Henry Cuellar’s Policy Preferences Could Destroy the World. But Then Again, He’s a Really Nice Guy.

Politics are about hard choices. The planet or Henry Cuellar?

UNITED STATES - JULY 19: Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is seen during a House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee markup of the FY2019 Homeland Security Appropriations bill in Rayburn Building on July 19, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is seen during a House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee markup of the FY2019 Homeland Security Appropriations bill in Washington D.C., on July 19, 2018. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Two competing values are at work in a coming primary challenge against oil-and-gas-backed Democrat Henry Cuellar, announced last week by Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to run for office. On the one hand, a new report concluded that if the U.S. proceeds on its current course of drilling — which Cuellar has emphatically supported — humanity will crash through its remaining climate guardrails and risk lurching into apocalyptic warming scenarios.

On the other hand, Cuellar is a really nice guy, and primaries are awfully divisive.

Cuellar’s extreme popularity among his House colleagues is widely known. But the role U.S. reserves of oil and gas could play in future warming scenarios has been less well-established. A new report from Oil Change International, or OCI, however, alters the equation. Examining projections developed by Rystad Energy, an independent oil and gas consultancy, the new report looks at projected oil and gas development in the United States over the next several decades, and what consequences it holds for the planet.

The authors find that, if allowed to continue with projected new fossil fuel projects, U.S. oil and gas production could account for 60 percent of all new oil and gas production through 2030, making the U.S. the world’s largest new source of oil and gas and outpacing expected growth in the next largest producer, Canada, 4 to 1. All of this would happen during the period when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that countries should begin stripping fossil fuels out of the global economy as rapidly as possible.

The climate costs of such development are massive, with new drilling set to unleash 120 billion tons of Earth-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050, the equivalent of what nearly 1,000 coal-fired power plants would burn throughout the lifespan of their operations. It would be the single largest burst of new carbon dioxide emissions to enter the Earth’s atmosphere over that period.

The report’s main takeaway isn’t complicated: The United States can either stop digging up new troves of fossil fuels, or take a sledgehammer to the world’s chances at a livable future.

“At exactly the time scientists say we need to begin reducing fossil fuel emissions, the U.S. oil and gas industry is gearing up to expand rapidly,” says Kelly Trout, a lead author on the report and a senior research analyst at OCI.

The majority of new development is slated to come in the form of new fracking in the Permian Basin, spanning Texas and New Mexico, and the Appalachian Basin, with most of its reserves in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. By 2029, OCI found, companies operating in the Permian Basin alone could be extracting nearly as much oil as Saudi Arabia does today, much of it for export. Other new extraction sites include the Western Gulf, Anadarko Basin, and Alaska’s North Slope.

Meanwhile, burning through just existing reserves of oil and gas around the world would be enough to make limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius impossible, OCI finds. Add coal reserves to that, and we very nearly miss our chance at staying below 2 degrees. Staying below either, in other words, means not only stopping any new production, but also closing down some portion of existing coal, oil, and gas production early.

Graphic: Oil Change International

“Every decision around a new fossil fuel lease, permit, subsidy, or setback,” report authors write, “is an opportunity for U.S. politicians to stop fossil fuel expansion and champion a just transition to an economy powered by clean energy.” The U.S. spends some $20 billion a year propping up the fossil fuel industry through generous tax breaks and below-market leases. A study in Nature from researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute has found that as much as half of all new crude oil development through 2050 could be unprofitable without such giveaways.

The OCI report concludes that there are three paths in front of us, two in which we manage to restrict emissions in line with the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, and one in which we don’t. The first is a managed decline of fossil fuel production starting as soon as possible, and investment in a just transition for the workers and communities that stand to be most affected by industry closures. The second — in which warming is also kept below 2 degrees Celsius — sees a “sudden and chaotic shutdown of fossil fuel production” a short time from now that includes “stranding assets, damaging economies, and harming workers and communities reliant on the energy sector.” In the third and worst scenario, we fail to restrict fossil fuel production in line with either a 1.5 or 2 degree target, locking in not just ecological disaster but also, as economists have warned recently, “worldwide economic collapse.”

Graphic: Oil Change International

To prevent the last two scenarios and encourage the first, Trout says, “we can’t just leave this to the markets.” Report authors recommend a managed decline in fossil fuel production, including an end to new leases and permits for fossil fuel projects, phase-outs of existing mines and drill sites, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and a Green New Deal, to ensure a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy, particularly for communities that would be hardest-hit by industry closures. The report further underlines that the U.S. needs to phase out coal production by 2030 at the latest in order to meet the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement.

