Climate Change, EPA Rules Focus of McCabe Confirmation Hearing

April 10, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Climate change, extreme weather and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants were the focus of a confirmation hearing for Janet McCabe, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

In the hearing—at which lawmakers took jabs at one another on the impacts of climate change and criticized McCabe’s recent comments on extreme weather causes—the acting assistant administrator for air and radiation told the committee that if confirmed she would evaluate the full consequences of the EPA’s current and pending rules. She pointed to her work as a state regulator in Indiana, highlighting her sensitivity to the economic impact of environmental regulations.

“I come from Indiana, where people rely on coal,” she told the committee (subscription).

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has not announced when it will vote on McCabe’s nomination, which still requires approval by the full Senate.

Just a day earlier, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the draft rule for existing power plants, which is scheduled for release by June 1. “We are going to make them cost-effective, we are going to make them make sense,” McCarthy said at a conference. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be so flexible that I’m not going to be able to rely on this as a federally enforceable rule.”

Flexibility for states was emphasized by McCarthy who insisted the EPA will give states the tools to curtail emissions that drive climate change and that the proposed rule will not threaten electric reliability or shutter large numbers of facilities.

EPA officials have met with more than 200 groups about the upcoming rule. Last week, the White House began its review of the rule—the final step before the EPA can publish it and gather formal comments from the public.

EIA Energy Outlook Predicts Decrease in Oil Imports

Net U.S. energy imports declined last year to their lowest level in more than 20 years, meaning U.S. net imports could reach zero within 23 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The finding is the first in a staged release of the EIA’s complete Annual Energy Outlook 2014. Future releases—running April 14 to April 30—will look at matters ranging from the implications of accelerated power plant retirements and lower natural gas prices for industrial production to light-duty vehicle energy demand and the potential for liquefied natural gas to be used as a railroad fuel.

Between 2012 and 2013, net energy imports decreased by 19 percent. The EIA cited increased growth in oil and natural gas production as the reason. Crude oil production grew 15 percent in 2013.

“In EIA’s view, there is more upside potential for greater gains in production than downside potential for lower production levels,” the report said. It noted that U.S. oil production should hit 9.6 million barrels per day by 2020.

Global Renewable Energy Investment Down as Tax Credits Resurface

Global investment in renewable energy fell 14 percent in 2013, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance. The drop in investment was attributed, in part, to energy policy uncertainty and the falling cost of renewable energy technology. The latter factor may seem counterintuitive but one of the report’s lead editors, UN energy expert Eric Usher said that the fall in the cost of the clean energy technologies, particularly solar, had “left some governments thinking that they had been paying too much and reviewed their subsidies.”

Even with investment down, the shift toward low-carbon sources hasn’t slowed. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of power generated worldwide last year—up from 7.8 percent in 2012. Liebreich told Mother Jones that proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015.

Further incentives for renewables may be in the offing. Last week, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved a draft bill that includes some 50 temporary tax breaks, including one for renewable energy. The bill includes provisions for wind energy through an extension of the U.S. Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit, which was responsible for jumpstarting much of the last decade’s U.S. wind energy development. Provisions were also included for biofuel.

Congress is expected to pass the bill by the end of year, allowing businesses and individuals to continue to claim tax breaks on their 2014 taxes.

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.


IPCC Report Shares Dire News, Some Adaptation Measures

April 3, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Climate change risks dramatically increase the more Earth warms, but reducing greenhouse gas emissions lowers the risk of the most unwelcome consequences, according to the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“We have assessed impacts as they are happening on the natural and human systems on all continents,” said IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri. “In view of these impacts, and those that we have projected for the future, nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Unless greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control, the sweeping effects of climate change—touching every continent—will grow significantly worse. Among the IPCC report’s conclusions:

  • There will be changes in crop yields.
  • Economic growth will slow, further eroding food security as well as prolonging existing and creating new poverty traps.
  • Changes in the global water cycle will not be uniform. In many dry subtropical regions precipitation will likely decrease.
  • Global mean sea level rise will continue to rise during the 21st century and very likely exceed that observed during 1971 to 2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets.

