Corruption is also a product of the Oil & Gas Industry

Cartoon about manipulation of science by special interests
Image from UCS Blog – Union of Concerned Scientists

“[T]he norms and expectations that once ensured that our government was guided primarily by the public interest rather than by individual or partisan interest have significantly weakened. There are now far fewer constraints to deter abuse by executive branch actors.”

The above understatements of the year are from a report released October 3, 2019 by The National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, a group formed under the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law to figure out how to restore trust in government. The report focuses on the politicization of government science and research. It lists over a hundred specific occurrences of political manipulation of scientific findings. Examples from the list follow (numbers refer to the report’s itemization system):

#453 – The Dept of the Interior’s top climate change scientist was reassigned to an accounting role, despite no training in accounting, after he highlighted the dangers climate change poses for Alaska’s Native communities. Washington Post July 19, 2017

#448 – After Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researchers produced a study showing economic benefits to protecting wetlands from pollution, aides to the agency’s administrator told them to produce a new study showing no such benefits. NYTimes August 11, 2017

#482 – Chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) questioned studies that connect serious human health problems to air pollution and accepted research funding from the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry lobbying group that reviewed his findings before publication. ScienceMag (American Association for the Advancement of Science) December 10, 2018

#493 – The news that the EPA stoped updating its climate change websites in April 2017 is confirmed. The agency removed its climate change subdomains from public access, and removed links to its searchable web archive for any past information on the subject. Newsweek November 2, 2018

#485 – Chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) wrote a letter to the EPA administrator criticizing the agency’s use of science to set air pollution standards and questioned the long-established scientific view that fine particulate airborne matter is linked to early deaths. Scientific American March 29, 2019. 

#502 – The Dept. of Agriculture withheld a news release and sought to prevent dissemination of the findings by the department’s research partners concerning a groundbreaking discovery that rice loses vitamins in a carbon-rich environment — a potentially serious health concern for the 600 million people worldwide whose diet consists mostly of rice. Politico June 23, 2019

#441 – High-level Department of the Interior officials altered an environmental assessment for seismic surveying prepared by career scientists in order to underplay the potential impact of oil and gas development on Alaska’s coastal plain. Politico July 26/19

The ill effects of a corrupt executive branch go much deeper than the subversion of scientific findings. President Trump has packed his administration with fossil-fuel friendly officials willing to put Big Oil interests ahead of the public interest. The decisions made by these unelected officials, anxious to do the bidding of their bosses in and out of government, are helping to destroy the environment and cripple the country’s economic prospects. For example, here’s how this top-down rot is working to hobble the country’s nascent offshore wind energy industry:

Vineyard Wind, a $2.8 billion, 800-Megawatt offshore wind power project planned for waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, has been put on hold by the Trump administration. Vineyard had submitted its Construction and Operations Plan (COP) to the Department of the Interior (DOI) in December 2017 and had expected to receive the go-ahead last month. The map below shows the proposed wind turbine layout submitted to DOI by the company.

Map to show location of Vineyard Wind offshore project

So what is the government’s  excuse for delaying the project? In an August news release, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) — the agency under DOI responsible for managing development of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf — provides two excuses:

(1) “Comments received from stakeholders and cooperating agencies [have] requested a more robust cumulative analysis.” 
(2) “Because . . . 
a greater build out of offshore wind capacity is more reasonably foreseeable than was analyzed in the initial draft EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], BOEM has decided to supplement the Draft EIS and solicit comments on its revised cumulative impacts analysis.”

Excuse (1) is the Trump administration’s way of saying that the delay is open ended and that it doesn’t have defensible reasons to justify it.

Excuse (2) refers to the fact that the wind energy industry has shown great interest in building wind farms off the East Coast (an estimated $70-billion in wind industry investments over the next decade). The claim that that interest was not “reasonably foreseeable” by DOI, is nonsense. The following is from TheHill June 4, 2013:

“Interior announced on [June 3, 2013]  that it would hold an auction on July 31, 2013 for 164,750 acres off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which has the potential to generate 3,400 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 1 million homes. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the pending lease sale — which has drawn interest from nine firms — “history in the making.” 

If former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was able to foresee, in 2013, the potential for “a greater build out of offshore wind capacity”, then you can bet current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was able to foresee it too. It’s just that Mr. Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil industry, doesn’t like the view. David Halperin, writing in Desmogblog March 26, 2019, says: “Bernhardt is . . . more skilled [than his predecessor Ryan Zinke] in the ways of law and government. But in terms of the ways that money corrupts politics and policy, his record is even more concerning. David Bernhardt is the ultimate swamp creature.”

