Equilibrium & Sustainability

The Hill’s Sustainability Report: Seawalls protect some communities — at the expense of others


Today is Wednesday.  Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Seawalls and levees have been used for millennia to fortify communities against flooding. But erecting such infrastructure often occurs at the detriment of lower income communities, a new report suggested.

In cities where bays or estuaries channel the water — like New York, Manila, Calcutta and San Francisco — a seawall in one place can increase flooding elsewhere, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This means that in large bays like that of San Francisco, rich communities that rely on such coastal defense mechanisms risk flooding their neighbors along the coast — which in San Francisco includes lower income populations and communities of color, Scientific American reported. The study authors therefore emphasized the need for regional collective planning, as well as returning parts of the coast to salt marshes, which absorb the impact from waves, slow the erosion of shorelines and siphon off floodwaters. 

Today we’re looking at the bill that could unleash billions of dollars for such adaptation — the long awaited $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, and its (much larger) upcoming, very partisan $3.5 trillion partner. After that, we explore how investor pessimism on the future of fossil fuels is leading us into a period of more expensive oil and gas.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.


Bipartisan bill moves forward, but a bigger battle awaits

Senate Democrats voted Wednesday morning to advance a $3.5 trillion spending plan without Republican support, Jordain Carney reported for The Hill.

That’s a partisan about-face from the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill the Senate passed yesterday.

But that bill couldn’t fit everything that Democrats want, and they are trying to press ahead with both pieces of legislation.

What’s in the first bill? The $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill includes traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges, as well as improvements to the country’s energy, electric vehicle and water sectors.

It also has five key sustainability components, as laid out by The Hill’s Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk:

1. Transportation: $2.5 billion for zero-emissions school buses, $2.5 billion for buses running on “alternative fuels” and $2.5 billion for electric and “low-emitting ferries”

2. Cleaner power: $6 billion for nuclear upkeep; loans and grants to boost carbon capture

3. Grid updates: $1 billion to boost rural grid resilience

4. Energy efficiency: grants and loans for building energy upgrades

5. Toxin cleanups: $50 billion for forever chemical cleanup and lead pipe replacements 

The infrastructure bill now moves to the House, which will cut short its recess and return on Aug. 23 to consider the package, The Hill reported.

A “test for environmental justice”: We still don’t know whether communities that “have historically been marginalized in large-scale government projects” would benefit from these funds, according to Bloomberg CityLab — describing the package as “a trillion-dollar test for environmental justice.”

The White House has created the Justice40 Initiative, an environmental justice framework, to steer 40 percent of clean energy investments into such communities.

“We’re leveraging every resource we can to use this moment as a rising tide for all communities,” Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan told Bloomberg.

Democrats argue bill “falls short”: Not all Senate Democrats are satisfied with the bipartisan bill’s approach to climate change — heightening demands for a more comprehensive second bill. 

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill “falls short” on climate provisions, The Hill reported.

DeFazio, whose $760 billion transportation and water infrastructure bill passed the House last month, said he would push for “transformational funding and policies” to curb pollution in the $3.5 trillion spending plan — also known as the “reconciliation plan.”

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, meanwhile, had asked the House on Tuesday to “commit to withholding a yes vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal” until the Senate passed the budget resolution.


What’s in the $3.5T reconciliation plan? That’s still unclear.

A memo sent to Democratic senators discussed a variety of measures, including initiatives to combat climate change, The Hill reported. 

The budget resolution directed committees to work on plans for a federal clean energy standard, renewable energy tax incentives and the creation of the Civilian Climate Corps, E&E News reported.

Partial funding would come from increasing taxes on corporations and wealthy earners.

Moving forward will be “a balancing act” to retain centrists such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and progressives such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), The Hill reported. 

Manchin and Sinema are not yet on board. The West Virginia senator said he has “serious concerns” about the $3.5 trillion package, describing it as “irresponsible” in “an economy that is on the verge of overheating.”

Sinema, meanwhile, has said she would try to reduce its price tag in the months ahead. 

Takeaway: It’s going to be a long contentious haul as Congress moves forward on the reconciliation bill.


The age of cheap fossil fuels may be over

In an attempt to ward off Republican attacks over rising gas prices, the White House is asking the world’s leading cartel of oil producers to pump more oil than they’d planned. 

It’s unlikely to do much good: Longer term trends in the U.S., China and Europe suggest that a more volatile world of oil shocks may be an unavoidable part of the energy transition — and that we’re leaving the era of cheap fossil fuels behind.

Top line: It’s a bit complex, but bear with us. Oil prices have been sliding this week as traders worry that new restrictions, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant in China and elsewhere, will cut demand, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Assuming the rally resumes, it will be marked by the same rising oil prices that have driven U.S. prices at the pump to about $1 above where they were a year ago, The Associated Press reported.

