Emissions, Economic Growth Parting Ways

April 23, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis released Monday reveals that the country’s energy-related carbon emissions grew last year but more slowly than the economy as a whole, representing a decoupling of emissions and economic growth that is projected to continue through 2015 (subscription). Bloomberg reports that the difference in the emissions increase and the GDP increase—0.7 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively—is considered a sign that emissions reductions efforts are not restraining economic expansion.

“The more we can grow our economy without increasing emissions by the same amount of that economic growth, it means that other factors such as energy intensity and the amount of carbon dioxide released in the production of that energy are offsetting the economic growth,” said EIA report author Perry Lindstrom in an e-mail to Reuters.

Confirmation of the second consecutive annual increase in U.S. carbon emissions comes on the heels of commitments by the United States to a 26–28 percent cut in those emissions from 2005 levels by 2025.

A recently released short-term forecast for U.S. power by Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that U.S. emissions-cutting efforts are about to get a huge boost. It projects that this year carbon pollution from the U.S. power sector will fall to its lowest level since 1994 as coal plants go offline and renewables come online. But a Duke University-led study based on 1,000 years of temperature records suggests that global warming is not progressing as fast as it would under the most severe emissions scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Gas Flaring Initiative Aims to Capture Easy Emissions Reductions

The World Bank announced first-ever commitments by 9 countries, 10 oil companies, and all 6 global development institutions to end the practice of routine gas flaring at oil production sites by 2030. The “Zero Routine Flaring by 2030” initiative was launched by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, who said the voluntary agreement will cut 40 percent of the global gas flaring that each year results in 300 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions—equivalent to emissions from approximately 77 million cars.

No U.S.-based companies have signed onto the initiative, which the World Bank and U.N. are using to build support for the U.N.-hosted climate conference aimed at forging a global climate agreement in Paris later this year.

“We think that to eliminate routine gas flaring is the low-hanging fruit on the climate agenda,” said Bjorn Hamso, the World Bank’s program manager for the Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership. “Oil-producing countries who decide to join us in this effort, they can make that CO2 reduction part of their contribution to the negotiations in Paris.”

Signatories to the initiative will publicly report their flaring and progress toward the target on an annual basis and will prohibit routine flaring in new oil fields developments.

U.S. Energy Infrastructure Requires “Significant Change”

To deal with the challenges of climate change, new technology, a changing energy supply and national security in the coming years, the U.S. electricity sector will require major modifications, according to a new report by the Obama administration.

“The United States’ energy system is going through dramatic changes,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “This places a high premium on investing wisely in the energy infrastructure we need to move energy supplies to energy consumers.”

The report notes that the U.S. energy infrastructure—2.6 million miles of interstate and intrastate pipelines, about 640,000 miles of transmission lines, 414 natural gas storage facilities, 330 ports handling crude and petroleum and refined petroleum products and more than 140,000 miles of railways that handle crude petroleum—is outdated. It calls for billions in new spending programs and tax credits to modernize this system’s grid and oil and gas and transportation infrastructure. Among the approaches it recommends are these:

  • Establish a Department of Energy-run program that provides financial assistance to states to encourage cost-effective improvements that would accelerate pipeline replacement and enhance maintenance programs for natural gas distribution systems.
  • Promote grid modernization with a proposal in the President’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request.
  • Make infrastructure investments that optimize the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and have Congress update release authorities to reflect modern oil markets.
  • Increase integration of energy data among the United States, Canada, Mexico and other countries.
  • Improve quantification of emissions from natural gas and provide funding for the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act.

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.


Court Hears Arguments Surrounding EPA Power Plant Rule

April 16, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments Thursday in a set of cases (Murray Energy v. EPA and West Virginia v. EPA) challenging the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to limit greenhouse gases from existing power plants under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. There was skepticism from at least two of the three judge panel about whether they could hear a challenge before the rule is finalized. Judges Griffith and Kavanaugh both questioned whether the rulemaking was “extraordinary” and requiring of immediate court review.

