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Analysis: Epic Struggles Ahead in 2023 on Energy Transition, Pollution
EDITOR'S NOTE: This analysis from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis provides an overview of our “2023 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report, which looks ahead to key issues in the coming year with numerous SEJournal TipSheets and Issue Backgrounders, each linked below, for more insight.
Expect a whirlwind of environmental news in 2023 — with some epic struggles that could make a lasting difference. Just don’t expect global heating to stop. Or windy rhetoric to subside.
The Biden administration, with help from the barest majority of Democrats, has already accomplished much on the environment front in its first two years. That includes the biggest climate bill in U.S. history. But an even more divided Congress may make much more legislative progress difficult or impossible in 2023.
What we do know is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be racing to do as much as it can in the remainder of this term through the use of its executive power. And that could turn out to be a lot. Much depends on the unknowns of the 2024 election.
The energy transition will present
conflicts and contradictions that only
reflect the deep divisions in our society.
But the energy transition will present conflicts and contradictions that only reflect the deep divisions in our society. Even though President Biden says he hopes to move the United States to green energy, the courts, the fossil fuel industry and the Republicans will be pushing him to lease and drill more. Even though, today, the country is now the biggest oil producer in the world, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Another “known unknown” is the Russian war on Ukraine. We don’t really know how it will come out. But we know Russia’s exploitation of Europe’s energy dependency has shaken Europe. And it may have two unexpected effects. One is to push Europe to change to green energy even faster. The other is to enlarge European imports of gas and oil from the U.S. and other non-Russian countries.
Another “known unknown” is the courts, especially the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s recent overturning of Roe vs. Wade has set up expectations that it could pull the rug out from under existing environmental and energy laws as well.
Here are some of the other key energy and environment concerns that SEJournal’s “2023 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” has been reporting on in recent months:
Air pollution and the climate race
The winning strategy for the 2022 climate bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act was not to try to regulate greenhouse gases. Rather, it was to spend tens of billions of dollars on cleaner energy infrastructure. Much of 2023 will be devoted to Democratic press releases announcing local grants (and possibly GOP releases complaining of waste).
Actually, arguably, the EPA already has most of the legal authority it needs to regulate climate emissions. The Supreme Court had a chance to hamstring the climate mandate in the Clean Air Act in 2022 — but did a half-baked job. The case, West Virginia vs. EPA, was decided in June 2022 and didn’t really settle the matter. It applied to a defunct Obama-era regulation and limited how the EPA could regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It did not make it impossible for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
One advantage for the EPA
in the climate change arena is
how many rules it can act on.
Now, in 2023, the EPA is rushing to do the job again. The two major sources of greenhouse gas emissions are fossil-fueled power plants and internal combustion engines in vehicles. Fortunately for the climate, the Clean Air Act, or CAA, does allow the EPA to regulate these two sources because they have many other (non-climate) pollutants in them as well. Look for regulatory action in 2023 and 2024. One advantage for the EPA in the climate change arena is how many rules it can act on. And one advantage for the U.S. public is how many benefits would flow from these nonclimate rulemakings.
One case in point: fine particulates. Power plants emit them, and the EPA is currently revising its CAA standards for fine particulates. If the standard tightens (as expected), it may well force additional coal plants to shutter. Of course, there are other sources of fine particulates — such as wildfires.
- Special TipSheet: “Particulate Air Pollution — An Old Story Made Newer, and More Local, in 2023”
Other CAA rules with climate impacts include tightening of the mercury and air toxics rule (affecting coal plants) and a possible tightening of the ozone transport rule (also affecting power plants). In addition, the EPA expects to issue new rules for carbon emissions from new and existing power plants this spring. Expect lawsuits. Expect plant closures, too.
- Special TipSheet: “Coal Ash — An Overlooked Toxic Story That Won’t Go Away”
And then there’s methane, dubbed the “low-hanging fruit” of greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA is currently strengthening its rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations. The Interior Department is working on a separate rule limiting methane from oil and gas operations on federal lands.
- Special TipSheet: “As Concern Over Methane Mounts, Emission Controls Yield Stories”
The reason for the EPA to try to pack all this into a year or two is that the future is uncertain. The Biden EPA spent much of its first two years rolling back the Trump rollbacks. We do not know whether Republicans will control the House, the Senate or the White House after the 2024 election (much less what the Supreme Court may do). So, for Dems, getting pro-environment changes locked in during 2023 helps insure against another rollback.
