The Congressional Review Act was used to repeal a rule that forced energy companies on the U.S. stock exchanges to disclose the royalties and other payments that oil, natural gas, coal and mineral companies make to governments in an effort to fight corruption in resource-rich countries. President Donald Trump signed legislation to scrap the rule, implemented by the Securities and Exchange Commission under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, on Tuesday.
The repeal of the Obama-era rule was made possible through the rarely used Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress a small window to scuttle regulations before they take effect with a simple majority vote and blocks regulators from writing similar rules in the future unless Congress authorizes them through subsequent legislation. Given the infrequency with which the Congressional Review Act has been used, however, legal uncertainty hangs over how the government approaches a statutorily required regulation that is overturned through the Congressional Review Act. Before Trump took office, the Congressional Review Act had been used only once, in 2001, to overturn a Clinton administration ergonomics rule.
So far, the House has moved to repeal eight other rules, including a rule restricting coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams and one curtailing methane waste from oil and gas drilling on public lands. The Senate could consider the latter, H. J. Res. 36, which would rescind the Bureau of Land Management’s Waste Prevention, Production Subject to Royalties, and Resource Conservation rule, this week. Also this week, Trump could sign a separate resolution scrapping the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, enacted to protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture Monday for six of Trump’s cabinet nominees, allowing them to come before the full Senate for a vote. Trump’s environment-focused nominees—Ryan Zinke (U.S. Department of the Interior) and Rick Perry (U.S. Department of Energy), are presently on hold. Some reports say Zinke’s confirmation may not be until March.
Although a Senate vote for Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was expected this week, Senate Democrats requested Scott Pruitt’s vote be delayed due to a pending court case regarding e-mail records. There is no indication at this point that the vote will be delayed, however.
“These records are needed for the Senate to evaluate Mr. Pruitt’s suitability to serve in the position for which he has been nominated,” the Democrats wrote.
Sea Ice Continues to Shrink at Both Poles; Study Examines Method to Refreeze
Sea ice at the north and south poles continues to reach record low levels. In Antarctica, sea ice has shrunk to its lowest level since record keeping began in 1979—contracting to 2.287 million square kilometers. The average between 1981 and 2010 was more than 3 million square kilometers.
“No one knows for sure what will happen, as there might be a rebounding from the very large decreases last year, or there might be a continuation of those decreases,” said Claire Parkinson, a NASA sea ice researcher. “Whichever way it turns out, the added information will probably help scientists to get a better handle on the likely causes.”
A new study published in Earth’s Future, the journal of the American Geophysical Union, suggests that it may be possible to refreeze ice in the Arctic, building back up record-low ice levels.
“This loss of sea ice represents one of the most severe positive feedbacks in the climate system, as sunlight that would otherwise be reflected by sea ice is absorbed by open ocean,” authors write. “It is unlikely that CO2 levels and mean temperatures can be decreased in time to prevent this loss, so restoring sea ice artificially is imperative.”
The authors examine a means for increasing sea ice production using wind power to pump water from the ocean and spray it on the surface during Arctic winters. Because the mean annual thickness of Arctic ice is approximately 1.5 meters, the authors say, this plan could increase the thickness of the ice by about 70 percent over the course of a winter—enough to counteract the 0.58 meters lost each year due to the changing climate.
“Thicker ice would mean longer-lasting ice. In turn, that would mean the danger of all sea ice disappearing from the Arctic in summer would be reduced significantly,” said Arizona State University’s Steven Desch, an author of the plan to use 10 million wind-powered pumps.
Human Activities Dwarf Natural Forces When It Comes to Climate Change Impacts
Two researchers who examined the Earth as a single complex system say they have captured in a one equation the impact of human activities. Those activities, specifically, the emission of greenhouse gases, are causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces.
The study, published in the journal The Anthropocene Review, represents that exceptional rapid rate of change in an “Anthropocene equation.”
Explaining the equation in New Scientist, co-author Owen Gaffney of the University of Stockholm said it was developed “by homing in on the rate of change of Earth’s life support system . . . For four billion years the rate of change of the Earth system has been a complex function of astronomical and geophysical forces plus internal dynamics: Earth’s orbit around the sun, gravitational interactions with other planets, the sun’s heat output, colliding continents, volcanoes and evolution, among others.”
