EPA Refines Pollution Rules

October 30, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

Utility Dive and Bloomberg BNA break down stakeholder concerns in detail and describe how the EPA is looking to address them.

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).

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


Climate Change, EPA Rules Focus of McCabe Confirmation Hearing

April 10, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

Between 2012 and 2013, net energy imports decreased by 19 percent. The EIA cited increased growth in oil and natural gas production as the reason. Crude oil production grew 15 percent in 2013.

“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.

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


U.S. Energy Production Linked to Earthquakes

July 18, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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


Obama Could Unveil Climate Strategy with Clean Air Act Tie Soon

June 20, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.”

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


U.S. Oil Reserves Higher Than Previously Thought

May 2, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

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.


Studies Link Warming to Increased Weather Extremes

March 28, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds global temperatures to be one of the best predictors of hurricane activity. In fact, the PNAS study found that a one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in global temperatures could multiply the frequency of Katrina-like storms by two to seven times.

In the Arctic, melting sea ice—which reached its sixth lowest level on record—is driving its own extreme weather patterns. “For the past few winters, large parts of Asia, North America, and Europe experienced these cold conditions above normal snowfall,” said Jiping Liu of the University of Albany who led a study in PNAS on the topic. “When we started to explore the reason why, our study suggested it was the decline of Arctic sea ice.” Liu was among several researchers to discuss the topic at a news conference, where it was noted that warming conditions in the Arctic may be weakening jet stream currents, causing extreme weather systems to hover in northern mid-latitudes.

States Are Taking an Active Role in Clean Energy Deployment  

In Congress, signs of progress on a few small-scale energy bills are evident, but action at the state level is more robust. Washington D.C. and 29 states have renewable energy standards that require electric utilities to get a portion of their power from clean energy sources such as solar or wind. More than 20 states have created clean energy trust funds, and more than 40 offer some form of clean energy loans. These measures are responsible for helping double renewable energy capacity in the United States.

These successes aren’t without challenges. Renewable standards in 22 states could be lowered or repealed as part of a multi-pronged campaign to reverse Renewable Portfolio Standard mandates. Some of the most heated debates are in Kansas, Vermont, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio—where there’s a bill recommending repeal of the state’s 2008 standard requiring utility companies to get 12.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Plan Designed to Help Wildlife Adapt to Climate Change

A new plan—dubbed the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy—establishes key priorities to help wildlife adapt to climate change. The nationwide plan describes the expected future impacts to wildlife habitats, noting that “Even if further GHG emissions were halted today, alterations already underway in the Earth’s climate will last for hundreds or thousands of years. If GHG emissions continue, as is currently more likely, the planet’s average temperature is projected to rise 2.0 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with accompanying major changes in extreme weather events, variable and/or inconsistent weather patterns, sea level rise, and changing ocean conditions including increased acidification.”

Seven goals for resource managers are highlighted in the plan, which was developed in response to a request from Congress. The goals include conserving and connecting habitat, managing species and habitats to allow sustainable use and protect ecosystems, reducing non-climate stressors such as pollution and invasive species, conducting research to increase knowledge and educating the public about climate change and its effects on resources.

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.


Carbon Tax Is a Popular Topic in Washington

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Since China announced it will hold off plans to introduce a carbon tax, the idea has generated some activity on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers on Tuesday proposed a draft bill that would charge the largest industrial polluters a fee for, or carbon tax on, their fossil-fuel emissions. The plan, proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), includes three possible per-ton prices for carbon pollution—$15, $25 or $30—and annual cost increases ranging from 2 percent to 8 percent to ensure that emissions continue to decrease. The new bill solicits feedback on how revenue (subscription required) generated by the fee or tax should be spent but proposes that proceeds go toward mitigating energy costs for consumers, reducing the deficit, protecting jobs, decreasing the tax liability for businesses and individuals and investing in other activities that could reduce carbon pollution.

The Waxman-Whitehouse draft, which has not been formally introduced into Congress or even finalized, is one of a few carbon tax proposals circulating in Washington. A measure by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was released last month. The same week as the release of the Waxman-Whitehouse draft, Republicans introduced a resolution that opposed a national carbon tax, citing its threat to the economy and businesses.

