New York’s Public Power Bill Could Be a Model for the Rest of the Country

A large section of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Midtown neighborhoods are seen in darkness from above during a major power outage on July 13, 2019 in New York City.

A large section of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Midtown neighborhoods are seen in darkness from above during a major power outage on July 13, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Scott Heins (Getty Images)

Two years ago, New York enshrined the most ambitious statewide climate targets in the country. The legislation, called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, requires the state to completely decarbonize its electric grid by 2040 and reduce emissions from all sectors by 85% within the following decade.

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A bill that’s currently gaining support in the New York legislature could set the state back on track to meet its goals. (The path has been bumpy, particularly because the state legislators haven’t come up with a payment plan for the CLCPA.) It hinges on the idea that the best way to decarbonize the state’s energy system is to make it publicly owned and democratically controlled. A new report from the policy tank climate + community project shared exclusively with Earther lays out exactly how it works, and shows that it could be a model for the rest of the country.

“As long as energy is treated as a commodity like any other, poor people, workers, and communities of color will suffer,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, who is a champion of the legislation. “Our energy and power systems must be accountable to the public so that we can build an equitable future, in New York and nationwide, free of corporate exploitation.”

The measure, called the New York State Build Public Renewables Act, has dozens of co-sponsors and is supported by the Public Power Coalition, which is led by Democratic Socialists of America chapters and local environmental justice organizations. It would essentially create a public option for electricity. To do so, it would expand the New York Power Authority, empowering it to build out utility-scale renewable energy generation and transmission infrastructure and requiring it to supply only renewable power.

NYPA is the largest state-owned energy provider in the U.S. It currently owns and operates one-third of New York’s high voltage power lines and provides up to 25% of the state’s electricity, the majority of which comes from hydropower.

Under the bill, NYPA would be required to fully decarbonize its existing energy infrastructure, decommissioning its fossil fuel plants by 2025 while rapidly increasing the state’s renewable energy generation. (The report proposes that the entity would have the right of first refusal for all renewable energy projects greater than 25 megawatts in the state.)

In addition to supplying power directly to customers who choose to opt-in, NYPA would also have to ensure that all publicly owned buildings—to which it is the sole provider of energy—run on 100% clean power by 2025.

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As it does all this, it would also be required to adhere to strict labor standards and unionization for all its projects, and also to partner with worker-owned cooperatives and small businesses owned by members of disadvantaged communities to procure necessary equipment and appliances. The law would also forbid the entity from shutting off power for unpaid bills.

That NYPA is publicly owned and operated is important for two reasons. For one, as a state entity, it’s directly governable, unlike investor-owned utilities.

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“We want to embark on an energy transition that is simultaneously rapid, equitable, and thorough. We want the energy system to be fully decarbonized, we want it to be maximally equitable, and we also want it to happen in less than 10 years,” said Thea Riofrancos, an associate professor of political science at Providence College and co-author of the new report. “In the private sector, the way to do that is to create incentives for investments and to regulate. With the public sector, it’s much more direct. You can ensure it happens.”

Unlike investor-owned utilities, which are required to make money for their shareholders, NYPA also has no profit motive. That would make it easier to ensure that the utility bills of low-income households stay low and that communities see the benefits of an energy transition.

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“With NYPA, they don’t have always to go the cheapest option or choose actions that will make the most money,” said Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the climate and energy program at the Democracy Collaborative and co-author of the report. “They are held to the standard of the public interest. That means that, for instance, instead of putting transmission through a place that may be cheapest but might have pretty significant environmental impacts, we can actually shift that framework because it’s not a profit motive that we’re going for.”

To ensure that it operates in an equitable manner, the report suggests that the law could come with a number of measures to boost democratic control. The authors suggest the state could create a multi-stakeholder board with seats for longtime environmental justice leaders or labor organizers who have a say in NYPA’s actions. They also propose that NYPA create community engagement hubs where residents can learn about new renewable energy plans and work opportunities and provide input on where new energy projects are sited.

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The report estimates that the comprehensive proposals would create up to 51,000 jobs—including 16,000 permanent ones—and between $48.6 billion and $93.5 billion of additional economic activity. It could also serve as a model for the rest of the country.

In the state of Nebraska, for instance, the electricity sector consists entirely of public power districts, publicly owned utilities, and energy cooperatives. The state could implement a similarly ambitious timeline to move the grid to 100% renewables. The federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority, which sells energy to 150 companies as well as utilities, could also take up a similar project.

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If the bill passes and is successful, Bozuwa also said it could help show that the U.S. needs more public entities to control electricity—and that there’s no reason we can’t create them.

“We could see, for instance, federal money going to states so that they could set one up themselves so that they can build out public renewable energy in their states, bring down the cost, make it accountable to the people, and bring down energy poverty at the same time,” she said. “It’s exciting to think of how we could take NYPA as this state-based entity, take the principles that guide it, put it through a rapid energy transition, and use the federal level to unleash similar types of entities across the U.S.”

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The Biden administration could use the New York bill’s model, Riofrancos added, to ensure that it meets the goals it has set since taking the White House, including the promise to decarbonize the grid by 2035 and ensure “40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments” meet the needs of communities who have borne the worst brunt of the climate crisis and pollution.

“By using a public institution … you can directly ensure that projects and jobs are sited in the places that deserve them most, where working class and racialized communities have been the most impacted by not only the climate crisis but also the pandemic and economic recession,” said Riofrancos.