“In the equation, astronomical and geophysical forces tend to zero because of their slow nature or rarity, as do internal dynamics, for now,” Gaffney added. “All these forces still exert pressure, but currently on orders of magnitude less than human impact.”
Gaffney said that although complex interactions between the Earth’s core and the biosphere had rendered Earth relatively stable over millions of years, human societies would be unlikely to fare so well. The research concluded that failure to reduce anthropological climate change could “trigger societal collapse.”
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.
Antarctica is home to Earth’s largest ice mass, which unlike the Arctic remains frozen year round. But a new satellite-based study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that atop the coastal Langhovde Glacier in East Antarctica’s Dronning Maud Land, large numbers of meltwater lakes have been forming.
The study suggests that the lakes—nearly 8,000 of them—appeared in the summer months between 2000 and 2013. Like lakes that have formed from the meltwater of ice sheets in areas such as Greenland, those in East Antarctica may affect rates and patterns of ice melt, ice flow and ice shelf disintegration.
“What we find is that the appearance of these lakes, unsurprisingly, is correlated directly with the air temperature in the region, and so the maximum number of lakes, and the total area of the lakes, as well as the depth of the lakes, all of these things peak when the air temperatures peak,” said Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University in the U.K. and one of the study’s authors.
The concern is that the lakes’ meltwater will drain into the underlying ice, causing the ice sheet to weaken. The long-term effects are unknown, the authors say.
“We do not think that the lakes on Langhovde Glacier are at present affecting the glacier, but it will be important to monitor these in the future to see how they evolve with surface air temperature changes,” said lead study author Emily Langley of Durham University in the U.K.
Natural Gas Emissions to Edge Out Coal Emissions This Year
In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, released last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that for the first time since 1972 energy-associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from natural gas will surpass those from coal. Although natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, its consumption has increased while coal consumption has decreased, leading to what the EIA expects will be 10 percent greater energy-related CO2 emissions from natural gas than from coal in 2016.
The EIA estimates that this year natural gas will fuel 34 percent of U.S. electricity generation, compared with 30 percent for coal. Last year, natural gas generated slightly less than 33 percent of electricity, and coal generated slightly more than 33 percent.
The EIA also noted that annual U.S. carbon intensity rates have been falling since 2005, in part because of increased consumption of low- or zero-carbon electricity from nuclear plants and renewables. Along with the decrease in coal consumption, the increase in non-fossil fuel consumption has reduced U.S. total carbon intensity from 60 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2005 to 54 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2015.
But the EIA’s emissions numbers do not reflect emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas released by gas drilling and transport operations. The extent of methane emissions from oil and gas production and distribution is uncertain, complicating the climate impacts of switching from coal to gas. Once those emissions total more than 4 percent of total gas production, according to a study cited in Utility Dive, they begin to negate the climactic benefits of gas over coal.
Obama Uses Anniversary to Remind Country of Climate Change’s Threat to National Parks
As the United States marks the centennial of the National Park Service this week, its parks are being widely celebrated for their natural grandeur. But President Obama used the milestone as a reminder of the threat climate change poses to the parks in a video released Saturday.
“As president, I’m proud to have built upon America’s tradition of conservation. We’ve protected more than 265 million acres of public lands and waters—more than any administration in history,” said Obama.
“As we look ahead, the threat of climate change means that protecting our public lands and waters is more important than ever. Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. No more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, even threaten Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.”
The National Park Service warns that today’s “rapid climate change challenges national parks in ways we’ve never seen before. Glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate, increasingly destructive storms threaten cultural resources and park facilities, habitat is disrupted—the list goes on.”
How is the National Park Service planning for climate change? The Atlantic reports that although parks have been slow to adapt their management practices, they are taking steps to cut emissions and educate the public about climate change and its effects. It reports that the visitors’ center at California’s Pinnacles National Park runs on electricity from solar panels, passenger vehicles are banned in Zion National Park during the summer, and at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, several beach restoration projects are in the works due to erosion caused partly by sea-level rise.
