Colorado Congressman Wants Federal Support for Fossil Fuels -- and for Coping with their Climate Impacts

Congressman Cory Gardner, a freshman Republican representing a large part of northern and eastern Colorado, is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Gardner along with the majority of committee members, supports expanded U.S. production of fossil fuels. Pollutants released by those fuels are accumulating in the atmosphere and making his state and the rest of the Southwest hotter and drier. Gardner and many of his colleagues deny that fossil fuel use seriously threatens climate, and oppose regulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act. While they promote policies that undermine Federal efforts to address the threat of climate change, their home states and districts are experiencing weather extremes -- and impacts -- that foreshadow the ultimate consequences of such policies.  The High Park Fire in Gardner's district has torched 87,284 acres, burned 257 houses and has cost $33.5 million to suppress. To the south, in Colorado Springs, the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed 346 homes this week, and threatens over 20,000 more homes.

Federal Climate Assessment: "Human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest."

The long term trend (1895-2011) in average annual temperatures in Colorado is clear: they are rising. The increase in temperatures is even more pronounced during the summer months. In 2000, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) published the findings of its first National Climate Assessment summarizing the science of climate change and the impacts on the U.S. The assessment presented projections showing substantial warming in this century, with Colorado experiencing an increase in annual average temperatures as high as 8-11oF.

Eight of the 11 warmest summers on record in Colorado have occurred since the assessment was released.

By 2008, the city of Fort Collins -- in Gardner's own district -- concluded in its Climate Action Plan (2008): “The evidence of climate change is overwhelming and undeniable. The vast majority of scientists agree that global warming is real, it’s already happening and that it is the result of human activities and not a natural occurrence. We are already seeing changes.”

In 2009, the USGCRP reinforced those conclusions in its report, Global Change Impacts in the United States. "Human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest. Recent warming is among the most rapid in the nation, significantly more than the global average in some areas," the report said. "This is driving declines in spring snowpack and Colorado River flow.” With regards to wildfires, the report said that in the Western U.S. "both the frequency of large wildfires and the length of the fire season have increased substantially in recent decades, due primarily to earlier spring snowmelt and higher spring and summer temperatures."

Above:  Retardant drop on the High Park Fire, 19 June 2012.  Source: Colorado National Guard.

The prospect of future droughts becoming more severe as a result of global warming is a significant concern, especially because the Southwest continues to lead the nation in population growth," the USGCRP said. It added:

"Projections suggest continued strong warming, with much larger increases under higher emissions scenarios compared to lower scenarios. Projected summertime temperature increases are greater than the annual-average increases in some parts of the region, and are likely to be exacerbated locally by expanding urban heat island effects. Further water cycle changes are projected, which, combined with increasing temperatures, signal a serious water supply challenge in the decades and centuries ahead.”

In addition to impacts on water supplies, the assessment highlighted the following impacts:

  • " Increasing temperature, drought, wildfire, and invasive species will accelerate transformation of the landscape."
  • "Increased frequency and altered timing of flooding will increase risks to people, ecosystems, and infrastructure."
  • "Unique tourism and recreation opportunities are likely to suffer."
  • "Cities and agriculture face increasing risks from a changing climate."

Congressman Gardner: "I don’t believe humans are causing that change..."

Despite the changes occurring in his own state, and strong evidence linking the changes to rising greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil, gas and coal, Cory Gardner in September 2010 said during his election campaign: "I don’t believe humans are causing that change to the extent that’s been in the news.” (Energy bill polarizes candidates, Coloradoan, 19 Sep 2010).

Gardner is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives. The Committee has spearheaded attacks on Federal efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, has challenged the scientific underpinning of those efforts (including the USGCRP assessment discussed in the previous section), and has pushed policies to expand U.S. production and use of oil, gas and coal.. Gardner was a cosponsor of the "Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011" that would have stripped away the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. During consideration of the bill by the Energy and Commerce committee on 16 March 2011, some committee members proposed amendments acknowledging the scientific basis for action on climate change. All were rejected by the majority of committee members, including Congressman Gardner.

The committee efforts continued since then, most recently including a 19 June hearing on The American Energy Initiative: A Focus on EPA's Greenhouse Gas Regulations; and another hearing on the same issue scheduled just 10 days later (Friday, 29 June). In between the two hearings, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on 26 June unanimously upheld EPA's greenhouse gas regulations. In its opinion, the court said that the "body of scientific evidence marshaled by EPA" is "substantial." It added:

"EPA’s scientific evidence of record included support for the proposition that greenhouse gases trap heat on earth that would otherwise dissipate into space; that this “greenhouse effect” warms the climate; that human activity is contributing to increased atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases; and that the climate system is warming. Based on this scientific record, EPA made the linchpin finding: in its judgment, the “root cause” of the recently observed climate change is “very likely” the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions...

