Commentator David Roberts, in Biden’s tax plan goes after the little fossil fuel subsidies, but not the big ones. (Direct subsidies don’t amount to much.), April 9.
Barely twenty days after signing his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to provide pandemic relief and wrestle Covid-19 to a halt, President Biden this week unveiled a follow-on eight-year $2 trillion plan that he called a “once-in-a-generation investment in America” to repair failing roads and bridges, revitalize rail travel and freight, get rid of water-supplying lead pipes, and generally overhaul the country’s infrastructure.
While a New York Times headline framed Biden’s American Jobs Plan as “stressing jobs, roads and growth,” the paper’s own explainer was sketching a different — and lower-carbon — story. Of $621 billion in transportation spending, less than 20 percent, $115 billion, goes to “roads and bridges,” and much and perhaps most of that appears destined for “fix-it-first” repairs rather than traffic-inducing highway expansions. (See graphic.) Public transit and railways get a combined $165 billion, and word is that some of the $20 billion penciled in for “underserved communities” is to pay to tear down segregation-enforcing urban expressways.
The devil is in the details, of course, as Streetsblog USA noted today, with links to detailed treatments in Vox, Politico and Transportation for America. Notably missing from the new Biden package, though, is a carbon tax, or a carbon price in any form. The Biden infra plan is all carrots and no sticks, meaning it may not make much headway in reducing carbon emissions, at least in the short term.
We’re at peace with that, at the Carbon Tax Center. Razor-thin House and Senate margins simply don’t allow for hot-button measures like carbon pricing that might jeopardize other elements of the package in addition to failing on their own. Biden’s task, as he knows full well, is to pass bold, progressive, popular legislation to help Democrats expand their Congressional majorities in 2022 and 2024 and give him a thumping second-term mandate to boot. Then, and only then, can he risk a carbon tax.
Syracuse University public administration professor David Popp spoke to this dynamic in another Times story earlier this week, Biden’s Lesson From Past Green Stimulus Failures: Go Even Bigger. “Spending money is politically easier than passing policies to cut emissions,” he noted. “Unless [spending is paired] with a policy that forces people to reduce emissions, a big spending bill doesn’t have a big impact. [But if that] sets up the energy economy in a way that it’s eventually cheaper to reduce emissions, it could create more political support for doing that down the road.”
When the time is ripe, what kind of carbon price?
The number of $1,400 stimulus payments issued by the Treasury Department has surpassed 125 million, according to a CNBC update on the American Rescue Plan. That’s in addition to 100 million or more stimulus relief checks last April that provided up to $1,200 for Americans earning less than $100,000 a year.
The vast majority of these payments have been made as direct deposits, a procedure so immediate and trusted that one elected official recently called such payments “political magic.” That accolade fits our own preference for the carbon fee-and-dividend method of taxing carbon, which returns all (or nearly all) of the carbon revenues to American households as direct payments made quarterly or even monthly.
As we’ve written previously (explainer here, policy/strategy here), carbon-fee-and-dividend has these powerful virtues: simplicity (explainable in a sentence), concreteness (money in your bank account), proportionality (the amounts deposited rise whenever the carbon tax level is raised), and progressivity (most low- and even middle-income households come out ahead).
Depositing carbon revenues in people’s bank accounts makes fee-and-dividend quintessentially revenue-neutral. Where, then, will the money come from to pay for American Jobs Plan? President Biden’s answer is to boost corporate tax rates while also raising corporate tax “capture rates” by finally plugging special provisions and accounting tricks that last year enabled over 50 major U.S. corporations to go completely tax-free despite reaping billions in profits, according to a new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
A two-step strategy of (1) building green — or, at least, greener — infrastructure and paying for it by taxing corporate wealth, and (2) instilling carbon-cutting incentives in every cranny and capillary of the economy via a revenue-neutral carbon price, would follow the contours of the “New Synthesis: Carbon Taxing, Wealth Taxing & A Green New Deal” we sketched in Dec. 2019, shortly before the pandemic struck. The Biden plan does #1, and, if successful, could lay the foundation for tackling #2 after the midterms or the president’s re-election.
That approach is not what the Washington Post urged in an editorial last week, Pay for Biden’s $3 trillion infrastructure plan with a carbon tax. In our view, adding a carbon tax would sink the infrastructure plan. Better to get the plan through Congress (infra is perennially popular), pay for it with corporate taxes (similarly popular), and use the political windfall to marshal support for a carbon tax later.
Time to reform the Climate Solutions Caucus
Clearly, we think carbon fee-and-dividend has legs, and we salute Citizen Climate Lobby for patiently and faithfully building grassroots support for it over the past dozen years. Nevertheless, even before this week’s unmasking of Florida Congressmember and Trumpista Matt Gaetz as a possible serial sex-offender (first salvo from Tuesday here, today’s latest, here) we were getting restive about the inclusion of Gaetz and other avowed-denialist House Republicans in the ranks of the Climate Solutions Caucus.
CCL has touted the caucus since its inception as part of its philosophy to advance fee-and-dividend carbon pricing as bipartisan. Alas, that project has become increasingly dubious as Republicanism has come to require unflinching fealty to fossil fuels. For years now, few of the two dozen House Republicans who signed up for the caucus have so much as lifted a finger to warrant being considered climate solutions anything. (Several who did, such as Francis Rooney and Carlos Curbelo, both from Florida, either retired or were defeated for re-election.)