President Barack Obama announced a series of steps that aim to tackle the effects of climate change on the health of Americans. These 150 health-focused actions to boost climate change preparedness expand on the Climate Data Initiative launched a year.
“The sooner we act, the more we can do to protect the health of our communities, our kids, and those that are the most vulnerable,” the White House said in a statement. “As part of the administration’s overall effort to combat climate change and protect the American people, this week, the administration is announcing a series of actions that will allow us to better understand, communicate, and reduce the health impacts of climate change on our communities.”
Beyond the list of initiatives—including expanding access to climate and health data, improving air quality data and convening a climate change and health summit—the administration released a draft report on the observed and future impacts of climate change on our health. It focuses on risks such as weather extremes, air quality and water-and food-related issues that could affect Americans and is open for public comment. A final draft is expected for release in early 2016.
Another report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adaptation in Action, highlights successful actions by state leaders in Arizona, California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and New York to reduce the health impacts of climate change.
Study Forecasts Canadian Glacier Loss; Could Have Wider Implications
A new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience predicts how much glaciers in western Canada will shrink—as much as 70 percent by 2100—depending on the rate of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere between now and the end of the century.
“Over the next century, there is going to be a huge loss,” said lead author Garry Clarke of the University of British Columbia. “The glaciers are telling us that we’re changing the climate.”
The study—the first to model many glaciers in detail at one time—could have implications for predicting glacier loss around the world. New Scientist reports that unlike previous studies—including one by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—this Nature Geoscience study relies on detailed analysis of how glaciers are likely to move and change shape as they melt. The earlier studies relied on the difference between the amount of snow falling on the glacier at higher altitudes and the amount of thawing at lower ones.
Climate Change Triggers Rising Tide of Troubles for California
Last week the Risky Business Project released its third report on the economic impacts of climate change, a report calling on business leaders to push for policy reform and to factor climate change into their businesses’ risk models.
From Boom to Bust? Climate Risk in the Golden State describes how extreme heat and shifting precipitation patterns from escalating climate change will drain California’s water supply, worsen drought and wildfire, and undermine agriculture. Rising temperatures will also lead to decreased labor productivity, increased energy costs, and greater air pollution. Human health and property will be put at risk: a doubling or tripling of the number of days with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit could contribute to nearly 7,700 additional heat-related deaths per year by century’s end, and rising sea levels along the California coast could submerge $10 billion in property by 2050.
The report was published the same day that California Gov. Jerry Brown placed first-ever mandatory water restrictions on all Californians, a response to the state’s fourth year of drought, which has already challenged many of the state’s businesses. The executive order calls for a 25 percent slash in water use and comes as the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which Californians rely on heavily for summertime water needs, neared a record low.
The latest round of climate talks began Feb. 8 in Geneva, where representatives of 190 or so countries have their work cut out for them: streamlining a 37-page draft text of an international agreement covering more than 100 issues, each with multiple options and sub-options, so that a full negotiating text is ready by May as a basis for further negotiations in June and ratification at a summit in Paris in December. The draft text reflects a rich country-developing country divide and is “stuffed with options that reflect conflicting interests and demands on many fundamental points,” reported the Associated Foreign Press in the Gulf Times.
With both global Earth surface and global sea surface temperatures reaching record levels in 2014, pressure to reach a final climate accord is intense.
At the outset of the 6-day conference, the only negotiation period scheduled before delivery of national emissions reductions plans at the end of May, European Union negotiator Elena Bardram acknowledged that countries’ Paris targets are unlikely to keep global temperature rise below the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers the tipping point for dangerous climate change.
“We are concerned the targets set in Paris may fall short of what is required by science, that it will not be exactly what is required to remain within the 2 degrees,” she said in a United Nations press conference webcast. “By the Paris conference, we need to have a very clear understanding of how well on track we are with keeping global temperature increase within the two degree centigrade limit,” she said. “We have to know how much is on the table and what more needs to be done, should that be the case.”
All major economies must declare their emissions targets by the end of March, and the European Union is wasting no time in its efforts to make its members fall into line. Reuters reported that it will exert “maximum pressure” to extract pledges “by June at the latest.”
