Obama Promises Strong Action on Climate Change, Energy Independence in State of the Union Address

January 30, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama took just 5 minutes of the 65-minute speech to cover energy and environment issues. He declared climate change “a fact,” stating “when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

Despite this assertion, National Geographic reports Obama’s efforts on climate change since his last State of the Union address have come up short in the minds of many in the environmental community. On Tuesday, Obama did mention a number of issues, most of which he had discussed before, to deal with climate change. He wants to set new fuel efficiency standards for trucks, and he promised to “cut red tape” to establish natural-gas-powered factories and fueling stations for cars and trucks. He endorsed natural gas not only as an economic driver, but also as a way to further cut emissions.

He also mentioned efforts to set emissions limits for power plants, and, if necessary, to use his executive power to move the effort forward. But portending the political drama to come, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted earlier Tuesday to scrap a measure (subscription) to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants.

Obama went on to tout the administration’s work toward attaining energy independence, offering that there is more “oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world.” According to White House reports, domestic crude oil production surpassed crude oil imports in October 2013 for the first time since 1995.

The president did not mention whether he intends to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—projected to carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The closest he came, Politico reports, was alluding to “tough choices along the way” during a shift to a “cleaner energy economy.” Coal, nuclear power and wind—sources responsible for 60 percent of the nation’s electricity generation—received no mention.

Long-Awaited Farm Bill Passes House

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a five-year farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014, containing provisions for renewable energy, energy efficiency programs in rural areas, cuts to food stamps and modifications to the federal agricultural subsidy system.

The bill, which will now go before the Senate, contains $881 million in mandatory funding for energy programs. The provision—which extends over the next 10 years—provides funding for projects focused on advanced biofuels and a program encouraging the development of wind, solar, hydroelectric and biogas projects.

“With stable policy and the investments included in this conference report, Farm Bill energy programs will continue to help rural communities create economic growth and good paying jobs,” said Biotechnology Industry Organization President and CEO Jim Greenwood. “The expansion of eligibility to new renewable chemical technologies and the support for new energy crops will create additional opportunities and improve U.S. economic growth across the country.”

The bill also includes an enhanced crop insurance program that would aid livestock producers in the event of a natural disaster and severe weather.

Botched Analysis Leaves Arctic Drilling in Question

The federal government failed to properly evaluate environmental risks related to offshore drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, a federal appellate court ruled recently. Three Ninth Circuit Court judges found the environmental review the U.S. Department of the Interior conducted before approving the sale of 2008 drilling leases considered the impact of drilling for 1 billion barrels of oil. A lawsuit brought by environmental groups and Native Alaska tribes alleged a larger environmental impact given that available oil was much higher.

The ruling brings the oil leases, covering some 30 million acres of sea floor, into question. And it means another setback for Shell, which announced plans to resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer, following several mishaps in the area in 2012. Of the companies that purchased leases in 2008, Shell is the only company that has begun drilling in the Arctic. On Thursday, the oil giant announced it will abandon plans to drill off the coast of Alaska this year.

The case is currently scheduled to return to a U.S. District Court in Alaska.

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.


Obama Doesn’t Need Congress to Move Forward on Clean Energy

January 23, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A week before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, a new report says Obama could advance key measures of his Climate Action Plan with or without the cooperation of Congress.

“When they believed a national situation warranted action, some past presidents interpreted their authority broadly and exercised it aggressively,” the report said. “That is the practice of presidential authority Americans and the world need today.”

More than 200 recommendations for how Obama can use his executive authority to accelerate progress on climate change are contained in the 207-page Powering Forward report released by the Center for the New Energy Economy and developed with the help of CEOs, energy experts, academicians and thought leaders. The recommendations focus on clean energy solutions such as doubling energy efficiency, financing renewable energy, producing natural gas more responsibly, developing alternative fuels and vehicles and helping utilities adapt to a changing energy landscape.

Most of the recommendations aren’t all that new, but a few, says Oilprice.com, are interesting. One suggestion is to modify mortgage rules so that qualifying for federally backed mortgage loans requires new homes to be constructed with updated energy efficiency standards.

Despite the report’s ideas for the future, 2013 saw many clean energy developments. The Rocky Mountain Institute calls out 10—including growth in the electric vehicle sector and companies putting a price on carbon—that helped bring the country closer to a secure, prosperous energy future.

