The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Tuesday, the White House postponed a scheduled meeting of officials to discuss the fate of the Paris Agreement, which business leaders and the international community (subscription) have pressed U.S. President Donald Trump to continue to support and which Trump’s conservative allies have urged him to exit. The decision will now come after the Group of Seven summit in late May.

The president’s potential rejection of the agreement loomed over both this week’s intersessional climate talks, held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany, and the two-day Arctic Council ministerial meeting, where there’s anxiety that Trump’s dismissal of the science backing climate change will mean that the customary declaration on Arctic priorities will have to weaken wording (subscription) on Paris-related emissions targets and their impact on the Arctic.

The administration’s ambivalence toward the Paris Agreement was signaled by the number of U.S. representatives at the Bonn climate talks, which are focused on implementing the details of the deal to combat climate change. According to a list of registered participants, the U.S. government sent just seven representatives to the meeting—one fewer than Tonga and dozens fewer than the Obama administration sent to last year’s talks.

The U.S. State Department said the small team reflects the fact that the United States is working out its climate priorities.

“We are focused on ensuring that decisions are not taken at these meetings that would prejudice our future policy, undermine the competitiveness of U.S. businesses, or hamper our broader objective of advancing U.S. economic growth and prosperity,” a spokesperson said.

During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to “cancel” the Paris Agreement. He has already begun to reverse regulations implemented by the Obama administration to help meet the U.S. pledge to reduce emissions by 26–28 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2025. U.S. action to make good on that pledge will come under review as part of the multilateral assessment process that will take place May 12–13 at the Bonn meeting.

Proponents of the Paris Agreement worry that without the participation of the United States, the second largest global emitter behind China, meeting the agreement’s goal of keeping temperature increases under 1.5 Celsius compared with preindustrial levels will be impossible and that a U.S. withdrawal from the deal would make it harder for other countries to maintain their ambitions. In his budget proposal, Trump is seeking to cut an outstanding $2 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund.

Although continued U.S. participation in the global climate accord remains a question mark, Washington will not withdraw from participation in climate science on the Arctic. That was the word from the State Department’s assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, David Balton, ahead of the biennial Arctic Council ministerial meeting hosted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“The U.S. will remain engaged in the work the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout,” said Balton. “I am very confident there will be no change in that regard.”

During the meeting, members are expected to sign off on a report by the council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme showing that the worst effects of climate change are already happening in the Arctic and could have significant implications for the rest of the world. That report recommends that the Arctic nations lead efforts “for an early, ambitious, and full implementation” of the Paris Agreement.

Senate Fails to Repeal Rule to Limit Methane Releases from Energy Extraction on Public Lands

Yesterday a U.S. Senate resolution to repeal an Interior Department rule that limits venting and flaring of methane from natural gas drilling sites on public lands was rejected (subscription). It was the second-to-last day that the Senate could attempt to roll back the rule under the terms of the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to undo recent regulations through an act of Congress. But the Interior Department signaled that the 51 to 49 vote does not end efforts to alter the Obama-era rule.

“As part of President Trump’s America-First Energy Strategy and executive order, the Department has reviewed and flagged the Waste Prevention rule as one we will suspend, revise or rescind given its significant regulatory burden that encumbers American energy production, economic growth and job creation,” said Kate MacGregor, Interior’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals (subscription).

The methane rule, finalized last November, seeks to reduce energy companies’ burn off of vast supplies of methane, the primary component of natural gas, at drilling sites. That practice, along with leaks, is estimated to waste $330 million a year in natural gas—enough to power some 5 million homes a year—ABC News reported.

Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said, in a letter to Ohio Senator Rob Portman, that his department would continue to regulate methane emissions (subscription) and would take “concrete action to reduce methane waste” if Congress passed the resolution rolling back the Obama-era rule. But how the department would have done so is unclear (subscription). Under the CRA, agencies cannot issue “substantially similar” rules on regulations that Congress has repealed without new legislation (subscription).

