Obama Talks Climate, Oil Drilling

September 3, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska this week, sharing blunt language about climate change after laying out initiatives aimed at tackling that issue in the Arctic.

“On this issue—of all issues—there is such a thing as being too late,” said Obama. “And that moment is almost upon us … This year in Paris has to be the year that the world finally acts to protect the one planet that we have while we still can.”

On the three-day Alaska trip, Obama is experiencing firsthand the impacts of rapidly melting Arctic ice, which is warming waters that affect local fishing economies and raising sea levels, threatening the state’s coastal villages. To help address some of these local issues, Obama announced new initiatives. One is fish and wildlife cooperation management to help rebuild Chinook salmon stocks. Another is an exchange program that brings urban and rural youth together to understand the challenges of a changing Arctic and the potential for local solutions against the impacts of climate change.

Despite this focus on climate, Obama is receiving criticism for granting Royal Dutch Shell permits to drill for oil off Alaska’s coast. In an op-ed, Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard writes “we commend the president for his leadership, and yet this trip comes on the heels of his administration’s decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, a move that seriously undermines his climate legacy.”

Obama addressed these criticisms last weekend.

“I know there are Americans who are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters,” said Obama. “Some are also concerned with my administration’s decision to approve Shell’s application to drill a well off the Alaskan coast, using leases they purchased before I took office. That’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil explorations conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska.”

The Chukchi and Beaufort seas could hold as much as 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The fact remains, said Shell President Marvin Odum that oil will continue to be needed as the United States transitions to renewable energy sources.

Sea Level Rise Accelerating as Ice Sheets Melt

The impacts of sea level rise could be greater than worst-case scenarios. The reason? The dominant climate models don’t fully account for the accelerated loss of ice sheets and glaciers, a phenomenon highlighted by scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) last week.

Recent data on the speed and scope of melting ice sheets in Greenland and parts of Antarctica suggest that global average sea level rise may approach or exceed 1 meter, or 3.3 feet, by 2100.

“The ice sheets are contributing to sea level rise sooner and greater than anticipated,” said Eric Rignot, glaciologist at the University of California–Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Right now, the contribution is about one third. We know that in future warming (melting ice sheets) will dominate sea level rise. With future warming we may have multiples of 6 meters, or 18 feet, and higher. It may be a half meter per century or several meters per century, we don’t know. We’ve never seen an ice sheet collapse before.”

Rignot drew attention to the dynamic behavior of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland, which recently lost a chunk of ice roughly 12 square kilometers in surface area and which could raise sea level by half a meter if it were to melt entirely.

NASA is beginning a three-year effort, Oceans Melting Greenland, to understand the role of ocean currents and ocean temperatures in melting Greenland’s ice from below—and therefore to better predict the speed at which that melting will raise sea level.

Also of concern: Antarctica, which has a great deal of total ice to lose. The West Antarctica ice sheet may be undergoing a marine instability as warm water reaches the base of its glaciers from below.

“Given what we know now about how the ocean expands as it warms and how ice sheets and glaciers are adding water to the seas, it’s pretty certain we are locked into at least 3 feet of sea level rise, and probably more,” said Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But we don’t know whether it will happen within a century or somewhat longer.”

Data collected by NASA satellites, which change position in relation to one another as Earth’s water and ice realign and change gravity’s pull, reveal that the ocean’s mass is increasing, translating to a global sea level rise of about 0.07 inches per year, but that rise is not uniform.

A visualization released by NASA illustrates the variation in sea level rise around the world. Although the sea level has fallen slightly along the U.S. west coast due to a cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), NASA warns that sea level rise could increase on that coast because the PDO recently shifted into a warm phase.

Delegates Divided Ahead of Paris Climate Conference

This week, delegates met in Bonn, Germany, to take steps to create a workable draft for a deal slated to be negotiated at the Conference of the Parties November 30 to December 11 in Paris that would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The hope is that the agreement will show just how much pollution will be cut and exactly how much money rich nations will offer poorer countries to deal with their own growing energy and climate adaptation needs. Opinions on how to get to this agreement, which would take effect in 2020, differ.

One particularly sticky point: how to divide responsibility for carbon cuts between rich and poor nations. In an interview with Politico, Robert Orr, a longtime climate advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, identified the outstanding issues.

“The overall question of ambition, just how ambitious an agreement this will be,” said Orr. “Everyone agrees we need to get ourselves on a pathway to 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise or less. This level of ambition will require changes in everyone’s economies, everyone’s fuel mixes, everyone’s infrastructure investments. So, agreeing on a level of ambition in as much specificity as possible is critical to a successful deal. The issue of financing: All of this has to be paid for.”

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 Targets Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations

August 20, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Tuesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took another step to make good on the Obama administration’s pledge to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26–28 percent by 2025 by proposing the first methane emissions rules for the nation’s oil and gas industry.

