Negotiations Heat Up in Closing Stages of UN Climate Change Conference

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Optimism at the outset of the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference twentieth Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru, has given way to the hard work of reaching high-level resolution prior to the December 2015 UN meeting in Paris.

Among the challenges is disagreement about regular auditing of carbon emission pledges. The European Union insists on a formal review of all country pledges, whereas the United States recommends a voluntary approach to emissions cuts with the disclaimer of no backtracking in targets. “You could assign every country a particular reduction that on paper looks like a perfect result and then you can’t get agreement on it,” said Todd Stern, United States Special Envoy for Climate Change. “This is a way to get everyone in.”

Another challenge is differentiating the responsibilities of developed countries and those of developing countries. China, Brazil, India, and South Africa, which have coordinated their positions at the Lima talks, want to make sure the potential new agreement will allow poorer nations to meet their prevalent needs such as poverty eradication. “Poor people have aspirations,” said India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. “We must give them energy access.”

Host country Peru, along with other Latin American nations (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama), is pushing for aggressive emission cuts by major economies as well as emerging economies such as China and Brazil. However, critics are quick to point out the country’s poor record in protecting rainforests, which play a critical role as carbon sinks.

Struggling through hammering rainfall from Typhoon Hagupit, the Philippines are asking for all nations, developing and developed, to cut use of fossil fuels.

“The thinking of the pivot is—we’re going to take on commitments and do our part,” said Tony La Viña, a Philippine climate change delegate. “The call has always been for developed countries to act. But the thinking is simple. If we’re going to get hit every year again and again, how can we call on developed countries to reduce their emissions, but not reduce our own?”

A new UN report showing climate adaptation costs for developing countries could be two to three times higher than current global estimates makes the 2050 zero-carbon goal another contentious issue. Meeting this goal would significantly affect oil and gas production as well as coal extraction methods. “With a concept like zero emissions and ‘let’s knock fossil fuels out of the picture’, without clear technology diffusion and international cooperation program, you are really not helping the process,” said chief Saudi Arabian negotiator Khalid AbuLeif.

Emissions Reduction Pledges Underscore Importance of Social Cost of Carbon Estimates

The Climate Action Tracker report released by a group of independent scientists notes that recent pledges by the United States, China and the European Union to limit greenhouse gas emissions will, in fact, slow the rate of global warming this century, though not enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit).

Draft text of the 2015 global climate change agreement being negotiated in Lima includes a May 3, 2015, deadline for nationally determined contributions—promises from individual countries for internal action on climate change. Figuring into these commitments are estimates of the social cost of carbon, or the per-metric-ton dollar value of reducing climate change damages—a metric that the United States uses in regulatory analysis and that it and other developed countries could use to leverage greater emissions reductions commitments from developing countries.

Several economy and environmental policy experts are recommending that the government change the way (subscription) it establishes this cost. In an article in Science, former U.S. Department of the Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy and Nicholas Institute faculty fellow William Pizer and his coauthors recommend that the United States adopt a standardized process to regularly evaluate the cost and that the process undergo a public comment period and a review by the National Academy of Sciences.

Commenting on the need for a consistently used and rigorously maintained estimate of climate damages, Pizer said, “It’s important that we draw on the expertise of all government agencies, as well as independent experts in the field. This level of high-quality collaboration and peer review would decrease the likelihood of political factors interfering with the process, and ensure we have the most robust Social Cost of Carbon.”

2014—Hottest Year on Record?

A report issued by The United Nation’s World Meteorological Association says that 2014 is expected to be the hottest year on record, with global temperatures 1.03 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1961–1990 average.

“What we saw in 2014 is consistent with what we expect from a changing climate,” said Michel Jarraud, World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General. “Record-breaking heat combined with torrential rainfall and floods destroyed livelihoods and ruined lives.”

A report by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that finds that the historic California drought is due to natural weather patterns, as opposed to hot temperatures across the state, raised the ire of some climate scientists, who said the report did not take into account how record warmth worsened the drought.

