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.


Recent Studies Provide Examples of Emissions Trading Successes, Failures

August 27, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The emissions trading program in the northeastern United States—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—is responsible for about half the region’s emissions reductions—an amount far greater than reductions achieved in the rest of the country.

The study in the journal Energy Economics determined that even when controlling for other factors—the natural gas boom, the recession, and environmental regulations—emissions would have been 24 percent higher in participating states without RGGI (subscription). RGGI, the first market-based regulatory program in the United States, is a cooperative effort among states to create a “cap” that sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector—a cap lowered over time to reduce emissions. Power plants that can’t stay under the cap must purchase credits or “emissions allowances” from others that can.

“While the study focused on the northeastern states and the RGGI program specifically, the findings suggest that emissions trading could be a cost-effective strategy for states now considering how to comply with EPA’s recently issued regulations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide from power plants,” said Brian Murray, lead author and director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

A separate study in the journal Nature Climate Change found significant misuse of a key carbon offsetting scheme after several factories increased their production of industrial waste products—spiking emissions. It suggests that a loophole in the United Nation’s carbon market may have led to “perverse incentives” for some industrial plants to increase emissions so they could then make money by reducing them.

A companion study indicates that the majority of credits from Russia and Ukraine were a sham and that no emissions were reduced. In fact, the study estimates use of the sham offsets actually enabled greenhouse gas emissions to increase by some 600 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“We were surprised ourselves by the extent, we didn’t expect such a large number,” said study co-author Anja Kollmuss. “What went on was that these countries could approve these projects by themselves there was no international oversight, in particular Russia and Ukraine didn’t have any incentive to guarantee the quality of these credits.”

Study Quantifies Global Warming’s Contribution to California’s Drought

How much of California’s drought is due to climate change? A study published in Geophysical Research Letters has an answer: up to 27 percent. The study also indicates that climate change has made the odds of severe droughts twice as likely.

Global warming has worsened the drought through increased evapotranspiration, the contribution of which was quantified in detail for the first time by researchers at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the University of Idaho who analyzed 432 combinations of precipitation, temperature, wind, and radiation data gathered between 1901 and 2014 to simulate monthly changes in soil moisture across California. When they modeled these combinations against various greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, they concluded that the state’s lack of rainfall is due to natural variability—a finding that accords with most other studies—but that California’s drought is 8 to 27 percent drier because of human-cause climate change (subscription).

“By knowing how much global warming has contributed to the trend in California drought conditions over the past century, we can reliably predict how the future will play out,” said A. Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty who led the study. By the 2060s, Williams said, drought conditions will be more or less permanent, and evaporation will overpower bursts of intense rainfall.

Williams likened climate change to a “bully” that every year “demands more of your money than the year before. Every year, the bully—or atmosphere—is demanding more resources—or water—than ever before.”

He also said that California should more aggressively police groundwater withdrawals by agricultural operations, increasing use fees and fines for overuse. California is one of the few states that does not regulate such withdrawals, which after three years of drought have led to precipitous drops in groundwater tables and land subsidence.

Obama Announces Renewable Energy Initiatives

In the first stop on an 11-day climate and energy tour, President Obama announced a number of initiatives aimed at making it easier for homeowners and businesses to invest in clean energy technology.

“We are here today because we believe that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future than climate change,” said President Obama at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. “But we’re also here because we hold another belief, and that is, we are deeply optimistic about American ingenuity.”

According to a White House fact sheet, these measures include:

  • $24 million for 11 projects in seven states to develop innovative solar technologies that double the amount of energy each solar panel can produce.
  • Approval of a transmission line for a 485-megawatt photovoltaic facility planed for Riverside County.
  • An additional $1 billion in federal loan guarantees available through a federal program for innovative versions of residential solar systems.
  • Creation of the Interagency Task Force to Promote a Clean Energy Future for All Americans.
  • Provision of residential Property-Assessed Clean Energy financing that facilitates investment in clean energy technologies for single-family homes.
  • Creation of a new HUD and DOE program to provide home owners with a simple way to measure and improve their homes’ energy efficiency.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said federal support is critical as the clean-energy industry seeks to become further established, noting “The playing field is not always as level and that’s where investors and developers can have risks. That’s where things like our loan program come in.”

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.


Challenges Ahead for Clean Power Plan, Another EPA Rule

August 13, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Less than two weeks after President Obama announced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) final Clean Power Plan rule, aimed at cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has encouraged states to comply with the plan through emissions trading opportunities—emphasized far more in the final rule than the draft proposal.

It appears that some states may be examining whether they have trade-ready elements in common with other states. If so, they will be able to swap emissions credits with those states in order to comply with the rule.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, particularly in the West, where states are more loosely connected across the electricity grid, about an arrangement where states could adopt some common elements, and thereby allow the compliance entities in that state to trade among states that might not have submitted a joint plan but still have common elements in their plans,” said Colin McConnaha, a greenhouse gas specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Despite the final rule’s flexibility, legal challenges are expected (subscription). Bill Bumpers, a partner at a law firm representing power companies, estimates 22–26 states are considering such challenges, a decision he called “more political than practical.”

