Equilibrium/Sustainability — Geopolitical tensions threaten space structure

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Space policy disputes and rising terrestrial tensions between the U.S. and Russia are spilling over into the once "sanctified" area of support for the International Space Station, putting the project’s future in doubt, The Washington Post reported.

The decay in relations is coming as competition between U.S. and Russian commercial spaceflight companies overshadows the utopian designs behind the station’s construction.

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The station was born “at a unique moment in time” to “keep Soviet scientists and engineers working on space instead of selling their services to the highest bidder,” Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation think tank told the Post.

Now, with Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskWhat would Peter the Great say to Putin about space power? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia Al Gore: Emissions reductions hinge on AI measurements from space MORE’s SpaceX having displaced Russia’s commercial space business as the main supplier to the station — as well as cutting into its main business — “it’s clear those conditions have changed,” Weeden said.

Today we’ll look at another thorny policy area: the attempts by the United States government to balance support for the renewables economy of tomorrow with the rising gas prices of today. Then we’ll explore how Chinese governmental support built a car-battery titan — and what it would take for the U.S. to successfully compete.

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.

Officials approve solar projects, push oil, gas 

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday the approval of two major solar projects on public lands in California   part of a broader push to promote onshore renewable energy production, as reported in The Hill. 

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The two projects — together with a third whose approval is almost complete — will collectively generate about 1,000 megawatts of power and are the first projects to be authorized by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in California’s desert regions, according to the Interior Department. 

First words: “The efficient deployment of renewable energy projects will create good-paying jobs and are crucial in achieving the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035," BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement.

A renewable push amid climate tension: The announcement of these projects comes as the Biden administration confronts significant setbacks to its climate agenda, after Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinEven working piecemeal, Democrats need a full agenda for children Poll: 30 percent of Americans say they approve of the job Congress is doing Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE (D-W.Va.) indicated that he would not be supporting the president’s Build Back Better plan earlier this week.

Advocates of Build Back Better are urging the administration to restart talks with Manchin, with some calling for portions of the bill to advance in a piecemeal manner, as our colleague Zack Burdryk reported. 

In the meantime, however, the California projects are “one of a limited number of policy tools available to the Biden administration as it works to wean the United States from fossil fuels,” according to The New York Times.

What do the California projects entail? The Arica and Victory Pass solar fields will be able to power about 132,000 homes — generating 465 megawatts of electricity with 400 megawatts of battery storage, according to the Interior Department. Together, they will bring an infrastructure investment of $689 million and $5.9 million in annual operational economic benefit.

The third project, a 500-megawatt field called Oberon, is expected to receive BLM approval in the coming days, the Interior Department said. Oberon would sit on 2,700 acres of public lands and could generate up to 500 megawatts and power almost 142,000 homes.

And more projects may be on the way: The BLM has also begun soliciting interest for utility-scale solar energy development on about 90,000 acres of public land in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

“Investing in clean and reliable renewable energy represents the BLM's commitment for addressing climate change and supports Congress’ direction in the Energy Act of 2020 to permit 25 gigawatts of solar, wind, and geothermal production on public lands no later than 2025,” Stone-Manning said in a statement.

 

A CLASH BETWEEN CLIMATE CONCERNS AND ESCALATING OIL

Despite the Biden administration’s renewable energy push, officials have also in recent weeks begun urging the U.S. oil industry to produce more oil in an effort to address escalating gas prices and qualms about inflation, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Mixed messages: Yet oil executives are not promising to increase output, complaining of mixed messages from the administration and as investors have urged companies to secure profits by decreasing spending, according to the Journal. 

The White House is itself trying to strike a balance: “It’s important for the American oil-and-gas industry to address near-term energy demands while also recognizing that they need to begin transitioning their companies,” said Energy Department spokesman David Mayorga, cited by the Journal.

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Pumping up gas exports: The U.S. is also set to become the biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2022 — a title that Reuters said could persist for years. This surge could increase “access to an abundant and reasonably-priced product that helps ease the world’s current supply crunch," Charlie Riedl of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas told Reuters.

Industry touts gas as a less polluting fossil fuel than oil or coal at the point that it’s burned — but these benefits are offset by the impacts of unburned methane gas, according to Reuters. When released into the atmosphere, methane contributes to global warming on a level dozens of times more powerful than the carbon dioxide that comes out the smokestack.

Takeaway: As the 2021 rolls into 2022, the Biden administration is confronting a wellspring of contradictory questions in its drive to both advance ambitious projects to combat climate change and curb inflating prices amid global energy supply chain challenges.


US may challenge China on batteries 

China's government has built the world's leading electric vehicle battery manufacturer through a level of state support that is unavailable in the United States, The New York Times reported.

But while China has emerged as the center of gravity for the "third industrial revolution," the U.S. still has a chance to build a truly green renewables industry that avoids China's problems with greenwashing. 

First words. Chinese battery giant CATL “seems like the concept and creation of a master plan,” former General Motors executive Michael Dunne told the Times.

