In a hearing Monday, the Supreme Court questioned whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is correct in its interpretation that regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles triggers the requirement to also implement permitting requirements for large stationary sources. At issue is the legality of EPA’s interpretation of the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) regulations. Industry groups argue that the PSD permitting requirements apply to certain pollutants, whereas the EPA argues that they apply to all pollutants, including greenhouse gases. Ultimately, the more than 90-minute session ended with the justices divided over whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”
“As is so often the case when the court is closely divided, the vote of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy loomed as the critical one, and that vote seemed inclined toward the EPA, though with some doubt,” said SCOTUS blogger Lyle Denniston. “Although he seemed troubled that Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. could call up no prior ruling to support the policy choice the EPA had made on greenhouse gases by industrial plants, Kennedy left the impression that it might not matter.”
If the Supreme Court rules against the EPA, the agency has several options, said Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast (subscription). It could, for instance, devise new source performance standards for each individual source or regulate sources under another Clean Air Act program.
Overturning a previous commitment to phase out all nuclear, the draft government plan, which awaits Cabinet approval, instead calls for more long-term reliance on the energy source. It specifies that nuclear dependency will remain low but that reactors meeting standards set after the 2011 Fukushima disaster should be restarted. The Wall Street Journal reports 17 such reactors are undergoing inspection now.
In the United States, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz provided final approval for a $6.5 billion dollar loan guarantee that will be used to construct two nuclear reactors in Georgia—the first built in the United States in more than 30 years. Days later, President Barack Obama approved a deal with Vietnam that would allow the nation to develop nuclear power.
Obama: Decision on Keystone Could Come Soon
A decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline—carrying crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast—will be made in the next “couple of months,” President Barack Obama told attendees at the annual National Governors Association winter meeting Monday. The White House declined to expand on Obama’s comment at the private meeting. Politico reports that it contradicts speculation by parties on both sides that the decision will come after November’s mid-term elections. That speculation began last week after a ruling by a Nebraska judge that struck down a state law approving the pipeline’s route through the state.
The president’s Keystone decision comment came a day after Canada’s National Energy Board audit found TransCanada Corp—the company leading the Keystone XL project—could make improvements in its pipeline safety practices. The audit was moved up after a then-employee of TransCanada came forward with allegations of safety lapses.
“The audit has confirmed that, in response to these allegations, TransCanada has developed and implemented a program of actions with the goal of correcting and preventing similar occurrences,” the National Energy Board said. The board found TransCanada to be non-compliant in four areas: hazard identification, risk assessment and control; operational control in upset or abnormal operating condition; inspection, measurement and monitoring; and management review.
Despite claims the State Department violated conflict of interest rules when it chose an outside contractor to conduct an environmental impact study of the proposed pipeline, a report issued Wednesday found otherwise.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Editor’s Note: In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, the Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return Dec. 5.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday announced cuts to a federal mandate dictating how much ethanol must be blended into gasoline. The mandate—under the Renewable Fuel Standard—would have been scheduled to reach 18.15 billion gallons in 2014, up from 16.55 billion gallons this year. The EPA instead proposes to set the 2014 requirement at 15.21 billion gallons, equal to the 2012 mandate.
“We believe that the ethanol blend wall represents a circumstance that warrants a reduction in the mandated volumes for 2014,” the EPA said of the technically feasible amount of ethanol that can be used in today’s vehicles. The agency’s 204-page proposal also suggests rolling back the 2011 cellulosic biofuel target and refunding oil companies nearly $5 million for their costs in trying to meet it.
“I’m in a state of shock,” said Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, in a response similar to many others in the biofuels industry. “This rule is a departure from the last five and a half years.”
Refiners welcomed the reduced blending requirements, but warned they may not address long term problems.
“While we are pleased that EPA has taken steps to avoid the blendwall in 2014, we remain concerned that the proposed rule leaves open the possibility that the biofuel mandates will exceed the maximum amount of ethanol that can be safely added to our gasoline supply,” said Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuels & Petrochemical Manufacturers.
News of the proposed rule comes on the heels of a report by the National Research Council drawing attention to some of ethanol’s hidden costs (subscription). The report, which was co-authored by a Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researcher, finds that ethanol consumes so much energy and requires so much land use change that its impact on greenhouse gas emissions is at best neutral.
