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No renewable energy industry representatives will keynote at theEIA Annual Energy Conference, while two oil industry executives will address the plenary alongside government representatives. (Photo: Daniel Parks/flickr/cc)

The EIA Needs to Play its Part for the Climate

The Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Conference begins today. It’s a two-day Washington energy wonk binge that is dominated by fossil fuel industry heavyweights and technocrats.

While a few of the conference sessions will deal with climate change and renewable energy, there remains a clear bias towards discussions of a continued status quo of fossil fuel energy dominance. Further, no renewable energy industry representatives will keynote at the conference, while two oil industry executives will address the plenary alongside government representatives. Given the imperative presented by the climate crisis to move away from fossil fuels and the rapid surge underway in renewable energy, this omission is a striking one.

This morning, a coalition of environmental groups hand delivered a letter to EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski.  The letter respectfully requests that the Energy Information Administration produce a safe climate scenario or scenarios that are consistent with our nation’s climate goals.

An enduring aspect of the EIA’s lack of attention to the urgency of the climate crisis is the lack of a projection of U.S. and/or global energy supply and demand that reflects the nation’s stated commitments to address climate change. As we wrote in May, the EIA’s continued failure to fully incorporate the U.S. government’s commitments to limit climate change, or the imperatives presented by the science, or even the rapid uptake in renewable energy being seen around the world, presents an inaccurate and potentially dangerous view from which our energy policy is being developed.

In other words, the federal government’s energy data and modeling experts do not currently provide information that can specifically inform them what the nation’s energy flows should look like if the nation’s long-term climate policy is actually pursued. This is an extraordinary situation, given that the agency’s mission statement states that the EIA, “analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to promote sound policymaking”. It seems that sound climate policymaking is for some reason currently being ignored at the EIA.

Our climate goals and energy policy needs to be aligned. In order to do so, our decision-makers need a roadmap for what energy looks like if we are to meet the commitments made in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to below 2°C and strive towards staying below 1.5°C. The EIA can do just that…but as of yet it has not done so.

As outlined in The Climate Test, developed and endorsed by a range of organizations from the U.S. and Canada:

“Energy decisions must be guided by climate science. According to the IPCC’s most recent analysis, global greenhouse emissions must be reduced dramatically by mid-century in order to limit global temperature rise to 2°C. Achieving the 1.5°C limit agreed to in Paris will require greater and more immediate reductions. Globally, these reductions will require the majority of fossil fuel reserves to remain unexploited. Within this context, it is imperative that decision-makers are provided with the tools they need to assess how energy projects and policies fit within a climate safe energy future.

Decision-makers must develop and consider models that are consistent with a global economic transition away from fossil fuels. It is essential that the United States and Canada have a clear roadmap for global energy supply and demand based on 1.5°C and 2°C limits. This roadmap will require U.S. and Canadian energy information agencies to construct robust models for global energy markets that are consistent with these climate scenarios.”

The EIA’s stated mission is in part to inform “sound policymaking”. To perform this role it must provide federal decision makers with a roadmap to achieve the government’s stated climate policy. The EIA should produce an additional case that shows how the U.S. can provide the energy it needs, while achieving the emissions reductions it has committed to. Without such a tool, the government has no yardstick to measure progress, nor the information it needs to achieve success.

The EIA insists on the need to remain “policy-neutral”, limiting its ability to incorporate potential policies into its forecasts. And yet the U.S. Government has a long-term policy goal of staying below 2°C of warming, and reducing emissions along a trajectory to get there. Is it “neutral” to assume our government and others will fail to achieve these stated commitments when modeling our energy future? How exactly does the EIA currently inform this long-term policy goal?

Ahead of the May release of the EIA’s “International Energy Outlook,” we raised concerns about the EIA’s “Reference Case” being used as a prediction of future energy use by reporters and policymakers. The EIA’s Reference Case assumes static energy policies, and as such, consistently suggests a continuing status quo for fossil fuel use. Of course, we know that such continued fossil fuel use would cause complete climate catastrophe, and thankfully world leaders have recognized this fact, as evidenced by the commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement reached last December.

It seems these critiques have struck a bit of a nerve. Accompanying the early release of the Reference case for this year’s Annual Energy Outlook, the EIA released a statement clarifying its purpose, titled “EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook is a projection, not a prediction.” According to the statement, “the Reference case, which incorporates only existing laws and policies, is not intended to be a most likely prediction of the future.”

This is a good clarification for the EIA to make. The Reference case is often reported as a prediction of future energy by the media, despite the fact that energy policy has never remained static for years on end. So having the EIA clarify this point is important if for no other reason than to encourage reporters to get the facts straight.

The EIA does produce alternative cases, mostly projecting the potential influence of different external factors. For example, it has consistently produced alternative cases that include higher and lower oil prices than are assumed in the Reference case, and higher and lower oil and gas resources. However, it has also produced cases that look at the potential influence of policies that are not yet on the books and may never be.

For example, a side case in this year’s AEO looks at the steel industry’s sensitivity to carbon pricing, among other things. There is no proposed legislation currently to establish a carbon price in the US. So this is clearly a speculative policy assumption that is being tested.

So, our question remains: Why has the EIA not produced a case in which it is assumed that climate policies are enacted that are commensurate with the goal already committed to of limiting global warming to 2°C or 1.5°C? Given the restated commitment to climate action made at Paris, it’s really time it did.

© 2021 Oil Change International

David Turnbull

David Turnbull is campaigns director for Oil Change International. Follw him on Twitter: @david_turnbull

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