The news isn’t all dire.

“Although it focuses on a cold, analytical and sometimes depressing view of the challenges we face, it also maps the opportunities that intrinsic in the solution space,” said Christopher Fields, IPCC report co-chair. “And it looks at ways we can combine adaptation, mitigation, transformation of a society in an effort that can help us build a world that’s not only better prepared to deal with climate change but is fundamentally a better world.”

Recommendations that include increasing energy efficiency, switching to cleaner energy sources, making cities greener and reducing water consumption, the report suggests, could help reduce mankind’s effect on climate change. Still, the effects of global warming vary considerably, reports the Economist. Damage, and the possibility of reducing it, depends as much on other factors such as health systems or rural development as it does on global warming alone.

Wind Installation Hurdles, Potential Records

Last year wind turbine installation in the United States fell 93 percent—1.1 GW compared with 13.1 GW in 2012— according to Navigant Research’s annual World Market Update. The report points to the foundering U.S. market and the expiration of a tax credit for U.S. wind projects as the main driver behind a 20 percent drop in global wind power development, the first decline in eight years.

“The U.S. market decline, triggered by lack of policy consistency and the delay in renewing the tax credits, which have traditionally stimulated investment, was also a major contributing factor for the wind market depression last year,” said Feng Zhao, research director with Navigant.

In Alaska, a start-up is preparing to launch the first commercial pilot test of an airborne wind turbine know as Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT).  Floating at 1,000 feet, the turbine would supply power to a remote community in the state for about $0.18 per kilowatt hour—half the price of off-grid electricity in Alaska.

“It’s known that wind speed increases with altitude above ground level, and power density increases with a cubic factor of wind speed,” said Adam Rein, Altaeros co-founder. “Roughly speaking, a doubling of wind speed equates to an eight-fold increase in wind power density. Conventional turbine manufacturers are also trying to reach higher heights because of this fact—though not as high as our turbine.”

“Ultimately, the goal is to deploy BAT at off-grid village sites that have high (energy) costs,” he added. When deployed, the device is expected to break the world’s record for the highest wind turbine.

Obama Issues Plan to Cut Methane Emissions

On Friday, the Obama administration announced one more piece of its Climate Action Plan—a strategy to reduce methane emissions—a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It targets methane emissions from coal mining, landfills, agriculture and oil and gas production through a combination of standards programs beginning this month. No hard deadline for a proposed rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been set, but studies to explore significant sources of methane emissions will begin this spring.

“This is a rapidly evolving space,” said Dan Utech, President Barack Obama’s top climate advisor, noting that tamping down methane emissions would help meet Obama’s goal of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade. By the fall, the administration plans to determine the best reduction path, according to The Guardian. If imposed, methane emissions regulations would be completed by the end of 2016, just before Obama leaves office.

The announcement follows on the heels of several scholarly papers that found federal estimates significantly undercount the amount of methane emitted in the country and that methane emissions during well preparation for natural gas drilling were much lower than projected. The natural gas boom—driven by hydraulic fracturing—could mean two things for climate change over the next decade.

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.


Air Pollution Now Top Environmental Health Risk

March 27, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

New analysis from the World Health Organization (WHO) links exposure to air pollution to roughly 7 million deaths annually. The report confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest environmental health risk. It estimates 4.3 million people died in 2012—mainly due to cooking inside with coal or wood stoves. Another 3.7 million died from outdoor pollution, including diesel engine and factory emissions. The figures—more than double previous estimates—indicate that air pollution kills more people than smoking, diabetes and road deaths combined.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

The Western-Pacific region—including China, Japan and Australia—represented 41 percent (2.88 million) of the global deaths due to air pollution in 2012. In that year, countries in this region combined with countries in southeast Asia accounted for 5.8 million air pollution-related deaths.

Only three of 74 Chinese cities fully complied with state pollution standards in 2013. Earlier this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang classified air pollution as a top priority for the nation’s authorities. China is now using drones to spy on industries in Beijing and other cities where illegal polluting may be contributing to the nation’s smog problem. These unmanned crafts take photographs of smokestack scrubbers and assess smoke color in the images for pollution.

