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Friday, December 9, 2011

Coal exports: When energy execs sound like cigarette execs



I started really thinking about the globalization of the West's natural resources a long time ago. It's not taking too big of a leap to say that outsourcing our mineral production helped lead to the closure of a lot of mines in the West. I would have never expected, a decade ago, that the globalization tide would reverse itself. Then, in 2008, while researching a story about a resurgence in copper mining in Arizona, an economic development guy in Globe, Ariz., said that the great thing about the new boom is that all the copper was going to China. An economic collapse at home, in other words, wouldn't damage the industry.

That turned out to be a bit naive. The U.S. housing bust was so big that it dragged the global economy down with it, even China's. But China, thanks to a massive stimulus package, bounced back, and so did the natural resource industries here at home. Coal, however, especially that from the West, hasn't benefited quite as much from China's hunger, mostly because it's tough to get it there. That's changing, as I've written about in HCN. It wasn't until Yale e360 asked me to write a piece about coal exports, however, that I noticed something funny: How similar today's coal executive rhetoric is to that of tobacco executives back in the 1980s. Basically, the challenges faced at home by the coal industry today are similar to those faced by cigarettes back then. And they're looking to the gargantuan Chinese market to salve their wounds.

Read about it at Yale e360.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Future of News and my days as a small-town newspaper guy

Len Ackland, the co-director of the fellowship I'm in at the University of Colorado in Boulder, sent out a Columbia Journalism Review article by Dean Starkman called The Confidence Game. The article calls into question the concept that centralized journalism, particularly long-form journalism, is a dying breed. It's a great piece.

After reading the article, I sat down to send Len a quick note thanking him for sending out the article, and to tell him about how my experience as a small-town newspaper owner tinted my views on such things. By the time I looked up from my keyboard, I realized I had quite a bit to say. And it wasn't until I pushed "Reply All" that I realized Len had sent The Confidence Game out to a big group that is currently debating the future of the school of journalism at the university. Here's my response:

It makes me think back to the years I spent running a weekly newspaper in Silverton, Colo.. Silverton isn't only a small town -- year-round population approx. 450 -- but it is also isolated by mountain passes on either side, and is the only town in the county and the county seat. That meant that all the business, all the politics, all the decisions, and about 90 percent of the "news" took place in a space that is about one mile long by one-third of a mile wide. And that meant that, long before the Internet was even conceived of, the newspaper in Silverton should have been obsolete under the "Future of News" gurus models. That is, you didn't need a weekly newspaper to tell you what was going on, because there were plenty of "citizen journalists" (read, gossips) to fill you in wherever you went. The streets themselves, the post office, the coffee shop and the Miner's Tavern were the Internet of Silverton, overflowing with information; if a big decision was made at Town Hall, the whole town knew about it, or could know about it, by the next day at noon, which might be a full week before they read about it in the newspaper.


Nonetheless, the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper has continued to be published, and read, every single week without a break since 1875. And during that 136 years, there have been many times when Silverton had two or even more newspapers (this even happened in the post-Internet age). They even kept reading it after big news was broken on Facebook or various Web sites, and after all the town/county/school board meetings were broadcast live on the local radio station, allowing everyone to get the big news delivered to them as it happened.


Why?


Because people naturally need and therefore crave the authority, voice, context and commentary that a news organization can offer by a newspaper, even if it isn't delivered in "real time." They know that while Donna down at the Post Office can tell you about how the vote turned out at last night's school board meeting, and even who voted for what, they also know that she didn't sit through all three miserable hours of the meeting recording not only the vote, but also the argument leading up to it; and not only that, but also the mood of the board members, and the audience, and the rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth. Nor did she go back into the school the next day and pester the superintendent and the principal and get the inside scoop; nor did she dig through databases on the Internet and crunch numbers and make more calls to figure out what they mean. Nor did she dig back in the archives to see what may have led up to that particular vote.


The reporter did all of that.


And so, even a week after the vote, when everyone in town already knew the results and the straight news, they still put a couple of quarters in a machine, picked up the Standard and read the story about it, because it offered extra value, value that could not be delivered by Donna or even the Miner's Tavern's "Round Table" of town drunks and elected officials where most official decisions were actually made.


