Photography “Not Allowed” at this Utah Scenic Turnout

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Carbon County seal. Carbon County is home to the Castle Gates Power Plant, also known as the Carbon Plant, which has been shut down by its owners, with the decommissioning currently ongoing.

Security in America has become a worrisome national pastime to the point of being the butt of many a joke.  So it may not come as a surprise, but there’s a place in Utah where you may actually be harassed by security if you are taking pictures at a roadside-advertised “Scenic Turnout 1/4 Mile” ahead turnout.  And when you get there, security may tell you that your picture-taking is “against company policy,” tell you that they’re concerned that you’re a terrorist (not assuming you’re a tourist), and/or that pointing your camera in certain directions has raised “internal alarms all the way up to the Vice-President.”  I was told all of these things… and I was standing on public land along Utah Highway 31 in Huntington Canyon.

Okay, enough with burying the lede… at this location in Huntington Canyon is the PacifiCorp Huntington Plant, a coal-fired power plant, and the overzealous security bleeding into the public streets are employed by none other than billionaire Warren Buffett, as a subsidiary of Birkshire Hathaway Energy.  Someone should inform Mr. Buffett’s security that there are already more than a few photos of his power plant already online.

Tourist terrorists?

This canyon, in fact, is on the Visit Utah (the very official Utah Office of Tourism, which is itself an office within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development) website map as an attraction for climbing and bouldering.  I guess photography is verboten?  Maybe it’s a given?  It’s Utah!  The ridiculousness of banning photography from the public highway next to the Huntington Plant is most clearly understood when you realize that the State of Utah actively advertises the highway I was photographing along as an official Utah Scenic Byway, and that this one is called “The Energy Loop: Huntington/Eccles National Scenic Byway.”  You read that right… The Energy Loop.

You will see signs for this “Energy Byway” along the road, too.  But no warnings that you may be considered a terrorist for pointing your camera at any energy infrastructure, with security coming out and driving a half-mile down the road to tell you to put your camera away, while they ask your name, write down your license plate number and converse with a centralized dispatch over handheld radios (this really happened).  It would seem that energy pride has given way to energy shame in Emery County where these plants are located.  Or energy protectionism.

If you’re the type of person or family who wants to tour America’s energy infrastructure, and you seek out scenic byways on long road trips like the one in Utah called “The Energy Loop,” you might be in for a surprise when you or little Tommy or Jane pick up a camera to photograph it.  In fact, in my tour of America’s energy infrastructure across 11 western states this past May and June, there were zero fossil fuel-fired power plants that didn’t have security present who either spoke about or harassed me for the topic of terrorism, and stating emphatically that photography is not allowed or against company policy, and I needed to leave that instant.

Gee, it almost seems like they’re trying to hide something.

You have to admit, though, that the coal industry has been running the gauntlet of regulation restrictions, lawsuits, and a dwindlingly favorable economy that is causing bankruptcies en masse.  Terrorism, in fact, is the least of their problems, unless there’s classified intelligence revealing otherwise that isn’t public knowledge, and Joe and Jill Public are presumed guilty before proven innocent by security who can’t differentiate who is whom and prefer to start conversations with allusions and accusations.  “They” might be feeling a little defensive.

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Hundreds of coal-truck deliveries like this one are made each day to PacifiCorp’s Hunter Power Plant, near Castle Dale, Utah. This image shows an empty coal-truck returning to the East Carbon mine over 60 miles to the northeast, the coal drop zone mid-frame in the background, the Hunter Plant on the left, and a local electricity power line running through the frame left to right.

Sierra Club named enemy #1

Perhaps that is why, when I visited the Hunter Power Plant, another coal-fired station just 21 miles to the southeast, near Castle Dale, I was asked by security there (in addition to all of the above security questions I also heard at the Huntington Plant) why I was taking photos.  Why would a front-line security guard be asking someone stopping by the highway why they were taking photos?  I asked the security guard.  Not quite tight-lipped, she said that Sierra Club had recently been around taking photographs of their operations, and that there was a lawsuit between them.

“You don’t work for Sierra Club, do you?”  She asked over her shoulder as she was walking back to her truck.

“No, I do not work for Sierra Club,” I replied, truthfully stating fact, because my employment with Sierra Club had ended about a year earlier.  Her response was a giggle as she got in her truck and watched me leave.

Sierra Club has one of the most successful environmental campaigns that causes courts to enforce environmental regulations on coal operations, and heavily influences companies and investors in these companies to shut them down.  In fact, only a few hours before visiting both the Hunter and Huntington plants (in that order), I had also visited a power station that was in the process of being shut down altogether, just 45 miles to the north.  Just the mere threat of stricter air quality regulations forced their owners to decide to shut down.

Carbon’s self-implosion
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The decommissioned Castle Gate/Carbon Power Plant is backed by a cliff, boxed-in by a highway wrapping around two sides, and on the fourth side is layered by a dirt road that leads to the coal mine and ash landfill, railroad, river, and another major highway. Aside from limited space, security was a major problem for this doomed power plant.

