The concentration and the rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere are spiking, according to new analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Scientists believe the record levels are not only the result of emissions but also of plants and oceans’ inability to absorb the excess amounts of CO2.
“We know without any doubt that our climate is changing and our weather is becoming more extreme due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years and in the ocean for even longer. Past, present and future CO2 emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification.”
The WMO study found that CO2 concentrations increased more during 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984—and significantly higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution (278 parts per million in 1750 compared with 396 parts per million in 2013). Other greenhouse gases are also on the rise—methane has risen by 253 percent since the Industrial Revolution, and nitrous oxide has risen to 121 percent of pre-industrial levels.
A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) on how countries grow their economy while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions linked to energy concluded that the gap is widening between what the world is achieving and what it needs to do in terms of limiting global temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels—the target agreed at the United Nations 2009 climate summit. Carbon intensity was reduced, on average, 1.2 percent from 2012 to 2013. The needed annual reduction is 6.2 percent.
The PwC report also found that places like China, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey are reducing their carbon intensity far better than the world’s rich nations.
“What we found this year is that emerging economies have outperformed the G7 countries because their economies are growing much more rapidly than their emissions,” said Jonathan Grant, PwC director of sustainability and climate change.
BP Gets U.K. Support in Court Filing
The British government, in a court filing, offered support to limit payments by BP to victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, arguing that court-mandated compensation by a U.S. District Court in 2012 undermined confidence in judicial fairness. BP has spent much of this year working to convince federal courts in New Orleans that the settlement deal allowed millions in payments to go to what it says are undeserving businesses.
In its Sept. 4 filing, the British government said the prospect of payments going to people unaffected by the spill raises “grave international comity concerns.”
“The lower courts’ rulings have dramatically expanded [BP’s] scope of liability far beyond anything that would seem to be appropriate under our shared common-law traditions or that anyone would reasonably expect,” the British government wrote in an Amicus Curiae.
The brief comes on the heels of another more recent court ruling that found the company “grossly negligent” in the explosion that killed 11 men and allowed millions of barrels of oil to flow out of the Macondo oil well into the Gulf of Mexico. The ruling opened the door to new civil penalties that could amount to as much as $18 billion and that could pressure the company to sell assets from the Americas to Asia and Russia.
Regulating Emissions from the Airline Industry
As it did to implement a tailpipe rule that sets greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could use an endangerment finding to regulate emissions from the airline industry.
The EPA announced plans to release an endangerment finding proposal in April 2015 that looks at whether emissions from airlines endanger public health or welfare.
“If a positive endangerment and cause or contribute findings are made, U.S./EPA is obligated under the Clean Air Act to set [greenhouse gas] emission standards for aircrafts,” the EPA said. A process to finalize such a finding could take up to year.
The announcement comes as the electricity industry faces proposed regulations that would cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels, a move that governors of 15 states recently wrote “exceeds the scope of federal law” in a letter to President Obama.
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.
A federal appeals court upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) requiring power plants install technology to cut emissions of mercury and other air pollutants. MATS was challenged by industry and several states that argued the EPA should have considered costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to go forward with the standards. The EPA contended the rule was required under the Clean Air Act.
“On its face,” the majority opinion said, the Clean Air Act “neither requires EPA to consider costs nor prohibits EPA from doing so. Indeed, the word ‘costs’ appears nowhere” in that section of the law.
Although Judge Brett Kavanaugh—one member of the three-judge panel—agreed with the majority in other aspects of the ruling, he wrote a dissenting opinion on when the EPA should have considered the costs of MATS.
“The estimated cost of compliance with EPA’s Final Rule is approximately $9.6 billion per year, by EPA’s own calculation … To put it in perspective, that amount would pay the annual health insurance premiums of about two million Americans. It would pay the annual salaries of about 200,000 members of the U.S. Military. It would cover the annual budget of the entire National Park Service three times over,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Most power plants will have until March 2015 to meet the requirements set forth by the standards, but extensions to 2016 are possible. Despite the litigation, nearly 70 percent of coal-fired power plants are already in compliance with MATS, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The appeals court ruling comes as the EPA released findings that between 2011 and 2012 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped 3.4 percent—an overall decrease of 10 percent below 2005 levels. The findings are based on data in the agency’s annual inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and sinks. The agency attributed the decrease, in part, to reduced emissions from electricity generation, much of which is attributable to the increased usage of gas instead of coal—a change that has been influenced by the mercury regulations.
Methane Emissions Rule May be on Horizon
Five papers exploring methane emissions from compressors, leaks, liquid unloading, pneumatic devices and hydraulic fracturing production were released by the EPA for public comment Tuesday.
“The white papers will help EPA solidify our understanding of certain sources of methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in the oil and natural gas industry,” the agency said in a statement. “Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and VOCs contribute to the formation of harmful ground-level ozone (smog).”
The release of the papers is a first step in what could become a new set of regulations governing emissions of methane from oil and gas operations.
A day earlier, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that the EPA underestimated methane emissions from oil and gas operations. In a survey of hydraulic fracturing sites in southwestern Pennsylvania, the peer-reviewed study found that drilling operations released methane at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than the EPA expected. Seven well pads—1 percent of all the wells in the research area—accounted for 4 to 30 percent of the recorded emissions.
Four Years Later, BP “Active” Spill Response Concludes
“Let me be absolutely clear: This response is not over—not by a long shot,” said Capt. Thomas Sparks, the Coast Guard federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon response. “Our response posture has evolved to target re-oiling events on coastline segments that were previously cleaned.”
BP said its cleanup involved aerial patrols over more than 14,000 miles of shoreline and ground surveys covering more than 4,400 miles.
“Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon accident, BP committed to cleaning the shoreline and supporting the Gulf’s economic and environmental recovery,” BP said in a press release. “Completing active cleanup is further indication that we are keeping that commitment.”
Multiple studies are attempting to assess not only the reach of the spill, but also its health effects for spill responders and Gulf wildlife. A new report by the National Wildlife Federation used data from independent scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess how 14 species were faring. Some—such as the bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles—are still dying in large numbers due to the spill.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
New analysis from the World Health Organization (WHO) links exposure to air pollution to roughly 7 million deaths annually. The report confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest environmental health risk. It estimates 4.3 million people died in 2012—mainly due to cooking inside with coal or wood stoves. Another 3.7 million died from outdoor pollution, including diesel engine and factory emissions. The figures—more than double previous estimates—indicate that air pollution kills more people than smoking, diabetes and road deaths combined.
“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”
The Western-Pacific region—including China, Japan and Australia—represented 41 percent (2.88 million) of the global deaths due to air pollution in 2012. In that year, countries in this region combined with countries in southeast Asia accounted for 5.8 million air pollution-related deaths.
Only three of 74 Chinese cities fully complied with state pollution standards in 2013. Earlier this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang classified air pollution as a top priority for the nation’s authorities. China is now using drones to spy on industries in Beijing and other cities where illegal polluting may be contributing to the nation’s smog problem. These unmanned crafts take photographs of smokestack scrubbers and assess smoke color in the images for pollution.
“You can easily tell from the color of the smoke—black, purple, brown—that the pollution is over the limit, because if smokestack scrubbers are operating properly, only white smoke is emitted,” said ministry official Yang Yipeng.
In new tests led by the China Meteorological Administration, drones could be used during peak air pollution periods to spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.
Texas Disaster Puts Oil Spills in Spotlight
As news headlines commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which more than 10 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in the waters off Alaska, emergency crews were dealing with a new disaster in one of the country’s busiest shipping channels: the Houston Ship Channel.
Though millions of gallons smaller than the Exxon Valdez spill or the BP’s Deep Horizon spill in 2010, the spill from a barge collision near Galveston closed the shipping lane for several days while a high-tech buoy system helped guide the cleanup.
Since the Exxon Valdez, the United States has experienced at least two-dozen major oil spills, ranging from a few hundred to millions of gallons. Scientists are still discovering the ecological costs associated with these spills.
A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds grim implications for the hearts of fish that were embryos, larvae or juveniles at the time of the BP oil spill, which coincided with tuna-spawning season. Led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the study links the spill to potentially lethal heart defects in species of tuna, amberjack and other predatory fish.
“Larvae exposed to high levels were dead within a week,” said study leader John Incardona. “But we still don’t know how long they lived after exposure to lower levels [of crude oil], or how much spawning area may have been impacted.”
The NOAA study follows research out in February suggesting that low concentrations of crude can disrupt the signaling pathways responsible for regular heart rhythms in fish.
Renewable Energy Makes Strides
Cheap installation costs, high electricity prices and government subsidies have allowed the cost of solar power to stay on par with the cost of traditional energy sources—at least in Germany, Spain and Italy. That’s according to a new report by the consulting firm Eclareon. “Soft costs” and demand are keeping the same from ringing true in the United States, according to The Week.
A new experimental house—developed by the University of California, Davis, and Honda—is designed to generate more electricity than it consumes and to store the extra energy in a car’s battery for later use.
“It’s a new world in terms of vehicles operating not as isolated artifacts but as being part of a larger energy system, and I think the greatest opportunity for automakers is figuring out how their vehicles become part of that system,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.
The home uses a geothermal system to provide heating and cooling. Solar panels, energy-efficient automated lighting, electric vehicle charging and pozzolan-infused and post-tensioned concrete use less than half of the energy of a similarly sized new home in the Davis area.
Last month was among the top five warmest Junes on record, according to new data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The average global temperature, according to NOAA, was 60.54 degrees Fahrenheit—1.15 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average of 59.9 degrees Fahrenheit. June’s record heat extended the world’s streak of warmer-than-average months to 340 and resulted in a roughly 63 percent decline in Northern Hemisphere snow cover—the third lowest cover on record.
Meanwhile, a new analysis in the journal Nature says manmade warming in the Arctic is an “economic time bomb,” and policy makers should not focus solely on the benefits of an increasingly open space in the region. Melting of ice caps—which trap billions of tons of the greenhouse gas methane—could cost the world more than $60 trillion. That figure nearly equals the size of the 2012 global economy.
“Estimates are that the economic benefits of Arctic shipping and oil exploration will be four orders of magnitude less than the additional costs analysed here,” said co-author Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, who calculated the average global economic consequences of the release of 50 gigatonnes of methane over the course of one decade from thawing undersea permafrost with his fellow Dutch and British co-authors.
Given methane’s potency, the authors say such a release could increase the methane content of the atmosphere twelve-fold and raise temperatures by as much as 1.3 degrees Celsius—impacts most likely to be felt in developing countries.
McCarthy Confirmed after Record-Long Wait
Five months after President Barack Obama selected Gina McCarthy to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), she overcame Republican objections and won Senate confirmation by a 59 to 40 vote. McCarthy, who oversaw the EPA’s Air and Radiation Office in Obama’s first term, replaces Lisa Jackson as the 13th administrator of the agency.
“We have a clear responsibility to act now on climate change,” McCarthy offered by video message Monday. “That’s what President Obama has called on us and the American people [to do], so that we protect future generations. And he recently said the question now is whether we have the courage to act before it’s too late. This agency has the courage to act. We can make it happen.”
At the heart of Obama’s climate plan are efforts to limit emissions from new and existing power plants, representing about a third percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. House Republicans, this week, approved a bill that cuts the EPA’s 2014 budget by a third. It blocks federal rules to limit carbon emissions from power plants and the Tier 3 rule to reduce sulfur content in gasoline (subscription required).
Moniz Restructuring U.S. Energy Department
Ernest Moniz, another key person on Obama’s climate and energy team, is doing some reorganizing of the leadership in his department. In a recent memo to U.S. Energy Department staff, Moniz details the new structure, which he says is designed to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of departmental operations.
“We must have the ability to closely integrate and move quickly among basic science, applied research, technology demonstration and deployment,” said Moniz. “The innovation chain is not linear but, rather, one that requires feedback among its various elements. This is particularly the case with regard to clean energy as we work to implement the President’s Climate Action Plan.”
Spill Less Damaging than 2010 BP Gusher
Fire caused a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico to partially collapse, just a day after a ruptured natural gas well on the Hercules offshore rig forced 44 people to evacuate. Hercules, on Wednesday, was working to plug the leak on the rig, which is roughly 55 miles off the coast of Louisiana. This latest offshore oil rig incident, Huffington Post reports, should not be as damaging as the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, because it appears to involve gas that disperses relatively easily.
Unless Congress reaches a deal by Friday, a set of automatic spending cuts—known as the sequester—will take effect. According to the Obama Administration, this trigger, for $85 billion worth of across-the-board federal spending cuts, is expected to have significant implications for climate and energy.
Newly released estimates by the White House detail how the cuts are projected to impact programs in each state. Decreases in environmental funding will be in the multi-millions, with the hardest hits to clean air efforts in California, New York, Texas, Ohio and Illinois. Overall more than $100 million in budget cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air program are proposed. The acting chief of the EPA, Bob Perciasepe, warned of furloughs for staff. In a letter, he detailed the widespread potential effects of the cuts, which included reduced monitoring of oil spills, air pollution and hazardous waste.
The EPA isn’t the only federal agency that would be impacted by the cuts. For example, the operating budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also at risk, which could potentially degrade the government’s ability to provide timely and accurate weather forecasts. Specifically, the sequester could cause a two- to three-year delay in the production and deployment of the first two next-generation weather satellites being developed through a program called GOES-R. “This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings,” said Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank. “It is unclear that future years of investment will be able to undo some of the damage—especially to our weather preparedness.”
The energy sector will also feel the effects if the cuts aren’t avoided by March 1. There could be a slowdown in the development of oil and gas resources as well as a decline in the permitting of solar and wind installations on federal lands. The cuts could also affect clean energy deployment, decrease the number of homes eligible for energy-efficiency upgrades and delay the cleanup of nuclear waste at sites in Tennessee, South Carolina, Washington and Idaho.
Obama’s Picks for Energy, Environment
Gina McCarthy and Ernest Moniz are still clear favorites to help lead President Barack Obama’s environment and energy team. Timing for formal announcements, however, are less clear, sources told Politico.
McCarthy is expected to replace Lisa Jackson, who stepped down as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month. Moniz, currently the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, could replace Steven Chu as the head of the Department of Energy. Reuters says McCarthy “would likely become the face of Obama’s latest push to fight climate change,” while Nature says Moniz “would bring to the office a pragmatic support for nuclear power and natural gas, along with a candid desire to, in his own words, ‘innovate like hell’ on basic energy technologies.”
BP Oil Spill Trial Opens
Testimony began this week in the civil trial surrounding the deadly explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010. Unless a settlement is reached, Federal District Judge Carl J. Barbier will determine who is liable for damages resulting from the rupture and discharge of millions of gallons of crude oil from BP’s high-pressure Macondo well. In addition, Barbier will assess whether BP, Transocean or other companies that worked on the project were grossly negligent in their handling of the rig and well in order to decide how much money will be paid.
Record-Setting Renewable Energy Projects See Light
In a conference of leaders in the offshore wind industry, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hinted at the nation’s energy future. “It is going to be very much a continuation agenda,” Salazar said. Though the sequester could slow offshore wind energy development in the Atlantic, he noted that Cape Wind—the first proposed offshore wind project in the U.S.—should break ground in 2013, despite earlier holdups.
Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown cleared the $1 billion McCoy Solar Project for fast-track approval. Estimated to provide enough electricity to power 264,000 homes, the solar project would be the world’s biggest (subscription required).
And across the pond, Saudi Arabia revealed a plan to install 54 gigawatts of renewable energy—a combination of solar, wind, geothermal and waste-to-energy plants by 2032. The project aims to reduce the amount of oil burned in power stations by the world’s top oil exporter.
