EPA Refines Pollution Rules

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was told by a federal appeals court that it could move forward with implementing a program to curb air pollution that crosses state lines. The Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR) would require 28 states to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide by power plants. The rule establishes a two-step process: 1) The EPA determines if a state contributes more than 1 percent of the pollution causing a downwind state to exceed emissions standards to 2) The EPA using modeling analysis to determine state emissions targets (subscription). CASPR’s first phase would be implemented next year, with the final phase beginning in 2017.

Days later, the agency announced it’s making additional data available to elicit further comments on another controversial rule. In its Notice of Data Availability (NODA), the EPA points to areas of “concern” raised by stakeholders during the public comment period for its proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants. EPA Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe indicated that the agency hopes to get additional comments before the public comment period ends Dec. 1— specifically comments related to the trajectory of emissions reductions from 2020 to 2029, the way building blocks are established and the way in which state goals are calculated.

“We wanted to address issues where the feedback we were getting went beyond what we laid out in the preamble [of the Clean Power Plan],” she said.

Utility Dive and Bloomberg BNA break down stakeholder concerns in detail and describe how the EPA is looking to address them.

Along with the NODA, the EPA announced a supplemental proposal to reduce carbon pollution on tribal lands and territories housing fossil-fuel fired power plants. Like the Clean Power Plan does for states, the proposal sets area-specific goals for Indian country and territories and provides options for meeting those goals. The proposal, which relies on and builds upon measures outlined in the Clean Power Plan, would affect coal-fired power plants on lands belonging to three tribes—the Navajo Nation, the Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the Fort Mojave Tribe—as well as plants in Puerto Rico and Guam.

EU Makes Climate Promise Ahead of U.N. Negotiations

Fresh off talks in Bonn, Germany, that were meant to make progress on identifying the information that countries will have to provide next year when making individual pledges for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, European Union leaders have announced a new emissions deal. It will cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and will increase energy efficiency and renewables by 27 percent. A “flexibility clause” was added to the final text to ensure that the EU can return to the targets after the U.N. summit in December 2015.

The deal sends a signal to the rest of the world to take action on a climate treaty at the upcoming Conference of the Parties in Paris. The EU is responsible for about one-sixth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising greenhouse gases are increasing the likelihood of “severe, pervasive and irreversible” impacts for people and ecosystems, according to a draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report. Due for approval and release Nov. 2, the report provides a summary of three other IPCC publications issued over the course of the last year. It is expected serve as a road map for upcoming U.N. negotiations.

According to a leaked draft of the report obtained by ClimateWire, to avoid a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, net global emissions must decrease 40–70 percent by 2050 and hit zero by the end of the century.

Study: 2010 BP Spill Left ‘Significant Quantities’ of Oil on Gulf Floor

Oil remnants from BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill have formed rings—roughly the size of Rhode Island—near the site of the blown-out well, according to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study suggests that “significant quantities” of crude are present near the site of the Macondo well.

“We don’t know with certainty how the oil reached the bottom,” said David Valentine, lead author and professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “We do provide hypotheses, that a combination of coagulation and bacterial growth drove the oil into a floc form and facilitated particles or droplets sinking to the seafloor. Some of the oil was certainly eaten by bacteria, and other components dissolved into the water.”

BP criticized the research, saying authors “failed to identify the source of the oil, leading them to grossly overstate the amount of residual Macondo oil on the sea floor and the geographic area in which it is found.”

During the study, researchers collected more than 3,000 samples, analyzing them for a hydrocarbon found in oil called hopane. What they traced represented 4–31 percent of the oil thought to be trapped deep in the ocean (as much as 16 percent of the total oil spilled).

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


U.S., Military to Plan More Strategically for Climate Change

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Climate change is a “threat multiplier” and worse than many of the challenges the U.S. military is already grappling with, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The New York Times indicated that the report marks a departure from the DoD’s previous focus on preparing bases to adapt to climate change. The DoD now calls on the military to incorporate climate change plans in its strategic thinking and budgeting.

“Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”

Climate change will now be factored into several day-to-day decisions, including those about training exercises, purchasing decisions and assessment of the risk of infectious disease. The report points to inclusion of floods or storms in war game scenarios, testing of new equipment to adapt to warmer ocean conditions and preparedness for an increasing number of natural disasters.

“Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning,” the report’s introduction stated. “Our armed forces must prepare for a future with a wide spectrum of possible threats.”

At a lecture at Yale University earlier this week, U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern discussed the country’s climate vision and the potential for a global climate pact touting flexible standards, financial assistance for developing countries and an accountability system at the 2015 U.N. Summit.

“The usual brinkmanship of holding cards until the eleventh hour is a bad bet because too much is riding on this negotiation,” Stern said. “We can’t afford to miss the opportunity to establish an ambitious, workable, new international climate order.”

According to a new fact sheet from the Environmental and Energy Institute, Americans, generally, agree that climate change is happening. The finding is based on polls from a variety of sources from 2013 to 2014.

Lower Oil Prices Have Multiple Effects

Amid reports of falling oil prices, the International Energy Information Administration (EIA) lowered its oil demand forecast to 93.5 million (bpd). The change, it said, was supported by near-four-year low prices.

Downward prices have been a boon to consumers at the pump, but as one economist tells Reuters, they are a two-edged sword. “Initially, (a lower oil price) will provide a boost to an economy that already has some momentum,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. “It’s like a tax cut. The problem is that it will come back to haunt us in 2015.”

The American energy boom combined with a sluggish global economy have led to a crude oil price correction with global impacts—nuancing debate about the need for major pipeline projects, potentially helping refiners and threatening to hit energy exporters like Russia and Iran harder than the recent U.S. economic sanctions.

UCS: EPA Clean Power Plan Could Use Tweaks

Some details in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules for regulating carbon dioxide from existing power plants—the Clean Power Plan—could be fine-tuned, a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) states. The group’s proposed approach for setting state targets would result in renewable energy supplying 23 percent versus the Clean Power Plan’s 12 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030.

UCS argues that the EPA’s current proposal doesn’t capture the rate at which renewables have been deployed across the country.

“Our renewable target is a percentage of electricity sales in the state that can either be met by having in-state generation or purchasing renewables from another state,” said UCS President Ken Kimmell.

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.


Studies Focus on Warming of Oceans

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Oceans absorb carbon dioxide and 90 percent of the heat caused by human activity—making their warming a critical topic for climate research. Two new studies—one on the upper oceans and one on deeper ocean depths—share findings about climate change’s effect on these water bodies.

The first study, in the journal Nature Climate Change, provides the first estimate of global warming’s effect on upper-ocean depths between 1970 and 2004.

“This underestimation is a result of poor sampling prior to the last decade and limitations of the analysis methods that conservatively estimated temperature changes in data-sparse regions,” said lead author and oceanographer Paul Durack. “By using satellite data, along with a large suite of climate model simulations, our results suggest that global ocean warming has been underestimated by 24% to 58%. The conclusion that warming has been underestimated agrees with previous studies, however it’s the first time that scientists have tried to estimate how much heat we’ve missed.”

Researchers used temperature measurements for the upper 2,300 feet of the oceans, satellite measurements of sea level and computer models to find the rate of sea-level rise, which they compared to the rise measured by satellites for each hemisphere.

The second study, by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, examined satellite and direct ocean temperature data from 2005 to 2013. It found that depths deeper than 1.24 miles have not warmed measurably.

“The deep parts of the ocean are harder to measure,” said the study’s lead author William Llovel. “The combination of satellite and direct temperature data gives us a glimpse of how much sea level rise is due to deep warming. The answer is—not much.”

The study also found that expansion of warming waters caused a third of the planet’s 2.8 millimeters of annual sea-level rise. Eventually, more accurate measurements of the deep ocean may be on their way through floating probes, collectively known as Deep Argo, which will sample ocean temperatures down to 19,700 feet.

Court Rulings Leave EPA Rules Untouched

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court left intact a federal appeals court decision that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had adequate scientific evidence to tighten standards, drafted under former President George W. Bush, for ozone pollution.