Emissions, of course, know no borders, and there’s only so much greenhouse gas that can be spewed into the atmosphere before catastrophic outcomes become a certainty. Scientists describe this as a global carbon budget, and every new drill site or power plant takes a bite out of it, no matter where it’s built. New production in just the Permian and Appalachian basins through 2050 would burn through nearly 10 percent of the world’s carbon budget to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The longer the U.S. waits to scale back emissions, the bigger risk we run blowing past that mark, and the greater the burden that will fall to countries with fewer resources to fund such a transition and less responsibility for the crisis writ large.

“The United States would be pushing the burden of phasing out oil and gas onto other countries, forcing them into a potentially impossible choice: shut down their production at a pace that could cause domestic economic or social chaos, or allow the United States to push the world over the brink of climate chaos,” the report details. “If other countries are not able or willing to compensate for U.S. ‘energy dominance,’ U.S. communities would pay the price in terms of climate devastation and economic chaos.”

The report, Trout says, calls for a “new definition of what real climate leadership means in the U.S. Real climate leadership means rejecting permits for new pipelines, saying no to more leasing or fossil fuel extraction, and putting policies in place to wind down this industry and encourage a just transition.”

So long as Donald Trump remains in office and Republicans control the Senate, there’s not much hope for passing the kinds of policies OCI recommends at the federal level or doing emissions reductions at any scale. Should Democrats retake one or both come 2020, Republicans will of course continue putting up a fight, although it could ultimately get overridden. In such a context, resistance is also likely to come from within the party — and no less so than from Democrats who’ve take hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry.

That’s where Henry Cuellar, the ever-likable Democratic congressman from Texas, comes in.

Dubbed “Big Oil’s Favorite Democrat,” Cuellar is the first who Justice Democrats will be recruiting a primary challenger for ahead of the 2020 election. When he voted to lift the ban on crude oil exports in 2015, Cuellar said in a press statement that “with the Eagle Ford Shale in my district and the Permian Basin nearby, I recognize the great potential for our domestic oil industry, and I also understand the way in which it is being suppressed by this outdated export ban.” Lifting that ban helped clear the way for the rash of new fossil fuel development over the last few years and will continue to fuel the development analyzed in OCI’s report. In the summer of 2017, he was among the first to join the Congressional Oil and Gas Caucus intended, per inaugural chair Vicente González, D-Texas, to “assure that there is support on this side of the aisle for the oil and gas industry.”

Cuellar has voted 69 percent of the time with Trump. In the 2018 cycle, he accepted $145,000 from PACs linked to oil and gas corporations and has taken $711,627 from the industry over the course of his career.

“Taking on someone like Henry Cuellar, who is one of the largest recipients of big oil and gas money in the Democratic caucus, is a way to drive the Green New Deal conversation forward in the Democratic Party and begin to drive home that climate can be an issue that you can lose your seat over if you’re a Democrat,” says Waleed Shahid, Justice Democrats’ communications director. “He does not have a plan to tackle climate change. He has a plan to continue receiving money from his wealthy donors. … You can’t take money from [the fossil fuel industry] and then try to hold them accountable. It just doesn’t work.” The select committee for a Green New Deal proposed by Ocasio-Cortez would have barred House members who accept donations from fossil fuel companies from participating. That provision, along with several others, was left out of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ended up creating.

To date, conversations around a Green New Deal have focused largely around investments to build out new renewable infrastructure toward the goal of having the U.S. run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. As the report makes clear, a key part of reaching that goal would also mean actively phasing out fossil fuel production as new energy sources are made both more accessible and affordable. Absent complementary, redistributive policies like those embedded in proposals for a Green New Deal, such a phase-out could place the burden of decarbonization on communities whose livelihoods revolve around it, from Texas to Appalachia. It might even spark political unrest not unlike France’s gilet jaunes (“yellow vests”) protests, prompted by a tax on diesel fuel. That’s also why OCI stresses a “managed and just decline of extraction” that provides “adequate social protection, including wage insurance, health benefits, and pensions, to support workers and their families as they transition to new sectors.”

Advocates for a Green New Deal recognize how tricky decarbonization could be politically. Both they and the OCI report are adamant about the need to ensure that workers in the fossil fuel industry enjoy a higher quality of life as a result of transitioning away from fossil fuels, and receive work that’s just as well-paid. “We should not be expanding fossil fuel infrastructure in Texas or anywhere else,” Shahid says. “But if you’re not offering solutions to workers in oil states, you’re going to start to see the increasing development of the kinds of reactionary policies that lead to Donald Trump winning.”

“The Green New Deal debate is playing a really critical role in envisioning the scale of economic mobilization that is needed to build up the renewable energy economy,” Trout says. “This report shows that we need to be scaling down fossil fuel production at the same rate that we’re planning to scale up our investment to transform the economy.”

While renewables have become cheaper and more widespread over the last several years, fossil fuel usage has continued to grow. So have emissions. If massive investments in scaling up zero-carbon energy are one part of the equation, phasing out dirty energy is another.

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