Obama Talks Climate, Oil Drilling

September 3, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska this week, sharing blunt language about climate change after laying out initiatives aimed at tackling that issue in the Arctic.

“On this issue—of all issues—there is such a thing as being too late,” said Obama. “And that moment is almost upon us … This year in Paris has to be the year that the world finally acts to protect the one planet that we have while we still can.”

On the three-day Alaska trip, Obama is experiencing firsthand the impacts of rapidly melting Arctic ice, which is warming waters that affect local fishing economies and raising sea levels, threatening the state’s coastal villages. To help address some of these local issues, Obama announced new initiatives. One is fish and wildlife cooperation management to help rebuild Chinook salmon stocks. Another is an exchange program that brings urban and rural youth together to understand the challenges of a changing Arctic and the potential for local solutions against the impacts of climate change.

Despite this focus on climate, Obama is receiving criticism for granting Royal Dutch Shell permits to drill for oil off Alaska’s coast. In an op-ed, Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard writes “we commend the president for his leadership, and yet this trip comes on the heels of his administration’s decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, a move that seriously undermines his climate legacy.”

Obama addressed these criticisms last weekend.

“I know there are Americans who are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters,” said Obama. “Some are also concerned with my administration’s decision to approve Shell’s application to drill a well off the Alaskan coast, using leases they purchased before I took office. That’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil explorations conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska.”

The Chukchi and Beaufort seas could hold as much as 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The fact remains, said Shell President Marvin Odum that oil will continue to be needed as the United States transitions to renewable energy sources.

Sea Level Rise Accelerating as Ice Sheets Melt

The impacts of sea level rise could be greater than worst-case scenarios. The reason? The dominant climate models don’t fully account for the accelerated loss of ice sheets and glaciers, a phenomenon highlighted by scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) last week.

Recent data on the speed and scope of melting ice sheets in Greenland and parts of Antarctica suggest that global average sea level rise may approach or exceed 1 meter, or 3.3 feet, by 2100.

“The ice sheets are contributing to sea level rise sooner and greater than anticipated,” said Eric Rignot, glaciologist at the University of California–Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Right now, the contribution is about one third. We know that in future warming (melting ice sheets) will dominate sea level rise. With future warming we may have multiples of 6 meters, or 18 feet, and higher. It may be a half meter per century or several meters per century, we don’t know. We’ve never seen an ice sheet collapse before.”

Rignot drew attention to the dynamic behavior of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland, which recently lost a chunk of ice roughly 12 square kilometers in surface area and which could raise sea level by half a meter if it were to melt entirely.

NASA is beginning a three-year effort, Oceans Melting Greenland, to understand the role of ocean currents and ocean temperatures in melting Greenland’s ice from below—and therefore to better predict the speed at which that melting will raise sea level.

Also of concern: Antarctica, which has a great deal of total ice to lose. The West Antarctica ice sheet may be undergoing a marine instability as warm water reaches the base of its glaciers from below.

“Given what we know now about how the ocean expands as it warms and how ice sheets and glaciers are adding water to the seas, it’s pretty certain we are locked into at least 3 feet of sea level rise, and probably more,” said Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But we don’t know whether it will happen within a century or somewhat longer.”

Data collected by NASA satellites, which change position in relation to one another as Earth’s water and ice realign and change gravity’s pull, reveal that the ocean’s mass is increasing, translating to a global sea level rise of about 0.07 inches per year, but that rise is not uniform.

A visualization released by NASA illustrates the variation in sea level rise around the world. Although the sea level has fallen slightly along the U.S. west coast due to a cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), NASA warns that sea level rise could increase on that coast because the PDO recently shifted into a warm phase.

Delegates Divided Ahead of Paris Climate Conference

This week, delegates met in Bonn, Germany, to take steps to create a workable draft for a deal slated to be negotiated at the Conference of the Parties November 30 to December 11 in Paris that would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The hope is that the agreement will show just how much pollution will be cut and exactly how much money rich nations will offer poorer countries to deal with their own growing energy and climate adaptation needs. Opinions on how to get to this agreement, which would take effect in 2020, differ.

One particularly sticky point: how to divide responsibility for carbon cuts between rich and poor nations. In an interview with Politico, Robert Orr, a longtime climate advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, identified the outstanding issues.

“The overall question of ambition, just how ambitious an agreement this will be,” said Orr. “Everyone agrees we need to get ourselves on a pathway to 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise or less. This level of ambition will require changes in everyone’s economies, everyone’s fuel mixes, everyone’s infrastructure investments. So, agreeing on a level of ambition in as much specificity as possible is critical to a successful deal. The issue of financing: All of this has to be paid for.”

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.


Recent Studies Provide Examples of Emissions Trading Successes, Failures

August 27, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The emissions trading program in the northeastern United States—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—is responsible for about half the region’s emissions reductions—an amount far greater than reductions achieved in the rest of the country.

