April Siese

Oil titans raking in record profits amid high gas prices: report

ExxonMobil could see its highest quarterly profits since 2008, the company announced on Monday. According to Reuters, oil and gas operations alone accounted for $9.3 billion for the first quarter of 2022. A combination of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Exxon’s lack of hedging meant the polluter benefitted greatly from geopolitical conflict and the world’s continuing reliance on fossil fuels. Exxon is so explicitly profiting off of some of the worst issues the world faces that even lawmakers have taken notice. On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing titled “Gouged at the Gas Station: Big Oil and America's Pain at the Pump.” Naturally, Exxon CEO and Chairman Darren Woods is scheduled to testify, as are his counterparts from Chevron, BP, Shell, and other major fossil fuel players.

The meeting comes a day after many oil execs were scheduled to attend another meeting on high gas prices to be held by the House Natural Resources Committee that they ultimately chose not to even bother with. That hearing has since been canceled, as apparently it’s simply too taxing for oil and gas heads to even show up when asked. Of the three companies requested to testify at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing—Occidental, EOG, and Devon—only Devon Energy’s Richard Muncrief will testify at the House Energy and Commerce Committee meeting. It’s anyone’s guess what Occidental CEO Vicki Hollub and EOG CEO William Thomas will be up to instead, aside from idly profiting off of our languishing climate.

High gas prices have devastated Americans, who are paying on average around $4.18 per gallon. Those who rely on their vehicles to commute— and especially those who use their cars for their very jobs—have little recourse in recouping that substantial loss. Uber and Lyft began adding a fuel surcharge to attempt to address the issue, while DoorDash is offering a pittance for those who drive at least 175 miles or more. And still oil and gas companies continue to profit. There isn’t a whole lot that anyone relying on a car for transportation can do unless policies are changed and these windfall profits are taxed.

Exxon appears to have few worries, save for when it comes to doing the right thing. The fossil fuel giant all but admitted that pulling out of Russia would be bad for business, with the company worrying that it would cost $4 billion to make good on its promise to “discontinue operations at the Sakhalin-1 project and [develop] steps to exit the venture.” Exxon operates Sakhalin-1, an offshore oil and gas consortium which the company has a 30% stake in. The news appears not to have made much of a dent in Exxon’s stock, which rose slightly Tuesday morning. The company will release its full Q1 earnings report on April 29.

Public Citizen released a report on all the money Big Oil is making at this pivotal moment in climate change mitigation and geopolitics, and you’ll never guess which company sits near the top of the list for oil and gas stock buybacks for 2021-2022? Oh, and oil and gas dividends paid out? ExxonMobil.

Exxon’s buybacks totaled $10 billion in the first quarter of 2022 alone, and saw dividends increase in that quarter by 1.1%. This comes after the company suspended its buybacks in 2016 and only resumed the practice in February.

More than half of all American waterways are 'impaired by pollution': study

A recent study commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act’s passage shows exactly how the U.S. is failing its commitment to eliminating pollution in the country’s navigable waterways, defined by the EPA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” The report by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, titled “The Clean Water Act: Promises Half Kept at the Half-Century Mark,” delves into the millions of miles of rivers, streams, and creeks; millions of acres of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs; and thousands of square miles of bays, estuaries, and harbors that have been assessed based on the most recent Integrated Waters Report submitted to the EPA. Much of these waters are considered “impaired with pollution,” which means they fail “to meet standards for swimming and recreation, aquatic life, fish consumption, or as drinking water sources.”

Of the 1,426,619 miles of rivers, streams, and creeks that have been assessed, 725,856 miles are considered impaired with pollution, accounting for 51%. More than half of the 20,432,238 acres of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs assessed similarly are considered impaired with pollution. Bays, estuaries, and harbors fared better, with about a quarter of the 76,555 square miles assessed considered impaired with pollution.

These numbers reflect only assessed waterways. There is still much we don’t know because not all waterways have been properly examined. The Environmental Integrity Project points out that 73% of rivers and streams still haven’t been assessed based off the latest Integrated Waters Report. That lack of accountability is something that has plagued the EPA and specifically the Clean Water Act for decades.

According to the Environmental Integrity Project report, it’s been more than three decades since a majority of the EPA’s water pollution standards have been updated, despite the fact that, by law, they must be reviewed every five years. Additional data based on state-by-state assessments show that some states, including California, Louisiana, and Washington, lack sufficient data to even produce key information such as how many miles of rivers and streams are polluted.