The case came to the Supreme Court after an appeals court rejected arguments by industry groups that the rules were too stringent. By declining to hear the case, the justices left the standards in place.

Another challenge by Nebraska’s attorney general to proposed EPA regulations setting carbon limits for new power plants was dismissed by U.S. District Judge John Gerrard. The lawsuit had claimed that the “impossible standards imposed by the EPA will ensure no new power plants are built in Nebraska.”

“As the EPA points out, the State of Nebraska’s attempt to short-circuit the administrative rulemaking process runs contrary to basic, well-understood administrative law,” Judge John Gerrard wrote in his ruling. “Simply stated, the state cannot sue in federal court to challenge a rule that the EPA has not yet actually made.”

Decreases in Energy Costs

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts U.S. households will spend less from October to March on heating bills due to warmer winter temperatures.

“U.S. households in all regions of the country can expect to pay lower heating bills this winter, because temperatures are forecast to be warmer than last winter and that means less demand for heat,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski. Specifically, the EIA expects a decline of 15 percent in the cost of home heating oil, roughly 5 percent in the cost of natural gas and 2 percent in the cost of electricity. A decrease in the cost of natural gas and electricity is another contributing factor to the cost drop for households, according to the EIA.

A new study by the International Monetary Fund expands on how a boom in natural gas production—specifically related to shale gas—has helped to lower the cost of gas and energy prices for Americans. Since 2000, shale gas production has grown from 1 percent of total U.S. natural gas production to nearly 50 percent.

That increase has had global implications.

“So far, energy users in the United States have been the main beneficiaries of the energy prices declines that have resulted from the U.S. shale revolution,” said co-author Rabah Arezki. “However, that revolution has helped to stabilize international energy prices, including by freeing global energy supply for European and Asian markets, thus offsetting some of the shortages attributable to geopolitical disruptions. The shale gas boom has caused ripple effects to other energy sources around the globe, displacing coal from the United States to Europe, lowering energy costs and imposing a ‘significant impact on the geography of global energy trade.’”

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.


Studies Link Climate Change to Recent Extreme Weather Events

October 2, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

New research in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society finds that climate change influenced the majority of 16 extreme weather events in 2013. Specifically, it found evidence that climate change linked to human causes—particularly burning of fossil fuels—increased the odds of nine extreme events: amplifying temperature in China, Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe; intense rain in parts of the United States and India and severe droughts in New Zealand and California.

“It is not ever a single factor that is responsible for the extremes that we see; in many cases, there are multiple factors,” said Tom Karl, director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Climatic Data Center, of the third NOAA-led annual report to make connections between human-caused climate change and individual extreme weather events.

Twenty groups of scientists conducted independent peer-reviewed studies on the same 16 extreme events occurring on four continents to arrive at their conclusions.

“There is great scientific value in having multiple studies analyze the same extreme event to determine the underlying factors that may have influenced it,” said Stephanie C. Herring of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center and lead report editor. “Results from this report not only add to our body of knowledge about what drives extreme events, but what the odds are of these events happening again—and to what severity.”

Although the report concludes that the long durations of heat waves “are becoming increasingly likely” due to human-caused climate change, the effects of such change on other types of extremes—California’s drought and extreme rain in Colorado—are less clear.

“Temperature is much more continuous as opposed to precipitation, which is an on/off event,” said Karl. “If you have an on/off event, it makes the tools we have a little more difficult to use.”

Although the NOAA study reached mixed conclusions about the ongoing California drought’s connection to climate change, new research out of Stanford University is a bit more confident. The Stanford study found it is “very likely” that atmospheric conditions associated with the unprecedented drought in the state are linked to human-caused climate change.

“Our research finds that extreme atmospheric high pressure in this region—which is strongly linked to unusually low precipitation in California—is much more likely to occur today than prior to the human emission of greenhouse gases that began during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford climate scientist.

According to the study, these high pressure ridges—currently parked over the Pacific Ocean—are now three times more likely to occur, and as long as high levels of greenhouse gases remain severe, drought will become more frequent.