The Castle Gate Power Plant, or Carbon Plant, is located between a rock and a hard place.  Literally!  The plant was built in an era that simply burned coal to generate electricity.  Emissions controls were such that relatively little space was required.  When you stand outside the Carbon Plant, you’ll wonder why its location was chosen- it was built into the base of a cliff, with a highway wrapping around two sides (with Willow creek on the other side), and only enough space on the remaining side for a dirt road to pass between it and the Price River.  Somehow, amazingly, a railroad is also shoehorned into that latter strip of land.  And on the other side of the Price River is a major highway connecting central and southern Utah to Salt Lake City to the north.

The Carbon Plant’s “rock” is that cliff.  The “hard place” is not only the increasing concern over security because of its proximity of shared land with two highways and a railroad, but also because of new clean air rules that would require it to upgrade its emissions control technology for what are called the “Mercury and Air Toxics Standards,” or “MATS.” That MATS technology would have required an expansion in space to accommodate technology that would have reduced pollution that Hunter and Huntington plants are currently being sued by Sierra Club about- pollution that reduces visibility in national parks and causes harm to humans (among other species).

I happened to be photographing the Carbon Plant when a woman leaving the facility (a door just steps away from her vehicle across the highway) made eye contact with me.  I asked her, naively, why the plant seemed to not be up and running?  She took a look at my parked Chevy Volt, which has Colorado’s new “Protect Our Rivers” license plates, and said, “looking at your license plate, I don’t think I should say anything.”  She said she “knows Sierra Club is in the area.”  Surprisingly, she didn’t say a thing about the  camera hanging from my neck.

This is an industry that has “had it” with environmentalists- or at least a company, since the Carbon Plant is also owned by PacifiCorp/Birkshire/Buffett.  And this woman was one question away from venting.  I asked again: why is the plant shut down?  She said, “environmentalists!”  With an increasingly winded voice, and an ever-brightening red face, I determined to listen more than converse, and simply let the venting flow out…

Paraphrasing the flurry of information she provided, she said that the plant could not remain open because the owners decided to shut it down, and that they only did this because of the impending MATS requirements.  But she seemed livid about this point: apparently nobody even tested how the plant’s emissions could or could not meet the MATS requirements!  So, basically, how dare they shut the plant down without even testing.  For her, this plant was life itself.  The plant employed over 700 people, she said, when it was in operation, and now, solely for the purpose of decommissioning the plant, there are only three.

That was to say nothing of the nearby mining operations that were active with vehicles navigating winding mine roads visible from the highway just a mile away down-river.  Or the dozen or more construction workers monkeying around all the levels of the plant… I asked what they were doing up there.  She said they were doing the asbestos abatement as part of the decommissioning.  Nice.

So, because the location couldn’t fit the “scrubbers” (pollution control technology, which can in itself create a water-mixed toxic sludge of pollution that must be managed, switching dispersed air pollution for potential point-source ground and water pollution), the plant had to be shut down, and the company decided to do this on its own.

She apologized for unloading on me. She asked,”do you know what this does to a community?”  The venting was over, and we moved into acceptance mode when she entered her car saying that she was retiring, “after this… I’ve had it.”  And she drove off.

What does this do to a community… it’s a good question.  If she and I were in a different setting, I would have liked to have discussed that topic with her.  It’s the crux of the argument on both sides of the debate, amazingly enough.

On the industry’s side, which she was attempting to defend, it’s all about jobs and economy of the community.  Perhaps also cultural pride going back generations (more on that below).  And on “the environmentalists” side, uhh… it’s about the environment the community lives in… the air that community breathes, the water that community drinks, the safety issues that community faces from industrial activities, and the climate threats that impact that community and the entire planet.  Everyone, it seems, is arguing for providing for healthy, happy families, to put it simply.

Star-spangled banning

That’s why, later that night, when I was faced with a night security guard a half-mile down the highway from the Huntington Power Plant, who was told by his dispatch (I heard) to “try to hold him there,” because they were sending someone out, I had already learned that this company’s staff was on the edge- I was not sticking around to get berated again.  I said, “I have what I came for… and I’m leaving.”  I left the security guard in the darkening dusk in my rear-view mirror.  I went a short way up the road and pulled off into a campground, decided I wanted a shot of the moon between the smoke stacks, and waited for the exact window of time it would be there (thanks to a photography app, I learned I had a relatively short wait).

Coal Industry in Carbon and Emery Counties, UT

My security-scrutinized, photo-policy-busting image that sent off internal alarms all the way up to the Vice-President and ferreted out a night shift supervisor to track me down in person. This image was made from the side of the Utah Energy Loop scenic byway… public land.

The time came.  I felt a bit naked without the necessary black clothes, gloves, and face camouflage one would wear during a night raid while avoiding security.  But then the reality of the situation began sinking in, when I realized that PacifiCorp had made me feel like I was a criminal for making photographs while standing on public land.  They don’t realize that actions like theirs cause people in the public like me to challenge them when they overreach.  Like Sierra Club’s lawsuit.

I set up my camera, got the long exposure image I envisioned, and in that time, security again came slowly down the road, actually passing without stopping or harassing me this time, and continued driving.  I knew what was going on… whomever they were trying to send out to speak with me before, I had just been flagged again, and they didn’t want to scare me off by harassing me.  Again.  I left, passing the security guard in his truck parked around the next bend.