Clean Water Act state-by-st... by Daily Kos

Water sadly isn’t the only concern for Americans—and the world at large— worried about pollution. According to a recently released survey of worldwide air quality in 2021, not a single country meets new U.N. standards established in September. Those standards concern six pollutants: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution impacts the most vulnerable communities. “In 2021, the deaths of 40,000 children under the age of five were directly linked to [fine particulate matter] air pollution.” When it comes to the U.S., the WHO explicitly blamed fossil fuel reliance for the amount of fine particulate matter concentrations increasing by 7% in 2021 compared with 2020.

Indeed, fossil fuels can be linked to waterway contamination as well. The Environmental Integrity Project report slams outdated oil and gas standards and highlights a recent case in Lake Charles, Louisiana in which nine chemical companies and oil refineries agreed to pay $5.5 million—a fraction of the EPA response’s price tag—for contaminating the Calcasieu River estuary. The settlement follows a slew of legal challenges brought by Louisiana and the federal government against more than a dozen industrial plants in the region that polluted the Calcasieu river basin. The EPA has been investigating contamination in the region since 1999.

The Environmental Integrity Project recommends five ways to address waterway pollution like the contamination seen in Lake Charles: update the Clean Water Act more frequently, eliminate loopholes that allow for agricultural runoff and “non-point” pollution, impose more consistent guidelines to states so that missing data is no longer an issue, streamline cleanup plans, and boost funding to allow adequate staff to address water pollution issues. In both air quality and water quality, accountability is key.

Dozens of employees from one fossil fuel company recently donated more than $50,000 to Sinema

Everyone loves a good pizza party, which is what I’m imagining the energy giant NextEra held in offices across the country as the company compelled employees to donate to Kyrsten Sinema last year. A reading of donations to the Arizona senator from 2021 Q4 is a who’s-who of executives, vice presidents, and managers within the company, broken up occasionally with infusions of cash from workers at Florida Power and Light—a subsidy of NextEra—and regular Americans who felt that Sinema’s position as a self-proclaimed progressive Democrat would somehow shield her from turning out like *gestures vaguely* this. The Guardian homed in on the mega-donors who met with Sinema during a Jan. 18 event at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston. They include ConocoPhilips head Ryan Lance and Continental Resources chairman Harold Hamm.

Rolling Stone, meanwhile, looked at GOP mega-donors interested in Sinema’s obstructionism like Harlan Crow, an avid Greg Abbott fan, and Ken Langone, who also gave fellow useless Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin a cash infusion. Crow was one of a few donors who were refunded because of their largesse, though those funds have likely been made up by the more than 45 NextEra employees on that Q4 list. The donations, which range from $250 to $2,000, total $51,250 from NextEra alone. PACs associated with the fossil fuel industry, like ExxonMobil PAC, American Petroleum Industry PAC, and Devon Energy Corporation PAC, also showed their love for Sinema to the tune of $2,500 apiece. Hope the cheese and pepperoni were worth it to thwart democracy, y’all!

Kidding aside and no disrespect to pizza, these donors are relative newcomers to Sinema. FEC data shows little movement from NextEra when it comes to lining Sinema’s pockets, and early donor cycles show more teachers and firefighters, plus venture capitalists and angel investors donating to Sinema instead. It’s quite the about-face for a candidate many hailed as a welcomed breath of fresh air for Arizona, who cut her teeth in as an adjunct professor and faculty member for the Center for Progressive Leadership before turning to politics.

If you truly follow the money, NextEra will lead you to its ambitious Sonoran Solar Project, which many, many Arizonans are opposed to based on its proximity to the Sonoran Desert National Monument. The GOP mega-donors interested in courting Sinema are doing so because it’s business as usual (regardless of party) if they can get someone to vote against the country’s better interests. But for NextEra, an eye-catching lawmaker doing its dirty work would make that more than $50K in donations well worth the investment.