Reducing emissions of methane, which have 25 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide, is a central component of the administration’s overall climate strategy. The administration’s goal is to cut methane emissions 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The EPA expects to release its final methane rules next year, after it hears public comments.

“Today, through our cost-effective proposed standards, we are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement. “Cleaner-burning energy sources like natural gas are key compliance options for our Clean Power Plan and we are committed to ensuring safe and responsible production that supports a robust clean energy economy.”

The rules target new and modified oil and natural gas operations, but as Greenwire reports, they could eventually trigger regulation of methane leakage from the entire sector (subscription). The proposed rules call for oil and gas processing and transmission facilities to locate and repair methane leaks, capture natural gas from hydraulically fractured oil wells, and limit emissions from equipment—actions netting climate benefits of $120 to $150 million in 2025, according to the EPA.

As they are now, the proposed rules could achieve a cut of 25 to 30 percent by 2025, according to Janet McCabe, acting assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation. To meet the full 40–45 percent goal, the administration expects to rely on voluntary efforts, state regulations and a Department of the Interior rule covering drilling on public lands.

The rules supplement recently announced voluntary initiatives to address methane emissions at existing wells—emissions that may be greater than the EPA estimates according to new research.

A study conducted by scientists at Colorado State University and published in Environmental Science & Technology, quantifies emissions from thousands of gathering facilities, which consolidate gas from wells and feed it into processing plants or pipelines. These emissions have been largely unreflected in federal statistics, the report says, but may be the largest methane source in the oil and gas supply chain. These newly identified emissions would increase total emissions from that chain in EPA’s current Greenhouse Gas Inventory by approximately 25 percent.

Climate Action Declaration

Muslim scholars from 20 countries issued an “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change” on Tuesday, calling on the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to work to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and to commit to renewable energy sources.

The declaration drawing on Islamic teachings and to be presented at the global climate summit in Paris was finalized at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul this week.

“The pace of global climate change today is of a different order of magnitude from the gradual changes that previously occurred throughout the most recent era, the Cenozoic,” the declaration reads. “Moreover, it is human-induced: we have now become a force dominating nature. Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger [of] ending life as we know it on our planet.”

The declaration asks Muslim countries, particularly those that are “well-off” and “oil-producing,” to lead the greenhouse gas phase out and to provide financial and technical support for climate change efforts by less-affluent states.

Alaska and Climate Change

Climate change could exacerbate one of Alaska’s worst wildfire seasons—one that has burned some 5 million acres of tundra and forests and ignited fears that large stores of carbon are being emitted into the atmosphere.

“We really need to start considering the long-term implications of big fires that are being predicted,” said Nicky Sundt, a climate change expert for the World Wildlife Fund. “In the Arctic, you have a lot of carbon locked up, and the fires will release that. We need to start thinking seriously about the carbon emissions from these fires.”

A recent Climate Central analysis shows that in the last 60 years large wildfires in Alaska have essentially doubled and that the wildfire season is 40 percent (35 days) longer than it was in the 1950s, mainly due to rapid warming in the globe’s northern reaches.

“The primary driver is temperature. The warmer we get, the more fires we seem to get,” Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire expert at the University of Alberta, said. “We need a 15 percent increase in precipitation to account for the warming. Very few climate models suggest there will be an increase in precipitation to compensate for the increase in temperature. The fuels will be drier in the future and it will be easy to start the spread of fire.”

Of particular concern—drying of peat, which then becomes susceptible to burning and release of centuries’ worth of carbon in the span of a few hours of intense fire. Teresa Hollingsworth, a researcher and ecology professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told NPR that many of the state’s fires burned seven feet deep, where vast amounts of carbon are stored.

“The carbon released from fire emissions during a large fire year in Alaska is roughly equivalent to 1 percent of the global fossil fuel and land use emissions,” said Dave McGuire, a research scientist and leader of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, in a recent press release.

Obama is visiting the state at the end of this month to highlight climate change impacts that go beyond fires.

“In Alaska, glaciers are melting,” Obama said in a video released last week. “The hunting and fishing upon which generations have depended for their way of life and for their jobs are being threatened. Storm surges once held at bay now endanger entire villages. As Alaskan permafrost melts, some homes are even sinking into the ground. The state’s God-given natural treasures are all at risk.”

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.

Final Clean Power Plan More Ambitious, Flexible

August 6, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Monday, President Obama announced the release of the final Clean Power Plan (CPP), which sets mandatory limits on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the nation’s fleet of existing power plants may emit. The rule is projected to reduce emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change. We’re the last generation that can do something about it,” Obama said, noting that power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution, a key contributor to climate change. “Until now, there have been no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution plants dump in the air.”

Some Plan Particulars

The complicated and controversial 1561-page rule was developed by the Obama administration using existing authority under the Clean Air Act—specifically, section 111(d). The plan, according to a Washington Post op-ed, “is about as flexible as possible,” because it allows each state to come up with its own compliance program to meet the federal standards.

