The WATER Act: Restoring Federal Support for Clean Water Systems

REPORT - March 2022

What You’ll Learn From This Report

  • 1: Introduction
    • Fifty years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, communities need a restored federal commitment to improve clean water systems.
  • 2: The Daunting State of Our Wastewater Systems
    • Access to clean water is threatened by aging systems, growing needs, climate chaos and an affordability crisis.
  • 3: Health Threats of Underfunded Water Infrastructure
    • Outdated systems and lack of funding are causing sewage spills, failing septic systems, polluted waters and human illnesses.
  • 4: The Water Solution for The 21st Century
    • It’s time for the WATER Act to restore the federal government’s commitment to protect clean water for every community.

Part 1:

Introduction

Fifty years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, communities need a restored federal commitment to improve clean water systems.

Across the country, outdated wastewater systems dump hundreds of billions of gallons of raw sewage into our waterways each year, polluting water resources, endangering public health, harming aquatic life and damaging our environment.1 It has been 50 years since the passage of the Clean Water Act, and an unprecedented climate emergency is overwhelming our aging wastewater systems.

Climate chaos is driving extreme weather that worsens sewage spills and dumps toxic waste in cash-strapped communities across the country, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast,2 while the Southwest suffers a megadrought, fueling fires and depleting water supplies.3 Without dedicated federal funding, many communities cannot afford to make the necessary repairs to the collection, treatment and septic systems that keep our water clean and safe. This lack of investment in water infrastructure isn’t just shortsighted; it’s dangerous. Aging systems contaminate our natural and built environments and threaten the health and safety of our water and of people everywhere.

It’s time to pass landmark water legislation for the 21st century: the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act. Our nation’s water systems need dedicated federal commitment to keep the promise of clean, safe water for everyone.

Clean Water Act

In 1972, Congress overrode a veto by President Richard Nixon to pass into law the Clean Water Act, a defining environmental victory of the 20th century. The legislation was intended to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” It has been one of our most effective environmental laws.4

To help communities comply with wastewater standards, the law dramatically increased funding for the wastewater system construction grants program, providing nearly $41 billion through 1984. According to the Congressional Research Service, it was “the largest nonmilitary public works program since the Interstate Highway System.”5

“The objective of this [Clean Water] Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

Part 2:

The Daunting State of Our Wastewater Systems

Access to clean water is threatened by aging systems, growing needs, climate chaos and an affordability crisis.

Aging Systems

Many of the nation’s wastewater treatment plants were built or improved with the federal dollars provided by the Clean Water Act.6 By 2021, however, water and sewer pipes were averaging 45 years old, and many were approaching the end of their lifespan.7 These aging wastewater systems need major updates to protect human health and the environment.8 Overall, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s wastewater infrastructure a grade of D+ in 2021.9

American Society of Civil Engineers (2021)

Growing Needs

In total, our drinking water and wastewater systems require at least $744 billion in investment over the next 20 years, or more than $35 billion a year.10 Public wastewater systems alone, as of the latest needs survey in 2012, needed at least an estimated $271 billion over two decades to improve treatment plants, sewer lines, address stormwater and stop overflows.11 But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program, the main source of federal support for wastewater projects, provided a mere $1.6 billion in 2021,12 and the infrastructure law of 2021 added only $12.7 billion over five years to this program.13 This falls far short of the total need.

Overall, federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure has plummeted since its peak in the 1970s, dropping 77 percent from 1977 to 2017 in real terms.14 That’s a per capita decrease in funding of 84 percent.15

A 2020 wastewater industry survey found that two-thirds of spending on capital improvement plans went to update aging systems and to address combined sewer overflows, and that improvement budgets had grown 24 percent over the previous three years.16 Federal support through the State Revolving Fund program, however, accounted for only 15 percent of long-term financing,17 leaving a huge gap between what communities know they need and what the federal government has provided.

Climate Chaos

Climate chaos threatens to strangle the nation’s access to clean water, causing more sewage spills and compounding the costs of urgently needed updates to aging systems.18 In 2022, the megadrought in the southwestern United States was so severe that the last two decades were estimated to be the driest period in 1,200 years, causing water shortages and fueling wildfires.19

Weather disturbances also contribute to water system disruptions, including operational outages, loss of supply or restrictions on water use, and degraded water quality.20 Extreme weather has been catastrophic to water infrastructure. Flooding and sea-level rise further threaten systems and can force infrastructure relocation. Also, heavy rainfall leads to more sewage overflows. The total costs of adapting our water and sewer systems to meet the threats of climate chaos are already high and are projected to near $1 trillion by 2050.21

Affordability Crisis

Many communities struggle to meet the costs of keeping waters clean, maintaining aging systems and grappling with climate emergencies. With meager federal support, water and wastewater systems are forced to hike customer rates.22 From 2008 to 2014, water and sewer rates nationwide increased by about 40 percent on average.23 Over the last 15 years, water bills have increased at three times the rate of inflation, but household incomes have fallen in real terms.24

Households and localities are grappling with water service costs that are increasingly unaffordable.25 This problem has become especially complex in this period of widening income inequality and reliance on regressive water billing practices, which lead low-income households to pay a disproportionate amount of their income for their water service.26

Many communities are stuck with an impossible choice: raise rates on people who cannot afford to pay, or allow aging systems to spill sewage into homes and waterways and endanger public health. Because of structural inequities, this crisis is not felt equally. Black and Brown communities are disparately impacted because of systemic racism, leading to unaffordable water bills,27 service shutoffs,28 failing wastewater and septic systems, greater pollution burdens and human illnesses.29

Part 3:

Health Threats Of Underfunded Water Infrastructure

Outdated systems and lack of funding are causing sewage spills, failing septic systems, polluted waters and human illnesses.

Outdated Systems and Sewage Spills

The EPA estimated in its last national assessment that more than 850 billion gallons of raw sewage were being spilled each year across the country.30 That’s enough to fill more than 1 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Sewer overflows can cause raw sewage to back up into basements, flood onto streets and spill into rivers, lakes and streams.31 While improvements have been made, this remains a problem in communities across the country.32

Outdated systems are vulnerable to spills during storms. When there is heavy rainfall or snowfall, outdated wastewater systems overload, and large volumes of sewage spill into local waterways.33 In 2014, nearly 1,500 different spills discharged at least 22 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the Great Lakes Basin alone.34

Climate change is making things worse.35 The storm surge caused by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy— the largest storm to hit the Northeast to date — resulted in the spillage of 11 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into waterways and city streets.36 In 2021, Hurricane Ida also caused major spills of raw and partially treated sewage, including 350,000 gallons in Panama City, Florida;37 nearly 1 million gallons in Mobile, Alabama;38 more than 130 million gallons in the Merrimack watershed, Massachusetts;39 and hundreds of thousands of gallons in New Orleans.40

Failing Septic Systems

Aging home septic systems add to the problem. Wastewater from failing septic systems is a large source of groundwater pollution in the United States.41 More than one in five U.S. households rely on home septic systems instead of a centralized sewer system. Together, these decentralized systems treat more than 4 billion gallons of sewage every day.42

Many septic tanks are aging, failing, and endangering the environment and human health.43 Households bear the burden of maintaining and updating their septic systems, but the cost is unaffordable for many low-income rural residents.44 Failing household septic systems can contaminate water supplies and endanger human health.45 A 2013 survey in Ohio estimated that 31 percent of household septic systems were failing.46 Many rural residents in central Appalachia do not have a safe way to dispose of wastewater.47