“You can easily tell from the color of the smoke—black, purple, brown—that the pollution is over the limit, because if smokestack scrubbers are operating properly, only white smoke is emitted,” said ministry official Yang Yipeng.

In new tests led by the China Meteorological Administration, drones could be used during peak air pollution periods to spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.

Texas Disaster Puts Oil Spills in Spotlight

As news headlines commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which more than 10 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in the waters off Alaska, emergency crews were dealing with a new disaster in one of the country’s busiest shipping channels: the Houston Ship Channel.

Though millions of gallons smaller than the Exxon Valdez spill or the BP’s Deep Horizon spill in 2010, the spill from a barge collision near Galveston closed the shipping lane for several days while a high-tech buoy system helped guide the cleanup.

Since the Exxon Valdez, the United States has experienced at least two-dozen major oil spills, ranging from a few hundred to millions of gallons. Scientists are still discovering the ecological costs associated with these spills.

A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds grim implications for the hearts of fish that were embryos, larvae or juveniles at the time of the BP oil spill, which coincided with tuna-spawning season. Led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the study links the spill to potentially lethal heart defects in species of tuna, amberjack and other predatory fish.

“Larvae exposed to high levels were dead within a week,” said study leader John Incardona. “But we still don’t know how long they lived after exposure to lower levels [of crude oil], or how much spawning area may have been impacted.”

The NOAA study follows research out in February suggesting that low concentrations of crude can disrupt the signaling pathways responsible for regular heart rhythms in fish.

Renewable Energy Makes Strides

Cheap installation costs, high electricity prices and government subsidies have allowed the cost of solar power to stay on par with the cost of traditional energy sources—at least in Germany, Spain and Italy. That’s according to a new report by the consulting firm Eclareon. “Soft costs” and demand are keeping the same from ringing true in the United States, according to The Week.

A new experimental house—developed by the University of California, Davis, and Honda—is designed to generate more electricity than it consumes and to store the extra energy in a car’s battery for later use.

“It’s a new world in terms of vehicles operating not as isolated artifacts but as being part of a larger energy system, and I think the greatest opportunity for automakers is figuring out how their vehicles become part of that system,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

The home uses a geothermal system to provide heating and cooling. Solar panels, energy-efficient automated lighting, electric vehicle charging and pozzolan-infused and post-tensioned concrete use less than half of the energy of a similarly sized new home in the Davis area.

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.


Reports, Website Document Effects of and Need for Dialogue on Climate Change

March 20, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last year, carbon dioxide briefly passed the 400 parts per million milestone. Now, says Ralph Keeling of the Scripps Institution for Oceanography, we’re on track to “see values dwelling over 400 in April and May. It’s just a matter of time before it stays over 400 forever.”

This pronouncement comes the same week the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report and the White House, a website, that seek to illustrate the effects of climate change and advance dialogue about it.

“We believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one,” said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. “As the voice of the scientific community, we need to share what we know and bring policymakers to the table to discuss how to deal with the issue.”

The AAAS report offers three messages about climate change: (1) it is happening, and humans are the cause; (2) risks posed by climate change are high and potentially damaging; and (3) the sooner we act, the lower the risks and costs. The report takes readers through a series of potential consequences of climate change that include accelerated sea level rise and food shortages as a result of the increasing difficulty of growing crops.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s next report, due out at the end of the month, is expected to touch on one of these topics. A leaked draft obtained by The Independent suggests that climate change will reduce crop yields by 2 percent per decade for the rest of the century. One study out now in the journal Nature Climate Change finds crop yields—specifically rice, corn and wheat—will decline more than 25 percent as a result of climate change.

Navy Tests Space Solar Idea

California and Texas topped a list of the 10 best states for clean energy jobs last year. The largest job creator? The solar industry.

Now, the impact of solar technology could extend into outer space. The United States Navy is working on a project that could, in theory, allow for the capture of enough solar power to run military bases and even cities. The Navy is working on “sandwich” modules or prototypes far larger than the International Space Station that would collect solar power while aboard an orbiting satellite. Specifically, a photovoltaic panel atop the satellite would absorb the sun’s energy. An electronics system would convert the energy into a radio frequency sent back to Earth.

