Supreme Court Reviews EPA’s Power Plant Mercury Rule; Decision Due in June

March 26, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) consideration of cost impacts when developing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, (MATS) which are set to go into effect next month. At issue in the case is whether the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to consider costs in addition to health and environmental impacts when determining whether (not just how) to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants.

The MATS rule, finalized in December 2011, requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies. The EPA estimates the rule would cost industry about $9.6 billion a year but have the benefits of cutting coal and oil emissions by 90 percent and generating $37 billion in savings through “co-benefits.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that it is in EPA’s discretion whether to consider costs when deciding whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants. During Wednesday’s Supreme Court oral argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed, asserting that Congress instructed the EPA to use its expertise to decide what was appropriate and did not mandate consideration of costs.

Forbes reports that Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly attacked EPA’s interpretation. He asserted, “I would think it’s classic arbitrary and capricious agency action for an agency to command something that is outrageously expensive and in which the expense vastly exceeds whatever public benefit can be achieved.”

The Supreme Court’s final decision is expected by the end of June (subscription).

Global Warming Imperiling Artic Ice, Slowing Ocean Circulation

This week the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that on Feb. 25 Arctic sea ice appeared to have reached its annual maximum extent, “the lowest in the satellite record,” with implications for the Arctic’s ecology and economy and for weather patterns in North America, Europe, and Asia. The news, the Belfast Telegraph reported, increases fears that summers in the polar region could be ice free within 20 or 30 years.

Warming Arctic temperatures triggered by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are accelerating ice melt and increasing the amount open ocean exposed to the sun’s rays. Unlike white ice, which reflects those rays, the dark ocean absorbs them, causing further heating and melt.

“[The record low extent] is significant, in that it shows that the Arctic is being seriously impacted by our warming climate,” said NSIDC’s Senior Research Scientist Ted Scambos. “In general, sea ice retreat has proceeded faster than modelling expects in the Arctic, although models are catching up.”

The NSIDC announcement comes in the wake of a new study reporting that Arctic sea ice is thinning at a faster rate than researchers previously thought. It shows that the ice in the central Arctic Ocean thinned 65 percent between 1975 and 2012, from 11.78 feet to 4.1 feet.

Global warming also appears to be slowing ocean circulation according to a new study in Nature Climate Change. The study reveals a deceleration of the ocean circulation that helps to drive the Gulf Stream off the U.S. east coast, the consequences of which could be significant extra sea level rise for coastal cities and shifts in U.S. and European weather.

The findings suggest that the slowdown—the most dramatic in recorded history and well outside the norm—is probably not part of natural fluctuation.

If the climate relationships identified in the study hold true, increasing melt rates in Greenland “might lead to further weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation within a decade or two, and possibly even more permanent shutdown” of key components of it, the scientists warn.

“If the slowdown of the Atlantic overturning continues, the impacts might be substantial,” said lead author Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Disturbing the circulation will likely have a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem, and thereby fisheries and the associated livelihoods of many people in coastal areas. A slowdown also adds to the regional sea-level rise affecting cities like New York and Boston. Finally, temperature changes in that region can also influence weather systems on both sides of the Atlantic, in North America as well as Europe.”

Obama Cuts Fed’s Carbon Emissions

In an effort to help meet emissions reduction goals and spur others to do the same, President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 2008 levels in the next decade. Specifically, the executive order calls for agencies to ensure 25 percent of their total energy consumption is from clean sources, to reduce energy use in federal buildings by 2.5 percent each year and decrease per-mile greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from 2014 levels.

“America once again is going to be leading by example,” said Obama. “So we’re proving that it is possible to grow our economy robustly while at the same time doing the right thing for our environment and tackling climate change in a serious way.”

The move by Obama is part of a broader plan to tackle climate change. He previously pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Daily Caller’s Michael Bastasch reports that Obama’s latest moves on climate are part of a larger effort to increase political pressure on other countries to follow suit in the months before a global climate treaty will be discussed at an international climate summit in Paris.

“If I can encourage and gain commitments from the Chinese to put forward a serious plan to start curbing their greenhouse gases, and that then allows us to leverage the entire world for the conference that will be taking place later this year in Paris,” Obama 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.


