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Climate Politics Capitol Light

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Climate, Politics/Capitol Light©, is a service of The JBS Group and Civil Notion

January 8, 2020        


Feeding off of a failed UN Summit late in 2019, the almost daily release of reports updating and confirming climate science studies, student strikes, a continent on fire, and the already prominent place of climate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, 2020 looms as a watershed political year for national climate policy.

To state the obvious, the re-election of Trump would be a devastating setback for the environmental well-being of the nation and the world. Almost as costly in terms of climate defense would be a divided Congress. Notwithstanding the rising number of Republicans in both the House and Senate who are now at least willing to admit there is a problem, Republicans and Democrats remain very far apart in terms of a willingness to do anything even close to what the scientists say is needed within the time they say it needs to be done.

Below is a thumbnail about the new million dollar ad campaign the American Petroleum Institute (API) is launching this year on behalf of oil and gas companies. The tack the Institute is taking is to pitch themselves as part of the solution, without altering their position on most policy matters. API, for example, remains opposed to a carbon tax, the regulation of methane and other greenhouse gases. The campaign is intended to support a heavy lobbying effort by the companies to keep fracking alive.

The approach reflects the new normal for all but the most extreme climate deniers, e.g., the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Whereas I have no doubt that many Congressional Republicans are earnest in their desire and willing to act, others are appearing as wolves in sheep’s clothing to control the debate. I believe it will be wise for climate activists to continue being wary of Republicans bearing gifts. (Here for a more detailed discussion)

Trump, in his three-year occupation of the Oval Office, has taken huge chunks out of Obama’s environmental legacy. Replacement of the Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy rule, freezing auto fuel-efficiency standards at near current levels, revocation of California’s waiver to set more strident requirements, limits placed on the consideration of climate change in environmental rulemaking and federal project approvals, and continuing the availability of incandescent lightbulbs, are only a few of the things the Trump administration has been doing while in office. By last count, 95 environmental rules have been or are in the process of being rolled back.

Not all of the deregulatory actions taken by the administration are final. Even those that are final won’t be final until the US Supreme Court has had a chance to weigh in. Trump and company have an astoundingly lousy win percentage in the courts—having lost over 70 percent of their cases to enviros. For the administration, however, chaos and delay are nearly as good as an outright win.

I’ll be releasing my 2020 climate politics predictions in a week or so. But I want to take a moment here to highlight reports concerning the administration’s plans to propose changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). According to a government official who has seen the proposal, federal agencies would be allowed to assess the environmental impacts of major infrastructure projects without taking climate change into account. I’m not sure how that can truthfully be done, although I have no doubt that it will be tried. (The New York Times)

Having already moved against nearly 100 existing climate-related rules and wiping agency slates clean of references to climate science, Trump and company will use a second term to attack the underlying legislation, e.g., NEPA, the Clean Air and Water Acts—many of which date back 50 years to the Nixon administration.

A watered-down Clean Air Act would certainly make it easier for the administration to win in federal court—especially when one in four judges sitting on the federal bench will have been appointed by Trump by the end of his first term.

On to the news!

Due for an increase. Oil, natural gas, and petrochemical companies could release about 30 percent more greenhouse gas pollution by 2025 than they did in 2018, according to a new report. 

Expected growth from these companies could release about 227 million tons of additional greenhouse gas pollution by the end of 2025, with a projected total of 990.5 million tons of emissions, according to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project. (The Hill)

Reed it and..? Republican Representative Tom Reed (R-NY) has unveiled a bipartisan bill to provide federal tax subsidies for “first-of-a-kind” clean energy technologies for combating climate change.

Many Republicans have supported providing tax subsidies for renewable energy, but the Party has mostly focused on increasing research and development spending to address climate change. Reed's legislation would go beyond what other Republicans have proposed.

“Hopefully, this shows there are Republicans who want to come to a compromise position on climate change and use the tax code in a way that can solve this problem,” Reed said of his bill.

Reed, a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, is introducing the bill with Democrats on the panel, Representatives Tom Suozzi of New York and Jimmy Panetta of California. Other Democrats on the bill are Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Republicans Darin LaHood of Illinois and David Schweikert of Arizona. (Washington Examiner)

Frack the world.  The oil and gas industry is fighting back with a $1M ad campaign for 2020 through the American Petroleum Institute. The campaign argues that natural gas and oil are part of the solution when it comes to slowing the rise of global temperatures.

The ad blitz comes as Sanders (I-Vt.), Warren (D-Mass.), and other of the Democratic presidential candidates have promised to ban hydraulic fracturing or fracking, should they win the White House. And API's message runs up against the advice of thousands of scientists who say we must keep the remaining oil and gas in the ground as the only way to forestall dangerous warming of the Earth.

The campaign is running nationwide, with an emphasis on oil- and gas-producing states such as New Mexico and Pennsylvania, and swing congressional districts in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and elsewhere. The lobbying group produced seven videos featuring residents from seven states it is targeting.

  • One commentator noticed that the ads would be reversing the order of things—rather than the oil and gas industry, it is now the natural gas and oil industry. I’m sure that will change minds.