It was getting late that night, and I hadn’t really had anything decent to eat, so I drove to the nearby City of Huntington, a small town that only had an open gas station to choose from for my dinner options.  While selecting from my delectable menu, I noticed a big, white truck pull up next to my car outside.  Hmm… white vehicles are a dead givaway for security and fleet vehicles.

About to enter my car and drive off, the driver of the truck who also had purchased a candy bar in the store started up a conversation with me, telling me his name and that he was a night shift supervisor. He had guessed where I would be (small town, one open store), and tracked me here.  We had a real conversation.  The kind of conversation I had wanted to have with the woman at the Carbon Plant, but was berated for having the wrong kind of license plate.  This gentleman, however, was kind, approachable, and level-headed.  And even though he didn’t live in the community in which he worked (he lives out of state, he said), I am glad locals are exposed to his demeanor and openness to have what could otherwise become a divisive conversation.

He and I conversed in that gas station parking lot for about an hour, discussing everything from jobs and economy to climate change and pollution.  I told him that environmentalists don’t begrudge him one bit for conveying his point about providing for his family with a coal job, while he admitted to me that he had no understanding whatsoever of internalizing negative externalities of fossil fuel use, but was glad to have learned.  We educated each other about our perspectives on coal-fired power plants, without any indication of derision, anger, stress, or any pejorative uttered.

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Propaganda. Top: A local business slogan, usurping an environmental organization’s name, “Earth First!” Unabashed coal mining pride. Bottom: a billboard a short distance from the upper sign, which reads, “PRODUCING ENERGY = MINERAL LEASE $ = COUNTY PROGRESS. Support our Three Kings,” followed by a “no” symbol slashed over Tax $, meaning “no tax money.” The black image of “Coal, Gas, Oil” production operations sits aside another term borrowed from the environmental movement, “progressive,” it says, “For a complete list of progressive projects, http://www.energy4utah.org.” Both of these signs were posted along the highway just a mile or two down the road from the now-decommissioned Castle Gate/Carbon coal-fired power plant and mine.

This was someone who appeared to have had no agenda and was genuinely curious.  A rare find in an industry painted broadside with propaganda to hide its warts.  The same can be said of environmentalists.  The devil is in the details… is it propaganda if facts are stated emphatically or with market-researched terminology for best acceptance?  I have a feeling that both sides employ that strategy, but no genuine propaganda was present on this night.

This is the kind of conversation that I want to explore.  If the Warren Buffetts of the fossil fuel industry world, and their board members, are at all interested in finding solutions to the environmental problems caused by fossil fuels, then it will take conversations like this man and I had in the parking lot of a City of Huntington gas station.

Perhaps I owe Sierra Club my thanks, because I don’t think I would have been able to have that conversation if my photographic activities that day hadn’t set off “internal alarms all the way up to the Vice-President,” according to this PacifiCorp employee, which sent him searching for me in the night.  He had to answer to that Vice-President about what I was going to do with my photographs.

Well, if that VP happens to read this account of that day, that shift manager deserves a raise (presuming he’s not responsible for the security’s behavior) for his public relations capabilities.  He even offered to take me on a tour of the plant if he could get approvals “up the chain,” I presume, from that VP.  I said I’d be thrilled to tour the plant, see their emissions controls like the “baghouse” he described Warren Buffett installed before it was required in order to reduce particulate matter emissions from 10% to 1%, and others.  I gave him my number and said to give me a call if he gets the approvals by morning, and that I’ll be staying nearby (in that campground situated right next to the plant).

Into obsolescence via evolution into renewables
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How much more touristy can a road-side attraction get?! There are even interpretive signs that explain how the power plant functions! Yet security expects no photos to be made here… unless you are interrogated first.

The next morning, I woke early, went to the “Scenic Turnout,” and started taking photos.  About a minute later, security showed up, again.  It was the first security guard I met from the Hunter Plant the day before.  This time, there was no aggressiveness, no berating for using my camera, and a lot more curiosity.  I think my point about standing on public property was heard loud and clear, and she probably heard about last night’s chat in town.

She and I talked for a little while, and we tracked over several topics previously discussed the night before with the shift supervisor (though I never did receive that call inviting me to a tour by the approval of the higher-ups).  Predictably at this point, all of her conversational points were about jobs and community.

She even conceded that she understands the coal industry is losing its own jobs due to technology improvements, such as machines now doing the work people used to do in the mines.  Her husband, she said, works in medical technology, and she considers how many jobs those new technologies and her own husband cause to become obsolete, but that she takes solace in knowing there are still jobs in operating that technology.  Sounds like an observation of automobile transportation evolving from horses and carriages with jobs shifting to newer technology.  Like renewable energy jobs evolving from coal, oil, and gas jobs.

Again, I shared my perspective about issues that are important to her community, even if they don’t directly think about climate change, clean air, clean water… and safety.

