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Presidential nominee Joe Biden has not taken a stance on gas exports, including liquefied natural gas. Ken Hodge / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Simon Montlake

For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.

By Simon Montlake

For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project’s environmental, social, and health costs are too high.

All that was before this month’s deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. “It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change,” she says.


Jordan Cove, the -billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project that Ms. Brown is trying to stop, has yet to break ground. But environmental lawsuits and permitting delays aren’t the only barriers. A calamitous crash in natural gas prices and a glut of LNG capacity have cast doubts over its commercial viability and, more broadly, the easy promise of converting abundant U.S. gas into a global commodity and geopolitical tool.

“There’s too much oil. There’s too much gas. There’s not enough demand,” says Clark Williams-Derry at the liberal-leaning Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Still, even if projects like Jordan Cove are shelved, several other LNG terminals on the Gulf Coast already have all their permits and are waiting to secure financing. Their expansion over the next five years would make the U.S. the world’s largest LNG producer, creating jobs at home and opening new markets in energy-hungry Asia.

For a future Biden administration, that’s a wrinkle in any serious climate plan. Once built, these LNG plants would potentially lock in decades of heat-trapping emissions that are already hurling the planet toward a hotter, less stable future. “Once you build the infrastructure it’s there, and it gets run on a different economic basis than if it’s not there,” says Mr. Williams-Derry, who tracks the LNG industry.

Proponents say natural gas is cleaner than the coal that it replaces both in the U.S., where it now produces around 40% of electricity, and in countries like India and China. That makes it a “bridge fuel” to a fully renewable energy future that hasn’t yet arrived, says Fred Hutchison, president and CEO of LNG Allies, an industry group. “Gas can continue to be part of a low-carbon energy system globally,” he says.

He predicts that LNG firms would be comfortable with a Biden presidency. “He’s got a great affinity for working people and labor, and labor is very much on board with regards to LNG,” he says.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden has gotten heat over his support for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which left-leaning Democrats oppose but which is seen as important for winning Pennsylvania, a battleground state in November’s election. Far less attention has been paid to where the oil and gas goes, and whether support for LNG exports is compatible with Mr. Biden’s clean-energy agenda and plans for tackling climate change.

“It’s not going to save the climate if we’re just exporting our emissions overseas,” says Collin Rees, a campaigner for Oil Change U.S., an environmental nonprofit.

Moderates Feeling the Heat

If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.

The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval.

Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden’s reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter.

In a letter sent earlier this month, Mr. Rees and other signatories urged Mr. Biden to ban “all fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, and representatives” from any future administration.

That Obama-era moderates are under fire over their climate bona fides is a measure of rising leftist clout in the Democratic coalition. It also reflects how the climate debate has shifted since Biden was in office, in response to extreme weather events and troubling scientific findings. This includes research into lifecycle emissions from natural gas production and methane leaks and flaring that muddies the argument that it’s a transition fuel to a carbon-free future.

“We’ve gotten more proof on the science that switching to gas is not enough,” says Mr. Rees.

The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports

As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.

That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as “freedom gas.”

Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts.

Still, Trump’s foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers.

Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. “That’s a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world,” says Mr. Hutchison.

Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. “U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that’s focused on methane emissions and intensity,” says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Stepping on the Gas

In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove’s developer, Canada’s Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide “reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world.”

As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.

But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. “They are putting infrastructure in a state where there’s no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas,” she says.

Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it’s only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions.

This story originally appeared in Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Clear skies are seen above Kathmandu Valley during the nationwide coronavirus lockdown on March 29, 2020 in Kathmandu, Nepal, one of the most polluted cities in the world. Narayan Maharjan / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Stephanie Hanes

Earlier this month, health care experts from across the United States gathered to address hundreds of journalists and policymakers by webinar. But their focus was not testing, nor vaccines, nor "herd immunity." It was not even COVID-19, really. Instead, their focus was climate change.

By Stephanie Hanes

Earlier this month, health care experts from across the United States gathered to address hundreds of journalists and policymakers by webinar. But their focus was not testing, nor vaccines, nor “herd immunity.” It was not even COVID-19, really. Instead, their focus was climate change.


“While many see issues like climate change and biodiversity loss as far from what’s going on right now … I see this as the time to talk about it,” said Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School. “Climate solutions are, in fact, pandemic solutions.”

A few days later, economists and policy experts with the World Resources Institute held their own panel discussion. The message was similar, and the audience one of the largest in the organization’s history. The experience of and response to COVID-19, proclaimed expert after expert, was intricately tied to climate.

Indeed, increasing numbers of researchers and policymakers, scientists and health care practitioners, are looking at the coronavirus through an ecological lens. Whether they are focused on consumer behavioral shifts, changes in emission outputs, or policy decisions that might help or hurt long-term goals for green infrastructure, they are seeing in this moment a pivotal chance to address climate change.

“As we respond to the very imminent economic and health crisis, can we also tackle the climate and sustainability crisis?” asked Manish Bapna, WRI’s managing director and executive vice president.

