Optimism at UN Climate Change Conference

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

At the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference twentieth Conference of the Parties, known as COP20, in Lima, Peru, delegates from more than 190 nations are hashing out details of an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and curb permanent damage caused by global warming. Those details will set the stage for next December’s UN meeting in Paris, where negotiators are aiming to finalize a global climate change deal.

Diplomats and longtime observers of the talks say there is rising optimism that negotiators will secure a deal committing all countries to take action against climate change. “I have never felt as optimistic as I have now,” said Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, which are sinking as sea levels rise in the Pacific. “There is an upbeat feeling on the part of everyone that first of all there is an opportunity here and that secondly, we cannot miss it.”

What’s driving the momentum?

Last month, the United States and China, the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, announced an agreement to slash their emissions. In October, the European Union pledged to reduce its emissions 40 percent, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030. And, the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries address climate change, is on track to meet its ten-billion-dollar initial target.

However, researchers note that drastic cuts are needed to achieve the overall goal of the international community: limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Meeting that goal means emissions must be slashed 40 to 70 percent by 2050.

“We’re in far better shape a year ahead of Paris than at any stage leading up to Copenhagen,” where world leaders tried but failed to reach a climate deal in 2009, says Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

EPA Closes Public Comment Period on Proposed Clean Power Plan

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially closed the public comment period on its proposed Clean Power Plan (CPP), having collected more than 1.6 million comments from legislators, industry, environmental advocates and the general public.

The EPA had extended the comment period by 45 days, to December 1, to give the public additional time to understand and analyze the plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants across the country by approximately 30 percent by 2030.

“We’ve heard that the carbon reductions targets we proposed are too tough and we’ve heard that they’re not tough enough,” said EPA Air and Radiation Administrator Janet McCabe in an official EPA blog. “What we know for sure is that people care about this issue and we know we have a lot to consider as we work toward a final rule.”

Particularly contentious are the CPP’s state-specific emissions goals. According to the Edison Electric Institute, the association representing all U.S. investor-owned utilities, and other industry leadership, the goals could cause power companies to install costly upgrades that would diminish electricity affordability. Meanwhile, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council say that falling solar and wind power prices and advancements in efficiency standards could allow the EPA to require steeper emissions cuts sooner—by 2020.

The EPA is scheduled to finalize the proposed rule by June 2015.

Mapping Low-Carbon Investments in the United States 

A recent report issued by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) says the United States can use existing or soon-to-be-available technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050—the trajectory on which the recent U.S. agreement with China would put the country, according to Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern.

According to the DDPP report, decarbonization in the United States requires three key strategies:

  • Boosting energy efficiency in buildings, cars and industrial facilities
  • Cutting the carbon from electricity and other fuels
  • Swapping high-carbon fuels with low-carbon alternatives

“If you bet on America’s ability to develop and commercialize new technologies, then the net cost of transforming the energy system could be very low, even negative, when you take fuel savings into account,” said Jim Williams, chief scientist at San Francisco-based consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc. and the report’s lead author.

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lower Oil Prices Have Multiple Effects

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

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

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

UCS: EPA Clean Power Plan Could Use Tweaks

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

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

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

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


Studies Link Climate Change to Recent Extreme Weather Events

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emissions from Industrial Facilities Rose Last Year

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

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

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

IEA Says Solar Could Become Dominate Energy Source by 2050

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Announces New Solar Efficiency Measures

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

Among the measures:

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

The Transition to Clean Energy

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Court Ruling Could Affect Nation’s Electric Grid

August 21, 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.

A unanimous ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit could change the way utilities and regulators consider electricity transmission and open pathways for new renewable energy facilities.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Order 1000 rule, issued in 2011, requires participation by public utility transmission providers in regional planning processes, establishes methods to clarify who will pay for new transmission projects, and includes procedures to consider the effects of energy-related policies on the grid. In the lawsuit petitioners challenged FERC’s authority to adopt these reforms and whether they are supported by sufficient evidence

In its decision, a three-judge panel upheld Order 1000 and explained that “The Commission reasonably determined that regional planning must include consideration of transmission needs driven by public policy requirements.” The decision noted that “The Commission expects that many states will require construction of new transmission infrastructure to integrate sources of renewable energy, such as wind farms, into the grid and that new federal environmental regulations will shape utilities’ decisions about when to retire old coal-based generators. Plans that fail to account for such laws and regulations, the Commissioned reasoned, would not adequately reflect future needs.”

Some experts viewed the ruling as “progress”; others felt the decision sets the stage for future appeals.

Report Analyzes Wind Power Trends

A new report by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory highlights trends in the wind industry during 2013. It found that the wind industry remains strong in the United States, which ranked second only to China in installed wind power. The United States, however, represented only 3 percent of global wind additions in 2013.

Other key findings from the report:

  • Wind power purchase agreement prices reached all-time lows in the United States in 2013 thanks to 20–40 percent lower wind turbine prices (compared to 2008) and lower installed project costs, which are down more than $600/kW from 2009 and 2010 levels. The average price stream of wind power purchase agreements executed last year ($25 per megawatt hour) compares favorably with a range of projections of the fuel costs of gas-fired generation extending into 2040.
  • New wind installations are expected to increase in 2014 and 2015. Projections for 2016 and beyond are less certain.
  • A growing percentage of equipment used in U.S. wind projects is sourced domestically.

