New research in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society finds that climate change influenced the majority of 16 extreme weather events in 2013. Specifically, it found evidence that climate change linked to human causes—particularly burning of fossil fuels—increased the odds of nine extreme events: amplifying temperature in China, Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe; intense rain in parts of the United States and India and severe droughts in New Zealand and California.
“It is not ever a single factor that is responsible for the extremes that we see; in many cases, there are multiple factors,” said Tom Karl, director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Climatic Data Center, of the third NOAA-led annual report to make connections between human-caused climate change and individual extreme weather events.
Twenty groups of scientists conducted independent peer-reviewed studies on the same 16 extreme events occurring on four continents to arrive at their conclusions.
“There is great scientific value in having multiple studies analyze the same extreme event to determine the underlying factors that may have influenced it,” said Stephanie C. Herring of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center and lead report editor. “Results from this report not only add to our body of knowledge about what drives extreme events, but what the odds are of these events happening again—and to what severity.”
Although the report concludes that the long durations of heat waves “are becoming increasingly likely” due to human-caused climate change, the effects of such change on other types of extremes—California’s drought and extreme rain in Colorado—are less clear.
“Temperature is much more continuous as opposed to precipitation, which is an on/off event,” said Karl. “If you have an on/off event, it makes the tools we have a little more difficult to use.”
Although the NOAA study reached mixed conclusions about the ongoing California drought’s connection to climate change, new research out of Stanford University is a bit more confident. The Stanford study found it is “very likely” that atmospheric conditions associated with the unprecedented drought in the state are linked to human-caused climate change.
“Our research finds that extreme atmospheric high pressure in this region—which is strongly linked to unusually low precipitation in California—is much more likely to occur today than prior to the human emission of greenhouse gases that began during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford climate scientist.
According to the study, these high pressure ridges—currently parked over the Pacific Ocean—are now three times more likely to occur, and as long as high levels of greenhouse gases remain severe, drought will become more frequent.
Emissions from Industrial Facilities Rose Last Year
Reported greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial facilities were 0.6 percent—or roughly 20 million metric tons—higher in 2013 than in the year previous, according to new data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which linked the rise to greater coal use for power generation. A large majority of the increase, 13 million metric tons, was from the power sector alone—though overall emissions from power plants are down 9.8 percent since 2010. Reported emissions from the oil and natural gas sector declined 12 percent from 2011 levels, according to the report.
The news comes on the heels of an extension of the public comment period on EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, and of new comments by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy concerning the proposal.
There will be “changes between proposal and final,” said McCarthy. “You may see adjustments in the state levels. You may see adjustments in the framework,” McCarthy noted, referring to the emissions reduction targets the EPA proposed for each state and to the formula used to calculate those targets. The changes could also include updates to the values for nuclear power and natural gas generation.
IEA Says Solar Could Become Dominate Energy Source by 2050
Solar could surpass fossil fuels as the largest source of electricity by mid-century, according to reports issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The reports suggests that together solar photovoltaic systems (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) could provide 27 percent of the world’s energy by 2050; fossil fuels would account for somewhere between 12 percent and 20 percent.
“The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “However, both technologies are very capital intensive: almost all expenditures are made upfront. Lowering the cost of capital is thus of primary importance for achieving the vision in these roadmaps.”
By 2050, the IEA said, PV will surge from today’s 150 gigawatts of installed capacity to 4,600 gigawatts, while CSP will increase from 4 gigawatts to 1,000 gigawatts (subscription). These projections are based on the IEA’s expectations that China and the United States will remain top installers for the foreseeable future and that PV will dominate up until 2030.
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 Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR), which applies to 28 states, aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which can lead to soot and smog. The rule was invalidated by a federal appellate court in August 2012 after it was challenged by a group of upwind states and industry because it enforced pollution controls primarily on coal plants. The higher court found the EPA acted reasonably.
“Most upwind states propel pollutants to more than one downwind state, many downwind states receive pollution from multiple upwind states, and some states qualify as both upwind and downwind,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “The overlapping and interwoven linkages between upwind and downwind states with which EPA had to contend number in the thousands.”
The Clean Air Act, and specifically the good neighbor provision at issue, she said, does not tell the EPA what factors to consider. “Under Chevron [v. Natural Resources Defense Council] we read Congress’ silence as a delegation of authority to EPA to select among reasonable options,” she added (subscription).
The rule does not address greenhouse gas emissions, which are the subject of another proposed rule for existing coal-fired power plants that is expected to be released in June. Also due next month is another Supreme Court decision, this one on 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.”
Electricity Sector Uncertainty and GHG Emissions
Data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that accelerated plant retirements in either the nuclear power or coal power generation industry would change projections of carbon dioxide emissions. Accelerated retirements of nuclear plants would boost emissions; accelerated retirements of coal-fired plants would reduce them.
EIA predicts U.S. emissions could be 4 percent higher than expected by 2040, but 20 percent lower if more coal plants retire. Lower natural gas prices and stagnant growth in electricity demand will lead to the loss of 10,800 megawatts of U.S. nuclear generation—roughly 10 percent of total capacity by the end of the decade.
Even with the uncertainty facing the electricity sector, there are multi-benefit approaches that state-level environmental regulators and utility commissioners can use to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while simultaneously addressing other electricity sector challenges. That’s according to a new study by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. The study examines Clean Air Act section 111(d) compliance strategies offering these multi-benefit approaches.
Studies Focus on Sea Level Rise, Land Subsidence
Oyster reefs are creating resilience in the face of sea level rise and extreme weather. A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that vertical oyster reef accretion could outpace climate change-induced sea level rise, helping rebuild a shrinking oyster population. The research is the first to suggest that the reefs would act differently than any normal sea wall.
The study of 11 oyster reefs in intertidal areas on the North Carolina coast from 1997 to 2011 found that intertidal reefs have the potential to grow 11 centimeters vertically a year. Researchers acknowledged that much remains to be studied, including subtidal reefs.
Sea level rise may not be the only problem for some regions. In coastal megacities, the extraction of groundwater for drinking water is causing land to sink 10 times faster than sea level rise, according to another new study.
“Land subsidence and sea level rise are both happening, and they are both contributing to the same problem—larger and longer floods, and bigger inundation depth of floods,” said Gilles Erkens, who led the study by the Netherland’s Deltares Research Institute. “The most rigorous solution and the best one is to stop pumping groundwater for drinking water, but then of course you need a new source of drinking water for these cities. But Tokyo did that and subsidence more or less stopped, and in Venice, too, they have done that.”
Could Climate Change have Played Role in the Mount Everest Disaster?
“You could say [that] climate change closed Mount Everest this year,” said Western Kentucky University Professor John All (subscription).
Research conducted by the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development showed that the Himalayan glaciers shrunk 21 percent in roughly 30 years. Studies by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which point to data collected through on-site monitoring and remote sensing, show a 10 percent reduction in ice during the last four decades.
Still, others say it is impossible to link any one disaster to long-term changes. Much of the evidence that warming is occurring is anecdotal, and the number of scientific observations is not large enough to draw solid conclusions, NBC News reports.
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.
President Barack Obama unveiled his 2015 budget proposal Tuesday, outlining his spending and policy priorities for the upcoming year. In it, President Obama earmarked funding for both his Climate Action Plan and Climate Resiliency Fund.
The budget for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the agency that released stricter fuel standards this week—represented a $309 million decrease from the current fiscal year budget. The nearly $8 billion requested for environmental protection demands “difficult” choices, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Of those funds, 20 percent of the agency’s $1 billion climate and air quality budget will go toward global warming efforts. $10 million would support implementation of Obama’s Climate Action Plan.
Meanwhile, energy spending was bumped 2.6 percent from the current budget. The increase includes about $2.3 billion to promote efficiency and renewable energy sources, which Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz views as a “longstanding commitment to innovation.”
“There’s a very, very strong focus … on energy efficiency across the board,” Moniz said. Funds are set aside for nuclear security and clean up as well as basic research.
Funding for the Department of the Interior saw a slight increase, which includes $1 billion for a climate fund that helps communities better prepare for and adapt to extreme weather events that result from climate change.
