Apr 20, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Welcome to a special edition of Generate, where we're honoring the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on Wednesday and remembering the tragic BP oil spill, which occurred 10 years ago today.

  • Most of this newsletter stems from a special, visually led Harder Line column, which I created with Axios' visuals gurus, Naema Ahmed and Sarah Grillo. Then Ben Geman will check in on the latest since the oil spill.
  • Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,498 words, 5.5 minutes.

Situational awareness: "U.S. oil prices tumbled to their lowest level in more than 20 years on Monday, with crude storage facilities filling rapidly as the coronavirus pandemic continues to crush demand." (CNBC)

1 big thing: Clearer skies but darker world

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic is creating a temporary oasis of cleaner skies and waters, but at immense health and economic costs.

The big picture: It’s an ironic coincidence that this once-in-a-lifetime moment is happening around the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on Wednesday. These glimpses of a cleaner planet illustrate the challenge of cleaning it up for the long haul. You know, longer than we plan to social distance ourselves.

“I do not want to have success this way. This is not what we celebrate. It may be a wakeup call, but man, I would have preferred a much less direct way to make that wakeup call happen.”
— Gina McCarthy, former EPA administrator in the Obama administration

One level deeper: McCarthy, who is now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says she doesn't expect most people to make a direct connection between the unfolding public health crisis of the coronavirus and climate change.

"The only connection I would make it’s made people realize that we don’t have everything figured out. That I have to be open to realizing that the world can change on a dime, and you just have to listen to science and scientists and have to have government leadership."
— Gina McCarthy
2. Carbon emissions’ historic drop
Data: Carbon Brief, IEA and UNEP; Note: Carbon Brief analysis projects COVID-19 impact, IEA shows current emissions pathway, and UNEP’s “emissions gap” report shows needed path for the Paris Agreement’s goals; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Global carbon emissions are projected to drop an unprecedented 5.5% this year, according to an analysis by Carbon Brief, a website on climate change and energy.

But, but, but: Even this staggering drop is less than what the UN says is needed to meet the aspirations of the Paris Agreement. That 2015 deal calls to limit a global temperature rise to 1.5 °C over the coming decades, which would require an annual 7.6% drop in emissions.

How it works: Carbon Brief analyzed various sources of data to project that the coronavirus-fueled lockdowns will drive the largest-ever drop in emissions.

  • At the request of Axios, the organization then compared that drop to our current emissions pathway, as calculated annually by the International Energy Agency before the pandemic, and also the pathway scientists say is required to meet the Paris Agreement.
  • Carbon Brief concedes in its analysis that a lot of uncertainty persists in the data, but nonetheless it offers a ballpark for how staggering the drop is likely to be.

The bottom line: Even this massive global economic shutdown shows how drastic change is still not aggressive enough to sufficiently tackle emissions as scientists is needed. That shows the depth of political and economic will that will be needed to take big action on the problem.

3. World pollution, before and during COVID-19

Satellite data of nitrogen dioxide pollution from Descartes Lab. GIF: Axios Visuals

The above GIF of satellite data shows the pollution difference a year ago and a year later as the pandemic prompted mass shutdowns around the world (both for the March 1–April 5 period).

4. Himalayas emerge in shutdown

Credit: Manjit K Kang via Twitter

The Himalayan mountain range has become visible in India when it's traditionally cloaked in pollution. Twitter user Manjit K. Kang posted photos of the reveal from her family's house in Punjab, India, hundreds of miles away from the mountains.

What they're saying: "My husband lived in India for almost 27 years. He recalls seeing them as a young child but for almost last 30 years they could not be seen," Kang told me by Twitter.

5. Pollution reduction among clearest in India
Data: University of Chicago; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Particulate matter concentrations in Indian cities — which has some of the highest levels of pollution in the worlddropped an average of 22.6% during the lockdown (March 24 through April 4), compared to the average in December 2019, according to pollution data analyzed by University of Chicago experts.

"I wonder if this moment, this COVID-19 moment where we have this very large [pollution] reduction that is allowing people to think about the world in a different way in India, if this will, in five years from now, look like their Earth Day."
— Michael Greenstone, executive director, University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute

The intrigue: Relatively speaking, America has really clean air (like President Trump often says), so detecting a drop in this kind of pollution here is more difficult.

  • "It's hard to detect statistical changes against the low levels that exist currently," Greenstone said. In India, "the change is large enough, it can be detected."
6. The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, 10 years later

Gull coated in heavy oil from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Today marks a decade since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, which claimed 11 lives, spilled roughly 3 million barrels of oil over months, and created ecological damage that lingers today.

Why it matters: It was the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, and prompted a major overhaul of offshore drilling oversight.

