Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Buffalo digs itself out of 80 inches of snow

Just two days after more than 6 feet of snow battered the Buffalo region, many of the hardest-hit communities are already returning to their routines. 

An expedient effort to clean up “one of western New York’s most extreme snowfalls on record” was fueled by “armies of people and hundreds of plows, loaders, snowblowers and tracked vehicles,” The Washington Post reported. 

Although some neighborhoods remain buried, all major highways, arterial roads and secondary streets are now navigable, Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz told the Post.  

“Now we’re just kind of touching up and finishing the work that needs to be done to ensure that every neighborhood has been cleared,” Poloncarz said. 

The colossal influx of snow was the result of a “lake-effect” storm, which can occur when frigid, dry air travels over relatively warmer water, as we covered on Friday.  

The town of Hamburg — 15 miles south of Buffalo in Erie County — received a total of 81.2 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service. 

In what the Post described as a “rapid-fire cleanup,” teams “worked around-the-clock pushing snow from the roads to snow storage areas on road shoulders during whiteout conditions.” 

Nonetheless, the cleanup effort wasn’t entirely smooth sailing for Buffalo.  

The city’s new plowing status map — unveiled earlier this month to show which streets have been cleared — failed just two days into the storm, local NBC affiliate WGRZ reported. 

Amid widespread criticism, the city wouldn’t reveal the reasons why the GPS system crashed sometime between Friday and Saturday, according to WGRZ. 

“Obviously, we’re not happy that there were failures in the system,” Mayor Byron Brown told WGRZ. “The system was not reliable for this storm, that’s the fact.”

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? 

Today we’ll start with the Biden administration, which has OKed $550 million for community-based green energy projects. Then we’ll turn to Europe, where officials are pushing for a cap on natural gas prices. Plus: why global demand for critical minerals is fueling conflict in the Congo. 

$550M approved for community-based clean energy

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it will be allocating $550 million to support the deployment of community-based clean energy initiatives. 

On the path to net-zero: Through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block (EECBG) Program, the funds will help state, local and tribal governments reduce fossil fuel emissions and energy use, according to a notice of intent first shared with The Hill. 

  • The total sum is expected to serve more than 250 million Americans while helping achieve a net-zero economy by 2050, the Department of Energy stated. 
  • The funds were made available through the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year. 

Emphasis on equitable clean energy: Applications to the EECBG Program will be available to all 50 states, five U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, 774 tribes and 1,878 local governments, per the notice of intent. 

“This direct injection of DOE funds is essential for communities working to deliver an equitable, resilient, and clean energy future,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. 

How can the funds be used? Among the eligible uses are a variety of capacity-building, planning and infrastructure projects aimed at cutting emissions and improving energy efficiency, according to the Energy Department. 

  • For example, communities could build out electric vehicle infrastructure or deploy community solar projects to serve areas that don’t have access to clean energy. 
  • Some other possibilities include transportation conservation programs, such as traffic light synchronization, bike lane construction or the opening of satellite work centers. 

Breaking down the funds: Of the total $550 million — authorized by Congress to be available until expended — the Energy Department said it intends to distribute
$440 million in formula funding and competitive grants to the eligible parties. 

  • The remaining $110 million will go toward making the EECBG Program effective and to provide participants with technical assistance. 
  • Per the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, 28 percent of funds will go to states, 2 percent to tribes and 34 percent to each of two local government tiers. 

To find out more details about the program, please click here for the full story.

EU proposes gas price cap ahead of winter

The European Commission on Tuesday proposed a temporary cap on natural gas prices, with the goal of taming energy costs and safeguarding supplies ahead of winter. 

The so-called “Market Correction Mechanism” would serve “to protect EU businesses and households from episodes of excessively high gas prices in the EU,” according to the Commission. 

Preventing price peaks: “Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and weaponization of energy supplies, natural gas prices have seen unprecedented price peaks across the EU,” a statement from the Commission said. 

  • At the end of August, Russian state-run energy company Gazprom shut down its main gas pipeline to Europe for what it said would be three days of maintenance, but then never resumed operations. 
  • EU gas prices reached all-time highs during the second half of August — a situation that the Commission described as “highly damaging for the European economy.” 

The latest threat: On Tuesday, Gazprom threatened to cut off its last running gas pipeline to Europe, which runs through Ukraine, next Monday.  

  • The company accused Kyiv of diverting gas supplies intended for Moldova and creating a “transit imbalance.” 
  • The Gas Transmission System Operator of Ukraine denied these accusations, asserting that all volumes of gas destined for Moldovan customers were being transferred “in full.” 

Avoiding repeat events: With an uncertain winter ahead, the European Commission stressed that it intends “to prevent the repetition” of August’s price surges by proposing a “temporary and well-targeted instrument.” 

Setting a ceiling: In the case of extreme gas price hikes, the instrument would automatically intervene — setting a safety price ceiling of 275 euros ($282) per megawatt-hour on month-ahead title transfer facility (TTF) derivatives. 

  • The EU defines the TTF, which is based in the Netherlands, as a “hub” or “virtual trading point” where network users transfer gas among each other.  
  • The TTF has been widely used as a price reference due to its geographical proximity to many gas resources. 

Flexibility for demand: The proposed price ceiling would be limited to month-ahead products, according to the Commission. 

  • This means that market operators could meet demand requests and acquire gas on the spot market and over-the-counter. 
  • The price cap can be activated as of Jan. 1 and is designed to be in force for one year. 

