Fighting fossil fuels, climate crisis, and plastics

The fight over fossil fuels, the climate crisis, and plastics
Bob Sheak, June 3, 2019

There is an emergency of global proportions

We are living in a time when there is mounting scientific evidence validating unprecedented human-caused impacts on all aspects of the environment (biosphere). Everything is being affected, from the climate to the cryosphere, the oceans, the forests, the soils, fresh water sources. Human activities are degrading, contaminating, harmfully transforming, and depleting more and more of the natural world. Bill McKibben reminds us that in November of 2017 “fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issues a stark ‘warning to humanity.’” They predicted that humanity faces “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss” and soon “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory” (Falter, p. 11). He refers to other daunting facts.

“A third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with ‘persistent declining trends in productivity….We’ve displaced most everything else: if you weigh the earth’s terrestrial vertebrates, humans account for 30 percent of their total mass, and our farm animals for another 67 percent, meaning wild animals (all the moose and cheetahs and wombats combined) total just 3 percent. In fact, there are half as many wild animals on the plant as there were in 1970…. In 2018, scientists reported that the planet’s oldest and largest trees were dying fast, ‘as climate change attracts new pests and diseases to forests’” (p. 12).

Fossil Fuels: the principal source of global warming

Much of what we have wrought can be traced directly or indirectly to our use of fossil fuels for generating electricity for all sectors of the economy, the gadgets and appliances we use, for heating and cooling our homes and businesses, for transportation in all its forms, and for the nitrogen/phosphorus-fertilizing agriculture system that grows our food while systematically denuding the soil and polluting rivers and the oceans.

The combustion of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, gases that are at the heart of the accelerating and increasingly disruptive climate change and its myriad impacts on the environment (e.g., rising temperatures, the shrinking of ice in the polar regions and on all mountain glaciers, rising ocean levels, changing chemistry of the oceans, the destruction of coral reefs; the increase in extreme weather events; wildfires; species extinction).

The latest scientific research indicates that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher now than in the past 3 million years. According to a report by Jon Queally, the ongoing measurements at Mauno Loa Observatory in Hawaii by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography show that the atmospheric levels of carbon registered 415 parts per million on May 11-12, “a concentration level researchers say has not existed in more than 3 million years” (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/05/13/we-dont-know-planet-co2-levels-hit-415-ppm-first-time-3-million-years).

Queally quotes Jonathan Shieber of TechCrunch who explains the connection between rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and rising temperatures levels, as follows.

“The increasing proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is important because of its heat absorbing properties. The land and seas on the planet absorb and emit heat and that heat is trapped in carbon dioxide molecules. The NOAA likens CO2 to leaving bricks in a fireplace, that still emit heat after a fire goes out.”

In other words, there is more heat from the sun being retained in the atmosphere than before and there are consequently “increases in greenhouse gases [that] have tipped the Earth’s energy budget out of balance, trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature.” Unless there are all-out efforts to phase out fossil-fuels as sources of energy by 2050 or soon thereafter and replace them with renewable sources and efficiencies that reduces energy use, then global warming will get worse than it is. This is not a new or uninformed warning, but one that scientists have been voicing for decades – and mostly ignored. On this point, a recent article on thelogicofscience reports that the “5 hottest years on record all happened in the past 5 years” (https://thelogicofscience.com/2019/02/07/5-hottest-years-on-record-all-happened-in-the-past-5-years-global-warming-is-real).
Don’t have a lot of time

Global warming is not just something that can be set aside or put off to some future time, as Republicans officials, fossil fuel corporations, and too many others insist that we do. But there is no skirting the vast scientifically produced evidence, unless it is suppressed by the government. It’s been happening, it is accelerating, and there is far too little being done, domestically or internationally, to stop it from engendering an increasingly cataclysmic future. Here’s what I wrote in a previous post, emphasizing how little time humanity has to confront the problem.

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In an article published in Truthout, Ryan Gunderson and Diana Stuart remind us of “two recent projections of catastrophic climate change, namely of scientists’ warning of a runaway “hothouse Earth” scenario and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report detailing the impacts of a 1.5 degree Celsius (1.5°C) rise in global temperatures,” as well as “an increasing number of scientists and activists are calling for a dramatic policy response to tackle climate change. The IPCC specifically calls for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to prevent the 1.5-degree scenario” and the worse effects of reaching 2.0-degrees (https://truthout.org/articles/the-green-new-deal-must-transform-the-economy).

