EPA Releases Proposed Rule for Existing Power Plants

June 5, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week announced a proposed rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This first-of-its-kind proposal uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets for carbon dioxide and to allow states to devise individual or joint plans to meet those targets. The EPA expects to finalize the rule by next June.

“Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source—power plants. By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids.”

An analysis by our Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researchers highlights key details of the 600-plus-page rule, which assigns each state interim and final emissions goals. These goals are based, in part, on the efficiency of each state’s fossil fleet in 2012. They also reflect estimates of the emissions-reduction potential of efficiency upgrades to coal plants and increased use of renewable energy, demand-side energy efficiency, and existing natural gas capacity.

The rule provides states considerable flexibility to decide how to meet their interim and final emissions reduction goals. States may consider methods such as expanding renewable energy generation, creating energy efficiency programs and working with other states on the creation of regional plans. Once the EPA’s proposed rule is finalized, states will be given one to three years to finalize their state plans.

The rule sparked predictable political commentary. Republican leadership pilloried the rule, the President’s allies expressed gratitude for his leadership, and political pundits mused over the rule’s impact on the midterm elections. A Washington Post-ABC News post–rule-announcement poll found a large majority of Americans—70 percent—support regulating carbon from power plants. Americans in coal states were supportive of limiting greenhouse gas emissions regardless of whether their state was forced to make bigger adjustments than other states. And at least one set of political commenters—former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and I—point out that, if executed effectively, the rule could begin the nation’s path back to more comprehensive climate change policy.

China Taking Action as Well?

The proposed rule appeared to spur another of the world’s largest emitters—China—to consider capping its carbon dioxide emissions, starting with its next five-year plan in 2016. The suggestion, offered by He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change at a Beijing conference, was reported in several media outlets but was not an official pronouncement of the government.

“What I said today was my personal view,” said Jiankun. “The opinions expressed at the workshop were only meant for academic studies. What I said does not represent the Chinese government or any organization.”

Still, some saw the statement—by a senior advisor—as a promising development ahead of international climate negotiations that began Wednesday in Bonn, Germany. “As with many things in China, these officials don’t speak unless there’s some emerging consensus in the government that this is a position that they’re trending toward,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the environmental group at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think it’s a very positive sign that this kind of debate has taken hold.”

Not all commenters were sanguine about the EPA rule. According to a German study released this week, even with the 30 percent emissions cut outlined in the EPA’s proposed rule, climate pledges the United States set at United Nations climate talks may not be met. The study found the EPA rule would reduce 2030 U.S. national emissions only about 10 percent below 2005 levels. In 2010, the United States promised to reduce greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

“While the proposal is welcome, it is insufficient to meet the U.S.’s pledges of 17 percent reduction of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and is inconsistent with its long-term target of 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050,” said Niklas Hoehne of Ecofys, a German group that helped analyze the plan’s impact. “The plan implies an economy-wide decarbonisation rate of about 0.9 percent per annum, significantly lower than the 1.4 percent per annum achieved in the last decade. This is not as fast as required for a 2 C decarbonisation pathway.”

New Imports for Solar

The United States has set new import tariffs on some solar panels from China, saying some manufacturers had unfairly benefitted from subsidies. The still-preliminary Commerce Department ruling was prompted by a petition of charges filed by a group led by SolarWorld in 2011. The petition claims some Chinese companies avoided tariffs by shipping solar cell parts to locations like Taiwan—flooding the U.S. market with cheap products.

Duties imposed in the preliminary decision could range from 18.5 to 35.21 percent.

“The import duties, which are in line with our expectations, will wipe out the price competitiveness of Chinese products in the U.S. market,” said Zhou Ziguang, an analyst at the Chinese investment bank Ping An Securities in Beijing.

For U.S. companies, the news was mixed—some could see great benefits; others, very little.

“SunPower will be the primary beneficiary of the decision, given its presence in the U.S. distributed generation market where most Chinese companies supply product,” according to Morgan Stanley. “Although First Solar theoretically benefits, we believe that the impact will be small given limited presence of Chinese companies in the U.S. utility scale market.”

Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said “These damaging tariffs will increase costs for U.S. solar consumers and, in turn, slow the adoption of solar.”

Last year the European Union overcame a similar trade dispute with Beijing when the trade partners agreed to set a minimum price for solar panels from China.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Upcoming EPA Power Plant Rule Stirs Speculation

May 29, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is just days away from the release of its first-ever proposed rule regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The rule will push states to cut pollution primarily from coal-fired generators. As many await details of the rule, The New York Times reports that sources familiar with proposal suggest that it will call for a 20 percent reduction.

One new study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was skeptical of the regulation, slated for release on June 2, finding that they would cost the economy $51 billion a year in lost investments. The Chamber further suggests that the rule could diminish coal-fired generation, which currently represents 40 percent of electricity generation in the country, by one third.

