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 the presidential election is just over three months away, and that means Democrats will soon vote on their party platform. Congress is still at work, and just tucked legislation the oil and gas industry lobbied for into the defense budget.
If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read the previous edition here.
DNC Climate Plan
The Democratic National Committee’s Platform Committee has released its proposed policy platform, which will guide party members for the next four years, and climate got 5 pages out of 79.
Given the lack of ambition in the three other plans released in recent weeks by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, the Biden-Sanders Unity Committee, and the Biden campaign, holding out high expectations would’ve been foolhardy. And yet, particularly on oil and gas issues, the plan was unambitious even by DNC standards.
The plan doesn’t call for any type of oil fossil fuel industry phaseout. The words “fracking” and “natural gas” are missing from the text altogether. The terms “coal” and “fossil fuel” only show up once, and not in the context of an industry phaseout:
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“We will hold fossil fuel companies accountable for cleaning up abandoned mine lands, oil and gas wells, and industrial sites, so these facilities no longer pollute local environments and can be safely repurposed to support new economic activity, including in the heart of coal country.”
The 2016 platform had much more grassroots pressure behind it, and didn’t need to navigate the pressure of an ongoing pandemic. It called for a phaseout of fossil fuel extraction on public lands backed by the “Keep It in the Ground” movement, an end to industry exemptions like the Halliburton Loophole (Biden voted against the 2005 energy bill containing this provision). It said that fracking “should not take place where states and local communities oppose it.” It called for phasing out coal production and ensuring a just transition for industry workers, winding down fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks, and legal accountability for the fossil fuel industry for misleading the public about the impact of the climate crisis by funding denial campaigns.
None of that stuff made it into the 2020 draft platform.
Instead, the 2020 version continues Biden’s call for a “double down” on the expansion of carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) technology, and for “breakthrough opportunities” for “direct air capture and net-negative emissions technologies.” As explained in last week’s edition, CCUS means capturing carbon at the point of emissions at the industrial smokestack, storing it in underground pipelines and then utilizing the CO2 for future industrial process like cement and plastics production (which are climate change-causing petrochemicals). In the U.S., most of the time the stored carbon is used to extract more oil in a process called enhanced oil recovery.
In reality, this all will mean more fracking for oil and gas and more growth of the sector overall.
Some of the people running climate policy for the Biden campaign may explain why this policy platform has arisen. Campaign advisor Heather Zichal, formerly a top climate aide for President Barack Obama, was until recently on the board of directors of gas exporting company Cheniere. Zichal’s fellow campaign advisor, Ernest Moniz, is partial owner of a proposed liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal called G2 Net Zero LNG. He is also currently on the board of directors of the predominantly gas-powered electricity sector giant Southern Company, a major proponent of CCUS and direct air capture. Both direct air capture and CCUS are technologies heavily advocated for by Moniz via his think tank Energy Futures Initiative and through the Labor Energy Partnership. The latter is a partnership that was formed between his think tank and several labor unions which launched on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in April.
As previously covered by The Real News, direct air capture is a form of geoengineering—a techno-fix aimed at reversing climate change—aiming to vacuum in greenhouse gas emissions from ambient air.
“The various forms of carbon capture are still an unproven, hypothetical techno-solution,” Dru Jay, a communications officer for ETC Group, an NGO which opposes geoengineering, told The Real News. “What we know about them for certain is mostly negative: at scale they will pollute, suck up precious renewable energy, create a giant infrastructure, feed the political and financial power of the fossil fuel industry, lead to more ecologically devastating extraction, and delay the global transition away from fossil fuels.”
The platform also boosts nuclear energy, CCUS and all broadly defined “clean energy” by calling for “technology-neutral standards” to achieve “net-zero” by 2035 in the electricity sector. As recently reported by me and my colleague Aman Azhar, a legislative proposal maintaining a similar “clean energy” framework is in the works in Congress and would boost the fortunes of the biomass industry. Climate scientists have pointed to wood-based biomass—its predominant commercial form—as dirtier than coal when examined on a lifecycle basis.