In broad strokes, the plan is designed to accelerate an already-underway shift from coal-fired electricity to cleaner natural gas and renewables, along with increased energy efficiency, by requiring existing power plants to meet specific carbon dioxide emissions reduction guidelines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated the targets based on a “best system of emissions reduction” comprised of three building blocks: making existing coal plants more efficient; shifting generation from coal to gas plants; and increasing generation from renewables.

Once the targets are set, however, states do not have to use the building blocks as a framework for their plans, and have been given a range of market-based, flexible mechanisms to reach their state targets.  In fact, emulating the flexibility afforded power plants under the market-based program devised in 1990 to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, the CPP allows states to create “trading-ready” plans that will allow affected plants to sell emissions credits or to buy credits, if that’s a less expensive option than taking other actions. Parallel compliance approaches remove the need for formal interstate trading agreements, an approach described in one of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ recent policy briefs. Also facilitating trading are new state goals reflecting uniform national emissions rate standards for fossil steam (coal and oil) and natural gas power plants, respectively, reports ClimateWire (subscription).

The centerpiece of the Obama administration’s push to slash U.S. carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the final CPP was timed to build momentum toward the start of international climate talks in Paris in November. Lord Nicholas Stern, a prominent economist in the U.K., said the rule’s release will “set a powerful example for the rest of the world,” and will reinforce the credibility of the U.S. commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions as a new international agreement on climate change is being finalized.

Significant Changes from the Proposal

Changes to the final plan were expected, given some 4 million comments on the proposed plan, and the plan did not disappoint. One big change, according to Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe, is based on the assumption that renewable energy and regional approaches have even greater capacity for helping the power sector reduce emissions than reflected in the draft proposal (subscription). Consequently, the final plan will cut power plant carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 30 percent target in the proposed rule.

The final rule also axed what the draft proposal referred to as Building Block 4, a criterion for achieving emissions reductions through programs that improve electricity consumers’ energy efficiency, as a means of calculating the state targets. Although these efficiency standards and under-construction nuclear plants were left out of the criteria for setting state goals under the plan, both are still available as compliance options.

The plan also includes a Clean Energy Incentive Program that rewards states for investing early (2020–2021) in renewable energy, specifically solar and wind power as well as demand side energy efficiency in low-income communities. Details of the incentive scheme are yet to be worked out, but the final rule goals do now expect renewable energy sources to account for 28 percent of the nation’s capacity by 2030—up from 22 percent in the proposal (subscription). The aim, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is to incentivize renewable energy, which will lessen the reliance on natural gas as a replacement for coal power as the dominant compliance strategy.

Many other changes were anticipated in the Nicholas Institute’s most recent policy brief, including:

  • Additional time—an two extra years (to 2022)—for states to submit plans and begin cutting emissions;
  • Easing of the interim goals “glide path,” which states can now craft for themselves; and
  • New state mass emissions targets. These targets, based on states’ energy mixes and a uniform emissions rate for plants that use the same technology but no longer on demand-side energy efficiency, are less disparate than and also vastly different from those in the proposal. They also allow states to choose whether to use one target that includes the emissions from new natural gas units or another target that excludes these units (but still provides mechanisms to ensure that emissions cannot increase through new units).

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 Make Predictions of How to Comply, What to Look for in Final Clean Power Plan

July 30, 2015
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) is slated to release the final version of its Clean Power Plan, regulating emissions from existing power plants, any day now. Many are already predicting changes, some that could be significant.

A survey by E&E publishing revealed stakeholders expect timing to be the element most likely to change in the final rule (subscription). The Washington Post, citing sources familiar with plans, reports the agency will give states an additional two years—until 2022—to begin implementing pollution cuts.

A new policy brief by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions highlights 11 elements we’ll be watching for. The top three, according to co-author and Climate and Energy Program director Jonas Monast: “I think that the top three issues are did the state targets change, and if so that means that the formula for calculating the state targets changed. Another point that I’ll be looking for is the timing … so when do the states have to submit the plans and when do utilities actually have to start taking action. And then the final, does EPA say more about the potential for using market-based mechanisms under the Clean Power Plan, and how?”

One more—guidance on multistate trading options. A number of organizations have explored options for multi-state trading of emissions credits without formal multistate agreements (subscription). Under a “common elements” or “trading-ready” approach, states could use similarly defined tradable emissions credits and common or linked tracking systems to ease the trade of emissions credits across state boundaries. Expanded emissions markets would increase gains from trade. The final rule may provide guidance on incorporating common elements into state compliance plans, and it may also indicate that the EPA will develop a tracking system to facilitate intrastate and interstate Clean Power Plan credit markets.

Another new study, out this week, suggests regional compliance may be the most cost-effective approach for states to comply with the rule. The Southwestern Power Pool study found under the EPA’s June 2014 draft plan, state-by-state compliance would cost 40 percent more than a regional approach.

