Friday, April 22, 2022

Biden administration restores stricter environmental reviews removed by Trump

The Biden administration is restoring stricter environmental standards for approving new pipelines, highways, power plants and other construction projects, including requiring consideration of how such projects might affect climate change.

The changes announced Tuesday reinstate National Environmental Policy Act measures that had been removed by former President Donald Trump, who said that federal regulations were needlessly hindering much-needed infrastructure projects.

Under the stricter reviews, federal agencies must take into account the cumulative impacts that a project or a new proposed federal regulation would have in areas such as air and water quality, wildlife habitat and climate change, according to a White House statement. The new guidelines widen the scope of environmental reviews beyond direct and indirect effects.

The Trump administration had deleted from the regulations the definition of cumulative effects, which called on regulators to take into account long-term impacts such as frequent exposure to toxic air. Environmental groups said the absence of that definition confused regulators on whether to analyse those effects.

“Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict and help ensure that projects get built right the first time,” said Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, which helps federal agencies abide by the 1970s law that governs the review process.

The revisions will take effect next month.

Environmental groups have cited violations to the law’s provisions in their legal challenges to projects that build out US infrastructure supporting the oil and gas industry. Prior to its abandonment, the Keystone XL oil pipeline had gotten tied up in court over an environmental review.

Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., one of the largest natural-gas pipeline operators in the US with more than 23,335km of transmission pipelines, argued to keep some of the Trump era changes.

Enbridge spokesman Michael Barnes said the company is reviewing Tuesday’s changes, and referred to the company’s previous statement that “reverting to less efficient and predictable NEPA regulations will not just affect oil and gas pipelines but will delay and complicate the development of new energy facilities and infrastructure.” Last year, the company’s plans to replace a deteriorating crude oil pipeline across Minnesota were challenged in court by environmental and tribal groups who cited issues with the environmental review.

No change was made to rules adopted under Mr Trump that require full environmental-impact statements to be completed within two years and less comprehensive reviews to be finished within one year.

The US Chamber of Commerce and other business trade groups opposed restoring the measures when first proposed last year. Among other objections, the Chamber said the stricter environmental reviews could stall needed improvements funded by the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed by President Biden last year.

The groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Chemistry Council, pointed out that the regulations could impede construction of new transmission lines needed to connect clean-energy projects like wind-turbine farms to the power grid.

“With rapidly rising inflation, major supply chain disruptions and workforce shortages, the last thing our country needs is unnecessarily extensive and duplicative bureaucratic red tape and delayed project approvals,” Marty Durbin, the Chamber’s senior vice president for policy, said Tuesday.

The American Petroleum Institute and several other oil and gas groups had objected to requiring cumulative effects as a measure, saying that the new rules could impede projects needed to build pipelines to natural-gas export terminals and satisfy global energy demands.

“With energy costs high for American consumers and European allies looking to the US for access to an affordable and stable energy supply, we need policies in place that provide certainty and ensure American producers can meet rising demand at home and abroad,” said Frank Macchiarola, the group’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs.

Ted Boling, a former Council on Environmental Quality official during the Obama and Trump administrations, who helped develop the 2020 revisions, said he doesn’t think the revisions will slow down infrastructure projects. That is because CEQ officials left most of the Trump change intact, he said, and the revisions they did make will provide clearer guidelines to regulators.

Matthew Davis, senior director of government affairs of the League of Conservation Voters disagreed, saying government approvals are often faulted for holding up projects when other factors such as funding delays are the real cause.

“It’s convenient to blame permitting, but that’s not usually the case,” he said.

Environmental groups said that restoring regulations marked a step in the right direction for legally required reviews, but that more needs to be done.

“The Biden administration still has work to do to ensure federal decision makers prioritise the input of frontline and historically marginalised communities and fully restore” the law’s previous provisions, said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalisation for the National Wildlife Federation.

White House officials said they are considering additional guidance on greenhouse-gas emissions and plan to propose another round of review-process changes in the next few months.

Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s national director of policy, advocacy and legal, said the next round of rule making is expected to undo more Trump changes to the review process “and restore the principles of informed and science-based decision making, transparency and public engagement.” “Donald Trump’s attempts to weaken NEPA were clearly nothing more than a handout to corporate polluters,” she said.


