In a move that could help the United States and Canada meet pledges they made at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to cut oil and gas industry methane emissions 40–45 percent, compared to 2012 levels, by 2025. In Canada, the environment ministry will work with provinces and other parties to implement national regulations by 2017; in the United States, the plan calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop regulations “immediately” (subscription). Although the EPA issued a methane rule for new oil and gas sources last year, some experts and Obama administration officials believe that a regulation for existing sources is needed to meet the new reduction pledge.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the EPA will begin tackling the issue by requiring oil and gas companies to report certain data about methane output in April.
“I’m confident the end result of this effort will be a common-sense, reasonable standard to reduce methane emissions that are contributing to climate change,” she said.
New data suggests that annual releases of methane in the United States total nine million tons—much higher than previously thought.
The commitments to reduce emissions of methane by the United States and Canada were part of a joint statement in which Obama and Trudeau announced a range of environmental initiatives to combat climate change, expand renewable energy, and protect the Arctic region and in which they promised that their two countries would “play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades.” According to the statement, Obama and Trudeau consider the agreement reached in Paris a “turning point” in global efforts to combat climate change, and they will cooperate in implementing it, committing to signing it “as soon as feasible.”
Among the announced actions, it was the plan to reduce methane—a chemical that is many more times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—that drew the most praise and criticism, reported the Los Angeles Times. Some representatives of the oil and gas industry said they were already taking steps to reduce methane leaks, and some environmental groups said a better solution would be to reduce fossil fuels and hydraulic fracturing, which is linked to those leaks. Other environmental groups said methane reduction delivers a nearer-term climate payoff than cutting carbon dioxide from power plants.
Sea Level Rise Big, Underestimated
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that future sea-level increases due to climate change could displace anywhere from 4.3 to 13.1 million people in coastal communities in the U.S. by the end of the century.
“Projections are up to three times larger than current estimates, which significantly underestimate the effect of sea-level rise in the United States,” said study co-author Mathew Hauer of the University of Georgia. Why? Earlier studies don’t account for population growth.
A second study in the journal Earth System Dynamics explores the feasibility of delaying the problem of rising seas by pumping vast quantities of ocean water onto the continent of Antarctica to thicken the ice sheet by freezing the water.
“This is not a proposition,” said Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the study’s co-authors. “It’s a discussion. It’s supposed to initiate the discussion on how big the sea level problem really is.”
The researchers find that it would take more than 7 percent of the global energy supply just to power the pumps needed to get the water at least 435 miles inland to the Antarctic ice sheet so it could freeze—preventing the heavy, newly formed ice sheets from sliding into the ocean. That’s just one of the many hurdles to engineering, much less financing such a project, according to the Earth System Dynamics study.
“When we stop the pumping one day, additional discharge from Antarctica will increase the rate of sea-level rise even beyond the warming-induced rate,” Levermann said. “The magnitude of sea-level rise is so enormous, it turns out it is unlikely that any engineering approach imaginable can mitigate it.”
Study Finds Connection to Climate Change for Some Extreme Weather Events
A newly released report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine makes it easier to connect climate change with some extreme weather events. Published in the National Academies Press, the report indicates that we can now say more about the extent to which weather events have been intensified or weakened as a result of climate change.
“In the past, a typical climate scientist’s response to questions about climate change’s role in any given weather event was ‘we cannot attribute any single event to climate change,’” the report said. “The science has advanced to the point that this is no longer true as an unqualified blanket statement. In many cases, it is now often possible to make and defend quantitative statements about the extent to which human-induced climate change (or another casual factor, such as a specific mode of natural variability) has influenced either the magnitude or the probability of occurrence of specific types of events or event classes.”
Technology and the length of human climatic records have made “attribution science” possible, but it is still new. The Washington Post reports that temperature-related events allow for the strongest attribution statement since the “chain of causality from global warming to the event is shortest and simplest.”
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.
On Monday the Senate passed a bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline in a procedural vote just shy of the 67 votes needed to override a veto, setting up what could be an extensive debate on energy policy and climate in next year’s presidential election. The move followed a bipartisan vote in which the House of Representatives passed a similar bill, Jan. 9.
