Climate Change Blog 47
Facts on the Ground:
In early March, Australia’s eastern coast endured record rainfall, some of the worst flooding in Australian history, which inundated parts of two of its largest cities, Lismore, in the state of New South Wales, and Sydney, killing 20 people. Residents had little time to evacuate so many became trapped in their attics and cut through their roofs where they became stranded as floodwaters quickly rose.
The flooding prompted the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to declare a national emergency for the first time in the nation’s history. The prime minister authorized the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars in federal support for affected people, including disaster payments of 2,000 Australian dollars, or roughly $1,460, per adult and 800 Australian dollars, or $585, per child. More than 60,000 people were ordered to evacuate.
The extreme rain has produced the wettest start to any year on record in Sydney and the second wettest in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. Parts of Sydney received over 34 inches of rain this year, an amount that the city usually doesn’t reach until August.
More than 100,000 people have filed flood-related claims, according to the Insurance Council of Australia. The cost of the flooding may exceed 2 billion Australian dollars, or just under $1.5 billion, according to the ratings agency S&P.
Morrison has promoted coal use and downplayed climate change and was met by climate protesters in Lismore. Some carried signs: “He’s a real nowhere man,” or “This is what climate change looks like.” Morrison acknowledged that “We are dealing with a different climate to the one we were dealing with before.” “Australia is getting harder to live in because of these disasters.”
In late February as well, Queensland and New South Wales endured what the authorities described as wild weather with “waves of water just coming down.” At least nine people died in flash flooding from these rains which moved south and inundated the state’s capital, Brisbane. About 18,000 homes across the state were damaged, more than 1,500 people were evacuated and about 53,000 homes lost power. Hundreds of schools are closed, residents were asked to conserve water after flooding knocked a water treatment plant offline.
New South Wales’s premier, Dominic Perrottet, called the flooding “unprecedented.” Annastacia Palaszczuk, the state premier of Queensland, described the latest calamity as a “rain bomb.”
March was filled with lethal tornados in southern US. In late March two tornadoes hit Lacombe, north of New Orleans, and another hit both the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, killing at least one person and sending more to a hospital. Rescuers from the National Guard, state police and others searched through the night looking for residents who may have been trapped.
“There are houses that are missing,” said James Pohlmann, the sheriff of St. Bernard Parish. “One landed in the middle of the street.” Rescuers worked in pitch darkness, amidst fallen tree branches, live power lines and the smell of gas from damaged gas lines. “We have a long road ahead of us with this recovery,” Mr. McInnis of St. Bernard Parish said.
In mid-March, severe weather including tornados ripped through central Texas in and around Austin, the state capital, leaving behind a path of destruction including an overturned 18-wheeler truck and a mobile home blown onto the top of a building. More than 40,000 customers across northeastern Texas lost power according to PowerOutage.us, a website that aggregates data from utilities across the US.
Also in mid-March, four separate fires west of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, collectively called the Eastland Complex fire, killed a deputy with the Eastland County Sheriff’s Office, burned over 45,000 acres including at least 50 homes and forced hundreds to evacuate. Gov. Greg Abbott signed a disaster declaration that would allow the state to better help 11 counties affected by the fire. The forest service said that it was responding to 10 wildfires across the state that had burned more than 52,000 acres.
Earlier in March, 7 people were killed, including two children aged 5 and 2, by tornadoes in Iowa with wind speeds exceeding 135 mph. Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation for Madison County allowing state resources to be used for response and recovery efforts.
Alex Krull, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Des Moines, said powerful tornadoes are typical in the state in April and May, but are “somewhat uncommon” in March. Krull said the thunderstorm that produced the tornado in Madison County traveled about 180 miles, and two other tornado-producing thunderstorms traveled about 120 miles. Roofs were torn from homes, neighbors were offering their barns to store salvaged belongings, and debris was strewn across streets in the eastern and southern parts of the city.
Rick Goehry Jr., who works for Tree Guardian U.S.A., a landscape company, said “I’m seeing total devastation.” “Houses completely gone, lives uprooted. It’s pretty sad.”
Days before Vladimir Putin began his war against the citizens of Ukraine, in late February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a scientific report warning that the dangers of global warming are so imminent that adapting to them may soon be impossible. “Delay,” the UN secretary general said, “means death.”
The report, written by 270 researchers from 67 countries, is the most detailed analysis to date of the threats posed by global warming. It concludes that nations are not doing nearly enough to protect cities, farms and coastlines from the hazards that climate change has already unleashed, including droughts, wildfires and rising seas, nor from the much greater disasters ahead as the planet warms.