The budget announcement comes the same week a study in the journal Environmental Research Letters suggested nearly one-fifth of the world’s cultural landmarks could be affected by rising sea levels caused by global warming. Of the 720 spots examined, 20 percent could be ruined if temperatures rise 5.4 degrees above pre-industrial levels in the next two millennia.
Satellite Could Revolutionize Understanding of Precipitation, Extreme Weather
A new satellite is expected to improve our understanding and ability to monitor global precipitation. Launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NASA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency last week, the satellite will track all precipitation on Earth—delivering measurements every three hours.
“Knowing where, when, and how much it’s snowing and raining around the world is extremely important for understanding extreme events like blizzards, or drought in California, monsoon rains in Asia,” said Dalia Kirschbaum, the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory’s mission applications scientist. “So by having the global picture, all the way from what’s happening in our atmosphere around the planet down to what’s happening in my backyard—it gives us really powerful information to tell us about weather, about how our climate is changing and how we can improve our understanding and mitigation of natural hazards.”
The satellite is equipped with technology allowing it to create three-dimensional profiles of storm systems. NASA is using data collected by the satellite, along with other technology, to better respond to California’s ongoing drought.
Seismic Exploration Could Pave Path for Drilling in the Atlantic
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has proposed rules for seismic exploration of oil and gas in Atlantic waters, potentially setting the stage for a battle over offshore drilling in a 330,000-square-mile area from the mouth of Delaware Bay to just south of Cape Canaveral, Fla. In releasing its final review, the department favored a plan to allow use of underwater seismic air guns that environmentalists say threatens the survival of whales and dolphins but which the oil industry says is needed to assess how much oil and gas lies along the U.S. Atlantic seabed.
“The currently available seismic information from this area is decades old and was developed using technologies that are obsolete,” said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which issued the environmental impact statement. Federal estimates of 3.3 billion barrels of oil are from the 1970s and 1980s.
Energy industry groups and politicians in energy states have called on the Obama administration to open federal waters off the Atlantic seaboard to create jobs and promote national energy security. The American Petroleum Institute, which hailed the BOEM recommendation, predicts that oil and gas production in the region could create 280,000 new jobs. But oil producers said the agency would need to signal that it plans to include the Atlantic in its next leasing plan for companies to actually invest in seismic testing. A final “record of decision” formalizing the agency’s approach is expected after public comment ends in April.
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.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced his administration will begin developing tougher fuel standards for the nation’s fleet of medium- and heavy-duty trucks. The new standards will build on a 2011 regulation that set the first-ever fuel standards for model years 2014–18. The next phase—for models beyond 2018—will be proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in March 2015.
“Improving gas mileage for these trucks is going to drive down our oil imports even further,” Obama said. “That reduces carbon pollution even more, cuts down on businesses’ fuel costs, which should pay off in lower prices for consumers. So it’s not just a win-win, it’s a win-win-win. We got three wins.”
In 2010, heavy-duty vehicles made up roughly 4 percent of registered vehicles on the road but accounted for 20 percent of on-road energy use and carbon emissions. Ahead of the roll out of the final rule in March 2016, the Obama administration was offering “new tax credits, both for companies that manufacture heavy-duty alternative-fuel vehicles and those that build fuel infrastructure so that trucks running on biodiesel or natural gas or hybrid electric technology.” Those credits, Politico reports, still require approval from Congress.
EIA Projects Increased Coal Fired Power Plant Retirements
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports in its Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Reference Case that a much larger number of coal electric power plants will retire by 2020 than has been announced thus far. The EIA projects about 60 gigawatts—accounting for one-fifth of existing 310-gigawatt coal-fired electric capacity. That’s 20 gigawatts more than power companies are reporting.
“In [EIA’s] projections, 90 percent of the coal-fired capacity retirements occur by 2016, coinciding with the first year of enforcement for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards” (MATS) as well as the rise of cost competitive natural gas, the report notes.
Despite the latest retirement projection, existing coal plants are expected to supply 32 percent of all U.S. electricity in 2020. Coal generation flattens out after 2020, the EIA predicts, as coal use increases due to projected high natural gas prices and nuclear plant retirements.
