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.


Obama Doesn’t Need Congress to Move Forward on Clean Energy

January 23, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A week before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, a new report says Obama could advance key measures of his Climate Action Plan with or without the cooperation of Congress.

“When they believed a national situation warranted action, some past presidents interpreted their authority broadly and exercised it aggressively,” the report said. “That is the practice of presidential authority Americans and the world need today.”

More than 200 recommendations for how Obama can use his executive authority to accelerate progress on climate change are contained in the 207-page Powering Forward report released by the Center for the New Energy Economy and developed with the help of CEOs, energy experts, academicians and thought leaders. The recommendations focus on clean energy solutions such as doubling energy efficiency, financing renewable energy, producing natural gas more responsibly, developing alternative fuels and vehicles and helping utilities adapt to a changing energy landscape.

Most of the recommendations aren’t all that new, but a few, says Oilprice.com, are interesting. One suggestion is to modify mortgage rules so that qualifying for federally backed mortgage loans requires new homes to be constructed with updated energy efficiency standards.

Despite the report’s ideas for the future, 2013 saw many clean energy developments. The Rocky Mountain Institute calls out 10—including growth in the electric vehicle sector and companies putting a price on carbon—that helped bring the country closer to a secure, prosperous energy future.

NASA, NOAA Label 2013 One of the Planet’s Warmest Years

A pair of reports simultaneously released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reached different conclusions about where 2013 ranks among the world’s hottest years.

NOAA said last year’s average world temperature of 58.12 degrees tied with that of 2003 for the fourth hottest year since 1880—when record keeping began. NASA ranked 2013 the seventh warmest on record—tying 2009 and 2006. The slight difference in rankings, scientists said, could be explained by the methods used by the agencies to interpret the same weather data collected from more than 1,000 metrological stations across the globe. NASA, for example, uses more samples from Antarctica.

Regardless of the difference in rankings, both agencies found that nine of the 10 warmest years on record were in the 21st century. According to NASA, the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere peaked in 2013 at 400 parts per million—higher than any point in the last 800,000 years. The level was 285 parts per million in 1880.

“Long-term trends in surface temperature are unusual and 2013 adds to the evidence for ongoing climate change,” said Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “While one year or one season can be affected by random weather events, this analysis shows the necessity for continued, long-term monitoring.”

Schmidt said 2014 is likely to be even warmer than 2013, remarkable partly because El Nino, the periodic warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, was absent in 2013.

“Through the second half of 2014 we are looking at the likelihood of an El Nino, which will help warm 2014 over 2013,” he said.

Southern Leg of Keystone Begins Exporting Oil

TransCanada began delivering oil on Wednesday from Oklahoma to customers in Nederland, Texas, through the southern portion of a controversial proposed cross-border pipeline. The start of commercial operations for this leg of the Keystone XL pipeline came with little fanfare after approval by the president nearly two years ago. Although landowners in East Texas continue to challenge TransCanada’s right to take their land for the pipeline, it’s the northern leg of the pipeline, which is projected to carry oil from Canada, that’s been most controversial.

The northern portion of the pipeline still awaits approval by the U.S. State Department. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry brushed aside pressure from Canada, offering that he’s not yet received a critical environmental report on the long delayed project.

“My hope is that before long, that analysis will be available, and then my work begins,” he said.

TransCanada acknowledged it has plans to look at building rail terminals in Alberta and Oklahoma if the Obama administration declines to approve the pipeline’s northern leg. Recent accidents involving oil-bearing trains may put more pressure on the administration to approve the pipeline.

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 Shares Plan for Action on Climate Change

June 27, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation July 4 in observance of the Independence Day holiday. We will return July 11.

In a speech at Georgetown University Tuesday, President Barack Obama outlined a long-awaited executive strategy—comprised mostly of initiatives already underway—to curb greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

“As a president, as a father and as an American, I’m here to say, ‘We need to act,’” Obama said. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

The plan includes measures previously speculated to be a part of the overall climate change reduction strategy, including boosting renewable energy on federal land and tightening energy efficiency standards. At its heart the plan relies on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations to reduce emissions from new and existing power plants responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

The agency issued a proposed rule for new power plants in April 2012, a rule the president said will be finalized soon after a new proposal is submitted no later than September 20, 2013. Once finalized, the rule will trigger a requirement under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act for the EPA to regulate existing sources. Under Obama’s plan, the proposed rule for existing plants wouldn’t be issued until June 2014, and may not be finalized for another year afterward.

