Fossil fuel pitch by White House gets grimaces at Bonn

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 2017

BONN, Germany — American dignitaries are thick on the ground here at the U.N. climate talks, assuring a nervous global community that President Trump’s rhetoric about unleashing coal, and its emissions, is mostly talk.

“Coal’s days are numbered; nobody questions that,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told an audience Saturday. One day earlier, he had pledged $50 million of his own funds to help accelerate phasing out coal globally.

Even so, the White House will try to make the opposite point today. It’s staging a controversial panel on the virtues of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. It’s an attention-grabbing event at a conference designed to expand on the Paris climate agreement, which Trump has promised to quit.

The event will be headlined by White House energy and environment adviser George David Banks, a proponent of preserving U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement. It will be moderated by Francis Brooke, a policy adviser to Vice President Mike Pence. It features Amos Hochstein, an Obama-era State Department special coordinator for international energy who now works for the natural gas company Tellurian Inc. Holly Krutka of coal company Peabody Energy Corp. and Lenka Kollar of NuScale Power Corp., a nuclear power company, will also be on the panel.

Hochstein, who is a strong supporter of the Paris Agreement, said he views natural gas and nuclear power as supporting the world’s transition away from coal and toward more renewable energy use. He said he was surprised when Banks asked him to join the panel but agreed to participate.

“At some point, you’ve got to get away from all the politics, all the time,” he said.

Hochstein said his own remarks would focus on liquefied natural gas exports, which he offers as a way to support low-carbon economic growth globally.

No participants are expected to deny the science of man-made climate change and deride the Paris Agreement. But their message will likely be out of step with many walking the halls of the former West German parliament building, where the virtues of near-total reliance on renewable energy are often touted.

“I have been told there’s an absence of anybody delivering the message that if you want to meet the U.N. sustainability goals you have to use fossil fuels to get there,” said Barry Worthington, a participant on today’s panel and the executive director of the United States Energy Association. “We’re looking for an opportunity to bring reality into the COP process.”

It’s the only official side event the United States will host this year — a departure from the myriad events U.S. delegations hosted annually under President Obama.

Worthington told E&E News recently that the use of fossil fuels is consistent with Obama’s pledge to the Paris Agreement and with U.N. goals for poverty alleviation and universal electrification.

“Our industry is on track to achieve President Obama’s emissions reduction targets,” said Worthington. “We don’t need any additional regulatory pressure. We have all kinds of other pressures on the industry that’s causing us to reduce emissions.”

Obama’s promise to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025 was probably more ambitious than even his environmental policies could deliver, according to independent analyses.

But Worthington’s optimism is shared by Bloomberg and Democratic governors and senators who have flocked to Bonn over the last few days to assure foreign delegates that the world’s largest historic emitter will still meet its goals.

Bloomberg and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) released a report Saturday on America’s Pledge, the coalition of 20 states, cities and private entities that have promised to keep Obama’s Paris goals.

Former Vice President Al Gore told a crowd at the sprawling pavilion sponsored by Bloomberg and other donors that the U.S. economy will turn away from fossil fuels as quickly as it abandoned landline phones.

But Worthington said that U.S. fossil fuels are key to developing technologies that poorer countries will need to decarbonize their own coal-fired power portfolios.

“We need to be much more serious about deploying carbon capture and storage on both natural gas and coal-fired units if we want to meet the climate goals,” he said.

Worthington said carbon capture and storage (CCS) could flourish with subsidies on par with what wind and solar energy receive if the federal government also helped with demonstration projects.

Carbon storage has friends in the advocacy and policy community assembled here for a summit aimed at writing the rulebook on the Paris accord. In fact, the Obama administration’s own blueprint for deep carbon reductions by 2050 relied on both CCS and nuclear power to supplement renewable sources of energy.

But few here say an approach of all carrots and no sticks could deliver deep carbonization in any form.

“It’s clear that we can’t count on the market alone to mobilize those technologies,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “It’s going to take stronger policies and incentives, including ultimately a comprehensive federal approach.”

Most participants view the U.S. side event promoting fossil fuels with suspicion. It comes after the administration mocked, derided and abandoned international climate action. More than one foreign participant has dismissed the event as “offensive.”

“The world is quickly waking up to the fact that fossil fuel business is dying,” said Tommy Remengesau, president of the island nation of Palau, in response to the U.S. event. “But from a climate perspective, we need to be doing everything in our power to complete the transformation as soon as possible.”

“There are some serious energy people who might have been able to view some of the particular points being made in another context,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who is part of a delegation led Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that also includes Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

CCS is “a real enterprise,” Schatz said. “But when it’s the only thing they’re doing, it’s viewed differently. And this is a place for ambition — for aspirational ambition and a gut-level commitment to save the planet. So a presentation about why fossil fuels are not that bad is mostly not going to be received well.”

But Paul Bodnar, a former White House National Security Council adviser on energy and climate issues, said some of the most pro-climate countries on Earth still support coal-fired power at home and abroad.

“A U.S. side event on high efficiency coal at a COP [Conference of the Parties] may seem shocking, but it shines a spotlight on a big disconnect,” Bodnar said. “Many of the same countries passionately engaged in climate diplomacy are also buying or selling coal plants with public money in an era when coal is neither environmentally acceptable nor economically efficient.”

Culprits include China, Japan and some European nations.

The U.S. delegation, led by career State Department diplomat Trigg Talley, has won praise for keeping its head down and not obstructing progress in negotiations. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon is also expected to play a “constructive” role as a U.S. leader this week.

But old conflicts have emerged between rich and poor countries, with developing nations making demands that their wealthier counterparts offer more in emissions reductions and financial aid.

Cardin told reporters that Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement had weakened the hands of “like-minded countries,” while elevating the leadership of China on the global stage.

“The president’s comments have weakened the U.S. role and its credibility in dealing with these types of issues,” Cardin said.