NASA, NOAA Label 2013 One of the Planet’s Warmest Years

A pair of reports simultaneously released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reached different conclusions about where 2013 ranks among the world’s hottest years.

NOAA said last year’s average world temperature of 58.12 degrees tied with that of 2003 for the fourth hottest year since 1880—when record keeping began. NASA ranked 2013 the seventh warmest on record—tying 2009 and 2006. The slight difference in rankings, scientists said, could be explained by the methods used by the agencies to interpret the same weather data collected from more than 1,000 metrological stations across the globe. NASA, for example, uses more samples from Antarctica.

Regardless of the difference in rankings, both agencies found that nine of the 10 warmest years on record were in the 21st century. According to NASA, the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere peaked in 2013 at 400 parts per million—higher than any point in the last 800,000 years. The level was 285 parts per million in 1880.

“Long-term trends in surface temperature are unusual and 2013 adds to the evidence for ongoing climate change,” said Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “While one year or one season can be affected by random weather events, this analysis shows the necessity for continued, long-term monitoring.”

Schmidt said 2014 is likely to be even warmer than 2013, remarkable partly because El Nino, the periodic warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, was absent in 2013.

“Through the second half of 2014 we are looking at the likelihood of an El Nino, which will help warm 2014 over 2013,” he said.

Southern Leg of Keystone Begins Exporting Oil

TransCanada began delivering oil on Wednesday from Oklahoma to customers in Nederland, Texas, through the southern portion of a controversial proposed cross-border pipeline. The start of commercial operations for this leg of the Keystone XL pipeline came with little fanfare after approval by the president nearly two years ago. Although landowners in East Texas continue to challenge TransCanada’s right to take their land for the pipeline, it’s the northern leg of the pipeline, which is projected to carry oil from Canada, that’s been most controversial.

The northern portion of the pipeline still awaits approval by the U.S. State Department. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry brushed aside pressure from Canada, offering that he’s not yet received a critical environmental report on the long delayed project.

“My hope is that before long, that analysis will be available, and then my work begins,” he said.

TransCanada acknowledged it has plans to look at building rail terminals in Alberta and Oklahoma if the Obama administration declines to approve the pipeline’s northern leg. Recent accidents involving oil-bearing trains may put more pressure on the administration to approve the pipeline.

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 Says United States Tops List of Global Warming Offenders

January 16, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study by Canadian researchers finds the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and developing nations Brazil and India were responsible for more than 60 percent of global temperature changes between 1906 and 2005. The U.S. alone was responsible for 22 percent of the warning; China followed at 9 percent and Russia at 8 percent. Brazil and India each contributed 7 percent; the U.K. and Germany were each responsible for 5 percent. The findings, authors said, are particularly important for diplomats working toward a deal in 2015 to limit emissions.

“A clear understanding of national contributions to climate warming provides important information with which to determine national responsibility for global warming, and can therefore be used as a framework to allocate future emissions,” researchers said in their paper, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

To restrict warming to U.N. targets of 2 degrees Celsius, rising world emissions would need to drop 40 to 70 percent by 2050, Reuters reports. U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said number two historic emitter China is taking the right steps to address global warming with its energy-efficiency standards for buildings and other renewable energy commitments. In the U.S. carbon emissions from energy fell 12 percent between 2005 and 2012, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates a 2 percent increase in these emissions in 2013.

Global Energy Demand Growth, Renewable Investment Slowing

Global energy consumption continues to grow, but slowly. The fourth annual edition of the BP Energy Outlook 2035 pegged growth at 41 percent compared with 55 percent the last 23 years. Although demand from emerging economies is predicted to rise steadily, energy demand elsewhere will slow through 2035.

The U.S., the report said, will be able to provide for its own energy needs in the next two decades with the acceleration of shale oil and gas production. Natural gas, in particular, will overtake oil as the country’s most used fuel as early as 2027—accounting for 35 percent of U.S. consumption by 2035. Oil, however, will be the slowest growing of the major fuels with demand rising on average 0.8 percent annually. Still, U.S. oil imports are expected to drop 75 percent through 2035.

