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Utility climate pledges amount to 'greenwashing,' report says

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Today we're reading this delightful piece about Fat Bear Week, which starts on Wednesday. 🐻 But first:

A report calls out major utilities for ‘greenwashing’ their climate plans

In recent years, electric utilities across the country have announced a flurry of splashy climate commitments, vowing to embrace renewable energy and eliminate their planet-warming emissions by mid-century.

But many utilities are not following through on these pledges, suggesting their commitments amount to little more than “greenwashing” — the practice of making a company seem more sustainable than it really is, according to a report released Monday.

The report, titled “The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges,” was co-authored by experts at the Sierra Club and Leah Stokes, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who studies climate policy.

“President Biden has set an ambitious goal of 80 percent clean power by 2030, but these utilities don't have the plans to back that up,” Stokes said in an interview. “Particularly with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, that is completely irresponsible.”

The report's authors looked at the 77 utilities whose 50 parent companies are most invested in fossil fuel generation. They graded the utilities based on their plans to retire coal plants, stop building new gas plants and deploy more clean energy through 2030.

This is the second consecutive year that the authors have conducted the analysis. Compared to last year, nearly half of the utilities made no progress or received a lower score.

Other main findings include:

  • The aggregate score of utilities with a climate pledge was 23 out of 100. “This suggests that most utilities' corporate pledges are not translating into action,” the report says.
  • 37 of the utilities plan to build new gas plants totaling nearly 38 gigawatts through 2030, despite warnings from climate scientists about the dangers of locking in new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Brian Reil, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing investor-owned utilities, criticized the report's methodology and argued that gas has increased the reliability of the nation's power grid.

“The Sierra Club’s metrics are as arbitrary as they were last year when they first released this messaging document,” Reil said in an email. “The reality is that existing nuclear generation and the flexibility provided by natural gas generation are what enabled the U.S. electric power industry to deploy 27 gigawatts of new renewables, reliably and cost-effectively, last year.”

Two utilities that received low scores also pushed back on the report and defended their climate credentials. Here's a closer look at those two companies:

Duke Energy

Headquartered in Charlotte, Duke Energy is targeting a 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. But the report's authors gave Duke a score of 12.77 out of 100 for failing to rapidly move away from fossil fuels.

  • Duke has five subsidiaries that operate in Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina. Together, the subsidiaries generated 125 million megawatt-hours of electricity from coal and gas in 2021, marking a small reduction from 2019.
  • Out of all parent companies, Duke is planning to build the most new gas — more than 5,400 megawatts — through 2030.

Duke spokesman Ben Goldey did not directly dispute the report's findings, but he emphasized that the utility plans to meet its climate targets and exit coal by 2035.

“Duke Energy is leading one of the most ambitious clean energy transformations, with the largest planned coal retirement in the U.S. electric utility industry,” Goldey said in an email. “We have already reduced carbon emissions from electricity generation by 44 percent from 2005 levels and plan to well exceed our current goal of at least a 50 percent reduction by 2030.”

Tennessee Valley Authority

The Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest federally owned utility, has committed to reducing its carbon emissions 70 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2035 compared to 2005 levels. TVA has also announced an “aspiration” of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

However, the report's authors gave TVA a remarkably low score of 1.73 out of 100. They noted that the utility has announced plans to retire only 3 percent of its remaining coal generation by 2030, while it is planning to build more than 4 gigawatts of new gas through 2030.

“For a utility of that size that is so connected to a federal administration with these big climate goals, it's really entirely unacceptable,” said Cara Bottorff, a managing senior analyst at the Sierra Club and a co-author of the report.

TVA spokeswoman Ashton Davies said in an email that the report “does not reflect TVA’s decarbonization efforts as listed in our Strategic Intent and Guiding Principles framework.” Davies also noted that TVA is on track to add 10,000 megawatts of solar energy — enough to power more than 1.6 million homes — by 2035.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week voted to approve five nominees to be members of the TVA board of directors. Stokes called on the full Senate to swiftly confirm these nominees.