I have in mind two members from New York State: Lee Zeldin, from my native Long Island, and Elise Stefanik, who represents sparsely populated northern NY where my family has a cabin. Both are unreservedly Trumpian (voting to overturn the 2020 election, for example). Gaetz, even before this week’s unseemly revelations, was arguably the most Trumpian member of Congress, ideologically and culturally. Since entering Congress, none of the three have evinced interest in or support for carbon pricing.
The Carbon Tax Center calls on Citizens Climate Lobby to develop meaningful, transparent criteria for maintaining membership in the Climate Solutions Caucus. My concern here is not to keep undeserving caucus members from greenwashing themselves. They likely couldn’t care less; indeed, for them, anti-climate is probably a badge of honor to wear in their next primary campaign.
Rather, we at CTC believe that removing climate deniers from the Climate Solutions Caucus could help rehabilitate carbon taxing in the public conversation. As it now stands, letting anti-climate ideologues remain in a “climate solutions” body makes it easier to cast carbon-tax proponents as easy marks — gullible Charlie Browns waiting in vain for the G.O.P. to share the carbon-tax football.
In our opinion, any leverage that Citizens Climate Lobby might gain from continuing to seek bipartisanship is more than offset by the perception — which has only risen since the Capitol insurrection — that pursuit of climate partnership with Republicans is a fool’s errand.
Josh Burke & Esin Serin, UK carbon pricing needs to be part of comprehensive tax reform, Grantham Institute News, Feb. 22.
Four states — Pennsylvania, Montana, Utah and Wyoming — have counties named Carbon, after their wealth-generating coal deposits. The last, in the south-central part of the nation’s least populous state but, by some measures, its windiest, is hosting construction of a giant wind farm called the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project — 700 wind turbines that within a few years will generate a combined 3,000 MW.
The transition to wind of any county named for coal is bound to conjure both irony and poetry, a dynamic captured in a resonant photo-essay in today’s New York Times, Carbon County, Wyoming, Knows Which Way the Wind Is Blowing. (After we posted, the Times changed its headline to the anodyne “Wyoming Coal Country Pivots, Reluctantly, to Wind Farms.”)
For the Carbon Tax Center, the change is extra-delicious. More than 40 years ago, I toured a power plant and strip mine at the northern end of the region’s massive Powder River Basin, in Colstrip, Montana, before a backpacking trip deep into Wyoming’s Big Horn and Wind River mountain ranges. I wondered if the Northern Rockies would ever evolve from coal mining to wind harvesting, a question I put into a post here, A Struggling Wyoming Is Slow to Embrace Its Renewable Future, in 2016.
Now, at last, that embrace is gathering force. Last year, wind turbines in Wyoming generated 5,143,000 megawatt-hours of electricity, 20 percent more than in 2019, though less than Texas, Iowa and 14 other states. The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project will add around 9,000,000 MWh, assuming the turbines spin the equivalent of full speed for one-third of the time. Other projects are expected to bring the state’s total to 27,000,000 MWh by 2029.
What’s driving the transition? Not a carbon tax, since neither the U.S. nor any coal-consuming state has one. And not federal policies. The long-standing production tax credit for renewables, though slightly shrunk last year, still grants wind developers $18 for each megawatt-hour their projects produce.
Rather, energy-efficiency gains that have flattened U.S. demand for electricity, along with an inability to cut operating costs, have handed coal-fired plants the short straw in today’s power-generation zero-sum game. When one source’s share goes up, another’s goes down. Meanwhile, wind turbines grow ever-larger, more powerful and more reliable, bringing down their costs. And developers have gotten savvier about obtaining permits and negotiating deals.
None of this seems lost on Terry Weickum, the 68-year-old mayor of Rawlins, the seat of Carbon County, whom the Times portrays as the embodiment of every wind energy paradox. The permitting and taxing guidelines that he wrote as head of the county’s wind task force helped unlock the state’s wind siting gridlock; but that displeased other, pro-coal county commissioners, costing him his county post. Like many of his neighbors, Weickum is said to disparage concerns over climate change and to “disapprove of the way the glossy turbines interrupt the emptiness of the sagebrush-spotted landscape.” Nonetheless he went to bat for wind power as a way to save Rawlins from the ghost-town fate that traditionally has befallen towns in the hardscrabble west that could neither keep up nor reinvent themselves.
“If it wasn’t for wind farms, [Carbon County and Rawlins] would be in terrible shape,” Weickum told the Times. Wind is also now a godsend for Weickum’s printing and sign-making business. Last year it took in nothing from coal-mining companies but garnered $150,000 of business from wind companies.
In another sign of wind power’s evolution in Wyoming, debate could be starting to shift from “Wind yes or no?” to “How much should we tax wind power?,” judging from a story from Wyoming Public Media, Proposal To Raise Wind Tax Dies Again In Committee (hat tip to the Times for the link).
Last December, the legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee voted down a proposed doubling in the state’s wind tax royalty, to $2 per MWh from the current $1. The debate was earnest and thoughtful, as reported by WPM. A businessman from Lander, in the western part of the state, who opposes wind power and supported the increase, testified “There’s a fear that by imposing realistic taxes on renewable energy, producers will go elsewhere. But that argument supposes that citizens in other states will not value their contributions to production as lovingly as we do in Wyoming.”
On the anti-taxing side, a number of local government officials, ranchers and residents argued in tandem with the wind-energy companies that even at just $1/MWh, the royalty payments have been “a bright revenue spot for a state used to a boom-bust cycle,” as WPM put it, but that raising it risked branding the state as unreliable and driving wind developers elsewhere.
