The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed that FERC change its rules to help coal and nuclear plants compete in wholesale power markets. The change would mandate that plants capable of storing 90 days of fuel supplies at their sites get increased payments for electricity. The plan may represent the Trump administration’s most consequential attempt to reshape the electricity market to date.

Perry proposed the rule change in the name of electric grid resilience, which he said is threatened by recent coal and nuclear plant closures. With the letter, he enclosed a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking directing FERC to either take final action to implement the change within 60 days of the notice’s publication in the Federal Register or to issue the proposed rule as an interim final rule. The notice includes legal justification for FERC’s authority to issue the proposed rule without an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement.

The proposed rule, which fits with the Trump administration’s stated intention to support fossil fuels, is not the first attempt to alter wholesale electricity markets in light of changes in the electricity sector. The PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization that operates the grid and electricity market in 13 eastern U.S. states, is exploring ways to make wholesale electricity markets and evolving state policies work better together. A range of perspectives on PJM’s proposed responses to state subsidies for various generation sources were reflected last week at an event, co-hosted by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Great Plains Institute, on harmonization of state energy policies and PJM’s markets.

Energy analysts and energy regulators, including former FERC commissioners, have criticized Perry’s proposal, saying it could increase customer costs and power sector pollution while actually doing little to enhance system resilience.

Perry’s proposal presents no evidence of immediate dangers to the nation’s grid from retirements of marginal coal and nuclear plants, according to a broad group of energy companies that made a joint filing urging FERC to reject Perry’s push for fast action. In an updated motion filed Tuesday, the 11 groups asked for an extension of FERC’s comment deadline.

According to EnergyWire, the proposal appears to contradict a report from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), which it cites. The report makes no claim of a grid in crisis and notes that essential reliability services—typically furnished by retiring coal and nuclear plants—are within the capacity of gas, renewable power and electricity storage to provide.

Nor does the proposal completely align with a DOE-ordered study, cited in the 11 energy associations’ joint filing, on the reliability of the nation’s electric grid that was released in August. That study conceded that the rapid increase of renewables has not undermined the power network, though it, too, called for changing electricity pricing rules, along with loosening of pollution regulations, to protect the coal industry.

Proposal Suggests Ending Clean Power Plan, While Court Orders Methane Rules Move Forward

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will propose a repeal of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sets state-by-state carbon reduction targets for power plants, reports Reuters.

An EPA document distributed to members of the agency’s Regulatory Steering Committee indicated that the EPA “is issuing a proposal to repeal the rule.” It went on to say it intends to issue what it calls an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to solicit input as it considers “developing a rule similarly intended to reduce CO2 emissions from existing fossil fuel electric utility generating units.”

But Gina McCarthy, who served as EPA administrator under former President Barack Obama starting in July 2013, says that pronouncements don’t equal the law and that moves to undo Obama’s climate legacy will not withstand legal challenges.

“You really have to work hard to show the prior administration made a mistake when it made the rules,” said McCarthy. “Did we get the science wrong? The law wrong? The facts different? I think you’re going to see we did a good job, so it’s going to be a long time in discussions in the courts, and I think in the end things will continue to move forward.”

A Trump administration review of the Clean Power Plan is expected to be finalized this fall, according to an EPA court filing.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Wednesday ordered that the Trump administration acted unlawfully when it delayed a separate emissions rule designed to reduce leaking, venting and flaring of methane emissions from oil and gas drilling activity. This week the Trump administration announced another proposal to stall standards until 2019, but EnergyWire reports that the district court’s order means the rule will now take effect.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Flat for Third Consecutive Year

Earth-warming carbon dioxide emissions remained static in 2016, according to data from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (NEAA). Of the world’s biggest carbon emitters, only India experienced an increase (4.7 percent). China and the United States, the top two emitters, experienced decreases (0.3 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively), resulting primarily from reduced coal use.

2016 marks the third year in a row that carbon dioxide emissions have not increased. That’s an unprecedented trend at a time when the global economy is growing, according to NEAA. Yet, their amount—upward of 35 billion tons last year—is still enough to raise global temperatures to dangerous levels. In some big countries, these emissions are still increasing, suggesting that they are not guaranteed to remain flat or to decrease in the future.

Importantly, the NEAA report also found that greenhouse gas emissions other than carbon dioxide rose by approximately 1 percent. Moreover, the report did not account for carbon dioxide emissions from land use changes, which are more difficult to estimate and vary significantly from year to year.

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.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A Trump administration review of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sets state-by-state carbon reduction targets for power plants, is expected to be finalized this fall, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a court filing last week.

The EPA was expected do away with the signature climate regulation, which the Supreme Court stayed in early 2016 and which would require the U.S. electricity sector to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by up to 32 percent, from 2005 levels, by 2030. But, according to Politico, the Trump administration has suggested that it might consider a replacement at the urging of power companies fearful that a repeal could trigger courtroom challenges that would lead to years of regulatory uncertainty.

If, for reasons of regulatory certainty and legal prudence, the Trump administration does conclude that some limits on the plants’ carbon emissions are a good idea, The Hill reports that the regulation is likely to focus solely on carbon reductions that plants can achieve, mainly by improving the efficiency of coal-fired generators. By contrast, the existing rule ordered reductions based not just on efficiency gains but also on use of relatively low-carbon power sources like natural gas as well as renewable fuels. Hence carbon reductions achievable through a Trump rule would be much lower than former president Barack Obama’s rule, and emissions might actually rise if efficiency gains discouraged the closure of coal plants by making them cheaper to operate.

If the Trump administration does move to repeal the Clean Power Plan, it will have to change the cost-benefit calculus to justify the move, reported ClimateWire (subscription). According to the Obama-era EPA, every $1 spent on compliance might buy $6 in benefits, in part by averting premature deaths and health problems. The Trump administration’s cost-benefit analysis, promised last March as part of its announced review of the rule, could telegraph how it might recalculate the benefits of curbing climate change as it moves to eliminate other Obama-era regulations.