In Europe, the energy market is predicted to rise just 5 percent by 2030 and to become more dependent on imports of gas. China’s energy production will rise 61 percent with consumption growing 71 percent by 2035.

The release of BP’s Energy Outlook comes the same day Bloomberg New Energy Finance revealed that global investment in clean energy fell 12 percent last year.

“Global investment in clean energy was USD 254 billion last year, down from a revised USD 288.9 billion in 2012 and the record USD 317.9 billion of 2011,” a release from Bloomberg stated. In Japan, clean energy investment spiked as a result of small-scale solar installations.

RGGI States Reduce Emission Cap in 2014

States participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) dropped their carbon dioxide emissions cap for power plants 45 percent for 2014 to 91 million tons. The initiative, which partners New York, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, aims to reduce these states’ power plant pollution by half of 2005 levels.

“RGGI has once again proven that state leadership provides the laboratory for innovation,” said Kenneth Kimmell, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and RGGI chair. “RGGI is a cost-effective and flexible program that can serve as a national model for dramatically reducing carbon pollution for other states throughout the nation.”

Within the program, each power plant is assigned an amount of carbon dioxide it can release, but the plants can buy and sell allowances to increase or decrease their emissions. At the first allowance auction under the new limits March 5, states will offer up 18.6 million carbon dioxide allowances.

Appellate court arguments surrounding New Jersey’s 2011 exit from the trading program began this week.

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.


Carbon Markets Show Glimmers of Recovery in 2014

January 9, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A year after the launch of its cap-and-trade program, California formally linked its emissions trading scheme with Quebec’s—enabling carbon allowances and offset credits to be exchanged between participants in the two jurisdictions. The linkage, which marks the first agreement in North America that allows for the trading of greenhouse gas emissions across borders, is designed to escalate the price on the amount of carbon businesses can emit.

There is a “potential for this market to serve as an example for other North American subnational jurisdictions to follow if it can prove to be successful,” said Robin Fraser, a Toronto-based analyst with the International Emissions Trading Association.

Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) opted to beef up its carbon trading system. Carbon prices are poised to rebound from a three-year decline after the 28-country bloc decided to back a stopgap plan to reduce the number of pollution permits that have flooded the market. As a result, the cost of emitting carbon dioxide may increase more than 50 percent on average to $10.54 a metric ton by the end of 2014.

The “backloading” plan aims to remove 900 million permits from the EU market between now and 2016. The date on which the law is formally adopted will drive the quantity of permits that can be withdrawn from auctions this year.

“If the auction calendars can still be adapted by end-March, a total of 400 million allowances will be backloaded for 2014. This amount will be reduced to 300 million if backloading is initiated in April, May or June,” according to the European Commission.

The move, The Economic Times reports, may help to lead global carbon market recovery in 2014. Last year, global carbon markets’ value dropped 38 percent to $52.9 billion.

EPA Power Plant Rule Open for Public Comment

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) draft proposal limiting carbon emissions from new power plants was published in the Federal Register Wednesday, triggering a 60-day public comment period.

The delay between the Sept. 20 announcement of the rule and the Jan. 8 Federal Register inking had prompted speculation about whether the agency was reconsidering the controversial rule requiring plants be built with carbon capture and storage (CCS) capabilities if they burn coal (subscription). The rule has drawn criticism from coal industry supporters, who say that CCS technology is not viable. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, sees things differently.

“We have proven time after time that setting fair Clean Air Act standards to protect public health does not cause the sky to fall,” McCarthy said in September. She noted that the proposed rule, “rather than killing the future of coal, actually sets out a certain pathway forward for coal to continue to be part of a diverse mix in this country.”

Another EPA rule that’s meant to remove potential obstacles to implementation of CCS was also published in the Federal Register. This rule, according to the EPA, is expected to “substantially reduce” the uncertainty associated with identifying carbon dioxide streams under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act as well as to facilitate deployment of geological sequestration.

Eruption of “Supervolcano” Could Have Global Climate Effects

A new study suggests that the magma chamber beneath one famous national park is 2.5 times larger than previously known and that it could have the potential to erupt with a force 2,000 times greater than Mount St. Helens in 1980.