There have been a number of short-term environmental shifts connected with how the world is coping with the pandemic. China’s carbon emissions dropped 18% between the beginning of February and mid-March, according to data compiled by the website CarbonBrief. Pollution over India has decreased dramatically, according to satellite images from NASA’s Earth Observatory. And in the U.S., a dramatic decrease in air travel, as well as a drop in vehicular travel, has also lowered emissions.

But many of these changes are temporary, researchers say, and may barely register on any long-term analysis of global carbon emissions. The drop in China’s carbon output, for instance, came alongside a lockdown over much of the country and a related plunge in factory operations. As the country reopens, says Fang Li, chief representative of the World Resources Institute in Beijing, emissions are expected to rebound along with the economy. After the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, Dr. Fang and others point out, global emissions grew rapidly.

Renewing a Focus

For many climate advocates, this is a reason to push green initiatives now. Environmentalists worry that unless policymakers focus on climate as part of their economic packages, the pandemic could lead to policy shifts that would undermine years of hard-won climate victories. Indeed, the Trump administration in late March announced that it would weaken Obama-era fuel standards that mandate increased fuel efficiencies for automobiles. It also announced last month that the Environmental Protection Agency will not enforce environmental regulations during the pandemic.

“What we have to worry about is whether … policy changes are going to be long term or short term,” says Christopher Jones, director of the CoolClimate Network at the University of California, Berkeley. “If we roll back standards and they remain in place when the economy comes back, we are going to have a real problem.”

Researchers say that a green economic stimulus package could both help the U.S. ensure long-term sustainability and rebound from the crushing economic impact of the pandemic. (More than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15, according to the U.S. Labor Department.) Many environmentalists look at the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, as an example of how government initiatives can spur climate-friendly industry. That bill, which earmarked some billion to promote green energy, is widely credited with launching the widespread renewable energy sector in the U.S.

“Economic measures should focus on climate as well as jobs and livelihood,” Mr. Bapna said during the WRI panel.

But as Kenneth Gillingham, a professor at Yale University and a research fellow at the National Bureau of Economics Research, points out, the pandemic itself has slowed renewable energy efforts.

“There’s a slowing down of building new solar farms, of new wind facilities,” he says. “Some projects are hitting the pause button. Other projects may not happen for a long time.”

And while there is hope for a green renewal, he suspects the future will be a good deal more nuanced.

“Entirely rebuilding our economy as a green economy? It’s a wonderful vision, but I don’t believe that’s what we’ll likely see,” he says.

Inequality, Exacerbated

But a move toward environmental sustainability, says Dr. Bernstein, is going to be crucial not only for combatting a climate crisis, but for helping some of the people most impacted by the coronavirus. As he points out, both the pandemic and the impacts from climate change disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized groups.

There is, he and others say, a hopeful lesson to be taken from the massive lifestyle and economic shifts seen across the globe in response to COVID-19. For years, popular wisdom has said that people simply would not engage in the sort of behavior changes necessary to fight climate change; that they wouldn’t stop traveling, wouldn’t stop consuming, wouldn’t sacrifice material comforts and help save others who are most immediately at risk from climate change. Now, the response to the pandemic suggests otherwise.

“We are able to mobilize the entire global economy and population for an imminent threat,” says Dr. Jones. “Both climate change and this pandemic both affect the most vulnerable. But everybody is willing to make personal sacrifices to protect the most vulnerable. I think that’s quite new.”

The question, he and others say, is whether people will be able to see climate change as a similarly “imminent threat,” deserving of action. While climate researchers look at the world’s increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters and see a direct connection to human behavior, research shows that most everyday people still feel disconnected from both the impacts and causes of climate change.

“We don’t experience risk properly,” says Katharine Hayhoe, professor and director of the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center.

But with the coronavirus, researchers say, there is a chance to shift.

“It can make people feel that what was previously unthinkable is plausible,” Dr. Jones says. “They know what the experience feels like.”

This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Sheep rest in the shade of sun-tracing photovoltaic panels installed at Solarpark Rodenäs on May 18, 2009 in Rodenas, Germany. Bert Bostelmann / Getty Images

By Lynn Freehill-Maye

When Jackie Augustine opens a chicken coop door one brisk spring morning in upstate New York, the hens bolt out like windup toys. Still, as their faint barnyard scent testifies, they aren't battery-powered but very much alive.

By Lynn Freehill-Maye

When Jackie Augustine opens a chicken coop door one brisk spring morning in upstate New York, the hens bolt out like windup toys. Still, as their faint barnyard scent testifies, they aren’t battery-powered but very much alive.

These are “solar chickens.” At this local community egg cooperative, Geneva Peeps, the birds live with solar power all around them. Their hen house is built under photovoltaic panels, and even outside, they’ll spend time underneath them, protected from sun, rain, and hawks.


Geneva Peeps is one of the many experiments in agrivoltaics, or co-locating solar panels and food production, being undertaken around the United States. The practice had already been happening in countries like the United Kingdom and Uruguay. Over the past few years, more pilot programs have been set up in states like New York. And with photovoltaic capacity projected to more than double (again) over the next five years, some developers are exploring whether agrivoltaics may ease concerns about farmland being given over to solar production.

