Climate Crisis: Biden Climate Plan Will ‘Double Down’ On Oil; Dakota Access Lives On

By: Steve Horn | July 18, 2020

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 the world.

But in the midst of that, the presidential election is just three and a half months away in perhaps the strangest election cycle in generations. As Election Day looms, Joe Biden has released his climate plan, and so has the Biden-Sanders Unity Committee. Climate justice activists say neither is up to snuff. 

If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read the previous edition here.


 

Biden’s Climate Plan

Presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden has released his climate plan, and it’s drawn mixed reviews on its ambitiousness and ability to combat the climate crisis. The plan comes as a recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Biden up 15 points over President Donald Trump— historically bad polling numbers for the current president.

Biden announced the plan, called “Build Back Better,” at a July 14 press conference held in Wilmingham, Delaware. It calls for $2 trillion in stimulus spending.

“These are the most critical investments we can make for the long-term health and vitality of both the American economy and the physical health and safety of the American people,” he said. “When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax.’ When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’”

The plan calls for 100% “carbon pollution-free power” by 2035 and converting four million buildings during the next four years to meet energy efficiency standards to make them “net-zero” emissions by 2030. On the issue of environmental justice, Biden’s plan calls for 40% of renewable energy subsidy dollars to go to disadvantaged communities. The plan also calls for a “rail revolution” to “reduce pollution, connect workers to good union jobs, slash commute times, and spur investment in communities.”

And he has called for a tax increase for corporations to pay for the plan, boosting their tax rate from 21% to 28%.

Yet when push comes to shove, the plan is an endorsement of business as usual for the oil and gas industry in the United States—and then some.

Echoing the recent plans published by the Sanders-Biden Unity Committee and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Biden’s plan calls for the United States to meet “net-zero” on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 without calling for a phaseout on fracking or other domestic fossil fuels production. Instead of calling for a fossil fuel phaseout, Biden has called for a “double down.”

“Biden will double down on research investments and tax incentives for technology that captures carbon and then permanently sequesters or utilizes that captured carbon, which includes lowering the cost of carbon capture retrofits for existing power plants,” reads the plan.

Without spelling it out fully, what that means in reality is promoting the subsidization of a key prong of the fossil fuel industry’s wishlist called carbon capture utilization and sequestration (CCUS), or carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). It’s a plan to pump the carbon emitted at electricity plants under the ground (capturing and storing/sequestering) for future uses (utilization). The use of this stored carbon could potentially lead to the generation of another petrochemical product, plastic, as well as more oil drilling itself in a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR).

Biden’s plan calls for “capturing carbon dioxide through direct air capture systems and retrofits to existing industrial and power plant exhausts, followed by permanently sequestering it deep underground or using it to make alternative products like cement.”

To facilitate the scaling up of research and development efforts around CCS and CCUS, Biden’s plan advocates for an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate for the Department of Energy, paralleling the already-existing Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The plan drew praise from the industry’s top lobbying organization, the American Petroleum Institute.

“You can’t address the risks of climate change without America’s natural gas and oil industry, which continues to lead the world in emissions reductions while delivering affordable, reliable and cleaner energy to all Americans,” the group said in a press release. “This plan would require a massive amount of infrastructure buildout, a goal we all share.”

The Unity Committee and Select Committee plans also call for scaling up CCUS R&D efforts, as does a report published at the beginning of this month by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

And while the Trump campaign slammed the Biden plan as a “socialist manifesto,” the administration has also promoted CCUS, convening a Committee on Carbon Capture, Use, and Storage within the Energy Department. That committee’s steering committee, which published a report in December recommending scaling up CCUS titled “A Roadmap to At-Scale Deployment of Carbon Capture Use and Storage,” is chaired by former BP America CEO John Mingé and coordinating subcommittee BP America Senior VP Cindy Yeilding.

BP is a central player in the global CCUS push. A July 16 investigation by InsideClimate News identified BP as one of the central pushers of the “net-zero” by 2050 framework, a goal it pronounced in a February press release and speech given by CEO Bernard Looney.

The DNC Council on the Environment and Climate Crisis, a body created by the DNC as a concession in exchange for not hosting a climate debate during the presidential primary cycle, said that “the recommendations do not go nearly far enough, or fast enough, to avert devastating and possibly irreversible levels of climate damage to our communities, country, and world” in a press statement and analysis published by its chairwoman and founder, Michelle Deatrick.

The statement, responding to the Biden-Sanders Unity Committee proposals, also addresses CCS head on and offers a critique of “net-zero” framing.

“Investing in CCS to offset the use of fossil fuel-based energy production would be an unnecessary subsidy to outdated energy sources,” reads the statement. “Significant concerns exist about the long-term storage of toxic sequestered gases. Why would we rely on it when we already have much less expensive, proven, clean green technologies?”

Mitch Jones, the policy director of the climate justice group Food & Water Action, was even more blunt in his response to the “double down.”

“If an oil company seeks to continue drilling for oil, then all it really needs to do is announce its support for non-existent ‘carbon capture’ technologies that it promises to deploy, someday,” he wrote. “This does not represent a climate plan so much as an accounting trick—and the fate of a livable planet rests in the balance.”

In endorsing CCS, the Biden plan also promotes direct air capture, a geoengineering technique pushed by companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Occidental Petroleum to vacuum carbon dioxide from ambient air through high-tech machinery. As covered here at The Real News, the head of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, became the first major state climate leader to endorse the practice during a February hearing.

Since then, the Select Committee, Unity Committee, and now the Biden campaign have all endorsed it—without ever using the term “geoengineering.” 


