in middle America and tell them why you took their jobs away.”

Agriculture uses almost half of all the water in California while contributing less than 3% to the state’s gross domestic product. I’d challenge McCarthy to come tell Californians why Kern County should continue to be allowed to take so much of the state’s water away. Carbon pollution and water scarcity is the reality of an overheating finite world. Facts matter.

Whirling Dervish Dust Devil Spaces

La Paz County, Arizona is on the border with California. This is a glorious piece of the transition zone, part Mojave, part Sonoran Desert, near Quartzite, a mix of emptiness, blue sky-white clouds, a temple to valley, a cathedral of nearby mountains, you’ll be able to hear yourself, you won’t be worried about tax returns, oil changes or life insurance policy renewal rates.

On or around 1970 you would find farmers growing crops destined for people’s kitchen tables. Food crops thrived here. Since it was good bottom ground wells could find water at reasonable depths. For many reasons there were shifts in farming. Food crops were phased out replaced with hay growing operations.   

Cultivation Atop the Aquifer

Behold the miracle of cultivating grass crops. Fewer pieces of equipment, fewer hired hands, harvesting done by machine, weed control by chemicals, bottom line pencils out pretty good. Foreign buyers took an interest in this region, purchased farmland, all the acquisitions were done by the book, under the letter of the law, everything was apparently on the up and up, nobody objected, no concerns were raised.

Farmers born in Salome, Wenden, Pioneer, Vicksburg, the families that had for generations succeeded in working this ground. Then, the new foreign owners sunk deeper wells, pumped more water, grew larger hay crops, ultimately destined to be shipped back to the new owner’s country. Wait one minute.

Smaller farmers were unable to keep up, their access to water threatened, many wells went dry.

Exporting scarce water from La Paz County, Arizona to markets in China, Saudi Arabia and India while putting our domestic farmers out of business because they cannot afford to drill deeper wells has proven to be a regulatory hot potato.

Governor Doug Ducey and his Republican controlled state legislature are loath to respond with some sort of sensible legislation. Cooler heads and calmer minds don’t quite describe Arizona’s politics, but this transcends partisanship, this is a matter of stewardship, of a sovereign people acting to produce the greatest beneficial use of our water for the greatest number of its people.

Voters wouldn’t support another country moving to California and then draining Lake Tahoe. That’s what this corner of La Paz County is, a vast underground aquifer, literally a vast body of subterranean water is being misused in part because it is much less visible, less tangible, less easily graspable. A few thousand rural residents are petitioning their state government to act. Hard working rural citizens, never having ever earned much, still faithful to their country wait to see if the leaders can do the right thing soon enough.

Predictions! First, nothing will happen fast. Second, pumping underground aquifers until they are dry is coming to an end. Third, agriculture will be forced to grow crops that use less water. And fourth, foreign controlled owners will not be allowed to ship crops offshore.

More predictions. All of this will be fought over in our courts, unfathomable monetary penalties will be awarded to owners that can prove there has been harm done to their lives, deeded water rights will be toast, the climate change emergency will dictate outcomes. As for the politics, everyone touching this issue comes out a loser.

Napa County Citizen Activists

At the turn of this new century there remained both salmon and steelhead runs on the Napa River. For the last five million years the migratory fish had worked out returning from the Pacific Ocean up the Napa River to spawn in the creeks and feeder streams. Napa’s public leaders, virtually all Democrats under intense pressure from the wine growers doled out more permits, permits to plant vineyards, build wineries, tasting rooms and event centers. Visitation to the picturesque county soared. Napa Valley has become a premier global tourist destination. Economic pressures were intense. “Business friendly” Democratic leaders approved more water for wine, less water for salmon, and in every instance feeble as it was, they attempted to mitigate the loss of habitat for the fish. Everyone tried.

By a thousand small cuts, some to do with water diversion, some to do with encroachment upon the river banks the famous wine growing industry prevailed over the science and triggered an extinction event. Commercial interests regardless of which party was in power simply overwhelm efforts at conservation. Our politics forbids win-win solutions, the success of the winegrowers forced a regulatory failure upon a legendary species, a prized fish we were by natural law required to protect. Nothing could halt the decline, the worst was inevitable, happening in front of our eyes, one wrongheaded decision after another culminated in destroying the river, draining more and more of the water, providing the lifeblood to the winemakers and the death knell to the salmon.

