The world’s largest listed oil companies have wiped almost $90bn from the value of their oil and gas assets in the last nine months as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates a global shift away from fossil fuels.
In the last three financial quarters, seven of the largest oil firms have slashed their forecasts for future oil market prices, triggering a wave of downgrades to the value of their oil and gas projects totalling $87bn.
Analysis by the climate finance thinktank Carbon Tracker shows that in the last three month alone, companies including Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Total, Chevron, Repsol, Eni and Equinor have reported downgrades on the value of their assets totalling almost $55bn.
The oil valuation impairments began at the end of last year in response to growing political support for transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, and they have accelerated as the pandemic has taken its toll on the oil industry.
Lockdowns have triggered the sharpest collapse in demand for fossil fuels in 25 years, causing energy commodity markets to crash to historic lows.
The oil market collapse, which reached its nadir in April, has forced companies to reassess their expectations for prices in the coming years.
BP has cut its oil forecasts by almost a third, to an average of $55 a barrel between 2020 and 2050, while Shell has cut its forecasts from $60 a barrel to an average of $35 a barrel this year, rising to $40 next year, $50 in 2022 and $60 from 2023.
Both companies slashed their shareholder payouts after the revisions triggered a $22.3bn downgrade on Shell’s fossil fuel portfolio and a $13.7bn impairment on BP’s oil and gas assets.
Andrew Grant, Carbon Tracker’s head of oil, gas and mining, said the coronavirus had accelerated an inevitable trend towards lower oil prices – a trend that many climate campaigners have warned will lead to stranded assets and a deepening risk for pension funds that invest in oil firms.
FromThe New York Times (Hiroko Tabuchi and Brad Plumer):
They are among the nation’s most significant infrastructure projects: More than 9,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States are currently being built or expanded, and another 12,500 miles have been approved or announced — together, almost enough to circle the Earth.
Now, however, pipeline projects like these are being challenged as never before as protests spread, economics shift, environmentalists mount increasingly sophisticated legal attacks and more states seek to reduce their use of fossil fuels to address climate change.
On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil route from North Dakota to Illinois that has triggered intense protests from Native American groups, must shut down pending a new environmental review. That same day, the Supreme Court rejected a request by the Trump administration to allow construction of the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry crude from Canada to Nebraska and has faced challenges by environmentalists for nearly a decade.
The day before, two of the nation’s largest utilities announced they had canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have transported natural gas across the Appalachian Trail and into Virginia and North Carolina, after environmental lawsuits and delays had increased the estimated price tag of the project to $8 billion from $5 billion. And earlier this year, New York State, which is aiming to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, blocked two different proposed natural gas lines into the state by withholding water permits.
The roughly 3,000 miles of affected pipelines represent just a fraction of the planned build-out nationwide. Still, the setbacks underscore the increasing obstacles that pipeline construction faces, particularly in regions like the Northeast where local governments have pushed for a quicker transition to renewable energy. Many of the biggest remaining pipeline projects are in fossil-fuel-friendly states along the Gulf Coast, and even a few there — like the Permian Highway Pipeline in Texas — are now facing backlash.
“You cannot build anything big in energy infrastructure in the United States outside of specific areas like Texas and Louisiana, and you’re not even safe in those jurisdictions,” said Brandon Barnes, a senior litigation analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence…
In recent years…environmental groups have grown increasingly sophisticated at mounting legal challenges to the federal and state permits that these pipelines need for approval, raising objections over a wide variety of issues, such as the pipelines’ effects on waterways or on the endangered species that live in their path…
Strong grass roots coalitions, including many Indigenous groups, that understand both the legal landscape and the intricacies of the pipeline projects have led the pushback. And the Trump administration has moved some of the projects forward on shaky legal ground, making challenging them slightly easier, said Jared M. Margolis, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
For the Dakota and Keystone XL pipelines in particular, Mr. Margolis said, the federal government approved projects and permits without the complete analyses required under environmental laws. “The lack of compliance from this administration is just so stark, and the violations so clear cut, that courts have no choice but to rule in favor of opponents,” he said…
Between 2009 and 2018, the average amount of time it took for a gas pipeline crossing interstate lines to receive federal approval to begin construction went up sharply, from around 386 days at the beginning of the period to 587 days toward the end. And lengthy delays, Mr. Barnes said, can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of such projects…
A slump in American exports of liquefied natural gas — natural gas cooled to a liquid state for easier transport — has also weighed heavily on pipeline projects. L.N.G. exports from the United States had boomed in recent years, more than doubling in 2019 and fast making the country the third largest exporter of the fuel in the world, trailing only Qatar and Australia. But the coronavirus health crisis and collapse in demand has cut L.N.G. exports by as much as half, according to data by IHS Markit, a data firm.
Erin M. Blanton, who leads natural gas research at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said the slump would have a long-term effect on investment in export infrastructure. The trade war with China, one of the largest growth markets for L.N.G. exports, has also sapped demand, she said…
Last year in Virginia, a coalition of technology companies including Microsoft and Apple wrote a letter to Dominion, one of the utilities backing the Atlantic Coast pipeline, questioning its plans to build new natural gas power plants in the state, arguing that sources like solar power and battery storage were becoming a viable alternative as their prices fell. And earlier this year, Virginia’s legislature passed a law requiring Dominion to significantly expand its investments in renewable energy.
“As states are pushing to get greener, they’re starting to question whether they really need all this pipeline infrastructure,” said Christine Tezak, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners…
Climate will also play a larger role in future legal challenges, environmental groups said. “The era of multibillion dollar investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is over,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney at the environmental group Earthjustice. “Again and again, we see these projects failing to pass muster legally and economically in light of local opposition.”
Disturbing reports that Republicans plan to sow fears of climate change solution
Merchants of fear have already been at work, preparing to lather up the masses later this year with disturbing images of hardship and misery. The strategy is to equate job losses with clean air and skies, to link in the public mind the pandemic with strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s as dishonest as the days of May are long.
“This is what a carbon-constrained world looks like,” Michael McKenna, a deputy assistant to Trump on energy and environment issues, told The New York Times.
“If You Like the Pandemic Lockdown, You’re Going to Love the Green New Deal,” warned the Washington Examiner. “Thanks to the pandemic lockdown of society, the public is in a position to judge what the ‘Green New Deal’ revolution would look like,” said the newspaper in an April editorial. “It’s like redoing this global pandemic and economic slump every year.”
What a jarring contrast with what I heard during a webinar conducted in Colorado during early May. Electrical utility executives were asked about what it will take to get to 100% emissions-free generation.
It’s no longer an idle question along the lines of how many angels can dance on a pinhead. The coal plants are rapidly closing down because they’re just too darned expensive to operate. Renewables consistently come in at lower prices. Engineers have figured out how to deal with the intermittency of solar and wind. Utilities believe they can get to 70% and even 80%, perhaps beyond.
Granted, only a few people profess to know how to achieve 100% renewables—yet. Cheap, long-lasting storage has yet to be figured out. Electrical transmission needs to be improved in some areas. Here in the West, the still-Balkanized electrical markets need to be stitched together so that electrons can be moved across states to better match supplies with demands.
This won’t cost body appendages, either. The chief executives predict flat or even declining rates.
Let’s get that straight. Reducing emissions won’t cost more. It might well cost less.
That’s Colorado, sitting on the seam between steady winds of the Great Plains and the sunshine-swathed Southwest. Not every state is so blessed. But the innovators, the engineers, and others, are figuring out things rapidly.
Remember what was said just 15 years ago? You couldn’t run a civilization on windmills! Renewables cost too much. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. You had to burn coal or at least natural gas to keep the lights on and avoid economic collapse. Most preposterous were the ambitions to churn vast mountains to extract kerogen, the vital component of oil shale. This was given serious attention as recently as 2008.
The economics have rapidly turned upside down, and the technology just keeps getting better along with the efficiency of markets.
As detailed in Big Pivots issue No. 10, Colorado utilities are now seriously talking about what it will take to get to 100% emission-free energy. Most of that pathway is defined by lower or at least flattened costs.
Now that same spirit of ingenuity has been turned to redirecting transportation and, more challenging yet, buildings. It will likely be decades before we retrofit our automotive fleet to avoid the carbon emissions and other associated pollution that has made many of our cities borderline unhealthy places to live. Buildings will take longer yet. Few among us trade in our houses every 10 to 15 years.
It’s true that we need to be smarter about our energy. And we are decades away from having answers to the heavy carbon footprint of travel by aircraft.
But run with fright from the challenge? That’s the incipient message I’m hearing from the Republican strategists. These messages are from old and now discredited playbooks of fear. People accuse climate activists of constantly beating the drum of fear, and that’s at least partly accurate. But there’s also a drive to find solutions.
Too bad the contemporary Republican Party dwells in that deep well of fear instead of trying to be a beacon of solutions.
Do you have an opinion you wish to share? Shorter is better, and Colorado is the center of the world but not where the world ends. Write to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a teenager, amid the hardwood forests, waterfalls and wildflower meadows of the Parklands of Floyds Fork, Benjamin Myles took a liking to nature.
At the University of Louisville, Myles merged his libertarian-leaning politics with a curiosity about climate change, a subject that kept coming up in English class and in debates with his friends.
