Findings of a #Colorado data miner could be pivotal in #climatechange lawsuits — The Mountain Town News @MountainTownNew

Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Startling climate change conclusions of Colorado researcher

A startling fact has emerged from what the New York Times Magazine describes as a basement full of dusty reports in the mountains of Colorado.

There, climate data researcher Rich Heede has concluded that if you include all the carbon extracted and supplied, just 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of all the greenhouse gases emitted between 1751 and 2016.

“Even more startling,” the story goes on to say, “more than half those emissions have occurred since 1988, the year that the climate scientist James Hansen, then at NASA, appeared before Congress to urge that ‘it is time to stop waffling’ and recognize the clear link between the emission of greenhouse gases and the warming of the planet.”

Heede, who has a non-profit called Climate Accountability Institute, seems to work from a home overlooking Capitol Creek. This is a valley away from Snowmass, perhaps 25 minutes from Aspen. Nearby, in the early 1980s, Amory Lovins and his then-wife, Hunter Lovins, founded his now-famous Rocky Mountain Institute. Heede shows up at some of the same energy and climate conferences I attend. I’ve engaged him in conversation a time or two, even got him to buy a small advertisement in Mountain Town News.

The Times explains that Heede has spent much of the last 16 years searching through archives to find reports about how much fossil-fuel companies extracted during their sometimes long histories. He then “estimates how much fossil fuel was used for a company’s own operations, how much diverted for things like asphalt or petrochemical production, how much volatilized into the atmosphere.” It is, says the NY Times Magazine writer, Brooke Jarvis, tedious work.

But Heede’s work is also perhaps pivotal to a growing body of lawsuits being filed around the world against fossil fuel companies. They include a lawsuit filed last year by Colorado’s San Miguel County and two other local jurisdictions, the municipality of Boulder and Boulder County, linking the profits of Suncor and ExxonMobil with emerging impacts of increased wildfire, extreme weather, and so forth.

That lawsuit on the face of it looks almost frivolous. How can you connect these dots of specific causality when even now the impacts to climate of rising temperatures have barely emerged from the noisy range of natural variability?

The NY Times Magazine piece makes the same point: “The sheer vastness of the climate problem has been a boon to defendants.” One lawyer who has spent his career defending large companies in environmental litigation says he would broaden the case as much as possible. “I would basically create a historical tableau and put civilization on trial.”

Just last year, a federal judge dismissed the claims filed by Oakland and San Francisco against five oil companies. “The dangers raised in the complaints are very real,” Judge William Alsup wrote. “But those dangers are worldwide. Their causes are worldwide. The benefits of fossil fuels are worldwide. The problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public-nuisance case.”

But for plaintiffs in the new wave of cases—including, presumably, those involving the Colorado jurisdictions—such defenses “represent a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the lawsuits are claiming but also of what the law is capable of handling.”

Jarvis starts her story in a Peruvian village threatened by disintegrating glaciers. The loss of ice threatens the village in several ways, including the possibility of a calving glacier plunging into a lake above the town, causing flooding. She’s apparently bilingual and it served her well when she was doing her reporting there, connecting well with a villager—a farmer and guide—who is the face for a lawsuit filed against a German fossil fuel company. The lawsuit was not dismissed easily, as in the Oakland and San Francisco cases, but has moved to the evidentiary phrase.

If the Colorado lawsuit gets that far, it will still face a long list of difficult questions, among them those posed by Jarvis in her story:

“Where on the chain of causality—from coal extraction to power generation, for example— does responsibility lie? How do we put a dollar amount on the degree of liability? How do we account for non-climate variables, such as whether a city magnified its exposure to damages from wildfire or rising seas by permitting development in risky places? How should other contributors to climate change, from deforestation to population growth, be considered?”

But at one time lawsuits against tobacco companies looked like long-shots, too. She reports that proponents of lawsuits against fossil-fuel companies have studied the earlier lawsuits carefully. “The tide began to turn against the tobacco industry once subpoenaed documents showed a longstanding conspiracy to cover up the harms of smoking,” she says.