With the Web oozing into every facet of our lives, and citizen journalists, bloggers, and the like oozing right along with it, the whole world now looks a bit like Silverton always has. By following my Twitter feed, Facebook, and various breaking news sources, I can find out over and over what is happening at any given time at any given place, just as anybody could in Silverton by heading over to the Courthouse and chatting up Melody, the Sheriff's dispatcher and town busy body/pre-cyberspace Twitter feed. This can be extremely valuable in some instances -- one could probably get a better sense of what was happening with the Four Mile Fire as it burned via Twitter than from any official news outlet, thereby allowing people to react appropriately. Yet the only places that one could get a credible, in-depth, contextual account of WHY the Four Mile Fire happened, and how, and what led up to it, and what it says about wildfire in the West, climate change, fire suppression and exurban development, is from official news outlets, perhaps days, weeks, even years after the fire went out. And the fact is, people are still interested in these in-depth, long-form analyses, long after the event itself (and, yes, they will pay for them… otherwise the New Yorker would have gone out of business years ago).


The former -- the citizen journalism, social media, or cyber-gossiping -- then, is indeed valuable: It's a means of relaying raw information to a large number of people with virtually no delay. Yet it is not something that needs to be taught -- I'm sorry, but the idea of social media classes, or courses in Tweeting or Facebooking, is as absurd as courses on office gossip and chit-chat. It comes naturally. The latter -- the digging, the data-mining, the verifying and reverifying the data, the phone calls to reluctant sources, the analysis, and the conveyance of all that information in a digestible, compelling, and even fun-to-read format. Now that takes an education.


And so it is that I can give at least one reason to keep a somewhat traditional journalism school alive: To ensure that there's someone qualified to deliver credible and contextualized information to the fine people of Silverton, Colorado. And beyond.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

7 billion isn't that scary; overconsumption is

On October 31, the human population officially hit 7 billion. Since humans have a thing for nice big round numbers, the occasion was marked with a great deal of fretting about overpopulation. And the UN’s choice of Halloween as the official date of 7 billion gave all kinds of alarmists the opportunity to declare that population growth was a lot scarier than ghouls and goblins.

Or not.



Sure, trying to wrap one’s mind around a number like 7 billion is pretty daunting. It evokes visions of people crowding every square inch of every continent, with the poor Earth sagging under the weight of all that humanity. The real numbers we should be worried about, however, are a lot smaller, and a lot more significant. They have to do not with how many people there are, but with how much we as a society consume. Because it’s consumption, not the number of people, which dictates how much of the earth is drilled or torn up for minerals or coal. It's how much energy we use and resources we put into our cars, appliances and gizmos that ultimately determines how much pollution we spew into the water and air and onto the land. So forget 7 billion, here are some really scary numbers:

See all those scary numbers and read the rest of the post at HCN's goat blog.

The growth machine is dead

In 2008, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University released a report called Megapolitan: Arizona’s Sun Corridor. It predicted that the corridor, stretching from Nogales in the south to Prescott in the north, with Phoenix and Tucson at its heart, would more than double its population by 2040, requiring some 3.7 million housing units and 2.4 million acre feet of water. When the report was being put together, the idea that this particular stretch of Arizona would house 10 million people in just a few decades wasn’t just realistic, it seemed inevitable -- after all, the region’s identity was tied up with that revved up growth machine.
home prices
Even as the report was making its initial round, the very foundations of its predictions were crumbling into the sand. After reaching its peak during the summer of 2006, the housing boom deteriorated, and the construction industry, which had provided nearly 1 in every 10 jobs in the Phoenix area, was hemorrhaging. The state’s estimates of population, which were based on the assumption that nearly all the new houses that had been built since 2000 were occupied, were proven wrong, because at least one out of ten of those new homes turned out to be empty.

Nevertheless, in 2009 the lead authors of the Megapolitan report, while admitting that their projections now sounded a “little out of tune,” continued to believe that the growth would return.

