Just weeks before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was scheduled to hear challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, a rule intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants, the court announced it will push the hearing back four months and hear the case before the entire court.
Originally planned for June 2 before a three-judge panel, the hearing was postponed to Sept. 27 and will now take place in front of a full bench. The rare “en banc” review is allowed by procedural rules when the case involves a question of exceptional importance. According to The Washington Post, the decision to pursue such a review appears to be on the court’s own initiative. The move to skip the customary three-panel review, as was the case in 2001’s U.S. v. Microsoft, is almost unheard of and could signal that the judges feel the issues of the case are so significant that they all must weigh in.
“The court has anticipated, obviously, the significance of whatever the panel would say and the related likelihood that it would end up en banc. They’ve basically truncated that process,” Richard Lazarus, a Harvard Law School professor, told Bloomberg BNA.
The order follows an announcement by the D.C. Circuit last year that it would hear the Clean Power Plan on an expedited schedule and a stay on implementation of the plan in February by the U.S. Supreme Court while the lower court determines its legality.
Even so, some indicate the change may actually speed up the final resolution of the case.
“It definitely shortens the time period for this to get to the Supreme Court,” said Dorsey & Whitney Attorney James Rubin (subscription). “This does show that there is recognition for the need to move this forward. It’ll speed things up to some extent.”
EPA Targets Oil and Gas Industry Methane Emissions
The EPA has taken the first-ever steps under the Clean Air Act to regulate oil and gas industry emissions of methane, announcing a new rule aimed at new or modified oil and natural gas wells. The EPA said the regulations, which the EPA proposed last year, would lower methane emissions by 510,000 short tons—the equivalent of 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—in 2025, the year by which the Obama administration’s goal is to reduce the sector’s methane emissions by at least 40 percent compared with 2012 levels.
The rules will require energy companies to provide pollution information to the EPA so it can regulate methane emissions from existing oil and gas wells.
To begin regulating methane leaks from existing oil and gas wells, the EPA is requiring energy companies to notify the agency about their emissions and leak-stopping technology. The information request is expected to be finalized later this year and data collection from the industry, early next year.
According to the EPA, pound for pound, the impact of methane on climate change is “more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.”
Climate Negotiators Meet in Germany to Make Implementation Plan for Paris Agreement
Climate negotiators met in Bonn, Germany, for the first official meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change since the Paris Agreement last year.
A note to Bonn participants stresses the importance of shifting from negotiation to implementation of the landmark agreement—whereby more than 190 countries pledged to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. More than 175 countries have signed the agreement.
The challenge ahead, writes French Environment Minister Segolene Royal and Morocco’s Foreign Prime Minister Salaheddine Mezouar, the previous Paris COP21 president and incoming COP22 president, is to “operationalize the Paris agreement: to turn intended nationally determined contributions into public policies and investment plans for mitigation and adaptation and to deliver on our promises.”
The two-week meeting is expected to produce an agenda for the ad-hoc working group tasked with implementing the Paris Agreement.
Addressing delegates at the start of the meeting, retiring U.N. climate director Christiana Figueres said “The whole world is united in its commitment to the global goals embodied in the Paris Agreement. Now we must design the details of the path to the safe, prosperous and climate-neutral future to which we all aspire.”
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.
A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters finds that five of the uninhabitated Solomon Islands have submerged underwater and six more have experienced dramatic shoreline reductions due to man-made climate change. The study by a team of Australian researchers offers scientific evidence confirming anecdotal accounts of climate change impacts on Pacific islands. That evidence consists in part of radiocarbon tree dating and of aerial and satellite images of 33 islands dating back to 1947.
According to the study authors, the Western Pacific, where residents in many remote communities must constantly climb to higher elevations, is a hotspot for tracking sea-level rise.
The Solomon Islands have experienced nearly three times the global average of sea-level rise, 7–10 millimeters per year since 1993—rates consistent with those that can be expected across much of the Pacific in the second half of this century, reported Scientific American.
Previous research had attributed Pacific island shoreline changes to a mix of extreme events, seawalls, and inappropriate coastal development as well as sea-level rise. But the new study directly links island loss to climate-related phenomena.
