June 30 2021

June 30 2021

Exxon Mobil management loses Board seats, fires burn in high-elevation forests, coal-mine cleanup a "house of cards", linking home batteries to create virtual power plants, expanding EV charging infrastructure

NOAA has a great animation that shows how global temperatures have changed over the last 70 years. The New York Times notes that, under President Biden, the U.S. EPA has updated its website to feature and track indicators of climate change, something that the Trump Administration refused to do. Another climate-change indicator from the political realm: a growing number of elected Republicans are speaking out about the reality of climate change (a small but necessary step).

Exxon Mobil’s stock value has dropped nearly 30% in five years, with the company taking on debt to buoy its stock price and pay dividends after posting a $22 billion loss in 2020. The New York Times has a detailed look at how a small investment firm organized shareholders to win two seats on Exxon Mobil’s Board of Directors. The firm argued that the company needs to change its business model to be successful as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. These investors believe that the effect a company has on society, in addition to its bottom line, will determine its long-term success.

In the Conversation is an analysis of new and unwelcome evidence of climate change — fires burning in higher-elevation forests (above 8,200 feet). These traditionally colder and wetter forests have little direct impact from humans, and only the changing climate is allowing them to burn. Fires at these elevations more than tripled in 2001-2017 when compared to 1984-2000. These fires impact wildlife, plants and downstream water supplies.

The San Francisco Chronicle presents the first of a four-part analysis of sea level rise in the Bay Area by examining Mission Creek in San Francisco. The article is full of excellent animated graphics describing alternative plans, and all of the follow-on problems that result from trying to stay dry by diverting water elsewhere or by creating hardened lines of defense (behind which rain water accumulates during major storms). The article ends with a quote from Anna Roche of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission: “There are certain things we need to do for the next 15 to 20 years, and certain things beyond that. A lot of them will be incredibly complicated, and incredibly expensive.”

One expensive option for Miami, being planned by the Corps of Engineers, is the construction of a 20-foot sea wall through part of the city. As the New York Times describes, this has forced reluctant city officials to start a difficult discussion — one that they have been avoiding for a long time — about what the future looks like. So far, there are many divergent opinions. The Guardian visits the Florida Keys, one of the most vulnerable parts of Florida, where the reality of sea level rise is sinking in for some (but not all) residents. The San Francisco Chronicle examines the levee construction underway in Foster City, CA, one of the most vulnerable communities to sea level rise in the Bay Area. This levee is being built using bond funds approved by voters.

I recently linked to articles that describe the challenges facing communities with orphaned and leaking oil and gas wells. Inside Climate News reports that North Dakota used $66 million in pandemic relief funds to plug orphaned wells, a cost that was supposed to be born by operators. This money was spent despite the fact that many of these wells had solvent owners. "The EPA has estimated there are more than 3 million abandoned wells, regardless of whether they have owners or not. Often, companies can avoid plugging wells when they are no longer productive by calling them idled, a status that can last decades." An article in Grist calls the coal-mine cleanup program in West Virginia "a house of cards," where bankrupt coal companies, insurers and the state government lack the capital to pay for reclamation of mine sites that have turned "a traditional farming community" into "an industrial wasteland." Examining how abandoned offshore oil wells are addressed suggests that companies are engaging in "bankruptcy for profit," by forcing their environmental liabilities onto others (likely the taxpayers).

An article in Vox describes the challenges of methane emissions from active oil and gas operations, with a focus on the Permian Basin in western Texas and eastern New Mexico. The scale of emissions from this region have led to it being described as a "ticking climate bomb," and the article investigates the political and economic challenges associated with controlling these emissions. Among the challenges is that the region is mainly focused on oil production, with gas seen as a noncommercial by-product that is not of business interest to operators.

Nexus Media News notes that many small oil and gas companies, which receive less regulatory scrutiny, have relatively large methane emissions. 195 of the smallest producers were responsible for 22% of total emissions, despite accounting for only 9% of production. Ironically, many of these small companies have purchased old, highly-polluting oil and gas assets from larger companies like BP and ConocoPhillips. The practice allows major fossil-fuel companies to garner positive press by selling such assets and then claiming a reduced corporate carbon footprint.

As energy generation and storage becomes more distributed with solar panels and batteries (including EVs), a promising concept is to use these distributed (or "behind-the-meter") resources as an alternative to power plants when demand for electricity rises. The idea is to draw power, for example, from a parked EV during dinner time, and then replenish that battery at night when power demand drops. This prevents the need to build and operate a "peaking plant," often a natural-gas fired facility that only operates for a short time during peak demand for electricity. Integrating so many disparate sources to dispatch electricity in a matter of seconds is enormously complicated. Canary Media reports on one of the first commercial-scale pilot projects, operated by Green Mountain Power in Vermont, which has successfully integrated 200 Tesla Power Wall installations into a "virtual power plant" to support its grid. The value proposition is that customers get paid to provide this service, which is paired with their ability to keep power on during outages, while the utility reduces the strain on local circuits and cuts its overall costs.

Vox examines the need to vastly increase the EV-charging infrastructure in the U.S. if we are going to build momentum to decarbonize the transportation sector. As part of the American Jobs Plan, the Biden Administration "proposes spending $174 billion on EVs, a sum that would boost supply chains for automakers, help subsidize the cost of cars for American drivers, and dramatically scale up the number of public electric vehicle charging stations along the nation’s roadways." Competition for EV chargers in cities with larger numbers of EVs (like San Franciscso) is already a disincentive for prospective EV buyers. While most EV charging happens at home, this doesn’t work for people who have to park on the street or can’t afford to install a charging station.

Bay Nature examines the proposal to build a 100 MW solar facility in the North Livermore Valley. The project has both support and opposition from the environmental community, and raises interesting questions about the siting of large solar facilities. A key factor for the site is that it is near an electrical substation, reducing costs for additional transmission lines, but by local initiative the region has been designated for agricultural land uses. An article in AP News notes that Houston-based GenOn Holdings has announced that it will close three coal plants in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio. This is just the latest in a long list of coal plants being closed due to economic problems.

Scenarios for keeping global average temperature increases to 2°C or less require that our society remove more carbon from the atmosphere than we emit ("negative emissions") during the second half of the century. An article in Scientific American describes one place to put that carbon: rock formations that chemically bind with the carbon. "For this vision to materialize, humans would have to build an extensive, global infrastructure of machines that pull CO2 from the atmosphere and inject it down wells drilled into mantle rock—a kind of mirror image of the infrastructure that currently extracts fossil fuels, which when burned send CO2 into the air." An article in Grist reviews some of the most promising atmospheric carbon-removal technologies, which are being supported by the transaction processing firm, Stripe.

The New York Times describes the Climatarian diet, the goal of which is to reduce the carbon footprint of your food. In the Washington Post, an article looks at the growing integration of sustainability and renewable energy into the architecture of new buildings. The article includes discussion with Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, an organization that aims to reconfigure the built environment as part of the solution to global warming.