The first American presidential candidate to put tackling climate change at the heart of his campaign, Joe Biden has boasted that his victory will return America to a position of global leadership. But first he needs to set an example to follow.
This commentary is part of our dossier The Paris Agreement Five Years On.
Way behind on the transition to renewables, the US petro-state is the largest single historical contributor to climate change, and presently the second-worst global climate offender. For Biden to earn credibility --and for the sake of humanity, “building America back better”, requires cleaning it up. Doing so will also keep LNG markets open. But real leadership requires falling in line behind European and other national models. If all Biden’s offering is more gas, then no deal.
In a recent New York Times interview, President-elect Joe Biden vowed that when he takes office, “he’ll fight like hell by investing in America first” on all fronts, including energy. As he announces his cabinet and prepares to govern, it is worth reviewing some of the ways that America, without including the Coronavirus, currently “leads” the world.
At the end of 2019, the US was the world leader in both oil and gas production.
With 4% of the global population, America is also far and away the largest single historical emitter of greenhouse gasses (GHG) and only by the most generous evaluations, second worst currently. Moreover, American shale gas operations, or fracking, now account for more than half of all global methane emissions. The main component of “natural” gas, methane is a much more powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas than Carbon dioxide (CO2), particularly short-term.
America has the largest military in the world, which not co-incidentally is also the largest single polluting organization.
American oil majors ExxonMobil and Chevron remain neck-deep in the dirtiest fracking and unconventional development projects worldwide. A 2019 report by the Climate Accountability Institute ranked them 2nd and 4th among the top 20 firms that have contributed the most to the climate crisis since 1965.
America also leads the world in the yet-unproven, though industry-preferred climate change “solution” of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). According to the Global CCS Institute, the US, which is already home to the highest number of operational CCS facilities, and hosts 12 of the 17 new commercial facilities added to the project pipeline in 2020.
Unsurprisingly, Exxon proudly boasts of capturing more carbon than any other company, though most of it has been used to just produce more oil. Chevron has also invested heavily in CCS globally. Their Gorgon project in Australia has proven another expensive climate failure so far.
Both oil giants have chosen not to join the UN and European Commission-backed Oil and Gas Methane Partnership (OGMP), refusing to publically aim “to deliver a 45% reduction in the industry’s methane emissions by 2025, and a 60-75% reduction by 2030.” Though 62 other signatories joined in the “move that will help tackle one of the biggest and most solvable contributors to the climate crisis,” both Exxon and Chevron are still partnering in developing the “clean” hydrogen which, when mated with CCS, has become central to European Union and many other global de-carbonization strategies.
As Biden moves into the White House, one area America absolutely does not lead (in) is the renewable energy transition. In their 2020 evaluation published in May, the World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. at 32—behind virtually all of the EU, the UK, Canada and Japan.
Though Republican President George W. Bush oversaw the gutting of environmental regulations to help propel the growth of fracking, in particular unconventional oil and gas production in shale formations, Democrat Barack Obama did not alter course. During his tenure from 2009 to 2017, he took an “All of the above” energy approach with the transition from dirty coal to “cleaner” fracked “natural” gas central to America’s emissions reduction strategy.
While European nations increased solar, on and offshore wind generation capacity, Obama concentrated on phasing out coal and expanding domestic oil and gas production instead. “You wouldn't always know it, but [American energy production] went up every year I was president,” he said at an event in Houston in November 2019.
Externally, Obama directed Vice-President Joe Biden as well as Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to aggressively promote fracking globally, both as a door opener to American technology and a geopolitical wedge against Russia.
At the end of his presidency, Obama finally installed some weak methane regulations, but did not end most of the carve-outs granted big oil by Bush. In the years since, fossil gas use has soared, now constituting almost 46% of US electricity generation (coal is down to 20%).
From 2009 through 2019, oil and gas drillers received permits for at least 430,000 new and “workover” wells used to extend production, according to data from WellDatabase.com reviewed by DeSmog. These new permits are on top of the million-plus active and 3.2 million abandoned wells punched nationwide—with at least one-third of these uncapped and often leaking methane.
As Biden prepares to take office, new studies suggest that the overall amount of methane leaking from wells, pipelines and other infrastructure or being purposely vented means moving away from coal has made America an even bigger global climate offender.
As President, Biden has vowed to get “climate under control.” But for his administration to actually have any credibility on this, he must take immediate, measurable, direct and long-lasting action not abroad, but at home. Though promising to spend $2 trillion over four years to “steer” the United States toward the lofty goal of reaching 100% net-zero emissions 30 years in the future sounds progressive, without sensible policy, it won’t get the job done.
To meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) limits set under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, he will need to quickly implement a science-based approach translating to a 45% reduction in overall US greenhouse gas pollution by 2030 with a net-zero plan for the power sector by 2035.