A collection of papers now out in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) looks at the response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 201, examining whether it was successful and how it could be improved. The release of the reports comes just days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended BP from obtaining new U.S. contracts due to its “lack of business integrity” following the Deepwater Horizon accident that killed 11 workers. After the explosion, the rig’s Macondo well began gushing crude oil, a leak that would continue for nearly three months. Uncertainty surrounding the flow rate of the leaking oil was a key problem during the disaster, prompting these U.S. government scientists to recommend that future drilling permits require mechanisms to assess the flow rate.
Among other methods, dispersants were used to break down some of the oil after the spill. While dispersants have been used before, the 2010 BP spill was the first time they were added under the sea surface. Just as claims against the dispersant company were dismissed this week, a study—separate from the PNAS papers—suggests once the dispersants mix with oil, the mixture is more toxic.
In all, according to the 15 PNAS papers, information presented publicly during the spill was for the most part accurate. Oil was rapidly consumed by bacteria, and seafood was not contaminated by hydrocarbons or dispersants.
Fiscal Cliff Diverts Attention from Doha Climate Talks
Though the world’s carbon emissions jumped 3 percent in 2011, worries about the fiscal cliff—when the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 go into effect at the end of 2012—still overshadowed negotiations for a global climate treaty at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha. While the Doha talks are slow, Spiegel runs down a list of four reasons for hope on climate change. Noting even though the international process takes time, it is delivering. “Since the Copenhagen summit in 2009, countries representing 80 percent of global emissions have made economy-wide pledges of action.”
Even so, the Kyoto Protocol—the only global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions—is set to expire at the end of the year. Negotiations to move forward on details for a second phase haven’t materialized as of yet. Two traditional hold-outs are warming up to the idea of a global commitment. China has pledged to make its “due contribution” to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and President Barack Obama’s envoy said he is willing to participate in discussions on the issue of fairness in how nations plan to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals. At issue is whether some nations historically considered developing countries should be subject to more stringent carbon targets given their increasing emissions.
Climate Change in Spotlight as Coal Use Criticized
As natural gas continues to gain popularity, as much as 24 percent of coal-fired capacity in the U.S. could be shut down by 2035. The forecast comes from a new study released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. An official from BHP Billiton—one of the largest producers of aluminum, thermal coal, metallurgical coal, nickel, silver and uranium—said extreme weather caused by climate change is already impacting some of its assets, thus forcing the company to re-evaluate its investments in the coal sector. “In a carbon constrained world where energy coal is the biggest contributor to a carbon problem, how do you think this is going to evolve over a 30- to 40-year time horizon? You’d have to look at that and say … the usage of thermal coal is going to decline,” said BHP executive Marcus Randolph. “And frankly it should.”
In the southeastern U.S.—a region where coal-fired power plants have historically supplied much of the electricity—coal-fired generation has declined since 2010. In summer 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration saw an 8 percent decline in coal use. The reason, as Slate tells it: the drop in natural gas prices has “changed the dispatch order in the region.”
A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council outlines a plan by which the U.S. could reduce power plant carbon pollution by 26 percent using the Clean Air Act. Under the plan, the EPA would set emissions goals for existing power plants that vary from state to state, depending on the state’s mix of power sources. Regulators and utilities could then determine how best to meet those goals. States would be free to pursue innovative strategies, such as trading emissions, as they see fit. Such a plan, according to the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer, is preferable to a one-size-fits-all carbon standard for all power plants, which could shutter many coal plants.
Thousands have converged for a two-week meeting in the Qatari capital of Doha for the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Running through Dec. 7, the U.N. conference brings together environmental minds across the world to work toward a legally binding agreement on climate change. At stake: the Kyoto Protocol. Last week, the World Bank issued a report suggesting that a temperature rise of more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 could cause widespread crop failures, malnutrition and significant sea-level rise. Kyoto is the only global agreement to cut greenhouse emissions, and it is set to expire at the end of this year. In The Washington Post, Brad Plumer shows what Kyoto has (and has not) achieved, and what any new agreement must achieve in order to avoid 3 or 4 degrees Celsius of warming.