Human disturbances, plate tectonics, hurricanes, and waves can mask the effects of climate change. So to hone in on those effects, the researchers studied islands with no human habitation—Nuatambu Island being the one notable exception.
“Rates of shoreline recession are substantially higher in areas exposed to high wave energy, indicating a synergistic interaction between sea-level rise and waves,” the study authors said. “Understanding these local factors that increase the susceptibility of islands to coastal erosion is critical to guide adaptation responses for these remote Pacific communities.”
U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions Fall But Global CO2 Concentrations Rise
The Energy Information Administration (EIA), which released the data, attributed the decline largely to “decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.” Such fuel use changes, the EIA reports, accounted for 68 percent of total energy-related carbon dioxide reductions from 2005 to 2015.
Meanwhile, carbon dioxide concentrations at a remote Australia monitoring station—Cape Grim—are poised to hit a new high of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide for the first time in a few weeks. Though that mark is largely symbolic, the United Nations suggests that concentrations of all greenhouse gases should not be allowed to peak higher than 450 ppm this century to maximize chances of limiting global temperature rise.
“We wouldn’t have expected to reach the 400 ppm mark so early,” said David Etheridge, an atmospheric scientist with Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which runs the station. “With El Nino, the ocean essentially caps off its ability to take up heat so the concentrations are growing fast as warmer land areas release carbon. So we would have otherwise expected it to happen later in the year.”
The first 400 ppm milestone was hit in 2013 by a monitoring station in Mauna Loa. Cape Grim and Mauna Loa are among the stations that measure baseline carbon dioxide across the world. Their readings are unaffected by regional pollutions sources that would contaminate air quality.
Companies Relinquish Arctic Drilling Leases
The region is estimated to hold 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but tapping these resources has come at great risk for companies.
“Given the current environment, our prospects in the Chukchi Sea are not competitive within our portfolio,” said ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Natalie Lowman. “This will effectively eliminate any near-term plans for Chukchi exploration for the company.”
Marketplace reports that data secured through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that Shell, ConocoPhillips, Eni and Iona Energy have renounced all but one of their leases in the Chukchi Sea—meaning 80 percent of all area in the American Arctic leased in a 2008 sale has or will be abandoned.
Shell Spokesman Curtis Smith said “After extensive consideration and evaluation, Shell will relinquish all but one of its federal offshore leases in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Separate evaluations are underway for our federal offshore leases in the Beaufort Sea. This action is consistent with our earlier decision not to explore offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future.”
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments Thursday in a set of cases (Murray Energy v. EPA and West Virginia v. EPA) challenging the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to limit greenhouse gases from existing power plants under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. There was skepticism from at least two of the three judge panel about whether they could hear a challenge before the rule is finalized. Judges Griffith and Kavanaugh both questioned whether the rulemaking was “extraordinary” and requiring of immediate court review.
Whether the court decides to review the proposed rule or not, the argument also previewed future challenges claiming the EPA misused sections of the Clean Air Act to regulate pollution. The plaintiffs—a coalition of coal-producing states and a coal company—argue that the EPA rules violate the Clean Air Act’s language limiting regulation of the facilities for pollutants to just one section of the law. A drafting error in 1990 created conflicting language between the House and Senate versions that was never resolved, with the House limiting regulation under section 111(d) to those facilities that were not regulated otherwise, and the Senate limiting regulation only to those pollutants that were not otherwise regulated. The EPA claims that it has discretion to resolve such a conflict of language in the way it has proposed.
Obama Proposes New Offshore Drilling Rules
As the five-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico nears, the Obama administration is proposing dozens of rules aimed at strengthening oversight of offshore drilling equipment to ensure that wells can be sealed in emergency situations.
The draft rules would impose tougher standards on equipment designed to maintain well control (such as the blowout preventer that malfunctioned in the BP spill), require real-time monitoring of drilling in deep-water and high-pressure conditions, and establish annual third-part reviews of repair records.
“Both industry and government have taken important strides to better protect human lives and the environment from oil spills, and these proposed measures are designed to further build on critical lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and to ensure that offshore operations are safe,” said U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (subscription).