Though Biden, Kerry and much of the media continue to fixate on an immediate American return to Paris to demonstrate American resolve, the agreements themselves were largely a weak compromise, with little teeth and almost no attention paid to land-use, biodiversity impacts, plastic pollution or a Just Transition to renewables.
Moreover, in October 2018, the IPCC issued a special report regarding the necessity of immediate emission reductions. Since the climate system responds more quickly to methane than carbon dioxide, reducing its emissions offers one of the best routes to quickly slowing the rate of global warming. Given recent studies showing that fossil gas production is responsible for much of the recent increases in methane emissions globally and that by far the largest increase in gas production has occurred in the US, to demonstrate leadership, Biden must start here.
Additionally re-ratification of Paris needs to go through Congress. Trying to win over this very divided body risks Biden wasting what little political capital he has on what essentially amounts to a symbolic gesture.
Though America needs to return to the global community, a credible act would be to live up to what he and Obama already pledged five years ago: reducing overall American greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
Setting a course for anything less is, as Biden would say, malarkey.
No Washington-led Green New Deal
Nationwide, renewable development is soaring despite Trump, constituting almost two-thirds of all new US electricity generation capacity over the first 9 months of 2020, according to a review by the SUN DAY Campaign of data recently released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), on track to constitute nearly 25% by 2023.
Additionally, following this year’s elections, almost 200 local governments and eight states have committed to transition to 100% renewable or carbon-free energy by or before mid-century.
If Biden releases holds put on permitting by Trump, then the offshore wind development approved by various state governors on both coasts will boom.
In that sense, Biden can see through a “Green New Deal-lite” under his watch by just getting out of the way. In all fairness, to see what climate leadership really looks like, then Biden needs to look for examples outside of Washington.
With emissions down nearly one-quarter since 1990, the EU is proposing a 55% reduction by 2030 with net-carbon neutrality by 2050. Japan agreed to match this. In December, the UK stunningly pledged to reduce emissions 68% by 2030. Denmark, the EU’s biggest oil and gas producer, just pledged to phase out extraction by 2050. Even China, the world’s largest current polluter has pledged neutrality by 2060.
Capturing carbon, captures markets
Hampered by a deeply divided government and polarized population, Biden could frame climate action as both an economic stimulus and a jobs bill. But getting anything done will likely require him to act around Congress, even if both outstanding Georgia Senate races are won by Democrats. Knowing this, Biden has already released a broad outline for 10 executive actions that he will sign.
Elevating climate action through placing John Kerry in the new post as “Special Presidential Envoy for Climate” also seems like a step in the right direction. But his role is largely outward facing with a focus on international affairs and seeing climate change through the lens of national security. Given America’s economic crisis, is Kerry really looking abroad for climate answers or ensuring markets for American oil and gas?
Now five years since Kerry signed the Paris agreements on behalf of the US, almost forgotten is his history as an “apologist for fossil fuel fracking, and a reliable promoter of false climate solutions like market-based carbon-trading schemes," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Action.
Worse is his and Biden’s support of risky climate solutions like CCS. More geared toward prolonging the fossil fuel era than ending it, Biden’s climate and energy plan calls for accelerating CCS’ development. His goal is shared by the Carbon Capture Coalition, a non-partisan group populated by oil, gas, steel and coal producers as well as industrial suppliers and trade unions that will benefit from the build-out of new pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure.
When fracking came up during the debate with Trump on Oct. 22, Biden pivoted immediately to CCS, saying, "What I will do with fracking over time is make sure that we can capture the emissions from the fracking, capture the emissions from gas. We can do that, and we can do that by investing money in doing it."
To create jobs and stimulate America’s imploded economy, Biden’s wants to "double down on federal investments and enhance tax incentives” particularly the bi-partisan backed 45Q tax credit which gives a $35 bonus for each metric ton of carbon dioxide captured and stored within an existing oil deposit (EOR) and $50 within other geologic formations. Only applying for projects that begin construction by the end of 2023, it should be noted that increasing the 45Q tax this year was one of the very few things passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support. Biden could leverage this into an overall clean stimulus.
Though he may indeed begin reducing and slowing permitting for new fracking wells, which helps drain the lingering market over-supply (and increase prices), he is not going to ban fracking or shut down the industry, just focus federal action on cleaning up production.
Reducing methane emissions could make U.S. gas shipments more palatable globally. As Politico recently noted, though European Union countries took delivery of 36% of overall U.S. LNG cargoes in 2019, buyers are getting nervous about how little Washington is addressing methane pollution.
Ireland and France have both taken recent steps to limit imports of American gas. Engie, a major French trading house, walked away from a proposed $7 billion, 20-year deal to import LNG from Texas. Germany’s RWE and Uniper are also hesitating on plans to build new gas import terminals, blaming lack of markets as well as questions around climate impacts.
But if that LNG was both “methane leakage” free and perhaps used to generate hydrogen, then Biden could secure America’s role as supplier and be able to claim an “everybody wins” victory for corporate profits, the national purse and the planet.