Cross State Air Pollution Rule Reinstated by Supreme Court

May 1, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Supreme Court, in a 6-2 ruling, upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule to regulate pollution from coal-fired power plants that drifts across state lines.

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR), which applies to 28 states, aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which can lead to soot and smog. The rule was invalidated by a federal appellate court in August 2012 after it was challenged by a group of upwind states and industry because it enforced pollution controls primarily on coal plants. The higher court found the EPA acted reasonably.

“Most upwind states propel pollutants to more than one downwind state, many downwind states receive pollution from multiple upwind states, and some states qualify as both upwind and downwind,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “The overlapping and interwoven linkages between upwind and downwind states with which EPA had to contend number in the thousands.”

The Clean Air Act, and specifically the good neighbor provision at issue, she said, does not tell the EPA what factors to consider. “Under Chevron [v. Natural Resources Defense Council] we read Congress’ silence as a delegation of authority to EPA to select among reasonable options,” she added (subscription).

The rule does not address greenhouse gas emissions, which are the subject of another proposed rule for existing coal-fired power plants that is expected to be released in June. Also due next month is another Supreme Court decision, this one on whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”

Electricity Sector Uncertainty and GHG Emissions

Data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that accelerated plant retirements in either the nuclear power or coal power generation industry would change projections of carbon dioxide emissions. Accelerated retirements of nuclear plants would boost emissions; accelerated retirements of coal-fired plants would reduce them.

EIA predicts U.S. emissions could be 4 percent higher than expected by 2040, but 20 percent lower if more coal plants retire. Lower natural gas prices and stagnant growth in electricity demand will lead to the loss of 10,800 megawatts of U.S. nuclear generation—roughly 10 percent of total capacity by the end of the decade.

Even with the uncertainty facing the electricity sector, there are multi-benefit approaches that state-level environmental regulators and utility commissioners can use to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while simultaneously addressing other electricity sector challenges. That’s according to a new study by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. The study examines Clean Air Act section 111(d) compliance strategies offering these multi-benefit approaches.

Studies Focus on Sea Level Rise, Land Subsidence

Oyster reefs are creating resilience in the face of sea level rise and extreme weather. A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that vertical oyster reef accretion could outpace climate change-induced sea level rise, helping rebuild a shrinking oyster population. The research is the first to suggest that the reefs would act differently than any normal sea wall.

The study of 11 oyster reefs in intertidal areas on the North Carolina coast from 1997 to 2011 found that intertidal reefs have the potential to grow 11 centimeters vertically a year. Researchers acknowledged that much remains to be studied, including subtidal reefs.

Sea level rise may not be the only problem for some regions. In coastal megacities, the extraction of groundwater for drinking water is causing land to sink 10 times faster than sea level rise, according to another new study.

“Land subsidence and sea level rise are both happening, and they are both contributing to the same problem—larger and longer floods, and bigger inundation depth of floods,” said Gilles Erkens, who led the study by the Netherland’s Deltares Research Institute. “The most rigorous solution and the best one is to stop pumping groundwater for drinking water, but then of course you need a new source of drinking water for these cities. But Tokyo did that and subsidence more or less stopped, and in Venice, too, they have done that.”

Financial loss due to sinking, the research said, would reach nearly a billion dollars yearly and cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City will sink below sea level if action isn’t taken.

Could Climate Change have Played Role in the Mount Everest Disaster?

Some scientists are linking the Mount Everest ice release—known as a serac—that killed 16 people last month to climate change.

“You could say [that] climate change closed Mount Everest this year,” said Western Kentucky University Professor John All (subscription).

Research conducted by the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development showed that the Himalayan glaciers shrunk 21 percent in roughly 30 years. Studies by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which point to data collected through on-site monitoring and remote sensing, show a 10 percent reduction in ice during the last four decades.

Still, others say it is impossible to link any one disaster to long-term changes. Much of the evidence that warming is occurring is anecdotal, and the number of scientific observations is not large enough to draw solid conclusions, NBC News reports.

