Analysis: The Year Ahead Will Spark Abundant Environment News — Both Good and Bad
EDITOR'S NOTE: This analysis from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis provides an overview of our series of special reports that look ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2022 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report and check out the numerous SEJournal TipSheets, Toolboxes, Issue Backgrounders and WatchDog columns linked below, for more.
You can bet that the year 2022 will be loaded with environment news. You might also make side bets that it will not all be good news and will not all be carried on the big networks. Either way, you can be sure most of it will matter profoundly to people’s lives.
For starters, the climate change clock is ticking ever more loudly. We don’t know yet whether the United States — or the world, for that matter — will once again hit the snooze alarm. This is the big story. But climate treaty talks at the 27th Conference of Parties in Egypt next November may be no more decisive than last year’s COP26 talks in Glasgow.
And if you are waiting for the U.S. Congress to pass some major climate legislation, well, that may depend on the inscrutable Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Our crystal ball grows even cloudier on the outcome of the complex and agonizing politics of the “Build Back Better” bill. It not only contains climate measures (the most effective have already been taken out) but a lot of President Biden’s social agenda.
One reality: No Republican is likely to vote for it as a whole, so every single Democrat is essential. It may be broken up into smaller, more politically palatable chunks to get passed. Either way, it has become a token in the power struggle that will eventually be the 2022 midterms.
A lot of 2022 will be spent digesting
the earlier, massive infrastructure
measure that Biden signed last Nov. 15.
Whatever happens with any future bills, a lot of 2022 will be spent digesting the earlier, massive infrastructure measure that Biden signed last Nov. 15. Most (but not all) of it counts as pretty good news — especially for the states, counties and cities that will be trying to get and spend the measure’s roughly $1 trillion.
Issues to watch in the year ahead
Here are some of the other key energy and environment concerns that SEJournal’s “2022 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” has been reporting on in recent months:
BUCKS FOR LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE: Speaking of infrastructure, the one super-mega environmental bill Congress managed to pass last year was the so-called “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” or the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. We will not stop to debate just how “environmental” it really is. For instance, it includes money to build highways as well as money to build public transit. But it also includes money to help build a nationwide electric vehicle charging network, as well as money to upgrade the grid for clean electricity. It includes money to replace lead drinking water pipes that threaten many localities. Yet it also includes special goodies that the oil industry yearns for — like carbon capture and storage. What may matter most for many journalists is tracking just what projects the big infrastructure will bring to their states and local communities.
REPLACING LEAD PIPES: The story of lead toxicity in the drinking water of Flint, Mich., dominated headlines during 2014–2019 (not to mention SEJ’s 2018 Annual Conference). But even today, only a few news outlets have covered how extensive the lead pipe problem is nationwide. (Not you, Reuters. You nailed it.) The good news is that the big infrastructure bill included at least $15 billion to help localities replace lead service connection pipes. The bad news is that it may not be enough. It’s very possible that cities that laid pipe more than a few decades ago may have a problem. Journalists have a role in helping discover it.
CLEANING UP ORPHAN WELLS: Methane is a powerful, often overlooked greenhouse gas. After the Obama administration tried to regulate their emissions from the oil and gas industry, the Trump administration undid the controls. Orphan wells — abandoned long ago by drillers who may be bankrupt or unknown — also emit methane. The bipartisan infrastructure bill included some $4.7 billion for cleaning up such wells. The money will mostly be administered by states. Work starts in 2022 in many localities.
THE NEXT PANDEMIC: Conflict-loving news media may focus on the origins of COVID-19, but epidemiologists and public health experts were expecting it before it happened. The study of viral epidemics is well developed, and whatever the origin of COVID-19, recent research has identified some animal-originating pathogens (so-called zoonotic diseases). Examples: the H1N1 influenza of 2009, the MERS coronavirus of 2012 and the Zika virus of 2015. Certainly, not all pandemics jump from animals to humans, but when they do they can be promoted by ecological disturbances, so that puts them squarely in the environment beat. The point is: Even before the Trump administration, the Obama administration had prepared a pandemic “playbook” that envisioned that possibility. Perhaps environmental journalists in 2022 will help anticipate the next pandemic.
THE WORLD IN TEXAS: You can see pretty much the entire environment beat just by looking at Texas. That is what platoons of environmental journalists will do March 30–April 3 in Houston at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 31st Annual Conference. Texas serves as a microcosm for most of the big environmental issues — where the environment and energy collide, and where floods and freezes have brought national headlines to “one of the most pro-growth and least regulated cities in the Western world” — writes our guest contributor Greg Harman. The issues of interest include not just oil and gas, but huge amounts of wind and other green energy. They also include the toxic pollution from the Houston region’s massive petrochemical industry. And as Texas’ demography shifts, the ever-more salient issue of environmental justice.
Read more on the Lone Star State's most critical energy and environment stories for 2022.
