Benicia Herald, by Galen Kusic, Editor, May 24, 2020 (No link, only available in the print edition.)
At the Sept. 3, 2019 Council meeting the City Council agreed to discuss a request from Mayor Elizabeth Patterson considering the adoption of a Climate Emergency Resolution. The request was discussed again on Feb. 4 at a Special City Council meeting, where a subcommittee was formed consisting of Councilmembers Tom Campbell and Steve Young.
[BENINDY EDITOR’S NOTE: See the proposed resolution here, noting that this does not contain Council’s amendments. I have requested the amended resolution and will post it when it is released by the City Clerk. See also the accompanying Staff Report here.]
“The world’s changed since I first brought this forward,” said Patterson. “Who would have guessed…it is actually very interesting for us to contemplate this kind of situation with a pandemic which has been described as one of the consequences of climate warming.”
Cities are adopting these resolutions to end city-wide greenhouse gas emissions. The resolution highlights the need to combat climate change, including that Benicia is specifically vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surge and coastal erosion, which are all enhanced by extreme weather events that cause increased flooding.
The resolution declares that an existential climate emergency threatens Benicia, the region, state, nation, civilization, humanity and the natural world. The resolution calls for a city-wide mobilization effort to reverse global warming and appropriate financial and regulatory assistance from Solano County, state and federal authorities to end city-wide greenhouse gas emissions while safely drawing down carbon from the atmosphere quickly.
“I think we saw this as more of a global aspirational document,” said Young. “The only thing we wanted to change in it was to localize it to some degree.”
The subcommittee added a clause at the end for the city to promote a more sustainable future, like eventually moving to an all-electric fleet.
Vice Mayor Christina Strawbridge and Councilmember Lionel Largaespada both asked for small amendments to the resolution, including not making undue burdens on businesses to attain reduction of greenhouse gas, while implementing policies that are economically feasible.
The resolution is designed to protect the community’s health and safety while also protecting and enhancing the environment.
A resident’s public comment stated that the council should not be focusing on climate change during a pandemic, but Patterson shot back that the pandemic is exactly why immediate action needs to be taken toward combating the climate emergency.
“We now from the early science of COVID-19 that one of the principle challenges for recovery and surviving an infection, particularly in older people, is the air quality,” she said. “We know there’s a direct link to our goal to reduce carbon which contributes to air quality.”
Wait, what? Even with the global economy at a near-standstill, the best analysis suggests that the world is still on track to release 95 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in a typical year, continuing to heat up the planet and driving climate change even as we’re stuck at home.
A 5.5-percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions would still be the largest yearly change on record, beating out the financial crisis of 2008 and World War II. But it’s worth wondering: Where do all of those emissions come from? And if stopping most travel and transport isn’t enough to slow down climate change, what will be?
“I think the main issue is that people focus way, way too much on people’s personal footprints, and whether they fly or not, without really dealing with the structural things that really cause carbon dioxide levels to go up,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.
Transportation makes up a little over 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. (In the United States, it makes up around 28 percent.) That’s a significant chunk, but it also means that even if all travel were completely carbon-free (imagine a renewable-powered, electrified train system, combined with personal EVs and battery-powered airplanes), there’d still be another 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions billowing into the skies.
So where are all those emissions coming from? For one thing, utilities are still generating roughly the same amount of electricity — even if more of it’s going to houses instead of workplaces. Electricity and heating combined account for over 40 percent of global emissions. Many people around the world rely on wood, coal, and natural gas to keep their homes warm and cook their food — and in most places, electricity isn’t so green either.
Even with a bigger proportion of the world working from home, people still need the grid to keep the lights on and connect to the internet. “There’s a shift from offices to homes, but the power hasn’t been turned off, and that power is still being generated largely by fossil fuels,” Schmidt said. In the United States, 60 percent of electricity generation still comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. (There is evidence, however, that the lockdown is shifting when people use electricity, which has some consequences for renewables.)
Manufacturing, construction, and other types of industry account for approximately 20 percent of CO2 emissions. Certain industrial processes like steel production and aluminum smelting use huge amounts of fossil fuels — and so far, Schmidt says, that type of production has mostly continued despite the pandemic.
