Climate and Energy News Roundup 2/5/2021

Politics and Policy

President Joe Biden has created the position of senior climate advisor at NASA to guide its administrator and other top government leaders on issues related to Earth’s climate.  SueEllen Campbell compiled several articles examining what can be done legislatively on climate in a closely divided Congress.  The Biden administration has started discussions with the utility and automobile sectors about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Automakers have abandoned their legal fight for a Trump-era rule blocking California from setting its own emissions standards.  The administration is asking the courts to pause litigation over that rule and one rolling back methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.  The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 13-4 on Wednesday to advance to the full Senate the nomination of former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) to be secretary of Energy.  Michael Regan, Biden’s choice to lead the EPA, told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing that he would “restore” science and transparency at the agency, focus on marginalized communities, and move “with a sense of urgency” to combat climate change.  Lawmakers want to block further drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by designating its coastal plain as wilderness.  Legislation was introduced that would require the president to declare a national emergency on climate change.  The new Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources met to establish a “baseline of global climate facts,” but the only facts they agreed on were that climate change is real and “largely” caused by humans.

This was the week for reports.  Achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the US by 2050 is not only feasible, but would build a more competitive economy, increase high-quality jobs, and help address social injustice in the energy system, says one from the National Academies.  In addition, a report from consulting firm Evolved Energy Research and others said that achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 could be “surprisingly feasible,” with costs running just 0.4% of the US GDP.  Evolved Energy Research also provided the modeling for a report on the impact on each state of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.  Evergreen Action and Data for Progress released a report outlining how Congress could set the US on a path to 100% clean electricity by 2035.  Continuing to ignore the value of the services provided by nature in our global economy threatens humanity itself, according to a report on biodiversity and economics, commissioned by the British government.

Republicans introduced bills in both chambers that would give permission for the Keystone XL pipeline to be constructed and operate across the U.S.-Canada border.  Republicans who object to Biden’s agenda for addressing climate change are focusing on John Kerry and Gina McCarthy.  However, Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, called on Republicans “to resist the urge to once again become obstructionists and, instead, continue to come to the table with our own perspective on tackling climate change.”  A federal judge ruled that US officials downplayed climate change impacts from the expansion of a massive coal mine near the Montana-Wyoming border, giving the government until October to do a new analysis.  The Biden administration is delaying a rule finalized during Trump’s last days in office that would have drastically weakened the government’s power to protect most wild birds.

Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, said rich countries must step up with fresh financial commitments to help the developing world tackle the climate crisis while Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, said dependency on coal is preventing a global green recovery from taking off.  Nearly six out of 10 US voters said the Biden administration should work directly with China to address climate change.  China has reinstated Xie Zhenhua, one of its most respected climate experts and a broker of the Paris Agreement, as climate envoy.  Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is giving climate change a prominent role in her talks with her counterparts around the world.  France’s government must do more to combat climate change, a French court said on Wednesday.  One year after Australia’s devastating wildfires, anger is growing at climate change inaction.  However, senior ministers of Australia’s National Party — the junior partner in the ruling coalition — have poured cold water on adopting a concrete commitment to net zero emissions by 2050.  Climate Home News previewed the November COP26 meeting in Glasgow by focusing on the people setting the agenda on seven key issues.  

Climate and Climate Science

Flooding rains and record snow in California last week were the result of an atmospheric river originating over the Pacific Ocean.  They are part of California’s “whiplash” climate future, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with NCAR.  The start of California’s rainy season has been getting progressively later in recent decades, and now begins a month after it did just 60 years ago, shifting from November to December.  Climate change ravaged the west with heat and drought last year; many fear 2021 will be worse.  The number of heat-related deaths in Arizona soared to a new high last year as people endured the hottest summer on record.

The rise in sea level is likely to be faster and greater than previously thought, according to researchers who say recent predictions are inconsistent with historical data.  If global warming continues unabated, the surface of the Greenland ice sheet may start losing more mass than it gains every year by 2055, although if strong mitigation measures are taken to curb the rise of global temperatures, the ice sheet may not reach this threshold.

The global food system is the biggest driver of destruction of the natural world, and a shift to predominantly plant-based diets is crucial in halting the damage, according to a new report by thinktank Chatham House, financed by the UN Environment Program.

A surprising amount of the water from the planet’s melting mountain glaciers is building up behind unstable piles of rubble left behind by the retreating ice, posing a hazard for everything downstream.