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.


Study Deals Blow for Biofuels as EPA Lowers 2013 Mandate

April 24, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday retroactively lowered the quantity of cellulosic biofuel required for blending in traditional fuels for 2013. In January the EPA agreed to reconsider the mandate “due to the reduced estimate of anticipated cellulosic biofuel production in 2013 that was announced shortly after EPA signed its final rule by one of two companies expected to produce cellulosic biofuel in 2013.”

The new blend level0.0005—more closely aligns with the amount of cellulosic biofuel produced. The EPA based its 2013 standard on the 810,185 ethanol-equivalent gallons produced with nonfood plants last year—a fraction of the 1 billion gallons that Congress sought to require in a 2007 energy law.

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that cellulosic biofuels may actually create more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gasoline, at least in the short term. It finds that in the early years biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn release 7 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. The study notes that removing corn harvest residue—stalks, leaves and cobs—takes carbon out of the soil.

The researchers used a predictive model based on 36 field studies on four continents that measured the rate at which carbon is oxidized in soil. They also tested the model’s accuracy by comparing its results with data gathered from a nine-year, continuous cornfield experiment in Nebraska.

The biofuels industry, the EPA and other researchers have criticized the study—calling the analysis “simplistic” and pointing to a lack of accounting for varying soil and other conditions in different fields as well as an overestimate of how much residue farmers actually remove.

“This paper is based on a hypothetical assumption that 100 percent of corn stover in a field is harvested; an extremely unlikely scenario that is inconsistent with recommended agricultural practices,” said EPA spokewoman Liz Purchia. “As such, it does not provide useful information relevant to the lifecycle GHG emissions from corn stover ethanol.”

The EPA’s own analysis—assuming about half of corn residue would be removed from fields—found that fuel made from corn residue would meet the 2007 energy law standard requiring cellulosic biofuels to release 60 percent less carbon pollution than gasoline. Although biofuels are better in the long term, the Nature Climate Change study says they won’t meet that standard.

Delays for Keystone XL, Power Plant Rule Still on Track

The EPA insists its proposed rules for regulating carbon emissions from existing power plants will be ready by the Obama administration’s June 1 deadline. Although Deputy EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe reportedly said the rule would come out in “late June, maybe even the end of June,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said Perciasepe “misspoke when talking about 111(d).” She added that “EPA is on track to meet the June 1 goal that’s part of the President’s Climate Action Plan.”

The EPA has already sent a draft of the rule to the Office of Management and Budget for review. Few details of its contents have been released.

A decision on another hot environmental topic was delayed. The Obama administration said late last week it would give federal agencies more time to assess the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is expected to transport crude tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The announcement, The Washington Post reports, almost certainly pushes a final decision on construction of the pipeline past the November mid-term elections.

“Agencies need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the ongoing litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court which could ultimately affect the pipeline route in that state,” the State Department said. “In addition, during this time, we will review and appropriately consider the unprecedented number of new public comments, approximately 2.5 million, received during the public comment period that closed on March 7, 2014.”

Further details on the length of the delay were not provided by the State Department, but some legal experts have said the fight over the Nebraska route could drag out for a year or more. Because the pipeline extension crosses an international border, it requires signoff from the White House. President Barack Obama has said he won’t make a decision until after the State Department completes its assessment.

Arctic Drilling Rule Coming Shortly

Federal regulations that cover oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean are set to be released soon, according to Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Brian Salerno.

“The forthcoming rule will put important safeguards in place for future Arctic drilling operations,” said Salerno. “We hope to release the proposed rule shortly and open it for public comment, continuing an important dialogue on drilling operations in the Arctic that has already included numerous consultations and public meetings.”

The Arctic theoretically holds 30 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas resources. A new report by the National Research Council says that unlike Russia, which just shipped its first load of Arctic offshore oil, the United States is not ready for oil drilling in the region. It suggests that safety resources and oil response tools are not yet adequate.