McCarthy: States Must Comply with Clean Power Plan

March 19, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Tuesday, a lawyer hired by the world’s largest coal mining company told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power that proposed requirements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants are reckless, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in an op-ed, said states should ignore them, but U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy warned that the regulations will be enforced whether or not states chose to cooperate.

“The EPA is going to regulate. Mid-summer is when the Clean Power Plan is going to be finalized,” McCarthy said, noting that the EPA is developing a federal implementation plan that will apply to states that fail to submit their own compliance plans. “If folks think any of those pieces aren’t going to happen and [the Clean Power Plan] isn’t going to be implemented, I think they need to look at the history of the Clean Air Act more carefully. This isn’t how we do business.”

A new policy brief by Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions offers a compliance pathway for the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan that allows states to realize the advantages of multistate and market-based solutions without mandating either strategy. Under the common elements approach, states develop individual-state plans to achieve their unique emissions targets and give power plant owners the option to participate in cross-state emissions markets.

“States wouldn’t necessarily have to mandate market-based approaches or even endorse the approaches,” said Jonas Monast, lead author and director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute. “What it would require is the states using a common definition of what a compliance instrument is and ensuring that somehow the credits are verified and tracked.”

The common elements approach would allow cross-state credit transfers without states’ negotiation of a formal regional trading scheme, leave compliance choices to power companies, build on existing state and federal trading programs and maintain traditional roles of state energy and environmental regulators.

Carbon Footprint of Crudes Varies Widely

A first-of-its-kind oil-climate index, produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Climate and Energy Program in collaboration with Stanford University and the University of Calgary, captures the huge spread between the most and least intensive greenhouse gas (GHG) oils. By calculating the carbon costs of various crudes and related petroleum products, the authors suggest that companies and policymakers can better prioritize their development.

The index reflects emissions from the entire oil supply chain—oil extraction, crude transport, refining, marketing, and product combustion and end use—and reveals an 80 percent spread between the lowest GHG-emitting oil and the highest in its sample of 30 crudes, representing some 5 percent of global oil production. That spread will likely grow when more types of crude oil, particularly oil from unconventional sources, are added to the index.

The lead emitter? China Bozhong crude, followed by several Canadian syncrudes derived from oil sands-extracted bitumen.

A blog post for the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested that the wide emissions spread should give rise to “more responsible practices like capturing rather than flaring gas” and that in some cases “the dirtiest extra-heavy resources are best left in the ground.”

The index, which highlights that attention to the entire lifecycle of a barrel of crude is critical to designing policies that reduce its climate impacts, was released days before the International Energy Agency reported that for the first time in 40 years of record keeping, carbon dioxide emissions from energy use remained steady in 2014. The halt, the report states, is particularly notable because it is not tied to an economic downturn.

More Renewables, Tougher Standards for Public Lands

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell previewed plans to make energy development safer on public and tribal lands and waters in a speech outlining priorities for the Obama administration’s final years.

“…our task by the end of this Administration is to put in place common-sense reforms that promote good government and help define the rules of the road for America’s energy future on our public lands,” Jewell said. “Those reforms should help businesses produce energy more safely and with more certainty. They should encourage technological innovation. They should ensure American taxpayers are getting maximum benefit from their resources. And they should apply our values and our science to better protect and sustain our planet for future generations.”

Among the measures to be unveiled in coming months: tightened spill prevention standards for offshore drilling, increased construction of solar and wind installations and a raise in royalties from coal mining.

Jewell also hinted at plans “in coming days” to propose rules governing hydraulic fracturing on public lands, which are believed to hold about 25 percent of the country’s shale reserves.

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.


Climate Pledges May Not Be Enough

March 12, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The European Union (EU) is now the second body to submit an official climate target to the United Nations ahead of talks to reach a global climate agreement in Paris later this year. One of the world’s top emitters, the EU intends to reduce its emissions 40 percent (relative to 1990 levels) by 2030. This commitment is in addition to 2050 emissions reduction targets that a recent report published by the European Environment Agency claims may prove difficult to reach.

“The level of ambition of environmental policies currently in place to reduce environmental pressures may not enable Europe to achieve long-term environmental goals, such as the 2050 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent,” the report said. It points to a 60 percent cut in transportation emissions toward which little progress has been made.