“Post-2020, demand for electricity in our projections increases as well as natural gas prices,” said EIA Analyst Michael Leff. “Therefore, there is less long-term economic pressure on coal post-2020, barring no future regulations.”
The EPA is working on new regulations—separate from MATS—that would regulate carbon emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants. Through early March, the agency is accepting comments concerning proposed carbon pollution standards now proposed for new plants.
A recent survey found many Americans are in favor of carbon regulations for power plants, but at a public hearing on the rules, some industry representatives criticized the agency’s requirement for carbon capture and storage technology to trap harmful emissions.
Kerry Says Climate Change Can Now be Considered Another Weapon of Mass Destruction
The United Kingdom has been rocked by record-breaking flooding. Although the U.K. Met Office has said there is no definitive link between climate change and recent weather events, it found unusual weather is “consistent with what is expected from the fundamental physics of a warming globe.”
Recent, unusual weather events have pushed climate change back into the political debate. While in Jakarta, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Indonesia—the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the U.S. and China—that man-made climate change could threaten the populace’s way of life.
“Think about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” Kerry said. “It doesn’t keep us safe if the United States secures its nuclear arsenal while other countries fail to prevent theirs from falling into the hands of terrorists. The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”
Days earlier, Kerry visited China, where he announced a “co-operative effort” to address climate change ahead of a global summit on the issue next year. The visit to Indonesia, some reported, was part of a larger effort to enlist the help of developing nations in reducing emissions. However, others failed to find the strategy behind Kerry’s climate speech.
Keystone XL Pipeline Decision Further Delayed Following Court Ruling
The Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, hit another hurdle Wednesday, when a Nebraska judge struck down a state law approving the route of the controversial pipeline. The 2012 law gave Nebraska’s governor authority to approve the pipeline’s route through the state. The ruling further complicates a pending decision by the Obama administration on whether to approve the Keystone project. Obama was expected to discuss the issue with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a one-day North American Summit meeting Wednesday.
Hard-to-predict sudden changes to Earth’s environment are more worrisome than larger but more gradual impacts of climate change, according a panel of scientists advising the federal government. A 200-page report released Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences repeatedly warns of potential climate “tipping points” beyond which “major and rapid changes occur.” And some of these changes—happening in years instead of centuries—have already begun. They include melting ice in the Arctic Ocean and mass species extinctions.
Study co-author Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University compared the threat of abrupt climate change effects to the random danger of drunk drivers: “You can’t see it coming, so you can’t prepare for it. The faster it is, the less you see it coming, the more it costs.”
The report did have some “good news.” Two other abrupt climate threats—giant burps of undersea and frozen methane and the slowing of deep ocean currents that could lead to dramatic coastal cooling—won’t be so sudden, giving people more time to prepare.
Report authors say the threat of sudden climate change disaster requires an early warning system that would be integrated into existing warning systems for natural disasters. With improved scientific monitoring and a better understanding of the climate system, abrupt change could be anticipated and potential consequences could be reduced.
The National Academy of Sciences report follows the wrap up of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland, which produced the outlines of an emissions reduction deal to be agreed on in 2015. Though the pact’s wording was vague, some decisions were more concrete. They include a multi-billion dollar framework to tackle deforestation and measures to boost demand for a clean development mechanism encouraging countries without legally binding emissions targets to use carbon credits. Participants also finalized details on how countries’ emissions reductions will be monitored, reported and verified.
Saying the government should lead by example, President Barack Obama ordered federal agencies to increase their use of renewable energy from 7.5 to 20 percent by 2020. The new commitment is intended to reduce pollution and boost domestic energy independence.
Obama Environment Advisor to Step Down
The Obama administration will lose its second top environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in February. In the post she’s held since 2009, Sutley helped spearhead the National Ocean Policy and contributed to Obama’s climate plan.
“Under her leadership, Federal agencies are meeting the goals I set for them at the beginning of the administration by using less energy, reducing pollution, and saving taxpayer dollars,” said President Obama in a statement. “Her efforts have made it clear that a healthy environment and a strong economy aren’t mutually exclusive—they can go hand in hand.”
