Climate change is a fiscal disaster for local governments − our study shows how it’s testing communities in Florida
Our study finds that over half of Florida’s 410 municipalities will be affected by 6.6 feet of sea-level rise. Almost 30% of all local revenues currently generated by these 211 municipalities come from buildings in areas that will become chronically flooded, potentially by the end of the century.
The Current is an inclusive nonprofit, non-partisan news organization providing in-depth watchdog journalism for Savannah and Coastal Georgia’s communities.
Oilfield companies helped to craft Texas’ new waste rules for 2 years before the public got to see them
The effort to update the state’s oilfield waste disposal rules was initiated by Railroad Commissioner Jim Wright, one of the state’s top oil and gas regulators who has investments in the industry.
Massachusetts seeks to streamline approvals for community choice aggregation
Massachusetts officials are proposing policy solutions to address a bureaucratic backlog that municipal leaders and clean energy advocates say is bogging down one of the state’s most successful drivers of clean electricity purchases.
Nineteen communities across the state are waiting for public utility regulators to rule on proposed community choice aggregation plans, in which local governments negotiate with power suppliers for lower prices or a higher share of renewables.
Some of these municipalities have been waiting for more than two years to launch their programs. Another 16 are waiting to see if the state will let them modify existing programs. As the proposals languish, municipalities are missing out on chances to save residents money and cut carbon emissions.
In response to this backlog, the state energy department has proposed a new system to streamline the process, though many advocates are highly skeptical of these guidelines.
“I’m not sure that the way they’ve drafted them is really going to address the backlog,” said Martha Grover, sustainability manager for the city of Melrose, which first adopted community choice aggregation in 2015 and has held off updating the program in recent years because of the delays.
In addition, state Rep. Tommy Vitolo has introduced a bill that would require faster response times and allow municipalities to make some changes to programs without seeking state approval.
Massachusetts was the first state to introduce these programs, as a part of electricity restructuring legislation passed in 1997. The policy allows individual cities and towns or groups of municipalities to use the promise of a built-in customer base to negotiate with power suppliers for prices. Generally, residents are automatically enrolled but can opt out at any time.
The Cape Light Compact, a group of 21 towns on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, formed the state’s first aggregation program in 2000. The idea was slow to catch on, however, until electricity prices started rising in 2013 and 2014, prompting more municipalities to seek alternatives. Today, there are 168 municipal aggregation plans active in the state, saving consumers more than $200 million annually, according to a report from the nonprofit Green Energy Consumers Alliance.
Though not explicitly an emissions reduction program, aggregation also allows municipalities to include more renewable energy in their portfolios than legally required. And many of them do exactly that: 76 of Massachusetts’ aggregation programs included extra renewable content in 2022, according to the consumers alliance. Another 40 communities let individual residents opt-in to higher levels of renewable energy. In 2022, Massachusetts’ green energy aggregation programs increased demand for renewable energy in the state by more than 1 million megawatt-hours, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance calculated.
“There is no other program in the commonwealth that produces cleaner electrons without subsidy,” said alliance executive director Larry Chretien.
The delays were first caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement from the state energy department. Additionally, the complexity of the rules and requirements for a successful application have also slowed things down, state officials and municipal leaders agree. Each time regulators rule on a plan, any new precedent set by that ruling must be complied with by all future applicants. This requirement makes it hard for municipalities to understand the rules and forces frequent revisions. It also makes it more painstaking for the state to ensure a proposal meets the ever-changing slate of requirements.
“There are now 168 approved plans and we are held accountable to rules and ways of operating that are buried in the footnotes,” Grover said.
The proposed solutions
The state has responded to the backlog by releasing draft guidelines that summarize and simplify the detailed requirements. It has also issued an application template and proposed an expedited approval process for municipalities that use the template.
“Addressing these delays is a top priority for the [Department of Public Utilities], and we look forward to announcing finalized guidelines that will help facilitate a timely review of applications,” said department chair Jamie Van Nostrand.
For many municipalities, however, the guidelines make no changes to the process, but only formalize the existing approach, which many say amounts to micromanagement. At least eight cities and towns have filed testimony so far arguing that the proposal erodes local control and would be unlikely to speed up approvals. The draft guidelines would make the process “more burdensome and less efficient,” testified Michael Ossing, city council president in Marlborough, which adopted community choice aggregation in 2006, saving residents an estimated $26 million over the past 17 years.