Although there isn’t enough data to predict the timing of another Yellowstone eruption—the last one happened about 640,000 years ago—study scientists say instruments monitoring seismic activity would provide some warning. That eruption would leave volcanic material and gases lingering in the atmosphere that could result in a global temperature decrease.

“You’ll get ashfall as far away as the Great Plains, and even farther east,” said University of Utah scientist James Farrell of the findings presented at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.

Two separate studies in the journal Nature Geoscience suggest just how the magma in “supervolcanoes” like the one in Yellowstone blow sky high: the buoyancy of the magma exerting pressure on the magma chamber walls eventually causes the chamber roof to collapse. Though rare, supervolcano eruptions have a devastating impact on the Earth’s climate and ecology, reports BBC.

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.


EIA Releases Early Predictions from Annual Energy Outlook

December 19, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the upcoming holidays, the Climate Post will not circulate the next two weeks. It will return Jan. 9, 2014. 

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Monday released a 20-page preview of its Annual Energy Outlook 2014, which includes projections of U.S. energy supply, demand and prices through 2040.

Although the full report won’t be released until spring 2014, the preview projects a spike of 800,000 barrels a day in domestic crude oil production in 2014. By 2016, U.S. oil production will reach historical levels—close to the 9.6 million barrels a day achieved in 1970. The feat—made possible by fracking and other advanced drilling technologies—is expected to bring imported oil supplies down to 25 percent, compared with the current 37 percent, by 2016. Eventually though, the boom will level off, and production will slowly decline after 2020.

Natural gas will replace coal as the largest source of U.S. electricity. In 2040, natural gas will account for 35 percent of total electricity generation, while coal will account for 32 percent. Production of natural gas is predicted to increase 56 percent between 2012 and 2040; the U.S. will become an overall net exporter of the fuel by 2018—roughly two years earlier than the EIA projected in last year’s forecast.

“EIA’s updated Reference case shows that advanced technologies for crude oil and natural gas production are continuing to increase domestic supply and reshape the U.S. energy economy as well as expand the potential for U.S. natural gas exports,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski. “Growing domestic hydrocarbon production is also reducing our net dependence on imported oil and benefiting the U.S. economy as natural-gas-intensive industries boost their output.”

Total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are also predicted to remain below 2005 levels—roughly 6 billion metric tons—through 2040.

Oil to Flow from Southern Leg of Keystone Pipeline in 2014

Next month some 700,000 barrels per day are expected to begin flowing from Cushing, Okla. to Texas through the 485-mile pipeline that forms the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Initial testing, before the Jan. 22 launch, is showing no issues with the pipeline or shippers, according to project lead TransCanada.

Construction of the southern leg required only state environmental permits and permission by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The northern leg—bringing crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast—has been more controversial. It awaits presidential approval on a trans-border permit.

Even so, TransCanada announced it has reached an agreement with 100 percent of landowners in five of the six states through which the 1,700-mile northern leg will pass. The remaining holdouts are in Nebraska, where the pipeline’s route was reworked to avoid crossing the Sand Hills aquifer.

U.S. Military to Utilize More Biofuel

On the heels of a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lower the country’s 2014 biofuel mandate, the U.S. military announced plans to make biofuel blends part of its regular “operational fuel purchase” through a collaboration of the Navy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The Navy’s intensifying efforts to use advanced, homegrown fuels to power our military benefits both America’s national security and our rural communities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Not only will production of these fuels create jobs in rural America, they’re cost effective for our military, which is the biggest consumer of petroleum in the nation.”

Sudden fuel price spikes—responsible for as much as $5 billion in unbudgeted fuel increases—were cited as one reason for the program, which will begin in 2014. Deliveries are expected in mid-2015.

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.


Clean Air Rules Face Scrutiny as World’s Largest Emitter Develops Climate Plan

December 12, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Oral arguments were held Tuesday to determine the legality of a rule that regulates air pollution crossing state lines. Before the U.S. Supreme Court was the issue of whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exceeded its authority by designing state limits for air pollution when it developed the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), which was intended to take effect in January 2012. In particular, the court considered whether the EPA’s determinations of upwind states’ “significant contributions” to air pollution in downwind states were consistent with the language of the Clean Air Act (CAA). In August 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the rule, which required 28 upwind states in the South and Midwest to cut ozone and fine particle emissions, primarily from power plants.

Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Malcolm L. Stewart likened the EPA’s situation to that of a basketball coach answering a question about whether the missed layup or missed desperation shot at the buzzer “contributed significantly” to the loss of a game. Under the CAA, he said, the EPA has to decide which of the states that transported pollution across a border “contributed significantly” to a neighboring state’s inability to satisfy a federal clean air standard.

Revival of CSAPR may be in the offing, the Associated Press suggested. “It’s certainly hard,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. of the task of allocating responsibility, “but it is what the [Clean Air Act] statute says, and it seems to me that if EPA had taken a different view, it would have been contrary to the statute.” The National Journal, however, saw no clear indication of which direction the justices were leaning. A tie vote, the Washington Post reports, would leave the earlier ruling in place and send the EPA back to the drawing board.

Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) was also before the court Tuesday. The MATS rule, which aims to reduce mercury and other air toxics from the country’s coal- and oil-fired power plants, also faced challenges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit this week. Industry groups have claimed the agency’s rulemaking process was “substantively and procedurally flawed.”

Meanwhile, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases has proposed a new plan to deal with the consequences of global warming that it admits it is ill-prepared to address. According to the plan, China will implement a number of initiatives—such as promoting better farming practices and protecting nature and wildlife—by 2020.

United States Poised to Top Germany in Solar Installations

As the International Energy Agency signals higher than previously forecast global oil demand in 2014, a new report indicates that total installed solar power grew 35 percent in 2013 compared with last year in the United States. Developers are on pace to nearly double the 930 megawatts of photovoltaic solar installed in the third quarter—the second-largest quarter for solar installations in U.S. history. States leading installations this quarter included California, Arizona, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Nevada.

The Solar Energy Industries Association’s report predicts U.S. solar capacity could rise 27 percent by the end of the fourth quarter, putting the United States ahead of Germany for the first time in 15 years. In a discussion with Deutsche Welle about the potential for solar to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Eicke Weber, director of the largest solar research institute in Europe, claimed “we’re at a floodgate” of a solar energy boom.

Podesta to Join Obama Administration

John Podesta, currently chairman of the Center for American Progress, is said to be joining President Barack Obama as an advisor. Podesta played a critical role in shaping former President Bill Clinton’s environmental record as his chief of staff in the late 90s. He’s continued to make climate change a priority at the Center for American Progress.

During his one-year appointment, likely beginning next month, Podesta is again expected to play a pivotal role in shaping the country’s environmental policy.

“He will advise on a range of issues with a particular focus on issues of energy and climate change, but will obviously bring a lot of experience to bear,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. He will not work on matters related to the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposal he has criticized in the past.

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.


Report Warns of Sudden Climate Change Impacts

December 5, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Hard-to-predict sudden changes to Earth’s environment are more worrisome than larger but more gradual impacts of climate change, according a panel of scientists advising the federal government. A 200-page report released Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences repeatedly warns of potential climate “tipping points” beyond which “major and rapid changes occur.” And some of these changes—happening in years instead of centuries—have already begun. They include melting ice in the Arctic Ocean and mass species extinctions.

Study co-author Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University compared the threat of abrupt climate change effects to the random danger of drunk drivers: “You can’t see it coming, so you can’t prepare for it. The faster it is, the less you see it coming, the more it costs.”

The report did have some “good news.” Two other abrupt climate threats—giant burps of undersea and frozen methane and the slowing of deep ocean currents that could lead to dramatic coastal cooling—won’t be so sudden, giving people more time to prepare.

Report authors say the threat of sudden climate change disaster requires an early warning system that would be integrated into existing warning systems for natural disasters. With improved scientific monitoring and a better understanding of the climate system, abrupt change could be anticipated and potential consequences could be reduced.

The National Academy of Sciences report follows the wrap up of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland, which produced the outlines of an emissions reduction deal to be agreed on in 2015. Though the pact’s wording was vague, some decisions were more concrete. They include a multi-billion dollar framework to tackle deforestation and measures to boost demand for a clean development mechanism encouraging countries without legally binding emissions targets to use carbon credits. Participants also finalized details on how countries’ emissions reductions will be monitored, reported and verified.

Saying the government should lead by example, President Barack Obama ordered federal agencies to increase their use of renewable energy from 7.5 to 20 percent by 2020. The new commitment is intended to reduce pollution and boost domestic energy independence.

