Juliana v. United States — the Court speaks, reveals it’s part chicken

Photo of 21 young people suing the U.S. government — Juliana v. U.S. climate case. Image: Our Children’s Trust
The 21 young people suing the U.S. government in Juliana v. U.S. climate case.

Juliana v. Unites States, the climate case launched in 2015 by 21 young people ranging in age from 8 to 19 at the time, was dismissed by a federal appeals court last month. Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit organization backing the lawsuit, plans to appeal the ruling.

The young people claim that the federal government has violated their constitutional rights, including a right under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” (The Due Process Clause bars the federal government from depriving a person of “life, liberty, or property” without “due process of law.”). The youths want the court to order the government to develop a plan to “phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2.”

The latest episode in this legal saga began on Sep. 20, 2018 when the federal district court in Oregon issued an order for the case to go to trial. On Dec. 26, 2018 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the federal government’s petition (its fifth since the suit was first filed in 2015) to appeal the case on the grounds that the youths lack standing. On Jan. 17, 2020, a panel of three judges ruled two-to-one in agreement with the government, and sent the case back to the district court with orders to dismiss.

The appeals court’s majority opinion says: “the record leaves little basis for denying that climate change is occurring at an increasingly rapid pace”; that the rise in atmospheric CO2 “stems from fossil fuel combustion and will wreak havoc on the Earth’s climate if unchecked”; that “Absent some action, the destabilizing climate will bury cities, spawn life-threatening natural disasters, and jeopardize critical food and water supplies.”

Yet, despite agreeing with the young people about the pressing need for government action, and despite Judge Josephine Staton’s vigorous dissent, Judges Andrew Hurwitz and Mary Murguia opted to toss the case. How to explain? A careful reading of the majority opinion (Judge Hurwitz writing) may enlighten:

To have standing in a federal district court, a claimant must have “(1) a concrete and particularized injury that (2) is caused by the challenged conduct and (3) is likely redressable by a favorable judicial decision.” All three judges on the panel agree that the young people (1) have been injured and that (2) the challenged conduct of the government caused the injuries. The panel, however, split on (3) the redressable question, with Hurwitz and Murguia arguing that the young people’s injuries are not redressable by a federal district court.

To establish redressability “the plaintiffs must show that the relief they seek is both (1) substantially likely to redress their injuries; and (2) within the district court’s power to award.” Regarding (1), Hurwitz expresses scepticism but does not deny that phasing out fossil fuels would likely provide the plaintiffs with a measure of relief. Regarding (2), Hurwitz states bluntly that “it is beyond the power of a [federal district] court to order, design, supervise, or implement the plaintiffs’ requested remedial plan.

Hold on! Something is wrong here. The plaintiffs do not ask the court to design, supervise, or implement a plan, they ask only that the court order the government to develop a plan. To conform with that fact, Hurwitz’s blunt statement could be rephrased as follows: ‘iis beyond the power of a federal district court to order the plaintiffs’ requested remedial plan.’ But is it? Is it beyond the power of a federal district court to order the federal government to develop a plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions? Of course not. Such an order might not be politic. It might step on toes. But it sure as hell is not beyond a district court’s power to so order.

Photo of judges hammer and ‘court order’ sign
Image credit: San Diego Co. Bar Assoc.

Hurwitz does not dwell on the question of a district court’s power to order the government to develop a plan. Instead he reaches for reasons to explain why the court should not issue such an order. He tries—we’re entering brain cramp territory here— to convince the reader that if a district court ordered the government to develop a plan, the court would also have to design, supervise, and implement it. Here are some of his statements:

♦ “any effective plan would necessarily require a host of complex policy decisions entrusted, for better or worse, to the wisdom and discretion of the executive and legislative branches.”
♦  any remedial plan “would subsequently require the judiciary to pass judgment on the sufficiency of the government’s response to the order, which necessarily would entail a broad range of policy making.” (my underline. More about that below)
♦ “we cannot substitute our own assessment for the Executive’s [or Legislature’s] predictive judgments on such matters, all of which ‘are delicate, complex, and involve large elements of prophecy.’”
♦ “given the complexity and long-lasting nature of global climate change, the court would be required To supervise the government’s compliance with any suggested plan for many decades.”
♦  “Injunctive relief could involve extraordinary supervision by this court. . . . [which] may be inappropriate where it requires constant supervision.”
♦ “Absent [long term] court intervention, the political branches might conclude . . . that economic or defense considerations called for continuation of the very programs challenged in this suit,”
♦ “Not every problem posing a threat—even a clear and present danger—to the America Experiment can be solved by federal judges.”
“That the other branches may have abdicated their responsibility to remediate the problem does not confer on [federal] courts . . . the ability to step into their shoes.”

