Obama Tackles Climate Change in State of the Union Address

January 22, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

“No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” said President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address.

“The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate,” he said, “and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”

To combat climate change, the president said the government had taken actions ranging from the way we produce energy to the way we use it. Although he did not mention his use of executive power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, he did highlight the landmark agreement with China to cut greenhouse gases. “In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

Early in the speech, the president referenced the twin goals of reducing dependence on foreign oil and protecting the planet. “Today, America is number one in oil and gas,” he said. “America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.”

The president obliquely alluded to the Keystone pipeline, which would carry oil from Canadian tar sands to the United States, by noting the need to take a comprehensive look at infrastructure development.

In the GOP response to the SOTU, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst admonished the president for stalling a decision on Keystone.

“President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it,” she said. “The president’s own State Department has said Keystone’s construction could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy, and do it with minimal environmental impact.”

Less than 24 hours after Ernst’s remarks, the House of Representatives approved a bill to fast-track federal approval of natural gas pipelines despite a veto threat from the White House.

2014 Hottest Year on Record

Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirm that 2014 was the hottest year on record and the 18th consecutive year that annual average temperatures have exceeded the previous century’s average.

A few of the 21 scientists interviewed by the Washington Post about 2014’s average global surface temperature of 58.24 F (14.58 C) noted that warming has not kept pace with climate model projections, but most thought the record matches what we should expect as heat-trapping greenhouse gases increasingly accrue in the atmosphere.

“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. “While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

The University of Illinois’ Don Wuebbles, a contributor to multiple reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, told a Forbes reporter, “We can safely say it’s probably the warmest year in 1,700 and 2,000 years.”

The most remarkable thing about the 2014 record, say climate experts, was that it occurred in a year without a strong El Niño, a large-scale weather pattern in which the Pacific Ocean pumps heat into the atmosphere.

States Get Help Meeting Clean Power Plan Targets

States are getting a $48 million boost to their efforts to meet emissions reductions targets for existing power plants under the Clean Power Plan. Bloomberg Philanthropies and the California Heising-Simons family announced the grants to “accelerate” a transition to cleaner energy.

“With the price of clean power falling, and the potential costs of inaction on climate change steadily rising, the work of modernizing America’s power grid is both more feasible and urgent than ever,” said former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “But smart investments can reduce it while also strengthening local economies.”

Rather than going directly to states, the grants provided by the Clean Energy Initiative will support organizations that can help states with their energy planning, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. But the bulk of the money for technical assistance, including economic forecasting and legal analysis, will go to groups with a state or regional focus.

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Administration Targets Methane Emissions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Negotiations Heat Up in Closing Stages of UN Climate Change Conference

December 11, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Optimism at the outset of the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference twentieth Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru, has given way to the hard work of reaching high-level resolution prior to the December 2015 UN meeting in Paris.

Among the challenges is disagreement about regular auditing of carbon emission pledges. The European Union insists on a formal review of all country pledges, whereas the United States recommends a voluntary approach to emissions cuts with the disclaimer of no backtracking in targets. “You could assign every country a particular reduction that on paper looks like a perfect result and then you can’t get agreement on it,” said Todd Stern, United States Special Envoy for Climate Change. “This is a way to get everyone in.”

Another challenge is differentiating the responsibilities of developed countries and those of developing countries. China, Brazil, India, and South Africa, which have coordinated their positions at the Lima talks, want to make sure the potential new agreement will allow poorer nations to meet their prevalent needs such as poverty eradication. “Poor people have aspirations,” said India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. “We must give them energy access.”

Host country Peru, along with other Latin American nations (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama), is pushing for aggressive emission cuts by major economies as well as emerging economies such as China and Brazil. However, critics are quick to point out the country’s poor record in protecting rainforests, which play a critical role as carbon sinks.

Struggling through hammering rainfall from Typhoon Hagupit, the Philippines are asking for all nations, developing and developed, to cut use of fossil fuels.

“The thinking of the pivot is—we’re going to take on commitments and do our part,” said Tony La Viña, a Philippine climate change delegate. “The call has always been for developed countries to act. But the thinking is simple. If we’re going to get hit every year again and again, how can we call on developed countries to reduce their emissions, but not reduce our own?”

