Weekly News Check-In 4/10/20

WNCI-2

Welcome back.

Pipeline protesters in a growing number of states have experienced aggressive moves to criminalize nonviolent direct actions against infrastructure projects. This week, we bring news of a potential doubling down on that disconcerting trend, under the guise of COVID-19 response. Meanwhile, a study by Synapse Energy Economics determined that the planned Transco pipeline carrying fracked natural gas across New Jersey to New York City is unnecessary and unjustified – a now-familiar assessment of gas pipeline projects and a prime motivation for all those protests.

In divestment news, Boulder County in Colorado has become the first in the nation to warn its insurance carrier to drop its fossil fuel investments or lose the Boulder account. This fits with the Insure Our Future campaign, which seeks to apply broad pressure on the insurance industry to divest from fossil fuels.

Our climate section includes coverage of a new study in the journal Nature warning that our planet is dangerously close to major ecosystem collapse from global warming. And while many greenhouse gas emissions have been temporarily reduced by the current economic shock, methane emissions in the Permian Basin appear to be growing at an alarming rate – in part due to relaxed regulatory oversight during the coronavirus crisis.

We found good news on clean energy. Two articles explain how state governments are working singly and together to strategize their transition to 100% renewables. On a smaller scale, we show how residential solar installers are learning how to sell a product online that has long relied on face-to-face interaction. And we end this section with an article that considers how wind power and wildlife can coexist through careful siting.

On the electric power beat, we found a report describing how publicly-traded utilities are grappling with their climate-related risk exposure, and finding that it’s no longer an issue they can ignore.

The fossil fuel industry isn’t letting the pandemic crisis go to waste – unleashing armies of lobbyists to beg a receptive federal government for aid and relief. We found a bright spot in these otherwise dismal reports – turns out that decommissioned coal plants are great sites for clean energy like battery storage, with robust grid-connection infrastructure already in place.

Finally, in the broad intersection where fracking meets the plastics industry, we offer a cautionary report for those in the Ohio River Valley working to develop a new petrochemical hub much like the gulf coast has hosted for decades. That history includes a long and alarming list of fires, explosions, cancers, and violations of environmental regulations.

— The NFGiM Team

PROTESTS AND ACTIONS

critical infrastructure designation
How Fossil Fuel Might Use the COVID-19 Pandemic to Criminalize Pipeline Protests
By Amy Westervelt, Drilled News
April 2, 2020

Last week we mentioned the pandemic wish list the American Petroleum Institute sent to President Trump as Congress negotiated the $2 trillion emergency stimulus bill.

The first item on that list, critical infrastructure designations for the entire fossil fuel supply chain, may sound like standard Washington bureaucratese. The wording is significant, though, because it could set up oil and gas companies to tap into a $17 billion pot of COVID-19 relief money targeted at industries deemed essential to national security.

But that’s just the beginning. If the Trump administration grants API, and the industry it represents, this favored designation, it may speed up the criminalization of protest against fossil fuel projects, a trend that’s been underway since long before the coronavirus pandemic.
» Read article      

» More about protests and actions

OTHER PIPELINES

Raritan Bay
No need for natural gas pipeline across Raritan Bay, environmental report says
By Bob Makin, Bridgewater Courier News
April 9, 2020

A natural gas pipeline proposed across Raritan Bay is an oversized, costly answer to a New York problem that does not exist, a report by Synapse Energy Economics, a Massachusetts-based research group, says.

Newark-based Eastern Environmental Law Center recently released the report that says Oklahoma-based natural gas supplier Williams’ proposed Northeast Supply Enhancement of its Transco pipeline is not needed.

The project would transport fracked natural gas through New Jersey from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania to energy markets in New York City. The report rebuts National Grid’s Long-Term Capacity Report submitted to New York State.

“National Grid has not shown that it faces a supply and demand gap,” the report says. “In fact, National Grid is expected to have a substantial surplus of supply capacity by 2034/35.”
» Read article      

pipeline construction slows
Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Some Pipeline Projects Push Forward While Others Falter Nationwide
By Sharon Kelly, DeSmog Blog
April 3, 2020

Nationwide, pipeline companies had already trimmed $1.9 billion from their 2020 budgets, according to a March 23 Houston Chronicle report. “Noble Midstream Partners, Rattler Midstream, Targa Resources, EnLink Midstream, Oneok, and Pembina Pipeline made the budget cuts over the past two weeks — representing an overall 30 percent cut in planned capital expenditures for new pipeline and storage projects in 2020,” according to a research note from energy investment firm Simmons Energy, the Chronicle reported. “Canadian pipeline operator Pembina made the largest cut of the six companies, slashing nearly $700 million, or 43 percent, from its nearly $1.6 billion budget.
» Read article      

» More about other pipelines        

DIVESTMENT

Boulder CO ultimatum
Boulder County Wants Insurance Companies To Ditch Their Fossil Fuel Investments
By Grace Hood, Colorado Public Radio
February 14, 2020

Boulder County Commissioners have made the decision to start to move away from insurance companies that invest in oil, gas, coal and other fossil fuels — becoming the first county in the U.S. to do so.

“We can’t be investing in things that are detrimental to our constituents, our community, our planet,” said Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones.

Right now, local governments spend millions on insurance like worker’s compensation. Those companies, in turn, invest those dollars into portfolios that can include fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change. The country’s 40 largest insurers hold combined investments of over $450 billion in the coal, oil, gas and electric utility sectors, according to an analysis by Ceres.

The proclamation by Boulder County fits into a campaign by environmental groups called Insure Our Future, which asks insurance companies to divest from fossil [fuels].
» Read article
» Read Ceres analysis

» More about divestment        

CLIMATE

collapse
Unchecked Global Warming Could Collapse Whole Ecosystems, Maybe Within 10 Years
A new study shows that as rising heat drives some key species extinct, it will affect other species, as well, in a domino effect.
By Bob Berwyn, InsideClimate News
April 8, 2020

Global warming is about to tear big holes into Earth’s delicate web of life, pushing temperatures beyond the tolerance of thousands of animals at the same time. As some key species go extinct, entire ecosystems like coral reefs and forests will crumble, and some will collapse abruptly, starting as soon as this decade, a new study in the journal Nature warns.

Many scientists see recent climate-related mass die-offs, including the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and widespread seabird and marine mammal mortality in the Northeastern Pacific linked to a marine heat wave, as warning signs of impending biodiversity collapse, said lead author Alex Pigot, a biodiversity researcher at University College, London. The new study shows that nowhere on Earth will escape the impacts.
» Read article     
» Read the study          

great bleach-out
Great Barrier Reef Is Bleaching Again. It’s Getting More Widespread.
New data shows example after example of overheating and damage along the 1,500-mile natural wonder.
By Damien Cave, New York Times
April 6, 2020

New aerial data from Professor Hughes and other scientists released on Monday shows example after example of overheating and damage along the reef, a 1,500-mile natural wonder. The survey amounts to an updated X-ray for a dying patient, with the markers of illness being the telltale white of coral that has lost its color, visible from the air and in the water.

The mass bleaching indicates that corals are under intense stress from the waters around them, which have been growing increasingly hotter.
» Read article      

Permian emissions rising uncontested
In Texas, Pandemic-driven Deregulation Is Actually Increasing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
By Amy Westervelt, Drilled Podcast Extra
April 3, 2020

Flares are not lit. And so it becomes a vent pipe that vents uncontested hydrocarbons into the atmosphere in huge quantities. The tanks and the tanks are venting. It’s just methane and volatile organic compounds blasting from everywhere.

Texas does have regulations that are supposed to prevent a lot of this, not entirely prevent it, because the system, the oil and gas design is it is designed to vent intentionally. So at this point, they cannot completely stop all of the methane and VRC emissions because they have to have pressure releases. So but we do have regulations in place to lessen that. And unlit flares are not legal. But the problem with regulations is they are words on paper. And in Texas, they’re not enforced. And especially in the Permian Basin, the oversight seems especially lax.
» Access podcast and transcript               

a question of trust
EPA rebukes COVID-19 compliance flexibility backlash; FERC gives regulated entities leeway
By Catherine Morehouse, Utility Dive
April 3, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pushed back on Thursday against federal lawmaker complaints that the compliance flexibility it granted power plants and other regulated entities last week gave those facilities license to pollute.

Under the EPA’s modified regulations, power plant operators would need to prove that any compliance violations were tied to COVID-19 related disruptions. Over 22 environmental groups sent a petition to the EPA Wednesday calling for the agency to “at a minimum” promptly inform the public of any pollution compliance violations, including a facility’s failure to report or monitor air or water quality inspections.
» Read article      

fixing concrete
Concrete Solutions That Lower Both Emissions and Air Pollution Air Quality and Climate Change Intertwine in Unexpected Ways. A Concrete Example.
By Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News
March 23, 2020

Concrete production contributes 8 percent of global greenhouse gases, and demand continues to rise as populations and incomes grow. Yet some commonly discussed strategies to reduce the sector’s global GHG emissions could, under some scenarios, increase local air pollution and related health damages, according to a study from the University of California, Davis.