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Flipping the pattern: With China now boasting 14 times the electric car battery-making capacity of the U.S., CATL is part of a larger reversal in the longstanding industrial relationship between China and the West, at least when it comes to vehicles, former Chrysler executive Bill Russo told the Times. 

“China’s problem with internal combustion engines was they were forever playing the game of catch-up. Now, the United States has to play the game of catch-up with electric vehicles,” Russo said.

A strategic plan for battery dominance: The Chinese government greased the skids for CATL’s rise through a decade of support ranging from outright protectionism, targeted subsidies and supply chain management blurring the line between public and private companies, the Times reported.

Protective barriers: Starting in 2011, for example, Beijing began to require foreign automakers in China to share their technology with local subsidiaries if they wanted their electric vehicles to qualify for up to $19,300 in subsidies — a key market advantage, the Times reported in 2011.

This was a measure similar in character, but far larger in scope, to one in the Democrats’ current Build Back Better bill: an additional $4,500 in electric vehicle tax credits offered to domestically produced, union-made electric vehicles, which Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) opposes, as Forbes reported.

 

SECURING THE SUPPLY CHAIN

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Another area where China has outpaced the U.S. is in locking down stores of key minerals like cobalt and lithium. 

That’s been a mix of both private and state-supported action: In April, CATL paid $137 million for a 25-percent stake in a new cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Reuters reported.

Chinese development banks also gave CATL more than $100 million to develop domestic lithium mines and continue to subsidize the company generously even though it is now profitable, the Times reported.

The U.S. has struggled to catch up. Proposed mining projects would provide enough domestic supply for millions of electric vehicles — but haven’t managed to win over opposition from ranchers, environmentalists and some Indigenous groups, Reuters reported.

"If we don't start getting some mining projects under construction this coming year, then we will not have the raw materials domestically to support EV manufacturing," lithium mining company CEO James Calaway told Reuters.

That’s partially a result of policies working at cross-purposes. The Department of Energy is considering a $300 million loan to a Nevada lithium mine, at the same time as the Fish and Wildlife Services is considering establishing protections for a local endangered species — a measure that could prevent the permit from being granted, Reuters reported.

But Chinese industry is weak in one key area: it’s plagued with “greenwashing,” or exaggerated-to-fraudulent environmental, social and governance (ESG) claims, Bloomberg reported.

That has the Chinese government plowing billions of subsidies intended for “low-carbon” industry into coal plants, and gas plants touting “carbon neutrality” plans while planning to increase methane emissions.

Takeaway: Though China has an unshakeable lead in battery production capacity, there’s a narrow opportunity for a U.S. batteries industry, if sufficiently supported, to compete with China on quality — particularly once ESG factors are included. 

But to do that, the country has to resolve its mining disputes, establish a reliable ESG disclosure regime and build up domestic battery capacity — which with BBB hanging in the balance, are all big ifs.

 

Water Wednesday 

The challenges of getting clean drinking water, in the U.S. and India.

Radioactive drinking water plaguing U.S. pipes

  • The Environmental Working Group estimates that 170 million Americans in all 50 states are consuming drinking water with radioactive element levels “that may increase the risk of cancer,” Ensia reported. While nearly all U.S. water contains some level of radiation — via natural presence in bedrock, nuclear weapons and energy production, medical treatments and oil and gas drilling — the amount and type of radioactive elements varies significantly, according to Ensia.
  • One such element, Strontium-90, can mimic calcium, leading the body to concentrate the element in bones and raise the risk of leukemia, Ensia reported. Daniel Hirsch, a retired professor from the University of California, Santa Cruz, told Ensia that it is critical to not “mix radioactivity with water,” stressing that “the body is made to extract things from what you ingest.”

Despite pandemic, Indian government brought clean water to millions 

  • India is deploying 18,000 engineers, $50 billion and 2.5 million miles of pipe as part of an ambitious project to bring clean tap water to every household in a country where — for all the economic power of its urban centers — 100,000 children still die of waterborne diarrhea every year, The New York Times reported. 
  • Only one in six households in India had a clean water tap in 2019, when the project started — a number that is now up to nearly one in two, despite the intervening pandemic. “All social sectors were impacted by Covid. Not this one. This one was preserved,” Nicolas Osbert of UNICEF India told the Times.

Ruling over Hawaii water contamination postponed till next week

  • A Hawaii hearing over recent water contamination — regarding a Navy fuel storage tank at Pearl Harbor — ended without a ruling on Tuesday, with the hearings officer likely to make a recommendation only next week, The Associated Press reported. The Navy is contesting a state Department of Health order to suspend its Red Hill storage facility’s operations and empty underground tanks, according to the AP.
  • Several families who live in area military housing had said that consuming the contaminated water had caused them to become ill, for which the Navy apologized. However, the Navy said officials believe that the contamination was a result of a spill of jet fuel rather than a leak in its storage tanks, the AP reported. 

 

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