Whether the court decides to review the proposed rule or not, the argument also previewed future challenges claiming the EPA misused sections of the Clean Air Act to regulate pollution. The plaintiffs—a coalition of coal-producing states and a coal company—argue that the EPA rules violate the Clean Air Act’s language limiting regulation of the facilities for pollutants to just one section of the law. A drafting error in 1990 created conflicting language between the House and Senate versions that was never resolved, with the House limiting regulation under section 111(d) to those facilities that were not regulated otherwise, and the Senate limiting regulation only to those pollutants that were not otherwise regulated. The EPA claims that it has discretion to resolve such a conflict of language in the way it has proposed.

Obama Proposes New Offshore Drilling Rules

As the five-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico nears, the Obama administration is proposing dozens of rules aimed at strengthening oversight of offshore drilling equipment to ensure that wells can be sealed in emergency situations.

The draft rules would impose tougher standards on equipment designed to maintain well control (such as the blowout preventer that malfunctioned in the BP spill), require real-time monitoring of drilling in deep-water and high-pressure conditions, and establish annual third-part reviews of repair records.

“Both industry and government have taken important strides to better protect human lives and the environment from oil spills, and these proposed measures are designed to further build on critical lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and to ensure that offshore operations are safe,” said U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (subscription).

Carbon Emissions from Permafrost: Good and Bad News

A new study in the journal Nature warns that a warming climate can induce environmental changes that hasten the microbial breakdown of organic carbon stored in permafrost (frozen soils) within the Artic and sub-Artic regions, releasing carbon dioxide and methane—a feedback that can accelerate climate change. Although a sudden or catastrophic release of these greenhouse gases from the top three meters of global permafrost soil and Arctic river deltas is unlikely, the projected release of 5–15 percent of an estimated 1,330–1,580 gigatons—equaling an extra 0.13 to 0.27 degrees Celsius of warming—by 2100 is troubling given the tight carbon budget to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.

The study’s authors said that target likely will be overshot if the Arctic’s soil carbon stores are not accurately incorporated into climate models used by policy makers to decide how to mitigate missions and limit global warming.

“If society’s goal is to try to keep the rise in global temperatures under 2 degrees C and we haven’t taken permafrost carbon release into account in terms of mitigation efforts, then we might underestimate that amount of mitigation effort required to reach that goal,” said study co-author David McGuire.

Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was aware of the potential for permafrost emissions, it didn’t factor them into its most recent major report because estimates from earlier studies were considered uncertain and unreliable.

According to McGuire, data from his team’s syntheses do not support a hypothesized permafrost carbon bomb. “What our syntheses do show,” McGuire said, “is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle.”

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.


United States, Europe Announce Emissions Reductions Pledges

April 2, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

“Ambitious and achievable” is how the White House described its formal emissions reduction pledge—a cut of 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025—to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in preparation for negotiation of a binding climate agreement in Paris in December. Opinion about the aptness of the two adjectives was, predictably, mixed.

The U.S. pledge follows on the heels of a U.S. agreement to form a joint task force on climate policy co-operation with Mexico, which has become the first developing nation to formally announce its greenhouse gas emissions reductions ahead of Paris—25 percent by 2030.

The only other countries to meet an informal March 31 deadline to declare formal plans to the UNFCCC for voluntary greenhouse gas emissions cuts—so-called intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs)—were the 28-nation European Union, Switzerland, Norway, and, at the midnight hour, Russia, which said it would cut its emissions by as much as 30 percent from 1990 levels. Gabon submitted its pledge April 1.

The delay in INDC pledges by the vast majority of the world’s countries complicates negotiation of a global climate change agreement in Paris in December, Reuters reports. The lag will shrink the time that other countries have to assess whether they will meet others’ offers, potentially leading to a “last-minute pile-up” like the one that scuttled climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

The U.S. target will entail a substantial ramp-up in reductions. According to the U.S. INDC, “Achieving the 2025 target will require a further emission reduction of 9–11 percent beyond our 2020 target compared to the 2005 baseline and a substantial acceleration of the 2005–2020 annual pace of reduction, to 2.3–2.8 percent per year, or an approximate doubling.”

