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Energy and Climate Change in the American Southwest's video poster

The SW is highly susceptible to climate change. It also has lots of energy potential. Here's 9 interwoven stories I'd like to cover. Read more

Austin, TX Journalism
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This project was successfully funded on May 11, 2012.

The SW is highly susceptible to climate change. It also has lots of energy potential. Here's 9 interwoven stories I'd like to cover.

Austin, TX Journalism
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About this project

Climate change is accelerating and the world is nearing a point where catastrophic change will become all but inevitable. The American Southwest, with its fragile ecosystems and drought vulnerability, stands to face some of the worst impacts as models predict a hotter, dryer climate. Last year a record number of wildfires tore through the region and ever-scarcer water supplies are a harbinger of future shortages. In the meantime the Southwest continues to lead the nation in population growth, increasing demand for energy and resources.

However, 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.

This summer I plan to traverse the region writing about energy and climate change. I'll compile a regional report through firsthand accounts and onsite reporting in an attempt to demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of the issues at hand. I’ve identified nine critical stories below – from the surging natural gas production of Midland, TX to the controversial solar parks of the Mojave Desert. 

I’ll be writing and reporting the whole time, getting articles published when possible and otherwise documenting everything on a website (which I'll be designing over the next month). Several outlets have already expressed interest in publishing content, including Climate Central, The Energy Collective, Think Progress and Age of Engagement, and I am in contact with others.

When I return from the trip I’ll use the material to write a long-form piece of around 10,000 words for publication in a journal or magazine and ideally continue to develop the project (over the looonnngg term) into something book-length.

After the trip I also plan to build an interactive, map-based website chronicling the journey with the intention of making it a go-to spot for anyone interested in energy, the environment or climate change in the Southwest. 

I grew up in Santa Fe, NM and consider the entire Southwest to be home. To those living in the area the threat of climate change is more than a latent reminder that things are warming, but rather is evidenced in the changes already underway. Action needs to be taken now and I hope that through my reporting I can call attention the some of the most pressing issues in the region. 

Your support is greatly appreciated.



1) Midland, TX

Midland, a medium-sized West Texas town and the hometown of George W. Bush, is the hub of the current Permian Basin oil and gas boom. Since the mid-1980s, when a surge in energy prices fueled Midland’s growth, the area has struggled. But now with the increased use of fracking and other means of reaching unconventional oil and gas resources, the region is exploding again, and it can be hard to staff local fast food restaurants because of the job opportunities in oil and gas.

I will report on the new economic boom taking place, the environmental issues surrounding the energy production – such as the high-profile fight to save the habitat of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard at industry expense –  and how upcoming changes in state and national regulation may impact the industry.

2) Clovis, NM

In July of this year the Tres Amigas SuperStation that will serve as the nation’s first renewable energy market hub will break ground in Clovis, NM. The project unites North America’s two major power grids (the Eastern grid and the Western grid) and one minor grid (the Texas grid) to enable faster adoption of renewable energy and increased grid reliability. Deployment of renewable energy is one of the industry's main challenges, and the Tres Amigas SuperStation offers a landmark achievement in this area.

I will report on the economic and environmental impacts the project will have in Eastern New Mexico and what it means for the future of renewable energy storage, transport and use in the U.S.

3) Navajo Nation, Apache, AZ

This spring the Navajo Nation signed a three-year contract with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to study what technologies would be best for developing natural resources on the vast reservation, including coal, uranium, and potential for wind and solar energy – providing solar power to the Tres Amigas SuperStation is even under consideration. Unemployment hovers around 50 percent in the region and a main goal of the project is to improve economic conditions and prevent industry from taking advantage of the tribe, as has historically occurred with mining and oil leasing. Clean energy also falls in-line with long held cultural beliefs of the Navajo relating to environmental stewardship and preservation.

I will report on how people of Navajo Nation are working towards these goals and what the main obstacles and opportunities are, as well as how Navajo ideology guides decision making on the reservation.

4) Sedona, AZ

Climate change is drastically altering the forests of the Southwest. Increased temperatures and decreased rainfall are jeopardizing these prized forests, which are crucial to the ecosystem. With budgets stretched thin, it has become increasingly challenging to fight wildfires, bark beetles and other dangers. As climate changes so do species' natural habitats, and in the near future the flora and fauna in these forests may have to evolve to new conditions, or possibly be replaced. Arizona has six national forests, with Tonto National Forest being one of the ten most visited in the U.S. In 2011 the Wallow Fire became the worst in the state's history, burning 538,049 acres. 

I will talk with park rangers and other knowledgeable people to get an accurate portrayal of how climate change has affected Tonto National Forest and other northern Arizona forests. I will focus on what can be done to help forests adapt to changing a changing climate and environment.

5) Tucson, AZ and Santa Fe, NM

Biosphere 2, located outside of Tucson, AZ, was originally built to be an enclosed ecosystem that could be replicated on other planets such as Mars (see picture below). Bio-Dome, the 1996 movie featuring Pauly Shore was filmed there. However after a tumultuous first two decades it now serves as a research and outreach facility for learning about Earth. Several of the original Biospherians, including the founder John Allen, live on a ranch outside of Santa Fe, NM.

