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McCarthy touts fossil fuels as California reels from atmospheric rivers

The Climate 202

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Kevin McCarthy’s energy agenda could exacerbate climate change as California reels from atmospheric rivers, scientists say

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy became the 55th speaker of the House early Saturday, overcoming fierce opposition from far-right conservatives that led him to make major concessions, The Washington Post’s Liz Goodwin, Marianna Sotomayor, Jacqueline Alemany, Amy B Wang and Dylan Wells report.

McCarthy’s rise came as atmospheric rivers inundated his home state of California with severe flooding and widespread power outages. Scientists say atmospheric rivers are fueled by climate change — a problem that McCarthy’s pro-fossil-fuel policies stand to exacerbate.

The House had struggled to elect a new speaker over a week of voting that stretched to 15 ballots. While the political drama played out on Capitol Hill, on the other side of the country, the West Coast endured a week of extreme weather.

  • On Monday, as McCarthy failed to garner enough support in the first three rounds of balloting, Californians were bracing for a parade of atmospheric rivers, or strips of deep tropical moisture, to pummel the state with torrents of rain.
  • On Friday, as McCarthy confronted a 14th failed vote, San Francisco faced widespread flooding, while Santa Cruz’s pier was split in half by 25-foot waves.
  • And on Saturday, as McCarthy and allies celebrated his victory, heavy winds battered the Sacramento region, toppling trees and leaving more than 300,000 customers without electricity. The National Weather Service predicted that an even stronger storm system would slam the state in the coming days.

While California’s coastal cities have been hit hard by the atmospheric rivers, McCarthy’s inland district largely has been spared from the damage. But that could change depending on the trajectory of the storms to come.

Atmospheric rivers are defined as “relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere — like rivers in the sky — that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate change has increased the intensity of atmospheric rivers for a straightforward reason: A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“The saying 'when it rains, it pours’ is increasingly true literally,” Swain said. “So we do expect to see significant increases in the intensity of atmospheric rivers in a warming climate.”

Heavy precipitation would normally provide welcome relief for California, which has been parched by a historic drought since 2011. But even if every drop of water were captured and stored in a reservoir, it would take a lot more rainfall to erase the state’s longtime water deficit, our colleagues Sarah Kaplan and Reis Thebault report.

A fossil-fuel-friendly agenda

McCarthy hails from Bakersfield, a conservative town in Central California far from the liberal strongholds of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Farming and oil production power the economy in his district, where oil derricks dot the hillsides.

Even as California has emerged as an environmental leader, McCarthy has championed policies that would boost the consumption of oil and other fossil fuels, a primary driver of global warming, while downplaying the scientific consensus on climate change.

  • In 2014, when asked whether fossil fuels contribute to warming, McCarthy told the Wall Street Journal: “I think there are changes in the environment. There are a lot of items to contribute to it.” McCarthy declined to connect California’s historic drought to climate change and criticized President Barack Obama for discussing the issue in the state earlier that year. 
  • In June, McCarthy unveiled a strategy outlining how Republicans would address climate change, energy and environmental issues if their party gained control of the House. The strategy called for boosting domestic oil and gas production and included no targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In the coming weeks, the House is expected to vote on legislation that would prohibit the release of oil from the nation’s strategic reserve without a plan to increase oil and gas leasing on federal lands. While the bill is expected to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate, it nonetheless signals that House Republicans plan to take a fossil-fuel-friendly approach to energy policy over the next two years.

Swain said such plans will have a profound impact on the planet.

“The decisions that are made today regarding energy policy and fossil fuels are going to affect Earth’s climate for decades to come,” he said. “The sooner we stop burning large amounts of fossil fuels, the sooner the temperature of the Earth will stabilize, and the sooner we can prevent further increases in these kinds of extreme weather events.”

McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.

Thanks to our colleague Anna Phillips for her help with researching the top of today’s newsletter.

Agency alert

This simple tweak could slash carbon emissions from U.S. military vehicles

Military vehicles spend a lot of time sitting with their diesel engines running because soldiers need power for their radios and weapons, contributing to the Defense Department’s massive carbon footprint that accounts for more than half of the federal government’s emissions. A Pentagon project aims to address this problem by adding anti-idling technology to next-generation vehicles, The Post’s Michael Birnbaum reports

The technology, which would turn the engines off when the vehicles are sitting still, would cut their fuel consumption by 20 percent. The next-generation vehicles, known as Joint Light Tactical Vehicles or JLTVs, would also get extra lithium-ion batteries under the plan.

The National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress passed last month, requires the Pentagon to electrify more of its fleet by 2035. While the JLTVs don’t fall under this requirement, the plan could still have a big climate impact, said Joe Bryan, the chief sustainability officer of the Defense Department. 

“If you look at each vehicle, maybe that’s not a lot of fuel, but when you look across the deployed force, that can be really significant,” he said. 

However, some Republican lawmakers have criticized the plan, warning that without a secure domestic supply chain, electrifying the military will lead to a deepened dependence on China for battery materials, including lithium. 

EPA seeks tighter limits on soot, one of the deadliest air pollutants

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday unveiled a proposed rule that would require refineries, power plants and other polluting facilities to slash soot emissions, which have been linked to asthma, heart attacks, strokes and other serious health ailments, The Post’s Anna Phillips reports. 

The EPA plans to lower the threshold for allowable levels of fine soot from an annual average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air to between 9 and 10 micrograms — beyond what the Obama administration set in 2012. 

Yet on a call with reporters, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency is still considering options, including a lower threshold of 8 micrograms or a higher limit of 11.

Polluting industries are likely to challenge the standard in court once it is finalized, citing concerns that it would stifle manufacturing. Meanwhile, environmental advocates slammed the draft rule as too weak and urged the agency to finalize an annual standard of 8 micrograms to adequately protect public health, particularly in communities overburdened by air pollution.

International climate

Germany built LNG terminals in months. Wind turbines still take years.

Clean energy advocates are warning that Germany’s wind energy sector is “collapsing” under high costs and onerous planning processes, even as the country streamlines the procedures for producing and importing natural gas to replace energy shipments from Russia, The Post’s Loveday Morris reports. 

Mirko Moser-Abt, chief policy officer for the German wind energy association BWE, said it is a “misconception” that the wind industry there has received a boost from the war in Ukraine. 

“It’s truly a catastrophe for the sector,” he said. “Even if it gives a new vision for renewables on a policy level, it has disrupted supply chains and driven up costs.”

The situation comes as German officials work to achieve bold clean-energy goals, with plans to dedicate 2 percent of the nation’s land area for wind production and to derive 80 percent of its energy from wind and solar power by 2030. But to get there, experts say Germany would need to add about 1,500 wind turbines each year — a feat they say is nearly impossible under current conditions.

“We need to see LNG speed in wind, too,” Moser-Abt said.

In the atmosphere


Thanks for reading!