CTC aligns with Wyoming’s higher-tax folks. Yet it’s safe to say that no one at the hearing brought up the possibility that a national carbon tax could create room to raise Wyoming’s royalty rate without hamstringing the state’s fledgling wind sector. The numbers are intriguing. A middling carbon tax of $50 per ton of CO2 — more than the token $20 rate that occasionally escapes Exxon’s lips, but less than the triple-digit charge that CTC and others eye as the needed level to reach by the end of this decade — would add a hefty $54 to the cost of each megawatt-hour generated by burning coal. The effective tax on natural gas-fired generation would be less, just $22.50, though with an ancillary tax on methane emissions that would probably rise to around $30 per MWh. Either figure dwarfs the $1 a MWh increase that died in the legislature.
Such carbon-tax-driven increases in the merchant price of gas- and coal-fired electricity, which still accounted for nearly 60 percent of U.S. electricity last year, would give cover for Wyoming (and other states) to raise wind-power royalty rates by much more than a dollar per megawatt-hour. And while asking Wyoming’s hard-right Senators John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis and its lone Rep. Liz Cheney to join the carbon-tax camp is surely a fool’s errand — coal mining still provides more employment than wind energy in Wyoming — the transformative power of carbon taxing is something Wyomingites may want to bear in mind as they continue their state’s transition from carbon to wind.
In the meantime, the rest of us would do well to ponder what Wyoming state senator Cale Case, an opponent of rapid wind development in his state (and a proponent of raising the royalty fee), told the Times: “This is one of the largest undeveloped places in the United States. There’s a pure existence value on its own to see what the early people saw, what the pioneers saw, just to be able to breathe.”
Amen. And while it’s true that any sentiments in the last century against turning Wyoming into the nation’s coal colony went unheeded, that doesn’t lessen the fact that even machines that magically turn air into power can’t be invisible.
Note: Calculations translating $50/ton carbon tax to $ per MWh assume 2.16 lb of CO2 per coal-fired kWh (heat rate = 10,080 Btu/kWh) and 0.90 lb for natural gas (assuming combined-cycle generation with heat rate = 7,658).
Note: This post has been updated from its original March 1 posting: new closing section, some “line edits,” new headline.
That was quite a feel-good story in Yale Environment 360 last week. The headline, On U.S. East Coast, Has Offshore Wind’s Moment Finally Arrived?, didn’t really rate a question mark, considering how the subhead brimmed with optimism:
After years of false starts, offshore wind is poised to take off along the East Coast. Commitments by states to purchase renewable power, support from the Biden administration, and billions in new investment are all contributing to the emergence of this fledgling industry.
About time. Early this century, I was an ardent proselytizer for wind power, “the only non-polluting means of generating energy that is commercially available on a large scale,” as I described it in an Appeal to the environmental community to support the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound in 2002.
Sadly, in one of the worst NIMBY flameouts ever, the 470-megawatt Cape Wind project was set upon by well-connected Cape Codders like the Kennedy family and Walter Cronkite, keeping it from fruition. and creating a playbook for wind foes everywhere. Even a proposal to repurpose a mine-damaged Adirondacks mountaintop with a mere half-dozen turbines proved no match for preservationists who prioritized their views over sustainability.
But wind power’s political travails did help kindle my interest in carbon taxing. “If carbon fuels were taxed for their damage to the climate,” I mused in a 2006 article in Orion magazine, “wind power’s profit margins would widen, and surrounding communities could extract bigger tax revenues from wind farms,” helping ease the path to public acceptance and regulatory approvals. A few months after writing that, I co-founded CTC.
Wind power today
Today, though fewer than ten wind turbines operate at just two offshore U.S. sites, tens of thousands of onshore turbines together are generating 8 percent of U.S. electricity (based on preliminary 2020 data). Percentage-wise, Iowa led all states with 42 percent of its electricity production coming from wind in 2019. Texas (yes, Texas) led in absolute megawatt-hours from wind last year with a whopping 93 million megawatt-hours, nearly 28 percent of the U.S. total.
Now, the Yale story reports, “New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland have together committed, through legislation or executive action, to buying about 30,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore electricity by 2035.”
A quarter of those megawatts, 7,500, would be located off New Jersey’s Atlantic coast, a goal that NJ Gov. Phil Murphy affirmed in a statement last September announcing the state’s Offshore Wind Strategic Plan.
What physical scale do those 7,500 megawatts constitute? Let’s use as our metric the new crop of super-giant turbines. According to the Yale story, Vestas, Orsted and General Electric are today selling wind machines in the 12-14 megawatt range — an impressive notion, considering that not long ago the 3.6-megawatt Cape Wind turbines were said to be pushing the envelope.
Let’s stipulate 12.5 megawatts, since 80 of them conveniently multiply to 1,000 MW. Meeting NJ Gov. Murphy’s 7,500 MW target would then entail erecting 600 of these super-giants off the state’s roughly 115-mile-long Atlantic coast.
If 600 huge windmills seem daunting, try multiplying the number by five. Yes, 3,000 mammoth turbines providing 37,000 MW from offshore wind is what could be required if New Jersey goes all-in for decarbonization over the next several decades, according to one energy vision that is a kind of apotheosis of the Green New Deal.
The idea of 100% Wind-Water-Sunlight
That vision is the all-renewables 100% wind-water-sunlight (“100% WWS”) conception propounded by Stanford physicist-engineer Mark Jacobson and colleagues, under the aegis of an NGO known as the Solutions Project.
