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The Energy 202: California governor moves to ban new gasoline car sales as frustrations over fires grow

“For too many decades, we have allowed cars to pollute the air that our children and families breathe,” said Newsom in announcing the executive order. “You deserve to have a car that doesn’t give your kids asthma. Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse — and create more days filled with smoky air.”

But it is fracking that has become a flashpoint in California. Activists are disappointed with how Newsom is handling it.

With California facing years of heat waves and droughts that are fueling this year’s fires, environmental activists there had a mixed reaction to the move.

Newsom’s executive order also called for an end to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within four years in California, but left it to the state legislature to enact a ban. 

Under Newsom’s watch, the state approved drilling permits for more than 1,400 new oil and gas wells in the first half of 2020, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Kassie Siegel, director of the advocacy group’s Climate Law Institute, praised the phaseout of gas-powered cars as “a very big step” for California but said the governor still had not gone far enough to curtail oil production.

“Newsom can’t claim climate leadership while handing out permits to oil companies to drill and frack,” she said.

Alexandra Nagy, the California director at Food & Water Watch, was disappointed to see Newsom punt the fracking issue to state lawmakers instead of enacting a ban himself. “This is where it’s frustrating,” she said. “He has the authority to do this.”

Still, California’s move on cars could have ripple effects across the country.

Under Newsom’s order, the state’s air regulator, the California Air Resources Board, will develop regulations ensuring every new passenger car and truck sold in the state is electric or otherwise “zero-emissions” by 2035. The plan would give industry until 2045 to make sure medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are zero-emissions when feasible.

The order does not prevent Californians from owning gas-powered cars, selling used cars with internal-combustion engines or buying them outside the state.

“We’ve seen this show before, where California does something, and others jump on board,” said Karl Brauer, a veteran auto industry analyst now serving as executive analyst at the website iSeeCars. The auto industry is already embarking on a rapid shift toward autonomous vehicles and electrification, he noted.

But to meet the aggressive timeline, the market for electric vehicles would need to boom — soon.

California already has the nation’s largest market for electric and hybrid vehicles, accounting for roughly half of all such cars sold in the United States. 

The state saw approximately 256,800 registrations for electric vehicles in 2018, according to data compiled by the Energy Department. 

Still, zero-emission vehicles currently amount to barely 10 percent of the state’s automobile market. Gas-powered cars continue to make up more than three-quarters of sales.

It is unclear how much legal weight Newsom’s order on cars carries. 

Brauer, the analyst, viewed Newsom’s latest announcement with a measure of skepticism, saying the move makes the governor “look very environmentally progressive [but] without any accountability. Because who is going to be in government in 2035, compared to who is there now?”

He noted California has set past targets for electric or zero-emissions vehicles that automakers had to sell, figures that were “constantly updated or revised or delayed” as the companies struggled to comply.

California already has a number of laws on the books aimed at curbing emissions, including a cap-and-trade program launched in 2013

Representatives for carmakers and fuel refiners were even quicker to criticize California.

John Bozella, who heads a group representing the nation’s automakers, said companies have long committed to ramping up electric vehicle production and already offer dozens of models, with many more in the pipeline.

“But neither mandates nor bans build successful markets,” he said in a statement, adding that dictating a date to phase out gas automobiles is premature. “Much more needs to be done to increase consumer demand for Zero Emission Vehicles in order for California to reach its goals. It will require increased infrastructure, incentives, fleet requirements, building codes, and much more.”

Chet Thompson, head of American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a lobbying group for refineries that make gasoline and other fuels, argued that Newsom lacks the authority to limit car buyers’ choices. “Regardless, pursuing this goal would be among the most inefficient, unpopular, and regressive methods to reduce carbon emissions,” he said.

Newsom, meanwhile, extolled the potential environmental and economic benefits that a shift away from gas cars could bring his state during a news conference Wednesday. California is home to the country’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, Tesla, which is based in Fremont.

Speaking in front of a fleet of electric vehicles in Sacramento, the governor said: “This is the next big global industry, and California wants to dominate it.”

Power plays

Alaska mining executive resigns a day after being caught on tape boasting of his ties to Republican politicians.

That was quick. Mining executive Tom Collier “offered his resignation a day after the group Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released recordings of Zoom calls in which he talked of currying favor with the White House and Alaska lawmakers to win federal approval for a massive gold and copper mine,” our colleague Juliet Eilperin reports.

