In an effort to increase energy security and resilience to climate change, President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposes a 7 percent increase in funding for clean energy and a new $4 billion Clean Power State Initiative Fund aimed at encouraging U.S. states to make faster and deeper cuts in power plant emissions.
The proposed $4 billion fund, which would help states pay for infrastructure improvements and renewable and clean-energy initiatives as well as prepare for more extreme weather, signals that the Clean Power Plan’s individual state targets are “minimums, not maximums,” according to U.S. News and World Report.
The proposed fund would be paid for by offsetting reductions from other programs—which congressional Republicans are likely to oppose, reports the Associated Press, given their aversion to the EPA’s climate efforts.
The budget called attention to the costs of delaying carbon-cutting measures, including $300 billion over 10 years for responses to extreme weather events. According to the Obama administration, unabated climate change could cost the United States $120 billion a year.
“The failure to invest in climate solutions and climate preparedness does not just fly in the face of the overwhelming judgment of science—it is fiscally unwise,” states the budget plan released by the White House.
The president’s proposed budget also calls for investments aimed at climate change adaptation. Several hundred million dollars are earmarked for initiatives such as protecting communities at risk from wildfires and assessing and addressing coastal flooding threats.
Also in the budget proposal: a $500 million contribution to the United Nation’s Global Climate Fund to help developing countries combat global warming and adapt to climate change.
Senate Pushes Ahead on Keystone, EPA Pushes Back
The Senate measure in effect transfers decision-making authority for Keystone from the administration to Congress. Because the measure differs from the House measure approving the proposed pipeline, the House could hold another vote on the project or a conference with Senate leaders. In either case, Congressional supporters of the project currently lack the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
Because the State Department gave federal agencies a Feb. 2nd deadline to conclude their assessment of Keystone, the president could announce his decision on the project soon.
In 2013, Obama said that decision would be based on whether Keystone’s construction would worsen climate change. This week, the U.S. EPA urged the State Department to “revisit” its 2014 conclusion that the pipeline would not significantly increase the rate of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
The agency has zeroed in on the “potential implications of lower oil prices on project impacts, especially greenhouse gas emissions.” It said that with an oil price range at $65 to $75 a barrel, “construction of the pipeline is projected to change the economics of oil sands development and result in increased oil sands production and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions.”
The White House has not said whether the letter shows that Keystone fails Obama’s “climate test.”
Add Blackouts to Climate Change Effects
For major American cities along the Atlantic coast to the Gulf, climate change may mean more blackouts, according to a report published in the journal Climatic Change.
Using a computer simulation model, engineers at Johns Hopkins University examined how fluctuations in hurricane intensity and activity could potentially affect the cities’ electrical power systems. The cities at highest risk of power outage increases during major storms are New York City, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla., Virginia Beach, Va., and Hartford, Conn.
“Infrastructure providers and emergency managers need to plan for hurricanes in a long-term manner and that planning has to take climate change into account,” said study coauthor Seth Guikema.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Two nations that account for more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions reached a climate deal. The United States will accelerate the pace of its net greenhouse gas emissions reductions from 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 to 26–28 percent by 2025. China will increase the non-fossil fuel share of all its energy to approximately 20 percent—roughly a fifth of its energy supply—by 2030.
“This is a major milestone,” said President Obama. “This is an ambitious goal, but this is an achievable goal. We have a special responsibility to lead the world effort to combat global climate change.”
The deal was reached after several rounds of talks between the two nations. At a joint press conference where the deal was announced, Obama indicated that he hoped the deal would “encourage all major economies to be ambitious and all developed and developing countries to work across divides” so that an agreement could be reached on climate change targets in Paris next year.
Chinese President Xi Jinping had similar comments.
“We agreed to make sure international climate change negotiations will reach agreement as scheduled at the Paris conference in 2015 and agreed to deepen practical cooperation on clean energy, environmental protection and other areas,” he said. The deal calls for China to deploy an additional 800–1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission energy sources—a capacity greater than that of all the coal–fired power plants in China and nearly equal to total electricity generation in the United States. Among other initiatives on which the two countries agreed: Expand joint clean energy research and development, advance major carbon capture and storage demonstrations, enhance cooperation on hydrofluorocarbons, creating a federal framework for cities in both countries to share experiences and best practices for low-carbon economic growth and adaptation to climate change impacts, and boosting trade in “green” goods, including energy efficiency technology and resilient infrastructure.