Another study that looks at commitments by all nations to curb the effects of climate change suggests that the U.N. goal of avoiding 2 degrees Celsius of warming by century’s end is unlikely to be met. According to the authors, to attain that goal, the agreement reached in Paris must not only be based on a shared commitment to creating “equitable access to sustainable development,” but must also be structured to facilitate dynamic and collaborative interactions between parties.

Negotiators aim to complete an agreement in Paris that would go into effect in 2020. All countries are due to announce their emissions reductions plans in June in Bonn.

Droughts in the Amazon Accelerating Climate Change

A severe drought in 2010 doubled the rate of tree mortality in the Amazon rainforest, causing a 1.4 billion ton loss in the forest’s uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s the conclusion of a new study in Nature that finds droughts are causing the trees to exhale more carbon dioxide than they inhale. The authors say trees store a tenth less CO2 from the atmosphere during droughts, apparently because they are channeling their more limited energy reserves into growth.

“Here, we show for the first time that during severe drought, the rate at which they [tropical rainforests] ‘inhale’ carbon through photosynthesis can decrease,” said Christopher Doughty, one of the researchers. “This decreased uptake of carbon does not decrease growth rates but does mean an increase in tree deaths. As trees die and decompose, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase, potentially speeding up climate change during tropical droughts.”

The study provides the first direct evidence of the rate at which individual trees in the Amazonian basin absorb carbon during a severe drought. An international research team compared the growth and photosynthesis rates of trees at 13 drought-affected and non-drought-affected rainforest plots across Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. Researchers discovered that growth rates of the trees in the plots were unchanged but that photosynthesis rates on the six drought-affected plots slowed by some 10 percent over six months.

EIA Report Sees Growth in Wind, Solar

Electricity from renewable sources outpaced the growth of electricity from fossil fuel-fired plants in 2014, according to a new Energy Information Administration report. Though solar’s share of electricity production remained smaller than wind’s share, net generation of the former grew by more than 100 percent last year. Wind generation grew by 8 percent and is forecasted to grow by 16.1 percent this year and another 6.5 percent in 2016.

“Because wind is starting from a much larger base than solar, even though the growth rate is lower, the absolute amount of the increase in capacity is more than twice that of solar: 15 GW [gigawatts] of wind versus 6 GW of utility-scale solar between 2014 and 2016,” the EIA reports.

Ultimately, wind will see a net increase of 9.8 gigawatts—the most of any other power source in 2015. California and North Carolina will add the most utility-scale solar capacity to systems (73 percent combined).

“Given current growth rates, especially for solar and wind, it is quite possible that renewable energy sources will reach, or exceed, 14% of the nation’s electrical supply by the end of 2015,” noted Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “That is a level that EIA, only a few years ago, was forecasting would not be achieved until the year 2040.”

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.


First-Ever Direct Observation of Greenhouse Gas Increase

March 5, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study in the journal Nature offers that for the first time scientists have directly observed an increase in one major greenhouse gas at Earth’s surface.

“We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there’s more CO2 [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere to absorb what the Earth emits in response to incoming solar radiation,” said lead author Daniel Feldman. “Numerous studies show rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, but our study provides the critical link between those concentrations and the addition of energy to the system, or the greenhouse effect.”

Feldman and other researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, measured the amount of infrared heat radiation from the sun reaching Earth’s surface and the amount of heat radiation the Earth emits back. Examination of carbon dioxide concentrations from 2000 to 2010 in Alaska and Oklahoma showed the “fingerprint of carbon dioxide” trapping heat in action. Some of the heat from Earth was being blocked by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—allowing the researchers to calculate that this effect amounted to two-tenths of a watt per square meter of surface warming per decade (22 parts per million between 2000 and 2010).

“The data say what the data say,” Feldman said. “They are very clear that the rising carbon dioxide is actually contributing to an increased greenhouse effect at those sites.”

Net Zero Emissions—The Business Case

A recently leaked European Union planning document states that “the world’s states should commit to a legally binding emissions cut of 60 percent by 2050, with five yearly reviews.” Still, many scientists and policy experts want this year’s Paris climate talks to aim for net zero emissions. In fact, the latest draft climate agreement, forged a few weeks ago in Geneva, does contain 15 versions of a net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions goal.

