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Analysis | Bills in blue states target the fossil fuel industry for climate damage – The Washington Post

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Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! We hope you had a great Memorial Day weekend. Today in bizarre climate news, we’re reading about how a man disguised as an old woman threw cake at the glass protecting the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and shouted at people to think of planet Earth. But first:

Bills in blue states target the fossil fuel industry for climate damage

Democratic lawmakers in two of the nation’s most populous states are pushing legislation to punish the fossil fuel industry for its apparent role in causing droughts, wildfires and other disasters exacerbated by climate change.

In California, the state Senate last week passed a measure that would prohibit the state’s public pension funds from investing in the largest oil, gas and coal companies within a decade.

And in New York, Democratic lawmakers last week introduced a bill that would require the biggest fossil fuel firms to help pay for infrastructure investments necessary to adapt to mounting climate disasters.

The action in both blue states comes as Democrats in Congress continue to struggle to pass President Biden‘s stalled Build Back Better Act, including its investment in combating climate change and boosting clean energy.

Here’s what to know about both bills — and whether they could pass before the end of their respective legislative sessions:

California eyes pension divestment

Senate Bill 1173, California’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, would require the state’s public pension funds to divest from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies by 2030. The funds would need to report annually on their divestment progress starting in 2024.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System are the two biggest public pension funds in the country, with an estimated $9 billion invested in oil, gas and coal.

If passed, the measure would prevent the retirement savings of the state’s teachers, firefighters, and other public employees from being used to finance fossil fuels at a time when California faces climate-change-driven extreme drought and a relentless wildfire season.

“California can’t be investing in the very thing that is to our detriment,” Majority Whip Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, told The Climate 202. “So this bill makes a big statement, but it also puts our money where our mouth is.”

While the state Senate passed the bill on Wednesday by a vote of 21 to 10, the state Assembly has yet to consider the measure. There’s still time to pass the bill before Aug. 31, when California’s legislative session ends, but the proposal could face hurdles in the Assembly’s Committee on Public Employment and Retirement, where Chair Jim Cooper (D) has signaled opposition to divestment as a concept, Gonzalez said.

Cooper’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, a debate has surfaced over the costs of divestment. CalPERS has said it would cost between $75 million and $100 million to sell the stocks named in the bill, while CalSTRS has said divestment would potentially incur a $20 billion loss for the fund. But Fossil Free California, an environmental group, accused the two public pension funds of presenting “wildly exaggerated” cost estimates in a recent report.

The numbers reported to the Senate Appropriations Committee last month were “absolutely ridiculous,” Miriam Eide, coordinating director of Fossil Free California, told The Climate 202. 

A CalPERS spokeswoman said in an email that while the pension fund recognizes the risks of climate change and has a “strong commitment” to reducing emissions, “as a global investor with a fiduciary duty to its members and employer partners, CalPERS does not believe that divestment is an effective solution to this problem.”

New York weighs polluter payouts

Senate Bill 9417, the Climate Change Superfund Act, would impose a fee on the fossil fuel companies that have historically emitted the largest amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If passed, it would generate an estimated $30 billion over 10 years, chipping away at the companies’ soaring profits amid the war in Ukraine.

The proceeds would be used to pay for a portion of climate adaptation projects, such as efforts to build sea walls, raise the elevation of roads and bridges, and repair damage caused by floods. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced similar legislation last year, but the proposal ultimately was not included in Democrats’ Build Back Better package.

State Senate Finance Chair Liz Krueger, who sponsored the Climate Change Superfund Act, acknowledged that the bill is unlikely to advance before the legislative session concludes on Thursday. But Krueger, who is running uncontested for reelection in November, said she plans to push for the measure’s passage when the next session begins in January.

“I’m fairly confident I’ll be returning to the New York State Senate in January 2023, and I’ll be working hard to build support,” she said.