Joseph Romm adds the following background information (https://thinkprogress.org/green-ned-deal-ocasio-cortez-7c9ac944b37d). “Scientists have been clear about the scale of effort needed for some time,” Romm writes. “In 2013, the world’s leading nations set up a ‘structured expert dialogue’ to review the adequacy of the 2°C (3.6°F) target to avoid catastrophic climate change. In 2015, 70 leading climate experts reported that every bit of warming above current levels ‘will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts.’ The scientists also made clear that large-scale changes are necessary: “Limiting global warming to below 2°C necessitates a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends.”

Then, in October of last year (2018), “the world’s nations unanimously approved a landmark report from scientists making the same exact point. The scientists warned that world leaders must make sharp reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 — and then take total emissions down to zero by 2050 to 2070 to have any plausible chance of averting catastrophe.” They offered details on their dire assessment, explaining that “energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” would require “system changes” that “are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.” Romm notes: “If that sounds like the Green New Deal, that’s because the resolution is rooted in science.” At the end of his article, Romm cites a leading climatologist, Michael Mann, who in an email to Think Progress wrote: “Climate change is a threat that is both global and existential” and he “applauded Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘bold leadership’ and reiterated that ‘averting disaster will require a degree of mobilization of effort and resources unlike anything we’ve witnessed since World War II.’”

In the meantime, contrary to what climate scientists call for in drastically cutting our use of fossil fuels, a study just released by the International Energy Agency, as reported by Andrea Germanos, finds that U.S. domestic fossil fuel use is way up due to fracking and the export of fracked gas and oil is also rising. (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/03/11/climate-crisis-be-damned-shale-revolution-poised-make-us-net-exporter-oil-three).
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Endless digressions: Trump’s administration attempting to suppress the evidence on global warming

The evidence on global warming from scientific research continues to multiply and it is important in helping to shore up the positions of those who want a more rational and sustainable energy system devoid of fossil fuels. However, the Trump administration is doing its best to undermine and stop government reports that rely on such evidence, so that it is not available for the public or only available in censured form.

The efforts of Trump and his administration on these fronts are well known. They essentially deny “climate change,” tout the virtues of and support fossil fuels, minimize or avoid any discussion renewables and energy efficiency, withdraw from relevant international treaties, populate the White House and executive branch of the federal government with advisers who are climate change deniers or avoiders, and encourage unregulated, market-based policies that encourage the existing oligarchic fossil-fuel dominant energy system . For an in-depth analysis of Trump’s most recent anti-climate-change moves, see the report by Coral Davenport and Mark Landler, “Trump Administration Hardens Its Attacks on Climate Science” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/us/politics/trump-climate-science.html).

Here is a revealing segment of their report.

“The attack on science is underway throughout the government. In the most recent example, the White House-appointed director of the United States Geological Survey, James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist, has ordered that scientific assessments produced by that office use only computer-generated climate models that project the impact of climate change through 2040, rather than through the end of the century, as had been done previously.

“Scientists say that would give a misleading picture because the biggest effects of current emissions will be felt after 2040. Models show that the planet will most likely warm at about the same rate through about 2050 [with increasingly catastrophic effects]. From that point until the end of the century, however, the rate of warming differs significantly with an increase or decrease in carbon emissions [and a higher rate of cataclysmic events].
“The administration’s prime target has been the National Climate Assessment, produced by an interagency task force roughly every four years since 2000. Government scientists used computer-generated models in their most recent report to project that if fossil fuel emissions continue unchecked, the earth’s atmosphere could warm by as much as eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That would lead to drastically higher sea levels, more devastating storms and droughts, crop failures, food losses and severe health consequences.”

Fossil fuels and plastics: The connection

James Brugger helps to clarify the connection between plastics and natural gas in an article entitled “Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia?” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/25022019/plastics-hub-appalachian-fracking-ethane-cracker-climate-change-health-ohio-river).