The 2016 platform also called for the United States to stay in line with the 1.5 degree global temperature rise described in the 2015 Paris global climate agreement. The 2020 draft platform simply cites a need for the U.S. to enter back into the Paris Agreement—given President Donald Trump has withdrawn the country from it—but does not list a temperature goal. Yet that temperature goal, climate scientists concluded in a study published on July 22, is very likely already out of reach due to already-existing emissions and weather patterns which will lock in atmospheric feedback loops. Instead, the study—considered one of the most comprehensive ever done in terms of the amount of data analyzed and factors weighed—projects planetary warming of 2.6-3.9 degrees.
“This is bad news for humanity. It means the world has less time to act on climate,” wrote Earther Managing Editor Brian Kahn. “If we fail, and carbon dioxide doubles, the planet that’s allowed humanity to flourish would essentially be gone, replaced by a hellscape of dead coral reefs, relentless heat waves, drowned coastlines, and rising unrest and poverty.”
Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at NASA and contributor to the study, told Bloomberg that kicking the can down the road on broad-sweeping and global climate action will only make a very bad situation far worse.
“We can’t rule out really, really, really wildcard catastrophic, very dangerous outcomes,” she said. “There’s a tendency to try to put the perfect numbers on things, to say we have 12 years to save the planet. Honestly, we have, like, negative 30 years to save the planet.”
Climate activists, with that background in mind, have said the DNC draft plan fails to meet the moment. Some, led by the group Climate Hawks Vote, have launched a petition calling for the party to insert the 1.5 degree goal back into the platform and stronger ambitions in some policy areas.
“This proposal fails to dismantle the political and economic powers in place that allow the current extractive system to perpetuate, meaning it will not go nearly far enough to secure a just and equitable transition,” Johanna Bozuwa, a past guest on The Real News and co-manager of the climate and energy program at the Democracy Collaborative, told TRNN climate correspondent alum Dharna Noor in a piece published in Earther.
Defending Enhanced Oil Recovery
CCUS, enhanced oil recovery, and direct air capture are also part of the proposed 1,160-page National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA) in a provision called the USE IT Act, S. 383. The NDAA recently passed through the Senate in a 86-14 vote. The USE IT acronym stands for Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies Act, and the NDAA now awaits a House vote and President Donald Trump’s signature.
The USE IT Act calls for more research and development of direct air capture and CCUS, as well as expedited permitting of CO2 pipelines to ship the commodity to enhanced oil recovery projects. It has received lobbying support from oil companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Marathon Petroleum, Chevron, and Occidental Petroleum; coal mining giants Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy; fossil industry trade associations like the National Mining Association, American Petroleum Institute, Independent Petroleum Association of America; business lobbying groups like Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and establishment environmental groups like Nature Conservancy and Natural Resources Defense Council. Industry group lobbying on these issues has proven robust, OpenSecrets.org reported back in February 2019, extending well past the USE IT Act legislation.
The bill’s co-sponsors appear to be an odd alliance, including a man who many consider a champion on climate change—Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)—and renowned climate change denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Sheldon Whitehouse is best known for his regular “Time to Wake Up” speeches on the Senate floor about the climate crisis. Inhofe, on the other hand, is notorious for his Senate floor speech in which he brought in a snowball during the winter to prove that global warming is not real, something he has called “the greatest hoax” in a book.
“I will continue to find common ground with my Republican colleagues to advance bipartisan climate policies like the USE IT Act. With the scale of the climate issue we’re facing, we can’t afford to take any solutions off the table,” Whitehouse stated in support of the bill.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), considered one of Biden’s likely choices for vice presidential nominee, was also a USE IT Act co-sponsor.
The expedited permitting provision for CCUS, direct air capture, and CO2 pipeline projects comes from the FAST Act, legislation passed in 2015. That law hastens the federal permitting process for infrastructure projects and created the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, an office run by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and received lobbying support from many of the same companies and trade associations backing the USE IT Act. Alexander Herrgott, the director of FPISC, formerly worked as a lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce and as a policy aide for Inhofe. Herrgott led negotiations on the FAST ACT while working for Inhofe.