The study in the journal Energy Economics determined that even when controlling for other factors—the natural gas boom, the recession, and environmental regulations—emissions would have been 24 percent higher in participating states without RGGI (subscription). RGGI, the first market-based regulatory program in the United States, is a cooperative effort among states to create a “cap” that sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector—a cap lowered over time to reduce emissions. Power plants that can’t stay under the cap must purchase credits or “emissions allowances” from others that can.

“While the study focused on the northeastern states and the RGGI program specifically, the findings suggest that emissions trading could be a cost-effective strategy for states now considering how to comply with EPA’s recently issued regulations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide from power plants,” said Brian Murray, lead author and director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

A separate study in the journal Nature Climate Change found significant misuse of a key carbon offsetting scheme after several factories increased their production of industrial waste products—spiking emissions. It suggests that a loophole in the United Nation’s carbon market may have led to “perverse incentives” for some industrial plants to increase emissions so they could then make money by reducing them.

A companion study indicates that the majority of credits from Russia and Ukraine were a sham and that no emissions were reduced. In fact, the study estimates use of the sham offsets actually enabled greenhouse gas emissions to increase by some 600 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“We were surprised ourselves by the extent, we didn’t expect such a large number,” said study co-author Anja Kollmuss. “What went on was that these countries could approve these projects by themselves there was no international oversight, in particular Russia and Ukraine didn’t have any incentive to guarantee the quality of these credits.”

Study Quantifies Global Warming’s Contribution to California’s Drought

How much of California’s drought is due to climate change? A study published in Geophysical Research Letters has an answer: up to 27 percent. The study also indicates that climate change has made the odds of severe droughts twice as likely.

Global warming has worsened the drought through increased evapotranspiration, the contribution of which was quantified in detail for the first time by researchers at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the University of Idaho who analyzed 432 combinations of precipitation, temperature, wind, and radiation data gathered between 1901 and 2014 to simulate monthly changes in soil moisture across California. When they modeled these combinations against various greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, they concluded that the state’s lack of rainfall is due to natural variability—a finding that accords with most other studies—but that California’s drought is 8 to 27 percent drier because of human-cause climate change (subscription).

“By knowing how much global warming has contributed to the trend in California drought conditions over the past century, we can reliably predict how the future will play out,” said A. Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty who led the study. By the 2060s, Williams said, drought conditions will be more or less permanent, and evaporation will overpower bursts of intense rainfall.

Williams likened climate change to a “bully” that every year “demands more of your money than the year before. Every year, the bully—or atmosphere—is demanding more resources—or water—than ever before.”

He also said that California should more aggressively police groundwater withdrawals by agricultural operations, increasing use fees and fines for overuse. California is one of the few states that does not regulate such withdrawals, which after three years of drought have led to precipitous drops in groundwater tables and land subsidence.

Obama Announces Renewable Energy Initiatives

In the first stop on an 11-day climate and energy tour, President Obama announced a number of initiatives aimed at making it easier for homeowners and businesses to invest in clean energy technology.

“We are here today because we believe that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future than climate change,” said President Obama at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. “But we’re also here because we hold another belief, and that is, we are deeply optimistic about American ingenuity.”

According to a White House fact sheet, these measures include:

  • $24 million for 11 projects in seven states to develop innovative solar technologies that double the amount of energy each solar panel can produce.
  • Approval of a transmission line for a 485-megawatt photovoltaic facility planed for Riverside County.
  • An additional $1 billion in federal loan guarantees available through a federal program for innovative versions of residential solar systems.
  • Creation of the Interagency Task Force to Promote a Clean Energy Future for All Americans.
  • Provision of residential Property-Assessed Clean Energy financing that facilitates investment in clean energy technologies for single-family homes.
  • Creation of a new HUD and DOE program to provide home owners with a simple way to measure and improve their homes’ energy efficiency.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said federal support is critical as the clean-energy industry seeks to become further established, noting “The playing field is not always as level and that’s where investors and developers can have risks. That’s where things like our loan program come in.”

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 Targets Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations

August 20, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Tuesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took another step to make good on the Obama administration’s pledge to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26–28 percent by 2025 by proposing the first methane emissions rules for the nation’s oil and gas industry.

Reducing emissions of methane, which have 25 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide, is a central component of the administration’s overall climate strategy. The administration’s goal is to cut methane emissions 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The EPA expects to release its final methane rules next year, after it hears public comments.

“Today, through our cost-effective proposed standards, we are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement. “Cleaner-burning energy sources like natural gas are key compliance options for our Clean Power Plan and we are committed to ensuring safe and responsible production that supports a robust clean energy economy.”

The rules target new and modified oil and natural gas operations, but as Greenwire reports, they could eventually trigger regulation of methane leakage from the entire sector (subscription). The proposed rules call for oil and gas processing and transmission facilities to locate and repair methane leaks, capture natural gas from hydraulically fractured oil wells, and limit emissions from equipment—actions netting climate benefits of $120 to $150 million in 2025, according to the EPA.

