Climate Change Blog 41
Facts on the Ground:
The current list of record-worst conditions (May/June, 2021) in the entire western half of the US is shocking, unprecedented and ominous. Record driest conditions were measured in AZ, NM, UT, western CO, WY, ID, CA, OR, WA and ID. Record wettest: eastern CO, and WA. Record warmest: AZ, CA, NV (more below). And near record conditions existed in all of those states in all those categories.
According to the United States Drought Monitor, 84% of the West is now in drought, with 47% rated as “severe” or “extreme.” In Utah, 90% of the state is in the two most severe categories; in Arizona, 87%; North Dakota, 85%; New Mexico, 80 %; and California, 73%.
Reservoirs are at extremely low levels in northern CA. Lake Mead is a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam, it is 52% below usual which has reduced by 25% the dam’s hydroelectric generation capacity. It is the largest human-made reservoir in the US and recently hit its lowest level since 1937.
Snowpack levels are extremely low along the entire length of CA’s Sierra Mountains, and in UT, CO, NM, ID, WY, MT, WA, OR and AZ. Mountain snowpack normally slowly releases water in the spring and summer, but was depleted before the start of summer. In California, water restrictions are already in effect, with more cuts and controversy to come. On April 1, the date when the snow is normally deepest there, statewide snowpack was 59% of the historical average.
Dry soil and vegetation increase fire risk. Thus, the worst is likely to come in the form of wildfires, blackouts, more extensive crop destruction, impairments to drinking water and increased risk of extinction to endangered species.
The severe drought causes mass die-offs of trees, providing enormous quantities of fuel for wildfires. Such a mass die-off occurred in April in Arizona, where up to 30% of the juniper trees across 100,000 acres died from the drought.
The American west has had droughts before, but climate change is setting new records and causing unprecedented challenges encompassing nine states and nearly 60 million people. Climate change is increasing volatility, it makes dry years drier and wet years wetter. The prolonged aridity is forcing farmers to rip out thirsty crops such as almond trees and to send dairy cows to early slaughter.
“It’s an alarming picture,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies how global warming affects extreme weather events.
Winter rain and snowfall usually bring most of California’s moisture for the year, but this winter was drier than usual, with warm temperatures arriving early this spring. The state is now in its dry season and is unlikely to see significant rainfall again until October.
“There’s a 100 percent chance that it gets worse before it gets better,” Dr. Swain said. “We have the whole long, dry summer to get through.”
Last year, the West Coast saw its worst fire season on record, with megafires burning in Washington, Oregon and California. Dry conditions have set the stage for another bad fire year in 2021. Officials are predicting when the fire season ends — if it ever does, as warming conditions have made fires possible year-round in some areas — the total could exceed last year’s of 10.3 million acres. Already, twice as many acres have burned in California as during the same period last year.
“Not everything is predictable,” said Dr. Swain of U.C.L.A., referring to events like the dry lightning strikes that ignited many major fires in 2020. “But of the predictable elements — how dry is the soil? And will it get better in the next months? — those are as bad as it can be.” “Most of the west is at increased risk of large severe fires this year,” he said. “That may sound like a broken record, but maybe that’s the point.”
The drought is producing multiple crises in the Klamath Basin along the California-Oregon border. Native sucker fish are nearing extinction, salmon are dying en masse, Oregon’s largest lake is below critical thresholds for managing fish survival, and federal officials have shut the gates depriving farmers of essential water they have depended on every year since 1907.
In Oregon, conservationists, Native American tribes, government agencies and irrigators are at odds and generations of tensions could lead to violence. “There are folks on both sides that would really like to throw down and take things in an ugly direction,” said Clayton Dumont, a member of the Klamath Tribal Council.
Ammon Bundy, who led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016, threatened to assemble forces to force open the gates, saying that people need to be prepared to use force to protect their rights.
