Climate Crisis: Bye Bye Bernie, Big Oil Secrecy, California Fracking and Wildfires

By: Steve Horn | April 11, 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 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 [email protected] or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read last week’s edition here.

 

Bye Bye, Bernie 

 

This week, Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign to become the Democratic Party’s next presidential nominee. 

 

 

There were many post-mortems and reckonings that tackled what Sanders’ decision means for the country, along with a collective  mourning of the loss and celebration of what was won by Sanders supporters. For the youth wing of the climate justice movement and progressives at-large, it also meant figuring out what comes next. Just hours after the announcement, progressive organizations published an open letter of demands to the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden.  

 

The Sunrise Movement, the national organization that spearheaded the fight for a Green New Deal, led the open letter effort. The group endorsed Sanders after a vote among its members, and publicly denounced Biden’s policy stances on tackling the climate crisis.

 

 

“Our heart is heavy today,” the group tweeted following the news. “In 2016, he asked for a political revolution, so we became political revolutionaries. Our generation knows that we need change.”

 

The coalition’s letter, which includes other groups such as NextGen America (an organization founded and funded by former Democratic Party presidential candidate Tom Steyer), the progressive Jewish organization If Not Now, Justice Democrats, among others. Group members demanded immediate action on not only the climate crisis, but also gun control, immigration, healthcare, criminal justice reform, education, and foreign policy.

 

On climate specifically, the coalition called for Biden to make a Green New Deal the main focus of  his platform for the general election. Also included is a push for “100% Clean Energy by 2030 for electricity, buildings, and transportation,” as well as “$10 trillion in green stimulus and infrastructure investments over 10 years that will create tens of millions of good jobs of the future.” Lastly, the letter demands that Biden prosecute fossil fuel executives and industry lobbyists “who have criminally jeopardized our generation” and pledges not to appoint anyone with fossil fuel industry ties to his transition team, as advisors, or as cabinet members.

 

“Young people are issues-first voters. Fewer identify with a political party than any other generation,” reads the letter. “Exclusively anti-Trump messaging won’t be enough to lead any candidate to victory. We need you to champion the bold ideas that have galvanized our generation and given us hope in the political process.”

 

The letter does not say that they will withhold votes from Biden if he does not campaign on these ideas. They pledge to “spend more than $100 million communicating with more than 10 million young members, supporters, and potential voters this election cycle,” but never threaten not to spend that money on behalf of Biden if he does not campaign on these policies. The groups also do not state where the $100 million would originate, but it is a standard amount Steyer has given in past election cycles.

 

Joshua Frank, the Managing Editor of the publication Counterpunch Magazine and co-author of the books The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, told The Real News that he found the letter to be a “farce.”

 

“If there is no pressure put on Biden, tangible pressure like withholding votes, he’s never going to be concerned about environmentalists or any other progressives,” said Frank. “The Democrats will only respond if their power is threatened, and you don’t threaten that power with a nicely worded petition or demand letter. You threaten power by building and sustaining an uncompromising grassroots movement. You have to force the Democrats to listen, and they only listen if they think you are a threat to their agenda.”

 

Further, running on a policy platform is one thing. But actually implementing those policies while sitting in the White House is another. As a case in point, President Barack Obama—for whom Biden served as Vice President—campaigned on a need to “free America from the tyranny of oil” during the 2008 election cycle. 

 

 

He then oversaw the biggest expansion of oil and gas wells in U.S. history during his presidency. And he pushed the drilling technique enabling the domestic boom, fracking, throughout the world through his U.S. State Department. Many Obama administration alums now work for gas export companies.

 

Secrecy Serving Big Oil

 

Back in January, President Donald Trump moved to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the law is known as the “Magna Carta of Environmental Law” and is central to the practice of environmental regulations themselves. The Trump Administration has proposed removing climate change as a considered environmental impact for NEPA reviews of federally-backed projects including pipelines, energy production on public lands, and interstate highway proposals.

 

Though signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon, NEPA has come under incessant attack in recent years by corporate America, the fossil fuel industry, and establishment members of both political parties. It also saw significant rollbacks during the Obama administration, as covered in a recent investigation by The Real News. 

 

 

The Trump NEPA proposal, like all proposed changes in federal rules and regulations, includes a public comments process. After they are received electronically, comments are posted online in a docket on the website Regulations.gov. Journalists, researchers, and the general public can then see who is trying to influence proposed regulation and why.

 

But the Trump administration is exploiting a loophole favoring industry groups by allowing submissions through use of a designated email address, and comments will not be posted unless the Trump team manually moves them over to Regulations.gov. Bloomberg Law reported that Trump’s Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees federal NEPA implementation efforts, is currently in the process of migrating the emailed comments to Regulations.gov after coming under fire by environmental advocacy groups. 

 

Industry actors had previously conveyed concerns about their comments being drowned out by opposition to the NEPA rule change, serving as the impetus for opening up the separate email address. Bloomberg Law reported that the group Energy Equipment and Infrastructure Alliance, whose mission is “to document and share shale energy’s positive messages,” was the central force behind the request to submit the comments via email instead of on Regulations.gov. 

 

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposes the NEPA rollback, chastised the Trump Administration for the lack of transparency in an April 8 blog post:

 

“Industry titans have lobbied the White House to strip out key provisions of NEPA, the law that gives communities a voice in large projects that affect them,” wrote the organization. “Providing a separate and easier channel to industry representatives to influence the public-comment process appears to be another example of how President Trump and his administration have put a thumb on the scale of policy-making to give special access to lobbyists and executives.”

 

COVID Plaguing, California Fracking

 

The oil and gas industry got another big win due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this time, it did not come from the Trump Administration. California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom issued 24 permits for the company Aera Energy on Friday, April 3 by way of the Geologic Energy Management Division, a unit within the California Department of Conservation. The company is a 50-50 joint venture subsidiary of ExxonMobil and Shell, and is one of the top drillers in the state.  

 

Known by some as a “global climate leader,” California is also one of the leading states in another area: oil drilling. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, California was the seventh largest producer of oil in the United States in 2019. 

 

Fracking permits skyrocketed during Newsom’s first six months in office in 2019, though Newsom claims he lacked awareness of the 211 permits issued within that time frame. Newsom fired his Secretary of Natural Resources, Ken Harris, in reaction to heavy criticism following a watchdog group’s revelation that two of his subordinates overseeing the state’s oil well permitting regulatory process held stock investments in ExxonMobil while doling out permits to Aera Energy. 

 

Despite Harris’ firing and a moratorium issued in response to the scandal in July, fracking permits will now continue to be issued to Aera

 

Consumer Watchdog, the Los Angeles-based group behind the original exposure of conflicts-of-interest embedded within the agency, slammed the decision:

 

“With the entire state shut down and kids out of school, what purpose could approving these fracking permits have now other than to do a solid for the oil industry when no one is watching?,” wrote the group’s Executive Director, Jamie Court. “What pebble minded bureaucrat decided that as we hunker in our homes trying to avoid a plague that it was time to bring fracking back?”

 

This news comes as a new study published by Stanford University researchers has concluded that California, due to climate change, now has twice as many days per year in which  conditions are ripe for wildfires compared to the 1980’s. 

 

 

“Autumn is of particular concern since warmer, drier conditions may coincide with the strong offshore wind events which tend to occur in the September to November period,” said Michael Goss, the study’s lead author, in a press release.

 

California emergency response officials are already pondering what the state would do to safely shelter people—likely difficult if not impossible under “social distancing” protocols—should massive wildfire events coincide with the COVID-19 emergency response. 

 

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.

 

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…