EPA: Oil Industry Win. Redistricting Road Show. LNG outside FERC authority?

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China vows to end funding for overseas coal power plants
Cecilia Jamasmie, Mining.Com, September 22, 2021

China’s president Xi Jinping has pledged to stop backing new coal power plants overseas a move that would cut off a key source of financing for projects involving the dirty fossil fuel.

“China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad,” Xi told the United Nations General Assembly.  Top of Form

While the leader did not lay out a timeline to end that financing, he noted that Beijing has not directed any funding from its Belt and Road Initiative toward coal power plants so far this year. 

Xi did not address either the domestic situation, where coal comprises a majority of the country’s electricity mix. Dozens of new coal-fired power and steel plants across the nation were announced during the first half of 2021. If built, they would alone add 150 million tonnes in annual carbon dioxide emissions, according to research group Global Energy Monitor

The pledge by China, world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the main financier of coal-fired power plants around the world, was cautiously welcomed by experts. 

“This is the announcement China could deliver right now and the one that the U.S. wanted. Investment already trending in this direction,” Joanna Lewis, an associate professor at Georgetown University and an expert on Chinese climate policy, said in a tweet

Climate advocacy movement 350.org called Xi’s declaration “huge,” saying it could be a “real game-changer” depending on when it takes effect. 

“China was the last man standing. If there’s no public finance of coal from China, there’s little to no global coal expansion,” said Justin Guay, the director of global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project, a group advocating for a global transition from coal and fossil fuels. 

Beijing has supported coal projects in developing countries including Indonesia and Bangladesh and has been under heavy diplomatic pressure to put an end to the financing to help the world meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement to reduce carbon emissions. 

“We’ve been talking to China for quite some period of time about this. And I’m absolutely delighted to hear that President Xi has made this important decision,” US climate envoy John Kerry said in a statement. 

Down but not out  

With countries across the globe enduring power availability shortages, BMO Capital’s commodities analyst Colin Hamilton said it was clear that thermal coal will likely remain a key source of energy for foreseeable future. 

“China will continue to finance energy projects overseas, with a push toward developing green and low-carbon energy projects, which could give rise to further nuclear power installations in addition to ‘renewable’ power,” he wrote. 

China’s pledge could affect both demand and supply in the seaborne market and pressure long term prices, energy and mining consultancy Wood Mackenzie warned.  

According to WoodMac analyst Shirley Zhang, projects that aren’t financially committed and rely heavily on foreign investment such as projects in Indonesia and Vietnam would be most affected.  

“In particular, our assumption of 29 GW generic coal projects in Indonesia after 2025 could be at risk due to China’s pledge, forcing more Indonesian coal supply to the export markets,” she said in an emailed statement. 

China’s policy change, part of a goal to reach peak coal consumption by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060, comes on the heels of similar pledges by Japan and South Korea earlier this year. 

The pledge, which could wipe out nearly $50 billion of investment, is expected to bring momentum to the global climate talks this November in Glasgow, Scotland. 


EXCLUSIVE U.S. EPA mulling cuts to biofuel blending in win for oil industry -document
Stephanie Kelly, Jarrett Renshaw, Reuters, September 22, 2021

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing big cuts to the nation’s biofuel blending requirements for the years 2020, 2021 and 2022, according to a document seen by Reuters, in a move that is sure to anger farmers and biofuel producers.

The proposal is a win for the oil industry, which argued for the cuts due to an overall slowdown in fuel demand during the coronavirus pandemic. The agency would reduce the mandates for 2020 and 2021 to about 17.1 billion gallons and about 18.6 billion gallons, the document showed. That would be lower than a level of 20.1 billion gallons that was finalized for 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic.

The agency also would set the level for 2022 at about 20.8 billion gallons, the document showed.

The EPA did not comment for this story, but administration officials cautioned that numbers are not final and still subject to revisions before clearing an interagency review process. The agency sent the proposal to the Office of Management and Budget to start the review process in August.