The big picture: The region and its wildlife still bear environmental wounds despite substantial recovery in the last decade, researchers say.

  • A study published last week in the journal Scientific Reports laid out the results of extensive fish sampling and found widespread evidence of oil exposure.
  • An in-depth Associated Press piece notes that some scientists see "remarkable recovery," but also reports: "scientists who spent the decade studying the Deepwater Horizon spill still worry about its effects on dolphins, whales, sea turtles, small fish vital to the food chain, and ancient corals in the cold, dark depths."
  • A National Geographic story based on interviews with multiple researchers finds that species including deep-sea coral, common loons and spotted sea trout are "struggling" and have lower populations.
  • But others, including the Louisiana brown pelican, have shown "robust" recovery, they report. "Scientists say it’s still too early to tell definitively what the impact has been for longer-lived species such as dolphins, whales, and sea turtles," the story notes.
7. Safety fears linger a decade after catastrophe

Michael Bromwich, the blunt former Justice Department official who reshaped drilling regulation in the aftermath of BP's Gulf of Mexico disaster, is worried that safety isn't getting the attention it deserves 10 years after the crisis.

  • And he's not alone.

What they're saying: Bromwich criticized the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement — one of the agencies he helped create — for changes to blowout preventer and well-control regulations that he and other critics called a big rollback.

  • In an interview with Axios, he also criticized the posture of current BSEE director Scott Angelle for saying that the agency is a "partner" to the oil-and-gas industry.
  • “These are not statements that ought to be coming from the industry’s chief regulator,” Bromwich said.

The other side: Angelle has defended the agency's oversight, and industry and Interior officials say the rule changes made the regulations smarter without compromising safety.

  • And, Debra Phillips of the trade association American Petroleum Institute tells the Washington Post that Trump administration changes to offshore oversight have "been mischaracterized as rollbacks."

Catch up fast: Bromwich joined the Interior Department in June of 2010, when oil was still gushing out of BP's ruptured well.

  • He oversaw reforms that broke leasing, safety and revenue collections into separate units, imposed safety mandates and set new regulations in motion.

Threat level: Bromwich said the federal government now has a stronger hand to ensure safety than it did before the disaster, even though he says the current administration is not focused enough on safety.

  • “Even as weakened, the well control rule provides additional basis for confidence that companies are required to take steps that lower the risk” of major new accidents, he said.
  • More broadly, he said “the agency has the tools now to be able to lower the risk of future disasters like Deepwater Horizon,” but also notes: “The real question is to what extent, how aggressively, are they being enforced.”
  • Bromwich and others also note the industry has taken steps since the spill on safety and response, such as the 2010 creation of Marine Well Containment Company, a nonprofit industry consortium designed to bolster response and control capacity for accidents at deepwater wells.

But, but, but: He's concerned that the collapse in oil prices will lead companies to pare resources for training and safety. That "could have unfortunate consequences down the road," he said.

The big picture: His concerns are echoed more broadly by members of the bipartisan commission that probed the accident and spoke to the New York Times.

  • “We are slightly better prepared than we were ten years ago but nowhere near where we need to be,” Bob Graham, former Florida governor and senator who co-chaired the panel, told NYT.
Bonus chart: Oil production in Gulf of Mexico
Data: EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

Oil production in the Gulf of Mexico fell after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe but has since rebounded to higher levels than before the accident, federal data shows.

The big picture: The enormous growth of onshore shale production means the Gulf now accounts for a smaller overall share of U.S. output than it did in 2010.

What's next: The price collapse is expected to curb production to some degree, though onshore production levels are more responsive to price swings in the near term.

8. Breaking: Biden vows expanded climate plan

Joe Biden said this morning that expanding his climate platform will be a "key objective" in the coming months and laid out broad areas where the plan could see changes.

Driving the news: The announcement came in the presumptive Democratic nominee's statement accepting the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund.

"I have asked my campaign to commence a process to meaningfully engage with more voices from the climate movement — including environmental justice leaders and worker organizations, and collaborate on additional policies in areas ranging from environmental justice to new, concrete goals we can achieve within a decade, to more investments in a clean energy economy."
— Joe Biden

Why it matters: It's the second sign in recent days that he is likely to alter his platform, which some green activists see as too modest even though it goes much further than Obama-era initiatives.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders' endorsement of Biden last week included the announcement of plans to form joint policy "task forces," with climate among the topics.

Go deeper: The energy stakes of Bernie vs. Biden

9. 1 interesting thing: Animal Kingdom

A mountain goat roams outside a closed store during the shutdown in LLandudno, Wales, on March 31. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Animals are feeling freer to roam cities with humans locked down.

Ben GemanAmy Harder