There’ve been reports of Sinema losing support from donors who view her as a traitorous egoist more interested in boosting her profile than equality. The same does not go for Sinema’s lawmaker-in-arms Manchin. According to CNBC, Manchin’s rejection of Build Back Better earned him $300,000 over the course of last quarter. Manchin is worth $7.6 million thanks to his coal dealings. Can you imagine how much Sinema’s worth could balloon to were she to firmly reject what little Democratic support she’s got in favor of aligning with her recent batch of donors, like Texas Energy’s Kane Weiner and Pacific Power Source Inc. president Kevin Voelcker? The last thing the country needs is Manchin 2.0 or worse. Hell, Manchin in his current state of being isn’t all that great. Call on both Manchin and Sinema to return their corporate and GOP donations.

Anti-choice Sen. Ron Johnson lays bare the cruel reason Republicans oppose reducing child care costs

The adage that it takes a village to raise a child apparently does not fit into Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s worldview. Asked about his repeated refusal to provide even the slightest bit of relief to struggling families, Johnson verbatim said that he’s “never really felt it was society's responsibility to take care of other people's children.” Johnson, who is considered one of the richest senators in the country with a net worth of $39 million, probably never had to worry about adequate child care for his children, and certainly not his grandchildren. In Johnson’s eyes, that’s on his grandkids’ parents. And they all benefitted from fortune and privilege so that even a tax credit like the one found in the American Rescue Plan doesn’t register for him as being helpful.

Johnson’s views also align with quite a few drunk conservatives I’ve had the opportunity to talk with at bars across New Orleans. In fact, in discussing having children last night, a tourist gave the exact same logic for why it would be “irresponsible” to start a family in this day and age. I’ve met couples at bars whose privilege and luck at being able to care for their children without a support system instilled in them a belief that if they can do it without help, anyone should be able to do so. That belief twists into a fiery anger at what they deem the irresponsibility of the next generations who are considering having children and may struggle financially. I can tell them as much as I want that I personally don't want kids but believe in providing for all, and it’s as if the words out of my mouth have turned into incoherent glyphs they can’t seem to parse.

Johnson very much strikes me as one of those people who just doesn’t get it, to the detriment of how he does his job. The 66-year-old has the privilege of representing his constituents but clearly not the wherewithal to give a shit about them. According to the Wisconsin Examiner, the expanded child tax credit Johnson has been steadfastly opposed to has benefitted an estimated 1.15 million children, 46,000 of whose families were lifted out of poverty because of the tax credits. That is a stunning statistic given the fact that of Wisconsin’s more than 5.8 million residents, nearly 22% are children under 18. But God help Johnson if he has to help them. A recent interview with Johnson on a CBS La Crosse affiliate made Johnson’s stance abundantly clear.

Millions of families stopped receiving the child tax credit this month after struggling through arguably one of the toughest eras to be a parent in modern history. Democrats don’t want parents to suffer for trying to provide for their children and have urged President Biden to include an expanded child tax credit in the Build Back Better Act. On Wednesday, Sens. Michael Bennet, Sherrod Brown, Cory Booker, Raphael Warnock, and Ron Wyden sent a letter to the administration in hopes that they’ll do the right thing. “The consequences of failing to extend the (tax credit) expansion are dire, particularly as families face another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the senators wrote.

”From July to December 2021, the monthly payments of $250 per child age 6-17 and $300 for children under age 6 reached more than 35 million families. Nearly 9 in 10 American children benefitted from these payments, which enabled their families to afford rent, put food on the table, and pay for child care so their parents and caregivers could stay in the workforce. Data from the Census Bureau show 91% of low-income families spent their payments on basic necessities like groceries, utilities, housing, and school-related costs,” the letter notes. The numbers truly don’t lie, and it’s puzzling to think that sober Johnson’s best argument against a more equitable nation is the same talking point I’ve heard while trying to grab a drink and enduring yet another out-of-town right-winger regaling me with their views. There is no place in politics or even in life for that kind of terrible rhetoric. Call on Senate Democrats to keep fighting for the child tax credit and providing for the future of our country.

Gov. Greg Abbott and ERCOT promise to 'keep the lights on' as Texas power grid remains vulnerable

Portions of Texas are experiencing frigid winter weather for the first time this season. Given last year’s devastating winter storm that led to millions going without power and at least 246 people dying, all eyes are on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization that operates the state’s power grid. All messaging from Gov. Greg Abbott and ERCOT has been resoundingly optimistic and oddly unified—and there’s a reason for that. According to the Texas Tribune, Abbott deliberately stepped in to set up a reassuring press conference and take the public relations reins from ERCOT.

