Ken Dragoon and Alan Journet join Milt Radford on Jefferson Exchange, July 20, 2022

Do we really solve the problem of greenhouse gases by getting into a relationship with another gas?

That’s one of the issues in considering the greater use of hydrogen to power the world. And while some people and companies are all-in, skeptics wonder aloud if the embrace of hydrogen as fuel is just corporate greenwashing.

SOCAN, Southern Oregon Climate Action Now, spends its next monthly meeting (July 26 on Zoom) on the topic. The featured speaker is Ken Dragoon, Director of Hydrogen Development for Obsidian Renewables.

He and SOCAN co-founder Alan Journet stop in for a hydrogen exploration. Listen

Phil McKenna Inside Climate News June 29, 2022

Rockets launched by billionaires Elon Musk and Richard Branson emit black carbon in the stratosphere, where it is 500 times worse for the climate than it is on Earth. Billionaire Jeff Bezos’ rockets burn liquid hydrogen and oxygen and pose a lesser climate threat.

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Kathy Conway, Co-facilitator, Southern Oregon Climate Action Now, Ashland.News June 30 2022

In a letter to customers, Avista makes the offer that “…you now have a new option to add renewable natural gas and lower your carbon footprint.” But how generous is this offer and what does it do for our climate?

Is this smart for my pocketbook?

Avista’s rate per therm for residential customers is $1.20148. In its letter, Avista invites customers to add $3.33 to the price of each therm, for a total price of $4.53 per therm which approaches four times the current rate. Gas users be warned! Presumably, this is the price Avista considers would be necessary to charge customers for this so-called Renewable Natural Gas. It indicates what the future holds for rates if Avista achieves its goal of replacing fracked methane with RNG.

Is there enough RNG to do this?

If we accept the argument that RNG is an improvement over methane (natural) gas, it is worth noting that there is only limited RNG capacity in Oregon. A 2018 Oregon Department of Energy report indicated that the technological maximum for production was then about 17.5% of statewide gas usage. Other assessments place the maximum national capacity for RNG at 4 – 7% of gas usage. Clearly, maximally, RNG can barely put a dent in current methane gas usage. Increasing RNG supply requires increasing landfills, Confined Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs), mega-dairies, etc. and thus amplifying their negative environmental consequences.

Is this the way to address climate change?

The latest United Nations Environment Programme Stockholm + 50 report clearly urges the complete phase-out of all fossil fuels. The message is clear: in an energy economy seeking to address the climate crisis, there is no room for methane (natural) gas. This is because substantial methane leakage occurs from fracking, through processing and transmission, and even leakage from residential appliances. Any benefits that accrue because methane combustion yields more energy per unit of carbon dioxide emitted is negated by this leakage. While much electricity is currently generated from coal and gas, we know that the future is 100% clean generation of electricity, especially in Oregon, where retail electricity in Oregon will be 100% clean by 2040.This means that our goal should be to electrify our lives as much as possible. As we move in this direction, we recognize that some industrial processes (e.g., cement) are difficult to electrify. The limited RNG available should, therefore, not simply be inserted into pipelines but reserved for these specialized applications.

It’s also worth noting the growing evidence that combustion of methane gas produces nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and methane, that trigger respiratory conditions, depression, and general health problems. We should not allow it in our living spaces.

In summary, we should not encourage an industry business model that seeks to maintain our dependence on their destructive product for decades.

 

Alan Journet,  The Applegater, Summer edition, June 2022

Applegate Valley residents understand that wildfire risk has been increasing over recent years.  Of course, we are not alone. Before looking at trends, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on the unusual climate the Applegate shares with western states.

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Rick Barth, May 18, 2022, Ashland.News

Climate change is an environmental, financial, and social justice issue. We will continue to see significant and worsening impacts right here in Ashland with irrigation district shutdowns, fires, extreme high temperatures and smoky summers. The economic impact of climate change is both immediate and long-term.

In a recent Study Session with the City Council, the Climate Policy Commission laid out a strategy for reducing the use of “natural” gas in Ashland city-owned facilities, consistent with the city’s “Climate and Energy Action Plan” (CEAP).

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Consistent with Governor Brown’s Executive Order 20-04 in March 2020, the state Department of Environmental Quality has developed an update to the targets for the state’s Clean Fuels Program.  The proposed program was discussed by the Environmental Quality Commission at its May meeting.  SOCAN offered oral and written (below) comments on this proposal.  While we applaud the DEQ effort, we have reservations about the focus within the program on replacing fossil fuels with biofuels, many of which offer questionable greenhouse gas emissions benefits and can compromise human food supplies and costs.

