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Climate Politics/Capitol Light (43)

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February 8, 2020

A party in labor?

Although Biden lost Iowa, he won the endorsement of the 775,000-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) while on his way to New Hampshire. It was an unusually early endorsement for the union. In 2008 and 2016, the IBEW waited until Obama and Clinton had more or less secured the nomination. It seems Biden’s poor Iowa showing was as unnerving for the union as it was for Biden.

In making the early endorsement, IBEW president Lonnie Stephenson described ‘an urgency this year’ to pick a candidate aligned with their values. Stephenson was being polite. The fact is that Sanders scares the biomass out of the IBEW and a lot of other unions, including the United Mineworkers (UMW), North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), and the AFL-CIO and many of its more than sixty union affiliates, representing 12.5 million members.

Labor’s problem with Sanders can be summed up in three words—Green New Deal (GND). Sanders’ own plan builds on the GND and calls for a ten-year, nationwide mobilization that would eliminate the nation’s carbon footprint by 2030. Workers in the oil, gas, and coal industries hear and read those words as a pink slip. Biden—being the moderate he is—speaks of making the transition by 2050.

In fairness to Sanders, his plan, like the GND, makes provision for a just transition to a carbon-free (or neutral) economy. Elements of a just transition include retraining programs, the provision of grants to low- and middle-income families for weatherizing their homes and businesses, and redevelopment assistance to communities reliant on the health of local drilling and mining operations. Sanders and his supporters say the transition would, create 20 million new jobs in industries of the 21st century. A claim that many economists corroborate.

So, what’s the problem? The problem, according to Phil Smith, director of communications for the UMW, bluntly states—

The whole notion of a ‘just transition’ for workers simply does not exist. There has never been an example of a just transition in this country.

The IBEW is not the only union that has swung to Biden in recent weeks. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), representing around 200,000 workers, announced its endorsement of Biden just before the Iowa caucuses. The union endorsed Sanders in 2016. The move to Biden took place after it polled its members.

ATU’s president, John Costa, said Joe Biden is the right person for working people and America. Other unions that think so as well include the Iron Workers union, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the National Association of Government Employees.

Sanders perceived radicalism is not the only reason many in labor are more comfortable with Biden. Notwithstanding his gaffes and perceived wishy-washiness, he’s been a strong supporter of unions throughout his career.

The truth is that the link between labor and the Democratic Party is not what it was back-in-the-day. It may be the reason why 37 percent of union workers voted for Trump in 2016.

No matter who the standard-bearer is in 2020, Democrats are risking an even greater loss of rank-and-file union voters with their stance on climate change. Should the party be too aggressive in its plan to move the nation off fossil fuels, it risks losing critical swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado in November.

If, however, the party is not aggressive enough, it risks not just the loss of young voters but their active opposition. The success of Democrats in November may well depend upon how they solve this particular puzzle.

Listening at last?  A new Democratic National Committee (DNC) climate council will help the party shape its 2020 environmental platform.

The group will soon announce the members of its policy committee, which will draft recommendations for the 2020 Democratic Party platform.  

In the past, the Democratic party has faced internal disagreements as well as criticism from environmental activists about how the party regards the importance of climate change. In August of 2019, there was much discussion within the DNC about whether to host a climate debate, with advocates including Deatrick arguing that the issue warranted its own forum. 

What a dump—Not! President Donald Trump appeared to reverse his position on a proposal to create a national nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada after his administration tried for several years to revive the mothballed project.

“Nevada, I hear you on Yucca Mountain, and my Administration will RESPECT you!” Trump said in a tweet. “Congress and previous Administrations have long failed to find lasting solutions – my Administration is committed to exploring innovative approaches – I’m confident we can get it done!” (Associated Press)

  • Trump has as much chance to solve this problem as he has in negotiating a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
  • The nuclear waste problem, however, needs to be solved. After four or more decades of discussion, the nation is no closer to a resolution.