It begins with the extraction of natural gas or oil from the earth. Most of the natural gas or oil that is being extracted in the U.S. is accomplished via hydraulic fracturing technology, or fracking. In the extractive process, Brugger points out, natural gas liquids are obtained along with natural gas or oil. One of the liquids is ethane, which is also called “wet gas.” In turn, ethane is “used [processed] to produce ethylene, which then [eventually] gets turned into plastics, providing an additional revenue stream for the oil and gas industry.” Brugger adds: “It’s the industry’s latest play, and it comes at a time when industry analysts and the federal government say the demand for plastics is skyrocketing.”

The natural gas liquids are transported to a processing plant, where they are separated from natural gas. There are complex networks of pipes that are involved in the transportation from the wells to the processing plant (http://naturalgas.org/naturalgas/transport). The gas is delivered to a “fractionator” [which] refines the natural gas liquids “into their distinct products, such as propane, butane, and ethane.” Some of the ethane is “liquified for export in tanker vessels. The rest of it is broken down by an ‘ethane cracker’ into ‘ethylene’, the basic building block of most plastics.”

What are plastics used for?

They are used in manufacturing “to produce a wide variety of plastics and other products, including toys, textiles, containers, bags, PVC and housewares.” Brugger quotes Dave Witte, a senior vice president at HIS Markit, a global data and information service,” who said that plastics “are hooked into just about every part of the economy, from housing to electronics to packaging.” The keyboard I am typing on is made of plastic. Witte also says, “Today, the world needs six of these plants to be built every year to keep up with demand growth.” That is, unless these plastics are banned or perhaps taxed in ways that reduce the consumption of plastics.

The environmental, economic, and human costs

While plastics are useful and exist everywhere in our everyday lives, in businesses, in medical services, and so forth, they also pose a growing environmental problem. Jessica Mason reports on some of the costs, focusing on plastic bags (https://truthout.org/articles/barring-plastic-bag-bans-another-alec-law-takes-aim-at-local-democracy).

There are an “estimated hundred billion plastic bags… used in the U.S. annually, but only about 12 percent of them are recycled, making them a significant waste-disposal problem for towns and cities.” In addition, “plastic bag litter often ends up in streams and rivers, where it potentially leaches endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A into the water supply.” In particular, the single-use bags and disposable containers “also threaten marine life and contribute to growing ‘garbage patches’ in the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans.” Astonishingly, “by 2050, there will be more plastic (by weight) in the ocean’s water than fish, leading the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment and the Ocean Conservatory to declare, “the amount of unmanaged plastic waste entering the ocean… has reached crisis levels.” There is more. Plastic waste “is already taking a financial toll on fishing industries, urban infrastructure, and tourist economies.” Mason cites a conclusion of the World Economic Institute: “the cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually — exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.”

An example – Alabama coastal area

Bryan Lyman reports on plastic pollution in the Alabama coastal areas (https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.org/story/news/2019/04/08/bills-banning-local-plastic-bag-regulations-use-alex-model/3405085002).

Lyman interviewed Casi Callaway, the executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, “which organizes clean-up and protection efforts for Mobile Bay.” According to Callaway, they are pulling an enormous quantity of plastic litter from the Bay. In a one-day clean up along the coast in 2017 they “recovered 96,745 pieces of litter,” weighing “more than 35,000 pounds.” He said the plastic pollution is taking a toll on wildlife, clogging drainage infrastructure (e.g., storm drains). Sea birds and turtles ingest it or get tangled in it.

The Mobile Baykeeper group is part of a state environmental coalition that have organized in opposition to legislation that would bar local governments from banning single-use plastic bags. The Alabama state government is poised to follow in the steps of Texas and Florida and pass legislation banning local communities from taking steps to tax or ban plastic bags. Lyman observes that
the legislation “closely follow the ALEC [model] legislation.”

Plastic contamination in the oceans

Tatiana Schlossberg refers to striking evidence of the pervasiveness of “plastic bits” in the far reaches of the oceans in an article entitled “Trillions of Plastic Bits, Swept Up by Current, Are Littering Arctic Waters” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/climate/arctic-plastics-pollution.html).