ERCOT board member Peter Lake and interim ERCOT CEO Brad Jones held a public meeting in early December where they promised Texans that “the lights will stay on,” echoing verbatim comments made by Abbott during an interview with Austin Fox affiliate KTBC mere weeks beforehand. Towards the end of December, ERCOT issued a press release with even more reassurances. “Texans can be confident the electric generation fleet and the grid are winterized and ready to provide power,” Vice President of Grid Planning and Weatherization Woody Rickerson said in a press release, citing new regulation requirements.

One former ERCOT board member told the Tribune that such promises from both ERCOT and Abbott amounted to nothing more than lip service. “It might be a good political move, but it’s just a political move. It’s not surprising. His fate is on the line. So this is a sensitive political issue now,” Peter Cramton told the paper. Cramton is an energy markets expert who resigned from the ERCOT board after the 2021 storm. Those who’ve remained on the board appear to be fairly content with their decisions, or at least have made an investment into keeping this symbiotic relationship with Abbott.

According to data from nonprofit campaign filing watchdog Transparency USA, prominent Texas businessman and ERCOT Board Chair Paul Foster has thrown at least $250,000 Abbott’s way in hopes of keeping the governor in power. Other board members have been less obvious with their donations, though their money has likely made its way to Abbott’s Texans for Greg Abbott super PAC. Robert “Bob” Flexon, who is considered an independent board member, has dropped hundreds into the NRG Energy Inc. PAC, which has unsurprisingly pledged thousands to Abbott as part of its PAC efforts. Prior to joining the ERCOT board, Flexon held a number of prominent positions with energy companies and was the COO and CFO of NRG Energy. A quick look at donations for Abbott’s super PAC shows a who’s who of major energy players, including Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren, who’s given $1 million. Much like other energy companies that ultimately benefited from last year’s winter storm, Energy Transfer raked in $2.4 billion due to skyrocketing gas prices as Texas experienced a major shortage during the storm.

Shortly after making his promise that the energy grid would hold up, Abbott met with energy industry CEOs to discuss their winter readiness, which is certainly putting the cart before the horse. Though ERCOT continues to promise that their weatherization efforts will hold up, a finalized inspection report won’t even be available to lawmakers until Jan. 18. According to ERCOT, “inspections were completed at more than 300 electric generation units, representing 85 percent of the megawatt hours lost during Winter Storm Uri due to outages and 22 transmission station facilities.” According to ERCOT’s own website, the organization boasts more than 710 generation units. It’s unclear if ERCOT has done its due diligence to weatherize not just units that gravely failed, but every unit susceptible to inclement weather.

Texas lawmakers raised maximum penalties to $1 million per day for facilities that are not adequately weatherized in the wake of last year’s winter storm, but a more proactive move would be to update and address issues like this before they become a problem. Climate change will continue to make keeping the lights on that much more difficult, but allocations in the Build Back Better Act could make a huge difference in the present and in the long run. Of course, there are other options if that fails, such as executive orders and states taking action. With West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin still unwilling to compromise and even admitting that “there are no negotiations going on at this time,” it’s anyone’s guess what the next steps forward may actually look like, though the clock is certainly ticking as inclement weather continues to batter Texas and other states in the Lower 48.

New report investigates geoengineering oceans to fight climate change

A report released on Wednesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine looks towards the planet’s oceans to combat climate change. The nearly 300-page document presents a variety of potential solutions ranging from seaweed farming to administering electric shocks to reduce an ocean’s acidity. Estimated research costs range from allocating $25 million to investigate artificial wave creation to spending $350 million to research electrochemical solutions.

The world’s oceans function as a massive carbon sink already, capturing about a quarter of all man-made emissions. Moving from land to sea certainly makes sense in this context. There are six solutions presented in the report along with an estimate of their risks and effectiveness. They include adding minerals to make the ocean less acidic, adding nutrients to stimulate plankton photosynthesis, and a series of plans meant to restore the ocean’s ecosystem. Scientists are doubtful that ecosystem recovery would yield meaningful benefits, however.

When reached by the Associated Press, Breakthrough Institute climate scientist Zeke Hausfather said he was the most confident in electrochemical solutions to fight ocean acidity. “[It has] the highest potential for long-term carbon removal at a scale large enough to make a meaningful impact,” Hausfather said. Though our oceans can absorb massive amounts of greenhouse gasses, it comes at a cost: All that carbon dioxide turns into carbonic acid, which threatens marine life. Neutralizing that acidity could be a game-changer. Hausfather is less certain about ocean fertilization, which would include adding nutrients like phosphorous to stimulate photosynthesis in plankton.