Emissions from Industrial Facilities Rose Last Year

Reported greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial facilities were 0.6 percent—or roughly 20 million metric tons—higher in 2013 than in the year previous, according to new data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which linked the rise to greater coal use for power generation. A large majority of the increase, 13 million metric tons, was from the power sector alone—though overall emissions from power plants are down 9.8 percent since 2010. Reported emissions from the oil and natural gas sector declined 12 percent from 2011 levels, according to the report.

The news comes on the heels of an extension of the public comment period on EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, and of new comments by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy concerning the proposal.

There will be “changes between proposal and final,” said McCarthy. “You may see adjustments in the state levels. You may see adjustments in the framework,” McCarthy noted, referring to the emissions reduction targets the EPA proposed for each state and to the formula used to calculate those targets. The changes could also include updates to the values for nuclear power and natural gas generation.

IEA Says Solar Could Become Dominate Energy Source by 2050

Solar could surpass fossil fuels as the largest source of electricity by mid-century, according to reports issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The reports suggests that together solar photovoltaic systems (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) could provide 27 percent of the world’s energy by 2050; fossil fuels would account for somewhere between 12 percent and 20 percent.

“The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “However, both technologies are very capital intensive: almost all expenditures are made upfront. Lowering the cost of capital is thus of primary importance for achieving the vision in these roadmaps.”

By 2050, the IEA said, PV will surge from today’s 150 gigawatts of installed capacity to 4,600 gigawatts, while CSP will increase from 4 gigawatts to 1,000 gigawatts (subscription). These projections are based on the IEA’s expectations that China and the United States will remain top installers for the foreseeable future and that PV will dominate up until 2030.

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.


World Sees Some Tangible Outcomes from U.N. Climate Summit

September 25, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

World leaders gathered in New York this week for the United Nations Climate Summit, a meeting aimed at raising carbon reduction ambitions and mobilizing progress toward a global climate deal. In speeches at the summit, President Obama and other leaders recognized that countries across the world are feeling climate change effects, particularly extreme weather.

“In America, the past decade has been our hottest on record,” said Obama, who also announced the launch of new scientific and technological tools to increase global climate resilience and extend extreme weather risk outlooks. “Along our eastern coast, the city of Miami now floods at high tide. In our west, wildfire season now stretches most of year. In our heartland, farms have been parched by the worst drought in generations, and drenched by the wettest spring in our history. A hurricane left parts of this great city dark and underwater. And some nations already live with far worse.”

Like Obama, representatives of other major nations had their own news. The European Union unveiled a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, and China shared plans to set aside $6 million for U.N. efforts to boost South-South cooperation on global warming.

Other summit outcomes included a commitment by several countries and nearly 40 companies to support alternatives to deforestation, ending the loss of forests—which accounts for 12 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions—by 2030.

“Forests represent one of the largest, most cost-effective climate solutions available today,” the declaration said. “Action to conserve, sustainably manage and restore forests can contribute to economic growth, poverty alleviation, rule of law, food security, climate resilience and biodiversity conservation.”

More than $1 billion in new financial pledges were made to the Green Climate Fund, which was established at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit to help developing countries ease their transition away from fossil fuels and fight climate change.

The climate summit came on the heels of news that many countries are missing their emissions targets and that avoidance of runaway climate warming is slipping out of reach. A report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that says the world is dangerously close to no longer being able to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the threshold the U.N. declared as necessary to avoid dangerous consequences of climate change. Another study published Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience put 2014 world carbon emissions at 65 percent above 1990 levels and further suggested that the U.N.’s two-degree Celsius goal was becoming unobtainable.

Obama Announces New Solar Efficiency Measures

The White House announced new steps intended to increase deployment of solar and other energy efficiency measures to cut carbon pollution by nearly 300 million metric tons through 2030. The efforts are predicted to save $10 billion in energy costs.

Among the measures:

  • The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is launching the Solar Powering America website, providing access to a wide range of federal resources to drive solar deployment.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture will award $68 million in loans and grants for 540 renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, 240 of which will be solar projects.
  • DOE and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are releasingthree new studies showing that the cost of solar energy continues to fall across all sectors, which indicates that initiatives targeting soft costs are starting to work.
  • DOE is updating itsGuide to Federal Financing for Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Deployment. The guide will highlight financing programs located in various federal agencies, such as the Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which can be used for energy efficiency and clean energy projects.
  • A new program will train veterans to install solar panels.

