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A Texas oil and gas professor on how to win a Just Transition

I spoke with Arvind Ravikumar — a professor at The Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas-Austin and one of the most thoughtful environmental justice advocates I know within academia — a year ago to get his thoughts on how the Biden-Harris Administration can help further a Just Transition, no matter what Congress does. His responses were fascinating. Now that we seem to be entering the bad place, with the Supreme Court and key members of Congress actively working against climate progress and basic human decency, these words from Ravikumar are as important as ever.

Arvind Ravikumar:

There's a lot of power within the executive branch to significantly move the needle on climate action, especially on actions that will provide some long-term guarantees to addressing issues of climate and environmental justice.

There are three main questions I see that should guide a Just Transition. The first one is, who's at the table? I think far too often, what we end up seeing is that many of these climate policies are being made in good faith, but without the input of some of the most important and vulnerable communities that are affected by climate change.

The second question is investment. Where are the investments being made? I'll give you one example on how this might be a problem. Everyone agrees that retrofitting buildings to move away from natural gas-based heating to electric or induction or heat pump-based heating is very good for climate action. But the key question is, who gets the retrofits first?

If you give a tax incentive to change gas heating systems to heat pumps, the wealthy and the people who can take advantage of these tax incentives will be the first ones to do it. So what will end up long-term is a shrinking pool of people who still have gas in their system because either they don't own the place, they're renting it, or because they don't have the financial resources to invest the capital for converting gas heaters into heat pumps. And so you have a shrinking pool of people who are using natural gas and they are also the vulnerable people in the community, and therefore the rates are going to go up for people still using natural gas. And that's one of the most inequitable ways to advance climate action.

And the third question I'm looking at is long-term policies to address structural environmental injustice. Literally, every big decision that the federal government makes, including infrastructure. Permitting processes for new transmission lines and new rail lines. Permitting process for new industries, clean energy industries like a battery manufacturing plant, or a lithium extraction plant. Where are these situated? Who are involved in that decision making? And what does the permitting process look like?

Throwing money at a problem is absolutely necessary because the US has been under-investing for decades, but it shouldn't just stop there. One example is cleaning up the drinking water system in Flint of lead poisoning. It's critical. That needs to be a top priority, but they shouldn't stop there. It should continue with asking what does the community need in terms of future jobs? If you're going to clean their water, and then approve a chemical plant next year in that location, that's not a solution.

Eric Holthaus:

Yep. Yeah. I've been thinking a lot this year Lake Charles, Louisiana where there's been multiple hurricanes. This is sort of the center of the LNG export industry in the US. All of the West Texas fracking natural gas goes there to be exported. At one point, they were under an evacuation warning and the hurricane had just hit, and then they were in a shelter in place warning because there was a chlorine plant that caught on fire 24 hours after the hurricane hit. And COVID on top of that. [Note: The company that owns the chlorine plant announced this summer that they will begin rebuilding it after receiving millions of dollars in tax benefits.]

It's just like, what are they going to do? I mean, this overlapping stress and overlapping trauma in a city that depends on this really extractive relationship with the land and people there are defending those jobs understandably because they pay well, even though they are uncertain and may only last a few more years. What does a Just Transition look like for a city like that that is so broken in so many structural ways?


Right. And this is what I find problematic in the whole environmental justice conversation. I mean, it's changing, but it's still like this. And Biden got a lot of flack for saying he's not going to ban fracking, but here's the problem: A lot of people who talk about this issue, think it's just swapping one number for the others. You think, "Okay, there's 10,000 solar jobs so let's shut these 10,000 jobs in this chemical facility," but that's not how it works.

If you talk to these people, you could go to these communities, mostly poor communities and communities of color, what they're going to tell you is this: It's not just a job for them. It's their family. They've developed a community in that region for the past decades. And so what a Just Transition looks like, it should be much beyond what simple employment numbers looks like. It's not about just walking around looking for a different job. It's how do we talk to people from these communities in a way that respects what they've built despite the difficult circumstances that they've been dealt with?

And this is why I think — and this is my personal perspective, I'm not forcing this on anybody — is that, we must start to move away from simplistic narratives. Things like banning fracking. Not because it's wrong — I think we have to get away from natural gas completely — but because it comes off as a sort of being clueless about the situation on the ground in these communities. Being thoughtful about how we talk about these communities and a Just Transition for them, it's as important as the policies to enable those transitions.

It's much more complex on the international stage. I mean, one thing I can just point it out are the fossil fueled economies in developing countries. I'm sure you're aware the multi-billion dollar gas project in Mozambique that's been struck by the big oil majors. In good conscience, we cannot tell them, "Don't take the money that's going to come off this resource," whilst literally every other country did that and became rich of their natural resources.

The other big problem that we're seeing is these carbon offsets, which have become very popular now. Literally every company's talking about offsetting their carbon emissions, in part, by buying off carbon offsets.

And if you really look at these offsets, first of all, it's scientifically problematic. We do not actually know how well you can capture and store carbon, if you prevent deforestation or plant waste. That's the technical side a lot of scientists are working on getting the numbers right.

But the second problem is more sort of colonial. If you look at where these offset projects are been done and where credits have been bought, much of that is in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is in Latin America. It is in Southeast Asia. And so, you see this dichotomy between what industrialized countries are saying and what they're trying to do to reduce emission. It's not about, "We will reduce emissions," it's about, "We'll just buy off land in the developing nations and use that to fuel our own profits because that's our offset." And so this is literally a global land grab in developing countries, which I do not know what else to call it, but a new form of climate colonialism.

There's an answer here: rich countries should stop preventing poorer countries from trying to expand their clean energy industry. Everyone is going to want a piece of the green economy. And so we should stop putting in artificial barriers by relying on some archaic trade group. The US should proactively advocate for changing WTO rules to foster domestic clean energy manufacturing in developing countries. I think that's critical for any climate action at this point. It has to be an inclusive green economy.

Coda: This week, the World Trade Organization will be meeting to discuss how to reform their rules to help boost climate action — a major test for the world community after the disappointments of COP26.