Climate Point: Biden takes office with ambitious climate plans but minimal details

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Mark Olalde, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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Welcome to Climate Point, your weekly guide to climate, energy and environment news from around the Golden State and the country. In Palm Springs, Calif., I’m Mark Olalde.

Joe Biden is now the president, and the Democrats control Congress, although by the slimmest of margins. Later in this edition, I'm going to take you through a recently published series from the USA Today Network that dives into the strengths and weaknesses of Biden's environmental plans and what these mean for specific communities around the country. But first, he'll have to contend with the legacy of four years of environmental rollbacks from the Trump administration.

Exactly one week before the inauguration, the Bureau of Land Management published a sweeping rewrite of a 10.8-million-acre land management plan covering the Southern California desert. The plan was meant to balance renewable energy development, conservation and the preservation of cultural resources, but Donald Trump took aim in the 11th hour. I've got the details in The Desert Sun.

Meanwhile, The Arizona Republic reports that the U.S. Forest Service also initiated a land swap last week that "would clear the way for a huge copper mine beneath Oak Flat, a site that's sacred to many Apaches and culturally significant to other tribes." The clock's now ticking on both attempts to prioritize development on public land, and conservationists as well as Democrats are hoping Biden steps in.

I'll have an analysis of Biden's first week of office in my next edition, but for now, here's a bunch of other important reporting ...

MUST-READ STORIES

Exxon exposed? The Wall Street Journal reports that a whistleblower within Exxon alleged that "the energy giant overvalued one of its most important oil and gas properties," leading to an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. At question are asset valuations in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico — one of the most important oil basins in the world — which the employee said were bloated.

Supreme conflict of interest. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Shell go way back, with her father having worked there as one of the oil supermajor's top attorneys for nearly three decades. HuffPost reports that Justice Samuel Alito, who owns stock in various fossil fuel companies, recused himself from a climate change case against oil companies that was before the court Tuesday. Barrett recused herself from similar cases when she sat on a lower appellate court. But this time? Not so much.

Burns in the Bay. “It’s hard to believe this is January," a Cal Fire spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times this week. There used to be clearer lines between fire season and the rest of the year in the West, but those are rapidly blurring as fires are now able to burn throughout the year, a trend worsened by drought and other climate change-induced factors.

CLIMATE COLLISION

Farmer Brian Thompson poses for a photo at B&A Thompson Grain Farm in Seymour, Ind., Thursday, October 29, 2020.
Farmer Brian Thompson poses for a photo at B&A Thompson Grain Farm in Seymour, Ind., Thursday, October 29, 2020.

From public lands in Arizona to tribal resources in California and from wind farms in the ocean to solar farms in the desert, what will this new administration mean for America's environment? USA Today Network newspapers around the country teamed up to find answers. "As he steps into office this week, President-elect Joe Biden brings an ambitious plan to address climate change, and with Democrats in control of Congress for the first time in a decade, he may have the opportunity to accomplish some of his loftiest goals," Dinah Voyles Pulver writes for USA Today, kicking off the project.

Farming carbon in Indiana. Sarah Bowman and London Gibson report for the Indianapolis Star on the potential to tap into regenerative farming to sequester carbon and otherwise lower greenhouse gas output via agriculture. "When people think of climate change, they probably envision smokestacks belching pollution into the air. But agriculture is responsible for 10% to 12% of the world’s emissions," they write. In one example, they describe how the federal government could step in to create a "carbon bank" to kickstart a carbon market and incentivize these practices.

Offshore wind in Massachusetts. Doug Fraser reports for the Cape Cod Times on Biden's goal of constructing thousands of offshore wind turbines in the coming years. Under the previous administration, clean power buildout was largely left to the states, complicating the energy transition. Topography and population density in the Northeast make onshore wind difficult, so could this new direction in federal policy mean the region's in store for an offshore boom?

Clean transport in California. James Ward and I, from the Visalia Times-Delta and The Desert Sun, respectively, take on the question of greening the transportation system, which is the largest driver of climate-warming emissions. Biden's goals align with what California is already attempting — building high-speed rail and shifting to electric vehicles. But, it's a long road. California's high-speed rail project is stuck in a quagmire, and the country would need to grow its infrastructure from fewer than 30,000 electric vehicle charging stations to half-a-million to meet Biden's goals.