In a blog post, the EPA disputed the Chamber of Commerce findings.

“The chamber’s report is nothing more than irresponsible speculation based on guesses of what our draft proposal will be,” wrote Tom Reynolds, associate administrator for external affairs. “Just to be clear—it’s not out yet. I strongly suggest that folks read the proposal before they cry the sky is falling.”

second report from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions identifies opportunities for states to comply with section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act using policies that generate benefits beyond reductions in CO2 emissions. States may choose, for example, to reduce carbon emissions in a way that hedges risk of future air regulations, potentially lowers long-term compliance costs and limits emissions of other pollutants. In a separate report released this week, researchers at Harvard and Syracuse universities identified potential air quality impacts of section 111(d) policy designs that vary in stringency and flexibility.

Americans React to Climate Terms Differently

When the president discusses the proposed rule, a part of his Climate Action Plan, choosing whether to use “climate change” or “global warming” could elicit far different public responses, according to a new report.

The two terms are often used synonymously, but it turns out “global warming” invokes a stronger negative reaction than “climate change.” In national surveys, respondents were 13 percentage points more likely to say global warming is bad than they were to say climate change is bad—76 percent compared with 63 percent.

“The whole realm of connotative meaning is actually where most of us live our daily lives,” said lead Yale University researcher Anthony Leiserowitz. “When looking at a menu and deciding what to have for lunch, you see the word ‘sushi’— some people have the reaction, ‘Oh, delicious, I’ll order that,’ and other people have a reaction of: ‘Disgusting, raw fish.’ So these terms play out not only in our every day decision making but also in our politics.”

Between 2004 and 2014, “global warming” was the term searched more frequently on the Internet. Even though it’s more scientifically accurate to talk about the problem as “climate change,” the term “global warming” is more effective in conveying urgency. In The New York Times, Andrew Revkin argues that the latter term should dominate for other reasons: “As Roger A Pielke Jr. has pointed out for a decade, ‘climate change’ has proved problematic in a more technical sense—with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defining the term differently, in ways that have significant ramifications in treaty negotiations.”

Politically, the researchers said, “use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.”

New Safety Conditions Set for Keystone

Safety regulators put two extra conditions on construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline after learning of potentially dangerous construction defects involving the project’s southern leg, including high rates of bad welds, dented pipe and damaged pipeline coating.

The defects have been fixed. However, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) wants to prevent similar problems from occurring in the pipeline’s controversial northern segment, which is on hold pending a decision by the Obama administration.

“TransCanada had identified and addressed these issues prior to any product being introduced into the pipeline and reported them voluntarily to the government,” said TransCanada spokesperson Davis Sheremata, noting that the southern leg’s problems were a completely separate matter than issues related to the construction of the northern leg.

One of the two new conditions requires TransCanada to hire a third-party contractor chosen by PHMSA to monitor the construction and report on its soundness to the U.S. government. The second requires TransCanada to adopt a quality management program to ensure that the pipeline is built to Keystone and its contractors’ highest standards.

Meanwhile, TransCanada is filing an amicus brief in Nebraska, siding with the governor and the state in a lawsuit filed by three Nebraska ranchers who want to block Keystone.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


EPA Power Plant Rule Deadline Approaching

May 22, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Next month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will issue a proposed rule that sets the first-ever carbon emissions standards for the country’s existing power plants. The rule, to be announced by President Barack Obama, is rumored to include a phased approach leading to steeper emissions limits over time.

Though little has formally come out about the rule, to be released on or around June 2, EPA officials have said it will be flexible.

“It is going to be flexible, and it will set goals,” said Curt Spaulding, EPA administrator for New England. “I can’t tell you what those goals are going to be—that’s being worked on in Washington at the highest levels.”

Bloomberg has reported that the administration is considering a two-stage reduction of emissions by 25 percent. The reduction would begin with small cuts; deeper cuts would start in 2024 and run through 2029.

Reports Point Finger at Climate Change for Increased Risks

On the heels of news that last month ranked as the world’s hottest April on record—1.39 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average for the month (56.7 degrees Fahrenheit)—new reports are pointing to rising global temperatures for increased threats to the food industry, landmarks and credit ratings.

  • A new Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services report finds rising temperatures could be bad for a nation’s credit rating. The report rates 128 sovereign governments on the basis of creditworthiness, suggesting that poorer countries and nations with already low ratings would be hit hardest by the effects of climate change. Global warming “will put downward pressure on sovereign ratings during the remainder of this century,” Standard & Poor analysts wrote. “The degree to which individual countries and societies are going to be affected by warming and changing weather patterns depends largely on actions undertaken by other, often far-away societies.”
  • Many of the nation’s historic and cultural landmarks may be irreparably damaged or lost forever due to the effects of climate change, according to a non-peer-reviewed report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Harriet Tubman National Monument in Maryland, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, Jamestown, are among the 30 sitesat risk for rising seas, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, wildfire and drought.
  • Growth of global food production could be reduced 2 percent each decade for the next century as a result of climate change, according to a report by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. It further suggests that climate change threatens to undermine not only how much food can be grown but also the food’s nutritional quality.