2010 BP Spill Data Made Public
A new website launched by BP contains raw, uninterpreted data from studies on the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill and its effects on the environment and ecology of the area. It provides scientific data gathered as part of the official Natural Resource Damage Assessment that BP and the federal government agreed to during the disaster. The assessment also includes 2.3 million lines of water chemistry data collected since April 2010 as well as information on the composition of oil released from the Macondo well and analyses of the oil in various degrees of degradation and weathering.
More information covering oil, water, sediments, environmental toxicology, birds and marine life will be made available next year. BP is awaiting a ruling in a civil trial in New Orleans regarding just how much oil gushed into the Gulf and whether it was guilty of gross negligence for the spill. The oil giant is among the 90 companies said to have produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, according to a new study published in the journal Climatic Change.
Warsaw Climate Talks Enter Final Days
As a new report suggests global carbon emissions from cement production and burning fossil fuels are on track to hit a record high this year, negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world entered their final week during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (subscription). The two-decades-old negotiations hit a few snags in producing an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol by 2015:
- Japan—one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases—opted to drastically scale back its emissions reduction target. The new target calls for decreasing emissions by 3.8 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, rather than by 25 percent from 1990 levels, a goal set four years ago. According to Reuters, the change represents a roughly 3 percent rise from the earlier target. The new target reflects the country’s increased reliance on fossil fuel after idling of Japan’s nuclear fleet following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, which the country is still cleaning up.
- Negotiations on how to set up new carbon markets and global standards to cut greenhouse gas levels also broke down after developing nations refused to move forward until rich nations made more efforts to cut their own emissions. Further talks on the issues have been postponed until June 2014.
- Poor countries walked out of the U.N. climate talks after rich nations refused to discuss climate change compensation until after 2015. The question of who is to blame for climate change is central for developing countries, which contend they should be given support from rich nations to green their economies. Meanwhile, forest protection pledges—specifically from Norway and the United Kingdom—were made and expected to be one of the only significant financial offers from richer, developed nations at the conference.
Despite all the setbacks, the U.N. did propose a draft document outlining a roadmap to a 2015 climate agreement. It clarifies some of the steps nearly 190 nations must take to reach a binding greenhouse gas reduction deal to go into effect in 2020.
If the Obama administration has its way, the 2015 agreement would for the first time make the United States and emerging powers like China equally obligated to curb carbon (subscription). According to State Department Special Envoy for Climate Todd Stern, the administration has begun crunching numbers to determine how much the United States can cut greenhouse gas emissions after 2020.
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.
In 2012, energy-related carbon emissions in the United States declined 3.8 percent even as global carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.4 percent, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The recorded 5.29 million metric tons of carbon dioxide amounted to the largest decline since 1994, continuing a downward trend that started in 2007. EIA attributed last year’s decrease to several factors, including a mild winter and alterations in energy consumption for transportation. Notably, U.S. power plants reduced their carbon emissions by 10 percent between 2010 and 2012. The overall energy-related emissions decline occurred in tandem with an increase in gross domestic product and energy output (subscription).
The downward trend may not last, The Washington Post reports. Energy-related emissions rose 2.6 percent in the first part of 2013, and the EIA expects emissions to keep rising. The U.S. State Department said the nation could reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases 17 percent by 2020, if it enacts proposed rules to curb methane leaks and to cut pollution from power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to solidify regulations. This week, it began its 11-city “listening tour,” which is intended to solicit ideas from the public on how to best regulate emissions from more than 1,000 power plants currently in operation.
Cleanup Delayed for Fukushima as Britain Signs First Nuclear Deal
Japan delayed plans to clean up towns surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for up to three years—affecting more than 90,000 people who are unable to return home after a series of meltdowns following an earthquake and tsunami two and half years ago. The original plan indicated cleanup of the most contaminated towns would be completed by March 2014.
“We would have to extend the cleanup process, by one year, two years or three years, we haven’t exactly decided yet,” said Shigeyoshi Sato, an official from the Environment Ministry in charge of the decontamination efforts. One reason for the delay—a lack of space to store the radioactive waste that comes out of the decontamination process.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom signed a roughly $26 billion deal to build new nuclear reactors—the first in 20 years—financed in part by China. The twin reactors are envisioned to advance the government’s goal of adding low-carbon energy sources. If built on time, the new reactors would begin operation in 2023 and operate for 35 years.
