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New West Daily Roundup for Oct. 10, 2016

Today in New West news: Peabody Energy nearing end of Chapter 11 proceedings, Montana’s largest coal mine poised to expand, Provo solar, and High Plains Book Awards winners announced.

After declaring bankruptcy earlier this year, Peabody Energy is on the cusp of emerging from Chapter 11 proceedings, which has many Wyoming environmentalists on edge, since they believe the company will use the bankruptcy as an excuse to divest some or all their cleanup and reclamation responsibilities. Indeed, the issue of self-bonding has been raised before with regards to Peabody. And according to the Casper Star Tribune, there has been no waning of controversy over Peabody’s apparent or possible intentions:

Opponents of self-bonding say Peabody Energy, which operates the North Antelope Rochelle mine outside Gillette, should be ineligible to self-bond post-bankruptcy. As of September, Peabody had $727 million in cleanup liabilities in the state, some of which was self-bonded.

In an amendment to an earlier complaint filed with the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, land rights groups united under the Western Organization of Resource Councils recently argued that Peabody’s history of financial insolvency prohibits them from continuing the practice. The group also argues that it was unlawful for Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality to allow the company to continue operating with self-bonds while going through Chapter 11.

State regulators and coal companies disagree, as they did in two other cases of self-bonding and bankruptcy.

[…]

Self-bonding effectively works as a promise that based on the strength of the company’s financial position, the reclamation obligations are covered.

State regulators argue they’ve taken a common sense, and lawful, approach to self-bonds over the last year. Each of the bankrupt companies were given a stay on the issue of self-bonding while going through Chapter 11. The alternative would have been to shut down mining operations, an option that would have put Wyoming jobs and state revenue at risk, said DEQ spokesman Keith Guille.

Wyoming does not have reclamation laws tailored to situations in which a company falls into bankruptcy, Guille said.

In that sense, the issue is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, he said. Each of the bankruptcies have unique components, he said.

Speaking of mining, according to the Flathead Beacon, Montana’s largest coal mine—Spring Creek Mine—is poised to expand its output by 117 million tons, generating “roughly 160 million tons of carbon dioxide over the next five years,” although the Interior notes these emissions will be “a drop in the bucket” compared to cumulative U.S. output. From the Beacon:

Those emissions would be about one half of 1 percent of projected annual U.S. emissions of the climate changing gas in 2020. Even if the agency blocked the mine expansion, federal officials said power plants served by Spring Creek could obtain coal from mines on private reserves, negating any possible decrease in emissions.

The expansion was first approved in 2012 then held up by environmentalists waging a legal campaign in courthouses across the region to stop or delay mining on public lands in the Western U.S.

The Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana accounts for about 40 percent of annual U.S. coal production, most of that from public lands.

Spring Creek is Montana’s largest coal mine, located near the town of Decker along the Wyoming border. It’s owned by Cloud Peak Energy.

Environmentalists with WildEarth Guardians had sued the Interior Department to challenge the expansion of the mine, which extracts coal from publicly owned reserves, saying it would make climate change worse.

As a result, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters ordered in January a rigorous study of the planned expansion, saying that an earlier review by Interior had failed to take a hard look at its environmental impacts.

Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups that sued over the expansion, said the government’s new analysis is better but still reaches the wrong conclusion.

“We want Cloud Peak to shut down and go away. I’ll be totally honest about that,” Nichols said. “(Federal mining officials) want to say that this is a drop in the bucket. But every drop matters. … This is a huge resource locking in hundreds of millions of tons of carbon emissions.”

Looking at Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Provo City Council voted 4-3 last week to approve a monthly solar surcharge ($3 per kilowatt of solar capacity) for city residents using Provo City Power. The council says the move ensures residents with solar arrays aren’t “taking a free ride on city services,” while solar advocates say the surcharge is staunchly “anti-solar” and could drive away business. From the Tribune:

Assuming an average installation size of six to seven kilowatts, solar customers would see monthly costs of $18 to $21 — as much as $252 per year. Solar customers who filed a net-metering application with Provo City before Oct. 4, 2016, would not be charged for their first two kilowatt hours of generation capacity.

Erica Dahl, director of public policy and government affairs for Vivint Solar — headquartered in Lehi, 19 miles north of Provo — called the council’s decision “one of the most drastic anti-solar” measures she has seen pass.

Vivint was just about to roll out a sales initiative aimed at Utah County residents, Dahl said. The company has previously been focused on Rocky Mountain Power’s service area.

“As a result of the decision, we are not going to sell in Provo,” she said. “We are going to redeploy our sales force to more solar-friendly communities.”

Adding $200 a year in charges to the operation of a solar array makes residential solar economically infeasible, she said.

But without the charges, Dave Knecht, a member of the Provo City Council who voted in favor of the ordinance, says rooftop solar customers are getting a free ride.

It’s not just that solar customers — who are generally still connected to the electrical grid — aren’t paying for their fair share of grid maintenance, Knecht said. Provo City Power also generates some $10 million in revenue that’s put into the city’s general fund to help pay for services such as police, fire and parks.

“When you’ve put up enough panels that you don’t buy any power,” he said, “you don’t contribute to the general fund for services.”

Knecht, who said he bought a couple solar panels a few years ago but never had the time to install them, said that if he were to eliminate his power bill, he would have to increase his own property taxes by roughly $200 per year to make a fair contribution to the general fund.

He said he also felt Provo City needed to do something to signal to residents that solar power is not free.

“This is not necessarily the best solution, I admit that,” he said, “but we felt we needed to do something in a timely manner before people jumped into contracts naively thinking that they would not have to contribute.”

Finally, according to the Billings Gazette, the winners of this year’s 2016 High Plains Book Awards were announced this weekend at the High Plains BookFest in Billings. The award, established in 2006, recognizes “regional authors and/or literary works that examine and reflect life on the High Plains, including the states of Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.” The winners each receive $500 and were honored at a banquet. The list of recipients is below, courtesy of the Gazette:

• Tyler Enfield, of Edmonton, Alberta, author of “Madder Carmine,” in the fiction category.
• Thomas J. Noel, of Denver, author of “Colorado: A Historical Atlas,” for nonfiction.
• Patrick Dobson, of Kansas City, Mo., author of “Canoeing the Great Plains,” for creative nonfiction.
• Thomas D. Mangelsen of Moose, Wyo., and Todd Wilkinson of Bozeman, in the art and photography category for “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399.”
• Georgia Graham, of Central Alberta, Canada, author of “Cub’s Journey Home,” in the children’s book category.
• Beth Hunter McHugh of Hamilton in the first book category for her novel, “The Actor.”
• John Ashley, of Kalispell, author of “Glacier National Park After Dark,” in the medicine and science category.
• Juliana Aragon Fatula in the poetry category for “Red Canyon Falling on Churches.”
• Joe Wilkins of western Oregon in the short stories category for “Far Enough: A Western in Fragments.”
• Cecilia Ekback of Canmore, Alberta, in the woman writer category for “Wolf Winter.”
• Treena Wynes of Saskatchewan, Canada, in the young adult book category for “Am I the Only One? Struggling Being a Teen.”

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