Using information in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, the 2014 United Nations Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report, and other scientific literature, a new briefing note from Climate Analytics details timeframes for that goal. For a 66 percent likelihood of avoiding 2 degrees of warming by century’s end, GHG emissions would have to be 40–70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050 and would need to reach zero some time between 2080 and 2100, but energy and industry emissions of CO2 would have to reach zero no later than 2075 and perhaps as soon as 2060.

At the outset of the Geneva talks, The B Team, a group of leaders from the business and nonprofit sectors founded by Sir Richard Branson, referenced the 66 percent chance in endorsing a net zero emissions goal: “The B Team view a 1-in-3 chance of failure as an unreasonable risk scenario carrying significant cost implications, strengthening the business case for achieving net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.”

“Momentum is already growing in finance, business and political circles for a net zero goal,” wrote Mary Robinson, the United Nations Secretary General’s special envoy on climate change, in the foreword to The Business Case for Adopting the Long-Term Goal for Net Zero Emissions, a report published by Track0.org.

EPA Airline Emissions Plan under Review

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first proposed the idea of regulating emissions for the airline industry, which accounts for 2–3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, last year. Media report that the EPA has now sent the White House’s Office of Management and Budget its draft conclusion on whether carbon emitted from airplanes is cumulatively harmful to the environment and what the agency might do to restrict emissions.

NBC reports on how a decision to regulate airline emissions could lead to fuel-efficient planes.

Following the White House’s review of the document, the EPA could, according to Think Progress, make a proposal to the public as early as May with a final decision coming in 2016. The Daily Caller; however, reports the EPA has no timeline in mind.

“We don’t have a timeline for doing a rule,” said an EPA spokeswoman. “For any potential EPA domestic rulemaking to adopt equivalent international standards, EPA would have to propose and then finalize an affirmative endangerment and cause or contribute findings for aircraft greenhouse gas emissions.”

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.


First Rules for Arctic Drilling Released

February 26, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Department of the Interior unveiled the first draft rules for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The rules would require energy companies to clear a number of safety hurdles before being approved for drilling.

“The Arctic has substantial oil and gas potential, and the U.S. has a longstanding interest in the orderly development of these resources, which includes establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, the surrounding communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. She noted that the proposed regulations “are designed to ensure that offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to the highest safety standards.”

The regulations, which were crafted with a nod to previous experiences in the Arctic’s first drilling season when a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig ran aground in 2012, are open for public comment now, but they are not expected to be finalized before this summer’s drilling season. If approved, they would—among other things—require energy companies to submit safety plans and have a separate backup rig nearby to quickly drill a relief well to handle any blowout.

Oceans Warming and Seas Rising Faster Than Predicted

Obscured by news that 2014 had the hottest global air temperatures on record was new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about ocean warming. As climate expert John Abraham wrote in the Guardian, “The oceans are warming so fast, they keep breaking scientists’ charts.” Literally. The 2014 heat spike was so pronounced that scientists had to re-scale the chart NOAA uses to track ocean temperatures.

Oceans absorb more than 90 percent of global warming heat, and in recent years they have seen an acceleration in warming. Ocean acidification is a direct result of this absorption of carbon dioxide. A new study in Nature Climate Change, co-authored by Duke University researchers, offers the first nationwide look at the vulnerability of our country’s $1 billion shellfish industry to the problem of more acidic oceans.

“We find that nearly two-thirds of the country will be hit hard, but by different sources of ocean acidification,” said Linwood Pendleton, co-author and senior scholar at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “Some areas are most impacted by CO2 driven ocean acidification, some by upwellings, and some by increased acidification caused by freshwater run-off. Previously, our focus was on the Pacific Northwest, but this study shows that the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and New England also will be impacted.”

According to a separate study in Science and another co-authored by researchers at the University of California–Irvine, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and three other institutions, warmer ocean waters are also the culprit in accelerated thawing of a West Antarctica ice sheet.

Rising ocean temperatures are one of the factors contributing to a rate of sea-level rise that according to a new study in Nature is much faster than scientists had predicted. “The acceleration into the last two decades is far worse than previously thought,” said study coauthor Carling Hay. “This new acceleration is about 25 percent higher than previous estimates.”

How do we know? The Nature study relied on a new and improved way of measuring sea-level rise.