“The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill,” report authors said(subscription). “It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies and personnel.”

Because little is known about how crude oil degrades in Arctic waters and what it does to the food chain, the NRC report authors recommend that authorities release oil into Arctic waters for real-world testing of burning and dispersants.

“To really understand and be best prepared, we’re going to have to do some controlled releases,” said Mark Myers, research vice chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Obviously that’s an important decision to make and we recommend a process for doing that.”

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.


Federal Appeals Court Upholds EPA Mercury Rule

April 17, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A federal appeals court upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) requiring power plants install technology to cut emissions of mercury and other air pollutants. MATS was challenged by industry and several states that argued the EPA should have considered costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to go forward with the standards. The EPA contended the rule was required under the Clean Air Act.

“On its face,” the majority opinion said, the Clean Air Act “neither requires EPA to consider costs nor prohibits EPA from doing so. Indeed, the word ‘costs’ appears nowhere” in that section of the law.

Although Judge Brett Kavanaugh—one member of the three-judge panel—agreed with the majority in other aspects of the ruling, he wrote a dissenting opinion on when the EPA should have considered the costs of MATS.

“The estimated cost of compliance with EPA’s Final Rule is approximately $9.6 billion per year, by EPA’s own calculation … To put it in perspective, that amount would pay the annual health insurance premiums of about two million Americans. It would pay the annual salaries of about 200,000 members of the U.S. Military. It would cover the annual budget of the entire National Park Service three times over,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Most power plants will have until March 2015 to meet the requirements set forth by the standards, but extensions to 2016 are possible. Despite the litigation, nearly 70 percent of coal-fired power plants are already in compliance with MATS, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The appeals court ruling comes as the EPA released findings that between 2011 and 2012 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped 3.4 percent—an overall decrease of 10 percent below 2005 levels. The findings are based on data in the agency’s annual inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and sinks. The agency attributed the decrease, in part, to reduced emissions from electricity generation, much of which is attributable to the increased usage of gas instead of coal—a change that has been influenced by the mercury regulations.

Methane Emissions Rule May be on Horizon

Five papers exploring methane emissions from compressors, leaks, liquid unloading, pneumatic devices and hydraulic fracturing production were released by the EPA for public comment Tuesday.

“The white papers will help EPA solidify our understanding of certain sources of methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in the oil and natural gas industry,” the agency said in a statement. “Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and VOCs contribute to the formation of harmful ground-level ozone (smog).”

The release of the papers is a first step in what could become a new set of regulations governing emissions of methane from oil and gas operations.

A day earlier, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that the EPA underestimated methane emissions from oil and gas operations. In a survey of hydraulic fracturing sites in southwestern Pennsylvania, the peer-reviewed study found that drilling operations released methane at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than the EPA expected. Seven well pads—1 percent of all the wells in the research area—accounted for 4 to 30 percent of the recorded emissions.

Four Years Later, BP “Active” Spill Response Concludes

The “active cleanup” phase of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill ended this week, days before the four-year anniversary of the 2010 spill.

“Let me be absolutely clear: This response is not over—not by a long shot,” said Capt. Thomas Sparks, the Coast Guard federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon response. “Our response posture has evolved to target re-oiling events on coastline segments that were previously cleaned.”

BP said its cleanup involved aerial patrols over more than 14,000 miles of shoreline and ground surveys covering more than 4,400 miles.

“Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon accident, BP committed to cleaning the shoreline and supporting the Gulf’s economic and environmental recovery,” BP said in a press release. “Completing active cleanup is further indication that we are keeping that commitment.”

Multiple studies are attempting to assess not only the reach of the spill, but also its health effects for spill responders and Gulf wildlife. A new report by the National Wildlife Federation used data from independent scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess how 14 species were faring. Some—such as the bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles—are still dying in large numbers due to the spill.

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.