Announcement of the Clean Power Plan review’s finalization came as officials from the White House’s policy councils and representatives from federal agencies, including the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy, met to begin plotting a climate and energy strategy, one aimed at new policies that break from the Trump administration’s extensive efforts to repeal climate regulations and to push back on the public perception that the administration doesn’t support climate change science, a perception reinforced by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s launching of a critique of the validity of that science.

“This was a forward-looking meeting on strategy and how to prioritize the administration’s climate goals and objectives moving forward,” said an administration spokesman said. “This particular meeting was more big picture strategy.” The purpose was to bring together “a whole group of stakeholders … that are involved in climate issues and looking ahead to what policy initiatives we may put in place.”

Nevertheless, on Monday the EPA announced that it is preparing to submit a final report to the White House on rules that are ripe for repeal because they may burden fossil fuel production and use—a report required of all federal agencies by Trump’s March executive order on regulations, E.O. 13783, and by subsequent Office of Management and Budget guidance.

Ontario Joins California and Quebec in Carbon Market

Ontario joins California and Quebec in their cap-and-trade program, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Announced on Friday, the agreement, which takes effect Jan. 1, creates the world’s second largest carbon market behind the European Union’s market.

“Climate change is a global problem that requires global solutions,” said Kathleen Wynne, premier of Ontario. “Now more than ever, we need to work together with our partners at home and around the world to show how our collaboration can lead to results in this international fight. Today’s carbon market linking agreement will add to the success we have already seen in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario, Québec and California. We are stronger together, and by linking our three carbon markets we will achieve even greater reductions at the lowest cost.”

The system puts a “cap” on the amount of pollution companies in certain industries can emit. If they exceed those limits, they must buy allowance permits at auction or from other companies that come in under their pollution limits. Linking the carbon markets means participating companies will be able to use carbon allowances and offsets issued by any of the three governments at their quarterly auctions. The addition of Ontario significantly expands the allowance market, according to California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young.

“Ontario’s market is roughly 40 percent to 50 percent the size of California’s carbon market,” he said. “Quebec’s is 15 percent of California’s.”

Transportation Emissions under Microscope

The Federal Highway Administration announced that the 2016 Transportation Clean Air Rule, which requires state and local planners to track and curb pollution from trucks and cars on federal highways in their jurisdictions, goes into effect today.  Legal pressure following a Trump administration announcement, in May, to “indefinitely delay” the rule earned its reinstatement.

With the rule back in place, the Federal Highway Administration can resume working with state and local planners to find transportation options that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the first compliance deadline of October 2018.

Originally finalized days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the rule requires state and metro transport agencies and planning organizations to track carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles traveling on the national highway system. The agencies also must set two-year emissions-reduction targets, four-year targets, or both, and they must periodically report on their progress.

A Federal Register notice indicates that the Trump administration will still propose a rule repeal by the end of the year—possibly finalizing it in spring 2018.

Some states, including California and Massachusetts, already require highway planners to consider the climate impacts of roads. For California in particular, history, legal precedent and regulatory defiance has given the state the unique authority to write its own air pollution rules and set its own auto emissions standards. For now, the federal waiver allowing California to set these standards will not be revoked, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. It appears California may re-open discussions on its greenhouse gas limits for cars and trucks for 2025 if automakers and the Trump administration embrace tougher targets that the state is seeking for later years.

“The price of getting us to the table is talking about post-2025,” said Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board. “California remains convinced that there was no need to initiate this new review of the review and that the technical work was fully adequate to justify going ahead with the existing program, but we’re willing to talk about specific areas if there were legitimate concerns the companies raised — in the context of a bigger discussion about where we’re going post-2025.”

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.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Hurricane Irma is shaping up to be a potentially catastrophic storm that remains on course to hit Florida by Sunday. Coming immediately after Hurricane Harvey, Irma is increasing attention to the relationship of severe weather events to climate change. Throughout the past few decades, hurricanes in particular have drawn attention to the need to fight climate change, with scientists recognizing that although climate change is not the cause of hurricanes, “a warmer planet will produce bigger and more destructive hurricanes.” What is unclear, however, is when American politicians will conclude that the severity and frequency of big storms requires more action to reduce global warming pollution.

Whatever the political reaction after Harvey and Irma, the storms are making clear their implications for energy infrastructure. The hazard with hurricanes are the associated winds, storm surge and, most of all, rain. Already, energy companies in the state are bracing for the hazards that Hurricane Irma, which registered at a category 5 on Wednesday, could bring.

When Houston providers were hit by Hurricane Harvey last month, they experienced limited power outages thanks to investments—smart meters and a fault location, isolation and service restoration system—made after Hurricane Ike in 2008. Still, oil refineries, chemical plants and shale drilling sites have reported Harvey-triggered flaring, leaks and chemical discharges—releasing more than 1 million pounds of air pollutants in the week after the storm.

Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, noted that the Houston area has a “deep concentration of fuel production in this one area that’s so intensely vulnerable.”

In an op-ed in The Conversation experts Andrew Dessler, Daniel Cohan and Katharine Hayhoe write that “today, wind and solar power prices are now competitive with fossil fuels across Texas. Across the country, these industries already employ far more people than coal mining. Electric cars may soon be as affordable as gasoline ones and be charged in ways that help balance the fluctuations in wind and solar power.” 

And Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich) and Valerie Brader write in The Hill that “as Hurricane Harvey has taught us, making sure our energy resources are safe, secure and plentiful should not be a partisan issue. It’s an issue we can’t afford to wait on.”

“It makes you realize, these megastorms, if you haven’t been hit by one, your worst-case scenario is nowhere near a true worst-case scenario,” said Daniel J. Kelly, the executive director of the New Jersey Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, as he recalled his state’s struggle to respond to Hurricane Sandy.