The Transition to Clean Energy

Despite these clean energy plans, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows just how far the United States is behind Europe in its pursuit of non-carbon electricity.

“While most of the countries that produce at least half of their power from zero-carbon sources rely heavily on nuclear and hydroelectric power, the U.S. has been slow to convert its power sources to renewables like wind, solar, or biomass,” Slate reports.

A new report suggests Canada’s investment in clean energy is lagging—with the country spending $6.5 billion in renewable energy transition last year compared to the $207 billion spent worldwide.

“While other economics have made clean-energy industries and services a trade priority, some of us cling to the notion that our carbon-based fuels constitute our only competitive advantage,” the report says.

In the U.S., states like New York have plans to grow their clean energy contributions. New York State Energy and Research Development Authority submitted its plan for a new Clean Energy Fund—roughly $5 billion to grow clean energy programs in the next decade by continuing a utility bill surcharge.

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 Cost of Fixing Climate Change

September 18, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions could boost the economy rather than slow it, according to a new study by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy Report finds that roughly $90 trillion will be spent in the next 15 years on new infrastructure around the world. Adopting rules that redirect that investment toward low-emissions options—more efficient use of resources and the building of connected and compact urban cities driven by public transportation—could make economic sense.

“A central insight of this report is that many of the policy and institutional reforms needed to revitalise growth and improve well-being over the next 15 years can also help reduce climate risk,” the report authors said. “In most economies, there are a range of market, government and policy failures that can be corrected, as well as new technologies, business models and other options that countries at various stages of development can use to improve economic performance and climate outcomes together.”

Taking action on climate change, the report authors said, is affordable.

“Of the $6 trillion we will spend a year on infrastructure, only a small amount—around $270 billion per year—is needed to accelerate the shift to a low-carbon economy, through clean energy, public transport systems and smarter land use,” said Felipe Calderon, chairman of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. “And this additional investment could be entirely offset by operating savings, particularly through reduced fuel expenditures”

Studies Assess Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing

A new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences links water contamination from shale gas extraction in parts of Pennsylvania and Texas to well integrity rather than the hydraulic fracturing process. The research, which looked at 133 water wells with high levels of methane, found that the contamination was either naturally occurring or linked to faulty well construction by drillers.

“These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared,” said Avner Vengosh, study co-author and professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University. Researchers pointed, instead, to the cement used to seal the outside of vertical wells and the steel tubing used to line them as culprits.

“In all cases, it [the study] basically showed well integrity was the problem,” said Thomas H. Darrah, co-author and Ohio State University researcher. “The good news is, improvements in well integrity can probably eliminate most of the environmental problems with gas leaks.”

Another study on hydraulic fracturing in the Bulletin of Seismological Society of Americafound a connection between deep injections of wastewater from a coal-bed methane field and an increase in earthquakes in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001. The report, which focuses on the Raton Basin, suggested that the area had been “seismically quiet”—experiencing only one earthquake of greater than 3.8 magnitude—until shortly after major fluid injections began in 1999. Since 2001, the area has recorded 16 such events.

EPA Extends Comment Period for Power Plants

On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) extended the public comment period for its proposed rule for regulating carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 45 days—to Dec. 1.

Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, said the extension is due to stakeholders’ great interest.

“While we’ve heard quite a bit so far, we know that there are many individuals and groups continuing to work to formulate their input,” she said. “We want the best rule possible, and we want to give people every opportunity to give their ideas and contributions.”

The delay, McCabe told reporters, would not affect the timeline for finalizing the rule by June 2015.

The same week, a government watchdog agency—the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—released a report suggesting coal plant retirements may be higher than previously thought. It predicted 13 percent of coal-fired generation would come offline by 2025—compared with its 2012 estimate of 2 percent to 12 percent.

