Methane levels have hit a scary record high, new studies say

While the world has been focused on a global pandemic and widespread protests, another crisis is gathering in the atmosphere. And no, it isn’t carbon dioxide: It’s that other planet-warmer, methane, a colorless, odorless gas which traps 86 times as much heat as CO2. According to two new studies out Tuesday, a combination of agriculture and fossil fuel burning has boosted methane to a record-high 1,875 parts per billion in the atmosphere.

If unabated, the researchers warn, methane emissions could push the planet toward a world heated up by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius, one of the worst-case scenarios for global warming.

In the race over how to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, methane — a carbon atom joined to four hydrogen atoms — is often left out of the conversation. It doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide; when released into the air, it only takes about 9 years for half of it to dissipate and turn into other molecules. (Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, takes around a century.) But methane is responsible for a quarter of the world’s global warming since 1750. Tamping it down will be crucial for mitigating climate change.

“It’s a mistake to ignore methane,” said Rob Jackson, professor of earth system science at Stanford University and a co-author of both studies. “If we can reduce methane emissions quickly, we could shave a half-a-degree Celsius off peak temperatures.”

The problem is that methane keeps rising. And rising. Starting in 2007, methane emissions started climbing fast, after remaining fairly stable for the previous seven years. But scientists couldn’t figure out exactly why.

“It’s embarrassing, honestly,” said Jackson.

Some blamed fracking. When fossil fuel companies force water and chemicals underground to extract natural gas, they run the risk of methane leaking into the air. And studies have shown that, at least in the United States, these leaks are far larger than the government has admitted. Others pointed to the belching of methane from tropical wetlands, which depends on changes in temperature and precipitation, or to thawing Arctic permafrost releasing tons of fossilized methane into the air.

The new papers, however, tell a somewhat simpler story. Jackson and his coauthors blame the sharp increase on increased fossil fuel use and agriculture gobbling up land. Cows burp out huge quantities of methane in the process of their digestion; bacteria living in flooded rice paddies also spew out the gas.

Part of the problem is that the global population has surged to 7.7 billion over the past two decades — and many of those people are also eating more meat. “There are a billion and a half more people on Earth than there were in 2000,” Jackson said. “Emissions have gone up because of extra mouths to feed.”

Fossil fuels also play a big role, not just through fracking. Any time oil, gas, and coal are extracted from the ground, there is a risk of methane spilling out of rock formations into the air. Methane emissions from coal mining, for example, increased globally from 29 million metric tons between 2000 and 2006 to a whopping 44 million metric tons in 2017.

And, while carbon dioxide emissions fell when much of the world was locked down earlier this year (only to bounce back as shelter-in-place orders lifted), Jackson said that it’s unlikely we’ll see anything similar from methane emissions. Most of the decreases in CO2 emissions came from the transportation sector, as people stopped driving their cars and taking international flights. But as agriculture gobbles up more land and people continue to heat their homes with natural gas, methane emissions have continued climbing.

If there’s a source of optimism in the two studies, it’s Europe, where changing diets and better agricultural practices have decreased the amount of methane exhaled from the land. And despite repeated warnings that thawing Arctic soils could release huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere, researchers say that hasn’t happened — yet.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Methane levels have hit a scary record high, new studies say on Jul 14, 2020.

Is renewable natural gas a serious alternative to ‘electrify everything’?

While wind and solar power and electric vehicles tend to dominate the conversation around preventing catastrophic climate change, electricity and transportation aren’t the whole picture. The world also needs to act quickly to reduce emissions from other sources, like the fuels burned in buildings for heating, hot water, and cooking. In colder climates where people rely on fossil fuel heating to survive frigid winters, the carbon footprint of those systems is especially large.

There are two ways to decarbonize buildings. One is to replace all the appliances that run on natural gas or other fossil fuels with electric appliances — no small task in many existing buildings. The other is to replace the fossil fuels delivered to buildings to power those appliances with “renewable” fuels.

There’s ongoing disagreement about which of these options should prevail, or whether there’s room for both. Gas utilities, eager to remain in business, assert that renewable natural gas (RNG) has a future in buildings. A new report out on Wednesday by Earthjustice and the Sierra Club criticizes the industry’s aggressive marketing of RNG for buildings, arguing that it’s too expensive, there’s not enough of it, and it does not solve the health and safety risks of pipelines carrying methane or burning gas indoors.

Settling this question is urgent, as many cities and states are planning to achieve a low-carbon economy by 2050. In New York, California, and soon likely Massachusetts and New Jersey, state regulators are opening up new proceedings to figure out how to get gas utilities’ and their customers’ plans aligned with greenhouse gas reduction goals. New gas appliances tend to last for at least 20 years, so many of the boilers that are installed over the next decade will still be in use in 2050, and if the fuel powering them doesn’t change much from today, states’ emissions targets will be shot.

Renewable natural gas, or RNG, is a catchall term for natural gas derived from various sources. RNG can refer to gas captured from places that would otherwise release it into the atmosphere as methane, like landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and manure pits on dairy farms. Some utilities already purchase this form of RNG and blend it into the pipeline mix today. There are other methods of producing RNG that aren’t yet commercially available. It can be made from solid waste, certain crops like poplar and switchgrass, and agricultural residues like corn leaves, stalks, and cobs. Another category of RNG is synthetic natural gas, which is produced by splitting water molecules with electricity to create hydrogen gas and then “methanating” the hydrogen gas by adding CO2. Synthetic natural gas would be considered “renewable” if the hydrogen were made using renewable electricity and the CO2 had been captured from sources that would otherwise emit it, like the smokestacks of a power plant. However, no one is producing genuinely renewable synthetic natural gas at a commercial scale yet today.

Sierra Club and Earthjustice don’t reject the idea that RNG could be useful to tackle climate change. They just reject the notion that it’s a feasible solution for buildings. First, it’s a lot more expensive than fossil natural gas, and most forecasts don’t see that changing much in the future. The report cites an analysis by the American Gas Foundation (AGF), an independent research arm of a gas industry group, which found that some sources of RNG could cost between $7 and $20 per million British thermal units by 2040, but others could be as high as $45. Right now, the cost of natural gas is only $2 to $3 per million British thermal units, so a switch to RNG could mean steep rate hikes for customers.

The AGF study also predicted that by 2040, scaling up all of the different methods to make RNG in the U.S. could produce between 1,910 and 4,510 trillion British thermal units per year. Sierra Club and Earthjustice point out that the total consumption of natural gas in 2018, across all end uses including buildings, industry, and power plants, was 31,000 trillion British thermal units per year — so even under the most optimistic scenario, RNG would meet only a fraction of the demand met with natural gas today.

While the AGF study demonstrates that RNG could meet residential needs — U.S. residential consumption was 4,996 trillion British thermal units in 2018 — the environmental groups argue that the limited supply should be reserved for sectors where electrification is much harder, like aviation, shipping, and heavy industry. They also note that leaks from gas infrastructure are more or less inevitable, which means that producing RNG from sources that aren’t currently emitting methane, like energy crops, could ultimately increase methane emissions, which have a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Ultimately, their question is, why waste the small amount of RNG from existing methane sources on buildings, which have other options for eliminating their emissions?

“I don’t think anyone can look at these numbers and credibly say we shouldn’t be aggressively trying to electrify as much as we can, as fast as we can,” Matt Vespa, an attorney for EarthJustice, told Grist. “It’s a feasible, cost-effective solution that’s available on the market today.”

Sierra Club and EarthJustice aren’t the first groups to call the feasibility of heating buildings with RNG into question. E3, an energy economics consulting firm, analyzed various scenarios for achieving California’s emissions goals in a report published in April and found that electrifying building appliances is likely to be a more cost-effective, less risky long-term strategy than RNG, with additional benefits in terms of air quality and public health. In short, this is because whichever decarbonization strategy the state pursues, gas prices are likely to increase in the long term, either because more and more costly RNG will be put into the system or because some customers will switch to electric appliances, shrinking the pool of customers paying to maintain the gas system. Either way, as gas prices rise, customers will be incentivized to go electric. In other words, while going all in on RNG for buildings could save gas utilities from obsolescence, it could also decimate their customer base.

However, E3 and other experts note that the long-term outlook for RNG — particularly for synthetic natural gas — is somewhat uncertain, and we could potentially produce a lot more of it, and more cheaply, depending on how quickly the industry scales up. In comments to the California Energy Commission, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists expressed concern that the level and speed of adoption of electric appliances by consumers is highly uncertain, as are the costs of electrification versus RNG. They wrote that letting all of the options compete “would promote the largest levels of decarbonization while minimizing the risk of failure.” A recent study on decarbonization prepared by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm, for regulators in Rhode Island also found that an all-of-the-above approach, at least in the near term, makes sense.