Pruitt Recuses Himself from Lawsuits, Considers Replacing Academics with Industry Experts

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt last week recused himself from a dozen lawsuits against the EPA that he pursued as Oklahoma’s attorney general. Those suits include one against the Clean Power Plan—the key component of former President Barack Obama’s climate change agenda—which a federal appeals court may hold in abeyance or send back to the agency for review.

“To demonstrate my profound commitment to carrying out my ethical responsibilities, while I am the administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, I will not participate in any active cases in which Oklahoma is a party, petitioner or intervenor, including the following,” Pruitt wrote in the May 4 memo, before listing 12 cases from which he is recusing himself.

Among those cases are several involving Obama-era air rules, including the EPA’s methane regulations for new oil and gas sources, the 2015 ozone standard, and the agency’s cost analysis of mercury standards for power plants.

Although Pruitt will not take part in legal challenges, the Washington Post notes he will not recuse himself from EPA rulemaking processes, meaning he will continue to direct reviews of the Clean Power Plan and other Obama-era regulations.

In what appears to be a move to alter how it assesses the science that underlies those and other regulations, the EPA last week began an overhaul of the Board of Scientific Counselors, which addresses important scientific questions and advises the agency on the integrity and rigor of its research. At an April meeting, the board discussed the importance of climate change research at EPA and “the growing need for information on, and understanding of, climate change and responses to its impacts” (subscription).

Agency spokesman J.P. Freire said Pruitt is thinking of replacing the board’s academics with experts from the industries typically regulated by the EPA.

“The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” said Freire.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The 12-day United Nations Climate Change Conference, which aims to forge an agreement to cut climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, began in Warsaw, Poland, this week. The goal set by the U.N.: limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

Representatives from nearly 200 countries are debating an agreement that would take effect by 2020. Major breakthroughs are not expected at the conference, which is pervaded by a mood of “realism” about the scale of what can be achieved. The Washington Post reports the talks will only lay a foundation for a global agreement to be reached in time for the 2015 talks in Paris, France.

As the conference began, there were reminders of what’s at stake. Devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan was on the minds of many, along with reports spelling out how nations are falling further behind their collective goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its newly released World Energy Outlook, forecast energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to rise 20 percent by 2035, leaving the world on a trajectory for a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsiusfar above the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees Celsius.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also amended carbon dioxide estimates for policy makers in a report designed to provide guidelines for the representatives working to devise a climate agreement. The panel cut its estimate of total emissions since 1870 to 515 gigatons, down from 531 gigatons, and raised its estimate of total carbon emissions since 1750 to 555 gigatons, up from 545 gigatons.

Ethanol Mandate to Be Announced Soon

Although the IEA predicts fossil fuels will provide 75 percent of the global energy mix by 2035—causing oil prices to continue to rise—current U.S. prices for oil tumbled to their lowest in more than five months. Gas prices have fallen to their lowest in 33 months, in part due to the moderate decrease in oil prices.

Some view prospective ethanol volume requirements, which could be weakened for 2014 partly as a result of a decline in the price of renewable energy credits, as a contributor to the low gas prices. As early as this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could announce how many billions of gallons of ethanol refiners will be required to blend into gasoline and diesel fuel next year. Those numbers could be on par with 2012 totals if the agency sticks with a draft version of the mandate leaked in October.

The ethanol mandate was under fire this week, following an investigation by the Associated Press, which suggests it comes with an unadvertised environmental cost, namely incentivizing farmers to grow corn on environmentally sensitive land and increasing use of nitrogen fertilizers, leading to high nitrate levels in some water supplies.

Obama Names New Climate Advisor

Heather Zichal, a key architect of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, stepped down from her post last week as top energy and climate change advisor. Zichal said she will take time to “decompress and take on a few projects” before deciding on formal next steps. In a statement, Obama praised Zichal’s five years of service to the administration.