Subsurface sewage treatment systems (SSTS) — common in areas that are not connected to centralized municipal sewage systems — can fail, contaminating the soil and groundwater around them, and leaving residents with high repair or replacement costs. Photo credit: CC-BY-NC 2.0 / MN Pollution Control Agency, Creative Commons

Failing septic systems have been associated with bacterial contamination of groundwater.48 A 2003 study found that 40 percent of Alabama’s septic systems were failing or in need of repair, while bacteria contaminated 46 percent of household water wells in the state, leaving an estimated 340,000 residents with greater risks of waterborne disease.49 In Alabama’s Black Belt region, because of rural poverty, structural racism, and soil characteristics, not only do many septic systems fail but also many homes use straight pipes that directly pour raw sewage into woods or a ditch. A 2016 survey of Wilcox County, Alabama found that only 7 percent of homes had permitted septic systems, while 60 percent of homes examined had straight pipes, which together released more than half a million gallons of raw sewage every day.50 In Lowndes County, Alabama, a majority-Black county, at least 40 percent of homes lack adequate sanitation, and the cost of installing a system can exceed the average resident’s annual income.51

Climate chaos will continue to amplify these problems. More systems will fail as sea levels rise, precipitation increases and temperatures warm.52

Polluted Waters

Sewage spills harm the environment; they pollute rivers, streams, and other water bodies, and they can contain toxics and dangerous pathogens that endanger human health.53 These toxic overflows have destroyed aquatic life, killed fish and closed shellfish harvesting areas.54

Overall, because of all sources of pollution, two-thirds of estuaries in the United States have elevated risks of eutrophication55 and harmful algal blooms.56 More than a third of the shoreline area of the Great Lakes is in fair or poor biological condition (a third of the area was unable to be studied).57 Less than one-fifth of estuarine and Great Lakes waters have fish in good condition.58 In total, more than half of U.S. rivers and streams, 40 percent of lakes and 21 percent of coastal waters have excess nutrients (which can lead to excessive algal growth and cause fish kills), and 73 percent of U.S. wetlands have lost plant life, which can stress the ecosystem.59

Sewage spills have made water too polluted to swim, boat or fish.60 In 2020, one-third of the recreational beaches in the United States had at least one advisory or closing. Over the last five years, between 28 percent and 33 percent of beaches have had at least one advisory or closing each year. Aging and poorly designed sewage and stormwater systems contribute to many of the beach closures.61 In 2020, wastewater and septic systems were responsible for one-fifth of the beach closings and advisories with known causes (although nearly half of closings have unknown causes, some of which may be related to wastewater events).62 Increased funding to improve wastewater systems and address stormwater can help stop pollution of the nation’s beaches.

Human Illnesses

More than 7 million cases of waterborne diseases are reported in the United States every year.63 As a result of these illnesses, more than 100,000 people are hospitalized and over 6,000 people die a year.64 People become sick from drinking contaminated water; swimming in polluted pools, lakes and beaches; and other exposures to contaminated water.65

More than 7 million cases of waterborne diseases are reported in the United States every year.

The EPA estimated that thousands of people become sick each year just from exposure to sewage-contaminated recreation areas.66 Wastewater contains viruses, bacteria and other pathogens that can cause serious illness. Many people are exposed to raw sewage that backs up in their homes or yards from overloaded municipal sewer systems or failing septic systems.67 People exposed to sewage-polluted waters can become sick with hepatitis, gastroenteritis, and infections of the skin, lungs and ears, among other illnesses.68

Failing septic systems can also expose people to high nitrate levels in household well water, which can lead to the potentially deadly blue baby syndrome in infants.69 In Wilcox County, Alabama, researchers estimated that the raw sewage dumped from straight pipes from homes into the environment releases 10 billion viruses and 19 billion parasites every day.70 In Lowndes County, Alabama, one study found that more than 40 percent of households were exposed to raw sewage, and more than a third of adults tested positive for gastrointestinal parasites, including hookworm.71

Part 4:

The Water Solution for The 21st Century

It’s time for the WATER Act to restore the federal government’s commitment to protect clean water for every community.

The WATER Act is the landmark 21st-century legislation that we need to restore federal support and help protect clean water. The WATER Act is the only permanent solution to our nation’s water funding woes, providing $35 billion each year to restore our public water infrastructure.

In addition to funding drinking water improvements, the WATER Act will provide $18.1 billion each year to address the nation’s wastewater problems:
  • $15.7 billion a year to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to fund publicly owned wastewater system upgrades, with at least half of the funding prioritized as grants or additional subsidization to disadvantaged communities;
  • $871 million a year to help update and install household septic systems and other on-site sewage disposal systems;
  • $871 million a year for non-point-source management programs;
  • $523 million a year for pollution control programs; and
  • $174 million a year for technical assistance to rural, small or indigenous wastewater providers.72

Now is the time to fully fund our wastewater infrastructure to help clean up our waterways and protect our communities.

Tell Congressmembers to support the WATER Act now!