As they are now, the proposed rules could achieve a cut of 25 to 30 percent by 2025, according to Janet McCabe, acting assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation. To meet the full 40–45 percent goal, the administration expects to rely on voluntary efforts, state regulations and a Department of the Interior rule covering drilling on public lands.

The rules supplement recently announced voluntary initiatives to address methane emissions at existing wells—emissions that may be greater than the EPA estimates according to new research.

A study conducted by scientists at Colorado State University and published in Environmental Science & Technology, quantifies emissions from thousands of gathering facilities, which consolidate gas from wells and feed it into processing plants or pipelines. These emissions have been largely unreflected in federal statistics, the report says, but may be the largest methane source in the oil and gas supply chain. These newly identified emissions would increase total emissions from that chain in EPA’s current Greenhouse Gas Inventory by approximately 25 percent.

Climate Action Declaration

Muslim scholars from 20 countries issued an “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change” on Tuesday, calling on the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to work to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and to commit to renewable energy sources.

The declaration drawing on Islamic teachings and to be presented at the global climate summit in Paris was finalized at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul this week.

“The pace of global climate change today is of a different order of magnitude from the gradual changes that previously occurred throughout the most recent era, the Cenozoic,” the declaration reads. “Moreover, it is human-induced: we have now become a force dominating nature. Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger [of] ending life as we know it on our planet.”

The declaration asks Muslim countries, particularly those that are “well-off” and “oil-producing,” to lead the greenhouse gas phase out and to provide financial and technical support for climate change efforts by less-affluent states.

Alaska and Climate Change

Climate change could exacerbate one of Alaska’s worst wildfire seasons—one that has burned some 5 million acres of tundra and forests and ignited fears that large stores of carbon are being emitted into the atmosphere.

“We really need to start considering the long-term implications of big fires that are being predicted,” said Nicky Sundt, a climate change expert for the World Wildlife Fund. “In the Arctic, you have a lot of carbon locked up, and the fires will release that. We need to start thinking seriously about the carbon emissions from these fires.”

A recent Climate Central analysis shows that in the last 60 years large wildfires in Alaska have essentially doubled and that the wildfire season is 40 percent (35 days) longer than it was in the 1950s, mainly due to rapid warming in the globe’s northern reaches.

“The primary driver is temperature. The warmer we get, the more fires we seem to get,” Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire expert at the University of Alberta, said. “We need a 15 percent increase in precipitation to account for the warming. Very few climate models suggest there will be an increase in precipitation to compensate for the increase in temperature. The fuels will be drier in the future and it will be easy to start the spread of fire.”

Of particular concern—drying of peat, which then becomes susceptible to burning and release of centuries’ worth of carbon in the span of a few hours of intense fire. Teresa Hollingsworth, a researcher and ecology professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told NPR that many of the state’s fires burned seven feet deep, where vast amounts of carbon are stored.

“The carbon released from fire emissions during a large fire year in Alaska is roughly equivalent to 1 percent of the global fossil fuel and land use emissions,” said Dave McGuire, a research scientist and leader of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, in a recent press release.

Obama is visiting the state at the end of this month to highlight climate change impacts that go beyond fires.

“In Alaska, glaciers are melting,” Obama said in a video released last week. “The hunting and fishing upon which generations have depended for their way of life and for their jobs are being threatened. Storm surges once held at bay now endanger entire villages. As Alaskan permafrost melts, some homes are even sinking into the ground. The state’s God-given natural treasures are all at risk.”

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.


Challenges Ahead for Clean Power Plan, Another EPA Rule

August 13, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Less than two weeks after President Obama announced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) final Clean Power Plan rule, aimed at cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has encouraged states to comply with the plan through emissions trading opportunities—emphasized far more in the final rule than the draft proposal.

It appears that some states may be examining whether they have trade-ready elements in common with other states. If so, they will be able to swap emissions credits with those states in order to comply with the rule.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, particularly in the West, where states are more loosely connected across the electricity grid, about an arrangement where states could adopt some common elements, and thereby allow the compliance entities in that state to trade among states that might not have submitted a joint plan but still have common elements in their plans,” said Colin McConnaha, a greenhouse gas specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Despite the final rule’s flexibility, legal challenges are expected (subscription). Bill Bumpers, a partner at a law firm representing power companies, estimates 22–26 states are considering such challenges, a decision he called “more political than practical.”

The focus of many of these legal challenges, in my opinion, may very well be section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. I spoke with MetroNews Talkline on this issue Wednesday, noting:

“The way the Clean Air Act is set up is that the traditional pollutants like ozone and particulates are regulated under one provision, what they call the hazardous air pollutants like mercury are regulated in a second provision and then there is this third provision, 111 that says if it is not covered under one of the first two then you regulate under 111(d) … Section 111 (d) has been rarely used over history because there hasn’t been a pollutant like CO2 in the mix. So that gives the EPA a lot of flexibility in how it executes because there are not years of precedent, but it also gives them some uncertainty in how the courts are going to interpret it.”