Two studies of a carbon tax have produced very different results. A study by the National Association of Manufacturers finds that a carbon tax starting at $20 per ton and rising 4 percent yearly would result in an economic slowdown. Meanwhile, a report by the Brookings Institution finds that a carbon tax could have benefits—including improving environmental outcomes and increasing economic efficiency.

A national poll released recently by Duke University found that 29 percent of the respondents strongly or somewhat supported a carbon tax. There was much more support surrounding a clean energy standard or other traditional measures to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Will “Fire Ice” Discovery Revolutionize the Energy Industry?

Japan has produced methane from methane hydrates, a fossil fuel that behaves like ice, from deep under the ocean for the first time. Deposits of the fuel source, known as “fire ice,” may be large enough to supply the country’s natural gas needs for years. An estimated 1.1 trillion cubic meters of gas are trapped off Shikoku Island. Japan hopes to convert the trapped methane into natural gas that could help address recent energy woes, but the Japanese government says it is still at least five years away from commercial extraction. Japanese officials point to the recent gas boom in the United States as evidence that complex drilling processes can yield big results—a fact that has Australia worried. Japan is Australia’s top natural gas customer.

The fuel source is also being explored in Canada and the United States, with the latter funding 14 research projects on methane hydrates. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that naturally occurring gas hydrates could contain more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—potentially more organic carbon than the world’s coal, oil and other forms of natural gas combined. Recent mappings off the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts show large offshore accumulations of methane hydrate, but the potential environmental effects of drilling for hydrates remain little understood.

The Future of Nuclear Power

Monday marked the second anniversary of Japan’s tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Before the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan was the third largest consumer of nuclear energy, behind the United States. Now just two of the country’s 50 operable reactors are online. With plans to phase out nuclear power by 2040, the long-term energy strategy is expected to bring higher electricity rates for consumers this year.

The future of nuclear remains less certain worldwide. The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently told more than 3,000 industry executives, experts and government regulators that when it comes to commercial reactors they must be ready to deal with the unknown.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists is more critical of the industry. It points to safety mishaps at nuclear plants across the United States in 2012. The study, released shortly after the NRC annual report card, details a dozen events.

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.


Romney, Obama Make History with Failure to Mention Climate Change in Last Debate

October 25, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The final foreign-policy-focused presidential debate made history Monday when candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama failed to mention climate change. Despite historic drought and record melting of Arctic sea ice, failure to visit the topic marked the first time since the 1980s climate change hasn’t come up in a presidential debate. Some argued the climate should have come up, as almost every major international issue—food prices, military operations and energy access—have an embedded climate component. As Sec. of State Hillary Clinton told an audience in Georgetown recently, energy, climate and foreign policy are all really deeply intertwined.

Energy—the yin to climate’s yang—did come up Monday, it was not nearly as dominant a topic as it was in the second debate last week. Clean energy was mentioned in a short exchange, with Obama and Romney examining the role basic research funding plays in keeping pace with other nations.

It took getting away from the Republicans and Democrats, but three of the four third-party presidential candidates—Gary Johnson, Virgil Goode, Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson—did treat climate change as a serious issue. In a debate televised on C-Span Tuesday, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party called climate change “a greater long-term security risk to the United States than terrorism.”

Is the U.S. Helping Asian Economies Save on Energy Costs?

So far in 2012, U.S. coal exports are setting a record pace. In fact, they are forecasted to reach near 125 million tons—surpassing the previous all-time high of 113 million tons set in 1981. Growing demand in Asia may be a factor, raising the question of whether taxpayers are essentially helping Asian economies save on energy costs. ThinkProgress breaks down the issue ultimately concluding “Americans are paying for large companies to dig up coal at bargain prices, sell it to other countries at market prices, and subsidize their global warming pollution.”

The world’s largest producer of oil, meanwhile, plans to switch to 100 percent renewable energy. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud said he sees solar playing a large role in the transition—with the nation’s vast oil reserves being used to create other goods such as plastics and polymers, rather than burned in power plants. It turns out that Saudi Arabia’s days as world’s largest oil producer may be numbered: the U.S. is now on track to take the spot after a recent surge in production that included the largest one-year gain in over 60 years.

In the U.S., more than 200 scientists are protesting the use of two invasive grasses for advanced biofuel feedstock under the nation’s Renewable Fuel Standard. In a letter sent to the Obama administration, they write: “While we appreciate the steps that federal agencies have made to identify and promote renewable energy sources and to invest in second- and third-generation sources of bioenergy, we strongly encourage you to consider the invasive potential of all novel feedstock species, cultivars, and hybrids before providing incentives leading to their cultivation.” The New York Times says the authors fear a repeat of what happened when government-financed programs introduced kudzu—“the vine that ate the South”—in the 1930s.

