Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

The endangerment finding, geothermal-powered suburbs, & more coal plant shutdowns

On December 6, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force is hosting a meeting in Nashville, Tennessee to vote on a resolution that members have drafted to nix the Environmental Protection Agency’s “endangerment finding.”

That term is going to come up much more frequently in the near future, so it’s worth breaking down why ALEC, a powerful nonprofit network of conservative lawmakers and organizations funded largely by fossil fuel industry billionaires Charles and David Koch, wants to get rid of it.

In 2007, in a case called Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act. After reviewing scientific records for two years, the EPA found that current and projected concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations,” and signed that “endangerment finding” into the act.

It came after decades of the fossil fuel industry pushing climate denial and funding conservative lawmakers of all levels of government so they’d back their agenda. And the machine has worked, for years. The backlash against President Obama’s climate policies made this movement even stronger, and now lawmakers and industry groups are celebrating the rollback of those regulations, as well as the disbanding of scientific advisory committees and scrubbing of climate change references under President Trump’s administration. At the America First Energy Conference in Houston this week, led by the conservative think tank Heartland Institute, one member of Trump’s EPA transition team said it was “like Christmas.”

ALEC, which markets itself as a free-market think tank of sorts, is one of the engines for this movement. Most notably, it drafts model legislation for states to adopt. For instance, in the West, ALEC used its network to pass around a model bill to transfer federal lands back to state ownership that several states used, and model bills have also been used for “stand your ground” laws and charter school legislation.

The endangerment finding resolution, which leaves blank spaces for states to fill in their names, falsely claims that the risks from greenhouse gases are decreasing, and that sea level rise and increasing extreme weather events are “far from unusual.” The resolution asks the EPA to revoke that finding, and will come up for a vote during the organization’s policy summit, where members will discuss their top legislative issues for the coming year. Environmental deregulation is high on the list of priorities.

Progressive candidates won last week all across this region and the rest of the U.S., but the federal government, and most state governments, are still controlled by the GOP—which is desperately pushing its fossil fuel agenda as it watches the global coal market disintegrate. At the UN climate talks in Bonn, Germany this week, U.S. federal officials spent their time pitching the benefits of coal and gas, though it quickly devolved into a protest and outcry against the rhetoric.

How does this all relate to the South? Many legislators in this region are ALEC members or have ALEC ties, and have been backed by fossil fuel interests like the Koch brothers. Take a look here at the list of South Carolina lawmakers involved with them, or here at those in Alabama—some are even on the task force that will convene in Nashville next month. However, more recently, some Republican leaders across the region, from Tennessee to South Carolina, have moved to support clean energy or carbon taxes, and it’s been reported that members of ALEC are arguing over their approach to climate change and clean energy too. It’s a signal of the divides plaguing the Republican party as a whole.

While it’s clear that some sort of shift is happening and this meticulously crafted network is cracking, the last-ditch effort to change the endangerment finding, to pretend that carbon dioxide and other emissions aren’t harmful to human health, is not only factually inaccurate—it is dangerous. As this process unfolds, looking through the lens of the South, where climate deniers and skeptics still dominate policymaking, may be incredibly useful in understanding what’s happening on a broader scale.

Stories worth your time

E&E News reports from Big Stone Gap, Virginia, where millennials are trying to find work anywhere but the mines. With President Trump’s promises to bring coal mining back, many are tempted, but they worry the rebound will be short-lived. “Me personally, I don’t see a future in the mines. It’s great in the moment, but you can’t plan for the future,” said one man named Tra Nixon.

Suburbs in cities from Atlanta, to Louisville, Kentucky, to Austin are turning to geothermal power to provide electricity. CityLab looks at the untapped potential of the resource, which uses heat energy from below the Earth’s surface, and how it’s already being used around the South and other regions of the country.

Two years ago, when she was 13 years old, Hallie Turner sued North Carolina over its environmental rules. The lawsuit was blocked, but she’s back at it this year with several other teenagers, and they want the state to adopt a rule ensuring that carbon emissions would reach zero by 2050. “The reason we’re continuing this,” Hallie told the News & Observer, “is because this issue hasn’t gotten better. It’s getting worse. …With our president unwilling to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, all the action that’s going to take place is really going to be at the state and local level.”

News flying under the radar

South Carolina mayors, led by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, are united in their front to address climate change. In a state where about 55 percent of voters chose Trump in 2016, four mayors of “diverse political leanings” have pledged to fulfill the terms of the Paris Agreement.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was a hot topic during the Virginia gubernatorial election. Governor-elect Ralph Northam said he would support it if it did little environmental damage and faced a rigorous permitting process. But some reports say that a member of his transition team has ties to the companies behind the pipeline.

Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities plan to shut down two coal-fired power plants in February 2019, citing savings from energy efficiency measures its customers are taking, as well as environmental regulations.