The local energy, environment and natural resource issues The Daily Sentinel expects to be closely tracking in 2020 generally look to be some of the same ones that drew headlines in 2019.

OIL AND GAS RULES

For Coloradans working in the oil and gas industry or living in oil and gas patches, any references to Senate Bill 181 likely require little explanation.

Most anyone who pays attention to the industry and its oversight in Colorado is intimately familiar with the 2019 law that revamped how the industry is regulated in the state. The measure puts a priority on protection of public health, safety, the environment and wildlife. It is prompting multiple rules rewrites by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and state Air Quality Control Commission.

Some rules, including ones applying to flowlines from oil and gas wells, and a first round of air-pollution regulations, have recently been adopted in accordance with S.B. 181, but altogether more than a dozen rulemakings are eventually expected to occur to comply with the new law.

What it has accomplished so far and is expected to accomplish in the future largely comes as welcome news to residents living near drilling and wells, and environmentalists seeking to reduce the industry’s impacts.

But the law also comes at a time when, particularly on the Western Slope, drilling activity already is at a minimal level because of low natural gas prices, raising questions about the degree to which gas development can remain economical for energy companies also facing stricter and costlier regulation.

Also something to watch in the coming year is how much of an issue S.B. 181 becomes in state legislative races and whether it results in court challenges by the industry.

After all, this is the same industry that up until S.B. 181’s passage enjoyed operating under state law that first and foremost required the oil and gas commission to foster oil and gas development.

Meanwhile, local industry supporters also will be closely watching for a decision from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, expected in February, on the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas project in Oregon. Project boosters in Colorado see it as an avenue to ship locally produced gas to Asian markets.

A FERC decision wouldn’t be the last regulatory word on the project, though. It also requires other approvals, including state-level ones in Oregon, where it faces some pushback from conservation groups and some landowners along a proposed in-state pipeline route that’s part of the project.

WOLVES IN COLORADO

Expect way too many 2020 headlines and story leads working the word “howl” into reporting on the debate over a ballot initiative that appears likely to be on fall ballots regarding reintroduction of wolves into Colorado.

Backers of the initiative have submitted more than 200,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office, making it probable that they will meet the threshold of nearly 125,000 valid signatures needed to put the issue to a vote.

Supporters believe wolves serve as a key part of western ecosystems, and that that’s being proven in other states where the animal’s numbers have been re-established. They think wolves aren’t likely to migrate to Colorado in numbers adequate enough to establish viable populations, despite the occasional lone wolf that reaches the state, and argue that a reintroduction program that includes rancher compensation for livestock predation by wolves is the necessary approach.

Already, though, vocal opposition has arisen in the form of the Stop the Wolf Coalition. Its co-chairman is Denny Behrens of Grand Junction, and the coalition has enlisted entities in its battle that include numerous Western Slope counties. Opponents fear impacts to both livestock and wildlife from the presence of wolves.

Reintroduction supporters say they have backing on both sides of the Continental Divide. That claim likely will be tested by opponents expected to argue in part that the ballot measure is an example of Front Range voters looking to impose their will on rural Coloradans who will have to bear the impacts of the voters’ decision.

Let the teeth-baring, snarling — and howling — begin.

Coal collapse?

The future of jobs tied to coal-fired power in western Colorado amid a national transition to cleaner and increasingly cheap renewable power sources will continue to be in the news.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association plans to dismantle its Nucla Station coal-fired power plant in western Montrose County in 2020, after retiring it in September, more than two years ahead of the planned closure date under a regional haze agreement. It already had closed a nearby mine that supplied the plant.

The action comes as Tri-State faces pressure from some of its local nonprofit energy cooperatives to accelerate its transition toward a cleaner electricity-generation portfolio as a wholesale power provider.

Delta-Montrose Electric Association in 2019 resolved longstanding differences with Tri-State through an agreement under which the association will withdraw from Tri-State May 1, ending its power-purchase agreement 20 years early.

Tri-State also operates and co-owns the Craig Station power plant in Moffat County. One of the plant’s three generation units is scheduled for shutdown by the end of 2025 under the same agreement that applied to the Nucla plant.

In 2019, Oregon-based utility PacifiCorp, another partner in the Craig Station, unveiled a draft plan that envisions closing a second unit there in 2026 rather than 2034, a move that would require the assent of other owners of that unit.

The uncertain future of the Craig Station is of magnified importance in Moffat County because two local coal mines, Colowyo and Trapper, supply it. The mines and power plant provide hundreds of well-paying jobs, and Tri-State and PacifiCorp are leading taxpayers in the county.

Meanwhile, over in the North Fork Valley, conservationists continue to legally challenge Arch Coal’s efforts to expand its West Elk Mine beneath some 2,000 acres in a national forest roadless area, leaving the future of that expansion uncertain.

Mining there could have started, but in November, a federal judge halted the expansion over the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s failure to consider requiring flaring of the methane produced during the mining. The mine drills wells to vent that methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas when vented, but far less so when flared.

Conservationists continue to appeal another ruling upholding additional environmental analysis other federal agencies conducted in connection with the mine expansion to comply with an earlier court ruling. And in December, they announced plans to sue Arch Coal for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act in connection with emissions of volatile organic compounds along with the vented methane.

West Elk, the last mine still operating in the North Fork Valley, employs hundreds.

MOVE-IN DATE FOR BLM

Come Thursday, some national-level Bureau of Land Management staff will begin operating from the agency’s new national headquarters in Grand Junction, looking to settle in and get comfortable in their new location on Horizon Drive, far from their previous digs in Washington, D.C.

But opponents of the agency’s relocation and distribution of some 300 headquarters jobs overall to various western states don’t plan to let BLM and Interior Department officials get too comfortable. At some point, the Government Accountability Office will release the results of an investigation into the move, conducted at the behest of U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Grijalva wants the GAO to determine if the move was properly planned and analyzed and will deliver the benefits the Trump administration is claiming. He and opponents including the Public Lands Foundation, made up largely of BLM retirees, think the real objective is to hollow out the agency’s leadership because of the unwillingness of some employees to move, and weaken the agency’s presence where national-level decisions are made in the U.S. capital, meaning political appointees will make those decisions instead.

The Trump administration and supporters of the relocation in Colorado, such as U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., say it will result in more national-level BLM officials being closer to the lands they manage and communities their decisions affect.

The Trump administration initially said 27 jobs would be coming to Grand Junction, but already that number has increased to around 40.

SNOWPACK TOTALS

Once again this winter, Colorado water managers and media will be closely eyeballing snowpack totals from month to month.

Annual snowpack totals have become an urgently monitored data point in recent years because of a dry trend so far in the 21st century in the Colorado River Basin, something reflected in low water levels in the basin’s two largest reservoirs, Powell and Mead.

States reached agreements in 2019 on a set of drought contingency measures. But much work remains to be done, including efforts in Colorado and other Upper Basin states to come up with demand management programs aimed at providing for voluntary, temporary, compensated reductions in use as needed to store extra water in Powell during times of drought.

These discussions have begun in earnest in Colorado.