The world is watching to see whether details for a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which lays the groundwork for a new global treaty, can be agreed upon. A second phase of Kyoto, Nature reports, would only temporarily replace the original agreement. That’s why some hope COP 18 climate negotiators commit to signing a new treaty by 2015, to take effect by 2020—or possibly earlier if some countries pushing for more ambitious action get their way.
Counterparts from European and vulnerable nation delegations routinely criticize the U.S. as the major reason these negotiations lack ambition. Experts say China and the United States aren’t keeping pace with the smaller countries—the global leaders in generating power from clean sources. Still, some are cautiously optimistic the U.S. will be more than a bystander during talks in light of the recent destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy.
Studies Coming out of Doha
A number of new studies informing decisions during COP 18 are being shared at the conference by organizations across the world. Among the highlights:
Permafrost: The United Nations Environment Program released a report recommending that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) address the gases emitted from melting permafrost, which could account for almost 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate Change: A report by the World Meteorological Organization stated concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere reached record highs in 2011, indicating “climate change is taking place before our eyes.”
Blue Carbon: Destruction of coastal habitats may release as much as 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, 10 times higher than previously reported. A new report by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions looks at how this blue carbon—stored in sediment layers below mangroves sea grasses and salt marshes—might be addressed within existing UNFCCC mechanisms.
Criminal Charges Bar BP from New Contracts
BP appeared in court this week to answer to charges brought over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. At a brief arraignment hearing before a federal judge in New Orleans, BP’s lawyer said the company’s board authorized entering a not guilty plea as a procedural matter, but the company still intends to plead guilty later.
On Nov. 15, the company announced that it would plead guilty to manslaughter, obstruction of Congress and other charges and agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion in penalties to resolve a federal probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11. As a result of those criminal charges, the company and its affiliates were recently suspended from new contracts with the U.S. government for a “lack of business integrity.” The temporary suspension won’t affect current contracts, but it was unclear what new or pending contracts were affected. “Federal executive branch agencies take these actions to ensure the integrity of federal programs by conducting business only with responsible individuals or companies. Suspensions are a standard practice when a responsibility question is raised by action in a criminal case,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement.
Next to jobs and the economy, the National Journal reports, no other issue has dominated this year’s election as much as energy because it’s a proxy for many other things (subscription). “Energy has not been this big an issue in a presidential campaign since the tumultuous years of the 1970s,” when the Arab oil embargo raised gasoline prices and had Americans waiting in lines at the pump around the country, said Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning energy historian. Six major energy issues are a focus—oil, hydraulic fracturing of natural gas, nuclear, renewable energy and coal—with their views shaping two very different energy industries.
In the second of three presidential debates Tuesday Barack Obama and Mitt Romney revisited several aspects of energy policy in a night of one-liners and disagreements about the issue and many others, such as taxes, measures to reduce the deficit, pay equity for women and health care. Climate change, however, didn’t even make it off the debate moderator’s list of prepared questions. Mother Jones called climate change the “big loser” in the debate, while MSNBC likened the candidates’ failure to mention it in their remarks about energy to not mentioning cancer in a discussion about smoking. Compared to their first debate Oct. 3, much more of their 90 minutes was spent on energy.
Candidates argued about who was the bigger friend to the coal industry and weighed how government could influence gasoline prices—though many factors other than administrative policy tend to influence prices according to the Federal Trade Commission. Among the more heated energy-focused exchanges was one about oil and gas production on federal lands. Romney claimed production on these lands has decreased, while Obama maintained the assertions weren’t true. A check of the facts by NBC indicates these claims may have been slighted skewed. “Oil production did fall by 14 percent on federal lands—onshore and offshore—but that was only in one year, from 2010 to 2011,” NBC writes. “And it was mainly the result of the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But Obama is correct, that since he took office, oil production on federal lands is up.” This wasn’t the only factoid snafu for these two candidates. Early on, Obama misstated the length of time oil production had risen and each took a few other things out of context.