But developed country targets are not the only issue. Other sticking points are whether developing countries should make their own carbon-reduction pledges, whether industrial superpowers should compensate these countries for climate change-related losses and damage, and how pledges of financial support to developing countries should be made good.
Days before the latest talks got under way, a group of CEOs called for the Paris deal to include a goal to reduce global emissions to net zero—no more than Earth can absorb—by 2050.
Final Keystone Legislation Headed to President’s Desk
By a 270–152 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed final legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, the project that during seven years of administrative review overseen by the State Department has morphed into a fight about climate change. The president has 10 days once the bill reaches his deck to issue a promised veto.
Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, the architect of the Keystone XL bill, acknowledged that Republicans lack the votes to overcome a veto but said that Keystone measures could be added to other legislation that have bipartisan support.
The bill endorsed changes made by the Senate—that climate change was not a hoax and that oil sands should no longer be exempt from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.
The President has said he would approve the pipeline only if it does not significantly increase the rate of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the State Department to revisit its conclusion that the project’s impact on those emissions was negligible—a conclusion that the EPA says may no longer hold given the implications of lowered oil prices for oil sands development.
National Security Strategy Report Highlights Threat of Climate Change
Among the eight top strategic risks to the United States identified in President Obama’s National Security Strategy report to Congress is climate change. The report, issued Feb. 6, singles out the phenomenon as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water” with “present day” effects being felt “from the Arctic to the Midwest.”
The report echoes many of the Pentagon’s warnings that climate change poses a national security risk, and it alludes to the economic costs of climate change, suggesting that delaying emissions reductions is more expensive than transitioning to low-carbon energy sources.
Although the administration’s last national security strategy, released in 2010, recognized the threat of climate change to U.S. interests, the new report puts global warming “front and center,” according to the National Journal.
The strategy draws attention to the U.S. commitment to reducing emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to developing “an ambitious new global climate change agreement.”
A White House fact sheet on the report says that the United States will advance its own security and that of allies and partners in part by “confronting the urgent crisis of climate change, including through national emissions reductions, international diplomacy, and our commitment to the Green Climate Fund.”
In an effort to increase energy security and resilience to climate change, President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposes a 7 percent increase in funding for clean energy and a new $4 billion Clean Power State Initiative Fund aimed at encouraging U.S. states to make faster and deeper cuts in power plant emissions.
The proposed $4 billion fund, which would help states pay for infrastructure improvements and renewable and clean-energy initiatives as well as prepare for more extreme weather, signals that the Clean Power Plan’s individual state targets are “minimums, not maximums,” according to U.S. News and World Report.
The proposed fund would be paid for by offsetting reductions from other programs—which congressional Republicans are likely to oppose, reports the Associated Press, given their aversion to the EPA’s climate efforts.
The budget called attention to the costs of delaying carbon-cutting measures, including $300 billion over 10 years for responses to extreme weather events. According to the Obama administration, unabated climate change could cost the United States $120 billion a year.
“The failure to invest in climate solutions and climate preparedness does not just fly in the face of the overwhelming judgment of science—it is fiscally unwise,” states the budget plan released by the White House.
The president’s proposed budget also calls for investments aimed at climate change adaptation. Several hundred million dollars are earmarked for initiatives such as protecting communities at risk from wildfires and assessing and addressing coastal flooding threats.
Also in the budget proposal: a $500 million contribution to the United Nation’s Global Climate Fund to help developing countries combat global warming and adapt to climate change.
Senate Pushes Ahead on Keystone, EPA Pushes Back
The Senate measure in effect transfers decision-making authority for Keystone from the administration to Congress. Because the measure differs from the House measure approving the proposed pipeline, the House could hold another vote on the project or a conference with Senate leaders. In either case, Congressional supporters of the project currently lack the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
Because the State Department gave federal agencies a Feb. 2nd deadline to conclude their assessment of Keystone, the president could announce his decision on the project soon.
In 2013, Obama said that decision would be based on whether Keystone’s construction would worsen climate change. This week, the U.S. EPA urged the State Department to “revisit” its 2014 conclusion that the pipeline would not significantly increase the rate of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
The agency has zeroed in on the “potential implications of lower oil prices on project impacts, especially greenhouse gas emissions.” It said that with an oil price range at $65 to $75 a barrel, “construction of the pipeline is projected to change the economics of oil sands development and result in increased oil sands production and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions.”
