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What we’re reading elsewhere.

What we’re reading: March 15, 2023

By Bhu Kongtaveelert

The Biden administration approved ConocoPhillips’ proposed large oil-extraction facility in Alaska, at the same time moving to protect 16 million acres of land and water in the state. The Willow Project, with the state’s National Petroleum Reserve, would extract 180,000 barrels of oil a day. Environmentalists point to the risk for walrus and caribou habitats and homes for various Iñupiat communities. The state’s business and political establishment supported it, as did Native corporations, who see the project as a source of jobs and municipal revenues. But the mayor and most of the Native community nearest to the project did not. The Interior Department noted its move to cut the project’s size slightly, “will create an additional buffer from exploration and development activities near [caribou] calving grounds and migratory routes for the Teshekpuk Lake.” Washington Post Atmos Anchorage Daily News National Public Radio

The risks of train derailment and an oil spill into the Colorado River have led Colorado congressmen to join environmental groups in urging more study of a proposed new train line to carry Utah’s crude oil along the river to national rail hubs. The 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway is expected to quadruple crude-oil production and also exacerbate poor air quality and release millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Any potential derailment in the headwaters of the Colorado River would be catastrophic to wildlife and a serious risk to the water supply for 40 million people in seven Western states. The Guardian Colorado Sun Inside Climate News

Rain falling on snow complicates water management in California. As rainstorms melt snowpack, managers release water from reservoirs to prevent overflows that flood Central Valley towns. However, this means less water from the melted snow would last into spring to alleviate drought-related water stresses. In addition, there are fears that excessive runoff will mean the return of the long-gone Tulare Lake, and the disruption of the thousands of acres of farmland that replaced it. Calmatters PPIC

Washington’s first “cap-and-invest” auction doubled the price of carbon credits sold in major markets like Quebec and California, with permits averaging about $49 per ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent. The system is less reliant on carbon offsets and is designed to address equity concerns as past permit sales in other states like California disproportionately worsened air pollution in Black and Latino communities. Grist La Times Seattle Times

A new tax scheme incentivizes water conservation in the West. Colorado’s first groundwater conservation easement provides landowners with a substantial tax credit on the condition that they don’t pump groundwater. Circle Of Blue

Utah’s largest coal company will relinquish two mining leases , a decision which marks the first time fossil fuel companies agree to use the social cost of carbon in their environmental analysis. This will mean that monetary damages caused by greenhouse gas pollution will be integrated into the evaluation of a proposed federal coal lease. E&E News

Pumped hydro, a new kind of sustainable energy storage project planned for Utah, Nevada and Wyoming . With more federal funding and support, many companies are investing in pumped hydro energy storage in the West, despite roadblocks from local officials. Cleantechnica

Threat of western wildfires elevates forestry’s role in 2023 farm bill. At a hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry, participants, mindful of the prospect of worsening fire seasons in years to come, highlighted the need for more aggressive action by the Forest Service to increase timber harvests and improve forest health and management. Agdaily

The success of future generations of trees in the West depends on how well forest management reduces the severity of forest fires in the coming years, a new study suggests. Researchers believe that with pro-active management of wildfires and forests, a short-term window of opportunity exists to help coniferous forests regenerate. Inside Climate News

Remembering the occupation of Wounded Knee, a half-century later . The South Dakota occupation and clashes with federal agents helped crystallize a new consciousness of Native rights and, while there are divergent views about the details of what happened,the protests had powerful social and cultural impacts. As one history professor said, “Collectively [the protests] helped establish a sense of permanence of Red Power, much the way that Black Power had for African-Americans, a permanent legacy.” Indian Country Today

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California commuters face a squeeze

Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The final impact of the pandemic’s work-from-home requirements aren’t yet known; more offices are calling employees back to their old desks. But two things about the future of transportation in the San Francisco Bay Area are increasingly clear. Driving will cost more. And it will be a while longer before people are as willing to take buses, trains and subways. 

Driving has been Californians’ way of life. The San Francisco Bay area and adjacent cities like Stockton and Modesto have been home to more than 120,000 supercommuters – people who drive at least three hours round-trip to and from work, a 2019 study found. 