“What we have done, which is a bit different from past studies, is use physical models and statistical models to try to look for underlying patterns in the messy tide gauge data observations,” said Hay. “Each of the different contributions actually produces a unique pattern, or fingerprint, of sea-level change. And what we try to do is model these underlying patterns and then use our statistical approach to look for the patterns in the tide gauge observations. That allows us to infer global information from the very limited records.”

If the new method holds up to further scrutiny, scientists could be more confident about their understanding of the precise causes of sea-level rise—and in their ability to project future increases in it.

Obama Vetoes Keystone XL

President Barack Obama left the long-debated Keystone XL Pipeline project in limbo this week after vetoing a bill to approve construction of the oil pipeline.

Of the bill for the pipeline, slated to transport oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, Obama wrote that “the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest … And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety, and environment—it has earned my veto.”

We haven’t heard the last of this controversy. Obama retains the right to make a final decision on the pipeline on his own timeline, the Washington Post reports, after the executive process (review at the State Department) runs its course. The Senate will vote no later than March 3 to override the veto, according Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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 Targets May Change

February 19, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The EPA Administrator this week, suggested (subscription) that interim goals for existing power plants to comply with the agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan could be softened before the rule is finalized this summer.

The proposal unveiled last year calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and sets state-by-state emissions targets, beginning as early as 2020. Regulators and electric utilities have complained that a lack of time could destabilize electric supplies. According to the News and World Report, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated that changes to the 2020 date are “very, very much on the table.”

“While states can craft their own glide path, we want to make sure they hit the targets that we need and they’re going to be effective strategies,” McCarthy told an audience at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners winter meeting. “We clearly need to make sure there is trajectory towards a goal that is as far away as 2030 and that there is an ability to ensure that states are actively working and on a trajectory to achieve that final goal.”

New Climate Agreement Draft Long on Diversity of Views, Short on Resolutions

“86 pages, 54,000 words, 1,234 square brackets here’s official draft of #Paris2015”—that’s how Sebastian Duyck, an Arctic Centre researcher and observer at last week’s climate talks in Geneva summarized the proceedings’ output on social media. The draft negotiated in Lima last November more than doubled in size, and the number of words, phrases, and sentences not agreed by all countries—the brackets referred to in Duyck’s tweet—also increased, but although the new draft became more complex—not simpler as planned—it represents progress to some participants.

“Although it has become longer, countries are now fully aware of each other’s positions,” said Christiana Figueres, the head of the United Nations climate change secretariat.

“After years of false starts and broken promises, restoring ownership and trust in the process is no small achievement. And I think we have come a long way toward doing that,” said Ahmed Sareer, a Maldives delegate who represents an alliance of island nations.

Among the new draft’s significantly varying proposals for checking climate change are a zero net greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2050 and a peaking of emissions “as soon as possible.”

In new text, developed countries, including the United States, emphasized the need for all countries to contribute to emissions reductions efforts, and developing countries asked for financial help to deal with climate change.

The international agreement, to be reached in Paris in December, is supposed to go into effect in 2020. The next critical date is June in Bonn, where all countries are to announce their emissions reductions plans.

Experts Debate Economic, Carbon Impacts of Biomass Conversion to Electricity

Last November, the EPA issued a policy memo that appeared to promote the harvest of forests to produce power by treating bioenergy as a carbon-free energy source. But there are a couple of problems with that strategy, reports the New York Times. It ignores the opportunity cost of dedicating land to bioenergy rather than to other purposes, potentially imperiling food supplies and ecosystems—and, according to a recent World Resources Institute report, energy from forests and fields is not carbon neutral.

In a Feb. 9 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that decries the new power plant policy, 78 scientists said, “Burning biomass instead of fossil fuels does not reduce the carbon emitted by power plants.” In fact, “Burning biomass, such as trees, that would otherwise continue to absorb and store carbon comes at the expense of reduced carbon storage.”

In a Feb. 11 letter to McCarthy, six environmental Massachusetts-based environmental groups also opposed the policy, stating, “We are pleased that EPA is moving forward with the Clean Power Plan. However, we write to express our deep concern at EPA’s apparent decision to treat biomass power as carbon neutral for the purposes of EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Prevention of Significant Deterioration permitting.” They added that the decision “contradicts sound science and promotes burning forest wood for electric power production, which is exactly the wrong direction for our county’s renewable energy policy.”