Hydraulic Fracturing Bans, Impacts Assessed

Santa Cruz became the first county in California to ban hydraulic fracturing. Meanwhile, two state Senate committees in North Carolina unanimously passed legislation lifting the state’s moratorium on that oil and natural gas production technique.

The entire North Carolina Senate voted to lift the moratorium Thursday. It will now go to the House for consideration. The bill focuses on extending the deadline for development of rules for hydraulic fracturing by the Mining and Energy Commission and reduces fees for drillers.

It also requires companies to report any chemicals used in the drilling process—information the state would hold confidentially and disclose to emergency responders or health care professionals in case of emergency. But it would make unauthorized disclosure of those chemicals a misdemeanor.

A new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology focuses on the implications of increasing use of this production technique for the climate. It finds that natural gas can help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but that in the absence of targeted climate policy measures it will not substantially change the course of global GHG concentrations.

“Over the range of scenarios that we examine, abundant natural gas by itself is neither a climate hero nor a climate villain,” said co-author and Duke University Energy Initiative Director Richard Newell.

Design of these climate policies is as important as the abundance of natural gas. Increased supply of natural gas has the potential to decrease the cost of implementing comprehensive climate policies.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Court Upholds Soot Standards

May 15, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A federal court of appeals on Friday unanimously found that the Clean Air Act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) substantial discretion in setting air quality standards. The ruling upheld the EPA’s tightened limits on soot, or fine particulate matter from coal plants, refineries, factories and vehicles. In the challenge brought by industry groups, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) pointed to scientific studies and lack of public comment on revised rules.

“Under the arbitrary and capricious standard, we exercise great deference when we evaluate claims about competing bodies of scientific research,” the court wrote. “Petitioners simply have not identified any way in which the EPA jumped the rails of reasonableness in examining the science.”

The stricter air quality standards, set in 2012, limited the annual level of outdoor ambient exposure to soot by 20 percent. EPA had justified the change by pointing to a number of studies that linked exposure to soot particles to a variety of cardiovascular illnesses.

“We’re disappointed in today’s ruling that only further adds to thousands of regulations facing manufacturers,” said NAM’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel Linda Kelly. “The court’s decision also underscores the difficulty manufacturers face in pushing back against a powerful and often overreaching EPA.”

Last month, a Supreme Court ruling reinstated the agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which regulates pollution from coal-fired power plants that drift across state lines. In June—the same month proposed rules for existing coal-fired power plants will be issued—a Supreme Court decision is expected on whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”

Studies Look at Climate Change Risk

A report authored by 16 generals and admirals on the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) Corporation’s Military Advisory Board finds that climate change poses a severe risk to U.S. national security and acts as a catalyst for global political conflict.

“Political posturing and budgetary woes cannot be allowed to inhibit discussion and debate over what so many believe to be a salient national security concern for our nation,” they wrote. “…Time and tide wait for no one.”

The report, which follows up a 2007 study, suggests an increase in catastrophic weather events around the world will raise demand for American troops. It also suggests that rising seas and extreme weather could threaten U.S. military bases and naval ports. These findings, The New York Times reports, would influence American foreign policy.

The CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board found that climate change impacts are already speeding instability in regions such as the Arctic.

“We think things are accelerating in the Arctic faster than we had looked at seven years ago,” said Gen. Paul Kern, the board chairman. “As the Arctic becomes less of ice-contaminated area it represents a lot of opportunities for Russia.” He noted that the situation has the potential to “spark conflict there.”

Another study published in Nature indicates climate change caused by humans could be responsible for as little as half the melting of sea ice in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. The other half is traced to changes in temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean—that is, to natural climate variability, not greenhouse gases.

“We find that 20 to 50 percent of warming is due to anthropogenic [man-made] warming, and another 50 percent is natural,” said lead study author Qinghua Ding. “We know that global warming due to human impacts can’t explain why it got warm so fast.”

The area north of Greenland and the Canadian archipelago has seen temperature increases nearly twice as large as the Arctic average.

“We find that the most prominent annual mean surface and tropospheric warming in the Arctic since 1979 has occurred in northeastern Canada and Greenland,” the authors wrote. “In this region, much of the year-to-year temperature variability is associated with the leading mode of large-scale circulation variability in the North Atlantic, namely, the North Atlantic Oscillation.”