Carbon Emissions from Permafrost: Good and Bad News
A new study in the journal Nature warns that a warming climate can induce environmental changes that hasten the microbial breakdown of organic carbon stored in permafrost (frozen soils) within the Artic and sub-Artic regions, releasing carbon dioxide and methane—a feedback that can accelerate climate change. Although a sudden or catastrophic release of these greenhouse gases from the top three meters of global permafrost soil and Arctic river deltas is unlikely, the projected release of 5–15 percent of an estimated 1,330–1,580 gigatons—equaling an extra 0.13 to 0.27 degrees Celsius of warming—by 2100 is troubling given the tight carbon budget to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.
The study’s authors said that target likely will be overshot if the Arctic’s soil carbon stores are not accurately incorporated into climate models used by policy makers to decide how to mitigate missions and limit global warming.
“If society’s goal is to try to keep the rise in global temperatures under 2 degrees C and we haven’t taken permafrost carbon release into account in terms of mitigation efforts, then we might underestimate that amount of mitigation effort required to reach that goal,” said study co-author David McGuire.
Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was aware of the potential for permafrost emissions, it didn’t factor them into its most recent major report because estimates from earlier studies were considered uncertain and unreliable.
According to McGuire, data from his team’s syntheses do not support a hypothesized permafrost carbon bomb. “What our syntheses do show,” McGuire said, “is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle.”
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.
“Ambitious and achievable” is how the White House described its formal emissions reduction pledge—a cut of 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025—to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in preparation for negotiation of a binding climate agreement in Paris in December. Opinion about the aptness of the two adjectives was, predictably, mixed.
The U.S. pledge follows on the heels of a U.S. agreement to form a joint task force on climate policy co-operation with Mexico, which has become the first developing nation to formally announce its greenhouse gas emissions reductions ahead of Paris—25 percent by 2030.
The only other countries to meet an informal March 31 deadline to declare formal plans to the UNFCCC for voluntary greenhouse gas emissions cuts—so-called intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs)—were the 28-nation European Union, Switzerland, Norway, and, at the midnight hour, Russia, which said it would cut its emissions by as much as 30 percent from 1990 levels. Gabon submitted its pledge April 1.
The delay in INDC pledges by the vast majority of the world’s countries complicates negotiation of a global climate change agreement in Paris in December, Reuters reports. The lag will shrink the time that other countries have to assess whether they will meet others’ offers, potentially leading to a “last-minute pile-up” like the one that scuttled climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009.
The U.S. target will entail a substantial ramp-up in reductions. According to the U.S. INDC, “Achieving the 2025 target will require a further emission reduction of 9–11 percent beyond our 2020 target compared to the 2005 baseline and a substantial acceleration of the 2005–2020 annual pace of reduction, to 2.3–2.8 percent per year, or an approximate doubling.”
Some of the required efforts have been launched or proposed: increased fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, methane limits for energy production, cuts in federal government emissions, and pollution rules for power plants. The U.S. INDC outlined no plans to meet INDC targets through international carbon trading, but it does suggest that agricultural land use and carbon sinks such as forests will play some role in achieving the targets.
According to the international analysis group Climate Action Tracker, “The U.S. will need to implement additional policies to reach its proposed targets. The planned policies (such as the targets in the Climate Action Plan), if fully implemented, are sufficient to meet the 2020 pledge [a 17 percent reduction in 2005 emissions levels by 2020]. Additional policies will have to be implemented to reach the 2025 pledge.”
Arctic Oil Exploration
“To remain globally competitive and to be positioned to provide global leadership and influence in the Arctic, the U.S. should facilitate exploration in the offshore Alaskan Arctic now,” the study’s authors wrote.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Arctic contains an estimated 13 percent of all oil resources and up to 30 percent of all natural gas resources on the planet [measured in terms undiscovered conventional energy resources]. According to the NPC report, if drilling began now in Alaska and continued into 2030 or 2040, Arctic production would help sustain domestic supplies if shale and tight oils decline in the lower 48 states.