Obama Environment Advisor to Step Down

The Obama administration will lose its second top environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in February. In the post she’s held since 2009, Sutley helped spearhead the National Ocean Policy and contributed to Obama’s climate plan.

“Under her leadership, Federal agencies are meeting the goals I set for them at the beginning of the administration by using less energy, reducing pollution, and saving taxpayer dollars,” said President Obama in a statement. “Her efforts have made it clear that a healthy environment and a strong economy aren’t mutually exclusive—they can go hand in hand.”

Sutley’s departure comes on the heels of Heather Zichal’s exit last month and the resignation of Lisa Jackson, who left the EPA in early 2013. That leaves the big job of implementing—and defending—Obama’s plan to cut carbon emissions on the shoulders of “new and existing power plant lieutenants,” according to ClimateWire.

Iran Nuclear Deal Reached

International negotiators recently reached a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program for six months—pending a formal pact freezing or reversing progress at all of Iran’s major nuclear facilities. Talks surrounding the formal pledge may begin as early as next week.

The deal, struck between Iran and five other major countries, brings a partial lifting of sanctions on Tehran. Oil sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union will be maintained even though key parts of Iran’s nuclear program will be rolled back.

“Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpiles. Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium,” said President Barack Obama. “Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited. Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor. And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.”

The temporary freeze that could start by early January represents the first time in about a decade that Iran has agreed to stop some of its nuclear activities. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute suggests 77 percent of Israelis surveyed don’t believe the deal will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

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 Proposes Lower Biofuel Mandate

November 21, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, the Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return Dec. 5. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday announced cuts to a federal mandate dictating how much ethanol must be blended into gasoline. The mandate—under the Renewable Fuel Standard—would have been scheduled to reach 18.15 billion gallons in 2014, up from 16.55 billion gallons this year. The EPA instead proposes to set the 2014 requirement at 15.21 billion gallons, equal to the 2012 mandate.

“We believe that the ethanol blend wall represents a circumstance that warrants a reduction in the mandated volumes for 2014,” the EPA said of the technically feasible amount of ethanol that can be used in today’s vehicles. The agency’s 204-page proposal also suggests rolling back the 2011 cellulosic biofuel target and refunding oil companies nearly $5 million for their costs in trying to meet it.

If finalized after public comment, the proposal is unlikely to have much of an impact on consumers, but it could affect sales of one of the primary ethanol crops: corn.

“I’m in a state of shock,” said Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, in a response similar to many others in the biofuels industry. “This rule is a departure from the last five and a half years.”

Refiners welcomed the reduced blending requirements, but warned they may not address long term problems.

“While we are pleased that EPA has taken steps to avoid the blendwall in 2014, we remain concerned that the proposed rule leaves open the possibility that the biofuel mandates will exceed the maximum amount of ethanol that can be safely added to our gasoline supply,” said Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuels & Petrochemical Manufacturers.

News of the proposed rule comes on the heels of a report by the National Research Council drawing attention to some of ethanol’s hidden costs (subscription). The report, which was co-authored by a Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researcher, finds that ethanol consumes so much energy and requires so much land use change that its impact on greenhouse gas emissions is at best neutral.

2010 BP Spill Data Made Public

A new website launched by BP contains raw, uninterpreted data from studies on the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill and its effects on the environment and ecology of the area. It provides scientific data gathered as part of the official Natural Resource Damage Assessment that BP and the federal government agreed to during the disaster. The assessment also includes 2.3 million lines of water chemistry data collected since April 2010 as well as information on the composition of oil released from the Macondo well and analyses of the oil in various degrees of degradation and weathering.

More information covering oil, water, sediments, environmental toxicology, birds and marine life will be made available next year. BP is awaiting a ruling in a civil trial in New Orleans regarding just how much oil gushed into the Gulf and whether it was guilty of gross negligence for the spill. The oil giant is among the 90 companies said to have produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, according to a new study published in the journal Climatic Change.