For the study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists quantified the costs of climate change impacts and of death and illness from air pollution. They found that concrete production causes about $335 billion per year in damages, a large fraction of the industry value.

The scientists also compared several GHG-reduction strategies to determine which are most likely to lower both global emissions and local air pollution related to concrete production. They found that a variety of available methods could, together, reduce climate and health damage costs by 44 percent.
» Read article     
» Read the report

» More about climate   

CLEAN ENERGY

ORES launched
New York becomes first state to establish renewables siting office in an effort to speed up deployment
By Robert Walton, Utility Dive
April 7, 2020

In an effort to speed the development of large-scale clean energy resources, New York lawmakers authorized the creation of an Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) and took steps to accelerate transmission investment to move carbon-free electricity to load centers.

The new siting rules will ensure renewables projects larger than 25 MW can receive approval within a year. Under the current process, siting for these projects takes two to three years, experts say.

The new office was approved last week as part of New York’s 2020-2021 state budget and will be housed within the Department of State. The budget provides funding for up to 25 full-time ORES employees and officials say further resources will be assessed based on need.
» Read article      

8min solar on track
Oil Companies Are Collapsing, but Wind and Solar Energy Keep Growing
The renewable-energy business is expected to keep growing, though more slowly, in contrast to fossil fuel companies, which have been hammered by low oil and gas prices.
By Ivan Penn, New York Times
April 7, 2020

A few years ago, the kind of double-digit drop in oil and gas prices the world is experiencing now because of the coronavirus pandemic might have increased the use of fossil fuels and hurt renewable energy sources like wind and solar farms.

That is not happening.

In fact, renewable energy sources are set to account for nearly 21 percent of the electricity the United States uses for the first time this year, up from about 18 percent last year and 10 percent in 2010, according to one forecast published last week. And while work on some solar and wind projects has been delayed by the outbreak, industry executives and analysts expect the renewable business to continue growing in 2020 and next year even as oil, gas and coal companies struggle financially or seek bankruptcy protection.
» Read article      

kitchen moves online
Coronavirus is Forcing Home Solar Companies to Sell Virtually. Maybe That’s a Good Thing.
Kitchen table sales are out. Zoom meetings and “social canvassing’ on Facebook are in. Residential solar adjusts to life in a pandemic.
By Julian Spector, Green Tech Media
April 06, 2020

“The kitchen table sale is an integral part of the solar sales process,” said Vikram Aggarwal, founder and CEO of online solar marketplace EnergySage. “Companies really want to get to the kitchen table.”

The loss of that crucial tool foreshadows a tough time for residential solar companies, compounded by broader economic disruption. Some companies are coping by slashing spending; others have chosen layoffs.

A contingent of entrepreneurial, tech-savvy companies is trying a different route: asking how to sell as best they can without in-person meetings. They’ve glimpsed a small shimmer of hope amid the chaos: technology makes it relatively cheap and easy to shift operations online; it’s still possible to close deals this way; and that a digital-centric strategy could be better for business in the long run than the historical dependence on face-to-face sales.
» Read article      

clean energy group launches
100% clean energy group launches, with eyes on coronavirus
By David Iaconangelo, Energywire; Photo: Gerry Machen/Creative Commons
April 3, 2020

State officials representing over a quarter of the country’s power sales announced a new coalition this week centered on 100% carbon-free targets.

The 100% Clean Energy Collaborative, as it’s known, is the first group of state officials to “focus on the specific question of what states need to do to implement” the goals, said Warren Leon, executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA), which is acting as a facilitator. CESA’s members are made up largely of state agencies, including the California Energy Commission, which proposed the idea of the collaborative.

One topic for immediate attention, said Leon, will be how states can maintain progress toward targets in spite of the novel coronavirus, which has stressed state budgets, led to layoffs, and canceled or postponed legislative and regulatory sessions.
» Read article      

birds and wind
Analysis: Is It Possible to Have Wind Power While Keeping Birds Safe?
By Gustave Axelson, All About Birds – Cornell
March 31, 2020

“We need to be mindful that generating energy in any manner will impact birds directly or indirectly. Bird mortality from wind turbines may be more obvious than from other sources, but the habitat loss, water contamination, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions from other energy sources, especially coal, are far more detrimental to birds and other species, including humans,” says Amanda Rodewald, codirector of the Cornell Lab’s Center for Avian Population Studies. “Fortunately, the conservation community has a real opportunity to reduce negative impacts from wind energy by working with industry to properly site turbines and avoid important bird areas.”
» Read article      

» More about clean energy       

ELECTRIC UTILITIES

fossils add investment risk
BlackRock, Morgan Stanley to utilities: Tackle climate-related risks or lose market value
Analyst research shows utilities that address climate-related physical and transition risks earn higher valuations from investors.
By Herman K. Trabish, Utility Dive
April 6, 2020

Financial market data shows utilities that address risks associated with the changing climate see significant benefits, and utilities that do not lose market value.

