A Massive Win, and What It Means – Thanks Joe Biden

Bill McKibben/

For Once, Big Oil Takes It on the Chin

Iwrote you two days ago with provisional good news—it looked as if the long and deep fight to rein in runaway LNG export growth had scored a huge victory. The succeeding 48 hours have been full of joy, because that news turned out to be entirely true. As the White House confirmed with the official release of its policy at 5 a.m. this morning, all new licenses for LNG export terminals are hereby halted, until the policies used to figure out if they’re in the “public interest” can be updated to include modern economics and science.

That this is a huge victory can’t be said strongly enough—for the people in the Gulf who have fought so long and hard (it was such fun to join Roishetta Ozane et al in a press conference this morning), and for the planet. This is the biggest check any president has ever applied to the fossil fuel industry, and the strongest move against dirty energy in American history. And if you have any doubts, check out the tears of outrage from Big Oil. (Fox News coverage here, if you’re experienced in handling schadenfreude). 

But our job is to look ever forward, and hence are some thoughts about what this means for the fight in the hottest year humans have ever seen

I’d say there are several clear and crucial take-homes:

  1. The pledge to “transition away from fossil fuels” that John Kerry and the rest of the world’s governments signed in Dubai was given actual meaning by Biden’s move. He’s thrown down the gauntlet to other world leaders: the world’s biggest hydrocarbon producer has said we’ve reached a limit. 
  2. There’s finally an actual climate test in place for American fossil fuel expansion plans. This is what we failed to win in the Keystone XL fight; though Barack Obama indicated in his rejection of that plan that we should build new stuff if it “only if it does not significantly exacerbate carbon pollution,” we’ve had to wait ten years for that to be turned into policy. It now needs to be formally expanded to every decision we make!
  3. That climate test must also be a test about the impacts on communities. The Gulf South leaders who fought this fight so hard need resources to monitor the next stages of this battle; I think that there’s been a lot done this fall to help Americans realize what a sacrifice zone the Gulf has become. But if you have any doubts, read this remarkable report, out yesterday, from Antonia Juhasz and Human Rights Watch outlining the “dire health crisis from the government’s failure to rein in fossil fuels.” The DOE spokesman David Turk said on a conference call about twenty minutes ago that they are “actively going out and soliciting” input from frontline communities. Key to watch: those leaders deserve to sit down with DC honchos sooner rather than later.
  4. The days of thinking of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” are waning—this fight has brought the science (particular thanks here to Cornell’s Bob Howarth) out into the open, and we now understand it’s a bridge to nowhere. Since natural gas has been the Democratic vice (coal is the Republican kink), it took Biden to really drive this point home. And it’s huge!
  5. Because of that, Biden deserves to reap the benefits of powerful environmental backing in his re-election. He had to make sad compromises to get the IRA passed, and he made a dumb decision about the Willow oil complex in Alaska; the scale of this, in climate terms, is far larger. Here’s what Roishetta Ozane told the newspapers yesterday: “I’m super excited and ecstatic.” And also, “we know that if this administration is not re-elected, then everything he’s done on climate is going out the window.” That’s about as bottom line as it gets.

But I’d also say—over and over—such profound thanks to all who fought for this. That means you guys. You can feel the balance in the climate fight starting to tip; it comes too late for so many things and so many people, but it’s the nature of this fight that we have to constantly push forward with everything we’ve got because so much is still at stake.

Oh, and there’s no need to come to DC for the sit-in next month, which has been called off. The best actions are the ones you don’t have to do! But don’t worry, there will be other chances. Stay tuned!

In other energy and climate news:

+Dengue fever spiking in South America. I confess to an ongoing personal interest here—I contracted dengue while reporting on climate change in Bangladesh and it was as sick as I’ve ever been. So I can imagine the people just shivering away today

South America and beyond is seeing the spread of dengue exacerbated as rising temperatures and the El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific contribute to prolonged dengue seasons and the geographical spread of infections, scientists say.

“Climate change has expanded the range for mosquitoes to breed, both in the Americas and globally,” Thais dos Santos, who specializes in arboviral, or insect-borne, diseases at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), told Reuters. 

+China didn’t have a great economic year, but the one sector that did greatwas clean energy, accounting for all of the country’s growth. As the excellent minds at Carbon Brief report:

China’s clean-energy investment boom means the sector accounted for all of the growth in investment across the country’s economy in 2023, with spending in other areas shrinking.

China invested an estimated 6.3tn yuan ($890bn) in clean-energy sectors in 2023, up from 4.6tn yuan in 2022, a 1.7tn yuan (40%) year-on-year increase. In total, clean energy made up 13% of the huge volume of investment in fixed assets in China in 2023, up from 9% a year earlier.

With Chinese investment growing by just 1.5tn yuan in 2023 overall, the analysis shows that clean energy accounted for all of the growth, while investment in sectors such as real estate shrank.

