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Climate Politics/Capitol Light (33)

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October 16, 2019     

But, it's a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time for the waiting game

The lyrics above were written by Maxwell Anderson—a liberal Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and journalist from the 1920s until his death in 1959. Although having nothing to do with politics, September Song’s chorus perfectly reflects what’s going on these days on Capitol Hill—right down to not having time for the waiting game. Wait, we must, however, while Congress deals with impeachment inquiries and the precipitous pull-out of US forces from Syria.

Trump has certainly gotten his wish of being the center of attention. Unfortunately for the nation, the other business of government is being put on hold.

Congress must still face the problem of keeping the government open past the November 21st ending of the current continuing resolution. The various appropriations bills waiting in the queue are going to be hard-pressed to get the attention they deserve. Somewhat unusual and unfortunate, the Senate’s energy and water and commerce-justice-science appropriations bills have bipartisan support. Unusual because anything bipartisan these days is the exception, unfortunate because all the work that went into them appears wasted—at least for the moment.

Also hanging around the halls of Congress waiting for attention are critical issues like tax extender legislation, which would involve electric vehicles, wind, solar, and possibly biomass and efficiency technologies. However, the extenders bill promises to be somewhat problematic because the chair of the finance committee, Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was gearing up to fight any Democratic proposals that involved reneging on agreements made in 2017 that were one and done, e.g., wind credit (see below).

An FY 2020 National Defense Authorization (NDAA) is still being reported as a possibility. Energy and environmental issues, including climate change matters, have long been part of discussions surrounding the NDAA. But the fact is, no one knows what’s going to happen over the next two and a half months.

Given who the president is, I still stand by my caution. Trump can’t possibly feel fondness towards the federal bureaucracy—a spiteful leader; I wouldn’t put it past him to take comfort in the discomfort of those he is sure are out to get him. As they say, just because your paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out to get you. Whomever they may be.

With Congress back in town, look for the Climate Politics/Capitol Light newsletter to go back to twice a week.

Hey Google, what the ****? Google has made “substantial” contributions to some of the most notorious climate deniers in Washington despite its insistence that it supports political action on the climate crisis.

Among hundreds of groups, the company has listed on its website as beneficiaries of its political giving are more than a dozen organizations that have campaigned against climate legislation, questioned the need for action, or actively sought to roll back Obama-era environmental protections.

The list includes the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a conservative policy group that was instrumental in convincing the Trump administration to abandon the Paris agreement and has criticized the White House for not dismantling more environmental rules.

Google said it was disappointed by the US decision to abandon the global climate deal, but has continued to support CEI.

Google is also listed as a sponsor for an upcoming annual meeting of the State Policy Network (SPN), an umbrella organization that supports conservative groups, including the Heartland Institute, a radical anti-science group that has chided the teenage activist Greta Thunberg for “climate delusion hysterics.”

Greenwashing. Trillions of dollars of investment are needed to combat global warming. Enter green bonds, a way for issuers to raise money specifically for environmentally friendly projects -- such as renewable energy or clean transport -- and to be able to boast about it publicly. Fund managers also like the notes as a way of meeting growing investor demand for sustainable options. The market, which opened slowly more than a decade ago, has boomed in recent years, helping spur development of other socially conscious debt products. Because investors face the challenge of judging whether a note is genuinely green, regulators are working on standards to help guard against greenwashing -- misleading claims about just how good a friend to the environment an issuer is. (Bloomberg)

  • Greenwashing is a serious threat both to future government policies and investments.
  • The idea that solar and other renewable energy sources and systems are Rube Goldberg inventions still has some traction with policymakers—starting with the Donald.
  • The association of fraud—which is what greenwashing is—with systems and financial mechanisms will make passage of new and needed federal and state policies supportive of the transition to a low-carbon economy that much more difficult.

Oil’s still the thing. Royal Dutch Shell still sees abundant opportunity to make money from oil and gas in the coming decades even as investors and governments increase pressure on energy companies over climate change, its chief executive said.

How much research and development big oil companies are putting into cleantech is one of the few concrete metrics to gauge the industry’s varying shifts toward cleaner energy.

Pinning that figure down is tricky because many companies don’t disclose, and even those that do use definitions that vary widely for what constitutes cleaner energy or low-carbon.