“We believe that the uncertainty is large enough that as of today, you shouldn’t put all of your eggs in a single electrification basket,” Jürgen Weiss, an economist at the Brattle Group, told Grist. “We’re not saying wait for 10 years. We’re saying pursue all of these technologies aggressively for the next decade. That way we make progress while we learn about how quickly the cost of heat pumps and the production of renewable gas from electricity decline. And then we can shift.”

Heat pumps are the electric appliances that can replace fossil-fuel powered boilers and hot water heaters today. There are a few different kinds, but all of them use electricity to pull heat from outside of a building inside. Air-source heat pumps pull heat from the outside air, even when it’s cold out, and ground-source heat pumps pull heat from beneath the earth’s surface.

The economics of heat pumps vary. In new buildings, they are cheaper than gas systems to install, but retrofitting existing buildings for electric heat can be expensive. On average, heat pumps are more efficient than natural gas boilers. However, right now, natural gas is cheaper than electricity, so that efficiency doesn’t always translate into cost savings, unless the customer is switching from a more expensive fuel like oil or propane. Also, even the best-designed heat pumps can lose efficiency in extreme cold, so in some parts of the country switching to heat pumps would cause huge spikes in electricity demand on the coldest winter days. That electricity will have to be both affordable and reliable in order to make sure people don’t freeze to death.

The RNG Coalition, an industry group, told Grist that maintaining a parallel gas infrastructure system as a backup to electric appliances would add a layer of resilience to the system. E3 also recently suggested to a New York state climate council that in the coldest parts of the state, customers may wish to maintain backup gas systems even if they switch to heat pumps.

The problem with maintaining the gas system, or pursuing both options for the next 10 years, is that it means 10 more years of making investments in gas infrastructure that will never pay out if RNG doesn’t scale up or if customers begin to rapidly adopt electric appliances. It could mean 10 more years of system improvements and expansions that fewer and fewer customers are ultimately saddled with paying for.

“That is probably the most tricky issue in the whole story,” Weiss admitted. He said that heat pumps are likely to play an important role in the future, possibly foremost for cooling as global temperatures rise. (They are versatile appliances that can provide both heating and cooling.)

Even if not many people are buying electric appliances today — which the gas industry is quick to point out — government policies and incentives, technological improvements, workforce development, and consumer education have the potential to change that trend. But those things take time. Decarbonization deadlines are just a few decades away.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Is renewable natural gas a serious alternative to ‘electrify everything’? on Jul 14, 2020.

Geochemical analysis from the last ice age may hold clues for future climate change and preparedness strategies

Stalagmites from Lake Shasta Caverns (LSC) – located in northern California within an important transitional climate zone between the Pacific Northwest and southwestern United States—hold geochemical clues to help researchers understand how climate changed during the end of the last ice age (14,000—37,000 years ago) and predict what may happen amid climatic changes in modern times.

Research: Crop plants are taking up microplastics

Microplastics (MPs), i.e., tiny plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in length, can now be found throughout the ocean and other aquatic ecosystems, and even in our seafood and salt. As MPs have become ubiquitous, scientists have become concerned about the transfer of MPs from the environment to the food chain and the potential impact of MPs on human health.

There’s no roadmap to the other side of the natural gas bridge. These states are making one.

In early June, the attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, filed a petition with state utility regulators advising them to investigate the future of natural gas in the Commonwealth. Healey described the urgent need to figure out how the gas industry, which helps heat millions of homes throughout freezing Northeastern winters, fits into the state’s plan to zero-out its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — especially considering the fuels burned for indoor heating and hot water are responsible for about a third of the state’s carbon footprint.

Eliminating emissions from this sector means venturing into uncharted waters. While many states are rapidly developing wind and solar farms to cut carbon from their electric grids, few are tackling the thornier challenge of reducing the gas burned in buildings. Officials in California and New York, which both have binding economy-wide net-zero emissions laws, have recently come to the same conclusion as Healey: Meeting state climate goals is going to require changes to the way gas utilities are regulated. Earlier this year, both states opened up precisely the kind of investigation that Healey is requesting in Massachusetts.

Natural gas, a fossil fuel, has long been called a “bridge” to a cleaner energy future because burning it has a much lower carbon footprint than burning coal or oil. But research has called that narrative into question by showing that methane leaking across the natural gas supply chain raises its climate impact significantly. Recent developments have called the economics of natural gas into question, too: In early July, the developers of the high-profile Atlantic Coast Pipeline decided to abandon the project after an onslaught of lawsuits made the pipeline too expensive to build.

California, Massachusetts, and New York haven’t decided whether — or to what extent — natural gas can remain in their energy mixes. But the point of these investigations is much larger than those questions. There’s no established roadmap for managing the transition to zero-emissions buildings, and there are serious consequences to getting it wrong — huge cost burdens on residents, mass layoffs and bankruptcies at utilities, and of course, climate disaster.

A photo of gas workers digging a trench for pipes in Massachusetts
Gas workers tend to pipes off of Brookfield Street in South Lawrence, Massachusetts. Grist / Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The way forward will be a balancing act, weighing concerns about safety, costs, and the climate. Environmental groups have been arguing for years for what regulators have been slow to admit: Unless governments take a proactive, holistic approach to long-term natural gas planning, it’s going to get messy, fast.

“Figuring out how to decarbonize is going to be like a puzzle with, let’s say, 2,500 pieces,” energy policy expert Susan Tierney said during a recent webinar about the future of natural gas in New England. “It’s gonna be hard to put it together, and there’s a timer ticking in the background and it’s getting louder and louder.” Tierney explained that the pieces are in many different people’s hands — state regulators, energy companies, developers, building owners. And while a lot of the decision making will happen at the state level, there are also regional concerns. As more buildings convert to electric heating, multistate electricity grids will need to be able to handle the added load. “It’s not clear to me how the whole regional puzzle comes together fast enough, without dropping key pieces on the floor,” Tierney said.

Do gas utilities need to build new stuff?

Tierney’s puzzle metaphor gets at the web of deeply interconnected problems that decarbonizing the gas distribution system raises, and why these new investigations aren’t coming a day too soon.

One of the puzzle pieces is the question of how much new gas infrastructure utilities should be allowed to build. Investor-owned utilities don’t make any money on the gas they sell to customers — they have to sell it at cost. The only way they can make a profit for their investors is by earning a rate of return on building infrastructure, like pipelines and compressor stations. They can work the costs of these projects into customers’ utility bills. State regulators are tasked with making sure that all the stuff utilities want to spend ratepayer money on is actually in the public interest — that it’s necessary in order to maintain safe, reliable gas service.

But new state climate policies are pushing customers away from gas to cleaner alternatives like heat pumps. Heat pumps run on electricity and work similarly to air conditioners, except that they can also run in reverse to bring heat into a building in the winter. That means the question of what’s necessary to maintain reliable service has become a lot more complicated. If the supply of gas is tight, as New York City–area utilities have claimed it is, should they spend ratepayer dollars to build new infrastructure to increase supply? Or should they take action that reduces demand, like helping customers make their homes more energy-efficient, or switch buildings over to electric heating systems, water heaters, and cooking appliances?

photo of woman watching heat pump being installed in her home
A woman watches a worker install a heat pump in her home. Grist / Brianna Soukup / Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Regulators are not used to weighing these options. In a press release about New York’s new investigation, the state’s utility regulator, the Public Service Commission, or PSC, admitted that there was “uncertainty associated with major gas infrastructure decisions.” This uncertainty has already created some conflict: In January, environmental groups were dismayed when the PSC approved Con Edison’s plan to spend $350 million worth of ratepayer dollars over the next three years to build new transmission pipelines, replace smaller pipes with larger ones, and extend the life of a liquefied natural gas plant.

Do gas utilities need to fix existing infrastructure?

Determining how much new infrastructure to allow is just the tip of the iceberg for regulators in California, Massachusetts, and New York. An even trickier question is: How much of the existing infrastructure should be maintained?

The transition away from gas won’t happen overnight. So, for example, in the meantime, should utilities fix gas leaks? That sounds like it should have a simple answer: Nobody wants methane leaking into the atmosphere or risks of explosions. In 2015, Zeyneb Magavi and Audrey Schulman, co-executive directors of the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based environmental nonprofit HEET, learned that gas leaks in the state totally canceled out the emissions saved through home energy efficiency programs. They became crusaders to fix leaky pipes, and through a collaboration with utilities, scientists, and activists, helped create a first-in-the-nation state regulation requiring utilities to fix the biggest leaks.

photo of protesters in Boston holding sign that says #FixBigGasLeaks
Protesters hold up signs in the middle of Cambridge Street in Boston during an action related to an active methane gas leak in 2019. Grist / Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

But then, an unsettling realization set in. “What we had done so far was great, we were really happy,” Magavi told Grist. “But it was like putting a Band-Aid on a disease.”