Big oil companies lost billions in 2020 because of the pandemic.  According to Justin Guay, a finance community committed to net-zero carbon by 2050 is exposing itself to trillions of dollars in stranded oil and gas assets.  ExxonMobil shareholders are trying to force it to address climate change and the weaker oil market in more aggressive ways, but investors have not been impressed with the company’s actions so far.  The US oil industry wants to forge an alliance with the nation’s corn growers and biofuel producers to lobby against the Biden administration’s push for electric vehicles (EVs).  US crude oil production is expected to rebound to a new record in 2023, the EIA said in its annual energy outlook, although it also projected that US gasoline demand has already peaked.

Electrification of the US’s light vehicle fleet by 2030, along with replacement of coal-fired power plants by renewables and gas turbines, could decrease our total primary energy usage by 13%.  At RMI, Britta Gross argued that for the US to reap the benefits of transportation electrification, the Biden administration must communicate a bold vision of what transport will look like in 2030.  The transition to EVs will have sweeping implications for the companies that produce and sell electricity and manage the grid; Brad Plumer discussed four things that need to happen.  The TVA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation will add about 50 new EV fast charging stations, located every 50 miles along the state’s interstates and major highways, each with up to four chargers.  Ford said it was “doubling down” on EVs and will invest $22 billion in electrification through 2025, nearly twice what it had previously committed.

Central government inspectors have slammed China’s energy authority for failing to apply environmental standards on coal power expansion across the country.  China put 38.4 GW of new coal-fired power capacity into operation in 2020, more than three times the amount built elsewhere around the world.  However, they are expected to add about 140 GW of non-fossil fuel capacity this year, representing around 47.3% of their energy mix.

A new report from Morgan Stanley projects that coal-fired power generation is likely to disappear from the US power grid by 2033, replaced by renewable energy resources.  Speaking last week with analysts, Jim Robo, CEO of NextEra Energy, said “There is not a regulated coal plant in this country that is economic today, full period and stop.”  Last week, NRG Energy, which owns the Petra Nova carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in Texas, announced that it would be shut down indefinitely, leaving the US with no operating CCS projects.

The owner and operator of the Empire State Building and 13 other buildings, announced Wednesday a major purchase of wind power, making it the nation’s biggest real estate user of entirely renewable energy.  The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it would resume an environmental review of the Vineyard Wind project, stopped by the Trump administration.  Utilities and developers are repowering wind turbines with bigger, better blades years ahead of the end of their original life expectancies as they take advantage of technology improvements and expiring federal tax credits.  Opponents of the Rocky Forge Wind farm in Virginia filed a lawsuit alleging that the Department of Environmental Quality and Apex Clean Energy cut corners in the permitting process.  IdentiFlight’s smart cameras, which spot birds of prey and then halt wind turbines to protect them, can result in a large reduction of bird deaths.

Green hydrogen is set to play a substantive role in the overall energy mix, with its development likely to happen faster than anyone predicts, according to Wood Mackenzie.  A team at the Fraunhofer Institute in Dresden, Germany, has developed a new strategy for storing and transporting hydrogen fuel — a magnesium hydride-based paste.  To meet the goal of zero carbon emissions, industries such as steel production must wean themselves from coal; Maria Gallucci reviewed current efforts at Grist.  Also at Grist, Emily Pontecorvo wrote about the “Mission Possible Partnership,” which is bringing together members of seven carbon-intensive industries to collaborate on how to reduce carbon emissions.


At Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell interviewed Elizabeth Kolbert about her new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.  Genevieve Guenther, the founder of End Climate Silence, has said “… part of the reason that oil and gas propaganda is so effective is that there is always a grain of truth to it.”  She was interviewed on Vox.  Michael Patrick F. Smith, a Kentucky folk singer and playwright, reflected on what his time working on oil rigs in North Dakota taught him about America’s fossil fuel addiction — and how to curb it.  In The Atlantic, science writer Peter Brannen took us on a trip into deep time that warns of possible catastrophic surprises ahead.  David Owen published a long, but totally absorbing, article in The New Yorker about a young woman who is using geographic information systems to help the Catholic Church use its land to better the environment.  The Donors of Color Network launched a new initiative, challenging the nation’s climate philanthropists to shift 30% of their donations toward environmental efforts led by Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other people of color.

Closing Thought

Environmentalists are so good at emphasizing worst-case scenarios that when we look to the future, apocalypse often feels inevitable.  Nevertheless, Emma Marris argues that hope for the future is a reasonable and necessary prerequisite for action.

These news items have been compiled by Les Grady, member and former chair of the CAAV steering committee. He is a licensed professional engineer (retired) who taught environmental engineering at Purdue and Clemson Universities and engaged in private practice with CH2M Hill, the world’s largest environmental engineering consulting firm. Since his retirement in 2003 he has devoted much of his time to the study of climate science and the question of global warming and makes himself available to speak to groups about this subject. More here.