Above Photo: The U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site Biomass Cogeneration Facility. Savannah River Site.
DeSmog editors and contributors preview some of the climate stories they’ll be following this year.
Last year, we chased ambitious stories all along the climate spectrum. We investigated allegations of workers exposed to radioactive oilfield waste, reported from the frontlines of climate-fueled extreme weather and climate migration, expanded our coverage of the climate impact of agriculture, followed the ongoing buildout of LNG, and sent a team to COP27, among other things.
This year, we’ll continue chasing major climate stories around the globe and exposing the people and groups fueling denial and delay. Below, a handful of DeSmog writers dive into the issues they’ll be watching in 2023.
Salmon might seem like a good alternative to meat, in a world that needs to shift away from carbon-intensive cattle — at least the fish farming industry would have you see it that way. The aquaculture market is booming and is the fastest-growing food sector in the world right now.
But there’s a hitch. Salmon is fed on other fish — small, oily, and nutritious pelagic species — which are harvested by the tonne off the West African coastline and pulverized into fishmeal and fish oil for export to Europe and Asia. These fish would otherwise be feeding communities — already hard hit by climate change — who have no other way to replace this lost superfood, which contains the nutrients most needed by children in their first 1,000 days of life. In 2023, DeSmog will be looking more into the aquaculture industry, its impacts, and where it seeks to influence policy. – Hazel Healy, DeSmog’s UK editor
Burning wood to raise energy security? What sounds like a bizarre idea for hitting climate targets is set to gain further purchase in 2023, as Europe’s scramble to replace Russian gas continues apace.
Bioenergy already makes up around 60 percent of the EU’s renewable energy sources, and lobbyists are jumping on the current geopolitical crisis to ramp this up further. Weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, DeSmog revealed with the Financial Times how UK power plant Drax was at the heart of lobbying efforts to dilute EU biodiversity rules that could limit its supply of wood.
In 2023, we’ll continue to keep our eye on EU policy around bioenergy. In September, the European Parliament sent a clear signal that using “primary woody biomass” — healthy or fallen trees for fuel — is problematic and shouldn’t be subsidized. But plenty of loopholes remain.
And let’s not forget Drax in Yorkshire, a former coal-fired power station which generates nearly 13 percent of the UK’s “renewable” electricity from burning wood pellets.
Drax already receives over £800 million a year from the UK government to burn these pellets sourced from around the EU and the U.S., and is hoping to win more public money from 2027 through creating “carbon negative” bioenergy by capturing carbon from its operations and burying it underground.
DeSmog will be looking at the ways in which lobby groups and pro-bioenergy politicians move from questionable “carbon neutral” to “negative emissions” claims about bioenergy, and what this means for the future of Europe’s energy mix. – Phoebe Cooke, DeSmog UK’s senior reporter
Hydrogen fuel gained significant traction as a climate solution in 2022, with governments and industry pledging billions of dollars towards new development projects. In particular “blue hydrogen,” derived from gas and paired with carbon sequestering tech, has been touted as a promising transition fuel in Canada and around the world.
Critics of the push say carbon capture technology is still unproven, methane leakage could add untold greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, and transport complications all make blue hydrogen a much dirtier fuel than the name implies. Last year, we mapped Canada’s hydrogen lobby and revealed how fossil fuel interests are pushing for blue hydrogen in Canada. DeSmog will be keeping an eye on how industry actors are leveraging the theoretical promise of hydrogen to lock in continued fossil fuel production in 2023 and beyond. – Sarah Berman, DeSmog’s Canada editor
Carbon Capture And Storage
Haven’t heard of “net-zero oil”? Next year you will.
Big Oil has been holding out the prospect that a technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) can slash the emissions caused by burning its products for decades. That promise has never materialized: Existing CCS projects capture and bury about 0.1 percent of global emissions. And the technique has mostly been used to pump yet more oil out of depleted fields — canceling out the benefits of storing the carbon dioxide (CO2) underground.
With pressure to decarbonise growing, oil executives are pushing the technology harder than ever. At the COP27 climate talks in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, host of next year’s negotiating round, placed CCS at the heart of its attempts to present a climate-friendly image, and majors such as TotalEnergies, Shell, and ExxonMobil are also making big carbon capture promises.