—————————————————————————————————–

Alan R.P. Journet Ph.D.
Cofacilitator
Southern Oregon Climate Action Now
7113 Griffin Lane
Jacksonville
OR 97530-9342
May 19th 2022
alan@socan.eco
541-301-4107

 

Chair George and members of the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission:

I write as cofacilitator of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now, an organization of over 1500 rural Southern Oregonians who are concerned about the climate crisis and serve to fulfil our mission of promoting awareness and understanding of the science of climate change and its consequences and stimulating individual and collective action to address it through a lens of climate justice.

As a result of Governor Brown’s Executive Order, Oregon state agencies are developing programs that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state in a substantial downward trajectory with meaningful goals. A critical program among those under consideration is the Clean Fuels Program.

Before offering comments on the Clean Fuels Program, I would like to express our appreciation to the EQC for (1) urging that DEQ strengthen its initial Climate Protection Program draft, and then (2) approving the amended proposal. We urge the EQC stand firm against the lawsuits filed by industries who were represented on the Rulemaking Advisory Committee and thus offered advice on the program as it was developed.

In terms of the Clean Fuels Program, I remind the EQC that the transportation sector of our economy is the largest emitter of regulated greenhouse gases in the state. It is, therefore, the sector that offers the greatest opportunity to fulfill Governor Brown’s charge in EO 20-04 to reduce emissions substantially. If Oregon is to accept its responsibility for reducing statewide emissions consistent with those recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we must demand that transportation achieve increased reductions. It is worth recalling that transportation is one sector that declined to comply with 2007 HB3543 by reducing emissions voluntarily. Thus, regulations were necessarily imposed initially in 2009 and then implemented in 2016 to address the carbon intensity of transportation fuels and demand its reduction.

While the CFP has been effective in reducing transportation emissions, progress has not been sufficient to meet the recommendations of the IPCC as modified over the years because the need for increasingly rigorous reductions has become more urgent.

The urgency of the crisis demands that every jurisdiction wishing to preserve some semblance of life across the planet as we know it should take whatever steps it can to require substantial emissions reductions. In Oregon, a Clean Fuels Program that imposes reductions beyond the currently proposed 20% below 2015 levels by 2030 and 37% below 2015 levels by 2035 represents a critical contribution to our statewide effort.

In addition to addressing the climate crisis, meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions will provide valuable health benefits, especially to the low-income and vulnerable communities that live adjacent to our major highways.

In closing, I note that the Swiss Re study of the economic impact of unfettered climate change, adjusted to the state level, conservatively estimates that the cost to Oregon will annually reach $48 billion. It is economically far less expensive to address the climate crisis than leave it unaddressed.

We urge that EQC approve rigorous strengthening of the Clean Fuels Program with a focus on electrification rather than the incorporation of biofuels which are questionable in terms of their lifecycle emissions and which also can, in some cases, compromise the availability of food staples and food items. If Oregon wishes to remain a national and international leader in environmental and climate protection, we should do our part!

Respectfully submitted

Alan R.P. Journet Ph.D.
Cofacilitator
Southern Oregon Climate Action Now

PDF version to download: SOCAN CFP comment to EQC

Updated version submitted to the DEQ June 8th: SOCAN CFP comments to DEQ

Oregon’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) declines to hold Oregon Gas Industry accountable for destroying our planet

In a draft report released in April, Oregon’s Public Utilities Commission failed to come to grips with the problematic gas industry of Oregon and seemingly accepted, without question, many of the absurd claims they made.

The deadline to submit comments is June 3rd to PUC.PUBLICCOMMENTS@puc.oregon.gov

SOCAN’s Comments follow:

Alan R.P. Journet Ph.D.
Cofacilitator
Southern Oregon Climate Action Now
7113 Griffin Lane
Jacksonville
OR 97530-9342
alan@socan.eco
541-301-4107
May, 16, 2022

 

 

Reference (Docket No. UM 2178.) SOCAN Future of Gas Comments

By June 3, PUC.PUBLICCOMMENTS@puc.oregon.gov

Colleagues:

I write as cofacilitator on behalf of over 1500 Southern Oregonians who are Southern Oregon Climate Action Now (SOCAN) to comment on the draft Future of Gas report. SOCAN’s mission is to promote awareness and understanding of the science of climate change and its consequences and motivate individual and collective action to address the climate crisis, doing so through the lens of social justice. It is this context that I write since we are well aware that, because of the fugitive emissions of methane resulting from the fracking, processing and transmission of natural gas (better named methane gas or simply methane since it is 90% methane), this energy resource is no improvement over coal or oil. For this reason, the future of natural gas should be no different than the future of coal and oil. This future should simply be its ultimate exclusion from the state’s energy economy and its replacement by genuinely clean renewable resources. Assuredly eliminating these fossil fuels from our energy economy will not be easy, but releases from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change over the last five years clearly indicate this need. We simply do not have the time to undertake half-measures that prolong fossil fuel use. The responsibility of state agencies should not be to extend the life of fossil fuels but work towards their elimination.

According to the draft report, the Natural Gas Fact-Finding effort had two objectives (p.1): the first was to analyze the potential bill impacts from the limiting of natural gas utilities’ GHG emissions under the Department of Environmental Quality’s Climate Protection Program (CPP); the second was to identify appropriate regulatory tools to mitigate potential customer impacts and accommodate utility action.

We understand the need to assess the impact of the Climate Protection Program on natural gas supplies and consumer costs but judge that this report simply does not acknowledge or address the real problem identified above.

In relation to the role of natural gas in our future energy economy, the overarching concern shared by those of us who understand the climate crisis stems from the fact that throughout the development and discussion of the role of methane (natural gas) in our energy economy, state agencies seem to be blindly accepting whatever the gas industry claims about its interest in, and ability to, reduce emissions from its product. While the draft report notes the huge variability in the expectations that the company’s models present, there seems to be little recognition of the unreliable history of gas companies. The compliant and receptive nature of agencies to gas company misinformation was clearly evident throughout the DEQ response to gas industry submissions during the Rulemaking Advisory Committee discussions as the state Climate Protection Plan was under development. The somewhat naive acceptance of what gas companies submit, or claim, seems now to be playing out again in the PUC evaluation of the role of methane in our energy economy. The PUC seems not to recognize that evaluating the credibility of the gas company models and claims is critical to their charge.

The result seems to be yet another state agency is developing policy that assumes totally erroneous claims by the gas companies are credible. The danger is that policy will be built on the acceptance of false claims and undermine state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A little history is in order. The entire gas industry and its trade organizations have a track record of disinformation and misinformation regarding their product. For years we have heard the claim that natural gas is ‘the clean fossil fuel.’ Only recently have we seen this claim adjusted in some quarters more accurately to identify natural gas as ‘the cleanest burning fossil fuel.’ This adjustment reflects recognition that a wealth of recent studies of greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction, processing, and transmission of natural gas result in methane emissions (86 times worse than carbon dioxide on a 20-year basis) that negate the combustion benefits of the fuel. Of course, this subtle marketing campaign is based on gas company recognition that the public will not understand the critical significance of the statement regarding ‘cleanest burning.’ The average resident will not appreciate the impact of upstream methane emissions that make natural gas potentially as bad as coal in terms of its climate impact. If Oregon is to develop a climate response that is credible, at some point state agencies must bite this bullet and push back against the gas industry. Like the DEQ before it, the PUC is failing to address this most critical of problems. This begs the question: what state agency will confront the natural gas issue and hold the industry accountable for its ongoinginaccurate claims by asking critical questions?

It has become increasingly clear that the best route to lowering greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector is to electrify everything. This is because electricity generation can be achieved through clean (zero emissions) renewable energy sources and many jurisdictions (including Oregon) are moving in that direction. Meanwhile, natural gas cannot possibly achieve zero emissions. Fundamentally, there is no long-term role to be played in the utility sector by the gas industry. It’s time for everyone engaged in climate-related monitoring and regulation to acknowledge this, accept it, and behave accordingly. PUC policy should, likewise, acknowledge this and promote electrification rather than promoting an energy source that has outlived its value.

Given the health impacts of gas), promoting electrification rather than supporting the gas industry would also serve Oregon public health and social justice imperatives. (e.g. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/oregonpsrorg/pages/1469/attachments/original/1561062581/Fracked_Gas_Infrastructure_A_Threat_to_Healthy_Communities_FINAL.pdf?1561062581; https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.1c04707; https://powerpastfrackedgas.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Methane-Gas-Health-Safety-and-Decarbonization.pdf

The key question for the PUC, then is: why does the draft fail to consider the likely ineffectiveness of GHG emission reduction efforts claimed by the gas industry? Surely, this is the key issue. I will return to this concern repeatedly.

