Briefly

Stuff that matters


California droughtin'

Drought doesn’t just mean less water — it also means more pollution.

That’s the conclusion of a new study of the recent drought in California, published in the journal Sustainable Cities and Society.

At the height of the drought, between 2011 and 2014, electricity produced via hydropower dropped by more than 60 percent, going from 21.2 percent of the state’s supply to 8.3 percent. Natural gas — more polluting and more expensive than hydropower — made up the difference.

So from 2012 to 2014, CO2 emissions from the state’s energy sector were up 33 percent compared to 2011. And utility bills were up too: The Pacific Institute estimates that Californians paid an extra $2 billion for electricity between 2011 and 2015.

It could have been worse. The drought coincided with a rise in solar and wind in the state. Without these new clean energy sources, CO2 emissions during the drought would have increased by 44 percent, researchers found.

The study estimates that California would need 2.5 times as much wind and solar as it had online in 2014 to make it through a similar drought without a spike in emissions. And, since climate change is making drought in the state more common, dips in hydropower will make it even more challenging for the state to meet its goal of generating 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030.


slow play

Trump has stymied at least two dozen environmental rules.

That’s according to a new analysis by Scientific American. The administration’s decisions to stay or place rules related to environment or energy policy under review look like an attempt either to defang them or to scrap them altogether.

However, the strategy might not work.

Earlier this month, a D.C. appeals court overturned one of those delays. The judges ruled that an Obama-era regulation designed to limit methane leakage from oil and gas wells was essentially a law that had to be enforced. Rather than staying it, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt would need to rewrite it.

The ruling offered an opening for environmental groups to challenge delays on other regulations that were being delayed — often so that industry could marshal new arguments against them. For instance, the EPA is being sued over its decision to postpone the implementation of new ozone standards. And the Bureau of Land Management is facing a challenge to its decision to push back monitoring of methane leaks due to oil and gas exploration on Native American land.

“We’re seeing so much sloppy work,” says George Washington University Law School Professor Emily Hammond. “We’re seeing stays that aren’t sufficient to withstand judicial review.”


dakota access

Two Dakota Access protesters say they purposely damaged the pipeline.

Today, outside offices of the Iowa Utilities Board, Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek cited several instances where they used torches to cut through empty pieces of pipeline and pipe valves and burned construction equipment. The pair’s activity started the night of November 8, Election Day.

After describing the vandalism, the pair began to remove letters from the Utilities Board sign and were arrested by state troopers. “To all those that continue to be subjected to the government’s injustices, we humbly stand with you,” Reznicek said. “And we ask now that you stand with us.”

An Iowa Sierra Club lawyer condemned their actions. Another activist thanked the two for their courage as they were carted away. And a spokesperson for a pro-pipeline group called them “violent criminals.” Opinions seem as mixed as those over the pipeline itself.

Both Reznicek and Montoya have been arrested before for involvement in protests. “The system is broken and it is up to us as individuals to take peaceful action and remedy it,” Montoya told reporters.


#everbodyknew

Utility companies knew about climate change for decades, too.

A report out today from the Energy and Policy Institute, a clean energy advocacy organization, provides evidence that scientists warned utility companies about the potential dangers of climate change as early as 1968. That’s about two decades before global warming generally broke into the public consciousness.

Researchers at the institute have unearthed speeches from scientists to utility companies and industry groups, as well as government reports that those groups contributed to, both of which predicted that fossil fuels could spur climate change — although the scientific consensus then wasn’t as solid as it is now.

The Electric Research Council, a research group with input from utility companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, set aside $1.5 million to study the long-term effects of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in 1971, the documents show.

Knowledge, or at least suspicion, of the impending crisis from utilities adds to the list of fossil fuel industry leaders who were aware of the risks of global warming well before they emerged on the world stage. Activists say that by keeping mum on the topic, those leaders “robbed humanity of a generation’s worth of time to reverse climate change.”


nervous arctic

Ships head for the melting Arctic. But there’s no plan if things go wrong.

Climate change is rapidly altering the region, and less sea ice means more ships are lining up to traverse its remote waters. “It’s what keeps us up at night,” Amy Merten, a NOAA employee, told the New York Times. “There’s just no infrastructure for response.”

Cargo ships and cruise liners are already setting sail, and the Trump administration is clearing the way for oil rigs to join them.

Canada, the U.S., and Russia have an agreement to help each other during emergencies, but the U.S. only has two functional heavy icebreaker ships, and rescue efforts would likely have to rely on other commercial ships being nearby.

To top it all off, the head of the Coast Guard, Paul Zukunft, says the U.S. is unprepared to deal with an Arctic oil spill. Zukunft pointed out the difficulty in cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill, which had much more favorable conditions.

“In the Arctic, it’s almost like trying to get it to the moon in some cases, especially if it’s in a season where it’s inaccessible; that really doubles, triples the difficulty of responding,” the head of the Navy’s climate change task force told Scientific American.


lead foot in mouth

Trump’s EPA promised to prioritize communities like East Chicago. How’s that working out?

In short, not so well.

When EPA administrator Scott Pruitt took office, he pledged that the agency would redouble its efforts on guaranteeing clean air and clean water in its so-called “back to basics” environmental agenda. In April, he visited East Chicago, a community of color in Indiana where residents have coped with lead and arsenic contamination for decades, to highlight that agenda.

As the Chicago Tribune points out, the EPA has repeatedly told Indiana Harbor Coke Company that its pollution exceeds legal limits, but the agency has yet to file a lawsuit. “I’ve been told by career staff at the agency that everybody is kind of frozen since Pruitt arrived. Nobody is willing to pull the trigger to enforce the law,” the former head of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Regulatory told the Chicago Tribune. More than 100,000 people live within the five miles surrounding the East Chicago facility.

The company that owns the facility told the Tribune that it’s “exploring a number of projects” to deal with the continued pollution. With proposed budget cuts of 31 percent at the EPA, it may be up to companies to monitor pollution and clean up after themselves. That’ll work.

Watch our video on East Chicago’s lead crisis:


leading indicator

Warren Buffett is driving truckloads of money into electric companies.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway recently announced that it plans to buy Oncor, one of the country’s largest electricity-transmission companies, for $9 billion. And Berkshire was already making 10 percent of its earnings from energy investments. It looks like the Oracle of Omaha is betting that there are big improvements for utilities to make.

“There are tremendous efficiencies to be squeezed out of the system,” Jon Wellinghoff told the Los Angeles Times. Wellinghoff is the former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and chief executive of consulting firm Policy DE.

To wring these efficiencies (read “profits”) out of the system, Berkshire is pushing for a more interconnected electrical system across the American West. It’s involved in a project to build 1,000 miles of transmission lines across Idaho and Wyoming. That would allow distribution of cheap renewable energy — which is sometimes wasted in places where too much is produced at once — to more places that need electricity. Of course, it might also allow coal power plants to stay profitable longer.

These investments suggest that Berkshire is likely to join in the ongoing struggle between rooftop solar and utilities. Buffett apparently doesn’t think utilities are entering a death spiral at all.