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The plaque reads: CARBON COUNTY COAL MINERS’ MEMORIAL WHEN COAL MINING STARTED IN THE BOOKCLIFF AND WASATCH PLATEAU BACK IN THE LATE 1800’S MANY MINERS FROM DIFFERENT ETHNIC GROUPS FROM AMERICA AND COUNTRIES FROM AROUND THE WORLD CAME TO CARBON COUNTY TO MINE THE COAL TO PROVIDE FOR THEIR FAMILIES, HEATING OF THE HOMES, THE MAKING OF STEEL, THE PRODUCTION OF ELECTRICITY, AND OTHER PRODUCTS. THESE MINERS WERE EXPOSED TO COLD, WET HARSH CONDITIONS, BAD TOP AND RIBS, EXPLOSIVE AND POISONOUS GASES, CONFINED CONDITIONS WITH MINING MACHINERY AND COAL DUST. THIS MEMORIAL IS DEDICATED TO ALL MINERS WHO PAID THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE WITH THEIR LIVES AND TO ALL MINERS WHOSE LIVES WERE SHORTENED BY CRIPPLING INJURIES, NATURAL CAUSES FROM MINING CONDITIONS AND MINERS PNEUMOCONIOSIS.  [End]  There were a dozen or more large plaques that were each triple-listed with the names of the fallen.

Just the day before, I photographed and paid my respects with a moment of silence to the coal miners memorial in Price, located between this power plant and the closed Carbon Plant.  I asked her if she had done so before, reading the plaque underneath the statue of the proud-looking miner.  She had not.  I informed her that the plaque could have been written by an environmentalist, with how visceral it sounded while describing the horrendous conditions and varied horrible maiming and deaths that have been caused by mining, transporting, and burning coal, in these communities.  But it was written, presumably, by the community it was in.

We parted on friendly terms, with her knowing that I held no grudge against her for securing coal-fired power plants.

I mean, who knows, I could have been a terrorist targeting the coal plants instead of aiming a Nikon at them.  What damage could an accident cause?  What harm does a fossil fueled power plant, let alone three within a short distance, invite to their community through terrorism, perceived or real?  What comparative solutions to all of these problems do renewable energy sources provide to communities?

We’re all arguing for the same things, including energy jobs and the need for responsible security; we just may (currently) disagree about the power’s source of energy.

That’s the energy source challenge I look forward to working to answer.

 

All images shown here, and more, are available for prints and digital license downloads at Climate Photography.

An Infinite Scream Passing Through Nature

 

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Smokestacks of the PNM San Juan Generating Station, near Farmington, NM, behind a lattice tower electrical power transmission line that carries electricity generated here to America’s power grid. The San Juan Power Plant, the Four Corners Generating Station, and accompanying coal mines have a long history of pollution and controversy. Although the Republican Party may desire to re-frame the discussion about coal as a “clean” energy fuel (stating such in their latest policy platform without a single question), the facts of the matter say the opposite- coal kills through “dirty” pollution in many ways: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-coal-kills/.

What does it mean to derive electricity that we use, including myself, from fossil fuel deposits?  I’ve often thought about this question.  I’ve thought about it singularly, as in, using fossil fuels alone.  I’ve thought about it comparatively, as in, compared to other, renewable, sources of energy.  I’ve thought about it historically, presently, and futuristically.  I’ve thought about it fatalistically, whimsically, and deterministically.   There are many ways to consider humanity’s love affair with Earth-extracted energy sources.

This time, I’m considering the question artistically.  Now, I’m certainly no art expert, but I enjoy art.  As a photographer, I make artistic decisions constantly in producing an image.  So there come times when artistic comparisons come to mind while photographing or writing, as here, about my photographic subjects.  So while researching the story behind my set of images on the subject of the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant, on opposing sides of Highway 64 in northwestern New Mexico near Farmington, and knowing of other area fossil fuel problems, the impression that research led to was Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

What led to this disturbing image of a virtually genderless figure writhing in a screaming agony at the edge of nature?  When I read what the artist wrote about his own inspiration for this image, I couldn’t help but feel as if, after my research, I felt the same about the views I’ve seen in these images.  That view? A mental image, or video, if you will, of the “cradle to grave,” or “life-cycle,” of the coal that fires the boilers of these two power plants.  When I read this…

“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun went down – I felt a gust of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends went on – I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I felt a vast infinite scream through nature.” –BBC, accessed 7/29/2016.

…a passage from Munch’s diary on 1/22/1892, I, too, felt that vast (great, or other translations exist) infinite scream through modern nature.

And it all begins with us.  “We” start by mining for coal, extract it from the earth, pile it in a series of stages in preparation for transit, load it into a train, drop it at a power plant, shove it onto a conveyor belt, pulverize it, atomize it, and burn it.  But that is not the death of extracted coal.  This was just the scarring cut into nature that becomes a legacy liability, the initial scream of nature’s shock, thundering through a supercritical furnace.

Only after that momentary burn, the split-second flame of the coal particles when we humans derive our intended use of heat from this matter, does the plummeting abyss of an “infinite scream through nature” curdle through the ages.  Coal is matter, made up from star dust, just like you and me, so coal is bound by the law of conservation of mass, whereby the billions of global tons of coal going into power plants come out as equally billions of tons of atmospheric gasses, particles, wastewater, or ash.  Once those atomized coal particles have released their flamed energy as heat, which boiled the water into pressurized steam that turned the turbine generator to create electricity, our centuries-old technology, then the re-organized matter, – ash and gasses – get processed through the coal plant’s regulated inner-workings to separate out the various “waste.”