Warsaw Climate Talks Enter Final Days

As a new report suggests global carbon emissions from cement production and burning fossil fuels are on track to hit a record high this year, negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world entered their final week during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (subscription). The two-decades-old negotiations hit a few snags in producing an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol by 2015:

  • Japan—one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases—opted to drastically scale back its emissions reduction target. The new target calls for decreasing emissions by 3.8 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, rather than by 25 percent from 1990 levels, a goal set four years ago. According to Reuters, the change represents a roughly 3 percent rise from the earlier target. The new target reflects the country’s increased reliance on fossil fuel after idling of Japan’s nuclear fleet following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, which the country is still cleaning up.
  • Negotiations on how to set up new carbon markets and global standards to cut greenhouse gas levels also broke down after developing nations refused to move forward until rich nations made more efforts to cut their own emissions. Further talks on the issues have been postponed until June 2014.
  • Poor countries walked out of the U.N. climate talks after rich nations refused to discuss climate change compensation until after 2015. The question of who is to blame for climate change is central for developing countries, which contend they should be given support from rich nations to green their economies. Meanwhile, forest protection pledges—specifically from Norway and the United Kingdom—were made and expected to be one of the only significant financial offers from richer, developed nations at the conference.

Despite all the setbacks, the U.N. did propose a draft document outlining a roadmap to a 2015 climate agreement. It clarifies some of the steps nearly 190 nations must take to reach a binding greenhouse gas reduction deal to go into effect in 2020.

If the Obama administration has its way, the 2015 agreement would for the first time make the United States and emerging powers like China equally obligated to curb carbon (subscription). According to State Department Special Envoy for Climate Todd Stern, the administration has begun crunching numbers to determine how much the United States can cut greenhouse gas emissions after 2020.

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.


U.N. Climate Conference Kicks Off Amid Reminders of Deal Urgency

November 14, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The 12-day United Nations Climate Change Conference, which aims to forge an agreement to cut climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, began in Warsaw, Poland, this week. The goal set by the U.N.: limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

Representatives from nearly 200 countries are debating an agreement that would take effect by 2020. Major breakthroughs are not expected at the conference, which is pervaded by a mood of “realism” about the scale of what can be achieved. The Washington Post reports the talks will only lay a foundation for a global agreement to be reached in time for the 2015 talks in Paris, France.

As the conference began, there were reminders of what’s at stake. Devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan was on the minds of many, along with reports spelling out how nations are falling further behind their collective goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its newly released World Energy Outlook, forecast energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to rise 20 percent by 2035, leaving the world on a trajectory for a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsiusfar above the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees Celsius.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also amended carbon dioxide estimates for policy makers in a report designed to provide guidelines for the representatives working to devise a climate agreement. The panel cut its estimate of total emissions since 1870 to 515 gigatons, down from 531 gigatons, and raised its estimate of total carbon emissions since 1750 to 555 gigatons, up from 545 gigatons.

Ethanol Mandate to Be Announced Soon

Although the IEA predicts fossil fuels will provide 75 percent of the global energy mix by 2035—causing oil prices to continue to rise—current U.S. prices for oil tumbled to their lowest in more than five months. Gas prices have fallen to their lowest in 33 months, in part due to the moderate decrease in oil prices.

Some view prospective ethanol volume requirements, which could be weakened for 2014 partly as a result of a decline in the price of renewable energy credits, as a contributor to the low gas prices. As early as this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could announce how many billions of gallons of ethanol refiners will be required to blend into gasoline and diesel fuel next year. Those numbers could be on par with 2012 totals if the agency sticks with a draft version of the mandate leaked in October.

The ethanol mandate was under fire this week, following an investigation by the Associated Press, which suggests it comes with an unadvertised environmental cost, namely incentivizing farmers to grow corn on environmentally sensitive land and increasing use of nitrogen fertilizers, leading to high nitrate levels in some water supplies.

Obama Names New Climate Advisor

Heather Zichal, a key architect of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, stepped down from her post last week as top energy and climate change advisor. Zichal said she will take time to “decompress and take on a few projects” before deciding on formal next steps. In a statement, Obama praised Zichal’s five years of service to the administration.

“She crafted my energy and climate change agenda in the 2008 campaign, then again on my presidential transition, and as my top energy and climate advisor at the White House, she has been a strong and steady voice for policies that reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, protect public health and our environment, and combat the threat of global climate change,” Obama said.

