Biden Cancelled Keystone XL Pipeline, Rejoined Paris Agreement as ‘10-Day Blitz’ of Executive Actions Kicked Off

January 18, 2021: Incoming U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled plans to rescind the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and bring his country back into the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office, CBC reported, kicking off a 10-day blitz of executive actions intended as a first step in shifting the country’s direction after four years under the influence of Donald Trump.

The announcements will be among a flurry of executive orders Biden is expected to sign after he’s inaugurated in just over 48 hours, and part of “a raft of environmental policies to be enacted on the first day of his presidency,” CBC reports.

“A purported briefing note from the Biden transition team mentioning the plan was widely circulated over the weekend after being shared by the incoming president’s team with U.S. stakeholders,” the national broadcaster adds. An earlier list of action items attributed to incoming chief of staff Ron Klain mentioned the Paris deal but not the pipeline, “but cautioned that the memo was not a complete list of planned actions.” But the words “Rescind Keystone XL pipeline permit” appear on a more recent Day One to-do list.

Biden is also likely to rescind Trump’s restrictions on immigration from some Muslim-majority countries, set a COVID-19 mask mandate for U.S. government buildings and interstate travel, put a pause on student loan repayments, and take steps to prevent evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic, The Associated Press reports, citing the earlier memo.

“These executive actions will deliver relief to the millions of Americans that are struggling in the face of these crises,” Klain wrote. “President-elect Biden will take action—not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration, but also to start moving our country forward.”

Next Thursday, “Klain said Biden will sign orders related to the COVID-19 outbreak aimed at reopening schools and businesses and expanding COVID-19 testing. The following day will see action on providing economic relief to those suffering the economic costs of the pandemic,” the news agency adds. “In the following week, Klain said, Biden plans to take additional action relating to criminal justice reform, climate change, and immigration—including a directive to speed the reuniting of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under Trump’s policies. More actions will be added, Klain said, once they clear legal review.”

While AP says incoming presidents traditionally begin their terms by moving quickly through executive orders, Biden’s ability to deliver on his full agenda—on climate, and in multiple other areas—will depend on a divided U.S. Congress. The New York Times says the new administration is already focused in that direction. “The blueprint of executive action comes after Mr. Biden announced that he will push Congress to pass a US$1.9 trillion package of economic stimulus and pandemic relief, signaling a willingness to be aggressive on policy issues and confronting Republicans from the start to take their lead from him.”

There are early signs the new administration is also planning an aggressive push on climate and green recovery.

The Times has more on the “armed camp” and “political polarization on steroids” that will greet Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, observing that the new administration “cannot count on much of a honeymoon” as it starts work. Nowhere is that more obvious than on climate and energy, where American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Mike Sommers is vowing to fight Biden’s agenda on oil and gas drilling and tax policy.

U.S. fossils “are bracing themselves for a new president focused on climate change, a Congress controlled by Democrats who increasingly shun their financial support, and a world beginning to look past fossil fuels towards a cleaner energy future in which they will become smaller players, if not obsolete,” Inside Climate News reports. In his annual address last week, Sommers “said his industry was confident about its future and prepared to fight back against policies that President-elect Joe Biden had promised as a candidate, including a halt to new drilling on public lands and the elimination of billions of dollars in industry tax breaks.”

The fossil CEO’s “point-by-point rebuttal” of the policies Biden has promised foreshadowed “the looming fights they are likely to face as they try to enact a new agenda phasing out fossil fuels,” Inside Climate writes. “A prominent part of that platform is Biden’s pledge to halt new oil and gas development on federal lands by ending new leasing or permitting for such projects. Sommers said API would do all it could to fight such a move, including leaning on members of Congress and potentially challenging a ban in court.”

Reporter Nicholas Kusnetz has details on the economic arguments the fossil lobby will be bringing forward—including front-line concerns about lost oil and gas royalties in New Mexico, home of Biden’s nominee for interior secretary, Rep. Deb Haaland.

But if Sommers plans to take the fight to Biden, he’ll be doing it without one of his more prominent members, after French colossal fossil Total SA severed ties with the API over its policies on climate change. 

“In a press release, Total named several of API’s positions that diverged from its own, citing the group’s opposition to electric vehicle subsidies and its support for weaker methane emissions regulations,” Grist writes. “It also admonished the group for supporting candidates in November’s election ‘who argued against the United States’ participation in the Paris Agreement’.”

“As part of our climate ambition made public in May 2020, we are committed to ensuring, in a transparent manner, that the industry associations of which we are a member adopt positions and messages that are aligned with those of the Group in the fight against climate change,” said CEO Patrick Pouyanné.