In the Antarctica, a combination of warm ocean currents and geographic peculiarities has begun a glacial retreat that “appears unstoppable.” Two studies—one to be published in Geophysical Research Letters and the other out in Science—find there’s little to nothing that can be done physically to slow the thaw of these glaciers. In fact, melting is expected to push up sea levels in the region by four feet or more. This melt will occur over a longer period of time—centuries not decades.

“This retreat will have major consequences for sea level rise worldwide,” said University of California-Irvine Professor Eric Rignot and author of the Geophysical Research Letters study. It will raise sea levels by 1.2m, or 4ft, but its retreat will also influence adjacent sectors of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which could triple this contribution to sea level.”

Energy Efficiency Bill Fails, While Research Tax Credit Wins Vote

On Monday, a bill to promote U.S. energy conservation by tightening efficiency guidelines for new federal buildings and providing tax incentives to make homes and commercial buildings more efficient fell short.

The bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was just 5 votes shy of the 60 needed to move forward. Its demise also derailed a promised vote on the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Friday prior, the House voted to make permanent a tax credit that rewards businesses for investing in research and development. Although the bill would give businesses a tax break of 20 percent for qualifying research, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate amid criticism that no new tax credit offsets its estimated 10-year, $156 billion cost to U.S. taxpayers.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Federal Climate Assessment Report Pegs Climate Change as Culprit for Rising Temperatures, Seas

May 8, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new federal scientific report, out Tuesday, concluded that global warming is affecting the United States in profound ways and that human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels, is the primary cause of warming over the past 50 years.

Mandated by Congress and written by a federal advisory panel, the more than 800-page National Climate Assessment further says that the average U.S. temperature has increased 1.3 to 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since record keeping began in 1895 and that 44 percent of that rise has occurred since 1970. It projects that temperatures will continue to rise 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in coming decades.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the report notes. “Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter. … Rain comes in heavier downpours.”

The report also suggests that human-induced climate change has already increased the number and strength of some extreme events, such as heavy rain. In the Northeast, the amount of precipitation falling in heavy events increased by 71 percent between 1958 and 2012 but only by 5 percent in the West.

Rising global sea levels will threaten water supplies and cause flooding. By 2100, the report projects a sea level increase of 1 to 4 feet. More dire news on sea levels came this week from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. In their Nature Climate Change study, institute researchers saidthat East Antarctica is at a higher risk of melting earlier than previously thought, triggering an unstoppable sea level rise of up to 4 meters (13 feet).

The National Climate Assessment report did find some benefits from climate change—at least in the short term. Crop-growing seasons as well as shipping seasons on the Great Lakes could lengthen. But these benefits will likely be counteracted as food production is hit by rising temperatures and water demands increase.

The report comes just weeks before the Obama administration is set to release proposed rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants—an announcement that has the fossil fuel industry paying attention.

Republican Voice for Climate Action

On Tuesday, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman offered a viewpoint on climate change that contrasts with that of many Republicans. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, he counseled the Republican party to “get back to [its] foundational roots as catalysts for innovation and problem solving” and urged it to tackle the problem of climate change.  Huntsman recalled the party’s instinct to hedge against risk and to “do now . . . what we have always done well: combine our ingenuity and market forces” to keep greenhouse gas emissions on a trajectory of reductions. He noted that current climate change debate in the party had been “reduced to believing or not believing, as if it were a religious mantra.”

Carbon Dioxide Levels Exceed 400 ppm throughout April

The average level of CO2 in the atmosphere topped 400 parts per million (ppm) throughout April, breaking another record, according to data from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

CO2 broke the daily average of 400 for the first time in May 2013. Though largely symbolic, the 400 parts per million mark was last hit consistently when humans did not exist.

“The rise of carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million is an indicator that the problem of global warming is getting worse, not better,” said Mark Jacobson, a Stanford atmospheric scientist and environmental engineer. “This means we need to focus more heavily on solutions to this problem, namely converting to wind, water and solar power for all purposes.”

The average for April was reported at 401.33 ppm at the Mauna Loa monitoring station in Hawaii. Concentrations of CO2 are rising roughly 2 to 3 ppm a year. The United Nations suggests the concentration of all greenhouse gases should be allowed to peak no higher than 450 ppm this century to maximize chances of limiting global temperature rise.

Department of Energy Debuts Regional Gas Reserves

By late summer, two “gasoline reserves” in New York and New England will be set up to provide short-term relief to first-responders and consumers in the event of extreme weather. The reserves are intended to prevent the fuel shortages experienced in the region after Hurricane Sandy nearly two years ago.

“We think we can help mitigate some of the impacts of sudden, unexpected climate disruptions,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “The issue of fuel resiliency is certainly one of the important parts of that preparation for extreme weather.”

