In his first address to Congress Tuesday night, President Donald Trump touted accomplishments since taking office in January—including withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ordering construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and nominating conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Crime, immigration, trade and health care dominated the speech, with little focus on energy and climate issues.
What Trump did make clear is his direction on regulation and infrastructure. Trump’s comments on Tuesday, ClimateWire reports, reaffirmed his desire to help coal miners and the idea that his policies are based largely on rolling back environmental regulations. Reuters reports that according to an unnamed White House official, Trump could lift a federal coal mining ban and an initiative forcing states to cut carbon emissions, in an executive order as soon as next week.
“We have undertaken an historic effort to massively reduce job-crushing regulations, creating a deregulation task force inside of every government agency,” Trump said. “And we’re imposing a new rule which mandates that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated. We’re going to stop the regulations that threaten the future and livelihood of our great coal miners.”
Although Trump vowed “to promote clean air and clear water” in his speech to Congress, the same day he issued an executive order for reexamination of the Waters of the U.S. rule. Written by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers and finalized in May 2015, the rule was meant to clarify the reach of federal regulators over wetlands and waterways under the Clean Water Act (subscription). The order directs the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to begin a formal rule review, the first step in what legal experts say is a lengthy process to rewrite or repeal the rule—a process that could take longer than one presidential term.
EPA Cuts Signaled in Trump’s Proposed Budget
President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal, sent to government agencies on Monday, would increase defense and security spending by $54 billion and strip roughly the same amount from non-defense programs, with some large cuts to come from the U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA).
A source told CNN that the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fueled power plants, is facing potential elimination, along with other regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions. They include 14 EPA partnership programs to reduce those emissions and Global Change Research, a program funded by several agencies, including the EPA, which reports humans’ impact on the planet.
Although the EPA is a perennial target for budget cuts for some conservatives in Congress, the purported cut, which would amount to about $2 billion from the EPA’s annual budget of about $8.1 billion, is not a certainty. Approximately half the EPA’s annual budget goes to popular state-level programs, like converting abandoned industrial sites into public facilities, and most of the EPA’s federal office spending goes to funding programs that are required by existing laws.
Just four days beforehand at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said those who want to eliminate the department are “justified” in their beliefs.
“I think it’s justified,” said Pruitt. “I think people across this country look at the EPA much like they look at the IRS. I hope to be able to change that.”
Pruitt, who fought two cases that led to courts freezing the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule, also told conference attendees that he would “restore federalism” by giving states a greater say in air and water protection and ensure that “regulations are reined in.” He demurred on the issue of the EPA’s cross-state pollution work, but said the EPA “can’t just make it up” when it decides rules to address climate change, adding that it is “hard to measure with precision” the impact of human activity on the changing climate.
California Acts to Keep Its Environmental Standards
Last Thursday, lawmakers in California introduced three bills—the “Preserve California” package—that made it clear that they want to continue the state’s stringent environmental and climate change policies. The attempt to insulate the state from potential rollbacks in federal environmental regulations and public health protections could set up a battle with the Trump administration and Congress.
“We’re not going to let this administration or any other undermine our progress,” said California Senate Leader Kevin de Leon. “Washington may choose to double down on dirty energy, but California will not follow.”
One of the three bills, SB49, would make current federal clean air, clean water, endangered species and workers’ safety standards enforceable under state law, even if the Trump administration weakens federal standards. With respect to air standards, it would require local air districts to comply with federal rules for new stationary pollution sources in place as of January 1, 2016, or January 1, 2017, “whichever is more stringent.”
California has been relying on federal waivers from the Clean Air Act to set its own, stricter, clean air standards, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could theoretically rescind those waivers or refuse to renew them.
SB50 establishes a new state policy to discourage transfers of federal lands to private developers for resource extraction and directs the State Lands Commission, which oversees many of the federal lands in California, to give the state right of first refusal of any federal lands proposed for transfers to other parties. The state would review any transactions involving federal lands in California to ensure those lands are protected, by state action if necessary.
SB51 would extend whistle-blower protections to federal lawyers, engineers and scientists who are working in California and would direct state environmental and public health agencies to preserve data, even if federal authorities order it to be censored or destroyed.
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.
By 2030, half of the energy produced in the state of New York will come from renewables, according to a new policy adopted Monday by the state’s public service commission. The move is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels (80 percent by 2050) and to attract billions in clean energy investment.
