Will Natural Gas Become the 'Achilles' Heel' of Our Country?
After hearing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar at the City Club of Cleveland on Feb. 14 speak about President Obama's vision for the new energy frontier, which is largely a full-steam ahead agenda for fossil fuel extraction, and then reading that more than 800,000 people signed a petition to their U.S. Senators to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and nearly 2,000 people in Frankfort, Kentucky called for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining that same day, it was clear that Obama's energy plan does not align with the sustainable energy future many Americans want.
Charged with the duty of protecting America's great outdoors and powering the future of this country, the U.S. Department of the Interior manages the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees about 245 million surface acres, one-fifth of the nation's landmass, and 700 million sub-surface acres of public lands.
Salazar said Obama's energy blueprint focuses on tapping into all of the energy resources of the U.S. and that the Department of the Interior will play a key role in mapping out a future that will bring about energy security for America. He mentioned how President Richard Nixon coined the phrase "energy independence" in 1974 after the Arab oil embargo and that President Jimmy Carter called the response to the energy crisis the "moral equivalent of war" in 1977 to highlight the long-standing desire for the U.S. to eliminate its addiction to foreign oil, and to stop supporting nations that are hostile and don't share U.S. interests.
His talk quickly moved to renewable energy, as he discussed the 41 solar energy manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and how this country is projected to be the number one solar energy market in the world by 2014. He also said that major strides have been made in wind energy, with more than 400 U.S. companies manufacturing components for the wind energy industry and one-third of all new electrical capacity in the U.S. coming from wind farms.
Without pause, Salazar moved right to oil and gas production. He mentioned that we are currently producing more oil domestically, both onshore and offshore, since Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s. On the natural gas front, he cited U.S. Geological Survey studies revealing ample reserves and pointed to how the great technological breakthroughs in the private sector have combined with public investment to help provide enough energy to supply the needs of the U.S. for the next 100 years.
As Salazar put it, the U.S. is making significant progress with Obama's energy strategy. In 2011, for the first time in as long as Salazar could remember, oil imports entering the U.S. have dropped below 50 percent because the U.S. has moved to capture new domestic sources of energy.
In 2009, there were no solar energy projects permitted on public lands. Today there are 29 commercial-scale solar projects on public lands that are some of the largest in the world, primarily in the southwestern U.S., which Salazar oversees on behalf of the American people. There are more than 5,600 megawatts of permitted renewable energy projects on public lands which, he said, is the equivalent to about 18- to 20 coal-fired power plants. (I get about eight coal-fired power plants from 5,600 megawatts). Salazar said these projects are creating thousands of jobs and even making skeptics believe that we can actually capture the power of the sun to power our cities. Obama's plan is to have 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy produced on public lands by the end of 2012, a goal Salazar said will be easy to achieve.
The rest of Salazar's speech focused on Obama's strong support for the oil and gas industry. He said that for the last three years the U.S. has been the leading producer of natural gas in the world and that natural gas development is an important part of Obama's energy blueprint, as it has the ability to create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next decade.
Salazar said he realizes that the demand for natural gas has to increase to keep the market strong and he mentioned the work being done to encourage companies to transition their vehicle fleets to natural gas. Finally, Salazar recognized the elephant in the room and mentioned the "huge debate" that is happening in Ohio and other parts of the country over concerns that hydraulic fracturing is not safe. He assured the crowd of about 70 people that "hydraulic fracking can be done safely and in fact is being done safely in most cases" and that Obama supports this view.
However, Salazar said he recognizes that there are problems with the hydraulic fracturing process, which is why in the next several weeks the Department of the Interior will make an announcement on three rules that will help guide fracking on public lands. The rules will require full disclosure of the chemicals being injected into the Earth, set requirements to ensure the integrity of well bores and require companies to manage flowback water so it does not contaminate streams.
He identified the many states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and his home state of Colorado—that have a growing resistance to natural gas development. Salazar's feeling is that "the failure of giving the American people confidence that hydraulic fracturing will in fact work will end up being the Achilles heel of the energy promise of America."