China is still largely poor, but its economy and energy use is still growing rapidly. At the same time, China is combating severe air pollution.
“Just the fact that they agreed to cap their emissions in the future is a significant development,” said Brian Murray, director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “As important as these two countries are, they can’t get the job done working alone. But without them, the world can’t get the job done.”
Will China’s pledge keep the climate from warming 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—a scientific benchmark for averting dangerous climate impacts? A number of scientists say it falls short of what is needed to hit that target.
Congressional Republicans are skeptical of the deal. “As I read the agreement, it requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years, while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states across the country,” said Mitch McConnell, who is in line to become the new Senate majority leader in January.
Grid Reliability In Question
New analysis by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) discusses the potential impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan on grid reliability (subscription). Specifically, NERC points to rapid transition as a factor in damaging capacity margins, increasing the difficulty of maintaining power quality and leaving the grid vulnerable to extreme weather.
The EPA said the report on the impact of the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants, offered no new analysis and overlooks new capacity that will be built by 2020.
“The world is going to change regardless of this new proposed rule, and we know new capacity is going to build and NERC just ignores that completely,” a staff member in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation told Greenwire (subscription). “There are a lot of assertions and claims in the report that aren’t really substantiated by any particular analytics they mention, or supported by a deeper look into the issues.”
A U.S. Department of Energy study, due out in 2015, will examine the rule’s impact on utilities, according to The Hill.
OPEC Reduces Forecast Amid Low Oil Prices
In its annual World Oil Outlook, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which supplies a third of the world’s crude oil, cut demand forecasts to 28.2 million barrels per day in 2017—a 14-year low. The 2014 report estimates approximately 600,000 barrels a day less than the 2013 report and 800,000 below the amount required this year.
The report further states that there will be a “small decline in real values” over this decade, together with a “constant nominal price” of $110 a barrel between now and 2020.
Booming U.S. oil production has put domestic output on the same level as that of energy giants Russia and Saudi Arabia, but oil prices are on the decline. UT San Diego News says the overall economy may still win, noting that “we still consume far more petroleum—in the form of gasoline and thousands of related products—than we pump from the ground. This means import costs are falling, too.”
Despite the decline in oil prices—to some $77 a barrel—companies like BP and Total are continuing to invest in major projects.
“We are not changing our investment decisions because of this [current price],” said Bob Dudley, BP chief executive.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Climate change is a “threat multiplier” and worse than many of the challenges the U.S. military is already grappling with, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The New York Times indicated that the report marks a departure from the DoD’s previous focus on preparing bases to adapt to climate change. The DoD now calls on the military to incorporate climate change plans in its strategic thinking and budgeting.
“Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”
Climate change will now be factored into several day-to-day decisions, including those about training exercises, purchasing decisions and assessment of the risk of infectious disease. The report points to inclusion of floods or storms in war game scenarios, testing of new equipment to adapt to warmer ocean conditions and preparedness for an increasing number of natural disasters.
“Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning,” the report’s introduction stated. “Our armed forces must prepare for a future with a wide spectrum of possible threats.”
At a lecture at Yale University earlier this week, U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern discussed the country’s climate vision and the potential for a global climate pact touting flexible standards, financial assistance for developing countries and an accountability system at the 2015 U.N. Summit.
“The usual brinkmanship of holding cards until the eleventh hour is a bad bet because too much is riding on this negotiation,” Stern said. “We can’t afford to miss the opportunity to establish an ambitious, workable, new international climate order.”
According to a new fact sheet from the Environmental and Energy Institute, Americans, generally, agree that climate change is happening. The finding is based on polls from a variety of sources from 2013 to 2014.
Lower Oil Prices Have Multiple Effects
Amid reports of falling oil prices, the International Energy Information Administration (EIA) lowered its oil demand forecast to 93.5 million (bpd). The change, it said, was supported by near-four-year low prices.