UK: Climate change school subject launched to teach students how to save the planet

A new natural history GCSE focusing on how to protect the planet is set to be announced by the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, on Thursday.

The new qualification – set to be available from September 2025 – will focus on topics such as climate change and biodiversity.

Environmentalists have welcomed it as a means of helping teenagers with mental health issues.

Mary Colwell, who led the campaign for the subject, said it will be “very nurturing and life-enhancing” by connecting secondary school students with the natural world.

She also said understanding nature will help students recognise impacts of climate change as they happen.

“But it’s not just about problem solving and tackling climate change,” she said. “I think that the natural world provides people with a lot of solace and inspiration and we are in challenging times, being surrounded by things that nurture us. The study of natural history is very nurturing and life-enhancing.”

The lack of engagement with nature among the youth population is a growing concern for policymakers. Spending time in nature is known to have a positive effect on mental health but research has found that three-quarters of children spend less time outdoors each day than prisoners.

Ms Colwell said the new GCSE “could help young people with mental health issues and I think that was one of the reasons why [former environment secretary] Michael Gove was very keen – he was very supportive of the idea when we went to see him back in 2018 and he kept raising the idea that I can see the connections between this and a mental health crisis in young people.

“There is a connection between connecting with nature and better mental health.”

The new GCSE, designed by exam board OCR, would aim to teach students the skills for careers in conservation.

A consultation on the subject found the most popular prospective topics were flora and fauna and the human impact on the world. Respondents also said outdoor study should be an important part of the GCSE.

Jill Duffy, OCR chief executive, said: “This GCSE is a wonderful opportunity for young people everywhere – from urban to rural environments – to study and connect with wildlife and the natural world.

“Deeper engagement with biodiversity and sustainability will equip generations of young people to understand their environment and grapple with critical challenges.

Teen conservationist and wildlife writer Kabir Kaul, 15, said the new subject “will give my generation the knowledge and practical skills they need to value and protect the environment around them”.

Environmental issues are already on the curriculum in geography and science but the government said the new course would “go further” in studying the history and evolution of species and the impact of life on natural environments, as well as how they are changing and evolving.


Biden allowing increased ethanol in fuel this summer is nearly useless and may violate the Administrative Procedures Act—again

President Joe Biden’s plan to extend the availability of higher biofuel blends of gasoline during the summer months is a tiny bandage on a massive wound. Biden intends to allow the sale of E15, or gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol, to continue through the summer.

The move, announced during a trip to an ethanol plant in Iowa, is the latest attempt by the Biden administration to slow inflation, which hit a new 40-year high last week. The last time inflation reached 8.5 percent was December of 1981.

The Biden administration asserts that this move will save Americans 10 cents per gallon at the pump. But E15 consumption only accounts 814 million gallons, or 0.6 percent, of all gasoline sales in America, of which the U.S. consumed 134 billion gallons in 2021.

Additionally, out of roughly 145,000 gas stations across America, the White House admits that only 2,300 of those stations sell E15. E15 accounts for less than 1 percent of fuel of all fuel sales in America and is only available at 1.6 percent of gas stations nationwide. Average Americans are unlikely to drive additional miles to visit one of these rare stations.

With the national gas price average at $4.087 today and ethanol 30 percent less energy dense than gasoline, it is difficult to overstate how inconsequential the impact of this decision will be on lowering fuel prices. It will do almost nothing.

Under the 2005 federal Renewable Fuel Standard, and later expanded by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, renewable fuels such as ethanol are required to be increasingly blended into transportation fuels in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases. E10 fuel, or a gasoline 90 percent gasoline, 10 percent ethanol mix, is sold all year long.

Contradictory to the environmental claims of ethanol, the sale of is E15 is typically banned from June 1 to September 15 due to environmental concerns. Under the 1990 Clean Air Act, the E15 blend fails to meet the Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) requirements and creates smog that is harmful to the ozone layer during the summer.

Furthermore, Biden’s move raises significant Administrative Procedures Act concerns. In fact, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a prior bid by President Donald Trump to extend E15 waiver allowing sales throughout the summer. Considering that have been no major legislative changes, it appears unlikely that Biden will experience a different outcome from the court’s 2021 ruling.