That flexibility may not be so clear for another EPA rule that a group of 16 states and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources are challenging.

At issue—whether states can provide exemptions from emissions limits during periods of startup, shutdown, and malfunction. The court filing states “specifically, EPA erroneously concluded that the following State’s EPA-approved State Implementation Plans are ‘substantially inadequate’ with respect to periods of startup, shutdown and malfunction and must be revised.”

Carbon Emissions from Electric Power Plants Hit 27-Year Low

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said those same emissions that the Clean Power Plan is trying to diminish hit a 27-year low in April (subscription). Figures released Wednesday show that electric power plants emitted 141 million tons of carbon dioxide in April 2015, the lowest since April 1988.

A big factor in the drop is the long-term shift from coal to cleaner and cheaper natural gas, according to EIA Economist Allen McFarland, who downplayed the role of, economic sluggishness. “You don’t have a 27-year low because of an economic blip. There are more things happening than that,” McFarland said, noting that the price of natural gas has dropped 39 percent in the past year.

Increased renewable fuel use and energy efficiency are additional factors, say other experts, including Princeton University Professor Michael Oppenheimer, who also highlighted the role of regulation.

“A factor behind all these trends is that the writing is on the wall about the future of coal and thus the future of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions,” said Oppenheimer. “The regulatory noose is tightening and companies are anticipating a future with lower and lower dependence on fossil fuels and lower and lower carbon dioxide emissions.”

Federal analysts predict that this year the amount of electricity from natural gas will increase 3 percent compared to 2014 while power from coal will go down 10 percent.

Significant changes in the electric power sector fuel mix since April 1988 have made electricity generation less energy and carbon intensive. Some analysts point out that power plant emissions have already fallen by about 15 percent since 2005, putting the country halfway to the Obama administration’s goal before the Clean Power Plan goes into effect.

Spring Release for Changes to MATS Rule

Court-mandated changes to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule, which requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies, are expected by the EPA in 2016.

The EPA wrote in a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that it “intends to submit a declaration establishing the agency’s plan to complete the required consideration of costs for the ‘appropriate and necessary’ finding by spring of next year.” The Supreme Court ruled this summer that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to consider the costs of MATS when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector.

In the filing, EPA lawyers note that there is “extensive documentation” of the cost of MATS. The rule will remain in effect while the lower court determines whether to vacate it as the EPA works on the cost issue, Detroit 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.


Final Clean Power Plan More Ambitious, Flexible

August 6, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Monday, President Obama announced the release of the final Clean Power Plan (CPP), which sets mandatory limits on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the nation’s fleet of existing power plants may emit. The rule is projected to reduce emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change. We’re the last generation that can do something about it,” Obama said, noting that power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution, a key contributor to climate change. “Until now, there have been no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution plants dump in the air.”

Some Plan Particulars

The complicated and controversial 1561-page rule was developed by the Obama administration using existing authority under the Clean Air Act—specifically, section 111(d). The plan, according to a Washington Post op-ed, “is about as flexible as possible,” because it allows each state to come up with its own compliance program to meet the federal standards.

In broad strokes, the plan is designed to accelerate an already-underway shift from coal-fired electricity to cleaner natural gas and renewables, along with increased energy efficiency, by requiring existing power plants to meet specific carbon dioxide emissions reduction guidelines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated the targets based on a “best system of emissions reduction” comprised of three building blocks: making existing coal plants more efficient; shifting generation from coal to gas plants; and increasing generation from renewables.

Once the targets are set, however, states do not have to use the building blocks as a framework for their plans, and have been given a range of market-based, flexible mechanisms to reach their state targets.  In fact, emulating the flexibility afforded power plants under the market-based program devised in 1990 to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, the CPP allows states to create “trading-ready” plans that will allow affected plants to sell emissions credits or to buy credits, if that’s a less expensive option than taking other actions. Parallel compliance approaches remove the need for formal interstate trading agreements, an approach described in one of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ recent policy briefs. Also facilitating trading are new state goals reflecting uniform national emissions rate standards for fossil steam (coal and oil) and natural gas power plants, respectively, reports ClimateWire (subscription).

The centerpiece of the Obama administration’s push to slash U.S. carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the final CPP was timed to build momentum toward the start of international climate talks in Paris in November. Lord Nicholas Stern, a prominent economist in the U.K., said the rule’s release will “set a powerful example for the rest of the world,” and will reinforce the credibility of the U.S. commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions as a new international agreement on climate change is being finalized.

Significant Changes from the Proposal

Changes to the final plan were expected, given some 4 million comments on the proposed plan, and the plan did not disappoint. One big change, according to Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe, is based on the assumption that renewable energy and regional approaches have even greater capacity for helping the power sector reduce emissions than reflected in the draft proposal (subscription). Consequently, the final plan will cut power plant carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 30 percent target in the proposed rule.

