Former oil exec urges united action on climate change


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Speaking Wednesday at a meeting of Yellowstone County Democrats, Linda ‘Diz’ Swift talks about the overwhelming evidence that climate change is advancing rapidly.

A self-described Republican and former climate change skeptic says Americans must now take the fight against global warming as seriously as they did World War II.

“We, united, can do it,” she said Wednesday. “But we have to get united, and we have to realize that this is a war footing.”

Linda Dinsmore “Diz” Swift, a former Chevron executive who worked in the oil and gas business for more than 30 years, has a doctorate in geology. She spoke to Yellowstone County Democrats at their breakfast meeting on Wednesday and again at the Billings Public Library on Wednesday evening. She is also scheduled to speak to the League of Women Voters today at noon.

At the Democratic breakfast, she said that she also planned to meet with staff members for U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke to discuss legislation adopting a cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions.

“We need to raise a powerful voice so that Sen. Daines and Rep. Zinke are not afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they support this,” she said.

Swift, who grew up near Great Falls, also worked as a geologist for the Stillwater Mining Co. and as a planning adviser for the Pittsburg and Midway Coal Co. She said her own study of the issue convinced her that climate change was real and that urgent steps were needed to combat it.

In a brief overview of the evidence, she noted that carbon dioxide now makes up 400 parts per million of the atmosphere. That’s one-third higher than the previous highest level over the last 800,000 years, she said.

Carbon dioxide and methane, as well as other so-called greenhouse gases, trap warmth from sun in the atmosphere. Earth would be uninhabitable without that greenhouse effect, Swift said, but human activity could push carbon dioxide levels to an unsustainable 1,000 parts per million without strong steps to stop it.

Average temperatures on earth have been rising steadily, she said, and 2015 was, once again, the warmest year on record.

Climate change skeptics, including many in Swift’s own Republican Party, argue that climate changes naturally and that average temperatures have not increased in recent years.

But the latter claim is based on high temperatures recorded in just one particularly strong El Niño year. El Niño is a complex interaction between the ocean and atmosphere that can temporarily lead to abnormally warm weather.

As for the claim that climate change is natural, Swift said, “Natural cycles occur, but not at the level or in the time frame we’re looking at.”

Current temperature increases can’t be accounted for without human intervention, Swift said, and 78 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from the use of fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum. Fossil fuels also are expected to provide 80 percent of U.S. energy through 2030, making it a tricky proposition to cut emissions without damaging the economy.

Increased energy efficiency can help, Swift said, but is not enough to solve the problem.

Congress once had bipartisan support for a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by adopting cap-and-trade legislation, but Republicans now oppose that approach.

Unable to overcome congressional opposition, the Obama administration adopted a Clean Power Plan using the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to fight pollution. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels.

The plan faces widespread opposition, especially in states like Montana with economies that rely heavily on coal production. Twenty-seven states have filed 15 separate lawsuits opposing the plan, while 18 states have filed suits in support of the rule, Swift said. The first oral arguments are expected to begin June 2.

Montana is required to produce its own plan for reducing emissions by September or to request a two-year extension, Swift said. If no plan is proposed by 2018, the federal government will impose one, she said.

In Montana, the plan would affect eight energy-producing units in five facilities, Swift said. Economists have argued that the plan could force the closure of four units in Colstrip that account for 80 percent of Montana’s emissions.

Swift acknowledged that the goal is to close coal-fired energy plants.

“The point is to shutter them,” she said. “The point is to stop coal production. And the reason is, we’re going to cook if we don’t.”

But that action could idle some 350 miners at Colstrip.

“I don’t think we should leave them twisting in the wind,” she said, “but their children need to do something else.”

One way to help miners, she argued, could be with additional revenues brought in by adoption of a cap-and-trade system. Under that approach, governments would set a price on carbon and set limits on total emissions. Companies could purchase permits that allow certain levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

Companies with low emissions could then sell permits on the open market to companies that have higher emissions and need additional permits. The government would control total emissions without attempting to regulate emissions on a plant-by-plant basis.

While Congress has been unwilling to pass such legislation, smaller-scale efforts are in place. California has a cap-and-trade agreement with Quebec, she said, and nine northeastern states have joined in a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to limit emissions.

Some critics of the Clean Power Plan argue that reducing emissions in states such as Montana would have only a tiny effect on climate change worldwide. But Swift pointed out that seven megacities in China will be in a cap-and-trade arrangement by next year. China, a Communist country, is taking a free-market approach to solving the problem while America, a free-market country, is taking a bureaucratic, regulatory approach.

Swift acknowledged that her own political party poses a major obstacle to a market-driven cap-and-trade system. Three Republican presidential candidates—Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson—have no concept of the science behind climate change, she said. The rest understand the problem but dare not speak out about it until after the presidential primaries are over.

She said that politicians need pressure from voters to act.

“With ‘Hey, let’s do something,’ things will change,” she said, adding, “A price on carbon will put the free market to work, and that’s very powerful.”

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