To repeat: The young people seek only that the court order the government to develop a plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions. Such an order would not, as Hurwitz suggests, require the judiciary to also design, supervise, or implement the plan, activities that properly belong to the political branches.

Hurwitz expresses concern about the “host of complex policy decisions” that go into making a plan. Such policy decisions would, he suggests,  ‘range broadly’, be “long lasting”, and require “extraordinary  supervision.” They would also be “delicate, complex, and involve large elements of prophecy.” Surely he jests. Here’s how a government actually directs its policy issues: It sets a course according to the ideological preferences of the people running it. The ship of state than plows ahead until (a) it runs aground, forcing a change of course, or (b) it hits a rock and sinks, forcing a change of government.

What would an uncomplicated plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions look like? Assuming a government run by rational actors, it would look like this: The President and his Treasury Department have the authority, without  congressional action or approval, to impose taxes in order to further the administration’s agenda. On receiving an order from the court to develop a plan, the President would impose a tax (based on CO2 content) on fossil fuels at the well head or mine, and at ports of entry. He/she would set the tax level high enough for market forces to begin eating away at fossil fuel use in favour of renewables. Thereafter, the administration would increase the tax level incrementally to achieve a certain reduction in CO2 emissions (say 60%) by a certain date (say 2040).

How difficult would it be for “the judiciary to pass judgement on the sufficiency of the government’s response to the order.” Not difficult at all. The government’s own Energy Information Administration (EIA) collects energy statistics and publishes the information regularly. The judiciary would see for itself the amounts of fossil fuel consumed, and therefore the amount of CO2 emitted. That metric alone would enable the judiciary to judge, mathematically, the effectiveness of the government plan.

The appeal court’s majority opinion amounts to an elaborate excuse for doing nothing. The judges, after showing, step by step, that the plaintiffs have standing, fudge the final ‘redressability’ question. Then, rather than admit that the district court has the power to order the government to make a plan, the judges go in search for reasons why such a court order should not be issued in the first place. They point to imagined complexities, the striking breadth of the young people’s claims, the separation of powers, and so on. Hurwitz quotes Judge Cardozo as follows: judicial commissions are bound “to exercise a discretion informed by tradition, methodized by analogy, disciplined by system.” Not good. Discretion will not help fend off global warming. What the young people and the country need from the judiciary is  spunk, even if that means busting tradition.

Granted the relief the young people seek is formidable. It would require the government to abandon its present fossil energy policies, and instead, learn to love and promote renewables. It would generate apoplectic opposition from the oil & gas industry and its supporters in the political branches. On top of all that, there’s an ogre in the White House who keeps an Attorney General for a pet. The potential for stonewalling, sabotage, or outright interference is great. The question is, is the judiciary co-equal with the other two branches of government or has it become a de facto branch of the other two? Now is the time for judges to prove the former.

Photo of solar array with coal-fired power plantin background
Energy transition in progress. Solar array; Soon to close Comanche coal-fired generating station in background. Location: Pueblo, Colorado. Image credit: Rick Wilking/Reuters

The disruptive entities blocking the new Hudson River rail tunnel

Aerial photo of trail leaving west portal of Amtrak’s Hudson River ail Tunnel at North Bergen, NJ
Amtrak’s Hudson River rail tunnel, west portal, North Bergen, NJ. Image: Bloomberg

The Hudson River tunnel project (map below) is part of the Gateway Program, the planned expansion and renovation of the Northeast Corridor rail line between Newark, NJ and New York City. The existing twin-tube tunnel was flooded with salt water during hurricane Sandy in 2012 and is in desperate need of repair (see post of Oct. 23, 2018, ‘Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is Falling to bits’). The tubes need to be gutted so that they can be relined and refitted with hardware, including: tracks, bench walls, conduits, utilities, ventilation, signals, and the catenary systems to feed electricity to the locomotives. But because the tunnel is being used to capacity — up to 450 trains every week day — the needed repairs can’t be done until a new tunnel is built and ready to take over the traffic.