Convictions a “Fundamental Misunderstanding of Science”

An Italian court, this week sentenced a group of scientist to six years in prison for failing to properly communicate the risk ahead of a deadly 2009 earthquake. Mother Earth called the courts actions a “fundamental misunderstanding of what science can and can’t do.” The verdict outraged those in the scientific community, who claim predicting the absolute date, time and risk is nearly impossible.” The real problem is helping people understand how risk works,” Erik Klemetti, a geoscientist at Denison University in Ohio, told LiveScience. “You can’t expect that scientists can come in and tell people ‘an earthquake will happen here on October 28, 2013.’ Instead, they must understand that there is an increased probability of earthquakes or eruptions in certain areas—and that they must take responsibility for understanding the risks of where they live.” The Guardian reports these claims may be a bit overstated, noting “the prosecutors, and the devastated families they represent, are well aware that scientists cannot predict earthquakes. The accusation they make is not that experts failed to predict the earthquake, but that they failed to properly assess and communicate the risks, telling residents they were safe without any scientific basis for doing so.”

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.


Crop Damage Sparks Fuel Versus Food Debate

August 16, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Dry conditions that continue to grip Midwestern states, damaging crops and threatening to push up food prices, stirred new debate this week after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released crop yield projections capturing the severity of the drought. Though the U.S. is the largest producer of corn and soybeans, the report puts corn production at 10.8 billion bushels, down 13 percent from last year’s yield and 17 percent from July projections. It also slashes soybean yields, though not as sharply as corn.

The low projections are bumping up corn prices. The price spike in corn is causing some livestock farmers to turn to other sources, even candy, for their animals’ nutrition. While the USDA announced it will buy up to $170 million worth of meat to help relieve some of these farmers, low yield projections still mean feed could be more scarce next year. “I think this will help some in the short run, but what we really need is to change the ethanol mandate,” said Bob Ivey, a hog farmer and general manager of Maxwell Foods, of the USDA announcement.

Like Ivey, others renewed debate over the use of corn for ethanol production this week, putting more pressure on the U.S. to divert its corn crop to food. As required by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), about 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is currently used in ethanol production, with the rest going to food, animal feed and exports. With agricultural production in other major exporting countries such as China and India suffering and the global food price index up six percent in July, some are concerned about global shortages of certain food commodities. As some legislators called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue a waiver of the corn ethanol RFS for the next year, the top United Nations food official, José Graziano da Silva, told the Financial Times that an “immediate, temporary suspension” of the mandate could help head off another world food crisis as poorer countries bear the burden of rising food costs. The Renewable Fuels Association urged the EPA to reject the waiver request, saying it “would do more harm than good to America’s economy and its energy security.”

Meanwhile, the federal government is poised to approve the use of sorghum to create advanced ethanol. It would join imported sugar-cane-based ethanol and domestic biodiesel to become the third “advanced biofuel” in the U.S. (Advanced biofuels produce fewer greenhouse gases over their lifetime.) A sorghum-based ethanol could be a welcome addition to the U.S. biofuel supply because sorghum is not an important ingredient in human foods (it’s mainly used as animal feed), it is more drought-tolerant than corn, and it produces the same amount of ethanol as corn using one-third less water.

Study: Temperatures May Climb 7 Degrees

If droughts weren’t enough, global warming and urbanization could cause temperatures in cities to climb seven degrees by 2050, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. That’s two to three times higher than the effects of global warming, says Climate Central’s Michael Lemonick.

One scientist affiliated with MIT is pursuing a technology that would help in droughts by mitigating water lost from reservoirs through evaporation. The technology involves coating the water with a thin layer of vegetable oil, which could possibly reduce evaporation by up to 75 percent.

Energy in the Arctic

Shell’s plans for drilling in the Arctic faced another delay—not one due to ice, but rather to failure to complete construction on a spill response barge, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “So it’s not a matter of ice. It is a matter of whether Shell has the mechanical capability to be able to comply with the exploration effort that had been approved by the government,” Salazar said. The window to drill is closing, The Wall Street Journal warns, as exploration in the Chukchi Sea must end by Sept. 24 and the end of October in the Beaufort Sea.