But a just-published report in the journal Nature Climate Change argues that deploying bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) could produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon—with up to a 145 percent emissions cut from 1990 levels. Moreover, according to energy expert and study coauthor Daniel Kammen, BECCS may be one of the few cost-effective carbon-negative opportunities available to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and could be critical should that change be worse than anticipated or should emissions reductions in non-energy sectors prove difficult to realize.

On the basis of analysis of various fuel scenarios using a detailed model of the American West power grid developed at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, the University of California–Berkeley report predicts that biomass conversion to electricity combined with prospective carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies could result in a carbon-negative power grid in the western United States by 2050.

“There are a lot of commercial uncertainties about carbon capture and sequestration technologies,” admitted the study leader, Daniel Sanchez. “Nevertheless, we’re taking this technology and showing that in the Western United States 35 years from now, BECCS doesn’t merely let you reduce emissions by 80 percent – the current 2050 goal in California—but gets the power system to negative carbon emissions: you store more carbon than you create.”

These latest contributions add to and continue what has been several years of debate (subscription) on the possible benefits and drawbacks of biomass energy and how best to quantify the ultimate impact of its use.

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.


House and Senate Votes, Court Decision Shorten Road to Keystone Decision

January 15, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Monday the Senate passed a bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline in a procedural vote just shy of the 67 votes needed to override a veto, setting up what could be an extensive debate on energy policy and climate in next year’s presidential election. The move followed a bipartisan vote in which the House of Representatives passed a similar bill, Jan. 9.

The House vote came just hours after Nebraska’s Supreme Court cleared the way for the controversial project by upholding a 2012 law giving the governor permitting authority for major oil pipelines. The court overruled a lower court finding that allowing the governor and pipeline owner TransCanada to use eminent domain to lay the pipeline on private land was unconstitutional. However, an attorney for the landowners in the case suggested that the litigation was not over, stating that the outcome amounted to a “nondecision open to further review” because most judges agreed with the landowners on the standing issue and three declined to weigh in on the law’s constitutionality.

The ruling shifted the debate over Keystone to Washington, where Republicans are pushing for its final approval after more than six years of review by the U.S. State Department.

“Today’s court decision wipes out President Obama’s last excuse,” Republican Senator and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Lisa Murkowski said.

“Regardless of the Nebraska ruling,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, “the House bill still conflicts with longstanding executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests.”

In fact, it could take months for the administration to reach a final verdict because the State Department must take comments from eight agencies before reaching its own conclusion about the project.

Environmentalists and other opponents of the pipeline have highlighted the potential for extraction and transport of crude from Canada’s tar sands to contaminate water, pollute air, and harm wildlife. But the GOP, the oil industry, and other pipeline backers argue that Keystone will lead to jobs and increase oil independence as well as strengthen bonds with Canada.

“Boosting American-made energy results in more American jobs and improved international relations,” said Rep. Leonard Lance. “This is a winning combination for our Nation’s economy, our national security and a centerpiece in our relationship with our ally, Canada.”

Rep. Adam Smith had a different take: “Rather than focusing on Keystone XL, we should be working on bigger picture investments in clean energy and energy efficient technologies that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels that hurt our environment.”

Obama Administration Targets Methane Emissions

The Obama administration has announced the first-ever national standards to cut methane emissions from new sources in the oil and natural gas industry. Methane accounts for some 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it has 20 times carbon dioxide’s planet-warming potency.

“This strategy will benefit the economy, the climate and public health,” said Dan Utech, President Obama’s advisor on energy climate change, though activists say the cuts fall short of those needed to reach the administration’s international climate change pledges.

Unclear is whether the proposed 45 percent reduction by 2025 would eventually apply to existing oil and gas installations as well as to future sources of carbon pollution.

Breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing technology are projected to increase methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Methane leaks from oil and natural gas drilling sites and pipelines are 50 percent higher than previously thought according to a 2014 study published in the journal Science.

Estimates of Social Cost of Carbon Vary Widely, with Policy Consequences

The social cost of carbon (SCC) or the economic damage caused by a ton of carbon dioxide emissions—which the United States uses to guide energy regulations and, potentially, future mitigation policies—is $37 per ton according to a recent U.S. government study or, according to a new study by Stanford researchers published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, six times that value.