The report was released just days before the U.S. Department of the Interior reaffirmed a 2008 auction of Arctic drilling rights, giving Royal Dutch Shell the go-ahead to restart oil exploration in the Alaskan Artic. Despite that news, the National Geographic reports that three factors—permits, safety concerns, and oil reserve amounts—could still slow Arctic drilling.
Report: Renewables Could Help States Meet Clean Power Plan Requirements
The American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association think renewables have potential. Their new handbook details how states can incorporate renewable energy to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act by establishing state-by-state emissions rate goals for affected fossil fuel-fired power plants.
How much and how fast the Clean Power Plan could help renewable energy development depends on a laundry list of technical and policy questions involving the EPA’s final rule (subscription).
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 U.S.-India climate agreement announced January 25 creates a new agreement between the second- and third-largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world but does not have the strength of the U.S.-China climate deal reached last year. Rather than committing India to cap its emissions, the U.S.-India deal called for “enhancing bilateral climate change cooperation” in advance of the United Nations effort to reach an international agreement on emissions and finance in Paris in December.
Specifically, the deal calls for cooperation on reducing emissions of fluorinated gases and beefing up India’s promotion of clean energy investment. The two countries also renewed their commitment to the U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, extending by five years funding for research on advanced biofuels, solar energy, and building energy efficiency as well as launching new research on smart grid and grid storage technology.
“It’s my feeling that the agreement that has been concluded between the United States and China does not impose any pressure on us,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding, “But there is pressure. When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure. Climate change itself is a huge pressure. Global warming is a huge pressure.”
The agreements have not bridged the gap in the two countries’ perspectives on UN climate talks: the United States wants major emitters to take legal responsibility for climate change action, but India argues that the United States and other developed countries have not followed through on their own pledges and should not demand that developing countries take on new emissions reductions responsibilities.
President Moves to Shut Artic National Wildlife Refuge to Oil Drilling
While proposing to open portions of the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas extraction, an Obama administration plan would prohibit energy development on nearly 10 million acres off the Alaskan coast. The administration has also proposed setting aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, squashing opportunities for oil exploration there.
Less than 40 percent of the refuge currently has the wilderness designation, the highest level of protection available for public lands. The president’s plan would block efforts to drill for oil on a 1.5-million-acre portion of the refuge thought to contain up to 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum.
In a press conference, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that President Obama has declared “war” on her state. “The fight is on and we are not backing down.”
In a White House blog post, John Podesta a counselor to the president and Mike Boots, leader of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, noted that the United States today is the world’s number-one producer of oil and natural gas and that the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge “is too precious to put at risk” of an oil-related accident. “By designating the area as wilderness, Congress could preserve the Coastal Plain in perpetuity—ensuring that this wild, free, beautiful, and bountiful place remains in trust for Alaska Natives and for all Americans.”
Increasing Frequency of La Niñas Attributed to Climate Change
A new climate modeling study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that by century’s end human-caused climate change will double the frequency of La Niñas—weather patterns associated with a temperature drop in the central Pacific Ocean—resulting in floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events.
Extreme La Niña events might be experienced about every 13 years, rather than every 23 years, as they are now, but not like clockwork, according to lead study author Wenju Cai, a climate scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Aspendale, Australia. “We’re only saying that on average, we expect to get one every 13 years,” said Cai. “We cannot predict exactly when they will happen, but we suggest that on average, we are going to get more.”
The study finds that powerful La Niñas will immediately follow intense El Niños, causing weather patterns to alternate between wet and dry extremes.
“No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” said President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address.
“The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate,” he said, “and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”
To combat climate change, the president said the government had taken actions ranging from the way we produce energy to the way we use it. Although he did not mention his use of executive power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, he did highlight the landmark agreement with China to cut greenhouse gases. “In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”
Early in the speech, the president referenced the twin goals of reducing dependence on foreign oil and protecting the planet. “Today, America is number one in oil and gas,” he said. “America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.”
The president obliquely alluded to the Keystone pipeline, which would carry oil from Canadian tar sands to the United States, by noting the need to take a comprehensive look at infrastructure development.
In the GOP response to the SOTU, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst admonished the president for stalling a decision on Keystone.