The House vote came just hours after Nebraska’s Supreme Court cleared the way for the controversial project by upholding a 2012 law giving the governor permitting authority for major oil pipelines. The court overruled a lower court finding that allowing the governor and pipeline owner TransCanada to use eminent domain to lay the pipeline on private land was unconstitutional. However, an attorney for the landowners in the case suggested that the litigation was not over, stating that the outcome amounted to a “nondecision open to further review” because most judges agreed with the landowners on the standing issue and three declined to weigh in on the law’s constitutionality.
The ruling shifted the debate over Keystone to Washington, where Republicans are pushing for its final approval after more than six years of review by the U.S. State Department.
“Today’s court decision wipes out President Obama’s last excuse,” Republican Senator and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Lisa Murkowski said.
“Regardless of the Nebraska ruling,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, “the House bill still conflicts with longstanding executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests.”
In fact, it could take months for the administration to reach a final verdict because the State Department must take comments from eight agencies before reaching its own conclusion about the project.
Environmentalists and other opponents of the pipeline have highlighted the potential for extraction and transport of crude from Canada’s tar sands to contaminate water, pollute air, and harm wildlife. But the GOP, the oil industry, and other pipeline backers argue that Keystone will lead to jobs and increase oil independence as well as strengthen bonds with Canada.
“Boosting American-made energy results in more American jobs and improved international relations,” said Rep. Leonard Lance. “This is a winning combination for our Nation’s economy, our national security and a centerpiece in our relationship with our ally, Canada.”
Rep. Adam Smith had a different take: “Rather than focusing on Keystone XL, we should be working on bigger picture investments in clean energy and energy efficient technologies that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels that hurt our environment.”
Obama Administration Targets Methane Emissions
The Obama administration has announced the first-ever national standards to cut methane emissions from new sources in the oil and natural gas industry. Methane accounts for some 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it has 20 times carbon dioxide’s planet-warming potency.
“This strategy will benefit the economy, the climate and public health,” said Dan Utech, President Obama’s advisor on energy climate change, though activists say the cuts fall short of those needed to reach the administration’s international climate change pledges.
Breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing technology are projected to increase methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Methane leaks from oil and natural gas drilling sites and pipelines are 50 percent higher than previously thought according to a 2014 study published in the journal Science.
Estimates of Social Cost of Carbon Vary Widely, with Policy Consequences
The social cost of carbon (SCC) or the economic damage caused by a ton of carbon dioxide emissions—which the United States uses to guide energy regulations and, potentially, future mitigation policies—is $37 per ton according to a recent U.S. government study or, according to a new study by Stanford researchers published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, six times that value.
The Stanford scientists say the current pricing models fail to reflect all the economic damage each ton of CO2 causes and that a higher value on that damage could change policy.
“If the social cost of carbon is higher, many more mitigation measures will pass a cost-benefit analysis,” said study co-author Delavane Diaz. “Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile.”
“For 20 years now, the models have assumed that climate change can’t affect the basic growth rate of the economy,” said study coauthor Frances Moore. “But a number of new studies suggest this may not be true. If climate change affects not only a country’s economic output but also its growth, then that has a permanent effect that accumulates over time, leading to a much higher social cost of carbon.”
But William Pizer, a faculty fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions who has worked on and recommended regular updating of the SCC estimate, questioned the methodology of the Stanford analysis, pointing out that it relied on the impact on national economies of short-term temperature spikes rather than on long-term trends that might reveal permanent economic reductions.
“To me, it just seems like it has to be an overestimate,” Pizer said of the Stanford result of $220 (subscription required). “I think it’s great they’re doing this,” he added. “I just think this is another data point that someone needs to weigh as they’re trying to figure out what the right social cost of carbon is. But this isn’t like a definitive new answer.”
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.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return July 3.
The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 12 to 10 on a bill Wednesday approving the long-debated Keystone XL oil pipeline. The pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, requires presidential approval as it crosses international boundaries. Without a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring it to a vote by the full Senate, the bill is likely to languish.