António Guterres, the UN secretary general, said the report is “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” “With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.”
The role that Russia’s fossil fuel trade has played in promoting the invasion has placed climate change and its causes into the spotlight. “The world is paying Russia $700 million a day for oil and $400 million for natural gas,” Oleg Ustenko, an economic adviser to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said. “You are paying all this money to a murderous leader who is still killing people in my country.”
Russia is one of the largest producers of fossil fuels in the world. It is highly dependent on its energy trade, with fossil fuels accounting for almost half of its exports and 28% of its federal budget in 2020. Europe relied on Russia for about one-third of its oil and 40% of its natural gas. The US gets none of its natural gas and only about 3% of the oil it consumes from Russia. But given the atrocities being committed in Ukraine, most of the countries that had done business with Russia are cutting off ties. How rapidly the world moves from fossil fuels and toward renewables will determine if we keep global warming below a 1.5C increase.
According to Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraine’s leading climate scientist, who helped finalize the I.P.C.C. report from Kyiv as Russia invaded, the war on her home country is inextricably linked to climate change. “Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to,” she said. “And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels; they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way. It will destroy our civilization.”
“It’s not so simple to just say, ‘OK, overnight, now we’re going to suddenly switch and no longer going to be dependent on natural gas from Russia,’ or fossil fuels in general,” Pete Ogden, vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the UN Foundation, told Yahoo News. “Right now, you’re seeing that vulnerability exposed and there not being easy, short-term fixes to that problem.”
But it’s evident that the collision of foreign-policy and climate interests has lent more political momentum to decarbonization. Germany earmarked 200 billion euros for investment in renewable energy production between now and 2026. “Many of the strategies to lower dependency on Russia are the same as the policy measures you want to take to lower emissions,” Thijs Van de Graaf, a professor of international politics at Ghent University, told The Financial Times. “At the moments where we have these crises, the [energy] transition can be supercharged.”
The European Union has vowed to slash Russian natural gas imports by two-thirds by next winter and to cut them out entirely by 2027. “That would be an extremely ambitious timetable in peacetime, but if the continent shifts to a war footing — as it must, with a savage conflict playing out on its eastern borders — then it should be achievable,” The Boston Globe editorial board opined.
Key to the transition, the board wrote, is increasing American production of minerals and metals required for renewable energy technology. Russia is a key supplier of those materials, so the West needs to ensure it doesn’t become just as reliant on Russia for clean energy production as it is now for fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels, not renewable energy, have been filling the void. As energy prices rise, some fossil fuel executives have used the crisis as a business opportunity. At CERAWeek, an annual energy conference that was held in Houston recently, climate change was supposed to feature heavily. Instead, Kate Aronoff reports for The New Republic, the focus shifted to increased domestic fossil fuel production.
“An industry that’s spent the last two years and billions of dollars trying to convince the world that it can ‘decarbonize hydrocarbons’ is much too savvy to brag about all the money to be made off a humanitarian catastrophe,” she writes. “Accordingly, the message fossil fuel execs pivoted to, as Russian troops crept further into Ukraine, is that they’re patriots, standing ready to meet the world’s energy needs and build American ‘energy independence.’”
The war itself, just moving the Russian army into Ukraine, is energy intensive. According to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the Pentagon’s GHG emissions in 2017 exceeded those of entire industrialized countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Portugal.
In the recent United Nations Environment Program (IPCC) report, climate scientists continue to warn that a warming planet will produce more extreme weather as well as a ‘Global Wildfire Crisis.’ Worsening heat and dryness could lead to a 57% rise in off-the-charts fires by the end of this century. The report was inspired by the deadly fires in recent years in the American West, much of Australia and even the Arctic. “The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes,” said the report.
“There isn’t the right attention to fire from governments,” said Glynis Humphrey, a fire expert at the University of Cape Town and an author of the report. Forest management must be favored over firefighting, suggesting that developed countries have this formula exactly backward. Of every dollar spent in the US on managing wildfires, almost 60 cents is for firefighting. Much less is spent on reducing fire risks in advance and helping communities recover in ways that could make them more resilient.
The report noted that fires in eastern Australia and the western US and Canada, have become more intense over the last decade and are ravaging larger areas. Fires are also burning in places where it had not been common before, such as Russia, northern India and Tibet.
