U.N. Climate Conference Kicks Off Amid Reminders of Deal Urgency

November 14, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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 Celsiusfar 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 Utechformerly 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.

 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.


Hurricane Isaac Disrupts Energy Production, Stirs Old Wounds

August 30, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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


Keystone Pipeline Debate Reopens with Submission of New Application

May 10, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

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.


U.S. Energy Department: Peak Travel Season Could Cost Drivers 6% More

April 12, 2012
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.”

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.

 


Record Temperatures May Bring More Than Just Early Spring Flowers

March 22, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.”

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.

 


Rising Oil, Gasoline Prices Push Politicians and Reporters to Utter “Nonsense”

March 1, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

Natural-gas-powered trucks are becoming more popular among big fleets, refueling stations are spreading, and some companies are creating better storage tanks for compressed 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.

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 Researcher Lied to Get Documents, Triggering Ethics Debate

February 23, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

Gleick resigned from the board of the National Center on Science Education, and stepped down as chairman of the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) taskforce on scientific ethics.

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.

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


Obama Calls for “All of the Above” Energy Strategy for America

January 26, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In President Obama’s third State of the Union address, he devoted more time than before to covering energy issues, calling for an “all-out, all-of-the-above” approach to boosting production of every kind of domestic energy, fossil as well as renewable.

Obama also asked the country to imagine “a future where we’re in control of our own energy,” which seemed to be a call for energy independence, a goal set out by all U.S. presidents going back to Nixon.

He also said he supports opening up more offshore areas for exploration and development of oil and gas. The president of Shell Oil said it seems the federal government has increased its pace of issuing permits for deepwater drilling.

He also expressed support for shale gas, saying the country had natural gas supplies that could last “nearly 100 years.” However, a new analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said the country may only have about half as much shale gas as the EIA’s 2011 estimate held—and the most extensively drilled shale area, the Marcellus, was downgraded by about two-thirds. For any drilling on public lands, Obama will require companies to disclose the chemicals they use.

The result was a variety of aims that could conflict, since boosting production of fossil fuels could stymie renewable energy and boost greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change only showed up in the speech once, when Obama blamed partisan division in Congress for delaying climate legislation. He indicated there is no reason Congress shouldn’t at least set a “clean energy standard”—the kind of effort that could sharply cut emissions at low cost, according to an analysis last year by the EIA.

Changes to Taxes and Trade

Another theme in Obama’s speech was an “economy built to last,” calling for a resurgence of U.S. manufacturing. A key part of this would be clean tech, as Obama said, “I will not walk away from … clean energy.” He also touted a wind turbine manufacturer as an example of a U.S. company creating domestic jobs.

To help protect domestic jobs, he announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will investigate “unfair trade practices in countries like China,” apparently a reference to recent scuffles over China’s support for solar panel manufacturers.

Obama also argued companies should not get tax breaks for moving jobs overseas. There has been some criticism of green stimulus money supporting jobs overseas and now Evergreen Solar, the United States’ third-biggest solar panel manufacturer, announced plans to shut down its main U.S. factory and open another in China.

Obama also called for an end to tax breaks for the petroleum industry. “We have subsidized oil companies for a century,” he said. “That’s long enough.” Obama has urged such a move several times before, as has Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, who said cutting fossil fuel subsidies would get the world halfway to reaching ambitious goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

However, fuel price hikes have sparked protests—as when Italy raised taxes and Nigeria lowered subsidies.

Oil Market Ratchets Up

Meanwhile, the European Union adopted a ban on importing Iranian oil, to be phased in by July 1, to try to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

In retaliation, Iran is considering immediately ceasing oil sales to Europe, and again threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil chokepoint, leading the International Monetary Fund to warn rising tensions could cause oil prices to spike, joining a chorus of earlier warnings.

In case of a shut-down, Saudi Arabia’s leaders said oil could continue flowing through alternate routes, and make up for much of the loss of Iranian oil—also admitting a preference for oil prices to remain around $100 a barrel.

In case of such oil or gas price spikes, six Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Gas Price Spike Act to apply a windfall tax that would capture most of the revenue that goes beyond “a reasonable profit.” The money raised would help fund fuel-efficient cars and mass transit systems.

Regardless of acute geopolitical turmoil, high oil prices are here to stay, since oil’s “tipping point has passed” and the “supply of cheap oil has plateaued,” argued an article in Nature.

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.


Pleas, Hard Lines, and Accusations of Bad Faith Negotiations at Climate Talks

December 1, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In Durban, South Africa, the latest round of United Nations climate negotiations opened with a plea from South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, for countries to look beyond national interests. So far, however, the talks have been marked by many of the same divisions that plagued earlier meets.

A coalition of environmental groups—including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists—accused the U.S. of negotiating in bad faith. At the conference, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela stalled on decisions about a Green Climate Fund to pay for clean energy and climate change adaptation in poorer countries.

In response, the European Union (EU) urged a conclusion on the fund, and took the hardest stance it ever has in such negotiations, insisting on stiff conditions for China and developing countries and demanding a road map for moving forward.