“Or on a patient that was bleeding out,” Schulman added.

“We started to understand that our state was attempting to fix the problem by replacing all the pipes,” Magavi explained. “And that that was an even bigger problem than everything else, because it was $17 billion of pipe going in that was not [going to be] paid off until long after we were supposed to have transitioned.”

Magavi was citing an analysis by the Applied Economics Clinic, a nonprofit consulting group, that found that current Massachusetts state policy has the Commonwealth on track to spend up to $17 billion to replace 6,000 miles of leak-prone gas infrastructure over the next 20 years, including returns for utility company investors. All of that new pipe is built to last for 50 to 70 years, and the costs to ratepayers will be spread out over that lifetime — but by the end, there could be few, if any, customers left to pay for it.

Sounds like a financial disaster, right? It would be. As more people switch to electric stoves and heating systems, the ratepayer pool paying for these natural gas line repairs will become smaller and smaller. The remaining customers who could not afford to switch over as quickly, who are likely to be low-income residents, and in many cases people of color, will shoulder more and more of the debt burden through higher gas rates. The Applied Economics Clinic study found that in a scenario where the number of gas customers decreases over the next 30 years, the remaining ratepayers could see their monthly bills ballooning up into the $400 range to finally pay off that $17 billion of pipe.

That’s one reason Elizabeth Henry, president of the nonprofit education and advocacy organization the Environmental League of Massachusetts, praised Attorney General Healey’s petition. “I hope that this helps force the question about racial equity and low-income ratepayers and how they are going to decarbonize,” she said.

On the flip side, if customers are let off the hook and utilities can’t recoup those costs, their investors will lose out. No one is suggesting utilities just drop the issue of leaky pipes altogether, but how much should they invest in fixing them? Asa Hopkins, vice president of Synapse Energy Economics, an energy research and consulting firm, suggested that in some cases, it might make sense to retire a section of leak-prone pipe and electrify the homes previously served by it. But how should regulators and utilities determine when that is the appropriate choice? “That’s why it needs a proceeding, taken seriously,” Hopkins said, “to talk through these things.”

Gas utilities expect to keep delivering gas for decades to come

Massachusetts’ goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 does allow for the possibility that some natural gas infrastructure could stick around. The state could theoretically hit its target using carbon capture technology or by offsetting any remaining emissions by planting trees or paying farmers to sequester more carbon in their soil. But as of now, carbon capture technology is expensive, and natural sequestration techniques are not easily verifiable.

Henry thinks state regulators will soon realize natural gas is incompatible with the Commonwealth’s goals. “The Department of Public Utilities can do the study, and what they’ll find, if they’re honest with themselves, is not going to be a comfortable answer,” she said. “The answer is that we need to transition away almost entirely from our reliance on natural gas.”

Naturally, gas utilities disagree. In response to Healey’s petition, the Northeast Gas Association, a regional trade group, told Grist that a balanced review of the issue will find that natural gas isn’t going away anytime soon. “Looking ahead to 2050, we see natural gas as remaining essential to energy affordability and reliability in the Commonwealth,” the association said in a statement.

Photo of construction worker next to natural gas trench
A worker stands beside a trench on Brookfield Street in South Lawrence, Massachusetts. Grist / Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

But at the same time that utilities are investing billions in new gas infrastructure and to replace leak-prone pipes — indications they think they’ll be delivering gas for decades to come — many are also spending quite a bit of money to help customers improve the energy efficiency of their home heating systems or switch them over to heat pumps. Con Edison’s recent three-year plan, the one that allocated $350 million to infrastructure investments, also included $700 million for demand-reduction measures for its customers in Westchester and parts of New York City.

Several utilities in New York and Massachusetts are also investing in neighborhood-scale geothermal pilot projects. Commonly called “ground-source heat pumps,” geothermal heating systems run on electricity and use the near-constant temperature beneath the earth’s surface as a heat source in the winter and a sink in the summer. They require running pipes underground, a task that gas utilities are well equipped to do. Geothermal heating systems can also be made more efficient by linking multiple buildings to the same pipe system. For example, National Grid (which operates in both New York and Massachusetts) installed a geothermal “loop” system in a Long Island retirement community connecting 10 residences. Schulman and Magavi from HEET argue that these systems could be connected at a much larger scale. They have studied the potential for gas utilities to transition into networked geothermal companies that oversee a “thermal grid.”

Utilities have a few other ideas for their futures that won’t require drastic changes to their business models. One is to develop renewable natural gas resources, like gas derived from landfills and wastewater treatment plants. They also propose blending hydrogen gas into the natural gas supply. Hydrogen does not produce any emissions when burned, and if blended into natural gas would lower the overall emissions from home heating systems. The other upside to hydrogen is that theoretically, it can be produced using renewable energy. Europe is investing heavily in this technology, and California is also taking a close look at it. But today, hydrogen isn’t yet economical, nor is it green — it’s produced using natural gas. Even if all these challenges were surmounted, and utilities wanted to eventually go to 100 percent hydrogen, once the mix is more than 5 to 20 percent hydrogen, people would need to buy new appliances and pipelines likely have to be replaced. There’s one other option, which is to add CO2 to the hydrogen to make “synthetic natural gas” which could be substituted directly into today’s infrastructure, but that technology has not been commercialized yet.

photo of exterior of Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant
The exterior of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, New York, where National Grid converts waste into renewable natural gas. Grist / Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

When reached by Grist, several utilities welcomed the Massachusetts attorney general’s call for an inquiry. A spokesperson for Eversource, the largest utility in Massachusetts, told Grist that it would present “more of an opportunity for us to help the state achieve its clean energy goals.” The spokesperson also noted that Eversource was “the first gas company in Massachusetts to put together a proposal that included renewable natural gas, geothermal projects, and demand-side management, all of which will help reduce carbon emissions.”

National Grid also flaunted its all-of-the-above approach. “The Northeast is likely to need a tapestry of solutions for heat, and our research and experience shows us that the gas network can play an integral role, using new technologies to carry zero-carbon fuels like renewable natural gas, including hydrogen, or enabling geothermal districts,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

Though seemingly willing to be a part of a zero-carbon future, neither utility has released any data or analysis of how their kitchen sink approach might eventually come together to meet Massachusetts’ climate goals. Healey’s petition aims to force the issue into the open by calling for gas companies to “submit detailed economic analyses and business plans depicting future gas demand in a carbon-constrained economy.”

Hopkins of Synapse told Grist this kind of transparency is a crucial first step. “It’s going to fill an important gap because we don’t actually know what the future, in some sort of real quantitative sense, looks like to the gas utilities,” he said.

Is there time to deliberate?

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking — and some citizens and local politicians are getting impatient. In the absence of a state-led plan, individual municipalities have taken it upon themselves to kick-start the building electrification process. Several cities in California have passed laws to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings, and Brookline, Massachusetts, approved a similar bylaw last fall. (It’s pending approval by the attorney general’s office, which is expected to happen by the end of July.) There are also a few states that have sent clearer signals about their plans to cut the use of natural gas in buildings. Maine has a goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps by 2025. In January, New Jersey released an energy master plan that included a goal of cutting natural gas in buildings by 80 percent by 2050. The plan also said that regulators would “establish a stakeholder process by mid-2020 to collect data and inform decision-making necessary to create a roadmap” for “a fully electrified building sector,” but they have yet to do so.

photo of protesters holding anti-fracking signs at Con Edison PSC meeting
Protesters hold signs objecting to a rate hike to pay for new gas infrastructure at a Con Edison Public Service Commissions meeting in Albany, New York, in January 2020. Grist / Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images

Hopkins is concerned that the timeline to answer the questions raised by Healey’s petition is a lot shorter than people think. If all the stakeholders — environmental groups, consumer advocacy groups, utilities, regulators, policymakers — take too much time hemming and hawing over the viability of hydrogen or renewable natural gas or electrification, there won’t be enough time for the next crucial step: developing the markets and the workforce to actually implement whatever plan they settle on.

Despite the incredibly stressful picture Sue Tierney painted of puzzle pieces falling all over the floor, her message ultimately did turn hopeful, and she supports the investigations that are beginning to catch on among state regulators.

“We’ve got to win this game,” Tierney said. “And it calls for much greater coordination and cooperation across the states, across the sectors, across policymakers and market participants.

“And if we get it done, won’t it be a pretty picture of New England?”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline There’s no roadmap to the other side of the natural gas bridge. These states are making one. on Jul 15, 2020.

Trump apparently proposed ‘selling’ Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Ever since Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in 2017, President Trump has expressed displeasure with the U.S. territory. After trying to limit recovery funds provided to the island last year, he finally signed a long-overdue disaster aid bill before taking to Twitter to declare himself the “best thing that ever happened” to Puerto Rico.