Arctic Drilling Subject of Interagency Review

No current regulations specifically govern Arctic oil development, but a draft proposal on drilling safety rules by the U.S. Department of Interior made its way to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review Friday.

Details of the proposal remain undisclosed. According to the OMB website, the rules are designed to “promote safe, responsible, and effective drilling activities … while also ensuring the protection of Alaska’s coastal communities and marine environment.”

Some speculate the rules—which may be under review for months—could require oil companies to obtain leak containment equipment before beginning drilling activities. Federal rules may not be in place before Shell resumes a three-year break from drilling in the region.

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.


White House Announces New Climate Change Initiatives

July 17, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The White House on Wednesday announced executive actions to help states and communities build their resilience to more intense storms, high heat, sea level rise, and other effects of climate change. The actions, which involve several federal agencies, were among the recommendations by the president’s State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

“…Climate change poses a direct threat to the infrastructure of America that we need to stay competitive in this 21st century economy,” said President Obama. “We’re going to do more, including new 3D maps to help state, local officials in communities understand which areas and which infrastructure are at risk as a consequence of climate change. We’re going to help communities improve their electric grids, build stronger seawalls and natural barriers, and protect their water supplies. We’re also going to invest in stronger more resilient infrastructure.”

The National Journal runs down the individual efforts by agency, which include a more than $236 million award to fund eight states’ efforts to improve rural electric infrastructure and a new guide by the Centers for Disease Control that will help local public health departments assess their area’s vulnerabilities to health hazards associated with climate change.

States Focus of Work after EPA’s Proposed Power Plant Rule

More than a month after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposed rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants, a new study says states are well positioned to handle the rule’s requirements.

The rule, which uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets and devise individual or joint state plans to meet those targets, has garnered some negative reactions. But the study conducted by the Analysis Group sees real benefits. The research examined states that have already taken steps toward reducing power plant emissions and found that if states design programs effectively, electricity rate increases will be modest in the near term, and electric bills will fall in the long term.

“Several states have already put a price on carbon dioxide pollution, and their economies are doing fine,” said Susan Tierney, senior adviser of the Analysis Group. “The bottom line: the economy can handle—and actually benefit from—these rules.”

States that work together to form carbon markets and other collaborative initiatives could experience even greater rewards, according to the Analysis Group.

“Experience shows that states that work together on market-based compliance initiatives—like RGGI [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] in the Northeast—can provide net economic benefits in terms of jobs and economic output,” said study co-author Paul Hibbard. “And RGGI shows that each state can have control over its own program design, so that combined efforts don’t step on states’ rights.”

Earlier this week environmental attorneys and representatives from states, industry, and NGOs gathered to discuss the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan—specifically state choices under and the potential impacts of the proposal—at an event hosted by the Environmental Law Institute and Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Keynote speaker and U.S. EPA Senior Counsel Joseph Goffman highlighted three aspects of the rule: the EPA developed state emission goals based emission reduction strategies already being used by states, the proposal allows each state maximum flexibility to optimize strategies given local considerations, and state flexibility with the timing of implementation allows the coordination of compliance strategies with other dynamics in the energy sector.

Mountaintop Removal Focus of Court Case, Study

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ruled in favor of the EPA’s permitting process for mountaintop mining, a controversial practice to extract coal by way of clear cutting trees and removing mountain tops with explosives. The ruling overturned a decision by a lower court that found the EPA did not have authority to require mountaintop removal coal permits to go through an enhanced review process to crack down on water contamination from mining operations.

In 2009 the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers adopted the Enhanced Coordination Process, allowing the EPA to screen and review individual mining permits submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act. By 2011, the EPA recommended states impose more stringent conditions for issuing permits under the act—issuing a final guidance document relating to these permits.

“In our view, EPA and the Corps acted within their statutory authority when they adopted the Enhanced Coordination Process,” wrote Judge Brett Kavanaugh (subscription). “And under our precedents, the Final Guidance is not final agency action reviewable by the courts at this time.”

A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey finds that mountaintop removal mining negatively affects downstream fish populations.

Researchers compared samples collected from nearby bodies of water in 2010 and 2011 to samples collected by Penn State University researchers in 1999 and 2001. They found that mountaintop mining creates landscape changes, including changes in water flow that have significant impacts on fish.

“We’re seeing significant reductions in the number of fish species and total abundance of fish downstream from mining operations,” said Nathaniel Hitt, a study co-author.

Solar on the Rise in the U.S.

Solar power is becoming a vital part of the American economy, according to a report from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC).

“Solar markets are booming in the United States due to falling photovoltaic (PV) prices, strong consumer demand, available financing, renewable portfolio standards (RPSs), and financial incentives from the federal government, states and utilities,” said Larry Sherwood, vice president and COO of the IREC. “Thirty-four percent more PV capacity was installed in 2013 than the year before accounting for 31 percent of all U.S. electric power installations completed in 2013.”

The report, produced annually, highlights major factors affecting the solar market and ranks the top 10 states in several categories.

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.