“She crafted my energy and climate change agenda in the 2008 campaign, then again on my presidential transition, and as my top energy and climate advisor at the White House, she has been a strong and steady voice for policies that reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, protect public health and our environment, and combat the threat of global climate change,” Obama said.

Zichal’s deputy, Dan Utechformerly a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Hillary Clinton when she was senator—will take over the role. In his new position, Utech will be tasked as the lead coordinator of the administration’s stand on energy and environmental issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline and new rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In his first blog post since assuming the new role, Utech praised the president’s energy and climate strategy for helping oil production hit a 24-year high.

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A group of 285 large investors, representing more than $20 trillion in assets, urged world governments to forge a binding treaty at upcoming climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, and said global spending has not been nearly enough to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The call came from a coalition of four green investment groups—representing the investment arms of banks HSBC and BNP Paribas, as well as of fashion company Hermes and the United Nations Environment Programme—aimed at limiting emissions and taxing them, arguing it will drive innovation, attract investment and create jobs. The call also hailed Australia’s recent move toward a carbon tax, saying it will be a boon for investors.

Meanwhile, another group of more than 175 companies called for Durban attendees to ensure $100 billion in annual climate aid to poor nations, as had been promised earlier.

No Big Bang

But Jos Delbeke, director general for climate action at the European Commission believes the long-running negotiations through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are unlikely to produce a “big bang”—that is, a breakthrough that would lead to the birth of a new climate treaty.

In preparation for the upcoming meeting, Japan has signaled it may step back from its own target of cutting CO2 emissions 25 percent by 2020—and it is bringing it up now to avoid giving the “wrong message to the international community,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Japan, Canada and Russia have said they won’t accept an extension of the Kyoto Protocol unless it binds all major economies—which is not the case under Kyoto—but other governments are seeking a way to extend the treaty even without those three countries.

Yomiuri Shimbun also reported Japan will argue the next legally binding climate agreement should wait until 2015, after the Kyoto Protocol lapses in 2012.

Door Closing

Meanwhile, International Energy Agency Chief Economist Fatih Birol gave a sneak preview of the upcoming World Energy Outlook report, which will argue that without bold action, “the door may be closing” on limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Meeting the challenge will take about $38 trillion in spending on oil, gas and electricity infrastructure over the next 25 years.

According to a leaked version of the European Union’s Energy Roadmap 2050, in most scenarios—with differing amounts of efficiency, renewable energy and nuclear power—electricity prices will rise until about 2030, and then fall.

Already the high cost of energy is eating into consumers’ disposable income in the U.S., as well as in the U.K., where it is driving inflation up.

As a counter-measure, the U.K. is pursuing “serious intervention” in the energy market to increase competition and transparency, and the country’s Department of Energy and Climate Change hopes a new bill that came into effect on home energy efficiency will help fight rising bills.

Mixed Signals

A New York Times article asked “Where Did Global Warming Go?,” noting the topic has faded from Obama’s speeches and arguing the GOP has made climate change skepticism a requirement for electability.

However, Joseph Romm at Climate Progress pointed a finger at the New York Times and other major media outlets as part of the problem because there has been a major decline in the amount of climate coverage. Others, such as William Y. Brown of the Brookings Institution argued the New York Times piece is wrong to say Americans don’t trust scientists; rather they don’t like being lectured.

Green issues do appeal to voters, according to a study by Stanford University researchers, who found American politicians who took a pro-green stance were more likely to win. More specifically, Democrats who supported green issues won more often, and Republicans who took anti-green stances lost more often than if they kept silent on the topic.

Energy will also be a significant issue for GOP candidates, according to “energy and environment insiders” polled by the National Journal. Especially important, the insiders said, will be linking energy policy with job creation.

Luxury in a Smaller Package

Even in these hard economic times, luxury cars still have a market and automakers are rolling out new models that, while remaining plush and pricey, are shrinking, both in body and engine.

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.