Climate change has entered a new phase, said the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on Monday. The WMO reported that concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) “surged again to new records in 2016,” and it predicted that the annual average for CO2 would remain above 400 parts per million (ppm), 44 percent higher than before the Industrial Revolution, for generations.
The 400 ppm threshold, a symbolic red line in the methodical march of greenhouse gas concentrations, was continuously breached for the first time in 2015—a rise driven largely by fossil fuel emissions and aided by a strong El Niño, which “triggered droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of sinks like forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2,” the WMO said. Last year’s jump in carbon dioxide was the largest annual increase on record (subscription).
“The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations.” “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not . . . Without tackling carbon dioxide emissions, we cannot tackle climate change and keep temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Paris Agreement does indeed enter into force well ahead of schedule on 4 November and that we fast-track its implementation.”
Taalas added that improvements in the climate will be seen by 2060 if countries begin to lower their carbon dioxide emissions now.
Between 1990 and 2015, Earth experienced a 37 percent increase in radiative forcing—the warming effect on the climate—because of greenhouse gases from industrial, agricultural, and domestic activities, according to the WMO.
WMO’s announcement comes within a week of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s report that found September was the 11th consecutive month to set record high temperatures.
Study: Glacier Melt in Antarctica Could Help Predict Global Sea Level Rise
A number of research studies have suggested Antarctica’s ice is melting faster than previously thought, but two new studies may help better predict future Antarctica ice loss and global sea level rise. The studies examined the Pope, Kohler, and Smith glaciers—part of the Dotson and Crosson ice shelves—in West Antarctica.
“Our primary question is how the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica will contribute to sea level rise in the future, particularly following our observations of massive changes in the area over the last two decades,” said University of California Irvine’s Bernd Scheuchl, lead author on the first of the two studies published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “Using satellite data, we continue to measure the evolution of the grounding line of these glaciers, which helps us determine their stability and how much mass the glacier is gaining or losing. Our results show that the observed glaciers continue to lose mass and thus contribute to global sea level rise.”
A second study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications found that a significant portion of Antarctica is subject to “intense unbalanced melting” revealing high rates of ice loss from glaciers’ undersides. It also blames receding glacial grounding lines for the ice loss—spurred by an influx of warm ocean water beneath the ice shelves.
The glacier that saw the most melt, the study says, was Smith. It lost about 1,000 feet of ice between 2002 and 2009, which authors think is “a strong piece of evidence” that these glaciers, along with the larger Amundsen region, were subjected to a large influx of warm ocean water during that period.
“If I had been using data from only one instrument, I wouldn’t have believed what I was looking at, because the thinning was so large,” said author Ala Khazendar, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noting how the work shows how important it is to understand both the ocean circulation and seabed topography when determining future melt and sea level rise.
IEA: Significant Renewables Growth Expected by 2021
The renewable energy market is growing around the world, according to a study by the International Energy Agency (IEA). IEA raised its estimate of the amount of renewable energy on power grids 13 percent from its 2015 forecast. It forecasts a 825 gigawatt boost in capacity by 2021 (a 42 percent increase from today).
“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables and, as is the case with other fields, the center of gravity for renewable growth is moving to emerging markets,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.
The growth will mostly be driven by four countries: China, the U.S., India and Mexico. China is the leader.
“About half a million solar panels were installed every day around the world last year,” according to the report. “In China, which accounted for about half the wind additions and 40 percent of all renewable capacity increases, two wind turbines were installed every hour in 2015.”
In the United States over the next five years, renewable capacity is forecast to grow to 328.2 gigawatts from 221.1 gigawatts. During this period, solar PV is forecast to nearly triple—from 26.1 gigawatts to 77.5 gigawatts—and wind to grow nearly 71.5 percent.
“Renewables are and still remain dependent on policies … to create the right market rules and the right framework to attract investments,” said Paolo Frankl, head of the IEA’s renewable energy division.
By 2030, half of the energy produced in the state of New York will come from renewables, according to a new policy adopted Monday by the state’s public service commission. The move is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels (80 percent by 2050) and to attract billions in clean energy investment.
