Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Countering climate cost of cows

A Western ranching cooperative wants to use “climate friendly” cattle to turn an area roughly the size of Massachusetts into an enormous carbon sink, KGW8 Oregon reported.

“We’re wanting to move beyond sustainability,” Dan Probert, marketing director of the Country Natural Beef ranching co-op, told the local NBC affiliate.

The Country Natural Beef cooperative includes about 100 ranches with cattle grazing on 6.5 million acres of public and private land in 11 states, KGW8 reported.

Now the co-op is teaming up with Portland-based nonprofit Sustainable Northwest to help convert its members’ rangeland to regenerative agriculture, a loosely defined collection of practices that seeks to improve the health and biodiversity of farmlands.

“If we can increase [stored] carbon, even a little bit, across those 7 million acres, that will be a ginormous impact on the climate,” Dallas Hall Defrees, of Sustainable Northwest, told KGW8.

Cattle are a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture — particularly the potent pollutant methane, according to research from the University of California Davis.

But while dietary changes can cut down on the cattle’s methane-releasing burps, the extensive sweep of Western ranchlands also creates a huge area that can be used to “draw down” carbon dioxide, researchers have found. 

One method proposed by the co-op: keeping cows moving along the range, so that they don’t eat grasses down to the roots.  

“If we allow a plant to fully recover before we graze it, that is the practice that allows us to actually put carbon back in the soil,” Probert told KGW8. 

If Country Natural Beef members are able to increase their carbon storage — and therefore the health of their lands — the practice will spread, Hall Defrees, of Sustainable Northwest, told KGW8. 

“I think once people start looking across their neighbor’s fence and start seeing ‘wow their grass, their land is actually looking better. Maybe I should pay attention to what they’re doing,’ I really think this will start snowballing,” she said. 

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? Sign up here or in the box below.

Today we’ll start in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has proposed penalties for “excessive” oil profits. Plus: Why America’s rail trouble is only just beginning, and a Harvard-led team launches a climate resilience toolkit for front line clinics

Newsom proposes penalties to tackle fuel prices

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Monday evening unveiled a proposal that would penalize oil companies for “excessive profits” in the Golden State. 

Reining in profits: Newsom introduced the so-called “price gouging penalty” alongside state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D) in a move they said would “keep money in Californians’ pockets.” 

  • “California’s price gouging penalty is simple – either Big Oil reins in the profits and prices, or they’ll pay a penalty,” Newsom said in a statement
  • The proposal comes as California’s legislature kicks off a special session, initiated by the governor, to address the issue of price gouging. 

Sky-high prices: California, which also has among the highest gas taxes in the country, saw prices hit a record high of $6.44 per gallon in mid-June, according to the American Automobile Association. 

Prices at the pump on Tuesday were about $4.72 per gallon — significantly higher than the national average of $3.38. 

Tampering excess: If approved by state lawmakers, the proposal would make it illegal for companies to charge excessive prices.  

  • The definition of excessive — including the maximum margin and penalty amounts — would be determined through the legislative process.  
  • Penalties would go to a “Price Gouging Penalty Fund” that would be redistributed to Californians. 
  • The proposal also aims to improve transparency and oversight of the oil industry by the state.  

Reaching records: To back up the proposal, the governor’s office referred to a list of occasions in which oil companies recently reported record high profits for 2022: 

  • Phillips 66 profits surged to $5.4 billion — a 1,243 percent increase over last year.
  • BP posted its second-highest profits on record — $8.2 billion — with $2.5 billion going toward share buybacks for investors.
  • Gains at Marathon Petroleum rose to $4.5 billion, compared to $694 million during the same period last year.
  • Valero’s $2.82 billion in third-quarter profits marked a 500 percent surge over last year.
  • PBF Energy’s $1.06 billion in profits rose 1,700 percent above those of the year before.
  • Chevron reported $11.2 billion in gains — its second-highest quarterly profit ever.
  • Shell reported a $9.45 billion in profits, sending $4 billion to shareholders for buybacks.
  • ExxonMobil announced its highest-ever gains of $19.7 billion.

What do the companies say? ExxonMobil spokesman Todd Spitler said that “supporting reliable and affordable energy throughout the energy transition, in any market environment, is what governments should strive to do.” 

“Punitive policies discourage long-term investment in energy supply, and that will only create supply shortages in the future,” Spitler added. 

Equilibrium has also reached out to the other companies for comment. 

To read the full story, please click here.

No sick days poses a threat to rail, supply chains 

Forcing railroad workers to work without sick time poses a growing threat to the sustainability of U.S. railroads, union members and investors are warning. 

Costly win: In forcing through a controversial agreement between rail workers and rail companies last week, the U.S. government may have traded an acute crisis for a chronic one, experts told our colleague Karl Evers-Hillstrom.

  • Biden signed a bill last week prohibiting railroad union workers from striking. 
  • A parallel bill that would have guaranteed workers seven paid sick days failed in the Senate.

Thousands could leave: Rail workers who can find other jobs could filter out of the industry, Evers-Hillstrom reported.

  • This will only worsen preexisting staff shortages — which stem from railroad companies layoffs of nearly a third of their workforce in the past six years. 
  • A “good percentage” will leave, said Hugh Sawyer, an Atlanta-based engineer at Norfolk Southern.  
  • “And we can’t afford for anybody to leave because we’re so undermanned as it is,” Sawyer added.

Coming exodus: Sawyer said that young workers around thriving cities like Atlanta would be the first to go. 