Some of the required efforts have been launched or proposed: increased fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, methane limits for energy production, cuts in federal government emissions, and pollution rules for power plants. The U.S. INDC outlined no plans to meet INDC targets through international carbon trading, but it does suggest that agricultural land use and carbon sinks such as forests will play some role in achieving the targets.

According to the international analysis group Climate Action Tracker, “The U.S. will need to implement additional policies to reach its proposed targets. The planned policies (such as the targets in the Climate Action Plan), if fully implemented, are sufficient to meet the 2020 pledge [a 17 percent reduction in 2005 emissions levels by 2020]. Additional policies will have to be implemented to reach the 2025 pledge.”

Arctic Oil Exploration

A National Petroleum Council (NPC) draft report, out last Friday, indicates that the United States should tap Arctic oil and gas reserves to boost energy security.

“To remain globally competitive and to be positioned to provide global leadership and influence in the Arctic, the U.S. should facilitate exploration in the offshore Alaskan Arctic now,” the study’s authors wrote.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Arctic contains an estimated 13 percent of all oil resources and up to 30 percent of all natural gas resources on the planet [measured in terms undiscovered conventional energy resources]. According to the NPC report, if drilling began now in Alaska and continued into 2030 or 2040, Arctic production would help sustain domestic supplies if shale and tight oils decline in the lower 48 states.

The report was released just days before the U.S. Department of the Interior reaffirmed a 2008 auction of Arctic drilling rights, giving Royal Dutch Shell the go-ahead to restart oil exploration in the Alaskan Artic. Despite that news, the National Geographic reports that three factors—permits, safety concerns, and oil reserve amounts—could still slow Arctic drilling.

Report: Renewables Could Help States Meet Clean Power Plan Requirements

Renewable energy investment worldwide totaled more than $270.2 billion in 2014—a roughly 17 percent increase from the year previous—according to a new report.

The American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association think renewables have potential. Their new handbook details how states can incorporate renewable energy to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act by establishing state-by-state emissions rate goals for affected fossil fuel-fired power plants.

How much and how fast the Clean Power Plan could help renewable energy development depends on a laundry list of technical and policy questions involving the EPA’s final rule (subscription).

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

Global Warming Imperiling Artic Ice, Slowing Ocean Circulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Cuts Fed’s Carbon Emissions

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

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

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

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

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


Climate Pledges May Not Be Enough

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Droughts in the Amazon Accelerating Climate Change

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

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

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

EIA Report Sees Growth in Wind, Solar

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

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

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

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

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


First Rules for Arctic Drilling Released

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

Oceans Warming and Seas Rising Faster Than Predicted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Vetoes Keystone XL

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

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

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

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


McCarthy: Clean Power Plan Targets May Change

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experts Debate Economic, Carbon Impacts of Biomass Conversion to Electricity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Stop on Road to a Climate Agreement in Paris: Geneva

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The latest round of climate talks began Feb. 8 in Geneva, where representatives of 190 or so countries have their work cut out for them: streamlining a 37-page draft text of an international agreement covering more than 100 issues, each with multiple options and sub-options, so that a full negotiating text is ready by May as a basis for further negotiations in June and ratification at a summit in Paris in December. The draft text reflects a rich country-developing country divide and is “stuffed with options that reflect conflicting interests and demands on many fundamental points,” reported the Associated Foreign Press in the Gulf Times.

With both global Earth surface and global sea surface temperatures reaching record levels in 2014, pressure to reach a final climate accord is intense.

At the outset of the 6-day conference, the only negotiation period scheduled before delivery of national emissions reductions plans at the end of May, European Union negotiator Elena Bardram acknowledged that countries’ Paris targets are unlikely to keep global temperature rise below the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers the tipping point for dangerous climate change.

“We are concerned the targets set in Paris may fall short of what is required by science, that it will not be exactly what is required to remain within the 2 degrees,” she said in a United Nations press conference webcast. “By the Paris conference, we need to have a very clear understanding of how well on track we are with keeping global temperature increase within the two degree centigrade limit,” she said. “We have to know how much is on the table and what more needs to be done, should that be the case.”

All major economies must declare their emissions targets by the end of March, and the European Union is wasting no time in its efforts to make its members fall into line. Reuters reported that it will exert “maximum pressure” to extract pledges “by June at the latest.”

