THE LIGHTBULB

One of the world's biggest mining companies has promised to cap the amount of the coal it is capable of taking out of the ground as it faces pressure from investors to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

The announcement from the multinational mining firm, Glencore, is the latest example of private business responding to public pressure to act on climate change even as so many governments globally — including, notably, the United States — fail to do so.

In fact, President Trump has called for a revival of coal plants as part of his "America First" agenda. But it's not an effort he seems to be winning: just last week, defying a presidential tweet, the Tennessee Valley Authority voted to shut down two aging coal-fired power plants.

Glencore’s announcement comes as global demand for coal is projected by the International Energy Agency and others to remain flat in the years ahead. As coal use drops in the United States and other advanced economies, it is picking up in China, India and other large developing nations.

For the Switzerland-based company in particular, the announcement is a swift public shift for a firm once at the forefront of promoting coal. The investors who pushed Glencore to make that commitment hailed it as a first from the mining industry.

“I’m not going to tell you it’s a coup,” said Mindy Lubber, president and chief executive of the sustainability nonprofit group Ceres that helped organize an initiative to pressure companies to lower emissions, “but it’s a good first start.”

But analysts say it also makes economic sense for Glencore, which still gets to produce tens of millions of tons of coal per year from existing mines while limiting costly investments in new mines and redirecting capital toward areas of growth.

“This is a small step in the right direction but further commitments will likely be required over time,” Deutsche Bank wrote in a note to investors.

Among fossil fuels, coal hits the atmosphere the hardest with climate-warming emissions. And among sectors of the fossil-fuel business, coal producers have been among the most intransigent when it comes to addressing — or at least acknowledging — climate change.

Starting in mid-2018, more than 200 institutional investors such as the pension funds for California and New York public workers began putting pressure on heavy emitters to try to align their business strategies with meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord (from which the Trump administration has announced it was abandoning). The investment arm of the Church of England led the effort with Glencore.

Oil giants BP and Dutch Royal Shell have also responded to that initiative in recent months with commitments to improve corporate reporting on climate risk or reduce emissions.

A wave of similar corporate pledges came after a dire report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October. That group of climate scientists suggested government policies alone could not reduce emissions enough over the next decade enough to stop significant climate change.

“The reality of our climate system is that it imposes finite limits on emissions, yet too often fossil fuel investment dollars seem to operate on a different planet,” said Andrew Grant, senior analyst at the think tank Carbon Tracker. “Crucially, the Glencore and BP announcements begin to acknowledge the need to bridge the gap.”

With its pledge, Glencore is essentially promising to keep the status quo when it comes to coal mining. The mining firm plans to limit coal production to around 145 million metric tons annually.

The company said it would also consider tying executive pay to meeting climate goals and ending its membership in lobbying groups seeking to undermine the Paris agreement.

For new investment, Glencore instead suggested it wants to mine more commodities such as cobalt, copper, nickel, vanadium and zinc — all metals, it noted, used in batteries for electric vehicles and other advanced energy products.

Richard Denniss, chief economist at the Australia Institute, said it is smart for a coal leader like Glencore to restrict supply as demand wanes in order to prop up the price of coal.

“When you own as many coal mines as Glencore,” he added, “it makes perfect sense to work with the environment movement and restrict the supply of new coal mines.”

As it happens, Glencore has 16 coal mines in operation in Australia, near those emerging and energy-hungry markets. The company exports the vast majority of that Australian coal — 88 million metric tons in 2017 — abroad, especially to Asia.

“The only surprising thing about Glencore’s announcement," Denniss added, "is that it has taken so long for the world’s largest coal trader to admit that limiting the supply of new coal is good for both its shareholders and the climate."

POWER PLAYS

— Talks with California break down: The Trump administration has stopped discussions with the California Air Resources Board over a plan to freeze fuel-efficiency standards at 2020 levels, The Post’s Steven Mufson and Brady Dennis report. The administration is still on track to roll back the Obama-era  standards that were put in place to reduce oil imports and carbon emissions.

“The breakdown in talks sets up a potential clash over the state’s long-standing ability to set its own more stringent standards for tailpipe emissions and fuel efficiency,” they write. “California and 19 other states have demanded the Trump administration abandon its fuel-efficiency rollback…The administration argues sticking to the Obama-era requirements would make vehicles more expensive and encourage people to stick to driving older, less-safe cars and trucks.”

— A whale of a lawsuit: Conservation groups suing the Trump administration over offshore drilling plans in the Atlantic Ocean have called on a federal court to block companies from seismic testing while the case is being decided. “Five companies are awaiting the approval of final government permits allowing them to start what the environmentalists call ‘ear piercing’ tests that can be disruptive to marine life,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports.