The final rule also axed what the draft proposal referred to as Building Block 4, a criterion for achieving emissions reductions through programs that improve electricity consumers’ energy efficiency, as a means of calculating the state targets. Although these efficiency standards and under-construction nuclear plants were left out of the criteria for setting state goals under the plan, both are still available as compliance options.

The plan also includes a Clean Energy Incentive Program that rewards states for investing early (2020–2021) in renewable energy, specifically solar and wind power as well as demand side energy efficiency in low-income communities. Details of the incentive scheme are yet to be worked out, but the final rule goals do now expect renewable energy sources to account for 28 percent of the nation’s capacity by 2030—up from 22 percent in the proposal (subscription). The aim, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is to incentivize renewable energy, which will lessen the reliance on natural gas as a replacement for coal power as the dominant compliance strategy.

Many other changes were anticipated in the Nicholas Institute’s most recent policy brief, including:

  • Additional time—an two extra years (to 2022)—for states to submit plans and begin cutting emissions;
  • Easing of the interim goals “glide path,” which states can now craft for themselves; and
  • New state mass emissions targets. These targets, based on states’ energy mixes and a uniform emissions rate for plants that use the same technology but no longer on demand-side energy efficiency, are less disparate than and also vastly different from those in the proposal. They also allow states to choose whether to use one target that includes the emissions from new natural gas units or another target that excludes these units (but still provides mechanisms to ensure that emissions cannot increase through new units).

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.


SCOTUS Overturns Mercury Rule

July 2, 2015
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 5–4 decision, ruled that the Clean Air Act required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider the costs of its Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector.

The MATS rule requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies. The EPA estimated MATS would cost industry about $9.6 billion a year but cut coal and oil emissions by 90 percent and generate $37 billion in savings through “co-benefits.” Because these benefits are calculated on the basis of increased life expectancies and reduced health effects, the values have been subject to much of the debate.

“It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority. “Statutory context supports this reading.”

The Supreme Court did not dictate how the agency should address its ruling. It sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit for reconsideration of the rulemaking.

“EPA is disappointed that the court did not uphold the rule, but this rule was issued more than three years ago, investments have been made and most plants are already well on their way to compliance,” said EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison, noting the agency is reviewing the ruling.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast notes that the immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s decision will likely be limited because electric utilities have already taken steps to comply with the regulation.

World’s Top Emitters Announce Climate Pledges

Three of the world’s 10 largest emitters of greenhouse gases—Brazil, China and the United States—announced new climate change commitments.

China made its intended nationally determined contribution to the United Nations, which calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60–65 percent from 2005 levels and obtain 20 percent of its energy from low-carbon sources in 2030 (11.2 percent now comes from such sources).

“China’s carbon dioxide emission will peak by around 2030 and China will work hard to achieve the target at an even earlier date,” said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

In a joint statement, the United States and Brazil pledged to source 20 percent of their electricity from non-hydropower renewable sources by 2030. Brazil also committed to restore a swath of forest 46,332 square miles—roughly the size of England—through policies that aim to tackle deforestation.

The commitments come just months before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where countries will work toward a global climate agreement. Brian Deese, senior White House climate adviser, said the announcement by the United States and Brazil “substantially elevates and builds” on climate progress and “should provide momentum moving into our shared objective of getting an agreement in Paris later this year.”

Alberta Doubles Carbon Fee, Moves on Climate-Policy Review

The Canadian province of Alberta last week announced it would double its carbon fee—the first to be levied by a North American jurisdiction—from C$15 to C$30 a metric ton and increase its emissions intensity reductions target from 12 to 20 percent by 2017 in an effort to curb greenhouse gases from industrial facilities, coal plants and oil-sands production. The government, which will also begin a climate-policy review to prepare recommendations ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year, has said the province needs to be a leader in climate policy in order to support the oil-sands industry, long criticized for its environmental impact.

“If Alberta wants better access to world markets, then we’re going to need to do our part to address one of the world’s biggest problems, which is climate change,” said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips in announcing the news.

The carbon fee is levied on industrial facilities emitting more than 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year for emissions that exceed a facility’s emission intensity target. The levy was introduced in 2008, Alberta has collected fee revenues of $578 million, which it has put into a technology fund for initiatives that reduce emissions. Those 103 facilities have the option of reducing their emissions intensity, buying Alberta-based offsets to meet the intensity targets, or paying into that fund.

While Alberta’s fee is in support of an emissions intensity target rather than on total emissions, neighboring province British Columbia levies a broad-based carbon tax on emissions from most major sources and uses those tax revenues to largely fund tax cuts. A recent Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions-University of Ottawa analysis of that tax found that it was reducing emissions with little net impact, either negative or positive, on provincial economic performance.

