Columnist Marty Nathan: Walking the walk

  • In this Dec. 18, 2020 photo, pipes to be used for the Keystone XL pipeline are stored in a field near Dorchester, Neb. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his officials have been in frequent contact with President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration making the case for a long disputed oil pipeline that reports say Biden will cancel on his first day in office. Chris Machian /Omaha World-Herald via AP

Published: 6/2/2021 6:51:31 PM

Anyone honestly concerned about the climate emergency could be heard heaving a sigh of relief when Joe Biden was elected president.

Most of us had done what we could to make it happen, fearing the consequences for the planet and our fellow humans of four more years of Donald Trump’s ecological terrorism campaign.

Further, we were overjoyed by the new administration’s initial acts: canceling the Keystone XL pipeline monster; enforcing a temporary moratorium on oil and natural gas leases in coastal waters and federal lands; rejoining the Paris climate accord; and injecting emissions reductions into planning for every agency, enabling a “whole-government approach” to the climate crisis. It was a terrific start with great promise.

But even as the world’s largest energy regulatory body, the International Energy Agency, sent out a warning and new recommendations to address the urgency of conversion off fossil fuel combustion, the new administration took steps to advance production of more gas and oil and seemed to be weakening its bold plans to invest in conservation and renewable energy.

The IEA (certainly not an eco-activist clutch) had called ending support for new fossil fuel projects and rapid deployment of energy efficiency and non-combustion alternatives critical first steps in keeping the rise in average global temperatures below 1.5 degrees.

The first worrisome move was the president’s willingness to slash the American Jobs Plan, its green infrastructure proposal, which would begin the needed major investment in wind and solar power and conservation. He scaled down in response to Republicans’ entrenched opposition to spending for living-wage jobs, particularly in a challenge to the fossil fuel industry. This early conciliation to those whose only objective is obstruction has alarmed those who understand the stakes involved.

Then last week the U.S. Justice Department under Merrick Garland announced that it will defend a massive oil and gas drilling project in the Arctic that the Trump administration had permitted. The multibillion-dollar Willow plan proposed by ConocoPhillips will extract more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years from Alaska’s North Slope. It was fast-tracked by Trump last fall, allowing the company to drill up to three sites and build 37 miles of gravel roads, 386 miles of pipelines, an airstrip, and a facility to process the oil drilled on site.

Environmental and Indigenous rights groups sued the federal government, saying that Willow threatened fragile ecosystems and violated government policy on climate change. Pollution by existing wells already affects the health of the Inuit residents of the nearby town of Nuiqsut. Locals fear that the project will divert the local caribou migration on which their community depends. Ironically, Arctic warming from climate change is forcing ConocoPhillips to propose installing underground “chillers” to ensure the ground stays solid enough to drill through.

In supporting Conoco/Phillips the Biden administration is bowing to Alaskan politicians like Sen. Lisa Murkowski, on whom he may need to rely to pass his major infrastructure bills. But the move probably was facilitated by the fossil fuel industry-linked staff in the Garland DOJ, including its top environmental lawyer who previously worked for a law firm counseling ConocoPhillips.

Perhaps more concerning, though, is the administration’s failure to intervene yet on another project already under construction in Minnesota. Line 3 is a massive pipeline, scheduled to carry over 700,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from the Canadian border to Superior, Wisconsin. It will pass twice under the Mississippi River and through the sacred wild rice wetlands of the Anishinaabe people. It will expand exceptionally polluting and expensive tar sands production, which is otherwise being killed by low oil prices.

The Anishinaabe have spent years protesting, risking arrest, using every available tool to stop this violation of their treaty rights, fully aware that they are on the front lines in the movement to stop climate change and promote Indigenous rights. We are encouraged to support them by demanding Chase, Citi, Bank of America and TD Bank divest from Line 3 and signing a petition to President Biden to stop its construction.

Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were elected on a climate justice platform. Now they must walk the walk, not just most of the time, but in every step they take.

The struggle for a livable planet and a just society cannot be fudged with trade-offs, green-washing, platitudes or slight-of-hand. There is no fooling the science and no fooling with the public health of our most vulnerable people.

Our time is short. There must be no more new fossil fuel drilling or infrastructure. Stop Willow. Stop Line 3. Make the profound energy transition we need!

Addendum: On June 1 the administration made the welcome announcement that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve will be suspended. Wonderful! Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, that does not affect the permitting of the Willow project.

Marty Nathan is a retired physician, mother and grandmother who writes a monthly column on climate change.


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