+Before anyone gets too rosy-eyed about Nikki Haley, read Phil McKenna’s dismaying account of her role in Trump’s climate politicis—which included overruling former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson in her rush to drop out of the Paris climate accords. When you make Rex Tillerson look green…

Tillerson argued that the U.S. needed to stay in the Paris agreement as part of a larger effort to save the country from Trump’s worst instincts. 

Haley wouldn’t have it. In With All Due Respect, a book she published in 2019, she writes that Tillerson and other cabinet members who opposed the President’s policies were “dangerous” and “disloyal.”

Earlier this fall, Haley denigrated the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest investment in reducing carbon emissions in U.S. history, as a “communist manifesto” of “green energy handouts” that she would repeal if elected. 

At a recent town hall meeting at the Saddle Up Saloon in Kingston, New Hampshire, she boasted about the part she played in pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. Haley added that if she is elected president, the U.S. will be “energy dominant.”

“We will get the EPA out of the way,” she said at the Jan. 3 event. “We will speed up the permitting process, we’ll get our pipelines going, we’ll do the Keystone pipeline, we’ll export as much liquefied natural gas as we can.”

+Perhaps the US government should stop subsidizing LNG exporters who also bribe foreign officials? I don’t know, that seems like a reasonable stance. From Bloomberg:

A group of non-governmental organizations called on the US Export-Import Bank to stop providing financial support to Trafigura Group after the trading house and one of its longtime top executives were charged over allegations of corruption.

In a letter seen by Bloomberg News, the NGOs ask that the Ex-Im bank “immediately terminate its support for Trafigura and in doing so send a strong signal that the US government is not willing to work with entities under investigation for fraud or bribery.” It is signed by Friends of the Earth United States, Oil Change International and Public Citizen.

Trafigura last year announced it had received $400 million in financing backed by insurance from US Ex-Im bank that would be used to buy US liquefied natural gas to supply to customers primarily in Europe.

+Kicking the fossil fuel industry when it’s down, veteran energy finance anyalyst Tom Sanzillo casts doubt on Big Oil’s plan to switch from fueling SUVs to making more single-use plastics. Petrochemicals are losing financial appeal, he writes, 

The complex dynamics that affect ethylene, polypropylene and polyethylene markets—the basic raw materials of single use plastics—have broad implications. The growth rates for these products have been robust historically, resulting in substantial quantities of single use plastics produced and deposited into the world’s waterways. The underlying production dynamics and margin spreads have been positive, as plastics producers have a multiplicity of raw product outlets.

What is developing now is a series of structural chokepoints that over time is having the effect of reversing those positive dynamics. The market outlook for virgin plastics is turning negative.

Standard and Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s have issued various credit warnings. Fossil fuel producers, the linchpin of plastics production, face impending downgrades due to their failure to prepare for market and policy changes. Petrochemical hubs are increasingly viewed as credit negative. Public concern has become a potent regulatory and political risk that echoes the changing policy and market forces challenging the oil, gas and petrochemicals industries’ creditworthiness. The stock market shows that oil and gas majors, as well as some petrochemical producers, have experienced unstable short-term gains linked to underlying vulnerabilities, not market strength. Their financial performance has lagged the market for many years, and they are likely to continue on that path.

+A great new report from Stand.Earth, Sierra Club and Stop the Money Pipeline finds that even in blue states where treasurers are on board to use pension power in the climate fight, 

far too few public pensions are taking adequate steps to address climate-related financial risks and protect members’ hard-earned savings. This analysis raises serious concerns about the execution of fiduciary duty — the obligation that financial institutions have to act in their clients’ best interest. All of the pensions highlighted in this report can do more to protect beneficiaries from growing climate- and environment-related financial risks.

+A widespread call from teachers for more climate education in New York State public schools. In an open letter they write

The New York State Legislature is about to consider Senate Bill 278A/Assembly Bill 1559A, introduced by Senator Andrew Gounardes and Assemblymember JoAnne Simon and co-sponsored by elected representatives from across our diverse state. Adapted from an earlier version of the bill, the current bill has been drafted by an intergenerational and geographically diverse committee of high school students, teachers, parents, professors, and other educational professionals from Buffalo to the Adirondacks, and down to New York City: truly a state-wide effort. If passed, it would represent the first holistic and interdisciplinary climate education bill in New York State. It would establish an Office of Climate Education and Workforce Development, provide professional learning opportunities and ongoing support for educators across a variety of disciplines, as well as establish Green Career & Technical Education programs across the state. Importantly, the bill would also center equity and justice, as the effects of climate change are not shared equally across our state, necessitating different kinds of social, cultural, and geographic responses.