Analyses from BlackRock, Morgan Stanley and others reflect what the world is learning in the COVID-19 fight: Aggressive action proactively addressing systemic risk produces better outcomes than pretending there is little risk. For utilities, the data shows that addressing climate-related risks with system hardening and emissions reductions attracts investors and shifts stock valuations, while relying on business as usual discourages investors and increases stock price volatility.

Many analysts say utilities that have set climate risk-related goals also remain dangerously invested in fossil assets. Studies show market valuations increase when utilities strengthen their physical systems and begin transitioning to renewables.
» Read article      

» More about electric utilities      

FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY

Mister Lost Cause
Trump Admin Bypasses Congress, Offers Backup Storage to Boost Troubled Oil Industry
By Dana Drugmand, DeSmog Blog
April 9, 2020

After Congress declined to allocate $3 billion of the recent economic stimulus package to fill the government’s emergency stockpile of oil, the Trump administration has taken its own steps to provide short-term relief to the U.S. petroleum sector.

The Department of Energy announced last week it would be making arrangements to immediately store 30 million barrels of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), a backup reserve created in the 1970s as a buffer against oil supply disruptions. Now, instead of supply shortages, oil markets are facing what consulting firm Rystad Energy is calling “one of the biggest oil supply gluts the world has ever seen.”

The oversupply problem is only partially a result of current market imbalance and actually has been building long before the coronavirus pandemic forced widespread shutdowns that crashed demand. But the Trump administration is nevertheless using the COVID-19 crisis as a main reason for aiding an ailing petroleum sector, and it is turning to the SPR as a critical tool for helping U.S. oil companies.
» Read article      

ConocoPhillips arctic drill plans
In Alaska’s North, Covid-19 Has Not Stopped the Trump Administration’s Quest to Drill for Oil
The president’s plans for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may fall flat. But a massive ConocoPhillips project is moving full speed ahead.
By Sabrina Shankman, InsideClimate News
April 8, 2020

Along the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—the long-fought over stretch of wilderness that President Donald Trump has been working hard to open to drilling—a successful lease sale is looking less and less likely before the end of the year.

But west of the refuge, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), the Interior Department is moving ahead with ConocoPhillips’ Willow project. The project is a massive development expected to produce approximately 590 million barrels of oil over its 30-year life, and it could include a central processing facility, up to 250 wells, an airstrip, pipelines and a gravel mine.
» Read article      

oil sands vulnerable
Alberta’s $5.3 Billion Backing of Keystone XL Signals Vulnerability of Canadian Oil
The province’ announcement comes after the private sector has shown little appetite for a pipeline project critical to the country’s tar sands industry.
By Nicholas Kusnetz, InsideClimate News
Apr 6, 2020

Alberta’s recent announcement that it was investing more than $1 billion to build the Keystone XL pipeline gave a boost to a project that has faced more than a decade of delays and uncertainty.

Investment in Canada’s oil sands, a viscous mix of sand and bitumen that lies beneath a vast swath of northern Alberta, has fallen five years in a row. Some analysts and advocates say the challenge is about more than just pipelines. The oil sands, also known as tar sands, are among the world’s more expensive and carbon-polluting sources of oil because they require lots of energy to exploit. New projects require large investments that pay off over decades.

This makes the tar sands one of the more vulnerable sectors of the global oil industry as governments begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
» Read article      

Texas oil warThe Oil War in the Permian May Not Have Any Winners
By Justin Mikulka, DeSmog Blog
April 3, 2020

At the same time a price war is raging in the global oil markets, a regional price war is playing out in the shale fields of Texas. The Texas oil war is between the major oil companies ExxonMobil and Chevron and the many independent shale oil producers.

In an unusual move this week, the CEOs of the shale oil companies Pioneer and Parsley sent a letter to the Texas Railroad Commission, asking the state oil and gas regulator to take an active role in limiting Texas oil production — a move Commissioner Ryan Sitton recently has endorsed.

This request to limit oil production looks like another sign of desperation setting in for independent shale producers, who are feeling squeezed by corporations like Exxon and Chevron reportedly trying to thwart efforts to help the smaller companies.