 

Dakota Access Resumes

In last week’s roundup, I reported that Dakota Access Pipeline owner Energy Transfer Equity—formerly known as Energy Transfer Partners—appealed the U.S. District Court ruling calling for the company to empty the pipeline of oil by Aug. 5. The District Court judge ruled that the company, whose CEO Kelcy Warren recently contributed $1 million to President Trump’s campaign, benefited from a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handed it a permit in 2016.

Many climate groups celebrated the ruling, with some news stories even speculating that this, and other federal court rulings which took place within days of one another, portends that the age of oil and gas pipelines may be on the wane. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had something else to say about that.

On July 14, the court ruled to place an administrative stay on the District Court’s ruling, meaning oil can continue to flow through the pipeline at least until the Court of Appeals rules on the merits of the appeal. The oil industry and its allies see it as a victory.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), who served as an energy adviser to President Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign, offered a toast to the ruling.

“Common sense prevails,” Cramer said in a press release. “The shutdown order was unreasonable and a clear example of judicial overreach. I hope the time will be used to find common ground among litigants.”

The industry front group representing numerous trade associations and labor groups supportive of Dakota Access—the GAIN (Grow America’s Infrastructure Now) Alliance—also celebrated the ruling.

“This ruling is a key step forward in reaffirming the Dakota Access Pipeline’s critical role in the American energy infrastructure network, and represents a win for our nation’s economy, energy security, and national security,” the group’s spokesman, Craig Stevens, said in a press release. “We are confident the appeals court will ultimately agree with federal regulators, the pipeline operator, and more than a dozen state attorneys general and see the merit in the rigorous permitting process the pipeline has already endured and the vitality of its continued safe operation serving American consumers.”

Dakota Access carries oil obtained from fracking in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin to the refining and storage hub of Pakota, IL, where it connects with the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline and extends down to Gulf of Mexico refinery markets and the global export market. Beyond the ongoing federal court case, Energy Transfer Equity is also seeking permits from the states sitting along Dakota Access’ route to double the pipeline’s capacity. The company has called this “capacity optimization.”

The appellate court ruling comes as a new study by researchers at UCLA and USC has linked flaring of natural gas, more prolific in the Bakken than any other oil field, to a 50% higher risk of preterm birth in women living within three miles of Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale basin. 

Flaring of natural gas in the Bakken Shale in 2011

Bakken Flaring Gas At Night. Joshua Doubek/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

One of those flared waste byproducts is ethane, one of the chemical components used to produce plastics. The Bakken Shale emits about 2% of the entire planet’s ethane, according to a 2016 study published by researchers at University of Michigan, NASA, Columbia University, Harvard, and other institutions. Ethane is the third most potent greenhouse gas, behind methane and carbon dioxide, acting as a heat-trapping agent for smog pollution.


 

Kneecapping NEPA

The Trump administration finalized its proposed rule to eviscerate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), known as the “Magna Carta of environmental law,” central to enforcing federal environmental laws and regulations. Trump has used the law’s 50th birthday as a chance to neuter it, building upon momentum created by his predecessor President Barack Obama.

NEPA mandates that federal agencies do environmental analyses before offering permits to project proponents on proposals such as interstate highways and pipelines, fracking and mining on federal lands, offshore drilling on federal land, industrial activities in and around ports, among other things. Beyond analyses, the law also has a public comments and public hearings component and is often the only way impacted communities—often communities of color, and in particular Indigenous communities—can have their voices heard in the process.

NEPA serves, in essence then, both watchdog and participatory roles. And it forces the federal government to take a “take a hard look at environmental consequences” projects could have before doling out permits.

Several weeks ago, the Trump administration also put enforcement of NEPA and other environmental regulations on hiatus in the name of the coronavirus national public health emergency. It’s the same emergency Trump has repeatedly downplayed since the pandemic began. Were the broader Trump proposal to pass muster in court, which could take months or years to resolve—the presidential race results could have something to say about that, as well—it could muzzle voices hoping to engage in the democratic process.

“Gutting NEPA silences voices and puts vulnerable communities, health, and our environment — including our air and water — at risk,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for the group Earthjustice, in a press release. “We’re not going to sit back and allow a decision that could harm public health during a public health crisis go unscathed. We’ll be seeing them in court.”

The National Parks Conservation Association called the NEPA rollback proposal “one of their most egregious acts to undermine environmental protection & public voice.”

“For more than 50 years, this law has protected our communities and the environment from poorly planned projects that pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink. It has given people a voice in how to best use public lands that belong to all of us,” the group’s President and CEO Theresa Pierno said in a press release. “And it has been an important tool for addressing climate change, which is already wreaking havoc on our national parks and communities. Across the country, national parks are melting, burning, and drying as our country’s dependence on fossil fuels pollutes our landscapes and harms our communities.”

But the head of the Trump Environmental Protection Agency, despite the agency’s name, says the rollback could be good for the environment.

“NEPA reviews have become very costly and time-consuming, threatening the construction of important infrastructure projects and job creation across this country,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a press release. “There is a direct link between a wealthier economy and a cleaner environment. EPA is confident this regulation can help both the U.S. economy grow faster and safeguard its environment for future generations.”

In that same release, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said the rule could serve as a boon for the fossil fuel industry.

“Now that the United States is the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, it is more important than ever that we responsibly develop the necessary infrastructure to get these abundant and affordable resources to market,” he said. “By finally updating this 40-year-old NEPA rule, the Trump Administration is cutting down overly burdensome regulations plaguing the energy industry.”

The fossil fuel industry agrees with the sentiment, as do roadbuilders.

Related Bios

Steve Horn

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…