Increased emissions in Texas are canceling out climate progress across the country [OPINION]

For those who understand the scale of the climate emergency, President Trump’s climate denial and scorched-earth rollbacks of climate programs have been appalling.

Fortunately, for every ounce of despair, there is a pound of optimism to be had in the enormous momentum we are now seeing: surging grassroots demand for climate action, transformative leaps in clean energy jobs and technologies, and new leadership from states and municipalities.

There is a great danger, however, in confusing momentum and optimism with the cold, hard realities of climate math. We cannot afford to overstate the progress that is being made compared to the scale and speed with which change is needed.

With that in mind, I have analyzed emissions data from the Energy Information Administration to examine whether states have successfully picked up the slack on climate action as the federal government slips backward. 

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence supporting the notion. Twenty-five governors participating in the U.S. Climate Alliance have embraced the Paris climate agreement.  New York has recently enacted a bill setting a net-zero emissions target for the state. Washington state recently joined California, Maine and Hawaii in setting deadlines for 100 percent carbon-free electricity.

Interestingly, the data show that the biggest progress cutting emissions has come not from these “climate leadership states,” but rather from states in the Midwest and Southeast. These states, which often had particularly high concentrations of coal-fired pollution, have benefitted most from the shift to cleaner sources of electric power.

As a region, the Midwest has led the way in cutting carbon emissions since the recovery from the Great Recession began, slashing pollution from coal, oil and gas nine percent between 2009 and 2016 (the latest year data are available).

The Midwest’s leadership underscores the vast opportunity to create quality jobs in a booming clean energy economy while combatting climate change. Midwest states added 3 million jobs while making these emission reductions. The region’s GDP increased 28 percent.

In the Southeast, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina all cut emissions more than ten percent.

Climate leadership states are also making good progress. Nineteen states in the U.S. Climate Alliance are at least halfway to the Paris emission reduction goals for the year 2025.

Also, the Northeast and West regions have cut annual carbon emissions by 96 million tons collectively.  That’s equivalent to zeroing out the emissions from 20 million cars and trucks.

Now for the bad news.

Despite leadership from so many states, the overall U.S. emissions picture is bleak if we don’t do more. As we squeeze the emissions balloon downward in some states and economic sectors, emissions are simultaneously expanding upward in others. The net effect: nationwide carbon emissions rose rapidly in 2018 — the biggest increase in eight years.

Texas is the leading culprit. The emissions increase from Texas alone has erased reductions from all states in the West and Northeast, combined.

Texas’ carbon emissions surged 20 percent higher from 2009 through 2016, an increase of 108 million tons.

How is this possible? For starters, Texas has an oversized carbon footprint, almost double the emissions of more populous California.

It’s sadly ironic that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has falsely attacked the Paris climate agreement for giving “Russia and China and India a free pass.” The truth is that Texas has been given the free pass, and they are abusing it.

Despite leading the nation in wind energy, Texas’ industrial emissions are surging alongside oil and gas production. All that oil has to go somewhere, and Texas has been using it to fuel a massive buildout of plastics production, oil refining and natural gas liquification.

Between 2009 and 2016, oil emissions from Texas’ industrial sector have more than doubled, and natural gas emissions have climbed by one-third. These emission bombs have shattered the state’s modest (4 percent) emissions reduction in the electric power sector.

It doesn’t have to be this way. North Dakota outpaced all other states in cutting its carbon intensity despite a five-fold increase in oil and natural gas production between 2009 and 2016.

In fact, Texas has one of the most profitable opportunities to cut greenhouse gas emissions: plugging leaks of methane, a climate super-pollutant, in the oil and gas sector. Rather than plucking this low-hanging fruit, Texas filed a lawsuit to block new federal methane standards, just one of many lawsuits championed by the Lone Star State against federal climate action. 

This is not a cause for despair. It is a call to action on three fronts:

First, climate leadership states need to up their game and put effective, comprehensive action plans in place to meet climate goals and cut emissions from all major emissions sectors: electricity, transportation and industry.

Second, more states need to become climate leadership states. We won’t get to where we need to go with only half the nation trying.

Third, America needs a federal climate plan. The plan should help all states and cities by incentivizing deeper, faster emission cuts. Also, the federal climate plan must create a minimum floor of action so that a few states don’t undermine the progress made by the rest of us. No state can be left behind in the push to a thriving U.S. clean energy economy.

Federal leadership won’t happen without big changes at the ballot box in 2020. It also won’t happen if leaders throughout the climate movement don’t overcome their deep (and justified) skepticism of the Beltway and invest in the hard work to deliver the national climate leadership that America needs.  

Jeremy Symons is a consultant at Symons Public Affairs and writer on climate change, energy policy, and politics. He previously worked as vice president for political affairs at Environmental Defense Fund and as deputy staff director on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee.

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