Even so, Forbes deemed the vote “more than symbolic,” saying “It serves to tell the truth about Keystone XL, the need for new pipelines in this country, and for making our future energy security our top priority.”
Others, like Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Anthony Swift, disagreed. “This latest vote on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is all about politics and bad policy,” he said. “Locking ourselves into a massive infrastructure to move the dirtiest oil on the planet for the next 50 years would greatly worsen carbon pollution—at a time when we’re facing growing and grievous costs wrought by climate change.”
Another Canadian pipeline did get the official green light—the Northern Gateway project. Just as controversial as Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to British Columbia, where it would be loaded on supertankers for shipment to Asia through sensitive waters in the Pacific’s shipping lanes. Before construction can begin on the Northern Gateway pipeline, Enbridge must meet about 100 conditions imposed by the regulator. Inside Climate News focuses on the “eerie” parallels between the debates on each pipeline project.
As the United States Grapples with EPA Rule, Japan Considers Carbon Trading
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants has made it into the pages of the Federal Register, an event marking the start of a 120-day comment period.
In the weeks since the rule’s release, there has been closer examination of how states can meet emissions standards cost effectively. Some say energy efficiency is the answer. Another potential solution: wind and solar. In an op-ed in The Hill, representatives of the American Wind Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association point to the technologies’ cost decreases and significant carbon reduction benefits. Others like Ed Throop, director for the Sikeston Board of Municipal Utilities, are not so convinced. “The wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine all the time,” he said. It’s good, clean energy, but it’s not what you’d call baseload energy. You can’t call on it anytime you need it.”
Japan has its own strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to unnamed government sources, the country may have plans to agree to a carbon deal with India. Japanese companies would install carbon-cutting technology in India and in return receive carbon credits that can be used to offset their country’s emissions under the joint crediting mechanism. So far, Japan has signed agreements with 11 countries to launch the joint crediting mechanism. Several news outlets reported the likelihood of a bilateral agreement in early July during annual talks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Ocean Sanctuary Would Close Parts of Pacific to Energy Exploration
President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced his intent to expand a U.S. sanctuary in the central Pacific Ocean. Slated to go into effect later this year, the proposal extends protection around the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to 200 miles and limits fishing and energy development. The White House said it will consider input from lawmakers and fishermen before making any final decisions about the geographic scope of the sanctuary.
In video remarks, Obama said climate change, overfishing and pollution have threatened economic growth opportunities in the ocean.
“We cannot afford to let that happen,” Obama said. “That’s why the United States is leading the fight to protect our oceans. Let’s make sure that years from now we can look our children in the eye and tell them that, yes, we did our part, we took action, and we led the way toward a safer, more stable world.”
Marine reserves, Smithsonian Magazine reports, can mitigate some of these problems by increasing the size and number of marine creatures within its borders and helping species deal with climate change.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday retroactively lowered the quantity of cellulosic biofuel required for blending in traditional fuels for 2013. In January the EPA agreed to reconsider the mandate “due to the reduced estimate of anticipated cellulosic biofuel production in 2013 that was announced shortly after EPA signed its final rule by one of two companies expected to produce cellulosic biofuel in 2013.”
The new blend level—0.0005—more closely aligns with the amount of cellulosic biofuel produced. The EPA based its 2013 standard on the 810,185 ethanol-equivalent gallons produced with nonfood plants last year—a fraction of the 1 billion gallons that Congress sought to require in a 2007 energy law.
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that cellulosic biofuels may actually create more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gasoline, at least in the short term. It finds that in the early years biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn release 7 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. The study notes that removing corn harvest residue—stalks, leaves and cobs—takes carbon out of the soil.
The researchers used a predictive model based on 36 field studies on four continents that measured the rate at which carbon is oxidized in soil. They also tested the model’s accuracy by comparing its results with data gathered from a nine-year, continuous cornfield experiment in Nebraska.
The biofuels industry, the EPA and other researchers have criticized the study—calling the analysis “simplistic” and pointing to a lack of accounting for varying soil and other conditions in different fields as well as an overestimate of how much residue farmers actually remove.