Trump Announces Picks for NASA, Other Climate-Related Posts

On Tuesday, the Trump administration sent 46 nominations to the Senate for confirmation, among them Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma to head up the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Bridenstine doesn’t have a background in science—he studied economics, business and psychology at Rice University. Before he became a Republican congressman in 2012 he worked as executive director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum & Planetarium and served as a Navy combat pilot.

Last year, he sponsored a bill called the American Space Renaissance Act, which proposed broad, ambitious goals for the nation’s space program, including directing NASA to devise a 20-year plan. Although he wants Americans to return to the moon and is an advocate for commercial space flight, NPR reported that Bridenstein expressed skepticism that humans are causing climate change.

Science magazine reported that Democrats in the Senate may question Bridenstine about comments he made in 2013, during his first term in the House, while arguing for additional support for weather research. “Mr. Speaker, global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago,” he said. “Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.”

Although at the time Bridenstine claimed that any changes in global temperature were linked to natural cycles and not increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from industrial activity, he has since acknowledged that those emissions do play a role in climate change.

But in a 2016 interview with Aerospace America, he suggested that any efforts to lessen the nation’s carbon footprint would be economically detrimental.

“The United States does not have a big enough carbon footprint to make a difference when you’ve got all these other polluters out there,” he said. “So why do we fundamentally want to damage our economy even more when nobody else is willing to do the same thing?”

Six other nominees would, if confirmed, also have a say about climate and energy policy.

  • Timothy Gallaudet, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, is the nominee for Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. He has experience in assessing the national security impacts of climate change.
  • Matthew Z. Leopold, former General Counsel of the Florida Department of Environment Protection and a former attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division, is the nominee for Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, General Counsel.
  • William Northey, currently serving his third term as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, is the nominee for Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm Production and Conservation.
  • David Ross, currently serving as the director of the Environmental Protection Unit for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, is the nominee for an Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water.
  • Bruce J. Walker, founder of Modern Energy Insights, Inc., is the nominee for an Assistant Secretary of Energy, Electricity, Delivery and Energy Reliability.
  • Steven E. Winberg, a veteran of Consol Energy and the Batelle Memorial Institute, is the nominee for an Assistant Secretary of Energy, Fossil Energy.

Nuclear Construction Continuing in Georgia as Southeast Utilities Roll Back Plans

Utilities in Georgia are pressing ahead with plans to build two huge nuclear reactors in the next five years—the only nuclear units still under construction nationwide after South Carolina utilities SCANA’s South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper opted to end construction of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station’s two reactors. The proposal calls for completion of the Georgia reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle generating station near Augusta, which is already home to two existing nuclear units built in the 1980s.

“Completing the Vogtle 3 and 4 expansion will enable us to continue delivering clean, safe, affordable and reliable energy to millions of Georgians, both today and in the future,” said Paul Bowers, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power. “The two new units at Plant Vogtle will be in service for 60 to 80 years and will add another low-cost, carbon-free energy source to our already diverse fuel mix.”

Meanwhile, Duke Energy Florida, Duke Energy Carolinas, and Dominion Virginia Power separately announced plans to rollback efforts to develop additional new reactors— moves that made the future of the United States nuclear industry even more unclear.  Right now, as much as 90 percent of nuclear power could disappear over the next 30 years if existing units retire at 60 years of operation—the current maximum length of operating licenses. A Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions study explores how the potential loss of existing nuclear plants in the Southeast interacts with the regions other electricity sector challenges—among them, increasing natural gas dependence, demand uncertainty, and emerging technology—and it proposes steps states can take to address these challenges.

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.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Department of Energy, on Wednesday night, released its electric grid reliability study, finding that the greatest driver of baseload power plant retirements was cheap natural gas followed by flat power demand, environmental regulations and the growing penetration of renewables on the grid.

Requested by U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April, the study was intended to report on whether the U.S. electric grid can handle the retirement of aging coal-fired and nuclear power plants and the “market-distorting effects of federal subsidies that boost one form of energy at the expense of others.”

It found that “the biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements has been the advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation.”

It offers recommendations to boost coal and nuclear. It suggests that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ease rules for resources such as coal, nuclear and hydropower and that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission likewise ease permitting rules for nuclear plants. It also suggests that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) expedite efforts to reform the way prices are set in wholesale markets and how those markets value reliability. Finally, it recommends that the Department of Energy should prioritize research and development for grid resiliency, reliability, modernization and renewables integration technologies be promoted.

Notably absent from the grid study was any mention of climate change, the focus of a 15-member panel disbanded Friday by the Trump administration. The panel had been charged with helping officials and policy makers evaluate a separate federal report, the National Climate Assessment Report. Its members warned that the move leaves the public to deal with what amounts to a data dump with its impending release.

Established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2015, the Federal Advisory Committee for the Sustained Climate Assessment included members of government, industry, academia and non-profits. The group was charged with helping evaluate the National Climate Assessment Report, a portion of which [the Climate Science Special Report] was widely publicized in its draft form earlier this month.

The charter for the committee expired Sunday. A note on the committee’s website offers that “per the terms of the charter, the Federal Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment (Committee) expired on August 20, 2017. The Department of Commerce and NOAA appreciate the efforts of the committee and offer sincere thanks to each of the committee members for their service.”

NOAA Communications Director Julie Roberts said “this action does not impact the completion of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which remains a key priority.”

The Climate Science Special Report is due in its final form in November; the larger congressionally mandated document, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, is scheduled for publication in late 2018.

The National Climate Assessment integrates and evaluates current and projected global climate change trends, both human-induced and natural, and analyzes the effects of current and projected climate change. It has been published three times since passage of the Global Change Research Act of 1990, a law mandating its publication every four years.

