Obama Tackles Climate Change in State of the Union Address

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Hottest Year on Record

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

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

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

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

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

States Get Help Meeting Clean Power Plan Targets

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Administration Targets Methane Emissions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


EPA Delays Release of Carbon Emissions Rules for Power Plants

January 8, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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 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.


China and U.S. Sign Pacts on Climate Change

July 10, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

The EPA also approved for commercial usethe first “bug” that eats carbon dioxide and converts it into ethanol.

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.

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 Divided after Hearing on EPA Authority

February 27, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.”

A decision is expected by June. According to experts, the court’s ruling could have a range of effects on EPA’s permitting requirements.

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.

Nuclear Reviving

As some residents near the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster get the “all clear” to return to their homes April 1, Japan announced a plan to revive its nuclear program.

Overturning a previous commitment to phase out all nuclear, the draft government plan, which awaits Cabinet approval, instead calls for more long-term reliance on the energy source. It specifies that nuclear dependency will remain low but that reactors meeting standards set after the 2011 Fukushima disaster should be restarted. The Wall Street Journal reports 17 such reactors are undergoing inspection now.

In the United States, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz provided final approval for a $6.5 billion dollar loan guarantee that will be used to construct two nuclear reactors in Georgia—the first built in the United States in more than 30 years. Days later, President Barack Obama approved a deal with Vietnam that would allow the nation to develop nuclear power.

Obama: Decision on Keystone Could Come Soon

A decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline—carrying crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast—will be made in the next “couple of months,” President Barack Obama told attendees at the annual National Governors Association winter meeting Monday. The White House declined to expand on Obama’s comment at the private meeting. Politico reports that it contradicts speculation by parties on both sides that the decision will come after November’s mid-term elections. That speculation began last week after a ruling by a Nebraska judge that struck down a state law approving the pipeline’s route through the state.

The president’s Keystone decision comment came a day after Canada’s National Energy Board audit found TransCanada Corp—the company leading the Keystone XL project—could make improvements in its pipeline safety practices. The audit was moved up after a then-employee of TransCanada came forward with allegations of safety lapses.

“The audit has confirmed that, in response to these allegations, TransCanada has developed and implemented a program of actions with the goal of correcting and preventing similar occurrences,” the National Energy Board said. The board found TransCanada to be non-compliant in four areas: hazard identification, risk assessment and control; operational control in upset or abnormal operating condition; inspection, measurement and monitoring; and management review.

Despite claims the State Department violated conflict of interest rules when it chose an outside contractor to conduct an environmental impact study of the proposed pipeline, a report issued Wednesday found otherwise.

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


Keystone XL Assessment Report Finds No Significant Environmental Objections

February 6, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

The new hubs are intended to provide farmers with ways to better cope with a changing climate, such as helping wheat farmers to select seeds with relatively drought-resistant genetics.

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.”

An emergency drought relief bill was passed by the House, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced funds to aid farmers.

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 Promises Strong Action on Climate Change, Energy Independence in State of the Union Address

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

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 Doesn’t Need Congress to Move Forward on Clean Energy

January 23, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A week before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, a new report says Obama could advance key measures of his Climate Action Plan with or without the cooperation of Congress.

“When they believed a national situation warranted action, some past presidents interpreted their authority broadly and exercised it aggressively,” the report said. “That is the practice of presidential authority Americans and the world need today.”

More than 200 recommendations for how Obama can use his executive authority to accelerate progress on climate change are contained in the 207-page Powering Forward report released by the Center for the New Energy Economy and developed with the help of CEOs, energy experts, academicians and thought leaders. The recommendations focus on clean energy solutions such as doubling energy efficiency, financing renewable energy, producing natural gas more responsibly, developing alternative fuels and vehicles and helping utilities adapt to a changing energy landscape.

Most of the recommendations aren’t all that new, but a few, says Oilprice.com, are interesting. One suggestion is to modify mortgage rules so that qualifying for federally backed mortgage loans requires new homes to be constructed with updated energy efficiency standards.

Despite the report’s ideas for the future, 2013 saw many clean energy developments. The Rocky Mountain Institute calls out 10—including growth in the electric vehicle sector and companies putting a price on carbon—that helped bring the country closer to a secure, prosperous energy future.