Just 2 out of 8 of the world’s biggest publicly traded oil companies (ExxonMobil and Total) are spending more on overall research and development today than nearly a decade ago, according to BloombergNEF analysis of companies’ recent financial reports, as the accompanying chart shows. (Reuters)

Forsoot. After two days of deliberations, an unofficial panel of air quality experts has tentatively concluded that EPA's fine particulate matter standards need significant tightening. Though agency leaders may not pay heed to their findings, the panel members are optimistic that federal judges will listen. (E&E News)

  • The willingness of these experts—and others in other climate-related subject matter—to meet and make known the implications of the Trump administration’s air quality standards are critical.
  • Although less than ideal venues, the courts serve as they were designed—a check on the legislative and executive branches of government. Anything that assists judges to understand and appreciate the state of scientific evidence is essential in the Age of Trump.

A case of neglect. The department, which has a hand in just about every aspect of the industry, from doling out loans to subsidizing crop insurance, spends just 0.3 percent of its $144 billion budget helping farmers adapt to climate change, whether it's identifying the unique risks each region faces or assisting producers in rethinking their practices so they're better able to withstand extreme rain and periods of drought. (Politico)

Nasty stuff. This time asbestos' friend is the Environmental Protection Agency. The same E.P.A. that created the rules to ban it. Well, maybe not the same E.P.A.

Every year, asbestos takes the lives of nearly 40,000 Americans, and thousands more face a lifetime of pain and suffering from disabling lung diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma, yet its use remains largely unregulated in the United States. (New York Times)

  • One would think with all that’s known about the health impacts of asbestos that it would at least be heavily regulated. Sadly, one would think wrong.

A smackdown. A federal judge smacked down President Trump's plan to divert military funds to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas Senior Judge David Briones called Trump's declaration of a national emergency along the border "unlawful" and said the president improperly sought to supersede a decision by Congress not to authorize funding for the project.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act "expressly forbids Defendants' funding plan," Briones wrote in his opinion. (E&E News)

Thrust and parry. A widening House impeachment inquiry that already has ensnared Energy Secretary Rick Perry could have a significant impact on Capitol Hill legislating this fall and may force some tough decisions for leading energy and environmental lawmakers in coming weeks.

Here are some questions to consider about the ongoing investigation of whether President Trump held up aid to Ukraine to try to force the central European nation to launch a corruption probe aimed at former Vice President Joe Biden. (E&E News)

The trough that keeps on giving? Less than a year after the U.S. wind industry swore off federal tax credits, its top lobbyist wants another go at the incentive that helped it become the cheapest source of new energy in much of the world.

The tax credits are now needed for the industry to maintain its cost advantage against competing sources such as solar and natural gas plants. That’s because President Donald Trump’s import tariffs on steel and other wind-farm components have raised costs by as much as 28 percent, said Tom Kiernan, chief executive officer of the Washington-based American Wind Energy Association. (Bloomberg)

  • As legitimate as the reasons for extending the federal tax credits for wind and other clean energy technologies are, the continued pursuit establishes the central theme of opposition arguments.
  • The anti-argument will take the form of questions. “Was the industry lying then, or are they lying now.” “What else aren’t they saying?” “If the credit is extended once again, what’s the assurance they won’t be back?”
  • A question I have is: would getting Trump to drop tariffs on the materials and components of wind systems be an alternative to the extender request?

Never mind the environment policy act. The Trump administration is moving closer to releasing proposed reforms to how the federal government implements the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, in permitting and environmental reviews for infrastructure projects.

The White House’s Council on Environmental Quality submitted proposed updates to the regulations governing NEPA to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs on Friday, signaling a public release is coming soon. (Washington Examiner)

  • This is just the latest instance of the administration’s efforts to deregulate the environment.
  • As with the other instances, it will be challenged in court.
  • I’ve written on multiple occasions that for an administration of deniers, a delay is nearly as good as rescission. Whatever the final court decision delay will have been accomplished.
  • At some point, the impact of Trump’s judicial nominations is likely to begin taking its toll on the environment.

Because the fed government doesn’t.  Businesses, given their power to shape public policy, should be advocating for science-based climate policies in line with the latest international climate science, 11 major environmental groups wrote Tuesday in an open call to companies.

The groups are urging companies to more clearly align their policy advocacy with the voluntary emissions reductions goals many have set. That should include companies working to align their trade groups’ lobbying with a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the groups wrote.

