Polluting Industries Cash-In on COVID, Harming Climate in the Process

Airlines, farmers and plastic bag makers look for relief amid the pandemic. But the coal industry, and wind and solar energy concerns, lose out in the relief bill.

Mar 27, 2020
New York Mayor Bill De Blasio hands out reusable bags on Feb. 28, 2020, ahead of a plastic bag ban, The ban was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio hands out reusable bags on Feb. 28, 2020, ahead of a plastic bag ban. The ban was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

With the attention of lawmakers and government agencies focused on the global coronavirus pandemic, polluting industries have seized on the opportunity to advance their own interests. 

In the days leading up to President Donald Trump's signing of a $2.2 trillion relief bill, lobbyists descended on Washington in an attempt to squeeze as much as possible out of the U.S. Treasury. Some industries, including agriculture and aviation, got major boosts; others, notably coal and clean energy, were left disappointed.  

As the number of infections and deaths from the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise and the economic fallout starts to hit more Americans, industries are scrambling to stay afloat and save jobs. But some, critics say, are exploiting the situation to their advantage, potentially at a cost to the climate.  

This week, after a request from the oil industry, the Environmental Protection Agency  issued a suspension of its enforcement of environmental laws, a move that critics say will let the industry pollute indefinitely.  

Environmental and advocacy groups say they are concerned that other agencies will follow suit, allowing industries to capitalize on the crisis. And some are already trying to get what they can.   

Plastics

The plastics industry, for example, is using the COVID-19 pandemic to try to save what has become in many peoples' minds a global villain—the single-use plastic bag.

Their actions come after a growing number of states and cities have banned plastic bags or slapped fees on their use in retail and grocery stores. Plastic bags and all kinds of other plastics are choking the oceans, with microscopic bits of plastic getting into human bodies, giving the industry a bad reputation. And plastics manufacturing and incineration are contributing  to global warming.

But seeing an opportunity in the global crisis, the Plastics Industry Association has asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare the bans on plastic bags a health risk, and "to speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk."

The industry cites studies or reports, including at least one paid for by the plastics industry, that claim dirty reusable bags spread germs. Those are findings that are disputed by others, including Greenpeace, which describes the industry efforts as "a profit-driven distraction."

But the industry is succeeding in getting some traction, at least temporarily:

  • Maine delayed its ban on single-use plastic bags from April 22 to Jan. 15, 2021.
  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu temporarily banned reusable bags in grocery stores, as did Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who also lifted all local plastic bag bans in his state.
  • Charleson, South Carolina, had banned plastic bags effective on Jan. 1, but last week suspended that ban for 60 days, as part of its response to COVID-19.

New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, has delayed enforcing its new  statewide plastic bag ban until April 1, but officials said that's only because of a legal challenge unrelated to the pandemic.

Some retail stores are prohibiting their customers from using reusable bags while others still allow them, or do so only if customers fill them.

To Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who runs the Beyond Plastics campaign, the industry's efforts are unfortunate.

"I am quite disturbed that the plastics industry is exploiting this pandemic with unfounded information," Enck said, adding, "What I am most worried about is permanent repeal of plastic bag bans." 

Agriculture

The relief package passed by Congress directs $14 billion to the country's farms through the Commodity Credit Corporation, a Depression-era program designed to stabilize farm income and ensure stable supplies of major crops. It also directs another $9.5 billion to fruit and vegetable growers, livestock producers and those farmers who sell directly to markets.

The infusions were welcomed across the board by progressive and conservative farming groups. But some advocates for climate-friendly farming are concerned that the dollars will end up with mega-farms and multinational agriculture corporations that have pushed against sustainable, climate-forward farming.

Over the last two years, the Trump administration has given American farmers nearly $28 billion in bailouts to compensate for losses linked to the administration's trade war with China. Critics said most of that went to larger farms and worry the new funds could be spent the same way.

"The defining element of this aid package is a total lack of specificity," said Eric Deeble, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "It's not that people didn't try to do hard work; it's just that when they tried to get specific, it started to fall apart."

That means Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue will decide who gets the aid and how much. His past record suggests it will flow to the biggest farms. 

"Perdue's handling of the trade aid payments shows his preference for large-scale commodity farmers," said Ben Lillilston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "Within the $9.5 billion, will the bulk of the money go to big feedlots and mega-dairies? That's a big concern, given Perdue's preference for those types of operations."