Map of proposed alignment of new Hudson River Rail Tunnel
Proposed alignment for new Hudson River Rail Tunnel. Image from draft environmental impact statement, June 30, 2017, Federal Railroad Administration ( FRA) and NJ Transit

The Hudson rail yards (image below) on Manhattan’s west side, a 28 acre area bounded by 10th and 12th Avenues and 30th and 33rd Streets, is the site of a $25 billion real estate development. The area is also where Amtrak’s existing Hudson River rail tunnel as well as the proposed second tunnel are anchored at their east ends. When construction for the Hudson Yards project began in 2013, the question was how to preserve the new tunnel’s right-of-way. The answer: build an underground concrete casing large enough and long enough to accommodate about 1200 feet of double track rail tunnel.

Aerial view of Hudson Rail Yards, NYC c2010
Hudson Rail Yards (looking east) before redevelopment began in 2013. Approximate location of underground right-of-way for new tunnel indicated in yellow. Penn Station can be seen at upper right (blue). Portion of Hudson River at bottom left. Image from AP photo.

According to Amtrak, construction of the first 900 feet of tunnel casing from 10th Ave. to beyond 11th Ave. was  completed in 2016. The next step will, in coordination with the westward development of Hudson Yards, extend the casing to 30th Street near 12th Avenue. The completed tunnel casing will be sealed at both ends and remain hidden and empty until a new Hudson River tunnel can make use of it.

Photo of right-of-way tunnel casing under Hudson Yards
Part of right-of-way tunnel casing under Hudson Yards. Image: John Cichowski/NorthJersey.com

The need to build an additional rail tunnel has been known since the 1990’s. In 2012 the need became urgent. Yet the project continues to  languish for lack of funds. Why? The latest projected cost for a new tunnel plus repair of the existing tunnel is 11.3 billion (Gateway Program, Aug. 23, 2019). That’s half the cost of the Hudson Yards real estate project. Yet, while the privately funded Hudson Yards development is proceeding at full speed (image below), the publicly funded tunnel project is barely alive.

Aerial photo of Hudson Yards real estate development, phase one, opened March 2019
Hudson Yards real estate development, phase one, opened March 15, 2019. Image: Related Companies

So who or what is to blame for the delay in funding and building the new Hudson River Rail Tunnel? Here are some clues:

November 2015 the Obama administration agreed to a Gateway project funding arrangement whereby the feds would cover 50% of the costs while New York and New Jersey would share the cost of the remaining 50%. The agreement was worked out with Dept. of Transport (DOT) officials in conjunction with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Amtrak. But on Dec. 28, 2017, the Trump administration denied the existence of the 50-50 funding deal. The letter from the Dept. Of Transport (responding to a letter from NY State) contains the following passage:

“Your letter also references a nonexistent ’50-50′ agreement between USDOT, New York and New Jersey. There is no such agreement. We consider it unhelpful to reference a nonexistent ‘agreement’ rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where nine out of 10 passengers are local transit riders”

June 30, 2017 – On the same day The Federal Railroad Administration and NJ Transit released a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Hudson River tunnel, DOT sent a letter to the Gateway Development Corporation permanently withdrawing DOT Secretary Elaine Chao from its board of trustees. 
Sept. 7, 2017, 
after a bipartisan meeting in the White House to discuss infrastructure, President Trump (according to Politico) offered Sen. Schumer a deal: Schumer could have his Gateway tunnel if Trump got his border wall with Mexico. Schumer said he couldn’t make that trade. 
March 6, 2018, d
uring a hearing in the House on transportation, Transport Secretary Chao was asked if President Trump was pressuring the House Speaker to kill the Gateway project. She said,“Yes. The President is concerned about the viability of the project and the fact that New York and New Jersey have no skin in the game. They need to step up and pay their fair share. They are two of the richest states in the country.” 
March 8, 2018, 
President Trump threatened to veto legislation funding the government through September if any money for the Gateway tunnel was included in the $1.3 trillion spending bill.

Clearly, President Donald Trump and DOT Secretary Elaine Chao are to blame for blocking the Hudson River tunnel project. But these two individuals do not function in a vacuum, they are members of the Republican Party and, as such, reflect the attitudes of that group. The Republican Party apposes federal funding for public transit of all kinds including passenger rail. Here are some excerpts from the 2016 Republican Platform (gopconvention2016.com Committee website):

Website cover

♦ “We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government. More than a quarter of the Fund’s spending is diverted from its original purpose [highways]. One fifth of its funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” 
♦ “We propose to phase out the federal transit program and reform provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act which can delay and drive up costs for [highway] transportation projects.” 