A group of researchers from the University of Cadiz in Spain and several other institutions, she reports, “show that a major ocean current is carrying bits of plastic, mainly from the North Atlantic, to the Greenland and Barents seas, and leaving them there – in surface waters, in sea ice and possibly on the ocean floor.” The scientists, led by Andres Cozar Cabanas, “a professor of biology,” “sampled floating plastic debris from 42 sites in the Arctic Ocean aboard Tara, a research vessel that completed a trip around the North Pole from June to October 2013, with data from two additional sites from a previous trip.” The plastic fragments, along with plastic fishing lines, film, and pellets, is similar to what is found in “the subtropical gyres.”

On another aspect of the problem, Dahr Jamail writes about the widespread presence of plastic in fish and that “humans are ingesting plastic thanks to ocean pollution” (http://www.truth-out.org/item/35291-not-a-fish-tale-humans-are-ingesting-plastic-thanks-to-ocean-pollution). He writes this stunning paragraph:

“Humans generate more than 300 million tons of plastic annually – an amount equal to the combined body weight of the entire global adult population – and nearly half of the plastic is only used on time before it is tossed away to eventually find its way to the oceans. So, it should come as little surprise that by 2050, it is a virtual certainty that every seabird on the planet will have plastic in its stomach.”

And:

“Recent estimates indicate that upwards of 8 million tons of plastic are added to the planet’s oceans each year, the equivalent of a dump truck full of plastic every minute. That is enough plastic to have led one scientist to estimate that people who consume average amounts of seafood are ingesting approximately 11,000 particles of plastic every year.”

The plastic “is also causing large-scale change to the oceans’ entire ecological system,” according to Miriam Goldstein, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California, San Diego,” who Jamail quotes. In one of her examples, Goldstein refers to “the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre’s eastern section, located between Hawai’i and California [which is a] vast ‘garbage patch [containing] an ‘alarming amount of plastic garbage, the majority of which is comprised of very small-size pieces.” Goldstein key point is that this vast quantity of plastic is not only “leading to early deaths of animals that ingest it, but also that humans ingesting fish with plastic in their systems are at increased risk of cancer and other health issues.” The problem is expected to get worse, since only “five percent of plastics are effectively recycled, and the production of plastics is expected to increase by at least 1.12 billion tons by 2050.”

Plastics and global warming

Sharon Kelley reports that the “plastics industry plays a major – and growing – role in climate change, being driven “largely by the shale gas rush unleashed by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.” According to a report she cites by the Center for International Environmental Law: “In 2019, the plastics industry is on track to release as much greenhouse gas pollution as 189 new coal-fired power plants running year-round, the report found — and the industry plans to expand so rapidly that by 2030, it will create 1.34 gigatons of climate-changing emissions a year, equal to 295 coal plants.” Quoting Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, “humanity has less than twelve years to cut global greenhouse emissions in half and just three decades to eliminate them almost entirely.” A report by the center finds that plastic has long been and continues to be a threat to the global environment, puts human health at risk, and is “putting the climate at risk as well” (https://truthout.org/articles/plastics-industry-on-track-to-burn-14-percent-of-worlds-remaining-carbon-budget).

Two irreconcilable positions

The supporters of the plastic industry want the industry to respond to rising demand, expand its production of plastic, and ignore or dismiss the environmental and health impacts. From this perspective, government’s role is to encourage – not ban or regulate – the production of plastics. Let the plastics industry grow and continue providing the stuff people want, the jobs they need, and the local and state tax revenues that pay for government services and public education.

Proponents of plastics ignore the costs and emphasize the benefits

While plastics are a major source of environmental harm, there are a host of reasons offered by proponents of single-use plastic bags, one of the worst environmentally harmful plastics, to leave them unregulated. They argue that such plastic should not be banned or even taxed, because consumers want them. They also argue that banning such plastic would lead to a loss of jobs and complicate or increase the expense of medical procedures using plastic gloves. They argue it is not a serious public issue because the bags are often reused. Making this an issue distracts the public conversation from more important environmental issues. And they argue that it would be inconvenient for consumers to rely on their own reusable cloth bags because they would sometimes forget them when they shop and are useful in picking up the poop of pet dogs (https://debatewise.org/debates/1011-should-plastic-bags-be-banned).
In the meantime, however, non-biodegradable plastics in bags and other forms (e.g., packaging, bottles, disposable gloves) are filling landfills, poisoning the oceans and aquatic life, and posing health hazards.