Wyoming tax haven heaven

Smokestack Paradise

Billionaires flock to Jackson Hole both for its natural beauty and globally recognized tax haven status. In Wyoming there is no tax levied on either personal or business income. For heaven’s sake even sale taxes are low. Friends and neighbors that have been burdened by a beloved’s premature departure from this corporeal plane, listen up, there are no estate or inheritance taxes to be found anywhere near this alpine paradise. 

In 2010, the United States implemented the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act requiring income to be reported from offshore while another US agency exempted domestically based businesses from being required to report their earnings.

All this chicanery, grift, and “all hat no cattle” racketeering in Wyoming has been made possible by taxes that had been levied on gas, oil and coal. Coal was hit with a 7% rate. Gas and oil comes in at 6%. The state’s residents because of the commodities tax have for one half of a century paid little to no taxes of any kind. I’m moving soon.

Gated Communities Wyoming Style

Wyoming has few people. Government budgets are small. State legislators haven’t had to raise taxes since 1969 when they put in place the first severance tax. Now that coal, oil, and gas futures are all tanking the grizzled anti-taxing advocates holed up at the capitol in Cheyenne have got their inner stubborn backs against the wall, “I ain’t raising tax on nothing and nobody,”

Last June to save money the state closed all its highway rest areas. Republican Gov. Mark Gordon said recently “the state might have to start abandoning small towns because there’s not enough money to maintain their sewers and streets.” Sundance, Wyoming is considering closing its entire police department. The unaffordable lawless celebrations, they call them Panama potluck’s, have been put off due to a pinch in the celebrants’ purses.

Where the Buffalo Roam

Political careers in Wyoming have been built on promises of never raising taxes. Campaign contributors’ number one priority is keeping taxes low. This is how a rigged system keeps winning, it is the rock rib Republican’s first and last plank, read my lips, say it with me, no new taxes, ever, none.

Placing a severance tax on wind or solar, literally taxing invisible forces in the cosmos, even that devil doesn’t pencil out. All services provided by the state are on the chopping block. Traffic light maintenance is over, fire protection is toast, University of Wyoming can’t be worth the money faculty are demanding. Unemployment insurance, disability, pensions, vacation pay, and health care all have to go.

Americans know better than to romanticize the ugly reality of rural hardship. Cyber commuting by Zoom meeting isn’t going to save rural Wyoming. The energy transition only makes matters that much more difficult. A decade ago, no forecasters had solar or wind power becoming the low-cost leader by 2021. And just like that coal, gas, and oil can’t compete.

There is a mad scramble for new tax revenues. Billionaire hobby ranchers in Teton County will have some tax dodging soul searching to do.  Such notables as Walmart heiress Christy Walton, former Google executive Eric Schmidt, Grammy winner Kanye West, and former Vice President Dick Cheney make homes here in this intermountain enclave for the plumpest of the fat cats.

This is the downside to income inequality. With such a small state population the price of electing a state legislature beholden to their financial interests is quite affordable, a bargain really. New York, California, or Florida would require far larger expenditures, and the influence and outcome would be uncertain.

I’m all about the American West. I find hunting elk, treeing cougars, spending all day at the county rodeo, trout fishing by fly rod and whittling down a jigger of whiskey after packing into the furthest corner of the Big Horn Mountains outsized pleasures. Taking measure of your wilderness spunk, finding out how rugged your own individualism runs, how deep your self-reliance courses through your veins, this is a landscape where you may test your mettle. Don’t forget your bear spray.

Essential Worker Hangout

As far as inflection points go 2021 is a Duesenberg, an unforgettable first sloppy kiss of beer brawling why did you hit on that hot honey moment. Knowing to your very core how foolish it would be to pledge no new taxes, and then once you are in office, your good character is forced to account when you work yourself into the corner you had fooled yourself into believing would never come. American exceptionalism and the flaw of denial are tested by the grain of the wood, strength of the glue and the noble ingenuity of a citizen wanting to build something that will last.

Scuffed up western boots, Navajo handcrafted silver and turquoise bolo tie, tweed coat pocket containing your guiding light, first principles, irrevocable set of self-evident truths, your civic bible, your copy of the Constitution of the United States of America. I’m talking about you bucko, this mountain of principle and character occupying a political seat in Cheyenne. You, my patriot, my loyalist, oath of office taking-hand on the bible-swearing to protect and defend the constitution from all enemies-foreign and domestic-are you ready to ask your patrons to reach into their wallets and to pay their fair share to help build a better America?