Under the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, oil refiners must blend biofuels into the nation’s fuel mix, or buy tradeable credits, known as RINs, from those that do. Small refiners can apply for the exemption to the rules if they can prove the obligations financially harm them.


‘Major gap.’ Gas industry FERC petitions stoke NEPA concerns
Miranda Wilson, ENERGYWIRE, September 22, 2021

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is weighing proposals from several energy companies that could set a precedent for how the agency applies a bedrock environmental law to oversight of natural gas.

In three cases, project developers are asking FERC to declare that their proposals for liquefied natural gas facilities are outside the agency’s jurisdiction. If the independent agency grants the petitions, it could shake up federal LNG reviews at a time when the Biden administration is facing industry pressure to embrace U.S. exports of the fuel.

The petitions showcase what critics say is a major gap in how the U.S. government handles environmental reviews of gas projects under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“You could have a major environmental review process lacking for some of these projects, so we believe it’s important that FERC have jurisdiction over them,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at consumer watchdog group Public Citizen.

The National Environmental Policy Act fight stems in part from a Trump-era rule inked not at FERC but at the Department of Energy. Finalized in December — and so far upheld by the Biden administration — the rule exempts DOE from carrying out NEPA reviews for proposed new LNG export facilities through a “categorical exclusion” (Energywire, Dec. 4, 2020). The rule was designed to ensure that DOE does not “unnecessarily duplicate” FERC’s processes, the agency said at the time.

Critics, however, said the decision to defer to FERC overlooks the fact that the independent agency excludes a wide range of LNG facilities from its own NEPA oversight, meaning some projects could effectively slip through the cracks of federal review altogether.

“There’s a huge, gaping hole in the review of natural gas infrastructure,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “There could be many projects that completely evade FERC reviews and NEPA reviews” depending on how the agency rules on the petitions.

The petitions come as FERC faces pressure on many fronts to strengthen its environmental oversight of gas projects while maintaining regulatory certainty for the energy industry. Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rebuked FERC for allegedly failing to assess the greenhouse gas and public health effects in its environmental reviews for two LNG projects (Energywire, Aug. 4). Meanwhile, Congress is weighing giving FERC and DOE additional funding to carry out “more efficient and more effective” NEPA reviews as part of a sweeping $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.

One of the proposals seeking to be declared outside FERC jurisdiction is a planned small-scale LNG project from Florida-based Nopetro LNG. In March, DOE concluded it’s exempt from that agency’s NEPA reviews because of the categorical exclusion rule.

The other two proposals were submitted to FERC last fall from subsidiaries of the liquefied natural gas company New Fortress Energy. They would export the liquefied fuel to countries with which the U.S. has a free trade agreement. Those types of projects are presumed exempt from a NEPA analysis at DOE, since the department is required under the Natural Gas Act to approve LNG exports to those countries “without modification or delay.”

New Fortress Energy and Nopetro did not respond to requests for comments. In their petitions, however, the argued that their projects are similar to other facilities over which FERC has previously declined to declare jurisdiction.

FERC does not face a firm deadline to act on the petitions.

What makes a ‘terminal’?

The Natural Gas Act gives FERC oversight of LNG terminals located onshore or in state waters that “receive, unload, store, transport, gasify, liquefy or process” natural gas that is exported abroad, imported, or transported to other states by water. All U.S. LNG terminals must obtain FERC authorization before going into service, a process that involves an environmental review and chances for public input.

For years, the commission has maintained that LNG projects not connected to pipelines don’t fall under its jurisdiction. Similarly, facilities that process LNG must be directly linked to the point of export for FERC to consider them a “terminal.”

“This has led FERC to conclude that facilities that liquefy natural gas (or receive LNG) that is shipped via container to, by or from oceangoing vessels are not LNG terminals,” James Bowe, a partner at King & Spalding LLP, which has represented energy companies in FERC proceedings, said in an email.