Endnotes
  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Office of Water. “Report to Congress: Impacts and Control of Combined Sewer Overflows and Sanitary Sewer Overflows.” (EPA 833-R-04-001). August 2004 at ES-2, ES-3 and ES-5.
  2. Bagenstose, Kyle and Kevin Crowe. “US sewer systems weren’t built for climate change; heavier rainfall can overwhelm systems, causing toxic spills in communities that can least afford it.” USA Today. December 7, 2021.
  3. Fountain, Henry. “How bad is the western drought? Worst in 12 centuries, study finds.” New York Times. February 14, 2022.
  4. Hines, N. William. “History of the 1972 Clean Water Act: The story behind how the 1972 Act became the capstone of a decade of environmental reform.” Journal of Energy & Environmental Law. Summer 2013 at 80, 81 and 98.
  5. Ramseur, Jonathan L. and Mary Tiemann. Congressional Research Service. “Water Infrastructure Financing: History of EPA Appropriations.” Updated April 10, 2019 at 1.
  6. Ibid. at 1; American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). “2021 Infrastructure Report Card.” 2021 at 153.
  7. ASCE (2021) at 153.
  8. EPA. “Clean Watersheds Needs Survey 2012: Report to Congress.” (EPA 830-R-15005).January 2016 at 1; ASCE (2021) at 152.
  9. ASCE (2021) at 151.
  10. EPA (January 2016) at 1; EPA. “Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment: 6th Report to Congress.” (EPA 816-K-17-002). March 2018 at 9.
  11. EPA (January 2016) at 1, 2 and 6.
  12. EPA. “FY 2021 CWSRF Allotments: $1,638,826,000.” Available at https://www.epa.gov/cwsrf/clean-water-state-revolving-fund-cwsrf-allotments-federal-funds-states. Accessed December 22, 2021.
  13. Regan, Michael. EPA. Letter to Governors. December 2, 2021 at 6.
  14. Congressional Budget Office. “Public Spending on Transportation and Water Infrastructure, 1956 to 2017.” October 15, 2018 at Supplemental Tables. Table W-8.
  15. Food & Water Watch (FWW) calculation based on Ibid.; U.S. Census, Population Estimates Program. “Historical National Population Estimates: July 1, 1900 to July 1, 1999.” June 28, 2000; U.S. Census. “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2019.” (NST-EST2019-01). Last revised October 21, 2021.
  16. National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). “NACWA Financial Survey: Executive Highlights.” August 2021 at 7.
  17. Ibid. at 18.
  18. Bagenstose and Crowe (2021).
  19. Fountain (2022).
  20. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Water Infrastructure. Technical Assistance and Climate Resilience Planning Could Help Utilities Prepare for Potential Climate Change Impacts.” (GAO-20-24). January 2020 at 2, 17 and 61.
  21. NACWA and Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. “Confronting Climate Change: An Early Analysis of Water and Wastewater Adaptation Costs.” October 2009 at ES-1 and ES-8.
  22. National Academy of Public Administration. “Developing a New Framework for Community Affordability of Clean Water Services.” October 2017 at 25.
  23. Ibid. at 21.
  24. Ibid. at 22.
  25. National Consumer Law Center. “Review and recommendations for implementing water and wastewater affordability programs in the United States.” March 2014 at 1 and 5.
  26. Economic Policy Institute. “Income Inequality in the U.S. by State, Metropolitan Area, and County.” June 16, 2016 at 1 to 4; Mirosa, Oriol. “Water affordability in the United States: An initial exploration and an agenda for research.” Sociological Imagination. Vol. 51, Iss. 2. December 2015 at 52.
  27. Butts, Rachel and Stephen Gasteyer. “More cost per drop: Water rates, structural inequality, and race in the United States — The case of Michigan.” Environmental Reviews & Case Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4. December 2011 at 386 and 392 to 393.
  28. Foltz-Diaz, Kimberly et al. Massachusetts Global Action. “The Color of Water: A Report on the Human Right to Water in the City of Boston.” July 2014 at 1 and 5; GAO. “Water Infrastructure: Information on Selected Midsize and Large Cities With Declining Populations.” (GAO-16-785). September 2016 at 57 to 58 and 72 to 73.
  29. Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. “Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States.” May 2019 at 12, 19 to 24 and 30; Flowers, Catherine Coleman. “A county where the sewer is your lawn.” New York Times. May 22, 2018; Okeowo, Alexis. “The heavy toll of the Black Belt’s wastewater crisis.” The New Yorker. November 23, 2020; Smith, Catherine. “‘If white people were still here, this wouldn’t happen’: The majority-Black town flooded with sewage.” The Guardian. February 11, 2021.
  30. EPA (2004) at ES-5 to ES-7.
  31. EPA. “NPDES Compliance Inspection Manual. Chapter 13.” (305-K-17-001). January 2017 at 297.
  32. EPA (2004) at ES-5 to ES-7; ASCE (2021) at 153; Bagenstose and Crowe (2021).
  33. EPA. Office of Wastewater Management. “Report to Congress: Combined Sewer Overflows to the Great Lakes Basin.” (EPA 833-R-16-006). April 2016 at 1 to 2.
  34. Ibid. at ES-2.
  35. Kenward, Alyson et al. Climate Central. “Sewage Overflows From Hurricane Sandy.” April 2014 at 3.
  36. Ibid. at 1.
  37. “Hurricane Ida — 350K gallons in raw sewage spill in area; Rains from hurricane overflowed 10 separate wastewater systems.” The News Herald (FL). September 8, 2021.
  38. Specker, Lawrence. “Hurricane Ida’s silver lining: Mobile sewer improvements are working.” Press-Register (AL). September 8, 2021.
  39. Wade, Christian M. “Lawmakers hear more pitches for relief money.” The Eagle-Tribune. September 13, 2021.
  40. Natter, Ari. “Ida leaves toxic chemicals, sewage swirling in its wake.” Bloomberg. September 3, 2021.
  41. EPA. Office of Water. “Managing Septic Systems to Prevent Contamination of Drinking Water.” (EPA 816-F-01-021). July 2001 at 2; Mihaly, Elena. “Avoiding septic shock: How climate change can cause septic system failure and whether New England states are prepared.” Ocean and Coastal Law Journal. Vol. 23, Iss. 1. January 2018 at 7.
  42. EPA. “Decentralized Wastewater Program Annual Report 2013.” (EPA-832-R-140006). August 2014 at 1.
  43. Hoghooghi, Nahal et al. “Frontiers in assessing septic systems vulnerability in coastal Georgia, USA: Modeling approach and management implications.” PLOS One. Vol. 16, Iss. 8. August 2021 at 2 to 3; Mihaly (2018) at 7.
  44. United Nations. Human Rights Council. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation on her mission to the United States of America (22 February — 4 March 2011).” August 2, 2011 at 7 to 8.
  45. Mohamed, R. “Why households in the United States do not maintain their septic systems and why state-led regulations are necessary: Explanations from public goods theory.” International Journal of Sustainable Development Planning. Vol. 4, No. 2. 2009 at 41.
  46. Ohio Department of Health. “Household Sewage Treatment System Failures in Ohio.” January 2013 at 1.
  47. United Nations (2011) at 7.
  48. Wedgworth, Jessica Cook and Joe Brown. “Limited access to safe drinking water and sanitation in Alabama’s Black Belt: A cross-sectional case study.” Water Quality, Exposure and Health, Vol. 5, Iss. 2. June 2013 at 70.
  49. Ibid. at 69 to 70.
  50. Elliott, Mark. University of Alabama. “Innovative Technologies and Approaches to Address Decentralized Wastewater Infrastructure Challenges in the Alabama Black Belt.” Presented at EPA Decentralized Wastewater Webinar Series. May 26, 2021 at 22; Elliot, Mark and Kevin White. Alabama Water Resources Research Institute. “Onsite Wastewater Management in Hale and Wilcox Counties: Failing Septic Systems, Direct Discharge by ‘Straight Pipes’ and Microbial Source Tracking.” Annual Technical Report. FY 2016 at 1 to 2; Flowers (2018).
  51. Flowers (2018); Okeowo (2020).
  52. Mihaly (2018) at 2 and 4 to 6.
  53. EPA (2004) at ES-2, ES-3, ES-7 and ES-8.
  54. Ibid. at ES-7 to ES-8; EPA. “Keeping Raw Sewage and Contaminated Stormwater Out of the Public’s Water.” 2011 at 4.
  55. Eutrophication: A process that occurs when an estuary or another body of water has an excess of nutrients that causes too many plants and algae to grow. This can lead to toxic algal blooms and low-oxygen waters that kill aquatic life. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service. “What is eutrophication?” Available at https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/eutrophication.html. Last updated February 26, 2021.
  56. EPA. “National Coastal Condition Assessment.” (EPA 841-R-21-0001). August 2021 at 25.
  57. Ibid. at 37.
  58. Ibid. at 29 and 43.
  59. EPA. “How’s My Waterway?” Available at https://mywaterway.epa.gov/national. Accessed November 9, 2021.
  60. EPA (2004) at ES-7 to ES-8.
  61. Note: the recreational beaches that are monitored are program beaches under the BEACH Act. EPA, Office of Water. “EPA’s Beach Report: 2020 Swimming Season.” (EPA-820-R-21-004). August 2021 at 2.
  62. FWW calculation based on Ibid. at 3.
  63. Collier, Sarah A. et al. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Estimate of burden and direct healthcare cost of infectious waterborne disease in the United States.” Emerging Infectious Diseases. Vol. 27, No. 1. January 2021 at 140 and 145.
  64. Ibid. at 140 and 145.
  65. Ibid. at 140 and 145.
  66. EPA (2004) at ES-9; EPA (2011) at 4.
  67. EPA. Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “EPA enforcement: Preventing backup of municipal sewage into basements.” Enforcement Alert. Vol. 8, No. 1. (EPA 325-N-06-001). September 2006 at 1; Mihaly (2018) at 7.
  68. EPA (2011) at 4.
  69. EPA (2001) at 2; Hoghooghi et al. (2021) at 2 to 3.
  70. Elliot and White (FY 2016) at 1 to 2.
  71. McKenna, Megan L. et al. “Human intestinal parasite burden and poor sanitation in rural Alabama.” The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Vol. 97, Iss. 5. September 2017 at 1 and 2.
  72. S. 916. 117th Congress. §2 (2021); H.R. 1352. 117th Congress. (2021).