Meanwhile, Canada’s environment minister called the country’s decision to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol “one of the biggest blunders” an earlier administration made since they had no intention of meeting the pledge. This led a group of African leaders to plead Canada to reconsider.

Climategate 2.0

A week before the climate talks began, a new collection of 5,000 e-mails from climate researchers surfaced, apparently part of the same set obtained and then leaked in 2009 in the so-called “Climategate” affair. Despite widespread accusations of bias and manipulation of data, the researchers involved were cleared of wrongdoing.

But the new release of the second batch of e-mails led U.S. Rep. Ed Markey to state: “This is clearly an attempt to sabotage the international climate talks for a second time.” Markey called for more intense investigation into how the e-mails were hacked. While U.K. police investigated the apparent crime before, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed the police spent little on this effort.

To try and get clues of who may have been responsible, the Guardian reached out to readers to help troll through the files and uncovered an encrypted file apparently created by the hacker.

Emissions Warning

The latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin from the World Meteorological Organization recorded an unusually large increase in the CO2 level in the air in 2010—a jump of 2.3 parts per million over the year, compared with the average over the preceding decade of 2.0 parts per million each year.

If this trend continued for the rest of the century, the world would warm some 6 degrees Celsius, warned Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

However, this forecast is at odds with other warnings the IEA has made, argued Chris Nelder of SmartPlanet—in particular, Birol’s warning that the world has reached the peak of conventional crude oil production, and that high oil prices are hampering economic growth.

Threat of “Oil Armageddon”

Oil-importing countries continued to feel the bite of high oil prices; nonetheless, this year renewable energy spending passed a milestone, topping investment for fossil power plants.

Oil prices may spike again, many analysts warned, after France urged many countries to halt Iranian oil imports, and the U.S., Britain and Canada teamed up to apply new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

However, the EU, poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest oil importer, can’t afford to refuse Iranian oil, the Wall Street Journal argued. Likewise, the U.S. had been considering sanctions, CNN reported, but hesitated because of the toll an oil price spike would likely have on the global economy. With relations between Iran and the West quickly worsening, Reuters reports oil consuming nations, hedge funds and refineries are preparing for an “oil armageddon.”

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.


Only Five Years Left to Make Transition to Low-Carbon Infrastructure

November 10, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The infrastructure built over the next five years could “lock in” enough emissions to push the world past its target for limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest annual update of energy trends, World Energy Outlook.

The Agency is “increasingly pessimistic” about the prospect for dealing with climate change, said deputy executive director Richard Jones.

To stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the world has a budget of greenhouse gases it can emit, equal to about 1 trillion tons of CO2. Infrastructure already in place, or in the process of being built, will emit about 80 percent of that, the IEA estimated.

Unless there is a binding international agreement soon to ensure a swift transition to low-carbon infrastructure, “the door to 2 degrees will be closed forever,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol. So, investment in cleantech can’t wait until economic good times, argued the Guardian’s Damian Carrington.

This transition away from fossil fuels will require that annual subsidies for renewable energy continue rising, reaching $250 billion by 2035—four times today’s level—the IEA estimated, but this would still be considerably less than today’s fossil fuel subsidies.

The IEA foresees oil prices remaining high for decades to come, with a tight market with risks of price spikes if there is a cut-off due to war or soaring prices if there is insufficient investment in oil fields.

Because of these climate and security risks, Birol argued, “We have to leave oil before it leaves us.”

Solar Trade War?

The boom in Chinese production of low-cost solar panels has hit U.S. manufacturers hard, making it difficult for them to compete.

Subsidies for renewable energy in China have sparked accusations of a trade war with the United States, prompting a U.S. Department of Commerce investigation.

Some U.S. manufacturers launched an official complaint against China, and have called for a duty on Chinese panels imported into the U.S.

Another group of U.S. solar manufacturers and installers banded together to form the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy to oppose the complaint. This led China’s largest solar power plant developer to shelve plans for a $500 million U.S. project.

Despite China’s large exports of solar panels, they’re also using many at home—and may install as much solar capacity as the U.S. this year.

Carbon Tax Approved

Australia will impose a large tax on carbon emissions, after the country’s Senate passed the legislation. The tax will kick in next July, and the country is pursuing linking its carbon market with others in New Zealand and Europe.

The system will be tax-and-dividend in which households will be compensated for higher energy prices, with payments of about 10 Australian dollars per week scheduled to start in May, before the tax hits.

Pipeline Controversy

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry tar sands from Canada to Texas faced its biggest opposition yet with a revival of protests in Washington, D.C., in which thousands of protesters encircled the White House.

Canada is also considering another tar sands pipeline called Northern Gateway to reach a port on the Pacific coast, sited for export to Asia.

Oil historian Daniel Yergin argued opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is misguided because if the U.S. doesn’t buy the fuel, China will.

Either way, the large store of tar sands in Canada could reshape world oil markets, said the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which represents large exporters such as Saudi Arabia, but does not include Canada.

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.