Such discussions led him to a new national movement of young conservatives who are working to persuade their Republican elders to put forward a climate agenda, without sacrificing traditional GOP principles like market competition and limited government.
Myles, a junior studying political science and economics, has joined the American Conservation Coalition, which last month unveiled its American Climate Contract, a self-described response to the Green New Deal for the political right.
The coalition has issued its manifesto in a presidential election year, when the stakes couldn’t be higher. While President Trump remains a resolute climate change denier, there is a wide consensus among scientists, and also in the military, that climate change is happening now, causing higher temperatures and heat waves, sea-level rise, an increasing frequency of extreme rains, wetter and more intense hurricanes, and longer droughts.
Myles now finds himself questioning another icon of the Republican party and one of the country’s most powerful political figures: U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader also from Louisville known for working to block the president who achieved the most on climate change, Barack Obama.
Myles, the president of the local college libertarian group, Young Americans for Liberty, is no fan of the Democrats’ approach to the issue, or the Green New Deal’s proposed massive shift in federal spending to create jobs and hasten a transition to clean energy by 2050. But Myles said he is frustrated by any established Republican who does not take climate change seriously, including McConnell.
“There is definitely frustration for myself and younger people who look at this issue and see the Republican Party, especially older GOP members, just ignoring it instead of offering an alternative,” he said.
“Our political system is all about providing multiple options,” Myles said. “But when one side decides it doesn’t want to discuss the truth of the problem at all, it feeds into the other side getting a monopoly on the discussion. That is really damaging.”
Across the South, Climate Change Divides Democrats and Republicans
In the South and across much of the United States, one way to try to tell a Republican from a Democrat is to invite a discussion about climate change.
Pew Research Center polling in February found that a growing number of Americans say tackling climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. But that change in views is mostly among Democrats: roughly 4 out of 5 say dealing with climate change should be a top priority, compared to just 1 out of 5 Republicans, Pew found.
Climate change wasn’t always so divisive.
In 2008, for example, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, famously sat on a couch in front of the U.S. Capitol, declaring they both agreed the country needed to take action on climate change. And they did it for Al Gore, the former vice president and global warming evangelist from Tennessee, who became conservatives’ climate-change punching bag
Today, young climate activists, led by Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement—a grassroots youth climate action group that formed after Trump’s 2016 election—are the defiant voice for the climate, calling for a transformation of the global economy. They are carrying out global student strikes and persuading mayors to declare climate emergencies.
The demographics of climate politics are shifting, said Ed Maibach, professor and director of the George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communications.
While young Democrats and their parents and grandparents are “more or less all apoplectically concerned” about the climate, he said, a new report from the George Mason center and the Yale Program on Climate Communication identifies how young Republicans are becoming emboldened by the issue. In contrast to older Republicans, they have become more accepting of the human causes of climate change, rejecting the climate science denial that has taken hold in the party, Maibach said.
“The more young Democrats get involved in the issue, the more young Republicans get pulled along,” he added.
Both parties will have plenty to debate this year as voters in November decide whether to give Trump and his fossil fuel agenda another four years. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the former vice president, has described the Green New Deal as “a crucial framework” for climate action as he tries to convince climate voters he’s a true believer.
A Market Approach to Climate Change Mitigation
The American Conservation Coalition was founded in 2017 by Benji Backer, a 22-year-old from Appleton, Wisconsin, who was already a veteran in national political circles.
In 2014, at 16, Backer delivered a fiery speech at the influential American Conservative Union conference, defending former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bitter and successful battle against unionized teachers and declaring it “OK to stand up to those on the left that would scream us into quiet submission.”
But in September, he testified before Congress with Thunberg, arguing that “we cannot regulate our way out of climate change.”
The group and its climate contract have supporters ranging from natural gas lobbyists and libertarians to conservation and energy efficiency groups.
One of them is the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based clean-energy think tank founded by physicist Amory Lovins. The institute’s Paul Bodner, who worked on energy and climate in the White House for President Obama, is on the coalition’s advisory board. He hopes he can help the young conservatives find their voice on climate issues.
The institute, he said, agrees with the Green New Deal’s “call to action” and shares its vision of “radical decarbonization of the U.S. economy,” but also agrees with the coalition’s “focus on unleashing market forces.”
The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington based think tank, also supports the young conservatives.
“When we see historically controversial policies that are pushed through by one party in a very politicized or polarized manner, those policies are more at risk of being undone, or vilified, at some point in the future,” said Sasha Mackler, the center’s director of energy projects. “For policies to be enduring over the long term, which is really what we need for a climate solution to be effective, bipartisanship is essential.”
‘We Would Rather Not Get Caught up in Debates’
The young conservatives’ contract makes no mention of the 2016 Paris climate agreement, with its goal of limiting rising global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Nor does it share the sense of urgency expressed by scientists, who, in 2018, concluded that the world had about 12 years to get on a path toward zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Instead, the contract merely acknowledges the need to “move towards the goal of global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.”
The Green New Deal envisions a rapid transition to a carbon-free economy, promising jobs and economic security and explicitly supporting an economic transition in communities that have long lived on incomes from fossil fuel industries.
By contrast, the contract modestly calls for “targeted investment and regulatory streamlining;” increasing clean transportation; creating a more energy-saving electrical grid; maximizing carbon storage in forests and farms; planting trees; supporting nuclear power; and establishing private-public partnerships.
“We would rather not get caught up in debates on targets that are too much for one side of the aisle or the other,” said Danielle Butcher, chief operating officer of the American Conservation Coalition. “We view this not as a silver bullet to climate policy.”
The contract also does not recommend a carbon tax, which some moderates and Republicans have begun to embrace as a way to put a price on carbon and steer the economy toward a lower-carbon future.
“We want to focus on the steps we can take right now,” Butcher said.
The contract’s modest scope is its failing, critics counter.
Fighting climate change and economic injustice go hand-in-hand, said Sophie Karasek, a spokeswoman for the Sunrise Movement, which has rallied around the Green New Deal.
“A lot of young people have grown up with the fear of the climate crisis, and we already lived through the great recession, and remember what that felt like,” Karasek said.
What’s needed are “bold solutions from the government at the scale of the problems we face, and right now (with the Covid-19 pandemic) we are facing a great depression while also staring down the barrel of climate change,” she said. “We don’t have time to talk about private-public partnerships, or whatever.”
Mitch McConnell Has Been Setting the GOP Agenda on Climate
In Tennessee, Sage Kafsky, a 23-year-old volunteer with the American Conservation Coalition, echoed her young colleagues’ calls for market based, limited government solutions. But she also declared an admiration for Thunberg, the Swedish teenager whose defiance before the most powerful business and political leaders on the planet became the face of a new generation fighting climate change.
“I 100 percent believe in climate change,” Kafsky said in a telephone interview from her home in Ducktown, Tennessee, in the southern Appalachian Mountains, where she works as a paraprofessional in an elementary school. “I believe in people like Greta, who are having their voice, saying this is a major issue, and we need to fix it.”
But, she went on to say, “how to get there gets lost in translation” amid political polarization, even though “we have similar goals in mind.”
In Washington, D.C., it has been McConnell, 78, the coal-friendly Senate Republican Leader since 2006 and Majority Leader since 2015, who has, in effect, been setting the Republican legislative agenda on climate.
For example, he led the opposition to Obama’s climate and coal policies, then backed Trump on pulling out of the Paris agreement. Last year McConnell went out of his way to force Democrats to make a premature and what he hoped would be a politically damaging vote on the Green New Deal, while not offering alternative climate legislation.
McConnell is up for reelection to a seventh term in November. A spokesman declined to comment on the young conservatives’ efforts, except to say that the way to address climate change “is through technology and innovation.”
But words alone may not be enough for the GOP’s new generation.
Butcher, of the conservation coalition, said the group has met with White House and McConnell staff to find policies that will reduce emissions and create economic prosperity. “Given the overwhelming consensus among young Republicans that climate is a top priority, we expect they’ll increasingly engage on the issue, and if not, we’ll push harder,” she said.
Myles, the libertarian-climate activist from the University of Louisville, came to see climate change as an issue the GOP couldn’t ignore or deny. “Getting into college and seeing how many other people care about it made me realize this is going to be a major issue and something that has the ability to affect all of us,” he said. “The GOP is moving on some issues, as more and more young people get involved. Climate change should be one of them.”
FromThe High Country News [April 23, 2020] (Jonathan Thompson):
COVID-19 reverberates across the energy world.
In mid-January, when the epidemic was still mostly confined to China, officials there put huge cities on lockdown in order to stem the spread. Hundreds of flights into and out of the nation were canceled, and urban streets stood empty of cars. China’s burgeoning thirst for oil diminished, sending global crude prices into a downward spiral.
And when oil prices fall, it hurts states like New Mexico, which relies on oil and gas royalties and taxes for more than one-third of its general fund. “An unexpected drop in oil prices would send the state’s energy revenues into a tailspin,” New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee warned last August. Even the committee’s worst-case scenario, however, didn’t look this bad.
Now, with COVID-19 spanning the globe, every sector of the economy is feeling the pain — with the exception, perhaps, of toilet paper manufacturers and bean farmers. But energy-dependent states and communities will be among the hardest hit.
