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Energy and Climate Change in the Southwest: A Prologue

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Editor’s note: Ari Phillips is a graduate student at the University of Texas pursuing a dual degree in journalism and policy studies. This summer he is traversing the Southwest to chronicle energy, environment and climate change. We’ll be highlighting his journey -- and you can follow him, too, via On The Road With Ari Phillips -- as he makes his way from Texas to California over the next two months.

By Ari Phillips

Last year was the hottest and driest on record in Texas. There were 90 days of 100-degree heat in Austin. The Texas drought of 2011 was the driest 12-month period on record, by a large margin. The state is just beginning to emerge from under the deep red blotch that consumed it on precipitation maps.

2011 was my first full year in Texas. But meanwhile across the rest of the American Southwest, where I’ve spent most of my life, other inauspicious records were being set. The Wallow Fire became the biggest in Arizona’s history, burning 538,049 acres. New Mexico, with my hometown of Santa Fe, experienced its biggest forest fire ever just a few weeks ago.

The Southwest, with its fragile ecosystems and drought vulnerability, stands to face some of the worst impacts of climate change. In the introduction to William deBuys’ recent book “A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist who co-directs the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, says: “Climate change will produce winners and losers, and those in the Southwest will be losers. There’s no doubt.”

I feel myself losing with every record-breaking heat wave, unending rainless spell and expansive western sky choking on seas of rising ash.

There’s another perspective to take, thankfully – one that offers potential.

The bright sun, strong wind and other plentiful resources across the Southwest make it a hub for energy exploration, and experiments are underway from the coast of California to the plains of West Texas. Whether vast solar parks, expansive wind farms, massive natural gas basins, rare earth deposits, geothermal reservoirs or offshore oil and gas wells – the Southwest has it all.

For the next two months, as I traverse the region (On The Road With Ari Phillips) writing about energy, environment and climate change, I’ll be subject to the unforgiving nature of a Southwest summer. I look forward to the cool desert nights in northern New Mexico and start to melt at the thought of Arizona’s urban heat islands. Like the new Tres Amigas SuperStation about to break ground in Clovis, N.M., and connect the three main U.S. power grids – the Eastern grid, the Western grid, and the Texas grid  – I hope to bring something together. To arrive at some commonality of purpose, or overarching bond, that helps illustrate why these issues matter.

This project came together organically. I sat down to map out the itinerary with all the stories already in mind: through my studies and prior reporting it had emerged already a fully formed idea. As I prepare to embark I am excited to reclaim my connection with much of the Southwest, and learn many new things. But I am also anxious over the complexity and breadth of what I’m setting out to do.

Broken down, any one of the stories I’m pursuing becomes a labyrinthine tale of technology, politics, regulation, economics, and any number of other factors. Take hydrofracking, or fracking, which uses high-pressure fluids to crack rock and release oil and gas. There’s a myriad of arguments citing an ever-growing literature of the pros and cons. A patchwork of regulations attempts to keep up with a nascent technology that has serious – and uncertain – environmental, economic, and social impacts.

That’s why I’m going to spend some time in Midland, Texas, to start with. To get a feel for this town who’s fortune rises and falls with the price and accessibility of fossil fuels. Currently a new boom is taking place, and unemployment hovers around 3.5 percent, one of the lowest in the nation. It can be hard to find people to staff local fast food restaurants (which I definitely plan to eat at, so it better not be that dire). Whataburger has started offering free hamburgers to applicants as incentive.

This blog will chronicle the play-by-play of my two months on the road. We’ll scale wind turbines and tunnel into oil wells together. Or at least we’ll try and talk to the people that do. I hope you’ll join me on the road.

Finally, I need to thank everyone who donated to my Kickstarter project. You, my backers, are the reason this is happening at all.

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Comments

By JAMES JEFFREY (Austin)
on June 30th, 2012

Nice post, Ari. Even some poetic writing going on there; liking the “sky choking on seas of rising ash” (not the fact it’s happening, clearly, but the description!). Good luck and keep it going. Hope the couches offer sufficient back support.

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