Sweep it under the ground. A bill that has already gotten bipartisan Senate backing to spur underground storage and direct air capture of carbon dioxide emissions gained momentum, as top House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats praised the measure even as they called for significant changes. (Bloomberg Environment)

Charge it! Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Andy Levin (D-Mich.) outlined a bill that seeks to establish a nationwide electric vehicle charging network within five years. 

Their Electric Vehicle Freedom Act, which is slated to be introduced soon, would establish the network along the nation's highway systems and also promote compatibility between chargers and cars, affordability and the creation of automotive and infrastructure jobs, Levin said at a press conference. 

Ocasio-Cortez said she knew naysayers would claim: “They're trying to get rid of cars. Well, we're not trying to get rid of cars, we're trying to [actually] advance and improve our fleets and our vehicles, which means that we have to go electric."  (The Hill)

  • Ocasio-Cortez, working with colleagues in the House and Senate—notably Bernie Sanders--is giving substance to the Green New Deal through actual legislative proposals.
  • Had this stepped approach been described at the time the Green New Deal was first talked about on Capitol Hill, Trumplicans wouldn’t have been able to dictate the discussion with their claims of no cars, no meat, no life as we now know it.

In response. Only a very small handful of oil companies have laid out any targets around Scope 3 emissions, which make up the vastly larger pollution from the use of their products in the economy, but that's quickly changing amid rising activist and investor pressure on oil giants over global warming. (Axios)

  • Oil and gas companies are right to worry about their future and attempt to look like part of the solution. However, they have a big problem with believability.
  • Trump may have good feelings about oil and gas companies, but investors in their companies and projects are moving away from them rapidly.
  • Even Jim Cramer has declared that fossil fuels are dead because of the start of widespread divestment. He and others compare fossil fuels to tobacco.

Austin City limits. Construction on a natural gas pipeline in Texas will illegally put endangered species at risk, the City of Austin says in a new lawsuit.

All together now. In an op-ed for USA Today, Rep. David McKinley and Rep. Kurt Schrader — a Republican representing West Virginia coal country and a Democrat representing coastal Oregon — painted in broad strokes a bipartisan bill they hope to introduce that will require utilities to cut carbon emissions by mid-century greatly. The lawmakers told reporters that the bill they plan to introduce would require an 80 percent cut in power sector emissions by 2050, but it would not begin for up to 10 years, during which the industry would avert Clean Air Act carbon emissions regulations. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit international environmental advocacy group, called the proposal “promising” but adds, “Representatives suggest that innovation investments would come first and standards would follow. We don’t see any reason to wait to put standards in place. We can increase support for innovation and put standards in place at the same time, which are important to increase private-sector innovation."

  • The legislators hope to release bill text by the end of March.
  • It’s a good sign that NRDC is encouraging—often, environmental activists call proposals that don’t exactly meet their requirements, e.g., net-zero emissions by 2030, dead on arrival.

Hype or hope?  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would work with the city council to develop legislation prohibiting the use of natural gas and fuel oil in large buildings, part of a suite of renewable energy and climate policies during his State of the City address.

The announcement signals the nation's most populous city intends to join the growing movement to ban natural gas, which is spreading through California and taking root in the Boston area and Washington state. If passed, the measure would build on a 2019 bill that sailed through the city council requiring large buildings to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. (S&P Global)

  • De Blasio has only two years left in his second term. According to title 43 of the New York City rules, a mayor is limited to two consecutive terms.

Buzzkill. Hot temperatures linked to climate change, especially extremes like heat waves, are contributing to the decline of these fuzzy and portly creatures, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

Researchers found that bumblebee populations had recently declined by 46 percent in North America and by 17 percent across Europe when compared to a base period of 1901 to 1974. The biggest declines were in areas where temperatures spiked well beyond the historical range, which raises concerns that climate change could increase the risk of extinction for bees, which are already threatened by pesticide use and habitat loss. (New York Times)

  • The dying off of pollinators is a disaster in the making as it threatens the food supply.
  • Research is going on now to create mechanical bee replacements. (See here for more discussion)

As long as it takes. In cases challenging EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s final rule withdrawing California’s waiver to set its own vehicle emission standards, the D.C. Circuit Court denied motions both to expedite and to hold the cases in abeyance. (Politico morning email)

  • It may be years before the courts will finally rule on this—which means chaos will continue to reign for states, automakers, consumers, and the environment.
  • However, now that the Justice Department has dropped its anti-trust inquiry into the four automakers that have sided with California, it may be that the rest of the industry and the state could work out an agreement that would obviate the need for a final federal rule.