The White House has not said whether the letter shows that Keystone fails Obama’s “climate test.”
Add Blackouts to Climate Change Effects
For major American cities along the Atlantic coast to the Gulf, climate change may mean more blackouts, according to a report published in the journal Climatic Change.
Using a computer simulation model, engineers at Johns Hopkins University examined how fluctuations in hurricane intensity and activity could potentially affect the cities’ electrical power systems. The cities at highest risk of power outage increases during major storms are New York City, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla., Virginia Beach, Va., and Hartford, Conn.
“Infrastructure providers and emergency managers need to plan for hurricanes in a long-term manner and that planning has to take climate change into account,” said study coauthor Seth Guikema.
On Monday the Senate passed a bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline in a procedural vote just shy of the 67 votes needed to override a veto, setting up what could be an extensive debate on energy policy and climate in next year’s presidential election. The move followed a bipartisan vote in which the House of Representatives passed a similar bill, Jan. 9.
The House vote came just hours after Nebraska’s Supreme Court cleared the way for the controversial project by upholding a 2012 law giving the governor permitting authority for major oil pipelines. The court overruled a lower court finding that allowing the governor and pipeline owner TransCanada to use eminent domain to lay the pipeline on private land was unconstitutional. However, an attorney for the landowners in the case suggested that the litigation was not over, stating that the outcome amounted to a “nondecision open to further review” because most judges agreed with the landowners on the standing issue and three declined to weigh in on the law’s constitutionality.
The ruling shifted the debate over Keystone to Washington, where Republicans are pushing for its final approval after more than six years of review by the U.S. State Department.
“Today’s court decision wipes out President Obama’s last excuse,” Republican Senator and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Lisa Murkowski said.
“Regardless of the Nebraska ruling,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, “the House bill still conflicts with longstanding executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests.”
In fact, it could take months for the administration to reach a final verdict because the State Department must take comments from eight agencies before reaching its own conclusion about the project.
Environmentalists and other opponents of the pipeline have highlighted the potential for extraction and transport of crude from Canada’s tar sands to contaminate water, pollute air, and harm wildlife. But the GOP, the oil industry, and other pipeline backers argue that Keystone will lead to jobs and increase oil independence as well as strengthen bonds with Canada.
“Boosting American-made energy results in more American jobs and improved international relations,” said Rep. Leonard Lance. “This is a winning combination for our Nation’s economy, our national security and a centerpiece in our relationship with our ally, Canada.”
Rep. Adam Smith had a different take: “Rather than focusing on Keystone XL, we should be working on bigger picture investments in clean energy and energy efficient technologies that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels that hurt our environment.”
Obama Administration Targets Methane Emissions
The Obama administration has announced the first-ever national standards to cut methane emissions from new sources in the oil and natural gas industry. Methane accounts for some 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it has 20 times carbon dioxide’s planet-warming potency.
“This strategy will benefit the economy, the climate and public health,” said Dan Utech, President Obama’s advisor on energy climate change, though activists say the cuts fall short of those needed to reach the administration’s international climate change pledges.
Breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing technology are projected to increase methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Methane leaks from oil and natural gas drilling sites and pipelines are 50 percent higher than previously thought according to a 2014 study published in the journal Science.
Estimates of Social Cost of Carbon Vary Widely, with Policy Consequences
The social cost of carbon (SCC) or the economic damage caused by a ton of carbon dioxide emissions—which the United States uses to guide energy regulations and, potentially, future mitigation policies—is $37 per ton according to a recent U.S. government study or, according to a new study by Stanford researchers published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, six times that value.
The Stanford scientists say the current pricing models fail to reflect all the economic damage each ton of CO2 causes and that a higher value on that damage could change policy.
“If the social cost of carbon is higher, many more mitigation measures will pass a cost-benefit analysis,” said study co-author Delavane Diaz. “Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile.”
“For 20 years now, the models have assumed that climate change can’t affect the basic growth rate of the economy,” said study coauthor Frances Moore. “But a number of new studies suggest this may not be true. If climate change affects not only a country’s economic output but also its growth, then that has a permanent effect that accumulates over time, leading to a much higher social cost of carbon.”
