August 15 2022

August 15 2022

U.S. Congress finally takes action on climate, fossil-fuel-dependent regions are worried about transition to renewables, Colorado River basin in historic drought, record flooding in the U.S. and around the world, USPS will electrify its vehicle fleet faster

Talk about a wonderful surprise! After unexpected announcements by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) regarding an agreement to remake the Build Back Better bill (now the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022), and with the subsequent support of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the U.S. Senate passed the bill on Aug 7th (after an all-night “vote-a-rama” in which 41 mostly unfriendly amendments were offered). Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) left the chambers in tears. “We’ve been fighting for this for decades. Now I can look my kids in the eye and say we’re really doing something about climate,” he said. Several other senators mentioned children and grandchildren as a reason to support the bill. The bill also represents “the largest change to national health policy since the passage of the Affordable Care Act,” as it includes continued Obamacare subsidies and grants Medicare the power to negotiate prices for prescription drugs. The House approved the bill on August 12th.

The Washington Post has an in-depth look at the two weeks of negotiations that caught almost everybody in Washington DC by surprise. These negotiations included secret meetings in a basement conference room between Senators Schumer and Manchin, and key conversations by Manchin with economist Larry Summers and with Bill Gates. In a public tribute to all the staff members who worked on the bill, Schumer said, “This bill is going to change America for decades, and you did it.” Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota said she considers this bill, “one of the most significant things that I’ve had an opportunity to work on,” and Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said, “it will be transformative.” The New York Times describes the decades of effort that has been required to get the U.S. Senate to act, including the persistence of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who just gave his 285th weekly address on the Senate floor about the climate crisis.

Climate analysts are enthusiastic and astounded by the proposed legislation, which contains $369 billion for climate action (Biden’s climate advisor, Gina McCarthy, says she’s ready to “dance in the streets”). The power of Congress to tax and spend (and shape the economy) is now going to push the U.S. economy to decarbonize, writes Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic. He notes that the “core of the bill is a set of tax credits that could touch nearly every aspect of the energy economy,” representing a much broader and more easily accessed set of incentives for renewable energy than previously available. Dave Roberts takes a deep dive into the bill on his podcast. Among other things, his guests note that to have a 10-year term for the federal renewable-energy tax credits is extraordinary, given that previous credits for the industry would sunset after three or five years (this uncertainty is known as the “solarcoaster”). In addition, the credits themselves will become more easily claimed, including by nonprofit entities such as rural energy cooperatives, and they can be transferred to third parties as well.

The bill is projected to reduce U.S. carbon emissions 40% from 2005 levels by 2030, which is most of the way to Biden’s goal of 50% (Vox points out that, without the bill, we’re on track for a 20% reduction). The REPEAT Project of Princeton University demonstrates that the Act contains virtually all of the climate provisions from Build Back Better. Of course, we still have a long way to go, as we need to get to negative emissions (net removal of carbon from the atmosphere on an annual basis) as soon as possible, and many climate activists criticized the bill as inadequate. While that is true, there is not doubt this is the largest push in the right direction that the U.S. Congress was capable of producing at the moment.

The scope of the legislation is hard to summarize here, and a memo from Evergreen Action has the details. The bill includes a 10-year program to subsidize the purchase of heat pumps, solar panels and electric water heaters by American homeowners. It also aims to decarbonize heavy industry with tax credits and incentives to build domestic clean-hydrogen, direct-air-capture and advanced-nuclear industries. Grist reports that the bill includes grants and loans to speed up the development of new transmission lines to carry clean power to customers, with incentives for these projects to meet wage minimums and to be located in “energy communities” that have traditionally had economies tied to fossil fuels. Also included are incentives for geothermal, batteries and existing nuclear-power plants that will help keep the latter operating.

The bill contains $60 billion in environmental-justice initiatives, with $3 billion in block grants for community-led programs to reduce air pollution and prepare low-income communities for extreme heat. Disadvantaged communities will also receive $8 billion of funding for projects that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, money that could be used for green schools or community solar. The $3 billion for electrifying port infrastructure will also benefit environmental-justice communities by improving air quality for nearby neighborhoods. The communities include tribal governments and native Hawaiians.

