Briefly

Stuff that matters


Pipe dream

Elon Musk has started digging a tunnel under Los Angeles.

In December, when Musk got stuck in traffic, instead of leaning on the horn or flipping off the other drivers, he decided to build a new transportation system. An hour later, Max Chafkin writes in Bloomberg Businessweek, “the project had a name and a marketing platform. ‘It shall be called The Boring Company,’” Musk wrote.

Musk told employees to grab some heavy machinery and they began digging a hole in the SpaceX parking lot. He bought one of those machines that bores out tunnels and lays down concrete walls as it goes. It’s named Nannie.

Musk is the grown-up version of the kid who decides to dig to China: He doesn’t pause to plan or ask what’s possible, he just grabs a stick and starts shoveling. Maybe that’s the approach we need. As Chafkin points out, “Tunnel technology is older than rockets, and boring speeds are pretty much what they were 50 years ago.” And Bent Flyvbjerg, an academic who studies why big projects cost so much, says that the tunneling industry is ripe for someone with new ideas to shake things up.

Musk is a technical genius. But the things that make tunnels expensive tend to be political — they have to do with endless hearings before local government councils and concessions to satisfy concerned neighbors and politicians. For that stultifying process, at least, Musk’s new company is aptly named. If Musk figures out how disrupt local land-use politics, it would mean he’s smarter than anyone thinks.


Bam!

Trump just took a sledgehammer to Obama’s climate legacy.

“Together we are going to start a new energy revolution,” the president said just before signing an executive order to boost old, dirty energy industries.

Here’s what he’s ordering his administration to do:

  • Toss out and rewrite the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut CO2 pollution from coal-fired power plants, as well as another rule intended to make new power plants cleaner.
  • End a moratorium on the leasing of federal land to coal-mining companies.
  • Roll back a rule that would curb methane emissions from oil and gas operations on public lands.
  • Rewrite a rule that would more closely regulate fracking on federal lands.
  • Step back from accounting for the full economic cost of climate change (aka the social cost of carbon) when making decisions.
  • Reverse an order that called for federal agencies to consider climate change when writing environmental impact statements for projects.
  • Review all federal rules to find any that stymie energy production.

(Vox has a great detailed rundown.)

This follows on the heels of Trump putting Obama’s ambitious auto fuel-economy rules on ice and attacking other environmental protections.

Some of the moves will go into effect quickly, but rolling back the Clean Power Plan and methane rule could take years and get tied up in court. Environmentalists are already plotting to take legal action and trip up Trump’s agenda in any way they can.


dakota access

It’s official: Oil is making its way through the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Energy Transfer Partners, the company that built the pipeline, reported on Monday that oil is now under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. The surrounding area, which includes burial sites and drinking water sources, is sacred to the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes. The company is prepping the full pipeline to go online.

On March 18, a judge denied yet another request from tribes to halt use of the pipeline. That ruling cleared the way for Energy Transfer Partners to pump in crude oil once construction was finished. Soon after the ruling, there were acts of vandalism and “coordinated physical attacks” on the pipeline, like burn damage in Iowa and South Dakota, the company said.

The Sioux have filed several legal challenges to the pipeline, but the main case may not see resolution until May. Numerous tribes have charged that the pipeline violates environmental, treaty, and cultural rights. If a legal challenge is successful, the $3.8 billion project could be taken offline.

“My people are here today because we have survived in the face of the worst kind of challenges,” said Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier. “The fact that oil is flowing under our life-giving waters is a blow, but it hasn’t broken us.”


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This innovator is stitching together a clothing movement.

When Rebecca Burgess was working in villages across Asia, she saw the impacts of the clothing industry firsthand: waste, pollution, widespread health problems. But in these same communities, from Indonesia to Thailand, Burgess also saw working models of local textile production systems that didn’t harm anyone. She was inspired to build a sustainable clothing system — complete with natural dye farms, renewable energy-powered mills, and compostable clothes — back home in the United States.

The result is Fibershed, a movement to build networks of farmers, ranchers, designers, ecologists, sewers, dyers, and spinners in 54 communities around the world, mostly in North America. They are ex-coal miners growing hemp in Appalachia and workers in California’s first wool mill. In five years, Burgess plans to build complete soil-to-soil fiber systems in north-central California, south-central Colorado, and eastern Kentucky.

People have asked her, “This has already left to go overseas — you’re bringing it back? Are you sure?” She is. Mills provide solid, well-paying jobs for people “who can walk in off the street and be trained in six months,” Burgess says. “This is all about dressing human beings at the end of the day, in the most ethical way that we can, while providing jobs for our home communities and keeping farmers and ranchers on the land.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


as the world burns

Trump’s environmental executive order is everything we feared.

A senior White House official confirmed that President Trump will start rolling back key Obama-era climate policies on Tuesday. The executive order is aimed at sweeping away the Clean Power Plan, methane regulations, mining restrictions on federal land, and, well, you name it.

The White House will direct government agencies to root out “all rules, all policies, and guidance documents that serve as obstacles or impediments to domestic energy production,” according to the official who spoke on background during a conference call with reporters Monday evening.

“Energy independence,” said the official. “That’s the goal.” (For the record, the United States is already pretty independent, importing about 11 percent of its energy.)

The official also told reporters that the administration was still debating whether to remain party to the Paris climate agreement.

As details started to leak out after the conference call, environmental organizations were up in arms. The World Resources Institute called the impending order a “sledgehammer to U.S. climate action.”

When a reporter asked about green groups threatening to sue, the administration seemed unfazed. “I’m sure they’ll disagree, but what’s your point?” the official said. “When it comes to dealing with climate change, we want to take our own course and do it in our own form and fashion.”

If there’s a silver lining here (and hey, it’s thin), it’s that the administration admits there’s such a thing as “dealing with climate change.”


Deregulators, mount up!

That long-promised executive order rolling back Obama’s environmental regulations is on its way.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt told This Week’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that President Trump will sign the “pro-growth and pro-environment” directive on Tuesday.

The action, Pruitt explained, would put people back to work in the fossil fuel industry, breathing new life into a sector he said Barack Obama marked for death. Stephanopoulos offered a reality check: The U.S. has roughly the same number of coal jobs it did a decade ago. Furthermore, the country won’t be able to live up to its Paris Agreement commitments without aggressive actions like the Clean Power Plan, which the order would nix.

Undaunted, Pruitt insisted environmental progress would continue. “We’re actually at pre-1994 levels right now with respect to our CO2 footprint,” he noted. “Now why is that? Largely it’s because of innovation and technology both in the coal sector and the natural gas sector.”

Pruitt may falsely think carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change, but he is right about one thing: The EPA’s latest emissions analysis shows the U.S. discharged 39 million metric tons fewer in 2015 than it did in 1994. With climate deniers running the government, we’ll see how long that lasts.


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This CEO provides clean energy for any budget.

You might think solar panels are just for people with money to burn. John Bourne disagrees. “There are a number of clean energy options out there for everybody,” he says. “Our job is to help find the right one for the right person.”

Bourne used to work for solar companies that would develop products and ask stores to carry those products exclusively, even if they weren’t the best fit for everyone. So he started BrightCurrent to represent a bunch of different brands instead. The company partners with big retailers — Sam’s Club, Comcast, Sears — and provides behind-the-scenes services like running call centers and training retail associates, all to help match customers with the right clean energy and efficiency products, from smart thermostats to LEDs.

More than 30,000 people have bought clean energy products through BrightCurrent since the company launched in 2015. “We’re just getting started,” Bourne says. “We really want to be in every state in the country.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.