In Table 1 p 2: the report offers the recommendation thatETO Expand vendor training for all heat pump tech”

While we support the promotion of heat pumps, this statement implies that the PUC accepts the inappropriate claim that gas heat pumps should be encouraged. This is unjustifiable in a policy designed to reduce GHG emissions. The only kind of heat pump that ETO should be encouraging is an electric heat pump.

In section 3.1 Momentum: p 7 the report states: “These [low-to-zero carbon natural gas technology solutions] range from investments in supply solutions like Renewable Natural Gas (RNG), synthetic natural gas, and hydrogen to demand solutions like gas heat pump water heaters and furnaces.”

Interestingly, it was reported by DOE in 2018 (https://www.oregon.gov/energy/Data-and-Reports/Documents/2018-RNG-Inventory-Report.pdf) that Oregon does not have the capacity to provide the amount of RNG that the gas companies claim they will incorporate. Indeed, the state’s capacity from anaerobic decomposition was reported as less than 5% of then annual natural gas usage in the state. Even adding thermal gasification, this rises only to 17.5%. The World Resources Institute, meanwhile, estimated that the national potential for RNG from anaerobic digestion amounts to a pitiful 4 – 7% of usage (https://www.wri.org/insights/7-things-know-about-renewable-natural-gas#:~:text=Estimates%20suggest%20that%20780%2D1%2C400,such%20as%20landfills%20and%20manure.). We should acknowledge that RNG cannot replace a substantial volume of shale-fracked natural gas. Additionally, of relevance to the PUC should be the fact that RNG costs substantially more than natural gas itself by a factor of between 2 and 5 times. (https://www.sightline.org/2021/03/09/the-four-fatal-flaws-of-renewable-natural-gas/#:~:text=Today%2C%20a%20million%20BTUs%20(MMBTU,among%20those%20of%20approximately%20%2418).

Using the limited RNG to replace natural gas in the general distribution network is also contra-indicated by the fact that some industries cannot easily electrify. Thus, this limited RNG should be reserved for special use not distributed generally.

Additionally, it is noteworthy that investing in RNG from the mid-west that is inserted into distribution pipelines does not lower Oregon emissions, at best it merely offsets such emissions. It is important to understand that the Climate Protection Program limits offsets substantially: to 10% of emissions during the 2022 – 2024 cycle, then 15% through 2025 – 2027 and finally 20% from 2028 onwards. Furthermore, within the CPP funding for offsets must pass through the Climate Investment entities and be dispersed in Oregon. Investing in offsets outside Oregon is simply not permissible within the program. (https://www.oregon.gov/deq/Regulations/rulemaking/RuleDocuments/GHGCR2021Notice.pdf)

How the gas companies propose to generate Hydrogen is unclear, but the only acceptable method is via electrolysis using clean energy electricity. Of course, if that clean energy electricity is taken from the grid, the emissions resulting from dirty electricity generation replacing that used for electrolysis would have to be accounted against the Hydrogen so generated. Furthermore, if that Hydrogen is produced from either coal (brown hydrogen) or methane (blue hydrogen) Howarth and Jacobson demonstrate that it would actually be worse than just burning the methane or coal (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ese3.956).

Finally, the suggestion that gas heat pumps will contribute to the solution flies in the face of reality. Heat pumps are extremely efficient, but if we are to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, gas heat pumps are not the answer. The only logical route to take is via electric heat pumps. Once again, the promotion of gas heat pumps by the gas industry represents their attempting to keep society dependent on their product when actually, the evidence indicates that gas use should be reduced and terminated as rapidly as possible.

The PUC should not be attempting to support the role of gas in the energy sector. Rather, the PUC should be seeking to extinguish it. Concurrently, the PUC should be providing consumers as much support as possible to reduce their gas usage costs and wean themselves from this fuel and all substitutes incorporated into the mix by the gas companies as they strive simply to maintain gas infrastructure and societal gas dependence.

On p.7 the report states: “Staff finds that it may also be the case that some combination of choices – between encouraging low-to-zero carbon gas technologic advances and regulatory actions that limit future gas customer and infrastructure growth – may best balance the various technology, cost, and regulatory risks associated with meeting the state’s GHG emission targets.”

This implies that PUC staff have accepted the absurd claim offered by the gas industry that it can achieve ‘low-to-zero carbon gas’ technology when a serious evaluation of their proposals reveals this to be a fraudulent claim. Again, rather than merely accepting the claims from the gas industry that it can achieve such a goal, the PUC staff should be undertaking a critical assessment of such claims.