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.


Ozone Focus of EPA’s Latest Rulemaking

October 23, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a rule that sets domestic production consumption limits for hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)—eventually phasing them out completely by 2020. The rule aims to reduce emissions from leakage and stockpiles of four HCFCs, a class of refrigerant linked to ozone depletion and climate change.

“This rule finalizes allowed amounts of HCFC production and import in 2015–2019 that protect human health and the environment, while also encouraging transition to non-ozone-depleting alternatives and greater recycling of existing HCFCs,” the EPA said, adding that the rule “should promote a smooth and stable transition, since without this rule, domestic production and consumption of these HCFCs is prohibited as of January 1, 2015.”

The final rule caps HCFC-22 at 10,000 megatons, down from the 13,700 megatons included in the EPA’s December proposal (subscription). It also creates an incentive for commercial consumers relying on outdated equipment that uses HCFCs to convert to energy-efficient models.

Meanwhile, the EPA is tasked—under court order—with proposing a change to the existing National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ground-level ozone by Dec. 1. Agency watchers speculate that the standards, currently at 75 parts per billion, will be made more stringent. Although some have argued that the cost of tighter standards would be high—$11 billion in 2020, according to the EPA—a new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) indicates these concerns may be premature.

“There has been speculation regarding the economic impact of a NAAQS revision,” CRS’s James McCarthy writes. “At the moment, no one knows what a revised NAAQS would cost, because EPA hasn’t proposed one and we don’t know what areas will be designated nonattainment. But even after a proposal is signed, cost estimates will be little better than guesses.”

NOAA Reports Forecast Record Yearly Temps, Winter Outlook

Year to date, 2014 ties with 1998 and 2010 as the warmest year on record, according to new analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Recorded temperatures were 1.22 degrees Fahrenheit above average.

“If 2014 maintains this temperature departure from average for the remainder of the year, it will be the warmest year on record,” the report indicated. Why? The increased chance for an El Nino—a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean affecting weather worldwide. These rising ocean temperatures have implications for coral reefs, sea level rise and weather patterns worldwide.

When it comes to winter, the southern United States will see colder weather and western states warmer temperatures based on NOAA’s yearly winter outlook.

“Last year’s winter was exceptionally cold and snowy across most of the United States, east of the Rockies,” NOAA said. “A repeat of this extreme weather pattern is unlikely this year, although the [outlook] does favor below-average temperatures in the south-central and southeastern states.”

Tackling Rising Emissions

New data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) indicates that carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. energy sector increased 2.5 percent between 2012 and 2013—a jump from 5,267 million metric tons (MMmt) to 5,396 MMmt. Despite the increase, emissions were 10 percent below their 2005 level.

“An increase in energy intensity … was a leading cause of the 2013 increase in energy-related CO2 emissions when compared with the trend from the prior decade, which was -2.0pc,” EIA said. “Weather played an important role in the year-to-year increase in CO2 emissions.”

Negotiators from more than 190 nations were urged to “build bridges” toward a new global pact to curb greenhouse gas emissions at a meeting in preparation for talks in Lima, Peru, this December. Nations are working toward an agreement, to be decided in Paris in 2015, that would cut these emissions beginning in 2020. On the table—steps that can be taken to increase commitments from countries and the extent to which a 2015 treaty will be legally binding. Two themes in particular—carbon capture, storage and use; and non-CO2 greenhouse gases like methane and HCFCs are dominating the discussions.

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.


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.


Rule for Regulating Existing Power Plants under Fire

July 24, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during a hearing on “EPA’s Proposed Carbon Pollution Standards for Existing Power Plants.” Debate about the proposed rule to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants has swirled since the rule’s release last month. Coal-heavy states and others have criticized both the substance of the rule and the EPA’s authority to issue it.