+A new study sheds light on the unmatched ability of health professionals to help with climate education. Veteran climate champion Gaurab Basu and colleagues analyzed survety data from 38 doctors, nurses, and colleagues who were trained on issues of climate and health: “Most respondents agreed that the fellowship increased their knowledge of the connections between climate change and health equity (32/38, 84.2%) and prepared them to effectively participate in a community organizing campaign (37/38, 94.7%). Each of the 12 groups developed climate health projects by the fellowship’s end.”

Case in point: Widely respected kidney doctor David Goldfarb, in the latest edition of Current Opinions in Nephrology and Hypertension, writes that it’s time for doctors to weigh in with their patients

At the end of every clinic visit with my patients with kidneystones or CKD, I ask ‘Have you thought about the effects of global warming on your kidney stones or kidney function’? The replies of my patients do not necessarily require a long conversation that sabotages my clinic schedule. It is usually just an opportunity for me to deliver my simple messages: ‘It’shot out there; stay hydrated! Keep track of your urine output; have you pee’d today?’ Urine output is an easy and understandable marker of fluid intake and hydration status that my patients,friends, family, and fellow bike riders can informally monitor and self-report. People are comfortable discussing this otherwise less socially acceptable topic with their kidney doctors. In the dialysis unit, we also have other opportunities to address global warming. 

+Dartmouth professor Justin Mankin makes the smart point that the public should have access to climate data, not just rich corporations that can afford to pay for instant analysis of government data

The problem that privatization presents was captured in a 2018 CNBC interview with Joel Myers, the founder of AccuWeather, which provides both public weather forecasts and more detailed and customized forecasts to paying customers. He related this story about one of AccuWeather’s clients, the railroad company Union Pacific:

We told them a tornado was heading to a spot. Two trains stopped two miles apart. They watched the tornado go between them. Unfortunately, it went into a town that didn’t have our service and a couple of dozen people were killed. But the railroad did not lose anything by that pinpoint forecast.

+More to come on this in the future, but for now just thanks to John Kerry as he steps down from his post as climate envoy to help Joe Biden run for reelection. He’s taken a thankless job and tackled it faithfully

+Freak waves ripped through the Marshall Islands last week. And when I say ripped through, check out this video, a reminder of just how close to the sea much of humanity liveshttps://www.youtube.com/embed/q04TpI9ySss?si=3tbaDXrnzEoOQwsn

+I know you’ll find this hard to imagine, but building the world’s biggest floating petri dish cruise ship is not environmentally sound

When Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas embarks on its first official voyage on Jan. 27, the journey is sure to make waves. The world’s largest cruise ship, the Iconis over 1,000 feet long (360 meters) and weighs in around 250,000 gross registered tons. It boasts 20 different decks; 40 restaurants, bars and lounges; seven pools; six waterslides and a 55-foot waterfall. Royal Caribbean says its boat will usher in “a new era of vacations.”

Maybe so. But the Icon is also a doubling down on a negative aspect of cruising’s current era: greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2022, Bryan Comer, director of the Marine Program at the International Council on Clean Transportation examined the carbon footprint of cruisingas compared to a hotel stay plus air travel — since cruises are effectively floating hotels. His analysis found that a person taking a US cruise for 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) on the most efficient cruise line would be responsible for roughly 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of CO2, compared with 518 pounds (235 kilograms) for a round-trip flight and a stay in a four-star hotel. In other words: Taking a cruise generates “about double the amount of total greenhouse gas emissions” as flying, Comer says.

+Scant snow in Vermont this winter, which means bad cross-country skiing. But scant snow in the Himalayas too, which means life and death

Vikram Katoch is visibly worried: the vast valley of Lahaul-Spiti in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh is almost snowless this January. “By now we should have had at least four to five feet of snow, but right now we have nothing,” he says. “It is a matter of grave concern because snowfall ensures our water security and provides water for irrigation and farming to local villagers.”

According to Madhavan Rajeevan, a former secretary of India’s earth sciences ministry, both the intensity and frequency of western disturbances are decreasing: “The recent studies very clearly suggest that there is a decreasing trend in winter snow or winter precipitation over the region. This is related to the less-frequent passage of western disturbances.”

“The most important worry should be the future projections of WDs,” he said. “Climate models suggest a further decrease of about 10%-15% in the frequency of WDs by 2050 or so. It should really worry us.”

+Well, here’s a headline that gets to the heart of things: Global food production at risk as rising temperatures threaten farmers’ physical ability to work – new study. The research concludes:

By the end of the century labour productivity could fall as low as 40% in key food production regions like Pakistan and India.

While other important crop-growing regions in Southeast and South Asia, West and Central Africa, and northern South America are expected to see physical work capacity reduced to 70%.

“Assessments consistently conclude that climate change will reduce crop yields making food security challenges worse”, says study lead Professor Gerald Nelson, of the University of Illinois.

“But it’s not only crops and livestock that are affected. The agricultural workers who plant, till, and harvest much of the food we need will also suffer due to heat exposure, reducing their ability to undertake work in the field.”

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