In general, climate change has produced record warmth and dryness that has contributed to severe burning, but precise attribution is complex and varies from place to place. Still, researchers have determined that last year’s extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest would not have occurred without planetary warming caused by GHG emissions. Scientists have also found the fingerprints of climate change on brush fires in Australia and extreme heat and burning in Siberia.
The report considered the variables and still forecasts a significant increase in the global risk of record wildfires based on GHG already in the atmosphere. In a moderate scenario for global warming, the likelihood of catastrophic fires could increase by up to a third by 2050 and up to 52% by 2100. If emissions are not curbed and the planet heats up more, wildfire risks could rise to 57% by the end of the century.
Because the north is warming faster than the rest of the globe, most of the increase in burning likely will be in places including the Arctic, northern Russia and the US said Douglas I. Kelley, who conducted the data analysis for the report. The huge Arctic fires of 2020 released more GHGs into the atmosphere that June than in any other month in 18 years of data collection.
And because higher amounts of CO2 in the air helps plants grow, it results in more vegetation to fuel fires. Thus, in temperate regions of the US and Asia, Dr. Kelley said, wildfires could increase here too.
Basic facts about climate change are widely known. If humanity is to keep global warming from exceeding 1.5C then we must do everything we can to reduce GHG emissions. President Biden has embraced this and has set a national goal of cutting US emissions nearly in half from 2005 levels by 2030 and to net-zero emissions by 2050. Thus, the decision by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest federal utility, to choose gas instead of committing to carbon free renewable energy, undermines this goal.
In mid-March, the TVA announced its plans to invest more than $3.5 billion in new gas-burning electric plants. The TVA provides electricity to nearly 10 million people across the Southeast and is replacing aging coal-powered plants. Critics say substituting gas for coal will lock in decades of additional CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming and could be avoided by generating electricity from solar, wind or another renewable source.
The US Postal Service also made a decision inconsistent with Biden’s goal. It is replacing 165,000 aging mail trucks with mostly gasoline-powered vehicles, despite the desire of the White House that it convert the fleet to all-electric vehicles.
Both the Postal Service and the TVA are independent organizations governed by a board of directors made up of presidential appointees. The boards of both entities are dominated by Trump appointees who share his view on climate denial and support the fossil fuel industry.
Catherine Butler, a spokeswoman for the TVA said that it found that solar or other zero-emissions sources would be less dependable and more expensive than gas. “We have an obligation to serve, and ensure the lights come on,” she said. “So, when renewables aren’t available, natural gas will be available to ensure that reliable, resilient service is available to power our communities.”
The TVA gets nearly half its power from zero-emissions sources: 11% from hydroelectric dams, 39% from nuclear plants, 39% from wind and 3% from solar. It gets 19% of its power from coal.
Environmentalists accuse the TVA of slow walking a transition to solar and renewable power at a time when scientists say it is imperative that countries must rapidly cut pollution from fossil fuels or face catastrophic impacts from climate change.
“It also sends a terrible message,” said Leah C. Stokes, a political scientist and expert in environmental policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The president has very bold goals to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, and here we have a big federal authority really thumbing their nose at that goal.” “We can’t build any new fossil fuel infrastructure and limit warming to 1.5 degrees,” Stokes said. The planet has already warmed an average of 1.1C since the late 1880s.
Biden has nominated four new members to TVA’s nine-member board of directors who are awaiting confirmation hearings. Vedant Patel, a White House spokesman, said that he expects Biden’s appointees to be confirmed this spring.
The TVA is planning to build two gas-fired plants to replace retiring coal plants at Kingston, Tenn., where an infamous coal ash spill occurred in 2008, as well as a coal plant in Cumberland, Tenn. It also will replace aging gas-fired “peaker” plants with new combustion turbines in Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could restrict or even eliminate EPA’s authority to control the pollution that is warming the planet. “They could handcuff the federal government’s ability to affordably reduce greenhouse gases from power plants,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University.
But the outcome could reach beyond air pollution and restrict the ability of federal agencies across the board. “If the court were to require the EPA to have very specific, narrow direction to address greenhouse gases, as a practical matter it could be devastating for other agencies’ abilities to enact rules that safeguard the public health and welfare of the nation,” said Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard. “It would restrict the enactment of regulations under any host of federal statutes — OSHA, the Clean Water Act, hazardous waste regulation. In theory it even could limit the Fed’s authority to set interest rates.”
At issue is the Obama Clean Power Plan intended to govern emissions from power plants but stayed by the Supreme Court. Trump’s plan was then vacated by a federal appeals court after finding that his administration had “misconceived the law.” The Supreme Court is now taking the highly unusual step in taking a case concerning a future regulation.