Downward prices have been a boon to consumers at the pump, but as one economist tells Reuters, they are a two-edged sword. “Initially, (a lower oil price) will provide a boost to an economy that already has some momentum,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. “It’s like a tax cut. The problem is that it will come back to haunt us in 2015.”
The American energy boom combined with a sluggish global economy have led to a crude oil price correction with global impacts—nuancing debate about the need for major pipeline projects, potentially helping refiners and threatening to hit energy exporters like Russia and Iran harder than the recent U.S. economic sanctions.
UCS: EPA Clean Power Plan Could Use Tweaks
Some details in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules for regulating carbon dioxide from existing power plants—the Clean Power Plan—could be fine-tuned, a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) states. The group’s proposed approach for setting state targets would result in renewable energy supplying 23 percent versus the Clean Power Plan’s 12 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030.
UCS argues that the EPA’s current proposal doesn’t capture the rate at which renewables have been deployed across the country.
“Our renewable target is a percentage of electricity sales in the state that can either be met by having in-state generation or purchasing renewables from another state,” said UCS President Ken Kimmell.
The 12-day United Nations Climate Change Conference, which aims to forge an agreement to cut climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, began in Warsaw, Poland, this week. The goal set by the U.N.: limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
Representatives from nearly 200 countries are debating an agreement that would take effect by 2020. Major breakthroughs are not expected at the conference, which is pervaded by a mood of “realism” about the scale of what can be achieved. The Washington Post reports the talks will only lay a foundation for a global agreement to be reached in time for the 2015 talks in Paris, France.
As the conference began, there were reminders of what’s at stake. Devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan was on the minds of many, along with reports spelling out how nations are falling further behind their collective goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its newly released World Energy Outlook, forecast energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to rise 20 percent by 2035, leaving the world on a trajectory for a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius—far above the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees Celsius.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also amended carbon dioxide estimates for policy makers in a report designed to provide guidelines for the representatives working to devise a climate agreement. The panel cut its estimate of total emissions since 1870 to 515 gigatons, down from 531 gigatons, and raised its estimate of total carbon emissions since 1750 to 555 gigatons, up from 545 gigatons.
Ethanol Mandate to Be Announced Soon
Although the IEA predicts fossil fuels will provide 75 percent of the global energy mix by 2035—causing oil prices to continue to rise—current U.S. prices for oil tumbled to their lowest in more than five months. Gas prices have fallen to their lowest in 33 months, in part due to the moderate decrease in oil prices.
Some view prospective ethanol volume requirements, which could be weakened for 2014 partly as a result of a decline in the price of renewable energy credits, as a contributor to the low gas prices. As early as this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could announce how many billions of gallons of ethanol refiners will be required to blend into gasoline and diesel fuel next year. Those numbers could be on par with 2012 totals if the agency sticks with a draft version of the mandate leaked in October.
The ethanol mandate was under fire this week, following an investigation by the Associated Press, which suggests it comes with an unadvertised environmental cost, namely incentivizing farmers to grow corn on environmentally sensitive land and increasing use of nitrogen fertilizers, leading to high nitrate levels in some water supplies.
Obama Names New Climate Advisor
Heather Zichal, a key architect of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, stepped down from her post last week as top energy and climate change advisor. Zichal said she will take time to “decompress and take on a few projects” before deciding on formal next steps. In a statement, Obama praised Zichal’s five years of service to the administration.
“She crafted my energy and climate change agenda in the 2008 campaign, then again on my presidential transition, and as my top energy and climate advisor at the White House, she has been a strong and steady voice for policies that reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, protect public health and our environment, and combat the threat of global climate change,” Obama said.
Zichal’s deputy, Dan Utech—formerly a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Hillary Clinton when she was senator—will take over the role. In his new position, Utech will be tasked as the lead coordinator of the administration’s stand on energy and environmental issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline and new rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In his first blog post since assuming the new role, Utech praised the president’s energy and climate strategy for helping oil production hit a 24-year high.