That position “puts pressure on Total’s European rivals BP and Royal Dutch Shell to follow suit after resisting the move in recent years,” Reuters adds. “It also highlights a widening rift between Europe’s top [fossil] energy companies, which over the past year accelerated plans to cut emissions and build large renewable energy businesses, and their U.S. rivals Exxon Mobil and Chevron that have largely resisted growing investor pressure to diversify.”

The other looming question in Biden-Harris’ first 100 days is whether a Buy American directive from the new administration will have an impact on Canadian exports. “Depending on what happens, this could be large or it could not be large,” Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, told CBC. “We have to get a bit of a better idea as to how this policy will be implemented.”

So far, “I think the Biden administration and our government have an enormous amount of policy alignment,” she added in an interview that aired yesterday. “And I think also that we are going to find a more predictable government to deal with and a bit more traditional relations in terms of how we deal with them.”

If Buy American policies did become an issue, Canada would respond “by underlining the degree to which rules-based, predictable trade was in the interest of Americans,” she added. Particularly in the midst of the pandemic, “we will recover faster, in a more resilient way, and better from this economic downturn by working together.”

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IEA Urged Faster Fossil Phaseout, More Renewables Investment to Keep 1.5°C Within Reach

October 13, 2021: While the world’s fossil fuel use could peak in the next few years, countries’ climate pledges as of mid-October covered “less than 20% of the gap in emissions reductions that needs to be closed by 2030 to keep a 1.5°C path within reach,” the International Energy Agency declared, in a breakthrough edition of its annual World Energy Outlook.

“The world’s hugely encouraging clean energy momentum is running up against the stubborn incumbency of fossil fuels in our energy systems,” Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a release. “Governments need to resolve this at COP 26 by giving a clear and unmistakeable signal that they are committed to rapidly scaling up the clean and resilient technologies of the future. The social and economic benefits of accelerating clean energy transitions are huge, and the costs of inaction are immense.”

“The new energy economy will be more electrified, efficient, interconnected, and clean,” World Energy Outlook 2021 states. “Its emergence is the product of a virtuous circle of policy action and technology innovation, and its momentum is now sustained by lower costs,” with solar and wind now standing as “the cheapest available source of new electricity generation” in most parts of the world.

And yet “every data point showing the speed of change in energy can be countered by another showing the stubbornness of the status quo,” the agency adds. “For all the advances being made by renewables and electric mobility, 2021 is seeing a large rebound in coal and oil use. Largely for this reason, it is also seeing the second-largest annual increase in CO2 emissions in history.”

To shift those trends, the reports calls for:

• A doubling of countries’ current commitments to deploy photovoltaic solar and wind, along with a “huge buildout” of grid infrastructure, greater flexibility in electricity systems, more reliance on hydropower, a rapid coal phaseout, electrification of transportation and space heat, and “use of nuclear power where acceptable”;

• A “relentless” focus on energy efficiency, making better use of materials and shifting behaviours to speed the reduction in the amount of energy the global economy uses for each unit of output it produces;

• Rapid methane reductions as a “key tool to limit near-term global warming”;

• A “big boost” to clean energy innovation, focused on technologies like hydrogen, low-carbon fuels, and carbon capture, utilization, and storage—particularly to drive emission reductions in energy-intensive industries like steel and cement, and in long-haul transport. While “all the technologies needed to achieve deep emissions cuts to 2030 are available,” the IEA says, nearly half of the reductions required by 2050 “come from technologies that today are at the demonstration or prototype stage.”

To close the gap between their climate pledges to date and a real pathway to net-zero, the IEA says countries must boost annual investments in clean energy and infrastructure to nearly US$4 trillion per year, with 70% of it spent in emerging markets and developing countries.

The IEA says it produced this year’s WEO a month early, in time to provide a roadmap for stronger emission reduction commitments at this year’s United Nations climate conference, COP 26, beginning October 31 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Oil’s Inevitable Decline

Like past editions of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, this year’s report sets out a series of scenarios for the future of energy supply and demand. This year, for the first time, all the scenarios show oil consumption falling through 2050.

But the differences among those pathways “are stark, highlighting the need for more ambitious commitments if the world is to reach net-zero by mid-century,” the IEA warns.

Under the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario that the agency first published in May, oil consumption falls to 25 million barrels per day, down from about 100 million barrels today. But based solely on governments’ commitments to dates, the Announced Pledges Scenario shows consumption of 75 million barrels per day in 2050—even if all the countries keep all their promises.