♦ “Amtrak is an extremely expensive railroad for the American taxpayers, who must subsidize every ticket. The federal government should allow private ventures to provide passenger service in the northeast corridor.”

♦ Democrats want to “coerce people out of their cars.” 

The Republican Party’s far-right wing has been particularly hostile to public transit. Here’s a 2008 quote from Michele Bachmann, former Minnesota Rep. and Tea Party darling: “They [Democrats] want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, take light rail to their government jobs. That’s their vision for America.”

Plainly, the Republican Party, the Republican administration, and Republicans in Congress are all to blame for blocking the Hudson River tunnel project. Even if President Trump and Secretary Chao were removed from office today, funding for the tunnel project would continue to be apposed  by Republicans in office.

However, Republican office holders reflect the interests of the industries that finance their election campaigns, that tell them how to think and vote once they are in office, and that provide them with lucrative positions once they leave office. By far the most powerful of these industries is the Oil & Gas Industry. The Oil & Gas Industry is hostile to any initiative, large or small, public or private, that promises to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. A new or improved public transit system is just one such initiative.

The Oil & Gas Industry has spent billions over the past several decades promoting the benefits of fossil fuels (despite knowing about the dire effects of burning the stuff) and its lobbying efforts, focused almost exclusively on Republican politicians, has been intense. So here’s the thing: even if Republicans were swept from office today, lobbying pressure from the Oil & Gas Industry will not disappear; it will simply be refocused on the new office holders until such time as ‘right thinking’ Republicans are re-elected.

So, while the President and his Transport Secretary are immediately to blame for blocking the construction of a new Hudson River tunnel, and whereas Republicans collectively are actually to blame, it’s the Oil & Gas Industry that is ultimately to blame. Smashing the power of that industry will not be easy, but, for the good of the country and its politics, it must be done.

From ‘The [Oil] Cycle Interrupted’. Image: Warhammer Games

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


U.S. Senate Committee pushes oil industry’s antisocial LNG scheme.

Oil & Gas field, Midland, Texas. Photo credit: EcoFlight

How long can the fracking spending spree last?
— Houston Chronicle
headlineSept 14, 2018.

The answer to the Chronicle’s question is: for as long as investors have money to burn. Justin Mikulka, writing Dec 18, 2018, for Desmogblog, puts it this way: “Fracking in 2018 was another year pretending to make money. . . . Whether fracking companies are profitable or not doesn’t really matter to Wall Street executives who are getting rich making the loans that the fracking industry struggles to repay.”

Yet the industry is currently pumping more fracked gas than ever before. The market is swamped and prices are at or below break even (see “Natural Gas Prices Fall Below Zero In Texas” – Oilprice.com, Nov 28, 2018). And now there’s a push to liquify as much of the stuff as possible for shipment overseas to anyone who’ll buy it.

Speaking at a July 11, 2019 hearing of the U.S.  Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on “The Important Role of LNG in Evolving Global Markets”, Nikos Tsafos, Senior Fellow, Energy and National Security Program Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said:

There is an oversupply of LNG on the market, leading to historically low prices in Europe and Asia . . .  Despite [these] historically low prices today, companies are betting billions to enable the next wave of LNG supply—and this wave will be far bigger, more diverse, and perhaps more politically complicated than earlier waves. . . . [There are an] unprecedented number of proposed LNG supply projects that might reasonably start construction over the next two year.

Since the U.S. Senate is controlled by Republicans, only people supportive of the oil and gas industry and its LNG subset were invited to give evidence at the Senate Energy Committee hearing. The talk was all about how best to promote the industry and take advantage of an imagined “window of opportunity” to strengthen its global competitiveness. There was no mention of global warming or the need to restrain the production of fossil fuels. This is how Steven E. Winberg, Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy U.S. Department of Energy, summarized his testimony:

“Natural Gas has transformed our Nation and the world for the better. The increased use and production of natural gas has grown our economy, created countless American jobs, and made our air cleaner. Further, increasing exports of domestically produced natural gas to 36 countries around the world has given our allies a stable, reliable and secure source of clean energy.”

Here’s what’s wrong with that picture: Hydraulic fracking is a filthy business, it poisons the water table, adds greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, and far from making the world better, it makes it bad (see below for specifics on just how bad); The people employed in the industry would be far more constructively employed in building the nation’s renewable energy economy; Natural Gas is not a stable, reliable, or secure source of energy, let alone a clean one — gas deposits are bound to become stranded due to the superior economics of renewables. And considering the political and social pressures surrounding climate change, “our allies” would be well advised not to get hooked on it.