Studies Look at Climate Change Effects in Next Century
Several studies, looking at everything from ocean health to energy use, have found their way into recent media headlines.
New Climate by 2050: Research published in the journal Nature suggests that, on average, locations worldwide will leave behind the climates that have existed from the middle of the 19th century through the beginning of the 21st century as soon as 2047, depending on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the next few decades. The new, more extreme temperatures would first occur in the tropics, where plants, people and wildlife are least equipped to adapt. About 1 billion people, according to the study, currently live in areas where the climate would exceed historical bounds of variability by 2050. The work highlights the need to scale back greenhouse gas emissions because a warming climate may drive some species to extinction, threaten food supplies and spread disease.
Climate Change to Impact Ocean Health: Every inch of the world’s oceans are predicted to undergo chemical changes associated with global climate change by 2100, according to research published in the journal PLOS Biology. More than two dozen scientists used projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with biological and socioeconomic data, to predict how oceans could be altered by the end of the century.
“If global CO2 emissions are not reduced, substantial degradation of marine ecosystems and associated human hardships are very likely to occur,” the study said.
This follows research published in Nature showing that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, coral reefs could be extinct by 2050.
Carbon Capture and Storage Development Slows: A new study suggests that since 2012, the number of projects that capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants dropped from 75 to 65 worldwide. Although the number U.S. is a global leader in developing and deploying carbon capture and storage and carbon capture utilization and storage technology, it has proposed no new projects in these areas—in fact, no new projects have been proposed outside of China.
In an attempt to address global changes in climate, the Obama administration set specific deadlines for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use the Clean Air Act to cut carbon dioxide pollution from new and existing power plants.
Just weeks away from the deadline for release of proposed rules for new power plants (full disclosure: Duke scholars will preview pending climate change regulations live online Sept. 16), a new journal article claims the Clean Air Act has brought about beneficial changes. Tracing the rings of 100 to 500 year old eastern red cedars, scientists observed accelerated growth and photosynthesis starting just after the bill passed in 1970. Beforehand, core samples from the trees contained sulfur isotopes that pointed to pollution and carbon isotopes that showed that the trees’ stomata (pores regulating the exchange of carbon dioxide and water) were closing. By the 1980s, the stomata had begun to open and sulfur isotopes had approached levels not seen since the preindustrial age.
“There is a clear shift in the growth, reflecting the impact of key environmental legislation,” said Kansas State University’s Jesse Nippert of the trees located in the Appalachian Mountains. “There are two levels of significance in this research. One is in the terms of how we interpret data from tree rings and how we interpret the physiology of trees. The other level of significance is that environmental legislation can have tremendous impact on the entire ecosystem.”
Using the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions from existing power plants raises questions. Doing so means the EPA must craft rules—to be proposed by June 2014—that match the uneven terrain of different states’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions, Midwest Energy News reports. As a result, state air pollution regulators are encouraging officials to maintain existing state proposals. In a letter, the National Association of Clean Air Agencies encouraged the EPA to acknowledge the “different makeup of existing fossil fuel generation in each state.”
Climate Change to Affect Future Fires, Storms
A rim fire burning in the Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite National Park may be a taste of the types of fires some regions will experience in the future according to a new Harvard study, which suggests that wildfire seasons will last nearly three weeks longer, be twice as smoky and burn larger areas in western states by 2050. The findings, a Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences press release says, were based on a set of internationally recognized climate models, meteorological data and records from past fire activity.
“It turns out that, for the western United States, the biggest driver for fires in the future is temperature, and that result appears robust across models,” said co-author Loretta Mickley. “When you get a large temperature increase over time, as we are seeing, and little change in rainfall, fires will increase in size.”
A paper published last year in the journal Ecosphere came to a similar conclusion. It suggests that climate change’s effect on wildfires would vary widely, especially when precipitation patterns were factored in.
Although climate change could negatively influence wildfires, it may help steer superstorms away from the United States east coast. With stronger and possibly more frequent storms predicted, New York and much of the seaboard will be at a lower risk of a direct hit according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It looks, specifically, at atmospheric steering currents and suggests air patterns may block or push extreme weather offshore if greenhouse gas emissions were tripled by 2100 (subscription).