NASA, NOAA Label 2013 One of the Planet’s Warmest Years

A pair of reports simultaneously released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reached different conclusions about where 2013 ranks among the world’s hottest years.

NOAA said last year’s average world temperature of 58.12 degrees tied with that of 2003 for the fourth hottest year since 1880—when record keeping began. NASA ranked 2013 the seventh warmest on record—tying 2009 and 2006. The slight difference in rankings, scientists said, could be explained by the methods used by the agencies to interpret the same weather data collected from more than 1,000 metrological stations across the globe. NASA, for example, uses more samples from Antarctica.

Regardless of the difference in rankings, both agencies found that nine of the 10 warmest years on record were in the 21st century. According to NASA, the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere peaked in 2013 at 400 parts per million—higher than any point in the last 800,000 years. The level was 285 parts per million in 1880.

“Long-term trends in surface temperature are unusual and 2013 adds to the evidence for ongoing climate change,” said Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “While one year or one season can be affected by random weather events, this analysis shows the necessity for continued, long-term monitoring.”

Schmidt said 2014 is likely to be even warmer than 2013, remarkable partly because El Nino, the periodic warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, was absent in 2013.

“Through the second half of 2014 we are looking at the likelihood of an El Nino, which will help warm 2014 over 2013,” he said.

Southern Leg of Keystone Begins Exporting Oil

TransCanada began delivering oil on Wednesday from Oklahoma to customers in Nederland, Texas, through the southern portion of a controversial proposed cross-border pipeline. The start of commercial operations for this leg of the Keystone XL pipeline came with little fanfare after approval by the president nearly two years ago. Although landowners in East Texas continue to challenge TransCanada’s right to take their land for the pipeline, it’s the northern leg of the pipeline, which is projected to carry oil from Canada, that’s been most controversial.

The northern portion of the pipeline still awaits approval by the U.S. State Department. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry brushed aside pressure from Canada, offering that he’s not yet received a critical environmental report on the long delayed project.

“My hope is that before long, that analysis will be available, and then my work begins,” he said.

TransCanada acknowledged it has plans to look at building rail terminals in Alberta and Oklahoma if the Obama administration declines to approve the pipeline’s northern leg. Recent accidents involving oil-bearing trains may put more pressure on the administration to approve the pipeline.

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.


EIA Releases Early Predictions from Annual Energy Outlook

December 19, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the upcoming holidays, the Climate Post will not circulate the next two weeks. It will return Jan. 9, 2014. 

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Monday released a 20-page preview of its Annual Energy Outlook 2014, which includes projections of U.S. energy supply, demand and prices through 2040.

Although the full report won’t be released until spring 2014, the preview projects a spike of 800,000 barrels a day in domestic crude oil production in 2014. By 2016, U.S. oil production will reach historical levels—close to the 9.6 million barrels a day achieved in 1970. The feat—made possible by fracking and other advanced drilling technologies—is expected to bring imported oil supplies down to 25 percent, compared with the current 37 percent, by 2016. Eventually though, the boom will level off, and production will slowly decline after 2020.

Natural gas will replace coal as the largest source of U.S. electricity. In 2040, natural gas will account for 35 percent of total electricity generation, while coal will account for 32 percent. Production of natural gas is predicted to increase 56 percent between 2012 and 2040; the U.S. will become an overall net exporter of the fuel by 2018—roughly two years earlier than the EIA projected in last year’s forecast.

“EIA’s updated Reference case shows that advanced technologies for crude oil and natural gas production are continuing to increase domestic supply and reshape the U.S. energy economy as well as expand the potential for U.S. natural gas exports,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski. “Growing domestic hydrocarbon production is also reducing our net dependence on imported oil and benefiting the U.S. economy as natural-gas-intensive industries boost their output.”

Total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are also predicted to remain below 2005 levels—roughly 6 billion metric tons—through 2040.

Oil to Flow from Southern Leg of Keystone Pipeline in 2014

Next month some 700,000 barrels per day are expected to begin flowing from Cushing, Okla. to Texas through the 485-mile pipeline that forms the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Initial testing, before the Jan. 22 launch, is showing no issues with the pipeline or shippers, according to project lead TransCanada.

