Climate Now

Climate News Weekly: 2023 Elections Recap, EV adoptions, new DAC facility breaks ground, and more

November 13, 2023 James Lawler Season 1 Episode 126
Climate Now
Climate News Weekly: 2023 Elections Recap, EV adoptions, new DAC facility breaks ground, and more
Show Notes Transcript

In this week's episode of Climate News Weekly, James Lawler and Ben Hone, Climate Now's Marketing Manager sit down with Nathaniel Stinnett, Founder & Executive Director of the Environmental Voter Project, to go over last week's US elections and what they mean for climate action. Then, James is joined by Julio Friedmann and Darren Hau to discuss the past week's top climate headlines. They discuss the reality behind headlines claiming that EV adoption is slowing down, a lawsuit against California's new truck emissions law, the opening of a new direct air capture facility in California, and more.

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James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate News Weekly. Joining us this week, our marketing manager here at Climate Now, Ben Hone. Hi, Ben. 

Ben Hone: Hi, James. Thanks for having me back. 

James Lawler: And Nathaniel Stinnett. Nathaniel, maybe you could introduce yourself, tell us who you are and your organization and give us a brief sense of your background.

Nathaniel Stinnett: Absolutely, James and it's a joy to be here with you all. So I'm the founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project. And the Environmental Voter Project, we're a non-partisan nonprofit that works year round to identify people who care deeply about climate and the environment, yet they're not voting, and then we mobilize them to become more consistent voters and build power, the political power of the environmental movement. 

And I got into this, not because I come from the climate or environmental space, but because I come from the political space. I [00:01:00] was running campaigns big and small. And got sick and tired of there not being enough political power for the climate movement and so I wanted to change that. 

James Lawler: And so as part of that work, you track elections pretty closely. And we thought it would be interesting for our listeners to have kind of a rundown of what's new at that intersection of climate, environment, and our political process. So we were hoping, Nathaniel, that you could give us a rundown of the elections that happened last week.

And give us sort of the, the good, the bad, and the ugly, what came out of this for climate, what do we need to know, what signals do these elections send? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: Absolutely. So, I'd say in last week's elections, there was more good than there was bad or ugly. So that's the top line. First, I think the really, really big election that people had their eyes on was Virginia.

And the good news in Virginia for the climate movement is that Democrats now control the state Senate, 21 to 19. [00:02:00] And the House of Delegates, 51 to 48, with one race still undecided. And the reason that's good news is because Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin wanted to do three things, which he's not going to be able to do now.

One, he wanted to roll back the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which made a lot of investments in clean energy. Two, he wanted to roll back Virginia's clean car law, which said starting 2035, all new vehicles that were sold had to be electric. And, as you all probably know, Glenn Youngkin has tried to withdraw Virginia from RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but he had to do it administratively, which is kind of clumsy and it's being challenged in the courts.

And boy did he want to have Republican control of the state Senate and the House of Delegates so that he could just do it legislatively, which would have been a lot easier. So these election results in Virginia last week [00:03:00] firm up three really, really big climate winds. 

James Lawler: Nathaniel, can I just ask you, for folks who don't know what RGGI is, could you just explain what is RGGI and why was it something that Youngkin wanted to withdraw from? What was his logic around that? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: Yeah, so the RGGI, or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, is a collection of states that have decided to cap their power sector emissions, and that cap gets lower and lower each year. And then power generators need to buy allowances for going over those caps and the money that they use to buy those allowances, the proceeds go to the states to assist in their transition to clean energy.

And Virginia, I believe had gotten something like 650 million from this or something like that. So it's, it's real money. It's real, real money. Now, as far as why Glenn Youngkin wanted to back out of it. You know, I'm trying to put this in as neutral a [00:04:00] way as possible. I think he thought it was politically beneficial to beat up on a lot of clean energy emissions. Now certainly I think he made arguments that it would harm Virginia's economy to do this, but I think most people would say it was largely for political reasons. 

James Lawler: So let's move on to some of the other elections from last week.

Nathaniel Stinnett: Yeah, so it's not just these big state elections that can often get the climate movement a big political gain, sometimes it's smaller elections. So Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, that's where Pittsburgh is, sits smack dab in the middle of the Marcellus Shale, which is the fracking capital of the U. S. Alongside maybe the Permian Basin in Texas. Now, Allegheny's county executive race, the Democrat Sarah Innamorato beat the Republican Joe Rockey 51 to 49 percent. The fact that Sarah Innamorato won is [00:05:00] important because county executives have jurisdiction over a lot of fossil fuel infrastructure siting through the county health department, they can crack down on air pollution and Innamorato has spoken quite a bit about banning fracking on all county controlled land, which would be a big, big win.