But before all that, the president tried to wash his hands of the island entirely. In an article published in The New York Times on Friday, Elaine C. Duke, a lifelong Republican who led the Department of Homeland Security for four months in 2017, recalled that during her tenure Trump floated the possibility of “selling” or “divesting” Puerto Rico as the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria proved arduous.

“The president’s initial ideas were more of as a businessman, you know,” Duke told the Times. “Can we outsource the electricity? Can we sell the island? You know, or divest of that asset?”

The incident is hardly the first in which President Trump has worn his “businessman” hat in the Oval Office. Last August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the president, in conversation with top aides “with varying degrees of seriousness,” floated the idea of purchasing Greenland. The gigantic Arctic island, which is rapidly melting thanks to climate change, is a self-ruling part of Denmark and is definitely not for sale. Trump nevertheless apparently believed that Greenland could somehow be purchased. In fact, a 2019 New York Times article reported that a former official heard the president joke that he would be happy to trade Puerto Rico for Greenland.

Although Duke said the idea of “divesting” Puerto Rico was never seriously considered and discussed after the meeting in which Trump proposed it, her recollection underscores Trump’s reluctance to support the struggling U.S. territory in the aftermath of the disaster.

Duke told the Times that, as soon as Hurricane Maria began approaching the Caribbean, she argued that the administration should declare a state of emergency before the storm made landfall. But Mick Mulvaney, then the president’s budget director, rejected her request.

According to the Times, Duke recalled Mulvaney saying, “Quit being so emotional, Elaine, it’s not about the people, it’s about the money.” (Mulvaney denied making the comment.)

Despite natural disasters continuously wreaking havoc on the island, Trump has constantly sparred with Puerto Rican officials, accusing them of “poor leadership” and adding that residents weren’t doing enough to help themselves. The blame went both ways: A 2018 poll found more than half of Puerto Ricans felt that Trump and his administration had done a poor job responding to the island’s calamities.

As Puerto Rico continues to weather natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, the island is also suffering from the same global pandemic that has debilitated the mainland. And just as with his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Trump has denied any wrongdoing or fault for the lackluster actions his administration has taken to aid Puerto Rico. In 2018, he called his disaster response an “incredible, unsung success.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Trump apparently proposed ‘selling’ Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria on Jul 13, 2020.

Global methane emissions soar to record high

Global emissions of methane have reached the highest levels on record. Increases are being driven primarily by growth of emissions from coal mining, oil and natural gas production, cattle and sheep ranching, and landfills.

Biden’s Powerful Clean Energy Speech

For well over a decade, I (and others) have been calling and waiting for forceful Presidential language and speeches directly tying economic performance, job creation, and climate mitigation.  Today, our next President, Joe Biden pretty much gave that speech in a strong call for job creation with significant clean-energy investment that will boost U.S. economic competitiveness while setting the United States on a path to a net-zero emission economy.  


In this speech, (our next) President Biden draws a strong contrast between Trump’s destructive anti-science, anti-clean energy, anti-economic performance antics and Biden’s plans for rejuvenating the American economy and creating millions of well-paying clean energy jobs in a package that will reduce pollution and the nation’s climate risks.



In the associated plan to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future, (soon-to-be) President Biden lays out seven key elements:

  1. Build a Modern Infrastructure
  2. Position the U.S. Auto Industry to Win the 21st Century with technology invented in America
  3. Achieve a Carbon Pollution-Free Power Sector by 2035
  4. Make Dramatic Investments in Energy Efficiency in Buildings, including Completing 4 Million Retrofits and Building 1.5 Million New Affordable Homes
  5. Pursue a Historic Investment in Clean Energy Innovation
  6. Advance Sustainable Agriculture and Conservation
  7. Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economy Opportunity

Within each, Biden(‘s team) lays out serious proposals that will have real impact … these are Win-Win-Win paths to boost the economy, create jobs, and reduce climate impacts.



At this moment of profound crisis, we have the opportunity to build a more resilient, sustainable economy – one that will put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050. Joe Biden will seize that opportunity and, in the process, create millions of good-paying jobs that provide workers with the choice to join a union and bargain collectively with their employers.

President Trump has a devastating pattern of denying science and leaving our country unprepared and vulnerable. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, he ignored public health experts, praised the Chinese government, and failed to take the actions needed to protect the American people. And as the crisis accelerated, Trump rolled back environmental standards that protect public health — adding to the 100 similar environmental and public health protections he has rolled back since taking office — even though early data suggests a link between exposure to pollution and serious negative health impacts from the virus.

Just as with COVID-19, Donald Trump has denied science and failed to step up in the face of the climate crisis. He has called it a hoax. He has allowed our infrastructure to deteriorate and farmers’ fields to flood. He has held back American workers from leading the world on clean energy, giving China and other countries a free pass to outcompete us in key technologies and the jobs that come with them. And instead of supporting more tax credits that keep solar and wind workers employed here at home, Trump showered tax cuts on multinational companies that encourage offshoring. His actions have not only set us back in terms of progress on environmental justice and clean energy jobs, they have made us more vulnerable – weaker and less resilient – as a nation.

Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan ensures that – coming out of this profound public health and economic crisis, and facing the persistent climate crisis – we are never caught flat-footed again. He will launch a national effort aimed at creating the jobs we need to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure now and deliver an equitable clean energy future.

The current coronavirus crisis destroyed millions of American jobs, including hundreds of thousands in clean energy. It has exacerbated historic environmental injustices. And all this comes at a moment when the science tells us there is no time for delay on climate change. Biden will immediately invest in engines of sustainable job creation – new industries and re-invigorated regional economies spurred by innovation from our national labs and universities; commercialized into new and better products that can be manufactured and built by American workers; and put together using feedstocks, materials, and parts supplied by small businesses, family farms, and job creators all across our country.  

We need millions of construction, skilled trades, and engineering workers to build a new American infrastructure and clean energy economy. These jobs will create pathways for young people and for older workers shifting to new professions, and for people from all backgrounds and all communities. Their work will improve air quality for our children, increase the comfort of our homes, and make our businesses more competitive. The investments will make sure the communities who have suffered the most from pollution are first to benefit — including low-income rural and urban communities, communities of color, and Native communities. And, Biden’s plan will empower workers to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers as they rebuild the middle class and a more sustainable future. Biden will make a $2 trillion accelerated investment, with a plan to deploy those resources over his first term, setting us on an irreversible course to meet the ambitious climate progress that science demands.

Biden will make far-reaching investments in:

  • Infrastructure: Create millions of good, union jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure – from roads and bridges to green spaces and water systems to electricity grids and universal broadband – to lay a new foundation for sustainable growth, compete in the global economy, withstand the impacts of climate change, and improve public health, including access to clean air and clean water.
  • Auto Industry: Create 1 million new jobs in the American auto industry, domestic auto supply chains, and auto infrastructure, from parts to materials to electric vehicle charging stations, positioning American auto workers and manufacturers to win the 21st century; and invest in U.S. auto workers to ensure their jobs are good jobs with a choice to join a union.
  • Transit: Provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments with strong labor protections that create good, union jobs and meet the needs of these cities – ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.
  • Power Sector: Move ambitiously to generate clean, American-made electricity to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. This will enable us to meet the existential threat of climate change while creating millions of jobs with a choice to join a union.
  • Buildings: Upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over 4 years, creating at least 1 million good-paying jobs with a choice to join a union; and also spur the building retrofit and efficient-appliance manufacturing supply chain by funding direct cash rebates and low-cost financing to upgrade and electrify home appliances and install more efficient windows, which will cut residential energy bills.
  • Housing: Spur the construction of 1.5 million sustainable homes and housing units.
  • Innovation: Drive dramatic cost reductions in critical clean energy technologies, including battery storage, negative emissions technologies, the next generation of building materials, renewable hydrogen, and advanced nuclear – and rapidly commercialize them, ensuring that those new technologies are made in America.
  • Agriculture and Conservation: Create jobs in climate-smart agriculture, resilience, and conservation, including 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock, and uranium mines – providing good work with a choice to join or continue membership in a union in hard hit communities, including rural communities, reducing leakage of toxics, and preventing local environmental damage.  
  • Environmental Justice: Ensure that environmental justice is a key consideration in where, how, and with whom we build – creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation – rural, urban, and tribal.

