Author: L. Michael Buchsbaum

L. Michael Buchsbaum

L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende.

Biden’s climate plans

Presumptive Democratic party presidential candidate Joe Biden has released an ambitious $2 trillion energy and climate plan that will, if implemented, create not only millions of well-paying jobs, but place the nation on a mid-century carbon neutrality pathway. Calling for a massive investment in solar and wind capacity, Biden aims for a coal exit and elimination of carbon pollution by 2035. More than just an energy and climate platform, Biden’s plan reckons with ensuring a just transition for affected coal and gas producing regions, while directing support towards impacted poor and minority regions so often in the smokestack shadows. Far from perfect, Biden’s plan would at least begin to stop the world’s top polluter from taking us all over the climate cliff.

After a disastrous three years under Trump, myriad crises rippling throughout the Covid-plagued nation are rapidly converging: an economy devastated by job losses and widening financial inequality; years of stagnant investments in infrastructure; lack of support for mass transit; imploding fossil-fuel extraction industries; curtailing of environmental regulation; a closing window to significantly stem heat-trapping emissions; widening biodiversity and natural systems collapse; and sadly many more.

Knowing his administration must immediately address these challenges, in mid-July Joe Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for President released a surprisingly ambitious $2 trillion plan to put the nation on a zero carbon emissions by mid-century path, aiming for a carbon-pollution free electricity sector by 2035.

Unequivocally linking broad climate action to re-employment, economic and social justice, Biden promises significant investments in renewable energy, including installing over 500 million solar panels and manufacturing 60,000 wind turbines. The plan specifically calls for utility-scale, rooftop, and community solar systems simultaneously with tens of thousands of on- and off-shore wind turbines to be either installed or permitted during Biden’s first term.

By acting immediately, Biden is clearly addressing the existential threat of climate change unlike the current incumbent. Committed to re-entering the Paris climate agreements, Biden accepts that “science tells us we have nine years before the damage is irreversible.”

“When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax’,” Biden said referring to Trump’s previous claims that the crisis is all fake news. “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs’.”

The 7000-plus word plan on his website specifies his intent to implement an “energy efficiency and clean electricity standard” requiring utilities and grid operators over the next 15 years to rapidly end carbon-emitting sources’ share of electricity down to zero. Knowing that such a rapid shift away from fossil fuels will destabilize local economies dependent on extractive industries, Biden’s plan would in turn direct 40% of clean-energy spending toward disadvantaged communities in the shadows of refineries and power plants.

He also calls for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps that would put people to work on environmental restoration projects like cleaning up abandoned fracking wells, coal mines and revitalizing the ever growing amount of America’s brownfields.

Embracing several sectoral initiatives, Biden also plans to upgrade millions of buildings and homes by 2025. He’s also directing billions to spur electric vehicle manufacturing while calling for the installation of over 500,000 charging outlets for a new fleet of cleaner American-made cars, trucks and school buses.

A passionate advocate for rail and mass transit, Biden has long called for a major overhaul of America’s bare-bones national passenger rail system. His plan hopes to spark a second railroad revolution by providing not only more funding for the country’s struggling Amtrak passenger carrier, but aims to provide all Americans living in municipalities of more than 100,000 people with quality public transportation by 2030. He even wants to spend millions on new pedestrian infrastructure and bicycle lanes.

Going further, in coordination with private freight rail companies, Biden wants to electrify much more of the national rail system, in turn markedly reducing diesel fuel emissions. To contextualize, America’s biggest railroad, BNSF (privately owned by the Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway), is the second largest user of diesel fuel worldwide behind the US military. His plan also calls for new electricity transmission lines to be built alongside existing rail corridors nationwide, particularly within the rapidly expanding Midwestern and Texan wind-belt across the Great Plains.

In light of the desperate state of the U.S. economy, Biden has promised that, if elected, the plan would be sent to Congress immediately. “The reality is we will be facing a country that will be in dire need of these types of investments,” said a top aid after the speech.

