Big Oil's "Low Carbon" Talk Smells Like Bullshit

Big Oil's favorite new marketing term is "low carbon"... we smell something funny. Plus: the week in greentrolling, meet the AFPM, climate media gains & more.
Big Oil's "Low Carbon" Talk Smells Like Bullshit

Hey Hot Cakes!

Welcome to Hot Take! Your weekly (at least) newsletter surveying the state of the climate crisis and all the ways we’re talking—and not talking about it! We give you a round up of the latest climate stories and articles of the week, plus exclusive original reporting and commentary from us. Oh, and who are we? Amy Westervelt, long-time climate journalist with more seasoning than an everything bagel, and Mary Annaïse Heglar, a literary writer known for her essays on climate, race, and emotion—and her enthusiasm for dad jokes!

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It’s time to talk about climate!

Big Oil's "Low Carbon" Talk Smells Like Bullshit

By Amy Westervelt

Every few months a new study or report comes out on methane emissions. They're higher than we thought. U.S. gas operations release more of them than we thought. They're worse for climate change than we thought. Now, new research indicates methane emissions are increasing more rapidly than we thought they would. In fact, in the past 20 years, methane emissions have risen by 150 percent  while carbon dioxide  emissions have risen by 50 percent. That's mostly because natural gas has replaced coal in a lot of places—that's that "bridge fuel" story the industry has been telling for years.

But here's the thing: methane ain't great! It's a greenhouse gas that is between 25 and 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That spectrum is due to the fact that methane causes more short-term warming than carbon dioxide, so in its first few years in the atmosphere, methane is 86 times more potent but as time goes on that number decreases because methane only hangs around in the atmosphere for about 12 years, while carbon dioxide can hang about for thousands of years. Currently, methane accounts for about 16 percent of warming, while carbon dioxide accounts for about 70 percent, but methane's impact seems to be growing every time we learn more about it.

A large portion of methane emissions can be attributed to "fugitive emissions" just leaking out of pipelines or being burned off at refineries, and that's a problem that should be pretty easily solved. (Although… why hasn't it been, then, given that the industry has been around for decades?) And it's important to remember that gas is not the only source of methane emissions; livestock also produce a ton so the impact of meat-eating needs to be taken into account too. Also, wasted and rotting food adds a ton of it to the atmosphere!

Still, none of this really supports the industry's rosy message about "natural" gas or its new favorite term, "low carbon gas." As the industry has adjusted to a U.S. administration that doesn't think climate change is a hoax, it's really ramped up the "low carbon" talk, pushing gas as part of a "low carbon" solution, investing in "low carbon" technologies, and so forth. Because of course if your problem is methane, you want to keep people focused on carbon, never mind that natgas produces about half as much carbon dioxide as coal...which is a far cry from zero or even "low" carbon. It's bullshit (literally).

The Week in Greentrolling

By Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt

The most delicious thing about greentrolling is getting to expose a hypocrite for what they are. And this week, Chevron and Shell made it real easy by releasing their sustainability reports. It’s like if a fox released a henhouse blueprint. Or if Wiley Coyote ran a “save the roadrunner” campaign.

It’s bullshit. And it was quite a joy to see how many people pulled up on the grand social media release to tell them as much.

These companies aren’t releasing these reports because they actually want to do anything differently, as you might have guessed. They’re doing it so that they can show up to the UN Climate Conference later this year and brag about their progress on the non-goals they set for themselves.

We’re pretty sure that BP won’t be far behind, and we’re hoping they’ll drop theirs close to April 20, when we troll their asses to hell and back for the 11th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That’s right, mark your calendars. Ain’t nobody forgot.

Meet the API's Evil Twin

By Amy Westervelt

The fossil fuel industry has done a remarkable job over the past few decades of separating itself almost entirely from the epidemic of plastic pollution. Petroleum is a key ingredient of plastic, and now ethane—a byproduct of fracking—is being used to make it, too. And yet somehow you rarely see plastics and oil & gas companies discussed as part and parcel of the same problem.

One group we have to thank for that is the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the trade group for refineries and petrochemical plants. Petrochemical doesn't just mean plastic, of course. Petrochemicals—chemicals made from petroleum or components of petroleum—are also used in agriculture, textiles, and cosmetics (ew, but yes).