IPCC Report Shares Dire News, Some Adaptation Measures

April 3, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Climate change risks dramatically increase the more Earth warms, but reducing greenhouse gas emissions lowers the risk of the most unwelcome consequences, according to the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“We have assessed impacts as they are happening on the natural and human systems on all continents,” said IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri. “In view of these impacts, and those that we have projected for the future, nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Unless greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control, the sweeping effects of climate change—touching every continent—will grow significantly worse. Among the IPCC report’s conclusions:

  • There will be changes in crop yields.
  • Economic growth will slow, further eroding food security as well as prolonging existing and creating new poverty traps.
  • Changes in the global water cycle will not be uniform. In many dry subtropical regions precipitation will likely decrease.
  • Global mean sea level rise will continue to rise during the 21st century and very likely exceed that observed during 1971 to 2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets.

The news isn’t all dire.

“Although it focuses on a cold, analytical and sometimes depressing view of the challenges we face, it also maps the opportunities that intrinsic in the solution space,” said Christopher Fields, IPCC report co-chair. “And it looks at ways we can combine adaptation, mitigation, transformation of a society in an effort that can help us build a world that’s not only better prepared to deal with climate change but is fundamentally a better world.”

Recommendations that include increasing energy efficiency, switching to cleaner energy sources, making cities greener and reducing water consumption, the report suggests, could help reduce mankind’s effect on climate change. Still, the effects of global warming vary considerably, reports the Economist. Damage, and the possibility of reducing it, depends as much on other factors such as health systems or rural development as it does on global warming alone.

Wind Installation Hurdles, Potential Records

Last year wind turbine installation in the United States fell 93 percent—1.1 GW compared with 13.1 GW in 2012— according to Navigant Research’s annual World Market Update. The report points to the foundering U.S. market and the expiration of a tax credit for U.S. wind projects as the main driver behind a 20 percent drop in global wind power development, the first decline in eight years.

“The U.S. market decline, triggered by lack of policy consistency and the delay in renewing the tax credits, which have traditionally stimulated investment, was also a major contributing factor for the wind market depression last year,” said Feng Zhao, research director with Navigant.

In Alaska, a start-up is preparing to launch the first commercial pilot test of an airborne wind turbine know as Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT).  Floating at 1,000 feet, the turbine would supply power to a remote community in the state for about $0.18 per kilowatt hour—half the price of off-grid electricity in Alaska.

“It’s known that wind speed increases with altitude above ground level, and power density increases with a cubic factor of wind speed,” said Adam Rein, Altaeros co-founder. “Roughly speaking, a doubling of wind speed equates to an eight-fold increase in wind power density. Conventional turbine manufacturers are also trying to reach higher heights because of this fact—though not as high as our turbine.”

“Ultimately, the goal is to deploy BAT at off-grid village sites that have high (energy) costs,” he added. When deployed, the device is expected to break the world’s record for the highest wind turbine.

Obama Issues Plan to Cut Methane Emissions

On Friday, the Obama administration announced one more piece of its Climate Action Plan—a strategy to reduce methane emissions—a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It targets methane emissions from coal mining, landfills, agriculture and oil and gas production through a combination of standards programs beginning this month. No hard deadline for a proposed rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been set, but studies to explore significant sources of methane emissions will begin this spring.

“This is a rapidly evolving space,” said Dan Utech, President Barack Obama’s top climate advisor, noting that tamping down methane emissions would help meet Obama’s goal of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade. By the fall, the administration plans to determine the best reduction path, according to The Guardian. If imposed, methane emissions regulations would be completed by the end of 2016, just before Obama leaves office.

The announcement follows on the heels of several scholarly papers that found federal estimates significantly undercount the amount of methane emitted in the country and that methane emissions during well preparation for natural gas drilling were much lower than projected. The natural gas boom—driven by hydraulic fracturing—could mean two things for climate change over the next decade.

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.