“President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it,” she said. “The president’s own State Department has said Keystone’s construction could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy, and do it with minimal environmental impact.”
2014 Hottest Year on Record
Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirm that 2014 was the hottest year on record and the 18th consecutive year that annual average temperatures have exceeded the previous century’s average.
A few of the 21 scientists interviewed by the Washington Post about 2014’s average global surface temperature of 58.24 F (14.58 C) noted that warming has not kept pace with climate model projections, but most thought the record matches what we should expect as heat-trapping greenhouse gases increasingly accrue in the atmosphere.
“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. “While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”
The University of Illinois’ Don Wuebbles, a contributor to multiple reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, told a Forbes reporter, “We can safely say it’s probably the warmest year in 1,700 and 2,000 years.”
The most remarkable thing about the 2014 record, say climate experts, was that it occurred in a year without a strong El Niño, a large-scale weather pattern in which the Pacific Ocean pumps heat into the atmosphere.
States Get Help Meeting Clean Power Plan Targets
States are getting a $48 million boost to their efforts to meet emissions reductions targets for existing power plants under the Clean Power Plan. Bloomberg Philanthropies and the California Heising-Simons family announced the grants to “accelerate” a transition to cleaner energy.
“With the price of clean power falling, and the potential costs of inaction on climate change steadily rising, the work of modernizing America’s power grid is both more feasible and urgent than ever,” said former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “But smart investments can reduce it while also strengthening local economies.”
Rather than going directly to states, the grants provided by the Clean Energy Initiative will support organizations that can help states with their energy planning, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. But the bulk of the money for technical assistance, including economic forecasting and legal analysis, will go to groups with a state or regional focus.
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.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is delaying the release of carbon emissions rules for all power plants and will publish them for new as well as existing plants at the same time mid-summer.
“It’s become clear to us … that there are cross-cutting topics that affect the standards for new sources, for modified sources and for existing sources, and we believe it’s essential to consider these overlapping issues in a coordinated fashion,” said Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting administrator for air quality.
McCabe also announced that the EPA will begin drafting a “model rule” for states that do not submit individual plans to meet emissions reduction targets in the existing power plant regulations.
Under the proposed regulations for new sources, the EPA has functionally required new coal power plants to include carbon-capture technology, which critics of the emissions rules say lack proof of efficacy on a large scale and have a high cost to implement. In 2011, the American Electric Power Company reported that including carbon-storing processes at a West Virginia plant would cost an estimated $668 million.
California Cap-and-Trade System Includes Oil and Gas Sector
California’s cap-and-trade program—the country’s first multi-sector carbon emissions trading program—now requires gasoline and diesel producers to supply lower-carbon fuels or to buy carbon allowances—pollution permits—for the greenhouse gases emitted when those fuels are burned.
Key program stakeholders, industry leaders, public officials and environmental advocates agree that consumers will see a rise in gas prices, but the amount remains uncertain.
“There’s a very large universe of variables which could affect gas prices on a daily basis, and we don’t set fuel prices,” said California Air Resources Board spokesperson Dave Clegern. He added, “We don’t see them going up more than a dime, at the most, based on any current cap-and-trade compliance costs.”
It is estimated that 25 percent of secured funds from the emissions trading program will be allotted to the state’s high-speed rail project.
California’s program includes an allowance reserve initially proposed by Nicholas Institute and Duke University researchers that prevents carbon allowance prices from reaching levels beyond the scope of purchasers.
Congress Prepare to Vote on Keystone XL Pipeline
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has cleared legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver some 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. But White House press secretary Josh Earnest, citing the Obama administration’s “well-established” review process, said, “If this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it.”
The pipeline has become a flash point in the debate over climate change and economic growth.
In a December 19 press conference, the president said, “I want to make sure that if in fact this project goes forward, that it’s not adding to the problem of climate change, which I think is very serious and does impose serious costs on the American people, some of them long term, but significant costs nonetheless.”
Critics of Keystone have pointed to the carbon intensive production of the crude it will carry. In an op-ed in The Hill, the new president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rheh Suh, called production of oil from Canadian tar sands an “environmental disaster.”