Some meteorologists disagreed with the findings, questioning the accuracy of the climate models and the conduct of the analysis.
Ice Wall Proposed to Contain Fukushima Leaks
Japan is proposing new measures to deal with increased radiation surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant, which was severely damaged in a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The proposal: invest some $470 million to build a wall of ice to contain the radioactive leaks.
Under the government’s plan, a wall of frozen soil will be constructed around the plant’s damaged reactors. Tubes might be used to carry a powerful coolant liquid as deep as 90 feet. The liquid would freeze the ground solid so no groundwater would be able to pass through the soil.
Last week, radiation levels at the plant reached as high as 1,800 millisieverts an hour—enough to kill an unprotected person within hours. The chief of Japan’s nuclear watchdog authority, Shunichi Tanaka, said information given by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) on the radioactive contamination was “scientifically unacceptable,” likening use of “millisieverts per hour” to “describing how much something weighs by using centimetres” and adding that “becquerel” was the more appropriate measure. Experts say the radiation reading reported by TEPCO was taken close to the source and drops dramatically 20 inches away. Therefore, it would do little to harm workers wearing rudimentary protection at a normal distance.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation next week. We will return to regular postings May 2.
The European Union Parliament rejected a proposal to backload the auctioning of credits within its Emissions Trading Scheme this week. The proposed “backloading” plan would have removed a surplus of emissions permits from the world’s largest carbon market—potentially saving it from collapse and making fossil fuels more expensive for utilities and factories to burn. The surplus, partly a result of the recession, had driven carbon prices down from 25 euros in 2008 to just 5 euros per ton in February. As a result, the permits were no longer doing their intended job of encouraging manufacturers and utilities to invest in cleaner fuels and new technology. Announcement of the ruling sent permit prices to their lowest yet and dealt a blow to partner Australia. The country intends to link to the EU carbon market in 2015.
“We will continue with our plans to link with the European emissions trading scheme from 1 July, 2015,” said Australia Climate Minister Greg Combet. “But this year’s budget, as is usual practice by Treasury, will include a revised forecast for a carbon price in 2015-16.”
On Wednesday, EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard vowed to fight to save the system through new measures that include restricting rights to carbon permits and allowing for reviews of the number of permits companies receive for free.
EPA Says U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Declined
A new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests greenhouse gas emissions in the United States dropped 1.6 percent from 2010 to 2011. Since 2005, that number has decreased 6.9 percent. The agency attributed the drop to factors such as improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and mild winter weather.
Electricity generation by power plants was termed the largest source of emissions, accounting for 33 percent of the 2011 total, according to the report. The EPA missed an April 13 deadline to issue a final rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, instead delaying release indefinitely on Friday. In its draft form, the rule would have made building new coal plants difficult. The Washington Post indicated that the EPA will alter the rule to better withstand legal challenge, including potentially establishing separate standards for gas-fired and coal-fired plants.
Meanwhile, little progress has been made to reduce the carbon content of the world’s energy supply over the last two decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In its third annual report tracking clean energy progress, the IEA found the resurgence of coal counters many of the greenhouse gas benefits of clean energy production. “The drive to clean up the world’s energy system has stalled,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “Despite much talk by world leaders, and despite a boom in renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago.” Renewables are a bright spot in the data, which reveal that solar and wind technologies grew by 42 and 19 percent, respectively, from 2011 to 2012.
Nuclear Leak Prompts Review, New Guidelines
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has begun reviewing the decommissioning process for Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the site of a 2011 nuclear meltdown following a tsunami. Multiple leaks have been detected at the plant, and the IAEA will be analyzing the melted reactors and radiation levels.
The EPA, meanwhile, has been prompted by the disaster to rewrite rules to enlarge the focus of U.S. nuclear disaster response beyond immediate emergency response to long-term cleanup efforts. A new draft of recommended procedures will address the duration of evacuations, limits to radiation exposure over time and other concerns.
Next to jobs and the economy, the National Journal reports, no other issue has dominated this year’s election as much as energy because it’s a proxy for many other things (subscription). “Energy has not been this big an issue in a presidential campaign since the tumultuous years of the 1970s,” when the Arab oil embargo raised gasoline prices and had Americans waiting in lines at the pump around the country, said Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning energy historian. Six major energy issues are a focus—oil, hydraulic fracturing of natural gas, nuclear, renewable energy and coal—with their views shaping two very different energy industries.