The primary cause of high gasoline prices is failure of supply to keep up with demand. Virtue signaling with feed corn (the type of corn used in ethanol production) may sound good to environmentalists and Iowa farmers, but it does little to help the 50 percent of Americans who say gas price increases have created a financial hardship. 10 cent savings per gallon does not help the average American when there is just a 3 out of 200 chance the cheaper alternative will be available at their local station.

Green energy is not an inherently evil concept. However, forcing expensive green energy policies prematurely before they’re at sufficient scale, and telling Americans to suck it up and buy a $50,000 electric car, when their average annual household income is only roughly $67,000, is either evil or astoundingly ignorant.

The real answer is to drill more American oil. Allow for new leases on federal lands and do not reduce the number of acres available by 80 percent. Remove ESG goals from national oil companies. These goals are inherently contradictory to the existential purpose of an oil company. Allowing E15 this summer won’t even make a scratch in addressing these problems.


Welcome to post-apocalyptic climate policy

Roger Pielke Jr.

Climate policy is quickly moving into a new phase, and that is good news

In the past weeks I’ve noticed some important events that characterize a common underlying trend:

The chief executive of BMW announced that the company would not cut a single job as it transitions to producing only electric vehicles;

The government of India announced that it would build 10 new nuclear power plants in “fleet mode,” with a goal of 5 years from start to finish;

In the U.S., some states and public utilities are making the case for siting modular nuclear reactors at former coal power plants;

Also in the United States, President Biden announced that he was going back on his 2020 campaign pledge to ban oil and gas drilling on federal lands and will now open additional lands for fossil fuel drilling.

What do these seemingly disparate events around the world have in common? Two things, both important. First, they are individual data points reflecting that a global energy transition is well underway, and that it is set to continue. And second, carbon-free energy technologies of production and consumption are increasing their role in the global economy, but when they are not deploying fast enough — leading to geopolitical or economic consequences — then fossil fuels will quickly fill that gap. It’s like an iron law.

If these are but a few data points, a full pointillist painting can be envisioned in the form of various approaches to modelling the evolution of the global energy system. In the Tweet below, Zeke Hausfather — a climate scientist who works for Stripe, a company seeking to capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — has usefully summarized a large and growing recent literature on climate projections to 2100.

These recent projections are based on updated estimates of where the global energy system is currently and appears to be headed based on current and pledged policies. In the figure, which presents the recent studies by date of publication, you can easily see a downward trend with a central tendency projection of global temperatures in 2100 decreasing from almost 3C in 2100 to less than 2C. It wasn’t so long ago that this central tendency was though to be >3 C, and many, not least the IPCC, believed that such “business as usual” trajectories had us heading for even 4C or 5C. For readers of this newsletter, it won’t be a surprise to learn of the good news that perceptions have changed of the likelihood of the chances of such extreme futures. Even the IPCC has come around to this view.

Zeke Hausfather:

"In our @Nature News and Views piece, we put this new paper in the context of an explosion of literature on current policy, 2030 NDC, and net-zero commitment outcomes that has been published over the past few years"

While not everyone is ready to accept the recent good news on climate, the fact is that the world has now moved into what might be called a “post-apocalyptic climate policy” — that is, a climate policy that is predicated not on millenarian expectations for the end of times, but one that is grounded more realistically and pragmatically in first how to maintain, and second how to accelerate the positive energy system trends now underway.

Of course, a change in perspective can be difficult to accept. We have already seen a range of reactionary reactions be to our newly understood need for a post-apocalyptic climate policy. I’ve observed a few:

Apocalypse maintenance. Letting go of the end of times as the focus of climate advocacy will be difficult for those who have built careers, politics and personalities upon it. Some some hold on to the possibility of apocalypse by emphasizing the uncertainty of the future (merchants of doubt?), such as with respect to future rates emissions. Watch out for those who claim that apocalyptic futures cannot be “ruled out” without first telling you what it even means to “rule out” certain futures. While few now believe that apocalyptic futures are where we are headed, keeping apocalyptic futures as seemingly plausible and in play is a common rhetorical tactic that distracts from more meaningful policy discussions focused on far more likely futures.

Moving the goal posts. Another strategy for keeping the apocalypse alive is simply to redefine when the apocalypse is expected to occur. When a warming 4C or 5C was being promoted as a “business as usual” future, futures with 2 to 3C warming were highlighted as examples of policy success. We can see a clear example of this exact framing in the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment, which presented an extreme climate scenario (called RCP8.5) as policy failure, with as much as 5.5C warming by 2100. The NCA identified a so-called “mitigation scenario” (called RCP4.5) and presented it as policy success, even though this scenario was projected to “more likely than not” exceed 2C.

