This week the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on global warming, released a devastating report summing up the current state of climate change, projections for the future, and the terrifyingly short timeline and the huge list of transformative imperatives needed to avoid the very worst impacts of a heating planet. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the report a "code red for humanity," before going on to say that the report “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet." Human-created climate change is a reality, and it’s already taking a toll. While we can’t walk back all of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, which will inevitably warm the planet to a threatening degree, the world can and must change course to avoid it getting any warmer than it has to.
“We are locked into 30 years of worsening climate impacts no matter what the world does,” The New York Times reported this week, summing up the report’s findings, but “there is still a window in which humans can alter the climate path.”
The kind of industrial, behavioral, and economic transformation necessary to change this damning trajectory requires a no-holds-barred, all-or-nothing at an unprecedented scale. It requires cooperation from world leaders around the globe in both public and private sectors, but more than anything it requires that the world’s biggest economies - and biggest greenhouse gas emitters - get serious about making good on climate commitments.
It is against this dire backdrop that a battle over clean energy infrastructure is unfolding in the United States. The U.S. is the world's second-biggest greenhouse gas producer, second only to China. While the Biden administration has posited climate action as one of the central tenets of its platform, many progressives and environmentalists believe that the President is not doing enough to reel in the nation’s ecological footprint. In fact, there is serious concern that the administration’s flagship infrastructure bill has been co-opted by the oil and gas industry.
The $1 Trillion infrastructure bill was passed in a bipartisan vote in the Senate this week, and it will now have to work its way through the House of Representatives, where things could get tricky and even more slow-going thanks to divisions between moderate and progressive Democrats. While the bill includes clean energy provisions such as $7.5 billion for a network of electric-vehicle chargers, $21.5 billion to create an Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations and $16 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy, it also includes many provisions which are “on the oil industry’s wish list” and have been viewed as “a gift to oil companies” by climate groups.
One of the provisions that is stirring up such discontent is over $10 billion for carbon capture, transport, and storage, which can be used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), a process in which natural gas is pumped back into the ground during oil extraction in order to push more oil up to the surface. In essence, this supposedly climate-friendly provision will likely just be used to produce more oil. “EOR is disastrous for the climate, as it results in more oil extraction and more carbon emissions when that oil is burned,” environmental groups wrote in an open letter imploring President Biden to reject carbon capture as a component of the infrastructure bill.
Other measures which are seen as softening the bill’s potential impact on climate change include the potential weakening of environmental reviews for new builds and the $8 billion delegated to hydrogen. While hydrogen itself burns clean as a fuel source, leaving behind nothing but water vapor, the hydrogen itself is only as green as the energy used to create it. The infrastructure bill does not stipulate whether the hydrogen it supports should be green hydrogen (produced using clean energy), blue hydrogen (sourced from natural gas), or gray hydrogen (made using dirtier fossil fuels like oil and coal).
Ultimately, the bill is chock-full of compromises and measures that are not unilaterally antagonistic to oil and gas. And while this is a boon to the bill’s ability to make it through Congress, as well as a relief to workers in the country’s massive fossil fuel industry, the contrast between the bill’s soft approach and the hardline battle invoked by the UN and climate scientists is stark.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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