Each of the reserves will hold 500,000 barrels in leased commercial storage terminals. The Department of Energy will maintain the reserves for at least five hurricane seasons. Moniz said the gasoline held in the reserves “will be turned over as part of commercial transactions. We cannot store the same molecules for five years.”

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Cross State Air Pollution Rule Reinstated by Supreme Court

May 1, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Supreme Court, in a 6-2 ruling, upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule to regulate pollution from coal-fired power plants that drifts across state lines.

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR), which applies to 28 states, aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which can lead to soot and smog. The rule was invalidated by a federal appellate court in August 2012 after it was challenged by a group of upwind states and industry because it enforced pollution controls primarily on coal plants. The higher court found the EPA acted reasonably.

“Most upwind states propel pollutants to more than one downwind state, many downwind states receive pollution from multiple upwind states, and some states qualify as both upwind and downwind,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “The overlapping and interwoven linkages between upwind and downwind states with which EPA had to contend number in the thousands.”

The Clean Air Act, and specifically the good neighbor provision at issue, she said, does not tell the EPA what factors to consider. “Under Chevron [v. Natural Resources Defense Council] we read Congress’ silence as a delegation of authority to EPA to select among reasonable options,” she added (subscription).

The rule does not address greenhouse gas emissions, which are the subject of another proposed rule for existing coal-fired power plants that is expected to be released in June. Also due next month is another Supreme Court decision, this one on whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”

Electricity Sector Uncertainty and GHG Emissions

Data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that accelerated plant retirements in either the nuclear power or coal power generation industry would change projections of carbon dioxide emissions. Accelerated retirements of nuclear plants would boost emissions; accelerated retirements of coal-fired plants would reduce them.

EIA predicts U.S. emissions could be 4 percent higher than expected by 2040, but 20 percent lower if more coal plants retire. Lower natural gas prices and stagnant growth in electricity demand will lead to the loss of 10,800 megawatts of U.S. nuclear generation—roughly 10 percent of total capacity by the end of the decade.

Even with the uncertainty facing the electricity sector, there are multi-benefit approaches that state-level environmental regulators and utility commissioners can use to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while simultaneously addressing other electricity sector challenges. That’s according to a new study by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. The study examines Clean Air Act section 111(d) compliance strategies offering these multi-benefit approaches.

Studies Focus on Sea Level Rise, Land Subsidence

Oyster reefs are creating resilience in the face of sea level rise and extreme weather. A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that vertical oyster reef accretion could outpace climate change-induced sea level rise, helping rebuild a shrinking oyster population. The research is the first to suggest that the reefs would act differently than any normal sea wall.

The study of 11 oyster reefs in intertidal areas on the North Carolina coast from 1997 to 2011 found that intertidal reefs have the potential to grow 11 centimeters vertically a year. Researchers acknowledged that much remains to be studied, including subtidal reefs.

Sea level rise may not be the only problem for some regions. In coastal megacities, the extraction of groundwater for drinking water is causing land to sink 10 times faster than sea level rise, according to another new study.

“Land subsidence and sea level rise are both happening, and they are both contributing to the same problem—larger and longer floods, and bigger inundation depth of floods,” said Gilles Erkens, who led the study by the Netherland’s Deltares Research Institute. “The most rigorous solution and the best one is to stop pumping groundwater for drinking water, but then of course you need a new source of drinking water for these cities. But Tokyo did that and subsidence more or less stopped, and in Venice, too, they have done that.”

Financial loss due to sinking, the research said, would reach nearly a billion dollars yearly and cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City will sink below sea level if action isn’t taken.

Could Climate Change have Played Role in the Mount Everest Disaster?

Some scientists are linking the Mount Everest ice release—known as a serac—that killed 16 people last month to climate change.

“You could say [that] climate change closed Mount Everest this year,” said Western Kentucky University Professor John All (subscription).

Research conducted by the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development showed that the Himalayan glaciers shrunk 21 percent in roughly 30 years. Studies by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which point to data collected through on-site monitoring and remote sensing, show a 10 percent reduction in ice during the last four decades.

Still, others say it is impossible to link any one disaster to long-term changes. Much of the evidence that warming is occurring is anecdotal, and the number of scientific observations is not large enough to draw solid conclusions, NBC News reports.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Study Deals Blow for Biofuels as EPA Lowers 2013 Mandate

April 24, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday retroactively lowered the quantity of cellulosic biofuel required for blending in traditional fuels for 2013. In January the EPA agreed to reconsider the mandate “due to the reduced estimate of anticipated cellulosic biofuel production in 2013 that was announced shortly after EPA signed its final rule by one of two companies expected to produce cellulosic biofuel in 2013.”