A new UN report showing climate adaptation costs for developing countries could be two to three times higher than current global estimates makes the 2050 zero-carbon goal another contentious issue. Meeting this goal would significantly affect oil and gas production as well as coal extraction methods. “With a concept like zero emissions and ‘let’s knock fossil fuels out of the picture’, without clear technology diffusion and international cooperation program, you are really not helping the process,” said chief Saudi Arabian negotiator Khalid AbuLeif.

Emissions Reduction Pledges Underscore Importance of Social Cost of Carbon Estimates

The Climate Action Tracker report released by a group of independent scientists notes that recent pledges by the United States, China and the European Union to limit greenhouse gas emissions will, in fact, slow the rate of global warming this century, though not enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit).

Draft text of the 2015 global climate change agreement being negotiated in Lima includes a May 3, 2015, deadline for nationally determined contributions—promises from individual countries for internal action on climate change. Figuring into these commitments are estimates of the social cost of carbon, or the per-metric-ton dollar value of reducing climate change damages—a metric that the United States uses in regulatory analysis and that it and other developed countries could use to leverage greater emissions reductions commitments from developing countries.

Several economy and environmental policy experts are recommending that the government change the way (subscription) it establishes this cost. In an article in Science, former U.S. Department of the Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy and Nicholas Institute faculty fellow William Pizer and his coauthors recommend that the United States adopt a standardized process to regularly evaluate the cost and that the process undergo a public comment period and a review by the National Academy of Sciences.

Commenting on the need for a consistently used and rigorously maintained estimate of climate damages, Pizer said, “It’s important that we draw on the expertise of all government agencies, as well as independent experts in the field. This level of high-quality collaboration and peer review would decrease the likelihood of political factors interfering with the process, and ensure we have the most robust Social Cost of Carbon.”

2014—Hottest Year on Record?

A report issued by The United Nation’s World Meteorological Association says that 2014 is expected to be the hottest year on record, with global temperatures 1.03 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1961–1990 average.

“What we saw in 2014 is consistent with what we expect from a changing climate,” said Michel Jarraud, World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General. “Record-breaking heat combined with torrential rainfall and floods destroyed livelihoods and ruined lives.”

A report by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that finds that the historic California drought is due to natural weather patterns, as opposed to hot temperatures across the state, raised the ire of some climate scientists, who said the report did not take into account how record warmth worsened the drought.

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 Refines Pollution Rules

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was told by a federal appeals court that it could move forward with implementing a program to curb air pollution that crosses state lines. The Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR) would require 28 states to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide by power plants. The rule establishes a two-step process: 1) The EPA determines if a state contributes more than 1 percent of the pollution causing a downwind state to exceed emissions standards to 2) The EPA using modeling analysis to determine state emissions targets (subscription). CASPR’s first phase would be implemented next year, with the final phase beginning in 2017.

Days later, the agency announced it’s making additional data available to elicit further comments on another controversial rule. In its Notice of Data Availability (NODA), the EPA points to areas of “concern” raised by stakeholders during the public comment period for its proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants. EPA Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe indicated that the agency hopes to get additional comments before the public comment period ends Dec. 1— specifically comments related to the trajectory of emissions reductions from 2020 to 2029, the way building blocks are established and the way in which state goals are calculated.

“We wanted to address issues where the feedback we were getting went beyond what we laid out in the preamble [of the Clean Power Plan],” she said.

Utility Dive and Bloomberg BNA break down stakeholder concerns in detail and describe how the EPA is looking to address them.

Along with the NODA, the EPA announced a supplemental proposal to reduce carbon pollution on tribal lands and territories housing fossil-fuel fired power plants. Like the Clean Power Plan does for states, the proposal sets area-specific goals for Indian country and territories and provides options for meeting those goals. The proposal, which relies on and builds upon measures outlined in the Clean Power Plan, would affect coal-fired power plants on lands belonging to three tribes—the Navajo Nation, the Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the Fort Mojave Tribe—as well as plants in Puerto Rico and Guam.