The reality is that emissions need to be cut by 7.6 percent every year to keep global warming from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — the threshold associated with the most dangerous climate threats — according to an analysis by the United Nations Environment Program. Even if the global lockdown and economic slump reduce emissions by 7.6 percent this year, emissions would have to fall even more the year after that. And the year after that. And so on.
In the middle of the pandemic, it’s become common to point to clear skies in Los Angeles and the cleaner waters of Venice as evidence that people can make a difference on climate change. “The newly iconic photos of a crystal-clear Los Angeles skyline without its usual shroud of smog are unwanted but compelling evidence of what can happen when individuals stop driving vehicles that pollute the air,” wrote Michael Grunwald in POLITICO magazine.
But these arguments conflate air and water pollution — crucial environmental issues in their own right! — with CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide is invisible, and power plants and oil refineries are still pumping it into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, natural gas companies and livestock farming (think cow burps) keep releasing methane.
“I think people should bike instead of driving, and they should take the train instead of flying,” said Schmidt. “But those are small, compared to the really big structural things that haven’t changed.”
It’s worth remembering that a dip in carbon emissions won’t lead to any changes in the Earth’s warming trend. Some scientists compare carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to water flowing into a leaky bathtub. The lockdown has turned the tap down, not off. Until we cut emissions to net-zero — so that emissions flowing into the atmosphere are equivalent to those flowing out — the Earth will continue warming.
For those that thought the #COVID19 lockdowns would effect CO₂ concentrations, well, last week CO₂ had a big spike!
That helps explain why 2020 is already on track to be the warmest ever recorded, beating out 2016. In a sad irony, the decrease in air pollution may make it even hotter. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego, explained that many polluting particles have a “masking” effect on global warming, reflecting the sun’s rays, canceling out some of the warming from greenhouse gas emissions. With that shield of pollution gone, Ramanathan said, “We could see an increase in warming.”
Appreciate the bluer skies and fresher air, while you can. But the emissions drop from the pandemic should be a warning, not a cause for celebration: a sign of how much further there is to go.
Update: As of April 30, the International Energy Agency estimates that carbon emissions will fall by 8 percent this year. The IEA drew on more data than an earlier CarbonBrief analysis which estimated a drop of 5.5 percent.
As the coronavirus cripples world economies, greenhouse gas emissions are plummeting: This year, they could drop by as much as 5.5 percent—the largest decrease ever recorded. On Monday, the price of oil went negative, meaning storing oil now costs more than the oil itself. Since we’re burning less gas and fuel, air pollution has dropped 30 percent in northeastern cities, and Los Angeles’ notorious smoggy skyline has cleared.
You might be thinking all this is great news for the environment. It’s a nice idea—but the real story is more complicated. “You don’t want companies collapsing like this,” says Andrew Logan, oil and gas director of Ceres, a think tank focused on sustainable investment. “Even the most ardent climate advocate shouldn’t wish for a chaotic transition in this sector. A chaotic transition brings all sort of pain to workers and also the environment.”
It helps to think of COVID-19 as a test run—a very painful one—of what an industry in decline will look like. “We’re seeing, as is case the now, what the cliff looks like if everyone shuts down at the same time,” Logan says.
With a glut of supply, North America producers Exxon, Shell, Devon Energy, and Cenovus Energy have already collectively announced spending cuts this year totaling $50 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. In North Dakota, Trump donor Harold Hamm’s Continental Resources drilling company has cut output by 30 percent the next two months. In Canada, the famously destructive tar sands are too expensive to mine and refine on oil prices this cheap. Even the Southwest’s Permian Basin, the most productive region for oil and gas in the United States, is expected to see dramatic closures.
Environmentalists are worried about what comes next, because of the many unintended consequences of market chaos. For starters, when gas prices tank, Americans will likely start buying more cars and taking more road trips, driving up demand all over again.
Other environmental problems aren’t quite so obvious. Lorne Stockman, a senior research analyst with the climate advocacy group Oil Change International, worries that the coming bankruptcies this year “are an environmental nightmare in the making,” with “wells left to rot as bankruptcy proceedings are going through.”