At the end of December, the U.S. benchmark price for a barrel of oil was $62. By mid-March, as folks worldwide stopped flying and driving, it had dipped to around $20, before falling into negative territory, and then leveling off around $10 in April. The drilling rigs — and the abundant jobs that once came with them — are disappearing; major oil companies are announcing deep cuts in drilling and capital expenditures for the rest of the year, and smaller, debt-saddled companies will be driven into the ground.
COVID-19 and related shocks to the economy are reverberating through the energy world in other ways. Shelter-in-place orders and the rise in people working from home have changed the way Americans consume electricity: Demand decreased nationwide by 10% in March. As airlines ground flights, demand for jet fuel wanes. And people just aren’t driving that much, despite falling gasoline prices, now that they have orders to stay home and few places to go to, anyway.
The slowdown will bring a few temporary benefits: The reduction in drilling will give landscapes and wildlife a rest and result in lower methane emissions. In Los Angeles, the ebb in traffic has already brought significantly cleaner air. And the continued decline in burning coal for electricity has reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
But the long-term environmental implications may not be so rosy. In the wake of recession, governments typically try to jumpstart the economy with stimulus packages to corporations, economic incentives for oil companies, and regulatory rollbacks to spur consumption and production. The low interest rates and other fiscal policies that followed the last global financial crisis helped drive the energy boom of the decade that followed. And the Trump administration has not held back in its giveaways to industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is already using the outbreak as an excuse to ease environmental regulations and enforcement, and even with all the nation’s restrictions, the Interior Department continues to issue new oil and gas leases at rock-bottom prices. [ed. emphasis mine]
The impacts on energy state coffers will unfold over the coming weeks and months. But the shock to working folk from every economic sector has come swiftly. During the third week of March, more than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment — more than 10 times the claims from a year prior.
Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey. Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, California Independent System Operator, Baker-Hughes, Unacast, FlightRadar24, Wyoming Department of Revenue, Carbon Footprint, International Air Transport Association, OAG.
The coronavirus is scrambling Virginia’s budget and economy, but it didn’t prevent Gov. Ralph Northam (D) from signing legislation that makes it the first Southern state with a goal of going carbon-free by 2045.
Over the weekend, Northam authorized the omnibus Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state’s biggest utility, Dominion Energy, switch to renewable energy by 2045. Appalachian Power, which serves far southwest Virginia, must go carbon-free by 2050.
Almost all the state’s coal plants will have to shut down by the end of 2024 under the new law. Virginia is the first state in the old Confederacy to embrace such clean-energy targets.
Under a separate measure, Virginia also becomes the most Southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a carbon cap-and-trade market among states in the Northeast.
FromThe Columbia Journalism Review (Savannah Jacobson):
The story of oil company propaganda begins in 1914, with the Ludlow Massacre. In Ludlow, Colorado, a tent city of coal miners went on strike, and officers of the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company responded violently. At least sixty-six people were killed in the conflict, turning popular opinion against John D. Rockefeller Jr., who owned the mine in Ludlow. To recover public trust, Rockefeller hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a public relations agent, to peddle falsehoods disguised as objective facts to the press: the strikers were crisis actors; the violence was the fault of labor activist Mother Jones; there was no Ludlow Massacre.
Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, evolved into what is now ExxonMobil, and its original PR strategy remains. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Exxon commissioned scientific reports that documented the potentially catastrophic effects of carbon dioxide emissions. But in the decades that followed, Exxon buried those reports and told the public the opposite: that the science was inconclusive, that regulation would destroy the American economy, and that action on climate change would mostly cause harm.
Exxon’s public mouthpiece was the press. For more than thirty years, from at least 1972 until at least 2004, the company placed advertorials in the New York Times to cast doubt on the negative effects of fossil fuel emissions. Over the same time span, ExxonMobil gave tens of millions of dollars to think tanks and researchers who denied the science of climate change. Taken in sum, Exxon’s media shrewdness and its aggressive political lobbying have set back climate action for decades—putting the nation, and the world, dangerously close to a point of no return.
Year by Year
Humble Oil, a subsidiary of what would become Exxon, buys an advertisement in Life magazine reading, “Each Day Humble Supplies Enough Energy to Melt Seven Million Tons of Glacier!”
Exxon executives learn from James F. Black, a scientist employed by the company, that the practice of burning fossil fuels releases such large amounts of carbon dioxide as to imperil the planet.
Exxon’s researchers confirm published scientific findings: the level of CO2 output from fossil fuels could eventually raise the global temperature by up to 3 degrees Celsius.
Spring: An Exxon tanker crashes into a reef, spilling 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The disaster will be the second-largest spill in US history. In the following months, Exxon publishes a number of advertisements in the Times apologizing for the spill and asking readers to reject boycotts.
Summer: Mobil runs its first advertorial on global warming in the Times. It reads in part, “Scientists do not agree on the causes and significance of [warming]—but many believe there’s reason for concern…we’re hard at work along all these fronts. We live in the greenhouse too.”
Fall: The Global Climate Coalition forms with the mission to oppose action against global warming and to advocate for the interests of the fossil fuel industry by promoting doubt about climate science. Exxon is a founding member.
The Kyoto Protocol is signed.
Mobil places an advertorial in the New York Times reading, “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”
Exxon pledges to stop funding climate denialist public policy groups; however, a 2015 Guardian investigation showed funding did not stop.
New York State pursues a civil case against ExxonMobil for defrauding investors about the risks of climate change, the first against the company to reach trial. The state asks for as much as $1.6 billion in damages; Exxon wins.
By the Numbers
Amount ExxonMobil spent, through 2012, to fund think tanks and researchers who denied aspects of climate change.
Minimum amount that ExxonMobil has paid since 2007 to lobbyists and members of Congress opposed to climate change legislation.
Percent of scientific studies ExxonMobil conducted internally from 1977 to 2014 that state climate change is man-made.
Percent of ExxonMobil’s advertorials published in the New York Times in the same time frame that cast doubt on the idea that climate change is man-made.
Exxon’s annual research budget during the height of the company’s climate science research, in the late 1970s to mid-1980s.
Years that Mobil placed weekly advertorials in the New York Times. After merging with Exxon in 1999, Mobil reduced advertorial placement in the Times to every other week.
Number of television networks and national and local newspapers that have cited Myron Ebell, a leading climate denialist, or published his opinion pieces from 1999 to the present.
Amount ExxonMobil gave to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank of which Ebell was a director, from 1998 to 2005.
Percent of Americans who opposed, in 2009, a significant clean energy bill.
Percent of Americans who opposed the same bill after the Heritage Foundation, an ExxonMobil-funded think tank, published a study that misleadingly claimed the bill would increase gas prices to
$4 per gallon.
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Rebecca Sobel):
Response to Trump Administration’s Plan to Relax Public Health Protections for Oil Refineries and Other Industries
WildEarth Guardians joined a coalition of environmentalists objecting to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) new Trump administration policy that relaxes environmental compliance rules for petrochemical plants and other big polluters during the coronavirus crisis.
“Relaxing pollution controls in the midst of a deadly health crisis is an obscene new low for the Trump administration,” said Rebecca Sobel, Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner for WildEarth Guardians. “While the pandemic worsens, the administration is propping up polluters in poisoning clean air, instead of focusing on the health and safety of Americans.”
The environmental organizations voiced their concerns in response to an announcement yesterday that the Trump administration EPA will “provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions.”
“It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws,” said the statement, which was written by Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project, former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA.
The Environmental Integrity Project released a report last year documenting the sharp drop in environmental enforcement during the Trump administration.
In February, WildEarth Guardians joined the Environmental Integrity Project in publishing a report documenting EPA air monitoring data at the fencelines of oil refineries which demonstrated excessive release of cancer-causing benzene into nearby communities at concentrations far above federal action levels. The second worst refinery in the U.S. was the Holly Frontier Navajo Artesia refinery in Artesia, New Mexico, where monitors at the plant’s fenceline detected benzene in amounts four times the EPA action level.
“Instead of reining in illegal polluters, this administration is propping them up, further endangering the health of New Mexicans and all Americans in the process,” continued Sobel. “We are all in this together, and now is the time to protect people, not polluters.”
Click here to read the paper. Here’s the abstract:
The relationship between human health and well-being, energy use and carbon emissions is a foremost concern in sustainable development. If past advances in well-being have been accomplished only through increases in energy use, there may be significant trade-offs between achieving universal human development and mitigating climate change. We test the explanatory power of economic, dietary and modern energy factors in accounting for past improvements in life expectancy, using a simple novel method, functional dynamic decomposition. We elucidate the paradox that a strong correlation between emissions and human development at one point in time does not imply that their dynamics are coupled in the long term. Increases in primary energy and carbon emissions can account for only a quarter of improvements in life expectancy, but are closely tied to growth in income. Facing this carbon-development paradox requires prioritizing human well-being over economic growth.
FromThe Guardian (Patrick Greenfield and Jonathan Watts):
The world’s largest financier of fossil fuels has warned clients that the climate crisis threatens the survival of humanity and that the planet is on an unsustainable trajectory, according to a leaked document.
The JP Morgan report on the economic risks of human-caused global heating said climate policy had to change or else the world faced irreversible consequences.