Biden will ensure these investments create good, union jobs that expand the middle class. American workers should build American infrastructure and manufacture the materials that go into it, and all of these workers must have the choice to join a union and collectively bargain. Biden will include in the economic recovery legislation he sends to Congress a series of policies to build worker power to raise wages and secure stronger benefits. This legislation will make it easier for workers to organize a union and collectively bargain with their employers by including the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, card check, union and bargaining rights for public service workers, and a broad definition of “employee” and tough enforcement to end the misclassification of workers as independent contractors. His bill will also go further than the PRO Act by holding company executives personally liable when they interfere with organizing efforts. He will also ensure that all companies benefitting from his infrastructure and clean energy investments meet the labor protections in Senator Merkley’s Good Jobs for 21st Century Energy Act, applying and strictly enforcing Davis-Bacon prevailing wage guidelines, and that those benefiting from transportation investments meet transit labor protections so that new jobs are good-paying jobs with family sustaining benefits. And, as called for in his plan to strengthen worker organizing, collective bargaining, and unions, Biden will require that companies receiving procurement contracts are using taxpayer dollars to support good American jobs, including a commitment to pay at least $15 per hour, provide paid leave, maintain fair overtime and scheduling practices, and guarantee a choice to join a union and bargain collectively.

Biden will ensure these jobs are filled by diverse, local, well-trained workers  including women and people of color  by requiring federally funded projects to prioritize Project Labor and Community Workforce Agreements and employ workers trained in registered apprenticeship programs. Biden will make investments in pre-apprenticeship programs and in community-based and proven organizations that help women and people of color access high-quality training and job opportunities. Biden’s proposal will make sure national infrastructure and clean energy investments create millions of middle-class jobs that develop a diverse and local workforce and strengthen communities as we rebuild our physical infrastructure.

Biden also reaffirms his commitment to fulfill our obligation to the workers and communities who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth, as outlined in his original climate plan. This includes securing the benefits coal miners and their families have earned, making an unprecedented investment in coal and power plant communities, and establishing a Task Force on Coal and Power Plant Communities, as the Obama-Biden Administration did for Detroit when the auto industry was in turmoil.

The key elements of the Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future include:

  1. Build a Modern Infrastructure
  2. Position the U.S. Auto Industry to Win the 21st Century with technology invented in America
  3. Achieve a Carbon Pollution-Free Power Sector by 2035
  4. Make Dramatic Investments in Energy Efficiency in Buildings, including Completing 4 Million Retrofits and Building 1.5 Million New Affordable Homes
  5. Pursue a Historic Investment in Clean Energy Innovation
  6. Advance Sustainable Agriculture and Conservation
  7. Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economy Opportunity

Biden will create millions of good, union jobs building and upgrading a cleaner, safer, stronger infrastructure – including smart roads, water systems, municipal transit networks, schools, airports, rail, ferries, ports, and universal broadband access – for all Americans, whether they live in rural or urban areas.

Americans deserve infrastructure they can trust: infrastructure that is resilient to floods, fires, and other climate threats, not fragile in the face of these increasing risks. We need infrastructure that supports healthy, safe communities, rather than locking in the cumulative impacts of polluted air and poisonous water. And we need infrastructure, like universal broadband, that unleashes innovation and shared economic progress and educational opportunity to every community, rather than slowing it down.

Biden will rely on American union labor and American-made materials and products to build this infrastructure. He will create jobs in planning and management, from architects to engineers to designers. And, he will invest in the pre-development, development, and construction of this new and necessary infrastructure, building it in places and with the advanced materials – like clean steel and cement – in a way that promotes the livability of our communities and the accessibility of opportunity. Biden will create good, union jobs that expand the middle class by:

  • Transforming our crumbling transportation infrastructure – including roads and bridges, rail, aviation, ports, and inland waterways – making the movement of goods and people faster, cheaper, cleaner, and manufactured in America while preserving and growing the union workforce. Biden will also transform the energy sources that power the transportation sector, making it easier for mobility to be powered by electricity and clean fuels, including commuter trains, school and transit buses, ferries, and passenger vehicles. The resulting reduction in air pollution will save thousands of lives and millions in medical costs burdening families.
  • Sparking the second great railroad revolution. Biden will make sure that America has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world — for both passengers and freight. His rail revolution will reduce pollution, connect workers to good union jobs, slash commute times, and spur investment in communities that will now be better linked to major metropolitan areas. To speed that work, Biden will tap existing federal grant and loan programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, and improve and streamline the loan process. In addition, Biden will work with Amtrak and private freight rail companies to further electrify the rail system, reducing diesel fuel emissions.
  • Revolutionizing municipal transit networks. Most Americans do not have access to high-quality and zero-emissions options for affordable, reliable public transportation; and where transit exists, it’s often in need of repair. As a result, workers and families rely on cars and trucks, which can be a big financial burden and clog roadways. Biden will aim to provide all Americans in municipalities of more than 100,000 people with quality public transportation by 2030. He will allocate flexible federal investments with strong labor protections to help cities and towns install light rail networks and improve existing transit and bus lines. He’ll also help them invest in infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of e-scooters and other micro-mobility vehicles and integrate technologies like machine-learning optimized traffic lights. And, Biden will work to make sure that new, fast-growing areas are designed and built with clean and resilient public transit in mind. Specifically, he will create a new program that gives rapidly expanding communities the resources to build in public transit options from the start.
  • Ensuring clean, safe drinking water is a right in all communities – rural to urban, rich and poor – investing in the repair of water pipelines and sewer systems, replacement of lead service pipes, upgrade of treatment plants, and integration of efficiency and water quality monitoring technologies. This includes protecting our watersheds and clean water infrastructure from man-made and natural disasters by conserving and restoring wetlands and developing green infrastructure and natural solutions.
  • Expanding broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American – recognizing that millions of households without access to broadband are locked out of an economy that is increasingly reliant on virtual collaboration. Communities without access cannot leverage the next generation of “smart” infrastructure. As the COVID-19 crisis has revealed, Americans everywhere need universal, reliable, affordable, and high-speed internet to do their jobs, participate equally in remote school learning and stay connected. This digital divide needs to be closed everywhere, from lower-income urban schools to rural America, to many older Americans as well as those living on tribal lands. Just like rural electrification several generations ago, universal broadband is long overdue and critical to broadly shared economic success.
  • Cleaning up and redeveloping abandoned and underused Brownfield properties, old power plants and industrial facilities, landfills, abandoned mines, and other idle community assets that will be transformed into new economic hubs for communities all across America.
  • Revitalizing communities in every corner of the country so that no one is left behind or cut off from economic opportunities. Biden’s plan will ensure that our infrastructure investments work to address disparities – often along lines of race and class – in access to clean air, clean water, reliable and sustainable transportation, connectivity to high-speed internet, and access to jobs and educational opportunities. This includes ensuring tribes receive the resources and support they need to invest in roads, clean water, wastewater, broadband, and other essential infrastructure needs. It also means funding investments in local and regional strategies to prevent a lack of transportation options in urban, rural, and high-poverty areas from cutting off after-school opportunities for young people and job opportunities for workers seeking better jobs and more economic security for their families.

Eleven years ago, Joe Biden helped save the auto industry. Today, the industry once again faces a crisis. Not only has Trump overseen a manufacturing recession on his watch, but through neglect and failed trade policies, he has allowed China to race ahead in the competition to lead the auto industry of the future. China is on track to command more than four times the global market share compared to the U.S. in electric vehicle production, even as the Chinese government’s approach threatens to slow down or set back the long-term prospects of clean vehicle innovation.

As called for in his Plan to Ensure the Future is Made in All of America by America’s Workers, Biden will use all the levers of the federal government, from purchasing power, R&D, tax, trade, and investment policies to reverse this trend and position America to be the global leader in the manufacture of electric vehicles and their input materials and parts. Biden will vigorously enforce trade rules in response to currency manipulation, overcapacity, and Chinese government abuses in this sector. Here at home, he will spur an expansion of factory floors and a re-tool of existing manufacturing capacity, and create 1 million new jobs in auto manufacturing, auto supply chains, and auto infrastructure. And he’ll ensure those workers have good-paying jobs with a choice to join a union. Between 1979 and 2018, American workers have increased their productivity by 70%, while their real wages have only grown by 12% — in large part due to the decline in union density. Biden will reverse this trend, by ensuring that auto workers have jobs with strong labor standards and working to pass the PRO Act to ensure auto workers can more easily choose to join a union and bargain collectively with their employers. Leveraging the remarkable talents of U.S. auto workers, he will position the auto industry to win the 21st century.

