Op-Ed: Texas and the green new deal

A wind farm in Fort Stockton. Texas is the leader in developing wind energy in the U.S.

The “Green New Deal” proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass) has been polarizing. But in the spirit of Thomas Friedman, the frequently conservative writer/journalist who originally proposed a concept under this name, there is a less-polarizing version for every red state as well as every blue state, one that is curative rather than punitive.

The centerpiece of any green new deal is the recognition that our climate is changing and human action in releasing greenhouse gases is causing that change. According to a poll conducted by Yale University, most Americans believe these two facts, as do the overwhelming majority of scientists who work in this area. Interestingly, most major oil companies have come to the same conclusion and are searching for pathways forward, as are most major industries.

This leads to action item No. 1: We must re-design our public and private infrastructure with climate change in mind. Along the coast, that means discussing and addressing sea level rise as well as larger hurricane surge on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and larger Pacific winter storms. It means understanding and acting upon larger rainfall events and more severe storms throughout the United States. It means planning for more wildfires and severe droughts.

The climatic statistics upon which we built the United States are changing, and our engineers and local, state and federal planning officials have to get on top of those issues. We must rebuild coastal roads higher if not further inland. We must rethink levees and flood control concepts to accommodate more water. We may have to redesign chemical process plants and many building materials for hotter temperatures. In the process, we will create many new jobs.

Secondly, we should pay a higher price for carbon dioxide emissions. The Baker-Shultz tax plan is an excellent starting point. This proposal by former Republican secretaries of state James Baker and George Shultz would assess a tax on carbon emissions by major industries and then rebate this tax to the American public. This is a solid concept that recognizes that we are paying too little for gasoline and other products that emit carbon dioxide, emphasizing that our economic thinking and signals must become aligned with the recognized risk. Ideally, this tax should be passed before the 2020 elections as a bipartisan measure.

Third, we should allow the carbon tax to be avoided if carbon dioxide is removed mechanically or by nature from the atmosphere or from the facility. Natural ecological systems such as coastal marshes, native prairies and forests have a tremendous ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and store it in the soil or in wood. We should create a new agricultural economy — one based upon carbon farming. We should remove the barriers that currently exist to carbon farming, restore native prairies, expand marshes with sea level rise and plant more trees. Carbon farming is acentral part of a red-state new green deal and is part of a larger concept of rejuvenation of the agricultural sector.

Carbon farming has the potential to sequester as much as 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide ayear — a significant chunk of the roughly 5 billion tons that the United States currently emits. With Baker-Shultz in place, a tax of $40 per ton of carbon dioxide would allow carbon dioxide storage to be sold for $35 per ton, with a savings of $5 per ton. For a150,000-barrel-per-day refinery generating 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, that would translate into a cost savings of more than $20 million — as well as generating $160 million for carbon farmers and removing more than a million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For the U.S. refining capacity of 18.56 million barrels, carbon farmers could be paid $20.37 billion per year (assuming that much carbon storage capacity were available), and the companies could save $2.65 billion per year.

A market of this size would change the current dynamics of farming and ranching. Cattle grazing is compatible with soil carbon storage and may actually be positive to the extent it replicates the action of the herds of buffalo that were part of the evolution of the tallgrass and short-grass prairies of the United States. Grass-fed and -finished cows produce much less methane than corn and grain-fed cows. Farmers being forced away from irrigation due to groundwater depletion in areas such as the western Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwest would be able to restore native prairies and realize cash flow currently unavailable.

Fourth, we should encourage carbon neutral practices. Every government, every business, every church and every home should know their carbon footprint (e.g., the amount of carbon dioxide they generate) and be encouraged to take action to reduce that footprint. That could include education about carbon dioxide emissions, information about alternative sources of energy that emit no or less carbon dioxide, actions that could be take to reduce carbon emissions (such as LED lights, managing temperature, etc.) and information about paying carbon farmers to remove the remainder of your footprint from the atmosphere.

These four elements set out a starting point for a red state green new deal. This approach is grounded in finding solutions for our current economic practices while creating infrastructure and concepts for tomorrow.

We created this problem together. We must solve it together. And we must start now.

Jim Blackburn is a Rice University environmental law professor who co-directs Rice's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster Center in Houston. He is also a faculty scholar and professor at Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy. Jim is a former grantee of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. 



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