Barely aglow. U.S. coal-fired power dropped 18% in 2019, putting it at its lowest level since 1975 — and that decline was almost entirely responsible for a 2.1% dip in U.S. emissions.

That’s according to preliminary greenhouse gas emissions estimates for 2019 released Tuesday by the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm. The coal retirements drove power sector emissions down nearly 10% in 2019, a flip from the previous year when they spiked 1.2%.

Rhodium’s data has good and bad news for the climate, though: Other sectors of the economy aren’t cutting emissions nearly as fast — or at all — and there’s a limit to what the U.S. can squeeze out of the power sector. (Washington Examiner)

A missing link. Australia’s government is sticking firmly to a position that there is no direct link between climate change and the country’s devastating bushfires, despite public anger, the anguish of victims, and warnings from scientists. (Reuters)

What a surprise. China must end the construction of all new coal-fired power plants to meet long-term climate goals in the most economically feasible manner, according to a study co-authored by a Chinese government-backed research institute. (Reuters)

Tariff-ic. An easing of trade tensions between the US and China could pave the way for a resumption China's imports of US ethanol in 2020 - although this is currently unviable even if tariffs are lowered - while rising ethanol production in the Philippines in 2020 is set to reduce its requirements for imports further in the year. (S&P Global)

No more hard NOx? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will announce within a week that it is seeking public input as it works on new rules to significantly decrease emissions of smog-forming nitrogen oxide (NOx) and other pollutants from heavy-duty trucks. (Reuters)

Unplanned for obsolescence. SolarReserve’s $1B Crescent Dunes solar plant received backing from Citigroup and the Obama Energy Department but couldn’t keep pace with technological advances. SolarReserve may have done its part, but today the company doesn't rank among the winners. Instead, it's mired in litigation and accusations of mismanagement at Crescent Dunes, where taxpayers remain on the hook for $737 million in loan guarantees. (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Choosy consumers want a choice. According to a new national survey released by the Conservative Energy Network, the ability to buy energy on an open market from a supplier other than the old monopoly utility — energy choice — is a priority for a majority of Americans.

Eighty-seven percent of voters said they support more competition in electricity markets that would allow people to choose where they buy their power. Among Republicans, support for giving consumers the freedom to purchase electricity and related services directly from entrepreneurs in the private sector is even higher: 91 percent. (Morning Consult)

Putin this in your pipe, Mr. Trump. Russia has published a plan to adapt its economy and population to climate change, aiming to mitigate damage but also “use the advantages” of warmer temperatures.

The document, published on the government’s website on Saturday, outlines a plan of action and acknowledges changes to the climate are having a “prominent and increasing effect” on socioeconomic development, people’s lives, health, and industry.

Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the planet as a whole, on average, and the two-year “first stage” plan is an indication the government officially recognizes this as a problem, even though Vladimir Putin denies human activity is the cause.

It lists preventive measures such as dam building or switching to more drought-resistant crops, as well as crisis preparations, including emergency vaccinations or evacuations in case of a disaster.

The plan says climate change poses risks to public health, endangers permafrost, and increases the likelihood of infections and natural disasters. It also can lead to species being pushed out of their usual habitats.

Possible “positive” effects are decreased energy use in cold regions, expanding agricultural areas, and navigational opportunities in the Arctic Ocean.

Among a list of 30 measures, the government will calculate the risks of Russian products becoming uncompetitive and failing to meet new climate-related standards, as well as prepare new educational materials to teach climate change in schools. (The Guardian)

Chill Putin, Chill!  A Russian climate youth activist has been sentenced to six days in prison for taking part in a demonstration in Moscow.

Makichyan, a 25-year-old violinist, was inspired by Greta Thunberg to join the Fridays for Future movement, which urges governments to listen to scientists and meet the commitments they made in the Paris agreement.

Makichyan had been staging a solo school strike in Pushkin Square, Moscow, for more than 40 weeks. Under Russia’s tight restrictions on gatherings, individual protests are lawful, but anything bigger requires police permission. (The Guardian)

Creative bookkeeping. The Trump administration has built up the largest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund clean-up projects in at least 15 years, nearly triple the number that was stalled for lack of money in the Obama era, according to 2019 figures quietly released by the Environmental Protection Agency over the winter holidays.

Under Trump, the EPA has pointed to a different yardstick in declaring it was making progress on Superfund clean-ups — the number of cleaned-up sites officially deleted from the roster of more than 1,300 Superfund sites. Many of those sites were cleaned up by earlier administrations but remained listed.

In 2019, for instance, the EPA said it had deleted all or part of 27 sites from the official Superfund list, saying that was the most deletions since the George W. Bush administration. But deletions from the list typically reflect clean-up work done over decades and often completed on the ground years ago, meaning Trump is sometimes taking credit for work done under his predecessors. (Washington Post)

Better buildings. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy, analyzed the impact of fossil fuels in buildings nationwide, an economic sector that, unlike power providers, has not decarbonized over the last decade and accounts for one-tenth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

With the contraction of coal mining and the retirement of coal plants over the last ten years, electric power-sector emissions have fallen by a quarter. But emissions from natural gas and other fossil fuels burned in buildings has not budged, the report said. (Reuters)

  • Look for cities to ban using natural gas in new construction in the not too distant future.
  • A turn away from fossil fuels in buildings is opening the door to renewable hydrogen in Europe.