“Who cares if there is violence? At least something will be worked out,” Mr. Bundy said. “‘Oh, we don’t want violence, we’ll just starve to death.’ Heaven forbid we talk about violence.”
Even with the gates closed, there is insufficient water and fish are suffering. Juvenile salmon are dying of parasitic infections. Michael Belchik, a senior water policy analyst at the Yurok Tribe, said the die-off could end up being the worst on record. Several wildlife refuges are also cut off from water endangering 25 at-risk species of birds and fish. “This is really catastrophic,” Mr. Belchik said. “We are starting to talk about the ‘extinction’ word around here.”
Climate change is being driven by global warming which is measured by the level of atmospheric carbon. The exquisitely bad news is that CO2 reached a new record this spring, once again reaching the highest level in human history despite a temporary dip in the burning of fossil fuels worldwide caused by the pandemic.
Scientific instruments atop the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii measured the level of CO2 at an average of 419 parts per million in May, according to two separate analyses from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Despite the pandemic, despite decades of world leaders claiming to be serious about reducing carbon emissions, humanity still emitted more than 31 billion tons of CO2 last year, mostly from sources such as cars and trucks that burn gasoline or power plants that burn coal. About half the emitted CO2 is absorbed by trees and oceans, the other half stays in the atmosphere, where it lingers for thousands of years, steadily warming the planet through the greenhouse effect.
Scientists have said there’s only one way to stop the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from continuing to grow: nations must zero out their net annual emissions, primarily by switching from fossil fuels to cleaner technologies that do not emit CO2, such as electric cars fueled by wind, solar or nuclear power.
The International Energy Agency recently issued a road map for how all the world’s nations could reach net zero emissions by 2050. The changes would be drastic, the agency found (see below).
The current levels of atmospheric CO2 are comparable to those seen during the Pliocene era, over 4 million years ago, the Scripps scientists said. While that period is not a perfect guide to what would happen today, it can provide some clues. By analyzing ice cores and ocean sediments, researchers have determined that temperatures during that time were nearly 4C (7F) higher than in the modern preindustrial era and that sea levels were about 78 feet higher than today.
As a result of record levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, record high temperatures have engulfed much of the west in a ‘heat dome.’
Phoenix hit a record-breaking 118F June 18. Scientists said that the pre-summer heat wave was unusual because it arrived earlier and stayed longer than usual. In Redding, Calif., temperatures reached 109F on May 31 (May!), breaking the record of 103F set in 2016. Las Vegas had its first 100-degree day of the year on May 31 too. The temperature reached a dangerous 130F at the Furnace Creek Visitor's Center at Death Valley National Park (CA) on June 17, 2021.
More recently, it reached 112F at Portland International Airport in Oregon on June 27. It was the highest temperature recorded there since historical records began in 1940. The average temperature there for this time of year is about 73F.
Temperatures reached 102F on June 26 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and on June 27 it reached 104F, setting an all-time record high. “That’s now the first time in our climate record of two consecutive days above 100,” the National Weather Service said. That included Seattle area records dating back to 1894. A town in British Columbia reached nearly 116F on June 28, the highest recorded temperature for any place in Canada in its history.
The National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning for virtually all of Washington and Oregon, as well as sections of California, Idaho, Montana and Nevada for the end of June into July.
The two-decade-long dry spell, a “megadrought,” has evaporated the moisture from the soil through much of the Western US. Researchers said in a study published last year in the journal Science that man-made climate change tied to the emission of GHGs is attributable to about half of the historic drought.
A growing number of scientific studies are concluding that heat waves in some cases can be directly attributed to climate change, said Kristie L. Ebi, a professor at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington. That means the US West and the rest of the world can expect more extreme heat waves in the future unless we slash GHG emissions, Ebi said.
A recent study estimated the number of heat deaths each year attributable to human-caused climate change. It included about 200 U.S. cities and found more than 1,100 deaths a year from climate change-caused heat, representing about 35% of all heat deaths in the country. On average each year, Phoenix has 23 climate-triggered heat deaths, Los Angeles has 21 and Tucson has 13, the study said. “Climate change is harming us now,” Ebi said.