When the pandemic first took hold in the U.S. and the American Petroleum Institute went running to the White House with a list of requests for regulatory rollbacks and tax breaks, the AFPM set its sights on the law governing chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).The group saw the pandemic as an opportunity to weaken some of the regulatory requirements added as part of an update to the law that passed in 2016. Members of AFPM also pushed the whole myth about plastic bags being your only safe option in the pandemic.

And they worked lock-step with the API to push "critical infrastructure" designation for all oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities. That served a few purposes: it helped keep facilities running under Covid-19 restrictions and earned the industry "essential worker" status, it made petrochemical companies eligible for various Covid relief programs, and it boosted a longer running effort that AFPM has been spearheading: the criminalization of protest.

I've written about this before, many times, but I really don't think we can talk about it enough: the oil and gas industry is trying to criminalize protest. In the wake of Standing Rock, the AFPM sent a letter to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a dark-money-funded, pro-industry group that writes sample legislation for states and then works with state officials to pass it. The letter urged ALEC and its members to adopt sample legislation that would increase fines and felony charges for protestors arrested near anything deemed "critical infrastructure," and framed protestors as domestic terrorists. ALEC did adopt that legislation and has since helped more than 15 states pass it, most recently Kentucky and Arkansas. Montana is currently debating the most over-the-top version we've seen yet, which includes up to 10 years in prison and fines of over $100,000. In Minnesota, where Line 3 protests are ramping up, four separate versions of this legislation are making their way through the state legislature.

So please, feel free to troll the shit out of these guys when they tweet about how they're contributing to "American progress."

We’re Back Baby! (Well, Sort Of)

By Mary Annaïse Heglar

Maybe I’m just saying this because I got my first shot of Pfizer this week, but it’s starting to feel like the pandemic is finally getting under control. Yeah, I know the case numbers are still rising and we’re not out of the woods yet, but it feels like there’s a path now. Compared to where we were last year, that’s a pretty dramatic improvement.

So….any Real Hot Cake would be asking themselves: what does this mean for climate coverage?

After all, it was right around this time last year that COVID-19 knocked climate change clean out of the headlines and flattened the discourse to simple “the earth is healing” bullshit. Well, it looks like we’re finally snapping out of that because the rate of climate coverage in March 2021 went way up.

We’re talking about a steady 10 percent increase from last month, but also a near doubling from March 2020. Now, at least in this newsletter, it should go without saying that getting “back” to the rate of coverage from pre-March 2020 is not exactly a win, since we weren’t talking about climate enough in the Before Times, but it is progress. And we need to keep making it. It’s go time.


Rising Temperatures, Rising Tides

As rainstorms grow more severe and frequent, communities fail to prepare for risks, by Jim Morrison for The Washington Post

First-Ever Observations From Under Antarctica’s ‘Doomsday Glacier’ Are Bad News, by Dharna Noor for Earther

Bolsonaro Oversaw a Connecticut-Sized Chunk of Deforestation in the Amazon Last Year, by Molly Taft for Earther

Methane Has Never Risen This Fast in the Atmosphere, by Molly Taft for Earther

The Midwest’s Active Fire Season Is a Warning, by Dharna Noor for Earther

Hundreds of Glacial Rivers Are Pouring Into the Belly of Greenland’s Ice, by Dharna Noor for Earther

The world is getting scarier’: How climate change multiplies risk, by Kate Yoder for Grist

Should Governments Consider Engineering the Atmosphere? By Oliver Morton and Amy Westervelt for The Nation

Climate change shrinks marine life richness near equator: study, by Sarah Marsh for Reuters

Lemurs and giant tortoises among species at risk if global heating hosts 3C, by Phoebe Weston for The Guardian

Third of Antarctic ice shelves ‘will collapse amid 4C global heating,’ by PA Media for The Guardian

Sea-level rise is creating ‘ghost forests’ on an American coast, by Emily Ury for The Guardian

The Climate Presidency

Fossil fuels get too many government handouts. Biden wants to cut them off, by Lili Pike for Vox

Migrant children are being held in toxic U.S. detention centers, by Adam Mahoney for Grist

Big Oil Fed State Educators Stats Used to Push Back on Biden’s Climate Goals, by Molly Taft for Earther

Biden wants to give electric cars a huge boost. Will people buy them? By Umair Irfan for Vox