The opponents favor regulation and want to see policies that discourage or ban the use of plastic products, and have focused particular attention on supporting laws or proposed laws that would ban single-use plastic bags, while emphasizing reuse (e.g., cloth bags) and recycling of those plastics that can be recycled. Katie Wells offers a wide range of alternatives to grocery bags for shopping, for lunches, and for storage of food (https://wellnessmama.com/105581/alternatives-plastic-bags).

She points out:

“Most plastic bags contain some type of harmful chemical, but plastic bags are one of the worst offenders. Not only do we collectively use and discard over 1 TRILLION plastic bags each year, these bags take 1000 years to fully degrade, releasing chemicals the entire time. On top of that, plastic bags are the second most common ocean waste (after cigarette butts) and they harm thousands of species of ocean wildlife each year (with an estimated 40,000 pieces of plastic floating in each square mile of the ocean!).”

Some movement to ban single-use plastic bags

Jessica Mason (cited previously) finds that from a national perspective, “local governments are in the vanguard in addressing plastic waste.” Indeed, “US cities started experimenting with ways to reduce plastic bag waste in the late 2000s, with cities like Washington, D.C., and Portland, Maine, adopting small fees on single-use plastic bags. Other cities like Honolulu tried out biodegradable and compostable bags. Still other cities, such as San Francisco, banned plastic bags altogether.” Bryan Lyman reports that “Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers are [were] poised to ban plastic shopping bags beginning March (https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.org/story/news/2019/04/08/bills-banning-local-plastic-bag-regulations-use-alex-model/3405085002).

In September 2018 issue of Forbes magazine, Trevor Nace published a list of hundreds of cities that had banned and/or taxed plastic bags that did not include any cities in Ohio (https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2018/09/20/heres-a-list-of-every-city-in-the-us-to-ban-plastic-bags-will-your-city-be-next/#72a5).

There are also bans that have been instituted at the state level. The Ohio Sierra Club issued a report in December 15, 2017, in which the pointed to how in 2016 “California became the first state in the nation to ban single-use plastic bags when voters passed Proposition 67. In 2017, Michigan became the seventh state in the nation to ban single-use plastic bag bans” (https://www.sierraclub.org/ohio/blog/2017/12/why-are-so-many-states-banning-plastic-bag-bans).

The realty of powerful well-organized forces

At the same time, according to Jessica’s Mason’s investigation, fossil fuel and plastic-industry interests have been able to stop or reverse local regulation and bans in some instances, urging state governments to pass legislation preempting local restrictions and bans on plastic bags.

Model legislation for these efforts has been adopted by the American City County Exchange (ACCE), an off shoot of “the ALEC [the Koch Brothers’ supported American Legislative Exchange Committee]. The ACCE targets state and local officials. The model legislation is titled “Regulating Containers to Protect Business and Consumer Choice” and includes a resolution calling “on municipal governments not to regulate single-use containers and packaging, such as ‘reusable bags, disposable bags, boxes, cups, and bottles that are made of cloth, paper, plastic, extruded polystyrene, or similar materials…’” ACCE claims that the “free market is the best arbiter of the container,” dismissing how the market has failed “to address the problem of the estimated nearly 88 billion plastic bags that are not recycled annually in the U.S.”

In addition to ACCE, there is a group funded by plastics manufacturers like Novolex, the Superbag Corporation, and Advanced Polybag, called “The American Progressive Bag Alliance (ABPA) that marshals its resources to oppose any plastic bag regulation. Mason goes into detail describing their anti-regulatory activities that, for example, includes warnings such as “city plastic bag bans” are “stepping stones to the regulation of all packaging.” As a consequence, “State bills prohibiting local plastic bag bans were proposed in a number of states in 2015 and 2016, including in Georgia, South Carolina, and Idaho, as well as Wisconsin.” In addition, “APBA has also led an effort to kill California’s statewide ban on plastic bags. The trade group spent $3 million in 2015 on a petition drive in California to force a referendum on a statewide ban on plastic bags, which goes before voters later this year.”

