CVIndependent

Sat11172018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

This summer’s statistics on electricity use and generation included a significant gem: Over the last 12 months, power generation from coal has dropped to a three-decade low.

That’s party-worthy news for the climate, for air quality, for folks who live near power plants and for the natural-gas industry, which is partly responsible for coal’s decline. Just days later, however, the Trump administration crashed the shindig, causing a major buzzkill.

No, the president’s attempts to revive coal have not succeeded. But on Sept. 18, the Interior Department snuffed out new rules aimed at lowering the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, just days after the Environmental Protection Agency started the process of euthanizing its own methane regulations. This is a bummer not only for the planet, but also for the natural-gas industry’s efforts to portray its product as the clean fossil fuel.

Coal began its climb to dominate the electricity mix in the 1960s, peaking in the mid-2000s, when power plants burned about 1 billion tons per year, generating about half of the nation’s electricity—and an ongoing disaster. Donald Trump likes to talk about “clean, beautiful coal.” It’s anything but. The smokestacks that loom over coal power plants kick out millions of tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide annually, along with mercury, sulfur dioxide, arsenic and particulates, all of which wreak havoc on human health. What’s left over ends up as toxic (sometimes radioactive) piles of ash, clinkers and scrubber sludge.

When natural gas is burned to produce power, however, it emits only about half the carbon dioxide of coal, and virtually none of the other pollutants associated with burning coal. So during the 2008 election season—when climate politics were less polarized than now—both parties pushed natural gas in different ways, with Republicans chanting, “Drill, baby, drill,” and Democrats calling natural gas a “bridge” to greater reliance on renewable energy sources. At the same time, advances in drilling were unlocking vast stores of oil and gas from shale formations, driving down the price of the commodity and making it more desirable to utilities.

As a result, natural gas gobbled up a growing share of the nation’s electricity mix, while coal’s portion withered. In 2008, natural gas generated 21 percent of the electricity in the United States; now, its share is 33 percent. Coal use, meanwhile, plummeted from 48 percent to 29 percent over the same period. In consequence, the electric-power sector’s total carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by 700 million metric tons over the last decade, with an attendant decrease in other harmful pollutants. Every megawatt-hour of coal-fired electricity that is replaced by gas-fired electricity is a net win for the planet—and the humans who live on it.

Except when it’s not. Natural gas has an Achilles’ heel: When it is sucked from the earth and processed and moved around, leaks occur. The main ingredient in natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas with 86 times the short-term warming potential of carbon dioxide. Every punctured pipeline, leaky valve and sloppy gas-well completion eats away at any climate benefits. And if methane’s leaking, so, too, are other harmful pollutants, including benzene, ethane and hydrogen sulfide. And so the fuel’s green credentials, and one of the industry’s main marketing tools, end up wafting into thin air.

When the Obama administration proposed rules that would make the oil and gas industry clamp down on methane emissions, it was a gift, not a punishment. Not only would people and the climate benefit; the natural gas industry would be able to sell itself as a clean fuel and a bridge to the future.

The Obama-era rules are similar to those passed in Colorado in 2014, with the industry’s support. Far from being onerous, they simply require companies to regularly look for and repair leaks and to replace faulty equipment. Some companies already do this on their own; the Obama rules would simply mandate this responsible behavior across the board. That’s why the Republican-controlled Congress ultimately decided not to kill the rules. That, however, did not discourage Trump.

Trump is not being “business-friendly” by ending the rules. Rather, he is once again indulging his own obsession with Obama and destroying his predecessor’s legacy, regardless of the cost to human health and the environment. Trump’s own EPA estimates that its rule rollback will result in the emission of an additional 484,000 tons of methane, volatile organic compounds and other hazardous pollutants over the next five years. Meanwhile, the death of the Interior Department’s methane rule will add another half-million tons of pollutants to the air. In the process, it will erode the pillars of the once-vaunted natural gas bridge.

Then again, maybe the time has come to let that bridge burn. We get 70 times more electricity from solar sources now than we did in 2008, and renewables hold 11 percent of the total share of power generation. Perhaps just as significant is a less-noticed fact: Electricity consumption in the U.S. has held steady for the last decade, even dropping during some years, despite a growing population, a burgeoning economy, harder-working air conditioners and more electric devices. That means we’re becoming more efficient and smarter about how we use energy. If we keep this up, we’ll be able to cross that fossil fuel chasm—no matter how many bridges Trump burns down.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

Published in Community Voices

In the waning hours of the legislative session, Democrats pushed through new labor requirements widely viewed as retaliation against Tesla, the electric car maker embroiled in a union-organizing campaign at its Fremont plant.

Labor unions got lawmakers to insert two sentences into a cap-and-trade funding bill requiring automakers to be certified “as fair and responsible in the treatment of their workers” before their customers can obtain up to $2,500 from California’s clean vehicle rebate program.

At the time, Democrats openly wrestled with the concern that the United Automobile Workers—which is trying to maintain its major role in the auto industry as the companies make big bets on electric vehicles—was expanding its unionization campaign from the factory floor to the Senate floor. Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda said the state should not “hold our environmental projects hostage to a fight with one progressive employer,” while Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino countered that California shouldn’t want companies to succeed at the expense of workers.