The idea is for electricity to power all energy uses — not just lights and appliances and electronics but also cars, trucks, heat and industry. Even, eventually, aircraft, either through batteries or, more likely, hydrogen fuel manufactured by electrolyzing water. Electricity is both an efficient energy form for delivering “energy services” and the easiest to provide from all-zero-carbon sources: wind turbines, solar panels and other sunlight-based generation, and water power from rivers or tides.
The Jacobson et al. vision has been written about widely (here’s Jacobson’s 2014 TED talk; also see link to pdf paper at the end of this paragraph) and need not be rehashed here. We use it here as a benchmark. References are to the detailed 2015 paper by Mark Z. Jacobson et al., “100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States,” Energy Environ. Sci., 2015, 8, 2093 (14 MB pdf).
By The Numbers: New Jersey Offshore Wind in an All-Renewables Scenario (without a Carbon Tax)
- 32,900 MW — New Jersey’s total 2050 “end-use energy load” under 100% WWS, expressed as megawatts operating continuously all year. From Table 1 of the Jacobson paper.
- 288,204,000 MWh — New Jersey’s total 2050 “end-use energy load” under 100% WWS, in megawatt-hours. Calculated by multiplying the preceding MW figure by the number of hours in a year (8,760).
- 55.5% — Share of New Jersey’s electricity to be provided by offshore wind, from Jacobson’s Table 3. Another 10% is assumed to come from onshore wind, for a total NJ wind percentage of 65.5%, which is consistent with Jacobson’s U.S. total of 50% (31% onshore, 19% offshore), considering the state’s small land area relative to its coastline. (Another 27.25% of the needed electricity in the 100%WWS scenario would be generated by utility-owned-and-managed photovoltaic arrays, with another roughly 3% each from PV installations on residential and commercial buildings.)
- 160,000,000 MWh — New Jersey’s 2050 electricity to be provided by offshore wind. Calculated by multiplying the #2 and #3 figures above.
- 50% — assumed capacity factor of the offshore wind turbines. That’s more than the 42.5% in the Jacobsen paper (Table 2, FN), but less than the 60-64% that General Electric optimistically touts for its 12-14 MW turbines.
- 54,750 MWh — annual electricity from each 12.5-MW offshore turbine. Calculated by multiplying 12.5 MW figure by the number of hours in a year.
- The result: 3,000 offshore wind turbines — calculated by dividing the #4 figure by the #6 figure. (The calculation yields 2,920, which we round to 3,000.)
Can this be done? Can New Jersey install (or, more precisely, organize and govern the installation of) 3,000 giant offshore wind turbines?
A robust carbon tax would let NJ dispense with 35-40% of the offshore turbines
When we posted this blog on March 1, we promised to estimate how much a robust carbon tax could trim the need for New Jersey offshore wind by trimming energy demand.
We’ve now (March 12) done the calculation: it appears that a carbon tax starting at $15 per ton of CO2 and incrementing annually (and indefinitely) by that amount would achieve roughly five-eighths (63%) of its carbon reductions through fuel-switching, i.e., by swapping out fossil fuels in favor of renewables — wind turbines, solar panels, etc. The other three-eighths (37%) of the carbon reductions would come from reducing energy demand as a result of energy being made more expensive relative to other goods and services.
The latter figure — the 35 to 40 percent reduction — means that New Jerseyans could achieve 100% wind-water-sunlight energy provision with 35-40 percent cuts across the board in the amounts of wind, solar and water power that the Jacobson scenario would otherwise entail. The requirement to build 3,000 giant offshore wind turbines would become “just” 1,800 to 1,900.
April 10 postscript: What do we mean by “monster” wind turbines?
Friend of CTC Peter Jacobsen (no relation to Mark Jacobson; different spelling, in fact) tipped us off yesterday to the size matchup between what the New York Times recently called GE’s new “monster” wind turbines and the smokestacks of what was the largest U.S. coal-fired power plant until its closure in 2019 and demolition last year, the Navajo Generating Station in northern Arizona, near Lake Powell.
Some folks view giant smokestacks and giant turbines as pretty much the same. Two decades ago, a newspaper story about a proposed wind farm outside Cooperstown, NY, near the Finger Lakes, closed with a quote from a Manhattan television executive who was retiring to a hilltop home in the area: “I think the towers would make my property worthless,” he said. “To see these giant towers near your house — it would be like driving through oil derricks to get to your front door.”
A few years later, I toured a nearby wind farm while researching an essay on wind power for Orion magazine. “To my eye,” I wrote, “the wind turbines were anti-derricks, oil rigs running in reverse. The windmills I saw in upstate New York signified, for me, not just displacement of destructive fossil fuels, but acceptance of the conditions of inhabiting the Earth.”
To perform calculation: Download CTC’s carbon-tax spreadsheet model (xls). Stay within the first “tab,” Inputs-Summary. In Col. I, make sure Rows 19, 22 and 27 are set to $15.00 and Row 21 is set to Linear. The 37% result may be found in Cell G224. We hope to update the model’s 2017 parameters to 2019 (pre-pandemic) levels by the end of May.
NY Times columnist Ezra Klein, in Texas Is a Rich State in a Rich Country, and Look What Happened, Feb. 25.
Last November, we posted a story, Downturn in U.S. driving led 2020 global CO2 decline, with this lede:
The world’s emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels diminished by more than 1.6 billion metric tons in the first three quarters of 2020 from the same period in 2019, a decline of 6.3 percent. Fully one-fifth of the decline, 320 million tonnes, was due to the nearly 25 percent drop in ground transport in the United States, according to data compiled and made available this week by Carbon Monitor, an international collaboration of energy and climate specialists providing regularly updated, rigorous estimates of daily CO2 emissions.