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Through the power of the public sector, the U.S. has achieved massive energy goals quickly before. During the New Deal, for instance, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electric Cooperative system.

“It actually was able to bring lights on within 10 years,” said Bozuwa. “So we don’t need to create sticks and carrots for the private energy sector. We’re saying to the private sector, we’re going to outflank you, we’re going to make sure we transition the public sector faster than you ever would.”

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The Weird, Unholy Alliance of Tucker Carlson and Environmentalists

Illustration for article titled The Weird, Unholy Alliance of Tucker Carlson and Environmentalists

Photo: Richard Drew (AP)

Tucker Carlson has used his platform to, among other things, undermine climate science and lie about renewable energy. Yet last week, he put out an impassioned plea to save the Maine woods, claiming that “real environmentalists” should oppose a power line connecting Quebec hydropower to the U.S. Bizarrely, he and the Sierra Club are on the same page.

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The segment and the alignment with traditional environmental groups paint a picture of how complex renewable energy projects can be for local communities—and what the upcoming culture war over renewables might look like.

The project that attracted Carlson’s wrath is a proposed 145-mile (233-kilometer) transmission line owned by local power company Central Maine Power that is intended to connect hydropower produced in Canada to the grid in Massachusetts, all in the service of helping the state meet its ambitious climate goals. Construction began in February despite numerous legal challenges from green groups and a bitter public relations war that has dragged on for years in the state.

The tone of Carlson’s segment is over-the-top dramatic, often in an unintentionally funny way. Most of it is set over a soundtrack of racing violins or pounding drums. At one point, the camera zooms in on an animal skull below footage of powerlines, as if to suggest instant death from coming into contact with a transmission line—which, in case you need reminding, are pretty normal pieces of the energy grid. The segment also seems tailor-made to appeal to people in the region. One of the interviewees is filmed in what looks like a woodland lodge bar that prominently displays a bottle of Allen’s Coffee Brandy and a can of Moxie—two drinks produced in Maine and beloved by Mainers—on the bar next to him in the shot. Another says that “there is no doubt Tom Brady is the GOAT” in a seemingly completely unrelated aside during his interview.

“The whole state of Maine will become an ugly place” with the project, one of the interviewees tells Carlson.

While this dramatic production may seem funny, it also paints a picture of how aggressive opposition to new renewable energy projects can be even though many are relatively innocuous pieces of infrastructure in the grand scheme of things—and are necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. And yet—I can’t believe I’m saying this—tone aside, Carlson does a not-terrible job of laying out some of the facts of the case. He describes the environmental issues with the proposed corridor, including how it endangers what’s among the most robust natural habitat for the trout in the U.S., as well as the failure to consult with local communities. He even technically gives the emissions calculations of the project a (very small) sliver of airtime: The segment addresses the facts that cutting down trees eliminates their ability to sequester carbon and that the reservoirs that form behind hydropower dams emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

These issues are key reasons why environmental groups have opposed the transmission project as well, including that the project wouldn’t reduce overall emissions but rather just ship clean power that would’ve been used elsewhere to Massachusetts.

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“This is a shell game,” said Sue Ely, a staff attorney at Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It’s not renewable energy, it doesn’t help Maine’s renewable energy industry, and it’s very damaging to Maine’s environment.”

NRCM filed a lawsuit last fall with the Sierra Club challenging the federal government’s environmental impact review of the project. Indeed, what’s riled up most local opposition—and what Carlson’s report focused on—is the project’s proposal to clear 53 miles (85 kilometers) of new transmission corridor in Maine’s North Woods, a 3.5 million acre chunk of wildland that borders Canada. The North Woods is the biggest undeveloped forest in the eastern U.S., and makes up more the half the state itself. It’s also a big economic driver for a state that’s been struggling in the post-industrial era, with a thriving timber industry and thousands of visitors each year. Tourism is an enormous sector of Maine’s economy; rafting, snowmobiling, and camping are all prominent sources of revenue in the North Woods that would be negatively impacted by visible power lines.

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“There are tons of transmission corridors in the state, but CMP snaked this line right in between the protected areas,” said Ely. “They slalomed through it.”

A spokesperson for Clean Energy Matters, the CMP-owned lobbying organization for the project, said in an email that these claims “were presented to and ultimately rejected by the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Massachusetts regulators.” (The group also said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News that CMP wasn’t allowed to participate in the Carlson segment, and that producers used stock footage and “false descriptions” of the project.)

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Even before Carlson—who owns a home in Maine and has even broadcast his show from the state—showed up with his cameras, there was plenty of mudslinging around the corridor project to be had on both sides. Clean Energy Matters has spent nearly $20 million in advertising on a pro-corridor campaign. Both groups like NRCM and the Sierra Club as well as Carlson in his segment repeatedly refer to CMP as “foreign-owned” (CMP is owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid, which, in turn, is owned by the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola)—a term that’s been used in other energy fights to stoke xenophobic fears and images of foreigner stealing American jobs.

The spokesperson for Clean Energy Matters pointed out in an email to Earther that some opposition efforts to the corridor project “are funded by three corporations with oil, natural gas, and nuclear generating stations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.” Those companies are Calpine, Vistra, and NextEra, which have poured their own millions into advertising campaigns against the project. Clean Energy Matters has also attacked NRCM for what it says are ties to natural gas groups after NRCM got a donation from an anti-corridor group with murky funders.