Air Pollution Now Top Environmental Health Risk

March 27, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

New analysis from the World Health Organization (WHO) links exposure to air pollution to roughly 7 million deaths annually. The report confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest environmental health risk. It estimates 4.3 million people died in 2012—mainly due to cooking inside with coal or wood stoves. Another 3.7 million died from outdoor pollution, including diesel engine and factory emissions. The figures—more than double previous estimates—indicate that air pollution kills more people than smoking, diabetes and road deaths combined.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

The Western-Pacific region—including China, Japan and Australia—represented 41 percent (2.88 million) of the global deaths due to air pollution in 2012. In that year, countries in this region combined with countries in southeast Asia accounted for 5.8 million air pollution-related deaths.

Only three of 74 Chinese cities fully complied with state pollution standards in 2013. Earlier this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang classified air pollution as a top priority for the nation’s authorities. China is now using drones to spy on industries in Beijing and other cities where illegal polluting may be contributing to the nation’s smog problem. These unmanned crafts take photographs of smokestack scrubbers and assess smoke color in the images for pollution.

“You can easily tell from the color of the smoke—black, purple, brown—that the pollution is over the limit, because if smokestack scrubbers are operating properly, only white smoke is emitted,” said ministry official Yang Yipeng.

In new tests led by the China Meteorological Administration, drones could be used during peak air pollution periods to spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.

Texas Disaster Puts Oil Spills in Spotlight

As news headlines commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which more than 10 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in the waters off Alaska, emergency crews were dealing with a new disaster in one of the country’s busiest shipping channels: the Houston Ship Channel.

Though millions of gallons smaller than the Exxon Valdez spill or the BP’s Deep Horizon spill in 2010, the spill from a barge collision near Galveston closed the shipping lane for several days while a high-tech buoy system helped guide the cleanup.

Since the Exxon Valdez, the United States has experienced at least two-dozen major oil spills, ranging from a few hundred to millions of gallons. Scientists are still discovering the ecological costs associated with these spills.

A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds grim implications for the hearts of fish that were embryos, larvae or juveniles at the time of the BP oil spill, which coincided with tuna-spawning season. Led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the study links the spill to potentially lethal heart defects in species of tuna, amberjack and other predatory fish.

“Larvae exposed to high levels were dead within a week,” said study leader John Incardona. “But we still don’t know how long they lived after exposure to lower levels [of crude oil], or how much spawning area may have been impacted.”

The NOAA study follows research out in February suggesting that low concentrations of crude can disrupt the signaling pathways responsible for regular heart rhythms in fish.

Renewable Energy Makes Strides

Cheap installation costs, high electricity prices and government subsidies have allowed the cost of solar power to stay on par with the cost of traditional energy sources—at least in Germany, Spain and Italy. That’s according to a new report by the consulting firm Eclareon. “Soft costs” and demand are keeping the same from ringing true in the United States, according to The Week.

A new experimental house—developed by the University of California, Davis, and Honda—is designed to generate more electricity than it consumes and to store the extra energy in a car’s battery for later use.

“It’s a new world in terms of vehicles operating not as isolated artifacts but as being part of a larger energy system, and I think the greatest opportunity for automakers is figuring out how their vehicles become part of that system,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

The home uses a geothermal system to provide heating and cooling. Solar panels, energy-efficient automated lighting, electric vehicle charging and pozzolan-infused and post-tensioned concrete use less than half of the energy of a similarly sized new home in the Davis area.

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.


Reports, Website Document Effects of and Need for Dialogue on Climate Change

March 20, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last year, carbon dioxide briefly passed the 400 parts per million milestone. Now, says Ralph Keeling of the Scripps Institution for Oceanography, we’re on track to “see values dwelling over 400 in April and May. It’s just a matter of time before it stays over 400 forever.”

This pronouncement comes the same week the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report and the White House, a website, that seek to illustrate the effects of climate change and advance dialogue about it.

“We believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one,” said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. “As the voice of the scientific community, we need to share what we know and bring policymakers to the table to discuss how to deal with the issue.”