The report suggested that existing regulations such as the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and recently proposed regulations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing generating units were contributors to the retirements. Low natural gas prices, increasing coal prices and low expected growth in demand for electricity were also cited as contributors.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


U.N. Report: Carbon Dioxide Levels at Record Highs

September 11, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.


EPA Considering Lower Ozone Standard, Methane Strategy

September 4, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In its Policy Assessment for the Review of the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards report—released Friday—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests revising the health-based national ambient air quality standard for ozone.

“Staff concludes that it is appropriate in this review to consider a revised primary [ozone] standard level within the range of 70 ppb [parts per billion] to 60 ppb,” the report said (subscription). “A standard set within this range would result in important improvements in public protection, compared to the current standard, and could reasonably be judged to provide an appropriate degree of public health protection, including for at-risk populations and life stages.”

The report is part of the normal EPA process to consider changing air quality standards. It recommends tightening current smog rules—now at 75 parts per billion—somewhere between 7 and 20 percent, echoing findings of the EPA’s science advisory committee in June. A final decision lies with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who has a Dec. 1 deadline to issue a proposal on whether to retain or revise the existing standard.

Earlier in the week, McCarthy announced plans to issue a methane strategy emphasizing efficiency and reducing the need to flare gas—a strategy that could force oil and gas producers to cut emissions.

“We’re going to be putting out a strategy this fall and we hope everybody will pay attention to that effort,” McCarthy said at the Barclays Capital energy forum on Tuesday. “It will be addressing the challenges as well as the opportunities.”

Whether or not actual regulations for the industry will be issued is still being decided. McCarthy noted that the agency is “looking at what are the most cost-effective regulatory and-or voluntary efforts that can take a chunk out of methane in the system.”

This effort follows on the heels of an announcement by the White House that directed the EPA to develop an inter-agency strategy to combat methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems. If issued, rules to cut methane emissions would take effect in 2016.

China Eyes Carbon Market

Reuters reports that China will launch the world’s largest carbon market in 2016, although some provinces would be allowed to join later if they lacked the technical infrastructure needed to participate at the outset. “We will send over the national market regulations to the State Council for approval by the end of the year,” Sun Cuihua, a senior climate official with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told a conference in Bejing.

Confirming the earlier statement by Cuihua, Wang Shu, an official with the climate division of the NDRC said “We’ve brought forward this plan because it’s been prioritized in the central government’s economic reforms. The central government is pushing reforms, so everything is speeding up.”  According to Reuters, as in other carbon markets, power plants and manufacturers would face a cap on the carbon dioxide they discharge.  If an emitter needs to exceed its cap, it will have to purchase additional permits from the market to account for such emissions.

Court Finds BP Grossly Negligent in 2010 Gulf Spill

A U.S. District judge on Thursday ruled that BP was “grossly negligent” in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon 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 court concludes that the discharge of oil was the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct,” by BP, the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier said. He found that BP was at fault for 67 percent of the spill. Two other companies involved—Transocean and Halliburton—were responsible for 30 and 3 percent, respectively.

“The law is clear that proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case,” BP said in a statement. “BP believes that an impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court. The court has not yet ruled on the number of barrels spilled and no penalty has been determined. The District Court will hold additional proceedings, which are currently scheduled to begin in January 2015, to consider the application of statutory penalty factors in assessing a per-barrel Clean Water Act penalty.”

Judge Barbier’s ruling could result in as much as $18 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act, according to The Hill.

Bacteria Used to Make Alternative Fuel

A study in the journal Nature Communications suggests that Escherichia coli, or E. coli bacteria, which is widely found in the human intestine, can be used to create propane gas that can power vehicles, central heating systems and camp stoves.

“Although this research is at a very early stage, our proof of concept study provides a method for renewable production of a fuel that previously was only accessible from fossil reserves,” said Patrik Jones, a study co-author. “Although we have only produced tiny amounts so far, the fuel we have produced is ready to be used in an engine straight away. This opens up possibilities for future sustainable production of renewable fuels that at first could complement, and thereafter replace fossil fuels like diesel, petrol, natural gas and jet fuel.”