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The PNM San Juan Generating Station was partially closed in a December 2015 decision. “Under the final agreement reached last month, two of the plant’s four units will be retrofitted with emission-reduction technology, and the remaining two units will be retired by the end of 2017. Doing so will bring the plant into compliance with a host of federal air standards, including the Clean Power Plan, which targets greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.” -Inside Climate News, accessed 7/29/2016 (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27012016/new-mexico-coal-plant-partial-shutdown-san-juan-generating-station-pnm).

The scream bellows through the smokestacks of the plant into the sky as carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur, and many other particles, mixing with other particles in the environment to create carbonic acid, methylmercury, sulfuric acid, and others.  The scream aches through ash piles that are landfilled nearby, with the potential and actual examples of screaming coal ash waste breaking through barriers and laying waste to communities and rivers, if it doesn’t simply whimper a poisonous scream as a toxic leak into the groundwater below where it is stored.  The scream flows out of the plant’s pipelines of hot water into nearby lakes and streams as selenium toxicity, among many other potential poisons.

The infinite scream of coal passing through nature becomes compounded by the screaming echoes of poisons in our environment, from greenhouse gasses from the coal mine methane released during mining, to the carbon dioxide that circles the planet through the atmosphere, and often mirrors the “bloody red” smoggy sky of Munch’s masterpiece.

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Sandra Lasso casts her line to fish in Morgan Lake, a reservoir built to supply water to the APS Four Corners Power Plant (background), and a fish already caught and preserved alive on a line in the water. Although a sign at one entrance to the reservoir says “no swimming allowed,” that doesn’t stop people from fishing. Families like Sandra’s, with mother Claudia Westerbeek, Godfather Orlando Flores, and children William and Natalia Montes all having an otherwise nice day at the lake, are completely unaware of the hazards posed by the power plant. “According to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, the Four Corners Steam Electric Station is the fourth-highest producer of toxins in the state.” – “Santa Fe Reporter, accessed 7/29/2016 (http://www.sfreporter.com/santafe/article-11363-saying-no-to-coal.html#sthash.6SELRi4b.dpuf).

The infinite scream of coal poisons pass through water locally, into the biosphere and bio-accumulates, even bio-magnifying through multiple flora and fauna, including you and mewith dire consequences, and continues running downstream into ever-larger bodies of water.  In fact, the infinity symbol itself is closed as the scream of carbon and mercury in the sky are absorbed and deposited into otherwise distant and isolated oceans, lakes, rivers, and forests, and intermingling with the land and water-based screams of pollution saturated from below.  A chorus of infinite screams.  These return again to the sky through warm seas generating hurricanes, or burning forests returning mercury and carbon to the sky.

And the infinite scream also sits there, bottled, in a heap of coal ash, waiting for a barrier weakness to release its wail.  Forever.  Coal has no grave.  Coal is the zombie we created to roam the planet indefinitely in its many burned forms.

No amount of “scrubbers” or “bag houses” can completely muffle this scream through nature, because no current technology muffles all pollution streaming out of a fossil-fueled power plant.  Though, to end the scream, many try using the Judicial system to find an end.  I’ll bet every trembling child, adult, and senior with asthma or other respiratory ailments caused by these power plants feel the “blood and sword” of the “flaming skies” with every wheezing, painful, tired to death, and anxiety-ridden breath.

Munch’s melancholy is our reality, if you pay attention to the screams of coal, or any non-renewable energy source, through nature, through us.  We become the unidentifiable, the afflicted, the forever-changed figure in his masterpiece, if you hear the scream and know your place in what we’re doing to nature 24 hours a day as these coal-fired power plants operate.  Or you could be the ambivalent, un-hearing, oblivious background figures walking along and enjoying a pretty sunset as you play Pokemon Go on your coal-fired cell phone.

 

For the full gallery of images from the Farmington, NM area power plants and coal mines, go to Climate Photography.

The Thompson Divide

The Thompson Divide Paradox

The place.
Thompson Divide, CO (Oil and Gas)

#ThisIsClimateChange, if the Thompson Divide is developed for fossil fuels.  The Thompson Divide is an area of Colorado that is well known for its wilderness qualities, as well as being used for grazing by local ranchers using public permits. Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry wants to drill there very intensely.  Community and environmental organizations from national to state to local want the area protected from any drilling. Drilling, nonetheless, is creeping up the mountain from the west.  The impacts to the local ecosystems, local economy, and global climate are calculable, and astronomical. The Thompson Divide Coalition works to negotiate with the companies and state and national political realms to find a way to protect it from any drilling: http://www.savethompsondivide.org/.   Their studies show how much the area already contributes to the economy, for example. Other environmental organizations are also heavily involved.

The Thompson Divide is an area of Colorado roughly west of Highway 133 between the town of Carbondale in the Roaring Fork Valley and near the Town of Marble in mountainous terrain.  Recent news reports show that a new United States Geological Survey has rewritten the USGS estimate for “technically recoverable” fossil fuels located in the Piceance Basin (much of western Colorado) from 1.6 trillion cubic feet to a mean estimate of about 66 trillion.  The extraction industry is renewing their efforts to “recover” that resource.