Sutley’s departure comes on the heels of Heather Zichal’s exit last month and the resignation of Lisa Jackson, who left the EPA in early 2013. That leaves the big job of implementing—and defending—Obama’s plan to cut carbon emissions on the shoulders of “new and existing power plant lieutenants,” according to ClimateWire.
Iran Nuclear Deal Reached
International negotiators recently reached a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program for six months—pending a formal pact freezing or reversing progress at all of Iran’s major nuclear facilities. Talks surrounding the formal pledge may begin as early as next week.
The deal, struck between Iran and five other major countries, brings a partial lifting of sanctions on Tehran. Oil sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union will be maintained even though key parts of Iran’s nuclear program will be rolled back.
“Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpiles. Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium,” said President Barack Obama. “Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited. Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor. And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.”
The temporary freeze that could start by early January represents the first time in about a decade that Iran has agreed to stop some of its nuclear activities. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute suggests 77 percent of Israelis surveyed don’t believe the deal will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
In 2012, energy-related carbon emissions in the United States declined 3.8 percent even as global carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.4 percent, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The recorded 5.29 million metric tons of carbon dioxide amounted to the largest decline since 1994, continuing a downward trend that started in 2007. EIA attributed last year’s decrease to several factors, including a mild winter and alterations in energy consumption for transportation. Notably, U.S. power plants reduced their carbon emissions by 10 percent between 2010 and 2012. The overall energy-related emissions decline occurred in tandem with an increase in gross domestic product and energy output (subscription).
The downward trend may not last, The Washington Post reports. Energy-related emissions rose 2.6 percent in the first part of 2013, and the EIA expects emissions to keep rising. The U.S. State Department said the nation could reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases 17 percent by 2020, if it enacts proposed rules to curb methane leaks and to cut pollution from power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to solidify regulations. This week, it began its 11-city “listening tour,” which is intended to solicit ideas from the public on how to best regulate emissions from more than 1,000 power plants currently in operation.
Cleanup Delayed for Fukushima as Britain Signs First Nuclear Deal
Japan delayed plans to clean up towns surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for up to three years—affecting more than 90,000 people who are unable to return home after a series of meltdowns following an earthquake and tsunami two and half years ago. The original plan indicated cleanup of the most contaminated towns would be completed by March 2014.
“We would have to extend the cleanup process, by one year, two years or three years, we haven’t exactly decided yet,” said Shigeyoshi Sato, an official from the Environment Ministry in charge of the decontamination efforts. One reason for the delay—a lack of space to store the radioactive waste that comes out of the decontamination process.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom signed a roughly $26 billion deal to build new nuclear reactors—the first in 20 years—financed in part by China. The twin reactors are envisioned to advance the government’s goal of adding low-carbon energy sources. If built on time, the new reactors would begin operation in 2023 and operate for 35 years.
Studies Look at Climate Change Effects in Next Century
Several studies, looking at everything from ocean health to energy use, have found their way into recent media headlines.
New Climate by 2050: Research published in the journal Nature suggests that, on average, locations worldwide will leave behind the climates that have existed from the middle of the 19th century through the beginning of the 21st century as soon as 2047, depending on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the next few decades. The new, more extreme temperatures would first occur in the tropics, where plants, people and wildlife are least equipped to adapt. About 1 billion people, according to the study, currently live in areas where the climate would exceed historical bounds of variability by 2050. The work highlights the need to scale back greenhouse gas emissions because a warming climate may drive some species to extinction, threaten food supplies and spread disease.
Climate Change to Impact Ocean Health: Every inch of the world’s oceans are predicted to undergo chemical changes associated with global climate change by 2100, according to research published in the journal PLOS Biology. More than two dozen scientists used projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with biological and socioeconomic data, to predict how oceans could be altered by the end of the century.
“If global CO2 emissions are not reduced, substantial degradation of marine ecosystems and associated human hardships are very likely to occur,” the study said.
This follows research published in Nature showing that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, coral reefs could be extinct by 2050.
Carbon Capture and Storage Development Slows: A new study suggests that since 2012, the number of projects that capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants dropped from 75 to 65 worldwide. Although the number U.S. is a global leader in developing and deploying carbon capture and storage and carbon capture utilization and storage technology, it has proposed no new projects in these areas—in fact, no new projects have been proposed outside of China.