Coal First. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette played up millions of dollars in new funding to make coal plants smaller, more efficient, and cleaner, continuing a Trump administration effort to ensure a future for fossil fuels.

Brouillette announced $64 million in R&D funding for its existing "Coal FIRST initiative" to "produce more coal power more efficiently and transform it into a near-zero-emission energy source."

In name only. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) plans to join the Senate's bipartisan climate change caucus; he will become a member of the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, adding more Republican support to the first such bipartisan forum for senators to talk about climate policy. Portman follows the additions of Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Susan Collins of Maine. (Washington Examiner)

  • With all the bad blood that was spilled over impeachment, it’s hardly likely that this group will be able to work in a bipartisan manner.
  • The enmity between Graham and Romney alone is undoubtedly likely to poison the dialogues.
  • This is what happens when politics turn tribal.

A stairway to the courts. The Trump administration on Thursday implemented plans to downsize two national monuments in Utah, ensuring the lands previously off-limits to energy development will be open to mining and drilling. The action comes despite lawsuits by conservation, tribal and paleontology groups seeking to restore the original boundaries.

The lands have generated little interest from energy companies in the two years since President Donald Trump cut the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half, said Casey Hammond, acting Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management with the U. S. Department of the Interior.

A federal judge last year rejected the administration’s bid to dismiss the lawsuits. In a recent court filing, tribal groups said the Bears Ears lands are “a living and vital place where ancestors passed from one world to the next, often leaving their mark in petroglyphs or painted handprints, and where modern-day tribal members can still visit them.”

"If we stopped and waited for every piece of litigation to be resolved, we would never be able to do much of anything around here," Hammond said, explaining the decision to move forward anyway.

  • Interestingly the Trump administration is telling the courts that shrinking the monuments was intended to address federal overreach rather than boost energy development.
  • By saying they’ve exceeded their constitutional authority, the administration is hoping they won’t have to discuss climate impacts.
  • The comment by Hammond about not waiting for a judicial resolution is consistent with Trump’s notion of an imperial presidency.

No refuge in the refuge. Democrats are mounting an end-run around the Trump administration's plans to open public lands to oil drilling and other development-- by going straight to the purse strings. 

A dozen-and-a-half senators wrote letters to 11 of the largest U.S. banks asking them to back down from financing any oil and gas activity in an unspoiled expanse of Arctic wilderness. 

"The scale of your banks' assets individually, let alone together, give you the ability to drive change in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in shifting towards a U.S. financial sector that effectively analyzes and plans for climate risks," the group of a senators, led by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), told Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and six other banks in their letters.

The Trump administration is preparing to lease off portions of a 1.6million-acre coastal plain in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The nearly pristine wilderness is home to polar bears and caribou that some ecologists worry will be disturbed by noisy seismic testing and sprawling pipeline networks. (Washington Post)

Gaseous say. The House Energy and Commerce energy subcommittee questioned witnesses, including former FERC commissioner Cheryl LaFleur, on February 6th about potentially modernizing the Natural Gas Act. Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Energy Subcommittee Chairman Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) said in a statement that the century-old law needed a fresh look to see whether it “is truly serving the needs and interests of all Americans, not just those of the gas industry.”

Ahead of the hearing, 11 industry associations and labor unions wrote to the committee members supporting the Natural Gas Act.

Activists who spoke at the hearing said FERC had abused the law to allow increased fracking and benefit to the natural gas industry. (Washington Post)

Is it worth it? President Barack Obama's environment chief questioned the climate and public health benefits of carbon capture technologies, which many energy analysts see as critical to removing enough carbon to meet net-zero emissions goals.