“People might not associate radio waves with carrying energy, because they think of them for communications, like radio, TV, or cell phones,” said Paul Jaffe, a spacecraft engineer leading the project. “They don’t think about them as carrying usable amounts of energy.”

The idea of capturing solar power in space is not a new idea. The International Academy of Astronautics recently suggested that space solar technology would be viable in the next 30 years.

Decision on U.S. Oil Exports Complex

In 2013, crude oil production in the United States reached its highest level since 1989—a roughly 15 percent increase from 2012, according the Energy Information Administration.

The Ukrainian crisis and record-setting levels of U.S. oil production have some policymakers and industry officials calling for the reversal of a ban on most crude oil exports. Opponents and proponents disagree about the impact to consumers should the ban be lifted.

“I think it is realistic that the U.S. could be energy self-sufficient by the end of this decade,” said Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. “We’re already the world’s largest natural gas producer (and) last year crude oil production surpassed levels not seen since the 1980s.”

The topic’s varying angles dominated discuss at the annual IHS CERAWeek energy conference in Houston recently.

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.


All-Night Senate Session Focuses on Climate Change

March 13, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In the last 100 years, senators have held all-night sessions 35 times on everything from the Civil Rights Act to the Iraq War. This week, climate change made the list as number 36.

The more than 14-hour session, which began Monday night, was organized by the Climate Action Task Force. Dubbed an avenue to voice concerns over the issue that has been stalled in Congress, the session promoted no specific legislation.

That would be “premature,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, a senator from Rhode Island. “Tonight is not about a specific legislative proposal.” It was, participants said, a start toward making climate change part of the main political conversation.

Still, many Republicans in the Senate called the event a political stunt. And The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe said the reason behind the session was simply “campaign cash.”

A new Gallup poll suggests climate change, which kept more than two dozen senators up all night, is not something that tops Americans’ list of concerns. In the poll, it ranked near the bottom—number 14—on a list of 15 national concerns for Americans, along with the quality of the environment (number 13). About 24 percent of poll respondents worried about climate change “a great deal.” By comparison, 59 percent of respondents ascribed that level of worry to the economy, and 58 percent, to federal spending.

Climate Conversation Kicks Off in Bonn

Earth may experience 20 percent more warming than some previous studies estimated, research by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration suggests. The findings come as diplomats from nearly 200 nations gathered in Bonn, Germany, to forge a 2015 pact to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The meeting, which runs through March 14, is largely focused on working out the main elements of an agreement to bind nations to emissions reductions from 2020. One item on the list is setting a date for submitting proposals for national greenhouse gas reduction targets to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The meeting will also consider how to raise money for the Green Climate Fund to tackle climate change in the developing world. On Monday, one delegate from China told attendees that poorer countries need support to show that a low-carbon lifestyle is feasible.

“We don’t want to follow the pollution path of the past,” said Pa Ousman Jarju, Gambia’s envoy to the U.N. climate conference. He noted that delegates need to stop informal talks and start drafting a climate deal so financing can trickle down to other nations.

Russia’s climate negotiator indicated his country is considering a domestic carbon market to cut its emissions. Eventually, Russia may funnel some of the money into the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund.

In his first “policy directive” as secretary of state, John Kerry deemed climate change a top issue. Success, he said, required participation from everyone at the state department and posts around the world.

House Passes Bill to Block EPA Carbon Emissions Rule

The U.S. House late last week voted 229-183 on a bill to override the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate coal-fired power plants. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitefield (R-KY), requires the EPA to set carbon emissions standards based on technology that has been in use for one year.

Proposed rules for regulating carbon emissions from existing power plants are scheduled to be released in June. Wednesday, Republican lawmakers launched a probe into the EPA’s decision-making process leading up to establishment of a rule for new power plants.

Despite criticism that the new rule could ban coal-fired power plants, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy believes that coal will remain part of the country’s energy mix.

“Conventional fuels like coal and natural gas are going to play a critical role in a diverse U.S. energy mix for years to come,” she said at a recent energy conference. “This rule will not change that. It will recognize that.”