While Hurricane Isaac managed to leave Gulf oil platforms largely untouched, New Orleans’ strengthened levees were put to the test as the storm made landfall on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
More than 90 percent of all oil production and roughly 66 percent of all gas output was shut down as a precautionary measure as Isaac approached the Louisiana coast Tuesday. As the hurricane weakened into a tropical storm on land, reducing the threat to offshore production, energy prices dropped. Gasoline prices rose by roughly five cents nationwide—the largest one-day jump in gas prices in 18 months just as the holiday weekend approaches. Though losses will be less than other storms, Reuters reports a $1 billion economic loss for offshore energy.
Oil production in the Gulf is expected to return to normal quickly; nonetheless, the Group of Seven (G7) urged oil-producing countries to raise output to ensure the market was well supplied. The G7 has said it is ready to release oil from strategic reserves, perhaps as soon as September. The International Energy Agency has dropped its opposition to the plan, which has been spearheaded by the U.S.
As Hurricane Isaac continues to churn in the Gulf region, it could stir up remnants of up to 1 million barrels of crude oil that leaked into the ocean as a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness warned coastal residents that oil material—such as tar balls—could wash ashore.
Meanwhile, tropical storm Kirk became the Atlantic’s 11th named storm of 2012, a feat typically not reached until closer to the end of hurricane season in November. A study in the journal Atmospheric Science Letters suggests hurricanes could be stopped if the clouds that float above hurricane-forming regions were brightened.
Rule Promotes Cleaner Cars
A new fuel economy rule that will nearly double the efficiency of the nation’s cars and trucks to a fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon over the next 13 years was finalized by the Obama administration this week. The requirements of the rule will be phased in gradually between now and then, and automakers could face fines for non-compliance.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate the rule will increase the average price of a vehicle by $1,800 in 2025. Consumers could save an estimated $5,700 to $7,400 in gasoline over the life of the vehicle. Additionally, the rule is expected to save 4 billion barrels of oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 billion metric tons.
The rule, some argued, doesn’t come without consequences. Higher-efficiency vehicles that consume less fuel could reduce revenues from the gasoline tax 21 percent by 2040. As a result, spending on road repairs could decline.
Forbes says regardless of the high 54.5 mpg requirement, your average will likely be closer to 40 mpg.
Deal Creates Largest Carbon Market
The European Union will link its “cap-and-trade” system with Australia’s carbon market, creating the largest emissions trading scheme in the world. A partial link of the two markets will begin in July 2015, and the association will be complete by 2018. The deal will not only provide a boost for the declining European market, but also allow Australian companies to buy cheaper credits from the European Union.
In the U.S., California will open the country’s first full-scale carbon market in November. Before then, the California Air Resources Board plans to hold a practice auction—testing its electronic platform for selling carbon allowances to companies. The practice auction comes in the middle of a political debate over whether the state should auction revenues at all.
The U.S. Department of State has received a new application from TransCanada—the company behind the controversial Keystone XL project—to ship crude oil via a proposed pipeline running from the Canadian border to existing infrastructure in Nebraska. TransCanada had its initial application rejected by the Obama administration in January. The reapplication to the U.S. State Department on Friday calls to reroute the pipeline around the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills Region of Nebraska—adding miles onto the project. Despite the new route, some in Nebraska still oppose the plan. The pipeline is causing other problems as lawmakers debate a multi-year surface transportation plan—the first one since 2005.
If approved, construction on the pipeline could happen in early 2013, with oil flowing as soon as 2014, according to The Canadian Press.
That same day, the Obama administration issued a proposed rule requiring companies drilling for natural gas on federal and tribal lands to disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. While the rules also set standards for proper construction of wells and wastewater disposal, disclosure of the chemicals used in the “fracking” process would not have to be reported until after work is complete. The regulations, which could go into effect by the end of the year, spurred debate among environmentalists, industry and lawmakers—with some saying the rules didn’t go far enough. Others highlighted the “toughest” provisions, which require tests of wells’ physical integrity and expand the scope of water protected from drilling—but pointed out the rules “only apply to a sliver of the nation’s natural gas supply.”
Gas prices have continued a steady decline the last five weeks, causing the Energy Information Administration (EIA) to revise forecasts for the summer—predicting motorists will spend $10.7 billion less than previously estimated.