The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) welcomed the news that Alberta would extend its carbon fee measure, officially the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, to December 31, 2017, the date on which Ontario will likely launch its emissions-trading market, “which is intended to link with those of California and Quebec,” according to IETA.

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.


Inaction on Climate Change Has Dismal Consequences

June 25, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The White House and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new peer-reviewed report saying inaction on climate change is a dire threat to human health and the economy. It specifically estimates the physical monetary paybacks across 20 sectors of the United States by year 2100 if world leaders successfully limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Among its findings: agricultural losses could be reduced by as much as $11 billion, there could be as many as 57,000 fewer deaths from poor air quality and as much as $110 billion in lost labor hours could be avoided. If nothing is done by 2100, the United States will see thousands of additional deaths annually related to extreme temperatures and poor air quality.

“The results are quite startling and very clear,” said Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy. “Left unchecked, climate change affects our health, infrastructure and the outdoors we love. But more importantly the report shows that global action on climate change will save lives.”

The Washington Post notes one major concern with the study—citing a recent International Energy Agency analysis—though several major new international commitments could move the world in the right direction, the planet is almost certainly not going to hit its 2 degree target.

The report follows the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical—acknowledging that climate change is largely caused by humans—sparking bipartisan reaction. A review of surveys by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University found the majority of Catholic Republicans agreed that global warming is happening.

EPA Clean Power Plan Under Fire

A White House official this week said the final version of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan would retain its ambitious 30 percent cut in emissions (subscription). Slated to be finalized in August, the rule would limit emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act by giving states flexibility in how they can meet interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final 2030 emissions rate limit.

Bills to scale back its intended benefits were the subject of House hearings this week. One in particular, the Ratepayer Protection Act—which Obama threatened to veto—was passed with a 247-180 vote by House Republicans Wednesday. It would pause implementation of the rule until all legal challenges have been settled. It also would allow states to opt out if the rule leads to rate increases. Manufacturers on Wednesday urged lawmakers to pass the bill. A letter from the National Association of Manufacturers noted that the “rule has the potential to substantially increase the costs of electricity for manufacturers and could threaten the reliability of the electric grid in many parts of the country.” But a report from Public Citizen suggests the Clean Power Plan will actually be beneficial to consumers and the economy generally.

2015 on Pace to Be Warmest Year on Record

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the Japanese Meteorological Agency last week reported that the first five months of this year are the hottest since recordkeeping began in 1880, putting 2015 on track to top 2014 as the warmest year on record.

In May, the combined land and ocean surface temperature was 1.57 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, 0.14 degrees above the previous record set in May 2014.

According to NOAA, record warm sea-surface temperatures in the northeast and equatorial Pacific Ocean as well as areas of the western North Atlantic Ocean and Barents Sea north of Scandinavia contributed to the anomalous heat so far in 2015.

“The oceans have been what’s really been driving the warmth that we’ve seen in the last year and a half to two years,” said Deke Arndt, head of climate monitoring at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Education. “We’ve seen really large warmth in all of the major ocean basins. So, if there’s anything unusual or weird, I guess, about what we’re seeing, it’s the fact that the entire global ocean is participating in this really extreme warmth that we’ve seen in the last couple years.”

The current El Niño event could help keep temperatures at record or near-record levels for the remainder of the year, but climate scientists are cautious about saying whether 2015 will definitely be a record breaker for heat.

“We expect that we are going to get more warm years, and just as with 2014, records will be broken increasingly in the future. But perhaps not every year,” said Gavin Schmidt, who leads NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

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.


Pope Calls for Sweeping Changes to Address Climate Change

June 18, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Pope Francis’s highly anticipated encyclical on the environment, which may play a key role in the United Nations climate change conference in Paris later this year, was released today. Among its key focuses: climate change is real, it is getting worse and humans are a major cause.

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plants and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” the Pope wrote. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

The encyclical called for sweeping changes in politics, economics and lifestyles to confront the issue—including moving away from fossil fuel use.

“The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” he wrote. “In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”

A leaked draft of the encyclical published Monday in an Italian magazine sparked bipartisan reaction. Democrats greeted it as a vindication of the science of climate change and of their party’s policy proposals to address it (subscription). Some prominent Republicans—such as GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush—argued that a religious leader has no place in crafting policy. Former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis said the encyclical will force skeptics and critics of environmental regulations in the GOP to do some “soul searching.”

“There’s a lot of Republicans who may have in the past been critical of fellow Catholics who they call ‘cafeteria Catholics’ who don’t follow the church’s teachings—say, on abortion,” said Inglis. “But now, are they going to become ‘cafeteria Catholics’ themselves and not follow the church’s teachings on climate change?”

Carbon Tax Bill Aims to Trade a “Bad” for a “Good”

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii last week introduced the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, a bill that would impose a $45 per metric ton fee on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels—a figure reflecting the federal government’s estimate of the so-called social cost of carbon, a measure of damage attributable to climate change. The location of the announcement, the American Enterprise Institute, was “meant to convey an offer of partnership” with conservatives on what the two Democratic senators hope is a “rebooted debate on climate change that focuses on legislation over science,” ClimateWire reported (subscription).