“New York has taken bold action to become a national leader in the clean energy economy and is taking concrete, cost-effective steps today to safeguard this state’s environment for decades to come,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combatting climate change. Make no mistake, this is a very real threat that continues to grow by the day and I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”
The plan calls for New York to retain its nuclear reactors—though The Washington Post reports that those facilities don’t count as part of the 50 percent renewables target. According to New York regulators, doing so might cost $965 million over two years but could lead to net benefits of $4 billion due to avoided carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. While supporters of this provision applaud New York’s effort to retain its emissions-free nuclear generation, opponents are likely to challenge the nuclear subsidies on the grounds they are discriminatory, hurt markets, and intrude on federal authority.
New York is not the first state to announce an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target. In April 2015, California announced it planned to cut those emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels in the same time frame with renewables increases. Like California, New York plans to phase in its renewables increase; 31 percent of its energy is to come from renewables by 2021 and 50 percent by 2030. Those targets are meant to give utilities and clean energy companies time to develop their business models.
White House to Federal Agencies: Consider Climate Change Impacts
In an action with broad implications for thousands of projects, including energy and mineral development on public lands, natural gas import and export facilities, and transportation projects, the Obama administration issued final guidance on how federal agencies should consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when conducting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (subscription).
“Focused and effective consideration of climate change in NEPA reviews will allow agencies to improve the quality of their decisions,” the guidance states. “Identifying important interactions between a changing climate and the environmental impacts from a proposed action can help Federal agencies and other decision makers identify practicable opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental outcomes, and contribute to safeguarding communities and their infrastructure against the effects of extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts.”
The guidance, the product of a six-year effort by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advises agencies to quantify projected greenhouse gas emissions of proposed federal actions whenever the necessary methodologies and data are available. It also encourages them to draw on their experience and expertise to determine the appropriate level and extent of quantitative or qualitative analysis required to comply with NEPA and to consider alternatives that would increase the climate-change resilience of the action and affected communities.
“From the public standpoint, we are now going to know what all of our decisions add up to in terms of impacting climate change,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality. “You can think of all the different federal decisions, and how they all add up. We have numbers where we can actually say, ‘this is a huge decision, given the amount of greenhouse gases coming out of it.’ And that gives the public a chance to really weigh in on decision-making.”
Several media outlets pointed out that because the White House guidance is not a regulation, agencies are not legally bound to follow it.
Clean Power Plan Analysis: National Costs Low, State Costs Varied
Wednesday marked one year since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally rolled out the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Even with the February stay by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted implementation of the plan pending resolution of legal challenges, some say the plan is having an impact while others are finding more reason to explore the legality of the rule (subscription).
Should the rule survive judicial review, a new paper by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions uses the Nicholas Institute’s Dynamic Integrated Economy/Energy/Emissions Model to evaluate Clean Power Plan impacts on the U.S. generation mix, emissions, and industry costs. It indicates that industry trends are likely to make Clean Power Plan compliance relatively inexpensive, with cost increases of 0.1 to 1.0 percent. But policy costs can vary across states, which might lead to a patchwork of policies that, although in their own best interests, could impose additional costs nationally.
“The answer is not the same for everyone in terms of what’s going to be the least-cost way for a particular state to approach this policy,” said lead author and Nicholas Institute Senior Economist Martin Ross. “Nationally, it would make the most sense to have a broadly coordinated policy where you can take advantage of the usual economic [tools] to spread the cost reductions around and pick up the most cost-effective sources for reducing emissions.”
Similar findings were presented at a conference of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Because of lower-than-expected natural gas prices, renewable power, and extended federal tax credits for that power, the country as a whole is set to meet the Clean Power Plan’s early goals, reports ClimateWire.
Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) said on Monday that Arctic sea ice cover of 5.607 million square miles on March 24 represented the lowest winter maximum since records began in 1979. That’s 5,000 square miles less than last year’s record low. Contributing to the ice extent loss were record high air temperatures and relatively warm seawater.
“It is likely that we’re going to keep seeing smaller wintertime maximums in the future because in addition to a warmer atmosphere, the ocean has also warmed up,” said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “That warmer ocean will not let the ice edge expand as far south as it used to. Although the maximum reach of the sea ice can vary a lot each year depending on winter weather conditions, we’re seeing a significant downward trend, and that’s ultimately related to the warming atmosphere and oceans.”