I will report on how the ambitious project struggled to achieve its lofty goals and what both current and former Biospherians see as the main challenges facing Earth today as well as the best ways to confront them. I will focus on long-term struggles to tackle climate change, resource depletion, energy production and ecosystem loss. 

6) Mojave National Preserve, CA

Solar, wind and geothermal plants are being developed on land across the Mojave Desert. A great resource for renewable energy, the area is also a fragile desert ecosystem. Currently there is a confrontation between environmentalists fighting to preserve the natural habitat and the creatures that live there and those pushing for clean energy production. Earlier this year the Desert tortoise brought construction to a standstill for three months on the BrightSource Energy solar farm when excavation work found far more animals than biologists expected.

I will report on the local challenges of installing clean energy, as well as the environmental debates taking place. I will localize the story to the Mojave Desert, where the clean energy boom is affecting the local way of life in positive and negative ways and creating unanticipated controversy between environmentalists.

7) Santa Barbara, CA

The Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 is the third largest in U.S. history after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills. The spill, which caused great public outrage, played a big part in developing the legislative structure of the U.S. environmental movement. After the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010, then-Governor Schwarzenegger pulled his support for a plan that would have allowed new drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara.

I will report on the state of offshore drilling along the California coast, an ongoing issue of controversy, especially with rising energy prices and growing energy demand. I will focus on regional politics, regulatory policies, technological innovations and environmental concerns.

8) Monterey, CA

Last year California State Park officials said they would shutdown 70 of the state's 278 parks in July 2012 because of budget problems. However now a bill – the California State Parks Stewardship Act – is moving through government that could save many parks from the budget axe. There are five state parks in the Monterey area that are facing closure this summer.

I will report on what impact closing state parks will have, economically, socially and environmentally. What measures can be taken to keep the parks open and what sort of precedent this sets for future discussions about the stewardship of valued land.

8.5) Not All of Nature Can Be Stewarded: Sea-Level Rise

In both Santa Barbara and Monterey I will also look into the threat that sea-level rise poses to the coast of California and adaptive measures than can be taken to confront it. Over the past century sea level has risen eight inches along the coast and by 2100 it could rise another 1.5 meters by some accounts. This rise will increase erosion rates and flood risks and put billions of dollars of infrastructure at risk.

Adapting to sea‐level rise requires tremendous financial investment. Given the high cost it is unlikely that individuals and agencies will able to protect everything, thus raising additional environmental justice concerns, which I will also look into.

9) Sacramento, CA

In 2013 California will institute an ambitious cap-and-trade program that will be the nation's first state-administered set of carbon emissions regulations. The California courts are also tied up with California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard program – intended to reduce carbon intensity of transportation fuels – which was supposed to take effect on January 1, 2012, but just days before a federal judge ruled that the policy violates the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

I will report on the preparations for implementing the cap-and-trade program as well as the legal battle of the LCFS, both of which have broad relevance to similar developments outside of California. I will consider the greater national and international implications of the laws, especially when it comes to energy production and climate change mitigation.



William deBuys, author of 2011 book “A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest” and resident of Northern New Mexico

John P. Allen, the inventor and Director of Research of Biosphere 2, adventurer, writer, futurist

Jay Lininger, ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on conservation issues facing public lands in the Southwest

Julie Cart, environmental reporter for the LA Times

Jonathan Overpeck, co-director of the Institute of the Environment at The University of Arizona

Phillip G. Harris, Chair, President and CEO of the Tres Amigas Superstation to be built in Clovis, NM.

Tracey LeBeau, director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs

Matt Rodriquez, California Secretary for Environmental Protection



Texas Observer, Texas Monthly, Santa Fe Reporter, Santa Barbara Independent, Grist, GOOD, Inside Climate News, n+1 Magazine, Dissent Magazine, Climate Desk, NPR StateImpact, High Country News, The Earth Times, The LA Times, Ecologist, Yale Environment 360, Climate Central, Tucson Weekly, Mother Jones, Slate



The funding for the project will go entirely to food, lodging (camping or other cheap accommodation) and travel (gas), split almost evenly over the course of about 50 days. 

When possible I will stay with friends and family to cut down on costs.



“NOAA’s New Normal For Texas: Hotter” The Austin American-Statesman, 10/9/11

“The Wages of Climate Change Denial” Texas Observer, 4/21/11

“My Summer at the Climate Change Group” Dissent Magazine, 2/1/12

“Australian Carbon Emissions Scheme a Hard-Won Step Toward Serious Commitment” The Baines Report – Policy in Perspective, 1/30/12

“Former Dish Mayor Now Dishing the Natural Gas Boom” Reporting Texas, 11/16/11

“The Convoluted Path of Natural Gas Pipelines” Texas Observer, 4/7/11



A dry Lake Travis north of Austin, TX during the devastating drought of 2011. Photo courtesy of Oscar Ricardo Silva.

A sign along a Texas highway during the summer of 2011. Photo courtesy of Oscar Ricardo Silva.

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, home to Santa Fe National Forest outside of Santa Fe, NM. 

Biosphere 2, a facility devoted to learning about Earth systems, located on a 40-acre campus in Oracle, AZ. 

The coast off of Santa Barbara, CA. Oil rigs are visible when looking towards the ocean.

Me in front of the Rio Grande as it runs through Rio Rancho, NM just north of Albuquerque. 


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