If you ain’t got the nerve, take off your spurs, turn in your badge, go back to where you’ve come from. Go on now, get! We are going to need a posse of stiffer willed leaders. There are truths laid bare at the intersection of a climate emergency, pandemic, and a festering economic inequality. Tax avoidance has wrongfooted our society. Our essential workers get paid crap wages. Too many can barely make rent, live in their car, even with a full-time job there are hardworking Americans unable to put food on the table. The tax haven known as Jackson Hole is a gilded cage of our nation’s wealthiest intent upon propping up a fundamentally unfair tax system, and it is the demise of coal that is going to be their undoing and at last usher in a new era of tax fairness, social equality, and a path to a more perfect union.

Coal miner’s slaughter

Coal miners’ number fifty thousand across the United States. Backs against the wall, days numbered, the future isn’t included. Hard rock hard times are in a head on collision with the 21st Century.

Musical chairs, the party game favorite, when the music stops everyone is scurries to find an open chair, mining companies are desperate to not be caught holding the bag of debt when the music stops and there’s one more seat missing, one more loser, one more player told to step aside.

In the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains there are men having shots of whiskey after swing shift, to take the edge off. Meth runs rampant in the lunch bucket working class crowd, there are enough fatal fentanyl overdoses to fill a football stadium, divorce rates are holding steady, more and more people don’t bother getting married.

From the pages of Oil City News, “Rocky Mountain Power, notified the Wyoming PSC that it was considering early retirement of several of its coal-fired power units in the state because they are becoming more costly to ratepayers than investing in new renewable energy generation.”

Fossil fuel revenue streams are drying up. Bankruptcy is all a coal mining company can do. Go to court, put the assets into receivership, sell off what you can, hope there’s enough money to deal with the tailing ponds, clean up the surface water, pray you haven’t polluted the ground water, maybe there’s enough money to pay the promised pensions and health care, likely not, like any corporate entity you run the business for profits now, when a mining operation is coming up short you know who’s going to get the shaft?

Lighthouse Resources owns Decker coal mine just north of the Wyoming border in Montana. They’re playing the bankruptcy card. About 150 United Mine Workers Union members are being setup for the deal breaking.

Spring Creek Mine is 16 miles north of Decker. The Navajo Transitional Energy Company, or NTEC in all their infinite wisdom decided to buy this stranded asset. Appears the NTEC’s governing board is packed with executives who didn’t the get the memo, that coal jobs aren’t coming back, the starless rocks got no future, and it is time to stop hating on renewables.

Across the United States the unavoidable fate in the coal baron bankruptcy business is the last 75 coal fired power plants are slated for shutdown. That’ll close most of the mines, some metallurgical coal might hang on for making steel, until green hydrogen comes online, then they’ll shutter those mines too. Until about yesterday forecasts pegged the end of coking coal in 2050, but that estimate is likely to revised, the sharper analysts figure decades sooner.

Pueblo, Colorado has a steel mill coming online, technology is old school, they’ll use coke fuel with some more up to date tooling. New operation will manufacture railway track, figure enough work for 1000 United Steel Workers. Net gain will zero out when they shutter the last of the down on their luck city’s coal fired power plants. Pueblo can’t catch a real break, if ever a place needed to be rescued from the forces of change this Southern Colorado outpost would be a prime candidate.

Bumper sticker sloganeering, the illegitimate brainchild of Frank Luntz focus group tested efforts to smear job losses on climate change policy doesn’t do much to fix our nation in the midst of a major energy transition. Exxon’s kicked off Dow Jones because there is no future for oil, it’s all stranded assets and pattycakes with Putin, and that’s good until it isn’t, can you say plutonium?

Millions of acres devoured by wildfire, category five hurricanes, heatwaves, droughts, an ever-expanding population colliding with an ever-decreasing water supply is deserving of our attention.

The insurrection of January 6th was not funded by fossil fuel industry, but Open Secrets estimated that in 2020 Big Oil donated $11million to Democrats and a grand total of $59 million to Republicans. Let that sink in for one hot second. Add banking, pharmaceuticals, health insurance, transnational agriculture, and there’s the consolidated force of special interests gumming up every road in or out of our nation’s capital.

Leadership means getting out in front of the climate emergency. Had our nation only mustered the political will to pass a carbon tax we would have the money in hand to help the United Mine Workers today. The long put off unavoidable moment has arrived, the transition is underway, we can’t afford to blow it now.

horse logging with harry

Harry’s a chestnut colored 26-year-old draft horse, the breed a Suffolk Punch. A veteran logging horse the gentle giant has a reputation for being a “good doer.”