“Our analysis affirmed that a state-by-state compliance approach would be more expensive to administer than a regional approach,” said Lanny Nickell, vice president of engineering for SPP, in a news release. “A state-by-state solution also would be more disruptive than a regional approach to the significant reliability and economic value that SPP provides to its members as a regional transmission organization.”

According to a newly released Synapse Energy Economics study, states that focus compliance efforts on expanding carbon-free energy production and energy efficiency programs will reap big savings. The largest savings, it says, will be seen by states that take these renewable energy steps early on.

Court Grants the EPA Partial CASPR Victory

The U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia, on Tuesday, upheld an EPA regulation, originally challenged by states and industry, to restrict power plant emissions that cross state lines. The ruling did find the EPA erred in its 2014 budgets for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and called for the agency to rework them.

Although the 2011 rule—known as Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR)—remains intact, Judge Brett Kavanaugh said the court expects the agency to “move promptly” and not “drag its feet” in coming up with new budgets. Kavanaugh wrote that EPA’s budgets “have required states to reduce pollutants beyond the point necessary” to achieve air quality improvements in downwind areas (subscription).

The EPA, in a statement released by spokeswoman Melissa Harrison, said “The agency remains committed to working with states and the power sector as we move forward to implement the rule. We are reviewing the decision and will determine any appropriate further course of action once our review is complete.”

CASPR has faced many challenges. The Supreme Court upheld the rule, which aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that can lead to soot and smog in 28 states, in May 2014. The rule was invalidated by a federal appellate court in August 2012 after it was challenged by a group of upwind states and industry because it enforced pollution controls primarily on coal plants.

Climate Change Undermines Coral Reefs’ Protective Effect on Coasts

Climate change decreases coral reefs’ capacity to protect coasts against wave action and resulting hazards according to a new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. That reduced capacity could make low-lying coral islands and atolls—home to some 30 million people—uninhabitable.

The study by researchers from Dutch institute for applied research Deltares and the U.S. Geological Survey finds that sea level rise and coral reef decay will lessen reefs’ dissipation of wave energy, leading to flooding, erosion, and salination of drinking water resources.

The study authors used Xbeach, an open-source wave model, to understand the effects of higher sea levels and smoother coral as it degrades. Their results suggest that wave runup and thus flooding potential is highest for those coasts fronted by narrow reefs with steep faces and deeper, smoother reef flats.

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.

McCarthy: Clean Power Plan on Track; Challenges Expected

July 9, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) will have no effect on the proposed Clean Power Plan, according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“EPA is still committed to finalizing the Clean Power Plan,” McCarthy said. “Making a connection between the Mercury Air Toxics Standards decision and the Clean Power Plan is comparing apples and oranges. Last week’s ruling will not affect our efforts. We are still on track to produce that plan this summer and it will cut carbon pollution that is fueling climate change from power plants.”

Although both the MATS rule and the Clean Power Plan deal with air protections, McCarthy noted that the Supreme Court’s MATS ruling was narrowly tailored to a specific aspect of that rule—whether regulation of mercury emissions from the power sector was “appropriate or necessary.” The proposed Clean Power Plan—slated to be finalized this summer—would limit emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act by giving states flexibility in how they can meet interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final emissions rate limit. Bills to scale back the proposed rule as well as court challenges have already surfaced. McCarthy said others were imminent.

“The Clean Power Plan will absolutely be litigated,” she said. “We actually are very good at writing rules and defending them, and this will be no exception.”

Climate Change Commitments Ahead of Paris

New Zealand is the latest country to announce an emissions reduction target ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year. Minister for Climate Change Issues Tim Groser said the country is aiming for a 30 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030—a target hedged with multiple conditions, including unrestricted access to global carbon markets. But while national pledges command attention, many cities are pursuing their own climate change initiatives.

More than 75 of the world’s biggest cities have formed the C40 group, pledging substantial emissions reductions in the next three decades. And more than 6,000 European cities have signed the Covenant of Mayors, a voluntary commitment to make emissions reductions greater and faster than European Union (EU) climate targets. These municipal climate action plans call for, on average, a 28 percent cut in CO2 emissions by 2020, 8 percent more than the 2020 EU target.

Such plans will be critical because national pledges will be insufficient to avoid the most devastating effects of global warming, according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The group, made up of former heads of state, finance ministers, and banking executives chaired by former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, argues that city governments and the private sector have a substantive role to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In its just-released New Climate Economy report, the commission says the remainder of the needed reductions can be found by taking steps to halt deforestation and carrying out actions at a local level. Among its 10 recommendations: cities, which generate 71–76 percent of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions, must make low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure investments.

“Low-carbon cities represent a US$17 trillion economic opportunity,” said C40 Chair and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, adding that by scaling up municipal best practices such as traffic- and pollution-reducing mobility systems “cities can accelerate global climate action and help close the emissions gap.” 