After this winter’s record ice lows, scientists expect the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer months in the next few decades.
“Sometime in the 2030s or 2040s time frame, at least for a few days, you won’t have ice out there in the dead of summer,” said John Walsh, chief scientist of the International Arctic Research Centre. “The balance is shifting to the point where we are not going back to the old regime of the 1980s and 1990s. Every year has had less ice cover than any summer since 2007. That is nine years in a row that you would call unprecedented. When that happens you have to start thinking that something is going on that is not letting the system go back to where it used to be.”
The effects of diminishing sea ice may not be limited to just the Arctic.
“The Arctic is in crisis,” said Ted Scambos, NSIDC lead scientist. “Year by year, it’s slipping into a new state, and it’s hard to see how that won’t have an effect on weather throughout the Northern Hemisphere.”
A new paper in the Journal of Climate linked the vanishing Arctic sea ice, along with other sea ice melting and global sea-level rise, to climate change. The authors, who used computer models and field measurements to explore whether Arctic sea ice loss has contributed to melting of the Greenland ice sheet, say that melting Arctic sea ice can block cold, dry Canadian air, increasing the flow of warm, moist air over Greenland and contributing to extreme heat events and surface ice melting. If the Greenland ice sheet completely melted, the paper says, the global sea level would rise about 20 to 23 feet.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Files Brief Defending Clean Power Plan
The D.C. Circuit is set to begin hearing oral arguments challenging the Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants—in June. On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed its defense of the Clean Power Plan, telling the court that the rule is well within the bounds of its authority (subscription). Dozens of states and industry groups last month called the rule a “breathtaking expansion” of the power Congress gave the EPA—with the Clean Air Act—to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
“The rule reflects the eminently reasonable exercise of EPA’s recognized statutory authority,” the EPA brief says. “It will achieve cost-effective [carbon dioxide] reductions from an industry that has already demonstrated its ability to comply with robust pollution-control standards through the same measures and flexible approaches. The rule fulfills both the letter and spirit of Congress’s direction.”
Renewable Energy Investment Outpaced Other Technologies: Study
Investment in renewable energy generation last year was higher than in new coal- and gas-fired power plants, according to a new report from the Frankfurt School-United Nations Environment Programme collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). In fact, renewables added more to global energy generation capacity than all other technologies combined—though they still only account for 10 percent of global electricity production.
“Global investment in renewables capacity hit a new record in 2015, far outpacing that in fossil fuel generating capacity despite falling oil, gas, and coal prices,” said Michael Liebreich, chair of the BNEF advisory board. “It has broadened out to a wider and wider array of developing countries, helped by sharply reduced costs and by the benefits of local power production over reliance on imported commodities.”
All investment in renewables—which includes new renewable energy capacity as well as early-stage technology, research and development—totaled $286 billion in 2015. That’s roughly 3 percent higher than the previous record set back in 2011.
Countries contributing some of the most to these numbers included China, which in 2015 invested $102.9 billion (a 17 percent increase from 2014), representing 36 percent of the global investment total; Chile ($3.4 billion, a 151 percent increase), India ($10.2 billion, a 22 percent increase), Mexico ($4 billion, a 105 percent increase) and South Africa ($4.5 billion, a 329 percent increase).
Human activities are the cause of this century’s record warm years, according to a study in the journal Scientific Reports.
“We find that individual record years and the observed runs of record-setting temperatures were extremely unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused climate change,” the authors say. “These same record temperatures were, by contrast, quite likely to have occurred in the presence of anthropogenic climate forcing.”
The study, written before the release of 2015 temperature data, put the odds between 1 in 770 and 1 in 10,000 that 13 of the 15 warmest years spanning from 2000 to 2014 happened without human influence (subscription). With the inclusion of 2015 temperature data, the group’s computer simulations widened those odds to between 1 in 1,250 and 1 in 13,000, lead author Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, told Reuters.
“Climate change is real, human-caused and no longer subtle—we’re seeing it play out before our eyes,” Mann said.
Mann and his co-authors ran statistical analyses of real-world measurements and comprehensive computer simulations of the climate system to distinguish human-caused climate change from natural climate variability, such as that triggered by volcanic eruptions and shifts in the sun’s output.