“You’re seeing farmers sell off land and transition it to solar,” says Greg Barron-Gafford, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who studies the impacts of large-scale land-use change. “Our hope is this could allow us to keep more food production in areas that need energy production.”

Finding the Right Pairing

Agrivoltaics doesn’t just include chickens. Other livestock also can roam around solar panels, and some researchers are experimenting with planting crops, too.

Animals that graze around solar fields offer several benefits, proponents of agrivoltaics say. Not only does their manure enrich the soil, their munching keeps plants from growing too tall and shading the panels. Another win: They lower vegetation maintenance costs, reducing the need for lawn mowers or landscapers.

Pilot agrivoltaic programs have tried many grazers – with varying success. The chickens at Geneva Peeps, for example, aren’t grazing powerhouses. Founder Jeff Henderson admits that he still has to fire up the lawn mower sometimes.

When solar panels are elevated for them to roam beneath, cows do better, as shown in a University of Massachusetts pilot. But the higher materials cost of raising panels has kept “solar cattle” from taking hold yet. Goats have been tried, too, but they sometimes jump on panels and chew wires.

The winner among livestock so far has been calm, eat-anything-and-everything sheep. In fact, most of the members of the American Solar Grazing Association, founded in 2017, are shepherds. (Honeybees can be part of the mix with sheep, too.)

Researchers, like Dr. Barron-Gafford at the University of Arizona, are also studying how well crops grow under panels.

Dr. Barron-Gafford noticed that in the desert, saguaro cactuses spend their first 10 to 15 years growing in the shade of mesquite trees. Surmising that shade from solar panels could benefit crops, too, he has studied how agrivoltaic setups affected food yields and water usage in dryland areas. Among his findings: Chiltepin pepper plants yielded three times as much fruit, and tomatoes twice as much, under photovoltaic panels. They required less irrigation, and temperatures under panels where crops were growing were lower, too.

“You’re seeing more and more solar installations out in rural areas,” Dr. Barron-Gafford says. “We’re seeing here that putting solar overhead can provide a consistent energy source, can reduce the water you need to use, and that food is giving back to your solar by helping keep it cool [through transpiration].”

Seeking Common Ground

Still, tensions remain between solar and agriculture. Farmers who lease the land they grow crops on often worry about their landlords renting it out to someone else, including solar farms. And rural residents may want to see their area hold onto its farming heritage. A California developer, Cypress Creek Renewables, riled up rural New York in 2016 when it mass-mailed farmers seeking leases on 20-plus acre fields.

Lewis Fox, co-founder of the American Solar Grazing Association, has found that involving animals helps solar skeptics lower their defenses. He’ll bring lambs to a project open house and find locals open up a bit more. Often, he says, they find it reassuring that local land can stay in agriculture, even if solar is added.

“Solar in general is unfamiliar to people, and if you hear there’s a large development coming to your town, people naturally get defensive, a little suspicious,” Mr. Fox says. “There’s support, but also a lot of concern. Once people come out to a site and see it being grazed, it kind of clicks. A well-managed grazing program on a site is very productive. It’s not just throwing a few sheep out and letting them go wherever for a season. We can raise a lot of meat on an acre of raised panels. It’s a serious form of agriculture.”

Still, Mr. Fox has seen friends in the dairy industry lose leased land. Agrivoltaics can’t ease all those tensions, he concedes. “I don’t think setting up grazing contracts is going to paper over issues of people losing leased land,” he says. “It’s definitely important that developers are good actors working in ethical ways.”

Another key to being received better, some solar developers say, could be not to “co-locate” solar and agriculture on the exact same parcels of land. “Instead of 100 acres of prime farmland, we should work with four farmers and use 25 acres of marginal farmland each,” suggests Bill Jordan, founder and CEO of Jordan Energy & Food Enterprises LLC, an Albany-based company that specializes in on-farm photovoltaic placement.

Mr. Jordan argues that solar can actually help save farms more easily if panels are situated on the property’s wetter, hillier farmland, or on roofs. “There’s a lot of solar going in – it could push farmers out of farming, or diversify the family farm,” he says.

First Came the Chickens

Mr. Henderson didn’t know about agrivoltaics when he founded Geneva Peeps in 2015. His goal was simply to help local families raise chickens. Backyard coops aren’t allowed in the Finger Lakes town of Geneva, New York, but he found industrial-zoned land where they’d be permitted.

Forty families now share weekly chicken-care shifts of 10 to 15 minutes. Ms. Augustine pedals over for her shift, and with her bike helmet still on, checks the hens’ food and water. In return, she and fellow members get a dozen or more eggs at a time.

The year after launching, Mr. Henderson installed 44 kilowatts’ worth of solar panels, both powering the operation and producing excess for the grid through net metering. There wasn’t enough room on the chicken coops to install rooftop panels, but he did have more than an acre of land – more than 180 egg-layers really needed. Mr. Henderson wasn’t aware of any similar farms combining solar and chickens, but he figured the project could be a local sustainability model.

“We knew they could all coexist together because there’s no reason you can’t have solar panels and chickens,” Mr. Henderson says. “One of the hopes is this will give people an idea of a way you could do it.”

This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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