Feds Respond to Allegations in Historic Lawsuit: Fossil Fuel Emissions Put Humans on 'Dangerous Path'
On Jan. 13, the federal government filed its answer to youth plaintiffs' complaint in Juliana v. United States. In their answer, the federal defendants make several admissions to their long-standing knowledge of climate change danger and to today's knowledge on the severity of those impacts.
Victory for America's Youth: Federal Judge Rules Climate Lawsuit Can Proceed https://t.co/iXxiZvf5Nf @climatecouncil @energyaction— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478913606.0
"The Department of Justice and the federal defendants have now admitted many of the central facts underpinning our youth plaintiffs' constitutional claims against the United States," said Julia Olson, counsel for plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children's Trust.
"This answer moves us even closer to proving our case at trial this year. One important and lasting legacy of the Obama Administration is its commitment to scientific research and disclosing the full dangers of climate change to the American people and the world. This answer, made in his final days in office, reflects the stark contrast between the truth of the climate dangers we face and the destructive lies being perpetuated by the incoming Trump Administration. At trial, truth will prevail."
Pursuant to defendants' answer, the following allegations were admitted:
- That the use of fossil fuels is a major source of CO2 emissions, "placing our nation on an increasingly costly, insecure and environmentally dangerous path."
- "That for over fifty years some officials and persons employed by the federal government have been aware of a growing body of scientific research concerning the effects of fossil fuel emissions on atmospheric concentrations of CO2—including that increased concentrations of atmospheric CO2 could cause measurable long-lasting changes to the global climate, resulting in an array of severe deleterious effects to human beings, which will worsen over time."
- "That from 1850 to 2012, CO2 emissions from sources within the United States (including from land use) comprised more than 25 percent of cumulative global CO2 emissions."
- "Federal Defendants admit that they permit, authorize and subsidize fossil fuel extraction, development, consumption and exportation. Federal Defendants admit that fossil fuel extraction, development and consumption produce CO2 emissions and that past emissions of CO2 from such activities have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2."
- That current CO2, methane and nitrous oxide levels are at "unprecedentedly high levels compared to the past 800,000 years of historical data and pose risks to human health and welfare."
- Current and projected concentrations of six well-mixed greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including CO2, threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations."
- "Federal Defendants admit that scientific evidence shows that elevated CO2 concentrations have caused ocean acidification and ocean warming" and "caused adverse effects to coral reefs and wildlife."
- "Stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentrations will require deep reductions in CO2 emissions."
- "The United States has supported fossil fuel development through overseas public financing, primarily through the Export-Import Bank of the United States…" and that the Export-Import Bank "provided $14.8 billion in commitments for 78 transactions or projects in the petroleum sector, including ... six in Russia/FSU ... the Export-Import Bank of the United States also supported numerous coal and gas power plants."
In some cases, the federal defendants even argued that the youth plaintiffs' allegations were understating the evidence against them. For example, plaintiffs alleged the atmospheric CO2 concentration exceeded 400 ppm in 2013 for the first time in recorded history, but the federal defendants admitted it was "for the first time in millions of years."
Carbon Dioxide Levels Set to Pass 400 ppm and Remain Above Symbolic Threshold Permanently https://t.co/92SExOC9PG @carbonbrief— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1465981512.0
In another example, plaintiffs alleged that since 1993, sea levels have been rising at an average rate of 3.2 millimeters per year. The federal defendants rebutted that sea levels have actually been rising at a rate of 3.4 millimeters per year. In yet another example, youth alleged that fossil fuel production in the U.S. was 65.244 Quadrillion Btus in 2014, but federal defendants insist that year's production was 69.653 Quadrillion Btus.
Read through all admissions made by the federal defendants in their answer here.
The court will hold another case management conference on Feb. 7, to finalize proposed schedules for discovery and put the case on a schedule for trial in mid-late 2017. Among the facts to be determined at trial are whether the federal government actions, which it now concedes in its answer, are responsible for creating or enhancing climate change and have violated and continue to violate, the constitutional rights of the youth plaintiffs and future generations.
This federal case is one of many related legal actions brought by youth in several states and countries, all supported by Our Children's Trust, seeking the adoption of science-based prescriptions to stabilize the climate system.
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Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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