APBA and ALEC members are not alone in opposition to plastic regulation. But there is a common link to ALEC. Mason points out that the American Chemistry Council (ACC), “a member of ALEC’s Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force,” has been fighting “for years to keep the U.S. hooked on disposable plastic products.” The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is also involved, even though it “purports to be a nonpartisan trade group representing small business interests; however, NFIB primarily lobbies for big corporate interests and almost all of its political contributions support Republican candidates. Its funding sources have included the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.” State chapters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, both ALEC members, have been active in opposition to any regulations on plastics. Mason also mentions that the Koch family fortune is the biggest source of funds for ALEC. This is a fortune that has been built in part by petroleum processing, “which creates compounds that can be used to manufacture plastic bags.” And the Kochs and their allies demonstrate that “there’s little room for local democracy in ALEC’s vision of freedom.”

Plastics in Ohio

As indicated earlier in this post, there are many cities and at least 7 states that have banned plastic bags. Courtney Astolfi writes in an article for Cleveland.com on May 29, 2019, the Cuyahoga County Council passed a countywide ban on plastic bags along partisan lines, with 8 Democrats voting in favor of the ban and 3 Republicans voting against it. Astolfi reports that the “ban will go into effect in Jan. 1, 2020. It was originally proposed as taking effect Oct. 1, 2019, but Simon [one of the Democratic sponsors of the bill] said she pushed the date back to allow retailers time to adjust” (https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2019/05/cuyahoga-county-council-passes-plastic-bag-ban.html).

“The legislation approved Tuesday,” Astolfi writes, “bans plastic bags and paper bags that are not 100 percent recyclable or made from at least 40 percent of recycled material.” But it reflects some compromises with the Republican minority. It includes exemptions for bags for restaurant leftovers or carry-out orders, bags consumer bring with them, or bags for newspapers, dry-cleaning, meat, pet waste, prescriptions, or partially-consumed bottles of wine.” In a later action, the Council added bags for hazardous materials to the list of exemptions, or “certain chemical bought at home supply stores.”

The Department of Consumer Affairs will enforce the qualified ban with hefty fines for violators, if the ban can stand. According to Astolfi, “First-time violators will be subject to a written warning. Second violations will carry a civil fine of up to $100 and subsequent violations will carry fines up to $500. Violations are defined as each day a retailer doesn’t comply with the ban.”
There are also a few Ohio towns that have banned plastic bags, including Orange Village, the first community in Ohio to enact a plastic bag ban last year (2018).

Republican lawmakers in Ohio poised to undo “local” bans

There are two developments that threaten to nullify any bans on plastics and their harmful effects in Ohio. One is political. The other is economic.

Preemption by the state

The Ohio House is considering a bill (HB 242) that would allow the state to “preempt” or bar local governments in the state from banning or taxing single-use plastic bags. If it passes, it would nullify home-rule powers in the Ohio Constitution. Ohio is not alone in this regard. The Sierra Club informs readers that “Missouri, Idaho, Arizona, Wisconsin, Indiana and Florida are the other states that have adopted the preemption measures pushed by bag manufacturers and the plastic industry, with legislative model language often provided by ALEC.” (https://www.sierraclub.org/ohio/blog/2017/12/why-are-so-many-states-banning-plastic-bag-bans).

With Republicans in control of both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly and a Republican governor, they are likely to get whatever they want legislatively. Sam Allard reports that they don’t want regulation that hampers businesses, with increased costs and the lack of uniform state-wide regulations. Reps. George Lang of Butler County and Don Jones of Warren County have introduced House Bill 242, a revamp of last year’s House Bill 625to prevent local communities from regulating auxiliary containers like plastic bags (https://www.citybeat.com/news/blog/21069751/ohio-lawmakers-look-to-preempt-local-plastic-bag-ban-again).

The Republican legislation has the support of the Ohio Beverage Association, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and other politically influential business groups, according to Rep. Lang.

An economic boom in the production of plastics

The second development that threatens to nullify efforts to regulate plastics, especially single-use plastic bags, is that Ohio is in the process of becoming a major part of a plastics production hub for the region, which will include parts of eastern Ohio and near Cleveland, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania.