The new blend level0.0005—more closely aligns with the amount of cellulosic biofuel produced. The EPA based its 2013 standard on the 810,185 ethanol-equivalent gallons produced with nonfood plants last year—a fraction of the 1 billion gallons that Congress sought to require in a 2007 energy law.

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that cellulosic biofuels may actually create more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gasoline, at least in the short term. It finds that in the early years biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn release 7 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. The study notes that removing corn harvest residue—stalks, leaves and cobs—takes carbon out of the soil.

The researchers used a predictive model based on 36 field studies on four continents that measured the rate at which carbon is oxidized in soil. They also tested the model’s accuracy by comparing its results with data gathered from a nine-year, continuous cornfield experiment in Nebraska.

The biofuels industry, the EPA and other researchers have criticized the study—calling the analysis “simplistic” and pointing to a lack of accounting for varying soil and other conditions in different fields as well as an overestimate of how much residue farmers actually remove.

“This paper is based on a hypothetical assumption that 100 percent of corn stover in a field is harvested; an extremely unlikely scenario that is inconsistent with recommended agricultural practices,” said EPA spokewoman Liz Purchia. “As such, it does not provide useful information relevant to the lifecycle GHG emissions from corn stover ethanol.”

The EPA’s own analysis—assuming about half of corn residue would be removed from fields—found that fuel made from corn residue would meet the 2007 energy law standard requiring cellulosic biofuels to release 60 percent less carbon pollution than gasoline. Although biofuels are better in the long term, the Nature Climate Change study says they won’t meet that standard.

Delays for Keystone XL, Power Plant Rule Still on Track

The EPA insists its proposed rules for regulating carbon emissions from existing power plants will be ready by the Obama administration’s June 1 deadline. Although Deputy EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe reportedly said the rule would come out in “late June, maybe even the end of June,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said Perciasepe “misspoke when talking about 111(d).” She added that “EPA is on track to meet the June 1 goal that’s part of the President’s Climate Action Plan.”

The EPA has already sent a draft of the rule to the Office of Management and Budget for review. Few details of its contents have been released.

A decision on another hot environmental topic was delayed. The Obama administration said late last week it would give federal agencies more time to assess the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is expected to transport crude tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The announcement, The Washington Post reports, almost certainly pushes a final decision on construction of the pipeline past the November mid-term elections.

“Agencies need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the ongoing litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court which could ultimately affect the pipeline route in that state,” the State Department said. “In addition, during this time, we will review and appropriately consider the unprecedented number of new public comments, approximately 2.5 million, received during the public comment period that closed on March 7, 2014.”

Further details on the length of the delay were not provided by the State Department, but some legal experts have said the fight over the Nebraska route could drag out for a year or more. Because the pipeline extension crosses an international border, it requires signoff from the White House. President Barack Obama has said he won’t make a decision until after the State Department completes its assessment.

Arctic Drilling Rule Coming Shortly

Federal regulations that cover oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean are set to be released soon, according to Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Brian Salerno.

“The forthcoming rule will put important safeguards in place for future Arctic drilling operations,” said Salerno. “We hope to release the proposed rule shortly and open it for public comment, continuing an important dialogue on drilling operations in the Arctic that has already included numerous consultations and public meetings.”

The Arctic theoretically holds 30 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas resources. A new report by the National Research Council says that unlike Russia, which just shipped its first load of Arctic offshore oil, the United States is not ready for oil drilling in the region. It suggests that safety resources and oil response tools are not yet adequate.

“The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill,” report authors said(subscription). “It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies and personnel.”

Because little is known about how crude oil degrades in Arctic waters and what it does to the food chain, the NRC report authors recommend that authorities release oil into Arctic waters for real-world testing of burning and dispersants.

“To really understand and be best prepared, we’re going to have to do some controlled releases,” said Mark Myers, research vice chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Obviously that’s an important decision to make and we recommend a process for doing that.”

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Federal Appeals Court Upholds EPA Mercury Rule

April 17, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A federal appeals court upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) requiring power plants install technology to cut emissions of mercury and other air pollutants. MATS was challenged by industry and several states that argued the EPA should have considered costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to go forward with the standards. The EPA contended the rule was required under the Clean Air Act.

“On its face,” the majority opinion said, the Clean Air Act “neither requires EPA to consider costs nor prohibits EPA from doing so. Indeed, the word ‘costs’ appears nowhere” in that section of the law.

Although Judge Brett Kavanaugh—one member of the three-judge panel—agreed with the majority in other aspects of the ruling, he wrote a dissenting opinion on when the EPA should have considered the costs of MATS.