The legislation faces hurdles in the Senate. And President Barack Obama has said he would veto the bill.

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.


Budget Provides Blueprint for Climate, Energy Goals

March 6, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama unveiled his 2015 budget proposal Tuesday, outlining his spending and policy priorities for the upcoming year. In it, President Obama earmarked funding for both his Climate Action Plan and Climate Resiliency Fund.

The budget for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the agency that released stricter fuel standards this week—represented a $309 million decrease from the current fiscal year budget. The nearly $8 billion requested for environmental protection demands “difficult” choices, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Of those funds, 20 percent of the agency’s $1 billion climate and air quality budget will go toward global warming efforts. $10 million would support implementation of Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Meanwhile, energy spending was bumped 2.6 percent from the current budget. The increase includes about $2.3 billion to promote efficiency and renewable energy sources, which Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz views as a “longstanding commitment to innovation.”

“There’s a very, very strong focus … on energy efficiency across the board,” Moniz said. Funds are set aside for nuclear security and clean up as well as basic research.

Funding for the Department of the Interior saw a slight increase, which includes $1 billion for a climate fund that helps communities better prepare for and adapt to extreme weather events that result from climate change.

The budget announcement comes the same week a study in the journal Environmental Research Letters suggested nearly one-fifth of the world’s cultural landmarks could be affected by rising sea levels caused by global warming. Of the 720 spots examined, 20 percent could be ruined if temperatures rise 5.4 degrees above pre-industrial levels in the next two millennia.

Satellite Could Revolutionize Understanding of Precipitation, Extreme Weather

A new satellite is expected to improve our understanding and ability to monitor global precipitation. Launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NASA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency last week, the satellite will track all precipitation on Earth—delivering measurements every three hours.

“Knowing where, when, and how much it’s snowing and raining around the world is extremely important for understanding extreme events like blizzards, or drought in California, monsoon rains in Asia,” said Dalia Kirschbaum, the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory’s mission applications scientist. “So by having the global picture, all the way from what’s happening in our atmosphere around the planet down to what’s happening in my backyard—it gives us really powerful information to tell us about weather, about how our climate is changing and how we can improve our understanding and mitigation of natural hazards.”

The satellite is equipped with technology allowing it to create three-dimensional profiles of storm systems. NASA is using data collected by the satellite, along with other technology, to better respond to California’s ongoing drought.

Seismic Exploration Could Pave Path for Drilling in the Atlantic

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has proposed rules for seismic exploration of oil and gas in Atlantic waters, potentially setting the stage for a battle over offshore drilling in a 330,000-square-mile area from the mouth of Delaware Bay to just south of Cape Canaveral, Fla. In releasing its final review, the department favored a plan to allow use of underwater seismic air guns that environmentalists say threatens the survival of whales and dolphins but which the oil industry says is needed to assess how much oil and gas lies along the U.S. Atlantic seabed.

“The currently available seismic information from this area is decades old and was developed using technologies that are obsolete,” said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which issued the environmental impact statement. Federal estimates of 3.3 billion barrels of oil are from the 1970s and 1980s.

Energy industry groups and politicians in energy states have called on the Obama administration to open federal waters off the Atlantic seaboard to create jobs and promote national energy security. The American Petroleum Institute, which hailed the BOEM recommendation, predicts that oil and gas production in the region could create 280,000 new jobs. But oil producers said the agency would need to signal that it plans to include the Atlantic in its next leasing plan for companies to actually invest in seismic testing. A final “record of decision” formalizing the agency’s approach is expected after public comment ends in April.

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.


Supreme Court Divided after Hearing on EPA Authority

February 27, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a hearing Monday, the Supreme Court questioned whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is correct in its interpretation that regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles triggers the requirement to also implement permitting requirements for large stationary sources. At issue is the legality of EPA’s interpretation of the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) regulations. Industry groups argue that the PSD permitting requirements apply to certain pollutants, whereas the EPA argues that they apply to all pollutants, including greenhouse gases. Ultimately, the more than 90-minute session ended with the justices divided over whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”

“As is so often the case when the court is closely divided, the vote of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy loomed as the critical one, and that vote seemed inclined toward the EPA, though with some doubt,” said SCOTUS blogger Lyle Denniston. “Although he seemed troubled that Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. could call up no prior ruling to support the policy choice the EPA had made on greenhouse gases by industrial plants, Kennedy left the impression that it might not matter.”