“2015 is again the warmest year on record, and this can hardly be by chance,” Stefan Rahmstorf, a co-author from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact in Germany, said. “Natural climate variations just can’t explain the observed recent global heat records, but man-made global warming can.”
Study: Low Electricity Costs and Low Emissions Not Mutually Exclusive
A new study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and University of Colorado Boulder researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that the United States could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation (using future anticipated costs for wind and solar) by more than 75 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2030 at approximately the same cost as 2012. The key? Using new high-voltage power lines to move renewables nationwide, eliminating the need to add new fossil fuel storage capacity.
“What the model suggests is we can get a long way, and wind and solar and natural gas can be a bridge,” said Christopher Clack of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “There is a path that could be possible to achieve those goals, and it doesn’t necessarily need to drive up costs.”
Using NOAA’s high-resolution meteorological data, the researchers built a model to evaluate future cost, demand, generation, and transmission scenarios and found that with improvements in transmission infrastructure, the wind and the sun could supply most of the nation’s electricity at costs comparable to today’s.
“The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied,” Clack said. “And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today.”
In the expected future scenario—in which renewable energy costs continue to fall while natural gas costs rise—the model predicted that the power sector could cut emissions 78 percent compared with 1990 levels at an electricity cost of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, up from 9.4 cents in 2012 (subscription). That finding is predicated on creation of a new high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission grid, which according to the authors lowers the chance of energy losses, reducing utilities’ need to amass reserves of excess capacity through natural-gas-powered generators.
“With an ‘interstate for electrons,’ renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” said Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and former director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. “An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”
Update to Social Cost of Carbon Unnecessary
A new interim report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests that there is little benefit to updating estimates of the social cost of carbon in the near term. Written by a 13-member expert panel, the report recommends ways to change federal technical support documents on the social cost of carbon to enhance estimates.
“We recommended against a near-term update to the social cost of carbon” based off the IPCC report’s finding, said Richard Newell of Duke University. Newell co-chaired the panel, which includes Sanford School Professor and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Faculty Fellow Billy Pizer.
To set an efficient market price on carbon emissions, it’s helpful to know the social cost of those emissions—that is, the estimate of the economic damages (in dollars) associated with an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, usually one metric ton, in a given year. The last revised estimate, in 2015, was $36 per metric ton of carbon dioxide.
The European Union (EU) is now the second body to submit an official climate target to the United Nations ahead of talks to reach a global climate agreement in Paris later this year. One of the world’s top emitters, the EU intends to reduce its emissions 40 percent (relative to 1990 levels) by 2030. This commitment is in addition to 2050 emissions reduction targets that a recent report published by the European Environment Agency claims may prove difficult to reach.
“The level of ambition of environmental policies currently in place to reduce environmental pressures may not enable Europe to achieve long-term environmental goals, such as the 2050 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent,” the report said. It points to a 60 percent cut in transportation emissions toward which little progress has been made.
Another study that looks at commitments by all nations to curb the effects of climate change suggests that the U.N. goal of avoiding 2 degrees Celsius of warming by century’s end is unlikely to be met. According to the authors, to attain that goal, the agreement reached in Paris must not only be based on a shared commitment to creating “equitable access to sustainable development,” but must also be structured to facilitate dynamic and collaborative interactions between parties.
Negotiators aim to complete an agreement in Paris that would go into effect in 2020. All countries are due to announce their emissions reductions plans in June in Bonn.
Droughts in the Amazon Accelerating Climate Change
A severe drought in 2010 doubled the rate of tree mortality in the Amazon rainforest, causing a 1.4 billion ton loss in the forest’s uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s the conclusion of a new study in Nature that finds droughts are causing the trees to exhale more carbon dioxide than they inhale. The authors say trees store a tenth less CO2 from the atmosphere during droughts, apparently because they are channeling their more limited energy reserves into growth.
“Here, we show for the first time that during severe drought, the rate at which they [tropical rainforests] ‘inhale’ carbon through photosynthesis can decrease,” said Christopher Doughty, one of the researchers. “This decreased uptake of carbon does not decrease growth rates but does mean an increase in tree deaths. As trees die and decompose, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase, potentially speeding up climate change during tropical droughts.”