With regulators starting to draft the new rules, a lingering question remains: How far will California—the first state in the nation to approve a $15 minimum wage and a state that has set an ambitious goal to put 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2025—go in order to graft its blue values onto the green sector?

“In politics, your oldest friends are your best friends,” said Dan Schnur, former head of California’s campaign watchdog agency and now a professor at the University of Southern California. “The tech people may have come to Sacramento with a lot of money and with an agenda that dovetails with the governor and legislators’ policy priorities, but they’re still the new guys on the block. Labor’s been there for a long, long time.”

Now state regulators—at both the state Air Resources Board and the Labor and Workforce Development Agency—will hold public hearings and draft rules for certifying automakers who want their vehicles to qualify for California rebates. The Legislature will then need to approve those.

Among the points of contention:

• What is “fair and responsible” to auto workers?

• How will the state weigh wage and benefit standards, or training and safety requirements, against manufacturing costs?

• How will the state certify vehicles made outside of California, or even out of the country—in places such as in Mexico and China—where wages are lower and labor regulations are less stringent? Or will automakers self-police by adhering to a code of conduct?

Dean Florez, a former Democratic state lawmaker and a member of the air board, said California can have both labor protections and environmental leadership as the state charts new territory.

“We shouldn’t be using public money to fund or support companies that do not meet basic worker protections,” Florez said. “We shouldn’t undercut the labor protections that we have fought for, for so many years. And I think that there is a danger in doing so; I think we would lose the confidence of the public for environmental leadership in the end.”

California’s new requirement will apply to all automakers, but it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Tesla, a company that prides itself on innovation and disrupting the status quo. When plant workers went public with complaints about low pay, long hours and unsafe conditions, Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk labeled labor’s tactics “disingenuous or outright false.”

While making $17 to $21 an hour is above minimum wage, Tesla employee Jose Moran noted that a living wage in the San Francisco Bay Area is a lot higher—around $28. Musk responded that Tesla’s compensation package is higher than those at General Motors, Ford and Fiat when including Tesla’s employee stock program.

The company wouldn’t comment now, beyond referring back to what its policy director Sanjay Ranchod told lawmakers at a September hearing: “The company is committed to protecting the health and safety of its workers, and we are committed to continue and to make progress towards our goal of becoming the safest auto factory in the world.”

The nation’s newest automaker is also on track to be the first to max out on a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 per vehicle. And with its Model 3 sedans pitched as its affordable electric car at $35,000, Tesla will need California’s rebate more than ever to compete against other electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Bolt.

Business boosters wonder why the state would single out clean-energy vehicles over gasoline cars for greater scrutiny when 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gases come from tailpipe emissions. They worry Sacramento’s pro-labor stance will dissuade companies from locating or expanding in California. Already, Tesla located its first battery factory just outside the state line in Sparks, Nev.

Politicians say they want good-paying jobs, and to grow manufacturing and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, “and yet, we’re in the ironic place where Tesla is being attacked by some elected officials relative to whether or not their workers are unionized,” said Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association representing nearly 400 Silicon Valley employers, including Tesla.

California is home to about 10,000 auto industry workers, virtually all from Tesla. That’s compared to 38,000 in Michigan, 24,000 in Kentucky and 20,000 in Ohio, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Union representatives say the goal is not to slow the production of clean-energy vehicles. Rather, they maintain that if taxpayer money is being used to help sell cars, then it’s up to the state to make sure it results in good-paying jobs.

“This is all part of our work at the labor movement to make sure there’s accountability for public investments,” said Angie Wei, an influential lobbyist for the California Labor Federation, the umbrella group for unions including the UAW. “If we’re going to put taxpayer money into it, then we’d sure better be getting something out of it for jobs.”

The union also is trying to maintain its role as the auto industry makes big bets on electric vehicles. Just this year, Volvo and GM announced plans to phase out conventional engines. The union can also use a win in labor-friendly California after losing an organizing effort at a Nissan plant in Mississippi, a right-to-work state.

It’s worth noting the Nummi plant that Tesla took over in Fremont was represented by the union before the joint venture between GM and Toyota closed in 2010.

“It is about Tesla, and it isn’t about Tesla,” Wei said. “We had a gas-and-combustion industry that for decades created good middle-class jobs. They’re now being replaced by electric vehicles. This is our new economy, and with major public investment. The question is: Are we going to allow the auto industry to create and maintain middle class jobs? Or are they going to become the next Walmartization of the economy?”

Sacramento has placed itself at the forefront of cleaning up the environment. Gov. Jerry Brown and fellow Democratic lawmakers have pitched California as a model to the world for reducing air pollution and greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, in direct response to the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory philosophy.

But California has also had a longstanding relationship with labor unions, boosting the minimum wage and offering access to paid sick and family leave. In recent years, the California Labor Federation has successfully pushed legislation to protect immigrant workers from threats of deportation and expanded authority for the state to go after employers who skirt overtime or minimum-wage laws.

