Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
How might the results of this year's presidential election impact how the oil and gas sector operates on federal lands?
It’s no secret that President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden have conflicting views on environmental policy—but their disagreements about oil and gas production on federal lands are especially pronounced. The former vice president advocates a ban on all new oil and gas leases on federal lands, while the Trump administration has often ignored environmental impacts in its efforts to expedite new leases. As the oil and gas sector grapples with a recession, the current administration has approved significantly lower royalty rates in at least 467 cases, sometimes allowing companies to pay as little as 0.5 percent of their earnings to the federal government for operating on public lands. The sector is taking note of these divergent positions; according to one analysis, permit applications to drill on federal lands have increased 80 percent over the last three months, reflecting fears of a leasing moratorium under a Biden presidency.
Of all US greenhouse gas emissions, 25 percent comes from fossil fuel production on federal lands, making new regulations a priority for policymakers hoping to address climate change. And with a ban on new leases likely if Biden wins this year’s presidential election, a new working paper from RFF Fellow Brian Prest assesses how various supply-side reforms—charging a carbon adder on new leases, increasing royalty rates, and implementing Biden’s proposed moratorium—would impact emissions and government revenues. While a ban on new leases would reduce emissions the most of all these reforms, it would also reduce annual royalty revenues by $5–6 billion. Conversely, a carbon adder that requires producers to pay $50 per ton of CO₂ would generate $7 billion more each year, while still reducing annual global emissions by 58–100 million metric tons. For more insights, read a new blog post from Prest that accompanies his working paper.
Related research and commentary:
To what extent do data centers contribute to global emissions, and what can policymakers and business leaders do to reduce the sector’s environmental impacts?
This week, Facebook and Google announced ambitious new environmental commitments, putting pressure on other tech giants to accelerate their transitions to clean energy. While Facebook has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2030 across its supply chain, Google—which has been carbon neutral since 2007—has gone even further, pledging that all its facilities will be run on entirely carbon-free power by 2030. The success of these commitments will hinge on how each company works to decarbonize its data centers, which are sprawling facilities that store computer servers and disseminate data to the outside world. Major strides have been made to increase the efficiency of data centers, but fully decarbonizing them is a weightier challenge. Other tech companies have gone to great lengths to reduce emissions from their data centers, with Amazon investing so heavily in wind energy around its Irish data centers that the company will soon become Ireland’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy.
Emissions from data centers have increasingly provoked concern, especially as internet use rises as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But according to the International Energy Agency’s George Kamiya on a new episode of Resources Radio, the environmental impacts of information and communications technology (ICT) should be no cause for alarm, at least for now. For instance, Kamiya points out that over the last decade, data center electricity use has stayed consistent—despite 12.5 times more internet traffic and data center demand growing by about 7.5 times—largely because of technological innovations and the increasing consolidation of data in hyperscale data centers. Although the rise of Bitcoin mining shows that the ICT sector is quickly evolving, Kamiya thinks policymakers should prioritize other sectors. “It's important to highlight that emissions and energy use from the ICT sector are [growing],” Kamiya says, “but we can't let that distract us from the bigger fish in the ocean.”
Related research and commentary:
How can long-running federal programs to restore the environment and build infrastructure be leveraged to support fossil fuel–dependent communities in a just transition?
The US Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it will create a new office in Colorado tasked exclusively with cleaning up abandoned mines, signaling that the administration is prioritizing environmental remediation out West. The office will build on existing federal efforts to clean up abandoned mines, such as the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Reclamation Program—a long-running environmental remediation effort that has taken on new economic significance in recent years. Since 2016, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has administered a pilot program to direct cleanup funds to Appalachian communities struggling amid a transition away from coal. Confronting economic headwinds during the coronavirus pandemic, many states are now prioritizing AML restoration projects as an economic stimulus strategy, too. North Dakota and Pennsylvania have pursued new projects this year, while the governor of Wyoming—the state which receives the most funds from the program—has pushed to speed up cleanup efforts as a way to employ more workers.
The AML program, which raises funds for cleanup efforts by collecting fees from coal companies, is just one of many federal efforts to aid regions historically reliant on fossil fuels. In a new report from an ongoing series in collaboration with Environmental Defense Fund, RFF Senior Research Associate Daniel Raimi assesses a variety of existing environmental remediation and infrastructure development programs that could play a role in a just transition for communities burdened by a clean energy transition. Environmental programs, including the AML program, could reduce health risks from nearby pollution and improve property values, while infrastructure programs, such as the Federal Public Transportation program, could connect struggling workers to more economic opportunities. “The complex and interrelated challenges that rural energy communities are likely to face during an energy transition require us to think broadly about potential solutions,” Raimi writes in an accompanying blog post.
Related research and commentary:
- Report: Environmental Remediation and Infrastructure Policies Supporting Workers and Communities in Transition
- Blog: Equitable Transition to a Low-Emissions Future: Environmental Remediation and Infrastructure
- Report: Economic Development Policies to Enable Fairness for Workers and Communities in Transition