Before work, a logging horse will eat about 40 lbs. of hay and another 8 lbs. of grain. Routine between the logger and his horse is soothing. Work is what the animal has been bred for, temperament is selected by breeders, a big hot draft animal is not suited to this type of team partnership.

Veteran horse loggers know what trees to harvest, what terrain is best, how long a distance they can skid a log out from where it is cut, and when their animal has reached its limit for the day. A fit and ready for work Suffolk Punch can skid a log near twice its own weight, skidding is best done on the flat. Horse loggers pull logs either along or on a slight downslope avoiding terrain that might force their animal to haul a log up a steep hillside.

In the American West harvestable saw logs will be found on private land. Would be a wise project for Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service and Department of Agriculture to streamline their regulatory framework and open up our public lands for horse logging.

One business model for horse logging includes bringing a portable saw mill out to where trees are harvested. Then, instead of incurring the cost of having the timber hauled off by logging trucks the horse logger can instead do the value-added piece of the job milling his harvest on site, then selling the product direct to ready buyers.

Harry will be watered several times during the day. While milling is performed the work animal will be set out to graze and given free choice access to salt and water.

A horse logger hired for thinning and culling timber from private land has many benefits. Understory isn’t ripped up same as it would be had the work been done with harvesting equipment. Skidding logs, opening the canopy, providing trees with more room for light and water encourages forest health and speeds growth.

Let’s plan on a sustainable harvest. If you have trees that reach maturity in one hundred years, then a horse logger can plan on taking one mature tree out of one hundred trees off one acre at a rate of one per year. Might be that the horse logger comes in and takes a dozen white fir then doesn’t touch this piece for another twelve years.

Done at horse logging scale, not clear cutting, instead with an eye on helping the working man and his horse to help cull the forest, strengthen its diversity, making room for a true mix of trees and understory shrubs and brushes, reducing the chance of catastrophic wildfire, making the forest more resilient to the forces of drought and downpours, would be a win-win proposition.

At the end of a long day Harry’s harness is removed, breastplate is pulled off its chest over his head and removed. The logger brushes his companion down, slow talks with his partner, whispers to assure, same as he has year in and year out, the end of the day one on one makes for a contented draft horse. The logger checks Harry’s special workhorse shoes, for added traction the animal is shod with caulks on both toe and heel, the logger will be certain his hoofs are clean, there are no stones or pebbles that could irritate.

Harry’s help skid out of the woods perhaps as many as 30 trees. Might be more harvesting tomorrow, maybe the portable mill will get fired up, fence posts, rails, and boards cut, stacked readied for marketing.

You’ll do yourself a service next opportunity you have to attend a county fair, after the pandemic comes under control, and pick a fair that features a horse barn, give yourself some time, visit a fair that features draft horses, spend the afternoon, slow walk, feel your way into the presence of one of man’s most successful animal partnerships, talk to the men and women that care for the animals. Some will be trained to pull wagons, others to plow fields, and then there are the animals that have been trained for logging. You’ll be standing in the presence of an easy keeper and a good doer, that is near all a horse logger wants out of his partner, near all he wants and dreams for.

Nevada’s Lady legislature

Long Gone Railroad

Pavement, roadways, fire departments, schools… “Sounds like people who want free stuff.”

Wyoming is a big place. Not many people live here. There is no income tax. Sales tax is 4%. Then fossil fuel tax subsidies flow from Washington DC to the states, kicking dollars out the door to fossil fuel companies that end up helping subsidize Wyoming’s public spending programs. Fair enough until now.

Wyoming levies taxes on coal, gas and oil from the coal mine or pumpjack meter generating more state revenue, this is known as a production tax.

Libertarian bent Republicans have long praised Wyoming’s low taxes on individuals looking the other way about all these fossil fuel levies that are raised to run the affairs of state, county, and city governments.

Republican fundraisers promising to forever defend coal miners, gas and oil operators take campaign contributions to fund elections then go back to Washington DC and stifle, block and gripe about the climate change induced energy revolution barreling like a brahma bull right toward the status quo sweet deal they’ve had going for the past century.

Instead of recognizing the fossil fuel energy system is coming to an end Americans are treated to Texas sized nonsense. Sen. Ted Cruz released a press statement saying that by rejoining the Paris climate accord, Biden is showing that “he’s more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh.”

Yeah, the roughneck wildcatting coalmining wingers have toiled to power our economy for a good long while, but same as a buggy whips and rotary dialed telephones the industries days are numbered. Policy is important. Displaced workers will require new opportunities. I’ve got about a baker’s dozen list of ideas to help our Trump voting, libertarian leaning, don’t need no stinking Bureau of Land Management agencies getting into our affairs types still too seething and steaming about the Big Lie to realize concerned citizens from across the nation are going to help them through the energy transition.