While record high temperatures were reached unusually early in the year, so too did the hurricane season get off to an early start. On May 22, Ana became the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. Ana developed well before the start of the hurricane season on June 1. It was the seventh year in a row that a named storm developed in the Atlantic before the official start of the season.
To effectively combat climate change, humanity must treat warming and biodiversity loss as two parts of the same problem, according to a new report from the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development.
“These two topics are more deeply intertwined than originally thought,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chairman of the scientific steering committee that produced the report. They are also inextricably tied to human well-being. But global policies usually target one or the other, with unintended consequences.
“If you look at just one single angle, you miss a lot of things,” said Yunne-Jai Shin, a marine biologist with the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development and a co-author of the report. “Every action counts.”
For years, one set of scientists and policymakers has focused on the climate crisis, warning of its dangers from GHG that have been accumulating in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. They identified the culprit as burned fossil fuels.
Another group has focused on the biodiversity crisis, warning of extinctions and ecosystem collapse. They identified the culprits as habitat loss from agriculture, and, at sea, overfishing.
One connection between the dual threats of climate and biodiversity is that humanity has created emergencies in both areas by unsustainable consumption. Scientists warn that declines in biodiversity can lead to ecosystem collapse, threatening humanity’s food and water supply.
“Climate change of four or five degrees is just such an existential threat to people, it’s hard to imagine,” said Paul Leadley, one of the authors and an ecologist at Paris-Saclay University. If we lose a really large fraction of species on earth, that’s an existential threat.”
Businesses and countries have tried to offset their emissions by planting trees to absorb carbon. But nature can’t absorb enough carbon to allow humanity to keep emitting GHG at our current rates. “A clear first priority is emissions reductions, emissions reductions and emissions reductions,” Dr. Pörtner said.
In fact, planting trees can exacerbate problems. In Brazil, parts of the Cerrado, a biodiverse savanna that stores large amounts of carbon, have been planted with monocultures of eucalyptus and pine in a reforestation effort. Such efforts have destroyed the native ecosystem and the livelihoods of Indigenous people.
Similarly, both the push for biofuels in Europe, and wood pellets in the SE US, has backfired and led to deforestation and increased food prices in Europe, and pollution and biodiversity loss in the SE US.
The report suggests that by protecting and restoring nature we can protect and promote biodiversity, help limit warming, improve human well-being and protect ourselves from the impacts of climate change such as flooding and storms.
Pamela McElwee, an environmental anthropologist at Rutgers University and one of the authors of the report, pointed to the Casamance region of Senegal where local communities had restored mangroves and adopted sustainable fishing measures, improving their catch, bringing back dolphins and 20 species of fish, storing carbon and protecting their coastline.
Most world leaders have gotten the message that if catastrophe is to be averted, GHG emisions must be reduced. Biden pledged that the US would cut its emissions 50 to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030. Japan pledged to cut 44% below 2005 levels by 2030. Canada committing to a 40 to 45% cut below 2005 levels by 2030. Great Britain pledged to cut emissions 78% below 1990 levels by 2035. But other major emitters such as Australia, India and Russia have yet to offer significant new pledges.
To avoid many of the most catastrophic risks of climate change, such as the collapse of polar ice sheets or widespread crop failures, scientists have said that the world likely needs to zero out emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation by around mid-century. “If the ultimate goal is zero emissions, then the metric we really care about is how quickly countries can get to zero,” said Kate Larsen, a director at Rhodium Group, an energy research and consulting firm.
Many lower-income countries still expect their emissions to either plateau or keep rising over the next decade. China, the world’s largest emitter of GHG, has stated that its emissions will continue to grow until around 2030. Thereafter, the country will aim for net zero emissions by 2060. China’s justification is that it was slower to industrialize than the US and Europe, and therefore needs more time to transition from fossil fuels like coal.