All the IEA’s scenarios show natural gas consumption rising over the next five years—but after that, it either continues to increase, holds relatively steady, or falls slightly below 2020 levels by 2050. For several years, researchers have identified fossil gas as a “clear culprit” in largely unmeasured emissions of methane, a relatively short-lived greenhouse gas that is about 80 times more potent a warming agent than carbon dioxide over the 20 years when humanity will be scrambling to get climate change under control.

The IEA scenarios show coal declining by 10 to 55% by 2030, depending on how quickly electricity producers abandon the climate-busting fuel. Policies countries have already announced would retire coal plants at double the rate of the last decade, but the IEA’s net-zero scenario would double that pace again, to nearly 100 gigawatts (100 billion watts) of coal plant closures per year.

The pace of the phaseout will depend on four factors: no new coal plant approvals unless they are “abated” by expensive carbon capture technologies, reducing emissions from the 2,100 gigawatts of coal facilities still in operation around the world, sufficient investment to replace coal that would otherwise have been burned, and “managing the economic and social consequences of change,” the report states. China alone could eliminate 190 gigawatts of new coal capacity and save 20 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 with its recent promise to end support for overseas coal projects.

But so far, the sum total of countries’ announced pledges would deliver only a 40% emissions cut by 2050, the IEA says. Oil consumption peaks in 2025, but remains mostly steady through 2050. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for a 45% emissions reduction by 2030 to give humanity the best chance of averting a runaway climate emergency.

Managing the Transition

The report calls for close attention to the job and community impacts of the emerging coal phaseout.

“Managing the phaseout of coal depends on early and sustained engagement by governments and financial institutions to mitigate the impacts on affected workers and communities, and to allow for the reclamation and repurposing of lands,” the report states. While “many more new jobs are created” in the energy transition, they’re “not necessarily in the same places where jobs are lost. Skill sets are not automatically transferable, and new skills are needed.”

That puts the onus on governments to “manage the impacts carefully, seeking transition pathways that maximize opportunities for decent, high quality work and for workers to make use of their existing skills—and mobilizing long-term support for affected workers and communities.”

The IEA also points to the risk of a “volatile period” for energy markets and prices, but says those price shocks will be considerably less painful for households that are less dependent on oil and gas. It points to trade policy, demand for critical minerals, and geopolitics as areas that will need close attention as the transition unfolds.

But like many other reports before it, World Energy Outlook 2021 says the costs of inaction are far higher.

“We estimate that around one-quarter of global electricity networks currently face a high risk of destructive cyclone winds,” the report states, while 10% of power grids and coastal refineries face severe coastal flooding, and one-third of fossil-fuelled power plants consume cooling water in areas facing drought. The IEA also points to the 90% of the world’s population breathing polluted air and the millions of premature deaths that result each year.

The IEA’s Evolving Position

What makes World Energy Outlook 2021 an important marker in the shift off carbon is the long distance the IEA has travelled to reach this point.

Routinely described by the agency as “the gold standard of energy analysis”, the World Energy Outlook has received scathing criticism in the past for overstating the future importance of fossil fuels, consistently underestimating the uptake of renewable energy, and failing to align its energy projections with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. For years, the agency’s projections have been used to justify hundreds of billions of dollars in high-carbon investments, allowing multinational fossil companies to sustain the fantasy that demand for their product will increase through 2040 or beyond.

But this year’s WEO comes on the heels of a net-zero pathways report in May in which the agency called for no new investment in coal, oil, or gas development and projected oil demand falling 75%, gas consumption 55%, by 2050.

“Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required,” the IEA stated at the time. “The unwavering policy focus on climate change in the net-zero pathway results in a sharp decline in fossil fuel demand, meaning that the focus for oil and gas producers switches entirely to output—and emissions reductions—from the operation of existing assets.”

In the months since, climate advocates have been watching anxiously and advocating loudly for the IEA to put its net-zero scenario at the centre of this year’s WEO. Now they have their answer.

“Today’s report is a step change for the International Energy Agency,” David Tong, global industry campaign manager at Oil Change International, said in a release. “The days of the WEO being used to justify dangerous investments in fossil fuel expansion must be over.”

Now, “the challenge is set for governments and investors,” Tong added. “Big oil and gas companies like Shell and BP have relied on previous, less ambitious IEA scenarios to justify inadequate climate plans and pledges. That hiding place is now gone.”