Scratch that. Carbon Monitor has reformulated its carbon emissions data for U.S. ground transport. The earlier-reported drop of almost 25 percent in U.S. car and truck emissions has been revised to a mere 9 percent shrinkage — a drop of 153 million tonnes for all of 2020 vs. 2019, rather than a decline of 320 million tonnes for Jan-Sept.
With that revision, as well as natural evolution from adding fourth quarter data, we have these results for 2020 vs. 2019:
- Global CO2 emissions fell by 1.37 billion metric tons, a drop of 4.0 percent.
- All eight regions defined by Carbon Monitor registered emission declines, with the exception of China, where emissions rose by 0.5%. Excluding China, world emissions fell by 6.0 percent.
- The U.S. accounted for 35 percent of the global decline, falling by 477 million tonnes. In percentage terms, the U.S. decline, 9.4 percent, was second only to Brazil’s 9.8 percent.
- Carbon Monitor calculates emissions for 8 regions and 5 categories, which makes 40 “nation categories” (8×5). The biggest numerical drop by far was in ground transport (driving ) in the “Rest of World” catch-all category: 370 million tonnes, or 13.9 percent, a figure that feels suspiciously large.
- With that caveat, ground transport accounted for 52 percent of the net decline in emissions, falling by 710 million tonnes. The greatest percentage drop was in domestic aviation, 32 percent.
Carbon Monitor, a British-based NGO that labored mightily to collect the underlying data, hasn’t posted an explanation for radically revising the U.S. ground transport datum. We wrote to its volunteer staff in mid-January to report that gasoline and diesel fuel data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicated much lesser drops — around 13 percent in CO2 emissions from automobiles and 9 percent for trucks, rather than their 24.5 percent for ground transport overall.
We suggested further that CM’s methodology, which relied on extrapolating from reported changes in urban traffic congestion, appeared to grossly underweight changes in suburban and rural driving, which would have created a sharp upward bias in the group’s estimated reduction in emissions. It now appears our hunch was right.
The green table at right shows that by far the steepest decline in global emissions came in domestic aviation, at 32 percent. (International air travel isn’t counted in any of the categories.) Many air travelers deemed it unwise to spend hours in confined aircraft spaces, and teleconferencing filled in for most business travel. The reduction rate might have been higher still, but for “ghost flights” resulting from byzantine government regulations and financial incentives.
The donut chart at left provides another view. It arranges 24 of the 40 “nation categories” in descending order of their 2020 vs. 2019 emission reductions. (Four other categories had emissions increases, two were flat and another ten were too minor to warrant including.)
Finally, some U.S. takeaways:
- The overall U.S. emissions decline, 9.4 percent, far outweighed the 3.5 percent year-on-year drop in real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product, or GDP.
- The decline in CO2 emissions from U.S. power generation, 166 million tonnes, slightly outstripped the 153 million tonne decline in ground travel. In percentage terms, the 10.3 percent drop in electricity emissions outpaced the 9.3 percent decline in emissions from cars and trucks.
- Final 2020 electricity figures will almost certainly show coal-fired electricity production and tons of coal burned at power plants at their lowest levels since before the 1973 oil embargo and OPEC-engineered oil price rises that spurred conversion of oil-fired generation to coal. (Even in 2019, U.S. coal-fired plants produced their fewest kilowatt-hours since 1978, the year preceding the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown, which also spurred an overnight switch to coal, as dozens of reactors were throttled for safety checks.)
U.S. emissions (not to mention world CO2 as well) appear set to roar back this year, as the imminent Democrats’ relief-stimulus package injects nearly two trillion dollars into the economy and pandemic-weary Americans seek to regain normalcy by spending and traveling. The Biden administration will need to move broadly and rapidly with low-carbon infrastructure and incentives to keep U.S. carbon emissions from rebounding sharply over the next several years.
You could say it was a good week for our planet and our country. Rush is gone and Cruz is hobbling.
Right-wing shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, who helped make climate denial (not to mention extreme misogyny) an article of faith among a large swath of American voters, died on Wednesday, from lung cancer. He was 70.
The next day, U.S. Senator, Trump enabler and climate troll Ted Cruz became the most ridiculed man in America when he was discovered to have fled his Houston home in the midst of a record cold spell in which Texas’s electric grid failed and the state was plunged into freezing darkness.
The schadenfreude was irresistible. Just last summer Cruz was on Twitter mocking California for running short on power during the state’s extreme heat. “California is now unable to perform even basic functions of civilization,” he gloated on Aug. 19. Now, six months removed, conditions in his own state were so exigent that Cruz bolted for Cancun, “paying his way out of hardship” rather than joining millions of Texans in enduring frigid homes, treacherous roads, and lack of food and water; or, perish forbid, helping bend the machinery of government to aid those most in need.
Cruz’s self-inflicted wound — dubbed “a truly rookie move” by the New York Times — was especially savored by those who advocate for renewable energy and climate protection, as it helped expose the hollowness of his fellow Texan fossil fuel promoters; people like Gov. Greg Abbott, who rushed to blame the electric grid collapse on a combination of record cold (true) and frozen “windmills” and solar panels (false).