EU Makes Climate Promise Ahead of U.N. Negotiations

Fresh off talks in Bonn, Germany, that were meant to make progress on identifying the information that countries will have to provide next year when making individual pledges for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, European Union leaders have announced a new emissions deal. It will cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and will increase energy efficiency and renewables by 27 percent. A “flexibility clause” was added to the final text to ensure that the EU can return to the targets after the U.N. summit in December 2015.

The deal sends a signal to the rest of the world to take action on a climate treaty at the upcoming Conference of the Parties in Paris. The EU is responsible for about one-sixth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising greenhouse gases are increasing the likelihood of “severe, pervasive and irreversible” impacts for people and ecosystems, according to a draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report. Due for approval and release Nov. 2, the report provides a summary of three other IPCC publications issued over the course of the last year. It is expected serve as a road map for upcoming U.N. negotiations.

According to a leaked draft of the report obtained by ClimateWire, to avoid a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, net global emissions must decrease 40–70 percent by 2050 and hit zero by the end of the century.

Study: 2010 BP Spill Left ‘Significant Quantities’ of Oil on Gulf Floor

Oil remnants from BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill have formed rings—roughly the size of Rhode Island—near the site of the blown-out well, according to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study suggests that “significant quantities” of crude are present near the site of the Macondo well.

“We don’t know with certainty how the oil reached the bottom,” said David Valentine, lead author and professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “We do provide hypotheses, that a combination of coagulation and bacterial growth drove the oil into a floc form and facilitated particles or droplets sinking to the seafloor. Some of the oil was certainly eaten by bacteria, and other components dissolved into the water.”

BP criticized the research, saying authors “failed to identify the source of the oil, leading them to grossly overstate the amount of residual Macondo oil on the sea floor and the geographic area in which it is found.”

During the study, researchers collected more than 3,000 samples, analyzing them for a hydrocarbon found in oil called hopane. What they traced represented 4–31 percent of the oil thought to be trapped deep in the ocean (as much as 16 percent of the total oil spilled).

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


Studies Focus on Warming of Oceans

October 9, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Oceans absorb carbon dioxide and 90 percent of the heat caused by human activity—making their warming a critical topic for climate research. Two new studies—one on the upper oceans and one on deeper ocean depths—share findings about climate change’s effect on these water bodies.

The first study, in the journal Nature Climate Change, provides the first estimate of global warming’s effect on upper-ocean depths between 1970 and 2004.

“This underestimation is a result of poor sampling prior to the last decade and limitations of the analysis methods that conservatively estimated temperature changes in data-sparse regions,” said lead author and oceanographer Paul Durack. “By using satellite data, along with a large suite of climate model simulations, our results suggest that global ocean warming has been underestimated by 24% to 58%. The conclusion that warming has been underestimated agrees with previous studies, however it’s the first time that scientists have tried to estimate how much heat we’ve missed.”

Researchers used temperature measurements for the upper 2,300 feet of the oceans, satellite measurements of sea level and computer models to find the rate of sea-level rise, which they compared to the rise measured by satellites for each hemisphere.

The second study, by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, examined satellite and direct ocean temperature data from 2005 to 2013. It found that depths deeper than 1.24 miles have not warmed measurably.

“The deep parts of the ocean are harder to measure,” said the study’s lead author William Llovel. “The combination of satellite and direct temperature data gives us a glimpse of how much sea level rise is due to deep warming. The answer is—not much.”

The study also found that expansion of warming waters caused a third of the planet’s 2.8 millimeters of annual sea-level rise. Eventually, more accurate measurements of the deep ocean may be on their way through floating probes, collectively known as Deep Argo, which will sample ocean temperatures down to 19,700 feet.

Court Rulings Leave EPA Rules Untouched

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court left intact a federal appeals court decision that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had adequate scientific evidence to tighten standards, drafted under former President George W. Bush, for ozone pollution.

The case came to the Supreme Court after an appeals court rejected arguments by industry groups that the rules were too stringent. By declining to hear the case, the justices left the standards in place.

Another challenge by Nebraska’s attorney general to proposed EPA regulations setting carbon limits for new power plants was dismissed by U.S. District Judge John Gerrard. The lawsuit had claimed that the “impossible standards imposed by the EPA will ensure no new power plants are built in Nebraska.”

