In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and amid continued protests condemning racial inequality, RFF President Richard Newell affirms in a public letter RFF’s commitment to calling out injustice, advancing environmental and economic well-being for everyone, and building a more diverse community. “There are moments of such profound importance that we are called upon to voice and demonstrate our values,” Newell writes, “not simply as a professional organization dedicated to improved environmental and economic outcomes for people, but as a community of individuals committed to justice, equity, and basic human decency.”
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:
Plugging orphaned oil wells could support recently laid-off workers and help the environment. Would a quick expansion of federal efforts to plug wells be feasible?
Before the pandemic, thousands of "orphaned" oil and gas wells spanned the United States, largely abandoned by defunct companies and continuing to emit methane. After a historic drop in oil prices in April, oil and gas companies are facing financial peril, which threatens to exacerbate the problem of orphaned wells. The Canadian government has already committed 1.7 billion Canadian dollars to plugging these wells, while funds to support the costly process often have proved elusive in the United States. But some US states are undertaking similar efforts, including North Dakota, which is utilizing federal stimulus dollars, and Wyoming, which might struggle to generate necessary funds after recently waiving a conservation tax on oil producers. Arguing that state funds are not enough, a group of lawmakers from New Mexico—a state that has shed thousands of oil and gas jobs in recent months—is now pushing for more federal dollars to support plugging wells.
This week, RFF Senior Research Associate Daniel Raimi delivered remarks at a virtual forum hosted by members of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources of the US House Committee on Natural Resources. After recently coauthoring a Common Resources blog post with the Niskanen Center’s Joseph Majkut about the possibility of a federal well-plugging effort, Raimi discussed in the hearing the potential environmental and economic effects of such a program, its cost effectiveness, and some possible hurdles. While pointing out that state contracting rules and limited administrative capacity would slow large-scale deployment, Raimi concludes that “a federal effort to plug orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells has the potential to create a large number of jobs in struggling communities and reduce pollution at reasonable cost.” For more, watch a recording of the forum and read Raimi’s prepared comments.
Related research and commentary:
How can corporate funds and public policy be leveraged to reduce the high costs and substantial risks associated with carbon removal?
Stripe—a digital payments company and one of the nation’s highest-valued startups—announced its support for four carbon removal projects. Reflecting the breadth of technologies in development, the funds will go toward infusing concrete with mineralized CO₂; injecting bio-oil underground; using the mineral olivine to facilitate seafloor storage of CO₂; and pulling CO₂ directly from the air. This final project is spearheaded by the Swiss carbon capture startup Climeworks, which recently announced that it raised $76 million—the largest private investment in direct air capture ever. The rapid increase in funding comes after the United Nations emphasized in a 2018 climate report that carbon removal is likely necessary for climate change mitigation efforts, and as more companies commit to becoming carbon negative. But many carbon removal technologies remain prohibitively expensive; Stripe has cautioned that it hopes to reduce the cost of carbon removal—but not necessarily to make an immediate environmental impact.
This week on a new episode of the Resources Radio podcast, Wil Burns—co-director of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University—explores the variety of available carbon removal technologies and discusses barriers preventing large-scale deployment. While some strategies, such as enhanced mineral weathering, are more appropriately applied on smaller scales, other remedies like direct air capture are potentially transformative, but currently too expensive. Even the ostensibly safe strategy of planting trees could have detrimental impacts on environmental health; increased use of fertilizer could harm biodiversity, and increasing temperatures compound the risk of far-reaching forest fires. Burns argues that growing levels of corporate support for carbon removal are helpful, but absent more policy guidance from governments, it will be hard to know which innovations are safe and scalable. “Countries are only starting to discuss [carbon removal], and they're doing it with great hesitation,” Burns says.
Related research and commentary:
Geoengineering is a potentially high-impact strategy for addressing climate change. Do the potential risks of something like solar radiation management outweigh its benefits?
Two new studies released in the past week clarify some of the risks associated with solar radiation management, which encompasses a variety of technologies designed to reflect sunlight away from the earth and slow climate change. In one study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers consider a hypothetical scenario in which solar geoengineering reverses all warming caused by a quadrupling of carbon dioxide concentrations; they find that geoengineering could inadvertently result in weaker winter storms, less wind circulation, and regional reductions in rainfall. And a new study from scholars at the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics & the Environment in Italy considers the possibility that different nations would deploy “conflicting interventions,” to the detriment of the planet’s health. Constructing a game in which participants with hypothetical temperature preferences deploy geoengineering to reduce global temperatures, the researchers find that widespread solar geoengineering efforts could lead to “welfare losses and increased inequality.”
These studies reiterate two of the most prominent concerns about solar geoengineering: that it could cause undesirable environmental outcomes and that it is hard to govern. Those challenges notwithstanding, RFF University Fellow Joseph E. Aldy and Harvard Professor Richard Zeckhauser argued at an RFF Live webinar this week that the world’s current focus on emissions reductions alone is unsustainable. While cautioning that solar radiation management should not be considered a substitute for other necessary climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, and that possible side effects should be researched further, they contend that solar geoengineering is a necessary remedy going forward. “We’ve been told—correctly—that the world is running out of time to reduce emissions, but our response has been inadequate,” Aldy says. For more on how solar radiation management can complement existing efforts to address climate change, read a recent working paper from Aldy and Zeckhauser.
Related research and commentary: