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
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is delaying the release of carbon emissions rules for all power plants and will publish them for new as well as existing plants at the same time mid-summer.
“It’s become clear to us … that there are cross-cutting topics that affect the standards for new sources, for modified sources and for existing sources, and we believe it’s essential to consider these overlapping issues in a coordinated fashion,” said Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting administrator for air quality.
McCabe also announced that the EPA will begin drafting a “model rule” for states that do not submit individual plans to meet emissions reduction targets in the existing power plant regulations.
Under the proposed regulations for new sources, the EPA has functionally required new coal power plants to include carbon-capture technology, which critics of the emissions rules say lack proof of efficacy on a large scale and have a high cost to implement. In 2011, the American Electric Power Company reported that including carbon-storing processes at a West Virginia plant would cost an estimated $668 million.
California Cap-and-Trade System Includes Oil and Gas Sector
California’s cap-and-trade program—the country’s first multi-sector carbon emissions trading program—now requires gasoline and diesel producers to supply lower-carbon fuels or to buy carbon allowances—pollution permits—for the greenhouse gases emitted when those fuels are burned.
Key program stakeholders, industry leaders, public officials and environmental advocates agree that consumers will see a rise in gas prices, but the amount remains uncertain.
“There’s a very large universe of variables which could affect gas prices on a daily basis, and we don’t set fuel prices,” said California Air Resources Board spokesperson Dave Clegern. He added, “We don’t see them going up more than a dime, at the most, based on any current cap-and-trade compliance costs.”
It is estimated that 25 percent of secured funds from the emissions trading program will be allotted to the state’s high-speed rail project.
California’s program includes an allowance reserve initially proposed by Nicholas Institute and Duke University researchers that prevents carbon allowance prices from reaching levels beyond the scope of purchasers.
Congress Prepare to Vote on Keystone XL Pipeline
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has cleared legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver some 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. But White House press secretary Josh Earnest, citing the Obama administration’s “well-established” review process, said, “If this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it.”
The pipeline has become a flash point in the debate over climate change and economic growth.
In a December 19 press conference, the president said, “I want to make sure that if in fact this project goes forward, that it’s not adding to the problem of climate change, which I think is very serious and does impose serious costs on the American people, some of them long term, but significant costs nonetheless.”
Critics of Keystone have pointed to the carbon intensive production of the crude it will carry. In an op-ed in The Hill, the new president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rheh Suh, called production of oil from Canadian tar sands an “environmental disaster.”
Supporters argue that Keystone will be a source of economic stimulus. In a statement, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said, “After six years of foot-dragging, it’s time to finally say yes to jobs and yes to energy. It’s time to build [this pipeline].”
The world’s two largest carbon emitters have signed pacts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The deals—actually eight projects demonstrating smart grids and carbon capture, utilization and storage—were made through the China-U.S. Climate Change Working Group and will involve companies and research bodies.
“The significance of these two nations coming together can’t be understated,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the sixth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. “We are working hard to find a solution together that can have an impact on the rest of the world.”
The two countries also reached agreements to adopt stronger fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and to conduct a study on gas use in industrial boilers.
The U.S. and China have been at odds over how much each should contribute to reducing climate change and how the costs of cutting emissions should be distributed between rich and poor nations. Consensus on these issues will be crucial to any pact to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Only broad-stroke goals are being discussed at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
“We are certainly not at a point where anybody is talking about concrete numbers,” said Todd Stern, the U.S. State Department’s special climate change envoy. “It is more, what is your process for developing a target, what sort of form you think your target is going to take. What are the policies that underpin the target you are going to develop?”
New EPA Rules under the Renewable Fuel Standard
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized two rules that will allow new fuels pathways and provide a voluntary quality assurance plan for the renewable fuel standard (RFS) program. Under the first rule, compressed or liquefied natural gas from landfills, water-treatment facilities or farms can be classified as a cellulosic biofuel, and electricity produced from these sources and used to power electric vehicles can be used to meet biofuel targets.
“These pathways have the potential to provide notable volumes of cellulosic biofuel for use in complying with the [Renewable Fuel Standard] program, since significant volumes of advanced biofuels are already being generated for fuel made from biogas,” the EPA said.
The new pathways could affect the EPA’s final 2014 biofuel targets. Production of cellulosic biofuels has lagged behind previous targets set by the agency under the RFS program.
The second rule finalizes the RFS Renewable Identification Number (RIN) Quality Assurance Program, first proposed in January 2013. The voluntary, third-party-auditing program would help to ensure the validity of RINs that petroleum refiners use to demonstrate their compliance with the RFS.
Keystone XL Pipeline Decision Delayed, Again
The Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry roughly 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Canada to the Gulf Coast, will have its day in court this September. The Nebraska Supreme Court announced it will hear oral arguments on the pipeline’s proposed route early that month, likely pushing any decision by the White House until after mid-term elections in November.
At issue is the correctness of an earlier ruling that found that pipeline’s plans to be unconstitutional. That ruling reversed a decision by state Gov. Dave Heineman—under a 2012 Nebraska law—to approve the new 300-mile route through the state. The Obama administration has said it will await the court’s decision before making a final ruling on the pipeline.
Despite these developments, industry groups are pressing Secretary of State John Kerry to resume and complete final review of the Keystone project.
In a hearing Monday, the Supreme Court questioned whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is correct in its interpretation that regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles triggers the requirement to also implement permitting requirements for large stationary sources. At issue is the legality of EPA’s interpretation of the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) regulations. Industry groups argue that the PSD permitting requirements apply to certain pollutants, whereas the EPA argues that they apply to all pollutants, including greenhouse gases. Ultimately, the more than 90-minute session ended with the justices divided over whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”
“As is so often the case when the court is closely divided, the vote of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy loomed as the critical one, and that vote seemed inclined toward the EPA, though with some doubt,” said SCOTUS blogger Lyle Denniston. “Although he seemed troubled that Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. could call up no prior ruling to support the policy choice the EPA had made on greenhouse gases by industrial plants, Kennedy left the impression that it might not matter.”
If the Supreme Court rules against the EPA, the agency has several options, said Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast (subscription). It could, for instance, devise new source performance standards for each individual source or regulate sources under another Clean Air Act program.
Overturning a previous commitment to phase out all nuclear, the draft government plan, which awaits Cabinet approval, instead calls for more long-term reliance on the energy source. It specifies that nuclear dependency will remain low but that reactors meeting standards set after the 2011 Fukushima disaster should be restarted. The Wall Street Journal reports 17 such reactors are undergoing inspection now.
In the United States, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz provided final approval for a $6.5 billion dollar loan guarantee that will be used to construct two nuclear reactors in Georgia—the first built in the United States in more than 30 years. Days later, President Barack Obama approved a deal with Vietnam that would allow the nation to develop nuclear power.
Obama: Decision on Keystone Could Come Soon
A decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline—carrying crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast—will be made in the next “couple of months,” President Barack Obama told attendees at the annual National Governors Association winter meeting Monday. The White House declined to expand on Obama’s comment at the private meeting. Politico reports that it contradicts speculation by parties on both sides that the decision will come after November’s mid-term elections. That speculation began last week after a ruling by a Nebraska judge that struck down a state law approving the pipeline’s route through the state.
The president’s Keystone decision comment came a day after Canada’s National Energy Board audit found TransCanada Corp—the company leading the Keystone XL project—could make improvements in its pipeline safety practices. The audit was moved up after a then-employee of TransCanada came forward with allegations of safety lapses.
“The audit has confirmed that, in response to these allegations, TransCanada has developed and implemented a program of actions with the goal of correcting and preventing similar occurrences,” the National Energy Board said. The board found TransCanada to be non-compliant in four areas: hazard identification, risk assessment and control; operational control in upset or abnormal operating condition; inspection, measurement and monitoring; and management review.
Despite claims the State Department violated conflict of interest rules when it chose an outside contractor to conduct an environmental impact study of the proposed pipeline, a report issued Wednesday found otherwise.
The State Department issued its final environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline, which echoed findings in previous analyses that the pipeline would lead to no substantial increase in greenhouse gas emissions. It found that approximately 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide would be created by producing, refining and burning the pipeline’s oil. The report’s release kicks off a 30-day public comment period as well as a 90-day “national interest determination” period during which eight federal agencies are allowed to offer their views. Ultimately, the decision on the permit for Keystone XL rests with President Barack Obama.
“Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs, and supply-demand scenarios,” the report states.
The analysis also discounted claims that oil transported from Canada to the Gulf Coast, through Keystone XL, would mainly benefit countries like China. The petroleum industry expected the pipeline to create tens of thousands of jobs; the report found it would directly and indirectly support about 42,100. It’s a point Obama disputed in an interview Monday night.
“First of all, it’s not 42,000,” he said. “That’s not correct. It’s a couple thousand to build the pipeline.”
Many environmentalists disputed the report’s objectivity; supporters viewed the assessment as clearing the way to a permit.