In a June 1 letter provided to The Real News, the group Food & Water Action wrote to senators advocating for the USE IT Act not to be included in the NDAA.
“The USE IT Act seeks to streamline investment in carbon capture sequestration and utilization (CCSU), under the guise of a climate solution. This expensive technology will increase costs for ratepayers, while providing a steady stream of CO2 that oil drillers use to increase oil production in a process known as enhanced oil recovery,” wrote the group’s policy director, Mitch Jones. “Carbon capture technology also increases energy usage by 10% to 15%, which can also mean more pollution in areas near power plants when that energy comes from fossil fuels.”
The letter also expressed concerns about the potential for carbon dioxide leakage either from the underground injection storage wells or from the CO2 pipeline network, pointing to the 2015 mass leakage from the underground storage cavern owned by SoCalGas—a Sempra Energy subsidiary—in Southern California.
A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal by University of Michigan researchers, the first comprehensive data mapping project of its sort, has concluded that how American housing gets built and where it gets built is a fundamental aspect of tackling the climate crisis. The study, titled “The carbon footprint of household energy use in the United States,” scoured data from 93 million homes (78% of the national total) from 8,858 zip codes nationwide and concluded what sustainable urbanism advocates have said for years: Sprawl housing and single-family home units are likely not fit for the climate crisis era.
And that’s the case even if these homes are fueled by non-fossil fuel energy. Put more bluntly, those with affluence and the ability to purchase such homes are far bigger contributors to climate change than those who cannot. Think of the homes as akin to a gas-guzzling Cadillac SUV, or something urban and suburban theorists call “McMansions.”
“Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods,” the study concludes. It adds that “grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the [global housing sector] 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes.”
If housing in the United States were a country, it would be the sixth largest global emitter of greenhouse gases—comparable to Brazil, and larger than Germany—at 20% of United States’ emissions, the study quantifies. It also points to the sprawl pattern of housing created in the post-World War II era as the mechanism and socio-historical structure which built such a globally distinct housing pattern.
As a correction to the current housing pattern, the study calls for retrofitting of homes, outfitting those homes with non-fossil fuel energy. It adds that urban and suburban areas should transition to “reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.”
The study does not examine vehicle miles traveled and this housing pattern’s impact in spewing additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In California, one of the sprawl epicenters of the United States, 41% of all emissions are generated through vehicle miles traveled. Nationally that number is about 30%. So, even though California ranks as the greenest for housing stock emissions, that does not take into account any of its vehicular greenhouse gas emissions.
Even with that data in mind, another recent article points out work from home setups—a hallmark of many affluent white collar workers who have a greater ability to work from home than service-sector and blue-collar workers—offer far less of a benefit than it would seem at face value, even though these people are driving less. Data suggests, in fact, that it may even cancel out the greenhouse gas benefit of driving less.
Biden’s campaign links these issues together. His campaign pledged to pump “additional capital into low-income communities to spur the development of affordable housing and small business creation” and to create affordable homes with modern, energy efficient materials.
“And, he’ll incentivize smart regional planning that connects housing, transit, and jobs, improving quality of life by cutting commute times,” the campaign further details in its energy and climate plan.
Similarly, the Select Committee calls for passage of the Build More Housing Near Transit Act, stating “Housing policy becomes climate policy when it limits households to one choice—cars—to commute and access services.”
“Congress should provide grants, technical assistance, and other incentives to encourage the development of affordable housing near proposed transit projects,” the Select Committee continued.
That’s all a long way of saying that this study has huge implications for policymaking in the years ahead. David Victor, a professor at University of California-San Diego, told the Associated Press that “it raises fundamental justice questions in a society that has huge income inequality.”
Benjamin Goldstein, a co-author of the study, used a literary metaphor for the current situation. “This is like a tale of two cities in carbon form,” he told CNN. “Income and greenhouse gases rise together.”