“The estimated cost of compliance with EPA’s Final Rule is approximately $9.6 billion per year, by EPA’s own calculation … To put it in perspective, that amount would pay the annual health insurance premiums of about two million Americans. It would pay the annual salaries of about 200,000 members of the U.S. Military. It would cover the annual budget of the entire National Park Service three times over,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Most power plants will have until March 2015 to meet the requirements set forth by the standards, but extensions to 2016 are possible. Despite the litigation, nearly 70 percent of coal-fired power plants are already in compliance with MATS, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The appeals court ruling comes as the EPA released findings that between 2011 and 2012 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped 3.4 percent—an overall decrease of 10 percent below 2005 levels. The findings are based on data in the agency’s annual inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and sinks. The agency attributed the decrease, in part, to reduced emissions from electricity generation, much of which is attributable to the increased usage of gas instead of coal—a change that has been influenced by the mercury regulations.

Methane Emissions Rule May be on Horizon

Five papers exploring methane emissions from compressors, leaks, liquid unloading, pneumatic devices and hydraulic fracturing production were released by the EPA for public comment Tuesday.

“The white papers will help EPA solidify our understanding of certain sources of methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in the oil and natural gas industry,” the agency said in a statement. “Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and VOCs contribute to the formation of harmful ground-level ozone (smog).”

The release of the papers is a first step in what could become a new set of regulations governing emissions of methane from oil and gas operations.

A day earlier, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that the EPA underestimated methane emissions from oil and gas operations. In a survey of hydraulic fracturing sites in southwestern Pennsylvania, the peer-reviewed study found that drilling operations released methane at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than the EPA expected. Seven well pads—1 percent of all the wells in the research area—accounted for 4 to 30 percent of the recorded emissions.

Four Years Later, BP “Active” Spill Response Concludes

The “active cleanup” phase of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill ended this week, days before the four-year anniversary of the 2010 spill.

“Let me be absolutely clear: This response is not over—not by a long shot,” said Capt. Thomas Sparks, the Coast Guard federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon response. “Our response posture has evolved to target re-oiling events on coastline segments that were previously cleaned.”

BP said its cleanup involved aerial patrols over more than 14,000 miles of shoreline and ground surveys covering more than 4,400 miles.

“Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon accident, BP committed to cleaning the shoreline and supporting the Gulf’s economic and environmental recovery,” BP said in a press release. “Completing active cleanup is further indication that we are keeping that commitment.”

Multiple studies are attempting to assess not only the reach of the spill, but also its health effects for spill responders and Gulf wildlife. A new report by the National Wildlife Federation used data from independent scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess how 14 species were faring. Some—such as the bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles—are still dying in large numbers due to the spill.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Climate Change, EPA Rules Focus of McCabe Confirmation Hearing

April 10, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Climate change, extreme weather and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants were the focus of a confirmation hearing for Janet McCabe, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

In the hearing—at which lawmakers took jabs at one another on the impacts of climate change and criticized McCabe’s recent comments on extreme weather causes—the acting assistant administrator for air and radiation told the committee that if confirmed she would evaluate the full consequences of the EPA’s current and pending rules. She pointed to her work as a state regulator in Indiana, highlighting her sensitivity to the economic impact of environmental regulations.

“I come from Indiana, where people rely on coal,” she told the committee (subscription).

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has not announced when it will vote on McCabe’s nomination, which still requires approval by the full Senate.

Just a day earlier, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the draft rule for existing power plants, which is scheduled for release by June 1. “We are going to make them cost-effective, we are going to make them make sense,” McCarthy said at a conference. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be so flexible that I’m not going to be able to rely on this as a federally enforceable rule.”

Flexibility for states was emphasized by McCarthy who insisted the EPA will give states the tools to curtail emissions that drive climate change and that the proposed rule will not threaten electric reliability or shutter large numbers of facilities.

EPA officials have met with more than 200 groups about the upcoming rule. Last week, the White House began its review of the rule—the final step before the EPA can publish it and gather formal comments from the public.

EIA Energy Outlook Predicts Decrease in Oil Imports

Net U.S. energy imports declined last year to their lowest level in more than 20 years, meaning U.S. net imports could reach zero within 23 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The finding is the first in a staged release of the EIA’s complete Annual Energy Outlook 2014. Future releases—running April 14 to April 30—will look at matters ranging from the implications of accelerated power plant retirements and lower natural gas prices for industrial production to light-duty vehicle energy demand and the potential for liquefied natural gas to be used as a railroad fuel.

Between 2012 and 2013, net energy imports decreased by 19 percent. The EIA cited increased growth in oil and natural gas production as the reason. Crude oil production grew 15 percent in 2013.

“In EIA’s view, there is more upside potential for greater gains in production than downside potential for lower production levels,” the report said. It noted that U.S. oil production should hit 9.6 million barrels per day by 2020.