This came as the first comprehensive plan to manage the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska was announced, leaving open the possibility for a pipeline to transport oil and gas from the Chukchi Sea onshore. The plan would allow drilling on half of the 23 million-acre reserve estimated to contain 549 million barrels of recoverable oil and 8.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In the renewable energy sector, wind made headway in 2011, adding about 6,800 megawatts of power generation, which made it second only to natural gas of all new U.S. electric capacity. Specifically, wind accounted for 32 percent of energy, pushing U.S. wind power capacity to 47,000 megawatts.

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.


Harnessing Sun, Wave Power for Energy

July 26, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a short summer break next week, returning Aug. 9.

Oceans, which cover more than two-thirds of the planet, hold a large amount of energy. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates ocean wave and tidal currents have the potential to account for 15 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030.

While technologies harnessing energy from tides and currents have been domestically discussed for decades, the nation’s first commercial tidal energy project was dedicated in Maine Tuesday. This first tidal generator is expected to begin delivering electricity to the regional power grid in September—with just enough juice to power 25 homes as it starts out. The U.S. Navy, too, is exploring harnessing wave power as part of a larger plan to reduce energy consumption by 50 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Interior identified 17 sites on public land across six Southwestern states that could be ideal for the development of solar energy. The plan, which will be finalized after a 30-day comment period, places 445 square miles of public land in play for utility-scale solar facilities. On the technology front, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles are taking the idea of solar power from roofs to windows with the invention of a thin, transparent solar cell that can turn the sun’s energy into electricity while still allowing visible light to stream through. The cells, researchers claim, can be produced at high volume for low cost and installed at an estimated $10 to $15 per window.

Effects of Drought, Heat Continue To Be Felt

NASA satellites tracking ice surface melt in Greenland recorded unprecedented melting over the course of four days in July—melting even occurred at Greenland’s coldest, highest place, Summit Station. While the ice sheet normally sees melting over summer months, the speed and scale of the thaw—which went from 40 to 97 percent—surprised scientists. “Ice cores from Summit show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average,” said Lora Koenig, a glaciologist who belongs to the research team analyzing the satellite data. “With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time. But if we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome.”

The drought in the United States continues to spread, forcing some plains ranchers to sell cattle and driving down the U.S. corn yield to a 10-year low. It has some contemplating whether we are headed for a repeat of the 2008 global food crisis, but others are more optimistic, saying farmers may weather the drought better than in 1988. With National Weather Service forecasts indicating the drought is likely to worsen, The Washington Post took a comprehensive look at whether climate change is causing the drought. The short answer: Droughts have multiple causes, there have been worse ones in the past, and most evidence suggests droughts will become more intense in many parts of the world if the planet keeps heating up, which could disrupt the world’s food supply.

Rules Get Review

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reviewing part of a controversial rule that sets the first federal standards to reduce mercury and other toxic pollutants from power plants. The review was prompted by power plant operators who found the rule was confusing for new plants.

The EPA also has issued new—and largely unnoticed—rules limiting sulfur dioxide and soot emissions from cruise ships. The new rules, which go into effect Aug. 1, would require cruise ships to immediately reduce the sulfur content of their fuel from an average of 2.7 percent to 1 percent, and to reduce that number to 0.1 percent by 2015. EPA estimates the benefits of the new rule, by 2015, will be like removing 12.7 million and 900,000 cars off the road per day in terms of sulfur dioxide and soot emissions. The cruise ship industry and some Alaskan officials worry about the increased cost and availability of the lower-sulfur fuel, however, and Alaska’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit to block the new rules.

The European Commission announced a rescue plan that would withhold carbon allowances to support its Emissions Trading Scheme, which has struggled of late due to an oversupply of carbon credits. The rescue plan would involve “backloading,” or delaying auctions of carbon allowances, in an effort to bolster the program. While there are no firm numbers in the draft proposal itself, a Commission analysis assesses the possibility of withdrawing 400 million, 900 million or 1.2 billion allowances over the first three years of the market’s next phase.

Cars that Drive Themselves

Motor vehicles are responsible for a significant percentage of U.S. carbon emissions. As YaleE360 tells it, self driving cars—which could greatly reduce the risk of accidents and slash fuel consumption and emissions—may be a reality sooner than you think.

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.