“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott confabulated to Fox “News” host Sean Hannity on Tuesday. Yet on Thursday the Washington Post reported that “the governor’s arguments were contradicted by his own energy department, which outlined how most of Texas’s energy losses came from failures to winterize the power-generating systems, including fossil fuel pipelines.”
By Friday, when this was posted, a consensus diagnosis was emerging that centered not only on frozen natural gas wells that couldn’t deliver fuel to the state’s many gas-fueled power plants, but also on the laissez-faire ideology that ensured that state officials and utilities would ignore the 2011 recommendations of a federal task force to winterize wells and generators and invest in reserve capacity. Texas grid fails to weatherize, repeats mistake feds cited 10 years ago, read the headline of the Houston Chronicle’s exposê.
And don’t ignore the “common-mode failure” aspect of the Texas grid collapse, in which the same frigid conditions that caused power demands to spike also degraded the operability of the equipment needed to meet those demands.
But let’s leave Texas behind — not physically, like Sen. Cruz, just attention-wise — and turn to the state he maligned last summer as “unable to perform even basic functions of civilization.”
Unremarked then and now is how much California, through enlightened energy policy, did and still does perform a genuinely “basic function”: climate protection. From 1975 to 2016, California reduced the amount of fossil fuel inputs to each unit of economic activity 18% faster than the rest of the U.S.
That stat comes from the 2019 Carbon Tax Center report that I wrote for NRDC, “California Stars: Lighting the Way to a Clean Energy Future.” (Full report here; CTC blog post here.). The report concluded that if the other 49 states had matched California’s rate of progress at squeezing fossil fuels out of its economy, total U.S. emissions of CO2 would be lower today by nearly 25%, or 1,200 million metric tons of CO2 — the equivalent of all carbon pollution from U.S. passenger vehicles.
Unfortunately, few if any states did. Certainly not Texas. No, we haven’t run the rest-of-U.S. figures for Texas alone, but it’s a good bet that this aggressively libertarian petro-state lagged most others in reducing its use of coal, oil and gas relative to economic activity.
Where California has really excelled in cutting fossil fuels vis-à-vis GDP is in electricity. (See chart.) How this came about is a rich story, some of which we told in “California Stars.”
Key is that California inaugurated not just efficiency standards for appliances and buildings but also a process for continually updating those standards to align with, and further incubate, advances by which cooling, heat and light may be furnished with progressively smaller energy inputs.
These policies, along with innovations that enabled electric and gas utilities to bankroll customer “end-use” efficiency investments, later spread to other states, greatly amplifying their impacts. But they took root first and most deeply in California. And consider the implications of “most deeply.” Had aspects of California-style building codes such as insulating pipes and fortifying building envelopes been copied in Texas, not a few houses and hospitals could have been better equipped this week to keep their occupants safe and their plumbing intact.
The story we told in “California Stars” deserves to be known more widely. In the 21 months since NRDC published it, only the redoubtable David Roberts (follow him on Twitter as @drvolts) has covered it — which he did in a tour de force post, How California became far more energy-efficient than the rest of the country. Unlike wind turbines and solar panels, though, energy efficiency doesn’t get much respect. It certainly doesn’t get ribbon-cuttings, as the saying goes.
Nevertheless, if Texas and other states had matched California’s record in cutting fossil fuel use relative to GDP, perhaps this week’s polar vortex might have been a bit weaker due to lower U.S. CO2 emissions. Millions of Texans might have had more power and less misery.
Moral: enlightened governance counts.
Protecting “a desert in the mountains”
Though I’ve hiked all over the west, I’ve never been to Nevada’s northwest corner. On the map it’s a broad, empty strip from I-80 to the Oregon line. For hundreds of miles, it is in fact wild country — and far from empty, biologically, ecologically.
In January, a pair of activists, Will Falk and Max Wilbert, pitched a tent in one of the loveliest valleys of the region, seeking to rally resistance to a proposed lithium mine on public land. The place where they’ve established their protest camp is called Thacker Pass.
Lithium is a metal, and its physical and chemical properties make it versatile enough to be baked into lubricants, ceramics and other useful stuff, including batteries. Lithium-ion batteries, invented in the late 1970s and prized for their energy density and rechargeability, are integral to two pillars of the Green New Deal: electric vehicles and power storage.
Falk and Wilbert, camped out in midwinter cold, enduring what is no doubt some small privation, are asking that we recognize the ecological and environmental cost of the so-called sustainable economy, at the center of which is the mining of lithium. We need to understand why they are taking a stand at Thacker Pass.
Here’s how they describe where they are right now:
Thacker Pass is a physical feature in Humboldt County, Nevada, part of the McDermott Caldera approximately 60 miles northwest of Winnemucca. It was formed 16 or more million years ago, is traditional and unceded territory of the Paiute Nation, and is United States Bureau of Land Management public land.
Now it is also the proposed site for a massive lithium mine that would destroy the area and valuable habitat for the creatures who live there.
A Less Than Green New Deal?
Climate campaigners have decreed that the world’s cars and trucks must switch to electricity — an imperative that was boosted by General Motors’ recent announcement that it intends to sell only electrics after 2035. Climate hawks say biodiesel can’t be done at scale and hydrogen vehicles are years from commercial use, and they’re right, not when American households and businesses own 275 million cars and trucks and drive them over 3 trillion miles each year — making “ground transportation” the country’s biggest source of planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions.
Key to the green idea for transportation is to make wind and solar power so plentiful that the electric grid will no longer need generators running on fossil fuels. Electric vehicle battery re-charging — and driving — will then be emission-free and climate-pure.
