Equilibrium/Sustainability — With little room to grow, fracking slows

Today is Friday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

As Republican and Democrats argue about the risk posed by investments in fossil fuels, the fracking industry faces an approaching end to the shale boom, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The problem isn’t so much a lack of oil but that fracking provides a quick hit of fuels followed by steep declines, requiring big companies to “drill hundreds of wells each year just to keep production flat,” the Journal reported.

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That scale of production is a primary reason why methane leaks from the U.S. gas belt can be seen from space, as demonstrated by the French National Center for Scientific Research.

It’s a pace that the industry can no longer sustain. Though substantial reserves remain, there isn’t enough left to generate the rapid growth the industry is depending on.

“You just can’t keep growing 15% to 20% a year,” Scott Sheffield of Pioneer Natural Resources Co. told the Journal. “You’ll drill up your inventories. Even the good companies.”

Today we’ll look at the future of the nation’s highway system and how different companies envision electric vehicle charging stations will fit into that picture. Then we’ll turn to a petition from almost 200 environmental and community groups, demanding that the federal government curb its dependence on one-time use plastics.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin.

Let’s get to it.

Companies lobby DOT over nation’s highways

By prioritizing the highway fast-chargers needed for road trips, “traditional EV policies” have ignored everyone who doesn’t own a private car, ride-hailing company Uber told the Department of Transportation (DOT) in a recent comment.

First words: “External peer-reviewed research shows that when rideshare drivers switch to [electric vehicles], they can deliver three times greater emissions savings than when average car owners do,” Uber wrote.

“Our own analysis suggests as much as four times the emissions savings is possible in this scenario.”

Behind the lines: The letter comes in response to a request for comment from the DOT’s upcoming plan to build a nationwide network of EV charging stations, as stipulated by last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, according to a summary from the Federal Highway Department.

That law provided $5 billion in funding for states to build “an interconnected network of charging stations along highway corridors.” There’s also another $2 billion in grants for projects that increase accessibility to electric vehicle charging and — in a controversial touch — “alternate fuels” like propane and methane, or natural gas.

What will that pay for? That’s up for grabs. The Biden administration wants to put in 500,000 chargers to begin supplying the EVs that they hope will be 50 percent of new cars by 2030. Now it’s up to DOT and the Department of Energy (DOE) to determine everything else about the charging stations.

Like? Everything from where they go and who gets to install them, to what electrical standard they use and how far apart they’ll be, to whether they’ll buy power or generate it on site.

These are decisions that will have an outsized impact for decades on how Americans work, travel, live and play — particularly since, with Biden’s Build Back Better Act stalled in Congress, it is unclear whether any more federal electrification dollars will be coming.

Adding to the tension: The fact that the electrification money is structured as a “formula grant,” where states can get money for projects only if they meet certain federal standards — like the number of charging stations per person, per block or per mile.

A TRANSPORTATION INDUSTRY LOBBYING FRENZY

Like the other cities, counties and corporations that submitted responses, Uber’s comments lay out its wish list for the future of the American electric car.

The company is dependent on the ability of its drivers — who disproportionately rent homes and tend to be lower income — to charge their cars, and it therefore wants to see investment in public charging infrastructure.

What do other companies want? In its letter, Shell Oil advanced an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that includes funding for methane and hydrogen fueling — both currently produced from fossil fuels. Though the company is investing in renewable energy — $3.2 billion since 2016 — but has spent around 25 times that over the same period on its oil business.

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Meanwhile, TravelCenters of America (TA), a conglomerate of rest stops, recommends that DOT consider the recharging driver's needs for snacks, entertainment and a clean bathroom — and the cost-savings that come with partnering with a company that has already shown it can provide those things.

Equilibrium/Sustainability — With little room to grow, fracking slows

Rest and recharge: TA advocated the use of on-site battery storage powered by on-site power generation to charge local “microgrids” to charge the batteries of passing motorists. It does not specify that this power generation should be from renewable sources, and like Shell it expressed support for “alternative fuels.”