And then the final good news from last week's elections, which is getting really, really local is I want to talk and you might giggle about how local this is, but I swear it's important guys. This last election is in Wyandotte County, Kansas. And I'm serious, you should really care about this election.

Wyandotte County is where Kansas City, Kansas is and they have a publicly owned utility that runs the Nearman Creek Coal Power Plant. And on Tuesday, three pro clean energy candidates won their races for this board of public utilities. And what this means is that now a majority of the board [00:06:00] supports a plan to retire this dirty and deadly coal power plant, which is going to save an uncountable number of lives.

So sometimes these really, really small elections, these small local elections can have an enormous impact on policymaking and public health. That's the good news from last week. You ready for the, you asked for the good, the bad, and the ugly. Are you ready for the ugly?

James Lawler: Yes, we're bracing ourselves. Tell us.

Nathaniel Stinnett: All right, all right. Well, this one, you know, might get some pushback from people. This wasn't, like, overwhelmingly ugly, but I'd like to point at what happened in Maine. In Maine, there was something called the Pine Tree Power Referendum, which offered voters a chance to ditch the two utilities that control most of Maine, so Central Maine Power and Versant Power, and transfer their assets to a customer owned nonprofit utility.

So a lot of people in the climate movement were really excited about this. Now I want to be clear, I think most people [00:07:00] would say that Central Maine Power and Versant Power do pretty well on clean energy, at least as far as utilities are concerned. So it, it, it isn't like they were pure unadulterated villains in, in this scenario, but nevertheless, a lot of, a lot of people in the climate movement were eagerly looking at these results.

And man, the utilities just crushed the non-profit option. They won 70% to 30%. They also outspent the nonprofit measure $40 million to $1 million. And so I think this election shows that the mere fact that they were able to spend 40 million on an election, you know, shows that investor owned utilities don't always align their spending with what customers might want or the health of their communities might want.

James Lawler: Nathaniel, just to clarify what the concept was that was on the ballot here. So the, the idea was that if this referendum had passed the assets that [00:08:00] are controlled by these utilities, meaning the power generating assets would be sold to a nonprofit entity, or how would that- what was being decided? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: Great, great question.

So, in Maine, actually, power generation is different from transmission and running the grid. In this instance, it would be transmission, running the grid, and just customer service, dealing with shutdowns and things like that. All of those assets, so the grid infrastructure, is owned by Central Maine Power and Versant Power, and yes, they would be sold to a nonprofit entity, so there would have to be some type of bond mechanism or other financing mechanism that bought this, these assets.

 James Lawler: I see. 

Nathaniel Stinnett: And then it would be run by a non profit, customer owned utility. But, that measure failed, and failed pretty dramatically, 70 percent to 30%.

James Lawler: Right. 

Ben Hone: So I looked at some Statista polls, and according to Statista, the most important issue for [00:09:00] voters in the U. S. in 2023, climate and the environment actually came in as number three behind inflation and healthcare. So I'm kind of interested to hear your perspective, Nathaniel, on what do these results from the 2023 election, what kind of signals are they indicating for the 2024 election, which is obviously going to be very pivotal?

Nathaniel Stinnett: Yeah, so the number of Americans who prioritize climate as a top issue is steadily growing. So there's no doubt that that's good news, but denominators really matter. By which I mean, who are we measuring? Is it all American adults? Is it people who vote in presidential elections? Is it people who vote in really small turnout local elections?

And pretty consistently over the past 10, 15 years, there have been fewer people who care about climate change who vote than there are people who care about [00:10:00] climate change in the overall population. So the big question is going to be not are there enough people who care about climate change, but rather, are there enough of them who show up and cast ballots?

Certainly that population is getting bigger, but will they show up in 2024? That is the ultimate question.

James Lawler: Awesome. Thank you so much, Nathaniel. Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to doing more of these recaps with you soon.

And now onto our news segment, Climate News Weekly. Today I am joined by Julio Friedmann and Darren Hau. Good to see you guys. 

Julio Friedmann: Always a treasure to be here. 

Darren Hau: It's good to be back.

James Lawler: So, we have a lot to cover today. We want to start with probably the biggest headline, which is warmest year on record. Julio, over to you.

Julio Friedmann: Yeah, we've now had like five months in a row of the hottest months on record. So yeah, it's the hottest year on record. Although it's discouraging and disappointing, this shouldn't surprise anybody. This is predictable and [00:11:00] predicted. We knew this day would come. I want to remind people of my favorite meme from the Simpsons, where Bart says, I can't believe it's the hottest year for my life and Homer says, no, it's the coolest year for the rest of your life. That's actually what we're doing. 

James Lawler: Yeah.