As the industry contracts, some drilling operations will simply leave their wells, and many don’t have the funding set aside to take proper precautions to make sure greenhouse gases and other pollutants don’t leak out. Environmental advocates are especially worried about leaks of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
Abandoned wells are already a big problem. Even in relatively good times, oil and gas wells still dry up. When they do, they might be sold to smaller, sometimes less scrupulous operators to tap what’s left in the well. Then those operators eventually abandon the well or go bankrupt. They can’t afford to clean up the site, which involves plugging the well with cement to avoid leaks into groundwater.
We don’t know for sure how many of these wells exist around the country, though the EPA estimates there are more than 1.5 million of them that have accumulated over a century. Wyoming has had thousands it’s in the process of plugging, and Pennsylvania has 8,000. Taxpayers will eventually pay for both cleanup and environmental damages.
Drilling operations that don’t shutter will have to find ways to cut costs. In boom times, methane is valuable to drillers because it can be captured and reused for fuel. But when oil and natural gas prices have crashed in the past, drillers have sought to get rid of excess methane in the cheapest way possible—by burning it (a process known as “flaring”) or simply letting it leak into the atmosphere (called “venting”). Both processes can contribute to climate change and contaminate surrounding communities. Flaring and venting worry many environmental advocates. The International Energy Agency notes that “low natural gas prices may lead to increases in flaring or venting, and regulatory oversight of oil and gas operations could be scaled back.”
Methane emissions hit a 20-year high last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although scientists don’t fully understand why, they believe that fracking operations may dramatically underestimate the methane they release. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, operations typically lose 15 times the rate that producers report because of malfunctions and intentional venting. The COVID-19 crisis could lead to more leaks, because companies won’t have any incentive to capture methane to use for fuel.
Amid the turbulence in the oil sector, the Trump administration has continued to roll back environmental regulations, and it has already undone Obama-era rules targeting methane emissions from oil and gas operations.
Nathalie Eddy, a field advocate for the environmental watchdog Earthworks, is worried that environmental contamination will be made worse as the administration weakens rules. “When the market falls like this one of the first things that will go is the limited capacity for inspection,” she says. The EPA, Department of the Interior, and Department of Transportation have already announced they will suspend some routine inspections and monitoring, including pipeline reporting and field inspections, and waive civil penalties if violators say COVID-19 was a factor.
Climate advocates have urged the EPA and Department of the Interior to require companies to monitor methane leaks and set aside money for their cleanup. To help the sector recoup the lost revenue, they propose a job stimulus program aimed at reclaiming these sites for the double-duty benefit of a clean environment and keeping workers employed.
But so far, those pleas are going unanswered. The Trump administration has floated several schemes for helping the oil sector: During the first round of stimulus, congressional Democrats managed to shoot down the oil industry’s bailout request. Now, the administration is considering paying producers to leave crude in the ground until the global glut shrinks. Meanwhile, the major banks want some collateral for the $200 billion they are owed from oil companies: According to Reuters, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citigroup could even seize the industry’s assets, which could pose an enormous conflict of interest for a financial sector that just months ago was signaling a move away from the oil sector.
So far, it looks like the short-term emissions drop won’t result in any lasting policy improvements, Stockman says. “We have seen the wrong kind of stimulus that isn’t aimed at changing our relationship to fossil fuels.”
Last week’s EPA decision adds insult to injury for our already vulnerable communities.
Perhaps you missed it. There’s a lot going on right now. But amidst all the COVID-19 headlines last week, the EPA decided that it is not “appropriate and necessary” for the government to limit emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from power plants.
This is not a roll-back of a regulation. It’s more nuanced than that. It’s a high-stakes procedural move with two important implications:
First, it scraps the legal basis for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) which limit hazardous air pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants. Having knocked the legal foundations out from under this important regulation, I think there’s a real risk that power plants will find ways to dial back on compliance in the future.
Second, it sets a dangerous precedent for how the benefits and costs of federal environmental regulations are assessed. The ruling removes significant health benefits from cost-benefit consideration on the grounds that they are not directly targeted by MATS.
This announcement comes at a time when the country is reeling from the global coronavirus pandemic. Protecting public health is top of mind. We’ve all become keenly aware of how actions we take can indirectly protect the health of the most vulnerable among us. With these benefits in mind, we are taking action.
Meanwhile, the EPA has decided that the indirect health benefits of pollution reductions should not be considered in regulatory cost-benefit analysis. This decision departs recklessly from standard practices for responsible public decision-making.