The focus throughout the report is on decarbonization as though all carbon is equivalent. It is not clear in this discussion whether the PUC is making the same egregious error evident at DEQ in developing the Climate Protection Program of considering only combustion emissions. Because of the upstream fugitive emissions of methane (discussed above) it is critical that all agencies should incorporate into their planning the reality that methane emissions are 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 20-yrear basis. This means that developing climate policy should incorporate full life cycle emissions assessments and not focus just on carbon dioxide from combustion as though that were the only problem. It may be that the PUC acknowledges and incorporates this consideration, but there is no evidence of this in the draft report.

In section 3.2, p 8 we learn that “As a foundation for all other analytic inquiries, staff asked the gas utilities to model how they would comply with DEQ’s CPP.” Meanwhile on p.  13 we learn that “Each of the three utilities came up with different assumptions about how much RNG they would be able to secure over time.”

I have argued above that the gas industry has no credibility in the claims it makes for its product. Given this history of the gas industry of spreading disinformation about the climate impact of their fossil fuel, it seems irresponsible for the PUC to rely on that same industry to undertake self-assessment. Any judgments regarding what the gas industry can do should be based on credible third-party assessment, where those third parties are charged with skeptically and critically assessing any claims offered by the gas companies or their trade organizations.

Section 3.3.,5 p 16 indicates that “Each utilities’ base case CPP compliance modeling relied on decarbonizing the fuel they provide through large amounts of RNG, green hydrogen, and/or synthetic gas.” And “Notably, large-scale hydrogen availability at a reasonable price is necessary in less than 15 years.”

The claims about RNG and Hydrogen were discussed above.

Synthetic gas can be produced in two ways: by electrolysis and methanation or therma gasification. The essential requirements for making synthetic gas (SYNGAS) from hydrogen extracted from water seem to be the following two-step process (Gorre et al. 2019, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306261919312681): (1) electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen (H2) and Oxygen (O2). (2) The hydrogen is then combined with carbon from carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce methane (CH4) and oxygen in a process termed methanation. As the authors noted, this product could be considered green depending on the source of the energy driving the two-step process. However, as pointed out above with green Hydrogen, the extent to which this process removes clean energy from the grid that is replaced by dirty energy, the process will have a greenhouse gas emissions cost. In reality, only about 1% of current Hydrogen is generated from clean renewable energy, the rest comes from fossil-fuel based processes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesmorris/2021/03/27/synthetic-fuels-wont-save-the-planet-so-dont-say-they-could/?sh=358ba67669a4). This means that Synthetic gas produced this way is probably no improvement over the natural gas it is designed to replace.

The alternative process for producing synthetic gas involves the gasification of any carbonaceous material, coal or oil, for example (https://netl.doe.gov/research/Coal/energy-systems/gasification/gasifipedia/intro-to-gasification). Under pressure and extremely high temperature conditions, air and steam contact the carbonaceous material and, through a series of chemical reactions, produce the SYNGAS. Again, the key question concerns the energy source used to produce that steam and high temperature. If that energy source is generated by a clean renewable source, the emissions resulting from the replacement in the grid of that energy needs to be accounted. If the energy source is fossil fuels, then the SYNGAS will, again, likely offer no greenhouse gas savings over the natural gas it replaces.

As can bee seen, time and again, it becomes critical that greenhouse gas emissions assessments of energy sources are undertaken on a complete lifecycle basis; looking just at the combustion emissions produces comparisons that misrepresent the situation.

One claim offered by the gas companies during the DEQ RAC discussions was that they would acquire RNG from mid-western Confined Animal Feedlot Operations.

It is worth reiterating, however, that this only reduces Oregon GHG emissions if that RNG comes directly to Oregon. If that RNG is merely inserted into the national distribution pipeline grid, it does not result in that gas supplying Oregon. Rather it results in that gas replacing conventional fracked gas used in Oregon. It is, therefore, merely an offset and does not result in a reduction in emissions in Oregon. As such, the extent to which that RNG is permitted to count would be limited by rules in the Community Climate Investment section of the CPP regarding the amount of offsets allowed by the gas company. In particular, as noted above, OAR 340-271-9000 specifies that such offsets are limited to 10% during Compliance Period 1 (2022-2024), 15% during Compliance Period 2, and 20% during Compliance Period 3 (2028-2030 and beyond).  In addition, the only route by which the CPP permits such offsets is via purchase of offset credits through the Community Climate Investment protocol involving a Community Climate Investment entity where the credits are priced to start at $107 per ton of CO2e reduced with the price rising by a dollar each year over time (in 2021 $)

In summary, in my view, the draft Future of Gas report largely ignores several key questions concerning the claims offered by gas companies as to how they will reduce emissions. Even if the PUC considers that life cycle assessment of claimed emissions benefits is not their responsibility, assessing the impact of the fraudulent claims by the gas industry on availability and prices should be a PUC responsibility.