It hasn’t. And it won’t, at least not anytime soon.

Read the rest of this post at the HCN Goat blog, where I'll continue to delve into this question: With the housing boom gone, where does the West go now? What will it mean for cultures, communities and the environment? 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Koch, coal and cash

The cynic in me hardly batted an eye when I read recently that Republican House Speaker John Boehner is raking in coal-stained cash. Nor did I spill my coffee when I noticed that one of Boehner’s big new donors is a Koch brother. My interest was piqued, however, when I saw that it wasn’t David or Charles Koch -- the infamous Tea Partier billionaires -- who were forking out for the Republican leader, but the “other” brother, Bill.

Read more about Bill Koch's shift in his political donations at the HCN Goat blog, where I'll be doing most of my posting while I'm in Boulder (though I'll continue to occasionally throw something up here). 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

On the way to the corn

Water tank outside of Questa, New Mexico
A mysterious swath of landscape lies in a place that's north of Northern New Mexico and south of Southern Colorado. Some might place it on the fringe of the Taos Plateau, others on the edge of the San Luis Valley. It's an old place, and mostly empty. Here, wild horses have gnawed shrubs to dust; here the harsh white of an abondoned trailer sits juxtaposed against the Blanca Peak, rising out of a haze.

People here keep to themselves, mostly, but their broken dreams scatter the earth for everyone to see.

I passed through here recently on my way to Taos to see the work of Tiwa Farms (more on that later) and to see one of my favorite landscapes in the world. 

Abandoned adobe, Costilla, New Mexico.

The Exceptional Institute, San Luis, Colorado.

The Rio Grande before it enters the Gorge.

Storefront, San Acacio.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Global West

I've been back in the US of A for just over a month now, and the culture shock is waning. Kinda. After spending a year in Berlin, my wife, daughters and I came back for the summer. I'll be sticking around for another nine months, as a Ted Scripps Environmental Journalism Fellow at CU Boulder. I'm super excited about the opportunity; I'll be taking classes, reporting and writing, with a focus on environmental issues in the West.

Which is just what I focused on for several months while still in Berlin: I wrote a monster of a story for High Country News about global economic influences on the extractive industries of the West. It's some crazy stuff. Check out the story, and accompanying infographics here. And starting in mid-August or so, you can follow my musings about the region at the Goat blog at hcn.org.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fracking, nuclear waste and wolves: The West in Europe


Sometimes, sitting here in downtown Berlin, listening to American classic rock on the radio, I feel like I never left the American West. And it's not just the radio, or even Randy Rudd's Lucky Star Western Store in a nearby neighborhood. No, it's the news -- the environmental news, even. Some recent am-I-in-the-West headlines:

LONE WOLF ATTACKS 15 SHEEP. Wolves had been systematically exterminated in Germany by the early 1900s, much as they were in the U.S. West. But those crazy wolves ignored borders, and over the years continued to wander over from Poland into East Germany. When East and West were reunified, the government gave wolves protected status. Now, about 60 are in the country, mostly roaming around military training grounds and old strip mines, occasionally having a sheepy feast. And it's causing the same sorts of conflicts as in the U.S. Hunters are upset. Ranchers are scared (though, as in the U.S., they get reimbursed by the government for any livestock they lose), and some residents are pretty sure the wolf's going to eat their children. Yesterday, Das Bild (the sensationalist tabloid) ran the first photo of "der Killerwolf von Brandenburg."

EUROPE GETS FRACKED, TOO: That's right. That zany method of drilling and then "fracturing" the shale in which natural gas is trapped by shooting thousands of gallons of water -- mixed with a mysterious soup of chemicals -- into the ground is coming to Europe. It's been common in the West for a long time, and news outlets like High Country News have been questioning it for just as long. But it wasn't until fracking headed east, to Pennsylvania and New York, that most of the nation actually started noticing. Now, the practice is about to hit Europe (actually, Halliburton has already done it in Poland), and the rest of the world's getting a taste of that sweet and fizzy fracking soda. Of course, as the CEO of Cuadrilla energy, a UK drilling company, said: It's not fracking that's unconventional, it's the source where the gas is found that's unconventional. Which means what, exactly?