  • Use the power of federal procurement to increase demand for American-made, American-sourced clean vehicles. As part of his historic commitment to increasing procurement investments, Biden will make a major federal commitment to purchase clean vehicles for federal, state, tribal, postal, and local fleets, making sure that we retain the critical union jobs involved in running and maintaining these fleets. By providing an immediate, clear, and stable source of demand, this procurement commitment will help to dramatically accelerate American industrial capacity to produce clean vehicles and components, while accelerating the upgrade of the 3 million vehicles in these fleets.
  • Encourage consumers and manufacturers to go clean. Senators Schumer, Stabenow, Brown, and Merkley, alongside organizations like the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and leading environmental groups, crafted  a Clean Cars For America proposal. Biden will build on their leadership by providing consumers rebates to swap old, less-efficient vehicles for these newer American vehicles built from materials and parts sourced in the United States. These rebates will be accompanied by significant new targeted incentives for manufacturers to build or retool factories to assemble zero-emission vehicles, parts, and associated infrastructure here at home.
  • Make major public investments in automobile infrastructure — including in 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations — to create good jobs in industries supporting vehicle electrification. These investments are a key part of Biden’s commitment to reinvent the American transportation system from the factory line to the electric vehicle charging station, while promoting strong labor, training, and installation standards. This includes ensuring the workforce is trained in high quality training programs like the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program (EVITP).
  • Accelerate research on battery technology and support the development of domestic production capabilities. The Chinese government, along with other countries, has used state subsidies and industrial strategies to advance its interests. America must accelerate its own R&D with a focus on developing the domestic supply chain for electric vehicles. A specific focus of Biden’s historic R&D and procurement commitments will be on battery technology – for use in electric vehicles and on our grid, as a complement to technologies like solar and wind – increasing durability, reducing waste, and lowering costs, all while advancing new chemistries and approaches. And Biden will ensure that these batteries are built in the United States by American workers in good, union jobs.
  • Set a goal that all new American-built buses be zero-emissions by 2030, which will create significant demand for the manufacturing of new, clean American-built buses utilizing American-manufactured inputs – and accelerate the progress by converting all 500,000 school buses in our country — including diesel — to zero emissions. Biden will ensure that the existing — and future — workforce is trained and able to operate and maintain this 21st century infrastructure.
  • Establish ambitious fuel economy standards that save consumers money and cut air pollution. Biden will negotiate fuel economy standards with workers and their unions, environmentalists, industry, and states that achieve new ambition by integrating the most recent advances in technology. This will accelerate the adoption of zero-emissions light- and medium duty vehicles, provide long-term certainty for workers and the industry and save consumers money through avoided fuel costs. Paired with historic public investments and direct consumer rebates for American-made, American-sourced clean vehicles, these ambitious standards will position America to achieve a net-zero emissions future, and position American auto workers, manufacturers, and consumers to benefit from a clean energy revolution in transport.

Transforming the U.S. electricity sector – and electrifying an increasing share of the economy – represents the biggest job creation and economic opportunity engine of the 21st century. These jobs include every kind of worker from scientists to construction workers to electricity generation workers to welders to engineers. Existing iron casting and steel fabrication plants will have new customers in the solar and wind industries. Workers with experience welding and installing complex wiring will have new job opportunities. Properties idled in communities left behind, like brownfields, will once again become critical hubs for the growth of our economy. If we move ambitiously to generate clean, American-made electricity, while building the infrastructure to electrify major sectors of our economy, we will meet the existential threat of climate change, create millions of good union jobs; make economic growth more accessible in every state and across Indian Country, and lead the world in inventing, manufacturing, and exporting clean energy technologies. Biden will:

  • Marshal an historic investment in energy efficiency, clean energy, electrical systems and line infrastructure that makes it easier to electrify transportation, and new battery storage and transmission infrastructure that will address bottlenecks and unlock America’s full clean energy potential – built by American workers, using American-made materials. This revolution in the way we power our economy will leverage the breakthroughs we have already seen in distributed and large-scale renewables, onshore and offshore. And it will put welders, electricians, and other skilled labor to work in good union jobs installing the electrical systems and line infrastructure that helps the power sector – the electricity we generate at our power plants, on our roofs, and in our communities – reach a bigger market of customers and, at the same time, makes it easier for us to electrify in buildings, certain industrial processes, and transportation.
  • Reform and extend the tax incentives we know generate energy efficiency and clean energy jobs; develop innovative financing mechanisms that leverage private sector dollars to maximize investment in the clean energy revolution; and establish a technology-neutral Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard (EECES) for utilities and grid operators. Paired with his historic, front-loaded investments in the power sector, Biden’s EECES will cut electricity bills and cut electricity pollution, increase competition in the market and incentivize higher utilization of assets – and achieve carbon-pollution free energy in electricity generation by 2035. Biden will scale up best practices from state-level clean energy standards, which are being implemented in a way that provides renewable credits to developers that follow high labor standards, including through Project Labor and Community Labor Agreements and paying prevailing wages. Together, these steps will unleash a clean energy revolution in America, create good paying union jobs that cannot be outsourced, and spur the installation of millions of solar panels – including utility-scale, rooftop, and community solar systems – and tens of thousands of wind turbines – including thousands of turbines off our coasts – in Biden’s first term. It would also mean continuing to leverage the carbon-pollution free energy provided by existing sources like nuclear and hydropower, while ensuring those facilities meet robust and rigorous standards for worker, public, environmental safety and environmental justice.
  • Leverage existing infrastructure and assets. To build the next generation of electric grid transmission and distribution, Biden will prioritize re-powering of lines that already exist with new technology. He will take advantage of existing rights-of-way – along roads and railways – and cut red-tape to promote faster and easier permitting. And he will leverage the breakthroughs we have secured in energy storage over the last decade with historic procurement and investments to bring the future within reach for big utilities and rural cooperatives alike. In addition, and in line with recommendations by climate experts, including a study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Biden will double down on research investments and tax incentives for technology that captures carbon and then permanently sequesters or utilizes that captured carbon, which includes lowering the cost of carbon capture retrofits for existing power plants — all while ensuring that overburdened communities are protected from increases in cumulative pollution. He’ll also ensure that the market can access green hydrogen at the same cost as conventional hydrogen within a decade – providing a new, clean fuel source for some existing power plants.
  • Creating 1 million jobs upgrading 4 million buildings and weatherizing 2 million homes over 4 years. Biden will make an historic investment in energy upgrades of homes, offices, warehouses, and public buildings. This will be a win on multiple levels. It will create at least 1 million construction, engineering and manufacturing jobs, make the places we live, work, and learn healthier, and reduce electricity bills for families, businesses, and local governments. It will improve indoor air quality and indoor environmental health, thus making our buildings safer in the face of future pandemics. At this moment of crisis, when many offices and municipal buildings are shuttered and millions of skilled Americans are out of work, we have a unique, once in a generation opportunity to deliver cost-efficient retrofits in communities across the country.
    • Biden’s plan to upgrade 4 million commercial buildings will return almost a quarter of the savings from those retrofits to cash-strapped state and local governments. This includes mobilizing a trained and skilled American workforce to manufacture, install, service and maintain high-efficiency LED lighting, electric appliances, and advanced heating and cooling systems that run cleaner and less costly – all manufactured in the United States.
    • For families, Biden’s plan will include direct cash rebates and low-cost financing to upgrade and electrify home appliances, install more efficient windows, and cut residential energy bills. Biden will also significantly expand weatherization efforts, reaching over 2 million homes within 4 years, including slashing the disproportionately high energy burden for low-income rural households and rural communities of color.
    • Biden will also repair the building code process with the goal of establishing building performance standards for existing buildings nationwide and support this effort with new funding mechanisms for states, cities, and tribes to adopt strict building codes and labor standards to ensure quality and predictability.
    • Paired with legislation to set a new net-zero emissions standard for all new commercial buildings by 2030, these steps and critical investments in the Build Back Better Plan will accelerate progress to Joe Biden’s target of cutting the carbon footprint of our national building stock in half by 2035.
  • Launching a major, multi-year national effort to modernize our nation’s schools and early learning facilities. For most American children, their public school is like a second home. It should be a place that makes them feel safe and healthy. Yet, American public school facilities received a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. In fact, each year the U.S. underfunds school infrastructure by $46 billion, leaving school districts responsible for the majority of construction costs and pushing long-term debt into the billions nationwide. And by not investing in the infrastructure of our public schools, too many schools are outdated, unsafe, unfit, and – in some cases – making kids and educators sick. Biden’s Build Back Better commitment includes a national effort to upgrade America’s schools and early learning facilities. In line with the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, backed by the House Education and Labor Committee, Biden will make an historic investment to improve public school buildings, with resources weighted to those lower-income rural and urban schools — all too often in communities of color — where the poor quality of school buildings is an additional barrier to equal educational opportunity. Those funds will be deployed with a set of priorities in mind: healthy kids, climate resilience, and creating greater educational equity and job creation in underserved communities. First and foremost, those funds will be used to address health risks, such as improving indoor air quality and ventilation and ensuring access to clean water, so that going to school or working at one never makes anyone sick. Second, additional funding will be used to build cutting-edge, energy-efficient, innovative, climate resilient campuses, which not only have the schools with technology and labs to prepare our students for the jobs of the future, but also become themselves the places that provide communities with green space, clean air, and places to gather, especially during emergencies. He’ll also upgrade child care and early learning facilities around the country that are not safe or developmentally appropriate for young children, who are especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants like lead and mold, and to safety hazards like electrical outlets. Biden’s investments will catalyze thousands of good, union jobs, drawing those workers from the communities most in need of economic development. These investments mean work for local businesses and support for local school districts to reduce capital costs, allowing them to spend more on teaching, learning, and other essential needs to support educators and ensure students are prepared to succeed in tomorrow’s economy.
  • Spurring the construction of 1.5 million homes and public housing units to address the affordable housing crisis, increase energy efficiency, and reduce the racial wealth gap. Biden is building on his housing plan by further increasing the level of federal investment in new affordable, accessible housing construction — including homes for low-income Americans, minority communities, veterans, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. He will ensure these homes are energy efficient from the start – saving the families who live there up to $500 per year. Biden will also drive additional capital into low-income communities to spur the development of affordable housing and small business creation. And, he’ll incentivize smart regional planning that connects housing, transit, and jobs, improving quality of life by cutting commute times, reducing the distance between living and leisure areas, and mitigating climate change.