But developed country targets are not the only issue. Other sticking points are whether developing countries should make their own carbon-reduction pledges, whether industrial superpowers should compensate these countries for climate change-related losses and damage, and how pledges of financial support to developing countries should be made good.

Days before the latest talks got under way, a group of CEOs called for the Paris deal to include a goal to reduce global emissions to net zero—no more than Earth can absorb—by 2050.

Final Keystone Legislation Headed to President’s Desk

By a 270–152 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed final legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, the project that during seven years of administrative review overseen by the State Department has morphed into a fight about climate change. The president has 10 days once the bill reaches his deck to issue a promised veto.

Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, the architect of the Keystone XL bill, acknowledged that Republicans lack the votes to overcome a veto but said that Keystone measures could be added to other legislation that have bipartisan support.

The bill endorsed changes made by the Senate—that climate change was not a hoax and that oil sands should no longer be exempt from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

The President has said he would approve the pipeline only if it does not significantly increase the rate of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the State Department to revisit its conclusion that the project’s impact on those emissions was negligible—a conclusion that the EPA says may no longer hold given the implications of lowered oil prices for oil sands development.

National Security Strategy Report Highlights Threat of Climate Change

Among the eight top strategic risks to the United States identified in President Obama’s National Security Strategy report to Congress is climate change. The report, issued Feb. 6, singles out the phenomenon as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water” with “present day” effects being felt “from the Arctic to the Midwest.”

The report echoes many of the Pentagon’s warnings that climate change poses a national security risk, and it alludes to the economic costs of climate change, suggesting that delaying emissions reductions is more expensive than transitioning to low-carbon energy sources.

Although the administration’s last national security strategy, released in 2010, recognized the threat of climate change to U.S. interests, the new report puts global warming “front and center,” according to the National Journal.

The strategy draws attention to the U.S. commitment to reducing emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to developing “an ambitious new global climate change agreement.”

A White House fact sheet on the report says that the United States will advance its own security and that of allies and partners in part by “confronting the urgent crisis of climate change, including through national emissions reductions, international diplomacy, and our commitment to the Green Climate Fund.”

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


Obama Addresses Climate Change with Proposed 2016 Budget

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In an effort to increase energy security and resilience to climate change, President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposes a 7 percent increase in funding for clean energy and a new $4 billion Clean Power State Initiative Fund aimed at encouraging U.S. states to make faster and deeper cuts in power plant emissions.

The proposed $4 billion fund, which would help states pay for infrastructure improvements and renewable and clean-energy initiatives as well as prepare for more extreme weather, signals that the Clean Power Plan’s individual state targets are “minimums, not maximums,” according to U.S. News and World Report.

The proposed fund would be paid for by offsetting reductions from other programs—which congressional Republicans are likely to oppose, reports the Associated Press, given their aversion to the EPA’s climate efforts.

The budget called attention to the costs of delaying carbon-cutting measures, including $300 billion over 10 years for responses to extreme weather events. According to the Obama administration, unabated climate change could cost the United States $120 billion a year.

“The failure to invest in climate solutions and climate preparedness does not just fly in the face of the overwhelming judgment of science—it is fiscally unwise,” states the budget plan released by the White House.

The president’s proposed budget also calls for investments aimed at climate change adaptation. Several hundred million dollars are earmarked for initiatives such as protecting communities at risk from wildfires and assessing and addressing coastal flooding threats.

Also in the budget proposal: a $500 million contribution to the United Nation’s Global Climate Fund to help developing countries combat global warming and adapt to climate change.

Senate Pushes Ahead on Keystone, EPA Pushes Back

In a 62-to-36 vote on Jan. 29, the Senate approved a bill mandating completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama has vowed to veto pending federal environmental reviews.

The Senate measure in effect transfers decision-making authority for Keystone from the administration to Congress. Because the measure differs from the House measure approving the proposed pipeline, the House could hold another vote on the project or a conference with Senate leaders. In either case, Congressional supporters of the project currently lack the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

Because the State Department gave federal agencies a Feb. 2nd deadline to conclude their assessment of Keystone, the president could announce his decision on the project soon.