“We’ve seen some governments and fossil fuel companies dismiss the IEA’s 1.5°C scenario as ‘unrealistic,’ yet there’s no greater delusion than thinking we can solve the climate crisis by extracting more and more fossil fuels,” said Oil Change Research Co-Director Kelly Trout. “Governments that have relied on the WEO in the past to justify their energy investments have no credibility in ignoring the IEA’s guidance now, when it’s finally consistent with the 1.5°C limit they agreed to in Paris.”

Whatcom County Became First U.S. Refinery Community to Ban New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure

July 29, 2021: A county on the northwest coast of Washington State made a landmark decision to ban new fossil fuel development, reversing a trajectory that had it on course to become a gateway for oil, gas, and coal exports to Asia.

“At its weekly meeting, the Whatcom County Council voted to approve an overhaul of local land use policies, allowing existing refineries to expand but prohibiting new refineries, transshipment facilities, coal plants, piers, or wharfs in its coastal industrial zone,” Inside Climate News reports. “The new rules also require a public review of the environmental impact of any significant expansion at existing refineries and other facilities, including any increase in greenhouse gas emissions.”

In the wake of the vote, “there will be no new refineries, they won’t be able to get permits to export their product, and while we will still have these dinosaur facilities already here, it will be more challenging for them to expand,” said second-term councillor Todd Donovan, one of the driving forces behind the new rule. “The future is clearly in renewable energy.”

He added that the motion responded to growing public alarm about the impacts of climate change, in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

“We just had our hottest day on record a few days ago, the salmon are disappearing, the glaciers are melting so much that you look at Mount Baker near here and you see bare rock where there used to be ice,” he said. “With all the fires and the heat, people are connecting the dots that this is climate change caused by fossil fuels. It has galvanized them.”

The decision marks a rapid shift from just a few years ago, when “the BP and Phillips 66 refineries in Ferndale, Washington—about 100 miles north of Seattle—were building new receiving facilities for oil trains to deliver crude from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota,” Inside Climate recalls. “Tar sands oil from Canada also was coming in, with plans looming to expand pipeline capacity. And, most significantly, the nation’s largest coal export terminal was set to be built just to the south in Bellingham, expected to unload 15 coal trains weekly that would rumble into the county from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.”

Less than a decade later, this week’s decision was driven by county council members who were pulled into elected politics by the local controversy over the coal terminal. Campaigners in Whatcom “say it is the first time a local government in the United States has utilized land use law to impose such a broad, permanent ban on fossil fuel development,” Inside Climate writes.

“We don’t have the authority to regulate interstate commerce, and we have not attempted to do so,” said Rud Browne, one of the county councillors behind the six-year effort to get the new rules in place. “But we had a deep concern about the increased transshipment of fossil fuels through Puget Sound, and also through the downtown core of two of our major cities.”

The Cherry Point industrial zone in Whatcom “is home to two of the state’s five oil refineries and is a significant source of tanker traffic in the Salish Sea,” said in a release Wednesday. But “these regulations could usher in a new era of fossil fuel policy-making in the U.S., where local municipalities can use existing regulatory power to restrict the growth of the fossil fuel industry in an era where the U.S. must swiftly transition to renewable energy sources.”

“Whatcom County residents are now safer from threats like increased oil train traffic or more polluting projects at existing refineries,” Donovan said in the release. “When people ask local leaders to address their concerns, this is how it should be done—with input from all affected communities and industries, but without watering down the solutions that are most protective of public safety, the climate, and our waterways.”

“This is a landmark victory for the local communities who have stood up and held firm for over a decade to protect the climate, the Salish Sea, and their own health and safety from risky and reckless fossil fuel expansion projects,” said Shannon Wright, executive director of RE Sources, an environmental non-profit based in Bellingham.

But “there’s more to be done,” she added, “including addressing the pollution burden borne by local communities, in particular Lummi Nation, who live in close proximity to existing heavy industry and fossil fuel operations, and continuing to counter the threat of increased vessel traffic across the region.”

Whatcom’s new policy still offers other municipalities “a roadmap for how they can enact stronger regulations to protect public health and vulnerable populations and local ecosystems, prevent the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, and expedite the transition to a clean energy economy in an era of accelerating climate change,” Stand adds.

Stand has background on decades of fossil industry expansion at Cherry Point, a place called Xwe’chi’eXen by members of the Lummi Nation who’ve seen it as part of their “ancestral land, waters, and fishing grounds since time immemorial”.

Inside Climate traces a “decade-long battle over control of Whatcom County government, in which both the fossil fuel industry and environmental groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funding. The coal industry used dark money groups, and even got involved in a fight over redistricting that threatened to dilute the power of coastal cities to choose county-elected officials.”