Averting Climate Catastrophe: Fossil Fuels Must End While Renewables Take Over

REPORT - March 2022

What You’ll Learn From This Report

  • 1: We Must Stop Pretending Renewables Will Automatically Displace Fossil Fuels
    • Only curbing fossil fuels will let renewables deliver on their potential.
  • 2: Renewables and Fossil Fuels Have Grown Together
    • Renewable energy is not a silver bullet for eliminating fossil fuels.
  • 3: Emphasizing Renewables Alone Will Not Displace Fracking
    • Waning consumer demand for fracked gas means frackers turn to exports, industrial uses.
  • 4: Corporations and Democrats Continue Trump’s Energy Agenda
    • The “all of the above” approach prevents us from curbing the climate crisis.
  • 5: Cozy State Regulators Will Not Choose Renewables Over Fossil Fuels Unless They Have To
    • Loopholes help fossil fuels compete against renewables.
  • 6: Leaders Must Directly Confront Fossil Fuel Production and Use
    • Supply-side energy policy is crucial for our future.

Part 1:

We Must Stop Pretending Renewables Will Automatically Displace Fossil Fuels

Only curbing fossil fuels will let renewables deliver on their potential.

Leaders of the United States are at a make-or-break crossroads. As the climate rapidly deteriorates and the impacts multiply from climate-amplified disasters — such as fires, drought, hurricanes and floods — we have a waning chance to avert the worst-case scenarios of climate chaos. It will require bold action and directly taking on the fossil fuel industry.

The science behind climate change is undeniable, and with each passing day more policy makers agree that action is required. The only real debate that remains is how to address this challenge.

There is a growing consensus that we must drastically increase the production of renewable energy, and policy makers — including President Biden — have embraced broad goals for a large percentage of electricity to come from renewable energy by 2030.1 However, these goals will fall short in addressing the climate emergency if increases in renewable energy are not coupled with immediate action to curb the production and use of fossil fuels.2

Curbing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Changes Our Future

The climate policies we enact by 2030 affect how much our climate warms by 2100.

Source: Graphic based on projections for warming over pre-industrial levels, from OurWorldInData.org.

The policy decisions of the past decade drove a boom in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), resulting in a massive buildout of fracked gas power plants, pipelines and petrochemical facilities. Fossil fuel corporations plan to build even more. Natural gas currently accounts for more than three times as much electricity production as renewable energy.3 Alarmingly, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that the United States will consume more fracked gas in 2050 than 2020.4 This is a recipe for disaster.

We do not have a decade or even a few years to test the idea that simply by building up renewable energy, the market will phase out the production of fossil fuels. History shows that even when renewable energy has increased, it has not significantly impacted fossil fuel production. For example, only 34 percent of the fracked gas is burned to produce electricity — meaning that most fracked gas is not even supporting our electric grid.5 To address our climate crisis, we need to thwart climate change’s main driver: fossil fuels.

President Biden and many elected leaders use catchy soundbites about moving off of fossil fuels, but the policies that they embrace (including false solutions such as carbon capture, “blue” hydrogen and offsets) will lock us in to dependence on fossil fuels for decades. Despite Biden’s promises to tackle climate change, and the iron-clad science that says we must stop approving new fossil projects, the administration has greenlit even more of them.6

Hundreds of leading scientists stated in an October 2021 letter to President Biden that “the reality of our situation is now so dire that only a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel extraction and combustion can fend off the worst consequences of the climate crisis.”7 Their urgency was mirrored in the 2021 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Following the report’s release, the UN Secretary-General said:

“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet. There must be no new coal plants built after 2021…. Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy.”8

We still have time to fix our future, but the hour is getting late. We are already experiencing significant climate impacts, but we can and must act now to avoid truly catastrophic consequences. We are at a crossroads that will either haunt our future or redeem it. Policy makers can keep catering to the fossil fuel industry and condemn us to runaway climate chaos, or we can boldly reverse course, act for the benefit of humanity and take the necessary steps to end fossil fuels. As a society, the choice is ours.

Part 2:

Renewables and Fossil Fuels Have Grown Together

Renewable energy is not a silver bullet for eliminating fossil fuels.

Renewable Energy Is Ready to Take Center Stage

The need for urgent climate action becomes more pressing daily, and fortunately renewable energy options are cheaper than ever. Across their lifetimes, solar and wind energy projects cost $36.50 and $40 per megawatt-hour, respectively, in 2020, down from $248 and $123.50 per megawatt hour just over a decade earlier.9 These levelized costs are far cheaper than generating electricity from new nuclear or coal power plants and are often cheaper than natural gas plants.10 Over the past decade, cost reductions and public policy have more than quadrupled the share of electricity generated by wind and solar.11

Moreover, advances in storage and reliability technologies have torpedoed the fossil fuel industry’s claim that 100 percent renewable energy is not possible because “the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.” Scientific advances now mean that off-the-shelf, commercially available technology could support a power grid without any fossil fuels.12

Renewable energy’s potential has been demonstrated at scale in the real world. In 2019, a literature review of 180 scholarly papers covering the challenges associated with 100 percent (or near 100 percent) renewable systems concluded that most systems studied are technically and economically feasible.13 Moreover, when combining renewable technologies with storage, modeling shows that “enough renewable baseload potential exists across the US to meet the current electricity demand ten times over.”14

Fossil Fuel Investment and Production Still Boom

While the trends and viability of renewable energy provide reason for hope, without immediate climate action, the powerful and tenacious fossil fuel industry will doom any hope for climate stability. Despite remarkable progress in renewable electricity, the United States continues to produce and consume large quantities of fossil fuels.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. fossil fuel production fell somewhat in 2020 from an all-time high in 2019 (Figure 1). But according to EIA projections, fossil fuel production is poised to resume its rise through 2022.15 Although coal production has fallen by about half during the fracking boom, the increased production of oil and natural gas has more than offset any greenhouse gas reductions that occurred during coal’s decline.16 If these trends continue, the long-term outlook for the climate is dire. The EIA’s latest long-term projections predict that the U.S. will consume more oil and natural gas in 2050 than in 2020.17

PROVED RESERVES

Progress in Fossil Fuel Technology Could Doom Our Climate

Without supply constraints such as banning natural gas and oil production, there is no guarantee that fossil fuel use will end or even slow. Unfettered technological progress is likely to unlock an ever-growing supply of fossil fuels at lower prices.22

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Photo: Jersey Turnpike Traffic. CCBYSA-Joiseyshowa-FLK / Wikimedia Commons
PROVED RESERVES

Total resources unlockable by technological improvements vastly outnumber these proved reserves (a metric used in mining that describes the amount of hydrocarbon resources that can be obtained from a site with a reasonable level of certainty). For example, if the production of oil shale (an oil-rich sand similar to bitumen tar sands, not to be confused with shale oil) became economical, it would at least triple proved reserves, and technology to extract methane hydrates (crystalized methane deep in the ocean) could more than double current gas reserves.23

Photo: Gas hydrate (white material) in marine sediments collected off the Oregon coast.
PROVED RESERVES

New environmentally destructive extraction methods could continue to unlock new sources of oil and gas. Currently, technological progress is finding new hydrocarbons faster than consumption is depleting existing sources. Proved reserves of oil and natural gas in the United States more than doubled between 2005 and 2018 despite high rates of extraction. In 2018, proved reserves totaled 504 trillion cubic feet of gas and 47 billion barrels oil.24 If extracted and burned, these reserves would release the equivalent of 78.7 billion metric tons of CO2.25 These reserves alone contain 15 years’ worth of U.S. energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.26

Part 3:

Emphasizing Renewables Alone Will Not Displace Fracking

Waning consumer demand for fracked gas means frackers turn to exports, industrial uses.

A single-minded focus on the promotion of renewable electricity, without addressing fossil fuel use in other sectors, will fail to adequately address climate change. Only 34 percent of the natural gas produced in the United States is burned at power plants. Buildings and industrial users each account for about 25 percent of natural gas use, and the remaining 17 percent of natural gas is exported (Figure 2).27

Even in the context of electricity, the promotion of renewables has done little to check the rise of new natural gas power plants supplying the grid. Since 2010, the contribution of renewable energy to the grid has risen from 2.8 percent to 11.5 percent (Figure 3). At this rate, the United States would only reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2130.28

However, the main trend in the electricity sector has been a substantial shift to natural gas. Natural gas grew from supplying 22.7 percent of electricity in 2010 to supplying 39.3 percent in 2020.29 This was the result of building more than 1,100 new natural gas generators with combined nameplate capacity greater than 100,000 megawatts (about 9 percent of all power plant capacity, or enough to power around 100 million homes if running at maximum).30 These new gas plants are intentionally designed with lifespans of 40 to 50 years.31 Without new policy, natural gas plants are likely to represent 40 percent of the new electric generation built through 2050, with even more gas plants opening through mid-century.32

Buildings Continue to Use Dangerous and Outdated Natural Gas Appliances

Natural gas is used for air and water heating in 9.7 percent of commercial buildings and 14.6 percent of residential buildings in the United States.33 This use (for air and water heating) could be displaced by readily available electric alternatives, as technologies that enable full electrification eliminate the need for natural gas in buildings.34 However, current trends indicate that without policy changes, natural gas use in buildings is unlikely to end. Natural gas appliances emit dangerous pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, which are linked to respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease. Operating a gas-powered stove and oven for an hour can raise indoor pollution to levels that exceed national air quality standards.35

Long-term climate goals cannot be reached without electrification.36 Despite this, the current pace of electrification in buildings is nowhere near fast enough. Buildings have slow turnover, and owners are often reluctant to invest in retrofits. Full electrification would likely require stringent standards for new buildings combined with rolling retrofit requirements for existing buildings.37 Deep reductions in buildings’ energy use are unlikely without the mandated retrofitting of the existing building stock.38 While constructing new buildings without natural gas should be the easier task, natural gas companies have fought tooth and nail against modest measures to limit the supply of natural gas to newly constructed buildings.39

Fracking’s Petrochemical and Plastics Push

The slow-changing buildings industry, while providing a stable outlet for entrenched natural gas companies, is not large enough on its own to support the continued fracking boom. The two sectors that are best positioned to enable the ongoing rise in natural gas production are exports and industrial users.40

The use of natural gas in the industrial sector is booming. Bulk chemicals (the production of organic and inorganic chemicals, resins and agricultural chemicals) account for half of this new industrial demand, including as feedstock (for hydrogen, methanol and nitrogenous fertilizer) as well as for heating purposes. Refineries, as well as producers of paper and bulk chemicals, also use natural gas for process heating and electricity generation, often at combined heat and power (CHP) plants.41

In February 2021, the main industry group representing petrochemical companies noted nearly 350 petrochemical projects that were planned, under construction or completed were made possible as a result of fracking.42 The EIA anticipates that the use of natural gas as a feedstock and a heating source in the industrial sector will grow substantially over the next decade.43

Exporting Natural Gas: A Booming Industry

U.S. energy production hit record highs in 2018 and 2019.52 Because of the pandemic, among other things, consumption of natural gas is set to decline slightly through 2022.53 However, after a brief decline, U.S. production of natural gas is accelerating,54 mostly because of the amount being sent to other countries. The EIA projected that natural gas exports would rise from 14.4 billion cubic feet per day in 2020 to 18.3 billion cubic feet per day by the end of 2021 (equal to nearly 20 percent of total U.S. natural gas production). This new export volume would more than compensate for a slight dip in the domestic use of natural gas for electricity, keeping producers flush.55

Of this increase in exports, 80 percent will be filled by fracked gas from newly drilled wells — gas that otherwise would have remained underground.56 Some natural gas is exported by pipeline or truck to Mexico and Canada, and the rest is shipped by tanker from export terminals to reach overseas markets.57 The gas moving via tankers first gets converted into liquefied natural gas (LNG), and its transport is highly dangerous.

U.S. LNG exports rose to record levels by the end of 2020, averaging 9.8 billion cubic feet per day in December.65 Existing LNG export capacity supports exporting as much as 10.1 billion cubic feet per day, but facilities that are currently approved and under construction would expand that capacity to 42.1 billion cubic feet per day, nearly half of all natural gas produced in the United States.66 If built, this export capacity could completely offset the total elimination of natural gas from the electric power sector, enabling producers to export all of the gas that they otherwise would have sold to power plants.67

If built, this export capacity could completely offset the total elimination of natural gas from the electric power sector, enabling producers to export all of the gas that they otherwise would have sold to power plants.

LNG advocates love to argue that the export of LNG is necessary to displace coal plants abroad; however, the United States also continues to export coal.68 The switch to natural gas power in the country has actually pushed some of the domestic coal supply overseas, where international consumers burn it.69 Every 10 percent drop in U.S. natural gas prices is associated with a 3.3 percent increase in coal exports.70 As fracking boomed from 2007 to 2013, U.S. coal exports doubled, despite the economic recession.71 However, continued coal exports depend on expanding the capacity at west coast terminals or adding rail capacity to Canada — hotly contested projects that are vulnerable to public opposition.72

These rising fossil fuel exports could be the final nail in the coffin for climate stability. Under so-called “baseline” scenarios — in which no additional mitigation of fossil fuel emissions occurs —the world is on track to hit 4.3 degrees Celsius of warming this century.73

So far, modest reductions in the consumption of coal and oil in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have been largely offset by an increase in natural gas consumption domestically and by a dramatic rise in fossil fuel use in non-OECD countries.74 Exports would help enable a nearly unlimited supply of fossil fuels, meaning that any policies to mitigate climate change proposed by countries such as the United States, if implemented, would still put the world on track for 3.2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.75

Part 4:

Corporations and Democrats Continue Trump’s Energy Agenda

The “all of the above” approach prevents us from curbing the climate crisis.