Darren Hau: That's quite a hot take. 

James Lawler: So Darren, welcome back. We have a couple of auto stories today, so thank goodness you are here to help guide us through these. The first is automakers are delaying electric vehicle spending as quote, demand slows.

So we want to understand this a little bit better. So what is this business about demand slowing and what is going on here? 

Darren Hau: Yeah, I think you have a lot of people kind of taking a look at a small signal and treating as a potentially big concern. Now there's a lot to unpack here, right? Like there are, uh, hiccups on the road to electrification.

I don't want to pretend that it's just smooth sailing. So I think what we've seen recently is a slew of seemingly negative stories about the slowdown of electrification. Some [00:12:00] examples are, you know, Ford during the UAW strikes, pausing, $12 billion of investment GM pushing back production launches of its electric trucks and SUVs. Honda and GM deciding they were gonna cancel their plans for affordable EVs and of course Tesla saying, Hey, we're gonna slow the Mexico plant. Profit margins hitting four year lows, et cetera, et cetera. So all of those things just seem like a slew of negative news. But as you mentioned at the beginning, what we're seeing is like a 50 percent year over year increase.

So it's not like the EV market is decreasing or slowing down. It's just not growing as fast as some people originally projected. Broadly speaking, like, it's very expensive to invest in new manufacturing, new technologies. The legacy factories are not set up to support battery electric vehicle production.

So that is why when you hear, you know, Ford or Rivian or Lucid, ramping up manufacturing they're, they're producing a loss per vehicle, but that's including all of the investment that needs to be amortized over a large volume of [00:13:00] vehicles. So what Ford has done recently, for example, has said, hey, we're going to lean more into producing hybrid Ford F150s instead of just lightning electric Ford F150s.

It's not that everyone is slowing down their plans either. You're actually seeing a bifurcation in the EV market. You know, folks like Hyundai, Volvo, Rivian, et cetera, they're continuing to do well. You know, Rivian just surprised everyone with the strength of their results and even though they're relatively small player, they're committing to expansion.

What you're seeing is some of the legacy players dialing back and every business just has their own slew of challenges and problems, and they're just trying to figure out the best way to navigate the transition. 

Julio Friedmann: A lot of executives in automobile companies are still thinking, I want to sell as many cars as I can, and Americans buy large cars, they buy small trucks.

Like that's what they're buying. And so. If they're like, well, we want to hit our fuel standard targets and they're not buying all the EVs we want, maybe we can sell some hybrids. That is also a perfectly valid business strategy and it does reduce emissions, just not as fast or not as comprehensively as full electrification.

Darren Hau: [00:14:00] Yeah. I think hybrids are an underrated solution, frankly. 

James Lawler: And why is that? 

Darren Hau: Yeah. I mean, if you take a look at, you know, the minerals and intensity required to build one battery electric vehicle, you could probably build a half dozen hybrids at that price. And if those hybrids are priced at, say, 25,000 instead of 35, 000 for an EV, that may mean that a lower income family that actually probably commutes more is able to offset more of their emissions.

We have to look at things in a holistic package as well, right? There are national security issues, economic resilience issues, and we are trying to get more of our manufacturing and supply chain nearshored around the U. S. And if hybrids could be a nice way to slowly ramp up our capacity rather than, you know, switching wholesale, like a light switch. Now, I'm not saying that that's the right approach, but that's something we should consider. 

James Lawler: Another transport story, which we wanted to cover this week, California Trucking Association is suing the state of California over its advanced clean fleets [00:15:00] rule. Darren, can you give us the key points on this one?

Darren Hau: Yeah, absolutely. This is also something we've talked about in the past, so it's good to get a refresher on this. So first of all, what is the advanced clean fleets rule? This is a pretty ambitious proposal set up by, you know, California's air resources board. Essentially, it, it, it sets a really high requirement for when decarbonization or zero emission trucks have to come into play. It basically bans new diesel truck sales by 2036. By the way, that doesn't mean you can't use diesel trucks if you bought them before, you just can't buy any more new ones. 

In some applications, it's even more stringent. So for example, dredge, which bring freight from, you know, the ports, like the port of LA and Oakland, and then to distribution centers inland, those actually need to be decarbonized starting January 1st, 2024. Again, this means new vehicles being registered with a port have to be zero emission. Doesn't mean you can't use your existing diesel trucks. And we've talked about how a lot of carriers have actually pre bought a lot of diesel trucks and [00:16:00] registered them just so they don't have to be rushed as much here.

The advanced clean fleets rule is also a complement to the Advanced Clean Trucks Rule which basically focuses on the production side and say it says engine manufacturers need to produce, you know, electric and maybe hydrogen fuel cell trucks. So what's going on here? The California Trucking Association, which represents a lot of truck operators, is suing the state of California over this rule.