“As the EPA points out, the State of Nebraska’s attempt to short-circuit the administrative rulemaking process runs contrary to basic, well-understood administrative law,” Judge John Gerrard wrote in his ruling. “Simply stated, the state cannot sue in federal court to challenge a rule that the EPA has not yet actually made.”

Decreases in Energy Costs

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts U.S. households will spend less from October to March on heating bills due to warmer winter temperatures.

“U.S. households in all regions of the country can expect to pay lower heating bills this winter, because temperatures are forecast to be warmer than last winter and that means less demand for heat,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski. Specifically, the EIA expects a decline of 15 percent in the cost of home heating oil, roughly 5 percent in the cost of natural gas and 2 percent in the cost of electricity. A decrease in the cost of natural gas and electricity is another contributing factor to the cost drop for households, according to the EIA.

A new study by the International Monetary Fund expands on how a boom in natural gas production—specifically related to shale gas—has helped to lower the cost of gas and energy prices for Americans. Since 2000, shale gas production has grown from 1 percent of total U.S. natural gas production to nearly 50 percent.

That increase has had global implications.

“So far, energy users in the United States have been the main beneficiaries of the energy prices declines that have resulted from the U.S. shale revolution,” said co-author Rabah Arezki. “However, that revolution has helped to stabilize international energy prices, including by freeing global energy supply for European and Asian markets, thus offsetting some of the shortages attributable to geopolitical disruptions. The shale gas boom has caused ripple effects to other energy sources around the globe, displacing coal from the United States to Europe, lowering energy costs and imposing a ‘significant impact on the geography of global energy trade.’”

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.


World Sees Some Tangible Outcomes from U.N. Climate Summit

September 25, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

World leaders gathered in New York this week for the United Nations Climate Summit, a meeting aimed at raising carbon reduction ambitions and mobilizing progress toward a global climate deal. In speeches at the summit, President Obama and other leaders recognized that countries across the world are feeling climate change effects, particularly extreme weather.

“In America, the past decade has been our hottest on record,” said Obama, who also announced the launch of new scientific and technological tools to increase global climate resilience and extend extreme weather risk outlooks. “Along our eastern coast, the city of Miami now floods at high tide. In our west, wildfire season now stretches most of year. In our heartland, farms have been parched by the worst drought in generations, and drenched by the wettest spring in our history. A hurricane left parts of this great city dark and underwater. And some nations already live with far worse.”

Like Obama, representatives of other major nations had their own news. The European Union unveiled a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, and China shared plans to set aside $6 million for U.N. efforts to boost South-South cooperation on global warming.

Other summit outcomes included a commitment by several countries and nearly 40 companies to support alternatives to deforestation, ending the loss of forests—which accounts for 12 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions—by 2030.

“Forests represent one of the largest, most cost-effective climate solutions available today,” the declaration said. “Action to conserve, sustainably manage and restore forests can contribute to economic growth, poverty alleviation, rule of law, food security, climate resilience and biodiversity conservation.”

More than $1 billion in new financial pledges were made to the Green Climate Fund, which was established at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit to help developing countries ease their transition away from fossil fuels and fight climate change.

The climate summit came on the heels of news that many countries are missing their emissions targets and that avoidance of runaway climate warming is slipping out of reach. A report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that says the world is dangerously close to no longer being able to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the threshold the U.N. declared as necessary to avoid dangerous consequences of climate change. Another study published Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience put 2014 world carbon emissions at 65 percent above 1990 levels and further suggested that the U.N.’s two-degree Celsius goal was becoming unobtainable.

Obama Announces New Solar Efficiency Measures

The White House announced new steps intended to increase deployment of solar and other energy efficiency measures to cut carbon pollution by nearly 300 million metric tons through 2030. The efforts are predicted to save $10 billion in energy costs.