The study implicitly condemns the US bank’s own investment strategy and highlights growing concerns among major Wall Street institutions about the financial and reputational risks of continued funding of carbon-intensive industries, such as oil and gas.
JP Morgan has provided $75bn (£61bn) in financial services to the companies most aggressively expanding in sectors such as fracking and Arctic oil and gas exploration since the Paris agreement, according to analysis compiled for the Guardian last year.
Its report was obtained by Rupert Read, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson and philosophy academic at the University of East Anglia, and has been seen by the Guardian.
The research by JP Morgan economists David Mackie and Jessica Murray says the climate crisis will impact the world economy, human health, water stress, migration and the survival of other species on Earth.
“We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened,” notes the paper, which is dated 14 January.
Drawing on extensive academic literature and forecasts by the International Monetary Fund and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the paper notes that global heating is on course to hit 3.5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. It says most estimates of the likely economic and health costs are far too small because they fail to account for the loss of wealth, the discount rate and the possibility of increased natural disasters.
The authors say policymakers need to change direction because a business-as-usual climate policy “would likely push the earth to a place that we haven’t seen for many millions of years”, with outcomes that might be impossible to reverse.
“Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.”
The investment bank says climate change “reflects a global market failure in the sense that producers and consumers of CO2 emissions do not pay for the climate damage that results.” To reverse this, it highlights the need for a global carbon tax but cautions that it is “not going to happen anytime soon” because of concerns about jobs and competitiveness.
The authors say it is “likely the [climate] situation will continue to deteriorate, possibly more so than in any of the IPCC’s scenarios”.
Without naming any organisation, the authors say changes are occurring at the micro level, involving shifts in behaviour by individuals, companies and investors, but this is unlikely to be enough without the involvement of the fiscal and financial authorities.
From Conservation Colorado (Garrett Garner-Wells):
New polling released today highlighted climate change as the top issue in Colorado’s upcoming presidential primary, 10 points higher than health care and 15 points higher than preventing gun violence.
The survey of likely Democratic presidential primary voters conducted by Global Strategies Group found that nearly all likely primary voters think climate change is already impacting or will impact their families (91%), view climate change as a very serious problem or a crisis (84%), and want to see their leaders take action within the next year (85%). And by a nearly three-to-one margin, likely primary voters prefer a candidate with a plan to take action on climate change starting on Day One of their term over a candidate who has not pledged to act starting on Day One (74% – 26%).
Additionally, the survey found that among likely primary voters:
85% would be more likely to support a candidate who will move the U.S. to a 100 percent clean energy economy;
95% would be more likely to support a candidate who will combat climate change by protecting and restoring forests; and,
76% would be more likely to support a candidate who will phase out extraction of oil, gas, and goal on public lands by 2030.
These responses are unsurprising given that respondents believed that a plan to move the U.S. to a 100 percent clean energy economy will have a positive impact on future generations of their family (81%), the quality of the air we breathe (93%), and the health of families like theirs (88%).
Finally, likely primary voters heard a description of Colorado’s climate action plan to reduce pollution and the state’s next steps to achieve reductions of at least 50 percent by 2030 and at least 90 percent by 2050. Based on that statement, 91% of respondents agreed that the Air Quality Control Commission should take timely action to create rules that guarantee that the state will meet its carbon reduction targets.
Here’s a report from Chase Woodruff that’s running in Westword. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
The history of environmental contamination in north Denver neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea stretches back more than a century, to the gilded age of smelting plants that spewed arsenic, lead and other hazardous chemicals into the air, water and soil nearby. Today these “fenceline” communities, along with neighboring areas in Commerce City, Thornton and unincorporated Adams County, lie in the shadow of major industrial facilities like the Suncor oil refinery, one of the state’s largest stationary sources of air pollution. Residents still suffer from elevated levels of asthma and other health problems.
This toxic legacy is a textbook example of environmental racism, activists say — and as a new wave of organizing around climate and environmental issues reshapes politics from Denver City Council chambers to the 2020 presidential debate stage, Latino activists are determined to be a big part of the conversation.
“I don’t think you can be talking about climate change without talking about environmental justice,” says Ean Tafoya, a Denver activist with the group Green Latinos. “I don’t think we can be talking about the solutions unless our people are included, especially because our people are being made the most sick.”
Climate change is a global problem, but it’s wrapped up in many of the same local pollution issues that north Denver has been dealing with for decades. The Suncor refinery, along with the tens of thousands of cars that travel the expanding Interstate 70 every day, are part of the fossil-fuel infrastructure driving greenhouse gas emissions around the world.
And these communities aren’t just on the front line of the industrial causes of climate change; they’re also some of the first to be dealing with its effects. Studies have shown that rising temperatures are leading to higher levels of ozone pollution, which forms in the air above cities on hot, sunny days, especially in heavily industrial areas like north Denver and Commerce City.
FromThe Washington Post (Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman):
The international organization suggests a cost of $75 per ton by 2030.
The group found that a global tax of $75 per ton by the year 2030 could limit the planet’s warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), or roughly double what it is now. That would greatly increase the price of fossil-fuel-based energy — especially from the burning of coal — but the economic disruption could be offset by routing the money raised straight back to citizens…
The IMF report comes out as financial institutions increasingly grapple with the risks associated with climate change, including damage from sea-level rise, extreme weather events and billions in fossil fuel reserves that might be in excess of what can be burned while also limiting warming. The Federal Reserve, for example, is taking a closer look at how climate change may pose a risk to economic stability.
In the United States, a $75 tax would cut emissions by nearly 30 percent but would cause on average a 53 percent increase in electricity costs and a 20 percent rise for gasoline at projected 2030 prices, the analysis in the IMF’s Fiscal Monitor found.
But it would also generate revenue equivalent to 1 percent of gross domestic product, an enormous amount of money that could be redistributed and, if spread equally, would end up being a fiscally progressive policy, rather than one disproportionately targeting the poor.
The impact of a $75-per-ton tax would also hit countries differently depending on burning or exporting coal, which produces the most carbon emissions per unit of energy generated when it is burned.
In developing nations such as China, India and South Africa, a $75 carbon tax reduces emissions even more — by as much as 45 percent — and generates proportionately more revenue, as high as 3.5 percent of GDP in South Africa’s case, the IMF found.
The idea of making it expensive to produce greenhouse gas emissions is hardly new, and has been widely embraced by economists despite the immense political difficulties involved in imposing such taxes…
But several experts said that the IMF stance was important even as they noted that the carbon price may need to be a lot higher, rendering an already gigantic lift even more difficult.
Like much of the rest of the world, Denver is currently not on track to achieve the dramatic greenhouse-gas emissions cuts that climate scientists say are necessary over the next decade and beyond. A group of environmental activists wants voters to help change that by passing a new tax to better fund the city’s efforts to fight climate change.
“We’re in a climate emergency,” says Ean Thomas Tafoya, spokesman for Resilient Denver, the group behind the initiative. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continually tells us that we’re missing our goals. We know that we have good staff that are working [on climate change] in the city, but you have to put your money where your mouth is with the budget.”
If it makes the ballot and gets approved by voters, the Resilient Denver initiative would make Denver the first major city in the country to levy a carbon tax — sort of. The measure is technically an excise tax on electricity and natural gas consumption rather than a direct tax on emissions, and it’s much smaller in scale than many of the world’s most ambitious carbon-pricing schemes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
“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 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.”
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.”
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor.
…the state is using money from a national settlement with Volkswagen to build fast-charging stations at 33 sites across Colorado to give electric-vehicle drivers the confidence they can travel anywhere in the state.
Colorado received $68.7 million from the deal between Volkswagen and the federal government over allegations that the auto company modified computer software to cheat on federal emissions tests. In addition to adding charging stations, the state proposes using the money to convert medium- and heavy-duty trucks, school, shuttle and transit buses, railroad freight switchers and airport ground support equipment to alternative fuels or replace them with electric vehicles.
Along with a spending plan, the state has a road map for electrification of its transportation sector. The state electric vehicle plan looks at “electrifying” key travel corridors and touts the ensuing economic, health and environmental benefits.
In 2017, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order on promoting clean energy that directed the air quality council, state energy office, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Transportation to work together on developing the statewide electric vehicle plan and taking feedback from the public. The health department is the lead agency on overseeing how the Volkswagen funds are distributed.
How near is the future?
Is the dream of 1 million electric vehicle replacing gas-burners too big? State Sen. Kevin Priola doesn’t think so. The Adams County Republican sees the transition to electric vehicles as the next chapter in the history of monumental, and inevitable, societal changes.
“Once wood and coal were used for heating houses and transportation. Then people realized natural gas and petroleum were cleaner and more efficient,” Priola said. “Once people realize that electricity produced and stored from solar panels and wind farms is much more efficient, cleaner and better for transportation, it will be adopted.”
For Priola, the future is now. He owns a Tesla sedan and has solar panels on his house. His electric utility, United Power, gives customers a break for using electricity during slow times so he charges the car overnight. He figures he ends up paying 2 cents a mile to run his car.
Climate change will hammer the U.S. economy unless there’s swift action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, according to the latest National Climate Assessment report.