“New York has taken bold action to become a national leader in the clean energy economy and is taking concrete, cost-effective steps today to safeguard this state’s environment for decades to come,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combatting climate change. Make no mistake, this is a very real threat that continues to grow by the day and I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”
The plan calls for New York to retain its nuclear reactors—though The Washington Post reports that those facilities don’t count as part of the 50 percent renewables target. According to New York regulators, doing so might cost $965 million over two years but could lead to net benefits of $4 billion due to avoided carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. While supporters of this provision applaud New York’s effort to retain its emissions-free nuclear generation, opponents are likely to challenge the nuclear subsidies on the grounds they are discriminatory, hurt markets, and intrude on federal authority.
New York is not the first state to announce an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target. In April 2015, California announced it planned to cut those emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels in the same time frame with renewables increases. Like California, New York plans to phase in its renewables increase; 31 percent of its energy is to come from renewables by 2021 and 50 percent by 2030. Those targets are meant to give utilities and clean energy companies time to develop their business models.
White House to Federal Agencies: Consider Climate Change Impacts
In an action with broad implications for thousands of projects, including energy and mineral development on public lands, natural gas import and export facilities, and transportation projects, the Obama administration issued final guidance on how federal agencies should consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when conducting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (subscription).
“Focused and effective consideration of climate change in NEPA reviews will allow agencies to improve the quality of their decisions,” the guidance states. “Identifying important interactions between a changing climate and the environmental impacts from a proposed action can help Federal agencies and other decision makers identify practicable opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental outcomes, and contribute to safeguarding communities and their infrastructure against the effects of extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts.”
The guidance, the product of a six-year effort by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advises agencies to quantify projected greenhouse gas emissions of proposed federal actions whenever the necessary methodologies and data are available. It also encourages them to draw on their experience and expertise to determine the appropriate level and extent of quantitative or qualitative analysis required to comply with NEPA and to consider alternatives that would increase the climate-change resilience of the action and affected communities.
“From the public standpoint, we are now going to know what all of our decisions add up to in terms of impacting climate change,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality. “You can think of all the different federal decisions, and how they all add up. We have numbers where we can actually say, ‘this is a huge decision, given the amount of greenhouse gases coming out of it.’ And that gives the public a chance to really weigh in on decision-making.”
Several media outlets pointed out that because the White House guidance is not a regulation, agencies are not legally bound to follow it.
Clean Power Plan Analysis: National Costs Low, State Costs Varied
Wednesday marked one year since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally rolled out the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Even with the February stay by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted implementation of the plan pending resolution of legal challenges, some say the plan is having an impact while others are finding more reason to explore the legality of the rule (subscription).
Should the rule survive judicial review, a new paper by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions uses the Nicholas Institute’s Dynamic Integrated Economy/Energy/Emissions Model to evaluate Clean Power Plan impacts on the U.S. generation mix, emissions, and industry costs. It indicates that industry trends are likely to make Clean Power Plan compliance relatively inexpensive, with cost increases of 0.1 to 1.0 percent. But policy costs can vary across states, which might lead to a patchwork of policies that, although in their own best interests, could impose additional costs nationally.
“The answer is not the same for everyone in terms of what’s going to be the least-cost way for a particular state to approach this policy,” said lead author and Nicholas Institute Senior Economist Martin Ross. “Nationally, it would make the most sense to have a broadly coordinated policy where you can take advantage of the usual economic [tools] to spread the cost reductions around and pick up the most cost-effective sources for reducing emissions.”
Similar findings were presented at a conference of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Because of lower-than-expected natural gas prices, renewable power, and extended federal tax credits for that power, the country as a whole is set to meet the Clean Power Plan’s early goals, reports ClimateWire.
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.
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
“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.”
California will establish a greenhouse gas reduction target of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, the state’s Gov. Jerry Brown announced Wednesday. The declaration was made just before a speech on the new executive order at the Navigating the American Carbon World Conference in Los Angeles, where participants took to Twitter to reflect on the news. According to Brown’s office, the target is the “most aggressive benchmark enacted by any government in North America to reduce dangerous carbon emissions.”
“With this order, California sets a very high bar for itself and other states and nations, but it’s one that must be reached—for this generation and generations to come,” said Brown, whose state already has some of the toughest carbon pollution regulations in the U.S.
The order requires the state to incorporate climate change impacts into its five-year infrastructure plan as well as its planning and investment decisions.
“Four consecutive years of exceptional drought has brought home the harsh reality of rising global temperatures to the communities and businesses of California,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “There can be no substitute for aggressive national targets to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, but the decision today by Governor Brown to set a 40 percent reduction target for 2030 is an example of climate leadership that others must follow.”