Wyoming folk know all about wildfires, heatwaves, droughts and deer droppings. “Fact of the matter is climate change is inevitable, part of the natural world, and even if there was something to do there’s no real sense of doing anything since all it is going to do is take our sweet deal here in Wyoming and bring it to an end. No sir, ain’t nothing to do but keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

Hard to think of Las Vegas as having a moderating effect on Nevada’s politics, but with almost 3 million people living in Clark County, Nevada, this block of voter’s values trend center to progressive, net outcome is that Carson City is the first majority female legislature in the country. Soon enough there’ll be nothing but daycare centers for as far as an eye can see, and that’ll be a good thing.

Elko’s politics is all red state, rural, grievance based but with Las Vegas and Reno voters in the mix they can’t bring their anti-government “throw all the bums out and leave us the hell alone ideas to the rest of the state.” Our lady legislature majority acting with inherent matriarchal instincts intends to nurture their Elko neighbors back from the Trumpian brink.

Mural fragment Tonopah

If you add up the towns near my residence in Northern California, that includes Pittsburg, Martinez, Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek, Alamo, Danville, San Ramon and Pleasanton, this list of municipalities would equal all the citizens of the state of Wyoming. Left coast liberals, moderates and conservatives are packed together in California where in Wyoming a vast sea of Republicans in name only are spread out across all manner of mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes. Wyoming’s got all the fossil fuel jobs and all we’ve got is Facebook, Google and the dirtiest air in all of the United States.

Boiling beneath the surface of our nations fragmented rural versus urban nervous system is a collision between an obsolete industrial revolution energy system and the deployment of our modern emerging new economy energy system. Water scarcity only makes matters that much more complicated. Our depleted grazing lands pressurizes local economic opportunities all that much more. It’s not that citizens are against livestock, the scientific fact is that the range was overgrazed, and it will require decades for the land to recover. No rancher alive today will ever run herds the size and scale of last century. Cliven Bundy’s days of free grazing are coming to an end. Just the fact of the matter, and facts do matter.

Great Basin Rush Hour

America is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, we just need to use our heads and choose wisely. Lithium is up and coal is down. Photovoltaic solar panels are in and uranium mining is out. Choking on air from internal combustion engines in the Los Angeles is coming to an end and flying down the freeway in the lap of luxury in one of these newfangled electric automobiles that is parked in your driveway plugged in and by smart meter either being charged or by use of networked software engineering it is lending back some of its electrons to the grid it is plugged into to help power the neighbors microwave oven, washer or videogame console.

The American frontier consists of more than some vast space where are disbursed a vast treasure of natural resources. Out in the rural west there abounds opportunity to live closer to the land. There is no rat race, no traffic congestion, no long lines. Advanced technologies will provide unanticipated opportunities. Offshored manufacturing will be re-shored, some will be located like the Gigafactory in less populated regions of the American West. Life will be good, bingo will be played, and our babies will have a future. Don’t ever pretend that women in the Nevada legislature are going to turn on voters and throw the key to their loving hearts away on our future. They’re just not, can’t, isn’t in their nature. Saddle up pilgrims.  

mustang and Burro musings

Author in Escondido with his horse

Rounding up mustang and burros when their populations exceed the rangeland’s carrying capacity isn’t a muleheaded idea. If you’ve ever staked out a burro to eat down a blackberry thicket, you’ll appreciate what I mean. Burros come out of Africa. Jack’s and Jenny’s are suspicious animals and know people can be as unpredictable as jackals.

The further you travel into the least populated regions of the American West the more likely you are to encounter overgrazed rangeland. Especially because burros tend to roam deeper into the emptiness, you’ll have to travel farther off the highways into the least visited corners to see what harm the animal can do to the seldom visited places. Javelinas, mule deer, big horn and elk never were meant to be in competition with an African burro and can find their forage stripped right out from their home ground.

Remember just twenty thousand years before now across North America roamed a great many predators, megafauna as they are so adorably referred to by paleontological types, large carnivores kept the small herbivores in ‘checkeroo.’ And that was before the eternally stubborn rapier witted burro arrived from Spain via Africa.

Skippering a sailboat south from San Francisco south to Catalina Island requires preparation, patience and time. You embark not on a date and hour but as the weather allows. You do not travel on one compass heading at one speed, you alter your course with the breeze, you may speed up, decide to decrease sail area to slow down or if conditions deteriorate seek refuge in the nearest harbor. Only a fool is in a hurry.