In the case of fossil fuels, what might this look like? After all, we do have evidence of Exxon realizing the risks of fossil fuels decades ago. “Some observers imagine a future in which fossil-fuel companies support carbon regulation because it includes a provision shielding them from a morass of liability.” There are other ideas where all this may go.

If you’ve made it this far, you probably have enough interest in reading the entire story.

I also recommend the climate pricing story in the same issue: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/09/magazine/climate-change-politics-economics.html

2019 #COleg: #Colorado Senate Transportation and Energy Committee passes [SB19-181, Protect Public Welfare Oil And Gas Operations] 4-3 after 12 hours of testimony #KeepItInTheGround #ActOnClimate

Wattenberg Oil and Gas Field via Free Range Longmont

From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

The Senate Transportation and Energy Committee passed [SB19-181, Protect Public Welfare Oil And Gas Operations] on a 4-3, party-line vote after 12 hours of testimony from the public, government officials and industry officials…

The Colorado Senate Transportation and Energy Committee convened the first hearing for Senate Bill 19-181, dubbed Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations.

The bill would make a variety of changes to oil and gas law in Colorado, including the following:

  • It would change the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from one of fostering oil and gas development to one of regulating the industry. It also changes the makeup of the COGCC board.
  • It would provide explicit local control on oil and gas development, opening the door for local government-instituted bans or moratoriums, which have previously been tied up in court battles because the industry has been considered one of state interest.
  • It would change the way forced or statutory pooling works, requiring a higher threshold of obtained mineral rights before companies can force pool other mineral rights owners in an area.
  • Testimony during the committee hearing ran the gamut, including state officials, industry officials, business interests and residents, and it was expected to go well into the night…

    Talking about the rallies beforehand — both pro-181 and anti-181 groups — as well as the overflow rooms necessary for all of the attendees, [Carl] Erickson said the scene was wild…

    Dan Gibbs, executive director of department of natural resources; and Jeff Robbins, acting director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; both came out in support of the legislation.

    So, too, did Erin Martinez, who survived a home explosion in Firestone that killed her brother and her husband.

    “With proper regulations and inspections and pressure testing, this entire tragedy could have been avoided,” Martinez said in closing.

    The Senate Transportation and Energy Committee opened the hearing with testimony from Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, the measure’s co-sponsor, according to reporting from The Denver Post.

    As he told The Tribune on Sunday, he said during the hearing that the Tuesday hearing was the first of several — with six total to come.

    “At the forefront, objective of this bill is to ensure that we are protecting the health and safety and welfare of Coloradans, the environment, wildlife, when it comes to extraction of oil and gas across the state,” said Fenberg, D-Boulder, according to The Post.

    Cutting carbon requires both innovation and regulation — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson):

    Where coal-state Sen. John Barrasso got it wrong in a recent New York Times op-ed.

    In December, after world leaders adjourned a major climate conference in Poland, Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, penned an opinion piece in the New York Times headlined “Cut carbon through innovation, not regulation.”

    Those first two words were enough to get me to continue reading. After all, when was the last time you heard a conservative Republican, particularly one who represents a state that produces more than 300 million tons of coal per year, advocate for cutting carbon?

    “… the climate is changing,” he wrote, “and we, collectively, have a responsibility to do something about it.” What?! In one sentence he not only acknowledged the reality of climate change, but also admitted, obliquely, that humans are causing it — and have a responsibility to act. I had to re-read the byline. Had someone hacked the senator from Wyoming?

    Unfortunately, no, as became clear in the rest of the op-ed. The “responsibility” thing was just the first of three “truths” that Barrasso gleaned from the climate conference. He continued: “Second, the United States and the world will continue to rely on affordable and abundant fossil fuels, including coal, to power our economies for decades to come. And third, innovation, not new taxes or punishing global agreements, is the ultimate solution.” Ah, yes, there’s the sophistry we have come to expect from the petrocracy.

    Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., argued in a recent op-ed that fossil fuels, like the coal processed at this Wyoming plant, will continue to power the world for decades, and that the solution to climate change is “investment, invention and innovation,” not regulation. Photo credit: BLM Wyoming

    Translation: We’ve got to stem climate change, but we have to do it by plowing forward with the very same activities that are causing it. And we have to take responsibility by, well, shirking that same responsibility and hefting it off on “innovation” instead.

    Fine. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here getting rid of my growing love handles while I continue to eat three pints of Chunky Monkey per day.

    Aside from the abstract answer of innovation, Barrasso offers two specific solutions to take the place of regulations or carbon taxes. The first is nuclear power. Aside from the waste and the uranium mining and milling problems, nuclear power can be a great way to cut emissions — as long as it displaces coal or natural gas, which doesn’t seem to be what Barrasso has in mind.

    His primary solution, however, is carbon capture and sequestration. It sounds great. Just catch that carbon and other pollutants emitted during coal or natural gas combustion and pump it right back underground to where it came from. Problem solved, without building any fancy new wind or solar plants. But there are currently only 18 commercial-scale carbon capture operations worldwide, and they’re not being used on coal power plants, where they’re most needed, because of technical challenges and high costs.

    Once the carbon is captured from a facility, it must be sequestered, or stored away somewhere, perhaps in a leak-free geologic cavern. Most current carbon-capture projects, however, pump the carbon into active oil and gas wells, a technique known as enhanced oil recovery. This widespread method of boosting an old well’s production usually uses carbon dioxide that has been mined from a natural reservoir, the most productive of which is the McElmo Dome, located in southwestern Colorado under Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

    Using captured carbon instead makes sense. It obviates the need to drill for carbon dioxide under sensitive landscapes, and it can help pay for carbon capture projects. But none of that changes the underlying logical flaw in the whole endeavor, which amounts to removing carbon emitted from a coal plant only to pump it underground in order to produce and burn more oil and therefore emit more carbon.

    Barrasso writes: “The United States is currently on track to reduce emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, … not because of punishing regulations, restrictive laws or carbon taxes but because of innovation and advanced technology…” And he’s right. Carbon emissions from the electricity sector have dropped by some 700 million tons per year over the last decade. But it wasn’t because of carbon capture, or more nuclear power. It was because U.S. utilities burned far less coal, period.

    Sure, innovation played a role. New drilling techniques brought down the price of natural gas, and advances in solar- and wind-power did the same with those technologies, making them all more cost competitive, displacing some coal. But Barrasso seems not to understand whence that innovation comes. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. More often than not, innovation is driven by money, regulations, or a combination of both. Fracking was a way to increase profits in old oil and gas fields. Renewable technologies moved forward in response to state energy requirements. Carbon taxes would encourage renewables, nuclear and, yes, carbon capture, by making them more competitive with fossil fuels.

    “People across the world,” Barrasso writes, “are rejecting the idea that carbon taxes and raising the cost of energy is the answer to lowering emissions.” He mentions France, and the Gilet Jaune, or Yellow Vest, movement, the members of which have passionately protested against higher taxes on fuel, among other things. But the yellow vests aren’t opposed to carbon-cutting or environmental regulations. They were demonstrating against inequality, and against the fact that the fuel tax was structured in a regressive way, hurting the poor far more than the rich. The lesson is not that regulations are bad, but that they must be applied equitably and justly. That, in turn, will drive innovation, and hopefully more thoughtful op-eds.

    Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at jonathan@hcn.org.

    @AOC to introduce the resolution for a #GreenNewDeal today in the U.S. House of Representatives #ActOnClimate

    Read the resolution here. Thanks NPR for posting it and thank you Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for your leadership on this issue.

    2019 #NMleg: Professor warns legislators: Get serious on climate — The Sante Fe New Mexican #ActOnClimate

    Photo via the City of Santa Fe

    From The Santa Fe New Mexican (Andrew Oxford):

    “The world will be moving away from fossil fuel production,” David Gutzler, a professor at the University of New Mexico and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told members of the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

    Gutzler went on to paint a stark picture of New Mexico in a changing climate.

    The mountains outside Albuquerque will look like the mountains outside El Paso by the end of the century if current trends continue, he said.