Both Collier, the chief executive of the Pebble Limited Partnership, and Ronald Thiessen, top executive of its Canadian parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, were recorded separately suggesting that Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and other GOP politicians would not block a controversial gold and copper mine in Alaska even though some had raised concerns about its environmental impact.

Thiessen apologized but did not step down from his post.

The Trump administration delayed greenlighting the project after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the company last month that “it had to do more to show how it would offset the more than 100 miles of streams and 2,300 acres of wetlands it would permanently destroy,” per Eilperin.

Federal agents clashed with Indigenous groups protesting the border wall.

Federal agents forcibly broke up a peaceful protest by Indigenous groups against the Trump’s administration’s efforts to build a 30-foot border wall through the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The move came on Monday after Indigenous O’odham protesters held a five-hour prayer circle to protest construction in an area they consider sacred, our colleague Teo Armus reports.

“Officials with U.S. Border Patrol and the National Park Service repeatedly ordered the group to move, warning them the site was closed to the public. But when the protesters refused, armed federal agents knocked them to the ground, yanked them apart and drew stun guns in a confrontation caught on camera,” Armus writes.

Indigenous groups insist they have a right under federal law to be consulted on any construction in Organ Pipe, but the Trump administration has waived environmental protections and Indigenous religious freedom laws to build the wall.

“As the Trump administration blazes forward with efforts to build and expand border fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border, this week’s clash at Organ Pipe points to escalating efforts by Indigenous groups to protect their ancestral lands — and, with it, the increasingly aggressive response from the federal officials tasked with ensuring the wall gets built,” Armus writes.

On Monday, Bureau of Land Management agents shut down a prayer occupation camp organized by Kumeyaay Nation activists at a border wall construction site near San Diego. Earlier this month, two O’odham protesters were arrested near Quitobaquito Springs, Ariz.

A ban on giving farm payments to refiners was included in the House spending bill.

A permanent ban on making farm payments to petroleum companies was included in stopgap spending legislation passed with wide bipartisan support by the House on Tuesday, E&E News reports. The bill aims to avert a government shutdown and is expected to pass in the Senate next week.

The legislation would provide $21 billion to a Depression-era farm safety-net program and includes a provision that none of that money can be used to aid petroleum refiners in offsetting costs they incur blending biofuels.

Democrats had pushed against the farm payments, out of fears that the Trump administration would use them to help favored agricultural interests or petroleum companies that were unable to get biofuel waivers. Republican lawmakers, for their part, claimed that none of the farm payments would have gone to refiners, E&E writes.

Andrew Wheeler suggests relocating the agency’s New York City office over protests.

“The head of the Environmental Protection Agency has threatened to yank the federal agency’s office out of Lower Manhattan, blaming the ongoing protests that have roiled the city for months and targeted federal workers,” the New York Post reports.

“If you cannot demonstrate that EPA employees will be safe accessing our City offices, then I will begin the process of looking for a new location for our headquarters outside of the City that can maintain order,” Wheeler wrote in a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). 

On Monday the Justice Department branded New York, as well as Portland, Ore., and Seattle, as “anarchist” cities that could lose federal funding for failing to control protests. New York officials have said that the move, which comes after President Trump asked Attorney General William Barr to identify jurisdictions that “have permitted violence and the destruction of property to persist,” is unconstitutional.

The letter from Wheeler cites several protests against police brutality that occurred in June and July, as well as a small protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week during which at least a dozen people were arrested.

De Blasio spokeswoman Julia Arredondo called the letter a “political stunt.”

“We know Administrator Wheeler doesn’t understand climate or the environment, just look at his record at the EPA so far, but we did think he could tell time,” Arredondo said. “Why he is writing us a letter about events from two months ago defies comprehension, but then again, so does most of the Trump administration’s actions,” she added.

Senate Democrats demand that the presidential debates cover climate change.

A coalition of 37 Senate Democrats, led by Green New Deal co-sponsor Ed Markey (Mass.), sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates demanding that questions about climate change feature prominently in the debates. 

“[It] is critical that every debate includes questions that ask the candidates what they would do to address climate change and environmental injustice,” the letter states. “Without these topics, any discussion on the economy, racial justice, public health, national security, democracy, or infrastructure would be incomplete.”