Renewables are displacing fossil fuels. During this transition, the U.S. has more than enough natural gas to satisfy its current domestic needs. That’s what energy security means. The push to export LNG is not about energy security, or even about making money, it’s about building expensive infrastructure (pipelines, liquefaction plants, terminal facilities, etc) to keep the Oil & Gas Industry in business. Pitching the benefits of investing in this LNG boondoggle is Charlie Riedl, Executive Director of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas. Here’s part of his testimony before the above mentioned Senate hearing on LNG markets.

“The U.S. is now home to four LNG export terminals in operation, six projects under construction, and seven projects that are permitted and awaiting Final Investment Decisions. There are another fourteen projects in the [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] FERC queue. Each of these projects individually represents billions of dollars of investment in America’s energy future. . . . Technological breakthroughs in the oil and natural gas industry have unleashed an energy renaissance, establishing the United States as the world’s largest natural gas producer – and domestic production continues to grow. We have enough natural gas to supply affordable energy domestically for at least 100 years with current technology, as well as to significantly increase U.S. participation in the global market for LNG.” (my underlines)

Mr. Riedl paints a picture of a world living indefinitely on fossil fuels, a world much to the liking of the Oil & Gas Industry. He does not mention the impact of global warming or the Paris Climate Accord which calls for a sharp reduction in the total use of fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency’s ‘Sustainable Development’ estimate of World Energy Demand to 2040, shows no increase in natural gas consumption beyond 2020 (see post of July 6, 2019, titled Oil & Gas Industry aims to make global warming even warmer).

Witnesses to the Senate hearing, including Mr. Riedl, refer to natural gas as a clean fuel. It isn’t. Here’s how it compares to other fuels in terms of CO2 emissions:

Lbs of CO2 emitted per million BTU of energy: 
Coal (anthracite) – 229 Lbs
Gasoline – 157 Lbs
Natural Gas – 117 Lbs
Solar (wind or PV’s) – zero emissions

During its production cycle, natural gas also releases methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times as potent as CO2. Last month, the Trump Administration announced plans to weaken existing rules designed to curb the release of methane. That’s not all. Natural gas is routinely flared (burned off) or vented when emitted from wells drilled primarily for oil. The following table from Bloomberg News June 12, 2019, shows the amount of gas flared by certain companies operating in the Permian Basin oil field of Texas:

Table showing gas flared (as a percentage of gas produced) by oil companies operating in Texas
Gas flared (as a percentage of gas produced) by oil companies operating in the Permian Basin of Texas. Original source: Rystad Energy

An article in Bloomberg Businessweek Sept. 10, 2019, by Ryan Collins and Rachel Adams-Heard, contains the following passage: “Gas flaring globally emits more than 350 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in a year, according to the World Bank. . . . In the U.S., flaring accounts for an estimated 9% of the greenhouse gas emissions of the oil and gas industry. In addition, the practice spews particulate matter, soot and toxins into the air that have been shown to be hazardous to humans.”

Fracking natural gas is bad for the climate, bad for the country, bad for the world. The current scramble to increase — at any cost — LNG production and shipping, is nothing more than a hostile and antisocial scheme by the Oil & Gas Industry to prolong its own life by delaying an orderly transition to renewable energy. It’s an industry scheme that’s being eagerly supported by the Oil & Gas-dependent Republicans in Congress and their like-minded buddies in the Trump Administration.

Gas flaring. Image: Dallas Morning News

Carbon Capture — Big Oil’s bogus response to global warming

Carbon Capture cartoon
Carbon Capture. Image credit: Pilita Clark, Financial Times, Sept. 9, 2015

The Oil & Gas Industry wants us to keep on burning fossil fuels, come hell or high sea level. To divert attention from that sorry objective, the industry is promoting a techno-fix that policymakers and investors can get behind — it’s called Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS  for short. It’s a ruse, a scam. CCS won’t change industry’s behaviour, won’t cause emissions to drop.