    There will not be any snowpack in the mountains above Santa Fe by the end of the century, Gutzler added.

    We have already seen more land burned by wildfires, partly because of changes in forest management and partly because of climate change, Gutzler said.

    Water supply will be negatively affected in what is already an arid state, he said.

    “It’s real. It’s happening. We see it in the data. … This is not hypothetical in any way. This is real and we would be foolish to ignore it,” Gutzler said.

    The professor warned lawmakers that the state must get serious about greenhouse gas emissions now by expanding clean energy sources and mitigating the societal costs of moving away from fossil fuels.

    That cost, though, will be a sticking point for Republicans. Many of them represent southeastern New Mexico and the Four Corners, where oil and mining are big industries.

    The Green New Deal Is a Great Deal for the Outdoors — Outside Online #ActOnClimate

    From Outside Online (Cameron Fenton):

    The initiative, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is ambitious, but some in the outdoor industry argue it’s the only hope for saving wild places from climate change

    When 27-year-old climate activist Evan Weber thinks about climate change, he thinks about his childhood in Hawaii. He spent those years in the mountains, on beaches, and in the ocean. “Now the beaches that I grew up on don’t exist anymore,” he says. “Sea-level rise has swallowed them into the ocean. The mountains are green for much less of the year. The coral reefs are dying from ocean acidification killing both marine life and surf breaks.”

    That’s what brought him, on November 13, to march on soon-to-be House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office with around 150 other activists from a progressive group he cofounded called Sunrise Movement. They were demonstrating for a sweeping policy plan championed by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the Green New Deal. It is pitched as an economy-wide climate mobilization to connect environmental, social, and economic policies through legislation and would create everything from investment in federal green jobs for all who want them to a massive green-infrastructure program. The end result would be an overhauled national economy run on 100 percent renewable energy.

    While these are lofty goals, and many are skeptical of the plan’s feasibility, advocates see it as setting the bar for a sufficient response to climate change that politicians can be held to. And the proposal is already gaining steam in Washington, D.C., as a platform to rally around heading into 2020: more than 40 lawmakers have endorsed Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a congressional select committee to map out the Green New Deal. Many in the outdoor industry are also paying attention to what could be the best hope to save our ski seasons and protect our public lands.

    “It’s an approach that’s so comprehensive that it could be a way for the United States to lead in the direction of stabilizing the climate at two degrees Celsius,” says Mario Molina, executive director of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters. According to a climate assessment put out by the federal government last month, warming above that threshold (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) could shorten ski seasons by half in some parts of the U.S. before 2050.

    Climate change is already impacting snowpack, and ski resorts across America are scrambling to adapt. This past year, Aspen Snowmass launched a political campaign called Give a Flake to get its customers engaged in climate action, Squaw Valley spent $10 million on snowmaking equipment in 2017, and Vail is pursuing a sweeping program to weatherproof its operations. But, Molina explains, there’s a long way to go to address the ski industry’s fossil-fuel-intensive operations. He believes that something like the economy-wide transition to renewable energy proposed in the Green New Deal is the best way ski resorts will be able to significantly lower their carbon footprints. It would allow them, for example, to hook their resorts up to a central power grid that would spin their lifts with renewable energy and create more sustainable transit options to and from the slopes.

    Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), also sees the opportunity to link this kind of large-scale climate action with the outdoor economy, especially when it comes to public lands. An economy powered on 100 percent renewables would obviously erase any incentive for fossil-fuel companies to drill in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Bears Ears National Monument. But the OIA is still watching to see how the politics around the Green New Deal shape up. The early support from lawmakers is encouraging, but they’re mostly Democrats. Roberts insists that policies to protect the climate and public lands need bipartisan support, but she thinks that the outdoor industry can help make that happen. “When you look at who takes part in our activities, whether it’s hiking, camping, hunting, or fishing, there are both Republicans and Democrats,” she says. “That’s an opportunity to unite and bring a compelling message that’s separate and apart from what the environmental community is doing.”