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“It’s so vicious,” Ely said of the fight. “It really hardens people.”

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And, like many local fights, the actual issues at hand—lowering greenhouse gas emissions and figuring out how to best fit renewables into the local landscape—seem to be getting lost in the brawl. Caratunk, a 68-person town along the proposed transmission line’s route, had been working with NextEra on installing a proposed 150-megawatt solar farm. The chair of Caratunk’s selectboard said in a 2018 letter to the Maine Public Utilities Commission that the CMP corridor project would prevent the development of this project and potentially other local renewables projects in the area. The selectboard chair appeared in the Carlson segment as a voice of local opposition, with no mention of the alternative solar project. While there’s a chance the selectboard chair didn’t bring up the project with producers, it’s not out of the question to think that Carlson’s team didn’t want to spotlight how opponents of the “green energy scam,” as they called the CMP project, might be in favor of other renewable energy ventures in Maine.

The brook trout in the North Woods—or the lobster in the Gulf of Maine or any of the state’s other ecosystems for that matter—can’t hang on much longer if our planet keeps baking at the rate it’s going. Weighed out on a cosmic scale, if cutting 53 miles through a pristine section of woods could help an enormous energy-using state keep its emissions down, it might be worth it, despite the big local tradeoffs. That seems to be the attitude of some conservation and environment groups in the state who have begrudgingly signaled their support—or, at least, the end to their opposition—for the project in recent weeks.

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I asked Ely about this challenge. If the CMP project was bringing a completely uncontested source of renewable power into New England—or, perhaps, if a transmission line through the North Woods could be connected to a renewable project that serves Maine and creates renewable energy jobs in the state—would the green groups be so opposed? She sighed.

“I have felt really fortunate in this fight that I have not had to answer that question—it’s a really good question,” she said. “In Maine, if we really want to do what our governor says—reach net zero by 2045, reduce our emissions by 80% by 2050—it’s going to require this massive buildout of renewable energy resources and a massive electrification of everything we can possibly electrify. We need to grow our grid somewhere in the ballpark of three times, and that is going to require building these massive transmission structures. And this anti-transmission line fervor is really going to hinder our ability to reach our clean energy goals.”

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It’s that fervor Carlson seems intent on stoking, though based on his past body of work, it’s for reasons likely less in line with those of local environmental group.

“This corridor is more than an energy project—it’s an attack against rural America and the people who live there,” Carlson said in his segment. That is, of course, untrue, but he’s setting the stage for his audience to view all renewable energy projects with skepticism and as an attack on the environment. If conversations around renewable projects can’t stay honest—and if big companies that plan to profit off the energy transition don’t start thinking about the local impacts of what they’re doing—there will be plenty of fodder for the culture war to come.

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Could the World Ever Run Entirely on Renewable Energy?

Illustration: Benjamin Currie/Gizmodo

Giz AsksGiz AsksIn this Gizmodo series, we ask questions about everything and get answers from a variety of experts.

This week’s question—could the world ever run entirely on renewable energy?—is shadowed by a much larger one: Namely, will politicians and powerful forces of delay like Big Oil ever allow the world to run entirely on renewable energy? For the most part, we have put that larger question aside for this installment; the experts below are interested primarily in whether it’s feasible.

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To not switch to renewables in the very near future would, we know, summon a host of awful consequences. Unchecked carbon emissions would make vast swaths of the planet uninhabitable by century’s end; survivors of the heat-apocalypse would spend their days fortifying little hutments, or surgically excising mold from rotten squirrel meat. This is not the future we want—which is why planning for a renewable transition, and ensuring we bring it off, is so important. Hard as it might be, it’s worth setting aside your doomy visions of the future to consider, for a moment, what we can actually achieve. For this week’s Giz Asks, we’ve assembled a panel of experts to discuss whether the world could ever run entirely on renewable energy—and what it would take to get there.


Mark Z. Jacobson

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program, Stanford University, and the author of 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything

My team and I have been studying whether the world can run entirely on clean renewable energy since about 2008, and we’ve concluded, in over a dozen studies, that it is absolutely possible. And when I say clean renewable energy, I mean just wind and water and solar power—onshore and offshore wind, solar panels on rooftops, concentrated solar power, geothermal power, etc. We don’t include biomass or bioenergy or any type of biofuel, because it’s not clean—you burn it, and it usually takes up large amounts of land. We also don’t include fossil fuels, or carbon capture, or direct air capture, or nuclear power, as we consider all of these things to have opportunity costs. We’ve done calculations in 143 countries representing 99.7% of all emissions worldwide, and we’ve found that it is possible to power all of these countries with just wind, water and solar, plus storage electricity, heat storage, cold storage and hydrogen storage. The idea, really, is to electrify everything, and to combine the electricity with wind, water and solar.