Similarly, India has not set a date for its emissions peak, though it has announced goals for increasing the use of cleaner energy sources and slowing its growth of fossil-fuel consumption. India’s position is that it is much poorer than the US or Europe and it is unfair to hold them to the same standard.
If the US and China were to meet their stated climate goals, US per capita emissions would decline and equal China’s rising level by 2030, the Rhodium Group estimated. Both countries’ per capita emissions would still be twice that of Europe’s and nearly four times that of India’s. Currently, the US uses far more fossil fuels per person than almost any other country in the world.
“If you’re asking whether the U.S. target is fair and ambitious, the right yardstick isn’t what will pass muster with the Senate,” said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and a co-author of the report. “The question is what should the United States do given its capacity to act and its historical responsibility for causing the problem?”
Most Republicans in Congress oppose the Biden administration’s plans on climate change and point to the fact that China and India have not committed to emissions cuts. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), said that the president was “unilaterally committing America to a drastic and damaging emissions pledge” that would harm the US economy while “America’s adversaries like China and Russia continue to increase emissions at will.”
Under the bipartisan infrastructure agreement, $312 billion would go to transportation projects, $55 billion to waterways and $47 billion for “resilience” to deal with the impacts of climate change. The rest of Biden’s proposals, including tax incentives for clean energy and EVs may have to go through budget reconciliation. The EPA is looking at enacting stricter regulations for tailpipe pollution from cars and trucks and for methane emissions.
But none of those measures have passed into law yet and they face opposition in Congress and uncertainty in the courts. “There are a number of plausible pathways to hit that target, but it’s frankly going to be challenging,” said Nathan Hultman, director of University of Maryland’s Center on Global Sustainability who has modeled what a 50% cut would require. “We won’t be able to sit back and hope that market forces alone will do the job.”
The implications of reaching Biden’s goals would be transformative for the US. While Biden has not laid out specific plans, experts say the following changes are essential: By the end of this decade, more than half of the new cars and SUVs sold must be EVs, and by 2030 two-thirds must be EVs, up from 2% today. Virtually every coal-fired power plant must be closed or augmented with Carbon Capture and Sequestration technology (which is in its infancy). Natural forests must expand. The number of wind turbines and solar panels must quadruple.
By 2030, half the country’s electricity must come from renewables such as wind, solar or hydropower, up from one-fifth today. New natural gas plants must be equipped with CCS. All new buildings must be heated by electricity rather than natural gas. The nation’s cement, steel and chemical industries must become energy efficient. Oil and gas producers must slash methane emissions by 60%. Farming practices must improve so as absorb 20% more CO2 from the air.
All of which is doable with a well-functioning congress. But that’s not what we have. “Those are massive changes to electricity and transportation, and even then you can’t just focus on those sectors alone,” said Mr. Hultman. “If we fall short in any one area, the task becomes that much harder.”
Climate change litigation. German’s highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, sided with the nine youthful plaintiffs between the ages of 15 and 24 in ordering the government to expand a 2019 law aimed at lowering the country’s carbon emissions to nearly zero by 2050.
“The appellants, some of whom are still very young, have had their liberties violated by the challenged provisions,” the ruling said, ordering the government to revise the law by the end of next year to clarify and specify targets that reach beyond 2030. “To preserve fundamental liberty, the legislature should have made provisions to mitigate this burden.”
And, the District Court in The Hague recently ruled that Royal Dutch Shell, must reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% by the end of 2030 compared with 2019 emissions levels, which aligns with the Paris Accord target of limiting global warming to 1.5C.
This is a historic verdict and victory by inter alia, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Netherlands, and 17,379 youthful co-plaintiffs. It is the first time that a major fossil fuel company has been held accountable for its contribution to climate change and ordered to reduce its carbon emissions throughout its supply chain.