The Wall Street Journal reported that both of these oil majors oppose any sort of production limits. Their strategy appears to be: Ride out the low prices, watch smaller companies go bankrupt, and then buy up the assets at a big discount.
» Read article      

covid-19 oil lobby
Under Cover of Pandemic, Fossil Fuel Interests Unleash Lobbying Frenzy
By Dana Drugmand, DeSmog Blog
April 2, 2020

Thousands of Americans are dying, millions have filed for unemployment, and frontline health care workers are risking their lives as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the U.S. In the midst of this crisis, the fossil fuel industry, particularly the oil and gas sector, has been actively seeking both financial relief and deregulation or dismantling of environmental protection measures.

In the U.S., the top oil and gas producer in the world, this activity has been particularly pronounced. While the oil and gas sector is struggling amid plummeting prices and demand, the struggle is due to factors far beyond the pandemic, and mostly of the industry’s own making.

Many shale companies had amassed large debts that allowed them to rapidly spend and expand production, for example. And the oil and gas giant ExxonMobil’s stock hit a 10-year low in late January, and a 15-year low by March 5, before the pandemic reached a crisis point in the U.S.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers have looked to use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to shore up the petroleum producers. In mid-March, the President announced his intention to buy up crude oil to fill the government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which Democrats and climate advocates slammed as a reckless bailout of Big Oil.
» Read article      

Oregon develops biogas
Under new law, Oregon utilities hope to prove potential of renewable natural gas
The state’s largest gas utility plans to invest $30 million a year in a bid to replace 5% of fossil gas by 2024.
By Lee van der Voo, Energy News Network; Photo: ZehnKatzen / Wikimedia Commons
April 2, 2020

A new law in Oregon is expected to spur more than $30 million in investments in renewable natural gas annually, nudging the state’s market away from fossil fuels toward biogas — a trend experts say will curtail emissions and stifle demand for fracked gas.

The effort stems from policy changes made by Oregon lawmakers last fall that upend restrictions that effectively forced utilities to buy the cheapest natural gas around — the kind sourced from fossil fuels.

Following rulemaking currently underway, utilities will be allowed to reinvest 5% of revenue in the upfront equipment costs of biogas production, chiefly cleaning equipment and new pipe to connect biogas to existing infrastructure. Natural gas utilities can recoup the cost of those investments from ratepayers. Oregon’s largest, NW Natural Gas, plans to invest $30 million annually in a bid to replace 5% of fossil gas with renewable natural gas by 2024. Its executives believe the long-term contracts they aim to ink with suppliers will lure the financing that tips the market.
» Read article      

repurposing coal
Coal-fired power plants finding new uses as data centers, clean energy hubs
Karen Uhlenhuth, Energy News Network
March 23, 2020

As coal-fired power plants become uneconomic and are shut down for good, a new sort of recycling industry is taking shape: the repurposing of those plants.

Utilities across the country are finding ways to redevelop abandoned fossil-fueled sites. In January, Beloit College in Wisconsin began operating a student union and recreation center in a structure where Alliant Energy formerly burned coal to produce power.

On the southern coast of Massachusetts, a former 1,600-megawatt coal plant is being demolished to make way for a logistical port and support center for wind turbines expected to be erected about 35 miles off shore.

And in Independence, Missouri, the city utility recently received two proposals for recycling its Blue Valley Power Plant. The 98-megawatt plant burned coal for about 60 years, until switching to natural gas a few years ago. It is projected to cease its intermittent operations this summer.

One respondent to the city’s request for proposals wants to install 50 MW of battery storage. The other envisions manufacturing biofuel at the site.
» Read article      

» More about the fossil fuel industry        

THE PLASTICS / FRACKING CONNECTION

Mont Belvieu fireworks
For the Ohio River Valley, an Ethane Storage Facility in Texas Is Either a Model or a Cautionary Tale
The massive petrochemical complex in Mont Belvieu outside Houston has a long history of environmental violations, leaks, fires and explosions.
By James Bruggers, InsideClimate News
April 10, 2020

[If] Mont Belvieu—a massive chemical distribution center for what has been a booming Gulf Coast plastics and petrochemical industry—has been a model for those promoting an Appalachian petrochemical renaissance, it also serves as a cautionary tale to those who would rather the Appalachian region reject a boom-or-bust fossil fuel future.

An examination of the chemical plants, pipelines and other gas handling equipment that sit atop the massive stores of natural gas liquids at Mont Belvieu reveals a history of fires, explosions, leaks, excess emissions, fines for air and water pollution violations, and an oversized carbon footprint.
» Read article     

» More about the plastics / fracking connection  

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