Court Directs FERC to Consider GHG Impacts of Pipelines

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in a 2-1 decision issued Tuesday, found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to adequately consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from burning the fuel flowing through the Southeast Market Pipelines Project when it approved the project in 2016. FERC’s failure under the National Environmental Policy Act to adequately discuss the downstream effects of carbon emissions from natural gas transported through the pipelines in the project’s environmental impact statement was grounds for the court’s vacatur and remand.

Judge Thomas Griffith wrote that FERC’s environmental review “should have either given a quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse emissions that will result from burning the natural gas that the pipelines will transport or explained more specifically why it could not have done so.”

Griffith went on to write that “greenhouse-gas emissions are an indirect effect of authorizing this project, which FERC could reasonably foresee, and which the agency has legal authority to mitigate. Quantification would permit the agency to compare the emissions from this project to emissions from other projects, to total emissions from the state or the region, or to regional or national emissions-control goals. Without such comparisons, it is difficult to see how FERC could engage in ‘informed decision making’ with respect to the greenhouse-gas effects of this project, or how ‘informed public comment’ could be possible.”

The project comprises three natural gas pipelines under construction in Alabama, Georgia and Florida that are intended to bring natural gas to Florida to fuel existing and planned power plants.

Trump Denies Coal Exec Plea as EPA Reviews Toxic Waste Limits from Coal Power Plants

As part of a legal appeal, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt filed a letter Monday with the Fifth Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans in which he indicated that he will seek to revise the 2015 guidelines mandating increased treatment for wastewater from coal-fired power plants.

The rule, originally issued by the Obama administration in 2015, aimed to reduce toxic water discharges into lakes, rivers and streams from coal-fired power plants and coal ash dumps.

In the letter, Pruitt said he “decided that it is appropriate and in the public interest to conduct a rulemaking to potentially revise the new, more stringent Best Available Technology Economically Achievable effluent limitations and Pretreatment Standards for Existing Sources in the 2015 rule that applies to bottom ash transport water and flue gas desulfurization wastewater.”

The 2015 rule has faced some scrutiny, with opponents saying it could lead to the closure of coal-fired power plants and economic harm for small utilities.

Also this week, the Trump administration denied a request by coal industry executives from Murray Energy Corporation and FirstEnergy Solutions Corporation to provide them relief for plants they say are overburdened by environmental regulations and market stresses, by pushing forward a rarely used emergency order protecting coal-fired power plants.

“We look at the facts of each issue and consider the authorities we have to address them but with respect to this particular case at this particular time, the White House and the Department of Energy are in agreement that the evidence does not warrant the use of this emergency authority,” said U.S. Department of Energy spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes.

The department did not address assertions by Murray Energy Corporation CEO Bob Murray in letters that Trump told him multiple times in July and August that he wanted Energy Secretary Rick Perry to invoke the emergency authority.

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

EPA, DOT Reviewing Fuel Economy Standards

On August 17, 2017, in Uncategorized, by timprofeta

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a Federal Register notice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation announced they were considering rewriting emissions standards for cars and light trucks made between 2022 and 2025.

The review covers vehicle model years 2022 to 2025. The EPA is also seeking comments on whether fuel standards for the 2021 model year “are appropriate.” The public comment period will be open for 45 days.

“We are moving forward with an open and robust review of emissions standards, consistent with the timeframe provided in our regulations,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “We encourage the public to submit the best-available and most up-to-date information, so that we can get back on track with what the regulation actually requires of the agency. Finally, we are working with DOT to ensure that our standards are ultimately aligned.”

In 2009, automakers agreed to the Obama administration’s rules, which would bring the average fleetwide fuel economy to between 50 and 52.6 miles per gallon in 2025.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which sets fuel economy standards in parallel with the EPA, announced last month it was reconsidering its 2021 mandate as part of its scheduled rulemaking for model years 2022 to 2025.

The EPA has until April 1, 2018 to determine whether the 2022-2025 standards set by the previous administration are appropriate. NHTSA has until April 2020.

Climate Reports: Human Fingerprint Evident in Significant Disruption

At the poles, in the tropics, and beneath the ocean’s surface, the authors of a new report see symptoms of human-caused climate change.

The 27th annual assessment known as the State of the Climate found that last year Earth was hotter than at any time in 137 years of recordkeeping and that it experienced the most significant climate disruption in modern history. In the United States alone, 15 weather or climate-related disasters—drought, wildfire, four inland floods and eight severe storms—caused 138 deaths and $46 billion in damages.

The peer-reviewed report compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Center for Weather and Climate from research conducted by scientists around the world found that a powerful El Niño magnified the effects of heat brought on by greenhouse gases. Particularly notable were record concentrations of carbon dioxide, which increased by the largest year-to-year increase in the six decades of measurement, surpassing 400 parts per million for the first time as an annual average (subscription).

That average far surpasses that of the last 800,000 years, during which concentrations have oscillated between 180 and 300 parts per million (subscription).

Other records included the highest sea levels and lowest sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctica and the highest average sea surface temperature.

Some other highlights of the report:

  • At any given time, nearly one-eighth of the world’s land mass was in severe drought.
  • Extreme weather such as downpours, heat waves, and wildfires struck across the globe.
  • The number of tropical cyclones was 13 percent more than normal.

A separate study published last week in Geophysical Research Letters and based on modeling and weather patterns shows the odds of three years in a row of record-setting heat with and without man-made global warming in model simulations. Without a human climate influence, there’s a less than 0.5 percent chance of that occurrence at any time since 2000. With such an influence, the odds increase to the 30–50 percent range.

Trump Issues Executive Order Targeting Infrastructure

President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order that will, in part, repeal a 2015 directive by former President Barack Obama establishing a federal policy to “improve the resilience of communities and federal assets against the impacts of flooding,” which are “anticipated to increase over time due to the effects of climate change and other threats.” Trump’s executive order was in favor of simplifying the approval process for federal infrastructure projects.