There are four major energy sectors: electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry. For transportation, we’d go with electrical vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. For buildings, all heating and cooling would be done with electric heat pumps; water heating would be done with electric heat pumps; stoves would be induction cooktops. It turns out that when you do this, you reduce power demand worldwide by about 57%, because of the efficiency of electricity over combustion. When you electrify everything, you reduce demand, but you’re also eliminating all of the energy that goes into mining, transporting, and refining fossil fuels and uranium, which make up 12% of all energy worldwide. You end up eliminating up to 7 million air pollution deaths per year that are linked to fossil fuel and biofuel combustion; you eliminate the emissions associated with global warming; and you provide energy security and stability. Because you’re using 57% less energy, your costs go down at least 57%, but in fact go down much more, because wind and solar, the cheapest forms of electricity today, are half the cost of gas. Cost per energy unit, accordingly, goes down by over 60%. And that’s not to mention money saved on health costs and climate costs. Factoring that in, expenditure goes down about 90% compared with business as usual, which is mostly fossil fuels.

The bottom line is that we’re confident that, with current technologies, we can transition the world to solve these problems. It does take political will, but it’s feasible pretty much everywhere and is already starting to happen—61 countries now have 100% renewable; energy laws; 13 states in the U.S. have laws or executive orders; 180 U.S. cities and 300 worldwide have laws. It’s a growing movement. A lot more needs to be done, but the public is behind it. We have popular support for costs coming down through renewables.

Emily Grubert

Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering, Construction and Infrastructure Systems Engineering, and Sustainable Communities, Georgia Tech

I think the answer is yes, but we have to design the systems to make that possible. Right now, we don’t have a system that’s designed to be fully renewable energy, so we often see weaknesses in that system, because we haven’t had to assume that it’s purely renewable. But we can absolutely design systems that will allow us to run full renewable energy.

At some level, if you really think about human existence historically, we were running on renewable energy for a very long time. The question is: What do we want from our energy systems? Mostly, we have to think about how the supply and demand sides of an energy system fit together, and then we need to think carefully about some of the parameters we want our system to deliver. What should it look like in terms of reliability? What should it look like in terms of cost? What should it look like in terms of environmental characteristics? You probably can’t always get the lowest possible cost for the highest possible social/environmental standards, or the highest possible reliability standards, so there can be some tradeoffs—but that’s true of the fossil-based system as well.

I think we will eventually get there, and that we need to be very thoughtful about how we push ourselves in that direction. What we need is a shared social understanding of what our overall priorities are. Is that ‘we need to avoid climate change?’ Is it ‘we need to actually make sure that we’re providing safe energy systems to ourselves?’ But in terms of what happens on the ground, I think a lot of this comes down to regulators, national standards, international agreements, that sort of thing.

Sarah Johnston

Assistant Professor, Agriculture and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose research interests include industrial organization and energy and environmental economics

Yes, but we will still need some technological advancement to get there. We already have the technology to cost-effectively produce massive amounts of electricity from renewable resources. Yet, we currently do not have much ability to store this electricity for times when it is not sunny or windy. Current battery storage systems are improving, but can only provide electricity for hours, not days. So I think technological advancement in terms of storage will be key. Another option is to figure out how to economically transform electricity from renewables into other forms of energy that can be stored. We can use electrolysis to convert it into hydrogen, but this is still expensive, so that’s another margin on which technological progress could help. Looking at the progress in the last 20 years, I am optimistic that we will get there.

I think another interesting question is, should 100% be the goal? A key principle of economics is increasing marginal costs. In transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, we will (hopefully) make the lowest cost changes first. Currently, this means transitioning electricity generation from fossil fuel sources to renewables. Next, it might mean replacing gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles. As we are using fossil fuels less and less, the actions we must take to replace them with renewables will get more costly. For example, to replace natural gas heat with electric heat for homes in cold climates, we would have to pay to retrofit tens of millions of homes with electric heat pump systems that currently cost far more to purchase and install than a natural gas furnace. So while the impact on climate change of going from 99% renewable energy to 100% renewable energy may be similar to the impact of going from 50% to 51%, the incremental cost could be orders of magnitude greater. I think this logic makes it important not to get too fixated on 100% targets.

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Steven Davis

Professor of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine

Yes, it’s possible we’ll meet all our energy demands with renewable sources, but there are still some techno-economic challenges if the share of variable sources like wind and solar gets really high, like say >80%. That’s because those sources keep their own schedules that don’t always align with the timing of our demands, and we haven’t figured out a sufficiently cheap and scalable way of storing really large quantities of energy. Other renewable sources of energy like hydroelectricity, geothermal, or biomass may help, but often face their own, different challenges of sustainability. I therefore think making renewable fuels could be a key to affording an all-renewable energy system. For example, some of our recent work shows that even though current technologies for converting renewable electricity to fuel and back are expensive, they’d already make an otherwise-all-solar-and-wind electricity system cheaper.

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Brian Kahn contributed reporting for this story.

Do you have a burning question for Giz Asks? Email us at tipbox@gizmodo.com.

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Oil’s Rebound Shows the Window to Protect the Climate Is Closing

A man stands in front of a fire from oil that has been set ablaze in the Qayyarah area of Iraq.

A man stands in front of a fire from oil that has been set ablaze in the Qayyarah area of Iraq.
Photo: Yasin Akgul/AFP (Getty Images)

A year ago today, oil prices did something never before seen: They dipped into negative territory, meaning suppliers were literally paying people to take the oil off their hands.

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It was a shocking moment in a year full of them, as the pandemic drove down demand for the fossil fuels that the world runs on. A year later, oil demand is back, and the world is headed for the second-largest surge in year-over-year carbon pollution ever seen. It’s reflective of the stark reality that, for all that has changed over the past year, we’re still living in a world controlled by fossil fuel interests. But if world leaders squandered a prime moment to intervene in reshaping our relationship with fossil fuels last year, the chance is still there to do the right thing for the climate and workers now.