The Stanford scientists say the current pricing models fail to reflect all the economic damage each ton of CO2 causes and that a higher value on that damage could change policy.

“If the social cost of carbon is higher, many more mitigation measures will pass a cost-benefit analysis,” said study co-author Delavane Diaz. “Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile.”

“For 20 years now, the models have assumed that climate change can’t affect the basic growth rate of the economy,” said study coauthor Frances Moore. “But a number of new studies suggest this may not be true. If climate change affects not only a country’s economic output but also its growth, then that has a permanent effect that accumulates over time, leading to a much higher social cost of carbon.”

But William Pizer, a faculty fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions who has worked on and recommended regular updating of the SCC estimate, questioned the methodology of the Stanford analysis, pointing out that it relied on the impact on national economies of short-term temperature spikes rather than on long-term trends that might reveal permanent economic reductions.

“To me, it just seems like it has to be an overestimate,” Pizer said of the Stanford result of $220 (subscription required). “I think it’s great they’re doing this,” he added. “I just think this is another data point that someone needs to weigh as they’re trying to figure out what the right social cost of carbon is. But this isn’t like a definitive new answer.”

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.


UN Climate Negotiators Ink Deal in Lima

December 18, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the holidays, The Climate Post will not circulate on December 25th and January 1st. We will return on January 8, 2015.

Negotiators have reached a deal at United Nations (UN) talks in Peru, setting the stage for a global climate pact in Paris in December 2015. The agreement, dubbed the Lima Call for Climate Action, for the first time in history commits every nation to reducing its rate of greenhouse gas emissions.

“As a text, it’s not perfect but it includes the positions of the parties,” said Peru environment minister and conference chair Manuel Pulgar-Vidal.

In addition to an “ambitious agreement” in 2015 that reflects each nation’s “differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” the Lima document calls for submission of national pledges by the first quarter of 2015 by those states “ready to do so” and for setting of national targets that go beyond countries’ “current undertaking.”

Countries already imperiled by climate change, such as small island states, were promised a “loss and damage” program of financial aid.

Through Belgium’s pledge of $62 million, the UN Green Climate Fund met its initial target of $10 billion to aid developing countries in curbing carbon emissions.

“There is still considerable work to be done,” said Felipe Calderon, former president of Mexico and chairman of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, at the conclusion of the talks. “But I am encouraged that countries, all around the world, are beginning to see that it is in their economic interest to take action now.”

“We are happy that the final negotiated statement at COP20 in Lima has addressed the concerns of developing countries,” said India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar. “It gives enough space for the developing world to grow and take appropriate nationally determined steps,” he said.

But the negotiations, at which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had made an impassioned plea for agreement, were considered a failure by those hoping for ambitious emissions reductions commitments.

“Against the backdrop of extreme weather in the Philippines and potentially the hottest year ever recorded, governments at the U.N. climate talks in Lima opted for a half-baked plan to cut emissions,” said Samantha Smith, leader of World Wildlife Fund’s global climate and energy initiative.

The remaining North-South divide over which countries should carry the majority of emissions-cutting costs—plus other thorny matters, such as how to finance poorer countries’ reductions and preparations for extreme climatic events—has increased the diplomatic heavy-lifting required to reach a final agreement in 2015.

“They [countries] got through Lima by largely skirting the issue for now,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “It’s hard to see that flying in Paris.”

Solar Net Metering Terms Set in South Carolin​a

An agreement filed in South Carolina outlines new terms for solar net metering in the state. The terms ensure homes, businesses, schools, and any nonprofit organizations using rooftop solar panels will be provided “one-to-one” retail credit (or full retail value) from the state’s utilities for each kilowatt hour generated back to the electric grid—making South Carolina the 44th state (subscription) to allow for full rate credit.

Referred to as net metering, this process was a key component of Act 236, a law passed in June, which made solar power more accessible in the state.

Upon gaining approval from the South Carolina Public Service Commission, the agreement—supported by utilities such as Duke Energy and environmental groups—will provide homeowners the opportunity to lease solar systems while allowing utility companies to recoup costs of offering service.

According to Dukes Scott, executive director of the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff, proposed rules from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan on reducing carbon emissions will help determine the value or contribution of solar power.