But [the] President…has dismissed this forecast, even though his own administration released a comprehensive synthesis of the best available science, written by hundreds of climate scientists and other experts from academia, government, the private sector and nonprofits. Like most opponents of policies aimed at slowing the pace of climate change, he has long wanted actions to reduce these emissions off the table because, in his opinion, they are “job-killing.”
As an environmental economist who is studying the relationship between regulations and employment, I find this question vitally important both economically and politically. What does the research on this question say?
Opponents of climate regulations embrace a straightforward and long-standing argument. In their view, anything the government forces businesses to do will negatively affect their ability to employ workers. To them, everything from safety regulations to raising taxes makes it costlier and harder for businesses to operate.
[The President] has taken this philosophy to heart by pledging to eliminate what he calls “job-killing regulations” across the board.
Some supporters of strong climate policies counter that the costs of climate change are high enough to justify climate policies even though they might negatively affect workers.
The evidence on how environmental policies affect unemployment is generally mixed. The book “Does Regulation Kill Jobs?,” edited by University of Pennsylvania professor Cary Coglianese, covers regulations generally. It concludes that “regulation overall is neither a prime job killer nor a key job creator.”
Michael Greenstone, a University of Chicago economist, found that 1970s-era environmental regulations, which in some ways resemble the climate-related rules debated today, led to the loss of more than half-a-million manufacturing jobs over 15 years.
Another team of researchers, which reviewed the impact of environmental policies on four heavily polluting industries, found that environmental regulations have no significant effect on employment.
But this mainly has to do with two other factors. Due to increasing automation, it now takes far fewer workers to mine coal than it used to.
And a drilling boom has increased not just oil output but natural gas production. The increased natural gas supply cut prices for that fuel, prompting a raft of coal-fired power plant closures. It also eroded coal’s market share for electricity generation while creating new jobs in other energy industries.
GREENER JOB GROWTH
A weakness I often see in the standard regulations-kill-jobs argument is a focus on the regulated industries that ignores the fact that those same regulations tend to spur growth in other industries.
In this case, climate policies are proving to be a boon for jobs in renewable energy industries like wind and solar, as well as in efficiency efforts like weatherization.
For example, the stimulus bill enacted during the Great Recession included provisions designed to bolster renewable energy.
That spending helped spur the creation of millions of new jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a federal agency, predicts that the number of solar panel installers will increase by 105 percent and the number of wind turbine technician jobs will rise by 96 percent between 2016 and 2026, making those the nation’s two fastest-growing professions.
So what is the net effect on jobs when some energy industries shrink and others grow?
Resources for the Future, a think tank that researches economic, environmental, energy and natural resource issues, has developed complex computational models of the economy that clarify the whole picture on the connection between regulations and jobs.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan group assessed the impact on unemployment, something that – believe it or not – these large-scale economic simulations usually don’t do.
The think tank predicts that a hypothetical $40 per ton carbon tax, which would translate into an increase of about 36 cents per gallon of gasoline, would increase the overall unemployment rate by just 0.3 percentage points. The effect is even smaller, at just 0.05 percentage points, if the government were to uses the carbon tax’s revenue to cut other tax rates.
Some studies have even detected a net gain in jobs from climate policies.
For example, University of California, Berkeley researchers found that California’s efforts to cut emissions have bolstered the state’s economy and created more than 37,000 jobs. And the University of Massachusetts, Amherst Political Economy Research Institute has determined that every $1 million shifted from fossil fuel-generated power to “green energy” creates a net increase of 5 jobs.
Based on my review of the research, I see little evidence that policies to reduce pollution from fossil fuels have or will likely result in widespread job losses.
Different types of policies can have different effects – and some can minimize labor market disruption more than others.
A carbon tax, like other revenue-raising policies such as cap-and-trade systems with auctioned permits, has the advantage of generating revenue that can be used to offset any economic harm from job losses. Policies that do not generate revenue, such as renewable portfolio standards, which require utilities to get a set proportion of their electricity from renewable energy, lack this advantage.
The evidence suggests that climate policies will cause some industries to lose workers, while others will employ more people and that the overall employment effects are modest. But what is going on with displaced workers? Are solar and wind companies hiring all the jobless coal miners?
My current research is examining how easy – or hard – it is for workers to move between industries due to changes brought on by these regulations. So far, my colleagues and I are finding that when we account for the costs of workers switching jobs, unemployment rates rise slightly more than predicted when ignoring those costs, but the overall effect on unemployment is still just 0.5 percent.
The month of December 2018 is probably going to go down in history as the month when all things climate and energy truly and irreversibly changed for the better in the American West.
From bold carbon reduction commitments by big utilities to the fact that the economics of renewables are unbelievably great (and seem to be getting better by the day), this month has been a watershed moment.
Given this, we thought it’d be useful to dive in more deeply and really explore what all these announcements mean. Below, our top ten takeaways from these latest developments:
10. Xcel Energy Will be Shutting Down all its Remaining Coal-fired Power Plants in Colorado
The big news in early December was Xcel Energy’s announcement of its goals to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2030 and to become completely carbon-free in its generation of electricity by 2050.
Bold. There’s no other way to put it. Xcel Energy is not only the first utility in the nation to commit to becoming carbon-free, but did so even as the company currently generates power from many coal-fired power plants.
This was not an announcement from some flaming progressive utility. This was an announcement from a utility that still generates huge amounts of power from carbon-intensive fossil fuels. In fact, Xcel still generates more than 50% of its power from coal in Colorado.
And in the wake of this bold commitment, there’s really no escaping the real implications. If Xcel has any chance of reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2030 and going carbon-free by 2050, the company is going to have to shutter all of its remaining coal-fired power plants in Colorado.
That includes the Hayden power plant outside of Steamboat Springs, the Pawnee power plant northeast of Denver, and the entirety of the Comanche 3 plant in Pueblo.
And in all likelihood, to meet their 2030 goal of reducing carbon emissions 80%, it means these plants are going away by 2030.
It may seem drastic, but there’s really no other viable option. As Xcel’s CEO commented, this is about doing something for the climate. And as the economics of coal worsen, Xcel will surely soon be followed by other utilities looking to shed the mounting liabilities of fossil fuels.
9. Platte River Power Authority Will be Shutting Down its Coal-fired Power Plant north of Fort Collins, as well as Divesting its Share of Craig
Xcel’s announcement was big, but Platte River Power Authority’s was bigger.
The Colorado power agency, which serves Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park, announced its goal of eliminating 100% of its carbon emissions by 2030.
While that’s an astounding goal that almost puts Xcel’s commitments to shame, what’s more significant about Platte River Power Authority’s announcement is that will mean a wholesale transformation in the utility’s generating portfolio.
Currently, nearly 90% of Platte River Power Authority’s electricity is generated by coal or natural gas. And of its fossil fuel-generating portfolio, more than half is provided by the Rawhide power plant north of Fort Collins and a portion of the Craig power plant in northwest Colorado.
The utility’s announcement all but guarantees the Rawhide plant will be shut down and that it will divest of its ownership in the Craig plant, all by 2030.
Coupled with Xcel’s plans, it means that Colorado will be virtually coal-free by 2030.
8. Pacificorp Has no Economic Choice but to Retire a lot of Coal
Pacificorp, a Portland, Oregon-based utility, owns all or portions of 10 coal-fired power plants in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming (they used to own 11, but shut down an aging plant in Utah in 2015).
To boot, they own coal mines in both Utah and Wyoming.
Yet even this captain of coal in the American West is coming to terms with the reality that its massive fossil fuel enterprise makes no economic sense.
Earlier in the month, the company released a report showing that 60% of its coal-fired generating units are more expensive to operate than developing new alternative sources of power, namely renewable energy.
However, that was just the headline. A closer look at Pacificorp’s report actually reveals that, taken together, all of the company’s coal-fired units are not remotely cost-effective.
Under a base scenario, while some of the company’s coal-fired units are cheaper to operate than alternatives, the savings from retiring uneconomic units would actually offset the costs of retiring the utility’s entire fleet of coal.
Pacificorp has made no decisions or announcements yet. However, in the wake of Xcel Energy’s carbon-free commitment, it seems inevitable the utility will make a similarly bold proclamation in 2019.
Ultimately, we’re likely to see Pacificorp make a big move away from coal in the very near future. Because of the company’s massive coal footprint in the American West, this move promises a massive move to renewable energy in the western U.S.
7. People Served by Colorado Springs Utilities Should be Worried
Colorado Springs Utilities serves the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado and surrounding communities. And while the municipal utility seems innocuous, they generate more than 40% of their power from coal from two coal-fired power plants, including one—Martin Drake power—right in the middle of the City’s downtown.
For years now, residents and ratepayers have sounded the alarm over the Martin Drake power plant, which sours the skies with toxic emissions.
Equally alarming is the fact that Martin Drake is one of the least efficient and most expensive municipally owned power plants to operate in the United States.
In spite of this, the utility seems to have no plans for addressing the rising costs of power except a vague and unenforceable commitment to retire Martin Drake by 2035. What’s more, the utility seems to have no plans to retire its other coal-fired power plant, the Ray Nixon plant located south of Colorado Springs.
So, while other utilities in Colorado are making big moves away from coal, Colorado Springs Utilities is staying firmly committed, at least for the time being, to costly coal.
It’s no wonder why people in Colorado Springs are increasingly incensed over their utility’s inaction.