On the vehicle side, the bill includes a $7,500 tax credit for EVs (for couples earning less than $300,000), and a first-ever credit for purchasing a used EV (Utility Dive reports that “EVs topped the list of fastest-selling used cars last month in nine major metro regions.”) There are tax credits for electric trucks, which should encourage the transportation industry to shift away from diesel-powered 18-wheelers that degrade air quality in communities along highways and near trucking hubs.

The bill also includes $3 billion to electrify the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) fleet. Last year the USPS announced plans to electrify 10% of their fleet but, after widespread criticism, this was increased to 40%. However, this still doesn’t go far enough. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that there is no logical reason for the USPS to not pursue a zero-emissions fleet. And the justification provided by the USPS for their purchase plans “was rife with unreasonable assumptions.” More on this later.

In a New York Times op-ed, Bill Gates calls the bill the single most important piece of climate legislation in American history. He states that many business leaders want the federal government to take action, and that the United States could become “a leader in the deployment of clean energy at scale.” The new legislation “gives the U.S. a bit more credibility with the rest of the world that we are serious about cutting our emissions,” said John Sterman, a climate-policy expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We cannot expect to influence China, India, and other large emitters to take serious action on climate change if we are not willing to do so ourselves.”

Senate Republicans remain united in opposition to the bill, despite the fact that it reduces the deficit. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said, “Democrats want to raise taxes, pass more reckless government spending, and attack American energy.” The Washington Post quotes Fox News personality Sean Hannity: “Manchin gave in to the radical climate alarmist cult, new green deal cult.”

Not only is this just more pointless, combative rhetoric, it also isn’t true. The New York Times reports that Manchin got his pound of flesh for the fossil-fuel industry as well. The bill requires the federal government to open up new locations for oil and gas leasing in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, and expands tax credits for carbon capture and storage that could allow fossil-fuel facilities to continue to operate (although the bill finally increases the ridiculously low royalties paid by those extracting oil from federal lands). Democratic leaders also promised Manchin a vote on a separate bill to accelerate permitting for energy infrastructure, which would likely include the Mountain Valley natural-gas pipeline in West Virginia (Grist has a detailed look at that project). As should be no surprise, Manchin has raised three times more money from natural-gas-pipeline companies than any other legislator. According to Inside Climate News, analysts are concluding that the carbon emissions produced by these fossil-fuel provisions are tiny compared to the emissions avoided due to the expansion of renewable energy. It should be noted that the bill also contains a program to incentivize fossil-fuel producers to reduce methane emissions, provides permanent funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and offers incentives for companies to locate renewable-energy facilities in communities where coal mines or coal plants recently shut down.

The New York Times reports on the financial challenge represented by transitioning away from fossil fuels for states and local governments where fossil-fuel production is a major part of the local economy. The article notes that, for 21 states, the fossil-fuel economy is an important source of tax revenue. “In Wyoming, more than half of state and local tax revenues comes from fossil fuels. In New Mexico, an oil boom has bankrolled free college for residents and expanded medical care for new mothers.” Kern County produces 70% of California’s oil. It is also the largest supplier of wind and solar power, but solar facilities do not generate as much tax revenue, partly because California exempts solar panels from property taxes to spur construction. These factors make the fossil-fuel transition politically complex at the local level, despite the fact that a Brookings Institution analysis found that “a quarter of U.S. counties with the greatest potential for wind and solar power are currently fossil-fuel hubs.”

An interview with New York Times climate reporters goes into more depth about the challenges facing Kern County, and how other communities are working together to begin the transition from fossil fuels. Inside Climate News has an in-depth article about the historic tension in Pennsylvania between fossil-fuel production and environmental protection, and how this issue is playing out in the upcoming state elections. An article in The Atlantic notes that opposition to climate action is especially vehement from those states that are large producers or users of fossil fuels. The New York Times reports that many treasurers from fossil-fuel states are punishing banks that have announced they are reducing the amount they loan to support fossil-fuel ventures.