The Thompson Divide area of the Piceance Basin, according to The Thompson Divide Coalition, a local coalition dedicated to protecting the area from oil and gas drilling and production, hosts around 300 jobs and a $30 million economy between its already packed multiple uses of agriculture, ranching, and recreation.  Most of the area is public land with multiple agencies, four counties, local mountain towns, and a lot of residents, who all want to have a say in how to manage the land.

There is one agency, however, which has mineral leasing authority, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM.  This is the primary agency for leasing and managing subsurface mining in America, and usually is given the authority to do so for other agencies, like the Forest Service, which manages much of Thompson Divide’s surface area.

The mission(s).

The United States Forest Service states their mission is: “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” and proudly quotes their first Chief as stating they are “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”

However, in their motto, they state their multiple use legal requirement. “As set forth in law, the [Forest Service] mission is to achieve quality land management under the sustainable multiple-use management concept to meet the diverse needs of people: It includes:

  • Advocating a conservation ethic in promoting the health, productivity, diversity, and beauty of forests and associated lands.
  • Listening to people and responding to their diverse needs in making decisions.
  • Protecting and managing the National Forests and Grasslands so they best demonstrate the sustainable multiple-use management concept.”

The BLM varies little.  Mission: “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”  They go on to say, “The BLM’s multiple-use mission, set forth in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, mandates that we manage public land resources for a variety of uses, such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting, while protecting a wide array of natural, cultural, and historical resources, many of which are found in the BLM’s 27 million-acre National Landscape Conservation System.”

The BLM has a long and storied history of tending to this multiple use philosophy with vigor.  Unless the land in question has a high-level protection status, for example, a designated wilderness area or national park, or has some cultural or otherwise important characteristic, that land is open season for permits to extract minerals, cut trees, graze cattle, hunt wildlife, and, yes, otherwise recreate on, in, and under it as the case may be.

Out of hundreds of millions of acres of land and subsurface area managed by these two agencies, the Thompson Divide is just about 221,500 acres.  There are 81 parcels of land within that are leased for extraction, but have been delayed in process and protest for years.  In fact, one strategy, of the Thompson Divide Coalition’s, is to simply buy back those leases.  One argument against this, from the industry itself, is that they’d have to buy back the recoverable assets, not just the original permit, which would be an astronomical figure, especially in light of this new USGS study estimate.

The paradox of multiple uses in the same place.
Thompson Divide, CO (Oil and Gas)

“Multiple-use” in action. On the left of the horizon, are three elk. On the right are the various tanks, pipes, climate-enhancing collections and exhausts, and workings of an active oil and gas flattened pad, at the end of a road not far from the Thompson Divide. My vehicle, a near-silent Chevy Volt electric vehicle, accessing this road to document these well pads encroaching on Thompson Divide mountains, frightened the elk from their prior grazing near the gate of the well pad. These well pads are accessed frequently by maintenance staff once the initial drilling is done, causing dust, sediment runoff from rain, and noise disturbances to local wildlife like these elk. Once final access is granted to drill within the Thompson Divide area, *if* that approval might be given, then a spider-web of roads would be bulldozed throughout the landscape, with frequent traffic from heavy equipment vehicles and drilling rigs, to regular truck maintenance and monitoring vehicles on a daily basis.  Shotgun shells can be seen as roadside litter.

The paradox, even though the BLM seems to have already made their decision years ago in the sale of the 81 permits, some say illegally, and which are being reconsidered by the BLM, is buried deep in the missions of these government agencies that are charged with, essentially, trying to make everyone happy in their administrative decisions.  Are these herein described “stakeholder” parties implacable?  Are they inherently mutually-exclusive?

Environmental organizations are fighting this battle on two fronts:

  1. This land is your land (and not a corporation’s land), meaning that the land needs to be open to everyone, and not closed for a corporation’s industrial damage.  The leasing of fenced plots of land, on public property, with hazardous materials and heavy traffic on newly created roads that fragment and pollute the landscape are the antithesis of a conservation ethic for which these government agencies stand, in their aforementioned statements, on behalf of the people of the United States.  The industry is inherently hazardous to all of the other functions of the BLM and Forest Service’s management of those public lands, those surrounding the permitted parcels, the waters downstream of them, and the local airshed, all of which are well documented in scientific studies and media reports over decades.
  2. The purpose of the industry’s extraction practices are to “recover” fossil fuels for “consumption” by the public, domestic and foreign marketplaces if they can transport it across our borders.  Essentially, the public, via the BLM’s decisions to lease for this extraction purpose, is sanctioning vast release of carbon dioxide, methane, and other harmful chemicals (locally and globally) to the environment and atmosphere.  The climate damage caused by such releases would contribute to an already worsening condition, which we should not condone or permit.
Thompson Divide, CO (Oil and Gas)

This parcel holds oil and gas facilities with a gate labeled “DANGER UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT,” left unattended and open.  The Thompson Divide mountains can be seen in the cloudy background. The noise level from these fans and pressurized pipes was quite loud, not counting the occasional truck passing by on the dirt road, compared to the quietude of these otherwise serene landscapes. These bulldozed roads and facility pads would become multi-decadal industrial operations in an otherwise natural and wild setting, spread over hundreds of square miles.