In the second of three presidential debates Tuesday Barack Obama and Mitt Romney revisited several aspects of energy policy in a night of one-liners and disagreements about the issue and many others, such as taxes, measures to reduce the deficit, pay equity for women and health care. Climate change, however, didn’t even make it off the debate moderator’s list of prepared questions. Mother Jones called climate change the “big loser” in the debate, while MSNBC likened the candidates’ failure to mention it in their remarks about energy to not mentioning cancer in a discussion about smoking. Compared to their first debate Oct. 3, much more of their 90 minutes was spent on energy.
Candidates argued about who was the bigger friend to the coal industry and weighed how government could influence gasoline prices—though many factors other than administrative policy tend to influence prices according to the Federal Trade Commission. Among the more heated energy-focused exchanges was one about oil and gas production on federal lands. Romney claimed production on these lands has decreased, while Obama maintained the assertions weren’t true. A check of the facts by NBC indicates these claims may have been slighted skewed. “Oil production did fall by 14 percent on federal lands—onshore and offshore—but that was only in one year, from 2010 to 2011,” NBC writes. “And it was mainly the result of the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But Obama is correct, that since he took office, oil production on federal lands is up.” This wasn’t the only factoid snafu for these two candidates. Early on, Obama misstated the length of time oil production had risen and each took a few other things out of context.
Supercomputer to Give New Push for Climate Research
Widespread drought has put increasing pressure on global food supplies, allowing reserves to reach their lowest levels in nearly 40 years, which could trigger a food crisis in 2013. A new supercomputer—capable of crunching 1.5 quadrillion calculations per second—just may be able to help scientists improve our understanding of everything from hurricanes and tornadoes to tsunamis, air pollution and the location of water beneath the earth’s surface. TIME claims it can narrow down the 60-square-mile units used in climate change modeling today to just seven-square-mile-tranches—zooming in on the movement of everything from raindrops to wind.
Researchers from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson report that computer modeling methods developed to predict climate change on Earth have successfully predicted the age and location of glaciers and other climatic conditions on Mars. Their predictions have been confirmed through new satellite observations. Lead researcher William Hartmann said, “Some public figures imply that modeling of global climate change on Earth is ‘junk science,’ but if climate models can explain features observed on other planets, then the models must have at least some validity.”
Challenges to an Energy Transition
While some forecast Germany could save billions if it sticks to its plans of replacing nuclear with renewable energy, the plan may come at great cost to consumers. The country’s four main grid operators released estimates this week showing that households will see a nearly 50 percent increase in the tax needed to fund the transformation to renewables, requiring a typical family of four to pay about $324 per year on top of their bill—renewing debate over the transition sparked by the Fukushima disaster.
The Christian Science Monitor calls the energy transition claims made across the world clunky, offering that history suggests it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure. The problem, according to the Monitor? We don’t have that long.
As Grist puts it, contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is making progress on climate change. Overall, the country’s carbon emissions fell 1.7 percent last year—in part because of the explosive growth of natural gas and the Great Recession. Looking at energy-related carbon emissions in the last five years, the U.S. has experienced a roughly 6 percent drop. In fact, total greenhouse gas emissions are not expected to reach 2010 levels again until 2030, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That doesn’t mean everyone is concerned about its progress. Generation X—individuals ranging from 32 to 52—may not be the stereotypical slackers they are often portrayed to be, but most are not extremely worried about climate change, according to a new poll. Only about 20 percent said they were highly concerned, while 42 percent were moderately concerned about climate change. The remaining 37 percent showed less concern or none at all. That said, when looking at the population as a whole, there is a “substantial” increase in the number of Americans concerned with the issue, according to a study comparing various opinion polls.
One technology intended to artificially cool the planet and combat climate change, may actually make climate conditions worse. Four separate climate models used by a group of scientists to test the concept of geoengineering—where an increase in the world’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was balanced by a “dimming” of the sun—showed undesirable climate effects, including a reduction in global rainfall. One map suggests many of these projects are already under way across the world—with one new field test proposed by Harvard researchers that would combine sulfate particles with water vapor to form aerosols to reflect the sun’s rays. “The time has come to differentiate: some geoengineering techniques are more dangerous than others,” said Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany. His team recently came out with a study that looks at dumping iron into the sea to bury carbon dioxide for centuries, potentially reducing the impact of climate change.