Supercomputer to Give New Push for Climate Research
Widespread drought has put increasing pressure on global food supplies, allowing reserves to reach their lowest levels in nearly 40 years, which could trigger a food crisis in 2013. A new supercomputer—capable of crunching 1.5 quadrillion calculations per second—just may be able to help scientists improve our understanding of everything from hurricanes and tornadoes to tsunamis, air pollution and the location of water beneath the earth’s surface. TIME claims it can narrow down the 60-square-mile units used in climate change modeling today to just seven-square-mile-tranches—zooming in on the movement of everything from raindrops to wind.
Researchers from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson report that computer modeling methods developed to predict climate change on Earth have successfully predicted the age and location of glaciers and other climatic conditions on Mars. Their predictions have been confirmed through new satellite observations. Lead researcher William Hartmann said, “Some public figures imply that modeling of global climate change on Earth is ‘junk science,’ but if climate models can explain features observed on other planets, then the models must have at least some validity.”
Challenges to an Energy Transition
While some forecast Germany could save billions if it sticks to its plans of replacing nuclear with renewable energy, the plan may come at great cost to consumers. The country’s four main grid operators released estimates this week showing that households will see a nearly 50 percent increase in the tax needed to fund the transformation to renewables, requiring a typical family of four to pay about $324 per year on top of their bill—renewing debate over the transition sparked by the Fukushima disaster.
The Christian Science Monitor calls the energy transition claims made across the world clunky, offering that history suggests it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure. The problem, according to the Monitor? We don’t have that long.
The U.S. Energy Department announced plans to spend more than $5 million researching the potential to produce natural gas from deep-sea methane hydrates—ice-like formations that contain natural gas and are stable at depths of more than 300 feet. The Energy Department calls them “the world’s largest untapped fossil energy resource”—some estimate they are twice as abundant as all remaining natural gas and petroleum reserves. According to William Dillon of the U.S. Geological Survey, “The worldwide amounts of carbon bound in gas hydrates is conservatively estimated to total twice the amount of carbon to be found in all known fossil fuels on Earth.” This is the same methane hydrate that could be released into the atmosphere if Antarctica’s ice sheets thin as a result of climate change.
Another abundant resource sharing headlines is wind: there may be enough wind on Earth to meet global power demands (subscription), at least technically, according to a new report. Wind power to such a degree would require covering much of the Earth’s surface and oceans with turbines. Though wind power currently supplies about 4.1 percent of U.S. electric power, the study concludes that we could produce about 400 terawatts of wind power from the Earth’s surface and 1,800 terawatts of power from the upper atmosphere.
Challenges of Climate Change
In the U.S., drought and rising temperatures are posing challenges for power plants. The Washington Post details the burdens these factors are placing on coal-fired, nuclear and hydroelectric power generators—including the Hoover Dam, where low water levels make meeting demand difficult. The news has Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush calling for a probe into whether climate change could threaten the nation’s electricity supply. In their letter, the two cite several cases in which power plants were forced to cease operation or cut back output when nearby water sources became too warm to cool the plants.
Despite suffering the worst drought in 50 years, farmers will collect far more corn crop than previously predicted. Still, at 10.727 billion barrels and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts prices will remain at $7 per bushel. The corn yield is still projected to be the worst since 1995.
While climate conditions are impacting farmers, more and more big businesses are seeing the potential impact to their operations. A new report indicates approximately 81 percent of the largest global companies that report sustainability strategies and greenhouse gas emissions include disruptions from climate change among corporate risk disclosures. Thirty-seven percent of those companies consider droughts, fires and the like a serious threat.
Arctic Drilling Sees More Delays
Drifting ice halted Shell’s efforts to drill its first well in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea just one day into the already-delayed project. The arrival of the ice is the latest in a series of regulatory and equipment setbacks for the company, which has already spent about $4 billion on the effort. Though the federal government estimates the Alaska Arctic offshore region contains close to 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, sea ice and harsh conditions make for a short drilling season. The moving ice may bring them closer to the Sept. 24 close of the drilling season—stated in the terms of their permit—with little progress toward their goal. “Depending on conditions, it could be a few or, potentially, several days before it’s safe enough to resume drilling,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.