    As proof, she points to the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act. In November, Peach State voters passed the measure, in which sales tax from sporting goods and outdoor equipment is used to fund parks and trails, with 83 percent support. In the same election, the governor’s race was so divided that it went to a recount.

    Even with glimpses of bipartisan support for the environment, Molina worries that the main hurdle Green New Deal legislation will face is influence from the fossil-fuel industry. Its lobbyists donated more than $100 million to campaigns in the 2016 election, and in 2018 raised $30 million to defeat a Washington State ballot measure that would have added a modest carbon tax on emissions and used the revenue to fund environmental and social programs. Additionally, former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt was tapped to replace Ryan Zinke as interior secretary in December.

    But activists like Weber are not giving up. As part of their push for a Green New Deal, they have called for members of the Democratic leadership to reject campaign contributions from fossil-fuel interests. And a few weeks after Weber was in Nancy Pelosi’s office, he and more than 1,000 young people were back in Washington, D.C., this time storming Capitol Hill in a daylong push to get lawmakers to endorse the Green New Deal, an effort that resulted in nearly 150 arrests. They remain unfazed by claims that the plan’s goals are too large. “A Green New Deal is the only proposal put forth by an American politician that’s in line with what the latest science says is necessary to prevent irreversible climate change,” Weber says. “It could mean the difference between whether future generations around the world get to have the same formative experiences in nature that I did—or not.”

    From Grist (Justine Calma):

    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Elizabeth Warren. Beto O’Rourke. Those are just a few of the high-profile names either leading the development of or jumping to endorse today’s environmental cause célèbre, the Green New Deal. Inside congressional halls, at street protests, and, of course, on climate Twitter — it’s hard to avoid the idea, which aims to re-package ambitious climate actions into a single, wide-ranging stimulus program.

    The Green New Deal is being promoted as a kind of progressive beacon of a greener America, promising jobs and social justice for all on top of a shift away from fossil fuels. It’s a proposal largely driven by newcomers to politics and environmental activism (and supported, however tentatively, by several potential presidential candidates and members of the Democratic political establishment). The plan aspires to bring together the needs of people and the environment, outlining “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty.”

    But within the broader environmental movement, not everyone was initially gung-ho on the Green New Deal — at least not without some stipulations.

    To understand the debate surrounding the Green New Deal, you need to look beyond its recent prominence in Beltway political circles to the on-the-ground organizations that make up the environmental justice movement. Newcomers like Ocasio-Cortez may be leading the charge, but grassroots leaders who have spent years advocating for low-income families and neighborhoods of color most impacted by fossil fuels say their communities weren’t consulted when the idea first took shape.

    For all the fanfare, there isn’t a package of policies that make up a Green New Deal just yet. And that’s why community-level activists are clamoring to get involved, help shape the effort, and ensure the deal leaves no one behind.

    Something Old, Something New

    Although the term “Green New Deal” has evolved over time, its current embodiment as a complete overhaul of U.S. energy infrastructure was spearheaded by two high profile entities: progressive darling and first-term Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement, an organization formed in 2017 by young people hellbent on making climate change the “it” issue.

    In November 2018, Ocasio-Cortez, with support from Sunrise, called for a House select committee to formulate the package of policies. More than 40 lawmakers signed on to support the draft text. Then shortly before the end of the year, Nancy Pelosi, now the speaker of the House, announced the formation instead of a “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.”

    It wasn’t exactly a win for the leaders of the new environmental vanguard. Sunrise tweeted its displeasure at the committee’s pared-down ambition, taking umbrage with its lack of power to subpoena (a condition for which Ocasio-Cortez had advocated) and the fact that politicians who take money from fossil fuel interests would not be excluded from sitting on it.

    The fuss over who gets a say in the formation of the Green New Deal goes back further than Ocasio-Cortez’s or Sunrise’s friendly-ish feud with establishment Democrats. The Climate Justice Alliance, a network of groups representing indigenous peoples, workers, and frontline communities, says its gut reaction to the Green New Deal was that it had been crafted at the “grasstops” (as opposed to the grassroots).