Commercial production is still five to 10 years away—the level of propane produced by the team is 1,000 times less than that needed to make a commercial product. The process, which needs further refinement, uses E. coli to interrupt a biological process to create engine-ready propane rather than cell membranes.

“At the moment, we don’t have a full grasp of exactly how the fuel molecules are made, so we are now trying to find out exactly how this process unfolds,” Jones said.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Obama May Use Executive Power to Forge International Climate Change Deal as U.N. Draft Report Paints Stark Climate Picture

August 28, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A leaked draft of a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that global warming is already affecting all continents and that additional pollution from heat-trapping gases will worsen the situation.

“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” the report stated.

The document is the final piece of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, which synthesizes earlier reports on climate change. The report will not be released until its review at a conference in Copenhagen later this fall.

President Obama doesn’t appear interested in waiting to take action against climate change. Media are reporting that he is planning to use his executive powers—sidestepping the two-thirds Senate vote required for a legally binding treaty—to forge another sort of international deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The “politically binding” deal, which The New York Times reports will be signed at the United Nations Summit Meeting in Paris next year, is intended to “name and shame” countries into cutting emissions. Negotiators are working to implement the deal, which would commit every signatory nation to achieving specific carbon reduction goals and to sending money to poorer nations to address the effects of climate. These “fresh voluntary pledges” would be mixed with legally binding 1992 treaty conditions.

But a State Department official said it was premature to say for certain that Obama will bypass Congress.

“Not a word of the new climate agreement currently under discussion has been written, so it is entirely premature to say whether it will or won’t require Senate approval,” said Jen Psaki, State Department spokeswoman. “Our goal is to negotiate a successful and effective global climate agreement that can help address this pressing challenge. Anything that is eventually negotiated and that should go to the Senate will go to the Senate.”

Methane “Seeps” Could Effect Ocean Temperatures

Methane, a gas about 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is leaking from deep-sea vents off the East Coast where the Continental Shelf meets the deeper Atlantic Ocean. The newly released Nature study found more than 550 of these “seeps,” which are thought to be fed by methane stored in hydrates—described by Science as crystal lattices of water ice that form under low temperatures and high pressures.

Until now, previous surveys had found only three such seeps.

“It is the first time we’ve seen this level of seepage outside the Arctic that is not associated with features like oil and gas reservoirs or active tectonic margins,” said Adam Skarke, lead author of the study. “This is a large amount of methane seepage in an area we didn’t expect.”

The seeps were discovered, according to the study, at depths that are typically more stable for gas hydrate. Although the methane likely didn’t reach the atmosphere, it could affect ocean acidity.

“Warming of the ocean waters could cause this ice to melt and release gas,” said Skarke. “So there may be some connection here to intermediate ocean warming, though we need to carry out further investigations to confirm if that is the case.”

EPA Report Says Cities Getting Cleaner

The second of two reports required under the Clean Air Act to inform Congress of progress in reducing urban air toxins is out. It finds that since enactment of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made significant progress in reducing these toxins:

  • Coal-fired power plants and other manmade sources have decreased toxic mercury emissions by about 60 percent.
  • Cancer-causing benzene has been reduced by 66 percent.
  • Lead in outdoor air is down 84 percent.
  • An estimated 1.5 million tons per year of air toxics has been removed from mobile sources, which represents a 50 percent reduction in mobile-source air toxics emissions.

“But we know our work is not done yet,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “At the core of EPA’s mission is environmental justice—striving for clean air, water and healthy land for every American; and we are committed to reducing remaining pollution, especially in low-income neighborhoods.”

The report cited six areas in which the EPA’s air toxics program could improve, including research on the health impacts of air toxics and collection of data in more areas covering more ambient pollutants.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Report, Initiatives Aim to Take Action on Climate Change

July 31, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: While Tim Profeta is on vacation, Jeremy Tarr, policy associate in the Climate and Energy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, will author The Climate Post. Tim will post again August 28.

The Climate Post will also take a break from circulation August 7 and will return August 14.

A new report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers finds that for each decade of delay, policy actions on climate change increase total mitigation costs by approximately 40 percent. The cost of inaction—letting the temperature rise 3 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels instead of 2 degrees— could increase economic damages by about 0.9 percent of global output.