A citizen living in Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, or Denver while close to the American West no longer depend upon the place, urban people feed off a dynamic economy. The urban westerner goes camping out in the empty trackless outback, arriving late Friday to fish, hunt and hike and home late Sunday in time for work on Monday.

Rural rascal residents have a more complicated circumstance, scuffing up a living tends to be extractive, focusing on exchanging the value of the natural resources for fiat currency, the almighty dollar.

The carrying capacity of the American West, how many people and animals can be supported out here has long been tipped beyond the fulcrum of natures balance. To my eye the rural citizen starved of access to resources is a more desperate animal with fewer choices. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing is a corner in need of a fix.

Like that a galloping herd of mustang can be heard thundering over the horizon. Fortunate for America, the nation has got near as many able-bodied men and women ready to embark upon right livelihood. Herds of mustang need to be culled, burros too. Getting the animals off sensitive habitat would be good for starters. Preparing the animals ready for adoption requires skilled horsemen, not knuckleheaded desperados but horse whisperers, skillful people from rural communities that have grown up around livestock will know what I mean. Forget about cheap, this is going to take mucho dinero, revenue, spending, dollars, hard earned and supplied by taxpayers, culling mustang and burros is not ever going to be a project that fully funds itself.

We’ve got mustang everywhere, from California to Colorado, from Washington to New Mexico, and with all those animals comes a horseman and an honest day’s work for a wage. Hotheaded cattlemen want the animals off the range. Bolo tie wearing western range managers caught between the anti-tax fervency of the muckamucks and big shots back east find their hands tied behind the famous rock and hard place.

I’m going full blasphemy and don’t get your knickers in a knot, just breathe with the revelation, allow your imagination to run with the coyote and neighbors dogs, let’s defuse this toxic sagebrush rebellion, bring some human horse and burro sense to the moment.

Mustang, are icons of an American West that is slowly getting surrounded, filled up and near ready to collapse. American taxpayers already subsidize fossil fuels out here, we already giveaway our trees to timber companies, we already dole out water rights to growers that ship crops to offshore markets for their private profit pumping the peoples ancient aquifer like there is no tomorrow.

I would propose we set a new and more enlightened agenda. Repurpose tax subsidies, aim our tax dollars to the rural men and women that can help preserve and protect our rangeland.

All weekend long I’ve been driving between Denver back to San Francisco. Every chance I had I spent reading over all these postings about the crisis the American West is having over the out of control herds of mustang and burros.

What to do about the overpopulation of mustang and burro stories are being published far and wide. Noteworthy was how delicate the tapdancing around the topic seemed. Editors from Elko to Provo, Cheyenne to Yuma are careful about what this sensitive issue. Depending upon the publications readership the writers and editors shaped the story to fit the preconceptions, all the old tired out of date assumptions perpetuated by all the locked into their positions and not going to budge one inch types. I mean it makes a man want to spit his false teeth across the room and empty a quart of whiskey so as to settle his risk of tantrum, fits and spontaneous impulse to break his faith in humanity.

Everything and everybody is doing their damned best to protect their turf. “Ain’t nobody giving up nothing for nobody.” You got a water subsidy, goddamn it, I’m keep my fair share. Have a lease on a tract of BLM land, got dibs on those grazing rights, keeping them too. Mineral rights, drilling leases, deer tags and pinion pine nut picking privileges are never to be surrendered.

The draft horse is a working stiff. I had the privilege of being introduced to a team that together plowed 700 acres. The man that managed this team had nothing to prove, working with the animals was a reward unto itself. A draft horse isn’t finding meaning until its harnessed up and laboring breaking stubborn ground apart with a plow from light of day to dusk. Humankinds relationship with the horse is long and storied. Like a sailor the man handling the draft horses has set his own course to go his own way cultivating a crop for reasons beyond merely marking a commodity to market.

The American West is in transition, the tumbleweeds and sagebrush steppe needs its poet cowboy and renegade go-it-my-own-way types. We need to reimagine the place and people, expand our stunted imaginations, and remake this classic in the eyes of a people scrambling to fix the underlying centuries old assumptions that have kept us all tangled up and stuck. Billions of repurposed dollars could do the trick. Better days are promised to those willing to be the change, to embrace the unfamiliar, to preserve what is right and good about what we’ve found out here. This is remnant frontier homeland, a place that deserves protecting, a place worth paying a man a fair wage for a good day of work.