Last April, a group of U.S. Senators — 8 Democrats, 4 Republicans — sent a letter to the Senate appropriations committee requesting “robust funding” to develop carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies “that will address COemissions from coal, natural gas, and industrial facilities.” The letter contains a mixture of false statements, dubious claims, and baloney. Examples follow:

▲ The Senators claim that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified CCUS as “a critical component of the portfolio of energy technologies needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.” The claim is false. Here are the facts:

The Paris Climate Agreement, signed Dec. 2015 by 95 countries, set a goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” Global average temperature has already exceeded 1.0°C. Last year, the IPCC prepared a special report on the impacts of global warming to 1.5°C and on the CO2 emissions pathways that could limit warming to that temperature. Here’s what the report’s ‘Summary for Policymakers’ says  in its single statement (item C.2.2) about the use of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS):

In 1.5°C pathways with no or limited overshoot, renewables are projected to supply 70–85% of electricity in 2050. . . . [T]he use of CCS would allow the electricity generation share [from] gas to be approximately 8% (3–11%) of global electricity in 2050, while the use of coal . . . would be reduced to close to 0%.

In other words, the IPCC views the use of CCS, not as a critical component of efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, but as a bit player, and not even an essential bit player. What the IPCC does predict is that ‘natural’ carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques, such as reforestation and soil carbon sequestration, will play the major roles.

The Senators state that “Like the wind and solar industries, a combination of federal incentives such as tax credits and federal funding for research, development, and demonstration, will be needed to improve [carbon capture] technology so that it can be cost-competitive with other forms of low COemitting technologies.”

Here the Senators make the absurd implication that energy from fossil fuels  can be made cost-competitive with energy from renewables (solar, wind) by throwing money into carbon capture research. The fact is, energy from fossil fuels cannot compete with energy from renewable today; adding carbon capture technology — no matter how well researched — to fossil fuel exhaust systems, will result in energy that is even less competitive tomorrow. No amount of funding will change that certainty.

▲ The Senators state that “Innovators across the United States are already developing a wide range of CCUS technologies that can improve the efficiency of electricity generation and utilize carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and other sources for more efficient resource development and valuable products, such as algae-derived chemicals, plastics, and fuels.”

Here the Senators are trying, but failing, to show that CCS can pay for itself. The reference to “more efficient resource development” points to ‘enhanced oil recovery’, a process in which captured CO2 is injected into existing wells to force more oil out of the ground. When the recovered oil is burned, it releases as much or more CO2 into the atmosphere as was captured in the first place. The process has nothing to do with true carbon storage, nor with serious efforts to reduce global warming CO2 emissions.

As for the reference to “valuable products”, the world is awash in chemicals, plastics, and fuels, all derived from fossil carbon feed stock (oil, gas, coal). When that fossil carbon feed stock is burned, its carbon is released into the air. The claim that that same carbon (captured from the emissions) can form the basis for new or different products, makes no sense.

▲ The Senators claim that “Investment in carbon utilization technologies will transform carbon dioxide into an economic resource, lower the cost of reducing emissions, create jobs, save consumers money, and safeguard our environment.”

At least the part about jobs is true. Scientists will work on anything, no matter how nutty the project, just so long as they get paid to do it.

Photo of U.S. Senate building
U.S. Senate. Image: Senate.gov

The Senators’ letter is dated April 4, 2019 and signed by Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus King (I- Maine), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

If the Senators had actually read the IPCC’s 2018 special report’s ‘Summary for Policymakers’, they would have discovered that holding global average temperature to 1.5°C by 2050 requires action on restricting CO2 emissions NOW.  Pushing CCS technology on behalf of the fossil fuel industry will not do the trick. Here’s what the ‘Summary for Policymakers’ says on the matter:

Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) [e.g., reforestation] can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (item D.1).

The lower the emissions in 2030, the lower the challenge in limiting global warming to 1.5°C after 2030 with no or limited overshoot. The challenges from delayed actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include the risk of cost escalation, lock-in in carbon-emitting infrastructure, stranded assets, and reduced flexibility in future response options in the medium to long term (item D.3).

In other words: ignore the carbon capture ruse, focus instead on reducing fossil fuel production. That’s the real challenge for policymakers. Are they up to it?

Oil & Gas Industry aims to make global warming even warmer

Photo of oil well pumps
Oil well pumps. Image credit: CBC

There’s a growing mass mobilisation of world opinion against oil, which is “beginning to … dictate policies and corporate decisions, including investment in the industry” Mohammed Barkindo, the secretary general of OPEC said. Climate activists are “perhaps the greatest threat to our industry going forward”, he also said.
— from The Guardian and other press reports, July 5, 2019.