“This paper is based on a hypothetical assumption that 100 percent of corn stover in a field is harvested; an extremely unlikely scenario that is inconsistent with recommended agricultural practices,” said EPA spokewoman Liz Purchia. “As such, it does not provide useful information relevant to the lifecycle GHG emissions from corn stover ethanol.”
The EPA’s own analysis—assuming about half of corn residue would be removed from fields—found that fuel made from corn residue would meet the 2007 energy law standard requiring cellulosic biofuels to release 60 percent less carbon pollution than gasoline. Although biofuels are better in the long term, the Nature Climate Change study says they won’t meet that standard.
Delays for Keystone XL, Power Plant Rule Still on Track
The EPA insists its proposed rules for regulating carbon emissions from existing power plants will be ready by the Obama administration’s June 1 deadline. Although Deputy EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe reportedly said the rule would come out in “late June, maybe even the end of June,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said Perciasepe “misspoke when talking about 111(d).” She added that “EPA is on track to meet the June 1 goal that’s part of the President’s Climate Action Plan.”
A decision on another hot environmental topic was delayed. The Obama administration said late last week it would give federal agencies more time to assess the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is expected to transport crude tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The announcement, The Washington Post reports, almost certainly pushes a final decision on construction of the pipeline past the November mid-term elections.
“Agencies need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the ongoing litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court which could ultimately affect the pipeline route in that state,” the State Department said. “In addition, during this time, we will review and appropriately consider the unprecedented number of new public comments, approximately 2.5 million, received during the public comment period that closed on March 7, 2014.”
Further details on the length of the delay were not provided by the State Department, but some legal experts have said the fight over the Nebraska route could drag out for a year or more. Because the pipeline extension crosses an international border, it requires signoff from the White House. President Barack Obama has said he won’t make a decision until after the State Department completes its assessment.
Arctic Drilling Rule Coming Shortly
Federal regulations that cover oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean are set to be released soon, according to Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Brian Salerno.
“The forthcoming rule will put important safeguards in place for future Arctic drilling operations,” said Salerno. “We hope to release the proposed rule shortly and open it for public comment, continuing an important dialogue on drilling operations in the Arctic that has already included numerous consultations and public meetings.”
The Arctic theoretically holds 30 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas resources. A new report by the National Research Council says that unlike Russia, which just shipped its first load of Arctic offshore oil, the United States is not ready for oil drilling in the region. It suggests that safety resources and oil response tools are not yet adequate.
“The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill,” report authors said(subscription). “It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies and personnel.”
Because little is known about how crude oil degrades in Arctic waters and what it does to the food chain, the NRC report authors recommend that authorities release oil into Arctic waters for real-world testing of burning and dispersants.
“To really understand and be best prepared, we’re going to have to do some controlled releases,” said Mark Myers, research vice chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Obviously that’s an important decision to make and we recommend a process for doing that.”
In a hearing Monday, the Supreme Court questioned whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is correct in its interpretation that regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles triggers the requirement to also implement permitting requirements for large stationary sources. At issue is the legality of EPA’s interpretation of the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) regulations. Industry groups argue that the PSD permitting requirements apply to certain pollutants, whereas the EPA argues that they apply to all pollutants, including greenhouse gases. Ultimately, the more than 90-minute session ended with the justices divided over whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”
“As is so often the case when the court is closely divided, the vote of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy loomed as the critical one, and that vote seemed inclined toward the EPA, though with some doubt,” said SCOTUS blogger Lyle Denniston. “Although he seemed troubled that Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. could call up no prior ruling to support the policy choice the EPA had made on greenhouse gases by industrial plants, Kennedy left the impression that it might not matter.”
If the Supreme Court rules against the EPA, the agency has several options, said Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast (subscription). It could, for instance, devise new source performance standards for each individual source or regulate sources under another Clean Air Act program.
Overturning a previous commitment to phase out all nuclear, the draft government plan, which awaits Cabinet approval, instead calls for more long-term reliance on the energy source. It specifies that nuclear dependency will remain low but that reactors meeting standards set after the 2011 Fukushima disaster should be restarted. The Wall Street Journal reports 17 such reactors are undergoing inspection now.