Oil sat at around $63 per barrel on Wednesday, an almost exactly $100 difference from where it was at this time last year. Demand is bouncing back as vaccination campaigns—at least in many wealthy parts of the world—pick up speed and coronavirus travel restrictions and concerns begin to relax further. In that light, it’s easy to see last year’s nadir for the industry, when bankruptcies, losses, exploration for new oil, and demand all tanked, as a missed opportunity to rein in the industry. But the next best moment is right now.

The hegemony of oil and gas, not just in the U.S. but globally, is on clear display in a new International Energy Agency report out this week showing the world is poised for the second-largest increase in carbon dioxide emissions ever.

“This is shocking and very disturbing,” Faith Birol, the IEA chief, told the Guardian. “On the one hand, governments today are saying climate change is their priority. But on the other hand, we are seeing the second biggest emissions rise in history. It is really disappointing.”

Disturbing, yes. But shocking, it is not. The world’s energy system before the pandemic ran on fossil fuels. And while demand cratered last year, governments failed to adequately address the structural issues with how the economy runs.

“We have indeed failed to date to really decouple economic activity and CO2 emissions, and that’s precisely what we’re seeing,” Mark Paul, an economist at the New College of Florida, said. “What what we really need to focus on, in my opinion, is the twofold mission of building out the green economy that we need, which requires major public investments, and dismantling the existing fossil fuel infrastructure.”

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To that end, some work is in its nascent stages, particularly with the changing of the presidential guard in the U.S. The Biden administration has signed a $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief package into law, put a big (but not big enough) infrastructure proposal out there to do more green building, and inked a few pro-climate executive orders linking reducing emissions with improving the economy. A slew of new bills in the Democratic-controlled Congress also point to a path forward to link economic well-being, labor protections, and mitigating climate change. And unions, including the largest coal mining union in the U.S., also appear to be lining up for a transition away from fossil fuels. This type of coalition, one that centers fossil fuel workers, is absolutely crucial to ensuring that policies to wind down the fossil fuel industry have buy-in and muscle to battle the titans of industry themselves.

Seeing oil prices swing back up and the projected huge rise in carbon dioxide emissions in 2021 is a sign of how much remains to be done and how powerful the industry remains. Recent revelations of oil companies raking in government funds or paying off shareholders while laying off workers are a reminder they will fight to the end to make money for a select few at the expense of the climate and the very workers that make them profitable.

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“The single best thing that the administration could do to wind down the existing fossil fuel infrastructure—and do it in a planned way that really minimizes the negative impact both on communities dependent on fossil fuel jobs and on the workers dependent on those jobs for their livelihoods—is to nationalize the fossil fuel industry and engage in a managed phase-out,” Paul said. “The administration needs to put these workers at the top of their priority list, and that means investing in communities and providing them alternative pathways to middle-class jobs and secure livelihoods that don’t include extracting fossil fuels from the Earth. The worst thing that we could do right now is to leave fossil fuel workers and their communities high and dry.”

What may sound radical has been done before, with Paul noting former President George W. Bush essentially nationalized airport security with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration in the wake of 9/11. In the case of the fossil fuel industry, the government wouldn’t be stepping in to supposedly try to do something better—in this case, the extraction of fossil fuels. Instead, it would be ending the practice of doing something harmful for the planet and doing so in a way that supports workers.

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We’re at a moment where radical change is needed, and the window to pursue those changes is still cracked opened just a smidge. If Biden and other world leaders fail to bound through it, this year’s hike in carbon emissions could be an ominous preview of what’s to come.

The Nation’s Biggest Miner Union Is Ready for a Transition to Clean Energy

Steam rises from the Miller coal Power Plant in Adamsville, Alabama on April 13, 2021.

Steam rises from the Miller coal Power Plant in Adamsville, Alabama on April 13, 2021.
Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds (Getty Images)

On Monday, the nation’s largest union of coal miners announced that it’s down for the shift to renewable energy as long the transition includes aid—and new jobs—for workers laid off from their sector. It’s the latest sign that workers aren’t buying the fossil fuel industry’s narrative that it’s a great protector of U.S. jobs.

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“As we confront a next wave of energy transition, we must take steps now to ensure that things do not get worse for coal miners, their families and communities, but in fact get better,” Cecil E. Roberts, international president of the United Mine Workers of America, said in a statement.

At a press conference, union officials also unveiled a plan for “preserving coal country” as the world transitions to clean energy. They stood beside Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, who endorsed their demands for the move to clean energy, marking a sharp turn from his history of defending the coal industry at all costs. (Manchin infamously once shot a bullet through a copy of a major Congressional climate bill in a political ad.) At the press event, Manchin also backed the PRO Act, a transformative bill to increase labor protections.

The announcement flies in the face of the jobs vs. environment argument that extractive industry and its allies have pushed for decades as a way to claim that climate regulations must be avoided at all costs. In truth, of course, the sector has been laying off workers all on its own without any new environmental regulations.