Temperatures, Drought Threaten Resources
Drought conditions, now gripping much of the country, have led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare natural disasters in more than 1,000 counties in 26 states. Labeled the sixth most severe drought in the United States since record keeping began in 1895, the heat and lack of rain is taking a heavy toll on crops—especially in key corn growing states in the Midwest—raising food and fuel prices. A map by the National Climatic Data Center illustrating the subtraction of precipitation and potential evapotranspiration in June attempts to show why. Even if there had been normal precipitation amounts, it would not have been enough to meet potential evapotranspiration demand in most areas, says Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman.
An iceberg twice the size of Manhattan broke off a Greenland glacier this week. In addition, the Arctic lost in June about 1.1 million square miles of ice, a record. That’s nearly equivalent to the area of Alaska, Florida, Texas and California combined. The rapid retreat of snow and ice has sparked interest in the Arctic’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Shell already has plans to begin exploratory drilling in the area as early as this summer if permits arrive as projected. Proponents say if Shell finds oil, thousands of jobs could be created, while others voice concern over the possibility of spills and marine pollution. Regardless, the pace of widespread drilling in the region remains uncertain.
Countries Reconsider Nuclear
Following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster a year ago, Germany opted to shut down all of its nuclear plants by 2022. The plan was to expand its current renewable energy portfolio—which makes up about 20 percent of the energy mix—to 35 percent by 2020 and 80 percent in 2050. Those targets may be less likely and could be readjusted if jobs are threatened. “The timeframe and the goals of the energy revolution are intact,” said Economy Minister Philipp Rösler. “But we will have to make adjustments if jobs and our competitiveness should become endangered.”
Meanwhile, Japan, which ordered all nuclear power plants shut down for inspection after Fukushima, will restart a second reactor to handle energy demand. The decision has prompted protests as Japan considers three energy options as it moves forward—reduce nuclear power to zero as soon as it can, decrease it to 15 percent by 2030 or aim for a 20-25 percent share by 2030.
Delegates from around the world are meeting in Rio de Janeiro to discuss how to make the planet more sustainable, despite a rapidly growing population. The reprise of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit dubbed “Rio+20” has so far drawn mixed reactions: some call it an “opportunity”; others say it is another step on a long, complicated road to realizing a more sustainable society. William K. Reilly, former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator and chairman of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Board of Advisors chose to reflect on then and now, noting the two decades since leaders first met in Rio the “concept of sustainable development has evolved from theory to increasingly common practice.” BBC News illustratesjust how much the world has changed since the first Earth Summit.
Late Monday night, negotiators did agree on a draft framework for sustainable development goals. The text is not expected to change much when heads of state convene to discuss it, according to U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern.
As The Washington Post reported, many of the concrete steps needed to move toward a more sustainable future are already being take on by major cities regardless of the outcome at Rio+20. The efforts of these 58 cities will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 248 million tons in 2020. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hopes energy has a big role and introduced the “Sustainable Energy for All Plan” in Rio, which would end energy poverty by 2030.
Japan Sets Sights on Solar Future
As it shifts from nuclear power following the Fukushima radiation disaster, Japan is positioning itself to become the second largest market for solar power. The country introduced incentives for renewable energy that could expand revenue in this area to more than $30 billion by 2016. In the U.K., energy from renewable sources accounted for roughly 12.4 percent of the European Union’s overall consumption, with Estonia recording the largest increase between 2006 and 2010.
Germany, who also opted to move away from nuclear by 2022, is feeling the burden of its decision. Miranda Schreurs, director of the Environmental Policy Research Center at Berlin Free University, said, “The way for Germany to compete in the long run is to become the most energy-efficient and resource-efficient market, and to expand on an export market in the process.” If Germany succeeds, Technology Review reported, it could provide a workable blueprint for other industrialized nations.
A new report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory finds the prospects for renewable energy, at least in the U.S., to be promising—concluding it could supply 80 percent of the country’s electricity by 2050.