Mr. Barkindo is like the arsonist who sets fires for money and then complains that fire engines are threatening his business. He should know that ‘climate activists’ are not the only people delivering unwanted messages to the Oil & Gas Industry about global warming. Similar (although milder) messages are originating from within the industry’s own ranks. The problem is that, as yet, most of the industry’s bosses refuse to listen.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an intergovernmental body established in 1974 following the 1973 oil crisis. The agency’s purpose at the time was to respond to disruption in the supply of oil. Its mandate has since expanded and the agency now acts to provide member states, as well as as Russia, China, and India, with information and policy advice on energy security, economic development, and Environmental Protection.

The following chart in the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, shows the Agency’s estimate of total world energy demand to 2040 under what it calls its New Policies Scenario (NPS). The NPS, the report says, “Incorporates existing energy policies as well as an assessment of the results likely to stem from the implementation of announced policy intentions.” In other words, the chart represents the IEA’s business-as-usual prediction. The chart shows demand for fossil fuels (Natural Gas + Coal + Oil) steadily rising beyond 2020.

Estimated World energy demand by IEA
Estimated world energy demand to 2040 – business as usual. Image: International Energy Administration (IEA)

The next chart is from the same page of the same IEA report. It shows the Agency’s estimate of total world energy demand to 2040 under what it calls its Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS). The SDS, the report says, represents “an integrated approach to achieving internationally agreed objectives on climate change, air quality and universal access to modern energy.” In other words, the chart shows what the IEA estimates will happen to world energy demand, should the signatories to the Paris Accord follow up on on their commitments. Result: fossil fuel production falls.

The IEA’s estimated world energy demand to 2040 - Sustainable Developmemt Scenario. Image: IEA
The IEA’s estimated world energy demand to 2040 – Sustainable Development Scenario. Image: IEA

In what way is the Oil & Gas Industry reacting to this obvious policy message from a respected industry policy advisor? (1) It tries to ignore it. (2) It works to undermine the message in any way It can. One way it works to undermine the message is to produce estimates of its own showing that the world needs more fossil fuels, not less.

The following bar chart from BP’s ‘2018 Energy Outlook’ shows estimates of GROWTH in total worldwide energy consumption to 2040 according to nine different fossil-fuel focused organizations. All of them predict growth in the consumption of fossil fuels ranging from 0.3% to 0.9% per year. Note that BP has included an IEA estimate (4th from left), but one that is based on the Agency’s business as usual scenario, not on its Sustainable Development Scenario.

Bar chart showing growth to 2040 in worldwide energy consumption according to various organizations
Estimates of GROWTH to 2040 in total worldwide energy consumption according to various fossil-fuel-focused organizations. Image: from BP 2018 Energy Outlook

BP =   BP plc (formally British Petroleum)
CNPC = China National Petroleum Corporation
EIA = U.S. Energy Information Administration
IEA = International Energy Agency (OECD)
IEEJ = Institute of Energy Economics (Japan)
IHS = IHS Inc (a London based ‘Information Handling Services’ Company)
OPEC = Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
Statoil = Statoil ASA (Norwegian state oil co. now called Equinor)
XOM = ExxonMobil Corporation

Here’s what  BP says about its prediction labeled ‘BP ET scenario’ (first bar in the chart): Our report’s “Evolving Transition scenario suggests that a continuation of the recent progress and momentum in policies and technologies is likely to cause the growth in carbon emissions to slow markedly relative to the past. But this slowing falls well short of the sharp drop in carbon emissions thought necessary to achieve the Paris climate goals. We need a far more decisive break from the past .” (my underlining)

In other words, BP’s prediction assumes ‘business as usual’ as do all the other predictions shown in the chart. BP tries to distance itself from the implications of its own report by stating that the scenarios in its report “are not predictions of what is likely to happen or what BP would like to happen.” Nevertheless, its business as usual ‘scenario’ is taken by other Oil & Gas Industry heavyweights as a valid prediction that supports the industry’s business as usual behaviour.

For example, while ExxonMobil’s report titled ‘2019 Energy and Carbon Summery’ is peppered with references to emissions reduction and the goals of the 2015 Paris Accord, the company’s true position is exposed by two statements on page 9: “Natural gas will expand its role, led by growth in electricity generation and industrial output” and  “Rising oil demand will be driven by commercial transportation and the chemical industry.” See last bar in the chart.

BP’s ‘2018 Energy Outlook’ contains a surprisingly frank statement (underlined above) concerning the Paris Accord and how to achieve its goals. “We need a far more decisive break from the past” the writer of the report states.  Very true. Thing is, the decisive break from the past is going to hit the industry whether it likes it or not. More storms, more droughts, more floods, and more climate activists will see to that.