The study provides the first direct evidence of the rate at which individual trees in the Amazonian basin absorb carbon during a severe drought. An international research team compared the growth and photosynthesis rates of trees at 13 drought-affected and non-drought-affected rainforest plots across Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. Researchers discovered that growth rates of the trees in the plots were unchanged but that photosynthesis rates on the six drought-affected plots slowed by some 10 percent over six months.
EIA Report Sees Growth in Wind, Solar
Electricity from renewable sources outpaced the growth of electricity from fossil fuel-fired plants in 2014, according to a new Energy Information Administration report. Though solar’s share of electricity production remained smaller than wind’s share, net generation of the former grew by more than 100 percent last year. Wind generation grew by 8 percent and is forecasted to grow by 16.1 percent this year and another 6.5 percent in 2016.
“Because wind is starting from a much larger base than solar, even though the growth rate is lower, the absolute amount of the increase in capacity is more than twice that of solar: 15 GW [gigawatts] of wind versus 6 GW of utility-scale solar between 2014 and 2016,” the EIA reports.
Ultimately, wind will see a net increase of 9.8 gigawatts—the most of any other power source in 2015. California and North Carolina will add the most utility-scale solar capacity to systems (73 percent combined).
“Given current growth rates, especially for solar and wind, it is quite possible that renewable energy sources will reach, or exceed, 14% of the nation’s electrical supply by the end of 2015,” noted Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “That is a level that EIA, only a few years ago, was forecasting would not be achieved until the year 2040.”
Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was told by a federal appeals court that it could move forward with implementing a program to curb air pollution that crosses state lines. The Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR) would require 28 states to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide by power plants. The rule establishes a two-step process: 1) The EPA determines if a state contributes more than 1 percent of the pollution causing a downwind state to exceed emissions standards to 2) The EPA using modeling analysis to determine state emissions targets (subscription). CASPR’s first phase would be implemented next year, with the final phase beginning in 2017.
Days later, the agency announced it’s making additional data available to elicit further comments on another controversial rule. In its Notice of Data Availability (NODA), the EPA points to areas of “concern” raised by stakeholders during the public comment period for its proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants. EPA Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe indicated that the agency hopes to get additional comments before the public comment period ends Dec. 1— specifically comments related to the trajectory of emissions reductions from 2020 to 2029, the way building blocks are established and the way in which state goals are calculated.
“We wanted to address issues where the feedback we were getting went beyond what we laid out in the preamble [of the Clean Power Plan],” she said.
Along with the NODA, the EPA announced a supplemental proposal to reduce carbon pollution on tribal lands and territories housing fossil-fuel fired power plants. Like the Clean Power Plan does for states, the proposal sets area-specific goals for Indian country and territories and provides options for meeting those goals. The proposal, which relies on and builds upon measures outlined in the Clean Power Plan, would affect coal-fired power plants on lands belonging to three tribes—the Navajo Nation, the Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the Fort Mojave Tribe—as well as plants in Puerto Rico and Guam.
EU Makes Climate Promise Ahead of U.N. Negotiations
Fresh off talks in Bonn, Germany, that were meant to make progress on identifying the information that countries will have to provide next year when making individual pledges for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, European Union leaders have announced a new emissions deal. It will cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and will increase energy efficiency and renewables by 27 percent. A “flexibility clause” was added to the final text to ensure that the EU can return to the targets after the U.N. summit in December 2015.
The deal sends a signal to the rest of the world to take action on a climate treaty at the upcoming Conference of the Parties in Paris. The EU is responsible for about one-sixth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Rising greenhouse gases are increasing the likelihood of “severe, pervasive and irreversible” impacts for people and ecosystems, according to a draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report. Due for approval and release Nov. 2, the report provides a summary of three other IPCC publications issued over the course of the last year. It is expected serve as a road map for upcoming U.N. negotiations.
According to a leaked draft of the report obtained by ClimateWire, to avoid a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, net global emissions must decrease 40–70 percent by 2050 and hit zero by the end of the century.