“Inefficiencies in current infrastructure project decisions, including management of environmental reviews and permit decisions or authorizations, have delayed infrastructure investments, increased project costs, and blocked the American people from enjoying improved infrastructure that would benefit our economy, society, and environment,” the order said. “More efficient and effective federal infrastructure decisions can transform our economy, so the federal government, as a whole, must change the way it processes environmental reviews and authorization decisions.”

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.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A draft report on the science of climate change estimates that it is “extremely likely” that more than half of the rise in temperatures over the past four decades has been caused by human activity. This activity, it estimates, is responsible an increase in global temperatures of 1.1 to 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit from 1951 to 2010.

“Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse [heat trapping] gases, are primarily responsible for the observed climate changes,” notes the Climate Science Special Report, which was available on request during a public comment period earlier this year but which received little attention until it was reported on by The New York Times this week. “There are no alternative explanations, and no natural cycles are found in the observational record that can explain the observed changes in climate,” said the report.

Penned by scientists at 13 federal agencies this year, the draft report is a special science section of The National Climate Assessment, which is congressionally mandated every four years. The National Academy of Sciences has signed off on the draft report, and it now awaits permission from the Trump administration to officially release the document.

The draft report suggests that even if humans immediately stopped emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the world would warm at least an additional 0.50 degrees Fahrenheit (0.30 degrees Celsius) over this century compared with today. More greenhouse emissions will lead to higher temperatures.

The draft study follows reports by The Hill that staffers at a U.S. Department of Agriculture were told earlier this year to avoid the term “climate change” in communications and to use phrases like “weather extremes” instead.

“We won’t change the modeling, just how we talk about it,” Bianca Moebius-Clune, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s director of soil health, wrote in an e-mail to staff.

On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the United States experienced its second warmest year to date and 10th warmest July on record.

Court Extends Delay on Clean Power Plan; Vacates HFC Rule

In a 2–1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found Tuesday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have the authority to enact an Obama-era rule ending the use of hydroflurocarbons (HFCs). The 2015 EPA rule banned 38 individual HFCs or HFC blends in four industrial sectors—aerosols, air conditioning for new cars, retail food refrigeration and foam blowing—under the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program (subscription).

A lawsuit—Mexichem Fluor, Inc. v. EPA—challenged EPA’s use of SNAP, saying that HFCs do not deplete the ozone. On Tuesday, the court found that because HFCs are not ozone-depleting substances, the EPA could not use section 612 of the Clean Air Act to ban them.

“However much we might sympathize or agree with EPA’s policy objectives, EPA may act only within the boundaries of its statutory authority. Here, EPA exceeded that authority,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court. “Indeed, before 2015, EPA itself maintained that Section 612 did not grant authority to require replacement of non-ozone-depleting substances such as HFCs. EPA’s novel reading of Section 612 is inconsistent with the statute as written. Section 612 does not require (or give EPA authority to require) manufacturers to replace non-ozone depleting substances such as HFCs.”

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit instituted a new 60-day abeyance of the long-running legal battle over the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which would require reductions of carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. The court order, which also directs the EPA to file status reports every 30 days, reminds the Trump administration of the 2009 endangerment finding, which means the EPA has an “affirmative statutory obligation to regulate greenhouse gases.”

In late April, the court granted an initial delay of the litigation as the White House considers how to replace it.

United States Formally Announces Intention to Withdraw from the Paris Agreement

Last week U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told U.S. diplomats to sidestep questions about conditions for the Trump administration to re-engage in the Paris Agreement, according to a diplomatic cable published yesterday by Reuters. But the communication leaves no doubt about President Trump’s intentions: “there are no plans to seek to re-negotiate or amend the text of the Paris Agreement.” Moreover, the August 4 cable instructs diplomats to let other countries know that the United States wants to help them use fossil fuels.

The cable was sent on the day that the United States formally announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement but said that it will continue to participate in international climate change negotiations during the three-year withdrawal process. The earliest date for the United States to completely withdraw from the agreement is November 4, 2020.

President Donald Trump “is open to re-engaging in the Paris Agreement if the United States can identify terms that are more favorable to it, its businesses, its workers, its people, and its taxpayers,” said the State Department memo, which noted the U.S. role in future climate talks.

“The United States will continue to participate in international climate change negotiations and meetings . . . to protect U.S. interests and ensure all future policy options remain open to the administration,” the State Department said. “Such participation will include ongoing negotiations related to guidance for implementing the Paris Agreement.”

A United Nations statement acknowledging receipt of the notice from the United States reiterated Secretary-General António Guterres’ disappointment in the decision.

“It is crucial that the United States remains a leader on climate and sustainable development. Climate change is impacting now,” said Guterres spokesman Stéphane Dujarric.

Signatories to the Paris Agreement vowed to keep the worldwide rise in temperatures “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times and to “pursue efforts” to hold the increase under 1.5 degrees Celsius. The U.S. pledge, under former President Barack Obama, was a cut in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions of as much as 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

Prior to release of the climate policy guidance cable, the Trump administration’s reiteration of plans to depart from the Paris climate deal had raised questions about what “re-engaging” in the deal meant and how U.S. participation in climate talks could play out (subscription). With regard to negotiations, the Trump administration could adopt an obstructionist role by pushing for measures to enable reduction of emissions-cut ambitions. Or it could play a constructivist role by advancing rules for transparency (the United States and China co-chair the working group writing those rules). Other areas in which the Trump administration could exert its influence include emissions reporting requirements, monitoring land-use change and developing market mechanisms.

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.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Monday, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia order directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to carry out an Obama-era rule that sets methane pollution limits for the oil and gas industry.

Nine of the 11 court judges issued the order upholding a July ruling that found that the Trump administration overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act when it tried to delay the methane rule.

Implemented in 2016, the rule targets new and modified sources of methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas with long-term global warming potential thought to be many times that of carbon dioxide. The rule was expected to reduce 510,000 short tons of methane in 2025, the equivalent of reducing 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

After President Donald Trump asked the EPA to review the rule in a March executive order, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in an April letter, stayed the deadline for oil and gas companies to follow the new rule by 90 days. Pruitt later sought to pause the methane rule two years to “look broadly” at regulations and review their impact.