This plan comes on top of other initiatives including a pledge to spend $700 billion on clean-energy research over the next 10 years; setting up a new agency to accelerate research on small modular nuclear reactors, carbon capture, grid-scale energy storage, and carbon-free hydrogen; and developing lower-emissions methods for producing steel, cement, hydrogen, and food. (For a deeper dive, Cleantechnica’s published several longer analyses).

While aligning Biden more closely with several of his progressive primary challengers, in particular Democratic-Socialist Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the new climate and energy plan also follows upon the recommendations of a unity taskforce co-chaired by the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a cosponsor of the Green New Deal.

Not cheap, the plan will partially be funded through a reversal of many of Trump’s corporate tax cuts, ending subsidies for fossil fuel production, tax increases for corporations and asking “the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share”. To hold polluters accountable, Biden also calls for the establishment of a new Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Justice Department.

All told, Biden is trying to walk a delicate line, appealing to the many progressive voters demanding sweeping climate policies without turning off more conservative working-class voters in key swing states where coal and natural gas are still large contributors to the economy. Salted throughout his plan, Biden stresses that “good-paying union jobs” are fundamental to his strategy.

Dancing like the career politician he is, Biden dodges a political bullet by including much of the Green New Deal language while conspicuously not mentioning it. But in neither calling for a fracking ban nor carbon pricing, he’s clearly still not moved that far from his longstanding centrist neo-liberal positions. Either way, much of Biden’s plan will require agreement from Congress, meaning gaining control of the Senate is critical for any of it to come to fruition. Nevertheless, Biden has a keen sense of which way the political winds are blowing. And today they are blowing green.

Woody addiction: Biomass is the UK’s dirty little secret to getting clean

Lauded internationally for reducing its coal dependency and cleaning up its economy, the United Kingdom’s energy transition has a dirty little secret: biomass. Misclassified as renewable and carbon free, tallying the biodiversity and environmental impacts of burning biomass depends on nuance: how tight the regulations are, how fast a forest can grow back, and how well you can tweak your numbers. Now the world leader in burning trees to make electricity, scientific evidence is piling up questioning biomass’ claims to climate neutrality. A new study by energy thinktank Ember, The Burning Question, alongside other ongoing citizen climate campaigns, demands London curtails future subsidies while tightening biomass’ dubious carbon loophole. L. Michael Buchsbaum reports.

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To exit coal, Germany’s governing coalition digs a bigger hole

Just before summer break, Germany’s parliament finally committed to phasing out coal. But the conservative government’s plan doesn’t really call for meaningful shutdowns until 2023 as coal capacity slowly rolls offline through 2038. Instead, the law greenlights a large new coal plant while awarding billions of Euros in direct payments to the aggrieved coal operators and affected regional governments, directly ignoring key recommendations of the once celebrated Coal Commission. Though Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition and industry heaped praise upon it, environmentalists and opposition parties condemned the exit plan as a golden parachute for an already dying industry that won’t ensure the nation meets its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Michael Buchsbaum has the details.

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The secret burning of trees: the often overlooked role of biomass

Biomass has gotten a bit hot of late. The subject of several high profile documentary films including Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs’ highly controversial Planet of the Humans as well as last year’s Burned, lawmakers within the European Union are finally starting to question its classification as a carbon-neutral and renewable fuel—especially as more scientific evidence emerges to the contrary. Despite advances in wind and solar, biomass still fuels 70% of global renewable energy. Michael Buchsbaum takes a look in the first of a multi-part series on biomass.