A decision is expected by June. According to experts, the court’s ruling could have a range of effects on EPA’s permitting requirements.

If the Supreme Court rules against the EPA, the agency has several options, said Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast (subscription). It could, for instance, devise new source performance standards for each individual source or regulate sources under another Clean Air Act program.

Nuclear Reviving

As some residents near the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster get the “all clear” to return to their homes April 1, Japan announced a plan to revive its nuclear program.

Overturning a previous commitment to phase out all nuclear, the draft government plan, which awaits Cabinet approval, instead calls for more long-term reliance on the energy source. It specifies that nuclear dependency will remain low but that reactors meeting standards set after the 2011 Fukushima disaster should be restarted. The Wall Street Journal reports 17 such reactors are undergoing inspection now.

In the United States, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz provided final approval for a $6.5 billion dollar loan guarantee that will be used to construct two nuclear reactors in Georgia—the first built in the United States in more than 30 years. Days later, President Barack Obama approved a deal with Vietnam that would allow the nation to develop nuclear power.

Obama: Decision on Keystone Could Come Soon

A decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline—carrying crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast—will be made in the next “couple of months,” President Barack Obama told attendees at the annual National Governors Association winter meeting Monday. The White House declined to expand on Obama’s comment at the private meeting. Politico reports that it contradicts speculation by parties on both sides that the decision will come after November’s mid-term elections. That speculation began last week after a ruling by a Nebraska judge that struck down a state law approving the pipeline’s route through the state.

The president’s Keystone decision comment came a day after Canada’s National Energy Board audit found TransCanada Corp—the company leading the Keystone XL project—could make improvements in its pipeline safety practices. The audit was moved up after a then-employee of TransCanada came forward with allegations of safety lapses.

“The audit has confirmed that, in response to these allegations, TransCanada has developed and implemented a program of actions with the goal of correcting and preventing similar occurrences,” the National Energy Board said. The board found TransCanada to be non-compliant in four areas: hazard identification, risk assessment and control; operational control in upset or abnormal operating condition; inspection, measurement and monitoring; and management review.

Despite claims the State Department violated conflict of interest rules when it chose an outside contractor to conduct an environmental impact study of the proposed pipeline, a report issued Wednesday found otherwise.

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.


Tougher Efficiency Standards Ordered for Large Trucks

February 20, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced his administration will begin developing tougher fuel standards for the nation’s fleet of medium- and heavy-duty trucks. The new standards will build on a 2011 regulation that set the first-ever fuel standards for model years 2014–18. The next phase—for models beyond 2018—will be proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in March 2015.

“Improving gas mileage for these trucks is going to drive down our oil imports even further,” Obama said. “That reduces carbon pollution even more, cuts down on businesses’ fuel costs, which should pay off in lower prices for consumers. So it’s not just a win-win, it’s a win-win-win. We got three wins.”

In 2010, heavy-duty vehicles made up roughly 4 percent of registered vehicles on the road but accounted for 20 percent of on-road energy use and carbon emissions. Ahead of the roll out of the final rule in March 2016, the Obama administration was offering “new tax credits, both for companies that manufacture heavy-duty alternative-fuel vehicles and those that build fuel infrastructure so that trucks running on biodiesel or natural gas or hybrid electric technology.” Those credits, Politico reports, still require approval from Congress.

EIA Projects Increased Coal Fired Power Plant Retirements

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports in its Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Reference Case that a much larger number of coal electric power plants will retire by 2020 than has been announced thus far. The EIA projects about 60 gigawatts—accounting for one-fifth of existing 310-gigawatt coal-fired electric capacity. That’s 20 gigawatts more than power companies are reporting.

“In [EIA’s] projections, 90 percent of the coal-fired capacity retirements occur by 2016, coinciding with the first year of enforcement for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards” (MATS) as well as the rise of cost competitive natural gas, the report notes.