OMB Issues Federal Facilities Climate Change Directive

The White House has revised its model for defining the social cost of carbon (SCC)—a measure of the economic damage caused by planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions—and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said it will—for the first time—require federal agencies to consider the effects of climate change on federal facility construction and maintenance budgets in fiscal year 2017.

The new SCC model—which lowers the estimate from $37 to $36 per metric ton—reflects minor technical revisions following 150 substantive public comments that took 15 months to process, according to a blog post by Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Howard Shelanski and Council of Economic Advisers member Maurice Obstfeld, who described the SCC as “a tool that helps Federal agencies decide which carbon-reducing regulatory approaches make the most sense—to know which come at too great a cost and which are a good deal for society.”

“OMB is asking all federal agencies to consider climate preparedness and resiliency objectives as part of their Fiscal Year 2017 budget requests for construction and maintenance of Federal facilities,” wrote Ali Zaidi, OMB’s associate director for Natural Resources, Energy and Science, in a blog post. “We are making it very clear that this is a priority in proposals for capital funding. Why? Because making our Federal facility investments climate-smart reduces our fiscal exposure to the impacts of climate change.”

The SCC, which has appeared in a carbon tax bill proposed by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz, has raised the ire of Capitol Hill Republicans, who say the executive branch has used it to justify the cost of rules such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. The idea that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions impose a social cost might revive discussion in the United States of a carbon tax or free-market credit system to control those emissions, according to the Fiscal Times.

Although the timing of future SCC estimate updates is unclear, they will reflect input from the National Academies of Science and be subject to an open process that reflects “the best available science and economics,” the White House 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.

SCOTUS Overturns Mercury Rule

July 2, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, ruled that the Clean Air Act required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider the costs of its Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector.

The MATS rule requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies. The EPA estimated MATS would cost industry about $9.6 billion a year but cut coal and oil emissions by 90 percent and generate $37 billion in savings through “co-benefits.” Because these benefits are calculated on the basis of increased life expectancies and reduced health effects, the values have been subject to much of the debate.

“It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority. “Statutory context supports this reading.”

The Supreme Court did not dictate how the agency should address its ruling. It sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit for reconsideration of the rulemaking.

“EPA is disappointed that the court did not uphold the rule, but this rule was issued more than three years ago, investments have been made and most plants are already well on their way to compliance,” said EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison, noting the agency is reviewing the ruling.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast notes that the immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s decision will likely be limited because electric utilities have already taken steps to comply with the regulation.

World’s Top Emitters Announce Climate Pledges

Three of the world’s 10 largest emitters of greenhouse gases—Brazil, China and the United States—announced new climate change commitments.

China made its intended nationally determined contribution to the United Nations, which calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60–65 percent from 2005 levels and obtain 20 percent of its energy from low-carbon sources in 2030 (11.2 percent now comes from such sources).

“China’s carbon dioxide emission will peak by around 2030 and China will work hard to achieve the target at an even earlier date,” said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

In a joint statement, the United States and Brazil pledged to source 20 percent of their electricity from non-hydropower renewable sources by 2030. Brazil also committed to restore a swath of forest 46,332 square miles—roughly the size of England—through policies that aim to tackle deforestation.

The commitments come just months before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where countries will work toward a global climate agreement. Brian Deese, senior White House climate adviser, said the announcement by the United States and Brazil “substantially elevates and builds” on climate progress and “should provide momentum moving into our shared objective of getting an agreement in Paris later this year.”

Alberta Doubles Carbon Fee, Moves on Climate-Policy Review

The Canadian province of Alberta last week announced it would double its carbon fee—the first to be levied by a North American jurisdiction—from C$15 to C$30 a metric ton and increase its emissions intensity reductions target from 12 to 20 percent by 2017 in an effort to curb greenhouse gases from industrial facilities, coal plants and oil-sands production. The government, which will also begin a climate-policy review to prepare recommendations ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year, has said the province needs to be a leader in climate policy in order to support the oil-sands industry, long criticized for its environmental impact.

“If Alberta wants better access to world markets, then we’re going to need to do our part to address one of the world’s biggest problems, which is climate change,” said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips in announcing the news.

The carbon fee is levied on industrial facilities emitting more than 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year for emissions that exceed a facility’s emission intensity target. The levy was introduced in 2008, Alberta has collected fee revenues of $578 million, which it has put into a technology fund for initiatives that reduce emissions. Those 103 facilities have the option of reducing their emissions intensity, buying Alberta-based offsets to meet the intensity targets, or paying into that fund.

While Alberta’s fee is in support of an emissions intensity target rather than on total emissions, neighboring province British Columbia levies a broad-based carbon tax on emissions from most major sources and uses those tax revenues to largely fund tax cuts. A recent Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions-University of Ottawa analysis of that tax found that it was reducing emissions with little net impact, either negative or positive, on provincial economic performance.

The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) welcomed the news that Alberta would extend its carbon fee measure, officially the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, to December 31, 2017, the date on which Ontario will likely launch its emissions-trading market, “which is intended to link with those of California and Quebec,” according to IETA.