“Trying to figure out the contours of E.P.A.’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases when there’s no regulation being defended is just kind of a weird thing for the court to consider,” said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University. “I was surprised when they took the case.”
The plaintiffs in the case, West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, want the high court to block the kind of sweeping changes to the electricity sector that defined the Obama Clean Power Plan. Republican attorneys general in 18 states and some of the nation’s largest coal companies argue that the 1970 Clean Air Act limits the EPA’s authority to affect changes only at individual power plants, not across the entire power sector.
Conservatives have long argued that the executive branch routinely oversteps the authority granted by the Constitution in regulating all kinds of economic activity.
“This is really about a fundamental question of who decides the major issues of the day,” said Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general of West Virginia. “Should it be unelected bureaucrats, or should it be the people’s representatives in Congress? That’s what this case is all about. It’s very straightforward.”
Defendants maintain that Congress delegated authority to the executive branch to broadly regulate air pollution under the Clean Air Act. The legislature makes the law; the executive implements it through regulation, they say. “Just because the opponents are particularly shrill in their objection doesn’t change the fact that this regulation is no different than hundreds of regulations that the agencies have produced since the New Deal — just as Congress intended them to do,” said Richard Revesz, who teaches environmental law at New York University and filed a brief in support of the administration.
Notably, many of the nation’s largest electric utilities, which would be subject to environmental regulation, have filed legal briefs in support of the government. They are joined by 192 members of Congress, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, climate and public health advocates and tech giants like Apple, Google and Netflix.
Given the difficulty Biden is having getting his party and federal agencies to follow his lead, he needs assistance from motivated states. In early March his administration restored California’s legal authority to set auto pollution and mileage rules that are tighter than federal standards. Trump had stripped the state of such authority.
California’s economic and environmental impacts are as powerful as its influence on like-minded states such that this policy change could significantly affect the type of cars Americans will drive in the coming decade, the amount of gasoline the nation consumes and the amount of tailpipe emissions that help drive climate change. Seventeen other states and the District of Columbia have adopted the California rules. Twelve other states are following California’s mandate to sell only zero-emissions vehicles after 2035. EVs currently make up just 4% of new car sales in the US despite the large demand (there are none to be had in dealerships).
Many of the world’s largest automakers, which for years opposed federal rules to cut tailpipe pollution, have now publicly embraced a future built on EVs. “Automakers are committed to working cooperatively and constructively with California and other states to ensure vehicles are efficient, clean, and affordable for all,” said a statement from John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which lobbies on behalf of more than a dozen automakers, including Ford, General Motors, Stellantis, Toyota and Volvo. “Collaboration between governments at all levels will be essential to achieving our shared goals for a cleaner transportation future that benefits all communities and enhances U.S. economic competitiveness.”
During the Trump administration, five auto companies — Ford, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen and Volvo — signed a deal with California in which they voluntarily committed to continue to follow a tighter emissions standard in the state, even though Trump and had eliminated California’s authority to enforce it and opposed such a deal.
The regulation of vehicles is central to reducing emissions as transportation is the largest single source of GHGs generated by the US, representing 29% of the nation’s total emissions. Electricity generation is the second largest source.
A recent report by the International Energy Agency found that nations would have to end the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035 to keep average global temperatures from increasing 1.5C compared with levels during the Industrial Revolution. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say Earth faces irreversible damage.
Under the 1970 Clean Air Act, Congress gave California authority to set tailpipe standards tougher than the federal limits in order to address its problem with smog. In 2009, President Obama set federal auto emissions standards based on the California rule, requiring passenger vehicles to reach an average of 51 mpg by 2025, up from roughly 38 mpg at the time. That incentivized the auto industry to aggressively increase EV production by 2025, until Trump revoked them in 2020.
Late last year, Biden enacted a federal standard that effectively reinstated and strengthened the Obama-era auto pollution rule. It requires new vehicles to average 55 mpg by 2026. That is designed to prevent the release of 3.1 billion tons of climate-warming CO2 through 2050, according to the EPA. It would also save about 360 billion gallons of gasoline from being burned, leading to a 15% annual reduction in the nation’s gasoline consumption by 2050.
Biden has set a goal that, by 2030, half of all new vehicles sold in the country be electric. The EPA is writing a new tailpipe emissions rule to achieve that goal, and it is likely to be influenced by the forthcoming California rule.
