WyoFile Energy Report

Climate impact to wildlife could change western politics

— February 2, 2013

It now costs about $3 billion each year to fight wildfires in the U.S. That’s triple the cost of what we spent to fight wildfires of the 1990s.

Today’s nationwide drought could cost between $75 billion to $150 billion, factoring in aid, loss of productivity and the drain on the nation’s gross domestic product.

Dustin Bleizeffer
Dustin Bleizeffer

But those are just numbers, and they seldom shift one’s thinking on policy or who to vote for.

What can cause a man to shift his political thinking, however, is watching a fishing hole he’s enjoyed his whole life wither to ruin because of consistently lower flows and higher temperatures. And when elk remain in the highlands because the snow is late again, and they don’t come down until hunting season is over.

“We’re out there hunting and fishing, hiking the mountains, wading the rivers, wandering the landscapes. … When the smoke from October forest fires fills our valleys and blocks out the mountains, to the point where we can’t hunt or fish, we notice,” said Todd Tanner, a Montana outdoorsman and chairman of the advocacy group Conservation Hawks.

Tanner recently spoke on a conference call with reporters, organized by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). The group highlighted findings of a new report, “Wildlife in a Warming World.

According to the report, climate change is the single biggest threat to wildlife in the U.S.

Migration patterns are changing, river systems are changing, the skiing and snowmobiling season is shorter, and just about everything that people in Wyoming and the rest of the American West are most passionate about when it comes to the outdoors is under the threat of climate change. Tanner is among those who believe that all outdoorsmen — no matter their political stripe — are going to demand policy action from their elected officials.

“I think what you’re going to see, more and more, is hunters and anglers — who tend to be conservative — pushing on politicians, particularly red state politicians, and saying, ‘This impacts me deeply,’” said Tanner.

A Wyoming fisherman at an undisclosed location. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
A Wyoming fisherman at an undisclosed location. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

There are 37 million hunters and anglers in the U.S., and they haven’t yet begun to make their voices heard on a warming climate and its threat to their favorite outdoor activities.

America’s outdoor recreation industry injects some $646 billion annually into the economy, yet politicians don’t often feel the full force of that potential political power. Outdoor enthusiasts are a very diverse group that lacks a cohesive lobby on national policy.

But there’s growing consensus about what they’re seeing and experiencing in their most treasured recreation areas: the quality of land and wildlife is surely deteriorating under a warming climate.

To avoid catastrophic losses of wildlife and wildlife habitat, the NWF report calls for a national climate plan to reduce carbon emissions 50 percent by the year 2030. The authors state that the best way to do this is to put a price on carbon emissions, particularly from fossil fuels.

There’s the rub for Wyoming’s top elected officials. Wyoming’s former and current governors and congressional delegates do their share of hunting and fishing, too. And many of them deserve credit for supporting conservation programs in Wyoming, such as the Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust and the Wyoming Range Legacy Act.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Matt Mead said he’d recommended another $5 million appropriation to the Wildlife Trust because, “We want its important conservation work to continue, we want to recognize the value of balance; and we forever want to have ranching and farming a big part of our Wyoming landscape.”

OK, great. Now, what’s behind the need for that investment? What’s driving the need to spend tens of millions of dollars to fight wildfires for the 2012-13 seasons? What drove the need for Gov. Mead’s request for federal drought assistance in all but one Wyoming county in 2012? How do we square all of these disaster and conservation expenditures with other policies such as pushing for more Wyoming coal exports?

Coal exports

We hear Wyoming politicians rally for coal exports as if the only factors in the equation are the revenues our state reaps from coal, and the jobs it supports. The Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, an advocacy group created by the coal industry, touts the advantage of jobs and little else. Is that all that’s really at stake here?

In his public scoping comment for the Gateway Pacific Terminal environmental impact statement, Gov. Mead argued against a larger programmatic study of Gateway Pacific and other proposed coal ports. A programmatic study would consider worldwide greenhouse gas emissions related to the general expansion of coal exports — from several proposed ports — in the Pacific Northwest.