In 2020, fossil fuel companies eliminated more than 100,000 positions, some 70% of which aren’t likely to come back. That included 7,000 jobs in the coal sector, which may not seem like much but constituted nearly 9% of the industry’s workforce. Of course, these layoffs came while the firms continued to pay shareholders fortunes and received billions in federal bailouts.

This wasn’t an aberration, either, but an acceleration of a pre-existing trend toward layoffs in the industry. That’s especially true for the coal industry, which has faced a decline in demand due to cheap natural gas and renewable energy sources for decades in the U.S. The sector laid off 24% of its workforce between 2017 and 2020. As of December 2020, the new UMWA plan says the coal industry employed just 44,000 people.

In a desperate attempt to hang onto its business model, the industry has doubled down on pretending it’s on workers’ side despite obvious evidence to the contrary, and politicians have been happy to carry their water. UMWA’s announcement on Monday shows that workers are no longer buying that company line and understand the need to wind down the industry to avert catastrophic levels of climate change. The support of Manchin, a crucial vote for Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the Senate, is a signal that organizers’ pressure may be having an effect in garnering federal protections amid the currently unmanaged decline.

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“Much of the coal-producing areas of Appalachia and elsewhere are already in bad economic shape,” Roberts said. “Washington has taken little action to address it over the past decade. That must change. And as we confront a next wave of energy transition, we must take steps now to ensure that things do not get worse for coal miners, their families, and communities, but in fact get better.”

There’s much debate to be had about what exactly those steps should entail. For instance, in addition to calling for new jobs in renewable energy and financial support for former miners, the union called for more funding for clean coal technology, yet there’s no evidence to support that these clean coal schemes are actually clean since they still produce large amounts of toxic and planet-warming pollution. UMWA also called for spending on developing carbon capture and storage technology, which would allow coal plants to store the carbon emissions they produce and thereby allow the plants to remain operational since they’ve theoretically eliminated their climate impact. But these technologies do nothing about the local impacts of pollution like air pollution which disproportionately affects coal miners, and have not been proven to work at scale. Banking on them to save the industry is a huge risk.

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That there are some large nits to pick doesn’t mean the proposal should be thrown out. Rather, it shows the importance of having honest and open discussions with rank and file workers and giving them a front and center role in negotiating just transition plans. And the thrust of the union’s argument, that worker protections must be at the center of the transition away from fossil fuels, is crucial.

“Change is coming, whether we seek it or not. Too many inside and outside the coalfields have looked the other way when it comes to recognizing and addressing specifically what that change must be, but we can look away no longer,” the proposal says. “We must act, while acting in a way that has real, positive impact on the people who are most affected by this change.”

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Big Oil Is a Big Loser (of Money, But Also Life)

The Fearless Girl statue stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange in New York’s Financial District.

The Fearless Girl statue stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange in New York’s Financial District.
Photo: Mary Altaffer (AP)

If you’re looking to start an investment portfolio, you may want to steer clear of fossil fuels. A report released Tuesday from Carbon Tracker, a financial think tank, shows the losses for oil stocks have been piling up.

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Over the past 10 years, the report finds, the share value of fossil fuel companies and companies tied with their production dropped by $123 billion. This isn’t just market volatility, the report says: This sector underperformed a key world financial index by more than 50% when compared to MSCI All Country World Index, a key world financial index. In other words, if an investor had bought only fossil fuel stocks over the past decade, they would have gotten 52% less of a return on their investment than their peers with more varied portfolios.

Yet according to the report, investors can’t keep their mitts off fossil fuels despite those companies being a losing investment. The fossil fuel industry sold around $640 billion in equity to global investors during that time, the report finds, including 2,360 stock exchange transactions managed by almost 450 investment banks. This number dwarfs the amount of renewable energy investments. Over that same time period, there were only $56 billion worth of issuances made in the renewable energy sector—less than a tenth of the investment made in fossil fuels.

Why on Earth do investors keep returning to fossil fuel investments if they are so unprofitable? That’s a “good question with no easy answer,” the report’s lead author, Henrik Jeppesen, told Earther in an email. Fossil fuel stocks have done really well in the past, Jeppesen said—they outperformed the market from 1995 until 2008—and many investors are skittish of missing out on another boom period. Financial FOMO is real apparently.

“I still meet investors who use this argument, and many trustees around have long memories,” Jeppesen said.

Some also think that we may be using fossil fuels for a while—especially with regards to plastics—so they “continue to see potential in the sector,” Jeppesen said.

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The flip side of the coin is that investments in renewable energy are making bank. Renewable energy stocks, the report finds, outperformed that same world index by 54% over the same period of time, gaining $77 billion in value. That position has been strengthening over time.

“We have seen a lot [of] big technological developments and breakthroughs across renewable energy and clean technologies in recent years,” Jeppesen said, noting that renewable companies have become even more competitive in the last few years compared to the earlier part of the decade. “In general, renewable energy companies are typically smaller and younger companies focused on technology development, which is a lot less capital intensive [than] companies using expensive extractive equipment to search for [and] produce oil, gas, and coal.”

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The world’s financial system seems to be waking up to the fact that the fossil fuel industry is a losing bet. Since 2016, the report finds, an “increasing number” of fossil fuel share transactions have come from investors who already hold those shares—and who are looking to reduce or sell out their investments. “This may be a signal of declining confidence in the outlook for fossil fuels by insiders,” the report notes.

