On making the right enemies, and pushing the Biden administration to do the same.
This newsletter was originally published on our Substack. Read and subscribe here.
A wildfire burn site in Eastern Washington in 2021. Climate change is causing larger and more frequent wildfires across the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit to the author.
You know you’re doing something right when Fox News is mad about it. So I guess we can count Fox’s vexed coverage of the coalition letter that we and 146 other organizations sent the Environmental Protection Agency last week as a sign that we’re ruffling the right feathers.
For context, last Tuesday we wrote to EPA Administrator Michael Regan asking the EPA to use one of its underutilized Clean Air Act powers to intervene in the recent federal approval of a Pacific Northwest fracked gas pipeline expansion—the GTN Xpress pipeline project, proposed by Canadian pipeline TC Energy. Jennifer Dlouhy wrote about our letter within the larger context of the grassroots-led fight against GTN Xpress for Bloomberg.
The existing GTN Xpress pipeline runs through Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and serves California customers as well. TC Energy is seeking to increase the amount of gas that runs through it by 150 million standard cubic feet of gas per day through the early 2050s. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved this proposal despite estimating that it would cost society several billion dollars in climate damages.
Section 309 of the Clean Air Act establishes that the EPA has a unique authority to review the environmental impact of other agencies’ activities, and, if “unsatisfactory from the standpoint of public health or welfare or environmental quality,” to refer those actions to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) for review. CEQ then plays a mediating role in resolving the dispute between agencies, and ensuring a proper environmental review process for the action.
This should be a potent tool to protect the public when other agencies stray from their mission and obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to be stewards of the nation’s natural resources, and protect the public’s health. But over the past few decades, the EPA has used this power less and less.
Meanwhile, oil and gas production in the U.S. continues to grow, U.S. gas exports are skyrocketing, global CO2 emissions reached a record high, and 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history. This is the world in which TC Energy is pushing to expand its gas pipeline capacity through the 2050s. Nevermind that wildfire smoke already chokes Washington, Oregon, and Idaho each year, smothering the Pacific Northwest quite literally with its own ashes. Nevermind that insurance companies are already refusing to insure new homes in California. Nevermind that Canada already lost a staggering 45.7 million acres to fire last summer. (Landmass-wise, that’s an area equivalent to Washington State going up in smoke.)
The fact of the matter is that we are already burning way too much “natural” gas, which is primarily composed of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Washington and Oregon have acknowledged this, and both states have ambitious commitments to decarbonize their energy supply. Washington is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and Oregon by 75 percent.
“Put simply, there is no way that our states can meet their emissions goals if this project moves forward,” all four Senators from Washington and Oregon told FERC. In this context, how can a pipeline company convincingly demonstrate the need to expand its PNW gas operations through 2050? According to FERC, the fact that TC Energy has entered into supply agreements with gas companies through the 2050s is sufficient evidence of need for that gas.
But fossil fuel companies are not exactly reliable authorities on the need for their product. If they were, then estimates of future stranded energy assets would not be so massive. One major study estimates that “global stranded assets as present value of future lost profits in the upstream oil and gas sector exceed US $1 trillion under plausible changes in expectations about the effects of climate policy.” In other words, the fact that oil and gas companies are digging themselves deeper and deeper into this hole should not be considered evidence of buried treasure.
When FERC was preparing its environmental analysis, the EPA as a cooperating agency raised several concerns that FERC refused to address. For one, EPA asked FERC to consider how the public’s need for energy services would be met with and without the pipeline expansion—a very reasonable question—but FERC explicitly said that it would only consider project alternatives that met TC Energy’s goal of increasing the capacity of its gas transmission system. As our letter argues, “In admitting that it would only consider alternatives that meet the developer’s goals, FERC has essentially confessed to intentionally violating NEPA. EPA must take action.”
Fox News asked TC Energy and industry lobbying group Northwest Gas Association (of which TC Energy is a member) how they felt about our letter. Needless to say, they were not pleased.
TC Energy’s spokesperson argued that the “cold temperatures gripping the nation” made it all the more imperative that consumers have “access to affordable and reliable supplies of natural gas.” This is a fossil fuel industry talking point that crops up every winter, despite the fact that gas infrastructure tends to be unreliable in extreme cold, and the gas industry resists regulation intended to improve reliability. Of course it’s not true that increasing the share of renewable energy-powered electricity generation would solve all winter energy reliability issues. But it would help eliminate the most important reliability issue, which is whether we can rely on our planet to continue to sustain human and non-human life for generations to come.
And for a testament to a renewable energy-powered grid’s reliability, one can ironically look to Texas. Solar and wind and battery storage have bailed out the state’s grid over the past few years when natural gas-powered plants failed during extreme heat and extreme cold. But again, the energy transition is less accurately a panacea for reliability issues than simply the only way to prevent catastrophic global warming.
Meanwhile, as we teeter on the precipice, torn between the hard work of transforming our energy systems and the short-term ease of abetting the status quo that got us into this mess, oil and gas executives are sad. “These activists and others are focusing all their firepower on even the smallest projects,” the Executive Director of Northwest Gas Association complained. He’s right about one thing—the existing GTN Xpress pipeline system already pumps a massive amount of gas through the Pacific Northwest. But that’s precisely why environmentalists are fighting against its expansion. It’s clear that limiting runaway global warming will mean retiring some existing fossil fuel infrastructure before the end of its workable lifespan and replacing it with non-polluting alternatives. Any expansion of that infrastructure makes it that much harder to meet our goals.
We’ve written before about how seeking to delay fossil fuel projects is particularly financially strategic at this moment. As climate change accelerates, it should become harder for oil and gas companies to justify the upfront capital expenditures in new and expanded infrastructure which also account for a majority of that infrastructure’s lifetime costs. Delays at this juncture are essential to avoid locking in polluting infrastructure that can operate with low overhead for decades.
“It’s not a matter of the future. This is demand that’s online,” Northwest Gas Association’s Executive Director also insisted to Fox. (Naturally, Northwest Gas Association has been lobbying hard against state electrification laws which would reduce gas demand.) If that were true, then why is GTN entering into gas supply agreements through the early 2050s?
The bottom line is that we desperately need a managed energy transition, which means regulators stepping up to help shape both demand and supply. As long as our energy regulators continue to capitulate to whatever energy developers claim is necessary, heedless of state and federal laws and the massive costs to society and our planet, we won’t have an orderly and equitable energy transition—we’ll have increasingly chaotic and precarious energy access and affordability, with grossly inequitable outcomes.
Getting Rid of the Wrong Chevron
We hope you’ll stay tuned for forthcoming news about how RDP will be examining how right-wing amicus filers in high-stakes Supreme Court cases are connected to the Justices’ billionaire benefactors and ethics scandals.
In the meantime, if you’ve been keeping up with SCOTUS news, chances are you’ve seen the word “Chevron” bandied about, and not in reference to the corporate climate criminal which owes the world a cool $12.8 billion a year in reparations for the climate damages caused by its operations.
If you’re looking to get up to speed on the so-called Chevron doctrine, the 40-year-old legal precedent that underpins the basic functions of our federal government and may soon be demolished by SCOTUS, we would direct your attention to the latest edition of Take Back the Court’s Substack newsletter. We would also highly recommend reading Elie Mystal’s piece in The Nation for an explanation of why Chevron (not Chevron Corporation) matters so very much, and what’s at stake in what Mystal aptly calls “the biggest judicial power grab since 1803.”