The Clean Air Act provision addressing performance standards for existing facilities—specifically, Section 111(d)—calls for a partnership between the EPA and state governments under which the EPA identifies an emission target, then states design and implement the performance standards that are subject to the agency’s approval. The combination of limited precedent and the statute’s general language should provide the EPA with a broad array of options for setting the emission target and evaluating the adequacy of state plans to achieve it.

To spur investment in technologies that keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere, Obama will make roughly $8 billion in federal loan guarantees available. This will fund a variety of advanced energy projects, including carbon capture and storage.

‘Wiggle Room’ Still Left for Keystone XL Decision

Obama’s thinking on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline—carrying 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada’s tar sands to Texas—is subject to interpretation.

“Our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” Obama said. “The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”

The Washington Post reports that Obama may have left himself some “wiggle room” on the decision—expected as early as this summer. In March, the State Department issued a draft environmental impact statement finding Keystone XL wouldn’t lead to significantly more carbon pollution. The administration has said it will examine whether vetoing the project would mean higher emissions than if it were built.

Renewable Energy to Double

Renewable energy is another key initiative in Obama’s climate strategy, and he shared plans Tuesday to issue permits for 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on federal land and 100 megawatts of installed renewable capacity for federally-subsidized housing. The move would double production by 2020.

The plan’s release coincides with the International Energy Agency’s release of a five-year energy outlook identifying global renewable energy as fast growing—edging out natural gas as the second largest electricity source, after coal, by 2016.

Supreme Court to Review Cross State Air Pollution Rule

The Supreme Court will review the lower court’s decision striking down the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which would set limits for emissions from coal-fired power plants that cross state lines. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ overturned the rule in August 2012, stating the agency exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act by imposing “massive emissions reduction requirements.”

The rule would cap emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in 28 states in the eastern half of the country where pollution blows into neighboring jurisdictions. In a statement, the EPA told POWERnews it was “pleased” with the decision to reconsider the rule, but “the Supreme Court’s decision to grant our petition is not a decision on the merits but instead a decision to review the case on merits. As such, it does not alter the current status of [CAIR] or the Cross-State Rule.”

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.


Climate Change under the Microscope in Report, Leaked IPCC Draft

December 20, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the holidays, The Climate Post will take a break from regular circulation Dec. 27. It will return January 3, 2013. 

As lawmakers in Washington, D.C., debate the so-called fiscal cliff—when U.S. federal tax increases and spending cuts are due to take effect at the end of 2012—new research in the journal Nature Climate Change says we are already at the edge of a climate cliff. It explores the cost and risk associated with surpassing critical emissions thresholds by 2020, and what would need to take place to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius—a mark many regard as the limit to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. It further shares that reaching the 2-degree target may still be possible even if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced before 2020, but it will be more expensive and difficult, and come with higher risks. Just weeks ago, at the United Nations climate conference in Doha, governments failed to impose additional emissions cuts—looking to a new global climate treaty that would go into effect in 2020.

Meanwhile, the draft of the next assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—which provides detailed assessments of climate science every few years—was leaked online by blogger Alec Rawls before its intended release next year. Rawls claims it contains a “game-changing admission” about the sun’s effect on climate, but Dana Nuccitelli writes in The Guardian that Rawls “has completely misrepresented” the report. Rawls’ interpretations actually draw attention from other interesting conclusions in the draft thus far, the New Scientist reports—such as ice-free Arctic summers by 2100, greater sea-level rise and the likelihood we’ll see almost 9 degrees Celsius of warming by 2300. The IPCC itself criticized the leak, but Andrew Revkin writes in The New York Times that—while he disagrees with Rawls’ interpretations of the report—the leak “provides fresh evidence that the [IPCC’s] policies and procedures are a terrible fit for an era in which transparency will increasingly be enforced on organizations working on consequential energy and environmental issues.”

Soot Standard Updated

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in response to a court order, has imposed updates to the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for fine particulate pollution from power plants and diesel vehicles. The new rule, which includes soot, was revised to allow only 12 micrograms of particulate pollution—a 20 percent reduction from the 15 micrograms allowed per cubic meter of air set in 1997. While the EPA projects 99 percent of U.S. counties will meet the revised health standard by 2020, today 66 counties in eight states—including the metropolitan areas of Houston, Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles—do not meet it.

The highly anticipated standards came with mixed reviews, with many applauding them and one study finding reductions in particulate matter correlated to increased life expectancy. “These standards are fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “We will save lives and reduce the burden of illness on our communities, and families across the country will benefit from the simple fact of being able to breathe cleaner air.” Still, others criticized the rulingclaiming, among other things, that it threatens industry expansion.