The focus of many of these legal challenges, in my opinion, may very well be section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. I spoke with MetroNews Talkline on this issue Wednesday, noting:

“The way the Clean Air Act is set up is that the traditional pollutants like ozone and particulates are regulated under one provision, what they call the hazardous air pollutants like mercury are regulated in a second provision and then there is this third provision, 111 that says if it is not covered under one of the first two then you regulate under 111(d) … Section 111 (d) has been rarely used over history because there hasn’t been a pollutant like CO2 in the mix. So that gives the EPA a lot of flexibility in how it executes because there are not years of precedent, but it also gives them some uncertainty in how the courts are going to interpret it.”

That flexibility may not be so clear for another EPA rule that a group of 16 states and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources are challenging.

At issue—whether states can provide exemptions from emissions limits during periods of startup, shutdown, and malfunction. The court filing states “specifically, EPA erroneously concluded that the following State’s EPA-approved State Implementation Plans are ‘substantially inadequate’ with respect to periods of startup, shutdown and malfunction and must be revised.”

Carbon Emissions from Electric Power Plants Hit 27-Year Low

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said those same emissions that the Clean Power Plan is trying to diminish hit a 27-year low in April (subscription). Figures released Wednesday show that electric power plants emitted 141 million tons of carbon dioxide in April 2015, the lowest since April 1988.

A big factor in the drop is the long-term shift from coal to cleaner and cheaper natural gas, according to EIA Economist Allen McFarland, who downplayed the role of, economic sluggishness. “You don’t have a 27-year low because of an economic blip. There are more things happening than that,” McFarland said, noting that the price of natural gas has dropped 39 percent in the past year.

Increased renewable fuel use and energy efficiency are additional factors, say other experts, including Princeton University Professor Michael Oppenheimer, who also highlighted the role of regulation.

“A factor behind all these trends is that the writing is on the wall about the future of coal and thus the future of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions,” said Oppenheimer. “The regulatory noose is tightening and companies are anticipating a future with lower and lower dependence on fossil fuels and lower and lower carbon dioxide emissions.”

Federal analysts predict that this year the amount of electricity from natural gas will increase 3 percent compared to 2014 while power from coal will go down 10 percent.

Significant changes in the electric power sector fuel mix since April 1988 have made electricity generation less energy and carbon intensive. Some analysts point out that power plant emissions have already fallen by about 15 percent since 2005, putting the country halfway to the Obama administration’s goal before the Clean Power Plan goes into effect.

Spring Release for Changes to MATS Rule

Court-mandated changes to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule, which requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies, are expected by the EPA in 2016.

The EPA wrote in a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that it “intends to submit a declaration establishing the agency’s plan to complete the required consideration of costs for the ‘appropriate and necessary’ finding by spring of next year.” The Supreme Court ruled this summer that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to consider the costs of MATS when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector.

In the filing, EPA lawyers note that there is “extensive documentation” of the cost of MATS. The rule will remain in effect while the lower court determines whether to vacate it as the EPA works on the cost issue, Detroit News reports.

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.


It’s Official: 2014 Hottest Year on Record

July 23, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Four independent global data sets registered 2014 as the warmest year on record, the Weather Channel reported, citing an annual review by international scientists sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The only major region of the world with below-average annual temperatures was Eastern North America.

The review compiled by NOAA’s Center for Weather and Climate and based on contributions of more than 400 scientists found that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a global average of 397.2 parts per million, a 1.9-ppm-increase in 2014; the global average was 354 ppm in 1990, the review’s first year.

Other highlights of the State of the Climate in 2014 report include

  • Record highs for sea surface temperatures, particularly in the North Pacific Ocean, as well as for global upper ocean heat (oceans absorb more than 90 percent of Earth’s excess heat), and global sea levels (oceans expand as they suck up heat);
  • Continued Arctic warming and low sea ice extent;
  • Highly variable temperature patterns and record-high sea ice extent in the Antarctic; and
  • An above-average number of tropical cyclones.

Human activities are implicated in the record high. Deke Arndt, a NOAA climate scientist and one of the report authors pointed out that it’s no coincidence that it’s the lower atmosphere, rather than the upper atmosphere, that’s warming.

“The changes that we see in the lower part of the atmosphere are driven by a change in the composition of the atmosphere,” Arndt said. “If an external forcing—such as the sun or some orbital phenomenon—would be driving the warming, we would see a warming across the board in most of the atmosphere. And we don’t.”

Now it appears that 2015 is well on its way to topping 2014 as the warmest on record. A strengthening El Nino is transferring heat from the tropical Pacific around the globe, and the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and the Japan Meteorological Agency have reported that the global warmth of June 2015 matched or exceeded any previous June in historical records.