Heartland Institute Pulls Controversial Billboards
The Heartland Institute made headlines again recently for suggesting—in billboard ads—that only terrorists believe in manmade global warming. The failed campaign attacking the existence of climate change prompted a firestorm of criticism and recalled another kerfuffle involving the Institute earlier this year. Reactions to the campaign caused the Institute to announce removal of the billboards after being up just 24 hours. Even after they were removed, some donors pulled funding for the Heartland Institute, but others weren’t so quick to cut their ties with the organization.
A new study focuses blame for warming on another species entirely. It links methane emissions from dinosaurs, the sauropod specifically, to climate change and a warmer Mesozoic era. Like the dinosaurs before them, modern-day methane emitters such as cows and sheep are being studied to determine how the methane they emit could be contributing to warming. Regardless, according to the study, emissions from dinosaurs were far larger than those of our modern-day plant-eating animals, and in fact may have equaled all modern methane emissions—both natural and manmade.
New data sheds light on the speed of melting glaciers, and how their changes affect sea levels. Greenland’s ocean-bound glaciers accelerated by an average of 30 percent from 2000 to 2011—not quite as quickly had been estimated in previous worst-case scenarios, but still a cause for concern.
The Rise and Fall of Renewables
While a solar-powered boat was circumnavigating the world, on land the U.S. activated the first solar power project on federal land near Las Vegas. Meanwhile, residential solar leasing is taking off, Motley Fool reported. And in the next five years, the world’s solar power generating capacity is predicted to grow more than 200 percent, although public support for green energy initiatives has dropped recently.
Japan may be taking steps toward renewable energy after taking its last nuclear reactor off line last week. The move left the country without nuclear power for the first time since 1970. But MSNBC insisted renewables wouldn’t bring immediate relief, as only 10 percent of Japan’s power generation currently comes from renewables. Saudi Arabia is exploring whether it can generate a third of its electricity by way of solar power.
In the U.S., the renewable winner may not be necessarily who you think, according to the Washington Post. The EIA now has a map showing a large uptick in renewables between 2001 and 2011. This surge in renewables can largely be attributed to state renewable portfolio standards requiring utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, federal production tax credits and stimulus grants. The stimulus grants have expired; the tax credit for wind will expire at the end of 2012. The Guardian reports there is an effort underway by conservative think tanks in the U.S. to eliminate all government programs aimed at promoting the use of renewables.
Gasoline prices have edged off the pedal in recent days, but the Energy Information Administration this week released new data showing motorists will pay about a quarter more per gallon during peak travel season—April through September. Prices will top out at $4.01, on average, in May. The last time gasoline spiked to such levels was 2008, causing a much different reaction from motorists in part because prices had shot up 35 percent in just six months.
While escalating gasoline prices are driving some folks to hybrid dealerships, only a few models offer a speedy return on investment. With the exception of the Prius and Lincoln MKZ, and the clean-diesel Volkswagen Jetta TDI, most clean-car technologies take more than a decade to pay owners back.
Rising oil prices are feeding a population boom in North Dakota, with the town of Williston holding the distinction of fastest-growing town after its population rose 8.8 percent in about a year. Economists surveyed by CNNMoney say the economy can handle the current high oil prices of around $100 a barrel, but that a further spike in oil prices triggered by a confrontation with Iran could be one of the biggest threats to the economy.
Smoggy City Makes Strides in Clean Air
Mexico City only a few years ago rivaled Los Angeles and Houston as a smog capital, but thanks to air-scrubbing innovations such as vertical gardens and a popular bicycle sharing program, the city is becoming a leader in green efforts. Although California is slipping in the smog and air toxics categories, the state topped a list ranking states’ preparedness to address such challenges as rising sea levels that a warming world portends. Alaska, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin also ranked high.
Realclimate.org reports that scientists’ predictions about human-caused climate change pushing the mercury up were on target. What’s more, a warming planet may be bad for bunnies threatened by the loss of sagebrush habitat and snow, where they hide from predators. Tennessee, meanwhile, enacted a law that would let teachers challenge climate change and evolution in the classroom.