Reforming our financial system is actually a key part of the Paris Agreement, which says that “finance flows” should be “consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.” This goal is listed right at the top of the Agreement, along with holding world temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). But until recently, there’s been little discussion or attention paid to how to reform the global financial system, especially compared to how much we’ve paid attention to the temperature target in the agreement.

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The report comes as big banks, investment firms, and other financial institutions are making increasing noise about how they’re working to fix the climate crisis. But just because financial actors are all of a sudden acting concerned about climate doesn’t mean that they’re ready to take their foot off the fossil fuel gas just yet. A separate report released this year from the Rainforest Action Network found that in the last year alone, global banks have provided $750 billion in debt financing to fossil fuel companies. And, as we discussed last week, as a lot of the world’s most powerful financial institutions make promises to reach “net zero” or other kinds of climate commitments, many of those plans are actually pretty toothless if you look closely.

The financial sector is a place where untangling the PR spin on climate from a company’s actions and investments is going to be increasingly important, something the report underscores. BlackRock, for instance, has made a concerted effort making a name for itself as a leader in the “net-zero economy.” But the firm is still the world’s largest shareholder of fossil fuel holdings, the report finds, with $149 billion in shares of these companies as of December. And Wells Fargo, which this month became the latest big bank to make a net zero commitment, was the biggest fossil fuel transaction advisor over the past decade of the 10 big investment banks surveyed. In comparison, only 1% of the transactions in its hands were with renewable companies.

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Consumers looking to discern fact from fiction and hold financial actors accountable would do well to “follow the money,” Jeppesen said.

Texas Lawmakers Are Using the Blackouts to Make Fossil Fuel Dreams Come True

An oil rig in Midland, Texas.

An oil rig in Midland, Texas.
Photo: Tony Gutierrez (AP)

Lawmakers in Texas are having a busy week: Both chambers of the legislature are weighing in on a slate of bills that are, in theory, designed to address the problems that led to February’s deadly blackouts.

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But the ideas regurgitated in some of these bills, which would boost up fossil fuels while harming renewables, weren’t conceived wholesale in response to what actually happened in February. In fact, they appear to be exclusively items that have long been on the fossil fuel industry’s wish list, and lawmakers seem determined to check them off regardless of reality. If passed into law, they could prop up fossil fuels and kneecap renewables, all while doing nothing to ensure the Texas grid is ready for the next calamity.

“Pieces of both these bills have been in the works for years now,” said Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas.

First, there’s HB 17, which would prohibit cities and towns from passing bans on natural gas hookups in new construction. The bill’s author, Rep. Joe Deshotel, said during a House hearing earlier this month that “gas played an important part in helping a lot of people” during the February crisis. “I know in my own home, I was able to keep things going because we had a generator that kicked on and ran on natural gas,” he said.

That reality is not true for most Texans. The grid failure in February was driven largely by uninsulated oil and gas infrastructure. The bill would fail to address those issues, and instead penalize municipalities that want to join a growing movement to ban gas hookups in the first place.

In fact, that appears to be the real purpose of the bill, which was authored in January before the blackouts. (This current iteration just got gussied up to join the slew of post-blackout bills.) Deshotel has also said that the legislation is in response to “what is happening on the West Coast.” With this context, it’s easier to see that the bill isn’t about the blackouts at all, but rather a response to the increasing number of cities, led by California, that are banning natural gas hookups in new construction. Similar legislation, bolstered by the American Gas Association and other fossil fuel interest groups, has already been introduced in 12 state legislatures across the country this year.

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This bill’s makeover isn’t working very well. In the context of what happened in February (to say nothing of the climate crisis), it’s actually not be a good idea to encourage more natural gas hookups in homes.

“During the deep freeze, our natural gas supply systems froze up—we couldn’t get nearly enough gas moving through the system,” said Daniel Cohan, a professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. “Homes got prioritized to be the first in line to get that gas. Part of the reason power plants didn’t have enough gas to burn is because it was being sent to homes to burn in furnaces. But those furnaces didn’t work when the power was out—most modem gas heat needs electricity to power the fans that blow the air over the furnace. We had homes that they could still get plenty of gas to them, but if the power plants don’t work, then the homes are still in the dark and the cold.”

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Cohan, who called HB 17 “a terrible bill,” pointed out that building new construction without gas lines is actually cheaper for both the builder and homeowner. “The only thing [HB 17] exists to do is tie our hands and take away a very cost-saving way of getting to a cleaner future,” he said.

If it were the only faux blackout fix, it would be bad enough. But it’s not alone. SB 3 is a sweeping Senate bill that, on the surface, is meant to address a number of problems with the state’s grid. But wedged into the mostly positive reforms like requiring equipment updates for extreme weather is a mandate that would impose new fees on “intermittent” energy sources—read, wind and solar—by requiring them to buy supportive services and replacement power. That portion of the bill is an echo of the Texas GOP’s consistentand false—drumbeat that frozen wind turbines were to blame for the power crisis. The proponent of these additions to SB 3, state Sen. Kelly Hancock, told the Houston Chronicle that the renewables addition to the bill was because of “the lack of reliability [of wind and solar], which is what we saw during this event.”

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The text of this portion seems intentionally vague, but for a state that is the leading wind generator in the U.S., more fees could be a big deal. “These fees will really raise the cost for renewable energy in the state, and that, I think, is going to deter a lot of new generation,” Metzger said.