Despite the latest retirement projection, existing coal plants are expected to supply 32 percent of all U.S. electricity in 2020. Coal generation flattens out after 2020, the EIA predicts, as coal use increases due to projected high natural gas prices and nuclear plant retirements.

“Post-2020, demand for electricity in our projections increases as well as natural gas prices,” said EIA Analyst Michael Leff. “Therefore, there is less long-term economic pressure on coal post-2020, barring no future regulations.”

The EPA is working on new regulations—separate from MATS—that would regulate carbon emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants. Through early March, the agency is accepting comments concerning proposed carbon pollution standards now proposed for new plants.

A recent survey found many Americans are in favor of carbon regulations for power plants, but at a public hearing on the rules, some industry representatives criticized the agency’s requirement for carbon capture and storage technology to trap harmful emissions.

Kerry Says Climate Change Can Now be Considered Another Weapon of Mass Destruction

The United Kingdom has been rocked by record-breaking flooding. Although the U.K. Met Office has said there is no definitive link between climate change and recent weather events, it found unusual weather is “consistent with what is expected from the fundamental physics of a warming globe.”

Recent, unusual weather events have pushed climate change back into the political debate. While in Jakarta, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Indonesia—the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the U.S. and China—that man-made climate change could threaten the populace’s way of life.

“Think about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” Kerry said. “It doesn’t keep us safe if the United States secures its nuclear arsenal while other countries fail to prevent theirs from falling into the hands of terrorists. The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

Days earlier, Kerry visited China, where he announced a “co-operative effort” to address climate change ahead of a global summit on the issue next year. The visit to Indonesia, some reported, was part of a larger effort to enlist the help of developing nations in reducing emissions. However, others failed to find the strategy behind Kerry’s climate speech.

Keystone XL Pipeline Decision Further Delayed Following Court Ruling

The Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, hit another hurdle Wednesday, when a Nebraska judge struck down a state law approving the route of the controversial pipeline. The 2012 law gave Nebraska’s governor authority to approve the pipeline’s route through the state. The ruling further complicates a pending decision by the Obama administration on whether to approve the Keystone project. Obama was expected to discuss the issue with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a one-day North American Summit meeting Wednesday.

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.


Keystone XL Assessment Report Finds No Significant Environmental Objections

February 6, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The State Department issued its final environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline, which echoed findings in previous analyses that the pipeline would lead to no substantial increase in greenhouse gas emissions. It found that approximately 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide would be created by producing, refining and burning the pipeline’s oil. The report’s release kicks off a 30-day public comment period as well as a 90-day “national interest determination” period during which eight federal agencies are allowed to offer their views. Ultimately, the decision on the permit for Keystone XL rests with President Barack Obama.

“Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs, and supply-demand scenarios,” the report states.

The analysis also discounted claims that oil transported from Canada to the Gulf Coast, through Keystone XL, would mainly benefit countries like China. The petroleum industry expected the pipeline to create tens of thousands of jobs; the report found it would directly and indirectly support about 42,100. It’s a point Obama disputed in an interview Monday night.

“First of all, it’s not 42,000,” he said. “That’s not correct. It’s a couple thousand to build the pipeline.”

Many environmentalists disputed the report’s objectivity; supporters viewed the assessment as clearing the way to a permit.

Farm Bill, New Climate Hubs to Provide Support for Farmers

The same week the Senate approved a long-stalled farm bill—now slated to be signed by President Barack Obama on Friday—the Obama administration announced plans to open “climate hubs” to help farmers adapt to drought, fire risk and other problems linked to global warming.

“For generations, America’s farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have innovated and adapted to challenges,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Today, they face a new and more complex threat in the form of a changing and shifting climate, which impacts both our nation’s forests and our farmers’ bottom lines. USDA’s Climate Hubs are part of our broad commitment to developing the next generation of climate solutions, so that our agricultural leaders have the modern technologies and tools they need to adapt and succeed in the face of a changing climate.”