Energy vs. Environment
A new slate of clean- and renewable-energy initiatives—part of the long-term “Operational Energy Strategy” aimed at reducing the military’s dependence on fossil fuels—was announced this week. The Obama administration aims to build three gigawatts of solar, wind and geothermal power capacity on U.S. military installations by 2025. The Army, meanwhile, is building fuel cell and hybrid vehicles.
Actor Matt Damon has signed on to “The Promised Land” a film critical of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Meanwhile, promoters of the pro-fracking film “FrackNation” are raising funds on Kickstarter. Outside of Hollywood, the Department of the Interior is poised to propose guidelines governing fracking on public lands. For those opposed to fracking for fear that natural gas will diminish demand for renewables, the Center for American Progress says that in the long term, the two are not necessarily in opposition, with renewables becoming increasingly competitive as natural gas production nears a peak sooner than some might predict.
A new energy poll says 61 percent of Americans said they’d be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate backing more natural gas. The same study concludes many Americans—six out of 10—are unfamiliar with hydraulic fracturing.
Payouts related to the BP oil spill, the largest in history, have recently increased four-fold. Texas, a recipient of some of the funds, announced plans to spend its money on long-term coastal conservation. Oil drilling in the Gulf is expected to see its biggest year since the 2010 spill, with predictions for eight more oil rigs, even though signs of the disaster’s effect on the environment still remain.
India has forbidden its airlines from complying with a European Union law that went into effect Jan. 1 that charges airlines using European airports for their carbon emissions. Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan called the requirement a “deal-breaker” for global climate change talks.
Scientists have finally extracted sunlight from cucumbers. No, not really, but in a 2011 essay Vaclav Smil used the fictional cukes from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels to make a point about today’s serial infatuations with “it” technologies—simple solutions to complex energy problems. Bloomberg’s Eric Roston suggests that President Obama’s “all of the above” strategy—which consists of various “it” technologies—would do well to “focus not on our infatuations with particular energy sources but on the market in which they operate.”
Washington, D.C.’s famed cherry blossoms—now celebrating their centennial—decided to spring one on visitors, peaking well before the arrival of most Cherry Blossom Festival–goers. Spring’s forward leap is also causing coupling confusion among flowers and pollinators.
Above-average temperatures are responsible for these early blooms, marking this the fourth warmest winter on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA predicts the warm streak will continue for the next three months—particularly in the already steamy southern states of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Several newly released studies make the connection between this extreme weather and man-made heat-trapping pollution, says blogger Theo Spencer. Updated records of global temperatures, meanwhile, indicate the world has warmed by around 0.75 Celsius since 1900.
These warming temperatures may also be putting some five million people in the United States at risk for increased coastal flooding, according to a new Climate Central study. South Florida, southern Louisiana, and the Carolinas top the list of states with the most land to lose if sea level rises one meter. By the end of the century rising seas could cost near $2 trillion if temperatures keep rising. Nearly $1.4 trillion in costs could be avoided, Reuters reports, if temperature increases were limited to near 2 degrees Celsius.
And with the spring thaw comes reports of the ongoing melting of Arctic sea ice, opening new shipping lanes in the harsh region. One agency is looking for ways to use underwater sensors to handle the increased activity without harming the environment.
Cheap Natural Gas, Costly Crude
Mild temperatures are also driving natural gas futures lower, with prices hovering around their ten-year low. The dip in natural gas prices is bad news for investors, but good for farmers who will get an extra boost in the form of low fertilizer prices, says Forbes.
While the shale boom and warmer Eastern climes are causing natural gas prices to plummet, the upward march at the gasoline pump continues unabated. According to AAA, gasoline is over $4 a gallon in seven states—Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New York and Washington—as well as the District of Columbia. A statistical analysis of 36 years of monthly gas prices and domestic oil production by the Associated Press revealed there is no link between U.S. oil production and gas prices at the pump. Meanwhile a new survey finds a number of academic economists say market forces, not government policy, account for changes in gasoline prices.
The high prices, up more than 17 percent this year, are taking a toll on consumer confidence, nudging sales of electric motorcycles, raising the price of hybrids and causing an uneasiness in the markets.