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.

Inaction on Climate Change Has Dismal Consequences

June 25, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The White House and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new peer-reviewed report saying inaction on climate change is a dire threat to human health and the economy. It specifically estimates the physical monetary paybacks across 20 sectors of the United States by year 2100 if world leaders successfully limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Among its findings: agricultural losses could be reduced by as much as $11 billion, there could be as many as 57,000 fewer deaths from poor air quality and as much as $110 billion in lost labor hours could be avoided. If nothing is done by 2100, the United States will see thousands of additional deaths annually related to extreme temperatures and poor air quality.

“The results are quite startling and very clear,” said Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy. “Left unchecked, climate change affects our health, infrastructure and the outdoors we love. But more importantly the report shows that global action on climate change will save lives.”

The Washington Post notes one major concern with the study—citing a recent International Energy Agency analysis—though several major new international commitments could move the world in the right direction, the planet is almost certainly not going to hit its 2 degree target.

The report follows the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical—acknowledging that climate change is largely caused by humans—sparking bipartisan reaction. A review of surveys by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University found the majority of Catholic Republicans agreed that global warming is happening.

EPA Clean Power Plan Under Fire

A White House official this week said the final version of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan would retain its ambitious 30 percent cut in emissions (subscription). Slated to be finalized in August, the rule would limit emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act by giving states flexibility in how they can meet interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final 2030 emissions rate limit.

Bills to scale back its intended benefits were the subject of House hearings this week. One in particular, the Ratepayer Protection Act—which Obama threatened to veto—was passed with a 247-180 vote by House Republicans Wednesday. It would pause implementation of the rule until all legal challenges have been settled. It also would allow states to opt out if the rule leads to rate increases. Manufacturers on Wednesday urged lawmakers to pass the bill. A letter from the National Association of Manufacturers noted that the “rule has the potential to substantially increase the costs of electricity for manufacturers and could threaten the reliability of the electric grid in many parts of the country.” But a report from Public Citizen suggests the Clean Power Plan will actually be beneficial to consumers and the economy generally.

2015 on Pace to Be Warmest Year on Record

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the Japanese Meteorological Agency last week reported that the first five months of this year are the hottest since recordkeeping began in 1880, putting 2015 on track to top 2014 as the warmest year on record.

In May, the combined land and ocean surface temperature was 1.57 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, 0.14 degrees above the previous record set in May 2014.

According to NOAA, record warm sea-surface temperatures in the northeast and equatorial Pacific Ocean as well as areas of the western North Atlantic Ocean and Barents Sea north of Scandinavia contributed to the anomalous heat so far in 2015.

“The oceans have been what’s really been driving the warmth that we’ve seen in the last year and a half to two years,” said Deke Arndt, head of climate monitoring at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Education. “We’ve seen really large warmth in all of the major ocean basins. So, if there’s anything unusual or weird, I guess, about what we’re seeing, it’s the fact that the entire global ocean is participating in this really extreme warmth that we’ve seen in the last couple years.”

The current El Niño event could help keep temperatures at record or near-record levels for the remainder of the year, but climate scientists are cautious about saying whether 2015 will definitely be a record breaker for heat.

“We expect that we are going to get more warm years, and just as with 2014, records will be broken increasingly in the future. But perhaps not every year,” said Gavin Schmidt, who leads NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

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.

Federal Court Finds Challenges to Clean Power Plan Premature

June 11, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, which would limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act, came too early, according to a panel of federal judges.

“Petitioners are champing at the bit to challenge EPA’s anticipated rule restricting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants,” wrote Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the court opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “But EPA has not yet issued a final rule. It has issued only a proposed rule. Petitioners nonetheless ask the court to jump into the fray now. They want us to do something that they candidly acknowledge we have never done before: review the legality of a proposed rule. But a proposed rule is just a proposal. In justiciable cases, this court has authority to review the legality of final agency rules.”

The lawsuit from a group of states and Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp, claimed that the EPA exceeded its authority when it proposed the rule last year. Even though the rule isn’t slated to be final until August, the plaintiffs indicated they were facing steep costs to prepare for it.

The proposed rule sets state-specific emissions targets—interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final 2030 emissions rate limit—in order to cut heat-trapping emissions from existing power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

“We are obviously disappointed with the court’s ruling today, but we still think we have a compelling case that the rule is unlawful,” said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who led the states’ challenge to the pending rule. “As the court recognized, the rule will be final very soon, and we look forward to continuing to press the issue.”

G7 Summit Leaders Agree to Phase out Fossil Fuels; Deal in Bonn

G7 Countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom—have reached a non-binding agreement to cut carbon dioxide emissions of 40–70 percent of 2010 levels by mid-century. This agreement backs earlier recommendations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“We commit to rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption,” G7 officials said in a statement. “As we do that, we recognize the importance of providing those in need with essential energy services, including through the use of targeted cash transfers and other appropriate mechanisms. This reform will not apply to our support for clean energy, renewables and technologies that dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The agreement also calls for G7 countries to help poorer countries develop with clean technologies and address risks from weather disasters as well as to intensify their support for vulnerable countries’ efforts to manage climate change. It is intended, in part, to build momentum ahead of the United Nations climate talks later this year in Paris, at which delegates hope to reach a global climate deal.