Heather Zichal, President Barack Obama’s top energy and climate adviser, announced plans this week to step down. Zichal has advised the president since 2008 and assisted in the creation of his Climate Action Plan, unveiled in June, to cut carbon emissions from U.S. power plants and other sources.
Although a replacement has not been named, some news outlets reported that Dan Utech, a deputy director for energy and climate at the White House, could be tapped for the role. Politico reported other names such as Kevin Knobloch, now chief of staff to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz; Gary Guzy, deputy director of the Council on Environmental Quality and Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke. Whomever is chosen will face a sizeable to-do list that includes turning the president’s climate plan into a reality (subscription).
“Heather had her fingerprints on every climate and clean-energy success of this administration,” said Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. “Heather’s replacement is going to have a big job ahead of them—she wrote the blueprint of the climate-action plan, and they’ll have to see it through.”
Her departure in the next few weeks marks a nearly complete turnover of the administration’s climate and energy team.
Renewable Fuel Standard Challenged by Industry
The American Petroleum Institute (API)—representing hundreds of oil and natural gas companies—has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the government’s estimate of the amount of ethanol that should be mixed with conventional gas under the 2013 Renewable Fuel Standard. Harry Ng, API vice president said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated refiners use 4 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2013 but that so far only 142,000 gallons have been available to refiners to blend.
“EPA issued this year’s requirement nine months late and has once again mandated significantly more cellulosic ethanol than is available in the marketplace,” said Ng.
The API filed its suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the same court that in January ruled in another API-filed lawsuit that the EPA was too “aspirational” in setting its 2012 cellulosic biofuels mandate.
Meanwhile, a report by GreenWire indicated draft proposals circulating among stakeholders signal the EPA intends to scale back 2014 targets for conventional corn ethanol and advance biofuels (subscription).
Government Shutdown Hits 10-Day Mark
As the partial government shutdown reaches its second week, there are glimmers of hope that Republicans and Democrats could break their impasse. House Republican leaders are considering a plan to raise the nation’s borrowing limit temporarily to buy time for negotiations on broader policy measures. The Washington Post reports that if the plan goes over well with rank-and-file Republicans, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could put it on the floor for a vote late today, but getting things up and running again with this approach could take until next spring as the effects on the environment become more wide-reaching.
- Science: Everything from the funding of scientific research to environmental protection programs are on hold, including groundbreaking work to harness the power of the sun through self-sustaining nuclear fusion.
- Oil and Gas Permits: Though the government is still issuing offshore drilling permits, similar approvals for onshore oil and gas wells on public lands have stopped, and an oil and gas lease auction scheduled for later this month in New Mexico has been canceled. Thus, the shutdown will deprive the federal government of a reliable revenue source—more than 6 million acres of federal land leases auctioned in 2012 brought in more than $233 million.
- Energy Markets: If the shutdown is prolonged, the data relied on to shape future commodity markets—especially for energy and agriculture—may not exist.
- Workforce: The Department of Energy, though still fully operational, won’t be for long (subscription). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission began furloughing employees today.
- EPA Rulemaking: The shutdown has forced the EPA to postpone the start of hearings on proposed carbon dioxide limits for existing power plants (subscription).
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation next week. We will return to regular postings May 2.
The European Union Parliament rejected a proposal to backload the auctioning of credits within its Emissions Trading Scheme this week. The proposed “backloading” plan would have removed a surplus of emissions permits from the world’s largest carbon market—potentially saving it from collapse and making fossil fuels more expensive for utilities and factories to burn. The surplus, partly a result of the recession, had driven carbon prices down from 25 euros in 2008 to just 5 euros per ton in February. As a result, the permits were no longer doing their intended job of encouraging manufacturers and utilities to invest in cleaner fuels and new technology. Announcement of the ruling sent permit prices to their lowest yet and dealt a blow to partner Australia. The country intends to link to the EU carbon market in 2015.
“We will continue with our plans to link with the European emissions trading scheme from 1 July, 2015,” said Australia Climate Minister Greg Combet. “But this year’s budget, as is usual practice by Treasury, will include a revised forecast for a carbon price in 2015-16.”
