Best of the West: Transitioning coal communities; Building transmission lines; Monitoring air quality; and Delisting endangered species

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting April 10, 2023. (Photos courtesy of Adrian_ilie825, TransWest Express Project, and the Institute for Applied Ecology).

With coal’s contribution to the grid hitting historic lows, some of the West’s largest coal-fired power plants announced that they will be closing years ahead of schedule, leaving many communities wondering about their future.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the federal government and different coal communities throughout the region are doing to help transition the economies of these communities and ensure they aren’t left behind.

At the federal level, senior Biden administration officials announced $450 million in funding for renewable energy projects at the site of current or former coal mines, and an additional 10% tax credit on top of existing tax credits if they build projects in energy communities. Check out a new mapping tool released by the administration to see which communities are available for the bonus credits.

In addition to funding, the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, announced the creation of a new Four Corners Rapid Response Team, bringing together 11 federal agencies and their regional staff to partner with local officials and community leaders in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah as they navigate the region’s energy transitions and transformations.

A new report from the Nature Conservancy details how the infrastructure from coal fire power plants — which include railspurs and industrial-scale connections to the power grid — can be repurposed for manufacturing, renewable energy generation, nuclear power, or coal-to-products businesses, with the added benefit of sparing undeveloped landscapes that are home to vital wildlife habitat, cultural and recreational resources.

For instance, companies in the UK are using geothermally heated water from abandoned coal mines that have been flooded with groundwater to sustainably heat warehouses.

Several companies in the West are also looking at ways to sustainably repurpose coal itself. Ramaco Carbon, which operates out of the Brook Mine near Sheridan, Wyoming recently partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, on a two-year project to use coal to make graphite, which can be used in everything from batteries for electric vehicles to mountain bikes.

The University of North Dakota announced this week that it received nearly $8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to study the extraction of rare earth elements from lignite coal waste.

Other communities are looking to totally transform their economies. With the Craig Station scheduled to close by 2030, Moffat County in Colorado announced the construction of a whitewater park known as the Yampa River Corridor Project to help increase tourism to the area. It will be funded through a $600,000 grant from the lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado, and a $3.3 million grant from the Economic Development Administration's Assistance to Coal Communities program. Groundbreaking on the project is expected this fall, with a potential opening in 2024.

Listen to an episode of WGA's 'Out West' podcast to learn more about state efforts to bolster opportunities for economic development in coal communities.

Transmission Lines: The Bureau of Land Management announced this week that it approved the construction of a 732-mile high-voltage transmission line across the Western U.S., known as the TransWest Express Project. Once completed it will transport renewable energy generated at North America’s largest onshore wind venture, the 3-gigawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in Wyoming, from south-central Wyoming through northwestern Colorado and central Utah before reaching its endpoint in southern Nevada.

TransWest Express will be the second high-voltage, multi-state transmission line approved by the BLM Wyoming State Office within the last year, after the office greenlit the construction of Energy Gateway South in May 2022. That 416-mile transmission line will run from a substation in southeastern Wyoming through Colorado, ending at another substation in central Utah.

Air Quality Control: The Colorado Air Pollution Control Division released a new online mapping tool this week that the public can use to identify and research air pollution sources statewide. It shows the location of more than half a million sources registered with the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division. The division has scheduled two public tutorial sessions, on Tuesday, May 2, from 6-7 p.m. and Thursday, June 8, 12-1 p.m., for those interested in learning more about using the interactive map.

Read testimony that WGA submitted to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, to learn about the Western Governors' advocacy for cooperative federalism when implementing the Clean Air Act. 

Subterranean Research: South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem signed a bill this week earmarking $13 million for the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, South Dakota. The funding will expand the underground research facility which is home to several cutting-edge research projects including the study of neutrinos, which scientists believe hold answers to the creation of the universe, dark matter, black holes, the death of stars, and more, as well as a study of autonomous mine vehicles and mine safety equipment. With a $67,000 STEM education grant from the South Dakota Department of Education, the Lead-Deadwood School District elementary teachers will work to enhance science programs by collaborating with the lab.

EV-Friendly Cities: According to a new report by StorageCafe that ranks the nation’s largest metros by their electric vehicle infrastructure, the seven most EV-friendly cities, and 16 of the top 20 are in the West. While Seattle, Washington was awarded the top spot thanks to the number of EV charging stations in apartment buildings, the number of registered EVs, and its EV-friendly highway system, California claims more than half of the spots in the top 10

Delisting Endangered Species: The recent news that the Fender’s blue butterfly, which was thought to be extinct for 50 years, was reclassified from endangered to threatened is just the latest species to be reclassified in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Over the past decade, two species have been taken off the endangered list, two more are proposed for delisting and many others are benefiting from work to restore prairie habitat. The first fish species ever to be taken off the ESA list due to recovery—the Oregon chub—is from the Willamette Valley. It was removed from the list in 2015 and is now one of five fish species to recover. In April 2021, Bradshaw’s lomatium, a plant species found mostly in the Willamette Valley, was also deemed recovered and taken off the list. It’s one of 20 flowering plants to recover. Read more about the successful recovery efforts in the Willamette Valley here.

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