Among the measures:

  • The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is launching the Solar Powering America website, providing access to a wide range of federal resources to drive solar deployment.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture will award $68 million in loans and grants for 540 renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, 240 of which will be solar projects.
  • DOE and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are releasingthree new studies showing that the cost of solar energy continues to fall across all sectors, which indicates that initiatives targeting soft costs are starting to work.
  • DOE is updating itsGuide to Federal Financing for Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Deployment. The guide will highlight financing programs located in various federal agencies, such as the Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which can be used for energy efficiency and clean energy projects.
  • A new program will train veterans to install solar panels.

The Transition to Clean Energy

Despite these clean energy plans, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows just how far the United States is behind Europe in its pursuit of non-carbon electricity.

“While most of the countries that produce at least half of their power from zero-carbon sources rely heavily on nuclear and hydroelectric power, the U.S. has been slow to convert its power sources to renewables like wind, solar, or biomass,” Slate reports.

A new report suggests Canada’s investment in clean energy is lagging—with the country spending $6.5 billion in renewable energy transition last year compared to the $207 billion spent worldwide.

“While other economics have made clean-energy industries and services a trade priority, some of us cling to the notion that our carbon-based fuels constitute our only competitive advantage,” the report says.

In the U.S., states like New York have plans to grow their clean energy contributions. New York State Energy and Research Development Authority submitted its plan for a new Clean Energy Fund—roughly $5 billion to grow clean energy programs in the next decade by continuing a utility bill surcharge.

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.


U.N. Report: Carbon Dioxide Levels at Record Highs

September 11, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The concentration and the rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere are spiking, according to new analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Scientists believe the record levels are not only the result of emissions but also of plants and oceans’ inability to absorb the excess amounts of CO2.

“We know without any doubt that our climate is changing and our weather is becoming more extreme due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years and in the ocean for even longer. Past, present and future CO2 emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification.”

The WMO study found that CO2 concentrations increased more during 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984—and significantly higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution (278 parts per million in 1750 compared with 396 parts per million in 2013). Other greenhouse gases are also on the rise—methane has risen by 253 percent since the Industrial Revolution,   and nitrous oxide has risen to 121 percent of pre-industrial levels.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) on how countries grow their economy while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions linked to energy concluded that the gap is widening between what the world is achieving and what it needs to do in terms of limiting global temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels—the target agreed at the United Nations 2009 climate summit. Carbon intensity was reduced, on average, 1.2 percent from 2012 to 2013. The needed annual reduction is 6.2 percent.

The PwC report also found that places like China, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey are reducing their carbon intensity far better than the world’s rich nations.

“What we found this year is that emerging economies have outperformed the G7 countries because their economies are growing much more rapidly than their emissions,” said Jonathan Grant, PwC director of sustainability and climate change.

BP Gets U.K. Support in Court Filing

The British government, in a court filing, offered support to limit payments by BP to victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, arguing that court-mandated compensation by a U.S. District Court in 2012 undermined confidence in judicial fairness. BP has spent much of this year working to convince federal courts in New Orleans that the settlement deal allowed millions in payments to go to what it says are undeserving businesses.

In its Sept. 4 filing, the British government said the prospect of payments going to people unaffected by the spill raises “grave international comity concerns.”

“The lower courts’ rulings have dramatically expanded [BP’s] scope of liability far beyond anything that would seem to be appropriate under our shared common-law traditions or that anyone would reasonably expect,” the British government wrote in an Amicus Curiae.

The brief comes on the heels of another more recent court ruling that found the company “grossly negligent” in the explosion that killed 11 men and allowed millions of barrels of oil to flow out of the Macondo oil well into the Gulf of Mexico. The ruling opened the door to new civil penalties that could amount to as much as $18 billion and that could pressure the company to sell assets from the Americas to Asia and Russia.

Regulating Emissions from the Airline Industry

As it did to implement a tailpipe rule that sets greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could use an endangerment finding to regulate emissions from the airline industry.

The EPA announced plans to release an endangerment finding proposal in April 2015 that looks at whether emissions from airlines endanger public health or welfare.

“If a positive endangerment and cause or contribute findings are made, U.S./EPA is obligated under the Clean Air Act to set [greenhouse gas] emission standards for aircrafts,” the EPA said. A process to finalize such a finding could take up to year.