The industry, however, counters this with economic “jobs” and contributions to society, such as taxes and royalties that somehow are funneled to ever-poor school systems.  So, extracting natural gas and/or oil from public lands such as the Thompson Divide is… for the children, among other things.  While this may be factually true, with deterministic (seemingly angelic) budgeting, the industry’s equivalent of “greenwashing” their economic contributions, or raison d’etre, but the reality is that they are a business with legal requirements of their own to make money for their investors, which is arguably their mission, ad infinitum.

And though, setting aside for the moment their conservation requirements, the BLM does have a mission that includes economic promotion through “productivity,” or creating products from nature’s bounty on, in, and of the lands they manage, there is a finite amount of  managed space.  So the BLM’s mission (and the Forest Service’s) has introduced a paradox, of sorts, similar to Zeno’s Paradox of Place.  Not all “uses” can exist in the same place, and there are not an infinite number of places for them to exist.  Further, it is human hubris to believe that we understand everything about the natural world to state that nature can coexist with every other human “use” of a landscape without repercussion.

This is to say nothing of the natural world that is already in existence there, in those places we want to do the things the BLM manages and permits.  If the BLM is responsible to me, to value my “needs” and “use” of the land in question, in this case the Thompson Divide, then they are mandated to listen and include my input in their decision, equally with an oil and gas company wanting to use the land to drill for their (really, our publicly-owned) “product.”  Nature doesn’t need me to go on existing as it has for eons there, but, in the modern world, since the BLM is mandated to respond only to human input and does not have a mandate to respect any sort of natural inherent rights to exist outside of Congressionally-designated statuses like wilderness areas and National Parks, then nature, in BLM’s eyes, needs my voice.  And since I am but one, and nature is many, having very complex needs, then I, if I proximally understand the needs of nature as a whole in the Thompson Divide, must see fit to organize or be part of a body of people that is organized to speak out for all of nature’s needs in numbers that represent a weight of command that the BLM understands represents a meaningful equivalent of nature’s representative value as weighed against their legal duties to their mission.

Essentially, the BLM is responsible solely to the people’s laws, and interpreting how to best balance the demands of the fairest decisions based on the commands of those laws and the stakeholders who are involved to be representatives for their voice in that law’s interpretation.

The solution.
Thompson Divide, CO (Oil and Gas)

Overlooking the South Thompson Creek area of the Thompson Divide. Several parcels of land permitted to oil and gas companies can be seen from this view, particularly on the left. Further north, just over the mountainous horizon in this image, is the Sunlight Ski Area, the owners of which have publicly opposed oil and gas development proposed around their operations, which, itself, is permitted by the Forest Service. The land seen in the foreground is noticeably heavily grazed by cattle, also permitted by the Forest Service.

The BLM’s Paradox of Place, it seems, is solved by interpretations, arguments, weight of command (comments), and, as Pinchot stated, “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”  I just hope that the weight of the people speaking out to prevent harm done by oil and gas development is represented by enough people to show that nature itself is a valued human resource, for an abundance of reasons and uses, and wins the BLM’s decision and a strong support ruling from the courts with the inevitable challenges it will receive.  Oil and gas resources are finite, however “plentiful” in estimate, and would be exhausted at great cost to the global climate and local ecosystems otherwise.

In “the long run,” many ecosystems can only be damaged once, and they are forever (or on a scale of centuries) altered, destroyed, or otherwise damaged, no matter how much remediation efforts attempt to artificially turn back time to restore that damage.  Certainly the climate emissions genie cannot be put back in the bottle with humanity’s current technology.

I, for one, support the Thompson Divide Coalition‘s, and other organization’s efforts to protect the Thompson Divide and other areas like it.  I hope you’ll join me in sending a chorus of “keep it in the ground” or “let it be,” to the BLM.  They have no choice but to listen to you, and weigh your voice against other, short-term, profit-making interests.

 

See the full gallery of Thompson Divide images, including some surrounding area drilled lands that are already encroaching on the Thompson Divide’s boundaries.

7,863 miles, 6,729 Photos, 11 Western States, 1 Big Smile

Points and labels on map are artifacts of Google’s mapping system, not indicative of documented stops.

Earlier this year, I was invited to a relative’s college graduation ceremony in California.  Honored to be invited, proud of my cousin’s accomplishment, and eager to make a photography trip out of the opportunity, I hit the road in early May through mid-June with an agenda: photograph America’s western energy infrastructure.

Including my original destination of familial celebration, the entire trip was nearly 8,500 miles on the road, over six weeks, or 7,863 photography miles.  My prior-longest photography road trip a couple years ago, anchored by a cousin’s wedding in California, was a total of just 4,445 miles.  Both trips originating in my adopted state of Colorado.

My desired outcome with this latest trip was to photograph a diversity of methods that America uses to generate electricity across the Western States.  Of course, there’s an incredible amount of beauty to be seen along the way, so I couldn’t pass up other opportunities as well.