In Bonn, Germany, where delegates from nearly 200 countries have been working to pare down draft text for that deal, a partial agreement has been reached to slow deforestation and protect regions holding vast carbon stores. The agreement—covering aspects of the scheme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+)—resolves outstanding technical issues on the use of REDD+ and provides standardized rules for developing REDD finance. Other, larger policy details such as how finance will flow to those countries that keep forests intact will need to be resolved in Paris (subscription).

Global Warming Pause Refuted by NOAA Study

A new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published in Science refutes a global warming “hiatus” reported in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

“Adding in the last two years of global surface temperature data and other improvements in the quality of the observed record provide evidence that contradict the notion of a hiatus in recent global warming trends,” said Thomas R. Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, in a press release. “Our new analysis suggests that the apparent hiatus may have been largely the result of limitations in past datasets, and that the rate of warming over the first 15 years of this century has, in fact, been as fast or faster than that seen over the last half of the 20th century.”

In the Science study, authors replotted average annual surface temperatures since 1880, accounting for anomalies in temperature readings from ocean ships and buoys. The latter are given greater weight in the dataset because the number of buoys deployed in the world’s seas is far higher today than decades ago and because the accuracy of readings from them has increased over time.

“The fact that such small changes to the analysis make the difference between a hiatus or not merely underlines how fragile a concept it was in the first place,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, of the study (subscription).

A separate study published Monday in Nature Climate Change faulted IPCC scientists’ communication at the press conference announcing publication of Fifth Assessment Report, noting that to make anthropogenic global warming (AGW) more meaningful to the public the speakers emphasized the record warmth the world had experienced in the past decade yet dismissed the relevance of decadal time scales when journalists enquired about the similarly short pause in global temperature increase. The speakers thereby created uncertainty about what counts as scientific evidence for AGW.

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

New Analyses on Clean Power Plan Examine State Compliance Options

May 29, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Additional tools have been added to the resources intended to help states and regulators navigate compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, for which the rule is projected to be finalized in August. As proposed last summer, the plan regulates carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act, and gives states flexibility in how they can meet interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final 2030 emissions rate limit. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, this week, released a plan detailing how energy efficiency financing can help states meet Clean Power Plan goals. And the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA) released a “menu of options” for states to weigh emissions reductions strategies.

Developed by former air and energy regulators at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), the NACAA report considers the pros and cons of the 26 options it examines—including cap-and-trade systems, carbon dioxide taxes, electricity storage, smart grid applications and device-to-device communications—but does not rank them (subscription).

“We understand that each state has different needs and different interest and different politics and different experiences,” said Ken Colburn, a senior associate with RAP.

Another analysis by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions finds that with the right policy choices, compliance with the Clean Power Plan can be cost-effective for states. It outlines tradeoffs of three policy options: using state-specific, rate-based emissions goals, as laid out in the proposed plan versus converting that rate into a mass-based standard; identifying how trading emissions credits within state borders or with other states affect the cost of compliance with the rule; and determining whether to include under the rule new natural gas combined cycle units that produce electricity and capture their waste heat to increase efficiency (subscription).

“Our analysis shows how important it can be for states to exercise the flexibility afforded to them under the proposed rule,” said Brian Murray, director of the Environmental Economics Program at the Nicholas Institute. “None of the compliance options analyzed raise power sector costs more than a few percent nationally, but these costs could be cut in half or more with a mass-based system and interstate trading of credits like we’ve already seen in some regions of the U.S.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis suggests that the proposed Clean Power Plan could put carbon dioxide emissions at about 1,500 million metric tons per year by 2025—roughly what they were in 1980. The EIA analysis points to a reduction in coal-fired generation and increase in natural gas-fired generation as the predominant compliance strategy as implementation begins; renewables play a bigger role starting in the mid-2020s, and demand-side energy efficiency plays a “moderate” role in compliance. The federal government’s energy statisticians find that the plan would raise electricity prices 4.9 percent above their current trajectory by 2020 (subscription).

Study: Roughly 5,500 Glaciers Could Disappear

Over the course of this century, Mount Everest could see major losses as the result of climate change, according to a new study in the journal The Cryosphere.

“The worst-case scenario shows 99 percent loss in glacial mass … but even if we start to slow down emissions somewhat, we may still see a 70 percent reduction,” said Joseph Shea, lead author with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal.