Moratorium Mulled after Defeat of NC Sea Level Rise Bill
The North Carolina House of Representatives this week rejected a Senate bill that would have prohibited policy makers from using projections of accelerated sea level rise for coastal development planning purposes. This may lead lawmakers to enact a moratorium on such predictions pending further study by the state, which could take years. NewScientist breaks down the evidence of sea level rise in the state.
The EPA has turned down a demand by U.S. environmental groups to issue new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, ships and off-road vehicles, saying it “does not have the resources to consider all possible sources of climate change in the near or medium term.” Meanwhile, the Senate on Wednesday defeated a proposed measure that would have overturned EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, or MATS, a rule aimed at limiting emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollutants from coal-fired power plants. It will be the first federal standard to regulate toxic emissions from these plants, and is projected to result in coincident greenhouse gas reductions. A recent poll suggests most Americans favor the rule—provided that companies are given enough time to comply.
Public companies in the U.K.—some 1,600 in all—may soon have to divulge all details about the greenhouse gases they emit, according to the Guardian. More companies may face the requirement, beginning as early as April 2013, after the policy is reviewed in 2015.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation the next two weeks, returning again June 7.
Negotiators picked up discussions toward a new global climate treaty in Bonn, Germany this week. The meeting was the first since the 2011 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) in Durban where leaders initially agreed to put together a plan that would limit Earth-warming emissions. The stakes for the 10-day meeting are high—negotiators have set goals of building support for funding developing nations to the tune of $100 billion a year by 2020 and of constructing a global, legally binding climate agreement that extends the Kyoto Protocol. While countries agreed in Durban to sign the deal by 2015, U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres insisted milestones should be set in 2012.
So far, the European Union and groups of developing countries are divided over details of how the Kyoto Protocol should be extended. The talks may have inspired Qatar—one of the largest emitters of carbon—to cut its emissions and pay into the Green Climate Fund. Qatar will host the next round of annual climate negotiations in November—the first member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to do so.
One university in Australia is looking at the effects of climate change by creating an atmosphere where CO2 is 40 percent higher than current levels and studying its impact on the environment, humans and other living things. The Aussie researchers predict an average increase of about 3 degrees centigrade, but the first results of the study won’t be available until next year. A new journal article says, depending on the area, as many as 40 percent of mammals migrate too slowly and won’t be able to keep pace with climate shifts expected in the next hundred years.
Japan Faces Summer Test
While Iran and the U.N. nuclear agency discussed Iran’s nuclear program and suspicions Tehran may have tested nuclear arms technology, Japan decided to restart nuclear reactors in one town as others there contemplated how to handle things nuclear-free before the summer’s heat sets in. At least one utility in the country is considering a rate hike to compensate for the impending hot weather, while the Japanese operator of the Fukushima plant posted a $10 billion loss stemming from the meltdown. The town is the first to restart a nuclear reactor since all the nation’s nuclear reactors were shut off following the Fukushima disaster roughly one year ago. According to one newspaper poll, residents there are split on nuclear power.
In the U.S., California also faces threats of summer power shortages due to complications with the San Onofre nuclear plant. And the nuclear reactor being built in Augusta, Ga., will not only be completed behind schedule, but come in at a much higher price—approximately $900 million.
Could cheap natural gas be choking aging nuclear plants? E&E Publishing reported the nuclear industry is questioning whether lower natural gas prices will put pressure on plants, just as cheap gas has done to coal.
EPA Declares ‘Gasland’ Town’s Water Safe
Vermont made history this week by becoming the first state to ban hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the hotly debated natural gas drilling technique that injects a mixture of water and chemicals underground at high pressures to release hard-to-reach oil and natural gas. The ban is not predicted have an immediate effect, however, because the state has no fracking projects under way and no evidence of natural gas reserves.
The news comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested more money to probe the technique. It was just days after the EPA announced water in the town made famous by hydraulic fracturing and the movie “Gasland” was given a clean bill of health. Though water at one home did show elevated levels of methane, the well water was declared safe. The EPA released data for 59 of the 61 wells tested, claiming “the set of sampling did not show levels of contaminants that would give the EPA reason to do further testing.” The finding has residents of the northeastern Pennsylvania town disputing the claim. The lawsuits and tests revolving around the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas have made it difficult for insurers to price risk.