Study: 2-Degree Target Unsafe

New research says keeping within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial temperatures—the target scientists and global leaders agree represents a safe level of climate change—may be inadequate and “highly dangerous.” Meeting the target, the study says, could lead to runaway ice melt that causes rising sea levels and ocean circulation changes far more serious than previous projections.

“We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century,” James Hansen—NASA’s former lead climate scientist and 16 other co-authors write in the new, not-yet-peer-reviewed discussion paper due to be published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. “Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

A better strategy, the authors say, is to return to an atmosphere with 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide—we’ve reached about 400 parts per million.

Pope, Mayors Urge Action on Climate Change

A month after the release of his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis urged world leaders to take a “strong position” on climate change in advance of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year.

“I have great hopes for the Paris summit in December and hope a fundamental agreement is reached,” said Francis at a two-day conference of mayors from nearly 60 cities around the world to discuss the issues of climate change and fighting forms of modern slavery. “The U.N. needs to take a strong position on this.”

The mayors in attendance signed a pledge stating that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality and its effective control is a moral imperative for humanity.”

The meeting, the Globe and Mail reports, represents a fundamental shift in how the issue of climate change is framed.

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.


Power Plants Emissions Fall; Progress Unevenly Distributed

July 16, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Power plant carbon dioxide emissions have decreased 12 percent from 2008 to 2013 but remain 14 percent higher than 1990 levels, according to a new report by Ceres, four large utilities, Bank of America and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States focuses on changes in four power plant pollutants for which public emissions data are available: sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), mercury (Hg), and carbon dioxide (CO2).

It finds, Ceres President Mindy Lubber says, that “Most parts of the country are firmly on a path toward a clean energy future, but some states and utilities have a longer way to go and overall the carbon emissions curve is still not bending fast enough. To level the playing field for all utilities, and achieve the broader CO2 emissions cuts needed to combat climate change, we need final adoption of the Clean Power Plan.”

The declines so far, according to the report, were due in part to low natural gas prices, environmental regulations and a decline in overall electricity demand. Among the roughly 2,800 power plants surveyed, researchers found uneven performance across power companies and states; carbon emission rates vary by a factor of 10 among the top 100 producers. Forty-two states are decreasing their carbon dioxide emissions.

Scientists Call for Decarbonization

Two new documents spell out how carbon reductions can be made. A United Nations-backed report written by scientists at University College London (UCL) recommended several actions to help the United Kingdom achieve its legally binding emissions reduction target, and the closing statement of a pre-U.N. climate treaty conference recommended actions to close the emissions gap between current climate policy and a pathway limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The UCL report concludes that meeting the U.K.’s domestic climate objectives will require reducing emissions from the country’s power generation in 2030 by 85–90 percent relative to current levels.

The move away from fossil fuels was also the focus of attendees at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change (OCFUCC15) science conference in Paris in preparation for the U.N. climate change talks later this year at which nations will attempt to seal a global deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“To stay below 2C (36F), or even 3C, we need to have something really disruptive, which I would call an induced implosion of the carbon economy over the next 20–30 years,” said Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

In its closing statement, the OCFUCC15 Scientific Committee stated that cost-effective C2 pathways require greenhouse gas emission reductions 40–70 percent below current levels by 2050 and noted that investments in climate-change adaptation and mitigation could provide co-benefits that increase protection from current climate variability, decrease damages from air and water pollution, and advance sustainable development.

At the conference, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University called for an enforceable global price on carbon—not the current “spotty” global cap-and-trade program—to drive the shift toward a low-carbon economy and for carbon taxes to be used to reduce other taxes. “This reflects the basic economic principle: that it’s better to tax bad things than good things,” he said.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Andrew Revkin noted that the majority of the OCFUCC sessions described how communities, industries, and governments could make energy and climate progress with or without a treaty in Paris—a reality, said Revkin, reflecting “the spreading recognition that relying on top-down treaty-making as the determinative factor in shaping the human-climate relationship is wishful thinking.”

Major Wind Farm Planned in North Carolina

In about a month, construction is set to begin on a commercial-scale wind energy farm—more than 100 turbines on 22,000 acres—in North Carolina. The farm will power Amazon’s cloud-computing division.

The U.S. Department of Energy published a report in 2008 examining the feasibility of using wind energy to generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity demand by 2030. One challenge—boosting U.S. wind generation to 300 gigawatts. The new wind energy farm is due, in part, to a North Carolina law requiring utilities to increase their renewable energy portfolios.

“It’s conceivable that we can see a dramatic growth in wind as we’ve seen in solar because utilities are entering into a new phase,” said Jonas Monast, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. He noted that factors such as abundant natural gas, coal plant retirements, and aging nuclear plants are already forcing change in the region’s energy market.

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.