Studies Find Earth Tilting Hard toward Warming Tipping Point

Hope that limiting climate change to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures—the oft-cited threshold of “dangerous” warming—has been further diminished by recent studies published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

One study co-authored by Thorsten Mauritsen of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and Robert Pincus of the University of Colorado at Boulder suggests that human forces have heated the climate for longer than thought—since at least 1750—pushing the so-called “preindustrial” baseline for the planet’s warming backward and reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that we can emit to avoid 2 or more degrees Celsius of warming.

The Mauritsen and Pincus study analyzed past emissions of greenhouse gases and the burning of fossil fuels to show that even if that burning suddenly ceased, Earth would continue to heat up about two more degrees Celsius by 2100.

This view was similar to that of another study led by the University of Washington’s Adrian Raferty. That study calculates the statistical likelihood of various amounts of warming by the year 2100 given three trends that matter most for carbon emissions: global population, countries’ GDP (on a per capita basis), and carbon intensity (the volume of emissions for a given level of economic activity). The research puts median warming at 3.2 degrees Celsius and concludes that there’s a 5 percent chance that the world can hold warming below 2 degrees Celsius this century. The authors say there’s a 90 percent chance that temperatures will increase by 2.0 to 4.9 degrees Celsius.

Raferty’s team built a statistical model covering a range of emissions scenarios, finding that carbon intensity will be the most important factor in future warming despite the expectation that technological advances will cut that intensity by 90 percent this century.

“The big problem with scenarios is that you don’t know how likely they are, and whether they span the full range of possibilities or are just a few examples,” said Raferty. “Scientifically, this type of storytelling approach was not fully satisfying. Our analysis is compatible with previous estimates, but it finds that the most optimistic projections are unlikely to happen. We’re closer to the margin than we think.”

Construction Ends on Twin Nuclear Reactors

South Carolina utilities SCANA’s South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper on Monday opted to end construction of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station’s two reactors. The first reactor at V.C. Summer had been expected to go online in August 2019, with the second following a year later.

“The best-case scenario shows this project would be several years late and 75 percent more than originally planned,” Santee Cooper CEO Lonnie Carter said in a statement announcing the decision. “We simply cannot ask our customers to pay for a project that has become uneconomical. And even though suspending construction is the best option for them, we are disappointed that our contractor has failed to meet its obligations and put Santee Cooper and our customers in this situation.”

The move makes the future of the United States nuclear industry even more unclear. With just one nuclear plant under construction, as much as 90 percent of nuclear power could disappear over the next 30 years if existing units retire at 60 years of operation—the current maximum length of operating licenses.

In the southeast, where the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station reactors were located, it is unlikely that existing units can simultaneously be replaced with new plants given the long lead times and limited applications for new nuclear plants at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions study explores how the potential loss of existing nuclear plants in the Southeast interacts with the regions other electricity sector challenges—among them, increasing natural gas dependence, demand uncertainty, and emerging technology—and it proposes steps states can take to address these challenges.

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.

California Extends Its Cap-and-Trade Program

On July 20, 2017, in Uncategorized, by timprofeta

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a 28–12 vote on Monday night, California’s Senate approved AB 398 to extend the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program to 2030. Hours later, the bill passed in the state’s Assembly, 55–21. Lawmakers also approved a companion measure, AB 617, aimed at reducing pollution that causes local public health problems. In addition, to win GOP support in the Assembly for the cap-and-trade program, the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment giving Republicans increased input in how the state spends revenues from the sale of emissions allowances—permits to pollute—by requiring, in 2024, a two-thirds vote to approve how they are used.

Gov. Jerry Brown and others have argued that extension of the cap-and-trade program is critical to meet the most aggressive climate goal of any state in the nation—a 40 percent cut in 1990s-level greenhouse gas emissions by 2030—and to send a countering signal to President Donald Trump’s rejection of policies and partnerships aimed at limiting warming (subscription). The program sets a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and allows emitters to buy and sell emissions permits, or allowances. The number of allowances available each year equals the annual limit, and both decrease over time, lowering emissions.

When unveiled for debate last week, the legislation drew the ire of many Republicans and progressive environmentalists, although other influential environmental groups said it represented a reasonable balance and the best chance for advancing the program (subscription). In the end, eight Republicans in the Assembly and one in the Senate voted to extend the program, but some environmental groups remain unhappy, saying the legislation allows polluters too many allowances to emit greenhouse gases and that local air quality is not addressed by the use of offsets, a practice whereby polluters can meet a certain amount of their emissions targets by investing in greenhouse-gas-reducing projects, including those outside California, rather than investing in their own emissions reductions.

The bipartisan, supermajority votes in both the state Assembly and Senate for extension of the program were touted by Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León as a win for the environment and the economy.

“Californians understand that we can’t truly have a healthy economy that’s built to last without taking meaningful steps to protect public health and preserve a livable environment,” said de León.

Climate Science: The Debate

Last week U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt proposed a televised debate of climate science, whereby a red team would attack mainstream findings and a blue team would play defense. Critics of the idea, which has raised alarm bells among scientists, have argued that it will give viewers the impression that scientists are evenly divided over the fundamentals of climate change, when in fact the vast majority of scientists agree on those fundamentals, and that a debate format would test debating techniques and communication skills, not the evidence.

ClimateWire reported that climate scientists view the debate as a trap because it gives the minority of researchers who question mainstream climate science a stage they’ve not been able to command in peer-reviewed journals (subscription). At the same time, refusal to participate could leave the impression that mainstream climate scientists are hiding something—and would leave skeptics’ assertions unopposed.