The AAAS report offers three messages about climate change: (1) it is happening, and humans are the cause; (2) risks posed by climate change are high and potentially damaging; and (3) the sooner we act, the lower the risks and costs. The report takes readers through a series of potential consequences of climate change that include accelerated sea level rise and food shortages as a result of the increasing difficulty of growing crops.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s next report, due out at the end of the month, is expected to touch on one of these topics. A leaked draft obtained by The Independent suggests that climate change will reduce crop yields by 2 percent per decade for the rest of the century. One study out now in the journal Nature Climate Change finds crop yields—specifically rice, corn and wheat—will decline more than 25 percent as a result of climate change.

Navy Tests Space Solar Idea

California and Texas topped a list of the 10 best states for clean energy jobs last year. The largest job creator? The solar industry.

Now, the impact of solar technology could extend into outer space. The United States Navy is working on a project that could, in theory, allow for the capture of enough solar power to run military bases and even cities. The Navy is working on “sandwich” modules or prototypes far larger than the International Space Station that would collect solar power while aboard an orbiting satellite. Specifically, a photovoltaic panel atop the satellite would absorb the sun’s energy. An electronics system would convert the energy into a radio frequency sent back to Earth.

“People might not associate radio waves with carrying energy, because they think of them for communications, like radio, TV, or cell phones,” said Paul Jaffe, a spacecraft engineer leading the project. “They don’t think about them as carrying usable amounts of energy.”

The idea of capturing solar power in space is not a new idea. The International Academy of Astronautics recently suggested that space solar technology would be viable in the next 30 years.

Decision on U.S. Oil Exports Complex

In 2013, crude oil production in the United States reached its highest level since 1989—a roughly 15 percent increase from 2012, according the Energy Information Administration.

The Ukrainian crisis and record-setting levels of U.S. oil production have some policymakers and industry officials calling for the reversal of a ban on most crude oil exports. Opponents and proponents disagree about the impact to consumers should the ban be lifted.

“I think it is realistic that the U.S. could be energy self-sufficient by the end of this decade,” said Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. “We’re already the world’s largest natural gas producer (and) last year crude oil production surpassed levels not seen since the 1980s.”

The topic’s varying angles dominated discuss at the annual IHS CERAWeek energy conference in Houston recently.

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.


All-Night Senate Session Focuses on Climate Change

March 13, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In the last 100 years, senators have held all-night sessions 35 times on everything from the Civil Rights Act to the Iraq War. This week, climate change made the list as number 36.

The more than 14-hour session, which began Monday night, was organized by the Climate Action Task Force. Dubbed an avenue to voice concerns over the issue that has been stalled in Congress, the session promoted no specific legislation.

That would be “premature,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, a senator from Rhode Island. “Tonight is not about a specific legislative proposal.” It was, participants said, a start toward making climate change part of the main political conversation.

Still, many Republicans in the Senate called the event a political stunt. And The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe said the reason behind the session was simply “campaign cash.”

A new Gallup poll suggests climate change, which kept more than two dozen senators up all night, is not something that tops Americans’ list of concerns. In the poll, it ranked near the bottom—number 14—on a list of 15 national concerns for Americans, along with the quality of the environment (number 13). About 24 percent of poll respondents worried about climate change “a great deal.” By comparison, 59 percent of respondents ascribed that level of worry to the economy, and 58 percent, to federal spending.

Climate Conversation Kicks Off in Bonn

Earth may experience 20 percent more warming than some previous studies estimated, research by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration suggests. The findings come as diplomats from nearly 200 nations gathered in Bonn, Germany, to forge a 2015 pact to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The meeting, which runs through March 14, is largely focused on working out the main elements of an agreement to bind nations to emissions reductions from 2020. One item on the list is setting a date for submitting proposals for national greenhouse gas reduction targets to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The meeting will also consider how to raise money for the Green Climate Fund to tackle climate change in the developing world. On Monday, one delegate from China told attendees that poorer countries need support to show that a low-carbon lifestyle is feasible.