THOUSANDS PROTEST NUCLEAR WASTE SHIPMENTS: Germany actually has more nuclear waste dumps than the West (though certainly not more contaminated sites, in general, i.e. abandoned uranium mines, mills, etc.). But, like the West, they take nuclear waste from other countries. Still, when did you last hear about thousands of Americans protesting against all that nuke waste headed across the region to WIPP in southern New Mexico? That's right, you didn't. You gotta hand it to the Germans: They know how to protest.

Now, what happens when the wolves hang out in the nuclear waste dumps?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Linguistic bigotry, Western stores in Berlin, and more

On a recent Friday afternoon here in Berlin, the sun was shining and the temperature actually rose above freezing for once. It was enough to put Wendy and Elena and me into especially high spirits as we waited for the bus in well-heeled Zehlendorf, eating some treats from the nearby bakery. We talked about how the Germans have a talent not only for making good cake, but also for creating really healthy and tasty baked goods, like the sunflower-seed thing we were eating. As we were speaking amongst ourselves we were, naturally, speaking in English.

Apparently, that's an offensive act around these parts.

Also waiting for the bus was a lumbering woman, perhaps in her sixties, who looked as if she had eaten just a few too many cans of offal. She glared at us and, finally, as we were getting on the bus, she muttered to Wendy, in German: "When you are in Germany, you must speak German!"


Finish reading this, along with a post about a Western store in Berlin and more at gin & gelato...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The other Koch Brother: Bill's got a lot of money. Different agenda.

The North Fork Valley, near where Bill Koch has consolidated his power.

Oh to be the geeky younger brother. It’s never easy. But try to be the geeky younger brother to two ideologue billionaires who are trying to take over the world and, with the help of the Supreme Court and a lot of bought-off politicians, seem to be succeeding. The big brothers in this case are David and Charles Koch, owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately owned company in the U.S., and among the nation’s top polluters. In recent years, the Koch Brothers have been expanding their empire deep into American politics. Thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, they’ve been able to freely fund Tea Party and ultra-conservative organizations to the tune of millions of dollars. Now they’re also heavily funding the anti-union push in Wisconsin, and have become the bane of liberals everywhere.

And then there’s William, one of two other Koch Brothers. Like his older brothers, Bill is a billionaire. Like his brothers, he’s a fossil-fuel-powered corporate titan and an ardent consumer of political influence. Nevertheless, the tendency to throw Bill into the same category as his older brothers is simply unfair. For one thing, he’s been at odds with his siblings for much of the last three decades, even spending a good deal of time battling them in court. For another thing, Bill Koch is much more complicated than Charles and David. He’s more opportunistic, less ideologically constrained and, in some ways, maybe even more powerful. And while his older brothers seem to be bent on creating a whole new ├╝ber-capitalistic political order, Bill’s goals are harder to decipher: He’s donated to Al Gore’s campaign and Richard Pombo’s, fought against wind power and owns coal mines, and over the past two decades has amassed a tremendous amount of influence on the aspen and oak covered high plateaus, and in the rural towns below, of the North Fork Valley of Western Colorado. Now he seems to be reaching for more.

Like so many American success stories of the 20th Century
, the Koch family’s was built on oil. Fred Koch, the father of Bill, Charles, David and Freddie, figured out a new way to refine oil (or possibly stole the idea from other oil companies), and got rich developing the method in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. He returned to the U.S. in the 1940s and started the Rock Island Oil & Refining Company. When Fred died in 1967 Charles, the second oldest brother, took the helm of the company and changed the name to Koch Industries. Today, the company rakes in some $100 billion per year and has 70,000 employees.

Bill never really fit into the family or the family corporation’s mold. As a youngster, he was reportedly jealous of his older brothers’ athletic prowess and success, which caused problems all through childhood and then again when Bill, Charles and David were all at MIT (a fourth brother, Freddie, went to Harvard, studied playwriting, and remains out of the limelight). Later, when Bill joined Koch Industries as a consultant and then as President of Corporate Development, the old family friction continued. Things didn’t go well for Bill, and in 1982 he attempted a corporate coup-de-tat on his brothers. It failed, and he was canned. But Bill sued the company and David and Charles, ultimately walking away with a reported $260 million.

