Bill McKibben: Betting on Gas Is Definitely Immoral—and Probably Unwise

Even as Duke Energy and Dominion Energy announced that they are cancelling plans for the massive Atlantic Coast gas pipeline, other pipeline projects are likely to continue apace.Photograph by Julia Rendleman / Bloomberg / Getty

The fallout from last week’s epic pipeline defeats continues. Activists celebrated when the Secretary of Energy blamed them for the fossil-fuel industry’s recent losses; a writer in the Financial Times used the three reversals as an opportunity to ask, “Is the party finally over for US oil and gas?” (His answer: yes, and if Joe Biden wins he “will inherit an energy market that, despite Mr. Trump’s efforts, is primed for a transition that will be backed by investors increasingly obliged to bet on clean energy.”) But there was one discordant note: even as Duke Energy and Dominion Energy announced that they are cancelling plans for the massive Atlantic Coast gas pipeline, Dominion also said that Warren Buffett has bought its residential natural-gas business for ten billion dollars. So the Oracle of Omaha is betting on gas.

Buffett is far from infallible. Just last year, he bet ten billion dollars on oil, and in May he lamented the hit he’d taken on the investment, saying that he planned to invest more in solar and wind—but also, it seems, gas. He hasn’t explained his reasoning, but Sammy Roth, writing for the L.A. Timesprovided the best guesses. In truth, gas has always been Big Hydrocarbon’s fondest hope for an exit strategy: coal is so clearly filthy that even Trump’s efforts have done nothing to stem its decline, and oil has probably hit its peak, as electric vehicles beckon. Gas is the remaining possibility for growth—and, indeed, it has grown sharply in the past decade, partly due to its reputation as a clean fuel. (Check out the industry’s Web page, with its sprightly trademarked slogan “Propane Can Do That.”) But that reputation was always overblown at best. Scientists have spent the past decade learning that natural-gas production spews methane into the air at dangerous rates; those molecules join with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to accelerate the climate crisis. In recent days, analysts reported that, worldwide, nearly half of all big projects to export liquefied natural gas are now in trouble, thanks to climate concerns and a covid-related reduction in demand.

As drillers go bankrupt, it seems possible that the fracking industry will pass its zenith without ever having produced an actual profit. (In fact, the Times warned over the weekend that some of these companies may be going bankrupt before fulfilling their obligations to seal and cap their abandoned wells, which are now leaking methane in large quantities into the atmosphere.) Last week, utilities in Arizona, Colorado, and Florida announced plans to close coal-fired power plants and go straight to renewable energy, bypassing the so-called bridge offered by natural gas. The Center for International Environmental Law reported that “oil and gas companies can no longer mask their financial frailty.”

Buffett’s bet on gas is immoral—at this point, trying to make money off hydrocarbons is essentially facilitating the collapse of the climate system—but it may also be financially unsound. Even if natural-gas backers such as Ernest Moniz, who was the Secretary of Energy under President Obama, win the fight to influence Biden’s policies (and Biden did say last week that fracking is “not on the chopping block”), there are reasons to think that the fuel’s glory days are waning fast. A CleanTechnica analysis of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline gives credit to activists for their relentless fight but also to the home heat pump, which uses modest amounts of electricity to heat homes and water. This electric appliance is common in much of the world, but is only now catching on in the United States. According to the report, “as of 2019 heat pumps accounted for 40% of new single family residential construction and 50% of new multi-family buildings.” That’s because the device works better than its alternatives: it uses far less energy to quietly heat or cool a building than a gas furnace. (Despite its name, a heat pump also works as an ultra-efficient air-conditioner, which is useful given the current “relentless” heat wave that forecasters have said will be hitting most of the country for “multiple weeks.”) Like an electric car, a heat pump is simply a more elegant technology, not to mention cheaper to operate. Yes, inertia will keep many people from making the switch in their existing homes, unless good government policy makes it easier. But such policies are not hard to imagine, and the Rocky Mountain Institute lays out some proposals in a new report, highlighting a Maine initiative to install a hundred thousand pumps around the state in the years to come.

The political power of the fossil-fuel industry is on the decline, which means that all the engineers with good ideas about the future will get an increasingly fair hearing for their plans. In addition, every time a new electric appliance is installed, the wealth—and hence the political power of the fossil-fuel industry—declines a tick further, in the kind of virtuous cycle that we badly need to keep accelerating. Hail the humble heat pump.

Passing the Mic

Priscillia Ludosky is an unlikely and fascinating leader. Born in Martinique in 1985, she moved to France with her family when she was young. She has a small online cosmetics business, but, in the spring of 2018, she wrote an online petition calling for more responsive government and for lower taxes on essential goods. It went viral, and she is now regarded as one of the founders of the “Yellow Vest” movement—protesters who brought much of France to a standstill that winter. In this country, the movement was often described as a protest against gas taxes (and one that was adopted by some far-right elements). But Ludosky, in fact, is a longtime and dedicated environmentalist, whose recent book, “Ensemble Nous Demandons Justice” (“Together We Demand Justice”), which she wrote with fellow-activist Marie Toussaint, was released in France in May. She also helped lead a process to create a citizens’ assembly, which, in agreement with Emmanuel Macron’s government, consulted with experts and then offered proposals for radical reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. My interview with her has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the citizens’ assembly work? Who was in it, and what are a few of the things they recommended?