U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA) is quoted by WBUR Boston, Aug 9, 2019: “When it comes to the nation’s first major offshore wind project — which has gone through years of extensive study, public comment and mitigation plans for impacted communities — they are trying to delay it to death. . . . Worse still, they are threatening the future of large-scale renewable energy development at a moment when the price of our oil and gas dependency becomes more obvious — and more terrifying — by the day.”

Six hundred thousand (600,000) U.S. wind energy jobs by 2050: that was the prediction made in a March 2015 report from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. According to the Environment & Energy Study Institute, the wind industry now (July 2019) supports 111,000 direct jobs. To Oil & Gas Industry executives, those figures are the stuff of nightmares. The shift to renewable energy is an existential threat to their industry. They need people like David Bernhardt to help slow it down.

Aerial photo of Wind Farm, North Sea UK
Offshore wind farm, North Sea UK


NY Governor Cuomo goes for clean power technology in a big way


Aerial photo of Con Edison East River power plant
14th St. East River Con Edison power plant, Manhattan, NYC (looking NW), Midtown in background. Image: Wikipedia

About 57% of New York state’s electricity is generated by power stations that burn fossil fuels. Nineteen of them — ranging in capacity from 22 to 2336 MW — are located in New York City, four in Manhattan. Emissions include carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, plus a multitude of other hazardous pollutants that damage human health. Many New Yorkers live next door to these plants. For example, the photo above shows the proximity of Stuyvesant Town to Con Edison’s 736-MW East River power plant.

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, spurred by the need to take action on the health and climate effects of burning fossil fuels, announced on January 20 his ‘Green New Deal’ for the state. The goal of the plan is 100% clean electric power by 2040, the commitment to become state law. The plan will focus on building more land-based wind and solar plants, and on targeting the states offshore wind potential.

The following bar chart shows NY State energy consumption for 2016 (latest available). Natural gas is the primary fossil fuel used to produce the state’s electricity.

Bar chart showing NY State energy consumption

To get an idea of the magnitude of the task set by Governor Cuomo, the table below shows the clean power capacity in megawatts needed to replace all the fossil fuel amounts shown in the bar chart (Btu to MWh to MW x 0.9%):

Natural Gas + Coal  . . . . . . . . . . . . 42,000 MW
Motor Gasoline . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19,000 MW
All other fossil fuels . . . . . . . . . . . .18,000 MW

The 42,000 MW of electricity from natural gas is the focus of Cuomo’s green plan. In fossil fuel terms, to provide that much power from scratch would require building 50 to 60 power plants of the size shown in the photo above. Instead, the task will require building wind and solar farms. For example, if offshore wind was the only source of clean power, at least 3,500 wind turbines rated at 12 MW each would be needed to generate the 42,000 MW of electricity. By comparison, the capacity of European offshore wind farms (operational and under construction) now stands at about 21,000 MW, with another 20,000 MW on the drawing board. The map below shows where New York’s offshore wind farms will be sited. Statoil (now called Aquinor) is considering a 2,000 MW wind farm for its leased area, the grey-shaded part of Hudson North.

Map showing offshore wind lease areas off New York
New York Bight offshore wind lease areas. Image: BOEM

Governor Cuomo’s plan does not specifically mention motor gasoline. As the transition is made from gasoline to electric cars, at least 19,000 MW in additional clean electrical generation capacity will eventually be required. My guess is that a significant chunk of that capacity will be met by home or community based solar panels. The other fossil products such as distillates (e.g. diesel fuel) and jet fuel are not even mentioned in the plan.

It’s sometimes suggested that carbon neutrality can be achieved while continuing to burn fossil fuels. We (all animals) exhale CO2 with every breath. That CO2 is captured by growing plants during photosynthesis. To stay alive, we eat the plants (and the flesh of animals that also live on plants) and so regain the carbon lost to the atmosphere while breathing. That is our basic carbon-neutral economy. When we began to release CO2 by burning fossil fuels, that basic economy was thrown out of kilter. Result: the greenhouse effect and global warming. The only way to re-create a carbon neutral economy is to stop burning fossil fuels. Governor Cuomo is on the right track. He summarizes his plan in the following YouTube video (1 min 42 sec).