In the United States, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz provided final approval for a $6.5 billion dollar loan guarantee that will be used to construct two nuclear reactors in Georgia—the first built in the United States in more than 30 years. Days later, President Barack Obama approved a deal with Vietnam that would allow the nation to develop nuclear power.
Obama: Decision on Keystone Could Come Soon
A decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline—carrying crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast—will be made in the next “couple of months,” President Barack Obama told attendees at the annual National Governors Association winter meeting Monday. The White House declined to expand on Obama’s comment at the private meeting. Politico reports that it contradicts speculation by parties on both sides that the decision will come after November’s mid-term elections. That speculation began last week after a ruling by a Nebraska judge that struck down a state law approving the pipeline’s route through the state.
The president’s Keystone decision comment came a day after Canada’s National Energy Board audit found TransCanada Corp—the company leading the Keystone XL project—could make improvements in its pipeline safety practices. The audit was moved up after a then-employee of TransCanada came forward with allegations of safety lapses.
“The audit has confirmed that, in response to these allegations, TransCanada has developed and implemented a program of actions with the goal of correcting and preventing similar occurrences,” the National Energy Board said. The board found TransCanada to be non-compliant in four areas: hazard identification, risk assessment and control; operational control in upset or abnormal operating condition; inspection, measurement and monitoring; and management review.
Despite claims the State Department violated conflict of interest rules when it chose an outside contractor to conduct an environmental impact study of the proposed pipeline, a report issued Wednesday found otherwise.
“When they believed a national situation warranted action, some past presidents interpreted their authority broadly and exercised it aggressively,” the report said. “That is the practice of presidential authority Americans and the world need today.”
More than 200 recommendations for how Obama can use his executive authority to accelerate progress on climate change are contained in the 207-page Powering Forward report released by the Center for the New Energy Economy and developed with the help of CEOs, energy experts, academicians and thought leaders. The recommendations focus on clean energy solutions such as doubling energy efficiency, financing renewable energy, producing natural gas more responsibly, developing alternative fuels and vehicles and helping utilities adapt to a changing energy landscape.
Most of the recommendations aren’t all that new, but a few, says Oilprice.com, are interesting. One suggestion is to modify mortgage rules so that qualifying for federally backed mortgage loans requires new homes to be constructed with updated energy efficiency standards.
Despite the report’s ideas for the future, 2013 saw many clean energy developments. The Rocky Mountain Institute calls out 10—including growth in the electric vehicle sector and companies putting a price on carbon—that helped bring the country closer to a secure, prosperous energy future.
NASA, NOAA Label 2013 One of the Planet’s Warmest Years
A pair of reports simultaneously released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reached different conclusions about where 2013 ranks among the world’s hottest years.
NOAA said last year’s average world temperature of 58.12 degrees tied with that of 2003 for the fourth hottest year since 1880—when record keeping began. NASA ranked 2013 the seventh warmest on record—tying 2009 and 2006. The slight difference in rankings, scientists said, could be explained by the methods used by the agencies to interpret the same weather data collected from more than 1,000 metrological stations across the globe. NASA, for example, uses more samples from Antarctica.
Regardless of the difference in rankings, both agencies found that nine of the 10 warmest years on record were in the 21st century. According to NASA, the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere peaked in 2013 at 400 parts per million—higher than any point in the last 800,000 years. The level was 285 parts per million in 1880.
“Long-term trends in surface temperature are unusual and 2013 adds to the evidence for ongoing climate change,” said Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “While one year or one season can be affected by random weather events, this analysis shows the necessity for continued, long-term monitoring.”
Schmidt said 2014 is likely to be even warmer than 2013, remarkable partly because El Nino, the periodic warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, was absent in 2013.
“Through the second half of 2014 we are looking at the likelihood of an El Nino, which will help warm 2014 over 2013,” he said.
Southern Leg of Keystone Begins Exporting Oil
TransCanada began delivering oil on Wednesday from Oklahoma to customers in Nederland, Texas, through the southern portion of a controversial proposed cross-border pipeline. The start of commercial operations for this leg of the Keystone XL pipeline came with little fanfare after approval by the president nearly two years ago. Although landowners in East Texas continue to challenge TransCanada’s right to take their land for the pipeline, it’s the northern leg of the pipeline, which is projected to carry oil from Canada, that’s been most controversial.