James Bruggers (cited earlier) describes what is happening (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/25022019/plastics-hub-appalachian-fracking-ethane-cracker-climate-change-health-ohio-river).

Construction of the facilities for the region’s first ethane cracker plant are underway along the banks of the Ohio River in Pennsylvania, another one is planned for western Pennsylvania, three in the planning stages in Ohio, and one is being planned for Wood County, West Virginia.

“Cracker plants take ethane, a liquid natural gas byproduct, and,” Bruggers reports, “‘crack’ the molecules to produce ethylene, a root chemical used to manufacture a variety of plastic products.” The name of the plant under construction in Pennsylvania is “Shell Polymers,” which is “part of the global energy company Royal Dutch Shell.” Shell is investing $6 to $7 billion in the plant. There are also two Asian companies, PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner, Daelim Industrial Co., Ltd., that “could announce any day that they plan to invest as much as $6 billion in a similar plant in Ohio.” If the plan is finalized, the plant will be located in Belmont County, Ohio. Officials are not concerned about climate change or other environmental harms of plastics. Rather they want the taxes and jobs that will come with the plants and the contributions from industry lobbyists.

The fuel for these plants would come from the “natural gas boom brought on by more than a decade of hydraulic fracturing.” And, Bruggers points out, “The idea for a plastics hub in Appalachia got a lift in December with a report to Congress from the U.S. Department of Energy [which] described a proposal for the development of regional underground storage of ethane along or underneath the upper Ohio River.” Storage is a necessary component of the plastics hub because cracking plants require “a steady and reliable stream of ethane.” The Department of Energy is in the second phase of an application process for $1.9 billion in loan guarantees for a West Virginia business, Appalachia Development Group LLC, that has proposed developing storage for ethane.

If plans for 4 or so cracker plants and the storage facilities are completed, ethane production would “total 640,000 barrels per day through 2025, more than 20 times greater five years ago. By 2050, the DOE says, “ethane production in the region is projected to reach 950,000 barrels per day.”

All this would come with a steep environmental costs. Bruggers writes:

“Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030. Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050.”

Echoing this concern, Brittany Patterson cites a report by the Center of International Environmental Law, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, and others (https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/16/as-ohio-valley-ponders-plastics-growth-report-warns-of-threat-to-climate).

The report “estimates production and incineration of plastic this year will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, or equal to the pollution of building 189 new coal-fired power plants,” a figure that “will rise substantially over the next few decades as the demand for single-use plastics live cycle could account for as much as 14 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.” She refers to Shell’s ethane cracker plant currently under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, that is already “permitted to release up to 2.25 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution annually.” And this is an underestimate because the report does not include estimated emissions from compressor stations or the miles of pipelines involved.

Concluding thoughts

The only apparent way to curtail and reverse the continuing increase in greenhouse gas emissions, concomitant rising temperatures, plastic pollution, and a host of other assaults on the planet is to begin a serious phasing out of fossil fuels and those plastics that are most harmful. The state and federal governments must increase government support for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

Serious support for such policies at the state and national levels will require changes to political power that is supportive of a “green new deal.” The Republicans in Ohio and nationally will oppose any such changes. Therefore, a strong political and social opposition must grow to have any chances of ever advancing such an agenda. What kind of changes are necessary?

A majority of voters in Ohio and nationally will have to be educated about the pressing need for these changes and persuaded that there are more benefits than costs in supporting them. That will be hard because fossil fuels and plastics are so important for what people are used to and rely on. The agenda must pay serious attention to programs that help displaced workers to retrain for identifiable jobs and communities that have experienced economic distress when fossil fuel and plastic plants close. Voter support must be given to politicians who are not dependent on corporate lobbyists for their elections and re-elections. And there must be a movement or movements in support of such changes, including an army of skilled and committed organizers, to supplement the efforts and campaign of far-sighted politicians and political candidates.

What’s the likelihood?

The resolution for a green new deal offered by some Democratic members of the U.S. Congress provides one organizing framework, with its focus on phasing out fossil fuels, which if successful, would also eliminate the types of plastic most harmful to the environment and people. This, when coupled with job creation and support for other basic necessities of modern life, would represent major steps toward realizing the best of America’s values.

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