Fossil fuel companies and Republican states are expected to continue to resist the new rules intended to cut oil use and promote EVs, with coordinated lawsuits against each of Biden’s policies. “States that don’t feel that they should be forced into the worldview of the state of California would be the primary litigants,” said Thomas Pyle, the president of the Institute for Energy Research, which promotes the use of fossil fuels.
Recently, the Republican attorneys general of 15 states filed a suit against the Biden administration’s reinstatement of the Obama-era auto pollution rule, arguing that it exceeded the Constitutional authority granted to the federal government.
“At a time when American gas prices are skyrocketing at the pump, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict shows again the absolute need for energy independence, Biden chooses to go to war against fossil fuels,” said Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas, who led the suit against the new rules. “These severe new rules proposed by the E.P.A. are not only unnecessary, but they will create a deliberate disadvantage to Texas and all states who are involved in the production of oil and gas. I will not allow this federal overreach to wreak havoc on our economy or the livelihoods of hard-working Texans.”
In early March, EPA proposed strict new limits on pollution from buses, delivery vans, tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks — the first time in more than 20 years that tailpipe standards might be tightened for the biggest vehicular polluters. The draft rule would require heavy-duty trucks to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide by 90% by 2031 and would apply to model year 2027. Nitrogen dioxide is linked to lung cancer, heart disease and premature death. EPA also announced plans to slightly tighten truck emissions of CO2 which would apply to model year 2024 trucks. The proposed rule is expected to be finalized by the end of 2022.
VP Kamala Harris announced the proposal, along with a suite of other federal clean transportation actions, including the expenditure of $5.5 billion to help states purchase low or zero-emission transit buses, and $17 million to replace diesel school buses with electric versions in underserved communities.
“Seventy-two million people are estimated to live near truck freight routes in America, and they are more likely to be people of color and those with lower incomes,” the EPA administrator, Michael S. Regan, said. “These overburdened communities are directly exposed to pollution that causes respiratory and cardiovascular problems, among other serious and costly health effects. These new standards will drastically cut dangerous pollution by harnessing recent advancements in vehicle technologies from across the trucking industry as it advances toward a zero-emissions transportation future.”
The new limits could prevent up to 2,100 premature deaths, 6,700 hospital admissions and emergency department visits, 18,000 cases of asthma in children, 78,000 lost days of work and 1.1 million lost days of school by the year 2045, according to EPA. The agency estimates that the economic benefits of the rule could be up to $250 billion and said those benefits “would exceed its costs by billions of dollars.”
Truckers and manufacturers oppose the rule as too stringent and costly, and that compliance could send higher prices rippling through the economy.
“This new standard simply may not be technologically feasible,” said Jed Mandel, president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, an industry group. “We’re worried about the cost. There is a potential of adverse impacts on the economy and jobs. Nobody wants to see union jobs laid off. Regular lunch-pail, blue collar workers.”
While the new truck regulations will cut pollution that harms human health, they won’t do much to reduce GHG emissions, climate experts said. The proposed regulations will require some trucks, 17 of the 33 categories of heavy-duty trucks, to lower their CO2 emissions. That’s designed to bolster sales of all-electric trucks in the US, from fewer than 1,000 in 2020 to about 1.5% of total truck sales, or roughly 10,000 trucks, in 2027.
But in order to put the US on a path toward a transition to all-electric trucks, the forthcoming truck rules would have to be far more stringent, experts said. “It’s great to see that the rule is driving 90 percent reduction in air pollution in heavy-duty vehicles and at the same time opening the door to reducing greenhouse gas pollution,” said Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, a research organization. “But we’ve got this thing called climate change and we’ve really got to start driving electrification in the heavy-duty truck sector. My big concern is that the proposal as it is written will not do that.”
In his State of the Union address in early March, Biden barely mentioned his climate goals despite promises to make climate a central issue of his presidency. The war in Ukraine and partisan politics are slowing efforts to address climate change both in the US and in Europe as scientists renew their warnings of increasing dangers.
Oil and gas prices rose steeply in March as did oil and gas industry profits. Rising prices and the desire to curtail purchases of Russian oil and gas led to calls for increased drilling in the US which is already one of the world’s biggest producers of oil and gas.
This exemplifies the dilemma of the developed world. We insist on the short-term satisfaction of our unsustainable demands for energy while putting off the essential changes that might sustain the world as we know it. As noted above, an exhaustive report from the United Nations has renewed calls on world leaders to focus on reducing GHG emissions that are threatening the future of humanity. Otherwise, they warn, we face a harrowing future where the pace of climate change, and the displacement of millions of people, outpaces humanity’s ability to adapt.