“The court understands that the consequences could be big for Shell,” Jeannette Honée, a spokeswoman for the court, said. “But the court believes that the consequences of severe climate change are more important than Shell’s interests.” The court appeared to have accepted the environmentalists’ argument: “Severe climate change has consequences for human rights, including the right to life. And the court thinks that companies, among them Shell, have to respect those human rights,” Ms. Honée said.
In the US, a climate change case brought by Earth Guardians on behalf of 21 minors in the matter of JULIANA v. UNITED STATES (and defended by Jeffrey Clark, who later conspired with Trump to overturn the 2020 election) asserted that, through the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.
The Oregon District Court Judge Ann Aiken said: “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
But a divided Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled that while it recognized the gravity of the evidence on the plaintiffs’ injuries from climate change, the government’s role in causing them, and that the government is violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, still, two of the three judges “reluctantly” concluded that the remedy should come from the executive and legislative branches rather than the courts. The third judge, Josephine L. Staton, affirmed the youths’ constitutional climate rights in a powerful dissent.
In June, Judge Aiken ordered attorneys for the parties to convene for a settlement conference with Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin saying that this was not a “ministerial step,” but an expectation that the parties will bring decision-makers and use best efforts to reach a court-supported resolution.
In Australia, eight teenagers and a nun sued to stop the government from expanding an enormous coal mine called Whitehaven. The court did not issue the injunction against the mine sought by the plaintiffs, but ordered the government to take “reasonable care to avoid personal injury to the children,” as it recognized climate change as an “intergenerational crime,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
The New York Climate Action Council Co-Chairs, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and NY State Energy Research and Development Authority President and CEO Doreen Harris, announced progress under NY's climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
The Council's seven advisory panels, Transportation, Agriculture and Forestry, Land Use and Local Government, Power Generation, Energy Efficiency and Housing, Energy Intensive and Trade Exposed Industries, and Waste have - along with the Just Transition Working Group - submitted their recommendations for the Council to consider in the development of the draft Scoping Plan that will guide progress toward the Climate Act's goals to reduce GHG emissions, increase renewable energy development, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
The draft Scoping Plan will be released for public comment and the subject of six public hearings in 2022. The recommendations from the advisory panels will now be advanced into an integration analysis Major Milestones.
With notable exceptions (see below), Biden is pushing an ‘all of government” approach to dealing with climate change. A key component is the clean electricity standard which would require power companies to gradually increase the amount of electricity they generate from wind, solar and other sources until they’re no longer emitting CO2. The main impediment is Congress and the still powerful fossil fuel lobby.
CES has been approved in some form by 29 states from Washington to Virginia and enjoys bipartisan support by voters. Experts say it is one of the most effective ways to reduce GHG emissions.
Given the dysfunctional Congress, Democrats say they will have to attach the CES to the budget reconciliation. This requires the support of all 50 Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), the state second only to Wyoming in coal production. He remains noncommittal.
Republican leaders claim pushing utilities to shun coal, oil and gas will result in higher electric bills. The fossil fuel industry claims such a change will harm the reliability of the power grid.
The last time Congress tried and failed to enact major climate change legislation was 2009. Democrats then were routed in the midterm elections and lost the House as Republicans claimed that Democrats would increase electricity costs.
Democrats are hoping that times have changed. Wind and solar costs have plummeted and are cheaper than coal and natural gas. More Americans say they are concerned about climate change having witnessed drought and wildfires in California and stronger hurricanes in the south.
Biden even has the support of some major utilities regarding a CES. Thirteen publicly owned utilities announced support for an aggressive measure that would eliminate 80% of fossil fuel emissions from the sector by 2030. The Edison Electric Institute, which represents privately owned utilities and opposed a renewable energy standard in 2007, now supports a “well-designed” policy.
Senator Barrasso said that “what the president is proposing is raising energy costs significantly.” The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found a possible increase of 2% for electricity bills in 2017. More recent research from the University of Chicago found a possible increase of about 11%.