In 2013, Obama said that decision would be based on whether Keystone’s construction would worsen climate change. This week, the U.S. EPA urged the State Department to “revisit” its 2014 conclusion that the pipeline would not significantly increase the rate of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

The agency has zeroed in on the “potential implications of lower oil prices on project impacts, especially greenhouse gas emissions.” It said that with an oil price range at $65 to $75 a barrel, “construction of the pipeline is projected to change the economics of oil sands development and result in increased oil sands production and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions.”

The White House has not said whether the letter shows that Keystone fails Obama’s “climate test.”

Add Blackouts to Climate Change Effects

For major American cities along the Atlantic coast to the Gulf, climate change may mean more blackouts, according to a report published in the journal Climatic Change.

Using a computer simulation model, engineers at Johns Hopkins University examined how fluctuations in hurricane intensity and activity could potentially affect the cities’ electrical power systems. The cities at highest risk of power outage increases during major storms are New York City, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla., Virginia Beach, Va., and Hartford, Conn.

“Infrastructure providers and emergency managers need to plan for hurricanes in a long-term manner and that planning has to take climate change into account,” said study coauthor Seth Guikema.

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.S.-India Climate Agreement Less Substantive Than U.S.-China Climate Deal

January 29, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S.-India climate agreement announced January 25 creates a new agreement between the second- and third-largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world but does not have the strength of the U.S.-China climate deal reached last year. Rather than committing India to cap its emissions, the U.S.-India deal called for “enhancing bilateral climate change cooperation” in advance of the United Nations effort to reach an international agreement on emissions and finance in Paris in December.

Specifically, the deal calls for cooperation on reducing emissions of fluorinated gases and beefing up India’s promotion of clean energy investment. The two countries also renewed their commitment to the U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, extending by five years funding for research on advanced biofuels, solar energy, and building energy efficiency as well as launching new research on smart grid and grid storage technology.

“It’s my feeling that the agreement that has been concluded between the United States and China does not impose any pressure on us,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding, “But there is pressure. When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure. Climate change itself is a huge pressure. Global warming is a huge pressure.”

The agreements have not bridged the gap in the two countries’ perspectives on UN climate talks: the United States wants major emitters to take legal responsibility for climate change action, but India argues that the United States and other developed countries have not followed through on their own pledges and should not demand that developing countries take on new emissions reductions responsibilities.

President Moves to Shut Artic National Wildlife Refuge to Oil Drilling

While proposing to open portions of the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas extraction, an Obama administration plan would prohibit energy development on nearly 10 million acres off the Alaskan coast. The administration has also proposed setting aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, squashing opportunities for oil exploration there.

Less than 40 percent of the refuge currently has the wilderness designation, the highest level of protection available for public lands. The president’s plan would block efforts to drill for oil on a 1.5-million-acre portion of the refuge thought to contain up to 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum.

In a press conference, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that President Obama has declared “war” on her state. “The fight is on and we are not backing down.”

In a White House blog post, John Podesta a counselor to the president and Mike Boots, leader of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, noted that the United States today is the world’s number-one producer of oil and natural gas and that the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge “is too precious to put at risk” of an oil-related accident. “By designating the area as wilderness, Congress could preserve the Coastal Plain in perpetuity—ensuring that this wild, free, beautiful, and bountiful place remains in trust for Alaska Natives and for all Americans.”

Increasing Frequency of La Niñas Attributed to Climate Change

A new climate modeling study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that by century’s end human-caused climate change will double the frequency of La Niñas—weather patterns associated with a temperature drop in the central Pacific Ocean—resulting in floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events.

Extreme La Niña events might be experienced about every 13 years, rather than every 23 years, as they are now, but not like clockwork, according to lead study author Wenju Cai, a climate scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Aspendale, Australia. “We’re only saying that on average, we expect to get one every 13 years,” said Cai. “We cannot predict exactly when they will happen, but we suggest that on average, we are going to get more.”

The study finds that powerful La Niñas will immediately follow intense El Niños, causing weather patterns to alternate between wet and dry extremes.

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.