Energy experts said that Biden is missing an opportunity to use the war in Ukraine as impetus for change and swiftly sever our economic reliance on fossil fuels. “The president did not articulate the long-term opportunity for the U.S. to lead the world in breaking free of the geopolitical nightmare that is oil dependency,” said Paul Bledsoe of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate change, said Putin has “weaponized” fossil fuels, particularly gas. “It’s related, and people need to see it that way. Energy is a huge part of the geopolitics of what the options are,” Kerry said. “Energy is a key weapon within this fight, and if there were far less dependency on gas there would be a different set of plays.”
The US has increased exports of LNG to Europe to counter the decline in Russian piped gas. By the end of this year, the US likely will have the world’s largest LNG export capacity.
US Republicans have supported the oil and gas industry and pointed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine to underscore the need to increase drilling for more oil and gas in the US to provide Europe with an alternative. Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) called Biden’s opening of the strategic reserve “a thimble in the ocean.”
Before the Russian invasion, in late February, Biden had directed the Interior Department to pause new federal oil and gas leases and permits. The move was a response to a recent federal ruling that blocked the way the Biden administration was calculating the real cost of climate change, a figure that guides a range of government decisions, from pollution regulation to whether to permit new oil, gas or coal extraction on public lands and in federal waters.
Under President Obama, the government estimated that the damage from wildfires, floods and rising sea levels was $51 for every ton of CO2 generated by burning fossil fuels. Trump lowered that number to $7 or less per ton. Biden revived the $51 level and is updating it further.
Known as the “social cost of carbon,” the metric is designed to fully consider the economic threats from GHG emissions. Economists and climate scientists say it is needed because climate-fueled heat waves, extreme weather, wildfires and flooding already cost the US billions of dollars annually but those costs are often not considered by policymakers. Factoring in those costs could justify rejecting projects promoting fossil fuel.
But 10 Republican-led states sued the government and on Feb. 11, Judge James D. Cain Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana found that the Biden administration’s calculations “artificially increase the cost estimates” of oil and gas drilling. Judge Cain, a Trump appointee, said using the social cost of carbon in decision-making would harm his native Louisiana and other energy producing states. He issued an injunction preventing the administration from considering the metric. The Justice Department said it intends to appeal.
As a result, the federal government has stopped work on new oil and gas leases, as well as permits to drill on federal lands and waters. “Work surrounding public-facing rules, grants, leases, permits and other projects has been delayed or stopped altogether so that agencies can assess whether and how they can proceed,” the DOJ wrote in a legal filing asking the court to stay the injunction against using a climate metric.
States and bodies with significant interests in oil and gas drilling on federal land expressed their frustration. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming accused the Biden administration of “a dereliction of duty” by delaying a sale that could be worth millions of dollars in revenue to the state. Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), called the delays “a conscious decision to continue to attack Wyoming and our domestic energy industry in favor of progressive, unrealistic climate policies.” She asserted that Biden “has prioritized the agenda of radical environmentalists in his administration over the needs of people in Wyoming and the rest of the country.”
Fossil fuel extraction on public land and in federal waters accounts for 25% of the GHGs generated by the US. Environmentalists said they were pleased by the pause in new leases and permits but worried that Judge Cain’s ruling would ultimately weaken the administration’s ability to issue aggressive climate policies.
“It’s a mixed bag,” said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “They will have to issue the leases at some point, and they won’t be able to use the social cost of carbon.”
The Louisiana attorney general, Jeff Landry, who has called the social cost of carbon “voodoo economics,” argued that Biden exceeded his authority by applying the social cost of carbon to decision-making. He was joined by the attorneys general of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Judge Cain sided with the Republican attorneys general, arguing that using a social cost of carbon is unconstitutional because Congress never passed legislation authorizing it.
In fact, Congress has passed virtually no legislation addressing how an administration should conduct economic analyses, something administrations have been doing for decades. Legal experts mocked Judge Cain for citing a non-existent “separation of powers clause” in the Constitution.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization opposed to addressing climate change, has urged EPA to revoke the new vehicle tailpipe emissions regulations as they utilized the social cost of carbon analysis.
The ruling is having ripple effects. “Pending rulemakings in separate agencies throughout the government — none of which were actually challenged here — will now be delayed,” the Justice Department wrote.
Any opinions expressed above are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-chair, Global Climate Change Committee
Follow me on Twitter @Howard.Carl