President’s Energy Tour
A new poll suggests persistently high gasoline prices are eroding President Obama’s public approval numbers. The White House points to new Energy Information Administration data to say the president is doing more than enough to produce energy on federal lands, while others—citing the same data—claim he is doing too little.
To underscore his efforts, the president set out on a four state, two-day tour that wraps up today in Cushing, Okla. Politico reports the President will sign a directive expediting permits for the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline in Cushing—where the southern pipeline is slated to begin. Midwest oil hits a bottleneck in Cushing on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, according to CNN.
Signing the permit is a move sure to be unpopular with environmental groups and Obama faces a taste of green anger today in Columbus, Ohio, where he’s concluding his tour with an address at Ohio State University. Students, including some former Obama campaign workers, are planning a rally to push the president away from fossil fuels, according to 350.org. However, a new a Gallup poll released today shows 57 percent of Americans support the Keystone pipeline
In Cushing, Obama will also be talking about his commitment to domestic energy production—dubbed the “all of the above” energy strategy. Author Bill McKibben blasts this strategy: “Burning all the oil you can and then putting up a solar panel is like drinking six martinis at lunch and then downing a VitaminWater.” Others oppose it for different reasons: the National Review’s Jim Geraghty says it “rejects many options,” while Allen Schaeffer of the Diesel Technology Forum worries about policies “that clearly prioritize favored energy sources over other energy sources.”
In a major speech on energy at the University of Miami, President Obama said rising gasoline prices are a “painful reminder” of the need for alternatives. He was on the offensive, trying to counter criticisms of the GOP presidential candidates—including Newt Gingrich, who promised he’d get gasoline down to $2.50 a gallon.
Countering calls to “drill, baby, drill,” Obama called the GOP candidates’ ideas “bumper sticker” strategies, “not a plan.” Reiterating his call for an end to oil and gas tax breaks, Obama called them “outrageous” and “inexcusable.”
Also, some Democrats called for dipping into the U.S. strategic oil reserves to try to bring down prices. However, this notion seemed based on the misconception that the availability of oil in the U.S. has a big influence on the price.
Rising oil prices, argued Bloomberg columnist Caroline Baum, “tap into a barrel of nonsense,” making people “go all wobbly in the head.” Backing up that idea is Media Matters’ laundry list of misconceptions common in energy reporting, which concluded that the only way to become less vulnerable to oil price spikes is to “use less oil. Period.”
Move To Natural Gas—But Will It Help?
In his speech, Obama announced a new $30 million research grant to boost the number of vehicles running on natural gas.
This push for natural gas vehicles is “the hottest energy fad in Washington” according to a Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Boone-Doggle,” since the fad has been spurred in part by petroleum billionaire T. Boone Pickens and his “Pickens Plan.”
Two former U.S. officials argued for a twist on the natural gas vehicle, calling for cars that can run on methanol, an alcohol that can be “efficiently and inexpensively produced from natural gas,” according to an MIT report.
Globally, natural gas vehicles have increased exponentially, with most of the growth in the past decade in Asia and Latin America.
However, a new climate modeling study by Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft, found that switching from coal to natural gas would do little to slow global warming.
Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, a bipartisan group of current and former Congressmen, called for taxes on greenhouse gas emissions as a way to fight climate change, lower oil imports and raise revenue that could help spur clean energy industries and reduce the debt. Beyond the authors of this op-ed, there may be further bipartisan support for such a plan.
EPA Greenhouse Gas Limits Face Appeals Court
In federal court this week, energy industry groups challenged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its move to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
One line of argument being used is the science on climate change is not settled, so the EPA should not be allowed to regulate greenhouse gases. By putting climate science on trial, it’s been dubbed the “Scopes trial for climate change.”
The plaintiffs are also arguing that in issuing the “tailoring rule,” which limits greenhouse gas rules only to the biggest emitters, the EPA overstepped its bounds.
The judge hearing the case found the tailoring argument strange, saying that if the alleged harm is regulatory burden, but the remedy is a heavier regulatory burden, then the plaintiffs’ argument “doesn’t even make good nonsense.”
Gene Therapy for Climate Change
Climate Central lampooned geoengineering—ideas for planetary-scale projects to cool Earth—with its own set of not-so-serious proposals, including giving Maalox to livestock.