Study: 2010 BP Spill Left ‘Significant Quantities’ of Oil on Gulf Floor
Oil remnants from BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill have formed rings—roughly the size of Rhode Island—near the site of the blown-out well, according to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study suggests that “significant quantities” of crude are present near the site of the Macondo well.
“We don’t know with certainty how the oil reached the bottom,” said David Valentine, lead author and professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “We do provide hypotheses, that a combination of coagulation and bacterial growth drove the oil into a floc form and facilitated particles or droplets sinking to the seafloor. Some of the oil was certainly eaten by bacteria, and other components dissolved into the water.”
BP criticized the research, saying authors “failed to identify the source of the oil, leading them to grossly overstate the amount of residual Macondo oil on the sea floor and the geographic area in which it is found.”
During the study, researchers collected more than 3,000 samples, analyzing them for a hydrocarbon found in oil called hopane. What they traced represented 4–31 percent of the oil thought to be trapped deep in the ocean (as much as 16 percent of the total oil spilled).
Climate change, extreme weather and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants were the focus of a confirmation hearing for Janet McCabe, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.
In the hearing—at which lawmakers took jabs at one another on the impacts of climate change and criticized McCabe’s recent comments on extreme weather causes—the acting assistant administrator for air and radiation told the committee that if confirmed she would evaluate the full consequences of the EPA’s current and pending rules. She pointed to her work as a state regulator in Indiana, highlighting her sensitivity to the economic impact of environmental regulations.
“I come from Indiana, where people rely on coal,” she told the committee (subscription).
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has not announced when it will vote on McCabe’s nomination, which still requires approval by the full Senate.
Just a day earlier, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the draft rule for existing power plants, which is scheduled for release by June 1. “We are going to make them cost-effective, we are going to make them make sense,” McCarthy said at a conference. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be so flexible that I’m not going to be able to rely on this as a federally enforceable rule.”
Flexibility for states was emphasized by McCarthy who insisted the EPA will give states the tools to curtail emissions that drive climate change and that the proposed rule will not threaten electric reliability or shutter large numbers of facilities.
EPA officials have met with more than 200 groups about the upcoming rule. Last week, the White House began its review of the rule—the final step before the EPA can publish it and gather formal comments from the public.
EIA Energy Outlook Predicts Decrease in Oil Imports
Net U.S. energy imports declined last year to their lowest level in more than 20 years, meaning U.S. net imports could reach zero within 23 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
The finding is the first in a staged release of the EIA’s complete Annual Energy Outlook 2014. Future releases—running April 14 to April 30—will look at matters ranging from the implications of accelerated power plant retirements and lower natural gas prices for industrial production to light-duty vehicle energy demand and the potential for liquefied natural gas to be used as a railroad fuel.
“In EIA’s view, there is more upside potential for greater gains in production than downside potential for lower production levels,” the report said. It noted that U.S. oil production should hit 9.6 million barrels per day by 2020.
Global Renewable Energy Investment Down as Tax Credits Resurface
Global investment in renewable energy fell 14 percent in 2013, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance. The drop in investment was attributed, in part, to energy policy uncertainty and the falling cost of renewable energy technology. The latter factor may seem counterintuitive but one of the report’s lead editors, UN energy expert Eric Usher said that the fall in the cost of the clean energy technologies, particularly solar, had “left some governments thinking that they had been paying too much and reviewed their subsidies.”
Even with investment down, the shift toward low-carbon sources hasn’t slowed. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of power generated worldwide last year—up from 7.8 percent in 2012. Liebreich told Mother Jones that proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015.
Further incentives for renewables may be in the offing. Last week, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved a draft bill that includes some 50 temporary tax breaks, including one for renewable energy. The bill includes provisions for wind energy through an extension of the U.S. Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit, which was responsible for jumpstarting much of the last decade’s U.S. wind energy development. Provisions were also included for biofuel.
Congress is expected to pass the bill by the end of year, allowing businesses and individuals to continue to claim tax breaks on their 2014 taxes.
As U.S. production of crude oil continues to grow, new studies in the journal Science say the very methods used to extract the resource could be behind some U.S. earthquakes. The studies find that the gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing can cause some small earthquakes and that the disposal of wastewater following this and other energy production methods can produce larger tremors.