The unrest will only grow as Colorado Springs Utilities delays providing its customers with cleaner and more affordable power.
6. This is the Beginning of the End for Tri-State Generation and Transmission
Tri-State Generation and Transmission is a utility company that provides wholesale power to 43 member rural electric cooperatives in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
And while Tri-State has a noble goal of energizing rural communities within its service area, the company is facing growing resistance over rising costs.
The reason for rising costs: the company’s heavy reliance on coal-fired power, as well as Tri-State’s investments in coal mines.
Because of this, the utility is facing the prospect of a mass exodus of its customer base.
In 2016, one of its former members, the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in northern New Mexico, bought out its contract with Tri-State. This month, another member, the Delta Montrose Electric Association in western Colorado, filed a complaint with state utility regulators to do the same.
Not only that, but other members, including the United Power Cooperative, La Plata Electric Cooperative, and the Poudre Valley Electric Cooperative, all of which are major revenue generators for Tri-State, are also exploring alternatives to the utility company.
Coupled with the fact that Tri-State’s utility partners, including co-owners of the Craig coal-fired power plant in northwestern Colorado, are moving away from coal, the company is facing a bleak future.
As its members and partners bail, Tri-State’s business model seems doomed to collapse.
That’s not all bad news. As Tri-State declines, its members stand to enjoy more energy freedom and to reap the economic rewards of local renewable energy development.
5. Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service Likely to be Next to Announce Big Moves from Coal
Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service are both large utilities primarily serving Arizona. And both utilities know that the economics of coal simply aren’t worth it.
As the primary owner of the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, the largest coal-fired power plant in the American West, Salt River Project decided to shutter the facility by the end of 2019.
Arizona Public Service, is also getting out of the Navajo Generating Station after retiring portions of the nearby Four Corners power plant in northwest New Mexico.
So far, neither Salt River Project nor Arizona Public Service has made any further announcements to move away from coal. However, given that both of the utilities are clearly seeing the reality of coal costs, we should see some additional major shifts away from coal in the west.
Arizona Public Service also owns a portion of the Cholla coal-fired power plant in Arizona. The other owner of Cholla is Pacificorp. And with Pacificorp already seemingly making a move away from coal, it’s hard to believe Arizona Public Service won’t follow.
Salt River Project owns portions of the Hayden and Craig power plants in western Colorado, as well as portions of the Four Corners power plant in New Mexico and Springerville power plant in Arizona. They also fully own the Coronado power plant in Arizona.
Every one of these power plants has been identified as economically costly and risky by financial analysts.
Given all this, it’s hard to believe that Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project will continue to maintain their investments in coal.
4. New Utilities Emerging, Giving Old a Run For Their Money
This is beyond huge.
With the decline in renewable prices, new utilities are actually emerging in the American West.
At the forefront is Guzman Energy, whose stated goal is to “transition an outdated energy economy into the renewable age.”
And just last week, Guzman released a request for proposals to build 250 megawatts of renewable energy in the American West, including 200 megawatts of wind and 50 megawatts of solar.
3. This isn’t Just a Climate Opportunity, it’s a Huge Economic Development Opportunity
More renewable energy means more economic development, particularly in rural communities.
Already in Colorado, the state’s move away from coal to more renewable energy promises more jobs, more local revenue, and overall a huge net economic benefit.
It’s really a no-brainer when you think about it.
For one, developing renewable energy means developing more distributed generating sources, including rooftop solar, wind, and batteries, which are ideally situated in the communities they serve.
For another, as more renewable energy takes hold, energy prices stand to stabilize, if not decline, saving communities in the long run.
Colorado rural electric cooperative Delta Montrose Electric Association’s effort to break free from Tri-State is in fact being driven by the prospect of greater economic prosperity. As the co-op’s CEO stated:
“The decision to separate from Tri-State allows for significant economic benefit for our members – including stabilized rates, development of diverse and low-cost local energy, and the creation of new local jobs.” – Jasen Bronec, chief executive officer, Delta Montrose Electric Association
As utilities throughout the American West make the transition to clean energy, it will inevitably open the door for more economic opportunity.
Rural communities in particular stand to reap big rewards as more generation is built locally, sustaining affordable energy, creating jobs, and creating new revenue.
2. No New Gas is on the Horizon
Don’t think natural gas is getting a pass in all this.
The reality is, in the face of utilities’ carbon-free announcements and acknowledgment of economic truths, there does not seem to be a future for this fossil fuel.
It’s telling that although Xcel Energy announced in 2017 plans to construct new natural gas-fired generating facilities in Colorado, the company ultimately abandoned that plan and instead forecasts a decline in natural gas burning.
It’s no wonder. While the economic of coal are the worst, the economics of natural gas aren’t far behind. Xcel’s own data showed that gas simply couldn’t compete with renewables.
Although natural gas is often thought of as a “bridge” from coal to renewables, it seems the whole notion of a bridge is absurd at this point.
And with the economics being what they are, it seems that utilities are going to start shutting down existing gas plants, effectively demolishing the bridge.
That’s great news for the climate. Despite the assertion that natural gas is cleaner than coal, it actually has an outsized carbon footprint largely because of methane releases associated with fracking.
Methane has 86 times more heat-trapping capacity than carbon dioxide, making it a potent climate pollutant.
1. There’s a Good Chance the American West Will be Coal-free by 2030
Given that all the American West’s most significant coal burning utilities are making or will very likely make big near-term moves away from coal, there’s no doubt that we are likely to see a coal-free American West within a decade.
Sure, not every utility has stepped up to announce bold climate action or a move toward more renewable energy. However, the writing on the wall seems very clear that if utilities don’t go down this path, it could mean their demise.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission is already staring at a bleak future due to its unwillingness to move beyond coal.
Other coal burning utilities in the western U.S., including Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, Basin Electric, Idaho Power, Black Hills Corporation, and others are undoubtedly be staring at the same future. Their failure to move beyond coal could very well be their undoing.
That means whether they like it or not, utilities face the prospect of their coal going away and soon.
And that’s why the American West is very likely to be 100% coal-free as early as 2030.
Epilogue: What About Natural Gas Systems?
Amidst the big energy announcements, there’s a conspicuous lack of focus on utilities’ natural gas services. Xcel, Pacificorp, and others aren’t just electricity providers, they also provide gas to homes, businesses, and industry for heating, cooking, and other uses.
While natural gas systems are more distributed and less high profile than huge, filthy coal-fired smokestacks, they’re equally destructive and disconcerting from a climate standpoint.
In fact, from the point of fracking to the point at which natural gas is consumed, massive amounts of carbon emissions are released from our natural gas systems.
While nationwide, methane leaks and combustion at natural gas well and processing plants release more than 200 million metric tons of carbon annually in the U.S., the consumption of natural gas at homes, businesses, and factories releases nearly 800 million metric tons.
In total, carbon pollution associated with natural gas production and consumption in non-power plant sources accounts for more than 15% of all U.S. climate emissions.
Cleaner electricity generation is critical to saving our climate. However, utilities can’t ignore their overall carbon footprints. That means Xcel, Pacificorp, and others need to start paying attention to natural gas.
And who better than to take action to help our nation move away from natural gas than our electric utilities?
They, more than anyone else, have the means to develop the renewable energy to generate the power needed to run electric furnaces, stoves, ovens, hot water heaters, and other appliances.
Truly, utilities like Xcel and others can transition their customers from gas to electricity and ultimately, be as lucrative as ever.
What a month it’s been. Here’s hoping for more progress for the climate, for 100% fossil fuel-free, and for real economic prosperity in the American West. Stay tuned for more!
Scientists described the quickening rate of carbon dioxide emissions in stark terms, comparing it to a “speeding freight train” and laying part of the blame on an unexpected surge in the appetite for oil as people around the world not only buy more cars but also drive them farther than in the past — more than offsetting any gains from the spread of electric vehicles.
“We’ve seen oil use go up five years in a row,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford and an author of one of two studies published Wednesday. “That’s really surprising.”
Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018, according to the new research, which was published by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 100 scientists from more than 50 academic and research institutions and one of the few organizations to comprehensively examine global emissions numbers. Emissions rose 1.6 percent last year, the researchers said, ending a three-year plateau.
Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018, according to the new research, which was published by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 100 scientists from more than 50 academic and research institutions and one of the few organizations to comprehensively examine global emissions numbers. Emissions rose 1.6 percent last year, the researchers said, ending a three-year plateau.
In an upstairs ballroom of downtown Seattle’s Arctic Club, where polar bears and maps of the Arctic decorate the walls, volunteers and activists who campaigned for Washington’s first carbon fee waited cheerfully for election results on Tuesday night. Just after 8 p.m., a first wash of returns that had the initiative on track to pass sent ripples through the room. But as more counties reported in, the likelihood dropped. By 9 p.m., the mood turned, and clusters of supporters retreated to bars across downtown to mourn. On Wednesday morning, 56 percent of Washington voters had rejected the state’s second attempt to tax carbon emissions.
Tuesday night’s returns offered a mixed message on whether states have the momentum to regulate fossil fuels without federal backing. Candidates who support action on climate change won gubernatorial races in Colorado and Oregon, while in Washington, Democratic incumbent Sen. Maria Cantwell, who has backed climate initiatives in the Senate, held her seat by a comfortable margin. But ballot initiatives intended to regulate fossil fuel emissions and boost renewable energy sources fell flat.