“Aggregation should be under municipal control,” said Anthony Rinaldi, an Amesbury city councilor. “We should control how we implement the program, how we inform our citizens. But they want to control every little thing.”
Vitolo’s bill offers an alternative approach. It would address the delays by requiring the state to issue a decision on aggregation applications within 90 days. If this deadline is not met, a program would automatically be approved. If regulators rejected a program, and applicants resubmitted an amended plan within 30 days, the state would then have 30 days to issue a decision.
The bill would also allow cities and towns to make certain changes — including periodic changes to prices and product offerings, means of providing notifications to customers, and sharing translated materials — to their programs without returning to utility regulators for approval. Vitolo points to Boston, which launched a community choice program in 2021, as an example: the city wants to distribute translations of its information materials, but can’t do so without getting in the slow-moving line for approval.
“It’s been frustrating,” Vitolo said. “We want to allow these aggregators to make simple straightforward changes without going to the [state].”
Vitolo’s bill had a committee hearing in late September. Now supporters must wait to see if it gains traction in the legislature.
How does climate change threaten your neighborhood? A new map has the details.
If you’ve been wondering what climate change means for your neighborhood, you’re in luck. The most detailed interactive map yet of the United States’ vulnerability to dangers such as fire, flooding, and pollution was released on Monday by the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University.
The fine-grained analysis spans more than 70,000 census tracts, which roughly resemble neighborhoods, mapping out environmental risks alongside factors that make it harder for people to deal with hazards. Clicking on a report for a census tract yields details on heat, wildfire smoke, and drought, in addition to what drives vulnerability to extreme weather, such as income levels and access to health care and transportation.
The “Climate Vulnerability Index” tool is intended to help communities secure funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate law President Joe Biden signed last summer. An executive order from Biden’s early months in office promised that “disadvantaged communities” would receive at least 40 percent of the federal investments in climate and clean energy programs. As a result of the infrastructure law signed in 2021, more than $1 billion has gone toward replacing lead pipes and more than $2 billion has been spent on updating the electric grid to be more reliable.
“The Biden Administration has made a historic level of funding available to build toward climate justice and equity, but the right investments need to flow to the right places for the biggest impact,” Grace Tee Lewis, a health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.
According to the data, all 10 of the country’s most vulnerable counties are in the South, many along the Gulf Coast, where there are high rates of poverty and health problems. Half are in Louisiana, which faces dangers from flooding, hurricanes, and industrial pollution. St. John the Baptist Parish, just up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, ranks as the most vulnerable county, a result of costly floods, poor child and maternal health, a list of toxic air pollutants, and the highest rate of disaster-related deaths in Louisiana.
“We know that our community is not prepared at all for emergencies, the federal government is not prepared, the local parish is not prepared,” Jo Banner, a community activist in St. John the Baptist, told Capital B News.
Similar maps of local climate impacts have been released before, including by the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, but the new tool is considered the most comprehensive assessment to date. While it includes Alaska and Hawai‘i, it doesn’t cover U.S. territories like Puerto Rico or Guam. The map is available here, and tutorials on how to use the tool, for general interest or for community advocates, are here.
“The basic idea is to go to a few specific communities, and through community engagement, figure out what are the challenges that they are facing with regard to the impact of extreme weather on the power grid, and then solve some of those issues in terms of community outreach and engagement, designing new methods to make the grid more resilient,” said Tim Hansen, associate professor in SDSU’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and co-principal investigator on the project.
Hansen said the research project is based in strategic locations in which different weather events occur. Alaska, for example, deals with extreme cold, while Puerto Rico deals with storms and flooding.
The common issue is that all the events impact the power grid, he said. “Our focus is on power grid resiliency from different perspectives.”
As part of the project, the researchers will work with community members on engagement. Hansen told the Daily Yonder it will be a ground-up approach so see what the community is willing to adopt.
Daisy Huang is an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and mechanical engineer. She also conducts research at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, which looks at optimizing power, mostly in rural communities around Alaska. She said the rural communities are mostly not connected to the state grid.
“So they’re all on their own diesel fired power plants. And so we look at ways to integrate renewables [and] optimize their diesel for maximum efficiency,” she told the Daily Yonder.