In the mean time, there’s only one way to meet the Paris climate goals and that is to cut fossil fuel production. Taxing carbon emissions will not do the trick; that’s just a silly game and the fossil fuel pushers know it. Taxing fossil fuels at the well or mine head and/or at ports of entry will work. Better still, mandate the elimination of fossil fuels as some jurisdiction are already beginning to do. One thing for sure: don’t expect help from the fossil fuel crowd. They are not part of the solution, they are the problem.

Oil & Gas elephant spooked by EV mouse — for good reason

Photo of EV charging station
Electric Vehicle charging station. Image: City of Hoboken NJ

The oil and gas industry is losing market share to clean energy technologies such as wind and solar. But it’s the electric vehicle (EV) that poses the most pressing threat to the industry. Here’s why:

The car-owning public reacts negatively to high gas prices. Politicians of all strips are sensitive to that fact. Even politicians who recognize the environmental need to reduce fossil fuel production are reluctant to take actions that could drive up prices at the pump. Taxing the carbon in fossil fuel emissions rather than taxing the carbon content of fossil fuels as they are produced is an example of this reluctance — it distances the politician from the effect. And even that feeble political action is further weakened by the failure to set the carbon price high enough to cause meaningful reduction in fossil fuel use. A switch from gasoline to electric powered cars will remove the political fear of pump prices and leave the oil and gas industry vulnerable to direct carbon pricing.

Many of the country’s newer natural gas powered electricity generating plants might last for another thirty years or more. This means that the complete replacement of fossil fuel power with cheaper renewables could take decades. The situation with electric vehicles is different. The average life expectancy of a car is 10 years or less. As EV prices drop and public acceptance increases, a shift to EVs could result in a complete replacement of the existing fleet of vehicles within a period of 10 to 15 years. Motor gasoline accounts for about 24% of total fossil fuel energy currently used in the U.S., a big chunk of the fossil fuel industry’s market. The shift would, at the same time, create new opportunities for wind and solar powered electricity generation.

Oil and gas industry executives are well aware of the threat posed by EVs. It explains the industry’s hatred of the EV incentive program. The program, introduced in 2015 under the Obama administration, offers a tax credit of $2,500 to $7,500 per new EV purchased for use in the U.S. Initial funding for the program was capped at about $2-billion. The oil and gas industry, concerned that Congress may decide to extend funding for the program, has ramped up its propaganda machine to try and prevent that from happening. As usual, when it comes to spreading disinformation about climate science and clean technologies, the industry calls on its mercenary propaganda troops to do the lying for them (see Apr.21 post — How the Oil and Gas Industry gets others to fight for its life). The propaganda effort described below shows the lengths the industry will go to fight what is a relatively small program.

A coalition of 34 fossil-fuel-funded, free market advocacy groups (see image below) delivered a letter May 9 to Congress (addressed to Senators Grassley and Wyden, and Representative Brady and Neal) urging members to protect “all American families by opposing an expansion of the electric vehicle tax credit.” The coalition is led by the American Energy Alliance (AEA), a not-for-profit organization that, according to its website, “engages in grassroots public policy advocacy and debate concerning energy and environmental policies.” The AEA, according to Desmogblog, is run by a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. The letter claims that the EV subsidy is unpopular, overwhelmingly benefits the rich, and amounts to a wealth transfer to California at the expense of all other states. It also claims that electric cars are not cleaner than cars powered by internal combustion engines.

Image of 34 fossil fuel funded, free market advocacy groups logos
Coalition of fossil fuel funded, free market advocacy groups organized to oppose expansion of the federal EV subsidy program. Image: eenews

As mentioned above, the U.S. EV subsidy is relatively small. Since its start in 2015, the program has handed out a total of about $20-billion in the form of income tax credits. By comparison, the U.S. fossil fuel industry receives about $27-billion annually in direct federal subsidies. The industry letter to Congress says nothing about that. The following bar chart shows the amount of annual subsidies each of the G7 nations currently hand out to support their fossil fuel addictions. It’s time they sought treatment.

Bar chart showing how G7 countries subsidize fossil fuel industry
Image: Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Note that the bar chart above shows only the direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. The industry also receives a massive indirect subsidy due to the fact that it does not pay the cost of damages — global warming, climate destabilization, etc. — caused by the burning of its products.