Welcome back to TRNN’s Climate Crisis News Roundup. In recent weeks, this column has focused heavily on the intersection between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, and that will continue as the pandemic sweeps through the world. But climate change and the politics of tackling the issue are still happening outside of the context of COVID-19, and we will use this space to tell those stories, too.
If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read last week’s edition here.
Keystone XL Legal Roadblock
In the roundup from two weeks ago, we reported that the long-contested Canada to Nebraska Keystone XL pipeline got a shot in the arm of over $5 billion in financial aid from the Alberta government. Both TC Energy, the company formerly known as TransCanada which owns the pipeline, and the Alberta government said the money would make the project economically viable as the price of the Alberta tar sands tanks on the global oil market. The company has since then begun construction of the pipeline at the US-Canada border in Montana.
But that Montana construction might not last for long or extend very far, due to a major April 15 federal court ruling in the US District Court for the District of Montana. Judge Brian Morris ruled that, when the US Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for Keystone XL in 2017 for segments set to cross waters, it violated the Endangered Species Act. The corps permit was granted two months after President Donald Trump gave TC Energy the presidential permit required for cross-border pipelines.
Morris concluded that the corps failed to do an adequate analysis of the potential impacts the pipeline could have on species such as the pallid sturgeon fish and the American burying beetle.
A Pallid sturgeon (Scaphirynchus albus) is released into Yellowstone River by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons
Environmental groups celebrated the ruling and say it could set legal precedent for future pipelines, as well.
“The Trump administration has repeatedly violated the law in their relentless pursuit of seeing this dirty tar sands pipeline built,” Doug Hayes, an attorney for the Sierra Club, said in a press release. “Today’s ruling confirms, once again, that there’s just no getting around the fact that Keystone XL would devastate communities, wildlife, and clean drinking water.”
TC Energy, for its part, said it still intends to forge ahead with building the pipeline.
“We have received the judge’s ruling and continue to review it,” the company stated. “We remain committed to building this important energy infrastructure project.”
Big Oil vs. Little Oil
On April 12, Trump brokered a historic deal between Saudi Arabia, Russia, and members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to cut oil production in an attempt to stabilize the plummeting price of oil. The premise of the global deal centers around saving US shale oil fracking companies, who are on the brink of financial ruin due to the low oil price driven down by the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. But the United States has its own domestic production cuts agreement to work out.
The crisis in the US exists because fracking for oil is a capital-intensive endeavor which has had a hard time ever earning a profit, and the industry relies on a high global oil price. To no avail, companies have asked the Trump administration for a bailout or financial incentives of some sort to keep themselves afloat. But Trump has found himself in a bind because the industry is divided on the notion of both a bailout and a potential production cut mandate.
The divide is between major oil companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and smaller companies, or those which led the fracking boom of the past 15 years. That split was on full display during a 10-hour virtual hearing on April 14 about a proposal to mandate production cuts convened by the Texas Railroad Commision, the state’s oil regulating agency. Texas is home to the most productive oil field in the country, the Permian Basin.
Though no formal decision came out of the hearing, it was clear where one of the non-Big Oil drillers, Continental Resources, stands on the issue of a production cut. Founded by Harold Hamm, who until recently was also the CEO and now serves as Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors, the company said it supports a production cut mandate both in Texas and Oklahoma. Hamm, an energy adviser to Trump during his 2016 presidential run, was also a major donor to his campaign that year and is again in 2020.
On the other end of the industry spectrum was ExxonMobil, which called for the free market to win the day. Likewise, Chevron said in its public comment it “believes that the free market system will aptly regulate the price and supply of crude oil.”
The climate movement also weighed in via comments submitted in advance of the hearing and focused on flaring, a technique in which the excess gas byproduct is burned off into the atmosphere. That gas is methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane emissions from oil producers in the Permian Basin are an increasingly major issue.
One of those comments came from the Sierra Club, which said it was as “concerned with methane waste as they are with waste that may result from oversupply due to the current supply and demand crisis.”
For his part, Trump is considering offering companies federal money to not drill up to 365 million barrels of oil, a proposal which would cost over $7 billion, and would require congressional appropriations.
Democrats Stand Down on Green Stimulus
EnergyWire has reported that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have taken the Green Stimulus proposal called for by climate groups off the table once again during the fourth round of COVID-19 stimulus talks. Anonymous staffers told the publication not to expect the Democrats to put up a fight for the cause anytime soon, either, even as the oil industry receives both a slew of deregulatory measures and global dealmaking from the Trump administration.
EnergyWire reported that “House Democrats have mostly stopped insisting that emergency relief bills address climate.”
“At the end of the day, I don’t think this is about climate politics for [Pelosi],” one anonymous staffer told EnergyWire. “She’s not magically keeping her powder dry until the perfect moment. If [climate] were her priority, she would’ve said something.”
The clean energy sector is badly wounded from COVID-19, having lost over 106,000 jobs in March alone. The solar industry, too, could shed about 50% of its workforce, which included over 250,000 workers at the end of 2019. And there are bleak prospects for the jobs market looking forward, with the International Monetary Fund recently concluding that we are marching toward something akin to the Great Depression.
Are Democrats, the party that ushered in the original New Deal, actively fighting a Green New Deal at a historically parallel moment? It sure looks that way. Some say it shouldn’t be that way, though.
In an opinion piece published by The New York Times on April 15, Green New Deal architect Rhiana Gunn-Wright connected the dots between environmental injustice, the climate crisis, and the increasing risk of global pandemics like COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, she sees a Green New Deal as a way to climb out of these interrelated crises.
“Addressing climate change doesn’t have to slow down the economic recovery, either. In fact, it can push it forward,” she wrote. “No one knows the depth of the recession, but it is hard to see how we will put the 16 million people who have filed for unemployment back to work without significant public investment.”
BP Spill at 10
Lastly but definitely not least, the largest offshore spill in US history happened 10 years ago on April 20, 2010. It happened on the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore platform owned by TransOcean, a drilling contractor for offshore oil owned by BP, which exploded and killed 11 workers.
A new report by the group Oceana titled “Hindsight 2020: Lessons We Cannot Ignore from the BP Disaster” looks back at the spill, which spewed 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Oceana concludes that the lessons from the spill have still have gone unheeded, mostly based on the fact that the federal government still maintains regular biannual offshore lease sales, putting Gulf of Mexico waters, ecosystems, and the planet at risk.
The report says that the spill led to over $500 million in financial losses for the recreation industry and that the seafood industry lost about $1 billion. In the five years after the spill, 75% of dolphin pregnancies failed, while the endangered Bryde whale decreased in population by a rate of 22%. Additional wildlife loss has included the deaths of 800,000 birds, 170,000 sea turtles, and 8.3 million oysters.
Image Credit: Oceana
Days before the report’s release, another offshore spill happened in Alaska. As of the count on April 18, the Alyeska Pipeline, co-owned by BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Koch Industries, and ConocoPhillips, spewed over 30,000 gallons of oil into the waters of Prince William Sound.The size of the spill is still under examination by the Unified Command of Alyeska, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and the United States Coast Guard.
In another example of history repeating itself, the Alyeska Pipeline terminal is close to the site of the Exxon Valdez explosion, the previous largest spill in US history. In 1989, the carrier ship spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound.
The cause of the Alyeska Pipeline spill is still under investigation.
That’s it for this week. Be safe out there, and if you can, under almost all circumstances, stay at home. Thank you for reading and please come back next week for another edition of the Climate Crisis News Roundup.