Economists continue to argue that the most effective approach would be a tax on carbon emissions, but taxes are unpopular with many Republicans and some progressive Democrats.
The details of Biden’s plan are not yet specified but likely will include nuclear energy and technology to capture and store CO2, which may allow some fossil fuel plants to continue operating. These two options are deemed necessary to have any chance of gaining Republican support, which is considered unlikely.
One major issue is whether to characterize natural gas as a “clean energy,” which the gas industry wants. Burning natural gas produces half the CO2 of coal but it releases methane, a far more potent GHG. Extracting, or fracking, the gas also emits methane. Progressive Democrats will oppose any measure that includes anything other than renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal power.
“You can’t have a truly clean energy system that includes fracked gas,” said Mitchell Jones, policy director at Food and Water Watch, one of more than 600 environmental groups that signed a May 12 letter to House and Senate leaders. The group rejected gas “with or without carbon capture sequestration” and other “false solutions” like nuclear power.
Biden is hopeful 10 Republicans will support a CES but only a few rise to the level of noncommittal. Senators Romney (Utah, is “looking at” it), and Collins (Maine, will “review” it). More likely it will be pushed through budget reconciliation and must be crafted in a way that changes federal spending or revenue.
Biden met in Brussels in mid-June with the leaders of the G7 nations and all spoke of the dire need to take bold action on climate change. In the end, they failed to set an end date for burning coal, the prime contributor to global warming.
Agreement was reached on cutting their collective emissions in half by 2030 and to try to stem the rapid extinction of animals and plants, calling it an “equally important existential threat.” They agreed that by next year they would stop international funding for any coal project that lacked technology to capture and store CO2 emissions and vowed to achieve an “overwhelmingly decarbonized” electricity sector by the end of the decade.
The G7 nations together produce about 25% of the world’s climate pollution. Failure to agree on a specific end date for the use of coal lessens their ability to push China to curb its still-growing coal use.
The G7 leaders also failed to secure significant new funding to aid developing countries both adapt to climate impacts and move away from burning fossil fuels. “It’s very disappointing,” said Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International. “This was a moment when the G7 could have shown historic leadership, and instead they left a massive void.”
The G7 could only agree to “rapidly scale up technologies and policies that further accelerate the transition away” from coal without carbon capture technology.
Wealthy nations had agreed in 2009 to raise $100 billion in funding by 2020 to help poorer countries move to clean energy and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Around $80 billion has been delivered according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development mostly in the form of loans, not grants, making it difficult for poor countries to use. Biden and the other leaders pledged to deliver an additional $2 billion.
“The G7 announcement on climate finance is really peanuts in the face of an existential catastrophe,” said Malik Amin Aslam, Pakistan’s climate minister. He called it a “huge disappointment” for his country and others that have faced enormous expenditures due to extreme weather. “At the least, countries responsible for this inescapable crisis need to live up to their stated commitments, otherwise the climate negotiations could well end in futility.”
At the summit, the G7 addressed biodiversity loss, calling it a crisis on the same scale as climate change. They agreed to a global push to conserve at least 30% of the planet’s land and water by 2030. These measures are needed, scientists say, to help curb extinctions, ensure water and food security, store carbon and reduce the risk of future pandemics. Currently, about 17% of the planet’s land and 8% of its oceans are protected, according to the United Nations. Funding for this initiative will be addressed at the United Nations biodiversity conference in October in Kunming, China.
Robert Watson, a former chairman of two intergovernmental panels on climate change and biodiversity, praised the linking of the two crises. He said we must address the drivers of species loss, including agriculture, logging and mining. “I do not see what actions will be taken to stop the causes.”
Biden’s record on energy is mixed. As noted above, he’s been promoting an agenda focused on climate change. He also directed EPA to revise a Trump-era rule that limited the ability of states and tribes to veto pipelines and other energy projects that could pollute their local waterways.