Throughout the hearing McCarthy faced questions about whether the agency had stretched the parameters of the Clean Air Act. The proposed rule uses an infrequently exercised provision of the act to set state-specific emissions targets and provide states a wide range of flexibility when choosing how to meet those targets.

“EPA goes beyond the plain reading of the Clean Air Act Section 111 [by] directing states to achieve questionable emission reduction targets from a limited menu of economically damaging and legally questionable ‘options,’” said Senator David Vitter of Louisiana.

Defending the Clean Power Plan on Wednesday, McCarthy insisted the EPA followed proper legal procedure in conducting its analysis. She also dismissed suggestions that the rule was designed “miraculously” months ago and that the EPA has had it in its back pocket since then. She further stressed the flexibility of the rule.

“The proposal is designed to be moderate in its ask,” she told senators. “We will get significantly more benefit than we are requiring.”

She noted “The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate inaction are clear. We must act.”

A new paper by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions aims to address one question not answered in this debate: What will EPA’s rules mean for policy choices aimed at securing future mitigation goals? The analysis explores the long-term consequences of several key regulatory design choices, including mass-based versus rate-based standards, tradable versus non-tradable standards and separate standards for coal and natural gas power plants (differentiated standards) versus a single standard for all fossil plants. It finds that consequences may be significant. Differentiated standards lead to relatively greater investment in coal retrofits and non-tradable standards lead to relatively greater retirement of coal capacity—all of which could create different costs for securing deeper greenhouse gas reductions in the future. How the EPA’s proposed rule for existing power plants is viewed—as a final or interim solution—could also affect tradeoffs associated with key policy choices.

NOAA: Global Temperatures Rising

Global average temperatures surpassed previous records by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit last month—making it the hottest June on record according to new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data. It’s the second straight month the world set a warm-temperature record. In May, Earth’s temperature was 1.33 degrees above the 20th century average.

Warmer oceans made the difference—they were 1.15 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. Every month of 2014 except February has ranked among the four warmest on record for that respective month.

The finding piggybacks on another report co-authored by NOAA and published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological SocietyState of the Climate in 2013—which provides a detailed update on notable weather events, global climate indicators and environmental monitoring station data.

“These findings reinforce what scientists for decades have observed: that our planet is becoming a warmer place,” said NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan. “This report provides the foundational information we need to develop tools and services for communities, business, and nations to prepare for, and build resilience to, the impacts of climate change.”

The global average temperature, which is a broad baseline used to measure the climate, was about 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit above average according to four of the most commonly used datasets. Among the report’s other findings: all major greenhouse gas emissions increased to new records, sea surface temperatures were among the 10 warmest on record and sea level continued to rise by about an eighth of an inch each year.

Department of Interior Plan, Warming Waters Expand Oil Exploration

The Obama administration approved a plan that next year allows energy companies to apply for permits for underwater oil exploration on the Atlantic Coast, from Delaware to Florida.

The final plan, compiled by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), requires oil and gas search methods—including seismic air gun testing—to pass several safeguards to mitigate risks to marine life.

“After thoroughly reviewing the analysis, coordinating with Federal agencies and considering extensive public input, the bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites,” said BOEM Acting Director Walter Cruickshank. “The bureau’s decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine and coastal environments.”

The plan doesn’t permit actual oil drilling or guarantee that lease sales for drilling in Atlantic waters will be included in the Interior Department’s five-year plan for 2017–2022. Obama intended to open up the Atlantic Coast to drilling in 2010 but reversed course after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that April.

Meanwhile, melting ice in the Arctic is making the region’s icy waters more passable—allowing ships to deliver European oil to Asia and fueling South Korea’s hopes of becoming an oil hub.

“We’ve noticed a huge difference in trading routes,” said Erik Hanell, chief executive officer of Stena Bulk AB in Gothenburg, Sweden. “China is importing more and all the countries in the Far East are importing a lot more. South Korea has a very strong geographic position in today’s development of both Arctic oil and China’s growing demand.”

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.