Mead, a red state governor, argued that a programmatic study is unnecessary because the Gateway Pacific port “is a crystallized project, in a specific place, with defined parameters and operations.”

So … let’s rally behind coal exports in general, but let’s consider the environmental implications in piecemeal fashion? What is it about a single coal export facility that could possibly have environmental implications beyond the geography of the actual port site, anyway?

Producers are seeking to export millions of tons of coal annually from Wyoming to Asian markets, including China. Many residents there, such as this woman in Jincheng, wear protective masks to filter air pollutants. (Olivia Meigs/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
Producers are seeking to export millions of tons of coal annually from Wyoming to Asian markets, including China. Many residents there, such as this woman in Jincheng, wear protective masks to filter air pollutants. (Olivia Meigs/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Greenhouse gas emissions?

Gov. Mead continued; “A single PEIS (programmatic environmental impact statement) that includes Asia, world-wide greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and similarly broad and diverse areas will result in less informed decision-making,” Mead wrote. “Expanding the breadth of the EIS will divert resources away from analysis of environmental impacts of the terminal and rail spur to matters not relevant to this project.”

So, taking a broad view of environmental impacts will make us less informed, and it would expressly diminish our ability to look at the actual port and rail spur sufficiently?

Does Gov. Mead think we’re dumb? Or is the governor — and his coal industry supporters — afraid that with a broader analysis we might actually be able to better conduct a cost-benefit analysis of coal export revenue vs. loading the atmosphere with more carbon and the implications to our environment and wildlife in the American West? The fact is, the coal lobby doesn’t even want to consider a negotiated schedule for carbon reductions or a carbon tax. And there’s been absolutely no daylight between the coal lobby and Wyoming’s top elected officials on this matter.

They say, let the marketplace decide, without policy sideboards.

What a failure in leadership to excuse themselves from taking action on climate change by fatalistically alleging that there’s no stopping China and India from pumping more carbon into the air. From Beijing to Berlin, the world is looking to the United States for leadership on this issue. What hypocrisy that we send them our coal instead.

In Wyoming, we well understand that our leaders will always promote the coal industry. But there’s a growing sense that climate impacts here at home could very soon change the political dynamics between coal and conservation. The fact is, coal’s lobbying power is slipping in Washington D.C. as the U.S. burns less coal.

Todd Tanner said, “As hunters and anglers — who are passionate about the outdoors — as we realize that our politicians and our captains of industry have sold us out for a handful of gold … well, somebody needs to make the moral case for addressing climate change.”

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief, and a former Powder River Basin coal miner. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Seriously, this is such a regurgitation of the same old BS. A fifty percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that will never happen. A new ‘investment’ (why can’t the left at least be honest and call it a tax – oh that’s right because they can’t really run on the truth . . .) and a healthy pile of sanctimonious enviro self righteousness. Is it WyoFile or WyoPile?

  2. “politics and climate are always changing, but hack outdoor journalism from Montana is eternal” Mark Twain

  3. I sent Guv Matt a nice fuzzy Christmas stocking with his name on it to hang above the mantle at the Wyo Governor’s Mansion for the holidays. It had two lumps of Powder River Basin coal in it. One of those lumps was specifically for his alleged ” Energy Policy ” , which is to dig up and sell as much of the stuff as possible in the shortest period of time.

    I did not recieve a thank you card from Guv Matt.

  4. Let me repeat the words of the sagacious Mr. Bell: You nailed it, Dustin. Keep up the great work and the tradition of solid reporting.

  5. Right on, Dustin. You have nailed it. We hail ourselves as the world leader but in a world awash in money, we ignore everything but the MONEY. Our politicians and “leaders” will find that when climate change has run its course, no amount of money can buy back what we have lost. What a tragedy for our children, grandchildren and all our posterity. Thank you, Dustin, for calling it like it is.