On Wednesday, EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard vowed to fight to save the system through new measures that include restricting rights to carbon permits and allowing for reviews of the number of permits companies receive for free.
EPA Says U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Declined
A new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests greenhouse gas emissions in the United States dropped 1.6 percent from 2010 to 2011. Since 2005, that number has decreased 6.9 percent. The agency attributed the drop to factors such as improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and mild winter weather.
Electricity generation by power plants was termed the largest source of emissions, accounting for 33 percent of the 2011 total, according to the report. The EPA missed an April 13 deadline to issue a final rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, instead delaying release indefinitely on Friday. In its draft form, the rule would have made building new coal plants difficult. The Washington Post indicated that the EPA will alter the rule to better withstand legal challenge, including potentially establishing separate standards for gas-fired and coal-fired plants.
Meanwhile, little progress has been made to reduce the carbon content of the world’s energy supply over the last two decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In its third annual report tracking clean energy progress, the IEA found the resurgence of coal counters many of the greenhouse gas benefits of clean energy production. “The drive to clean up the world’s energy system has stalled,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “Despite much talk by world leaders, and despite a boom in renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago.” Renewables are a bright spot in the data, which reveal that solar and wind technologies grew by 42 and 19 percent, respectively, from 2011 to 2012.
Nuclear Leak Prompts Review, New Guidelines
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has begun reviewing the decommissioning process for Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the site of a 2011 nuclear meltdown following a tsunami. Multiple leaks have been detected at the plant, and the IAEA will be analyzing the melted reactors and radiation levels.
The EPA, meanwhile, has been prompted by the disaster to rewrite rules to enlarge the focus of U.S. nuclear disaster response beyond immediate emergency response to long-term cleanup efforts. A new draft of recommended procedures will address the duration of evacuations, limits to radiation exposure over time and other concerns.
Since China announced it will hold off plans to introduce a carbon tax, the idea has generated some activity on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers on Tuesday proposed a draft bill that would charge the largest industrial polluters a fee for, or carbon tax on, their fossil-fuel emissions. The plan, proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), includes three possible per-ton prices for carbon pollution—$15, $25 or $30—and annual cost increases ranging from 2 percent to 8 percent to ensure that emissions continue to decrease. The new bill solicits feedback on how revenue (subscription required) generated by the fee or tax should be spent but proposes that proceeds go toward mitigating energy costs for consumers, reducing the deficit, protecting jobs, decreasing the tax liability for businesses and individuals and investing in other activities that could reduce carbon pollution.
The Waxman-Whitehouse draft, which has not been formally introduced into Congress or even finalized, is one of a few carbon tax proposals circulating in Washington. A measure by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was released last month. The same week as the release of the Waxman-Whitehouse draft, Republicans introduced a resolution that opposed a national carbon tax, citing its threat to the economy and businesses.
Two studies of a carbon tax have produced very different results. A study by the National Association of Manufacturers finds that a carbon tax starting at $20 per ton and rising 4 percent yearly would result in an economic slowdown. Meanwhile, a report by the Brookings Institution finds that a carbon tax could have benefits—including improving environmental outcomes and increasing economic efficiency.
A national poll released recently by Duke University found that 29 percent of the respondents strongly or somewhat supported a carbon tax. There was much more support surrounding a clean energy standard or other traditional measures to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Will “Fire Ice” Discovery Revolutionize the Energy Industry?
Japan has produced methane from methane hydrates, a fossil fuel that behaves like ice, from deep under the ocean for the first time. Deposits of the fuel source, known as “fire ice,” may be large enough to supply the country’s natural gas needs for years. An estimated 1.1 trillion cubic meters of gas are trapped off Shikoku Island. Japan hopes to convert the trapped methane into natural gas that could help address recent energy woes, but the Japanese government says it is still at least five years away from commercial extraction. Japanese officials point to the recent gas boom in the United States as evidence that complex drilling processes can yield big results—a fact that has Australia worried. Japan is Australia’s top natural gas customer.