A new bunny on the block’? Companies have tried for decades to extract lithium from the super-heated underground fluid used for energy generation at the southern end of the Salton Sea, home to one of the world’s most powerful natural geothermal hot spots. Just a few years ago, a technology startup called Simbol Materials went bust.

Now another company claims to have solved the lithium problem. EnergySource has produced “kilograms” of battery-grade lithium. A commercial extraction facility, he estimated, could produce 16,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent annually, with the potential for around 100,000 tons if the other Salton Sea geothermal plants adopt the firm’s technology. (LA Times)

  • If, as advertised, this development will be huge—both in terms of making the transition to a low-carbon economy and for investors in EnergySource and other clean energy companies.

The ol’ switcheroo. Through advertising, public outreach campaigns, lobbying, and partnerships with nonprofits designed to seem "green," plastics industry organizations have been blaming "litterbugs" for the growing menace and promoting the idea of recycling as the solution, while at the same time fighting every serious attempt to limit plastic production. (The Intercept/video)

Banking on 4o C. The governor of the Bank of England has warned that the global financial system is backing carbon-producing projects that will raise the temperature of the planet by over 4oC – more than double the pledge to limit increases to well below 2oC contained in the Paris Agreement.

In a stark warning over global heating, Mark Carney said the multitrillion-dollar international capital markets – where companies raise funds by selling shares and bonds to investors – are financing activities that would lift global temperatures to more than 4C above pre-industrial levels. (The Guardian)

As if proof were needed. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's September 26 letter accusing California of violating air water quality laws was written by a small coterie of political appointees without the knowledge of the agency's California-based employees, who normally would have drafted such notices, according to multiple current EPA officials. Regional EPA officials were said to have told staff that Wheeler's claims were exaggerated and that concerned staff are to inform California environmental agencies that the letter is political in nature. (The New York Times)

When he’s right, he’s right. Billionaire businessman and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer said climate change is one of the biggest threats facing America, right up there with Russia and election tampering.

Speaking during the fourth Democratic primary debate Tuesday, Steyer said climate change is “the most important international problem we’re facing” and chastised debate organizers for failing to yet bring up the topic more than an hour and a half into the event. (The Hill)

  • In 2016, there was a stark difference between what the candidates spoke of leading up to the nominations, thanks mostly to Sanders. After the conventions, climate was almost never spoken of by either candidate.
  • Although I’m banking on the youth climate movement to keep the pressure on candidates in the 2020 races, that climate has rather suddenly gone cold in the shadow of impeachment is concerning.

Sounds a bit fishy to me. Nationally, climate change is still not a universally accepted science. But here in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Rep. Joe Cunningham claims there’s bipartisan acknowledgment of global warming as a real and urgent issue.

The freshman Democrat spent Monday with a group of fishermen from his coastline district who have seen the impacts of climate change firsthand.

Cunningham is planning on introducing a bill that would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on efforts fishery management bodies have taken to adapt to climate change. The measure would ask the GAO to identify any knowledge and funding gaps groups like the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and Regional Fishery Management Councils have faced in their work. (Roll Call)

  • Off the South Carolina coast is far from the only place where fish populations have been negatively impacted. Last year warming waters off of the West Coast produced toxic algae blooms that delayed the opening of crab season. Warming waters of the Maine coast have also caused problems for the lobstermen.
  • I don’t think it will be surprising to see a rash of lawsuits against oil companies by the fishing and insurance industries for knowingly causing the problem.
  • Such suits would follow along those filed by cities and states as tort actions like the cigarette cases of the 1990s. The cases will ask the questions what did the fossil fuel companies know, and when did they know it?

Graphs of interest:


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Joel Stronberg's picture

Thank Joel for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 17, 2019 2:35 pm GMT

Joel, there's no reason to criticize the U.S. withdrawal from Paris when not one climate goal has proven effective at reducing emissions. "Promises like Paris don’t mean much, it’s wishful thinking. It’s a hoax that governments have played on us since the 1990s," says James Hansen, considered the "Father of Climate Change Awareness."
And there's no evidence scalable renewables - solar and wind - in their most Goldbergian incarnation have, or ever will help replace the dispatchable role of fossil fuels on the grid.

"The association of fraud—which is what greenwashing is—with systems and financial mechanisms will make passage of new and needed federal and state policies supportive of the transition to a low-carbon economy that much more difficult."