Charlie Riedl, executive director of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, said LNG projects outside of FERC’s review processes are typically small-scale facilities deemed to be in the public interest. He pointed out the facilities must still comply with safety standards set by the Transportation Department, among other federal rules, even if they don’t go through evaluations under NEPA.

“I’m unaware of any operational projects that are somehow skirting this issue of necessary reviews,” said Riedl, whose organization represents large LNG companies. “If they’re operating within the provided guidelines to satisfy the requirements for safety, that’s each of those businesses’ prerogatives.”

Nonetheless, the three pending petitions could offer an avenue for FERC to reconsider how it regulates LNG.

The commission’s existing stance on which LNG projects fall under its jurisdiction was largely established in 2014. In an order that year, FERC granted a petition from Shell U.S. Gas & Power LLC to exempt a proposed LNG project from the agency’s oversight.

The majority of commissioners at the time found that projects generally needed to link up with interstate pipelines to be FERC-jurisdictional. Shell’s proposal did not directly connect to such a pipeline.

But this March, FERC Chairman Richard Glick and Commissioner Allison Clements suggested that they wanted to revisit that precedent. In a joint statement, the two Democrats wrote that the commission should reassess the types of LNG facilities that need FERC approval.

“[It] is time to reconsider our precedent in Shell U.S. Gas & Power, LLC (Shell), which held that a facility must be connected to a pipeline to be a jurisdictional LNG terminal. There is no such limitation in the plain language of the NGA,” the commissioners wrote, using an acronym for the Natural Gas Act.

That’s unlikely to happen this year, since the other two Republican commissioners at FERC seem to support the current position on the issue. But it could be on the table if President Biden’s nominee for the fifth slot at the agency, District of Columbia Public Service Commission Chair Willie Phillips, a Democrat, is confirmed by the Senate, legal experts said.

Caribbean link, or loophole?

In Nopetro’s case, the company plans to build an LNG facility east of Panama City, Fla., that would receive natural gas through two pipelines. The gas would then be cooled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit to be transformed into its liquid state, loaded into specialized containers, and transported via truck to a dock located a quarter mile away, according to the company’s FERC petition.

From the dock, which is owned by a separate entity, the LNG would be sent to markets in the Caribbean, Central America and South America, the petition said.

“This natural gas will serve as a cleaner fuel substitute for the diesel fuel currently consumed throughout these countries,” Nopetro said in its filing.

It also noted that “the Commission has previously declined to exercise its NGA section 3 jurisdiction over such complementary facilities, and the circumstances do not warrant a different result here.”

The other two pending petitions are for projects from New Fortress Energy subsidiaries Bradford County Real Estate Partners LLC and Delaware River Partners LLC.

The Bradford County facility, to be built in Pennsylvania, would receive natural gas from an interstate pipeline and send LNG via truck or rail to the related Delaware River facility in New Jersey. From there, the LNG would be exported to markets overseas.

“The facility is extensively regulated at the federal and state levels and there is no ‘regulatory gap’ that the Commission could seek to fill by extending its jurisdiction under the NGA outside of its historical contexts,” Bradford County Real Estate Partners said in its petition.

Environmental groups accused the developers of trying to take advantage of “loopholes” to avoid FERC approval — a process analysts say could become more challenging given Glick’s intent to account for the climate change impacts of natural gas infrastructure. New Fortress Energy’s two proposed facilities are also clearly connected and should be viewed by the commission as one project, said Adam Carlesco, a staff attorney at Food & Water Watch.

“The argument is that because there is no gas pipeline crossing state lines, then FERC has no authority over the projects individually; despite all three aspects being meant to operate together and being funded by the same development company at the same time,” Carlesco said in an email.

An ‘open question’

Although analysts expect the Biden administration to overturn the Trump-era “categorical exclusion” rule for LNG, it remains in place for now.