Construction of the southern leg required only state environmental permits and permission by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The northern leg—bringing crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast—has been more controversial. It awaits presidential approval on a trans-border permit.

Even so, TransCanada announced it has reached an agreement with 100 percent of landowners in five of the six states through which the 1,700-mile northern leg will pass. The remaining holdouts are in Nebraska, where the pipeline’s route was reworked to avoid crossing the Sand Hills aquifer.

U.S. Military to Utilize More Biofuel

On the heels of a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lower the country’s 2014 biofuel mandate, the U.S. military announced plans to make biofuel blends part of its regular “operational fuel purchase” through a collaboration of the Navy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The Navy’s intensifying efforts to use advanced, homegrown fuels to power our military benefits both America’s national security and our rural communities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Not only will production of these fuels create jobs in rural America, they’re cost effective for our military, which is the biggest consumer of petroleum in the nation.”

Sudden fuel price spikes—responsible for as much as $5 billion in unbudgeted fuel increases—were cited as one reason for the program, which will begin in 2014. Deliveries are expected in mid-2015.

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.


Reports: Ocean Acidification Heats Planet, Changes Ecosystems

August 29, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Two new studies showcase the greater dangers of rising ocean temperatures.

The first, in the journal Nature Climate Change, finds rising carbon dioxide levels that make oceans more acidic can also raise global temperatures. The authors find ocean acidification would lead certain marine organisms to emit less of the sulphur compounds that help with cloud formations that cool Earth. When the data were fed into climate models, the authors estimated reduction of this compound could add nearly 0.5 degrees Celsius to global temperatures this century.

A second paper in the same journal focuses on how acidification will change marine ecosystems. The authors looked at 167 studies on more than 150 species under a wide range of carbon dioxide concentrations.

“Our study showed that all animal groups we considered are affected negatively by higher carbon dioxide concentrations,” said study co-author Astrid Wittmann. “Corals, echinoderms and molluscs above all react very sensitively to a decline in pH value.”

Seas are naturally slightly alkaline, but pH levels fall as oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The research is expected to be included in the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth Assessment Report on climate science. An early leaked draft of the U.N. report shows ocean temperatures rose more than 0.18 degrees Fahrenheit each decade of the last 40 years (through 2010).

McCabe Could Be Next EPA Air Chief

Janet McCabe, a deputy administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s clean-air office, is expected to be nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the office, the National Journal reports. If selected, McCabe would spearhead efforts to craft new pollution regulations for the nation’s coal-fired power plants, which she discusses in a recent EPA webinar. Timing of an announcement regarding a nomination, however, was unclear to sources (subscription).

Keystone XL Decision in Danger of Delay

Results of an investigation into conflict of interest complaints related to the Keystone XL pipeline may not be released until early 2014. The announcement by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) means a final decision on the project could be delayed until next year.

“It is our hope to conclude work by the end of the year and release a report in January,” said Douglas Welty, an OIG spokesman. “As to the timing of the department’s decision—you need to ask them directly whether our work will have an impact on that.”

A story in the National Journal suggests one portion of the pipeline—proposed back in 2008—may have become obsolete.

“They just waited too long. The industry is very innovative, and it finds other ways of doing it and other routes,” said Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, of the portion of the pipeline that would carry oil from fields in North Dakota to Montana.

Climate Change Considerations in Wake of Sandy

A presidential task force created after Hurricane Sandy has issued a 200-page report with 69 policy recommendations to promote stronger construction as climate change contributes to more intense storms and extreme heat. Among other actions, it calls for more advanced energy infrastructure and streamlined assistance for affected communities.

“Decision makers at all levels must recognize that climate change and the resulting increase in risks from extreme weather have eliminated the option of simply building back to outdated standards and expecting better outcomes after the next extreme event,” the report says.

It includes a 15-page section dedicated to threats due to climate change. Many of the initiatives suggested to deal with these threats, such as a minimum flood risk standard, have already been put into action (subscription).

Meanwhile, House Republicans are planning a hearing on the White House’s climate change agenda with leaders of 13 federal agencies next month. It is expected to touch on the science underpinning global climate change.

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.