Zichal’s deputy, Dan Utechformerly a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Hillary Clinton when she was senator—will take over the role. In his new position, Utech will be tasked as the lead coordinator of the administration’s stand on energy and environmental issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline and new rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In his first blog post since assuming the new role, Utech praised the president’s energy and climate strategy for helping oil production hit a 24-year high.

 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.


Report: Current Efforts to Slow Global Warming Not Sufficient

November 7, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Days before world leaders meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference, a new report warns that the opportunity to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels is diminishing. The “Emissions Gap Report 2013,” compiled yearly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), looks at how each nation is meeting its pledge to reduce the release of greenhouse gases. The latest findings suggest that greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to reach 59 gigatons. Even if nations meet their current climate pledges, emissions would be 8-12 gigatons too high (roughly the equivalent of 80 percent of emissions coming from the world’s power plants right now). A 44-gigaton level, agreed at the 2010 U.N. Climate Conference in Cancun, is needed in 2020 to attain the 2-degree goal.

“As the report highlights, delayed actions means a higher rate of climate change in the near term and likely more near-term climate impacts, as well as the continued use of carbon-intensive and energy-intensive infrastructure,” said U.N. Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Director Achim Steiner. “This ‘lock-in’ would slow down the introduction of climate-friendly technologies and narrow the developmental choices that would place the global community on the path to a sustainable, green future.”

The 2020 target could still be achieved, Steiner said, through stronger pledges that scale up international cooperation initiatives in areas such as energy efficiency, fossil fuel subsidy reform and renewable energy. Agricultural practices that could reduce emissions, such as expansion of no-till farming and improved water management, are also explored.

The World Meteorological Organisation released its annual report, a day after the UNEP study, showing that concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide all broke records in 2012. The volume of carbon dioxide grew faster in 2012 than in the previous decade, reaching 41 percent above pre-industrial levels.

“This year is worse than last year, 2011,” said Michael Jarraud, WMO secretary general. “2011 was worse than 2010. Every passing year makes the situation somewhat more difficult to handle, it makes it more challenging to stay under this symbolic 2 degree global average.”

Obama Establishes Climate Change Adaptation Task Force

The UNEP report’s release follows issuance of an executive order by President Barack Obama aimed at making it simpler for state and local governments to respond to weather disasters as well as at directing federal agencies to revise programs and policies that might serve as a barrier to climate adaptation.

The order establishes the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which brings together local, state and tribal officials to advise the federal government on how to respond to climate impacts. The task force will recommend how structures built with federal money can be made more resilient to the effects of climate change.

“The impacts of climate change—including an increase in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, an increase in wildfires, more severe droughts, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise—are already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the Nation,” the president said in the Executive Order. “Managing these risks requires deliberate preparation, close cooperation, and coordinated planning by the Federal Government, as well as by stakeholders, to facilitate Federal, State, local, tribal, private-sector, and nonprofit-sector efforts to improve climate preparedness and resilience; help safeguard our economy, infrastructure, environment, and natural resources; and provide for the continuity of executive department and agency operations, services, and programs.”

The order also establishes a second group—the Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience—that will be co-chaired by the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. It replaces the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force created in 2009. The group will consider the recommendations of the state, local and tribal leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. Those recommendations will be related to modernizing federal programs to support climate-resilient investments and to planning for climate-change related risks.

Scientists Work to Deconstruct Climate Issues

As scientists study samples from an Antarctic ice sheet believed to date back 1.5 million years for clues on how Earth’s climate has changed, a senior U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official indicated the Obama administration is looking for ways to use its existing authority to tackle a powerful greenhouse gas: methane.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Sarah Dunham with the EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs testified that the White House-led Interagency Task Force on Climate Change is searching for ways to reduce emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas through “incentive-based programs and existing authorities.” The leakage of the gas, some scientists at the hearing said, was inaccurately estimated by the agency in 2011.

One international team of engineers and scientists proposes a fleet of “methane-sniffing drones” that would be connected to sensors in smart phones as one way to help ensure drillers pay a state-imposed fee for any future leaked or flared gas. And at Duke, researchers are using a car equipped with special sensors to detect methane leaks and their concentrations from aging pipelines beneath cities, thereby providing a better estimate of how much this infrastructure is contributing to climate change.

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.