The main argument is that it's saying that it impacts trucks crossing California borders, and that conflicts with the federal mandate to regulate interstate commerce. Now, now, why are they against this? Well, there's a lot of challenges with, with decarbonizing trucks. Number one, sticker shock. I'm going to say battery electric as a catch all, but really I'm, I'm including hydrogen in this as well.

These vehicles are two to three times more expensive than their diesel equivalent. There are also a lot of challenges with uncertainty of how to operate them. They are less capable in some dimensions like performance and range but on the flip [00:17:00] side, they're vastly superior in torque, driver comfort and control and there are actually generous subsidies at play as well. 

James Lawler: Yeah. Well, let's switch gears a little bit here and look more internationally. China has made some announcements about their plans with methane reductions. Julio, can you give us a sense of what announcements has China made and what significance do these remarks carry?

Julio Friedmann: So, this is a story that both Bloomberg and the Financial Times carried last week. An announcement of China in advance of COP. It turns out China is the world's largest methane emitter. Buy a lot and almost all of that methane is associated with coal, specifically methane leakage from old coal mines.

China likes coming into the COP with some kind of big commitment or plan. They didn't do that last time and were kind of caught short, so they're trying to make something up. This is also part of the diplomacy between John Kerry, the special [00:18:00] envoy in the U. S. and Xi Jinping, the chief climate negotiator in China. Xi has been doing this for a very long time, he's terrific. And this is probably his final year at the COP. And so he's trying to do something substantial. Methane abatement is substantial. As your listeners know, not only is methane a strong greenhouse gas, but if you stop emitting it the climate benefits manifest very quickly because the atmosphere destroys methane with an average half-life of like seven years.

What they're specifically doing is, one, doing more measurement, putting up the technologies that have been fielded in the... North America and Europe and saying, we're going to do the same thing, we're going to share that data, make it transparent. Mostly what they're going to do is they're probably going to plug and abandon a bunch of old mines.

They are also going to look at methane destruction from livestock, specifically beef, in this case, most methane emissions in China, livestock are associated with dairy, but that gives them an opportunity to do that. And then last but not least, there is some oil and gas production. [00:19:00] They're going to decrease leakage and flaring associated with that.

They specifically did not sign on to the UN methane pledge. That is also classic China. They said, we're going to cut our own course. No one's going to tell us what to do. It is often the case in the past that China has made these kinds of things. They sort of under promise, but over deliver. And that's actually a negotiating tactic that they use in the climate negotiation.

They're like, oh, well, we said we were going to do this, we're going to do more, but you guys got to give something up. And, uh, and so it's kind of good news, basically the fact that China is coming forward with something fairly big is noteworthy. There are plenty of reasons to believe they are not doing enough, but that's the nature of the climate negotiations.

James Lawler: Yeah, so we'll see how that evolves as we get closer and then into COP. So, last week, first commercial DAC project on the day that we're recording this, which is November 9th, Leo, you were slated actually to go and attend the ribbon cutting of this [00:20:00] opening. Tell us about it. 

Julio Friedmann: Yes, so this is a company called Heirloom and they are a US company that does direct air capture and they're building their first commercial facility. The ribbon cutting is today in Tracy, California and it's a big deal. Secretary Granholm was flying out for this, she will be doing the ribbon cutting. It's a small volume, it's like a thousand tons per year. That would be about one second of global emissions, but it is not only the birth of a new species, it's like the Cambrian explosion. Like there's suddenly all these different companies and technologies and pathways out there. Heirloom was one of the recipients of the direct air capture hub Prize money. The DOE awarded 1. 2 billion dollars a few months ago. We reported on it then. Heirloom was one of the recipients, their project in Louisiana along with Climeworks.

Mostly, what we're seeing is increasing demand for CO2 [00:21:00] removal and with it, increasing demand for technologies like direct air capture. They sold a CO2 removal offtake to Amazon, like all of these things give a sense of the fact that this very, very early industry is beginning to grow and grow rapidly.

That's good news because the IPCC says we need it. If you look at the science, we need to do about 1. 6 gigatons of CO2 removal by the end of 2030. That's coming up real fast and we're going to need a whole bunch more facilities and companies like Heirloom doing the job. 

James Lawler: Well, on that note, I think we'll conclude for this week.

Julio and Darren, thank you guys so much. That's it for this week's episode of Climate News Weekly. We hope you'll join us next week. Climate Now is made possible in part by our science partners like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy Applied Science and Research facility.

More information on the [00:22:00] Foundation's climate work can be found at livermorelabfoundation.org.