“We don’t want to follow the pollution path of the past,” said Pa Ousman Jarju, Gambia’s envoy to the U.N. climate conference. He noted that delegates need to stop informal talks and start drafting a climate deal so financing can trickle down to other nations.

Russia’s climate negotiator indicated his country is considering a domestic carbon market to cut its emissions. Eventually, Russia may funnel some of the money into the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund.

In his first “policy directive” as secretary of state, John Kerry deemed climate change a top issue. Success, he said, required participation from everyone at the state department and posts around the world.

House Passes Bill to Block EPA Carbon Emissions Rule

The U.S. House late last week voted 229-183 on a bill to override the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate coal-fired power plants. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitefield (R-KY), requires the EPA to set carbon emissions standards based on technology that has been in use for one year.

Proposed rules for regulating carbon emissions from existing power plants are scheduled to be released in June. Wednesday, Republican lawmakers launched a probe into the EPA’s decision-making process leading up to establishment of a rule for new power plants.

Despite criticism that the new rule could ban coal-fired power plants, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy believes that coal will remain part of the country’s energy mix.

“Conventional fuels like coal and natural gas are going to play a critical role in a diverse U.S. energy mix for years to come,” she said at a recent energy conference. “This rule will not change that. It will recognize that.”

The legislation faces hurdles in the Senate. And President Barack Obama has said he would veto the bill.

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.


Budget Provides Blueprint for Climate, Energy Goals

March 6, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama unveiled his 2015 budget proposal Tuesday, outlining his spending and policy priorities for the upcoming year. In it, President Obama earmarked funding for both his Climate Action Plan and Climate Resiliency Fund.

The budget for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the agency that released stricter fuel standards this week—represented a $309 million decrease from the current fiscal year budget. The nearly $8 billion requested for environmental protection demands “difficult” choices, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Of those funds, 20 percent of the agency’s $1 billion climate and air quality budget will go toward global warming efforts. $10 million would support implementation of Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Meanwhile, energy spending was bumped 2.6 percent from the current budget. The increase includes about $2.3 billion to promote efficiency and renewable energy sources, which Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz views as a “longstanding commitment to innovation.”

“There’s a very, very strong focus … on energy efficiency across the board,” Moniz said. Funds are set aside for nuclear security and clean up as well as basic research.

Funding for the Department of the Interior saw a slight increase, which includes $1 billion for a climate fund that helps communities better prepare for and adapt to extreme weather events that result from climate change.

The budget announcement comes the same week a study in the journal Environmental Research Letters suggested nearly one-fifth of the world’s cultural landmarks could be affected by rising sea levels caused by global warming. Of the 720 spots examined, 20 percent could be ruined if temperatures rise 5.4 degrees above pre-industrial levels in the next two millennia.

Satellite Could Revolutionize Understanding of Precipitation, Extreme Weather

A new satellite is expected to improve our understanding and ability to monitor global precipitation. Launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NASA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency last week, the satellite will track all precipitation on Earth—delivering measurements every three hours.

“Knowing where, when, and how much it’s snowing and raining around the world is extremely important for understanding extreme events like blizzards, or drought in California, monsoon rains in Asia,” said Dalia Kirschbaum, the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory’s mission applications scientist. “So by having the global picture, all the way from what’s happening in our atmosphere around the planet down to what’s happening in my backyard—it gives us really powerful information to tell us about weather, about how our climate is changing and how we can improve our understanding and mitigation of natural hazards.”

The satellite is equipped with technology allowing it to create three-dimensional profiles of storm systems. NASA is using data collected by the satellite, along with other technology, to better respond to California’s ongoing drought.

Seismic Exploration Could Pave Path for Drilling in the Atlantic

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has proposed rules for seismic exploration of oil and gas in Atlantic waters, potentially setting the stage for a battle over offshore drilling in a 330,000-square-mile area from the mouth of Delaware Bay to just south of Cape Canaveral, Fla. In releasing its final review, the department favored a plan to allow use of underwater seismic air guns that environmentalists say threatens the survival of whales and dolphins but which the oil industry says is needed to assess how much oil and gas lies along the U.S. Atlantic seabed.