Last Big Warmup May Offer Sneak Peek into Today’s Climate Change

Despite climate warming by five to eight degrees Celsius during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, nearly 55.5 million years ago, most of the species around that time survived. However, it took nearly 200,000 years for Earth to recover from that rise.

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.


Optimism at UN Climate Change Conference

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

What’s driving the momentum?

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

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

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

EPA Closes Public Comment Period on Proposed Clean Power Plan

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping Low-Carbon Investments in the United States 

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

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

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

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

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


IEA Unveils World Energy Outlook 2014: Looking Ahead to 2040

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, The Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return on December 4.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released its World Energy Outlook (WEO) 2014 report, which for the first time provides energy trend projections through the year 2040. Among the key challenges in the next two and a half decades is, a 37 percent rise in global energy demand, driven mainly by emerging markets in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Asia will account for 60 percent of global growth in demand, and by early 2030s, China may surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest oil consumer.

“The short-term picture of a well-supplied oil market should not disguise the challenges that lie ahead as reliance grows on a relatively small number of producers,” according to the WEO report.

The IEA projects that global oil consumption will rise from 90 million barrels a day in 2013 to 104 million barrels a day in 2040, requiring a $900 billion investment in oil and gas development by the 2030s.

Overall use of coal is projected to decrease slowly in demand, while use of renewable energy from wind, solar and hydropower will grow. The IEA anticipates renewables will saturate one-third of global energy demand by 2040.

CO2 emissions are expected to grow by one-fifth by 2040, which puts the world’s temperature well on track to rise to 3.6 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, increasing the risk of droughts, rising sea levels, damaging storms and mudslides.

According to IEA projections, limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius deemed by U.N. as the level necessary to avoid dangerous changes would require the world to ramp up low-carbon energy investments by four times their current levels—bringing annual global investment up to approximately $1 trillion.

On the domestic front, a majority of Americans support stricter regulations on carbon emissions, according to a new poll by Yale’s Project on Climate Communication. Further, two thirds of those polled (1,275 adults) support limits on carbon dioxide emissions even after being told such measures would raise power prices.

U.S. Pledges $3 Billion to UN’s Green Climate Fund

On the heels of its climate deal with China, the U.S. announced its intent to contribute $3 billion to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund, which was established in 2013 to provide support to developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The “game-changing pledge,” made by President Obama on the eve of the G-20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia, last week, makes the U.S. the fund’s largest contributor. The Obama administration has not specified whether its pledge will come from existing sources of funding or new appropriations from Congress—a strategy that could face stiff resistance from Republican lawmakers.

“The contribution by the U.S. will have a direct impact on mobilizing contributions from the other large economies,” said Hela Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the Green Climate Fund. “The other large economies—Japan, the U.K.—have been watching to see what the U.S. will do.”

It did not take long for Japan to follow suit with a $1.5 billion pledge to the fund. To date, the U.N. has received pledges from 13 countries totaling $7.5 billion—three-quarters of its $10 billion goal. Rich countries meet in Berlin to further discuss the 2014 goal where pledges reached $9.3 billion.

Panel Approves Rules for Unconventional Oil and Gas

After several years of heated debate, the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission approved a detailed list of regulations to guide companies interested in securing unconventional oil and gas permits in the state. The rules were unanimously approved by commission members after review of approximately 217,000 public comments by 30,000 groups and individuals.

One of the rules revised by the commission in light of those comments calls for inclusion of leak detection systems and continuous monitoring of liners for open pits where fluids such as drilling waste are stored.

The approved regulations will be reviewed in December by the NC Rules Review Commission and in January by the state legislature. The commission has identified a number of areas for continued work, including authority to stop a company’s work.

“Just because we don’t have that stop-work authority doesn’t mean we can’t stop the work on site,” said Amy Pickle, vice chair of the commission and director of the State Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “If something is going wrong, there’s injunctive authority, there is the ability to go to court to require them to stop working, there’s an ability through inspections and monitoring to revoke that permit.”

Across the country, unconventional oil and gas issues continue to be highly polarizing, as measures passed during mid-term elections revealed. A development ban was passed by the town of Denton, the Texas city where the earliest exploration began. In a compromise plan, limited development was approved by the U.S. Forest Service for the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. A 2011 plan draft would have allowed drilling in much of the forest’s 1.1 million acres.

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.