The plankton would absorb carbon dioxide then sink to the bottom of the ocean. Carbon degrading would eventually take place, though the timetable on that varies depending on where in the ocean the plankton ultimately land and which oceans are used. This method could come at risk to fisheries and biodiversity, as could many of the methods cited in the report. Researchers are honest in their assessments and consider not just the potential environmental risks but the many legal and regulatory hurdles that could stymie geoengineering efforts.

All techniques have multiple hurdles to overcome, ranging from feasibility to regulatory challenges. Dumping tons of iron in the ocean, for example, could have unintended consequences for marine life and fisheries, while zapping carbon dioxide out of ocean water would require large amounts of energy. These are all bleeding-edge areas of research with major outstanding questions. Among them is how permanent these approaches are. To be successful, sequestered carbon will likely need to end up in the deep sea. If it stays in the first 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) of the ocean, it will likely be put back in the atmosphere at some point, negating the benefits of sucking it up in the first place. These and other high-stakes research questions would form the backbone of any carbon dioxide removal study program.

Some environmental laws at the national and international level cover geoengineering the seas. The report notes the Paris Agreement gives implicit support to carbon dioxide removal with several mentions of carbon sinks. But other treaties, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, have put a “de facto moratorium” on geoengineering oceans. The treaty—adopted by all United Nations members but curiously not ratified by the United States—serves as critical guidance to protect the planet. It was drafted in 1993 and, in 2010, its signatories agreed to halt geoengineering based on the lack of scientific data available, though research can still be done. That means the world has a long way to go when it comes to plumbing the depths of the seas for climate solutions.

The Supreme Court looks poised to expand gun rights once again

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday in the case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. (NYSRPA) v. Bruen, which focuses on whether New York State violated plaintiffs Robert Nash and Brandon Koch's Second Amendment rights by denying them unrestricted concealed carry permits. Lawyer Paul Clement is representing both men and the NYSRPA, which is an offshoot of the National Rifle Association.

A former solicitor general for the Bush Administration, Clement is known as the attorney who's argued the most cases before SCOTUS since 2000—and has consistently represented parties on the wrong side of history. Clement famously left the law firm he was at in 2011 to continue trying to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and its sympathizers. He also fought against the Affordable Care Act in 2012 and defended tactics used by the Bush Administration during the war on terror.

It appears as if this time, however, Clement will score a win for his clients. Many Supreme Court Justices made no secret of the fact that they were skeptical of the New York law that only allows residents to concealed carry if they can provide "proper cause." Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito pushed back against the requirement, with Kavanaugh at one point asking, "Why isn't it good enough to say I live in a violent areas and I want to be able to defend myself?"

Nash and Koch are both NYSRPA members and sought concealed carry permits for the purpose of self-defense. They were issued restricted licenses allowing them to hunt and target shoot, but not to carry their weapons under any other circumstances. The two argued that their completion of firearms safety courses should allow them to carry weapons for self-defense, though a licensing officer still refused to grant them concealed carry permits.

Both men live outside of New York City in fairly rural areas, though the metropolitan city came up frequently throughout the nearly two hours of arguments. Chief Justice John Roberts insinuated that those in major cities have even more reason to be allowed to carry a weapon and mused about "how many muggings take place in a forest" as opposed to a big city. Nash, who lives upstate in Rensselaer County, previously stated that a spate of robberies was one of the reasons why he sought the permit in the first place.

While many of the justices looked to historic rulings to guide their eventual decisions, Justice Neil Gorsuch appeared willing to test just how far the Second Amendment should reach when it comes to carrying a gun outside the home. Participating via video due to a stomach bug, Gorsuch asked Clement about similar cases and how much history should weigh on a decision like this.

Gorsuch cited the last landmark SCOTUS case to do with gun control, 2008's Columbia v. Heller, which allows for the "individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home" under the Second Amendment. Clement argued earlier that the case shows how analysis of the Second Amendment has continued within a contemporary context as opposed to stopping in 1871 when the state of Texas passed a landmark law establishing guidelines for concealed carrying.

You can listen to the full oral arguments here. A decision on this case isn't expected until next spring.

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