Climate in the courts

Supreme Court debates narrowing protections in Clean Water Act

The Supreme Court on Monday wrestled over how to resolve a high-stakes case that could narrow the federal government’s authority to protect wetlands and waterways across the country, The Washington Post's Ann E. Marimow reports.

The case, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, centers on an Idaho couple who tried to build a home near Priest Lake, but the EPA determined that their property contained a wetland and was subject to the Clean Water Act.

During oral arguments on the first day of the court's new term, Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Samuel A. Alito Jr. voiced the most skepticism about how broadly the government defines wetlands subject to regulation. At one point, Gorsuch asked how “any reasonable person” would know whether their land is covered.

The court's three liberal justices, along with Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, emphasized that Congress clearly intended to regulate wetlands “adjacent” to regulated waters. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, sitting for her first oral argument, was a highly active questioner and pushed back against suggestions that the regulations are unfair to property owners or would probably result in criminal penalties.

Pat Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School's Environmental Law Center, told The Climate 202 that the court's liberals seemed to seek a compromise that would retain the government's authority to regulate wetlands adjacent to lakes, rivers and other waterways.

“If they just decide the narrow question in this case [about adjacency], that could be harmful but not catastrophic,” Parenteau said. “If we get a broad ruling that shrinks the scope of the Clean Water Act, that has major implications for water quality across the country.”

Pressure points

Biden announces $60 million in storm preparedness funding for Puerto Rico

President Biden on Monday announced more than $60 million in federal funding to help Puerto Rico better prepare for storms during a visit to the U.S. territory to survey damage from Hurricane Fiona, which knocked out power across the entire island last month, The Post’s Matt Viser reports.

The additional funding aims to shore up levees, strengthen flood walls and create a new flood warning system. It will come from money allocated through the bipartisan infrastructure law that passed last year, according to a White House official.

In prepared remarks, Biden also announced that he had asked Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to lead a Puerto Rican grid recovery modernization team. Its goal is to “repair the grid quickly and drive decisive progress on the game plan for Puerto Rico’s clean energy transformation,” he said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, who joined Biden on the trip, said that more than 90 percent of power and 95 percent of water access has been restored so far in Puerto Rico, The Post's Azi Paybarah reports.

As gas prices rise, Democrats scramble to put focus on Big Oil

As gasoline prices trend upward across the nation, the Biden administration has scrambled to protect Democrats from consumer frustration ahead of the midterm elections by laying blame on oil companies and threatening new restrictions on the industry, The Post's Evan Halper reports.

Prices at the pump previously fell for a 99-day stretch, boosting Democrats' prospects in November's midterms. But now prices are rising, jumping in recent days by as much as 60 cents per gallon in some regions. In California, where there are at least eight hotly contested House seats, the average price of gas is $6.38 per gallon, an increase of 62 cents in the past week.

In public comments and private meetings with oil executives, administration officials are warning that the White House could take extraordinary steps to bring down costs, such as invoking emergency authority to limit oil exports abroad.

Gas prices are up for a variety of reasons, including a looming European ban on Russian oil and signals from the OPEC consortium that it plans to significantly cut production when it meets this week. But administration officials have sought to blame corporate greed, pointing to oil companies' eye-popping profits despite these challenges.

International climate

King Charles to skip COP27

King Charles III will not attend the United Nations climate conference in Egypt next month after Britain’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, advised him against it, Sean Coughlan reports for the BBC.

“With mutual friendship and respect there was agreement that the King would not attend,” Buckingham Palace confirmed in a statement. Before Charles assumed the throne last month, he had said that he would attend the conference, known as COP27.

As a prince, Charles spoke at last year's COP26 talks in Scotland, where he urged world leaders to adopt a “warlike footing” to address climate change. The move not to attend COP27 has reinforced concerns about Truss’s commitment to reaching Britain’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

In the atmosphere

Viral

Khumbie and his little swing made us melt from the cuteness: 😍

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