The northern portion of the pipeline still awaits approval by the U.S. State Department. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry brushed aside pressure from Canada, offering that he’s not yet received a critical environmental report on the long delayed project.
“My hope is that before long, that analysis will be available, and then my work begins,” he said.
TransCanada acknowledged it has plans to look at building rail terminals in Alberta and Oklahoma if the Obama administration declines to approve the pipeline’s northern leg. Recent accidents involving oil-bearing trains may put more pressure on the administration to approve the pipeline.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation July 4 in observance of the Independence Day holiday. We will return July 11.
In a speech at Georgetown University Tuesday, President Barack Obama outlined a long-awaited executive strategy—comprised mostly of initiatives already underway—to curb greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
“As a president, as a father and as an American, I’m here to say, ‘We need to act,’” Obama said. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”
The plan includes measures previously speculated to be a part of the overall climate change reduction strategy, including boosting renewable energy on federal land and tightening energy efficiency standards. At its heart the plan relies on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations to reduce emissions from new and existing power plants responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
The agency issued a proposed rule for new power plants in April 2012, a rule the president said will be finalized soon after a new proposal is submitted no later than September 20, 2013. Once finalized, the rule will trigger a requirement under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act for the EPA to regulate existing sources. Under Obama’s plan, the proposed rule for existing plants wouldn’t be issued until June 2014, and may not be finalized for another year afterward.
The Clean Air Act provision addressing performance standards for existing facilities—specifically, Section 111(d)—calls for a partnership between the EPA and state governments under which the EPA identifies an emission target, then states design and implement the performance standards that are subject to the agency’s approval. The combination of limited precedent and the statute’s general language should provide the EPA with a broad array of options for setting the emission target and evaluating the adequacy of state plans to achieve it.
To spur investment in technologies that keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere, Obama will make roughly $8 billion in federal loan guarantees available. This will fund a variety of advanced energy projects, including carbon capture and storage.
‘Wiggle Room’ Still Left for Keystone XL Decision
“Our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” Obama said. “The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”
The Washington Post reports that Obama may have left himself some “wiggle room” on the decision—expected as early as this summer. In March, the State Department issued a draft environmental impact statement finding Keystone XL wouldn’t lead to significantly more carbon pollution. The administration has said it will examine whether vetoing the project would mean higher emissions than if it were built.
Renewable Energy to Double
Renewable energy is another key initiative in Obama’s climate strategy, and he shared plans Tuesday to issue permits for 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on federal land and 100 megawatts of installed renewable capacity for federally-subsidized housing. The move would double production by 2020.
The plan’s release coincides with the International Energy Agency’s release of a five-year energy outlook identifying global renewable energy as fast growing—edging out natural gas as the second largest electricity source, after coal, by 2016.
Supreme Court to Review Cross State Air Pollution Rule
The Supreme Court will review the lower court’s decision striking down the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which would set limits for emissions from coal-fired power plants that cross state lines. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ overturned the rule in August 2012, stating the agency exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act by imposing “massive emissions reduction requirements.”
The rule would cap emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in 28 states in the eastern half of the country where pollution blows into neighboring jurisdictions. In a statement, the EPA told POWERnews it was “pleased” with the decision to reconsider the rule, but “the Supreme Court’s decision to grant our petition is not a decision on the merits but instead a decision to review the case on merits. As such, it does not alter the current status of [CAIR] or the Cross-State Rule.”
Since China announced it will hold off plans to introduce a carbon tax, the idea has generated some activity on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers on Tuesday proposed a draft bill that would charge the largest industrial polluters a fee for, or carbon tax on, their fossil-fuel emissions. The plan, proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), includes three possible per-ton prices for carbon pollution—$15, $25 or $30—and annual cost increases ranging from 2 percent to 8 percent to ensure that emissions continue to decrease. The new bill solicits feedback on how revenue (subscription required) generated by the fee or tax should be spent but proposes that proceeds go toward mitigating energy costs for consumers, reducing the deficit, protecting jobs, decreasing the tax liability for businesses and individuals and investing in other activities that could reduce carbon pollution.