Of course, a renewables-based grid is subject to fluctuating output from the wind farms and solar arrays. That’s where lithium’s other GND connection comes in: powering massive rechargeable battery stacks that can feed electricity into the grid for hours at a time, continuously stabilizing electricity supply.
Already, giant assemblages of lithium-ion batteries are sprouting up in California, where renewable energy has penetrated furthest, enabling utilities in the state to close some turbines burning fracked methane.
The Green New Deal, the anointed framework for perpetuating industrial civilization as we know it while creating jobs and a “just transition” from the fossil-fuel economy, is clearly better than our carbon-based catastrophic course. It also depends on massive amounts of lithium.
I figure that electrifying all U.S. cars and trucks in two decades, as envisioned in GND scenarios, will demand the continuous lithium output of three to five Thacker Pass mines. (See sidebar.)
Powering “utility-side” grid-smoothing batteries will require still more. How much, I do not know. An extensive literature search turned up not a single statement of the quantity of lithium needed per gigawatt-hour, say, of electricity storage — an indication, perhaps, of the alienation of Green New Dealers and energy scenario-spinners alike from the physical implications of their intentions.
Lithium = Devastation
One reason for Falk and Wilbert’s stand is obvious: the lithium mine at Thacker Pass will destroy an entire sagebrush ecosystem. Mind you, what’s planned at Thacker Pass isn’t just an epic-sized mine. There will also be an enormous complex to extract lithium from the mined ore for its conversion into a non-volatile carbonate form to be made into batteries.
Because lithium’s concentration in ore at Thacker Pass runs as low as two-tenths of one percent, producing one ton of the stuff for use by society entails strip mining and processing as much as 500 tons of earth. Over a single year, producing 60,000 tons of lithium at the site could mean digging up as much as 20 to 30 million tons of earth, more than the annual amount of earth dug up to produce all coal output of all but seven or eight U.S. states.
Removing the lithium from the ore is done with the industrial economy’s dissolver of choice, the notoriously corrosive and toxic sulfuric acid. The developer, Canada-based, China-backed Lithium Americas Corp., plans to acidify molten sulfur on site, trucking in the stuff from oil refineries. Hauling the material will require 75 tractor-trailer loads a day, according to Falk and Wilbert — every one of them running on fossil fuels.
Unsurprisingly, the processing equipment is budgeted at a dozen times more than the mine itself, in Lithium Americas’ “pre-feasibility study” (pdf, p. 228 of 266), with the whole enterprise topping out at more than a billion dollars. You don’t spend that much money on apparatus to move, crush, leach and acidify earth without scarring and contaminating large swaths of it.
Thus, the “Protect Thacker Pass” banner. There’s a lot to protect. On the encampment’s web site, Falk and Wilbert describe Thacker Pass as “a stunningly biodiverse, wild, expansive, and beautiful desert in the mountains.” In mid-winter, they attest that the land practically vibrates with stars and stillness.
The pair’s real aim at Thacker Pass is to question a Green New Deal that is dependent on large-scale resource extraction and industrial manufacture. Which means questioning not just society’s but the environmental movement’s acquiescence to consumerism and material growth.
Where is it written, they ask, that Americans must own 275 million vehicles? Where is it written that we can’t halve that number, to Western European levels, with denser suburbs and Euro-quality transit along with broad cultural changes substituting place and proximity for pointless travel, thus slashing the “need” to replace all those cars and trucks with electric vehicles built from mined lithium? As for grid storage, rate incentives that harmonize electricity usage with its real-time availability could partially supplant batteries. Smaller homes and less air-conditioning of buildings could also trim power demand, period.
Tightening the Regulatory Screws Would Help
Would it also make a difference if the pollution discharges permitted at Thacker Pass and at other lithium mines were cut ten-fold? I believe so. This wouldn’t just reduce ecological degradation in the immediate areas. The cost to comply with those regs would boost the price of lithium carbonate. The responses to the higher price — ranging from lighter vehicles that can get by with smaller battery packs to potentially more-efficient (hence, less-resource-intensive) energy storage media — would cut demand.
The U.S. has already witnessed just such a chain of events: with coal-fired power plants. To satisfy regulatory mandates to cut new plants’ soot emissions and acid gases roughly ten-fold, utilities were forced in the 1970s and 1980s to spend billions for scrubbers, precipitators and the like, driving up prices of new coal-fired plants — a progression I documented at the time. Coupled with even more meteoric cost escalation at nuclear power plants, the result was spiraling electric rates that helped spark the revolution in energy efficiency that has all but extinguished growth in electricity demand in the United States.
There, in a nutshell, is the logic behind carbon taxing: to raise prices of fossil fuels in accordance with their true costs, thus spurring reductions in their use. Lithium, no less than coal, oil and methane, should be forced to adhere to the same dynamic. If electric vehicles and carbon-free grids are rendered more expensive for awhile, so be it.
Industrial civilization is still destroying ecosystems, laying waste to biodiversity, ramping up its plunder of forests, consuming more metals than ever, depleting ocean life at ever-increasing rates…and on and on… One antidote is for prices to speak the truth about underlying costs.
Nevertheless, even my regulatory-based scenario has a weak link: global commerce. Make it cost more to mine lithium in the USA, and global capital will alight elsewhere. Lithium Americas already operates a mine in Argentina, and the mineral is widely distributed around the world.
To evade the Whac-a-mole trap, the fight that Falk and Wilbert are mounting in Nevada has to be waged as well in Argentina, Australia and especially Chile, the world’s biggest current provider. It’s a tall order.