The announcement comes as the electricity industry faces proposed regulations that would cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels, a move that governors of 15 states recently wrote “exceeds the scope of federal law” in a letter to President Obama.

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 Considering Lower Ozone Standard, Methane Strategy

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In its Policy Assessment for the Review of the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards report—released Friday—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests revising the health-based national ambient air quality standard for ozone.

“Staff concludes that it is appropriate in this review to consider a revised primary [ozone] standard level within the range of 70 ppb [parts per billion] to 60 ppb,” the report said (subscription). “A standard set within this range would result in important improvements in public protection, compared to the current standard, and could reasonably be judged to provide an appropriate degree of public health protection, including for at-risk populations and life stages.”

The report is part of the normal EPA process to consider changing air quality standards. It recommends tightening current smog rules—now at 75 parts per billion—somewhere between 7 and 20 percent, echoing findings of the EPA’s science advisory committee in June. A final decision lies with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who has a Dec. 1 deadline to issue a proposal on whether to retain or revise the existing standard.

Earlier in the week, McCarthy announced plans to issue a methane strategy emphasizing efficiency and reducing the need to flare gas—a strategy that could force oil and gas producers to cut emissions.

“We’re going to be putting out a strategy this fall and we hope everybody will pay attention to that effort,” McCarthy said at the Barclays Capital energy forum on Tuesday. “It will be addressing the challenges as well as the opportunities.”

Whether or not actual regulations for the industry will be issued is still being decided. McCarthy noted that the agency is “looking at what are the most cost-effective regulatory and-or voluntary efforts that can take a chunk out of methane in the system.”

This effort follows on the heels of an announcement by the White House that directed the EPA to develop an inter-agency strategy to combat methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems. If issued, rules to cut methane emissions would take effect in 2016.

China Eyes Carbon Market

Reuters reports that China will launch the world’s largest carbon market in 2016, although some provinces would be allowed to join later if they lacked the technical infrastructure needed to participate at the outset. “We will send over the national market regulations to the State Council for approval by the end of the year,” Sun Cuihua, a senior climate official with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told a conference in Bejing.

Confirming the earlier statement by Cuihua, Wang Shu, an official with the climate division of the NDRC said “We’ve brought forward this plan because it’s been prioritized in the central government’s economic reforms. The central government is pushing reforms, so everything is speeding up.”  According to Reuters, as in other carbon markets, power plants and manufacturers would face a cap on the carbon dioxide they discharge.  If an emitter needs to exceed its cap, it will have to purchase additional permits from the market to account for such emissions.

Court Finds BP Grossly Negligent in 2010 Gulf Spill

A U.S. District judge on Thursday ruled that BP was “grossly negligent” in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 men and allowed millions of barrels of oil to flow out of the Macondo oil well into the Gulf of Mexico.

“The court concludes that the discharge of oil was the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct,” by BP, the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier said. He found that BP was at fault for 67 percent of the spill. Two other companies involved—Transocean and Halliburton—were responsible for 30 and 3 percent, respectively.

“The law is clear that proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case,” BP said in a statement. “BP believes that an impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court. The court has not yet ruled on the number of barrels spilled and no penalty has been determined. The District Court will hold additional proceedings, which are currently scheduled to begin in January 2015, to consider the application of statutory penalty factors in assessing a per-barrel Clean Water Act penalty.”

Judge Barbier’s ruling could result in as much as $18 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act, according to The Hill.

Bacteria Used to Make Alternative Fuel

A study in the journal Nature Communications suggests that Escherichia coli, or E. coli bacteria, which is widely found in the human intestine, can be used to create propane gas that can power vehicles, central heating systems and camp stoves.

“Although this research is at a very early stage, our proof of concept study provides a method for renewable production of a fuel that previously was only accessible from fossil reserves,” said Patrik Jones, a study co-author. “Although we have only produced tiny amounts so far, the fuel we have produced is ready to be used in an engine straight away. This opens up possibilities for future sustainable production of renewable fuels that at first could complement, and thereafter replace fossil fuels like diesel, petrol, natural gas and jet fuel.”

Commercial production is still five to 10 years away—the level of propane produced by the team is 1,000 times less than that needed to make a commercial product. The process, which needs further refinement, uses E. coli to interrupt a biological process to create engine-ready propane rather than cell membranes.