A ‘Just Transition’ Clean Energy Revolution Can Be a Boon for West Virginia – and the Country, by Katrina vanden Heuvel for The Nation

How an Oat Milk Pipeline in New Jersey Explains the Problem With Biden’s Climate Plan, by Kate Aronoff for the New Republic

A California county, despite the state’s climate goals, further embraces fossil fuels, by Miranda Green for The Washington Post

Tourists and looters descend on Bears Ears as Biden mulls protections, by Joshua Partlow for The Washington Post

In Asia, John Kerry urges bold action on climate to avoid global ‘suicide pact,’ by Joanna Slater and Brady Dennis for The Washington Post

America Favors Cars Over Public Transit. Can Biden Change That? By Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich for The New York Times

Climate Accountability

Duke Energy’s Green Facade Isn’t Fooling People Anymore, by Nick Martin for the New Republic

Can a pipeline company defy a governor’s orders? Gretchen Whitemer is about to find out, by Jena Brooker for Grist

How Big Meat Is Funding Climate Denial and Polluting the Planet, by Molly Taft for Earther

Shell Is Back, Baby :( by Dharna Noor for Earther

Fossil Fuel Companies Are Job Killers, by Kate Aronoff for The New Republic

As danger of major breach recedes, Florida seeks long-term solution for troubled plant, by Craig Pittman for The Washington Post

Why Investing in Fossil Fuels Is SoTricky By Mark A. Stein for The New York Times

Justice Is Justice Is Justice

The world won’t be a greener place until it’s a fairer one, by Simone Tagliapietra for The Guardian

What a fair climate target looks like for the US, the largest historical carbon emitter, by Lili Pike for Vox

The urgency of the Black climate agenda, by Jariel Arvin for Vox

‘This is environmental racism’: How a protest in a North Carolina farming town sparked a national movement, by Darryl Fears and Brady Dennis for The Washington Post

Kick the Fracking Industry Out of Indian Country, by Nick Martin for The New Republic

House hunters are fleeing climate change, causing a new kind of gentrification, by Ysabelle Kempe for Grist

Retreat from coastlines? Politicians don’t want to talk about it, by Zoya Teirstein for Grist

Cascadia’s communities of color speak out against climate injustice, by Iris M. Crawford for Grist

Care Work Is Climate Work, by Kate Aronoff for The New Republic

U.S. climate envoy Kerry says India is “getting job done” on climate, by Neha Arora and Sanjeev Migliani for Reuters

How Debt and Climate Change Pose a ‘Systemic Risk to the Global Economy’ By Somini Sengupta for the New York Times

Greta Thunberg Says She’ll Skip U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow By Somini Sengupta for the New York Times

Ecocide: Should Destruction of the Planet Be a Crime? By David Sassoon for Inside Climate News

Glimmers of Hope

California unveils sweeping wildfire prevention plan amid record fire losses and drought, by John Myers for the LA Times

Rights of Nature Push Has Oil Industry Nervous, by Amy Westervelt for Drilled

This River in Canada Is Now a Legal Person, by Jillian Kestler-D'Amours for Al Jazeera

Renewables Met 97% of Scotland's Electricity Demand in 2020, BBC

Climate in Culture

How do I get my neighbors to stop littering? By Eve Andrews in Grist

Mike Rowe’s New Discovery+ Show Is Big Oil-Funded Propaganda, by Dharna Noor for Earther

Last Judgment, by Jo Livingstone for The New Republic

Plus More

California Could Require Uber and Lyft to Go Electric by 2030, by Molly Taft for Earther

Six ways to stay balanced during the climate crisis, by Ariella Cook-Shonkoff and Neelu Tummala for The Washington Post

When rare California toads get thirsty for love, this tiny college helps set the mood, by Louis Sahagún for the LA Times

How to listen to all of Vox’s Earth Month podcasts, by Eliza Barclay and Lauren Katz for Vox

Why China is still clinging to coal, by Lili Pike for Vox

Activist Greta Thunberg to skip U.N. climate conference in Scotland, by Reuters Staff for Reuters

Hospitals try to curb astronomical emissions as pandemic brings new challenges, by Yara El Murr for The Guardian

Bill Gates is the biggest private owner of farmland in the United States. Why? By Nick Estes for The Guardian


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