In this Part 2 of the Top Climate Stories 2021, we look at how subterfuge seemed to be the only way climate action could get done, how renewables became mainstream, how big oil kept ripping off citizens, what the effects of water shortages on far-reaching regions were, and more.
Here is Part 2 — the second and final installment of Top Climate Stories 2021.
Biden’s Executive Actions for the Environment — Part 2, Top Climate Stories 2021
Initially, the news was all good from the new US administration. President Biden signed measures to rejoin the Paris climate accord and block the Keystone XL pipeline. Executive actions slowly undid 50 regressive environmental policies of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. The Washington Post’s environmental action tracker noted the pace of 31 new measures and 28 proposals to protect the environment.
Now, in the month of December alone, the Biden administration:
- reversed a rule granting manufacturers a waiver from uniform energy-efficiency test procedures
- called for the federal government to run on all clean power by 2030, switch to zero-emission cars and light trucks by 2035, and make federal buildings carbon neutral by 2045
- revoked a rule that relaxed efficiency standards for shower heads and let them use unlimited amounts of water
- announced plans to create new standards to replace millions of underground lead water service lines, while providing billions of dollars to help finance the effort
- approved two new major solar projects
Those and other environmental executive actions are necessary because Senator Joe Manchin (D-Coal) singlehandedly weakened climate action in the US in 2021. Build Back Better (BBB) could have become the most significant clean-energy investment in US history, with a $555 billion package of tax credits, grants, and other policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, Manchin forced Democrats to abandon a move that would have compelled utilities to switch to clean energy. He didn’t see the need for subsidies for union-made EVs. He fought against a proposed fee on methane.
After promising to support a vote on the act before Christmas, Manchin slow-walked his pledge. Environmental executive actions became the norm due to Manchin’s efforts within a deadlocked Congress and the resulting Democrats’ inability to pass legislation.
But the Biden administration needs to continue to make progress in areas like the Dakota Access Pipeline, sale of oil and gas drilling leases on federal land, and the largest offshore oil and gas leases in US history on more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico.
Renewable Energy Rose in Prominence
The price of renewable energy fell even more in 2021, and a record amount of solar power and wind power was produced. Cleantech made that possible.
According to the Energy Information Administration, wind and solar power made up 62% of new electric generating capacity to come online in 2019 and 76% in 2020. Through September, 2021, these two new energy technologies comprised 74% of the total new technologies.
In October, 2021, solar and wind accounted for 14% of US electricity generation. That’s an enormous percentage for energy sources that were considered novel just a decade ago. Large-scale solar accounted for 37.2% of new US power capacity in the first 10 months of 2021, wind power accounted for 33.2%, small-scale solar accounted for 15.5%, and fossil gas accounted for 13.7%.
Across the US, wind and solar are simply less expensive than dirty fossil fuels. And costs for wind, solar and battery technologies continue to fall.
Oil Infrastructure — Over & Over — Experienced Massive Leaks
In August, Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast with near 150 mile-per-hour winds. The trail of destruction included the most oil spills detected from space after a weather event in the Gulf of Mexico since the federal government started using satellites to track spills and leaks a decade ago. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a total of 55 spill reports, including a spill near a fragile nature reserve. These disasters underscore the frailty of offshore oil and gas infrastructure due to intensifying storms fueled by climate change.
Leaking pipeline connected to a California offshore oil platform and operated by Beta Offshore — a Long Beach unit of Houston’s Amplify Energy — produced a 5.8-mile oil plume running from the Huntington Beach Pier to Newport Beach. Over 126,000 gallons spilled from the platform, which is located in federal waters off of the Los Angeles County coast; the waters are overseen by the US Department of the Interior.
The Limetree Bay refinery that rained oil on St. Croix neighborhoods will remain shut down indefinitely after it spewed oil onto nearby predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods twice since reopening in February. The EPA shut down the refinery initially after a release of oil vapor in early February, three days after reopening for the first time in a decade.
These and other oil catastrophes fall to public funds to remediate. That’s because the oil and gas industry use their economic power to suspend the laws of economics — they get to avoid taxes on most of their income through a convoluted web of special provisions in the tax code.
Pervasive Drought Reduced Colorado River Allocations
In the US West, federal water managers announced that they had no option but to reduce the amount of water some states receive from the Colorado River. That means the century-old Colorado River Compact is no longer the guiding document on how how water is divided among the states in the greater watershed: Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Today, 40 million people depend on water from the Colorado River Basin even as water resources are diminishing due to a record drought. In late summer of 2021, 99% of the US west of the Rockies was in a state of drought; Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, was at only 40% of capacity.
Nearly half the world’s population lacks consistent access to fresh water for drinking, irrigation, and basic sanitation, according to a report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). More than 2 billion people are living in countries under water stress and 3.6 billion people face inadequate access to water at least one month per year.
The WMO says that there is a need for urgent action to improve cooperative water management, embrace integrated water and climate policies, and scale up investment in water — a commodity which underpins all the international goals on sustainable development, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction.
Final Thoughts for Top Climate Stories 2021, Part 2
We can still prevent the planet from getting even hotter. It will require all of us reading this article to become climate activists and demand a coordinated effort among countries to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by around 2050.
Photo collage retrieved from NOAA / public domain
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