News Roundup: The end of energy dominance

Climate crisis takes center stage at Interior

The Trump-era policies promoting fossil-fueled “energy dominance” have come to an end, replaced by an emphasis on stemming climate change and fostering environmental justice. Last week, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland revoked a host of Trump administration executive orders that were deemed “inconsistent with protecting public health and the environment,” while also creating a Climate Task Force to work across the department. 

"From day one, President Biden was clear that we must take a whole-of-government approach to tackle the climate crisis, strengthen the economy, and address environmental justice,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a statement“At the Department of the Interior, I believe we have a unique opportunity to make our communities more resilient to climate change and to help lead the transition to a clean energy economy.” 

Shortly after Trump’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, was confirmed in 2017, he went on a rampage of eviscerating and axing environmental protections, claiming he was removing “regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.” This included ending a moratorium on new federal coal leasing, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing, streamlining National Environmental Policy Act reviews, and weakening Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act

There is no evidence that Zinke’s orders prompted a drilling boom, created jobs, or slowed the precipitous decline of the coal industry. Most of the benefits of the rollbacks, if there were any, went to corporate executives and shareholders at the expense of the environment, public health, and worker safety. 

Haaland’s order rescinds twelve of Zinke’s rollbacks. In order to reinstate some of the more significant rules that were axed, such as the Obama administration’s rules regarding methane emissions from oil and gas facilities on public land, Haaland will probably have to embark on a new rule-making process, which may result in stronger regulations than those that were scrapped. 

The dust-binned energy dominance will be replaced with what the climate-related order describes as, “a holistic approach to honor the Nation’s trust responsibilities; address the climate crisis; advance environmental justice; and build a clean energy future that creates good-paying jobs and powers our Nation.” That is not only an about-face from the previous administration’s mission, but is a significant departure from even more environmentally friendly administrations of the past. Also notable is the absence of any language aspiring toward “energy independence,” which has been a goal—albeit an empty one—of every president since Richard Nixon.

The new Climate Task Force’s tasks include: 

  • using the best available science to evaluate climate change impacts of projects on federal lands; 

  • implementing the review of the oil and gas leasing program; 

  • accelerating permitting of renewable energy projects and transmission that carries renewable energy;

  • identifying ways to revitalize fossil fuel-dependent economies and to support reclamation of abandoned and orphaned mines and wells; and,

  • addressing environmental injustice. 

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One of the oddest oddities surrounding the Big Breakdown of coal is, in my opinion, the tendency of industry boosters to fail to acknowledge that their business is going down, paired with a denial of the true reasons for its death. This denial, in turn, often leads them to shun efforts to ensure a just transition for the workers and the communities that will be impacted by coal’s demise. 

In New Mexico, for example, fossil-fuel-friendly politicians have blamed the Energy Transition Act—which would help make coal-abandoned communities whole—for the coming closure of the San Juan Generating Station when, in fact, the Act was formulated in response to the utility’s decision to shutter the plant for economic reasons. They’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to kill the Act, thereby depriving places like Farmington, New Mexico, of tens of millions of dollars for economic development and worker relief.

But this week, the United Mine Workers of America released a statement that clearly recognized that the end of the coal-power industry as we know it is near, while also laying out a roadmap to a “true transition to a brighter future.”

“Change is coming, whether we seek it or not,” the document states. “Too many inside and outside the coalfields have looked the other way when it comes to recognizing and addressing specifically what that change must be, but we can look away no longer. We must act, while acting in a way that has real, positive impact on the people who are most affected by this change.”

Granted, the union’s not exactly ready to give up coal altogether: The roadmap encourages the development and buildup of carbon capture technology and infrastructure in order to keep coal-burning alive in a slightly cleaner form. Yet most of the document is devoted to what follows the Breakdown.

“This cannot be the sort of ‘just transition’ wishful thinking so common in the environmental community. There must be a set of specific, concrete actions that are fully-funded and long-term,” the document states. “The easiest and most efficient way to fund this would be through a ‘wires’ charge on retail electric power sales, paid by utility customers, which would add about two-tenths of one cent per kilowatt hour to the average electric bill.” 