EPA further had evidence of current and future effects of this warming on public health and welfare. Relying again upon substantial scientific evidence, EPA determined that anthropogenically induced climate change threatens both public health and public welfare. It found that extreme weather events, changes in air quality, increases in food- and water-borne pathogens, and increases in temperatures are likely to have adverse health effects...The record also supports EPA’s conclusion that climate change endangers human welfare by creating risk to food production and agriculture, forestry, energy, infrastructure, ecosystems, and wildlife. Substantial evidence further supported EPA’s conclusion that the warming resulting from the greenhouse gas emissions could be expected to create risks to water resources and in general to coastal areas as a result of expected increase in sea level...Finally, EPA determined from substantial evidence that motor-vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to climate change and thus to the endangerment of public health and welfare."

Above: Members of the House Energy Action Team, which describes itself as a "committed, talented and well-organized group of House members to serve as messengers of House GOP energy policy." Congressman Gardner is fourth from the right. The group calls itself "HEAT," an appropriate acronym given the ultimate consequences its policies would have on global temperatures.

Colorado Weather of 2012 Foreshadows Consequences of Continued Reliance on Fossil Carbon

While Gardner and his allies are in Washington pursuing policies that accelerate climate change and leave Americans dangerously unprepared for the impacts, Colorado is experiencing weather extremes that foreshadow the ultimate consequences of such policies.

Among the recent conditions in Colorado:

  • Spring 2012 was the 2nd warmest and 4rd driest on record in Colorado.
  • As of 26 June, 100% of the state is experiencing drought conditions with nearly 46% of the state in extreme drought.
  • The state in mid-June experienced what meteorologist and blogger Jeff Masters called "the state's most intense heat wave in recorded history." On 26 June, the 105oF recorded in Denver not only was a record for the day, but tied the all-time record for the month in Denver. It also was the 5th consecutive day with temperatures above 100oF in Denver -- something that only has happened twice before (in August 1989 and July 2005).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in the Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin (26 June 2012) that topsoil moisture was adequate in only 10% of the state. "Due to record temperature and little to no precipitation across the state, range and dryland crop conditions continue to deteriorate," it reported. The Snowpack in the state ranges from 3 to 11 percent of average (see U.S. Department of Agriculture, Snow-Precipitation Update, 27 June 2012); and streamflows are far below normal. According to the National Weather Service, streamflow for June through September on the Cache La Poudre at Canyon Mouth near Fort Collins is expected to be 40% of average. Fort Collins depends primarily on the Cache la Poudre River Basin for its water.

The conditions have led to an early and active fire season, and extreme fire behavior (see Front Range of Colorado and Southern Wyoming, Fuels and Fire Behavior Advisory, 25 June 2012, from the National Interagency Fire Center [NIFC]). According to NIFC's Incident Management Situation Report of 27 June, there were 10 uncontained large fires in the Rocky Mountain Area (Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on 27 June that smoke from those and other Western fires extended across the U.S. as far east as the mid-Atlantic states.

Hardest hit is Colorado, where Governor John Hickenlooper has issued disaster declarations for three of the state's fires. The largest of these was the High Park Fire burning 15 miles west of Fort Collins.  Tim Mathewson, a fire meteorologist with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center (Lakewood, Colorado), reportedly said on 25 June: “Current conditions are comparable to the 2002 fire season, which was the worst in Colorado history. Fires haven’t burned as many acres at this point, but the drought conditions and fuel conditions are right up there with the 2002 season, if not worse.” (see Wildfires Across Colorado, NASA Earth Observatory Image, 26 June 2012).

Above: Waldo Canyon Fire near the Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, 27 June 2012.   Smoke from the fire drifts over the Air Force Academy's Cadet Chapel as cadets head for a briefing on evacuation procedures. The Academy evacuated more than 600 families and 110 dormitory residents from the base that evening.  Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Carol Lawrence.

Meanwhile, the Waldo Canyon Fire that started on 23 June outside of Colorado Springs blew up, requiring the evacuation of over 32,000 people.  By the morning of 28 June, it had burned 18,500 acres; and that afternoon the Mayor of Colorado Springs, Steve Bach, reported that 346 homes had been destroyed (see Colorado wildfire: Waldo Canyon fire destroyed 346 homes, Denver Post, 28 June 2012).  The fire's Incident Management Team reported on 28 June that the fire continues to threaten 20,085 residences and 160 commercial structures -- and is only 5% contained .

