Big oil asks government to protect it from climate change
By WILL WEISSERT
Wednesday, August 22
PORT ARTHUR, Texas (AP) — As the nation plans new defenses against the more powerful storms and higher tides expected from climate change, one project stands out: an ambitious proposal to build a nearly 60-mile “spine” of concrete seawalls, earthen barriers, floating gates and steel levees on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Like other oceanfront projects, this one would protect homes, delicate ecosystems and vital infrastructure, but it also has another priority — to shield some of the crown jewels of the petroleum industry, which is blamed for contributing to global warming and now wants the federal government to build safeguards against the consequences of it.
The plan is focused on a stretch of coastline that runs from the Louisiana border to industrial enclaves south of Houston that are home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of petrochemical facilities, including most of Texas’ 30 refineries, which represent 30 percent of the nation’s refining capacity.
Texas is seeking at least $12 billion for the full coastal spine, with nearly all of it coming from public funds. Last month, the government fast-tracked an initial $3.9 billion for three separate, smaller storm barrier projects that would specifically protect oil facilities.
That followed Hurricane Harvey, which roared ashore last Aug. 25 and swamped Houston and parts of the coast, temporarily knocking out a quarter of the area’s oil refining capacity and causing average gasoline prices to jump 28 cents a gallon nationwide. Many Republicans argue that the Texas oil projects belong at the top of Washington’s spending list.
“Our overall economy, not only in Texas but in the entire country, is so much at risk from a high storm surge,” said Matt Sebesta, a Republican who as Brazoria County judge oversees a swath of Gulf Coast.
But the idea of taxpayers around the country paying to protect refineries worth billions, and in a state where top politicians still dispute climate change’s validity, doesn’t sit well with some.
“The oil and gas industry is getting a free ride,” said Brandt Mannchen, a member of the Sierra Club’s executive committee in Houston. “You don’t hear the industry making a peep about paying for any of this and why should they? There’s all this push like, ‘Please Senator Cornyn, Please Senator Cruz, we need money for this and that.’”
Normally outspoken critics of federal spending, Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz both backed using taxpayer funds to fortify the oil facilities’ protections and the Texas coast. Cruz called it “a tremendous step forward.”
Federal, state and local money is also bolstering defenses elsewhere, including on New York’s Staten Island, around Atlantic City, New Jersey, and in other communities hammered by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Construction in Texas could begin in several months on the three sections of storm barrier. While plans are still being finalized, some dirt levees will be raised to about 17 feet high, and 6 miles of 19-foot-tall floodwalls would be built or strengthened around Port Arthur, a Texas-Louisiana border locale of pungent chemical smells and towering knots of steel pipes.
The town of 55,000 includes the Saudi-controlled Motiva oil refinery, the nation’s largest, as well as refineries owned by oil giants Valero Energy Corp. and Total S.A. There are also almost a dozen petrochemical facilities.
“You’re looking at a lot of people, a lot of homes, but really a lot of industry,” said Steve Sherrill, an Army Corps of Engineers resident engineer in Port Arthur, as he peered over a Gulf tributary lined with chunks of granite and metal gates, much of which is set to be reinforced.
The second barrier project features around 25 miles of new levees and seawalls in nearby Orange County, where Chevron, DuPont and other companies have facilities. The third would extend and heighten seawalls around Freeport, home to a Phillips 66 export terminal for liquefied natural gas and nearby refinery, as well as several chemical facilities.
The proposals approved for funding originally called for building more protections along larger swaths of the Texas coast, but they were scaled back and now deliberately focus on refineries.
“That was one of the main reasons we looked at some of those areas,” said Tony Williams, environmental review coordinator for the Texas Land Commissioner’s Office.
Oil and chemical companies also pushed for more protection for surrounding communities to shield their workforces, but “not every property can be protected,” said Sheri Willey, deputy chief of project management for the Army Corps of Engineers’ upper Texas district.
“Our regulations tell us what benefits we need to include, and they have to be national economic benefits,” Willey said.
Once work is complete on the three sections, they could eventually be integrated into a larger coastal spine system. In some places along Texas’ 370-mile Gulf Coast, 18 feet is lost annually to erosion, threatening to suck more wetlands, roads and buildings into rising seas.
Protecting a wide expanse will be expensive. After Harvey, a special Texas commission prepared a report seeking $61 billion from Congress to “future proof” the state against such natural disasters, without mentioning climate change, which scientists say will cause heavier rains and stronger storms.
Texas has not tapped its own rainy day fund of around $11 billion. According to federal rules, 35 percent of funds spent by the Army Corps of Engineers must be matched by local jurisdictions, and the GOP-controlled state Legislature could help cover such costs. But such spending may be tough for many conservatives to swallow.
Texas “should be funding things like this itself,” said Chris Edwards, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Texans are proud of their conservatism, but, unfortunately, when decisions get made in Washington, that frugality goes out the door.”
State officials counter that protecting the oil facilities is a matter of national security.
The effects of the next devastating storm could be felt nationwide,” Rep. Randy Weber, a fiercely conservative Republican from suburban Houston who has nonetheless authored legislation backing the coastal spine.