Huang said she is also interested in creating educational programs around STEM.
“The idea is looking from a community perspective – what their energy needs are, and how we can translate that – in parallel – developing educational programs around kids learning about energy systems, [like] engineering or STEM in general, math, physics.”
There will also be a virtual reality lab for remote power and energy research studies between all the participating institutions, Hansen told the Yonder.
He said that many of the researchers on the project are young investigators. “It’s a very good opportunity for the [National Science Foundation] to really build up the mentorship, and really build a lot of people’s long-term careers off of the back of this,” he added.
Invasive Species Are Radically Altering Hawaii’s Ecology
The risk of unprecedented fires is primarily due to poor land management, a plantation-era legacy.
BLM’s new management plan balances conservation, energy extraction
As an energy rich state, Wyoming is no stranger to trying to find the balance between extraction and conservation. In the case of the Greater Little Mountain area near Flaming Gorge, the attempt to strike that balance has taken over a decade, resulting in a recently released draft plan that embraces two of the state’s key economic drivers: the oil and gas industry and our great outdoors.
This magical high desert region of over 500,000 acres in Sweetwater County boasts habitat of badlands, aspen groves and pine forests. This place, simultaneously rugged and fragile, is one of Wyoming’s most sought-after hunting grounds for mule deer and elk and holds intimate streams that shelter genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout. Since 1990, this area has also benefited from more than $10 million to enhance and maintain these resources from government agencies, as well as non-profits, local businesses and community members.
Last month, the Bureau of Land Management Rock Spring Field Office released a draft land use plan for southwest Wyoming that seeks to strike a common-sense balance between allowing for energy development and protecting sensitive fish and wildlife habitats.
What I appreciate most in the BLM’s balanced, thoughtful approach is how it does not impact existing oil and gas leases. In fact, over half of the planning area is already leased and there are already active, producing wells across the landscape. Simultaneously, the BLM’s newly proposed oil and gas rule would be a long-overdue win for local communities by reducing conflict between leasing and drilling and other uses that are essential to supporting Wyoming’s way of life: fishing, hunting, recreation and conservation.
For decades, the federal oil and gas leasing programs prioritized resource extraction over valuable fish and wildlife habitats on our shared public lands. This is why Congress had to pass legislation in 2009 to protect 1.2 million acres in the Wyoming Range from ill-advised oil and gas leasing. But now the BLM is working to improve public land management by curtailing speculative leasing that directly impacts wildlife habitat while providing little if any public benefit.
Public lands oil and gas development has no doubt benefited Wyoming and our country, and will continue to do so for years to come. But what’s important moving forward is continuing to find a balance between our economy and special places like Greater Little Mountain.
As Wyoming sportsmen and sportswomen begin to ramp up for hunting season — with many pursuing game in the landscapes where they work — I appreciate that the BLM’s proposed management plan for southwest Wyoming seeks to provide for both responsible energy development and conservation.
Throughout the fall, the BLM will be taking public comment on the four proposed alternative plans, and now is the time for those who care about the future of public land hunting and fishing in southwest Wyoming to speak up. Energy development and conservation need not be mutually exclusive, but it takes smart planning to strike this balance. This is our moment to get it right.
But earlier this summer, Barrasso and Lummis co-hosted what they billed as a first-of-its-kind “federal funding summit” to help train Wyoming communities and organizations to apply for the new funds available under bipartisan infrastructure legislation and the IRA’s unprecedented $370 billion federal investment in the clean energy transition.
In a press release announcing the four-day session, the senators acknowledged that they had opposed the bills, but said “both senators are committed to ensuring Wyoming communities and citizens have fair access to the programs their tax dollars are helping to fund.”
Wyoming, the nation’s top coal-producing state, second only to Texas as a net energy supplier, finds itself in a unique position under the incentives-driven climate policy that President Joe Biden succeeded in getting through Congress one year ago.
If the United States acts aggressively enough to meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement, Wyoming has the potential to reap more than $7 billion from the climate-related provisions of the IRA, according to an analysis by the think tank RMI, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute.
That would work out to more than $12,000 per person in Wyoming — greater potential per capita benefits than any other state.
Wyoming could take advantage of numerous provisions in the law designed to assist fossil fuel-dependent communities while tapping into some of the best wind energy resources in the country, which roll off its mountain ranges and across its vast expanses of ranchland.