The commitment aligns with Europe’s greenhouse gas target—dedicated ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year. And it is intended to keep the state on track to meet its 2050 target—curbing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent under 1990 levels by 2050.
“Both California and the EU have set the same 2030 reduction targets—40 percent below 1990 levels,” said Ashley Lawson, a senior carbon analyst with Thomson Reuters. “However, California’s emissions are currently higher than 1990, while Europe’s are lower—so Californians will need to work harder to meet the 2030 target, which we estimate will be in the region of 259 million tonnes (44 percent below the 2012 levels).”
Arctic Council Tackles Black Carbon Plan under U.S. Chairmanship
The Arctic Council—formed in 1996 by the eight nations adjacent to the Arctic to collectively manage the region emerging as North Pole ice melts—has formally adopted a policy to monitor and report on black carbon and methane emissions reductions. Black carbon—or soot—is produced by diesel engines, fires and vehicle and aircraft exhaust and is responsible for accelerating the speed of warming in the Arctic. The Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions was signed on the day council leadership officially transitioned from Canada to the United States, which is making addressing climate change “a key pillar” of its chairmanship program.
A nonbinding and voluntary measure, the framework calls on council members to inventory, in the next six months, emissions of black carbon, which result from incomplete burning of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass and which one council study estimated to have a warming impact 10 to 100 times greater than black carbon emissions from mid-latitude regions (subscription). The framework also calls on members to assess future emissions and to make suggestions to mitigate black carbon.
“Everybody here has talks about the profound impact that climate change is having on this region,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the council’s meeting in Iqaluit on Canada’s Baffin Island. “The framework we’ve worked together to develop expresses our shared commitment to significantly reduce black carbon and methane emissions, which are two of the most potent greenhouse gases.” He added that the framework sets the stage for the council to adopt “an ambitious collective goal on black carbon” by its next ministerial meeting in 2017.
As Kerry promised to make the battle against climate change the first priority of the two-year U.S. council stewardship, Kiribati President Anote Tong urged the council members to refrain from approving development projects that would accelerate global warming, which threatens low-lying Pacific island nations.
House Committee Votes to Delay Climate Rule
In a 28-23 vote largely along party lines, the House Energy and Commerce Committee moved to delay the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s summer release of the Clean Power Plan until all court challenges have been exhausted. It would also allow states to opt out of complying with the rule, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (approximately 30 percent by 2030) from existing power plants under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act.
The bill will go to the full House for a vote.
Editor’s Note: Last week we reported on a Duke study that looked at 1,000 years of temperature records to assess the magnitude of natural climate wiggles. Our write-up should have indicated that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other climate models get long-term terms trends right but fail to capture short-term (decadal) natural climate variability. According to Patrick T. Brown, a doctoral student in climatology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, trends over a 10-year period show little about long-term warming that can be expected over a 100-year period. “If that message gets out, then I think there would be less back and forth arguing about these short-term temperature trends because it doesn’t really matter that much scientifically,” said Brown.
The EPA Administrator this week, suggested (subscription) that interim goals for existing power plants to comply with the agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan could be softened before the rule is finalized this summer.
The proposal unveiled last year calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and sets state-by-state emissions targets, beginning as early as 2020. Regulators and electric utilities have complained that a lack of time could destabilize electric supplies. According to the News and World Report, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated that changes to the 2020 date are “very, very much on the table.”
“While states can craft their own glide path, we want to make sure they hit the targets that we need and they’re going to be effective strategies,” McCarthy told an audience at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners winter meeting. “We clearly need to make sure there is trajectory towards a goal that is as far away as 2030 and that there is an ability to ensure that states are actively working and on a trajectory to achieve that final goal.”
New Climate Agreement Draft Long on Diversity of Views, Short on Resolutions
“86 pages, 54,000 words, 1,234 square brackets here’s official draft of #Paris2015”—that’s how Sebastian Duyck, an Arctic Centre researcher and observer at last week’s climate talks in Geneva summarized the proceedings’ output on social media. The draft negotiated in Lima last November more than doubled in size, and the number of words, phrases, and sentences not agreed by all countries—the brackets referred to in Duyck’s tweet—also increased, but although the new draft became more complex—not simpler as planned—it represents progress to some participants.
“Although it has become longer, countries are now fully aware of each other’s positions,” said Christiana Figueres, the head of the United Nations climate change secretariat.
“After years of false starts and broken promises, restoring ownership and trust in the process is no small achievement. And I think we have come a long way toward doing that,” said Ahmed Sareer, a Maldives delegate who represents an alliance of island nations.
Among the new draft’s significantly varying proposals for checking climate change are a zero net greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2050 and a peaking of emissions “as soon as possible.”