A major focus of Biden’s commitment to increase federal procurement by $400 billion in his first term will be purchasing the key clean energy inputs like batteries and electric vehicles that will help position the U.S. as the world’s clean energy leader. And, as part of Biden’s historic commitment to accelerate R&D investment on a scale well beyond the Apollo-program, he will focus on strategic research areas like clean energy, clean transportation, clean industrial processes, and clean materials over the next four years. This funding will drive large-scale innovation in the industries of the future and create new partnerships to empower a generation of entrepreneurs, engineers, and skilled trade workers in all parts of the United States.  Biden will invest these new dollars in a way that ensures sustained and sustainable job and small business growth in all parts of America – facilitating the formation of regional ecosystems of innovation, investing in the future of manufacturing communities, playing to each region’s strengths, and pulling in people from diverse backgrounds and skills. These investments will not only help us recover from the economic consequences of the Trump Administration’s dangerous decisions, they will help America build back better – an economy that is less vulnerable to shocks and better able to bounce back from future threats. As part of this effort, Biden will:

  • Create a new Advanced Research Projects Agency on Climate, a new, cross-agency ARPA-C to target affordable, game-changing technologies to help America achieve our 100% clean energy target, including:
    • grid-scale storage at one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion batteries;
    • advanced nuclear reactors, that are smaller, safer, and more efficient at half the construction cost of today’s reactors;
    • refrigeration and air conditioning using refrigerants with no global warming potential;
    • zero net energy buildings at zero net cost, including through breakthroughs in smart materials, appliances, and systems management;
    • using renewables to produce carbon-free hydrogen at a lower cost than hydrogen from shale gas through innovation in technologies like next generation electrolyzers;
    • decarbonizing industrial heat needed to make steel, concrete, and chemicals and reimagining carbon-neutral construction materials;
    • decarbonizing the food and agriculture sector, and leveraging research in soil management, plant biologies, and agricultural techniques to remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground; and
    • capturing carbon dioxide through direct air capture systems and retrofits to existing industrial and power plant exhausts, followed by permanently sequestering it deep underground or using it to make alternative products like cement.
  • Accelerate innovation in supply-chain resilience by investing in research to bolster and build critical clean energy supply chains in the United States, addressing issues like reliance on rare earth minerals.
  • Invest in our national laboratories, high-performance computing capabilities, and the design and construction of other critical infrastructure at and around those national laboratories and the regional innovation ecosystems and economies that they support.
  • Strengthen land-grant universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and other minority serving institutions (MSIs), expanding facilities, targeting grants, and supporting the training of talent.
  • Mobilizing the next generation of conservation and resilience workers through a Civilian Climate Corps. Biden will put a new, diverse generation of patriotic Americans to work conserving our public lands, bolstering community resilience, and addressing the changing climate, while putting good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans, including women and people of color. This initiative will be complemented by a new generation of scientists and land managers committed to ecological integrity and natural climate solutions. These workers will use sound, science-based techniques to thin and sustainably manage our forests, making them more resilient to wildfire and enhancing their carbon intake and habitat integrity; restore wetlands to protect clean water supplies and leverage greater flood protection; repair dilapidated irrigation systems to conserve water; plant millions of trees to help reduce heat stress in urban neighborhoods; protect and restore coastal ecosystems, such as wetlands, seagrasses, oyster reefs, and mangrove and kelp forests, to protect vulnerable coastlines, sequester carbon, and support biodiversity and fisheries; enhance the carbon intake of natural and working lands, wetlands, reefs, and underwater mangrove and kelp forests; remove invasive species; improve wildlife corridors; build hiking and biking trails and access to other recreational amenities; and reinvigorate landscapes and seascapes, unlocking economic and climate resilience in places like the Great Lakes, the Everglades, our nation’s great river systems including the Colorado River, and the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Creating more than a quarter million jobs immediately to clean up local economies from the impacts of resource extraction. Biden will direct a front-loaded investment to immediately address the backlog of remediation, reclamation, and restoration needs left behind by the CEOs whose corporations failed to meet their responsibilities to the communities where they operated. Across the country, there are several million unplugged, orphaned, and abandoned oil and gas wells that pose ongoing climate, health, and safety risks in communities. The oil, methane and brine that leaks from these wells contaminates the air and water, and the problem is only getting worse. In addition to these wells, tens of thousands of former mining sites for extraction of coal, hardrock minerals, and uranium are causing ongoing environmental damage including to local surface and groundwater supplies. By making an immediate up-front investment, Biden will create more than 250,000 good jobs with a choice to join a union to plug these oil and gas wells and to restore and reclaim these abandoned coal, hardrock, and uranium mines. This program will create jobs for skilled technicians and operators in some of the hardest hit communities in the country, while reducing leakage of toxic chemicals, methane, and other wastes and preventing local environmental damage. Biden will also hold companies accountable for the environmental damage of their operations, including by clawing back golden parachutes and executive bonuses for companies that shift the environmental burdens of their actions onto taxpayers.
  • Standing up for our farms and ranches. Our family farmers and ranchers were already fighting an uphill battle because of Trump’s irresponsible trade policies and consistent siding with oil lobbyists over American growers, but COVID-19 has placed new pressures on that sector and the rural economies it sustains. Biden will bring back America’s advantage in agriculture, create jobs, and build a bright future for rural communities by investing in the next generation of agriculture and conservation; providing opportunities to new farmers and ranchers, including returning veterans and minorities, to enter the economy; and making it easier to pass farms and ranches onto the next generation, and:
    • Helping farmers leverage new technologies, techniques, and equipment to increase productivity and profit – including by providing low-cost finance for the transition to new equipment and methods, funding research and development in precision agriculture and new crops, and a establishing a new voluntary carbon farming market that rewards farmers for the carbon they sequester on their land and the greenhouse gas emission reductions, including from methane, that they secure. These efforts to partner with farmers will help them tap into develop new income streams as they tackle the challenge of sequestering carbon, reducing emissions, and continue their track record as global leaders in agricultural innovation. Instead of making things harder for farmers, Biden will stand with them as they fight against the threats of climate change, droughts, flooding and extreme weather, while partnering with them to make American agriculture the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions.
    • Pursuing smarter pro-worker and pro-family-farmer trade policies – knowing the difference between strong and effective trade enforcement and the self-defeating strategy Donald Trump has pursued. Biden will help farmers compete instead of crushing them.
    • Bolstering the security and resilience of our food supply, including by leveraging precision agriculture through regional demonstration projects to minimize the impacts of drought.
    • Making sure small and medium-sized farms and producers have access to fair markets where they can compete and get fair prices for their products – and requiring large corporations play by the rules instead of writing them – by strengthening enforcement of the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts and the Packers and Stockyards Act.
    • Investing in diverse farmers to make our agriculture sector stronger and more resilient. American agriculture is strong in part because of our incredible range of farm types and sizes — and we’ve got to make sure that anyone who wants to serve our country as a farmer can get assistance from USDA. As President, Biden will ensure the U.S. Department of Agriculture ends historical discrimination against Black farmers in federal farm programs and that all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers have access to programs that support their family farms.
    • Expanding protections for farm workers. Farm workers have always been essential to working our farms and feeding our country. As President, Biden will ensure farm workers are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, regardless of immigration status. He will work with Congress to provide legal status based on prior agricultural work history and ensure labor and safety rules, including overtime, humane living conditions, and protection from pesticide and heat exposure, are enforced with respect to these particularly vulnerable working people.
    • Building on Biden’s rural plan, which includes proposals to re-invest in land grant universities’ agricultural research so the public, not private companies, owns patents to agricultural advances.