The Waxman-Whitehouse draft, which has not been formally introduced into Congress or even finalized, is one of a few carbon tax proposals circulating in Washington. A measure by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was released last month. The same week as the release of the Waxman-Whitehouse draft, Republicans introduced a resolution that opposed a national carbon tax, citing its threat to the economy and businesses.
Two studies of a carbon tax have produced very different results. A study by the National Association of Manufacturers finds that a carbon tax starting at $20 per ton and rising 4 percent yearly would result in an economic slowdown. Meanwhile, a report by the Brookings Institution finds that a carbon tax could have benefits—including improving environmental outcomes and increasing economic efficiency.
A national poll released recently by Duke University found that 29 percent of the respondents strongly or somewhat supported a carbon tax. There was much more support surrounding a clean energy standard or other traditional measures to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Will “Fire Ice” Discovery Revolutionize the Energy Industry?
Japan has produced methane from methane hydrates, a fossil fuel that behaves like ice, from deep under the ocean for the first time. Deposits of the fuel source, known as “fire ice,” may be large enough to supply the country’s natural gas needs for years. An estimated 1.1 trillion cubic meters of gas are trapped off Shikoku Island. Japan hopes to convert the trapped methane into natural gas that could help address recent energy woes, but the Japanese government says it is still at least five years away from commercial extraction. Japanese officials point to the recent gas boom in the United States as evidence that complex drilling processes can yield big results—a fact that has Australia worried. Japan is Australia’s top natural gas customer.
The fuel source is also being explored in Canada and the United States, with the latter funding 14 research projects on methane hydrates. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that naturally occurring gas hydrates could contain more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—potentially more organic carbon than the world’s coal, oil and other forms of natural gas combined. Recent mappings off the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts show large offshore accumulations of methane hydrate, but the potential environmental effects of drilling for hydrates remain little understood.
The Future of Nuclear Power
Monday marked the second anniversary of Japan’s tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Before the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan was the third largest consumer of nuclear energy, behind the United States. Now just two of the country’s 50 operable reactors are online. With plans to phase out nuclear power by 2040, the long-term energy strategy is expected to bring higher electricity rates for consumers this year.
The future of nuclear remains less certain worldwide. The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently told more than 3,000 industry executives, experts and government regulators that when it comes to commercial reactors they must be ready to deal with the unknown.
A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists is more critical of the industry. It points to safety mishaps at nuclear plants across the United States in 2012. The study, released shortly after the NRC annual report card, details a dozen events.
Editor’s Note: In observance of the holidays, The Climate Post will take a break from regular circulation Dec. 27. It will return January 3, 2013.
As lawmakers in Washington, D.C., debate the so-called fiscal cliff—when U.S. federal tax increases and spending cuts are due to take effect at the end of 2012—new research in the journal Nature Climate Change says we are already at the edge of a climate cliff. It explores the cost and risk associated with surpassing critical emissions thresholds by 2020, and what would need to take place to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius—a mark many regard as the limit to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. It further shares that reaching the 2-degree target may still be possible even if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced before 2020, but it will be more expensive and difficult, and come with higher risks. Just weeks ago, at the United Nations climate conference in Doha, governments failed to impose additional emissions cuts—looking to a new global climate treaty that would go into effect in 2020.
Meanwhile, the draft of the next assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—which provides detailed assessments of climate science every few years—was leaked online by blogger Alec Rawls before its intended release next year. Rawls claims it contains a “game-changing admission” about the sun’s effect on climate, but Dana Nuccitelli writes in The Guardian that Rawls “has completely misrepresented” the report. Rawls’ interpretations actually draw attention from other interesting conclusions in the draft thus far, the New Scientist reports—such as ice-free Arctic summers by 2100, greater sea-level rise and the likelihood we’ll see almost 9 degrees Celsius of warming by 2300. The IPCC itself criticized the leak, but Andrew Revkin writes in The New York Times that—while he disagrees with Rawls’ interpretations of the report—the leak “provides fresh evidence that the [IPCC’s] policies and procedures are a terrible fit for an era in which transparency will increasingly be enforced on organizations working on consequential energy and environmental issues.”
