Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a break at the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Win McNamee/Getty Images

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 surrounding this monumental 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 or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at steve@therealnews.com or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read the previous edition here.


Keystone XL Ruling

The Keystone XL pipeline battle, now a decade old, may still continue for months or years.

That’s because on May 11, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris ruled that the Nationwide Permit 12 program, a federal permitting program overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must undergo further review. The ruling in the case filed by environmental groups applies not only to Keystone XL, but to all water-crossing pipeline permits doled out under the program.

The Obama Administration first used Nationwide Permit 12 on the southern leg of Keystone XL in 2012—rebranded at that time as the Gulf Coast Pipeline—to fast-track the buildout of that Nebraska to Texas pipeline and then many times thereafter by Obama’s team and the Trump Administration. The extent of the legality of the permitting program has been challenged multiple times since in federal courtas an alleged violation of bedrock environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Plaintiffs in some of those cases accused the Army Corps of using “segmentation” to split pipelines into hundreds or thousands of “single and complete” pieces of half an acre or smaller in size in order to comply with Nationwide Permit 12. In effect, that “segmentation” regulatory technique was used to dodge robust environmental reviews of and public hearings on pipeline proposals mandated by NEPA.

But Morris has ruled it’s back to the drawing board for the program, which could spell major trouble for myriad oil and gas pipeline proposals going forward. The American Petroleum Institute denounced the ruling in a press statement.

“API is disappointed that Judge Morris singled out the construction of new oil and gas pipelines using Nationwide Permit 12,” the group said. “Natural gas and oil infrastructure provides the energy Americans use each and every day and well-paying jobs for workers throughout the country, and the companies who produce and transport that energy should not be arbitrarily disallowed from this regulatory process.”

Keystone XL is slated to carry 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands extracted from Alberta, Canada through Steele City, Nebraska to market. Tar sands oil is among the most carbon-intensive crude on the planet.

Environmental groups, unsurprisingly, celebrated Morris’ ruling.

“Our courts have shown time and time again that the law matters,” Cecilia Segal, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said in a press release. “Today’s ruling makes clear that climate-busting pipelines like Keystone XL cannot be built until the federal government does its job and properly analyzes these projects’ devastating effects on their surrounding communities and wildlife.”

For its part, the Army Corps has already sent official legal notice that it will appeal the ruling in the U.S. Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit. And TC Energy filed a motion to stay Morris’ ruling with the appeals court, or request halt it, by June 12. The company said if the ruling is not legally halted, it “will be unable to complete all or significant portions of the construction work it had planned for Keystone XL for the second half of 2020.”

The opening brief is due on August 21, while the response is due on September 21.


California Pollution By Air And Sea

Polluting industries in California are pointing to the economic crisis that has manifested as the COVID-19 pandemic plays out in lobbying to delay implementation of both proposed regulations and those already on the books, the Los Angeles Times reported on May 13. 

“The trucking industry wants to stall new emissions-reduction rules. Oil companies want looser enforcement of existing regulations,” reported the newspaper. “Port and shipping interests are pushing to delay rules on ocean vessels as they become Southern California’s largest source of smog-forming pollution.”

And it appears that the lead agencies which regulate those industries, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Department of Conservation, may play ball. CARB has already suspended in-field inspections for industrial regulatory compliance due to COVID-19 public health concerns for its inspectors. And the Department of Conservation has said it will grant regulatory relief to oil companies who “can demonstrate hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic or the state’s response to the crisis,” KQED radio reported. The Department of Conservation’s move came in response to a letter requesting such relief by the industry’s top lobbying groups, Western States Petroleum Association and California Independent Petroleum Association.

Kate Gordon, top climate aide to Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, added that the administration is considering further regulatory relaxation, albeit with sturdy guardrails. Gordon told the Times that the industry requests “are very understandable and really have to do with the fact of the current crisis, and in some cases they’re regulations that had already been a kind of a thorn in the side to certain industries and they just are using…the moment to try to dispute them.”

But some Democratic members of the state legislature have requested that Newsom proceed with caution in offering regulatory enforcement holidays, pointing to the link between airborne pollutants and susceptibility to contracting COVID-19.

