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The Climate 202

The White House is creating a new energy division to meet Biden's lofty climate ambitions

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! As we approach Thanksgiving, we're feeling very grateful for our loyal readers. We would also be grateful for any pie recipes to 🥧 

As a reminder, the Climate 202 won't publish tomorrow or Friday. We'll be back in your inboxes on Monday. But first:

The White House has created a new energy division and tapped a new climate expert

The White House has launched a new energy division of its Office of Science and Technology Policy and appointed Sally Benson, an energy expert at Stanford University, to a high-level position coordinating climate issues within the division, your Climate 202 host scooped this morning.

  • Benson is serving as deputy director for energy and chief strategist for the energy transition at OSTP, an arm of the White House that helps guide federal research spending and inform the government's science policies.
  • She will coordinate with two other high-profile women in U.S. climate policy: Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, and Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate and environment at OSTP.

Benson told me in an interview the new energy division of OSTP is responsible for helping the nation meet President Biden's ambitious goal of reaching 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, as well as his longer-term target of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“We bring the science and engineering bits needed to help guide a reliable and steady transition toward meeting those goals,” she said.

Here are some interesting tidbits from my reporting on the new OSTP energy division that weren’t included in the story this morning: 

Benson has an idea for a 'just transition'

If you've been following climate policy, there's a good chance you've heard the phrase “just transition” uttered by a think tank staffer or a Biden administration official.

The phrase describes an economywide shift toward renewable energy in which tens of thousands of fossil fuel workers aren't left without any job prospects. Instead, they're retrained in the clean energy jobs of the future, such as installing solar panels or wind turbines.

Benson floated another idea: Former oil and gas workers could install carbon capture and storage technology, which buries carbon dioxide underground before it can escape into the atmosphere and warm the Earth. And former workers in petroleum refineries could be retrained to produce lower-carbon fuels such as hydrogen.

“The oil and gas workforce is ideally suited to do those kinds of jobs,” Benson said. “So that is another opportunity as we look to the future for the oil and gas industry.”

OSTP is rebuilding after Trump

Under President Donald Trump, the number of employees at OSTP plummeted from 135 to 45 people, our Washington Post colleague Jacqueline Alemany reported for CBS News in 2017. The OSTP headquarters in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building featured a “fleet of empty desks” and looked like a “ghost town,” Alemany wrote.

Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said she thinks the new division will enhance coordination on energy policy as OSTP's staffing levels bounce back under Biden.

“If you look at how OSTP has been traditionally organized, it has had a section for international issues, a section for the environment and a section for physical sciences,” McNutt said. “Energy is cross-cutting all of those. And so if we really want to make the most of these investments, we can't have the energy issues siloed into different parts of OSTP.”

Obama's science adviser defends SPR release

Biden has been taking heat from Republicans for authorizing the release of 50,000,000 barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to combat rising gas prices. Republicans have called the move hypocritical, noting that the administration has curtailed oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters.

But John Holdren, who ran OSTP and served as assistant to the president for science and technology under President Barack Obama, defended the SPR release in an interview with Maxine yesterday.

“The administration obviously has to balance short-term issues and longer-term issues. And clearly, spiking oil prices are not in the immediate interest of the party in power,” Holdren said. 

“The impact on the climate change issue in the long run is not really significantly influenced by whether oil is released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to try to mitigate an oil price spike,” he added. “I don't think it's that big a deal, although some will undoubtedly try to make it a really big deal.”

On the Hill

Biden faces GOP criticism for tapping into the oil reserve

Republicans released a flurry of statements Tuesday blasting Biden’s move to release crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The GOP has sought to pin the blame on Biden for high energy prices and inflation, E&E News's Jeremy Dillon reports.

“Today’s announcement — which will release just three days’ worth of oil onto the market — is not about a real solution to our energy crisis,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “It is a crass political ploy just ahead of Thanksgiving.”

One Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), also joined with Republicans in criticizing Biden’s energy policies, including the revocation of a key permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“Today’s release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an important policy Band-Aid for rising gas prices but does not solve for the self-inflicted wound that shortsighted energy policy is having on our nation,” said Manchin, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) defended Biden’s decision, saying it would “provide much-needed temporary relief at the pump,” even as he added that the long-term solution is to “eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Pressure points

Exxon lobbyist questioned the risks of climate change at a private event

Erik Oswald, a vice president and registered lobbyist for Exxon, emphasized the profit opportunity in addressing global warming during a panel in Santa Fe, N.M. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods testified before Congress last month that the energy giant did not engage in lobbying that differed from its public positions, including its public support for the scientific consensus on climate change. But an Exxon lobbyist appeared to strike a different tone in a meeting with state officials, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post.

Eric Oswald, vice president and registered lobbyist for Exxon, said during a Nov. 9 panel hosted by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission in Santa Fe, N.M., that he did not see climate change as catastrophic to humanity, The Post's Desmond Butler reports.

“Is it catastrophic inevitable risk? Not in my mind. But there is risk,” he said, according to a recording that the watchdog group Documented shared with The Post.

Oswald also suggested that Exxon’s research into carbon capture was motivated by profit rather than a desire to combat climate change.

“The way we think about this is not as the crusaders who are the climate fix,” he said. “We’re looking at markets.”

The global climate

The WTO could play a major role in addressing climate change

As the World Trade Organization prepares to hold its first ministerial meeting in four years next week, a key question is how aggressively the trade body is willing to tackle climate change, Mark John of Reuters reports. There is no shortage of levers by which the WTO could act, from laying down the law on fossil fuel subsidies to promoting low-carbon supply chains to setting standards for eco-labels aimed at preventing greenwashing. But some critics are skeptical that the body, which has a reputation for prioritizing free trade, can be trusted to prioritize efforts to halt global warming.

Extreme events

Greenland’s ice sheet saw record losses to calving of glaciers and ocean melt

Greenland’s ice sheet shed more than it gained for the 25th year in a row, losing a net total of 166 gigatons of ice between September 2020 and August 2021. While that amount itself is on par with previous decades, the way it got there is not. Greenland saw dramatic swings from heavy snowfall to intense melting. While the overall amount of snowfall was healthy, the island registered the highest ice loss to iceberg calving and ocean melt since at least when satellite records began in 1986, The Post’s Kasha Patel reports.

“The message of instability that Greenland is sending is terrible," said Marco Tedesco, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

Food and climate

Climate change could transform your Thanksgiving plate

Agriculture is the source of about 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, even as changing temperatures and precipitation caused by climate change are challenging farmers and food systems around the world, The Post's Daisy Chung, Jessica Wolfrom, Aaron Steckelberg and Jake Crump report.

It might not be long before those impacts start showing up on the Thanksgiving plate. When it comes to the turkey, for instance, studies suggest that rising temperatures can stress birds, causing them to grow at a slower rate. Cranberry crops, meanwhile, are already seeing a toll from extreme heat, which can lead to injured and less nutritious berries. 

So what does the Thanksgiving plate of the future look like? Maybe consumers will capitalize on ecological winners of climate change, like the Chesapeake blue crab, which is thriving in warmer waters. For the eco-conscious, it could include carbon-absorbing kelp salad or even environmentally friendly crickets in the pie crust.


Thanks for reading!