Campaigners will be pointing out that building a few CCS projects will nowhere near offset the harm caused by the industry’s plans to ramp up overall production — and that the only “net-zero oil” is the oil that stays in the ground. As scrutiny of CCS intensifies, DeSmog will be on hand to make sense of one of the most complex and fast-moving fronts in the global climate fight. – Matthew Green, DeSmog’s global investigations editor
Disinformation campaigns will certainly continue in 2023, confusing and convincing ever more people that fake news is true. Still, I’m encouraged by growing interest in “pre-bunking” — inoculating people against disinformation by familiarizing them with common disinformation tropes and techniques ahead of time.
This is familiar territory for DeSmog — we have unpacked and decoded fossil fuel greenwashing and climate denier messaging for more than a decade — but now that social media has turbocharged the circulation of conspiracy theories and white grievance, it’s vital to get out ahead of these messages.
Researchers have been studying the effectiveness of pre-bunking for some years, and now the idea seems to be going mainstream; NPR, the Associated Press, and NBC News have all run stories about pre-bunking in recent months.
I asked Janet Haven, executive director of Data & Society, where she thought disinformation might go in the year ahead. Haven anticipates little self-regulation from within the tech sector, particularly when it comes to the new generation of chaotic-neutral AI tools and bots like Chat GPT. “However, I do hope we will see growing attention at the federal level to build meaningful guardrails around the development and deployment of these and other AI systems,” she said, “ones that put the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms over pure technical innovation.”
It’s hard to be optimistic. Still, the bipartisan passage of the Respect for Marriage Act makes me wonder if both parties in Congress may find one or two more things to agree on in the coming year. – Emily Gertz, DeSmog editor
In 2023, I will be watching what happens with oil and gas fields in Alaska, the Arctic, Africa, and South America. I will also keep an eye on how Europe responds to the re-energizing of the fracking boom in the United States due to the war in Ukraine, and whether or not Europe chooses to drill, and even frack their own resources. Of course, I will be closely following issues around oilfield radioactivity, and how readers in the United States and the world at large continue to respond to our stories and reveals on this topic. – Justin Nobel, DeSmog contributor
The year we’ll be keeping an eye on the scramble by the oil and gas industry to lock in the last gasps of growth before the unfolding energy transition forces them into stagnation and decline. For instance, the industry sought to capitalize off of Russia’s war in Ukraine to build new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, as DeSmog covered in 2022. We’ll be watching those efforts to cash in on the war as 2023 unfolds. A handful of LNG projects are moving forward on the U.S. Gulf Coast, but many others are struggling to secure financing.
To be sure, the gas industry is not entirely on the offensive; it is under siege on many other fronts. Dozens of municipalities, counties, and even a few states are starting to ban gas connections in new buildings and are stepping up efforts to accelerate building electrification. This has the potential to cut off one area of growth for the fossil fuel industry. In the face of that threat, the gas industry and utilities are engaging in various greenwashing campaigns, hyping up false solutions — such as renewable natural gas and hydrogen for home heating — in an attempt to influence climate policy and secure a long-term future for fossil fuel assets. DeSmog will continue to scrutinize and report on these developments. – Nick Cunningham, DeSmog contributor
Last year, reports challenged the notion that PR firms are merely neutral bystanders when it comes to Big Oil’s ideas. Instead, agents have created and shaped the communication strategies of their fossil fuel clients, while remaining close to invisible. Authors Melissa Aronczyk and Maria I. Espinoza have called these processes “strategies of silence,” as I explored in my first Gaslit column, published at the beginning of 2022.
PR firms have remained behind the scenes so effectively that only recently has their role in spreading climate disinformation come into the spotlight. From creating phrases like “lower emission fuel” to executing greenwashing strategies, research is increasingly showing that PR firms are involved in creating marketing, image, and reputation strategies for oil and gas companies, while shaping culture, policy, and public discourse on the climate crisis.
For example, last November, DeSmog highlighted the role of Hill+Knowlton, the PR firm handling communications for COP27, which also retains clients such as Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute and contributed to creating Big Tobacco’s denial playbook.
As the veil is being lifted, much remains to be learned about the intersection between PR firms and the fossil fuel industry. In 2023, I’ll be looking at how this is developing, and the role PR plays in climate obstruction around the world. – Stella Levantesi, DeSmog contributor and “Gaslit” author