Koch used that cash to found the Oxbow Group, a huge energy conglomerate that today has nearly $4 billion in annual sales, according to the company website, and operates all over the world. Oxbow is often spun as an “alternative energy” company. Such a claim is hard to swallow after seeing Somerset, Colorado, though. There, a smattering of small time-battered houses hug the windy highway in a steep valley where the sun rarely shines during the winter. The houses’ walls of this Western slice of Appalachia are all streaked black. A faded sign squeezed between highway and houses proclaims this a UMWA town, even though the union was busted long ago. And the futuristic yet primitive machinations of a giant coal mine loom over the town, stretching their way up hillsides that constantly move because millions of tons of their innards have been extracted. Just up from the dingy post office, the huge loading tower rises up over the town. On its coal-stained sides it reads: Oxbow.

One of Oxbow’s early ventures was the Sanborn Creek Mine, here in Somerset, in Western Colorado. In 2003, after a fire and a fatality in Sanborn Creek, Oxbow developed the Elk Creek Mine, which today loads some 5 million tons of low-sulfur coal into mile-long trains that snake their way to power plants in the East. Oxbow’s primary products are coal and petroleum coke -- not exactly alternative energy.

Koch’s victory against his brothers and the fortune it got him were apparently not enough. In 1989, he again went after Charles and David in court, only this time he did it on behalf of the federal government. Bill alleged that Koch Industries had under-measured and undervalued the oil and gas that it produced on tribal and federal lands in, among other places, Colorado, Oklahoma, Utah and California. Thus, the company had underpaid its royalties, ripping off the federal taxpayer and the tribes. It was hardly a new practice, nor did it go away – the Mineral Management Service scandals of recent years, besides being soaked in sex and drugs, were really about oil companies skipping out on royalties, even as the feds sat by and did nothing. Long before that, again with the feds turning a blind eye, companies had been stealing oil and gas from tribes. It’s telling that it took Bill Koch -- not federal regulators -- to notice the problem and to drag Koch Industries to court.

The jury ruled that Koch Industries was liable for more than $200 million in underpayments. The company actually paid about one-tenth of that amount. For his part, Bill Koch walked away with $7 million. He had filed what’s known as a “qui tam,” in which the plaintiff is entitled to a share of the cash. Despite this obvious self-interest, the fact that Bill actually stood up for the feds on this issue demonstrated a clear, if only occasional, ideological break from his regulation-hating brothers.

When he wasn’t busy collecting legal victories against his siblings, Bill was collecting other, more tangible things. He spent half a million dollars on four bottles of wine that purportedly once belonged to Thomas Jefferson (they turned out to be fakes). His stockpile of art includes notables by Monet, Degas, Picasso and even Modigliani’s Reclining Nude. And in 1992, he spent a bundle of cash to develop a carbon-fiber sailboat that got him an America’s Cup to add to his collection of trophies.

Meanwhile, Koch kept amassing power in Western Colorado. In 2001, Oxbow formed Gunnison Energy, its natural gas production branch, which operates in the southern flank of the gas-rich Piceance Basin not far from the coal mine. It currently produces 560,000 MCF of natural gas each year, making it a relatively small player in the Basin, but it has drilling rights on more than 100,000 acres of leases. That, combined with the Elk Creek Mine, make Oxbow an economic powerhouse in an economically depressed region. The mine – one of three big ones working the same coal deposit -- employs 400 or so workers, who pull in salaries that are three to four times higher, on average, than the per capita income of Delta County*. Gunnison Energy also provides a handful of lucrative jobs on the rigs.