Carbon capture technologies separate the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the emissions of power plants and other industrial facilities. That carbon is then stored underground, used to recover oil, or used in other products. (Washington Examiner)

State matters?  Industry and local government lawyers squared off in another high-stakes climate case, arguing over whether California cities and counties can wage their legal fight against the oil and gas industry in state court.

The crux of the debate before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is whether lawsuits from San Francisco, Oakland, San Mateo County, and others raise sweeping claims that are beyond state courts’ jurisdiction or raise quintessential local arguments that belong at that level. (Bloomberg Environment)

No tax alone.  Carbon taxes alone aren't good climate policy, according to Gernot Wagner. Econ 102 tells us that taxes alone aren't enough. In much the same way that there are negative spillovers from too much carbon pollution that need to be taxed, there are also positive spillovers from technological change. (Bloomberg)

L’etat c’est Trump? The Bureau of Land Management may stop studying how its long-term blueprints for millions of acres of public lands would affect the environment, according to a document shared with Bloomberg Environment.

The BLM may propose a land-use planning rule that will “remove NEPA requirements from the planning regulations,” referring to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), according to the document that was shared with states and former BLM officials.

  • The Trump administration is mounting a full-frontal attack on NEPA, which is a cornerstone of the nation’s climate/environmental defense plan.
  • The idea that NEPA legislation can be amended through executive action is consistent with Trump’s idea of an imperial presidency. It should not be compatible with the law—but who knows?

Junk it. A wind turbine’s blades can be longer than a Boeing 747 wing, so at the end of their lifespan, they can’t just be hauled away. First, you need to saw through the lissome fiberglass using a diamond-encrusted industrial saw to create three pieces small enough to be strapped to a tractor-trailer.

The municipal landfill in Casper, Wyoming, is the final resting place of 870 blades whose days making renewable energy have come to an end. The severed fragments look like bleached whale bones nestled against one another.

Tens of thousands of aging blades are coming down from steel towers around the world, and most have nowhere to go but landfills. In the U.S. alone, about 8,000 will be removed in each of the next four years. Europe, which has been dealing with the problem longer, has about 3,800 coming down annually through at least 2022, according to BloombergNEF. It’s going to get worse: Most were built more than a decade ago when installations were less than a fifth of what they are now.

  • Solar has similar waste issues.
  • Industry and many climate activists are too glib in their claims that these technologies have little environmental downside.
  • Recycling research by both industries and government is essential, yet it rarely shows up in budget calculations.

Pretty trees. Trump's limited references to the environment in his State of the Union address included a plan to combat climate change with trees and a claim that his “bold regulatory reduction campaign” had boosted the oil and gas industry.

Trump’s speech was delivered to a crowd of Democrats donning climate-themed pins, with the transition of blue to red stripes representing not the parties but the increase in global temperatures. 

The reference to his regulatory rollbacks includes at least 95 environmental rules that have been rolled back or are in the process of being rolled back, according to reporting from the New Year Times. (The Hill)

Republicans are putting are putting the finishing touches on a bill that would cement President Trump's commitment to a global initiative to plant 1 trillion trees, though experts caution that planting trees is not the most effective way to combat climate change.

Goodness should be rewarded. The latest news comes from the Church of England, which announced plans to invest $780 million (£600 million) in a new stock exchange index designed to reward companies that are working to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in line with Paris Agreement targets. The Church of England Pensions Board, which manages a total of  $3.7 billion, launched the index last week on the London Stock Exchange, where other institutional investors can invest in it.

Oil producers such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP are currently excluded from the index due to their lackluster climate goals. But the index does include Royal Dutch Shell and Repsol — Spain’s largest oil company, which made a net-zero pledge in December. Adam Matthews, the church fund’s director of ethics and engagement, said that excluded companies could still make their way into the index once they set appropriate targets. (Grist)

Don’t tax gas. “Raising the gas tax will disproportionately harm lower- and middle-income Americans while encouraging further wasteful spending,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, in a letter to members of Congress.