The 25 states which support "renewable energy credits" (RECs) have no one but themselves to blame if the  transition to a low carbon economy is proving elusive. It doesn't take a Rhodes Scholar to recognize any certificate bestowed upon a solar or wind farm, which can be sold to a gas plant to magically cleanse its emissions from the air, is a shining example of fraud.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 17, 2019 1:49 pm GMT

Joel, there's no reason to criticize the U.S. withdrawal from Paris when not one climate goal has proven effective at reducing emissions.

Perhaps that's because major players in the world economy like the United States have refused to play ball. International climate agreements can prove effective at change, but it's only when they encompass the global economy and minimize the change of carbon leakage to those nations who aren't coming to the table. Otherwise you'll just continue to see one nation make 'progress' by shifting their emissions-heavy industries to non-regulated countries. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 17, 2019 2:32 pm GMT

I agree, Matt - mostly. Major players in the world economy have become major players by burning fossil fuel, and the hypocrisy of asking minor players to shoulder the burden of addressing climate change now, while they're going through the same growing pains the U.S. was a century ago, is lost on no one. There is no playing ball, or negotiation, or deal that can be struck that will relieve us of our obligation to lead the way on climate change.

As the most affluent, most technologically-advanced country in the world, that burden is ours alone to bear. International climate agreements are worse than ineffective - they're destructive. They're unenforceable, and worse: they allow Americans to point fingers at "Chindia" for aspiring to the same standard of life we take for granted.

If for all the wrong reasons, if for doing it in the most obnoxious way possible, if wholly by accident, Trump got it right on Paris. Step #2 will be electing a president who gives a crap about anyone but himself, who is capable of taking responsibility for anything. If that bar is too high we might as well give up hope.

Joel Stronberg's picture
Joel Stronberg on Oct 18, 2019 7:05 pm GMT

Bob and Matt,

I always enjoy hearing from you guys--keeps me honest. Paris is/was a perfect example of trading what's actually needed for what is politically possible. It was known from the start that the pledges weren't going to get the world where it needed to be. 

There is, of course, some symbolic value. My problem with theTrump pulling the US out of the Accord is why he did it. If he pulled the US out saying it's placebo and that nations need to do more--that's one thing. Trump doesn't do that of course--he denies there's a problem, attributes cancers to windmills, and badmouths energy saving bulbs because it makes him look bad in the mirror.

I thought it was interesting that Macron got all bent out of shape over Greta Thunberg and the 15 other youth that petitioned the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child. He didn't like France being named as a respondent.

I wish I was more hopeful that emperors and empresses would admit they're at least half-naked sometimes. The truth is that the US and France and other nations that are responsible do what's right. 

Absolutely agree that making developing and small island nations are being asked to bear the burden--often at the same time we and Poland, China and other coal producers are selling them systems.

There's a lot of phony effort going on whether it's greenwashing or putting a tax on fossil expecting that the fees won't be passed on. The point is to stop using fossil energy as much as possible as fast as possible--not to let folks pay for the privilege of continuing to burn it.

You might have noticed there's a certain amount of anger coming out in my writing. The whole thing is beginning to get to me.

I'm working on a piece about Google and others supporting the denier community through organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and trying to justify it.

Nothing like a fine whine, huh you guys? Anyway, I do appreciate your comments and hope to continue learning from them.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 17, 2019 9:17 pm GMT

You might have noticed there's a certain amount of anger coming out in my writing. The whole thing is beginning to get to me.

I'd say that these days that anger is not only more than understandable, but is actually useful. Systematic changes may only come to be when 'aw shucks' changes to anger and leaders have no choice but listen or be voted out. I'd have hoped we'd reach that point years ago, but the second best time to do so would be now!

Keep up the great work, Joel. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 17, 2019 9:15 pm GMT

Major players in the world economy have become major players by burning fossil fuel, and the hypocrisy of asking minor players to shoulder the burden of addressing climate change now, while they're going through the same growing pains the U.S. was a century ago, is lost on no one

I 100% agree here, but the question comes down to what 'burden' are we talking about. If the burden is financially assisting countries that have the disadvantage of industrializing during the time of climate change awareness, then I agree it should be the Western world's obligation to shoulder a bigger load of that problem. Unfortunately that is the non-starter with many people in negotiations (and one of the main ones being held up by Trump, complaining it's not 'fair' that we have to pay more). 

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