While drilling continues in Pennsylvania—generating about $3.5 billion in 2011—the U.S. Department of Interior recently found roughly two-thirds of land leased by the oil industry goes unused. This equates to roughly 46 million acres both on- and offshore.
Recent cyber attacks aimed at computer networks belonging to U.S. natural gas pipeline companies may have ties to China, the Christian Science Monitor reported. The U.S. and China have agreed to cooperate on cyber security despite China’s implication in the pipeline attacks. As a whole, the energy sector is becoming more vulnerable to these types of attacks, which also struck Iran last month.
Some, however, are looking to other methods for energy generation. One group of researchers in California is trying to harness viruses for energy needs. As Norway opened the world’s largest carbon capture and storage test facility, La Ventosa Mexico—the windy place—inched its way toward earning a title for “the largest growth of wind power projects anywhere in the world.” The Atlantic Wind Connection project, a network of offshore wind farms off the East Coast that could power close to two million homes in the next 10 years, received permission to move forward. The “first-of-its-kind project” would be served by a 380-mile underwater power line running from Virginia to New Jersey.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation next week. It will return May 10.
Nearing record highs in March, gasoline prices have dropped for most of April across the U.S. and on average are cheaper than they were a year ago. As pump prices ease, federal prosecutors are turning up the heat in the BP oil spill case, arresting an ex-engineer accused of obstructing justice by deleting potentially damaging e-mails. And as the feds begin arrests, local reactions in the Gulf among individuals and businesses harmed by the spill are mixed, with oyster leaseholders “overjoyed” by the BP settlement, while shrimp processors are challenging some features of the deal. While watermen and women digest the settlement, Gulf of Mexico fish near the spill—such as grouper and red snapper—are showing telltale signs of sickness associated with oil exposure.
Across the world, a new pact by Russia and Italy has opened the Arctic to drilling. Some say an Arctic oil rush could damage ecosystems; others worry about the special challenges an oil spill in the Arctic would pose. Meanwhile, a new study says climate change is posing “significant challenges to the survival of some of the Arctic’s unique marine species.” And the European Space Agency’s CryoSat satellite is providing data on Arctic ice thickness—offering a more complete view of rapidly melting ice.
Climate Change Threatens to Alter Agricultural Landscape
Last weekend marked Earth Day, and some critics say the environmental movement has lost its mojo, while others were critical of President Obama’s Earth Day address after he failed to directly mention climate change. Later in the week, however, President Obama told Rolling Stone climate change will be a central feature of the presidential campaign. “I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way,” he said.
Beyond climate politics, a warming world will increase the cost of corn, according to a new study. The study warns that unless farmers plant more heat-tolerant varieties, corn prices will be subject to greater volatility. Another study suggests that scrapping corn ethanol subsidies and converting much of corn country to pasture for management-intensive grazing would reduce agricultural land-use emissions by 36 percent. Meanwhile, corn growers are speaking out about the “grave threat” climate change poses to their livelihoods.
While Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster is still fresh in many people’s minds, Ukraine recognized the 26-year anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion this week by unveiling a new, safer shelter over the damaged reactor. Others, such as Britain, continue to debate building new nuclear facilities.
Renewables Gaining Momentum with Farmers
Renewable energy makes economic sense, at least in Virginia, according to a new study. Across the country, Americans are split on whether to get rid of U.S. subsidies—with 47 percent favoring the idea.
More and more farmers are turning to renewables and earning the name “new green pioneers,” harvesting fuel cells, biogas, cogeneration and solar arrays to lower costs. While farmers embrace alternative energy despite time and risks, the solar energy industry has created a new plastic film that sprays on like an adhesive, enabling solar power to be harvested inside buildings and not just by way of conventional rooftop panels. Yet, the discovery of Native American bone fragments is throwing the large Genesis solar project into question.
Wind is not doing much better than solar, with a measure to extend production tax credits stalled in Congress despite bipartisan support. Uncertainty as to whether Congress will extend the credit is making it more difficult for developers to advance and fund wind projects. Offshore, the U.S. and Great Britain have announced plans to develop floating wind turbines in deep water where conventional technology cannot reach. Because the turbines do not require deep seabed installation, the technology is expected to be cheaper than current offshore wind projects. Despite the vagaries of renewable power, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on nations to double the amount of power produced from renewable sources by 2030.