Leading up to the final decision, “representatives of the oil industry, labour unions, and environmental groups all spoke in favour of the compromise package the council developed after intensive negotiations among all the local stakeholders,” ICN says. “The new rules are designed to allow the current refineries to expand and modify their plants, while barring new fossil fuel facilities and export infrastructure. The council voted unanimously in favour of the package, after a brief, dramatic hesitation by council member Ben Elenbaas, who once had likened the tactics of a local environmental group to ‘domestic terrorism’.”

The Guardian says the local fossil lobby still spoke up for its own continuing presence in Whatcom. “Washington’s energy industry believes that ongoing capital investment into existing refinery operations is necessary to ensure the safe, state-of-the-art, clean production of transportation fuels,” said Holli Johnson, manager of north-west external affairs for the Western States Petroleum Association. She cast her members as a “primary driver of economic growth and prosperity” that help fund local schools and health care through their taxes.

Despite the win in the northwest, politicians at the other end of the country are moving backwards on fossil fuel regulation. After Tampa City Councilman Joseph Citro introduced a non-binding resolution calling for a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure, the gas lobby got to work—and before long, state Senator Travis Hutson had introduced a measure to ban cities from regulating energy systems or fuel sources, Grist reports

Even after Citro withdrew the resolution, Hutson pushed his legislation through, and it was signed into law by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.

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Texas Was ‘Seconds and Minutes’ from Months-Long Blackouts, Grid Operator Admitted

February 19, 2021: Some 700 people died, hundreds of thousands of homes were still without power, half of the state was under a boil water order, racialized communities were bearing the brunt, and the electricity system operator admitted it had only narrowly averted months-long blackouts as Texas began taking stock of a rolling disaster brought on by climate-driven severe weather and ideologically-driven grid deregulation.

The state’s power grid “was ‘seconds and minutes’ away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months,” the Texas Tribune reported last night, citing officials from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). “The quick decision that grid operators made in the early hours of Monday morning to begin what were intended to be rolling blackouts—but lasted days for millions of Texans—occurred because operators were seeing warning signs that massive amounts of energy supply was dropping off the grid.”

As multiple generating facilities—mostly gas plants, but also wind, coal, and nuclear installations—“tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly,” the Tribune explained. “At the same time, demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heat and stayed inside to avoid the weather.”

That meant “it needed to be addressed immediately,” said ERCOT President Bill Magness. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

If grid operators hadn’t moved swiftly, Magness added, “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk.”

That technical drama, presumably played out in a control room at ERCOT headquarters, produced no end of political drama and human tragedy across the state.

The mayor of Colorado City, TX resigned in disgrace after asserting that “only the strong will survive” and instructing his constituents to “get off your ass and take care of your own family”, rather than expecting a government assist in the face of epic power and water outages. Former governor Rick Perry said Texans “would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” while potential 2022 gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke called Texas a “failed state”. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) admitted to “a mistake” after scooting off to Cancún with his daughters while his constituents struggled with the historic storm. And cartoonist Steve Breen portrayed the latest version of Texas Hold ‘Em as a couple and their two children in winter gear and a blanket, trying to get warm.

“So much of this was avoidable,” O’Rourke told MSNBC Tuesday. “Going back to the deregulation of our electric grid here in Texas, which has actually created an incentive to not weatherize or protect against these events.”

While Gov. Greg Abbott declared the outages “unacceptable,” noting that the Electric Reliability Council had been “anything but reliable,” O’Rourke blamed Republicans in state government for focusing on culture war issues instead of paying attention to essential infrastructure.

“The energy capital of North America cannot provide enough energy to warm and power people’s homes,” he said. “We are nearing a failed state in Texas. And it has nothing to do with god or natural disasters. It has everything to do with those in positions of public trust who have failed us.”

A Continuing, Multi-State Emergency

By Thursday, the Washington Post said power had been restored to nearly two million homes in 24 hours, but the deep freeze was still playing havoc with the state’s infrastructure.

“The deadly Arctic outbreak associated with two major winter storms has maintained its grip on much of the Lower 48 states,” the Post wrote. “In Mississippi, more than 110,000 households are still without electricity, while another nearly 90,000 are powerless in Louisiana,” while about 13 million people in Texas and a million in Louisiana lacked access to safe, clean drinking water.

“President Biden has approved emergency declarations for Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, sending federal equipment, supplies and other resources to the affected states,” the Post added. “Since Sunday—when temperatures plunged sharply—there have been at least 47 deaths linked to the storm.”