Gizmodo describes, in words and photos, the dire situation at Lake Mead as water levels drop to historic lows (the New York Times compares satellite images from 2000 and 2022 to demonstrate the impact of the drought, and New York Magazine notes that three bodies have been uncovered as the waters recede — oops, make that four). The New York Times reports on the extraordinary challenges facing states that depend upon water from the Colorado River because of the drought (a video from CBS News discusses its impact on hydropower as well). The federal government has called for conservation of 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023, an amount equal to about one-third of the Colorado’s current annual flow. It is not yet clear where this water-use reduction will come from, but major cuts to agricultural users are expected.

An op-ed in the Guardian notes that “lawn grass takes up 2% of all land in the United States. If it were a crop, it would be by far the single largest irrigated crop in the country.” EPA statistics indicate that 60% of outdoor water usage by households in arid areas is for lawns and gardens. Southern Nevada has had incentives for years to encourage people to remove their lawns, and has outlawed “nonfunctional” grass (such as median strips). The author calls for similar federal standards. CBS News visits Nevada as part of an excellent video about the urgency of the climate crisis. The New York Times reports on a severe drought in Mexico, where access to drinking water is becoming increasingly problematic for many people.

AP reports that the U.S. Postal Service has announced that they have changed their plan to replace aging gasoline-powered vehicles with newer gasoline-powered vehicles. After facing enormous criticism from the U.S. EPA and other entities, the plan now calls for 40% of the new vehicles to be EVs (the Inflation Reduction Act includes funding for purchasing EVs by the USPS). Inside Climate News describes the manufacturing and testing of the first all-electric tractors on farms in Oregon. Companies are starting with smaller models, and are finding some interest and a lot of skepticism amongst the agricultural community.

The New York Times reports on intense flash-floods that struck southeastern Kentucky. Said Jeffrey Noble, Judge Executive of Breathitt County, “In the history of Kentucky, our county has never seen anything like this.” Unfortunately, climate change means we’ll see more of these events. The Washington Post examines how this 1-in-1,000-year event, the third to hit the U.S. in a few weeks (the first was in St. Louis, the second in Southeast Illinois), was caused by atmospheric conditions that will become more frequent in our new climate. These conditions were described as “a parade of thunderstorms passing over the same areas, like train cars along a track.” This was created in part by the stationary high-pressure system that is the ongoing cause of the high temperatures in the midwest. The floods in Kentucky were likely made worse by years of strip-mining for coal in the region. Another article describes the support being delivered to the hardest-hit counties from other parts of the state as the rain continued. This included using all-electric Ford F-150 pick-up trucks for emergency power. Other storms caused record flooding in Death Valley and in South Korea. Vox explains how we can have both flooding and drought due to climate change.

Salon examines the future of Phoenix, asking when the city will become uninhabitable. Studies have been considering various “depopulation scenarios” as the number of heat deaths continues to rise. One study noted that heat deaths are related to how many people are vulnerable to heat stress, not the temperature on any given day. As one might expect, unsheltered homeless populations are the most vulnerable. A reporter from The Guardian shadowed an emergency crew for a few days in the city, where the average daytime June temperature in 2021 was 108.2 °F, seven degrees higher than the 1900-1950 average. Another article examines the great heat wave of 1936, when more than 5,000 Americans died and there was widespread damage to agriculture and infrastructure.

If you’re in the mood for gloomy forecasts, The Guardian reviews a recent study of how climate change can lead to the collapse of civilization, an outcome the study’s authors claim has been “dangerously unexplored.” There are many examples in human history of how climate change contributed to the collapse of societies. The authors examine the impacts of the “four horseman of the climate endgame” — famine, extreme weather, war and disease — noting how climate tipping points can plausibly lead to cascades of events beyond society’s capability to adapt (adult beverage recommended). On a shorter term, David Wallace-Wells describes the enormous challenge facing Europe this winter due to high natural-gas prices, which could result in a rationed war-economy for energy if Putin further restricts gas exports from Russia.

The Energy News Network reports on a 7 MW solar facility under construction in rural Indiana. It’s being built by a rural electric cooperative, using a third-party investor and leasing land from a local farmer. Even though Indiana does not have beneficial policies in place for homeowners wanting to install solar, utility-scale projects can be attractive. The new loan and tax-credit features of the Inflation Reduction Act should make these types of projects easier to build. Anthropocene Magazine describes a pilot-scale facility that produces kerosene and diesel using only water, carbon dioxide from the air and a catalyst. The process is powered by solar energy.