  • These workers are more likely to value their quality of life over pay. 
  • Many also live near surging centers of manufacturing that can offer them more predictable livelihoods.

Where they’ll go: While other trucking or factory jobs might pay less, they offer more reliable hours, Jeff Kurtz of Railroad Workers United told Evers-Hillstrom. 

  • “They talk about the money in this contract [but] it’s just not worth it to have to give up what these people have to give up,” Kurtz said. 
  • Under the existing deal, workers have no paid sick days and only three unpaid days for doctors’ appointments, which must be booked months in advance. 

Ray of hope: This threat of losing workers may cause major carriers to voluntarily sweeten their benefits packages, local BNSF union leader Kevin Knutson told Wyoming Public Media. 

Investors are worried: Sustainability concerns have investors at Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern pushing the companies to offer “a reasonable amount” of paid sick time, Reuters reported. 

While both activist investment firms — Impact Partner and Trillium Asset Management — own less than 0.01 percent of the two rail giants, they can still propose resolutions, according to Business Insider. 

  • There is “a clear business case” for a less burnt-out workforce, Kate Monahan of Trillium wrote in a proposed resolution sent to the rail company.
     
  • If accepted by company directors, the measure would face a vote at the companies’ spring shareholder meetings. 

“Focusing on the short term at the expense of workers poses potential risks to the company and the economy,” Monahan added. 

House Dems want $2.1B for key grid components 

A group of House Democrats is pushing Congress to use the powerful Defense Production Act to rapidly produce electric transformers. 

  • The call comes in the wake of an armed attack at two substations in North Carolina that left tens of thousands without power, as we reported on Monday. 
  • Nine Democrats asked for $2.1 billion in emergency funding to develop domestic supply chains to produce transformers, which are considered a critical weak point in the power grid. 

In the weeds: The nine members included Reps. Sean Casten (Ill.), Bobby Rush (Ill.), Doris Matsui (Calif.), Jared Huffman (Calif.), Mike Levin (Calif.), Connor Lamb (Pa.), Paul Tonko (N.Y.) and Susie Lee (Nev.). 

  • The proposed money would be paid out of a forthcoming Disaster Supplemental Funding bill. 
  • The bill is an ad hoc measure expected to be passed during the lame-duck session to aid in disaster recovery. 

Current threats: A climate of disaster looms over the bill. 

  • Extreme weather events have added pressure to the already-struggling transformer supply chain,” the lawmakers noted.  
  • The recent attacks on transformers in Moore County, N.C., were another threat that is “top of mind” for the members, said a source familiar with the matter.  

Long-term risks:  But levels of both consumer demand and disaster-based destruction of infrastructure are increasing, the House members wrote.  

To read more about how they want to use this wartime measure to reform the grid, please click here

Harvard launches climate toolkit for front line clinics 

A team of Harvard University public health experts has launched an initiative to help front line medical clinics protect their patients from climate risks. 

When heat hits hard: The project, called the Climate Resilience for Frontline Clinics toolkit, provides guidance on how to develop action plans and alert systems ahead of extreme weather events, as well as checklists for staff and tips for patients. 

  • Also included in the toolkit are tailored instructions that aim to protect especially vulnerable patients — like those who are pregnant or who have specific health conditions — from the effects of extreme heat. 
  • Among those conditions are asthma, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, diabetes, dementia, multiple sclerosis and mental health issues.  

Coping with climate shock: “Frontline clinics are the glue that hold their communities together when disasters strike,” Aaron Bernstein, of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE), said in a statement

  • “But with limited resources, and an ongoing pandemic, many don’t have the funding, training, or tools they need after a climate shock,” Bernstein added. 
  • Harvard Chan C-CHANGE collaborated with the nonprofit Americares — and received funding from the company Biogen — to help clinics overcome such crises. 

Full-time assistance: The researchers said they worked with front line clinics in California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas to develop tools for the periods “before, during and after climate shocks.” 

  • Front line clinics care for millions of the country’s uninsured or underinsured patients. 
  • Yet these same sites are often overwhelmed by intense heat waves and storms, which destroy infrastructure, interfere with supply chains and cause power cuts. 

A growing need: “We know that low-income, uninsured and underinsured populations need more support after emergencies,” Kristin Stevens, of Americares, said in a statement.  

“This need is accelerating as we experience more intense storms, wildfires and extreme weather,” Stevens added. 

To read more about the toolkit, please click here for the full story.

Toxic Tuesday

Environmental Protection Agency proposes tightening “forever chemical” reporting standards, researchers find a link between air pollution exposure and depression symptoms and a congressional bill seeks to combat plastic pollution.

EPA seeks to close gap on ‘forever chemical’ reporting 

  • The Environmental Protection agency has proposed closing a Trump-era “loophole” that has allowed some firms to avoid reporting the release of toxic “forever chemicals,” our colleague Rachel Frazin reported. Companies currently do not have to disclose the presence of these compounds if they comprise just a small part of a total discharge.    

Study links air pollution to increased depression in those with bipolar disorder 

  • Short-term exposure to air pollution may be associated with increases in depression symptoms in individuals with bipolar disorder, according to a new study released as a pre-print. University of College London researchers said they used a digital health platform called juli to monitor how depression symptoms rose as air quality worsened.

Bill seeks to cut single-use plastic overproduction, pollution 

  • A new bill introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) would begin winding down American production of single-use plastics, Grist reported. “With plastic particles ending up on the snowcaps of the Arctic and inside our own blood streams, it’s clear we need strong legislation to get this plastics crisis under control,” Merkley said in a statement

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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