Politico reporter Anthony Adragna:

The demand comes after climate change was excluded from a list of topics planned for the first debate between Trump and Biden, scheduled for Tuesday. The list, which was published by the debate commission this week, includes the Supreme Court, the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, but it makes no mention of environmental issues.

Earlier this month, 70 members of the House of Representatives sent a similar letter pushing for climate change to have a central role in the debates.

Thermometer

Wildfire danger in the West is set to escalate as yet another heat wave enters the forecast.

As thousands of firefighters struggle to contain wildfires in California, “another heat wave is the last thing that’s needed,” our colleagues Andrew Freedman and Diana Leonard report. But with temperatures projected to rise even as strong, dry winds blow in, “the weather is posed to tip decidedly in the fires’ favor.”

“A large area of high pressure, or a heat dome, is projected to build across the West at the same time as a large dip, or trough, in the jet stream delivers cold air to the Midwest and East beginning this weekend and continuing into early October,” Freedom and Leonard report. 

This weather pattern will favor hot temperatures and little opportunity for rain in the areas hit hardest by the fires. While the thermometer won’t rise quite as high as it did during the record-breaking heat waves that hit the state in August and early September, the warming temperatures will coincide with dry offshore winds that typically hit the state in the early fall.

“We are expecting there to be elevated and even possibly critical fire weather conditions this weekend,” said Scott Rowe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

Rain is not on the forecast for California, although Oregon may see some. It’s unclear if the moisture in Oregon will be enough to significantly lower fire risks.

California invested more than the feds in forest management.

The U.S. Forest Service owns more than half of California’s forested land, but the agency has spent less money on forest management than the state, according to an analysis by Reuters.

“The relative spending by federal and state forest authorities undermines President Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to blame deadly wildfires on a failure by California to clear its forests of dead wood and other debris,” Reuters reports.

In 2020, the Forest Service spent $151 million treating 235,000 acres with practices like controlled burns, while California’s government spent $200,000 million and oversaw treatment of 393,282 acres of state-run and privately held land, Reuters reports.

“The number of acres treated by the U.S. Forest Service in California during fiscal 2020 was the second lowest under Trump’s administration, and 40% below a recent peak of 424,486 acres treated in the state during the last year of the Obama administration, according to the data,” Reuters writes. 

The Forest Service suspended operations for six weeks in the spring over concerns related to the pandemic, even though some California officials said they disagreed with the decision.

Reuters reports that just over half of the acreage burned in wildfires in California since 2015 has been on federal lands.

Senate and House Republicans have pushed for federal legislation this year to promote more forest management.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is out of control.

“By late spring, the consensus among experts was unsettlingly clear: 2020 would be an abnormally active hurricane season. What the experts didn’t anticipate was just how wild things would get,” Bob Henson reports.

  • The Atlantic has already spit out 23 named storms, roughly double the average for an entire season.
  • A record nine storms have made landfall in the continental United States. The last time this happened was in 1916.
  • Nearly 90 percent of U.S. coastal shores along the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast have been under a tropical storm or hurricane advisory this year.

Researchers are trying to figure out what made this year so intense.

“One of the most obvious culprits is La Niña,” Henson writes. La Niña, which is present about every third hurricane season, is “a semiregular cooling of the eastern tropical Pacific [that] tends to reduce the wind shear that can impede Atlantic hurricane formation.”

Climate change may be another factor. While there’s strong evidence that climate change is making hurricanes stronger, slower, and quicker to intensify, many models predict that the total number of tropical cyclones will decrease as the oceans get warming. Recently, however, there has been an active debate about this prediction, especially for storms in the Atlantic, and some climate researchers now argue that the number of storms will increase as the planet warms.

In the states

Michigan aims to go carbon neutral by 2050.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) signed an executive directive “setting a goal for the midwestern state to become carbon neutral by 2050, the ninth U.S. state to take on this target,” Reuters reports.

Whitmer’s plan calls for the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to produce a plan by the end of the year that will reduce emissions from the state, which currently produces the 10th-most greenhouse emissions of any state.

By 2040, the plan says all new state-owned buildings must be carbon neutral and existing buildings should have reduced their energy use by 40 percent. As an interim goal, the plan calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent below 1999 levels.

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