    Shortly after Ocasio-Cortez put out her proposal for a select committee, the alliance released a statement largely in support of the concept, but with a “word of caution”: “When we consulted with many of our own communities, they were neither aware of, nor had they been consulted about, the launch of the GND.”

    Leaders at the alliance surveyed its member organizations — there are more than 60 across the U.S. — and put together a list of their concerns. Unless the Green New Deal addresses those key points, the alliance says, the plan won’t meet its proponents’ lofty goal of tackling poverty and injustice. Nor will the deal gain the grassroots support it will likely need to become a reality.

    “What we want to do is strengthen and center the Green New Deal in environmental justice communities that have both experience and lived history of confronting the struggle against fossil fuel industries,” Angela Adrar, executive director of the alliance, told Grist.

    Grist asked several indigenous and environmental justice leaders: If the Green New Deal is going to make good on its promises, what will it take? Here’s what they said.

    A more inclusive and democratic process that respects tribal sovereignty

    As details get hashed out on what a Green New Deal would actually include, longtime environmental justice organizers say their communities need to be the ones guiding the way forward. “The way that the plan was developed and shared is one of its greatest weaknesses,” Adrar says. “We want to be able to act quickly, but we also want to act democratically.”

    She adds that involving the grassroots is especially important in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, which ushered in many new congressional members pledging to focus on the underrepresented communities they come from. The Climate Justice Alliance is calling for town halls (with interpreters for several languages) to allow communities to help flesh out policies to include in the Green New Deal.

    Some of the disconnect could be generational, says Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Many of the leaders espousing the Green New Deal are young people. He says that he and his colleagues were caught off-guard when they saw the plan on social media and that when his network reached out to its members, there was little familiarity or understanding of the Green New Deal.

    “Maybe the way of communication of youth is different than what we’ve found in the environmental justice movement and our native movement around the value of human contact — face-to-face human contact,” he says. “We’re asking that leadership of the Green New Deal meet with us and have a discussion how we can strengthen this campaign with the participation of the communities most impacted.”

    Any retooling of America’s energy infrastructure will undoubtedly venture into Native American tribes’ lands, where there are already long-standing battles over existing and proposed pipeline expansions, as well as fossil fuel facilities. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for “free, prior, and informed consent” from tribes before developers begin any project on their land. So indigenous environmental groups say there needs to be respect for tribal sovereignty and buy-in from tribes for a Green New Deal to fulfill its promise of being just and equitable.

    Green jobs should be great jobs

    There has been a lot of talk in Green New Deal circles about uplifting poor and working-class communities. Advocates have floated ideas ranging from a job-guarantee program offering a living wage to anyone who wants one to explicitly ensuring the rights of workers to form a union.

    But as workers’ rights organizations point out, energy and extractive industries have provided unionized, high-paying jobs for a long time — and they want to make sure workers can have the same or a better quality of life within green industries.

    “There’s been a long history of workers that have been left hanging in transition in the past,” says Michael Leon Guerrero, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which has been working to bridge divides between labor and environmental issues. “For that reason, there’s quite a bit of skepticism in the labor sector.”

    Joseph Uehlein, who founded the Labor Network for Sustainability, adds that there needs to be more than just the promise of jobs to entice labor to support a Green New Deal. “Every presidential candidate in my lifetime talks about job creation as their top priority,” he says. “Over the last 40 years, those jobs have gotten worse and worse. A lot of jobs are not so good, requiring two or three breadwinners to do what one used to be able to do.”

    Uehlein hopes an eventual Green New Deal will ensure not just jobs that guarantee a living wage, but will go one step further. “We always talk about family-supporting jobs,” he says. “It’s not just about living, it’s about supporting families.”

    Do No Harm

    Any version of a Green New Deal would likely ensure that the U.S. transitions away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy — with Ocasio-Cortez setting the bold target of the nation getting 100 percent of its energy from renewables within 10 years.

    But defining what exactly counts as “renewable energy” has been tricky. There are plenty of sources of energy that aren’t in danger of running out and don’t put out as many greenhouse gases as coal or oil, but are still disruptive to frontline communities. Garbage incineration is considered a renewable energy in some states, but it still emits harmful pollutants. And when it comes to nuclear energy or large-scale hydropower, the associated uranium extraction and dam construction have destroyed indigenous peoples’ homes and flooded their lands.