A Tesla is plugged into a charging station at Palm Springs City Hall, December 15, 2020.
A Tesla is plugged into a charging station at Palm Springs City Hall, December 15, 2020.

Protecting public lands in Arizona. Anton Delgado of The Arizona Republic digs into the fight over public lands in the Southwest. In one case, a company called Energy Fuels Resources wants to mine uranium only miles from the Grand Canyon. (For perspective, the U.S. uranium industry has almost entirely dried up, and there are many years of the stuff already available from other sources.) The project is yet to produce uranium, and activists hope Biden will kill it for good.

Fighting fire on the West Coast. Zach Urness of the Salem Statesman Journal and Damon Arthur of the Redding Record Searchlight examine record-shattering wildfires up and down the West Coast. They go deep on the ways climate change is fueling blazes, how wildfire behavior is changing as a result and why we need more controlled fire on the landscape.

Black gold in Texas. Madlin Mekelburg of the Austin American-Statesman helps us peer into the future of oil in Texas. Biden's plans on climate are a "complete reversal," from Trump, she writes, and will hit small oil and gas producers especially hard well before the big guys like Shell and BP.

Dirty energy in Ohio. Beth Burger of The Columbus Dispatch reports from communities living around Ohio's coal-fired power plants to see what they're thinking about a coal-free existence. "As power companies continue to shift to renewables, communities like Cheshire (in southeastern Ohio) likely will no longer have a major source of pollution, opening up a future for them to create," she writes.

Jennifer Harrison poses for a portrait on Fourth Street, near where she used to live, on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020 in Cheshire, Ohio. Harrison, along with her neighbors, were bought out by AEP in the early 2000s and moved after several environmental problems related to the nearby coal power plant.
Jennifer Harrison poses for a portrait on Fourth Street, near where she used to live, on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020 in Cheshire, Ohio. Harrison, along with her neighbors, were bought out by AEP in the early 2000s and moved after several environmental problems related to the nearby coal power plant.

Weighing cultural issues in the Southwest. Debra Utacia Krol of The Arizona Republic examines the balance that Native American tribes around the Southwest are calling for, as they ask Biden to respect culturally important sites when greenlighting renewable energy projects. "Tribes and environmentalists wonder what, if anything, the new administration will do to balance those goals, building renewable power generation while still protecting culturally important areas, particularly in the West," she writes. In Southern California's Riverside County, for example, a giant solar farm "tore through trails and funerary sites," which came as a steep price for those cleaner megawatts.

Fossil fuels in the Sooner State. Jack Money of The Oklahoman digs into impending shifts in that state's energy future, as Biden takes the reins. His thoughtful piece questions whether more conservative fossil fuel proponents, Trump included, really did that much to bolster the industry or if the market was typically superior. If the latter is true, how worried should the state be about its economy under more liberal federal leadership?

Sea level rise in the Atlantic Ocean. And Pulver and Fraser bring us one last piece from the project, checking in with coastal experts to hear how they want Biden to address rising seas. The government's own data show that high-tide floods are coming twice as often as they did a mere two decades ago.

King tide flooding occurs in Tuckerton Beach in Southeastern New Jersey in October 2019. NOAA records show such high tide flooding is occurring more often. [Photos by Life on the Edge Drones, provided by Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve]
King tide flooding occurs in Tuckerton Beach in Southeastern New Jersey in October 2019. NOAA records show such high tide flooding is occurring more often. [Photos by Life on the Edge Drones, provided by Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve]

AND ANOTHER THING

Feeling hot hot hot. Well, that's it for forward-looking projections, leaving just enough time for a quick check back on 2020. As I talked about last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — part of the U.S. Department of Commerce — announced that 2020 was nearly the hottest year on record. Carbon Brief is out with its "state of the climate" that has most of the factoids, charts and stats a climate nerd could desire. Of particular concern, last year was the seventh consecutive year in which global temperatures were a full 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Scientists agree that to maintain a livable planet, we need to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration back to 350 ppm. We’re above that and rising dangerously. Here are the latest numbers:

Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue increasing to record highs.
Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue increasing to record highs.

That’s all for now. Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter at @MarkOlalde. You can also reach me at molalde@gannett.com. You can sign up to get Climate Point in your inbox for free here. And, if you’d like to receive a daily round-up of California news (also for free!), you can sign up for USA Today’s In California newsletter here. Mask up! Cheers.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate Point: Biden takes office with ambitious climate plans, few details