The number of earthquakes in the central and eastern U.S. has increased nearly ten-fold in the last decade—averaging 21 per year between 1967 and 2000 and rising to as many as 188 in 2011. Although most have not been above a magnitude of 3.0, a few have exceeded 5.0.
One study links at least half of the magnitude 4.5 or higher quakes in the interior U.S. in the last 10 years to nearby injection-well sites. The authors, scientists from Columbia University, identified three tremors at injection-well sites in Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado that were triggered by another, major earthquake miles away.
“[The fluids] kind of act as a pressurized cushion,” said lead author Nicholas van der Elst. “They make it easier for the fault to slide.”
Researchers at the University of California, meanwhile, looked specifically at the Salton Sea Geothermal Field and found a direct correlation between relatively small seismic activity and an increase in groundwater pumping at the plant.
Court: Biogenic Carbon Emissions Will Be Regulated
A federal court in the U.S. has ruled Clean Air Act limits on carbon dioxide pollution now apply to power plants that burn biomass.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Court threw out a three-year deferral put in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that temporarily exempted regulation of biogenic carbon emissions. Environmental groups challenged the EPA’s initial decision, resulting in Monday’s court hearing, which found the EPA had no basis for its 2011 rule.
Biomass Magazine reports that a draft rule for biogenic carbon emissions is expected in a couple months. The court decision comes as the EPA crafts rules to regulate carbon emissions from new and existing power plants—the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s new plan to combat climate change. ClimateWire warns that 2015 will be a pivotal time as utilities meet a host of standards (subscription required)—including the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule requiring power plants to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent, the second phase of the Clean Air Interstate rule, and, potentially, greenhouse gas rules for existing power plants.
World Bank Says It Will Limit Coal Plant Financing
The World Bank is taking steps to reduce the use of coal. Just weeks after Obama’s pledge to ban U.S. funding for coal plants overseas, the World Bank’s board agreed Tuesday to limit, but not end, financing of coal-fired power plants. The bank will focus on scaling up natural gas and hydroelectric projects, instead.
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Billy Pizer and the Center for Global Development’s Scott Morris discuss the strategy and how exactly limits on coal financing should be considered.
An analysis by the National Journal shows seven major U.S. electric utilities are also taking steps to shift how they generate power. In their power portfolios, coal decreases or stays the same, and natural gas increases; renewables and nuclear power see small increases.
The Obama administration could soon make an announcement detailing plans to address climate change, even in the face of continuing political barriers to progress on the issue. Unnamed administration officials pointed to July for the rollout, while an Administration aide was more vague.
“In the coming weeks and months, you can expect to hear more from the president on this issue,” White House environment and energy adviser Heather Zichal said at an environmental forum June 11. Though timing and details are still in flux, Zichal said the plan will expand on the administration’s efforts to permit more renewable energy on public land and to promote energy efficiency. A central part of the administration’s approach to deal with climate change, Zichal noted, would be to use the authority given to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address greenhouse gases from power plants under the Clean Air Act.
The EPA missed an April deadline to release final rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants under the act and has shared no details about its plan for the rules since. Speculation about the public release of a climate strategy did delay the filing of a lawsuit against the EPA for that missed deadline; filers pledged to “wait to see” if Obama releases a plan in the coming weeks.
If the plan includes final rules for new fossil fuel-fired power plants, known as the new source performance standard, those rules will prompt a Clean Air Act provision—section 111 (d)—requiring the EPA and state governments to regulate greenhouse gases from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants. The White House has signaled that new rules securing reductions from existing power plants are likely to be part of its strategy. A new report by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy outlines some of the key considerations that are likely to arise if energy efficiency is included as an option for states needing to secure reductions from existing sources. It explores how incorporation of energy efficiency into past state air quality programs can inform federal and state environmental regulators as they evaluate these section 111(d) issues.
A second analysis by the Nicholas Institute identifies how potential regulatory tools under the Clean Air Act—beyond the greenhouse gas rules—could accelerate development and deployment of potentially game-changing clean air and energy technologies to reduce emissions in the nation’s key industrial sectors.
Holding Pattern Continues for McCarthy
The timing of Obama’s climate plan could complicate the nomination of Gina McCarthy, Obama’s pick to replace former administrator Lisa Jackson as head of the EPA. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced last month that McCarthy’s nomination would be delayed until July.