Proposal of this debate comes amid news of a U.S. Geological Survey e-mail alert to international scientists warning that the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget cuts, if approved, would undermine important data-gathering programs and cooperative studies in a number of areas, including climate change.

NOAA Says 2016 Greenhouse Gas Influence Reached 30-Year High

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Annual Greenhouse Gas Index, the influence of greenhouse gases on atmospheric warming was higher last year than it has been in nearly 30 years (subscription). The greenhouse gas index was intended to provide a straightforward way to report the yearly change in the warming influence of greenhouse gases, reported the New York Times, which noted the steady increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990.

“The role of greenhouse gases on influencing global temperatures is well understood by scientists, but it’s a complicated topic that can be difficult to communicate,” the NOAA release states.

As explained by Climate Central, the index takes measurements of 20 key greenhouse gases from some 80 ships and observatories around the world and boils them down into a numerical index that defines the rise from 1700 to 1990 as 100 percent or 1. This year’s number, 1.4, shows that the direct influence of the gases on the climate has risen 140 percent since 1750; 40 percent of that increase has been realized since 1990. The increase is due mostly to human activities and has resulted in warming of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial temperatures.

This week NOAA announced that the first half of 2017 was the planet’s second-warmest, behind 2016, since the start of planetary temperature recordkeeping in 1880. A major El Niño, such as that experienced in 2016, tends to increase global temperatures. But as Earth’s temperature has risen because of greenhouse gases, an El Niño isn’t necessary to attain very high temperatures. Years with La Niñas, which tend to cool global temperatures, are today hotter than El Niño years several decades ago.

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.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last week, Republican lawmakers revived a bill aimed at stopping use of the social cost of carbon (or the social cost of any greenhouse gas) in federal rulemaking (subscription). The bill would bar the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from applying the metric in any action, going further than President Trump’s executive order, signed in March, to revoke existing guidance and disband the interagency working group that sets guidance for the metric’s use. The bill’s reintroduction comes on the heels of a new study in the journal Science that makes a major advance in calculation of the cumulative economic impacts of climate change.

The study estimates that the United States could incur damages worth 1.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for every 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperature. Those damages include worsening economic inequality, heat-related deaths, agricultural declines, and even increased crime. The hard-hit counties—mainly in the South—could see losses higher than 20 percent of GDP. In the worst-hit county, Florida’s Union County, losses could near 28 percent, the kind of disparity that could contribute to political instability and drive mass migration.

According to lead researcher Solomon Hsiang, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, the most striking “takeaway message” is that “the effects of climate change on the U.S. are not the same everywhere. Where you are in the country really matters.” By which he means that climate change will move wealth away from the south and toward the north and west of the country, although he acknowledges that exact costs and their redistribution are hard to nail down because a changing climate makes the future world hard to predict.

Nonetheless, “Unmitigated climate change will be very expensive for huge regions of the United States,” said Hsiang. “If we continue on the current path, our analysis indicates it may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country’s history.”

The main takeaway of the study for Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions faculty fellow Billy Pizer, who wrote a perspective accompanying the study, is that it has produced “the first comprehensive estimate of climate change damages driven by state-of-the-art empirical studies of climate change impacts.”

The study team—a group of economists and climate scientists—used state-of-the-art statistical methods and 116 climate projections to price those impacts the way insurers or investors would. Specifically, they computed the real-world costs and benefits of increased temperatures, changing rainfall, rising seas and intensifying storms on agriculture, crime, health, energy demand, labor and coastal communities. In total, they computed the possible effects of 15 types of impacts for each U.S. county in 29,000 simulations.

The study appears to represent a significant improvement over earlier financial forecasts of climate change, which approximated damages for the entire country at once. The new study built its model from microeconomic studies of how variation in climate affects well-measured, and well-valued, county-level outcomes like crop yields, mortality, and energy consumption. But because the model’s algorithms emerge from observed relationships in real-world data, estimates omit many serious climate change risks, such as biodiversity loss, for which economic cost data were considered insufficient.

According to the researchers, their model is designed to continually integrate new findings and new climate model predictions, producing actionable science (subscription).

Red Team, Blue Team: Pruitt Calls for Debate of Climate Science

On Monday, a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot freeze implementation of a rule requiring oil and gas companies to fix leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas, while it reconsiders that rule. The court ruling could hint at trouble for the Trump administration’s efforts to unilaterally delay regulations such as those aimed at curbing greenhouse gases. But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt may have found a new context in which to question the need for such regulations.

Pruitt is leading a formal initiative to assess climate science using a “back-and-forth critique” by government-recruited experts. The idea is to stage “red team, blue team” exercises used by the military to identify vulnerabilities in field operations to conduct an “at-length evaluation of US climate science,” an official told ClimateWire. Other Trump administration officials are said to be discussing whether the initiative would stretch across many federal agencies that rely on such science.

“Climate science like other fields of science is constantly changing,” said EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman. “A new, fresh, and transparent evaluation is something everyone should support doing.”

But scientists and former EPA officials worry that the debate will give a disproportionately large voice to the limited number of skeptical voices within the scientific community. And, as was pointed out by PBS, science does not operate not by debate but by peer-reviewed studies.

Energy industry executives said the approach to scientific review that Pruitt is instituting could allow a challenge to the 2009 scientifically based environmental endangerment finding that established the EPA’s legal foundation for restricting greenhouse gas emissions from mobile and stationary sources. But lawyers say successfully making that challenge could be extremely difficult.

President Outlines Energy Dominance Proposals

President Trump last week outlined a multipronged plan to increase production of and export fossil fuels, including what he described as “clean, beautiful coal.” Speaking at the Department of Energy’s Washington headquarters, he called the need for regulations “a myth” and said his new policies would reap “millions and millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in wealth.” Although he did not reference renewable energy, climate change or reducing emissions, he touted his decision to exit the Paris climate agreement and to approve the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines.

