How Senator Joe Manchin’s backing for natural gas could derail Biden’s U.S. climate plan

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Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the coal mining state of West Virginia, is in a strong position to lead the nation’s climate future. Samuel Corum / Getty Images

President Joe Biden aims for all of America’s electricity to come from zero-carbon sources by 2035. To achieve this, he is counting on Congress to approve an ambitious set of incentives and sanctions to encourage utilities to clean up their energy sources. This plan, which is part of the budget package proposed by the Democrats, could be in trouble.

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia who has close links charcoal, oil and gas industries and concerns about the speed of emission reductions predicted by Biden, will oversee this portion of the budget as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Manchin pointed out using “all energy sources“as’ neatly as possible” and described the idea of ​​phasing out fossil fuels as “very, very disturbing. ” He would like to reduce the incentives and penalties offered for utilities, known as the Clean Electricity Payment Program, and rewarding companies for burn natural gas.

We asked Michael Oppenheimer, director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and Environment at Princeton University, on the potential impact and alternatives available to the administration to achieve its objectives.

1. Natural gas has often been described as a transitional fuel that could ease the transition from heavily polluting coal-fired power plants to the development of cleaner energies like solar and wind power. Can he still play this role, as Senator Manchin suggests?

My stance on natural gas has changed over the years. For decades, I and many others thought that natural gas would be a transitional fuel. It emitted about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, and it has become much cheaper like extended hydraulic fracturing make the United States the leading gas producer. Utilities alone have started give up coal, and the anticipation of the Obama administration’s greenhouse gas regulations pushed them faster.

But natural gas has a problem. Its drilling operations, transportation pipelines, and distribution systems in cities – every part of that system – are considerably more leaking that the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated. Natural gas is mainly composed of methane, a greenhouse gas much more powerful per molecule than carbon dioxide, although it does not stay in the atmosphere for as long.

We also now know that the world is very close to entering a climate danger zone. The latest IPCC report exposes scientific evidence in the strongest terms of how human activities, especially those that burn oil, gas and coal, unequivocally warm the planet in ways that cause rapid changes in temperature, precipitation, climate. ice and sea level, and extreme weather conditions.

One of the fastest steps a country can take to slow its climate impact is to remove methane emissions. The gas only stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years, compared to centuries or more for carbon dioxide. Yet even with minimal leaks, burning natural gas still produces carbon dioxide. If you’re trying to plan for an energy future in the United States, you don’t want to encourage a lot of new infrastructure and fossil fuel exploration. It cannot be a bridge long enough to justify the investment – the climate cannot support it.

2. Can the United States slow down the pace of change and give the energy industry more time, like some utility CEOs and Senator Manchin have suggested?

Unfortunately no. Were already pointed at at least 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, where the danger zone of the Paris Agreement begins, and we anticipate much more damage at 2 degrees. Each increment of warming brings more harm.

Climate models show that extreme events, such as heat waves and flood the United States have seen this summer, are already more common around 1.5 degrees, and they only gets worse after that. It will be more difficult to protect yourself beyond 1.5 degrees, and much more difficult beyond 2 degrees. The costs are already becoming prohibitive for many communities.

For example, sea level rise is accelerating enough that by 2050 in a world headed for 2 degrees warming, many coastal sites around the world, including in the United States, will experience high water levels each year equal to or greater than their historic 100-year flood. Finally, in some areas, the daily high tide will cause flooding equivalent to this high water mark.

I’ve been working on these issues since 1981, and it’s the same story over and over again from many industry officials and politicians – why is this in a hurry? let’s wait another year. There were always arguments to slow down the action or postpone it indefinitely. This is why we are currently facing one climate disaster after another.

The costs increase as the world delays.

3. The fossil fuel industry would benefit from multibillion dollar support via the infrastructure bill for carbon capture and storage, which could allow power plants, refineries and factories to continue to generate gas. Greenhouse effect. Can he achieve American goals?

The industry used to talk about carbon capture and storage as a silver bullet 20 years ago, but today there are only about two dozen commercial scale projects operating worldwide. In the United States, most involve ethanol or fertilizer production or natural gas processing plants, and almost all send the captured carbon dioxide for use in enhanced oil recovery, a technique to force more oil out of wells. Two attempts to build large power plants with carbon capture, in Illinois and Mississippi, generated a lot of buzz in the early 2000s, but ultimately failed, with billions of dollars in cost overruns.

The technology was too much Dear then, and it has not become cheaper. Our government has never found a way to deliver carbon capture and storage demonstration projects on the scale needed to eliminate the bugs and lower the price.

The next question is what are you going to do with all this captured carbon dioxide? There will be local and environmental justice issues around pipelines and landfill. While I recognize that there is opposition to power lines as well, why not just put some effort into improving the power transmission and storage system, to create a smart grid for renewable energies, reserving carbon sequestration for the turn of the century in case we need to resort to direct capture of carbon dioxide from the air?

4. If the budget bill is weakened, what does this mean for the Biden administration’s commitments to achieve? zero-emission electricity by 2035 and zero net emissions globally by 2050?

The federal budget is not the end of the game. It is only a step. Because Democrats in Congress plan to use the reconciliation process in order to propose this bill, this bill must deal with financial incentives and penalties. Beyond that, there is still room for the EPA to pass new, stricter regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

Although these can be canceled by future presidents, as we have seen during the Trump administration, the public and Congress are now start to understand the price of unbridled climate change. It’s hard to ignore the wildfires that force you out of your home or the storms that flood your street.

This means that it will become more difficult for the next president to simply repeal all regulations like the Trump administration has tried to do. I believe the value of a stable regulatory system will become evident very quickly.

My Princeton colleagues published a report last winter that set out five ways to bring America to net zero emissions. They focused on a few pillars, emphasizing energy efficiency, electrification, renewables, biofuels, nuclear power and carbon capture. In my opinion, the first three are promising, the last three problematic.

A rapid transition is still feasible – but it is larger than the $ 500 billion tranche currently proposed to address climate change. It will take federal mandates, incentives and disincentives to shift a lot of private investment from fossil fuels to renewables. Most of the time, this will require political will and determination – commodities that seem to be the most scarce resources of all.

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This article is republished from The conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University.

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Michael Oppenheimer is a paid scientific advisor to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). However, the opinions expressed in this article are its own and do not necessarily represent those of EDF. Oppenheimer’s research is partially funded by various government and foundation grants, including the National Science Foundation and the High Meadows Foundation. Oppenheimer sits (unpaid) on the boards of Climate Central, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, the Trust for Governors Island (NYC) and the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting.

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