The union calls for buildup of infrastructure in coal country, a national training and assistance program for out-of-work miners, direct grants to coalfield communities, expansion of tax incentives for renewable energy manufacturing in coal country, and full funding of the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program. All of these are in line with what President Joe Biden has proposed.

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Speaking of carbon capture, a new natural gas power plant that proponents say would have no emissions may be headed for Southern Ute Indian Tribe land in southwestern Colorado. 

The 280-megawatt Coyote Clean Power Project—a partnership between 8 Rivers Capital and the Southern Ute Growth Fund—would utilize the Allam-Fetvedt Cycle, which uses oxygen to combust the natural gas and then uses the resulting carbon dioxide to turn a turbine (rather than using steam, meaning that it uses far less water than other fossil fuel plants). The carbon would then be captured and stored or sold for reuse. The technology has yet to be employed on such a large scale. 

Widespread adoption of carbon capture and storage is seen by many climate hawks as critical to avoiding a full-on climate catastrophe. So far, however, the expensive, energy-intensive technology hasn’t worked out so well on coal power plants. Oftentimes the captured CO2 is sold to oil companies, which then flood spent oil wells with it to squeeze out more petroleum. Whether or not the CO2 will remain sequestered underground in such cases is questionable. 

The proponents of the Coyote plant would be able to collect substantial federal 45Q tax credits for each ton of carbon captured, which could bring in as much as $43 million per year—if all functions as planned. 

Even if the new technology does work as well as it’s supposed to, allowing for zero-emission power-generation, the plant will still result in what might be called upstream emissions: Substantial volumes of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—are emitted during the extraction, processing, and transportation of natural gas, the plant’s fuel. That said, the Southern Ute Tribe’s energy companies are ahead of the curve when it comes to methane capture, and have utilized a novel process for capturing geologic methane emissions (that are likely exacerbated by oil and gas development).

Project proponents are expected to decide next year whether to go forward with the plant, which could be in operation by 2025.  

For more on carbon capture and a nearby bid to use the technology to keep a coal power plant operating, read Carbon Capture Convolution Part I and Part II, from the Land Desk, of course.

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Puebloan corn-grinding facility in Bears Ears National Monument. If anyone knows what the circle and indentation, bottom-center, is, the Land Desk would love to know. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which consists of representatives from five sovereign tribal nations, has officially reiterated its call for the immediate restoration and expansion of the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. 

The April 19 press release comes in response to Utah politicians’ pleas to the Biden administration to hold off on any action on the shrunken monument until Congress can devise a permanent legislative solution. But the Coalition emphasized the need for protection now, not just for the 1.6 million acres that President Barack Obama designated in 2016, but for the entire 1.9 million acres proposed by the Coalition in the first place. A presidential order would not preclude future legislative action. 

The press release reads, “While we are very eager to continue pursuing legislative protections for Bears Ears, restoration should not wait on legislation and, thus far, the Utah delegation has yet to suggest any substantive points or counter-proposal in response to our proposal that we have been committed to for the last 6 years. As we have learned from past experience legislative negotiations can collapse, and even in the best-case scenario can take years to advance in Congress. Bears Ears needs protection now.”

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WHAT WE’RE READING:

  • A recent High Country News story by Miles Griffis about a revitalization plan for the mostly concrete-encased L.A. River includes some baffling statistics. Of some 66,000 unhoused people in the greater metro area, approximately 9,000 live along the L.A. River’s banks. Hundreds or even thousands of those people rely on fish from the river for sustenance. Now their home is threatened by the “green gentrification” that will likely result as the L.A. River Master Plan to spruce up the river corridor is realized in coming years. The piece is beautifully illustrated with striking black and white photos by Roberto (Bear) Guerra. 

    In “The Indigenous Future of Bears Ears,” in the Grand Canyon Trust’s Advocate, Lyle Balenquah writes

“Simply reversing Trump’s decision is not enough. Tribes must have a lead role in the development of land-management policy, especially when the land base encompasses large parts of our ancestral history and self-identity.”

AND HOPING TO READ SOON:

Jacqueline Keeler’s highly anticipated new book, Standoff: Standing Rock, the Bundy movement, and the American story of sacred lands, is now available from Torrey House Press. Go get it!

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