To usher in what he dubbed “the golden era of American energy,” Trump outlined six initiatives:

  • Expanding nuclear energy
  • Lowering barriers to financing of overseas coal energy plants
  • Constructing a petroleum pipeline to Mexico
  • Increasing sales of natural gas to South Korea
  • Exporting additional natural gas from the Lake Charles liquid natural gas terminal in Louisiana
  • Opening a new offshore oil and gas leasing program.

The last initiative calls for an Interior Department rewrite of a five-year Obama-era drilling plan that had closed areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to drilling. The Washington Post pointed out that the surge of onshore oil and natural gas production due to horizontal drilling has helped to lower the price of petroleum, diminishing interest in offshore drilling.

In a New York Times op-ed, former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head (and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Advisory Board chairman) William Reilly noted that drilling in those areas could come at an economic cost. “A spill in any of those waters could threaten multibillion-dollar regional economies that depend on clean oceans and coastlines,” said Reilly, who pointed out that Trump has called for reconsideration of the well control rule, which tightened controls on blowout preventers, which are designed to stop undersea oil and gas well explosions. That rule was based in part on findings of the bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which Reilly co-chaired.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided on climate change in Congress but perhaps not so much at the municipal level. In a show of bipartisan support for the Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan at the conclusion of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami Beach on Monday, leaders from more than 250 cities voted on symbolic resolutions calling for the Trump Administration to rejoin the global climate accord and embracing the goal of running their jurisdictions entirely on renewable energy by 2035. Another resolution called for President Trump and Congress to “develop a comprehensive risk management program to address future flood risks from sea level rise.”

“I think most mayors in America don’t think we have to wait for a president” whose beliefs on climate change are not supported by science, said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “There’s near unanimity in this conference that climate change is real and that humans contribute to it,” he said, adding “If the federal government refuses to act or is just paralyzed, the cities themselves, through their mayors, are going to create a new national policy by the accumulation of our individual efforts.”

The mayors showcased climate change with panels on climate resiliency and a neighborhood tour by Miami Mayor Philip Levine highlighting municipal efforts to cope with sea-level rise. Miami Beach is one of the U.S. cities most vulnerable to climate change.

Preliminary results of a survey jointly conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions were released at the conference on Saturday. According to USCM, the survey of 66 municipalities, ranging from 21,000 to 8.5 million residents across 30 states, found “overwhelming interest by cities in collaborating with the private sector to accelerate climate efforts.”

On Tuesday at a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt suggested that the Clean Air Act may not have given his agency the tools for those efforts, telling committee members that the EPA’s endangerment finding, which established that greenhouse gas emissions were harmful to human health, did not settle the question of how the agency should regulate those emissions.

Massachusetts v. EPA simply said to the EPA that it had to make a decision on whether it had to regulate, whether it posed a risk to health, and there was an endangerment finding that followed that in 2009. It did not address whether the tools were in the toolbox,” Pruitt said. He added, “I think what’s important is that we are responding to the CO2 issue through the regulation of mobile sources, we’re also evaluating the steps or the tools we have in the toolbox with respect to stationary sources, and that’s our focus,” he said.

Challenging Pruitt’s assertion that the Clean Air Act gave the EPA no clear authority to regulate carbon emissions, John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, pointed to two Supreme Court cases—American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut and Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA—affirming that authority, specifically with regard to emissions from stationary sources.

Global Sea-Level Rise Accelerates

A new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, adds to recent literature confirming an acceleration in sea-level rise during the past few decades. That literature, which includes a study published in early June that found a tripling of the rate of sea-level increase between 1990 and 2012, is significant in part because of earlier uncertainty about whether global waters were indeed rising—uncertainty cited by climate change deniers. Specifically, the new study reveals the close match between what scientists know about contributors to sea-level rise and measured rates from satellites, and it nails down the sea-level rise acceleration.

The study led by Xianyao Chen of the Ocean University of China and Qingdao National Laboratory of Marine Science and Technology showed that the main contributor to recent sea-level rise is the thawing of Greenland’s ice sheet. The study found that the annual rate of sea-level rise had reached 0.13 inches in 2014. But ocean levels rose 50 percent faster in 2014 than in 1993, with meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet making up 25 percent of total sea level increase compared with 5 percent 20 years earlier. That finding suggests that the rate will continue to accelerate, and scientists say oceans are likely to rise about three feet by century’s end.

The study co-authors said the rate’s acceleration “highlights the importance and urgency of mitigating climate change and formulating coastal adaptation plans to mitigate the impacts of ongoing sea level rise.”

Climate Change-Related Fires Increase in the Arctic

Recent massive fire years in Alaska and Canada have been driven by extreme lightning storms that are likely to move north with climate warming, according to findings in Nature Climate Change by researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the University of California, Irvine. The scientists found that as fires creep northward, near the transition from boreal forests to Arctic tundra, large amounts of carbon currently locked in permafrost could be released. In addition, trees could begin growing in the tundra, darkening surfaces previously covered with snow, which prevents the reflection of sunlight away from Earth and contributes to global warming.

Using satellite and ground-based data, the researchers discovered that lightning-caused fires have risen 2 to 5 percent a year for the last four decades. The reason? Warmer temperatures increase thunderstorms, which in turn increase lightning and fire risk. These changes are part of a complex climate feedback loop, said Sander Veraverbeke of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the study’s lead author.

“You have more fires; they creep farther north; they burn in these soils which have a lot of C02 and methane that can be exposed directly at the moment of the fire and then decades after,” Veraverbeke said. “That contributes again to global warming; you have again more fire.”

The study was prompted by immense fires in Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territories in two of the last three years. Lightening was the cause of some 82 percent of the burned areas in the Northwest Territories in 2014 and 95 percent of the burned areas in Alaska in 2015—areas that don’t usually experience fires, according to Veraverbeke.

“These fires are claiming an area that they haven’t burned historically, which also means they can change the carbon balance and shift an ecosystem into a different state,” Veraverbeke said.