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Fracked up: The Link between Plastic, Fossil Gas and Methane Pollution. Pt.I

In May, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Environmental Action Germany (DUH), and Food and Water Europe organized online conferences entitled “Fracking, Plastics, Methane Emissions and the Gas Lobby” to better explain the connection between them and climate crisis. The first of the two drew upon startling new satellite data explained by globally renowned methane and fracking expert, Prof. Robert Howarth from Cornell University. In his presentation, he detailed how the ongoing fuel switch from coal to gas has likely worsened the overall climate. Other speakers, including two Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), several environmental attorneys, and other fracking activists discussed continuing gas lobbying efforts to “greenwash” uninformed MEPs and the general public. Now available for streaming, the first webinar-debate provided a welcome space for an informed discussion around fossil gas policies, many of which ignore established science in favor of economic and political expediency—our L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews.

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Flawed but vital, “Planet of the Humans” poses several inconvenient questions

Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs new movie, Planet of the Humans (POTH) serves to uncomfortably remind viewers that in many ways, despite our increased awareness of the growing biodiversity and climate crises, often our “environmental” and “sustainable” solutions, such as “natural” fossil gas, biomass and biofuels, have proven as bad or worse than the coal and petroleum they were intended to replace. Though the angry criticism from many within the community about some of the film’s flawed math is justified, the ensuing flurry of mainly negative media around the film has sadly resulted in diverting critical attention away from POTH’s otherwise vital questions about why, after half a century of environmental activism, we are still collectively failing. L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews where POTH is spot-on and laments where the filmmakers should have gone even further.

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A Heated Debate: the New Film “Planet of the Humans”

Famous for his attacks on Republicans, outspoken filmmaker and activist Michael Moore long ago also staked out a provocative position left of the neoliberal Clinton/Obama/Biden-led Democratic party. But despite becoming a leading progressive figure, Moore has largely stayed clear—at least cinematically–from environmental topics…until now. Working with life-long friend and frequent collaborator, Jeff Gibbs, on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day they released their new myth-shattering film, Planet of the Humans (POTH) free over YouTube.

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Pump Punishment: As Oil Prices Fall, so Does the American Economy

Despite the recent historic agreement between OPEC, Russian, American and other global oil producers to slash supply by the 1st of May with the hopes of bolstering prices, the United States will still suffer an “unprecedented” economic blow according to the International Energy Agency. With high production costs and deeply in debt, many U.S. producers, especially those extracting from shale fields, are bleeding cash as they try desperately to cut costs. Output is expected to shrink by more than two million barrels per day. Analysts predict waves of bankruptcies, along with thousands of job losses and steep drops in tax revenues for oil-dependent states as the fallout from a monster oil bust ripples throughout America’s already staggering economy. L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews the worsening situation.

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Corona Bust: Big Oil Is Desperately Trying Not to Crash

Overshadowed by the pandemic, an oil production and price war waged between the Saudi Arabian-led OPEC, Russia, the U.S. and other nations has landed a body blow upon the already weakened global economy. With billions worldwide now sheltering in place, oil usage has dropped by over 30%. But production hasn’t. The massive oversupply has crashed market prices lower than at any point in almost 20 years. To stop the bleeding, OPEC and other producers as well as the G20 have seemingly come to an historic deal that will slash global production across the boards. But the damage to the underlying fossil-fuel based economy means that Corona’s economic wreckage will ripple out just as we start to emerge into a brave new social-distance demanding world. L. Michael Buchsbaum examines the origins and implications of the Corona oil crash.

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Merkel’s Smoke and Mirrors Coal Exit Plan

A year after Germany’s 28-member “Coal Commission” presented a fragile compromise brown coal phase-out, in mid-January Merkel’s Grand Coalition government formally released their own plan. Breaking with the Commission’s recommendations by slowing down the pace of the phase-out, immediately greenlighting the new Datteln 4 hard coal plant and showering RWE and other coal operators with billions of Euros, it also calls for more gas plants and additional wind turbine construction limitations. Neither ensuring Germany can adhere to the Paris Agreement nor its own clean energy targets, environmental groups are outraged as investors celebrate. L. Michael Buchsbaum takes us into the dirty deal.

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