Farm Bill, New Climate Hubs to Provide Support for Farmers
The same week the Senate approved a long-stalled farm bill—now slated to be signed by President Barack Obama on Friday—the Obama administration announced plans to open “climate hubs” to help farmers adapt to drought, fire risk and other problems linked to global warming.
“For generations, America’s farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have innovated and adapted to challenges,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Today, they face a new and more complex threat in the form of a changing and shifting climate, which impacts both our nation’s forests and our farmers’ bottom lines. USDA’s Climate Hubs are part of our broad commitment to developing the next generation of climate solutions, so that our agricultural leaders have the modern technologies and tools they need to adapt and succeed in the face of a changing climate.”
Seven locations in Ames, Iowa; Durham, N.H.; Raleigh, N.C.; Fort Collins, Colo.; El Reno, Okla.; Corvallis, Ore.; and Las Cruces, N.M., will link local agriculture producers with universities, industry groups, state governments and federal agencies. Other “subsidiary hubs” will be in Houghton, Mich.; Davis, Calif., and Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.
California Drought Worsens
In the country’s most populous state, farmers and ranchers are dealing with one of the issues the new climate hubs will tackle: drought. Nearly 9 percent of California was in exceptional drought as the state entered its 13th month of drought. Much of the rest of the state—about 67 percent—is in extreme drought.
The State Water Project, which supplies water to many in California, cut off allocations in several districts. Snowpack in the Sierra mountain range is historically low. Wildfires have been running far above average. Lack of rainfall has cut into the state’s hydropower supplies.
“Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown in his State of the State address. “We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration … We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gases, but we can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come.”
In his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama took just 5 minutes of the 65-minute speech to cover energy and environment issues. He declared climate change “a fact,” stating “when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”
Despite this assertion, National Geographic reports Obama’s efforts on climate change since his last State of the Union address have come up short in the minds of many in the environmental community. On Tuesday, Obama did mention a number of issues, most of which he had discussed before, to deal with climate change. He wants to set new fuel efficiency standards for trucks, and he promised to “cut red tape” to establish natural-gas-powered factories and fueling stations for cars and trucks. He endorsed natural gas not only as an economic driver, but also as a way to further cut emissions.
He also mentioned efforts to set emissions limits for power plants, and, if necessary, to use his executive power to move the effort forward. But portending the political drama to come, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted earlier Tuesday to scrap a measure (subscription) to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants.
Obama went on to tout the administration’s work toward attaining energy independence, offering that there is more “oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world.” According to White House reports, domestic crude oil production surpassed crude oil imports in October 2013 for the first time since 1995.
The president did not mention whether he intends to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—projected to carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The closest he came, Politico reports, was alluding to “tough choices along the way” during a shift to a “cleaner energy economy.” Coal, nuclear power and wind—sources responsible for 60 percent of the nation’s electricity generation—received no mention.
Long-Awaited Farm Bill Passes House
The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a five-year farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014, containing provisions for renewable energy, energy efficiency programs in rural areas, cuts to food stamps and modifications to the federal agricultural subsidy system.
The bill, which will now go before the Senate, contains $881 million in mandatory funding for energy programs. The provision—which extends over the next 10 years—provides funding for projects focused on advanced biofuels and a program encouraging the development of wind, solar, hydroelectric and biogas projects.
“With stable policy and the investments included in this conference report, Farm Bill energy programs will continue to help rural communities create economic growth and good paying jobs,” said Biotechnology Industry Organization President and CEO Jim Greenwood. “The expansion of eligibility to new renewable chemical technologies and the support for new energy crops will create additional opportunities and improve U.S. economic growth across the country.”
The bill also includes an enhanced crop insurance program that would aid livestock producers in the event of a natural disaster and severe weather.
Botched Analysis Leaves Arctic Drilling in Question
The federal government failed to properly evaluate environmental risks related to offshore drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, a federal appellate court ruled recently. Three Ninth Circuit Court judges found the environmental review the U.S. Department of the Interior conducted before approving the sale of 2008 drilling leases considered the impact of drilling for 1 billion barrels of oil. A lawsuit brought by environmental groups and Native Alaska tribes alleged a larger environmental impact given that available oil was much higher.
The ruling brings the oil leases, covering some 30 million acres of sea floor, into question. And it means another setback for Shell, which announced plans to resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer, following several mishaps in the area in 2012. Of the companies that purchased leases in 2008, Shell is the only company that has begun drilling in the Arctic. On Thursday, the oil giant announced it will abandon plans to drill off the coast of Alaska this year.
The case is currently scheduled to return to a U.S. District Court in Alaska.