“The currently available seismic information from this area is decades old and was developed using technologies that are obsolete,” said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which issued the environmental impact statement. Federal estimates of 3.3 billion barrels of oil are from the 1970s and 1980s.

Energy industry groups and politicians in energy states have called on the Obama administration to open federal waters off the Atlantic seaboard to create jobs and promote national energy security. The American Petroleum Institute, which hailed the BOEM recommendation, predicts that oil and gas production in the region could create 280,000 new jobs. But oil producers said the agency would need to signal that it plans to include the Atlantic in its next leasing plan for companies to actually invest in seismic testing. A final “record of decision” formalizing the agency’s approach is expected after public comment ends in April.

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.


Supreme Court Divided after Hearing on EPA Authority

February 27, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a hearing Monday, the Supreme Court questioned whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is correct in its interpretation that regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles triggers the requirement to also implement permitting requirements for large stationary sources. At issue is the legality of EPA’s interpretation of the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) regulations. Industry groups argue that the PSD permitting requirements apply to certain pollutants, whereas the EPA argues that they apply to all pollutants, including greenhouse gases. Ultimately, the more than 90-minute session ended with the justices divided over whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”

“As is so often the case when the court is closely divided, the vote of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy loomed as the critical one, and that vote seemed inclined toward the EPA, though with some doubt,” said SCOTUS blogger Lyle Denniston. “Although he seemed troubled that Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. could call up no prior ruling to support the policy choice the EPA had made on greenhouse gases by industrial plants, Kennedy left the impression that it might not matter.”

A decision is expected by June. According to experts, the court’s ruling could have a range of effects on EPA’s permitting requirements.

If the Supreme Court rules against the EPA, the agency has several options, said Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast (subscription). It could, for instance, devise new source performance standards for each individual source or regulate sources under another Clean Air Act program.

Nuclear Reviving

As some residents near the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster get the “all clear” to return to their homes April 1, Japan announced a plan to revive its nuclear program.

Overturning a previous commitment to phase out all nuclear, the draft government plan, which awaits Cabinet approval, instead calls for more long-term reliance on the energy source. It specifies that nuclear dependency will remain low but that reactors meeting standards set after the 2011 Fukushima disaster should be restarted. The Wall Street Journal reports 17 such reactors are undergoing inspection now.

In the United States, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz provided final approval for a $6.5 billion dollar loan guarantee that will be used to construct two nuclear reactors in Georgia—the first built in the United States in more than 30 years. Days later, President Barack Obama approved a deal with Vietnam that would allow the nation to develop nuclear power.

Obama: Decision on Keystone Could Come Soon

A decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline—carrying crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast—will be made in the next “couple of months,” President Barack Obama told attendees at the annual National Governors Association winter meeting Monday. The White House declined to expand on Obama’s comment at the private meeting. Politico reports that it contradicts speculation by parties on both sides that the decision will come after November’s mid-term elections. That speculation began last week after a ruling by a Nebraska judge that struck down a state law approving the pipeline’s route through the state.

The president’s Keystone decision comment came a day after Canada’s National Energy Board audit found TransCanada Corp—the company leading the Keystone XL project—could make improvements in its pipeline safety practices. The audit was moved up after a then-employee of TransCanada came forward with allegations of safety lapses.

“The audit has confirmed that, in response to these allegations, TransCanada has developed and implemented a program of actions with the goal of correcting and preventing similar occurrences,” the National Energy Board said. The board found TransCanada to be non-compliant in four areas: hazard identification, risk assessment and control; operational control in upset or abnormal operating condition; inspection, measurement and monitoring; and management review.

Despite claims the State Department violated conflict of interest rules when it chose an outside contractor to conduct an environmental impact study of the proposed pipeline, a report issued Wednesday found otherwise.

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.