To understand what this means, we need to remember how we got here.
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards limits the emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from power plants. To justify the rule, the EPA must demonstrate that it is appropriate and necessary. Back in 2011, the EPA supported this argument with a detailed analysis that projected big public health benefits from the power plant emissions reductions expected under the regulation. The table below, taken from the 2011 analysis, shows monetized benefits far exceeding the costs.
Last year, the Trump EPA started working to reverse the appropriate and necessary finding. The agency issued this six-page memo that re-interprets the 2011 cost-benefit analysis. There’s no new information here. The big change is that the “co-benefits” – health benefits that result indirectly from MATS compliance—have been wiped off the cost-benefit board. If we ignore these benefits (row 3 in the table above), MATS appears to fail the cost-benefit test.
There are many reasons to be concerned about this maneuver. Let me unpack three:
Co-benefits are real benefits
When power plants reduce mercury emissions, they also reduce emissions of precursors to harmful particulate matter (PM). Reducing exposure to small particulates saves lives. These benefits are referred to as “co-benefits” because they are caused by – but not directly targeted by – the regulation.
If a policy will generate big health benefits, directly or indirectly, these should be counted. Federal agencies are under Executive Order to weigh the available evidence on all significant costs and benefits in their regulatory assessments. This is also required under the EPA’s own guidelines for economic analysis.
An official decision that eliminates or reduces consideration of co-benefits sets a troubling precedent for future regulatory decisions. If this approach becomes standard, it becomes much more difficult for the EPA to justify socially beneficial regulations. Greenhouse gas emissions regulations- which can deliver significant reductions in local air pollution- are one important example.
Direct benefits estimates are outdated and incomplete
The 2011 direct benefit projections that serve as a basis for last week’s decision reflect only one health benefit from reducing mercury emissions: improvements in the IQs of children whose families catch and eat freshwater fish. This narrow focus explains why those 2011 direct benefits estimates are so small.
A decade later, we know a lot more about how power-plant mercury accumulates in commercial seafood consumed by many Americans. In addition, recent research suggests that mercury exposure could cause cardiovascular problems. If these additional health impacts were accounted for, the direct benefits of HAP reductions would look quite different. But the 2020 EPA decision is still referencing outdated and incomplete 2011 benefits numbers.
Costs are largely in the past
To comply with MATS, billions have been invested in equipment that scrubs harmful pollution out of power plant emissions. In other words, the investment costs that comprise the majority of the 2011 cost projections have already been incurred. Going forward, the costs we need to consider are the costs of operating this pollution abatement equipment. Estimates I’ve seen range from $1.80/MWh to as high as $7.92/MWh (a non-trivial increase in coal-fired electricity generation costs).
By dismissing the legal basis for the rule, MATS is left wide open to the challenge that the pollution controls are no longer legally required. If I were a coal plant operator, I might read between the lines of this decision and conclude that the EPA is not so concerned about enforcing MATS going forward.
Coal plants across the U.S. are struggling to compete with natural gas and renewables. If MATS requirements are not there to keep pollution controls switched on, plants in competitive electricity markets will have an incentive to turn this equipment off to save a few dollars/MWh. If this happens, downwind communities will pay a hefty health price.
Adding insult to injury
You would think that a high-stakes regulatory decision like this would merit an analysis update given that almost a decade has passed since the original assessment was done. The reams of data and scientific evidence that have accumulated since 2011 could provide a much more accurate evaluation of the rule’s benefits and costs, in addition to a more informed basis for re-evaluating the appropriate and necessary finding. Instead, this EPA has dusted off a stale 2011 analysis, deleted the co-benefits, and declared the rule unnecessary and/or inappropriate.
The timing of this decision feels particularly callous because the communities that have historically been most exposed to high levels of air pollution are the ones being hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis. This recent study suggests that even small increases in long-term exposure to particulate matter significantly increase COVID-19 fatality risk.
The Trump administration assures us it is putting “safety first” during this COVID-19 epidemic. But in the background, Trump appointees have been doing quite the opposite with decision after decision after decision. This MATS reversal has the potential to do real damage. But if there is good news to be found in this story, it’s that it will take time to play out. One more reason to work hard to course correct in November.
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