“At the moment, we don’t have a full grasp of exactly how the fuel molecules are made, so we are now trying to find out exactly how this process unfolds,” Jones said.

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


EPA Releases Proposed Rule for Existing Power Plants

June 5, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week announced a proposed rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This first-of-its-kind proposal uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets for carbon dioxide and to allow states to devise individual or joint plans to meet those targets. The EPA expects to finalize the rule by next June.

“Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source—power plants. By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids.”

An analysis by our Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researchers highlights key details of the 600-plus-page rule, which assigns each state interim and final emissions goals. These goals are based, in part, on the efficiency of each state’s fossil fleet in 2012. They also reflect estimates of the emissions-reduction potential of efficiency upgrades to coal plants and increased use of renewable energy, demand-side energy efficiency, and existing natural gas capacity.

The rule provides states considerable flexibility to decide how to meet their interim and final emissions reduction goals. States may consider methods such as expanding renewable energy generation, creating energy efficiency programs and working with other states on the creation of regional plans. Once the EPA’s proposed rule is finalized, states will be given one to three years to finalize their state plans.

The rule sparked predictable political commentary. Republican leadership pilloried the rule, the President’s allies expressed gratitude for his leadership, and political pundits mused over the rule’s impact on the midterm elections. A Washington Post-ABC News post–rule-announcement poll found a large majority of Americans—70 percent—support regulating carbon from power plants. Americans in coal states were supportive of limiting greenhouse gas emissions regardless of whether their state was forced to make bigger adjustments than other states. And at least one set of political commenters—former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and I—point out that, if executed effectively, the rule could begin the nation’s path back to more comprehensive climate change policy.

China Taking Action as Well?

The proposed rule appeared to spur another of the world’s largest emitters—China—to consider capping its carbon dioxide emissions, starting with its next five-year plan in 2016. The suggestion, offered by He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change at a Beijing conference, was reported in several media outlets but was not an official pronouncement of the government.

“What I said today was my personal view,” said Jiankun. “The opinions expressed at the workshop were only meant for academic studies. What I said does not represent the Chinese government or any organization.”

Still, some saw the statement—by a senior advisor—as a promising development ahead of international climate negotiations that began Wednesday in Bonn, Germany. “As with many things in China, these officials don’t speak unless there’s some emerging consensus in the government that this is a position that they’re trending toward,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the environmental group at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think it’s a very positive sign that this kind of debate has taken hold.”

Not all commenters were sanguine about the EPA rule. According to a German study released this week, even with the 30 percent emissions cut outlined in the EPA’s proposed rule, climate pledges the United States set at United Nations climate talks may not be met. The study found the EPA rule would reduce 2030 U.S. national emissions only about 10 percent below 2005 levels. In 2010, the United States promised to reduce greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

“While the proposal is welcome, it is insufficient to meet the U.S.’s pledges of 17 percent reduction of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and is inconsistent with its long-term target of 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050,” said Niklas Hoehne of Ecofys, a German group that helped analyze the plan’s impact. “The plan implies an economy-wide decarbonisation rate of about 0.9 percent per annum, significantly lower than the 1.4 percent per annum achieved in the last decade. This is not as fast as required for a 2 C decarbonisation pathway.”

New Imports for Solar

The United States has set new import tariffs on some solar panels from China, saying some manufacturers had unfairly benefitted from subsidies. The still-preliminary Commerce Department ruling was prompted by a petition of charges filed by a group led by SolarWorld in 2011. The petition claims some Chinese companies avoided tariffs by shipping solar cell parts to locations like Taiwan—flooding the U.S. market with cheap products.

Duties imposed in the preliminary decision could range from 18.5 to 35.21 percent.

“The import duties, which are in line with our expectations, will wipe out the price competitiveness of Chinese products in the U.S. market,” said Zhou Ziguang, an analyst at the Chinese investment bank Ping An Securities in Beijing.

For U.S. companies, the news was mixed—some could see great benefits; others, very little.