Researchers used previous measurements of glaciers in a region of the Himalayan mountain range that is home to Mount Everest as well as climate change scenarios based on emissions pathways used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to analyze how glaciers have changed and may continue to change as future global temperatures rise. The authors notethat melt isn’t just the result of rising temperatures—there’s a trend of overall warming “raising the elevation of the freezing level, which has two secondary effects: the area exposed to melt will increase, and the amount of snow accumulation will decrease.”

EPA Issues New Air Pollution Rule

The EPA has issued a new regulation to reduce air pollution emissions during power plant startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM)—emissions that may adversely affect the health of people in neighboring and downwind communities. The agency clarifies the SSM policy is consistent with the Clean Air Act and recent court decisions.

“The called-for changes to state plans will provide necessary environmental protection and will give industry and the public more certainty about requirements that apply during these periods,” the EPA said in a statement. The rule also directs 36 states to submit state implementation plans by November 2016.

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.

Organizations Develop Tools to Help States Comply with EPA’s Clean Power Plan

May 14, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The same week Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.) introduced a new bill pushing back on implementation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, organizations released tools to help states and regulators navigate compliance with the resulting rule, set to be finalized this summer.

The rule uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets for carbon dioxide and to allow states to devise individual or joint plans to meet those targets. One tool—the Multistate Coordination Resources for Clean Power Plan Compliance—developed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Eastern Interconnection States Planning Council looks to build on the flexibility the proposed rule gives states to meet their interim and final emissions reduction goals. The document is aimed at helping states overcome institutional barriers to coordination of rule compliance efforts (subscription). The guide includes a multistate planning checklist, a legislative language examples checklist and a sample memorandum of understanding for multistate coordination.

“A range of interactions is possible, from simple awareness of each others’ plans to the transfer of emissions reductions between states that have individual-state plans and targets (not a multi-state plan to meet a joint target) when states have ‘common elements’ in their compliance plan,” the guide notes.

The common elements concept was developed at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and is an idea I spoke about last month at the Navigating American Carbon World conference in California. In a nutshell, power plant owners can transfer low-cost emissions reductions between states whose compliance plans share common elements—credits defined in the same way and mechanisms to protect against double counting. This approach builds on existing state and federal trading programs while maintaining the traditional roles of state energy and environmental regulators.

Still another tool—a calculator—arms state air quality agencies with the data to estimate carbon emissions savings from state adoption and enforcement of stringent building energy codes in state compliance plans under the proposed EPA rule.

“Because energy savings from stronger building energy codes put thousands in the wallets of home and commercial building owners, and improve building quality, comfort, and resale value, state officials should be adopting them simply to benefit their residents,” said William Fay, executive director of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition. “But because buildings use 71 percent of America’s electricity, 54 percent of our natural gas, and 42 percent of all energy, improving their efficiency has profound potential benefits to national energy policy as well.”

Oil Drilling Conditionally Approved in Artic Waters

Shell is once again set to take up oil drilling in American Arctic waters after winning approval from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which said it had accepted the company’s plan to drill up to six wells in the Chukchi Sea after concluding that the operations “would not cause any significant impacts” to the environment, residents, or animals. As part of the conditional approval, Shell must first obtain permits from the federal government and the state of Alaska.

Seasonal conditions in the Arctic mean that drilling can typically occur only over a four-month period, but a reduction of the ice due to climate change could ignite Arctic drilling aspirations. For many in industry, the news was welcome.

“The Chukchi Sea is widely seen as one of the last great unexplored conventional oil basins,” said Alison Wolters, an analyst with Wood MacKenzie’s Alaska and Gulf of Mexico programs. “A positive discovery this season would encourage the other operators to reconsider the region.”

Announcement of the news spurred environmental groups to express concern about Shell’s mishap-filled 2012 Arctic drilling season and about new operations in the harsh region, which has little capacity for emergency response but in which federal scientists believe some 15 million barrels of oil may be held.

On the heels of the BOEM’s greenlighting of renewed oil drilling in the Arctic, Christiana Figueres, who leads the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, noted that achieving net-zero emissions by 2100 means that many oil and gas reserves must remain untapped (subscription).

“We have absolutely no opinion about what governments do with companies that operate within their geographic boundaries,” she said. “But there is an increasing amount of analysis that points to the fact that we will have to keep the great majority of fossil fuels underground.”

Report: Oil Price Drop Could Hurt Global Economy

A new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate finds that the recent drop in oil and natural gas prices—although providing temporary relief for consumers—may compel governments to authorize projects that use expensive carbon-intensive fuels. In fact, the Oil Prices and the New Climate Economy report suggests that governments should take advantage of low prices to reduce dependency and reform fossil fuel subsidies (subscription).

“For years, we’ve had a market failure by not taxing carbon and air pollution nearly enough,” said Lord Stern, co-author and a prominent climate economist. “That is subsidizing hydrocarbons in my book. When oil prices fall, it is a wise time to change it and that will also help protect us against energy price volatility in the future.”

The report notes that renewable energy sources—including solar and wind—have little to no operating cost after installation and suggests their use can lock in the cost of energy for two or more decades.

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.