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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 9, 2020 1:27 pm GMT

U.S. coal-fired power dropped 18% in 2019, putting it at its lowest level since 1975 — and that decline was almost entirely responsible for a 2.1% dip in U.S. emissions.

Of course this is a win, but as coal continues to close we're going to have to focus on the more difficult solutions to keep emissions trending down

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 9, 2020 3:36 pm GMT

"Of course this is a win, but as coal continues to close we're going to have to focus on the more difficult solutions to keep emissions trending down."

Agree Matt, and not a second to lose (building new gas plants is not the answer).

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jan 9, 2020 7:55 pm GMT


Of course this is a win, but as coal continues to close we're going to have to focus on the more difficult solutions to keep emissions trending down

Can you describe what you mean by "more difficult solutions"?

I assume you are talking about emissions from sectors other than electric power. Is that right?

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 9, 2020 9:19 pm GMT

That's one aspect of it, definitely-- air travel and shipping transportation being ones that come to mind. But I also mean in the electric power sector. A large part of what's leading to coal closures now is that the economics are no longer in their favor so it's nice that the market solution is in line with decarbonizing-- but gas is quite cost-competitive and so moving away from gas will likely require more intervention than simply waiting for something to come along that's cheaper, more reliable, and cleaner. Coal plant closures have been the most pressing need, but in a way they've been the low hanging fruit of the power sector decarbonization, and moving onto the next wave of decarbonizations after coal will, I think, take more intervention and/or innovation. 

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jan 10, 2020 12:39 am GMT

Agreed that coal closures have been in some cases the low hanging fruit. However, let's also remember that when it comes to share of CO2 in the Electric power sector, coal was and still is most of the fruit.  Eliminating coal will have brought us from 2,400 MMT in 2007 to about 900 MMT - almost 2/3 of the way to zero.

Some other comments: 

There is a lot of NG generation out there right now - especially from peakers that is already not cost competitive with wind and/or solar/storage. With coal gone this generation will be replaced quickly. 

Although not as old as coal or nuclear the NG fleet is aging and by 2030 - when most coal will be gone - the current plants will be 10 years older.

Solar, wind and storage are still getting cheaper. 

The Inland Empire Energy Center in CA is an early sign of what will happen to NG in states where coal has been eliminated.

General Electric Co said on Friday it plans to demolish a large power plant it owns in California this year after only one-third of its useful life because the plant is no longer economically viable in a state where wind and solar supply a growing share of inexpensive electricity.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 10, 2020 3:29 pm GMT

"Solar, wind and storage are still getting cheaper."

Joe, there is no evidence your mythical "storage" will ever serve as an affordable substitute to dispatchable power - any dispatchable power. It's not even close.

The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jan 11, 2020 8:16 pm GMT

Joe, there is no evidence your mythical "storage" will ever serve as an affordable substitute to dispatchable power - any dispatchable power. It's not even close.


Not sure where you get the "mythical" from. Are you saying that current small storage systems in use are fake?

Do you think all the larger battery storage systems that APS in AZ is implementing this year and over the next couple of years are fake?

Is Brad Albert the VP of Resource Mangement at APS lying when he says:

We’ve been watching battery storage technology develop the last couple of years, and there are a couple key elements that make today different from proposals that we’ve seen in the past. First, the price of battery technology has continued to drop. The second thing is we’ve seen the initial grid-scale deployments in some of the other states, particularly California, and those have been successful. The third thing is that we have increasing amounts of solar energy on our system as rooftop solar systems continue to expand, and we’ve also added more solar to the system on our own. All of those ingredients together make battery storage a viable technology for us to begin to deploy on a large scale.

We are sizing the battery storage systems to be able to cover that key peak usage period from the late afternoon into the early evening, when we’re all getting home from work, cooking dinner, turning on the TV and turning on our air conditioners. The batteries allow us to take solar energy that’s produced in the middle of the day and deploy it in those evening hours when our customers need it the most. These projects are really the key, in my mind, to unlocking the potential of fully utilizing additional solar energy for our customers and Arizona. That’s what these projects are all about for us, continuing to harness the ability of solar energy to serve our customers.

Note: the $2.5T number in the article you quoted is based on battery prices from a couple of years ago. Prices have dropped a lot in recent years.  From $1,100 kWh to $156 kWh in 2019.  By 2030 costs will be near $50 kWh.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 12, 2020 4:38 pm GMT

Joe, please - you're quoting prices for battery packs for cars, not installed, grid-scale storage. So no, grid scale storage has not dropped by 1000% in the last 15 months, not that anyone here would buy into such a simplistic comparison.

And you continue to believe storage, simply because it's located next to a solar farm, isn't storing energy from the grid to which it's connected - including gas-fired power from hundreds of miles away - and wasting up to 20% of it in the process. Do you have any evidence that's the case, or is your belief supported by the same crumbling foundation supporting the case for renewable energy from the start?

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