In the south, traditional coal, and newer solar and wind projects were plentiful.  California has some legacy wind turbines, small 100 kWh lattice-tower turbines, which are being replaced with large, new 1-3 MWh turbines, an activity called “repowering.”  Northern states have an abundance of hydroelectric power, of course, some of which have been or are slated to be decommissioned and removed, but there are also biomass plants that generate electricity from the trees of the forest.

Energy infrastructure in these images are labeled as either contributing to climate change (#ThisIsClimateChange), or contributing to solutions (#SignOfClimateProgress).

From what I envisioned for this journey, I thankfully fulfilled my goals.  There was but one major surprise along the way, however.  Security and law enforcement in America are walking on the eggshells of terrorism.  They’re on high alert.  Their vigilance borders paranoia by my observation, but was also rote, with one security guard almost comically asking me point blank when I introduced myself as a photographer intending to photograph their power plant, “you’re not a terrorist, are you?”  When I said “no,” with a bit of disgust for the state of the world, I half-expected him to check a box on a clip board at his security desk… “Ο Terrorist ⊗ Not a Terrorist.”

Coal has a long history in Carbon and Emery Counties in Utah. These photographs tell a story of the families who have experienced tragedies over the past century or more, as written on the plaques adorning the coal miner memorial in the center of the town of Price. With truckers buzzing through county roads and highways so frequently that a road-side pause makes one immediately wonder where these identical trucks are from, where they're going, and what they're carrying. Visible from the main roads, the power plants are easily identifiable, with tons of coal offloaded frequently. However, just the impending threat of stricter emissions controls on coal fuel caused one coal owner to decommission the Carbon Plant, as this Salt Lake City article shares: http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/news/56919729-78/coal-power-carbon-plant.html.csp.

#ThisIsClimateChange. Coal has a long history in Carbon and Emery Counties in Utah. These photographs tell a story of the families who have experienced tragedies over the past century or more, as written on the plaques adorning the coal miner memorial in the center of the town of Price. With truckers buzzing through county roads and highways so frequently that a road-side pause makes one immediately wonder where these identical trucks are from, where they’re going, and what they’re carrying. Visible from the main roads, the power plants are easily identifiable, with tons of coal offloaded frequently.
However, just the impending threat of stricter emissions controls on coal fuel caused one coal owner to decommission the Carbon Plant, as this The Salt Lake Tribune article shares.

Just taking photographs near a power station drew not only the attention of security, but in some cases resulted in reports from passersby to security or law enforcement.  More than once did I have to explain that I was simply a photographer making images of western America’s energy infrastructure.  One time I heard, over my shoulder as I was shooting, a security guard ask a plant worker if he’d ever heard of anyone taking pictures of power plants while travelling, and, happily, the worker said, “sure, I do sometimes.”

However, my highlight of interactions with security was at the Huntington coal-fired power plant in Emery County, Utah.  I had already been notified by security at the nearby Hunter plant that I wasn’t welcome.  Aside from terrorism concerns, apparently Sierra Club had recently been taking photos and there was a lawsuit by them against the power company.  I was repeatedly told that it was against company policy to allow any photography whatsoever.

So I persisted, but near the Huntington plant instead, and was well-distant from any private property.  Someone passing by reported me to plant security, who patrolled down the hill to my location.  Aside from, again, being told I couldn’t take photos of their power plant, and reminding them that I was on public land and had every right to photograph from there, the dispatch on the radio said to hold me there while someone from the plant was on his way to meet us.  Having gotten the photos I wanted, I told the security guard I had what I needed, and I was going to be on my way, and did.

It turned out that the night shift supervisor wanted to talk to me, and tracked me down at the only open business in nearby Huntington that late at night (I was there for night photography of their plant towers with the moon centered between, image left), a convenience store gas station.  He let me know that my simple presence taking photos of their operations had caused “alarms” internally all the way up to the Vice President.

We had a good long conversation about several subjects related to climate change, right there in the parking lot.  Very civil, and open.  It was one of those conversations you wish the coal industry would have with the environmental movement all the time, given the active lawsuits using courts and attorneys as intermediaries.

Three other major highlights of the entire trip were: 1) making a mad dash to Phoenix with short notification by email, to see the Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered plane making its way around the world, take off for Tulsa, OK, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, 2) happening upon a family of sea otters swimming, feeding, and playing in the Quillayute River near Rialto Beach, WA, and 3) seeing wolves in the wild for the first time, including a failed hunting attempt, in Yellowstone National Park, WY.

Wolf chasing Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in Yellowstone.

A wolf (black, upper-right), chasing a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep across a steep ridge near its den in Yellowstone National Park, WY. This action took place over a mile away from the photographer.

Being able to have the freedom to travel across the country to openly photograph multi-billion dollar energy infrastructure facilities, whether fossil-fuel derived or renewable electricity, is a freedom that appears to be heavily monitored with a desire to be quashed.  Climate photography has its stories, and I’ll be sharing several from this trip over the coming weeks.

 

For access to the entire “Western States Energy Infrastructure” portfolio of galleries, go here.  Though thousands of pictures were made, only several hundred are shown.  Similarly, the thousands of smiles made on this trip can also be summarized as one big road trip smile.