So long as that’s the case, FERC should claim broader jurisdiction over a wider range of LNG facilities for public health and safety, said Fred Millar, a hazardous materials consultant who has worked with environmental groups. Of the more than 110 LNG projects nationwide, approximately 24 have been authorized by FERC, while the others are awaiting review from other federal agencies or state and local entities, according to independent agency.

But Millar said local entities lack the expertise to properly oversee the gas.

“FERC [oversight] would be useful because they do a NEPA analysis,” Millar said. “That would be very helpful if these facilities had to do a very thorough environmental impact statement under NEPA, because then they’d have to defend their nearness to populations and all other factors.”

Riedl of the Center for LNG questioned the need for conducting such an analysis for small projects. Whereas Nopetro’s planned LNG facility would export less than 51.75 billion cubic feet of LNG per year, some existing FERC-jurisdictional terminals export more than 10 times that amount.

In addition, the benefits of LNG exports cannot be overlooked, said Riedl, whose organization does not represent New Fortress Energy or Nopetro. The fuel offers an opportunity for countries without access to natural gas reserves to switch away from burning more carbon-intensive coal.

“There’s important nuance to understand when you look at the size and scale of these facilities,” Riedl said. “Regardless of how these facilities are built, what we do know is that they can be done safely.”

As for FERC’s precedent on LNG and whether the commission will “reassess” the broader issue, the agency declined to comment on the topic. It could be that the topic is sidelined until a third Democrat — Phillips — is confirmed by the Senate, said Joe Fagan, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Day Pitney LLP.

Meanwhile, Glick has a host of other issues as his main priorities, including initiating reforms to electric transmission planning and to the natural gas pipeline approval process. So while the “potential” is there for FERC to change its precedent on LNG, it’s not clear if and when that would happen, Fagan said.

“Will [FERC] do so, with everything else on their plate? That’s an open question,” Fagan said in an email.


How lithium can be efficiently extracted from oil and gas wastewater
Mining.Com, September 22, 2021

New research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences proposes the idea of rapidly extracting lithium from contaminated water. 

The process described in the paper is expected to simplify lithium extraction from aqueous brines, potentially creating a much larger supply and reducing the costs of the element for batteries to power electric vehicles, electronics and a wide range of other devices. 

After describing that, at present, lithium is most commonly sourced from salt brines in South America using solar evaporation, a costly process that can take years and wastes much of the lithium along the way, the team behind the new study explains that they designed specific membranes to efficiently recover the metal from water generated in oil and gas production.

At the heart of the discovery is a novel polymer membrane they created using crown ethers, which are ligands with specific chemical functionality to bind certain ions. Crown ethers had not previously been applied or studied as integral parts of water treatment membranes, but they can target specific molecules in water — a key process for lithium extraction.

In most polymers, sodium travels through membranes faster than lithium. However, in these new materials, lithium travels faster than sodium, which is a common contaminant in lithium-containing brines. Through computer modelling, the team discovered why this was happening. Sodium ions bind with the crown ethers, slowing them down, while lithium ions remain unbound, enabling them to move more quickly through the polymer.

The findings represent a new frontier in membrane science that required above-and-beyond collaboration between The University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Santa Barbara in such areas as polymer synthesis, membrane characterization and modelling simulation.

According to the researchers, the proposal is exciting because the calculations show that just a single week’s worth of water from hydraulic fracturing in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale has the potential to produce enough lithium for 300 electric vehicle batteries, or 1.7 million smartphones.

In their view, this example shows the scale of opportunities for this new technique to increase lithium supply and lower costs for devices that rely on it.


Hitting the road: Redistricting maps to be shown in local hearings
Peter Seagall, Juneau Empire, September 21, 2021

The Alaska Redistricting Board is taking six proposals for reshaping the state’s electoral map on the road in a series of public meetings meant to garner public feedback.

The board’s first draft proposals were met with criticism from a variety of groups including Democratic lawmakers, Alaska Native corporations and watchdog groups and new proposals have been drafted.