But there are obstacles to Wyoming making a rapid, federally funded transition from fossil fuel giant to national leader in carbon-free energy. The Barrasso-Lummis summit was meant to address one of those barriers — the rural state’s lack of capacity and experience in competing for big federal dollars. Other hurdles may be more difficult to overcome, including local resistance to renewable energy growth and the state’s deep commitment to coal, oil and gas — and the tax revenue they generate.
Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican who hosted the federal funding summit along with Barrasso and Lummis, has welcomed clean energy technologies as an addition to — not a replacement for — the state’s traditional energy sources. Fossil fuels are “a vital component of any effort to successfully address reasonable climate goals,” he said earlier this year.
Gordon’s office would not comment on RMI’s projection of the potential windfall for Wyoming in the IRA. “We find the methodology to be speculative and flawed, as there are many factors that will determine whether or not Wyoming may benefit from potential funding/incentives from the IRA,” said his spokeswoman, Ivy McGowan-Castleberry, in an email.
New opportunities in wind, nuclear and carbon capture
Most of Wyoming has a competitive advantage in attracting clean energy development projects and associated federal funding under the IRA. The Biden administration’s mapping delineates nearly all the state as within an “energy community” zone, either adjacent to a former coal-mining or power-plant site or reliant on fossil fuels for jobs and tax revenue.
Clean energy projects that locate in energy communities are eligible for a 10% bonus to the federal clean electricity investment tax credits, which cover 30% of project costs. Further bonuses are available for projects that include apprenticeship programs, rely on domestic content for raw materials and aid low-income communities.
RMI senior associate Ashna Aggarwal, who worked on the think tank’s state-by-state analysis on the potential impacts of the IRA, said more than half of the benefits that could flow to Wyoming are from the clean electricity investment tax credits. That analysis takes into account the state’s substantial wind energy resources as measured by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The laboratory projects that wind power capacity could expand five-fold by 2030 in Wyoming if the state takes full advantage of the incentives available in the IRA.
“Wyoming is really well-poised to take advantage of clean resources that they have in the state, like wind, and Wyoming is already taking action,” said Aggarwal.
She points to the 3,500-megawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project now under construction near Rawlins in southern Wyoming, set to be the largest wind farm in the United States. Once it begins operations in 2027, its power will flow to Nevada, Arizona and California via the 732-mile TransWest Express high-voltage transmission line, which is also under construction, after receiving final approval from the Biden administration earlier this year.
Another IRA provision that could be important to Wyoming is the new Energy Infrastructure Reinvestment Program, expected to roll out next year, offering support to projects that seek to “retool, repower, repurpose or replace” existing energy infrastructure. Unlike other federal clean electricity loan programs, the EIR program will not require projects to use innovative technology; they can be eligible as long as they reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reinvest in the affected community.
The idea of retooling legacy energy sites had taken hold already in Wyoming before the IRA’s passage, with Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates’ company, TerraPower, selecting an old coal plant site in Kemmerer as the location for his liquid sodium-cooled Natrium advanced nuclear energy demonstration project. After the IRA’s passage, TerraPower and its partner, the utility PacifiCorp, announced that they would study deploying up to five additional commercial Natrium reactors and integrated energy storage systems, including the possibility of locating them near current fossil fuel sites.
And carbon capture, which Gordon and other Wyoming politicians have long seen as the hope for maintaining coal’s future in the state, also could get a boost from the IRA. Utilities have viewed the technology as too expensive, but the IRA could ease the costs by greatly increasing the value of the tax credits available for carbon capture and utilization (for enhanced oil recovery, for example) or sequestration. A test case could be the direct air capture carbon removal project, Project Bison, announced after passage of the IRA and being constructed in Rock Springs near a coal plant that is currently switching over to natural gas. Meanwhile, the University of Wyoming has been tapped to receive the largest of nine federal grants to develop carbon storage hubs across the country.
Nathan Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, a non-partisan think tank focused on engaging energy communities in the clean energy transition, said he sees great interest across the state in the new opportunities offered by the IRA.
“We might have some of the best energy workers in the world and a lot of the necessary energy infrastructure,” Wendt said. “Wyoming wants to continue to remain a leader in energy production. And I think that they see the great opportunity to do so by, you know, chasing as aggressively as they can the clean energy opportunities that are really now turbocharged because of the inflation Reduction Act.”