Throughout every aspect of Biden’s plan to rebuild a resilient infrastructure and sustainable, clean energy economy, he will prioritize addressing historic, environmental injustice. Biden has a comprehensive environmental justice plan, which includes:

  • Setting a goal that disadvantaged communities receive 40% of overall benefits of spending in the areas of clean energy and energy efficiency deployment; clean transit and transportation; affordable and sustainable housing; training and workforce development; remediation and reduction of legacy pollution; and development of critical clean water infrastructure. In addition, Biden will directly fund historic investments across federal agencies aimed at eliminating legacy pollution — especially in communities of color, rural and urban low-income communities, and tribal communities — and addressing common challenges faced by disadvantaged communities, such as funds for replacing and remediating lead service lines and lead paint in households, child care centers, and schools in order to ensure all communities have access to safe drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. These investments will create good-paying jobs in frontline and fenceline communities.
  • Creating a data-driven Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to identify disadvantaged communities, from urban to rural to tribal communities – including those threatened by the cumulative stresses of climate change, economic distress, racial inequality, and multi-source environmental pollution. With the power of data – combined with enhanced monitoring of climate emissions, criteria pollutants, and toxics – Biden will enable agencies and the private sector to make investments in the rural, suburban, and urban communities that need them most. In addition, Biden will instruct his Cabinet to prioritize climate change strategies and technologies that reduce traditional air pollution in the disadvantaged communities identified by the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.
  • Ensure that the Biden Administration prioritizes environmental justice issues and holds polluters accountable. Biden will overhaul and update existing programs at the White House, the Department of Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency in order to comprehensively address the most pressing, intersectional environmental justice issues and hold polluters accountable. For example, Biden will ensure that frontline and fenceline communities are at the table when enforcement, remediation, and investment decisions affecting those communities are made. Biden will ensure working groups on these issues report directly into the White House, so that communities facing the dual threat of environmental and economic burdens have access to the highest levels of the Biden Administration. And, Biden will establish a new Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Justice Department, as proposed by Governor Inslee, to complement the work of the Environment and Natural Resources Division and hold polluters accountable.

These scientists are using machine learning to listen to nature (literally)

The United Nations has called on the world to protect 30 percent of the planet from human activity to help protect ecosystems and slow down climate change. But conservation areas are often vulnerable to illegal logging, poaching, mining, and other activities that threaten biodiversity. How can land managers detect these kinds of human impacts on protected ecosystems? Scientists are applying machine learning to identify human influence on the environment by literally listening to the environment — that is, by monitoring forest “soundscapes.”

Every ecosystem has its own distinctive collection of sounds that change with the season and even the time of day. According to Bryan Pijanowski, soundscape ecologist and director of Purdue University’s Center for Global Soundscapes, “Sounds are part of the ecosystem, and they are signatures of that ecosystem.” The unique sound environment of an ecosystem is known as a soundscape, the aggregate of all the sounds — biological, geophysical, and anthropogenic — that make up a place.

Sound has long been used by soundscape ecologists to assess biodiversity and other metrics of ecosystem health. Pijanowski has his own, informal rule of thumb: “If I can tap my foot to a soundscape, I know it’s fairly healthy,” he says, because it means “the rhythmic animals — the frogs and the insects, the base of the food chain — are there.”

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences applies tools from machine learning to these soundscapes to get a better picture of ecosystem health and human activity. The researchers built algorithms that taught themselves to predict habitat quality in different environments across the world, ranging from rainforests in Borneo and the Republic of Congo to temperate forests in New York, based only on sound data.

Detecting human activity that impacts ecosystem health, like illegal logging and poaching, has long been a challenge for land managers and scientists, often requiring expensive and time-consuming surveys in which specialists manually identify species. But this new method requires only basic audio equipment that allows for remote monitoring of the soundscape, which can be done in real time, and a machine learning algorithm that listens for sounds that aren’t typical in a forest environment. “Say that there’s weird things going on or illegal activity, like guns being shot, or chainsaws from illegal logging,” explained Sarab Sethi, a mathematician at Imperial College London and the lead author of the new paper. “We work under the assumption that illegal activity contains a lot of anomalous sounds that are different from whatever usual sounds are in the ecosystem.”

How does the computer identify strange sounds? The key is unsupervised machine learning, meaning machine learning that doesn’t require human input to “train” the model on pre-identified data. “The way that we measure similarities and differences in sound is really the technical advance from our work,” Sethi told Grist. This new method uses a neural network to compare the “fingerprints” of sounds — not only their frequencies, but the structure of how their frequencies change over time — to one another other. “Once we’ve got a fingerprint, like a bird calling — a bird calling is more similar to a different species of bird calling, in this fingerprint, than it is to, say, a gunshot,” says Sethi. The neural network learns which sounds are typical of a healthy forest environment, and which ones are out of the ordinary.

The unsupervised technique requires less work from humans to identify sound; it’s also more robust than so-called supervised machine learning. Unsupervised, the algorithm detects anomalous sounds on its own, without requiring a fallible human researcher to teach it what gunshots and chainsaws sound like. “If you use a supervised approach, your whole approach succeeds or fails based on how good your training data is, so how well labeled that data is,” said Sethi. “You don’t have that sort of reliance in unsupervised methods.”

Ultimately, Sethi hopes this method can provide new tools to land managers and scientists monitoring ecosystem health. For Sethi, whose training is in engineering, the application of machine learning to this kind of data seemed natural. “I was always really interested in real sensor data and applied math to get insight into the world,” he said. “It’s a really fun application of pretty cool technology to something that is quite an important problem.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline These scientists are using machine learning to listen to nature (literally) on Jul 14, 2020.

How to get your friends to care about the climate, according to a youth activist

Grist 50 Fixer Xiuhtezcatl Martinez just turned 20, but he’s already built up an impressive resume as an activist and the youth director of the international conservation org Earth Guardians. The multihyphenate Martinez, who’s also a hip-hop artist and an author, has delivered several U.N. speeches, given multiple TED talks, and sued the federal government over climate inaction. For the climate-justice movement to succeed, he says, a multimodal approach is needed — a notion that has further taken root in the ongoing protests against police brutality, and has helped to amplify the link between systemic racism and climate change. “Our generation has a diversity of ways to tap into different movements that is really powerful,” he says.

Martinez spoke with Grist about why this matters — and offered a few ideas about how to inspire and motivate your friends to take action. His remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

Start small by starting local

For anybody trying to get involved in the climate movement, there’s never going to be an easy list of five things to do, like, “Swipe these three things on Instagram and be revolutionary!” It’s not that easy. I’ve been reflecting on my journey as a climate activist and youth leader, and I think some of the most powerful work I’ve done has come from when I had a really deep understanding of what was going on in my own community.

I started building my organizing and communicating skills by understanding the impact of chemical pesticides in public parks in Colorado, where I live. Then I started looking at natural gas extraction in the fracking industry and how those things intersect with racial justice. And in this way, I came to understand how local environmental issues connect with the global climate crisis, which can feel so big and so far away.

Let your personal passions power change

Encouraging young people to challenge traditional notions of activism and organizing really inspires me. Our generation can leverage social media, leverage organizing tools that past generations didn’t have. We can communicate and tell stories differently. As a hip-hop artist, I’ve really seen the power of engaging with social movements like climate justice from a place of doing what you love. Regardless of the movement you care about, we show up better in these spaces when we are informed and doing it through a lens of what we love.

Our work is absolutely the most powerful in the climate space when it is intentionally intersectional. If you look at just immigration and climate, those two issues are tightly woven together. I just wrote a book, Imaginary Borders, that talks about this and about leveraging the power of our diverse identities as a generation.

Get culture

Music and art have always played a role in social movements. I grew up listening to Bob Marley, Flobots, and Michael Franti back when he made hip-hop records. And KRS-One and Talib Kweli and a bunch of revolutionary MCs like Gil Scott-Heron. This music has been really inspiring, and it’s exciting for me to understand the cultural and historical context of the music I make. A lot of organizing in the environmental space has traditionally been pretty white and very comfortable in its own lane, and art and culture infuses itself into these movements — just breathes life into them.

In this moment we’re in, culture will absolutely shift everything. Even just something like kids on TikTok sharing really powerful messages and stories — that speaks volumes to this generation. As a generation, we hold so much power over the government, in creating change and revolutionizing systems. Amid a pandemic and a global, multiracial uprising of people demanding justice for Black lives and the dismantling of white supremacy and a lot of systems of injustice in this country, from policing to prison systems: In my lifetime, this is the greatest moment of people power I’ve ever seen.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How to get your friends to care about the climate, according to a youth activist on Jul 14, 2020.

Like humans, beluga whales form social networks beyond family ties

A groundbreaking study is the first to analyze the relationship between group behaviors, group type, group dynamics, and kinship of beluga whales in 10 locations across the Arctic. Results show that not only do beluga whales regularly interact with close kin, including close maternal kin, they also frequently associate with more distantly related and unrelated individuals. Findings will improve the understanding of why some species are social, how individuals learn from group members and how animal cultures emerge.