Supporters argue that Keystone will be a source of economic stimulus. In a statement, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said, “After six years of foot-dragging, it’s time to finally say yes to jobs and yes to energy. It’s time to build [this pipeline].”
Optimism at the outset of the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference twentieth Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru, has given way to the hard work of reaching high-level resolution prior to the December 2015 UN meeting in Paris.
Among the challenges is disagreement about regular auditing of carbon emission pledges. The European Union insists on a formal review of all country pledges, whereas the United States recommends a voluntary approach to emissions cuts with the disclaimer of no backtracking in targets. “You could assign every country a particular reduction that on paper looks like a perfect result and then you can’t get agreement on it,” said Todd Stern, United States Special Envoy for Climate Change. “This is a way to get everyone in.”
Another challenge is differentiating the responsibilities of developed countries and those of developing countries. China, Brazil, India, and South Africa, which have coordinated their positions at the Lima talks, want to make sure the potential new agreement will allow poorer nations to meet their prevalent needs such as poverty eradication. “Poor people have aspirations,” said India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. “We must give them energy access.”
Host country Peru, along with other Latin American nations (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama), is pushing for aggressive emission cuts by major economies as well as emerging economies such as China and Brazil. However, critics are quick to point out the country’s poor record in protecting rainforests, which play a critical role as carbon sinks.
Struggling through hammering rainfall from Typhoon Hagupit, the Philippines are asking for all nations, developing and developed, to cut use of fossil fuels.
“The thinking of the pivot is—we’re going to take on commitments and do our part,” said Tony La Viña, a Philippine climate change delegate. “The call has always been for developed countries to act. But the thinking is simple. If we’re going to get hit every year again and again, how can we call on developed countries to reduce their emissions, but not reduce our own?”
A new UN report showing climate adaptation costs for developing countries could be two to three times higher than current global estimates makes the 2050 zero-carbon goal another contentious issue. Meeting this goal would significantly affect oil and gas production as well as coal extraction methods. “With a concept like zero emissions and ‘let’s knock fossil fuels out of the picture’, without clear technology diffusion and international cooperation program, you are really not helping the process,” said chief Saudi Arabian negotiator Khalid AbuLeif.
Emissions Reduction Pledges Underscore Importance of Social Cost of Carbon Estimates
The Climate Action Tracker report released by a group of independent scientists notes that recent pledges by the United States, China and the European Union to limit greenhouse gas emissions will, in fact, slow the rate of global warming this century, though not enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit).
Draft text of the 2015 global climate change agreement being negotiated in Lima includes a May 3, 2015, deadline for nationally determined contributions—promises from individual countries for internal action on climate change. Figuring into these commitments are estimates of the social cost of carbon, or the per-metric-ton dollar value of reducing climate change damages—a metric that the United States uses in regulatory analysis and that it and other developed countries could use to leverage greater emissions reductions commitments from developing countries.
Several economy and environmental policy experts are recommending that the government change the way (subscription) it establishes this cost. In an article in Science, former U.S. Department of the Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy and Nicholas Institute faculty fellow William Pizer and his coauthors recommend that the United States adopt a standardized process to regularly evaluate the cost and that the process undergo a public comment period and a review by the National Academy of Sciences.
Commenting on the need for a consistently used and rigorously maintained estimate of climate damages, Pizer said, “It’s important that we draw on the expertise of all government agencies, as well as independent experts in the field. This level of high-quality collaboration and peer review would decrease the likelihood of political factors interfering with the process, and ensure we have the most robust Social Cost of Carbon.”
2014—Hottest Year on Record?
A report issued by The United Nation’s World Meteorological Association says that 2014 is expected to be the hottest year on record, with global temperatures 1.03 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1961–1990 average.
“What we saw in 2014 is consistent with what we expect from a changing climate,” said Michel Jarraud, World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General. “Record-breaking heat combined with torrential rainfall and floods destroyed livelihoods and ruined lives.”
A report by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that finds that the historic California drought is due to natural weather patterns, as opposed to hot temperatures across the state, raised the ire of some climate scientists, who said the report did not take into account how record warmth worsened the drought.