Next he focused on oil production, saying the Obama administration has moved forward in developing onshore and offshore oil resources in a very robust way in the last three years. Plans are underway to further the leasing and production of offshore oil drilling in the Gulf and American oceans. The Department of the Interior has plans to move forward on exploration in the Alaskan and Arctic Seas and drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
During the traditional City Club question-and-answer session, one audience member, Mark Mangan from Medina County, Ohio, confronted Salazar about being "a victim of natural gas drilling gone wrong." He explained that his water well has been deemed explosive and his home a public health hazard. He mentioned two neighbors who have been diagnosed with cancer, one just 20 years old, believed to be caused by toxic drinking water. Mangan broke into tears, asking Salazar "can you help us?"
Salazar's response focused on the obviously improper construction of the well in Mangan's community and made reference to Ohio Gov. John Kasich's comment in his recent State of the State address mentioning that some natural gas companies just do the job wrong. Salazar assured Mangan that when fracking is done on public lands it will be done right and excused himself since his department doesn't manage private lands. Mangan replied, "These wells, Sir, they were actually drilled in Medina County park system. It's not private land."
When a question was posed to Salazar regarding the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a $7 billion project to bring heavy, sour crude oil from tar sands production in Alberta, Canada, through the breadbasket of America, to Port Arthur, Texas, for refining, he answered, "The President and the administration have never reached a judgement as to whether or not it should be built" since the State Department, the permitting agency, determined that there wasn't enough time to evaluate the proposal that has yet to be filed on the alternative route of the pipeline. He said that "at the end of the day it may be built," citing the advantage of tar sands oil contributing to national security if, as he believes, the U.S. consumes the oil.
However, experts have shown that the Keystone XL pipeline is an export pipeline. "The Gulf Coast refiners at the end of the pipeline's route are focused on expanding exports, and the nature of the tar sands crude Keystone XL delivers enhances their capacity to do so," according to a report by Oil Change International. In addition, the report highlights the company Valero, the top beneficiary of the pipeline, and the export strategy the company recently presented to its investors. Because the company's refinery is within a Foreign Trade Zone, it will accomplish its export strategy tax-free. The report also said that with U.S. oil demand decreasing, due to higher fuel economy standards and slow economic growth, and with U.S. production of domestic oil increasing, U.S. refiners are turning to export.
There's no doubt there are discrepancies between the will of the people and the energy plan Obama has put forward. I found it interesting that Salazar never mentioned coal except to equivocate solar energy generation to coal-fired power plants. Maybe that's because he didn't want to bring attention to the boom-bust cycle that runs so rampant in fossil fuel extraction. When you base your entire economy on an energy-intensive system and then rely on nonrenewable fossil fuels to support it—and allow elected officials to be bought by the industry—no doubt communities will suffer and the rights of people will fall to the bottom of the priority list.
Just take a moment to look at the Appalachian region of the U.S. There you'll find the most impoverished communities in America where companies profited greatly by extracting natural resources at the expense of exploiting its people and destroying the environment, leaving generations in decades-long, structural poverty. The region is still fighting these battles as mountaintop removal coal mining continues to destroy communities and make people sick.
Is this what we want for our future or can we finally move forward with a sustainable energy strategy that puts energy efficiency first and foremost, and finally levels the playing field for renewable energy by removing all incentives and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and making them responsible for the costs they have been externalizing for more than a century?
I don't know about you, but I'm willing to keep fighting for what's right. Salazar and Gov. Kasich are correct. There are natural gas companies out there that just do the job wrong. I've been listening to stories for years from people all over our country who are asking for help because of companies that have contaminated their drinking water and made them and their families and neighbors sick.
You certainly don't have to look far to learn about this issue. Perhaps the best way to get started is by watching the Oscar-nominated film Gasland. Thanks to the film's director Josh Fox, viewers get an inside look at the largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history that is sweeping across the U.S.
Frustrations are running high as our country continues to run our energy policy as business as usual. Sooner or later, push will come to shove. I just hope that when it does, our country will have taken the right steps forward to truly embrace the sustainable energy future we are capable of creating.
After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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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.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>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.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>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."</p><p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p>
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