 

Jenna King, KOBI-TV May 10, 2022; JACKSON COUNTY, Ore. —Jackson County leaders, discussing potentially closing areas of the Bear Creek Greenway, this fire season. County commissioners will talk about the possibility of closing county-owned, off-trail areas of the Bear Creek Greenway, in their regular business meeting, Wednesday morning.

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Alan Journet, May 6 2022, SOCAN.eco


Oregonians deserve to know who has joined the campaign seeking to undermine the viability of our planet for future generations.

If global warming and its climate change consequences continue unchecked, they are likely to destroy our natural ecosystem (forests, woodlands, grasslands, deserts, etc.) by the end of the century, along with our agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. It’s difficult to imagine how the economic impact of this could be overestimated or ignored.

 

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Alan Journet Ph.D. Cofacilitator, Southern Oregon Climate Action Now

Residents of the Applegate Valley understand that wildfire risk in the region has been increasing over recent years. Of course, we are not alone. Before looking at trends, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on the unusual climate the Applegate Valley shares with western states. Our Mediterranean winter wet / summer dry climate occurs in 5 other locations across the planet (Western S. Africa, SW and SE Australia, Western S. America, and the Mediterranean, duh!). One outcome of this climate is that summers are hot and dry, and regions are susceptible to drought. The result is annually dry soils and vegetation and a proclivity for fires, once initiated, to burn large areas.  The consequence is vegetation systems that are fire prone, fire adapted, generally fire tolerant, and fire dependent.

A look at the trends reported for lands under fire management by the Oregon Department of Forestry offers some valuable insights (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Trend in wildfire frequency and area burned in lands managed by the Oregon Department of Forestry. PDO = Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Image modified from: https://digital.osl.state.or.us/islandora/object/osl%3A957101/datastream/OBJ/view

The first and most obvious impression is that 2020 was clearly ‘off the chart.’ However, if we look back over time, we find some interesting trends. While we tend to think of the last few decades as representing an atypical acceleration in fire risk, a view through the last century reveals a different story. Indeed, two variables exhibit patterns that might surprise us: the first is that the area burned a century ago was actually greater than the current frightening pattern (2020 excepted); meanwhile, the number of fire initiations, though variable, has not exhibited much, if any, change.

The pattern depicted leads us to ask the critical and reasonable question: “Why?” There are potentially two explanations – and it may well be a combination:

  • Looking at the conditions imposed on the region by the regional climate pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, we find that the beginning of the last century the region experienced a warm and dry phase in which conditions were perfect for fires, once initiated, to spread. From the 1940s to 1970s, the PDO reversed, and we experienced a cool moist phase that would have depressed fire activity. After that, the warm dry phase returned again drying soils and vegetation and encouraging initiated fires to spread. More recently, global warming and its climate change consequences have reduced snowfall and caused even greater drying in our already summer dry Mediterranean climate.
  • During the early 1900s, fire suppression was imposed to protect timber production from the fire hazard. This was enhanced in the 1940s when the Smokey Bear campaign was developed to increase the effectiveness of fire suppression. As a result, relatively open dry forests experienced invasion of fire intolerant species that increased the density of understory and sub-canopy vegetation. Again, and still, global warming and its climate change consequences have reduced snowfall and caused even greater drying. The result is that fires encounter a much greater density of fuel and can spread more widely across the landscape.

The degree to which each of these processes comprises the dominant factor is the subject of some disagreement among forest watchers, but there is general agreement that the climate change resulting from global warming is trumping other factors as a driving force.

The problem we face is that because of the Mediterranean climate in which our forests developed, continued global warming will increase wildfire risk. The messages for Applegate Valley residents are two-fold (1) mitigate the problem by doing whatever we can to reverse the global warming trend, and (2) adapt or prepare ourselves for an inevitable future wildfire scenario. Even if we reverse the climate crisis, the Mediterranean climate will continue. Thus, wildfires will always be in our future; we need to learn to manage them and live with them.

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