But for environmental journalists, the uncertainty offers an opportunity to bring climate and air pollution stories home to the state and local levels.
- Special TipSheet: “Bringing the Climate Crisis Story Home in 2023”
- Also see: “Burgeoning National EV Trend Helps Drive Local Environment, Climate Stories”
Finally, we are pretty sure that energy permitting reform will linger as an issue in Congress. If only because West Virginia Dem Joe Manchin will continue to chair the Senate Energy Committee. Manchin failed to get it through in 2022 as part of the climate bill deal. There are signs he will keep trying. The problem is that environmentalists and Democrats want “permit reform” that is very different than what GOPers and oil pipeline operators want.
- Special Backgrounder: “Whither the Permitting Reform Bill in 2023?”
Disasters: If it exceeds, it leads
Climate disasters will still be news in 2023. Much global heating is already locked in, and the changing climate has for some years provided newshounds with droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves and disasters of other kinds.
Count on similar disasters in 2023. But worse.
We don’t have to insist or prove that all of these disasters are climate-related — although many will be. Improvements in so-called “attribution science” have supported those occurrences in recent years.
It’s important for journalists to see
why many of these disaster stories
are also environmental stories.
But it’s important for journalists to see why many of these disaster stories are also environmental stories. The wildfires may be caused by climate, but they worsen people’s breathing problems and may cause drinking water pollution. The Colorado River dry-up is surely a climate story but brings up everything from irrigated agriculture to real estate development.
- Special TipSheet: “Extreme Rainfall Offers Journalists a Deluge of Environment, Climate Stories”
Treaties: Sometimes-obscure documents with global impacts
You would think someone would have learned something from the 2022 COP27 climate talks in Egypt. You would think. Holding the talks in Egypt did center the reparations issue. But the result? Big ballyhoo about a “loss and damage fund” with no concrete agreements about who would put how much money into it. To quote Greta Thunberg: “Blah, blah, blah.”
We may see something similar with the COP28 talks in Nov.-Dec. 2023 in the United Arab Emirates, chaired by the head of the UAE’s state oil company. The setup has already prompted serious controversy, which could easily distract the delegates from the urgency of actually controlling climate change.
The climate talks, while important,
are only one of the international
dialogues affecting the environment.
The climate talks, while important, are only one of the international dialogues affecting the environment. For example, talks are going forward this year seeking agreement among some 160 countries to draft a global treaty to reduce plastic pollution. The final agreement might not come in 2023, but the year will bring a better look at progress.
Likewise, there are other international agreements that will be news. There are fishing agreements, for instance, that will be trying to prevent harm in international waters.
- “COP 27 Egypt — From Afar, How UN Meeting Will Affect Climate Change Reporting”
- Special Report: Climate Solutions: Business, Nature, Energy, Ocean
- “WTO Deal on Fishing Subsidies May Reduce Ocean Overfishing”
- “Biodiversity Could Be Bee’s Knees for Environmental Journalists”
- “Air Conditioner HFCs Are on the Way Out — The Kigali Amendment Explained”
SCOTUS takes on WOTUS
We will hear from the Supreme Court this year on “Waters of the United States,” or WOTUS. At issue is what waters are covered by the pollution-prevention mandates in the 1972 Clean Water Act, or CWA. It’s a debate that has been going on for more than half a century. Environmentalists want the CWA to apply broadly, to wetlands and temporary streams. Real estate developers and farmers want to do as much as they can without needing permits. The Court could gut the CWA. Or it could clarify the law. We are not betting much on clarification (the current muddle was made by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, which clarified little).
The PFAS Roadmap
Environmental journalists can also be confident that the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS will be making news in 2023 and beyond. It’s a difficult problem because this family of thousands of chemicals is mostly unregulated and permeates the environment. The EPA is moving forward on its PFAS roadmap, which will eventually help limit PFAS in drinking water (among other places). Meanwhile, reporters can follow the moves by states unwilling to wait for federal action.
- Special Backgrounder: “EPA To Propose Plan Soon for First PFAS Drinking Water Rule”
For more, visit the full “2023 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report. Plus, be sure to check out our regional look-ahead Special TipSheet, “Cascadia Bioregion Rife With Energy, Environment Troubles To Report in 2023.”
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 6. 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.