Climate Crisis: Coal Storage Ban Suit, Bans on Gas Bans, Shale Bailout
Welcome back to the second edition of The Real News Network’s Climate Crisis News Roundup, where we will sift through, report on, and analyze the top stories on the climate crisis each week.
This roundup covers everything from new scientific studies, energy and land use policy, agricultural sector and transportation choices, political and regulatory decisions, grassroots movements and more. If you have a story you see as deserving of a summary here, get in touch with me at [email protected]. You can read last week’s edition here.
Coal Storage Ban Lawsuit
A lot has happened since December of last year when The Real News Network first ran a story about the San Francisco Bay Area city of Richmond, California and its leaders’ decision to pause a vote on an ordinance banning coal storage within city limits. At the time, Mayor Tom Butt killed the proposal, pushed for years by climate justice groups, and called for the item to receive more discussion among stakeholders.
Butt told The Real News Network back then that he had hoped to broker a bargain between the industry, which had threatened litigation, and the climate justice groups that supported the ban. He aimed, he said at the time, to do it “without legislation and without litigation.”
At the Dec. 3 meeting to consider the ban, many workers employed by the owner of the facility—Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation—said that the proposal could mean lost jobs and livelihoods. Just weeks later, however, Butt reversed course at a Jan. 14 City Council meeting and voted to implement a ban.
The ban is part of a broader push by the climate movement to halt the exportation of coal on the West Coast of the United States to Asia. The coal stored in Richmond, for example, goes to Japan.
The coal industry, in turn and as Butt had previewed, has held up its end of the bargain by filing lawsuits against the ban. Earlier this month, both Levin-Richmond and the Wyoming-based coal mining company Wolverine Resources filed lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against the City of Richmond. Wolverine is a coal miner in Utah, the state from which most of the coal stored in Richmond currently originates.
In the Levin-Richmond lawsuit, the company argued that Richmond violated the U.S. Constitution by taking their private property and by interrupting the flow of both interstate and foreign commerce. Wolverine, meanwhile, argued that the Richmond ordinance defies interstate and international commerce clauses in the U.S. Constitution and is preempted by several other federal laws.
Coal is considered among the most potent of the fossil fuel energy sources from a carbon dioxide emitting perspective. Coal power plants “release more greenhouse gases per unit of energy produced than any other electricity source,” explains the environmental advocacy group Green America.
As is the norm for federal litigation, it could take months if not years before this issue is resolved.
Banning Gas Bans
Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the natural gas industry is pushing legislation in multiple states against cities proposing bans of natural gas on their electricity grids. As col plants shutter, natural gas has become the predominant fuel source in power plants across the United States. And that has meant a huge boost to fracking in shale fields nationwide.
These market dynamics have, in turn, faced opposition from climate activists in municipalities across the country, with a dozen different ban bills passed in 2019. But now the industry is fighting back with bans on such bans proposed in state legislatures ranging from Oklahoma, Minnesota, Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee. One of them, HB 2686 in Arizona, became law on Feb. 21.
It is common for industries to work closely with groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Council of State Governments to push through model legislation written by corporate lobbyists. The USA Today Network and the Center for Public Integrity teamed up last year on a series called “Copy, Paste, Legislate” that showed “in the last eight years, more than 10,000 bills introduced in statehouses nationwide were almost entirely copied from bills written by special interests.” And The Real News Network reported last year on a similar effort by ALEC and CSG to push through legislation lobbied for and written by the oil and gas industry to criminalize protests against pipelines in the aftermath of the occupation of land near Standing Rock Sioux Reservation territory in 2016 in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Natural gas power plants are cleaner than coal, but still are major carbon dioxide emitters. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that between 2018-22, the industry will open up 364 gas power plants.
And even worse, natural gas leakage across the supply chain means an abundance of emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere. It’s these 20 years that are the key time period during which major action must be taken on the climate crisis to avoid irreversible ecological loses and damages.
As coronavirus has forced shutdowns of the NCAA basketball tournament, likely the rest of the NBA and NHL seasons, the start of the baseball season, the public’s ability to attend sessions on Capitol Hill, college campuses across the country and large swaths of the tourism and leisure industries, the fracking industry is possibly getting a bail out a bailout as oil prices continue to plummet globally. That’s according to reporting done by The Washington Post.
The Post reports that independent oil and gas companies, led in the forefront by the company Continental Resources, has lobbied the Trump Administration for an infusion of federal dollars to avoid what they say could be imminent bankruptcies. Yet, a Big Lie is on the loose: this financial crisis long predates the rise of coronavirus as a global pandemic and exemplifies what author and activist Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine”—using a crisis to advance public-private partnerships or public subsidies to private industries.
Continental Resources by the way, was founded by CEO Harold Hamm, a major donor to President Donald Trump who served as his energy advisor during the 2016 presidential campaign and was floated as a potential U.S. Secretary of Energy choice. Hamm’s company, headquartered in Oklahoma City, is a major driller in the Bakken Shake in North Dakota and the industry press has referred to Hamm as “King of the Bakken.” Continental Resources oil, I first reported in 2016, flows through the Dakota Access Pipeline.
According to The Post, Hamm said he has not yet had “direct” conversations with Trump about the possibility of a bailout, though he had reached out.
“I don’t want to prescribe what the president would or shouldn’t do. He’s very capable of handling this situation,” said Hamm, who attended Trump’s 2017 Inauguration speech, as well. He added, “this could jeopardize those jobs and the economies in producing states and communities across America, from Pennsylvania to California and Texas to North Dakota.”
Meanwhile, oil major companies represented by the American Petroleum Institute are less bullish on the idea of a bailout because they are better equipped to handle oil price fluctuations. The fracking boom relies on a high global price of oil and back in 2014, many shale drilling companies declared bankruptcies after rampant drilling by Saudi Arabia drove down the global price.
Activists have taken a stand against a prospect for such a bailout, creating the hashtag #NoShaleOut. And Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley also called on Trump not to do the bailout in a March 12 letter first published by Politico
“Many of these oil companies are already deeply in debt and have their lost lines of credit at financial institutions, and it would be both bad business and bad policy for the government to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to grant these executives a new windfall,” they wrote.
Senate Energy Bill Pause
And lastly, the bipartisan Senate energy bill mentioned in last week’s newsletter has hit a standstill over the issue of Senate Democrats pushing for a phase out of refrigeration devices that emit hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), greenhouse gases that are 1,370-4,180 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The vote failed to get a three-fifths majority and failed.
The bill includes many provisions lobbied for by the fossil fuel industry, alongside money provisions which would advance renewable energy, and has received support from some of the larger establishment environmental groups. During the amendments process, U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND)—who served as an energy aide in 2016 for the Trump campaign—got a new provision inserted into the bill calling for a feasibility study of a potential petrochemical storage hub in the Bakken Shale region.
The legislation also has a similar provision to study the creation of a parallel storage hub in Appalachia, which has been pushed for years by Manchin, who is considered one of the most fossil fuel industry friendly of any Democratic member of Congress.
The oil and gas industry sees the storage, manufacturing, and exportation of petrochemicals as the next frontier in the fracking boom and a way to create new market segments. In recent years, as petrochemical refining facilities have come to life, the industry has even begun exporting ethane, the main petrochemical compound that produces plastics. Climate activists have decried the notion of fracking for plastics, which is quickly becoming a new on the ground reality.
On March 25, the HFCs issue will get a hearing in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
That’s all for now, folks. Thank you for reading and please come back next week for another edition of the Climate Crisis News Roundup