But William Pizer, a faculty fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions who has worked on and recommended regular updating of the SCC estimate, questioned the methodology of the Stanford analysis, pointing out that it relied on the impact on national economies of short-term temperature spikes rather than on long-term trends that might reveal permanent economic reductions.
“To me, it just seems like it has to be an overestimate,” Pizer said of the Stanford result of $220 (subscription required). “I think it’s great they’re doing this,” he added. “I just think this is another data point that someone needs to weigh as they’re trying to figure out what the right social cost of carbon is. But this isn’t like a definitive new answer.”
As Grist puts it, contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is making progress on climate change. Overall, the country’s carbon emissions fell 1.7 percent last year—in part because of the explosive growth of natural gas and the Great Recession. Looking at energy-related carbon emissions in the last five years, the U.S. has experienced a roughly 6 percent drop. In fact, total greenhouse gas emissions are not expected to reach 2010 levels again until 2030, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That doesn’t mean everyone is concerned about its progress. Generation X—individuals ranging from 32 to 52—may not be the stereotypical slackers they are often portrayed to be, but most are not extremely worried about climate change, according to a new poll. Only about 20 percent said they were highly concerned, while 42 percent were moderately concerned about climate change. The remaining 37 percent showed less concern or none at all. That said, when looking at the population as a whole, there is a “substantial” increase in the number of Americans concerned with the issue, according to a study comparing various opinion polls.
One technology intended to artificially cool the planet and combat climate change, may actually make climate conditions worse. Four separate climate models used by a group of scientists to test the concept of geoengineering—where an increase in the world’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was balanced by a “dimming” of the sun—showed undesirable climate effects, including a reduction in global rainfall. One map suggests many of these projects are already under way across the world—with one new field test proposed by Harvard researchers that would combine sulfate particles with water vapor to form aerosols to reflect the sun’s rays. “The time has come to differentiate: some geoengineering techniques are more dangerous than others,” said Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany. His team recently came out with a study that looks at dumping iron into the sea to bury carbon dioxide for centuries, potentially reducing the impact of climate change.
Temperatures, Drought Threaten Resources
Drought conditions, now gripping much of the country, have led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare natural disasters in more than 1,000 counties in 26 states. Labeled the sixth most severe drought in the United States since record keeping began in 1895, the heat and lack of rain is taking a heavy toll on crops—especially in key corn growing states in the Midwest—raising food and fuel prices. A map by the National Climatic Data Center illustrating the subtraction of precipitation and potential evapotranspiration in June attempts to show why. Even if there had been normal precipitation amounts, it would not have been enough to meet potential evapotranspiration demand in most areas, says Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman.
An iceberg twice the size of Manhattan broke off a Greenland glacier this week. In addition, the Arctic lost in June about 1.1 million square miles of ice, a record. That’s nearly equivalent to the area of Alaska, Florida, Texas and California combined. The rapid retreat of snow and ice has sparked interest in the Arctic’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Shell already has plans to begin exploratory drilling in the area as early as this summer if permits arrive as projected. Proponents say if Shell finds oil, thousands of jobs could be created, while others voice concern over the possibility of spills and marine pollution. Regardless, the pace of widespread drilling in the region remains uncertain.
Countries Reconsider Nuclear
Following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster a year ago, Germany opted to shut down all of its nuclear plants by 2022. The plan was to expand its current renewable energy portfolio—which makes up about 20 percent of the energy mix—to 35 percent by 2020 and 80 percent in 2050. Those targets may be less likely and could be readjusted if jobs are threatened. “The timeframe and the goals of the energy revolution are intact,” said Economy Minister Philipp Rösler. “But we will have to make adjustments if jobs and our competitiveness should become endangered.”
Meanwhile, Japan, which ordered all nuclear power plants shut down for inspection after Fukushima, will restart a second reactor to handle energy demand. The decision has prompted protests as Japan considers three energy options as it moves forward—reduce nuclear power to zero as soon as it can, decrease it to 15 percent by 2030 or aim for a 20-25 percent share by 2030.