That’s the most in the country. For millions of commuters in the Bay Area, regional gas prices now top $5.69 a gallon. The Russian oil shutoff, caused by the Ukrainian invasion, is driving costs higher. 

And while a Bay Area Council survey indicates that 40 percent of employees could opt for work weeks with three days in the office going forward, cutting out 1.1 million daily commutes, there is no sign of a wide return to the close quarters of public transit systems. 

Ridership on Caltrain, which runs from Gilroy to San Jose to San Francisco, remains down sharply; last month’s report showed overall weekday travel activity was down 31 percent from pre-pandemic levels; it is now at about 20 percent of the levels of 2018 and 2019.

Like Caltrain, BART is starved for riders. Last month, directors of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System were told ridership is likely to remain well below pre-pandemic levels till 2029. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the pandemic cut ridership to 12 percent of BART’s pre-COVID level; more than 18 months later it is now not even at 30 percent of the old level of weekday passenger trips, according to the San Jose Mercury-News. The ridership drop could cost BART $1 billion when this fiscal year ends. ABC7News quoted the system’s director of financial planning saying, “Many commuters may not return to the transit community even when they return to work.” 

If all those commuters stay in their cars, the consequence will be not only bone-wearying commutes, but increased pollution — unless electric cars dominate the fleet. Eighteen months ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order required that by 2035,  all news vehicles sold be  zero-emission vehicles. This would cut greenhouse-gas emissions 35 percent and smog-forming emissions 85 percent, state figures show. 

But 80 environmental groups just demanded tougher rules. Answering those who say the Ukraine crisis requires producing more fossil fuels, the environmentalists say it requires producing more electric cars. Sammy Roth’s Los Angeles Times newsletter argued, “accelerating the shift to electric cars and electric heat pumps, the U.S. and Europe could slash emissions while dealing a powerful blow to Vladimir Putin….” 

Roth reports that a Stanford research scholar, Michael Wara, proposes a trade: Increase oil and natural gas production in the U.S. in the short term, to cope with the Ukrainian war gas crisis, but only if Congress approves “a massive program to electrify the U.S. vehicle fleet.” 

Transportation systems, like those in the San Francisco Bay Area, have proven vulnerable to the two crises of the moment. Wara’s proposal is a reminder that another cataclysm, the results of a warming climate, should impact people’s decisions. Electric cars and public transit offer two ways to avoid the worst consequences of the crisis around the corner.

Stories by Topic

What we’re reading, Dec. 6, 2021

Disappearing snowpack in the West. Is the end of western mountain snowpacks in sight? San Francisco Chronicle Washington Post

Disappearing water in the West. Does groundwater have a future in California, or is its depletion inevitable? Stanford Earth Matters

Disappearing water, Part II. Water agencies serving 27 million Californians are on their own next year, getting nothing from state water projects. Los Angeles Times

Disappearing water, Part III. Small farmers in the Central Valley wonder: where is Kings County water going? SJV Water

Oregon’s proposed Jordan Cove liquified natural gas project abandoned. It was designed to include a liquified natural gas terminal and a 229-mile natural gas pipeline and send liquified natural gas to Asian markets. Oregon Public Broadcasting

Interior Secretary Haaland works to eliminate racist place names, like those using the word “squaw.” How names like “Chinaman Gulch” affected one Asian American. Grist KSUT

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Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and MORE »

Syler Peralta-Ramos

Editorial Assistant

Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

Bruce E. Cain

Faculty Director

Kate Gibson

Program Manager

Past Contributors

Anna McNulty
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2021
Melina Walling
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2021
Benek Robertson
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2021
Maya Burke
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020
Kate Selig
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020

Francisco L. Nodarse
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2020
Devon R. Burger
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2020
Madison Pobis
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2019
Sierra Garcia
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2019

Danielle Nguyen
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2019
Carolyn P. Rice
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2019
Rebecca Nelson
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2018
Emily Wilder
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2018
Alessandro Hall
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2018 
Josh Lappen
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2017
Natasha Mmonatau
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2017
Alan Propp
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2017