THE STAKES FOR THE OUTDOOR STATE IN THE NEXT COVID-19 PACKAGE
In the mountains, unexpected storms can force us to bivouac, to temporarily shelter in place until the storm has passed. COVID-19 has forced the entire world into an allegorical bivouac. Like all storms, this one too will pass. But the decisions our elected leaders make over the next few months will have consequences beyond our lifetimes. They should make these decisions wisely. The archives of mountaineering are filled with cautionary tales of poor decision making leading to tragedy on the one hand and inspiring examples of thoughtful decisions beating the odds on the other.
Mountaineers, skiers, river runners and other outdoors people know to plan ahead, rely on the best information available and choose our leaders carefully. In the most extreme cases, our very survival depends on it. We depend on scrupulous planning to ski the Lhotse face; on information-based decision-making to solo El Capitan; and exceptional leadership to summit perilous mountains like Meru. These are skills we’re obligated to hold in high esteem right now, because we need this same level of foresight, competence and leadership to both rebuild the economy and protect the playgrounds we love.
In 2007 professor Vincent Cheng and his colleagues foresaw that “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.” We are living the consequences of ignoring scientists: three million cases and 208,000 deaths worldwide, 56,000 in the U.S. (as of this writing); global GDP projected to contract by at least 3 percent, domestic unemployment likely to soar to 20 percent (with the outdoor industry particularly impacted––a recent survey by the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Office found that 27 percent of the industry’s workforce in the State has been let go). At the same time, scientists have been warning our policymakers of another devastating storm on the horizon.
As far back as 1988, James Hansen warned Congress of the correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and extreme weather events. Since then warmer, shorter, less predictable winters threaten to make early closures of ski resorts the norm rather than the exception, putting thousands of jobs and billions of dollars at risk in mountain communities. Extreme heat days (days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit) are projected to increase tenfold by 2050 and with them fires like the 2018 Ferguson Fire in Yosemite that burned 96,900 acres. The magnitude of the impacts on our physical and mental health, the damage to the lands we are all longing to play in right now and the economic consequences of uncontrolled warming shouldn’t be ignored as we make our way through the current crisis.
Ironically, the fossil fuel industry that poses the greatest threat to our immediate future––coal accounted for 14.5 Gt and oil for 12.5 Gt of global CO2 emissions in 2018––is facing a crisis of its own. Over the last few weeks, the price of crude oil has been in a freefall. On April 21, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures were trading at -$5.00 pb for the first time in history. Coal also hit a historic benchmark the week of April 8-14 when it averaged 15 percent of total U.S. power generation, compared with 22.5 percent for the same period in 2019. Reduced demand for electricity is dealing a knockout blow to an already vulnerable sector. That same week, wind and solar generation surpassed coal during a three-day period for the first time in recorded history.
Renewables now outcompete coal in most energy markets, according to a Bloomberg Energy and Finance analysis, the levelized cost of electricity for utility-scale solar and onshore wind projects has fallen another 4 percent and 9 percent since just the second-half of 2019. But the industry hasn’t been spared the impacts of the pandemic either. The impacts of COVID-19 on the supply chain and workforce are likely to keep 30-50 percent of wind projects from completing on time, preventing them from being eligible for the production tax credit (PTC)––which Congress reauthorized in December. The PTC represents 30-40 percent (depending on project size) of a projects’ debt leverage. Solar projects benefit from a 26 percent or 22 percent investment tax credit (ITC) if they break ground in 2020 or 2021respectively after 2021 rates drop to zero for residential and commercial projects. Pandemic related disruptions mean a significant number of these projects are delayed. Renewable energy (wind, solar, storage) employed more than 520,000 people at the end of 2018. More than 106,000 of those jobs were lost in March and thousands more could be on the chopping block. For lawmakers on either side of the aisle who want to protect jobs and the environment, supporting the clean energy sector in the next COVID package should be a ‘no-brainer.’
Specifically, Congress should approve extensions to both the PTC and the ITC and fund monetization of the ITC in the next relief package. Climate change hasn’t elicited the immediate response from lawmakers as the pandemic has, but what’s at stake if we don’t act will have more devastating and longer-term impacts. If we are to learn from the COVID-19 crisis, we must listen to the overwhelming scientific consensus that is warning us to transition to a clean energy economy now. With trillions (with a T!) being poured into the economy, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-shape our vision of the future.
That vision can be one where we once again recreate together in our favorite playgrounds, knowing they are protected from further destruction by the fossil fuel industry. As members of the Outdoor State, we know the importance of looking not at where we are at in the midst of difficulty, but where we want to go and planning how we will get there. We need that same thinking from our elected officials to ensure that we come out of this crisis greener and cleaner.