U.S. state governments have seized on the momentum for climate action by championing the buildout of renewable energy. However, they have avoided confrontation with entrenched fossil fuel interests and refuse to commit to hard limits on supply. Experience shows that building more renewable energy projects is not enough to guarantee deep reductions in emissions — even within the electricity sector. The “energy dominance” doctrine of the Trump administration took the stance that welcoming renewable energy as part of an “all of the above” approach poses no direct threat to fossil fuels.76

While the Biden administration has been more vocally supportive of renewables — promising billions in new spending on technology and development — it has not committed to hard limits on fossil fuel extraction.77 The administration has made clear that it sees fossil fuels as a key part of the future energy mix.78 When pushed, Biden even says, “I’m all for natural gas.”79

Facing pressure from oil and gas interests, some Democrats have embraced carbon capture as a way to keep the oil and gas industry afloat while “complying” with climate goals. However, carbon capture is a favored misdirection tactic, posing as a climate solution. Recent drafts of federal climate legislation have even included carbon capture in a list of “clean” energy sources, elevating it to the same status as real renewable energy such as wind and solar.80 Carbon capture and storage is unproven, prohibitively expensive and, after accounting for the entire emissions lifecycle, incapable of producing deep emissions reductions. Carbon capture can even enable increased oil production by injecting the captured carbon into oil reservoirs.81

Despite the impressive-sounding goals of electricity corporations, the planned time frames for fossil fuel retirements are too slow to meet these goals. Some utility companies are adhering to their climate pledges by divesting from their coal fleets rather than dismantling them, leaving these plants in service under new owners.82 Others corporations are choosing to buy credits, certificates or offsets from renewable energy producers while leaving dirty portions of their supply chain intact.83 Meanwhile, sectors such as technology and airlines have embraced a similar approach to climate pledges, but company insiders have questioned whether these measures have any impact on overall emissions.84

Chesterfield Power Station, one of Dominion Energy’s coal-fired power stations that’s on-track to retire. Photo credit: Edbrown05, CC BY-SA 2.5 / Wikimedia Commons

Virginia’s Renewables Seem to Be Token Gestures, While Fossil Fuels Keep Trucking

Plans to build additional renewable energy plants and transition to a more renewable grid in Virginia have been shadowed by new investments in fracked gas infrastructure and a reluctance to phase out existing fossil fuels. Amid growing pressure from climate activists, in 2018 Governor Ralph Northam touted plans by the state’s biggest utility to build 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy.85 Meanwhile, from 2010 to 2020, the state added 6,500 megawatts of new natural gas capacity.86 Despite posturing in support of renewable energy, Northam’s administration supported a number of multi-billion-dollar pipelines to bring natural gas into Virginia.87 Governor Youngkin’s election in 2021 only intensifies the threat of further fossil fuel development in the state, through commitments to weaken climate and environmental protections, dismantle citizen review boards for fossil fuel infrastructure projects, and greenlight fracked gas projects in the name of grid reliability.88

Northam’s administration even won praise nationally for its “landmark” climate bill.89 While the state’s climate bill, the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), is intended to phase out fossil-fueled power plants, the law takes decades to fully take hold and is riddled with loopholes.90 A legislative effort to clean up those loopholes in 2022 didn’t make it out of Committee, signaling the shifting reality regarding climate policy under Governor Youngkin.91 It is unclear whether the VCEA will have any meaningful impact on the decision making of utilities in the state. Despite the new law, developers have pushed ahead with the environmentally destructive Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile long project which would carry fracked gas through Virginia.92

Virginia’s added renewable energy projects appear to provide cover for the business-as-usual operation of fossil fuel power plants in the state. Even as a raft of positive press statements have touted the “transformative” nature of the VCEA, long-term resource plans submitted to Virginia’s utility regulator by Dominion Energy tell a starkly different story, including plans to operate natural gas plants long after the targets set by the VCEA.93

Dominion’s plans show that the company intends to retire much of its coal power fleet regardless of the VCEA. This is because many of Dominion’s coal operations have a negative net present value. Conversely, where environmental ambitions compete with profitability, profits appear to win out. Dominion’s plans do not retire any natural gas capacity until 2035 at the earliest, and include 970 megawatts of new gas capacity to be built in the early 2020s.94 Dominion claims that these gas plants are “placeholders,” but the company gives no indication as to what might be built in their place.95 Additionally, Dominion’s plans make little reference to the company’s highly profitable coal units at the Mount Storm power plant in West Virginia.96

Between now and 2035, Dominion’s plan features only 150 megawatts of additional retirements compared to how much the company would have retired if the VCEA had not passed. The biggest change from the “no VCEA” plan is that the VCEA plan retires three 50 megawatt biomass power plants.97 Dominion notes that uncertainty exists regarding the units it plans to retire, stating that, aside from a few units, “inclusion of a unit retirement in this 2020 Plan should be considered as tentative only.”98 These power plants may operate less frequently, but without firm commitments to actually close the plants, lower emissions are not guaranteed.

California’s Renewables Are Overshadowed by Our Oil Addiction

Nationally, California is the go-to example of environmental and climate action, both positively and pejoratively.112 There is some merit to these claims — the state produces the most solar power in the country and ranks near the top in renewable energy production as a percentage of generation.113 However, California is also the largest net importer of electricity, drawing partially on out-of-state coal power plants.114 The market-oriented bias of climate policy in California has left the state vulnerable to regulatory evasion tactics such as resource shuffling (the process of transferring dirty resources out-of-state and importing from dirty sources outside of the regulatory jurisdiction).115

Despite California’s environmental reputation, the fossil fuel industry has a large and entrenched presence. Yes, the state is a leader in renewables, but it is also the seventh largest oil producer in the country.116 In refining capacity, California ranks third behind Texas and Louisiana, with a huge apparatus set up to refine primarily imported oil.117

Much of California’s oil is produced using particularly water-intensive and environmentally destructive extraction measures such as cyclic steam injection, matrix acidizing and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).118 On average, oil produced in California is among the dirtiest sources in the world, resulting in higher lifecycle carbon emissions per barrel than other sources.119

Oil production also has a huge water footprint in California. Food & Water Watch found that from 2018 to June 2021, the oil and gas industry used over 3 billion gallons of freshwater for drilling operations that could otherwise have supplied domestic systems.120 The freshwater sucked up by the oil and gas industry since 2018 could have provided everyone in the city of Pasadena with the recommended amount of daily water for an entire year, or everyone in the city of Ventura for 16 months.121

Industry-backed decision makers and state agencies have enabled widespread drilling.122 Governor Newsom’s offer of a vague plan to end fossil fuel extraction by 2045 offers no guarantee that these fuels would stay in the ground.123 Instead of banning fracking now, Newsom plans to continue issuing fracking permits until 2024.124 These long time frames will doom climate policies, as fossil fuel producers can accelerate their production schedules to extract the reserves before the deadline.125 When producers anticipate an end to permitting, they stockpile and accumulate permits before the deadline hits, sometimes in quantities big enough to neutralize the policy.126

Part 5:

Cozy State Regulators Will Not Choose Renewables Over Fossil Fuels Unless They Have To

Loopholes help fossil fuels compete against renewables.

Curtailment in California

Building new renewable energy sources is often not enough to switch off fossil fuel power plants that were built before clean energy came online. In theory, electricity producers should choose power from renewable sources, which have no fuel costs (rather than paying to burn coal or natural gas).127 But in practice, renewable power plants are sometimes disconnected while utilities continue to burn coal and natural gas.128

This practice of reducing the amount of power supplied from renewables below the amount they are capable of producing is called curtailment. It is often done by disconnecting or reducing at the electrical converter level for solar and changing the blade angle for wind.129 A review of curtailment in four key solar-producing countries found that in 2018, 6.5 million megawatt-hours of solar was curtailed.130 That electricity could have powered all the households of a city around the size of Phoenix for year.131

California leads the nation in solar installation, but the state has largely failed to kick its dependence on natural gas.132 California uses more natural gas than any state other than Texas.133 Instead of building energy storage, California imports out-of-state power and turns to gas generation to fill gaps in solar generation.134 These imports hide the fossil fuel footprint of California’s electricity. Since 2015, natural gas-fired generation has declined by 29 percent in California, but it stayed the same overall in the western U.S. as out-of-state generators picked up the slack.135

Increased solar deployment in California has coincided with increased curtailment.136 From 2014 to 2019, curtailments nearly doubled each year.137 California curtails 2 to 3 percent of its renewable energy production.138 The group that oversees the electricity market and grid, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), has curtailed more than 5 million megawatt-hours of wind and solar electricity since 2015 (Figure 4).139 That is enough electricity to cover the needs of 740,000 Californian households for a year.140