These are a hundred and fifty citizens randomly chosen, with the mandate to “define a series of measures to achieve a reduction of at least forty per cent of emissions by 2030 (compared with 1990) in a spirit of social justice.” From October, 2019, they had seven working sessions, as well as online work, and were trained, informed by experts, decided who they were going to consult, and divided into several working groups: “Feeding,” “To lodge,” “To work/produce,” “Mobility,” and “To consume.” They had to define which proposals would become rules of procedure, or laws, or be submitted to a referendum. The President had undertaken to accept and apply them “without filtering.” Examples of proposals: a referendum to introduce into the Constitution environmental and biodiversity protection; a law to penalize environmental crime. They voted and submitted their hundred and forty-nine proposals to the government on June 21st and these were received by the President on June 29th.

Now all support organizations, such as our collective “The Citizens Vests” (“Gilets Citoyens” in French), which are organizing to communicate what can be better in people’s long-term daily lives if some of these proposals are adopted. The President said some proposals would be included in one project, of several laws, by the end of the summer, and others can be submitted to the population through a referendum by 2021. He also said that the modification to the Constitution would be submitted through a referendum by 2021. But we don’t know if he will respect his commitment, so we need public debate and interest around this to make it happen. The citizens’ assembly has created an association to keep an eye over their work.

Green parties seem to have done well in many French cities—what’s the political mood there now about things like transit?

It is difficult for the President to avoid the question of the climate emergency, and some think that people voted for the Greens thanks to the citizens’ assembly, and because of the social dysfunctions pointed out during the “Yellow Vest” movement. You can observe now that the government talks a little bit more about climate change than before, but people say this is just strategic, because it notices the actual interest of the population in that question.

Climate School

If you want a short (and charmingly powerful) video that explains why fossil-fuel divestment is so important, you can’t do better than this colorful offering from the young people at the Bay Area Earth Guardians Crew and Youth vs. Apocalypse.

As feedback loops go, this one’s pretty simple: heat and drought lead to fire, and when you burn a forest you pour a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. According to the Timesthe Siberian wildfires that occurred after temperatures topped a hundred degrees Fahrenheit north of the Arctic Circle apparently “released more polluting gases into the Earth’s atmosphere than in any other month in 18 years of data collection.”

Every little bit helps: last week, researchers announced that spreading rock dust on farm fields could pull fairly large amounts of carbon from the air, even as the practice builds healthier soil. “When silicate or carbonate minerals in the dust dissolve in rain water, carbon dioxide is drawn from the atmosphere into the solution to form bicarbonate ions,” the Washington Post explains. “The bicarbonate ions are eventually washed by runoff into the ocean, where they form carbonate minerals, storing their carbon indefinitely.” One drawback is the quantity of energy required to crush the rock, which could amount to a third of what it manages to save.

A global team of young people based in Japan has designed a new app to make it easy for people to contribute small sums to forest preservation.

Very useful new thoughts from the Center for Sustainable Economy about how to make sure that fossil-fuel companies cover the risks of oil spills and other accidents, instead of leaving the costs of these disasters for taxpayers.

The first reports from a robotic sub exploring the bottom of Antarctica’s vast Thwaites Glacier are not encouraging. An international team of researchers found that “warm water from the deep ocean is welling up from three directions and mixing underneath the ice.” That’s bad news, since the collapse of that single glacier would raise the global sea level half a metre.

Joye Braun, an indefatigable activist from the Indigenous Environmental Network, reminds pipeline opponents not to slack off in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court rulings. Not only are other pipeline projects likely to continue apace (a fact that Steve Horn points out as well), but, as Braun wrote to me in an e-mail, the construction of “man camps” along the Keystone-pipeline route seems to still be under way. Such encampments, built for workers on the pipeline, create a particular threat in spreading the coronavirus, and have frequently been linked to sexual violence. Braun writes, “On the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation women have formed a Nazhoo (‘whistle blower’ but not like DC whistle blower—actual blowing of whistles) society,” and they are using social media to spread that idea to other reservations. Meanwhile, a delegation of indigenous women meets this week with Deutsche Bank, to ask it to stop supplying cash to the companies behind Keystone and other such projects.

Scoreboard

There’s really just one number on the scoreboard that truly counts, and it shows how badly we’re losing. Scientists reported last week that new analyses show we’re approaching CO2 levels that haven’t been seen for fifteen million years—meaning that our atmosphere is becoming novel for hominids.

The Douglas fir is the state tree of Oregon (and the centerpiece of the best state license plate in America), but it’s in big trouble as temperatures heat up. The author Tim Palmer suggests that the conifer would be the proper rallying symbol for residents of the Beaver State who want to take on climate change.

I’m always looking for little signs that the energy revolution is reaching into key corners of our economy, so it was heartening to read about “climate smart” solar tractors. They can, the inventors say, be “charged by renewable energy” and still “provide all the power of a comparable diesel tractor.” (Of course, that’s also a good way to describe a draft horse.)

Data for Progress reports that extensive polling shows climate change should be a winning issue for Democrats in the fall; meanwhile, the group Climate Leaders for Biden managed to raise four million dollars in a single twenty-minute virtual fund-raiser, coördinated by the longtime environmental leader Tom Steyer, Biden’s former primary rival. It’s apparently Biden’s biggest single-event haul of the campaign.

Warming Up

I’ve been listening a lot to a new double album, “Dialectic Soul,” from a jazz combo led by the Cape Town-born drummer Asher Gamedze. Here’s a cut. The record is “about the unfinished and always unfolding practices and traditions of resistance, and how the motion of these things is imperative to imagining, articulating and building new worlds within worlds.”

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