“To put this percentage in perspective, 0.9 percent of estimated 2014 U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is approximately $150 billion,” according to the report. “Moreover, these costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay.”

The report is the first of several announcements by the Obama administration on climate change. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced initiatives to curb methane emissions, which accounted for about 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas pollution in 2012. The Energy Department recommended incentives for modernizing natural gas infrastructure, and it plans to establish efficiency standards for natural gas compressors as well as improve advanced natural gas system manufacturing.

The same day, several companies and nongovernment groups committed to support a new Food Resilience theme in the president’s Climate Data Initiative. The initiative leverages data and technology to help businesses and communities better withstand the effects of climate change. Companies like Microsoft are helping to organize data sets and tools in the cloud that will enable the assessment of vulnerable points in the food system, such as the effects of climate change on our food system and the reliability of food transportation and safety.

Hearings Fuel Debate on Clean Power Plan

During public hearings in Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heard testimony from the public on its proposed Clean Power Plan, which would limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

In Washington, D.C., many utilities and industry groups were critical of the plan’s climate benefits and called on the EPA to conduct further economic analysis before issuing its final rule in June 2015. In Atlanta, others said the plan did not account for steps they’ve already taken to reduce emissions.

“This rule is flawed,” said Mississippi utility regulator Brandon Presley (subscription). “States like Mississippi, who have fought to pull themselves up and get a program to help customers reduce energy costs and reduce energy consumption, kind of get slapped away from the table.”

In their testimony, many environmental groups sought greater emissions reductions from the power sector as well as increases in renewable energy generation and programs that reduce electricity demand. Some members of the public, like retired coal miner Stan Sturgill of Kentucky, agreed with these groups’ request for tougher restrictions.

“Your targets to reduce carbon dioxide pollution by 2030 are way too low and do not do enough to reduce our risk of climate change,” said Sturgill, who suffers from black lung and other respiratory ailments. “The rule does not do near enough to protect the health of the front line communities from the consequences of this pollution. We’re dying, literally dying, for you to help us.”

The EPA is asking states to meet carbon emissions targets that would result in a 30 percent reduction in power sector carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. States are given flexibility in how they achieve the targets.

Representatives from 13 western states met last week to discuss the EPA’s proposal and to begin considering the advantages of working together in response to the rule.

“We’re in the process of determining what makes sense for us, including working with other states in a regional market,” said Camille St. Onge, spokeswomen for Washington’s Department of Ecology.

United States Imposes Energy-Related Trade Constraints

The U.S. Commerce Department placed proposed new import penalties on solar products from China and Taiwan. These penalties come on top of anti-subsidy tariffs imposed on some panels from China last month.

The new proposed penalties, still to be confirmed, aim to curb the sale of low-cost solar panels and cells, a practice known as dumping, from other countries in the U.S. market. If confirmed, they would impose duties as high as 165 percent on some solar companies in China and 44 percent on those in Taiwan. The Commerce Department has issued only preliminary findings, but final rulings are expected from the Commerce Department later this year.

The move has China’s Commerce Ministry saying Washington’s actions risk damaging the solar industry in both countries.

“The frequent adoption of trade remedies cannot resolve the United States’ solar industry development problems,” an unnamed Chinese official told Reuters.

In the United States, reactions to the news were mixed.

“Today’s actions should help the U.S. solar manufacturing industry to expand and innovate,” said SolarWorld Industries America President Mukesh Dulani. “We should not have to compete with dumped imports or the Chinese government.”

But Rhone Resch, CEO of the U.S.-based Solar Energy Industries Association, condemned the decision, saying the answer lies in a negotiated solution.

Chinese companies supplied 31 percent of the solar modules installed in the United States in 2013 and more than 50 percent in the distributed solar market.

On Tuesday, the United States and the European Union issued new economic sanctions on Russia, citing the country’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. The sanctions ban the export of energy-related technology for use in Russian oil production from deepwater, Arctic offshore and shale oil production rock reserves. However, exports of technology for gas projects to the country, which holds the world’s largest combined oil and gas reserves, will continue.

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.