    The Climate Justice Alliance is also pushing to exclude global warming interventions like geoengineering and carbon capture and sequestration, which they believe don’t do enough to address the root causes of global warming. Both technologies have to do with re-trapping or curbing the effects of greenhouse gases after they’ve been produced. “Carbon capture and sequestration, it’s a false solution from our analysis,” Goldtooth says. The focus needs to be on stopping greenhouse gases from getting into the atmosphere in the first place, he and other critics argue.

    As the alliance sees it, a future in which the planet survives requires a complete transition away from fossil fuels and an extractive economy, and toward a regenerative economy with less consumption and more ecological resilience.

    Goldtooth and his colleagues are calling for solutions that rein in damaging co-pollutants on top of greenhouse gases. And they support scalable solutions — like community solar projects — that are are popping up in some of the neighborhoods that are most affected by climate change.

    A good start

    Even though the Green New Deal faces many political obstacles, its proponents are still pushing forward at full speed. “We are calling for a wartime-level, just economic mobilization plan to get to 100% renewable energy ASAP,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on New Year’s Day.

    Scientists recently estimated that the world has only 12 years to keep average global temperatures from increasing beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — the upper limit which many agree we can’t surpass if we want to avoid a climate crisis. The urgency around the latest climate change timeline has brought a lot of new advocates to the table.

    According to John Harrity, chair of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs and a board member at the Labor Network for Sustainability, the labor movement is becoming more willing to engage on ways to address climate change. “I think the Green New Deal becomes a really good way to put all of that together in a package,” he says. “That evokes for a lot of people the image of a time when people did all pull together for the common good.”

    Elizabeth Yeampierre, steering committee co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance and executive director of the Brooklyn-based grassroots organization, UPROSE, which works on issues cutting across climate change and racial justice, calls the Green New Deal “a good beginning for developing something that could really have lasting impacts and transformation in local communities and nationwide.”

    Since the alliance put out its recommendations, Yeampierre says she’s been in regular contact with both the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez’s office. “To their credit they were responsive and have made themselves available to figure out how we move forward in a way that doesn’t really step over the people,” she explains.

    The language in Ocasio-Cortez’ draft proposal has already changed — it now includes clauses to “protect and enforce sovereign rights and land rights of tribal nations” and “recognize the rights of workers to organize and unionize.” The document has doubled in length since it was put out in November (at time of publication, it is 11 pages long) and will likely include new edits in the coming days.

    Varshini Prakash, a founding member of the Sunrise Movement (and a 2018 Grist 50 Fixer), says she agrees with the Climate Justice Alliance’s recommendation that a Green New Deal prioritize the needs of workers, frontline communities, communities of color, and low-income communities. “Their critiques,” Prakash tells Grist, “are fully valid, and I appreciate what they’re bringing.”

    The broad overview of a Green New Deal in Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a select committee, Prakash says, was hashed out quickly after the representative’s team approached Sunrise late last year. (Ocasio-Cortez did not immediately respond to Grist’s inquiry). “This was very rapid fire, it happened on an extremely tight timescale,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of time to do the broad consultation we wanted.”

    But Prakash, Yeampierre, and other leaders in the movements for environmental and climate justice are working to make sure there are more folks on board moving forward.

    “Climate change isn’t just going to threaten our communities — it’s also going to test our solidarity, it’s going to test how we build relationships with each other,” Yeampierre says. “So I think the Green New Deal can be used as an opportunity to show that we can pass that test.”

    When a huge utility company pledges to go carbon free — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate #CarbonFree

    In early December, Xcel Energy, a sprawling utility that provides electricity to customers in eight states, including Colorado and New Mexico, announced that it planned to go carbon-free by 2050. In what has been a rough year for climate hawks, this was welcome news. After all, here was a large corporation pledging to go where no utility of its scale has gone before, regardless of the technical hurdles in its path, and under an administration that is doing all it can to encourage continuing use of fossil fuels.