Earlier in the week, “in Austin, Houston, and other cities, residents were asked to stop letting water drip from pipes, a practice to prevent freezing, because of a major drop in water pressure,” The Associated Press reported. “Houston residents also were told to boil their water—if they had power—because the pressure drop was allowing bacteria to seep into the pipes.”

In Lake Charles, Louisiana, AP said water reserves were still low Wednesday after power was restored, prompting local hospitals to consider transferring patients. “Authorities said a fire that killed three young children and their grandmother in the Houston area likely was caused by the fireplace they were using to keep warm,” the news agency wrote. At least 13 children were treated and one adult died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Fort Worth.

Nearly 150,000 households were without power in Oregon, where AP said four people died of carbon monoxide poisoning, while the governor of Oklahoma and utilities in Arkansas urged citizens to conserve electricity amid actual or threatened rolling power outages. Louisiana utility Entergy and rural power co-ops in North Dakota faced outages, and Federal Express and General Motors were among the companies that had to shut down operations in some parts of the country due to power outages and gas shortages. The utility in Colorado Springs set a record for electricity consumption, and a gas company in Peoria, Illinois begged customers to use less if they hoped to keep their February bills to a five-fold increase, rather than going higher still.

In one wholesale market, gas was trading for US$999 per million BTUs, a 24,000% increase over the previous week’s price. The second-biggest shale driller in West Texas’ Permian Basin declared it couldn’t meet its deliveries, four refinery operators shut down or scaled back operations, and Bloomberg Green said it could take weeks to get fossil operations back to full production, an article titled: How Do You Restart an Oil Well That’s Frozen Solid? [Memo to Texas politicians: Betcha it’s easier to de-ice a wind turbine!—Ed.]

Communities of Colour ‘Keep Getting Dunked On’

Climate Nexus and the New York Times both pointed to baked-in discrimination that was only aggravated by the grid failure.

“The widespread power outages across Texas are highlighting and worsening underlying societal and racial inequities,” Climate Nexus wrote. “The state’s 34-gigawatt shortfall has forced widespread blackouts, but whiter, more affluent communities have gotten off relatively easily, while socio-economically disadvantaged communities, and especially communities of colour, have been left without power. If history is a guide, they will also be the last to be reconnected, while unhoused people are especially vulnerable.”

“Every year we are caught in this scenario, through no fault of our own,” Maya Ford, a resident of Houston’s Third Ward, told the Houston Chronicle. “Communities of colour are doing everything right. But we keep getting dunked on—every single time.”

Experts also worry “that rising energy prices amid surging demand will leave many families in the lurch, unable to pay their utility bills next month and triggering utility cut-offs at a time when they are at their most vulnerable,” the Times added. “In Texas’ deregulated electricity market, prices can fluctuate with demand, leading to a potential jump in electric bills for poorer households that already spend a disproportionate amount of income on utilities.”

“Whether it’s flooding from severe weather events like hurricanes or it’s something like this severe cold, the history of our response to disasters is that these communities are hit first and have to suffer the longest,” said Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard, who specializes in wealth and racial disparities related to the environment.

“These are communities that have already been hit hardest with COVID,” he told the Times. “They’re the households working two minimum wage jobs, the essential workers who don’t get paid if they don’t go to work.”

The Texas Tribune traced the impact on residents who received no advance warning of the blackouts, and were then told the power outages would last just an hour or so at a time.

Instead, “a grandmother slept in her car. Parents who ran out of firewood burned belongings to keep their children warm. A Richardson resident watched the battery level of her partner’s oxygen machine drain away and desperately sought help to have it recharged.” And across the state, “Texas residents said the storm—and ensuing partial collapse of the state’s power system—sapped what mental reserves they had left after 11 months of a global health crisis that has cost thousands of jobs and claimed more than 40,000 lives in the state.”

“To go through all of that and then also to have stuff like this happen, it’s like, ‘One more historic event, and I’m going to develop PTSD,’” said Brianna Blake, who moved to Texas from Ohio with her husband and two children after her husband was laid off due to the pandemic, then their home was destroyed by a tornado. “I cannot do this.”

‘No Reason to Leave Neighbourhoods Freezing to Death’

“Making matters worse, expectations that the outages would be a shared sacrifice by the state’s 30 million residents quickly gave way to a cold reality, as pockets in some of America’s largest cities, including San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin, were left to shoulder the lasting brunt of a catastrophic power failure, and in subfreezing conditions that Texas’ grid operators had known was coming,” AP wrote.