The bill shares the same goal as lawsuits brought by Democratic-led states and municipalities seeking to hold the fossil fuel industry financially responsible for climate damage. So far, the lawsuits have been tied up in procedural wrangling over whether they belong in state or federal court, although Baltimore’s case made it to the Supreme Court last year on a narrow technical question.

Agency alert

Biden wants to rebuild the EPA. He doesn’t have the money to do it.

President Biden campaigned on a promise to reinvigorate the Environmental Protection Agency as part of his push to tackle climate change, but the agency’s limited spending power is preventing the country’s top pollution regulator from doing its job, The Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni reports. 

The EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, which is tasked with monitoring dangerous chemicals, is running on roughly the same budget it did in 2016, despite needing about 200 more toxicologists to complete critical evaluations and meet regulatory deadlines.

The agency’s budgetary woes come as Republicans in Congress remain reluctant to fulfill Biden’s budget request of $11.9 billion for the EPA for fiscal 2023, especially since it just received billions as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law. 

“It’s not a good idea to starve the agency when it comes to trying to protect the public health,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said during congressional budget hearings this month. “We have to rebuild the agency.”

International climate

E.U. agrees to phase out Russian oil but exempts pipeline deliveries

The European Union on Monday finally reached a deal to phase out Russian oil, although the impact will be blunted by an exemption for oil transported by pipeline, a concession to Hungary and other landlocked nations, The Post’s Emily Rauhala and Quentin Ariès report.

The announcement comes after weeks of frenzied negotiations among the 27-nation bloc. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had obstructed a deal, insisting on more time and money to upgrade his country’s oil infrastructure. 

While several countries will get exemptions or extensions, European Council President Charles Michel said the agreement would cover more than two-thirds of Russian oil imports, cutting off “a huge source of financing for its war machine.” E.U. officials and diplomats will still have to agree on technical details to ensure formal adoption by all member nations.

Facing a power crisis and searing heat, India falls back on coal

While India faces a persistent heat wave turbocharged by global warming, its government is scaling away from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision for the nation to become a leader in clean energy, underscoring the struggle of the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter to satisfy green ambitions while meeting soaring energy demand, The Post’s Gerry Shih reports.

Despite previously pledging to install 450 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030, India’s coal ministry announced in the past month that it would reopen old mines to offset rolling blackouts caused by increased electricity consumption for cooling. Meanwhile, the power ministry ordered plants that burn imported coal to run at full capacity. 

“Earlier we were hailed as bad boys because we were promoting fossil fuel and now we are in the news that we are not supplying enough of it,” Anil Kumar Jain, India’s deputy coal minister, told reporters.

Extreme events

Agatha barrels into Mexico as its strongest May hurricane

Hurricane Agatha slammed into Mexico’s southern west coast on Monday as a Category 2 storm, the strongest the country has ever recorded in the month of May, with winds reaching 105 mph, Jason Samenow reports for The Post. 

Agatha strengthened as it passed over abnormally warm water, which is linked to climate change. As the storm moves inland, the National Hurricane Center warns that Agatha will unleash life-threatening winds and an extremely dangerous ocean surge, along with flash flooding and mudslides. 

If the storm stays on its current path, it could bring rain to Florida by the weekend. If a storm takes shape at that point, it will be named Alex and become the first of the Atlantic hurricane season that begins June 1.

Pressure points

The quest to keep carbon in North Carolina’s wetlands

Up and down the coast of North Carolina, environmental advocates and wildlife officials have spent years working to restore a landscape essential to the fight against climate change, The Post’s Brady Dennis reports.

North Carolina’s peatlands can store huge amounts of carbon when wet, but they can also exacerbate global warming by releasing enormous amounts of carbon when drained or burned. Restoration efforts involve re-wetting more than 43,000 acres of peat to counteract the artificial drainage that can starve wetlands of their natural moisture, making them susceptible to fire.

If such areas are protected, the United Nations has said that peatlands across the globe can store twice as much carbon as in all the planet’s forests, reducing greenhouse gas pollution by hundreds of millions of tons annually and helping the world meet its climate goals.

In the atmosphere

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