In new text, developed countries, including the United States, emphasized the need for all countries to contribute to emissions reductions efforts, and developing countries asked for financial help to deal with climate change.
The international agreement, to be reached in Paris in December, is supposed to go into effect in 2020. The next critical date is June in Bonn, where all countries are to announce their emissions reductions plans.
Experts Debate Economic, Carbon Impacts of Biomass Conversion to Electricity
Last November, the EPA issued a policy memo that appeared to promote the harvest of forests to produce power by treating bioenergy as a carbon-free energy source. But there are a couple of problems with that strategy, reports the New York Times. It ignores the opportunity cost of dedicating land to bioenergy rather than to other purposes, potentially imperiling food supplies and ecosystems—and, according to a recent World Resources Institute report, energy from forests and fields is not carbon neutral.
In a Feb. 9 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that decries the new power plant policy, 78 scientists said, “Burning biomass instead of fossil fuels does not reduce the carbon emitted by power plants.” In fact, “Burning biomass, such as trees, that would otherwise continue to absorb and store carbon comes at the expense of reduced carbon storage.”
In a Feb. 11 letter to McCarthy, six environmental Massachusetts-based environmental groups also opposed the policy, stating, “We are pleased that EPA is moving forward with the Clean Power Plan. However, we write to express our deep concern at EPA’s apparent decision to treat biomass power as carbon neutral for the purposes of EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Prevention of Significant Deterioration permitting.” They added that the decision “contradicts sound science and promotes burning forest wood for electric power production, which is exactly the wrong direction for our county’s renewable energy policy.”
But a just-published report in the journal Nature Climate Change argues that deploying bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) could produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon—with up to a 145 percent emissions cut from 1990 levels. Moreover, according to energy expert and study coauthor Daniel Kammen, BECCS may be one of the few cost-effective carbon-negative opportunities available to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and could be critical should that change be worse than anticipated or should emissions reductions in non-energy sectors prove difficult to realize.
On the basis of analysis of various fuel scenarios using a detailed model of the American West power grid developed at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, the University of California–Berkeley report predicts that biomass conversion to electricity combined with prospective carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies could result in a carbon-negative power grid in the western United States by 2050.
“There are a lot of commercial uncertainties about carbon capture and sequestration technologies,” admitted the study leader, Daniel Sanchez. “Nevertheless, we’re taking this technology and showing that in the Western United States 35 years from now, BECCS doesn’t merely let you reduce emissions by 80 percent – the current 2050 goal in California—but gets the power system to negative carbon emissions: you store more carbon than you create.”
These latest contributions add to and continue what has been several years of debate (subscription) on the possible benefits and drawbacks of biomass energy and how best to quantify the ultimate impact of its use.
After a unanimous vote by the California Air Resources Board, the state adopted the most comprehensive cap-and-trade system in the country, a key part of a 2006 global warming law that had yet to be implemented. The system will cover 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and allows businesses to counterbalance up to 8 percent of their emissions by buying offset credits.
The state is making itself a guinea pig for climate legislation and hopes to inspire other states to follow suit—a precedent the state has set with other environmental legislation.
At first, most of the emissions credits will be given out free, but it’s expected by 2016 to be a $10 billion market.
After the economic crash of 2008, the growth of clean energy slowed—and the outlook for the rest of the decade is single-digit growth, according to analyses by IHS Emerging Energy Research and others. A major factor has been that cash-strapped governments have cut back on subsidies that helped drive the growth in renewables.
The U.K. reshuffled its renewable subsidies, taking away from onshore wind and hydro power, and giving more to tidal and biomass power plants. Scotland—which sets its subsidies separately from the rest of the U.K., and which boasts some of the world’s best wind and tidal resources—also made subsidy support adjustments.
Industry experts fear the U.K. may soon slash solar subsidies by half—after already cutting them earlier this year—so they are encouraging people to install solar systems now.
But the World Wildlife Fund argues that high growth of renewables is still possible, and the U.K. could get nearly all of its energy from renewables by 2030.
In the U.S., solar industry jobs grew about 7 percent in the past year—much faster than job growth in the whole economy, but only about a quarter of the rate that the industry had expected, according to the Solar Foundation’s newly released National Jobs Census.
In Europe, “business as usual will not be an option for most energy utilities,” according to McKinsey analysts who argued that energy demand is reaching a peak, and existing technologies could drastically cut consumption. In response, utilities should look to other services to keep their revenue up, such as selling solar panels, insulation, or central control units that track and manage a building’s electricity consumption.