Soot Standard Updated
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in response to a court order, has imposed updates to the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for fine particulate pollution from power plants and diesel vehicles. The new rule, which includes soot, was revised to allow only 12 micrograms of particulate pollution—a 20 percent reduction from the 15 micrograms allowed per cubic meter of air set in 1997. While the EPA projects 99 percent of U.S. counties will meet the revised health standard by 2020, today 66 counties in eight states—including the metropolitan areas of Houston, Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles—do not meet it.
The highly anticipated standards came with mixed reviews, with many applauding them and one study finding reductions in particulate matter correlated to increased life expectancy. “These standards are fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “We will save lives and reduce the burden of illness on our communities, and families across the country will benefit from the simple fact of being able to breathe cleaner air.” Still, others criticized the ruling—claiming, among other things, that it threatens industry expansion.
2013 Climate and Energy Outlook
In the new year there are a number of energy and climate related developments to keep tabs on. Among them:
Oil and Gasoline: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gasoline consumption will remain flat in 2013, while U.S. oil production will rise to 7.1 million barrels a day—the highest average annual production rate in the country since 1992.
Keystone XL Pipeline: President Barack Obama is expected to make a decision on this pipeline—bringing crude from the Canadian oil sands to the U.S. There are still snags along the way, as residents challenge the pipeline and information surfaces about advanced spill technologies absent in current plans.
Cap-and-Trade Linkage: Quebec has adopted new regulations that could pave the way for the province to set up a cap-and-trade system with California in the new year.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not be circulated next Thursday in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday. Look for it again on December 1.
The Obama administration delayed deciding whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which has been proposed to carry tar sands from Canada to Texas’s Gulf Coast. The administration said it should consider alternate routes and wait until early 2013 to decide.
Industry officials in Canada thought the delay may derail the pipeline, and threaten the country’s aim of becoming a top oil producer. To maintain high prices for Canadian oil, there is an urgent need for new means of export, including to Asia, argued the Globe and Mail.
In Nebraska, the pipeline has met opposition in part because of fears the pipeline would threaten the vast Ogallala Aquifer that underlies much of the state and the ecologically sensitive Sandhills region.
Nebraska’s legislature voted unanimously, earlier this week, for a bill to re-route the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as for a separate bill to establish authority for the state to regulate pipeline routes within its borders. In response, TransCanada Corp. has proposed a different route through Nebraska.
Diplomacy and Downsizing
The U.S. Department of State, which has been in charge of reviewing the Keystone XL application, has opened a new branch, the Bureau of Energy Resources. The new bureau, a result of a review that began in 2009, will aim to strengthen “energy diplomacy.”
The State Department’s special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs said the main goal is not energy independence for the U.S., since the country is tightly linked with global markets. The new bureau will push for increased use of natural gas around the world as a replacement for burning oil to generate electricity.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) is under fire for its handling of cleantech loans, in particular of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was scheduled to testify. Meanwhile an internal review at the DoE said the department spends too much on overhead and should restructure in preparation for downsizing forced by budget cuts likely to come.
Salvaging the Kyoto Essence
The upcoming climate talks in Durban, South Africa, are unlikely to make any huge strides, the Christian Science Monitor argued, but could make a crucial contribution by extending the Kyoto Protocol. Salvaging the essence of that agreement is the most important step, agreed Africa’s chief negotiator at the talks, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for richer countries to follow through with their pledge for a $100 billion annual climate aid, and the Green Climate Fund, both of which G-20 countries said they remain committed to recently. But the deepening economic problems in Europe may mean contributions to climate funds fall short of promises.
The Green Climate Fund has run into problems already, hampered by disagreements over how to structure it. Because of lack of transparency and possible double-counting of funds, it is difficult to say how much additional climate aid has actually been contributed, said Saleemul Huq of the International Institute for Environment and Development.