A research project at the Mote Marine Laboratory sounds like it might be another of these far-fetched plans, but it’s for real. A geneticist is investigating gene therapy for coral reefs—or, more specifically, for the bacteria that live symbiotically with the corals—to help them adapt to climate change.
A top climate researcher—Peter Gleick, head of the Pacific Institute—admitted he lied to obtain documents from the Heartland Institute, which he then leaked to media and revealed the organization’s plans to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change.
His admission has triggered an ethics debate in the climate community, with ethics expert Dale Jamieson calling Gleick’s actions “unethical” but adding, “relative to what has been going on on the climate denial side, this is a fairly small breach of ethics.”
Cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky argued that “revealing to the public the active, vicious, and well-funded campaign of denial … likely constitutes a classic public good,” against which the ethics of Gleick’s deception have to be weighed.
The president of the AGU said the organization was disappointed with Gleick, whose actions were “inconsistent with our organization’s values.” NASA climate researcher Gavin Schmidt said “Gleick’s actions were completely irresponsible.” Bryan Walsh of Time argued Gleick’s actions “have hurt … the cause of climate science.”
In the U.K., a freedom of information act request for details on the funder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate change skeptic group, was denied by a court on the grounds the foundation is not influential enough.
PTC Could Equal Permanent Tax Credit
The Production Tax Credit (PTC) that aids wind energy is set to expire at the end of 2012, but some legislators are fighting to save it, with Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado arguing that “every minute counts” in trying to forge a deal.
To avoid such struggles over regular renewals of the PTC, President Obama proposed a new corporate taxation plan that would make the subsidies permanent, as well as make permanent a research-and-experimentation tax credit that expired Jan. 1.
High Oil Prices a Drag
Since the start of the year, oil prices have been on the rise, putting a drag on economic recovery in the U.S., pushing up consumer prices and causing overall inflation—risking a repeat of early 2011, when high oil prices nearly pushed the country back into recession.
President Obama was scheduled to speak about the issue Thursday, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the rise in prices—despite a drop in domestic consumption and rise in production—“tells you that there are other things beyond our control.”
The threat high oil prices pose to economies across developed countries could trigger the International Energy Agency to release more oil from strategic reserves, as was done in spring 2011, argued Reuters analyst John Kemp.
The rising oil prices have U.S. consumers wondering why. The prices, experts said, have stayed high because of rising consumption in emerging markets, as well as the threat that Iran’s oil exports may be cut off. An International Energy Agency official said that other countries would be able to make up for a loss of Iran’s exports, which had been 2.2 million barrels a day, and to boost production, Saudi Arabia may restart its oldest oil field.
In response to the European Union’s decision to embargo Iranian oil, Iran halted oil shipments to Britain and France, and possibly other European countries. Major shipping countries are refusing to pick up Iranian oil, with one shipping executive saying it would be like “getting leprosy.”
GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said he would get gasoline down to $2.50 a gallon. However Bryan Walsh said no president can deliver that—at least without making the U.S. economy tank.
Tar Sands Tussle
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require approval of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry diluted tar sands from Canada to Texas, which President Obama had earlier nixed.
The European Union held a vote on whether to ban imports of oil made from Canadian tar sands, but it ended in a deadlock.
The amount of tar sands is small compared with the amount of natural gas and coal in the world, so the tar sands alone don’t pose a major threat to the climate, argued a study in Nature Climate Change.
Some took this to mean that Canada’s tar sands are “not so dirty after all.” However, study leader Andrew Weaver—a climate modeler at the University of Victoria in Canada—argued that use of tar sands is “a symptom of the bigger problem of our dependence on fossil fuels,” and policy makers should avoid commitments to infrastructure supporting fossil fuel dependence.
Meanwhile, another study of tar sands sites found levels of air pollution—in particular nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide—were comparable to air above a large power plant.
Small Feet, Large Footprint
A new report on the carbon footprint of a diminutive creature—shrimp—shows they’re worse than cattle, at least when raised in aquaculture. When coastal mangrove forests are cleared to create shrimp farms, it’s the “the equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture,” said study leader Boone Kauffman.