“The breakdown sparked growing outrage and demands for answers over how Texas—whose Republican leaders as recently as last year taunted California over the Democratic-led state’s rolling blackouts—failed such a massive test of a major point of state pride: energy independence,” the news agency added. “And it cut through politics, as fuming Texans took to social media to highlight how while their neighbourhoods froze in the dark Monday night, downtown skylines glowed despite desperate calls to conserve energy.”

“We are very angry. I was checking on my neighbour, she’s angry, too,” said Amber Nichols in north Austin. “We’re all angry because there is no reason to leave entire neighbourhoods freezing to death.”

“I know people are angry and frustrated,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “So am I.”

Elsewhere, Texas residents—many of whom were without basic amenities in their own homes—had rescued more than 3,500 “cold-stunned” sea turtles and brought them to a temporary refuge in a convention centre in the southern part of the state, The Guardian reports. (No word on how conservation authorities plan to cope with the inevitable moment when the turtles wake up, presumably hungry and disoriented.)

A Proof Point for Green Infrastructure

New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer cast the week’s news as a glimpse of the future U.S. utilities can expect as unpredictable weather due to climate change becomes a more regular occurrence.

“The crisis sounded an alarm for power systems throughout the country,” he wrote. “Electric grids can be engineered to handle a wide range of severe conditions—as long as grid operators can reliably predict the dangers ahead. But as climate change accelerates, many electric grids will face extreme weather events that go far beyond the historical conditions those systems were designed for, putting them at risk of catastrophic failure.”

And by mid-week, the experience in Texas was adding momentum to a key plank of President Joe Biden’s energy, climate, and green recovery plan.

“Energy analysts and experts said the blackouts in Texas underscore the U.S. electric system’s need for more of almost everything, from additional power lines criss-crossing the country to large-scale storage systems that can supply electricity when demand spikes or renewable generation declines,” Bloomberg Green wrote Wednesday. That could translate into a “rhetorical boost” for Biden’s call for an “‘historic investment’ in the nation’s electric grid, including better transmission systems and battery storage that would make the system more resilient amid extreme weather spurred by climate change. The investments broadly touted by Biden could help satisfy his 2035 goal of an emissions-free power system and help meet increased demand nationwide as more electric vehicles hit the roads and more buildings rely on power instead of natural gas for heat.”

“There are parts of the country right now that have excess power, that have low prices, that are not struggling, where it’s a normal Tuesday, and yet in Texas, four million people are without power,” Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin’s Webber Energy Group, told Bloomberg earlier in the week. “This should reignite a debate about some kind of connection between our disparate grids where we can move energy to places like Texas that are desperate for it right now.”

In an opinion piece for Utility Dive, Rob Gramlich, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, explained how a more resilient U.S. electricity system would work. And the Washington Post editorial board weighed in with the view that “the Texas fiasco offers many lessons about keeping the lights on—lessons that Congress and state leaders must act on in the coming months. Not among them is the need to cancel a transition to cleaner sources of energy.”

Joining the cascade of pushback that met state legislators’ early and ongoing attempts to blame the collapse on renewables, the Post editors injected some basic reality into the discussion.

“Frozen wind turbines represent only a small fraction of the problem in Texas,” they wrote. “The real failure was a lack of preparation. Wind power generally slumps during the Texas winter, so state regulators do not assume they will get much from that power source. Rather, their plans rely heavily on natural gas power plants—and they are the predominant culprits in the current emergency.”

Collapse of a Deregulated Grid

But ultimately, the Post and many others pointed out that the real failure had to do with the (de)regulatory structures in Texas—and a failure to invest in a more resilient grid—more than with any specific technology.

“Natural gas plants, fuel pipelines, nuclear power stations and, yes, wind turbines can all operate in frigid temperatures,” the Post editors noted. “They failed in Texas because they were not hardened to withstand the sort of severe weather that struck the state this week. This was avoidable. The state saw freezing temperatures that challenged the power grid in 2011, after which the need for system upgrades and better planning was obvious. The state did too little over the next decade, and millions of Texans are now paying the price.”

Against that backdrop, “blaming renewables is a dishonest way to score political points and divert blame.” But all the factors cited by the Washington Post were aggravated in a state that has spent decades putting its own reputation for gritty independence above all else.

While “there’s been some pretty large transfers of power” among other U.S. grids as they scrambled to match electricity demand with available supplies, “there is no real ability to import very much power into the ERCOT grid,” explained Wade Schauer, Wood Mackenzie’s research director for Americas power and renewables. Ultimately, The Hill added, that was a deliberate choice: “Because the Texas grid does business only within the state, it’s not subject to oversight from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a government body that regulates interstate transmission,” a feature that “makes Texas an outlier when it comes to FERC’s rules.”