Fossil Fuels Use Loopholes to Stave Off Renewables

Negative prices, or a surcharge to produce electricity, are a key mechanism to encourage curtailment in California. CAISO enables negative prices by adjusting the price floor to levels that will push out renewable generation.141 In 2017, wholesale prices of power in California hit negative levels.142 But these negative prices are not leading to cheap energy for consumers — Californians pay electricity rates that are among the highest in the nation.143

Negative pricing occurs when plants that are expensive to restart or shutdown continue to operate in anticipation of future demand.144 Pro-renewable policies can drive prices negative, but when fossil-fueled operators continue to run, this pushes prices to the point where renewables — which cost almost nothing to operate — lose money by selling electricity.145 CAISO has directly attempted to protect gas generators from negative prices by curtailing renewable energy.146 California also offers capacity payments for idling gas plants, creating a means for them to stay afloat amid negative wholesale prices.147 These flexibility payments are effectively a handout to gas generators.148

Negative prices reflect an uneven playing field that can favor fossil fuels over renewable energy. CAISO market rules in 2017 allowed natural gas generators to forgo curtailment by appealing to contract stipulations that do not match their technical capacities — in other words, allowing gas plants to pretend to be less flexible than they are.149 FERC even allowed CAISO to contract directly with fossil-fueled power plants that would otherwise be unable to compete with renewable energy.150

Transmission congestion is often cited as a rational for renewable curtailment in California.151 However, transmission capacity often goes unused while renewables are curtailed.152 Contracts signed by the big three California utilities restrict the use of transmission capacity to back up renewables.153 This leads to situations where California continues to import energy while curtailing renewables.154

Photo credit: Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Curtailment Is a Choice

Policy decisions impact price setting and direct grid investments, which determine the prices received by energy producers. Some level of curtailment may be inevitable in a completely renewable-powered grid at times of low demand, but curtailing renewables in favor of fossil fuels is not a reflection of that dynamic.155

Curtailment rates do not correspond to a proportion of renewables as a percentage of capacity and vary significantly among electricity markets.156 For example, Germany curtails far less than U.S. states with comparable levels of solar development.157 Texas substantially reduced curtailment of wind through public investment in transmission and market design changes to properly value wind energy.158 However, Texas curtailed 8.4 percent of its potential solar output in 2018.159

Investor-owned utilities have proved resistant to building the transmission infrastructure necessary to bring renewable electricity to distant markets.160 Private utilities have gone out of their way to design transmission investments in such a way as to benefit their existing fleets and bottom lines.161 Without significant reforms, these corporations will continue to use legal means to resist change, often with the help of in-their-pocket state governments.162

An electricity policy that prioritizes renewable energy and eliminating fossil fuels from the grid would go a long way to reduce curtailment. Incorporating storage and flexibility could significantly reduce curtailment in California.163 And while natural gas apologists argue that the flexibility of gas power plants enables renewables to run more frequently, non-fossil alternatives (such as demand response and storage) are more effective at reducing curtailment than natural gas generation is.164

Part 6:

Leaders Must Directly Confront Fossil Fuel Production and Use

Supply-side energy policy is crucial for our future.

Policy makers representing fossil fuel-producing regions have signaled willingness to embrace half-hearted market-based climate policies. Even major oil producers have signaled willingness to support a carbon tax.165 These policies pose no real threat to fossil fuel producers because they do not result in deep emissions reductions.166 Not only do fossil fuel pricing schemes create political cover, the revenue streams created by these programs can entrench these industries — leaving policy makers reluctant to cut back on production.167

In Pennsylvania, rather than enact regulations to respond to the dire social and environmental consequences of fracking, lawmakers enacted an “impact fee” that returns payouts from drilling to affected communities — a move welcomed by fracking companies.168 Pennsylvania gas companies supplement their tax contributions with voluntary charity to launder their image.169 The strategies appear somewhat successful. Surveys of Pennsylvania residents find that the popularity of fracking rises in tandem with the size of impact fees.170

Would-be frackers in the United Kingdom openly extol the importance of impact fees for generating the political will to frack. In a plan modeled on the United States, the U.K. chemical company Ineos offered broad-ranging voluntary community payments as part of a comprehensive strategy to push fracking — giving an activity that depletes the environment and erodes our climate future the false patina of social good.171

The following statement captures this gaslighting tactic:

“Giving 6% of revenues to those directly above Shale gas wells means the rewards are fairly shared by everyone. It’s what they do in the USA and we think it is right to do this here. It democratises the Shale gas revolution.”172

Ineos CEO Jim Ratcliffe

Conclusion: Public Policy — Not Market Mechanisms — Is the Only Way Forward

The viability of renewable electricity provides an off-ramp from climate chaos, but if fossil fuel development continues unchecked, we will be locked in to decades of continued carbon emissions and climate crisis.173 Policies that address the fossil fuel supply are a vital component of any successful effort to address climate change. For example, reducing coal subsidies would have a much smaller impact on coal consumption than a ban on new coal mines.174

Limiting production is far easier to enforce than using market mechanisms to reduce consumption. Both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes involve complex and detailed reporting and auditing at thousands of facilities — which creates a difficult job for the government agencies that oversee them.175 In addition to financial costs, complex administration can lead to under reporting and gaming between regulated and unregulated entities, resulting in emissions.176

In contrast, supply policies are easily observable and have predictable outcomes with minimal overhead.177 That is because supply policies impact a smaller number of firms and regulate easily observed commodities rather than the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.178 Moreover, in an alternate scenario where demand reduction works, supply controls would have no additional cost and merely act as an insurance policy.179

The United States is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, contributing 15 percent of total global emissions.180 However, some politicians argue that the country cannot substantially reduce global emissions because developing countries continue to increase their emissions.181 This is in part because the trade in carbon-intensive products has grown rapidly, undermining the effectiveness of domestic climate policy on the demand side.182 Many of these same politicians have supported lax trade policies that allow corporations to relocate to other countries to avoid complying with regulations.183 In some cases, countries export fuels that are used to produce products that they then import to consume.184

Even without global cooperation, removing the U.S. fossil fuel reserves from the world market would undermine fossil fuel generation globally.185 While investment and (to a lesser extent) labor can cross borders, fossil fuel reserves are immobile.186 By imposing limits on fossil fuel production within their own borders, countries can guarantee against the relocation of these fuels.187 International agreements that target the supply of fossil fuels are easier to negotiate, verify and enforce because they deal with fewer polluters.188

Recommendations:

  • President Biden should use his authority to stop fossil fuel extraction on federal lands.
  • President Biden should use his authority to stop the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, including LNG exports, by denying the needed federal permits.
  • Congress should ban fracking everywhere.
  • Congress should pass legislation laying out a managed transition off fossil fuels that protects workers and communities that have depended on the industry.

We can shift right now to the power sources that will change the trajectory of humankind. It just takes the political will of clear-headed leaders working for the good of the people and not the profit margins of the fossil fuel industry.

Send a message to President Biden now. We must end fossil fuels before they end us.