Lobbying reports show Tesla spent $189,237 on lobbying in the three-month cycle during which the bill was debated, compared to $103,351 for the labor federation. But labor’s might comes also from being able to mobilize its members on issues and during elections.

Democratic lawmakers who struggled to prioritize the interests of two political allies will have more to soul-searching to do next year. Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, who has a record of advancing the green economy and supporting prevailing wage to maintain union pay on public works projects, said he was unhappy that the so called “Tesla rule” had been inserted at the last minute. “This is significant and important enough that it should be vetted through a normal legislative process with public scrutiny. That, to me, is the best way to come to the right solution,” he said.

His fellow Democratic lawmaker and San Franciscan Phil Ting, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee and authored the measure, insisted it strikes “a good middle ground.”

“We could have said, ‘You’re not going to get any money unless your workforce is unionized.’ That could have been something we inserted. We didn’t,” Ting said in an interview. “Having said that, we also could have done nothing. So if you look at the two extremes where we could done nothing or we could have dictated the type of workforce, I think this is the middle of those extremes.”

Ultimately, the decision to unionize remains up to workers. Michael Catura, 33, a battery-pack line worker who has been at Tesla for nearly four years, said he supports joining the union, because it would mean a higher wage and seniority for him. As the son of a postal worker, Catura said he has been disappointed that he has been passed over for promotions because supervisors can play favorites. He said he started at $17 an hour and now makes $21 an hour.

Catura has one message for Elon Musk: “I would tell him, ‘Hey man, scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. Give us more than just a bone.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

On the day after Election Day, the biggest newspaper in the oil and gas patch in northwestern New Mexico ran a story headlined: “Trump win has energy industry leaders hopeful.”

Most of the local industry folks quoted by the Farmington Daily Times said that President-elect Donald Trump would relax regulations on drilling on public land. Meanwhile, over on Facebook, energy workers were ecstatic, convinced that a President Trump would put them back to work almost immediately.

They should know better.

The San Juan Basin’s energy-reliant communities have been hit especially hard in recent years. The first blow came in 2008, after horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing opened up huge shale formations in the East.

Shortly thereafter, oil prices skyrocketed to as high as $150 per barrel, prompting drill rigs to pop up again all over North Dakota’s Bakken formation and, a little later, in the San Juan Basin’s Gallup shale. The fossil fuel mojo was back … until it wasn’t. As global supply increased faster than demand, prices started dropping, and OPEC declined to cut production. In 2014, prices crashed, and the oil boom was busted.

It’s a simple equation: When demand outpaces supply, prices increase. When prices get high enough to make drilling profitable, companies invest in development and put people to work. When all that drilling increases supply, prices crash, as do the drill rigs. Today, oil prices are stubbornly stuck below $50 per barrel.

Just one rig is working in the San Juan Basin, and the vast equipment yards in Farmington and Aztec, N.M., are crammed full of idle rigs. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs.

President-elect Trump promised to “lift restrictions on … energy reserves” and to dismantle environmental regulations. But will the drill rigs go back up as a result? No. Will laid-off energy workers get their jobs back? No. Regulations have nothing to do with this bust. Commodity booms and busts are driven by supply and demand, not regulations.

The only way to kick-start the faltering industry would be to increase oil and natural gas prices. And the only way to do that is to curtail supply or increase demand—no easy task with a global commodity.

Natural gas supply and demand, and therefore prices, would be somewhat easier to manipulate, since the commodity is regional, not global, meaning we export and import very little of the stuff. A president could boost demand by subsidizing a nationwide fleet of natural gas-burning long-haul trucks, which might make gas drillers happy, but not the oil drillers (since it would displace gasoline-burning trucks). He could ram through liquefied natural gas export-terminal permits, opening up foreign markets to domestic natural gas. If foreign demand was high enough, that might do the trick, but Trump’s promise to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership would damage, not help, efforts to sell natural gas overseas.

A president could regulate power plant emissions in such a way that encourages utilities to replace coal with natural gas in the electricity generation mix. Oh, wait, that one’s already in the works. It’s called the Clean Power Plan, which Trump has pledged to repeal.

The San Juan Basin is also coal country, so at least the workers at the mines and two massive power plants will get to go back to work, right? Wrong. Coal-burning units at both plants have been shut down. The curtailments came from settlements with the Environmental Protection Agency over Clean Air Act violations, and because California didn’t want to buy coal power anymore. Killing the Clean Power Plan—even eliminating the EPA—won’t restore these plants to their former smog-spewing, coal-burning glory.

While the environment and the people who live near the rigs are getting a break during this bust, the economic pain in the oil patch these days is real, and deep. Individuals who just a few years ago were raking in $80,000 or more per year are struggling to hang on. City, county and state governments have watched revenues plummet. It’s the sort of malaise that breeds resentment and that spurs people to vote for the likes of Trump.

It is maddening and tragic to see these people put so much hope in one person, particularly when that person is clearly so unequipped to deliver on his promises, and so likely, in the long run, to make their lives more miserable by removing what few social safety nets exist.

What will they do after Trump has finished rolling back all the regulations, dismantling the rules that keep us safe and our environment healthy—and they still don’t have a job? Who will they blame then?

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in Community Voices