Colorado won’t tighten fracking restrictions
A pair of dueling initiatives, Proposition 112 and Amendment 74, dealt with regulating the state’s fracking boom, which has butted up against sprawling suburbs. Proposition 112 would have required new oil and gas wells and production facilities to be built at least 2,500 feet away from schools, drinking water sources and homes, a significant increase from current set-back requirements. Amendment 74 would have required payments for any lost property values due to government action, including regulations that affect mineral rights – like Proposition 112.
The result: Both initiatives failed, leaving the state where it started on oil and gas regulations.
FromThe Washington Post ( Brady Dennis and Dino Grandoni):
Initiatives in Arizona, Colorado and Washington that would have propped up renewable energy and tamped down on fossil fuels failed to garner enough votes.
Voters in Arizona, one of the nation’s most sun-soaked states, shot down a measure that would have accelerated its shift toward generating electricity from sunlight. Residents in oil- and gas-rich Colorado defeated a measure to sharply limit drilling on state-owned land.
Even in the solidly blue state of Washington, initial results were poor for perhaps the most consequential climate-related ballot measure in the country this fall: A statewide initiative that would have imposed a first-in-the-nation fee on emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.
The failure of the ballot measures underscores the difficulty of tackling a global problem like climate change policy at the local level, even as environmental advocates and lawmakers have turned to state governments to counter the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era efforts to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and as scientists warn the world has only a bit more than a decade to keep global warming to moderate levels…
But elsewhere on the ballot in Colorado, environmental advocates failed to pass a measure known as Proposition 112. The initiative would have required new wells to be at least 2,500 feet from occupied buildings and other “vulnerable areas” such as parks and irrigation canals — a distance several times that of existing regulations. It also allows local governments to require even longer setbacks.
As oil production has soared in Colorado in recent years and the population has grown, more and more residents are living near oil and gas facilities. Those who supported the ballot measure argued it was necessary to reduce potential health risks and the noise and other nuisances of living near drilling sites. Opponents countered that the proposal would virtually eliminate new oil and gas drilling on non-federal land in the state — they have derided it as an “anti-fracking” push — and claimed it would cost jobs and deprive local governments of tax revenue.
The industry-backed group, Protect Colorado, raised roughly $38 million this year as it opposed the controversial measure, which it says would “wipe out thousands of jobs and devastate Colorado’s economy for years to come.” By contrast, the main group backing the proposal, known as Colorado Rising for Health and Safety, raised about $1 million…
Meanwhile in the state of Washington, the effort to put a price on carbon emissions is on the verge of defeat, with 56.3 percent of voters rejecting the measure and 43.7 percent supporting it as of Tuesday evening, when two-thirds of the votes were counted. An official at the Washington secretary of state’s office said Monday the vote-by-mail system in the state means it could take several days for a final vote tally.
With the measure known as Initiative 1631, Washington would become the first state in the nation to tax carbon dioxide — an approach many scientists, environmental advocates and policymakers argue will be essential on a broad scale to nudge the world away from its reliance on fossil fuels and to combat climate change.
But that proposal, like other environmental initiatives across the country, had come with a fight, pitting big oil refiners against a collection of advocates that includes unions, Native American groups, business leaders like Bill Gates and former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, as well as the state’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee…
Florida voters, likely with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill still fresh in mind, decided to amend the state constitution to ban offshore oil and gas in state waters.
That decision served as another blow to efforts by the Trump administration and the oil industry to expand offshore drilling nationwide. While Trump’s Interior Department initially suggested allowing drilling across 90 percent of the outer continental shelf, oil lobbyists eyed the section of the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida as one of the biggest prizes.
The fossil fuel-friendly Trump administration has been busy rolling back environmental regulations and opening millions of acres of public land to oil and gas drilling. Just last week, the Interior Department announced plans to gut an Obama-era methane pollution rule, giving natural gas producers more leeway to emit the powerful greenhouse gas.
With the GOP controlling the executive branch and Congress, that means state-level ballot initiatives are one of the few tools progressives have left to advance their own energy agendas. Twenty-four states, including most Western ones, permit this type of “direct democracy,” which allows citizens who gather enough petition signatures to put new laws and regulations to a vote in general elections.
“In general, the process is used — and advocated for — by those not in power,” explains Josh Altic, the ballot measure project director for the website Ballotpedia. Nationwide, 64 citizen-driven initiatives will appear on state ballots this November, and in the West, many aim to encourage renewable energy development — and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
Proposition 127, known as the Renewable Energy Standards Initiative, would require electric utilities to get half of their power from renewable sources like wind and solar — though not nuclear — by 2030. California billionaire Tom Steyer has contributed over $8 million to the campaign through his political action organization, NextGen Climate Action, which is funding a similar initiative in Nevada.
The parent company of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, tried to sabotage the initiative with a lawsuit arguing that over 300,000 petition signatures were invalid and that the petition language may have confused signers into thinking the mandate includes nuclear energy. APS gets most of its energy from the Palo Verde nuclear plant, and the initiative could hurt its revenue.
The progressive group Colorado Rising gathered enough signatures to put Proposition 112 — the Safer Setbacks for Fracking Initiative — to a vote this year. It would prohibit new oil and gas wells and production facilities within 2,500 feet of schools, houses, playgrounds, parks, drinking water sources and more. State law currently requires setbacks of at least 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools. It’s opposed by the industry-backed group Protect Colorado, whose largest funder, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, attracted scrutiny last year after two people died in a home explosion linked to a leaking gas flow line from a nearby Anadarko well.
Amendment 74, sponsored by the Colorado Farm Bureau, would allow citizens to file claims for lost property value due to government action. It is largely seen as a response to Proposition 112, which the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says would block development on 85 percent of state and private lands. The Farm Bureau’s Chad Vorthmann says Amendment 74 would amend the state Constitution to protect farmers and ranchers who wish to lease their land for oil and gas from “random” setbacks.
Critics argue that the amendment could lead to unintended consequences. In Oregon, for example, a similar amendment passed in 2004, resulting in over 7,000 claims — totaling billions of dollars — filed against local governments, according to the Colorado Independent. Voters then amended the constitution in 2007 to overturn most aspects of the amendment and invalidate many of these claims.
Two energy-related questions will appear on Nevada’s ballot: Question 6, known as the Renewable Energy Promotion Initiative, and Question 3, the Energy Choice Initiative. Funded by Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action, Question 6, which would require utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, faces little formal opposition.
Question 3, however, has attracted more attention — and controversy. The initiative was approved in 2016, but because it would amend the state constitution, voters must approve it a second time. It would allow consumers to choose who they buy power from. It’s spearheaded by big energy consumers, including Switch, a large data company, and luxury resort developer Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which want the freedom to buy cheaper power on the open market without penalty. But environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and Western Resource Advocates, say the initiative threatens clean energy development. NV Energy, the regulated monopoly that provides 90 percent of Nevada’s electricity, has several solar projects planned but has said it would abandon some of these projects if the initiative passes due to costs.
Washington could become the first state to pass a so-called “carbon fee.” Initiative 1631 would create funding for investments in clean energy and pollution programs through a fee paid for by high carbon emitters like utilities and oil companies. In 2016, a similar initiative lost by almost 10 points. However, many former opponents are now supporters.
What changed? The 2016 initiative would have imposed a revenue-neutral tax instead of a fee, meaning the money generated by the tax would have been offset by a sales tax cut. Environmental groups felt that the initiative didn’t do enough to promote clean energy or to address the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities. But the new fee would bankroll clean energy projects, as well as help polluted communities. The oil and gas industry is funding the opposition campaign, with Phillips 66 contributing $7.2 million so far.
Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at email@example.com
Click through and read the whole article from The New York Times (Auden Schendler and Andrew P. Jones). Here’s an excerpt:
Mr. Schendler is a climate activist and businessman. Mr. Jones creates climate simulations for the nonprofit Climate Interactive.
On Monday, the world’s leading climate scientists are expected to release a report on how to protect civilization by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Given the rise already in the global temperature average, this critical goal is 50 percent more stringent than the current target of 2 degrees Celsius, which many scientists were already skeptical we could meet. So we’re going to have to really want it, and even then it will be tough.
The world would need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster than has ever been achieved, and do it everywhere, for 50 years. Northern European countries reduced emissions about 4 to 5 percent per year in the 1970s. We’d need reductions of 6 to 9 percent. Every year, in every country, for half a century.
We’d need to spread the world’s best climate practices globally — like electric cars in Norway, energy efficiency in California, land protection in Costa Rica, solar and wind power in China, vegetarianism in India, bicycle use in the Netherlands.
We’d face opposition the whole way. To have a prayer of 1.5 degrees Celsius, we would need to leave most of the remaining coal, oil and gas underground, compelling the Exxon Mobils and Saudi Aramcos to forgo anticipated revenues of over $33 trillion over the next 25 years.
At the intersection of bluegrass & carbon ranching in Colorado
TELLURIDE, Colo. – If both lie within Colorado, eight hours apart by car, Telluride and Lamar would seem to have little in common.