In the December lawsuit filed by the groups, they argue the National Marine Fisheries Service “departed from its mission to protect marine life by issuing permits,” Fears writes, adding the service has said it doesn’t expect animals to be harmed. The injunction request claims the “harm Plaintiffs seek to prevent will begin as soon as seismic blasting does.”

— Elsewhere at the Interior Department: A new complaint filed by nonprofit watchdog the Campaign Legal Center alleges six senior Interior Department officials violated the Trump administration's ethics rules. “The complaint names three officials who participated in meetings with organizations they worked for or represented before joining the government. Under rules issued by Trump in January 2017, administration appointees are barred from participating for two years in particular matters with former employers or clients,” Bloomberg News reports. “The complaint also names three other officials that it says had dealings with former employees within two years of joining Interior.”

The complaint also calls on the agency’s inspector general to investigative the named officials.

—EPA official’s old firm helped power companies fight Obama-era regulations: Some of the top coal-burning power companies in the country paid millions to a major lobbying firm, Hunton & Williams, to push back against the Obama administration’s environmental rules. Now Bill Wehrum, who was a partner at that firm, is the Environmental Protection Agency's top air policy official. “Twenty-five power companies and six industry trade groups agreed to pay the firm a total of $8.2 million in 2017 alone, according to an internal summary prepared in June of that year — less than three months before Trump tapped Wehrum for his EPA post,” Politico reports.

While Wehrum has pledged not to be involved in suits dealing with former clients, “nothing in federal ethics rules prevents him from working on regulations that apply to a broad sweep of actors in the industry he once represented. To that extent, it does not appear Wehrum has violated any laws, but it does expose holes in the ethics system.” The Post's Juliet Eilperin has previously reported that Wehrum has stayed in close touch with his former law firm while at the agency.

— Slight uptick in power plant carbon emissions: The EPA found carbon dioxide emissions from power plants increased 0.6 percent to 1.93 billion tons last year compared with the previous year, a change that came as electricity production rose 5 percent as the economy continues to grow. The annual report from the agency also reported nitrogen oxide emissions fell 3.8 percent and sulfur dioxide emissions fell 5.9 percent. In a statement, Wehrum touted the declines as a sign the United States is "a global leader in clean air progress."

— “It’s a horrible injustice and it should be stopped": As civil rights leader Rev. William Barber II  and former vice president Al Gore toured the community of Union Hill in Virginia, they offered one plan for how Virginia’s embattled Gov. Ralph Northam could redeem himself: He can take action against a natural gas pumping station planned for the middle of a historic African American community. Northam has said he won’t resign over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook page, but will spend his last three years in office addressing racial equality. “Environmental advocates have seized on the moment to highlight the Union Hill project, which won a key state air permit in January,” The Post’s Gregory S. Schneider reports. “With the rest of the controversial, 600-mile pipeline hung up on delays and court challenges, opponents say Northam should step in on behalf of the residents of this rural community, which was settled by free blacks and former slaves just after the Civil War.”

THERMOMETER

— Climate change claims its first mammal: The Australian government confirmed this week the Bramble Cay melomy, a rodent native to Australia, is the first mammal to become extinct as a result of climate change, The Post’s Ben Guarino and Lindsey Bever report. It's a fact researchers have suspected for a while. In a 2016 report, Queensland scientists Ian Gynther, Natalie Waller and Luke Leung explained the disappearance is a result of a lack of resources. “In the decade between 2004 and 2014, the volume of leafy plants on Bramble Cay shrank by 97 percent, the authors say. Without plants providing food and shelter, the scientists believe, the rodents succumbed to local extinction,” Guarino and Bever write. 

— Water worries: Every day, an average of more than 50 million gallons of wastewater containing arsenic, lead and other toxic metals are dumped from mining sites into surrounding waterways, and that in turn contaminates drinking water sources in Montana, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and at least five other states, the Associated Press reports. “Using data from public records requests and independent researchers, the AP examined 43 mining sites under federal oversight, some containing dozens or even hundreds of individual mines,” per the report. The AP also found pollution at numerous mines continued even after sites were listed as part of a federal Superfund program.

— Flash flood watches in Mid-South and Southeast: For the rest of the week and into the weekend, flooding is a concern stretching across a 500-mile region from central Mississippi to West Virginia, Matthew Cappucci reports for The Post. “In its Wednesday morning discussion, the Weather Prediction Center referenced anomalously high groundwater content as a possible factor exacerbating flood concerns,” he writes. “A large swath of the South and surrounding regions are above the 90th percentile for February ground water content. Most of the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England are in the 99th percentile.”  

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds an open meeting.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a discussion on the outlook for global oil markets.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— The annual “firefall” effect captured at Yosemite: For a few days in February, a trick of light turns these iconic falls at Yosemite National Park into what looks like a flow of lava, The Post’s Katie Mettler reports.