Global Renewable Energy Investment Down as Tax Credits Resurface

Global investment in renewable energy fell 14 percent in 2013, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance. The drop in investment was attributed, in part, to energy policy uncertainty and the falling cost of renewable energy technology. The latter factor may seem counterintuitive but one of the report’s lead editors, UN energy expert Eric Usher said that the fall in the cost of the clean energy technologies, particularly solar, had “left some governments thinking that they had been paying too much and reviewed their subsidies.”

Even with investment down, the shift toward low-carbon sources hasn’t slowed. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of power generated worldwide last year—up from 7.8 percent in 2012. Liebreich told Mother Jones that proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015.

Further incentives for renewables may be in the offing. Last week, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved a draft bill that includes some 50 temporary tax breaks, including one for renewable energy. The bill includes provisions for wind energy through an extension of the U.S. Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit, which was responsible for jumpstarting much of the last decade’s U.S. wind energy development. Provisions were also included for biofuel.

Congress is expected to pass the bill by the end of year, allowing businesses and individuals to continue to claim tax breaks on their 2014 taxes.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


IPCC Report Shares Dire News, Some Adaptation Measures

April 3, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Climate change risks dramatically increase the more Earth warms, but reducing greenhouse gas emissions lowers the risk of the most unwelcome consequences, according to the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“We have assessed impacts as they are happening on the natural and human systems on all continents,” said IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri. “In view of these impacts, and those that we have projected for the future, nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Unless greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control, the sweeping effects of climate change—touching every continent—will grow significantly worse. Among the IPCC report’s conclusions:

  • There will be changes in crop yields.
  • Economic growth will slow, further eroding food security as well as prolonging existing and creating new poverty traps.
  • Changes in the global water cycle will not be uniform. In many dry subtropical regions precipitation will likely decrease.
  • Global mean sea level rise will continue to rise during the 21st century and very likely exceed that observed during 1971 to 2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets.

The news isn’t all dire.

“Although it focuses on a cold, analytical and sometimes depressing view of the challenges we face, it also maps the opportunities that intrinsic in the solution space,” said Christopher Fields, IPCC report co-chair. “And it looks at ways we can combine adaptation, mitigation, transformation of a society in an effort that can help us build a world that’s not only better prepared to deal with climate change but is fundamentally a better world.”

Recommendations that include increasing energy efficiency, switching to cleaner energy sources, making cities greener and reducing water consumption, the report suggests, could help reduce mankind’s effect on climate change. Still, the effects of global warming vary considerably, reports the Economist. Damage, and the possibility of reducing it, depends as much on other factors such as health systems or rural development as it does on global warming alone.

Wind Installation Hurdles, Potential Records

Last year wind turbine installation in the United States fell 93 percent—1.1 GW compared with 13.1 GW in 2012— according to Navigant Research’s annual World Market Update. The report points to the foundering U.S. market and the expiration of a tax credit for U.S. wind projects as the main driver behind a 20 percent drop in global wind power development, the first decline in eight years.

“The U.S. market decline, triggered by lack of policy consistency and the delay in renewing the tax credits, which have traditionally stimulated investment, was also a major contributing factor for the wind market depression last year,” said Feng Zhao, research director with Navigant.

In Alaska, a start-up is preparing to launch the first commercial pilot test of an airborne wind turbine know as Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT).  Floating at 1,000 feet, the turbine would supply power to a remote community in the state for about $0.18 per kilowatt hour—half the price of off-grid electricity in Alaska.

“It’s known that wind speed increases with altitude above ground level, and power density increases with a cubic factor of wind speed,” said Adam Rein, Altaeros co-founder. “Roughly speaking, a doubling of wind speed equates to an eight-fold increase in wind power density. Conventional turbine manufacturers are also trying to reach higher heights because of this fact—though not as high as our turbine.”

“Ultimately, the goal is to deploy BAT at off-grid village sites that have high (energy) costs,” he added. When deployed, the device is expected to break the world’s record for the highest wind turbine.

Obama Issues Plan to Cut Methane Emissions

On Friday, the Obama administration announced one more piece of its Climate Action Plan—a strategy to reduce methane emissions—a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It targets methane emissions from coal mining, landfills, agriculture and oil and gas production through a combination of standards programs beginning this month. No hard deadline for a proposed rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been set, but studies to explore significant sources of methane emissions will begin this spring.

“This is a rapidly evolving space,” said Dan Utech, President Barack Obama’s top climate advisor, noting that tamping down methane emissions would help meet Obama’s goal of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade. By the fall, the administration plans to determine the best reduction path, according to The Guardian. If imposed, methane emissions regulations would be completed by the end of 2016, just before Obama leaves office.

The announcement follows on the heels of several scholarly papers that found federal estimates significantly undercount the amount of methane emitted in the country and that methane emissions during well preparation for natural gas drilling were much lower than projected. The natural gas boom—driven by hydraulic fracturing—could mean two things for climate change over the next decade.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.