Fossil fuel industry has big plans to avoid changing in 2020
We hit the ground running this year, so today we’re going to do a bit of stock-taking about what 2020 is going to bring us from the fossil fuel industry.
Right now, the industry is not exactly in a happy place. Public polling from Yale shows that the “alarmed” portion of Americans is now the largest of the six segments at 31% of the population (compared to just 10% who are doubtful or dismissive of climate concerns).
Last week, TIME’s Justin Worland published a piece based on an interview with Shell’s CEO, who’s feeling the pressure from climate activists and the realities of climate science. (Makes sense, given that last week Extinction Rebellion blockaded Shell offices.) The industry certainly has a problem with public perception, particularly but not solely among the youth, as protests from Harvard Law and Oxford, among others, show.
Step one, then, for the fossil fuel industry is to make it harder for those pesky protestors to shine a spotlight on companies.
As the Heartland Institute gratefully reminded us with a timely post last week, back in November of 2019 Wisconsin became the 17th state to criminalize protests with new stronger penalties including a $10,000 fine and six years in jail if protests trespass on energy company property.
Step two is to pretend like the industry is doing something about pollution, to undercut calls for regulation. That’s the approach the American Gas Association and the Edison Electric Institute are taking for their new Natural Gas Sustainability Initiative, a draft of which E&E obtained. To address the fact that methane emissions are a powerful greenhouse gas, the initiative is completely voluntary, and only working on a reporting protocol. Drillers can choose to report how much they’re polluting, but won’t actually be pressured to do anything.
But what about policies that are already being rolled out? To see how the industry is responding to the emerging trend of local municipalities banning natural gas use all together, check out this post from the oil industry’s Energy in Depth. It lays out the four narrative responses the industry will use to these local decisions.
The first is an implicit admission that they’re a problem, in that they allege that gas bans won’t reduce emissions as much as efficiency measures or methane capture in landfills. (But obviously banning gas hardly means cities can’t also take efficiency measures or capture methane from garbage!) After that, cry crocodile tears for low-income populations by pointing out that electric heat can be more expensive than a natural gas furnace, that consumers appear to prefer gas to electric heat, and that gas is more efficient than electric.
None of this changes the simple fact that natural gas use is incompatible with fighting climate change.
That’s why the industry is making last-ditch efforts to use their political sway to protect their business. The latest comes from Indiana, which introduced a bill last week to make it illegal to close down a coal plant unless the federal government (but NOT the EPA) gives a direct mandate to do so. The hypocrisy the party of free market worship and “not picking winners and losers” picking the losing coal industry to win legal protection from economic competition could not be more palpable.
Even if it is eventually signed into law, eventually those plants will close. And when they do, surely the industry will be good neighbors and clean up the mess they left behind, right?
Obviously not. In Ohio, a new analysis shows that while drilling companies are required to set aside either $5,000 to clean up a spent well, or $15,000 for all of their wells, the average cost of plugging one well is $110,000. Even worse, once the well is plugged, the companies get that money back, leaving the public to pay the rest. That is, if they even bother to clean it themselves. Ohio alone has a confirmed 900 orphaned wells, with potentially another 18,000 hiding away in homes or school gyms or farm fields or basements or anywhere else. When one considers what the costs would be if Ohio was representative of the whole country, it’d mean a price tag of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Which of course begs a question the industry is desperate to keep the public from asking: How are we going to pay for that?
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