“SunPower will be the primary beneficiary of the decision, given its presence in the U.S. distributed generation market where most Chinese companies supply product,” according to Morgan Stanley. “Although First Solar theoretically benefits, we believe that the impact will be small given limited presence of Chinese companies in the U.S. utility scale market.”

Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said “These damaging tariffs will increase costs for U.S. solar consumers and, in turn, slow the adoption of solar.”

Last year the European Union overcame a similar trade dispute with Beijing when the trade partners agreed to set a minimum price for solar panels from China.

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.


Upcoming EPA Power Plant Rule Stirs Speculation

May 29, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is just days away from the release of its first-ever proposed rule regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The rule will push states to cut pollution primarily from coal-fired generators. As many await details of the rule, The New York Times reports that sources familiar with proposal suggest that it will call for a 20 percent reduction.

One new study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was skeptical of the regulation, slated for release on June 2, finding that they would cost the economy $51 billion a year in lost investments. The Chamber further suggests that the rule could diminish coal-fired generation, which currently represents 40 percent of electricity generation in the country, by one third.

In a blog post, the EPA disputed the Chamber of Commerce findings.

“The chamber’s report is nothing more than irresponsible speculation based on guesses of what our draft proposal will be,” wrote Tom Reynolds, associate administrator for external affairs. “Just to be clear—it’s not out yet. I strongly suggest that folks read the proposal before they cry the sky is falling.”

second report from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions identifies opportunities for states to comply with section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act using policies that generate benefits beyond reductions in CO2 emissions. States may choose, for example, to reduce carbon emissions in a way that hedges risk of future air regulations, potentially lowers long-term compliance costs and limits emissions of other pollutants. In a separate report released this week, researchers at Harvard and Syracuse universities identified potential air quality impacts of section 111(d) policy designs that vary in stringency and flexibility.

Americans React to Climate Terms Differently

When the president discusses the proposed rule, a part of his Climate Action Plan, choosing whether to use “climate change” or “global warming” could elicit far different public responses, according to a new report.

The two terms are often used synonymously, but it turns out “global warming” invokes a stronger negative reaction than “climate change.” In national surveys, respondents were 13 percentage points more likely to say global warming is bad than they were to say climate change is bad—76 percent compared with 63 percent.

“The whole realm of connotative meaning is actually where most of us live our daily lives,” said lead Yale University researcher Anthony Leiserowitz. “When looking at a menu and deciding what to have for lunch, you see the word ‘sushi’— some people have the reaction, ‘Oh, delicious, I’ll order that,’ and other people have a reaction of: ‘Disgusting, raw fish.’ So these terms play out not only in our every day decision making but also in our politics.”

Between 2004 and 2014, “global warming” was the term searched more frequently on the Internet. Even though it’s more scientifically accurate to talk about the problem as “climate change,” the term “global warming” is more effective in conveying urgency. In The New York Times, Andrew Revkin argues that the latter term should dominate for other reasons: “As Roger A Pielke Jr. has pointed out for a decade, ‘climate change’ has proved problematic in a more technical sense—with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defining the term differently, in ways that have significant ramifications in treaty negotiations.”

Politically, the researchers said, “use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.”

New Safety Conditions Set for Keystone

Safety regulators put two extra conditions on construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline after learning of potentially dangerous construction defects involving the project’s southern leg, including high rates of bad welds, dented pipe and damaged pipeline coating.

The defects have been fixed. However, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) wants to prevent similar problems from occurring in the pipeline’s controversial northern segment, which is on hold pending a decision by the Obama administration.

“TransCanada had identified and addressed these issues prior to any product being introduced into the pipeline and reported them voluntarily to the government,” said TransCanada spokesperson Davis Sheremata, noting that the southern leg’s problems were a completely separate matter than issues related to the construction of the northern leg.

One of the two new conditions requires TransCanada to hire a third-party contractor chosen by PHMSA to monitor the construction and report on its soundness to the U.S. government. The second requires TransCanada to adopt a quality management program to ensure that the pipeline is built to Keystone and its contractors’ highest standards.

Meanwhile, TransCanada is filing an amicus brief in Nebraska, siding with the governor and the state in a lawsuit filed by three Nebraska ranchers who want to block Keystone.

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.