From Lamar, it’s 35 minutes to Kansas, too far away to see even the faint outline of the Rocky Mountains. It was on the Santa Fe Trail and has lots of interesting history. But today it’s a just-getting-by farming town where the politics run red. In the last presidential election, 70 percent of voters in Prowers County voted for Trump, 24 percent for Clinton.
It’s almost exactly opposite in Telluride and San Miguel County: 24 percent voted for Trump and 69 percent for Clinton. The setting is different, of course. Telluride is a place that can cause jaws to literally drop if people arrive for the first time when a rainbow is arching at the end of the box-end canyon on a summer evening. Oprah sprang $14 million for a house a couple years ago. Other billionaires fly on private jets in and out of the airport on a nearby mesa. Those less well-heeled arrive by car for the nearly non-stop festivals that run through the summer.
Now, these two physically and demographically disparate places in Colorado have become connected financially through a carbon offset program.
That relationship came into sharper focus in June as 15,000 people gathered at the 45th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Most of the “festivarians” come from Colorado, particularly Denver and other Front Range cities, but 20 to 25 percent fly to Colorado. Every state is represented and about 10 foreign countries. This sort of thing can be tracked both in post-surveys but also in on-line registrations.
Festival organizer Planet Bluegrass has long been conscious of the festival’s role in generating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Steve Szymaski, who has been with Planet Bluegrass since 1988 and is vice president, says the company began making efforts to offset the carbon emissions its causes in 2003. “It’s really a philosophy of wanting to understand that that everything has impacts, and that there are ways to encourage renewable energy.”
Planet Bluegrass has invested in both renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets, two parallel but different financial devices.
In the early years, Planet Bluegrass purchased renewable energy certificates for wind, solar and hydro. Most of the money went to wind farms, including one in Minnesota. For three years the money went to a methane-reduction project at a dairy in the Central Valley of California. For two years, money went to a methane-capture project at landfill in Colorado’s Larimer County.
Planet Bluegrass has expanded its accountability over the years. Electricity—produced mostly by burning coal and natural gas—represents just 1 percent of electrical use associated with the festival. lodging represents another small component. Travel—trucking equipment, by performers, even shuttles during the festival—represents the lion’s share. Largest of all is travel by the attendees, 87 percent of the festival’s carbon footprint. The festival last year generated an estimated 2,100 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
This year, the bluegrass festival took a new tac. Keeping the dollars local or at least semi-local was important. Telluride’s Pinhead Climate Institute offered an appealing opportunity in a package deal.
The Town of Telluride is also participating for five years, offsetting operations of the in-town bus shuttle, called the Galloping Goose. Mountainfilm last year participated, and a program involving jet travel from the mesa-top Telluride Regional airport, highest in the county to offer commercial service, is also being assembled.
Shepherding the program is Adam Chambers, one of the three co-founders of the climate offshoot of the Pinhead Institute. He has worked extensively in carbon offset programs elsewhere in the country, from the Carolinas to California. “If I were to characterize myself as anything, it would be as a carbon accountant,” he says.
The Pinhead’s carbon offset work got launched through a $50,000 grant from the Telluride Foundation’s program designed to foster innovation. To get the grant, the idea had to get strong community support. It did. Telluride has vowed to become a carbon-neutral community. The sign at the entrance to town says so.
Why not just avoid carbon in energy use? Not likely any time soon, at Telluride or other mountain resort towns. Chambers says that residents of Telluride, Mountain Village and San Miguel County altogether have double the national carbon footprint. This estimate may skew conservative, as it makes no attempt to take responsibility for how its visitors get there or get home except as it may involve sale of fossil fuels locally. The mesa-top airport sells 500,000 gallons of aviation fuel annually. Most guests arrive at other airports outside the county.
There’s only so much switching out of lightbulbs possible. Electricity for Telluride still comes primarily from coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, so even if the town had electric buses they would have a carbon footprint. Jets burn gas—and lots of it. This energy transition is far from complete.
Along the Santa Fe Trail
That’s where the 14,500-acre May ranch near Lamar comes into the picture. Its native sod has never been turned by a plow. That’s a rarity on the Great Plains.
The ranch lies near the Arkansas River. Traders on the Santa Fe Trail wheeled their carts along the river in the 1830s and 1840s, stopping at Bent’s Fort. In late 1864, just a few years after the founding of Denver 200 miles to the northwest, Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians had taken shelter along Sand Creek, at a site north of today’s ranch. The promises were broken when soldiers under the command of John Chivington, the hero of a Civil War battle in New Mexico, whooped down with guns blazing at dawn. Today, the Sand Creek Massacre is observed by Native Americans and Anglos both each year the day after Thanksgiving.
Greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes and smoke stacks have occupied much of the attention of the environmental movement. They’re not everything, though. The Environmental Protection Agency in April said that 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from farms and deforestation.
Most of the attention usually goes to logging of rainforests in Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere. But the plowing of the Great Plains, the world’s most productive farm region, also ranks high—and, some say, higher.
The great plow-up continues. The World Wildlife Fund, in an October 2017 report called “Plowprint,” estimated 2.5 million acres of grassland on the Great Plains of the United States and Canada had been plowed the prior year. The organization worries about the grasslands being an “absolutely underappreciated ecosystem,” in the words of Martha Kauffman, of the non-profit office in Bozeman, Mont.
Native grasslands sequester carbon as they grow grass. That’s the key to this new connection between Telluride and the May Ranch. Plowing releases carbon into the atmosphere. That makes keeping the land unplowed worth something in the fledgling market of carbon offsets.
Owners of the ranch, the May family, are being paid essentially to stay the course, to do nothing different.
That’s a tricky concept to absorb, kind of like negative numbers. This is how Chambers explains the concept:
“You are saying to farmer Dallas May, ‘You have a stock of carbon in your carbon bank account, and you are agreeing to keep that carbon forever in your bank account without pursuing other crop options that would allow you to deplete that carbon stock. You are not a regulated entity, so you can emit to the atmosphere without any negative repercussions. So, nice work on being a carbon shepherd. You are forgoing plowing the soil to grow soybeans or some other crop. But this carbon farming might be more predictable than commodity prices.”
Spare the plow?
How the ranch came to spare the plow for so long is not clear. What is clear, according to the testimony of Ducks Unlimited, a key partner in preserving its unbroken character, is that there have been threats from every direction. A large diary operation was interested in plowing the native vegetation to plant feed crops with center-pivot irrigation. Next to the ranch, on other property, 2,400 acres of prairie were plowed up in just one month several years ago.
This statistic comes from Billy Gascoigne, an economist and environmental markets specialist for Ducks Unlimited. Based in Fort Collins, Colo., he previously worked in the Prairie Potholes region in the Dakotas. That’s where Ducks Unlimited negotiated the first large carbon transaction in 2015.
Now, the same principles and protocols for determining value have been applied to the 14,500-acre ranch in Colorado.
Using protocol established by the American Carbon Registry, Ducks Unlimited determined that plowing the native grasses to grow corn or wheat would release around 8,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year for the next 50 years. Conserving these grasslands equates to removing the annual emissions of 50,000 cars, according to the calculations of the registry.
The ranch is “literally surrounded on all four sides by cropland and had many offers to plow up the grasslands,” says Gascoigne. “We worked with our partners in the land trust community to get ahead of the plow and make sure that carbon stays in the belowground soil.”
The owner of the ranch, the May family, had been on the property for 30 years and only recently had purchased it. Dallas May, the patriarch of the ranch family, wanted to find a way to preserve the ranch, and hence begin reaching out to conservation organizations to explore options that would not damage the wildlife habitat and would allow continued livestock grazing to occur.
May had come to appreciate the value of the property as wildlife habitat. The Audubon Society has designated the ranch as an area of significance for birds as well as an essential corridor link between two populations of lesser prairie chickens. It also has ducks.
Carbon offsets have become more common. They represent the act of reducing, avoiding, destroying or sequestering the equivalent of a ton of greenhouse gas in one place to “offset” an emission taking place somewhere else, as GreenBiz explained in 2009.
The market remains a voluntary one in Colorado and most places. The Disney Corporation, Shell, Chevrolet and others have used the device to offset emissions.
Another major multi-national corporation will soon announce another offset project involving land in eastern Colorado, says Chambers.
This is a voluntary market. Only California has a price on carbon emissions among U.S. states. As relates to prairie ecosystems, there are two protocols for establishing the value of the offset. But because the market for offsets remain small, values are still being determined.
Planet Bluegrass’s Szymanski says his company paid $30,000 this year to offset the impacts of the festival in Telluride. Other years, he says, he has paid as little as $10,000. “This is a small drop in the bucket compared to what Fortune 500 companies can do,” he says. “But we were there at the start.”
The Pinhead Institute wanted to keep it “local,” and Colorado fits within that definition. Other places, closer to Telluride, could in theory work. But getting small plots of land, such as conservation easements on hillsides that might otherwise be carved up into estates, is impossible to do. “The numbers just aren’t large enough to pull it off,” says Gascoigne.
Planet Bluegrass was happy to keep the money local, too. “We feel it was important to get behind this because it was new and they were hungry,” says Szymanski.
The most important point, says Gascoigne, is you don’t have to go preserve a rain forest on another continent to do good work. He believes he is doing very consequential work just eight hours from Telluride.