STRUGGLE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE: The movement for environmental justice began in earnest more than 40 years ago, with even deeper historical roots. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s interest in environmental justice has been fitful. Efforts under Trump were barely perceptible. More recently, Biden EPA Administrator Regan has brought an environmental justice record from his job as environment honcho in North Carolina, and Biden very early issued an executive order mandating environmental justice, with the EPA making serious new initiatives. Yet while the Biden White House seems to understand that environmental justice must be a whole-of-government effort, the ambition has not been realized widely. Stay tuned during 2022.
Read more on how promising progress on environmental justice may yield important stories.
LIFT FOR OFFSHORE WIND: Depending on the viewpoint (perhaps literally, if one owns a beach house), the Biden administration’s determination to accelerate offshore wind energy development can be seen as good news. At least from a climate perspective. After more than a decade of legal wrangling and regulatory delay, the administration shows signs of clearing obstacles and moving quickly, as a major recent lease sale announcement shows. But there is a very long checklist of hoops to jump through before those turbines are lighting cities. And some experienced observers may delay celebrating until fishing operators, tourist towns and even skeptical environmentalists get their say.
Read more on how offshore wind is getting a push from the Biden administration.
ADDRESSING “FOREVER CHEMICALS”: The large family of fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS has been freaking people out for quite a few years — especially when they show up in their drinking water. Concerns go back to at least 2016, but until recently state governments have often paid more heed than the EPA, the federal agency that should be most active in controlling them. There are reasons: There are more than 4,000 separate PFAS chemicals and they have contaminated at least 26,000 sites. The EPA under Trump sidestepped the issue. Now, the Biden team, under EPA Administrator Regan, has gone public with an ambitious plan to address PFAS pollution. The coming year should tell a lot about how it’s going.
Read more on how the government plans to pick up speed in addressing PFAS chemicals.
FOSTERING A PLASTICS TREATY: For years, people have been talking and complaining about plastic pollution, especially in the oceans. But the year 2022 may finally see action, or at least the start of it. Nations will convene as part of the U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi beginning Feb. 28 and the subject of a global plastics treaty is expected to come up. A lot of study and preparation has already happened — but there will inevitably be a long road ahead. A best-case scenario might involve the establishment of a dedicated program under the U.N. Environment Programme to foster formal international negotiations toward a treaty. Still, that may be the easy part. Nations may differ over how broad or stringent such an agreement should be — and how to enforce it.
DECARBONIZING BUILDINGS: Many buildings are heated by furnaces that burn natural gas and emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Gas stoves and dryers are common appliances, too. A few jurisdictions have banned gas hookups for new buildings. Berkeley, Calif., was one of the first; New York City was one of the largest and most recent. Fossil-friendly states like Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, however, have already passed state measures banning gas bans. Count on gas wars in 2022.
Read more on how local bans on natural gas hookups play into the climate change debate.
CASCADING CLIMATE DISASTERS: Expect disasters in 2022. Expect many of them to be climate-caused. And expect them to get worse. In recent years, we have become increasingly used to wildfires, droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc., but increasingly we’re seeing disasters come in cascades. Hurricane winds cause flooding, knocking out power plants, which run water and sewer systems, which pollute and cause health problems when they fail. Similar cascades come from wildfire. In 2022, it might be good for state and local governments to anticipate this. And it might be good for journalists to help them by illuminating the problems beforehand.
DISCLOSING CLIMATE RISK: Everybody is talking about climate risk disclosure as a guiding principle for publicly traded companies. But 2022 may be the year that somebody does something serious about it. Theoretically, investors deserve to know the truth about whether climate change will destroy the profitability of their investments. Corporate declarations of environmental, social and governance purity have spewed forth in recent years, but are often, um, diaphanous. The question for 2022 is whether the Securities and Exchange Commission and other financial regulators will enact real climate risk disclosure rules. And enforce them.
OPENING UP THE INFOSPHERE: We can hope for more openness on environmental information at the EPA and other agencies in 2022. But we can’t count on it. Even though the Biden administration and EPA Administrator Regan have come out in favor of transparency, things are still far from being fixed. Intercept gumshoe ace Sharon Lerner has for several years chronicled how the EPA withheld information about the health risks of new chemicals; the problem is that the EPA is still not disclosing it. Industry hasn’t complained. Agency press offices may have lightened up a bit, but they still interfere in the conversations between journalists and scientists. Under Biden, the White House has revised its scientific integrity policy. What remains to be seen in 2022 is how this will shake out in the EPA policy — and IN practice. In the end, it’s harder for journalists to find the truth when there is a war on science. That’s why journalists have to watch not only press officers, but lobbyists, PR operatives and messengers from the companies that the EPA regulates.
Read more on how data transparency is back in fashion under the Biden EPA.
For more, visit the full “2022 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.