That bought the companies political influence without them even trying. The long fought-over 2001 Roadless Rule and its various iterations hovered over Oxbow’s operations as a potential threat for nearly a decade. Then, last year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave Elk Creek Mine an exemption from the rule, allowing the company to bulldoze into a roadless area to drill wells to vent methane** as the mine expands its reach. The local environmental group and most regional politicians supported the exemption because of the mine’s economic influence. But regional and national groups opposed it, saying it weakened an already beleaguered rule. Two years earlier, Gunnison Energy had defied the same rule when federal land managers allowed the company to build the Bull Mountain Pipeline through a stretch of roadless forest, despite outcry from environmental groups. The company and the feds argued that the roads associated with the line’s construction are not permanent, and therefore don’t violate the rule. The pipeline’s completion last year opened the door to significantly more gas development in a previously relatively undeveloped area.

Bill Koch is unusual among ultra-rich art collectors
in that he chooses the art himself, rather than having a professional pick out the pieces most likely to gain value. He has a personal and aesthetic, not just financial, attachment to the pieces he buys, carting a big chunk of his collection back and forth between his Palm Beach, Fla., home and his Cape Cod summer place each year. He seems to view the North Fork region of Colorado similarly; rather than just using it as a distant place from which to extract minerals and dollars, he also actually lives there sometimes. In 2006, Koch spent some $8 million for a 5,000-acre ranch on an undulating plateau in the shadow of the spectacular Ragged Range, about a dozen miles upstream from the Elk Creek Mine. From parts of the ranch, at night, one can see Gunnison Energy drill rigs on adjacent mesas, pillars of sharp lights tearing apart the darkness. Koch runs Longhorn cattle here, rides horses and hosts hunting expeditions.

But last year, a proposed land exchange that would enlarge the ranch was the subject of a local controversy, which tested the limits of Koch’s regional influence. And though opponents of the land exchange tried to fire up the opposition by associating Koch with his Tea Partying brothers, the fallout from the controversy actually showed that Koch is not anywhere near as ideologically constrained as his siblings.

The problem started because a strip of public land slices through the middle of Koch’s ranch, allowing the public to pass through the boundaries of “his” ranch without even trespassing. So, like many a wealthy landowner in such situations, Koch, with the help of The Western Land Group, arranged a swap. Koch would give up a total of 991 acres of land in Dinosaur National Monument, on the Utah border, and in Curecanti National Recreation Area, over the mountains near Gunnison, in exchange for the 1,840-acre strip of public land. While such deals are often handled administratively, this one involved several land management agencies, meaning it has to go through Congress. Last year, with backing from Gunnison County commissioners*** and conservation groups, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., introduced the legislation in the House, with Colorado Democrats Michael Bennett and Mark Udall, along with Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, sponsoring the Senate version.

When Delta County residents caught wind of the proposal, though, they were outraged. Led by former High Country News publisher Ed Marston, they accused exchange proponents of keeping the deal secret. They said it would take away local access to a Wilderness area while not benefiting locals in return. Some worried that Koch was just buying the land in order to drill it for natural gas. Others accused him of trying to lock up the land just to keep others from drilling in his backyard.

Emerging from the scuffle – and mentioned in nearly every media account of the controversy -- was the fact that Koch and Oxbow employees were collectively the biggest donors to Salazar’s campaign. Koch, his wife Bridget, Oxbow’s employees and Oxbow’s Political Action Committee donated a combined total of nearly $70,000 to Salazar’s campaigns, a significant chunk for a representative in a rural district such as this one. Less known was the fact that Udall and Hatch, the other sponsors of the exchange legislation, also benefited from Oxbow’s largesse, though to a lesser extent. Salazar put the bill on hold, promising to revisit it later, with more public hearings. Despite all of Koch’s money, however, Salazar lost his bid for re-election. The exchange is dormant, lest someone like Tipton, the Republican who beat Salazar, takes it up.

And who knows, he just might. Koch and his colleagues didn’t donate to the Tipton campaign directly. But in the weeks leading up to the election, both Koch and his wife gave big bucks – a total of $60,800 – to the National Republican Congressional Committee. The Committee, in turn, spent $763,000 in opposition to Salazar, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This isn’t unusual behavior for Koch. While his brothers aim all their money at ideological allies, Bill’s political spending is more erratic. He’s given to the campaigns of Democrats Ted Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy, Salazar, Udall, Bill Nelson and Hillary Clinton. He’s funded Republicans Lamar Alexander, Bob Dole and John McCain. He gave money to Al Gore. And he gave money to the nemesis of environmental regulations, Richard Pombo.

Koch even became a full-on environmental activist – in the manner of Wyoming oil baron turned anti-windpower activist Diemer True. Koch bankrolled the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which was created to fight against Cape Wind, a huge offshore wind facility. The facility is planned to stick out of the ocean off of Cape Cod, in view of Koch’s summer place. So Koch joined forces with a host of unlikely allies to try to stop construction, reportedly spending well over $1 million on the cause. Last year, however, Koch lost the battle when the Department of Interior gave the go-ahead to the wind facility. Making that decision was none other than Ken Salazar, John Salazar’s brother.

Still, Koch’s not one to take such defeats lying down. After he discovered that the Thomas Jefferson wine bottles he had spent a fortune on were inauthentic, he went after auction houses, dragging them to court. And even as Salazar was getting trounced in the election, potentially jeopardizing Koch’s bid to consolidate his ranch, Koch simply went out and bought some more land. In the fall of 2010, he purchased 2,400 acres in the North Fork Valley in Delta County for $7 million.


 * The work is also unusually hazardous: Elk Creek has had 130 employee or contractor injuries since 2001, two miners died here (one at Elk Creek and one in 2000 at its Oxbow-owned predecessor, Sanborn Creek), and the company’s been slapped with more than 2,000 citations from the Mining Safety and Health Administration over the last decade, adding up to more than $1.5 million in penalties. The mine’s “operator incident rate” has been higher than the national rate during five of the last nine years.

** The North Fork coal mines are all underground mines, as opposed to open pit/surface mines. Methane builds up in the miles-long tunnels and so, for safety’s sake, the methane must be vented via vertical tunnels from up above. Roads into roadless areas are needed to drill the vents. Ironically, the mines vent the methane – an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas – directly into the air. Meanwhile, Gunnison Energy drills for the same stuff nearby to pipe and sell to market. Efforts to require the mine to capture and use its methane have not been successful.

*** This issue, and Koch’s influence here in general, have been complicated by political boundaries that don’t match up with demographic or topographic realities. Koch’s ranch and his coal mine lie, and much of his gas and oil activity takes place, in Gunnison County. That means Gunnison County gets the property tax revenue from Koch’s operations, and that Gunnison County citizens are the ones who were asked for their opinion on the land exchange. That’s in spite of the fact that Koch’s holdings are all isolated from the population, government and most of the infrastructure of Gunnison County, and are much more intimately connected with neighboring Delta County.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

IKEA, Marriage, Winter in Berlin and Tropical Islands

I'm about to reach an important juncture in my life as an expat, or quasi-expat, or pseudo-expat, or immigrant, or whatever the heck I am. I'm about to finish my integration courses. When an auslander like me wants to live in Germany, he must get a residency/working permit, which I was able to get because my wife is a German citizen. But even in my situation, the visa is contingent on me completing a full array of so-called integration courses: 600 hours of German language, plus 45 hours of instruction on politics, history and culture. Thanks to four years of German in high school (many, many years ago), I was able to skip 400 hours of language instruction. I began my German classes here at level B.1, which was way too high for me, but with extra studying, I was able to make it through. Now I'm in the culture, history, politics section, which is super interesting.

When I finish, in just two weeks, the family and I are heading to Rome for a week. And when we get back, I have no good excuse anymore: I've got to find a real job, or at least enough freelance work to keep me from joining the ranks of the 8 a.m. subway beer guzzlers. Seriously. In other words, I'm aching for some freelance assignments, and I'm piling up ideas r.e.: integration, immigration, renewable energy, low budget travel with slightly crazy family in tow, searching for the perfect Negroni in Rome, etc. In the meantime, I've been writing about IKEA and the way it wrecks marriages and the Berlin winter and how I've survived it by visiting an indoor tropical island theme park. Read it all at my gin & gelato blog.