New versions of district maps were released to the Empire late Tuesday afternoon from the board. Deputy director of the Alaska Redistricting Board, T.J. Presley, told the Empire a full schedule for public meetings hadn’t been drafted but the board has scheduled one for Centennial Hall in Juneau on Monday, Sept. 27, at 4:30 p.m.

Members of the public were allowed to draft and submit their own plans and the board has already heard several rounds of public feedback. The statement said the updated proposals will reflect maps from several state groups, including a coalition of Doyon, Ltd., the Tanana Chiefs Conference, the Fairbanks Native Association, Sealaska Corp., and Ahtna Inc.; Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting; Alaskans for Fair Redistricting and the Senate minority caucus.

The Alaska Constitution says appointments to the redistricting board shall be made without regard to political affiliation, but the majority of its members are chosen by elected officials who often belong to political parties. The board is made up of five members, two appointed by the governor. The Senate president, speaker of the House of Representatives and chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court are allowed one each.

Board members Bethany Marcum and Budd Simpson were appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, John Binkley by the Senate, Nicole Borromeo by the House and Melanie Bahnke was appointed by the judiciary, according to the governor’s office.

Adoption of the final plan is constitutionally required by Nov. 10, 2021, the statement said, and the board will now begin a public meetings tour. The dates and locations of the meetings have not yet been posted


The road to COP26 gets slightly easier
Ben Geman, Axios, September 22, 2021

The bad diplomatic vibes heading into the critical United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, might be improving slightly.

Catch up fast: Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday pledged to end overseas finance for building new coal-fired power plants and boost support for clean energy in developing nations.

  • His move at the UN General Assembly came hours after President Biden proposed to double U.S. climate financial help for developing nations to over $11 billion annually by 2024.

Why it matters: Both moves, while facing uncertainties, could create a dose of momentum heading into the summit that UN Secretary-General António Guterres this week warned is at high risk of failing.

  • China is the largest public financier of overseas coal plant construction. Chinese officials have faced pressure from the U.S. and other nations to end the practice.
  • Meanwhile, developed nations’ failure to mobilize a long-promised $100 billion annually by 2020 to help poorer countries fight climate change has created friction in pre-summit talks.

What they’re saying: Guterres, whose deep concerns about the Glasgow summit in six weeks have been palpable of late, said he was encouraged by the twin moves from the world’s two largest economies.

  • Guterres, in a statement, noted that phasing out coal was the single most important thing for keeping the Paris Agreement’s temperature-limiting target viable.

Reality check: There are outstanding questions about Biden’s pledge and China’s move.

  • The U.S. funding increases need approval in the narrowly divided Congress to materialize. Xi Jinping’s video remarks to the UN provided no details about his plan.
  • Columbia University energy expert David Sandalow tells the Wall Street Journal of China’s pledge: “Details matter. In particular, what happens to projects already in the pipeline? But this is a significant and very positive announcement.”
  • Thom Woodroofe, a former climate negotiator now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said in a brief note that a key thing to watch is how much weight the announcement holds. “Will Beijing be able to rein in finance provided by all Chinese banks,” he asked.

What we’re watching: That’s whether the U.S. and Chinese steps will create new diplomatic openings or spur stronger emissions efforts from other nations.

  • Guterres, in a statement about the U.S. and Chinese moves, said “we need decisive action by all countries, especially the G20.” Under current emissions pledges, a “catastrophic” amount of warming would still occur, he said.

Yes, but: Europe’s energy crunch may be creating fresh headwinds for new emissions policies there.

  • “Surging gas and electricity prices in Europe have intensified the political backlash against Brussels’ plans to extend carbon taxes on petrol and heating bills, threatening a central policy of the EU’s drive to hit net zero emissions by 2050,” the Financial Times reports.
  • And Xi, president of the world’s largest carbon emitter by far, did not offer new domestic emissions commitments.