The fuel source is also being explored in Canada and the United States, with the latter funding 14 research projects on methane hydrates. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that naturally occurring gas hydrates could contain more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—potentially more organic carbon than the world’s coal, oil and other forms of natural gas combined. Recent mappings off the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts show large offshore accumulations of methane hydrate, but the potential environmental effects of drilling for hydrates remain little understood.
The Future of Nuclear Power
Monday marked the second anniversary of Japan’s tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Before the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan was the third largest consumer of nuclear energy, behind the United States. Now just two of the country’s 50 operable reactors are online. With plans to phase out nuclear power by 2040, the long-term energy strategy is expected to bring higher electricity rates for consumers this year.
The future of nuclear remains less certain worldwide. The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently told more than 3,000 industry executives, experts and government regulators that when it comes to commercial reactors they must be ready to deal with the unknown.
A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists is more critical of the industry. It points to safety mishaps at nuclear plants across the United States in 2012. The study, released shortly after the NRC annual report card, details a dozen events.
After weeks of speculation, President Barack Obama officially announced his selections to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on Monday. Gina McCarthy was chosen to lead the EPA, replacing Lisa Jackson, while Ernest Moniz will take over as energy secretary, replacing Steven Chu. Together, Obama said, they are charged with “making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change.” They join Sally Jewell, named to the Department of the Interior last month. Jewell’s confirmation hearing is slated to take place today.
Assuming Moniz and McCarthy win confirmation from the Senate, what can we expect them to focus on? Using the power of executive authority, quite a bit, reports The Washington Post. On the list: reducing global hydrofluorocarbon emissions, tightening emissions from medium and heavy-duty vehicles, new energy efficiency standards, and using the Clean Air Act pursue stricter rules for natural gas and methane emissions and cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
For the last four years, McCarthy has been working with the EPA as the assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. Under her leadership, the EPA proposed the first regulations to cap emissions from new power plants under the Clean Air Act in 2012 and the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) in 2011. A large number of pollution rules that have been postponed or delayed in the courts—such as the cross state air controls for power plants—will come up in Obama’s second term. In this new role McCarthy could face considerable opposition from industry polluters, which some say could be worse than her predecessor.
Moniz, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, is a former Energy Department undersecretary. “Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, water and our climate,” Obama said when he introduced Moniz Monday. The nomination of the MIT physicist comes with mixed reactions, as Moniz is a known advocate of shale gas and nuclear energy. The coal industry, however, is much more welcoming of Moniz than McCarthy, GreenWire reports (subscription required) because making coal fit into a low-carbon world has been a focus of his research.
Climate Change to Open Arctic Shipping Routes
As a result of climate change, by mid-century ships could sail directly over the North Pole, according to a new study. The Northwest Passage is now only accessible to a few icebreaker ships on average one summer of every seven years. Through computer simulations using independent climate forecasts for the years 2040 to 2059, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, predict the route—20 percent short than today’s most trafficked Arctic shipping lane—to be passable more frequently with warming of the North Pole that will lead to record low levels of summer sea ice.
“The development is both exciting from an economic development point of view and worrisome in terms of safety, both for the arctic environment and for the ships themselves,” said lead researcher Laurence Smith, who mapped the likeliest routes, usable by icebreakers and other open water vessels, during the month of September. The price of oil and locations of natural gas will be big determinants for whether or not Arctic navigation increases, the authors said. Numerous obstacles, aside from sea ice, stand in the way of increased navigation in the region. Just last month, Shell called off drilling exploration efforts after several mishaps.
House Votes to Increase Funds for Satellite
Sequester budget cuts had threatened to impose a two- to three-year delay in the production and deployment of the first next-generation weather satellites being developed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through a program called GOES-R. Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to approve legislation that could breathe new life into the program that aims to create more timely and accurate weather forecasts. The spending bill would set aside $802 million for NOAA’s satellites. The catch—it must be approved by the Senate, and even if passed the new figure is still subject to additional cuts.
Record Carbon Dioxide Spike
Researchers at NOAA say the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose significantly in 2012. Carbon dioxide levels jumped by 2.67 parts per million since 2011 to a total just under 395 parts per million and could make it unlikely global warming can be limited another 2 degrees Celsius. The spike is the second highest since record keeping began in 1959, surpassed only by the 1998 increase of 2.93 parts per million.