Hancock has claimed that the new fees are simply a “tweak” to level the playing field to even out market prices for renewables that GOP lawmakers say are made artificially low by federal subsidies. But it’s worth noting that Hancock has tried this trick before. In 2019, during the last legislative session (the Texas legislature meets every two years), he authored a bill that tried to get the state’s public utility commission to effectively eliminate federal subsidies for renewable energy.

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That bill, which died on the House floor, was supported by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that stayed busy during the blackouts giving cover to Republicans blaming the state’s problems on frozen wind turbines. Hancock actually sat on a TPPF panel a month before the blackouts and claimed that the unreliability of renewable energy use was cutting power to refrigerators in California and creating a class of people moving to Texas in search of reliable power because their groceries kept going bad. (If you are one of these people, we’d love to hear from you.)

Killing federal subsidies for renewable energy has long been a project of conservative organizations like TPPF, which claims with that subsidies allow “profit from an otherwise profitless endeavor.” This is despite the fact that the government also provides substantial subsidies and tax breaks to fossil fuels; some estimates put that number at $20 billion a year, with 80% of that going to natural gas and crude oil.

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“Basically every form of generation had problems during the blackouts, and wind and solar actually outperformed some scenarios,” Metzger said. “This has been something that the fossil fuel industry has been pushing for multiple years, trying to disadvantage renewables.”

Looking at how renewable energy performed during the blackouts makes it clear that this addition to SB 3 has little to do with reality of what happened on the ground during February’s blackouts and more to do with checking another item off the fossil fuel industry’s wish list—the same wish list that includes passing legislation to keep gas hookups alive, as HB 17 would do. Both these bills will be considered by lawmakers this week.

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“I’m really worried, and I think the renewable energy industry is freaking out,” Metzger said of SB 3. “The House will hopefully be more favorable for us than the Senate was, so I think there’s still a chance to stop it. But we’ve got a real fight on our hands.”

The U.S. Leads The Way in Citywide Fossil Fuel Bans

A blanket of fog covers the San Francisco skyline in a view from the Berkeley Hills.

A blanket of fog covers the San Francisco skyline in a view from the Berkeley Hills.
Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez (AP)

In a cool and rare moment for the U.S., it’s a leader in something that may actually do some good for the planet. A new report shows that the U.S. currently has the most cities in the world that have enacted some sort of ban on fossil fuels at the local level.

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The report, issued Thursday by the green energy policy network REN21, focuses on the changing energy landscape at a city level. Per the analysis, more than 1 billion people worldwide now live in a city or town with a renewable energy target. But it also shows how cities are working to ban fossil fuels at the local level, with various types of bans jumping fivefold in 2020including bans on fossil fuel use in buildings.

California, it seems, is leading the world here: the report counts at least 35 Californian cities with such a ban at the end of 2020. And while the trend may have started in the U.S., it’s catching on across the pond. Amsterdam, Krakow, and London all have some sort of ban on fossil fuels in buildings planned or in the process of being enacted.

According to the report, there are two key ways for cities to try and clean up their act. One is working with the transportation sector. At the end of 2020, 249 cities had created or proposed low-emissions zones for vehicles, while 14 had banned or restricted vehicles or the use of fossil fuels altogether in the transport sector (or proposed such a ban). Of these techniques, low-emissions zones—limiting fossil-fuel-using cars in certain areas—are the most popular, and an overwhelming number of those are in Europe.

While moves to clean up the transportation sector have increased in recent years, the report found, some cities have had these types of restrictions in place for a while. In 1996, for example, cities in Sweden created so-called “environmental zones” that were the predecessors to today’s low-emissions zones.

The second key way for cities to ban fossil fuels is much newer and focuses on the building sector, where a growing number of cities are restricting fossil fuel use in new construction. According to the report, there are currently 53 cities across 10 countries that have either issued or plan to issue bans restricting the use of fossil fuels in buildings. This is a much newer development in the fight against fossil fuels. Berkeley, in California, was the first city in the world to implement a ban on new gas hookups in 2019.

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Banning new fossil fuel hookups, some cities are finding, can be tricky business even with local support. Just ask Brookline, a suburb outside of Boston. Organizers in the city helped to overwhelmingly pass a ban on oil and gas infrastructure in new construction in late 2019. But last summer, the Massachusetts attorney general ruled against the ban, saying that it violated the state’s building codes.

“Right now, the problem municipalities have in Massachusetts and many other states, especially Northeast states, is they’re preempted by these state legacy laws,” said Lisa Cunningham, an architect and organizer in Brookline. While the state Attorney General Maura Healey ruled that the city can’t mandate no new fossil fuels in new construction, Cunningham said, Brookline is putting together a “workaround” that would use zoning incentives to encourage new construction to omit fossil fuel hookups. While it’s not as stringent as an all-out ban, it another technique that cities could use.

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Regardless of what the state says, Cunningham said that a good education program and campaign—especially one built around a solid piece of legislation—can go a long way in making local change.

“Once people are educated about building electrification, there’s a very high level of understanding about it,” Cunningham said. “Using local legislation as a way to run a public campaign and inform your officials and the public at large is extremely effective.”

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There are no signs that local movements to push for fossil fuel bans will slow down any time soon. The REN21 report covers developments through 2020 and yet it’s already obsolete; just this January, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city will make moves to ban new gas hookups by 2030 at the latest.