Airlines

Democrats had originally proposed a $50 billion stimulus measure for the airline industry that would require airlines to go carbon neutral for domestic flights by 2025 and would also provide funding to develop lower-carbon fuels. Both those measures were cut from the package passed in Congress this week, which included nearly $60 billion for airlines with no green strings attached.

The emissions-reducing measures wouldn't have been out of line with what the airline industry is already trying to do. A decade ago, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) set a number of ambitious targets to combat the industry's contributions to climate change, including binding the trade group's hundreds of member airlines to participate in carbon offset schemes starting in 2027. 

Without assistance, however, those plans could take a back seat. Offset schemes could already cost airlines at least $6.2 billion a year over the next five years, according to an analysis by Citigroup.

Commercial aviation is responsible for 2.4 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and could account for up to a quarter of the world's carbon budget by 2050, according to a 2019 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation.

But as the coronavirus outbreak has led to steep declines in air travel, many airlines have been focused on mere survival. IATA's most recent estimate projects global aviation passenger revenues this year plummeting $252 billion, or 44 percent below 2019 revenues. And the group's CEO Alexandre de Juniac this week called for $200 billion in international relief to prevent a total collapse of the industry.

Whatever gets the aviation industry that support is what's most important, said Chris Goater, IATA's manager of corporate communications. "We are primarily focused on the survival of industry at this point," he said. "If leaving provisions out of the bill enables it to be passed, then that is worth it."

Coal

The coal industry, which was in free fall long before the coronavirus hit, tried to benefit from the stimulus bill, but was left out of the package.

The industry's requests—relief on taxes supporting abandoned mine clean-up and workers stricken with black lung disease and a reduction in royalty payments to the federal treasury for coal mined from federal lands—were not new and an industry spokesman said the industry will keep asking for them. 

Congress in December had just fully restored the excise tax on coal that funds benefits to coal miners with black lung disease. 

"It's essential that policymakers thoughtfully consider ways to ensure the coal sector can provide uninterrupted operations," said Conor Bernstein, spokesman for the National Mining Association. Friday, Bernstein said the bill has some tax provisions that will help all industries, including mining. "We will keep making the case for more specific action as the government continues to look for ways to support critical industries and lift the economy.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who sees himself as a friend of the coal industry, provided only a vague, one-sentence response to questions about what happened to the mining industry's request. McConnell has been "working hard" to help coal families and employers, the spokesman said.

Advocates for coal miners were incensed by the industry's requests.

Rebecca Shelton, with the Appalachian Citizen Law Center in eastern Kentucky, called the National Mining Association's request "particularly egregious" because "those with black lung disease are likely to be very vulnerable to COVID-19 and yet the industry wants to reduce funding for the trust fund that many miners with black lung disease rely upon."

The coal industry has experienced waves of bankruptcies and consolidations as it has struggled to compete with cheaper natural gas and increasingly less expensive wind and solar energy, said Chiza Vitta, an analyst with S&P Global Ratings.

As such, it is not a typical candidate for a bailout, he said.

"Normally, you give bailouts to companies that can thrive going forward," Vitta said.

Renewables

Renewable energy trade groups also hoped their industries would get something in the stimulus legislation, including extensions and expansions to tax credits that had narrowly missed being included in a budget bill in December.

After the tax credit proposals were not included this week, the major solar and wind trade associations issued conciliatory statements.

"As Congress continues to address the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we appreciate that they are prioritizing relief for families and small businesses," said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.   

Hopper said some of the aid in the legislation will help people in the solar industry, but lamented that her group did not get anywhere near what it wanted. A few days earlier, she had warned that up to 125,000 jobs—about half of the solar industry—could be lost because of the economic disruption caused by coronavirus, and asked

Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, praised Congress for taking action to help workers, before adding that the wind industry is "disappointed clean energy sector relief did not make it into the phase three stimulus package."

Hopper and Kiernan both said they are looking to future measures to potentially provide the aid to their industries that did not make into this bill.

And lawmakers have hinted that this week's stimulus is probably not the last. 

Our journalism is free of charge and available to everyone, thanks to readers like you. In this time of crisis, our fact-based reporting on science, health and the environment is more important than ever. Please support our work by making a donation today.

Facebook Twitter Google Plus Email LinkedIn RSS RSS Instagram YouTube