Major oil companies did not return messages seeking comment on funding for the projects. But Suzanne Lemieux, midstream group manager for the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry already pays into programs such as the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and the Waterways Trust Fund, only to see Congress divert that money elsewhere.
“Do we want to pay again, when we’ve already paid a tax without it getting used? I’d say the answer is no,” she said.
Phillips 66 and other energy firms spent money last year lobbying Congress on storm-related funding post-Harvey, campaign finance records show, and Houston’s Lyondell Chemical Co. PAC lobbied for building a coastal spine.
“The coastal spine benefits more than just our industry,” Bob Patel, CEO of LyondellBasell, one of the world’s largest plastics, chemicals and refining companies, said in March. “It really needs to be a regional effort.”
RECREATING THE WILDERNESS
By Robert C. Koehler
The science gets ever more dire. The politics runs the other way.
We’ve claimed hold of the planet, but cluelessly, like the sorcerer’s apprentice. Welcomed to the Anthropocene: the age of humanity intertwined with nature.
“Climate change is not a problem we have to make go away, in a sense that you don’t make adolescence go away,” astrophysicist Adam Frank said to Chris Hedges. “It is a dangerous transition that you have to navigate… The question is, are we smart enough to deal with the effects of our own power?”
The planet itself is transitioning, to God knows what. There may be no human race on the other side of that transition, but maybe there will be. Either way, we have to reach well beyond ourselves.
Usually when the topic is climate change, what you get is science mixed with politics — the experts and the leaders — warning us and failing us, and then positing an ultimatum for the human race at large, e.g., “Humanity has a big decision to make very soon about its future on a warming planet.” We must lower CO2 emissions. We need new regulations. To hear such a message, as simply a member of the global public, is to be left feeling utterly powerless, a spectator, wishing “they” would do something to start fixing this mess.
That’s why I took heart in the perspective Frank expressed to Hedges, not because it was simpler (it’s anything but that), but because it transcended science and geopolitics and shattered the comfort zone of helplessness. He said:
“We’re going to have to evolve a new way of being a civilization.”
Maybe the starting place is for everyone to start evolving past his or her own sense of powerlessness. We’re not just spectators. In a sense, we’re all refugees, or soon enough will be, paddling for our lives to some distant spiritual shore.
Eric Holthaus, writing at grist.org, gave an example of what that means: “In 1980, a group of friends at the end of a backpacking trip across the Rockies formed a radical eco-movement known as Earth First! In their first statement of principles, they laid out a straightforward goal: ‘We do not wish to merely preserve what’s left, we want to recreate wilderness.’”
What could that possibly mean? The first thing I hear in such a statement is a deep rethinking of what it means to have power — not over but with nature. Right now we’re trapped in a global socioeconomic infrastructure that is antithetical to any sort of reverence for the natural world. In our adolescent sense of power, the best we are able to do is preserve patches of scenic beauty — national parks, etc. — which resonates with clueless arrogance, like “honoring” indigenous cultures behind glass cases in our museums.
The idea of “recreating wilderness” is absolutely paradoxical, but embracing paradox is part of the challenge. Wilderness is at the soul of Planet Earth, you might say. It’s not ours, either to exploit or preserve, but simply to cherish and be part of. Humanity, or at least a piece of it, broke away from the circle of life ten millennia ago. It developed agriculture, written language, civilization. Now, paradoxically, it must, as it evolves a new way of being a civilization, reach back to what it once was and reclaim the wisdom of being part of wilderness … of life itself.
Writing about the Anthropocene is incredibly difficult, because ultimately it means addressing the Unknown. Is it possible to put the Unknown into words?
Rupert Ross, in his remarkable book Returning to the Teachings, addresses, among much else, the concept of language itself, making the point that Western languages, including English, at their very core create a sense of separation: The universe is a slew of loose, disconnected nouns, which are the speaker’s to control. Ancient languages, and modern-day indigenous languages, are differently structured, maintaining the speaker’s ties to life. He describes the difference in a metaphor:
“It has to do with the difference between standing behind the triple-pane window of your cliffside mansion and watching the sun go down over a quieting ocean — and watching instead the first beginnings of a sunrise over that same ocean, but from flat on your belly on a wet surfboard three hundred miles out from shore, as the ocean beneath you awakens.
“In the cliffside mansion, there is a conviction of separation, stability and control. On the surfboard, there is the conviction of intimate and inescapable exposure to unfathomable powers which, while they might let you ride them, will never let you gain control over them.”
Can we leave the cliffside mansion without abandoning a sense of control over our destiny? I have no idea. Indeed, I have no idea what it would mean, under current circumstances, to return to reverence and connection to the planet, and even if we did, would that stop what we’ve already set into motion?
From our mansion, we’ve remade the planet: dammed its rivers, paved and lit much of its surface, dumped a continent’s worth of plastic into its oceans.
“On our current path,” the Smithsonian Institute websitenotes, discussing the Anthropocene, “ice cap melt will cause sea levels to rise to levels where many major cities will be at very high risk of flooding, and natural disasters will cause damage to our communities at catastrophic levels on a much more regular basis. Forests are shrinking at a startling pace — every year, we lose a swath of forest the size of Massachusetts. If temperatures rise by only the most conservative estimates, at least 20-40% of Earth’s animal diversity will be at increased risk of extinction, and pollution and poaching will lead to the extinction of dozens more species. All of these problems are exacerbated by an ever-growing human population, which has more than doubled in the last fifty years.”