The NIFC reports that the region is at Preparedness Level 5, the highest level of preparedness -- a level at which "heavy competition for regional and national resources" is anticipated and "[m]ost resource orders will take more than 24 hours to fill." That means that fires will grow larger -- and ultimately more costly -- because there are not enough firefighters, aircraft and pilots, and other resources to go around.  On 28 June, NIFC bumped the national Preparedness Level to 4, only the third time in 20 years the level has been reached by this point in the fire seaon.

The Costs of Inaction

The costs of the extreme weather conditions are growing. In terms of insured losses, the five most costly wildfires in Colorado history through 2011 all occurred during the previous decade (see Wildfire, Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association). The most costly fire prior to this year was the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire that burned 169 homes, and resulted in estimated losses of $223.9 million in 2011 dollars. Estimates are not yet available for the insured losses from this year's fires, some of which certainly exceed the most costly fires of previous years.

Government budgets are strained by the costs of fire suppression. Over the last 20 years, fire suppression has consumed a growing share of the U.S. Forest Service budget -- from about 13% of the budget in 1991, to 45% by 2008 (The U.S. Forest Service: An Overview, 2009). The daily cost of fighting the High Park Fire alone has on some days exceeded $1 million, with most of the expenses being paid by the Federal government. The state's $5 billion tourism industry is negatively affected by the wildfires and their smoke, and by low water levels (Wildfires Threaten Summer Rocky Mtn Tourism, Associated Press, 25 June; Drought conditions hit Rocky Mountain tourism, Marketplace, National Public Radio, 26 June 2012).

When rains eventually fall in areas that have been burned over, runoff and erosion will pose additional costly problems. Should the drought persist, reservoir levels will drop not just in Colorado but downstream as well. That will limit water supplies for communities, farmers and wildlife; and ratchet costs up even further.

"Colorado's farmers are facing massive crop failure and many ranchers have already been forced to feed hay to their cattle, sheep and horses," Don Shawcroft, president of Colorado Farm Bureau, said in a statement on Monday, 25 June. "Colorado is facing a perfect storm of very poor snowpack, low spring moisture and record high temperatures."

The Fiscal Responsibility section of Congressman Gardner's Web site says "Washington’s spending spree has to stop" and that "there are a lot of creative ways we can cut spending." However, with constituents facing hardships that exceed their capacity to respond, Gardner now is asking the Federal government to spend more in Colorado. In a 12 June letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Gardner asked that disasters be declared in drought-stricken counties. “Allowing Colorado to experience another 2002 drought without assistance is unacceptable,” he said in his letter.

Just the day before, he joined other members of the Colorado Congressional delegation in signing a letter to the Forest Service saying that “drought conditions, steep and rough terrain, along with beetle-killed trees are fueling a fire that has a dangerous upper hand. It is the worst case scenario.” They asked the agency for additional fire suppression resources.

In 2011, the U.S. experienced a record 14 weather-related disasters with impacts costing at least a billion dollars each. Like those events, the unfolding disasters in Colorado remind us yet again of our costly vulnerability to weather extremes that are increasingly affected by rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Those concentrations now are higher than they have been for at least 800,000 years.

In our posting, As the Costs of Extreme Weather Rise, Americans Cannot Afford Denial, (WWF Climate Blog, 9 Sep 2011), we warned:

"Climate change denial and ideological opposition to measures that would slow climate change and prepare for its impacts have left the U.S. with no coherent climate change policies. We face the growing threat of climate disruption unprepared and facing ever escalating impacts and costs, raising concerns about the implications for local, state and Federal government budgets, and costs to the private sector."

What You can Do

There are steps each and every one of us can all take to change this, to alter the course we are on:

  • Be a Messenger. Share what you know about climate change, about the need to prepare for the impacts; and the need to avoid far more serious long-term impacts by quickly reducing our carbon footprints.
  • Be a Leader. Lead by example in your own home, place of employment, congregation and organization.
  • Be an Active Citizen.  Support local, state and Federal government actions to slow climate change and prepare for the impacts.  Encourage your city officials to participate in the Earth Hour City Challenge, a year-long competition among cities to prepare for increasingly extreme weather and to promote renewable energy. Go to EarthHourCityChallenge.org to learn more and to send a letter to your city leaders encouraging them to participate. 

 

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