Endnotes
  1. Milman, Oliver. “Biden’s clean energy plan would cut emissions and save 317,000 lives.” Guardian. July 12, 2021.
  2. Welsby, Dan et al. “Unextractable fossil fuels in a 1.5°C world.” Nature. Vol. 597. September 2021 at 230.
  3. Food & Water Watch (FWW) analysis of U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Energy Information Administration (EIA). June 2021 Monthly Energy Review. Available at https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly and on file with FWW.
  4. DOE EIA. “Annual Energy Outlook 2021 with projections to 2050: Narrative.” February 3, 2021 at 7 and 22.
  5. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Natural Gas Monthly Data. Available at https://www.eia.gov/naturalgas/data.php. Accessed June 2021 and on file with FWW. Note: Figures are an average of the 12 months preceding May 2021; DOE EIA. “Fossil fuel production expected to increase through 2022 but remain below 2019 peak.” Today in Energy. January 15, 2021.
  6. Welsby, Dan et al. (2021) at 230; Kalmus, Peter et al. Letter to U.S. President Joseph R. Biden. “An open letter from U.S. scientists imploring President Biden to end the fossil fuel era.” October 7, 2021. Available at https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/climate_law_institute/pdfs/An-Open-Letter-from-US-Scientists-Imploring-President-Biden-to-End-the-Fossil-Fuel-Era.pdf.
  7. Kalmus et al. (2021).
  8. United Nations Secretary-General. [Press release]. “Secretary-General’s statement on the IPCC Working Group 1 Report on the Physical Science Basis of the Sixth Assessment.” August 9, 2021.
  9. Lazard. Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis. Version 14. October 2020 at 9.
  10. Ibid. at 8 and 10 to 13.
  11. DOE EIA. Electric Power Monthly, Net Generation All Sectors Monthly. Available at https://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/browser. Accessed January 2021 and on file with FWW; Carley, Sanya et al. “Empirical evaluation of the stringency and design of renewable portfolio standards.” Nature Energy. Vol. 3. July 2018 at 754 and 761; Rossi, Jim. “Carbon taxation by regulation.” Minnesota Law Review. Vol. 102, No. 277. November 2017 at 302.
  12. Diesendorf, Mark and Ben Elliston. “The feasibility of 100% renewable electricity systems: A response to critics.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Vol. 93. October 2018 at 318.
  13. Hansen, Kenneth et al. “Status and perspectives on 100% renewable energy systems.” Energy. Vol. 175. May 2019 at 471 and 475.
  14. Rhodes, J. D. et al. “Baseload power potential from optimally-configured wind, solar and storage power plants across the United States.” Nature Communications. 2020 at 15.
  15. DOE EIA (January 2021).
  16. Ibid.; FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Annual Coal Report 2020. Natural Gas Gross Withdrawals and Production 2020. U.S. Field Production of Crude Oil. Available at https://www.eia.gov/naturalgas/data.php and on file with FWW; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. Updated March 2021. Available at https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator and on file with FWW.
  17. DOE EIA (February 3, 2021) at 7.
  18. Gorski, Irena and Brian S. Schwartz. “Environmental health concerns from unconventional natural gas development.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia Global Public Health. February 2019 at 11 and 39.
  19. Castelli, Matthew. “Fracking and the rural poor: Negative externalities, failing remedies, and federal legislation.” Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality. Vol. 3, Iss. 2. May 2015 at 281 and 285 to 287; Zwickl, Klara. “The demographics of fracking: A spatial analysis for four U.S. states.” Ecological Economics. Vol. 161. July 2019 at 202.
  20. DOE EIA. Gas Production by Shale Play. Available at https://www.eia.gov. Accessed October 2021 and on file with FWW; DOE EIA. “U.S. dry natural gas production and rig count continue to grow from pandemic lows.” Today in Energy. June 17, 2021.
  21. Calculation assumes 86 (20-year) global warming potential of methane and methane leakage of 3.5 percent. From Howarth, Robert W. “Ideas and perspectives: Is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane?” Biogeosciences. Vol. 16, Iss. 15. August 2019 at 3038 to 3040; EPA (2021).
  22. Covert, Thomas et al. “Will we ever stop using fossil fuels?” Journal of Economic Perspectives. Vol 30, No. 1. Winter 2016 at 119.
  23. Ibid at 125 to 126.
  24. DOE EIA. “U.S. oil and natural gas proved reserves and production set new records in 2018.” Today in Energy. January 13, 2020.
  25. See calculation in footnote 21; EPA (2021).
  26. DOE EIA. “U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2019.” September 30, 2020 at 3.
  27. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Natural Gas Monthly Data.
  28. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. June 2021 Monthly Energy Review. Note: FWW defines renewables as solar, wind and geothermal.
  29. Ibid.
  30. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Form EIA-860 data, 2019. Available at https://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/eia860. Accessed January 2021 and on file with FWW; PJM Interconnection. [Press release]. “PJM prepared to ensure a reliable grid during August solar eclipse.” July 31, 2017.
  31. FWW analysis of DOE EIA. Form EIA-860 data, 2016. Note: The average age of U.S. gas-fired power plants is 24 years, but 643 (12 percent) began operating before 1968, 50 years ago, and the oldest gas plant went online in 1915.
  32. DOE EIA (February 3, 2021) at 14.
  33. FWW DOE EIA. Natural Gas Monthly Data. Accessed June 2021.
  34. Steinberg, Daniel et al. DOE. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Electrification & Decarbonization: Exploring U.S. Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Scenarios With Widespread Electrification and Power Sector Decarbonization.” NREL/TP-6A20-68214. July 2017 at vi, 12 and 13.
  35. Zhu, Yifang et al. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Fielding School of Public Health. “Effects of Residential Gas Appliances on Indoor and Outdoor Air Quality and Public Health in California.” April 2020 at 6.
  36. Reyna, Janet L. and Mikhail V. Chester. “Energy efficiency to reduce residential electricity and natural gas use under climate change.” Nature Communications. Vol. 8. May 2017 at 2.
  37. Onat, Nuri Cihat et al. “Towards greening the U.S. residential building stock: A system dynamics approach.” Building and Environment. Vol. 78. 2014 at 76 to 78; Mundaca, Luis et al. “Demand-side approaches for limiting global warming to 1.5 °C.” Energy Efficiency. Vol. 12. August 2018 at 4.
  38. Onat, Nuri Cihat et al. (2014) at 76 and 77.
  39. Tomich, Jeffrey. “Gas ban backlash spreads across the U.S.” E&E News. February 2, 2021.
  40. DOE EIA (February 3, 2021) at 25.
  41. Ibid. at 25 and 26.
  42. American Chemistry Council (ACC). “U.S. Shale Gas Infographic February 2021.” February 2021.
  43. DOE EIA (February 3, 2021) at 8.
  44. DOE EIA. “U.S. ethane exports rise in 2019 as China receives its first U.S. cargos.” Natural Gas Weekly Update. January 30, 2020; DOE EIA. Petroleum Supply Annual 2010, Volume 2. July 28, 2011 at table 1; DOE EIA. Petroleum Supply Annual 2020, Volume 2. August 31, 2021 at table 1.
  45. DOE EIA. “EIA forecasts resilient, growing ethane production through 2021.” Natural Gas Weekly Update. August 13, 2020.
  46. Laris, Michael. “In the shadows of Refinery Row, a parable of redevelopment and race.” Washington Post. October 21, 2017.
  47. Asbury, Martina. PetroChemical Update. “U.S. Northeast Petrochemical Industry: Market Outlook 2018.” November 2017 at 5; Blunt, Katherine. “Ethane consumption surges with petrochemcial boom.” Houston Chronicle. February 24, 2018; Blunt, Katherine. “Houston­area petrochemical producers look overseas to sell plastic.” Houston Chronicle. February 1, 2018.
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  96. Ibid. at 83.
  97. Ibid. at 27 to 29.
  98. Ibid. at 83.
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  146. Ibid.
  147. Ibid.
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