Democrats and business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce have floated the idea of a gas tax increase to pay for infrastructure investments. For 25 years, the federal tax on gasoline has been unchanged at 18.4 cents per gallon and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel. It is not indexed to inflation. (Washington Examiner)

Hot models. There are dozens of climate models, and for decades they’ve agreed on what it would take to heat the planet by about 3° Celsius. It’s an outcome that would be disastrous—flooded cities, agricultural failures, deadly heat—but there’s been a grim steadiness in the consensus among these complicated climate simulations.

Then last year, unnoticed in plain view, some of the models started running very hot. The scientists who hone these systems used the same assumptions about greenhouse-gas emissions as before and came back with far worse outcomes. Some produced projections in excess of 5°C, a nightmare scenario.

The scientists involved couldn’t agree on why—or if the results should be trusted. Researchers are starting to put together a­nswers, a task that will take months at best, and there’s not yet agreement on how to interpret the hotter results. The reason for worry is that these same models have successfully projected global warming for a half-century. (Bloomberg)

  • Although scientists are searching for answers as to why the models are off—as responsible researchers should—Trump and the denier community are going to use the deviations as evidence of bad faith on the part of the climate-science community.

Angry Iowa. In a speech last month to farmers in Texas, President Donald Trump won applause as he talked up recent U.S. trade agreements. When he tried to boast of his administration's ethanol policy, however, he was met with silence.

Iowa swung sharply to Trump’s Republicans in the 2016 presidential election, but Democrats hope anger over a relaxation of rules mandating the use of ethanol by U.S. refineries could put the corn-producing state in the win column this year. (Reuters)

  • The administration keeps making promises to corn farmers it can’t keep.
  • How long farmers will continue to remain loyal to Trump despite having hurt many of them badly with tariffs and unkept promises is the question. The answer will make a big difference in the coming elections.

Research reports.

Community resilience planning. Energy efficiency and renewable energy can enhance community resilience in the face of shocks and stresses like extreme weather caused by climate change. Despite this, our review of 66 city resilience plans from all over the world finds that most fail to include comprehensive sets of efficiency and renewable energy strategies. (ACEEE)

Industries have a carbon problem: Less than a quarter of the world’s largest industrial manufacturing companies are on track to cut their emissions consistent with global climate goals, a new report says.

More industrial companies are moving to align with the Paris climate agreement, according to the report released Monday by the London-based Transition Pathway Initiative. By 2030, 29% of the largest 100 industrial manufacturers are slated to align their emissions trajectories with the world’s goal to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

But that pace is still far too slow, the report notes. “[M]ake no mistake, these industries must transform themselves if they are to survive the low carbon transition and play their part in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement,” said Faith Ward, co-chair of the Transition Pathway Initiative and chief responsible investment officer for the Brunel Pension Partnership. (Transition Pathway Initiative)

 

Joel Stronberg's picture

Thank Joel for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 10, 2020 1:53 pm GMT

Oil and gas companies are right to worry about their future and attempt to look like part of the solution. However, they have a big problem with believability

Great point-- I think the general public will see right through superficial attempts to position themselves as green, but the oil and gas companies that really want to look at the decades ahead and adapt their business models will have a lot of work to do. Hopefully they're earnest in those attempts and successful in such a pivot. 

Are there any of the oil and gas majors that you think are currently positioning themselves correctly in this regard, Joel?

Joel Stronberg's picture
Joel Stronberg on Feb 12, 2020 3:51 pm GMT

It's a great question that I'm not sure I can conviningly answer. In part it depends on what your definition of positioning correctly is. If you're the Sunrise Movement then no definition of correctly is possible.

The companies that seem to get highest credit are Shell and Chevron. BP might make it on to the list after today's likely announcement of what new initiatives it will be taking.

The situation is going to be fluid as more big investors start pulling their funds out the companies are going to have to be thinking and doing more. Ultimately this is a zero sum game for oil and gas companies if the goal is net-zero emissions or minus emissions--which is going to be needed to make up for the time lost.

The companies that will fare best are the ones that see themselves going out of the oil and gas business and into clean energy and possibly carbon sequesters.

I think it's really telling that TV personalities like Jim Cramer are saying the fossil fuel industry is "dead." Obviously, the companies are going to keep doing business for decades to come. Still, that's a pretty powerful statement to make.

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