The bill’s gradually rising tax (2 percent per year) and credits for carbon sequestration are aimed at reducing emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels. According to a summary of the legislation, the bill would cut emissions by at least 40 percent by 2025. That amount represents a far greater reduction than the 26 to 28 percent that the United States has pledged to achieve through regulatory changes over the same period and would amount to a cut deeper than that proposed by other countries in the run up to discussions surrounding a climate deal in Paris later this year.

Whitehouse and Schatz argued that lack of a carbon tax is a $700 billion annual subsidy to the fossil fuel industry.

“A carbon fee can repair that market failure by incorporating unpriced damage into the costs of fossil fuels,” Whitehouse said. “Then the free market—not industry, not government—can drive the best energy mix is for the country, with everyone competing on level ground.”

Fossil fuel consumption in British Columbia is down since the Canadian province implemented a carbon tax. New analysis of that tax’s performance by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the University of Ottawa’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainable Prosperity describes the tax as straight out of the economist’s playbook.

Co-author and Nicholas Institute Environmental Economics Program Director Brian Murray describes the tax as a “textbook” prescription because of its wide coverage and revenue neutrality, meaning that revenues from the tax go back to British Columbia households and businesses.

“Economists often favor revenue-neutral carbon taxation because it has the potential to enhance economic growth by lowering distortions from the current tax system,” said Murray. “Given these characteristics, the British Columbia carbon tax may provide the purest example of the economist’s carbon tax prescription in practice.”

Similar to revenues from the British Columbia carbon tax, fees from the proposed carbon tax would be recycled back to businesses and individuals. The projected $2 trillion over the course of the first decade would be invested in “American competitiveness” through tax credits, corporate tax cuts, and funding for states, which Whitehouse and Schatz say would help low-income and rural communities transition to new industries.

White House Raises $4 Billion to Fight Climate Change

President Barack Obama hopes to spark clean energy innovation with $4 billion in private sector investments and executive actions, officials announced at the White House’s Clean Energy Investment Summit Tuesday. The funding is in response to a call for increased private sector research into low-carbon energy technology. It doubles the funding goal announced in February, when the Obama administration launched its Clean Energy Investment Initiative.

The Clean Energy Impact Investment Center will operate under the Energy Department to speed other financing for clean energy. The idea, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz noted, is to “make the department’s resources … more readily available to the public.”

He added: “The United States and other countries are providing substantial financial support to the development and commercialization of clean energy technologies but, if were to achieve climate goals, it is imperative that we find ways to incentivize the global capital markets to invest in clean energy. The U.S. government is addressing the need for new financing through a variety of programs that support clean energy technology through the research and development, demonstration and deployment stages.”

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 Releases Report, Other Initiatives Directed at Tackling Climate Change Impacts

April 9, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama announced a series of steps that aim to tackle the effects of climate change on the health of Americans. These 150 health-focused actions to boost climate change preparedness expand on the Climate Data Initiative launched a year.

“The sooner we act, the more we can do to protect the health of our communities, our kids, and those that are the most vulnerable,” the White House said in a statement. “As part of the administration’s overall effort to combat climate change and protect the American people, this week, the administration is announcing a series of actions that will allow us to better understand, communicate, and reduce the health impacts of climate change on our communities.”

Beyond the list of initiatives—including expanding access to climate and health data, improving air quality data and convening a climate change and health summit—the administration released a draft report on the observed and future impacts of climate change on our health. It focuses on risks such as weather extremes, air quality and water-and food-related issues that could affect Americans and is open for public comment. A final draft is expected for release in early 2016.

Another report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adaptation in Action, highlights successful actions by state leaders in Arizona, California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and New York to reduce the health impacts of climate change.

Study Forecasts Canadian Glacier Loss; Could Have Wider Implications

A new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience predicts how much glaciers in western Canada will shrink—as much as 70 percent by 2100—depending on the rate of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere between now and the end of the century.

“Over the next century, there is going to be a huge loss,” said lead author Garry Clarke of the University of British Columbia. “The glaciers are telling us that we’re changing the climate.”

The study—the first to model many glaciers in detail at one time—could have implications for predicting glacier loss around the world. New Scientist reports that unlike previous studies—including one by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—this Nature Geoscience study relies on detailed analysis of how glaciers are likely to move and change shape as they melt. The earlier studies relied on the difference between the amount of snow falling on the glacier at higher altitudes and the amount of thawing at lower ones.

Climate Change Triggers Rising Tide of Troubles for California

Last week the Risky Business Project released its third report on the economic impacts of climate change, a report calling on business leaders to push for policy reform and to factor climate change into their businesses’ risk models.