One company is already trying to make such products cool. Nest Labs, a well funded start up founded by former Apple employees, have created a thermostat that studies your habits to help adjust the temperature to save energy.
Climate Change Conundrum
Climate change could exceed dangerous levels in some parts of the world during the lifetime of many people alive today, according to research papers published in the journal Nature.
University of Washington Professor of Philosophy Stephen Gardiner argued in Yale Environment 360 that humanity’s institutions aren’t up to the ethical challenge presented by environmental change. As these problems get worse, he argues, we might see apush for technological fixes such as geoengineering.
Some scientists are looking into such methods, and a U.K. group had planned a test flight of a balloon tethered to a hose—the kind that could shoot reflective aerosols into the atmosphere, scatter sunlight and potentially cool the planet. But that group postponed its test until spring to allow “more engagement with stakeholders”—which New Scientist argued is crucial.
Skeptic Changes Mind
A study led by a self-described climate change skeptic—physicist Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkeley—released results from a re-analysis of temperature records. The “biggest surprise,” Muller said, was how closely his study matched earlier assessments, such as those by NASA and the U.K.’s Hadley Centre. Muller’s study had been hailed by climate change skeptics since it took seriously many of their criticisms.
But in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Muller said “global warming is real,” and argued no one should be a skeptic about this warming any longer.
In a move that caught many by surprise, the world’s richer oil-importing countries will soon tap into emergency oil reserves, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced, arguing: “Greater tightness in the oil market threatens to undermine the fragile global economic recovery.”
In total, over the next 30 days, IEA member countries plan to release 60 million barrels of crude—less than one day’s worth of global consumption. Half that oil would come from the U.S., and the rest from a dozen other countries, including many European Union members, Turkey, Korea, and Japan. The IEA has coordinated a release of oil from its members’ reserves only twice before, in response to the 1991 U.S.-Iraq war and to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said, “We are taking this action in response to the ongoing loss of crude oil due to supply disruptions in Libya and other countries.” However, the Obama administration began considering tapping the strategic oil reserve in January.
Speculation of Motives
Reactions to the oil release ran the gamut, with the chairman and the managing director of oil analysis firm IHS CERA saying the new release is “an unprecedented use of strategic reserves as an economic stimulus.” Some said the move is symbolic, to boost market optimism and to give the sense that the government is doing something about high gasoline prices while others said the real motivation was to hurt oil speculators by catching them by surprise.
Some speculators, it seems, may have gotten a jump on it: oil started trading suspiciously in the hours before the IEA announcement, driving prices down and prompting an investigation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In fact, oil prices fell more than 5 percent in the day of the IEA announcement, but the following day rebounded, in part because of fears about supplies getting tighter later this year.
Spare a Barrel
Many members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) criticized the decision, saying the IEA had not given them time to boost their production. In late May, OPEC countries decided against formally raising their production quotas, but some members—in particular Saudi Arabia—signaled they would boost production anyway.
OPEC members in the Persian Gulf—such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—are widely considered to hold most of the world’s spare capacity for oil production. But oil expert Euan Mearns noted that despite a sharp rise in drilling activity in Gulf nations in February 2011, their production hasn’t risen much. He interprets this as a sign of goodwill, and as an indication that “usable spare capacity does not exist”—or that it must be of relatively undesirable heavy, sour crude.
A Natural Gas Bubble?
In the U.S., “fracking” to get natural gas out of underground shale has been booming—but the vast majority of fracking wells are “inherently unprofitable” and the fast-growing industry is a “Ponzi scheme,” according to industry e-mails obtained by the New York Times. Much of the shale gas activity has been financed by a rush of investment money into the sector, rather than by profits from production, the e-mails say.
In a companion article, the New York Times reported e-mails from the Energy Information Administration reveal internal doubts over their forecasts of shale gas production, such as projections it would triple from 2009 to 2035.
California Carbon Cap Stalled
California’s legislation for a cap-and-trade system for many of the state’s largest greenhouse gas emitters had faced a legal battle—but the court hearing the case ruled the state can go ahead. The project was scheduled to start in January 2012, but Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, who oversees the program, announced enforcement for major polluters would will be delayed until 2013.
Efficiency from Detroit to Afghanistan
The Obama administration is trying to cut demand for oil by boosting vehicle efficiency. In closed-door talks with Detroit’s big three—General Motors, Ford and Chrysler—officials called for average mileage for cars and light trucks to reach 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025.
Meanwhile, Obama announced plans for troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, prompting renewed discussion of the costs of the war—including NPR’s report that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq spend an estimated $20 billion a year on air conditioning.