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

 

How to quit using fossil fuels the Hawaiian way

Just three days after President Trump announced his June 3, 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, Hawaii Governor David Ige signed a bill committing his state to the goals of the international agreement. On signing the document, Governor Ige said:

“We are the testing grounds. As an island state, we are especially aware of the limits of our natural environment. Tides are getting higher, biodiversity is shrinking, coral is bleaching, coastlines are eroding, weather is becoming more extreme. We must acknowledge these realities at home. That is why Hawaii is united in its political leadership on tackling climate change.”

Hawaii Governor David Ige
Hawaii Governor David Ige. Image: Twitter.com – @GovDavidIge

A year later, Governor Ige signed another environmental bill, this time committing his state to achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. According to the new law, by that year, 100% of the state’s electricity must be produced from renewables — photovoltaics, wind, geothermal, biofuels — completely displacing fossil fuels in the process.

The following figure provides a measure of the task ahead. Prior to 2008, less than 4% of the state’s electricity was generated from renewables. By 2017, that had grown to about 26%. Today, the percentage is around 30%.

Figure from Rhodium Group, April 19, 2019 report
Image from Rhodium Group, April 19, 2018 report

Some might think that the environmental actions of a small, isolated state (pop 1.4 mil) is of little account in the grand scheme of things. They’d be wrong. The work involves more than simply replacing old technology with PV panels and wind mills. Hawaii has six power grids, one for each of its larger islands. The current mix of renewable energy sources includes at least 60 utility-scale plants and 150,000+ residential rooftop solar systems, all with outputs that fluctuate depending on time of day, weather conditions, and other factors. How to integrate such diverse systems in a way that maintains grid stability (no overloads, brownouts, shutdowns) — that’s the real challenge. And the project is being watched closely by other states keen on cutting  their dependence on fossil fuels.

The key to success will depend on energy storage — batteries that can store energy when the systems are producing an excess, and return it when they are not producing enough. Judging by the rapid pace of solar development now taking place in Hawaii, that should not be a problem.

A Jan 3, 2019 news release from the utility Hawaiian Electric, says it has submitted contract proposals to the state’s Public Utilities Commission for seven grid-scale, solar-plus-storage projects on three islands. “The projects – three on Oahu, two on Maui and two on Hawaii Island – will add approximately 262 megawatts (MW) of solar energy with 1,048 megawatt-hours (MWh) of storage. The energy storage can provide four hours of electricity that can further reduce fossil fuel use during peak demand in the evening or at other times when the sun isn’t shining.”

Solar array, Poipu, Hawaii
Solar array, Poipu, Hawaii. Photo from Scientific American. Credit: Getty Images

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has been helping the Hawaiian Electric Companies respond to their grid stability issues. Commenting on the work (NREL News, April 24, 2018) Martha Symko-Davies, program manager for NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility said, “We’ve helped Hawaii integrate not just solar, but also storage, electric vehicle infrastructure, and more. If this can be done in Hawaii, it can be replicated anywhere else—the question is not ‘if’ we can do it, it’s ‘how’ we can do it. How do we apply the solutions we’ve helped implement in Hawaii and translate those solutions into ones that can work in other, mainland states?”

Map of Hawaiian Islanda
Hawaiian Islands – Image: Google Maps