Leaked documents purportedly from the nonprofit Heartland Institute include efforts to cast doubt on climate science. The site DeSmog Blog received the documents from an anonymous informant calling himself “Heartland Insider.”
The Heartland Institute gave mixed responses to the documents, calling them both “stolen” and “fake,” but only specifically calling one document, titled “2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” a “total fake.”
Nonetheless Think Progress confirmed that two of the main projects mentioned in the documents are real, including an effort to develop curricula for K-12 education that would cast doubt on climate science.
New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin said the Heritage Institute is using a double standard in being outraged about this leak, while celebrating the “Climategate” leak of emails from researchers.
Climate researcher Judith Curry of Georgia Tech—who has been branded a “heretic” by her colleagues for raising questions such whether there’s actually a consensus on climate change—said one of the most interesting things about the Heartland Institute is that it has been “so effective with so little funds.”
Last month, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, directed by well-known climate skeptic Bjørn Lomborg, announced it will shut because the Danish government cut its funding.
New Budget to Boost “Clean Sources” of Energy
With the announcement of the Obama administration’s proposed 2013 budget, the President called again for an end to $40 billion in tax breaks for oil and gas companies over the next decade. However The Hill said this is “largely a political statement” because Congress is unlikely to support the end of these tax breaks.
The budget request calls for doubling the share of electricity from “clean sources.” It would increase funding for renewable energy, nuclear power, and technologies to reduce emissions from coal, including a 29 percent increase for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, bringing its budget to $2.33 billion.
Meanwhile, U.S. regulators approved plans for a new nuclear power plant for the first time in 30 years, to be built in Georgia. Work is proceeding, with hopes of having the reactors—a new type never used in the U.S.—running by 2016, but the plant is encountering opposition.
The proposed U.S. budget includes no money for the U.S. Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, which gave funding to now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra.
Despite the uproar about Solyndra, an audit of the loan guarantee program found that the investments were actually safer than Congress had expected. Nonetheless, the audit recommended changes to loan guarantees to improve management and oversight.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warned more recipients of loan guarantees may go bust, but that they have always known there are “inherent risks in backing innovative technologies.”
Feed-In Tariffs’ Fate
Feed-in tariffs and other subsidies for renewable energy are in turmoil as countries rearrange their systems. The U.K. is changing to a dynamic tariff that adjusts as the cost of solar panels falls, to avoid a bubble in installations and ballooning costs for the program.
Germany is expected to cut its solar feed-in tariff—and some analysts said the cuts could be deeper than expected. Two different proposals from the Ministry of the Environment could both hurt the industry; in retaliation, three German states reportedly said they’d block these measures.
The United States has lagged behind Europe and East Asia in implementing feed-in tariffs, but two new places in the U.S. are considering starting such programs: the state of Iowa and the city of Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley.
Weather Trumps Turbines
A headline about a new study in the U.K.’s Daily Mail reading “Wind farms can actually INCREASE climate change…” received a lot of attention, but the Guardian argued the claim has now grown into a myth.
But even if turbines can affect microclimates, a new study suggested powerful hurricanes could topple offshore wind farms planned along the United States’ Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
Although Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard had promised before to not enact a carbon tax, floods, bush fires, heat waves, and drought reawakened discussion about putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions.
This week, Australia’s House of Representatives narrowly passed a carbon tax, sending the bill to the country’s Senate, where observers say it is almost certain to pass. Supporters say Australia’s setup would have several advantages over Europe’s carbon-trading system, including a fixed price for the first three years while the fledgling system gets going, which could allow Australia to claim it is the world leader on climate legislation.
However, Australia is currently one of the biggest emitters per capita, with 80 percent of the country’s electricity coming from coal. Australia is also the world’s biggest coal exporter, and as such has the coal industry reacting fiercely to the proposed law.
Debt-wracked Greece is launching a plan—with Germany’s help—to attempt to boost its economy out of recession by building huge solar power installations. “Project Helios,” named after the Greek god of the sun, is designed to attract 20 billion euros in foreign investment—and a large portion of the electricity produced may leave the country, headed to Germany.