The Senate Environment and Public Works panel backed McCarthy a month ago in a party line vote. The nomination remains in a holding pattern as a result of continued opposition by Republicans and urgings to release data the EPA uses to design air pollution regulations.
U.S. Tax Code Has Minimal Effect on Carbon Dioxide, Other GHG Emissions
Current federal tax provisions have minimal net effect on greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report from the National Academies of Science. The report, which evaluates how key elements of the current tax code affect the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, finds that several existing tax subsidies have unexpected effects, and others yield little reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of revenue loss (subscription).
Climate Commitment Renewed at G8 Summit
While the crisis in Syria and the economic downturn pushed climate change out of the spotlight at the G8 Summit, it was highlighted in a communiqué released following the close of the talks. G8 leaders dedicated a page to climate change—noting that it is “one of the foremost challenges for our future economic growth and well-being.”
The statement acknowledges “grave concern” the leaders have regarding failure to make deep emissions cuts and includes support for UNFCCC’s efforts to deliver a new global treaty to curb greenhouse gases in 2015 with a more ambitious framework than is currently in place.
“We remain strongly committed to addressing the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2020 and to pursue our low-carbon path afterwards, with a view to doing our part to limit effectively the increase in global temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, consistent with science,” the statement reads. “We also note with grave concern the gap between current country pledges and what is needed, and will work towards increasing mitigation ambition in the period to 2020.”
According to a new U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessment, two formations in the central United States hold three times the amount of natural gas and two times the amount of oil than the federal government previously estimated. Concentrated in the Dakotas and Montana, the Bakken and Three Forks formations are expected to hold 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Three Forks formation, which alone contains 3.73 billion barrels of oil, was not included in the last USGS assessment in 2008—helping to explain the large jump.
“These world-class formations contain even more energy resource potential than previously understood, which is important information as we continue to reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign sources of oil,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
The same week, Jewell announced the U.S. Department of Interior will release revised, draft rules regulating hydraulic fracturing operations that have increasingly recovered tough-to-reach fossil fuel sources—particularly in North Dakota. The rules would only apply to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling on public lands and would establish new requirements for disclosure of chemicals and well integrity. The draft is expected in the coming weeks.
Senate Votes on Clean Energy
A House committee in North Carolina’s state legislature last week voted against a bill to repeal the state’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS). However, a Senate Committee this week pushed through the bill, which would keep the mandate at 3 percent, but eliminate it later on.
The REPS enacted by a 2007 North Carolina law had no expiration and, in addition to the overall renewable requirements, uniquely required utilities to get 0.07 percent of their electricity from hog waste now and 0.20 percent by 2018. So far, little of the set-aside for hog waste-derived energy has been met. A new study by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative provides a first step toward an informed strategy to increase swine gas energy production. Using a comparative modeling analysis considering individual and centralized approaches, the report finds that injecting biogas collected from an optimized network of farms into the natural gas pipeline could be a cost-effective approach to meeting state REPS.
As Carbon Dioxide Levels Rise, International Climate Negotiations Begin
As early as this month, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are expected to reach a new milestone, rising above 400 parts per million for a sustained period of time. Carbon dioxide levels in excess of 400 parts per million have already been recorded at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, but they tend to fluctuate hourly. The milestone is significant because it illustrates how dramatically humans have altered the atmosphere in a few generations, says Mother Nature Network. In 1988, atmospheric carbon dioxide was about 350 parts per million.
“I wish it weren’t true but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400 ppm level without losing a beat,” said Ralph Keeling, a geologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “At this pace we’ll hit a 450 ppm within a few decades. Each year, the concentration of CO2 at Mauna Loa rises and falls in a sawtooth fashion, with the next year higher than the year before. The peak of the sawtooth typically comes in May. If the CO2 levels don’t top 400 ppm in May 2013, they almost certainly will next year.”
The Washington Post looks at President Obama’s record on climate and environment so far. In Bonn, groups gathered for a week-long meeting to focus on the “scope, design and structure” of the 2015 climate agreement that would take effect in 2020. This agreement would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 to limit pollution.