He has frustrated environmentalists with recent support for energy projects that will guarantee the drilling for and burning of oil and gas for decades to come. This disconnect illustrates the political, technical and legal difficulties of disentangling from oil, gas and coal that have supported the economy for over a century.
For example, the Biden administration defended in federal court the Willow project, a huge oil drilling operation approved by the Trump administration proposed for Alaska’s North Slope. This is a multibillion-dollar plan from ConocoPhillips to drill in the National Petroleum Reserve to produce over 100,000 barrels of oil a day until 2050. Biden has also supported Trump’s decision to grant oil and gas leases on federal land in Wyoming. More recently, Biden declined to block crude oil from continuing to flow through the bitterly contested, 2,700-mile Dakota Access pipeline. This pipeline is carrying 550,000 barrels of oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other activists have fought it for more than five years.
Biden “can’t afford to take a pure position on the climate” because he lacks strong majorities in Congress, said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That is the backdrop against which this president and the administration will be making trade-offs on every single issue.”
The decision on the Willow project was made as Biden was angling for some Republican support for its infrastructure package, said Gerald Torres, professor of law and environmental justice at Yale University. “He is going to need Murkowski’s vote for some things,” he said. “These are political calculations.”
Biden also defended 440 oil and gas leases issued by the Trump administration on federal land in Wyoming that is critical habitat of the sage grouse, mule deer and pronghorn. Environmentalists successfully sued the government to stop the leases, arguing that they violated a 2015 agreement that protected that land. But in federal appeals court, the Biden administration defended the leases.
“These are bad decisions,” said Drew Caputo, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, which has fought the Trump administration policies that Biden is now defending. “These actions are carbon bombs.” “I get that they’re being pressured politically. I get that there are thin margins,” he said. “But the climate crisis doesn’t care about any of that stuff.”
The Biden administration also defended a contentious pipeline project approved by the Trump administration that would carry 760,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta across northern Minnesota and into Wisconsin to Lake Superior. The 340-mile pipeline, known as Line 3, has been the focus of mass protests.
“We are extremely disappointed that the Biden Administration continues the Trump Administration’s policy of ignoring tribal rights, environmental justice, and climate concerns in favor of fossil fuel industry profits,” said Moneen Nasmith of Earthjustice.
More in keeping with Biden’s pledge to promote renewable energy, he gained federal approval to construct offshore wind farms in Morro Bay along central California, and another area off the coast of Humboldt in Northern California. These projects could together generate enough electricity to power 1.6 million homes, that would make California one of the largest generators of wind power in the world. A new coastal Massachusetts wind farm may have up to 84 giant wind turbines. California’s could exceed 300. About a dozen other offshore wind projects along the East Coast are now under federal review. The administration has pledged to build 30,000 MW of offshore wind in the US by 2030.
Offshore turbines are productive as winds tend to blow stronger and more steadily at sea than onshore. The turbines can be placed at a distance where they aren’t visible from land but still close enough to cities and suburbs that they do not require hundreds of miles of expensive on-land transmission lines.
It is the avoidance of these expensive on-land transmission lines that makes offshore turbines cost effective compared with less expensive solar and on-land turbines. Plus, the cost of offshore wind turbines has fallen 80% over the last two decades, to $50 per megawatt-hour.
The plan is opposed by the fishing industry. “We’re totally against this,” said Tom Hafer, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization. “We helped pick the spot and developed a memorandum of understanding on an area that we thought would be sustainable for us. That was about 120 square miles. This is 399 square miles. We’re going to lose a whole bunch of fishing grounds. There will be cables in the water. We don’t know how the whales will react.”
The Navy had opposed the California plan, but Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s under secretary of policy, said, “Tackling the climate crisis is a national security imperative [the Defense Department] is committed to working across the US government to find solutions that support renewable energy in a manner compatible with essential military operations.”
The views expressed above are my own.Carl Howard, Co-chair, Global Climate Change CommitteeEnvironmental & Energy Law Section
Follow me on Twitter @Howard.Carl