To read the full story, please click here

Demand for critical minerals drives Congo conflict

A surging Western demand for minerals critical to high-tech devices is fueling fighting in the eastern Congo. 

Thousands of soldiers with the March 23 Revolutionary Movement (M23) are advancing toward the city of Goma, which is controlled by the U.N.-backed government in Kinshasa, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Key components: The troubled and mineral-rich Congo has struggled to control its frontiers or develop its enormous eastern reserves of the so-called 3T minerals: tungsten, tin and tantalum, the Journal reported. 

These minerals are important ingredients in a wide range of products, largely produced and consumed in wealthier countries. 

  • They are used in high-tech devices like smartphones, GPS units, tablets and laptops, as well as in everyday items like eyeglass frames and canned foods, according to human rights nonprofit IMPACT. 
  • 3T minerals are also used for aerospace and auto parts, medical devices and power tools.

Mineral motivation: The power struggle over the minerals has created an opening for armed groups like M23 — backed by its neighbors in Rwanda and Uganda — to steal them, according to Congolese and international groups.  

The fighting is leading to food shortages and skyrocketing prices across the region, according to German broadcaster DW. 

Suspicious sourcing: The outbreak of fighting comes in the wake of serious controversy around the sale of the 3T minerals from Africa’s Great Lakes Region, according to Bloomberg. 

Earlier this month, the Responsible Minerals Initiative announced that it would no longer recognize the stamp of ITSCI — one of the region’s main sustainability and human rights certification bodies monitoring 3T minerals, Bloomberg reported.

  • The Initiative — which includes major manufacturers like Apple and Walmart — ruled that it would no longer recognize ITSCI audits. 
  • The ruling followed an April report by London-based human rights reporting network Global Witness, which found that ITSCI was “failing spectacularly” in eradicating “conflict minerals” from its supply chain.

Geopolitical heist: The governments of Uganda and Rwanda have used armed groups in eastern Congo as conduits to smuggle out the nation’s mineral wealth, Congolese opposition politician Martin Madidi Fayulu told DW.

  • The M23 group was put into Congo by Rwanda to “destabilize Congo” and get “Congolese minerals,” Fayulu said.  
  • Such cross-border illicit cross-border traffic has allowed Rwanda, a country with tiny reserves of tantalum, to export nearly 40 percent of global supplies, according to the Journal.  

Rwanda claims innocence: Rwandan President Paul Kagame dismissed accusations that his country is laundering Congolese minerals by mixing them in with its own exports, Kigali-based news site Taarifa reported. 

“These are simple things you can have evidence for, because you can come and visit the mines and see people mining and test the minerals,” Kagame said. 

Solving an extinction mystery

Around 1000 AD, after living alongside humans for at least a millennium, Madagascar’s large animals suddenly disappeared from the fossil record.  

  • The enormous island was once home to a menagerie of large, unique reptiles, birds and mammals. 
  • These now-extinct Madagascan creatures included gorilla-sized lemurs, 10-foot tall elephant birds, grand tortoises and pygmy hippos. 

Now a new study suggests that they were finished off by farming, rather than by hunting — a finding with grave implications for present-day conservation. 

Lethal agriculture: Populations of lemurs and elephant birds disappear from the fossil record at about the same time that traces of cattle agriculture appear, according to the study, published Tuesday in Scientific Reports. 

  • These include charcoal — a sign of the burning of forests to open up new fields — and the bones of domestic animals like zebu, cattle and dogs. 
  • Human land-clearing for cattle herds wiped out the green corridors between shrinking animal habitats, breaking up populations into small, fragmented islands. 

Habitat change: The findings indicate that hunting is not the only way — “or perhaps even the main way” — that humans affect the wild animal populations around them, according to the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology, which carried out the research. 

“The burning of forests for introduced grazing species drove the extinction of large animals on the island, rather than the mere presence of hunters,” Sean Hixon, lead author of the paper, said in a statement. 

Modern resonance: The importance of maintaining such corridors — known in wildlife management as “habitat connectivity” — has become ever more important to the modern attempt to protect large animals from extinction, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.  

  • Southern California’s native cougars, for example, have begun to show serious birth defects caused by the slicing and dicing of their gene pools into tiny segments by the region’s proliferation of freeways, Scientific American reported. 
  • That led California in April 2022 to break ground on an epic solution: the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing, the world’s largest wildlife bridge. 

For the rest of the story, please click here.

Tech Tuesday

European wind turbine manufacturers are laying off workers, a big new battery plant comes to the Southeast and an imperfect – but significant – landmark for U.S. renewables. 

Europe’s wind industry suffering losses amid looming energy crisis 

  • Europe’s wind turbine manufacturers are reporting losses and laying off workers, The New York Times reported. The closures stem from supply chain issues as well as competition from China — and could thwart Europe’s ability to boost its emissions-free energy resources, according to the Times. 

Tennessee on track for enormous new battery plant 

  • Seoul-based LG Chem on Tuesday signed a preliminary deal with the state of Tennessee to build a $3 billion factory to produce components for electric vehicle batteries, clean energy news site Electrek reported. LG Chem credited Democratic climate legislation with helping create the new factory, which will be the largest of its kind in the U.S., according to Electrek.

U.S. clean energy hits a milestone — with far yet to go

  • Renewables are on track this year to contribute more electricity to the national grid than coal or nuclear power — a landmark that nonetheless remains far short of the level of clean energy required to meet U.S. climate goals, E&E news reported. “There is a point where we don’t get to the outcomes we projected because we blew the first few years of the transition,” John Larsen of the Rhodium Group told E&E.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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