Shell has petitioned for an extension of the season because its projections had shown the arrival of ice much later in the season. The area’s unforgiving conditions have led some doubt how safely these efforts could be carried out—despite extra efforts to beef up the same equipment that failed in the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even so, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Paul F. Zukunft, who served as the federal coordinator on the 2010 BP spill, said, “I would never be confident [we could handle a major spill]. You’ll never get all the oil.”
In Louisiana, that’s been the case. Nearly two years after the BP spill Hurricane Isaac has churned up tar balls positively identified as originating from the 2010 event. BP has proposed a “deep clean” of these beaches—sifting as deep as 4 feet—to remove contaminants before sand deposited by new storms covers over the tarballs. Researchers at Louisiana State University are looking at other methods—more specifically, blooms of bacterial biomass and whether they could consume oil and gas from the BP spill trapped about a half-mile below the water’s surface. Tests so far say yes—showing these microbes have consumed about 200,000 tons of this oil.
While Hurricane Isaac managed to leave Gulf oil platforms largely untouched, New Orleans’ strengthened levees were put to the test as the storm made landfall on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
More than 90 percent of all oil production and roughly 66 percent of all gas output was shut down as a precautionary measure as Isaac approached the Louisiana coast Tuesday. As the hurricane weakened into a tropical storm on land, reducing the threat to offshore production, energy prices dropped. Gasoline prices rose by roughly five cents nationwide—the largest one-day jump in gas prices in 18 months just as the holiday weekend approaches. Though losses will be less than other storms, Reuters reports a $1 billion economic loss for offshore energy.
Oil production in the Gulf is expected to return to normal quickly; nonetheless, the Group of Seven (G7) urged oil-producing countries to raise output to ensure the market was well supplied. The G7 has said it is ready to release oil from strategic reserves, perhaps as soon as September. The International Energy Agency has dropped its opposition to the plan, which has been spearheaded by the U.S.
As Hurricane Isaac continues to churn in the Gulf region, it could stir up remnants of up to 1 million barrels of crude oil that leaked into the ocean as a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness warned coastal residents that oil material—such as tar balls—could wash ashore.
Meanwhile, tropical storm Kirk became the Atlantic’s 11th named storm of 2012, a feat typically not reached until closer to the end of hurricane season in November. A study in the journal Atmospheric Science Letters suggests hurricanes could be stopped if the clouds that float above hurricane-forming regions were brightened.
Rule Promotes Cleaner Cars
A new fuel economy rule that will nearly double the efficiency of the nation’s cars and trucks to a fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon over the next 13 years was finalized by the Obama administration this week. The requirements of the rule will be phased in gradually between now and then, and automakers could face fines for non-compliance.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate the rule will increase the average price of a vehicle by $1,800 in 2025. Consumers could save an estimated $5,700 to $7,400 in gasoline over the life of the vehicle. Additionally, the rule is expected to save 4 billion barrels of oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 billion metric tons.
The rule, some argued, doesn’t come without consequences. Higher-efficiency vehicles that consume less fuel could reduce revenues from the gasoline tax 21 percent by 2040. As a result, spending on road repairs could decline.
Forbes says regardless of the high 54.5 mpg requirement, your average will likely be closer to 40 mpg.
Deal Creates Largest Carbon Market
The European Union will link its “cap-and-trade” system with Australia’s carbon market, creating the largest emissions trading scheme in the world. A partial link of the two markets will begin in July 2015, and the association will be complete by 2018. The deal will not only provide a boost for the declining European market, but also allow Australian companies to buy cheaper credits from the European Union.
In the U.S., California will open the country’s first full-scale carbon market in November. Before then, the California Air Resources Board plans to hold a practice auction—testing its electronic platform for selling carbon allowances to companies. The practice auction comes in the middle of a political debate over whether the state should auction revenues at all.