Today, with current polices and pledges pointing towards the lower end of 2C to 3C future (or even less), the threshold for apocalypse has in parallel been defined down. For some, a catastrophic future now occurs at 3Cand some are even promoting 2C or even 1.5C as the threshold of catastrophe. For instance, just last month after the release of the latest IPCC report UN Secretary General António Guterres defined the threshold of catastrophe as 2C: “If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach. And that would be catastrophe.” Catastrophe is not what it used to be.

Rooting for policy failure. A third approach to keeping the idea of a future apocalypse alive involves rooting for (or at least promoting) the idea of future policy failure. Of course projections of hopeful climate futures conditioned on future policy implementation are based on an assumption that those future policies will need to be implemented. That is the very nature of scenarios — they help us to understand what we might do to achieve policy goals. But of course, such conditionality has always been the case with scenarios. For instance, the most extreme climate scenarios used to support the notion of a climate apocalypse (such as RCP8.5) were also conditioned on policy implementation — in that case, the assumption that policy makers will intentionally seek to convert all of the world energy to coal. That was never going to happen, and continued decarbonization of he global economy looks far more likely.

So instead of dwelling on the apocalypse, what should we be doing instead? I have three suggestions.

First, we have to move beyond the rhetoric of climate catastrophe. Whatever use it may have served in the past, such rhetoric is now a liability. As time goes by and the threshold of catastrophe is defined down, catastrophists are setting the stage for their own delegitimization. The world is currently at about 1.2C. If 1.5C is the threshold for catastrophe, then we are presently not far away in time when such futures will collide with the real world. Because the IPCC does not actually project apocalyptic futures at 1.5C (or even 2C), when people wake up one day and learn that the scheduled apocalypse did not come to pass, they may start asking some questions. Future climate change poses serious risks, of course, and society manages all manner of risks in global issues — pandemics, geopolitics, agriculture, population, etc. — without turning them into unhelpful millenarian caricatures. Climate change is far too important to be treated unseriously.

Second, we need to double down on what I and colleagues have called oblique climate policy, recognizing that accelerated decarbonization of the global energy systems makes sense for many more reasons than just climate. For instance:

Europe has recently learned that its reliance on fossil fuels from Russia pose significant economic and geopolitical risks. Relying less on fossil fuels and more on carbon-free energy from domestic or partners would dramatically reduce those risks.

We see around the world that price volatility (and overall higher-priced energy) can lead to economic and political disruption. Whether it is the destabilizing effects of higher food prices or the knock-on political effects of higher-priced fuel, it is clear that reliable, cheap energy fosters greater political stability.

Don’t forget, vast populations around the world still lack access to the energy services that you and I enjoy every day. The demand for greater supply of energy will be a continuing feature of global geopolitics and national political agendas. Expanding access to energy services without creating new geopolitical risks, economic volatility or domestic political conflict requires expanding access to reliable and affordable supply. That supply will be fossil fuels unless viable alternatives are readily available at acceptable costs.

Of course, if each of these reasons underpinning a more pragmatic approach to energy policies also has the knock-on effect of accelerating decarbonization of the global economy, then so much the better. A post-apocalyptic climate policy is also one that is more robust. Because it is supported by multiple justifications for action, scary climate futures do not have to carry all the weight. But with more policy complexity that accompanies obliquity, so too comes a need for more diversity in the relevant expertise needed to understand and develop policy alternatives. Maintaining the vision of a climate apocalypse thus isn’t just about how we see the future, it is also about who sits in positions of power providing knowledge in support of shaping that future.

Overall, moving to a post-apocalyptic orientation towards climate policy will be a good thing. It will turn decarbonization from a single-issue focus to a many-issue focus. We have precedent for such a reframing in how a perceived global “population crisis” of the 1960s and 1970s transformed from an issue focused on “overpopulation” to one more focused on seemingly oblique issues, like women’s rights, education, agricultural productivity, democracy and more. Issues related to population remain crucially important in 2022 even thought the apocalyptic framing was left behind. Climate change appears to be following a similar path.




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