Community concerns about wind power, harm to ecosystems
But there have been obstacles to the clean energy build-out in Wyoming, as is clear from the fact that the state is not now among the top 10 wind energy producers, despite the extraordinary resources that whip across its landscape as air flows from higher to lower elevations.
Because Wyoming — the nation’s least populous state — produces nearly 12 times more energy than it consumes, any new energy generation projects have to be able to move power outside the state to population centers. And because the state is located on the eastern end of the nation’s western electric grid, that means putting transmission lines over hundreds of miles of federal land to Western population centers. It took 18 years for the TransWest Express line, which is crucial to the viability of the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project, to get all of the needed approvals before the groundbreaking this year. The debt ceiling legislation Congress passed this summer included new deadlines for environmental reviews of such projects; it remains to be seen whether they will substantially speed the permitting process.
Some clean energy projects have faced opposition in Wyoming, including a 504-megawatt wind project near Laramie where local landowners waged a years-long fight before their defeat before the state Supreme Court earlier this year.
“People really like the long views we have in Wyoming,” said Jonathan Naughton, director of the Wind Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming. “It’s big sky country and you can see the horizon, so you can see turbines that are 50 miles away.”
At the same time, Naughton said, local economies see benefits from wind development, with landowners earning substantial royalties for turbines located on their properties. That’s revenue that allows them to weather ups and downs in the agricultural markets, and avoid subdividing and selling off their land. “Part of the agricultural community really embraces wind energy because it allows them to keep those big ranches intact,” he said.
Another issue on which there is continuing scientific study and debate is how to accelerate the build-out of wind energy while protecting the fragile sagebrush ecosystem of Wyoming, and the species that rely on it, including the iconic sage grouse.
“I think people look at Wyoming from the outside, and they’re like, ‘Oh, small population, lots of land, lots of space, the perfect place to put the large-scale renewable energy build-out that our country, frankly, needs,” said Monika Leininger, director of external affairs and climate policy at The Nature Conservancy. “What I don’t think people always understand is the sensitivity of the landscapes we have.”
The Nature Conservancy has an initiative to encourage siting renewable energy on the previously disturbed land in Wyoming — often, former fossil fuel sites — to avoid breaking new ground.
“We think there is enough room for wind and solar and wildlife and our landscapes to thrive,” she said. “I think it’s going to depend on how well utilities can work together to plan and utilize existing rights-of-way for transmission and think about the best way to share resources.”
No income taxes, but lots of fossil fuel revenue
But Wyoming’s Republican leaders do not talk about clean energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. With no state income tax, Wyoming is heavily dependent on severance taxes and other fossil fuel revenue to fund its state government.
Wyoming does levy an excise tax on wind energy production in the state, but it does not begin to approach the revenue generated by coal, oil and natural gas. A study last year by University of Wyoming researchers estimated that with aggressive growth of wind energy in the state, wind production tax revenues could increase to $89 million per year. But Wyoming currently expects to bring in $744.3 million in mineral severance tax revenue over its two-year 2023-2024 budget period. With another $597 million expected in federal mineral royalties, fossil fuel revenue will make up about 40% of Wyoming’s expected $3.5 billion in revenue.
Although the state Legislature has repeatedly considered raising the wind energy tax, lawmakers concluded that such a hike would cause Wyoming to lose wind development to other states.
Wyoming doesn’t have a renewable energy portfolio standard, the kind of policy that has driven an increase in wind and solar development in other states. And the state puts limits on net metering — payments to rooftop solar owners for the excess power they sell back to the grid — in a way that could hinder the kind of community solar projects supported by the IRA.
But Rob Joyce, organizer for Sierra Club in Wyoming, said there are positive signs, including indications that Wyoming will apply for a climate pollution reduction grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that the state is pursuing energy efficiency rebate programs. Such small steps alone show the state has come a long way.
“It’s been a little bit tenuous to have these conversations — even the idea of taking federal money is an issue in some parts of our state, and certainly at our state legislature,” Joyce said. “But I think the majority of people in Wyoming, even the people who are in those positions of power, recognize the opportunity here. We’re maybe not moving as quickly as we would like to, but we’re certainly not at a standstill here.”
This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for their newsletter here.