The rise in gas prices led OPEC plus Russia (OPEC+) to agree to boost production by 400,000 barrels a day, as The Hill reported last month.

But this was “simply not enough,” said Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, in a prepared statement to OPEC+.

“Higher gasoline costs, if left unchecked, risk harming the ongoing global recovery,” Sullivan wrote.

Wait — the White House wants more oil? They do, despite climate concerns and their push last week for a giant scale-up in electric vehicles by 2030.

That’s because the rise in gas prices, in the car-centred United States, means a tax on virtually every activity.

One laid-off office manager in Illinois told The New York Times last week that “$40 was enough to fill up his gas tank last year,” but now it takes more than $60 to fill his Dodge Charger, “making trips to take his mother to her medical appointments more expensive.”

Stories like that have led Republicans — including Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) in a Fox News op-ed — to blame the increase on President Biden’s decisions to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline and to slow-walk new drilling permits on federal lands. 

Is that criticism valid? In the immediate sense, probably not. The Keystone XL project was largely intended for export. And any prospective new drilling would have taken a long time to push new crude or gas to market.

But the larger principle holds: The administration isn’t boosting fossil fuels like past administrations did — and lackluster production combined with increasing demand means higher prices. 

And globally, a swell of countries and large corporations are seeking to get off carbon by 2050. That has investors looking at the new fossil fuel development with more skepticism than they would have in the past.


A coming decline: Europe, the United States and China are all separately trying to wean themselves off fossil fuels — which threatens to fracture OPEC, a union that currently controls 80 percent of the world oil market, threatening the stability the cartel has traditionally imposed, according to Reuters.

The conundrum for investors is the same as for the cartel: Oil demand is peaking sooner than expected, and the rising specter of climate regulation increases the fear of being left with investments stranded in assets no one will buy.

The oil industry has long espoused potential solutions to that problem. There’s a transfer to hydrogen fuels, as in British Petroleum’s new proposed refinery in Australia; and the promise of carbon sequestration, in which carbon is pulled from smokestacks and secreted below ground, as Reuters reported. 

But so far, these technologies remain little more than tantalizing prospects. And plans by companies like Total Energies to sell “carbon neutral fuel” — by combining shipments of natural gas with, say, payments to African villagers who stave off deforestation — are a fantasy, according to Bloomberg Green.

This has cooled investor interest in new fossil fuels: Wall Street is reining in the shale gas producers who used to frack new gas wells at any hint of a price jump, the Financial Times reported. 

That’s spiked gas prices even more than oil: Combine that with a global demand for natural gas as the easiest lower-emission alternative to coal, and the result is prices surging sixfold in Asia and tenfold in Europe since last year, in what Bloomberg Markets called the end of “the era of cheap natural gas.”

“Expensive energy is here to stay,” Bloomberg wrote.

Water Wednesday

In which we look at two spills that have affected two very different environments.

96,000 salmon die after chlorine leak in Arctic Norway fjord

  • Approximately 96,000 farmed salmon have likely died after a nearby tank leaked 4,000 gallons of chlorine into an Arctic Norway fjord, ABC News reported. 
  • The leak occurred at a Grieg Seafood slaughterhouse, where the fish were waiting in a cage nearby, a spokesman for the company said. Chlorine is used to disinfect the water after the slaughter process occurs. 
  • Norwegian police confirmed on Twitter that “significant quantities of salmon are dead” and that the liquid had flowed into the ocean, ABC reported.

Santa Monica sewage spill exacerbating drought conditions

  • A massive sewage spill into Santa Monica Bay last month has significantly reduced the region’s water recycling capabilities — while the region continues to struggle with drought, the Los Angeles Times reported. 
  • Problems at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, where the spill occurred, have hindered the facility’s ability to fully treat sewage. This has meant a “sudden loss of millions of gallons of recycled water” to destinations like coastal aquifers, irrigated parks and golf courses around Los Angeles County, according to the Times.
  • The breakdown has also caused a “domino effect,” particularly at a nearby facility operated by the West Basin Municipal Water District, which typically takes a portion of the treated wastewater for use in irrigation and industry, according to the Times. 
  • West Basin has instead been using millions of gallons of drinking water each day since July 15, the Times reported.

And as both extreme heat and wildfires rattle the West, we recommend a new Guardian article that explores an unanticipated consequence to female firefighters.

One such firefighter told The Guardian she hasn’t had a period in three years. She and her female colleagues are calling for action to evaluate their potential reproductive health risks, as firefighting exposes them to chemicals linked to miscarriage and birth defects.

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

Tags Bernie Sanders Elizabeth Warren Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Barrasso Kyrsten Sinema Michael Regan Peter DeFazio

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