Seven locations in Ames, Iowa; Durham, N.H.; Raleigh, N.C.; Fort Collins, Colo.; El Reno, Okla.; Corvallis, Ore.; and Las Cruces, N.M., will link local agriculture producers with universities, industry groups, state governments and federal agencies. Other “subsidiary hubs” will be in Houghton, Mich.; Davis, Calif., and Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.

The new hubs are intended to provide farmers with ways to better cope with a changing climate, such as helping wheat farmers to select seeds with relatively drought-resistant genetics.

California Drought Worsens

In the country’s most populous state, farmers and ranchers are dealing with one of the issues the new climate hubs will tackle: drought. Nearly 9 percent of California was in exceptional drought as the state entered its 13th month of drought. Much of the rest of the state—about 67 percent—is in extreme drought.

The State Water Project, which supplies water to many in California, cut off allocations in several districts. Snowpack in the Sierra mountain range is historically low. Wildfires have been running far above average. Lack of rainfall has cut into the state’s hydropower supplies.

“Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown in his State of the State address. “We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration … We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gases, but we can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come.”

An emergency drought relief bill was passed by the House, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced funds to aid farmers.

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


Obama Promises Strong Action on Climate Change, Energy Independence in State of the Union Address

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama took just 5 minutes of the 65-minute speech to cover energy and environment issues. He declared climate change “a fact,” stating “when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

Despite this assertion, National Geographic reports Obama’s efforts on climate change since his last State of the Union address have come up short in the minds of many in the environmental community. On Tuesday, Obama did mention a number of issues, most of which he had discussed before, to deal with climate change. He wants to set new fuel efficiency standards for trucks, and he promised to “cut red tape” to establish natural-gas-powered factories and fueling stations for cars and trucks. He endorsed natural gas not only as an economic driver, but also as a way to further cut emissions.

He also mentioned efforts to set emissions limits for power plants, and, if necessary, to use his executive power to move the effort forward. But portending the political drama to come, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted earlier Tuesday to scrap a measure (subscription) to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants.

Obama went on to tout the administration’s work toward attaining energy independence, offering that there is more “oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world.” According to White House reports, domestic crude oil production surpassed crude oil imports in October 2013 for the first time since 1995.

The president did not mention whether he intends to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—projected to carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The closest he came, Politico reports, was alluding to “tough choices along the way” during a shift to a “cleaner energy economy.” Coal, nuclear power and wind—sources responsible for 60 percent of the nation’s electricity generation—received no mention.

Long-Awaited Farm Bill Passes House

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a five-year farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014, containing provisions for renewable energy, energy efficiency programs in rural areas, cuts to food stamps and modifications to the federal agricultural subsidy system.

The bill, which will now go before the Senate, contains $881 million in mandatory funding for energy programs. The provision—which extends over the next 10 years—provides funding for projects focused on advanced biofuels and a program encouraging the development of wind, solar, hydroelectric and biogas projects.

“With stable policy and the investments included in this conference report, Farm Bill energy programs will continue to help rural communities create economic growth and good paying jobs,” said Biotechnology Industry Organization President and CEO Jim Greenwood. “The expansion of eligibility to new renewable chemical technologies and the support for new energy crops will create additional opportunities and improve U.S. economic growth across the country.”

The bill also includes an enhanced crop insurance program that would aid livestock producers in the event of a natural disaster and severe weather.

Botched Analysis Leaves Arctic Drilling in Question

The federal government failed to properly evaluate environmental risks related to offshore drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, a federal appellate court ruled recently. Three Ninth Circuit Court judges found the environmental review the U.S. Department of the Interior conducted before approving the sale of 2008 drilling leases considered the impact of drilling for 1 billion barrels of oil. A lawsuit brought by environmental groups and Native Alaska tribes alleged a larger environmental impact given that available oil was much higher.

The ruling brings the oil leases, covering some 30 million acres of sea floor, into question. And it means another setback for Shell, which announced plans to resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer, following several mishaps in the area in 2012. Of the companies that purchased leases in 2008, Shell is the only company that has begun drilling in the Arctic. On Thursday, the oil giant announced it will abandon plans to drill off the coast of Alaska this year.

The case is currently scheduled to return to a U.S. District Court in Alaska.

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.