“Scientists warned of a pandemic and the climate crisis–it is critical that we move towards combating and protecting people from both,” wrote the group of 37 legislators. “Our agencies must resist attempts by polluting industries to exploit our current crisis to loosen, rollback or delay the adoption of vital environmental regulations that protect the health and safety of Californians.”

The climate publication Grist reported in a related story that the unprecedented number of oil tankers anchored off the coast in Long Beach, a Los Angeles County port city, has become a hot spot for emissions of carbon emissions. With nowhere to deliver oil because consumption has plummeted in the United States during the COVID-19 era, the waters of Long Beach and the Gulf of Mexico are now saturated with tankers acting as storage vessels because actual storage sites are now full to the brim with crude.

The dozens of tankers, idling along the Port of Long Beach, use diesel gasoline equivalent to “driving roughly 16,000 passenger cars,” Grist’s Maria Gallucci reported. And each individual ship consumes the equivalent of 800 cars hitting the road in carbon emissions equivalent. CARB told Grist that it is “closely monitoring the situation and tracking these ships.”


Biden-Sanders Climate Unity

On May 13, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden announced the names of members of policy unity committees to help write the party’s next platform. 

For the climate change committee participating as co-chairs are U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and former Secretary of State John Kerry. Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshani Prakash, a leading proponent of the Green New Deal, is also on the task force, as is former Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), chairwoman of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis that was formed to fend off a proposed House Select Committee on a Green New Deal, also sits on the task force.

While some have praised the task force as a cast of “progressive all-stars,” others have expressed skepticism about what the task force can achieve and what impact it will have if Biden defeats President Donald Trump in November. One of those skeptics is Mitch Jones, policy director at Food and Water Action. He spoke with former Real News climate correspondent, and current Earther reporter, Dharna Noor on May 13.

“It remains unclear exactly what these task forces will do and how much they will influence what a Biden presidency would pursue,” Jones told Noor. “So, while we appreciate that a few Green New Deal advocates have been brought into the Biden camp, the climate movement must continue to push not only Joe Biden, but Democratic Congressional leadership, and elected officials at all levels of government to fight the fossil fuel industry and take the actions we need to save our habitable planet.”

Prakash also expressed skepticism about what the task force could yield, writing “I want to be real that I don’t know how much this task force will be able to accomplish, or what this process will yield” in a blog post. But she added that she finds what will take place outside of the halls of power (or likely in this case, via Zoom meetings) for activists even more crucial.

“The stronger and louder you are in continuing to call out for a Green New Deal, the more power I will have when I enter these negotiations, and the more courage and resolve you will give me to fight for us,” she wrote.

Ocasio-Cortez expressed similar sentiments.

“I have always believed that real change happens not with a panel or task force, but in everyday people organizing mass movements to demand change,” she tweeted. “Yet we should also commit to showing up everywhere- every space where there are decisions &formative conversations – w/ mvmt voices.”


New Climate Reporter

Though he began working at TRNN over three weeks ago as my climate beat colleague, I have to date failed to introduce Aman Azhar to readers of the Climate Crisis News Roundup! Aman comes to TRNN by way of Voice of America and the BBC, places he worked as a producer, host and journalist for the better part of the past eight years. He has also worked within the halls of political power, both for the U.S. Department of State and for the Asian Development Bank.

As a way to get to know a bit about Aman, he and I spoke in an audio recorded session about his background in journalism and why he went into the profession. I also got thoughts on why the climate crisis beat matters during this time of a global pandemic, the types of multimedia stories he will aim to tell for TRNN and a discussion about a formal journalism school education versus a learning by doing approach. You can listen to that here:

Aman is currently working on his first batch of reporting for us, a story on the group ClimateMusic and how they’re using their craft to raise awareness of the gravity of the climate crisis for new audiences. Please welcome Aman to the team over on Twitter at @TheAmanAzhar and please do stay tuned for his work in the weeks and months ahead here at The Real News!

Steve Horn

Climate Change Reporter

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website DeSmog.com, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.