Left to their own devices, Texas decision-makers have been only too happy to portray their grid’s dangerous isolation as an achievement.

“Utilities in Texas were smart and made an agreement that no one was going to extend power outside of Texas,” said Donna Nelson, former chair of the state Public Utility Commission, in an ERCOT promotional video.

“By eschewing transmission across state lines, the Texas utilities retained freedom,” wrote Richard D. Cudahy wrote in a 1995 article, apparently unironically titled The Second Battle of the Alamo: The Midnight Connection.

“This policy of isolation avoided regulation by the newly created Federal Power Commission, whose jurisdiction was limited to utilities operating in interstate commerce,” he added.

In a commentary for the Post, global opinions editor and lifelong suburban Dallas resident Karen Attiah inventoried the staggering human toll of that particular ideology, noting that friends in Africa who’d had more experience with public health crises and utility load shedding were sending her tips on how to get by.

“Deregulation is clearly a central part of the answer,” she wrote. “In the 2000s, Texas leaders opted to deregulate our independent power grid, leaving providers with no incentive to prepare for infrequent risks. After a 2011 cold spell produced a crisis, federal regulators warned that the state needed to invest in winterizing the energy supply infrastructure. That advice went unheeded. You can draw a direct line from there to market absurdities such as those we saw this week, when the wholesale price of electricity in Houston spiked from $22 a megawatt-hour to about $9,000, while four million Texas homes had no power.”

“The frigid disaster has also laid bare the fallacy, still prominent in the Lone Star State, that oil and gas are more important than impending climate catastrophe, embarrassing a political class that just weeks ago pledged to defend the oil and gas industry—its own Alamo—from the Biden administration,” added reporter and author Richard Parker, in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “The fallacy is hard to unwind even as people are dying. But some Texans are also furious about how their state’s ruinous laissez-faire governance led to a cascade of human-caused disasters of epic proportions. Indeed, this was no act of god.”

As a bad week got worse, the situation had some Texas Republicans splitting among themselves. While Texas General Land Office Director George P. Bush tweeted blame at the wind farms, Gov. Greg Abbott somewhat unexpectedly disagreed.

“Abbott, who regularly throws out more red meat than keepers at the Houston zoo, made it a point to say that the downed power production ‘includes the natural gas & coal generators’,” Politico reported Wednesday. That might just be because “Abbott’s anxious to lure high tech companies to the Lone Star state, and renewable energy developers aren’t likely to appreciate the ad hominem attacks.”

Pipeline Association Shutting Down after Losing ‘Critical Mass’ of Members

October 7, 2021: Alberta’s energy minister accused her former pipeline industry colleagues of being “really short-sighted” after the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) announced plans to shut down by the end of the year.

CEPA’s demise “underscores the seismic shift under way in the energy sector,” the Globe and Mail reports. “Fossil fuel companies are pivoting to renewables or incorporating other green technologies into their operations as investors increasingly focus on environmental, social, and governance issues.”

And as pipeline companies try to latch onto the trend, their shared lobbying voice in Ottawa is about to disappear.

As recently as 2016, CEPA had a dozen members, and in 2020, the companies in its orbit delivered 4.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 1.3 billion barrels of crude oil, the Globe says. But after Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. stepped away about two years ago, followed by Pembina Pipeline and TC Energy earlier this year, the association’s board decided to wind things down.

“The big guys represented a critical mass,” said CEPA President and CEO Chris Bloomer. “When you have that, you’re speaking for the whole industry, and that really means something. When you lose that constituency, it’s tough.” With its remaining members diversifying into hydrogen, renewable natural gas, biofuels, and carbon capture and storage pipeline, he said the industry would see continuing momentum.

But apparently not at the moment. Even as the fossil industry celebrated completion of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline last week, “no companies are looking to build any other major new pipeline transmission systems in Canada,” the Globe says.

That conclusion didn’t land well with Alberta Energy Minister and former CEPA and Enbridge executive Sonya Savage.

“It’s really short-sighted for these companies to have let the industry association fold because you know we’re going to need it again,” Savage told the Calgary Herald. “You see the attacks and the opposition to major new pipeline projects. Well, that opposition is now targeting existing pipelines…Who is going to be advocating for the industry-wide perspective on that?”

“My indication from the companies is they want to do it on their own,” Bloomer responded. “And companies like TC and Enbridge, they have the capacity to do that…but the larger companies are changing, too, and their focus is different and that needs to be recognized.”

Herald columnist Chris Varcoe agrees big pipeline companies “certainly have the ability to hire lobbyists and experts to ensure their voices are heard in Ottawa.”

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