From Boom to Bust? Climate Risk in the Golden State describes how extreme heat and shifting precipitation patterns from escalating climate change will drain California’s water supply, worsen drought and wildfire, and undermine agriculture. Rising temperatures will also lead to decreased labor productivity, increased energy costs, and greater air pollution. Human health and property will be put at risk: a doubling or tripling of the number of days with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit could contribute to nearly 7,700 additional heat-related deaths per year by century’s end, and rising sea levels along the California coast could submerge $10 billion in property by 2050. 

The report was published the same day that California Gov. Jerry Brown placed first-ever mandatory water restrictions on all Californians, a response to the state’s fourth year of drought, which has already challenged many of the state’s businesses. The executive order calls for a 25 percent slash in water use and comes as the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which Californians rely on heavily for summertime water needs, neared a record low.

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.


Supreme Court Reviews EPA’s Power Plant Mercury Rule; Decision Due in June

March 26, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) consideration of cost impacts when developing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, (MATS) which are set to go into effect next month. At issue in the case is whether the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to consider costs in addition to health and environmental impacts when determining whether (not just how) to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants.

The MATS rule, finalized in December 2011, requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies. The EPA estimates the rule would cost industry about $9.6 billion a year but have the benefits of cutting coal and oil emissions by 90 percent and generating $37 billion in savings through “co-benefits.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that it is in EPA’s discretion whether to consider costs when deciding whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants. During Wednesday’s Supreme Court oral argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed, asserting that Congress instructed the EPA to use its expertise to decide what was appropriate and did not mandate consideration of costs.

Forbes reports that Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly attacked EPA’s interpretation. He asserted, “I would think it’s classic arbitrary and capricious agency action for an agency to command something that is outrageously expensive and in which the expense vastly exceeds whatever public benefit can be achieved.”

The Supreme Court’s final decision is expected by the end of June (subscription).

Global Warming Imperiling Artic Ice, Slowing Ocean Circulation

This week the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that on Feb. 25 Arctic sea ice appeared to have reached its annual maximum extent, “the lowest in the satellite record,” with implications for the Arctic’s ecology and economy and for weather patterns in North America, Europe, and Asia. The news, the Belfast Telegraph reported, increases fears that summers in the polar region could be ice free within 20 or 30 years.

Warming Arctic temperatures triggered by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are accelerating ice melt and increasing the amount open ocean exposed to the sun’s rays. Unlike white ice, which reflects those rays, the dark ocean absorbs them, causing further heating and melt.

“[The record low extent] is significant, in that it shows that the Arctic is being seriously impacted by our warming climate,” said NSIDC’s Senior Research Scientist Ted Scambos. “In general, sea ice retreat has proceeded faster than modelling expects in the Arctic, although models are catching up.”

The NSIDC announcement comes in the wake of a new study reporting that Arctic sea ice is thinning at a faster rate than researchers previously thought. It shows that the ice in the central Arctic Ocean thinned 65 percent between 1975 and 2012, from 11.78 feet to 4.1 feet.

Global warming also appears to be slowing ocean circulation according to a new study in Nature Climate Change. The study reveals a deceleration of the ocean circulation that helps to drive the Gulf Stream off the U.S. east coast, the consequences of which could be significant extra sea level rise for coastal cities and shifts in U.S. and European weather.

The findings suggest that the slowdown—the most dramatic in recorded history and well outside the norm—is probably not part of natural fluctuation.

If the climate relationships identified in the study hold true, increasing melt rates in Greenland “might lead to further weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation within a decade or two, and possibly even more permanent shutdown” of key components of it, the scientists warn.

“If the slowdown of the Atlantic overturning continues, the impacts might be substantial,” said lead author Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Disturbing the circulation will likely have a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem, and thereby fisheries and the associated livelihoods of many people in coastal areas. A slowdown also adds to the regional sea-level rise affecting cities like New York and Boston. Finally, temperature changes in that region can also influence weather systems on both sides of the Atlantic, in North America as well as Europe.”

Obama Cuts Fed’s Carbon Emissions

In an effort to help meet emissions reduction goals and spur others to do the same, President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 2008 levels in the next decade. Specifically, the executive order calls for agencies to ensure 25 percent of their total energy consumption is from clean sources, to reduce energy use in federal buildings by 2.5 percent each year and decrease per-mile greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from 2014 levels.

“America once again is going to be leading by example,” said Obama. “So we’re proving that it is possible to grow our economy robustly while at the same time doing the right thing for our environment and tackling climate change in a serious way.”

The move by Obama is part of a broader plan to tackle climate change. He previously pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Daily Caller’s Michael Bastasch reports that Obama’s latest moves on climate are part of a larger effort to increase political pressure on other countries to follow suit in the months before a global climate treaty will be discussed at an international climate summit in Paris.

“If I can encourage and gain commitments from the Chinese to put forward a serious plan to start curbing their greenhouse gases, and that then allows us to leverage the entire world for the conference that will be taking place later this year in Paris,” Obama said.

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.