First, though, they have to stop the mine where they’re camped, at Thacker Pass. That’s a tall order too. That lithium is a midwife to a low-carbon economy makes it less ugly than coal and less evil than oil. But all the same, it’s a force that is industrializing the entire planet, to Earth’s and our detriment and, possibly, demise.
A True Sagebrush Rebellion
Reporting in 2015 on deadbeat cattle rancher Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff over federal grazing fees, journalist Christopher Ketcham wrote in Harper’s that the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion — the Western resistance to federal authority over public lands and water — has always been centered in Nevada. That rebellion proffered the noxious idea that public lands should be maximally exploited for private gain.
The rebellion of Falk and Wilbert, situated in the same sagebrush wilderness, seeks the opposite: “A world in which we prioritize the health of future generations. A world in which we live in harmony with the natural world, rather than relying on extraction. A world in which blowing up a mountain for lithium is just as unacceptable as blowing up a mountain for coal.”
For information on donating, supporting, communicating or coming to Thacker Pass and joining the lithium mine blockade, click here.
Feb. 8 addendum: My post today for Streetsblog NYC, Beware the EV Congestion Boomerang, explains how exempting electric vehicles from New York City’s congestion pricing program will lead to increases in air and climate pollution.
Half of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel extraction on federal lands are from coal mined in Wyoming. And the quantity is falling steadily as fewer tons of coal are burned in U.S. power plants.
This suggests that the provisions in President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis last week to “pause new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or in offshore waters pending completion of a comprehensive review” won’t put much of a dent in U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
That didn’t stop leading U.S. newspapers from giving the policy announcement an enthusiastic spin. The Washington Post proclaimed that the possible ban “will deliver on one of Biden’s boldest climate campaign pledges,” while the New York Times said it “will effectively launch his agenda to combat climate change.” Both papers claimed that “Fossil fuel leasing on federal and tribal land accounts for nearly a quarter of the country’s annual carbon output” (Post) or, equivalently, “The burning of fossil fuels extracted on public lands and waters accounted for almost a quarter of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions between 2005 and 2014.” (Times)
That “nearly a quarter” figure is out of date, however. More importantly, it’s Wyoming-skewed. Let’s look at the 2018 U.S. Geological Survey report to which the Times story linked.
Of the 1,279 million tonnes of CO2 emitted in 2014 from fossil fuels mined or drilled on federal lands (a figure provided elsewhere in the USGS report, which only goes to 2014), fully 57 percent originated with coal mined from Wyoming, largely from the state’s Powder River Basin.
Coal mining isn’t mentioned in Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order, save for brief promises to devise new policies on royalties, worker retraining, and community transition, probably owing to two reasons: most coal-fired power plants lock in their fuel supply with long-term contracts to ensure that coal quality matches up with plant equipment; and coal burning to make electricity is in free fall — it shrank nearly by half from its 2005 peak to 2019 — reducing the urgency of curbing supplies.
Wyoming’s coal production hasn’t fallen quite as fast, according to data compiled by the state’s Geological Survey: by 41 percent from its 2008 peak and 29 percent from the 2014 base that USGS drew upon for its calculations. Nevertheless, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that in 2019 federal lands’ share of U.S. CO2 from fossil fuels dipped below 20 percent, with Wyoming coal still accounting for nearly half (48 percent) of those emissions.
Calculations: A 29% drop during 2014-2019 from WY’s 728 million tonnes of CO2 equates to 211 million fewer tonnes. Other things equal, the 1,279 million tonnes of emissions from federal lands in 2014 would have shrunk to 1,068 million tonnes in 2019, which is 83.5% of the figure relied on by the Times and the Post. Multiplying that percent by USGS’s 23% figure of federal lands’ share of all fossil fuel CO2 in 2014 yields 19.2%. As for Wyoming, its prorated 2019 emissions figure of 517 million tonnes (728 less 211) would be 48% of the reduced 2019 total of 1,068 million tonnes.
Of course, some U.S. oil and gas supply does originate in federal lands. The USGS pie-chart associates 19 percent of U.S. 2014 fossil fuel CO2 emissions with offshore gulf wells, while the American Petroleum Institute estimates that 22 percent of U.S. oil production and 12 percent of natural gas production currently takes place on federal land and water, as reported by the Post. Yet at least in the short term and, likely, far longer, plugging up new supplies in federally owned waters would simply divert production to other onshore areas or overseas. Demand it, and they will supply.
Since our founding in 2007, we at Carbon Tax Center have stressed repeatedly — as in our 2016 post, “Keep It In The Ground” Needs a Carbon Tax — that fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions are fundamentally a product of demand, not supply.
This perspective has lost currency of late in the rush to cast the work to save Earth’s climate as a Manichean struggle between the world’s people and the global oil industry — and to absolve individuals of any responsibility in consumption patterns and decisions. But it’s no less true for being out of fashion.
And the policy tool of internalizing climate damage costs in the prices of fossil fuels by taxing carbon emissions is no less essential than before. Indeed, it’s more vital than ever.
Meanwhile, how can Pres. Biden and the Democratic Congress move to forestall economic and social suffering from Wyoming’s contracting coal industry? We touted one solution in 2016, harvesting the state’s enormous wind resources to replace “coal by wire” with “wind by wire.” The new administration could also site a federal green-jobs program in Gillette, WY, the heart of the Powder River coal basin, to produce windmill blades or electric postal vehicles or mass transit railcars. The particular choice isn’t critical. Let the just transition begin now.