However, the plan for exporting the electricity has some snags, critics say—including the need for billions of euros of investment in Greece’s power grid. Nonetheless, the president of the Hellenic Association of Photovoltaic Companies said the plan is more realistic than Desertec, a proposal to supply Europe with electricity from huge solar power farms in North Africa.
Energy for All
In preparation for 2012—which the United Nations has named the Year of Sustainable Energy for All—the International Energy Agency released its first assessment of the cost of ending energy poverty. The price tag: $48 billion a year—about 3 percent of the yearly global energy investment, and about five times as much as is spent now trying to bring energy to the world’s poor.
Expanding electricity to about 1.5 billion people who lack it now would add less than 1 percent to the world’s emissions, the report estimated, and the spread could be driven by the private sector, with the proper incentives from governments, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted tar sands from Canada to Texas, faced raucous opposition at a public hearing in Washington, D.C. Protests against the project outside the White House dwindled in September, but the project remains a political headache for the Obama Administration.
More Nuclear Zones
Notwithstanding the retreat from nuclear power in Germany, Switzerland, and perhaps Japan, the world is still headed for a nuclear renaissance, said a report by Britain’s Royal Society. However, the report argued there should be more emphasis on controlling proliferation of nuclear materials and better storage of spent fuel to avoid accidents like that at Fukushima.
A new bill in Berkeley, California, is questioning the city’s long-time stance as a “nuclear free zone,” which uses no nuclear power and lets no nuclear weapons pass through it. But one of its city council members says the 1986 law causes more problems than it is worth and should be repealed.
In the wake of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged to boost renewable energy to at least 20 percent of its consumption in the next decade. This would double the share of renewable electricity in Japan, which gets most of its electricity from nuclear, coal, and oil. Nuclear power had supplied 30 percent of Japan’s electricity, and before the nuclear disaster, the country had planned to build more nuclear plants to boost that share to 50 percent.
“We will do everything we can to make renewable energy our base form of power, overcoming hurdles of technology and cost,” Kan said at a G8 meeting in France. In another speech in France, to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Kan also questioned ongoing growth of energy consumption: “we must ask ourselves … whether it is appropriate for society to increase energy consumption without any limits.”
Kan was expected to announce a new “Sunrise Plan” that would make it compulsory by 2030 for all new buildings to include solar panels. Japan’s richest man, telecoms mogul Masayoshi Son, also threw his weight behind renewables, announcing plans to build 10 large solar power plants and a partnership with local officials from around the country to launch a “Natural Energy Council.”
Alternative Federal Fleet
The federal government’s vehicle fleet should be cleaned up, a memorandum from President Obama ordered. The memo directs federal agencies to switch to purchasing only “alternative fueled” passenger cars and light-duty trucks by 2015. The “alternative fuel” category would include electric vehicles and hybrids, as well as those powered by biofuels or compressed natural gas. To kickstart the switch, a pilot project is purchasing more than 100 electric vehicles.
To help consumers understand their cars’ fuel costs and environmental impacts, fuel efficiency labels have gotten an overhaul. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called the change “the most dramatic overhaul to fuel economy labels since the program began more than 30 years ago.” The new labels are not as simple as those proposed last year by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would have given letter grades to cars.
Meanwhile, richer countries—such as the U.S., Germany and Japan—have reached “peak travel,” according to a new study, with miles traveled per person flattening off in recent years.
In China, now the world’s biggest consumer of electricity, power companies are cutting their production. They are balking at government regulations that are raising the price of coal, while keeping the price of electricity down—policies that the companies say are threatening to push them into bankruptcy. The State Grid, the country’s largest electricity distributor, warned that this summer blackouts could be the worst since the early 1990s.
With power shortages already, Chinese stocks fell on concerns the country would not be able to keep up its high rates of growth. Nonetheless, China widened its lead as the most attractive place to invest in renewable energy, according to consultancy Ernst & Young LLC.
Globally, more money is pouring into renewable energy—but according to a new survey, some investors fear a green bubble may be forming.
Shale Gas Redemption?
A study last month by Cornell University researchers estimated power plants burning natural gas from fracking shale formations cause more global warming than burning coal. A new assessment from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory rebuts the Cornell study, finding that, watt for watt, such “unconventional” natural gas contributes only about half as much to global warming as does coal.