And Tesla? The leading manufacturer of electric vehicles, as well as of storage batteries, made the case for a charging system built around large charging, commercial and entertainment complexes like its own existing Supercharger facilities — or TA’s current gas stations — powered by preferential deals with local power utilities, and using the kinds of smart technologies in which Tesla itself currently has a market advantage.

Last words: “Customer experience impacts are minimal or non-existent if 2 stalls are temporarily offline at a 20-stall charging station. But customer experience can be distressingly poor if 2 stalls go off-line at a 4-stall station,” the company wrote.

Read the rest of the story here.

NGOs petition for no more single-use plastics

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Nearly 200 environmental and community groups in a formal petition filed Thursday demanded that the Biden administration stop buying plastic bags and other single-use plastics products.

Because the U.S. government is the single-largest consumer of products and services in the world — spending $650 billion annually — it has the “opportunity to harness the power of the federal pocketbook to catalyze a more sustainable marketplace for all,” the petition stated, citing the Environmental Protection Agency.

First words: “Here’s a chance for the Biden administration to do more to combat this crisis than all the local plastic bag bans in the country combined,” Emily Jeffers, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the petition, said in a statement.

What did the petitioners demand? They called upon the federal government’s procurement arm — the General Services Administration — to “leverage its purchasing power to catalyze a more sustainable marketplace,” by prohibiting federal agencies from buying single-use, disposable plastic products.

“The federal government’s huge purchasing power is crucial to protecting our environment and health from plastic pollution,” Jeffers said. “Biden officials have to help stem the flood of single-use plastic that’s contaminating our oceans and poisoning wildlife and our own bodies.”

Focus on “sustainable products,” but not on plastics: The General Services Administration issues regulations that govern the acquisition and supply of goods used by federal agencies, with a requirement that purchases be “sustainable products,” according to the petitioners. Nonetheless, they continued, there are no specific requirements regarding plastic items.

In response to a query from Equilibrium, the General Services Administration said in a statement: “We are reviewing the petition and will respond appropriately.”

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MORE PLASTIC THAN FISH IN THE SEA BY 2050

Americans consume about 100 billion plastic bags each year — a trend that the World Economic Forum has estimated could lead to more plastic than fish in the sea (by weight) by 2050, according to the petition, whose supporters include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Oceana.

The petition cites plastic production as a driver of the climate crisis, responsible for harming wildlife and damaging local communities with toxic air and water contamination.

Can we “recycle our way out of this problem?” The petitioners also had harsh words for the plastics industry, decrying claims that it is possible to “recycle our way out of this problem,” noting that Environmental Protection Agency data shows that U.S. plastic recycling rates sit at only 8 percent.

Plastics industry finds petition ‘misguided’: Matthew Kastner, a spokesman for the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) — a trade group representing major oil and gas, chemicals and plastics corporations — described the petition as “misguided.”

“We all should be focused on creating a circular economy for plastics in which 'single use' becomes a relic of the past, not on replacing plastics with materials that typically have a larger carbon footprint,” Kastner said in a statement. “ACC has a better solution, detailed in our 5 Actions for Sustainable Change.”

The actions cited by Kastner involve requiring all plastic packaging to include 30-percent recycled plastic by 2030, modernizing regulations to scale up advanced recycling technologies, developing national standards for all types of plastics, studying impacts of emissions from all raw materials and establishing a U.S.-designed producer responsibility system.

A threat to human health: But plastic, according to the petitioners, continues to threaten human health, by exposing consumers to “chemicals linked to many of the known public health crises of our time, including obesity, ADD/ADHD and many forms of cancers.”

Last words: “It takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill,” a statement from the groups said. “The bags don't break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.”

Follow-up Friday

Another look at issues we’ve explored throughout the week.

Katrina survivors face black mold, rotting porches in homes promoted by Brad Pitt

Monster storm continues across Eastern US

Colorado State scientists innovate new method for identifying ‘forever chemicals’

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Monday.

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