Perhaps the biggest paradox of all is this: Even as we stare unblinking at the reality of what we have created — the Anthropocene — we cannot give up hope that we can move to a new level, that we can evolve beyond what we have set into motion. We can find our way back to the wilderness.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
Trump’s coal plan – neither clean nor affordable
August 23, 2018
Director of the Center for Environmental Policy, American University School of Public Affairs
Daniel Fiorino has received funding from EPA for some workshops on water technology innovation.
American University School of Public Affairs provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Is climate change a problem? Consider the evidence: wildfires in California, Sweden and Siberia; flooding in coastal areas due to sea level rise; droughts in some places and extreme weather and rainfall in others; new and emerging patterns of disease; heat waves; and much more. Yet, looking at the policy changes announced in the last 17 months by the Trump administration, one would think there is no such thing as climate change.
This week the Trump administration proposed a rule for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired electrical generating plants, fulfilling a promise to replace an Obama-era plan to cut emissions from coal plants by one-third between now and 2030.
The Affordable Clean Energy proposal does not disappoint coal executives: It lays out what the EPA appears to view as the minimum needed to meet statutory obligations set out in the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, which held that the EPA should regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act if carbon dioxide endangered public health and welfare.
Beyond attempting to meet the letter of the law as obligated by the Supreme Court, I see the Affordable Clean Energy plan as a regulatory attempt to keep the coal industry alive, despite its poor prospects, and not as a serious effort to deal with the effects of coal-fired power plants on the climate and public health.
Impact on emissions
Consider first what the Trump coal plant rule would accomplish. It would reduce coal-fired power plant emissions by between 0.7 percent and 1.5 percent by 2030. According to the proposal, this is a big deal and worthy of praise. To put this in context, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international body for evaluating the science on the sources and impacts of climate change, estimates that developed countries like the United States will have to cut greenhouse gas emissions by some 80 percent by 2050, relative to a 2005 baseline. Electricity generation accounts for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector, so a 1 percent to 2 percent reduction is a blip in the picture.
To make sense of the Affordable and Clean Energy rule, it helps to know what the 2015 Clean Power Plan did. It recognized that climate change is a serious global issue, for many parts of the world an existential one, and that serious action is needed to address it. The plan assigned emission reduction targets to each state, then outlined options for states to meet them: improving plant efficiency, expanding use of low-carbon fuel sources like natural gas, relying more on zero-carbon renewable energy, and promoting energy efficiency. The plan used the Clean Air Act format of calling for state plans which the EPA would then review and approve.
Although the CPP was expected to increase the unit costs of energy in the near term, the Obama administration argued the big savings from improving energy efficiency would more than make up for that. And the CPP not only reduced carbon emissions behind climate change, it would have led to big cuts in pollutants that harm health, including particulates, nitrogen oxides and mercury, all of which come from coal-fired power plants. In contrast, the ACE plan will have trivial effects on these emissions.
Cooperative federalism argument
One claim running through justifications for the ACE is that the previous administration was exceeding the bounds of what was always known as cooperative federalism, the idea that states and the federal government can work together as partners in protecting environmental quality. Yet in my view as an environmental policy expert and former EPA official, with many years working on a range of regulatory issues, the Clean Power Plan granted plenty of flexibility to states in determining a path to cutting emissions by setting targets and allowing states to decide how to meet them. The goal was to stimulate energy efficiency and use of genuinely cleaner sources to meet energy needs.
And if the administration is so concerned about state authority, why did it also just propose to roll back the Obama fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles and, at the same time, to take away California’s long-established authority to enforce vehicle efficiency standards more stringent than the federal ones? Since 1967, California has had authority to set vehicle standards exceeding the EPA’s. Twelve states follow California’s lead, so taking away its authority affects many other states as well. To me, it’s clear the agenda is less to realize a principled federalism than to avoid any real climate action.
For the sake of stretching out the lifespan of some aging coal-fired power plants and propping up the declining coal industry, the Trump plan misses out on the health benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 19 percent, sulfur oxides by 24 percent, nitrogen oxides by 22 percent, and mercury by 16 percent. These cuts would have led to thousands of premature deaths avoided and major cuts in carbon emissions. In addition, the plan was designed to bring big gains in energy efficiency, and introduce the economic, environmental, health and job benefits of having a vibrant, energy-efficient economy based more on renewable energy.
If the goal is to meet the legal obligations set out in the Massachusetts case while not making coal-fired generating plants do much to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants, the ACE proposal may meet the bill. That proposition will be tested in an array of lawsuits that are sure to come.
If your perspective is that climate change is a non-issue or one not worth dealing with, then the Affordable and Clean Energy rule is your cup of tea. Looking at it in the context of withdrawing from the global Paris Agreement on climate change and the canceled 2025 fuel standards, one can at least give the Trump EPA credit for being consistent.