    At the Dec. 4 announcement in Denver, Xcel CEO Bob Fowkes said that he and his team were motivated in part by the dire projections in recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. “When I looked at that and my team looked at that, we thought to ourselves, ‘What else can we do?’ ” Fowkes said. “And the reality is, we knew we could step up and do more at little or no extra cost.”

    Xcel committed to 100 percent carbon-free power generation by 2050 through solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower plants like Shoshone Generating Station (middle left of photo). Fossil fuel burning may still be part of the mix if they use carbon capture and sequestration technology. Shoshone Falls, Idaho. By Frank Schulenburg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71359770

    It was a big step, and apparently inspiring. A couple of days later, the Platte River Power Authority, which powers four municipalities on Colorado’s Front Range, pledged to go carbon-free by 2030. Here are seven things to keep in mind about Xcel’s pledge:

    1. Xcel is going 100-percent carbon-free, not 100 percent renewable. There’s a big difference between the two, with the former being far easier to accomplish, because it allows the utility to use not only wind and solar power, but also nuclear and large hydropower. It can also burn some fossil fuels if plants are equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technology.
    2. No current power source is truly clean. Solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower plants have zero emissions from the electricity generation stage. However, other phases of their life cycles do result in greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants — think uranium mining, solar panel manufacturing and wind turbine transportation. Even the decay of organic material in reservoirs emits methane. But even when their full life cycles are considered, nuclear, wind, solar and hydropower all still emit at least 100 times less carbon than coal.
    3. Carbon capture and sequestration techniques don’t do a lot for the big picture. Even if all of the carbon emitted from a natural gas- or coal-fired power plant is captured and successfully sequestered without any leakage — and that remains a big “if” — huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are released during the coal mining and natural gas extraction, processing and transportation phases.
    4. Even though carbon sequestration qualifies as “clean energy,” Xcel is unlikely to utilize the technology on any large scale with coal because of the cost. Even without carbon capture, coal is more expensive than other power sources, so why spend all that money just to keep burning expensive fuel? On the other hand, natural gas is relatively cheap, so it makes more sense for Xcel to continue burning the fossil fuel with carbon capture.
    5. Economics play as much a role in this decision as environmentalism. Even as Xcel was making its announcement, executives from PacifiCorp, one of the West’s largest utilities, were telling stakeholders that more than half of its coal fleet was uneconomical, and that cleaner power options were cheaper. So even without the zero carbon pledge, Xcel likely would have abandoned coal in the next couple of decades, regardless of how many regulations the Trump administration rolls back. Meanwhile, renewable power continues to get cheaper, making it competitive with natural gas. And without some kind of big gesture, Xcel risked losing major customers. (The city of Boulder, Colorado, defected from Xcel, a process that has been going on for the last several years, because the utility wasn’t decarbonizing quickly enough.)
    6. Xcel’s move, and others like it, will pressure grid operators to work toward a more integrated Western electrical grid. A better-designed grid would allow a utility like Xcel to purchase surplus power from California solar installations, for example, or the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, and to sell its wind power back in that direction when it’s needed.
    7. Xcel needs better technology to meet its goal. Xcel admits that “achieving the long-term vision of zero-carbon electricity requires technologies that are not cost-effective or commercially available today.” It is banking on the development of commercially viable utility-scale batteries and other storage technologies to smooth out the ups and downs of renewable energy sources. If Xcel is serious about its goal, though, it will need to embrace approaches that don’t necessarily boost the bottom line. That could mean incentivizing efficient energy use, promoting rooftop solar, and implementing rate schedules that discourage electricity use during times of peak demand. It will also need to get comfortable with paying big customers not to use electricity during certain times.

    Xcel’s pledge is a big step in the right direction, and it has the potential of becoming a giant leap if other major utilities follow suit. But it also underscores a sad fact: While our elected officials twiddle their thumbs and play golf with oil and gas oligarchs, the very corporations that helped get us into this mess are the ones who are left to take the lead on getting us out.

    Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at jonathan@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.