2013 Climate and Energy Outlook

In the new year there are a number of energy and climate related developments to keep tabs on. Among them:

Oil and Gasoline: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gasoline consumption will remain flat in 2013, while U.S. oil production will rise to 7.1 million barrels a day—the highest average annual production rate in the country since 1992.

Keystone XL Pipeline: President Barack Obama is expected to make a decision on this pipeline—bringing crude from the Canadian oil sands to the U.S. There are still snags along the way, as residents challenge the pipeline and information surfaces about advanced spill technologies absent in current plans.

Cap-and-Trade Linkage: Quebec has adopted new regulations that could pave the way for the province to set up a cap-and-trade system with California in the new year.

Coal Demand to Increase: The International Energy Agency, meanwhile, predicted demand for coal will increase in every region of the world by 2017 except the U.S.

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.


After Tar Sands Pipeline Decision Delayed, Other Routes Sought

November 17, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not be circulated next Thursday in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday. Look for it again on December 1.

The Obama administration delayed deciding whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which has been proposed to carry tar sands from Canada to Texas’s Gulf Coast. The administration said it should consider alternate routes and wait until early 2013 to decide.

Industry officials in Canada thought the delay may derail the pipeline, and threaten the country’s aim of becoming a top oil producer. To maintain high prices for Canadian oil, there is an urgent need for new means of export, including to Asia, argued the Globe and Mail.

Meanwhile Republican lawmakers proposed a bill for speeding up the review process, and TransCanada Corp., the company proposing the pipeline, argued the approval could come in six to nine months.

In Nebraska, the pipeline has met opposition in part because of fears the pipeline would threaten the vast Ogallala Aquifer that underlies much of the state and the ecologically sensitive Sandhills region.

Nebraska’s legislature voted unanimously, earlier this week, for a bill to re-route the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as for a separate bill to establish authority for the state to regulate pipeline routes within its borders. In response, TransCanada Corp. has proposed a different route through Nebraska.

Diplomacy and Downsizing

The U.S. Department of State, which has been in charge of reviewing the Keystone XL application, has opened a new branch, the Bureau of Energy Resources. The new bureau, a result of a review that began in 2009, will aim to strengthen “energy diplomacy.”

The State Department’s special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs said the main goal is not energy independence for the U.S., since the country is tightly linked with global markets. The new bureau will push for increased use of natural gas around the world as a replacement for burning oil to generate electricity.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) is under fire for its handling of cleantech loans, in particular of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was scheduled to testify. Meanwhile an internal review at the DoE said the department spends too much on overhead and should restructure in preparation for downsizing forced by budget cuts likely to come.

Salvaging the Kyoto Essence

The upcoming climate talks in Durban, South Africa, are unlikely to make any huge strides, the Christian Science Monitor argued, but could make a crucial contribution by extending the Kyoto Protocol. Salvaging the essence of that agreement is the most important step, agreed Africa’s chief negotiator at the talks, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for richer countries to follow through with their pledge for a $100 billion annual climate aid, and the Green Climate Fund, both of which G-20 countries said they remain committed to recently. But the deepening economic problems in Europe may mean contributions to climate funds fall short of promises.

The Green Climate Fund has run into problems already, hampered by disagreements over how to structure it. Because of lack of transparency and possible double-counting of funds, it is difficult to say how much additional climate aid has actually been contributed, said Saleemul Huq of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

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.


Only Five Years Left to Make Transition to Low-Carbon Infrastructure

November 10, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The infrastructure built over the next five years could “lock in” enough emissions to push the world past its target for limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest annual update of energy trends, World Energy Outlook.

The Agency is “increasingly pessimistic” about the prospect for dealing with climate change, said deputy executive director Richard Jones.

To stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the world has a budget of greenhouse gases it can emit, equal to about 1 trillion tons of CO2. Infrastructure already in place, or in the process of being built, will emit about 80 percent of that, the IEA estimated.

Unless there is a binding international agreement soon to ensure a swift transition to low-carbon infrastructure, “the door to 2 degrees will be closed forever,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol. So, investment in cleantech can’t wait until economic good times, argued the Guardian’s Damian Carrington.

This transition away from fossil fuels will require that annual subsidies for renewable energy continue rising, reaching $250 billion by 2035—four times today’s level—the IEA estimated, but this would still be considerably less than today’s fossil fuel subsidies.

The IEA foresees oil prices remaining high for decades to come, with a tight market with risks of price spikes if there is a cut-off due to war or soaring prices if there is insufficient investment in oil fields.

Because of these climate and security risks, Birol argued, “We have to leave oil before it leaves us.”

Solar Trade War?

The boom in Chinese production of low-cost solar panels has hit U.S. manufacturers hard, making it difficult for them to compete.

Subsidies for renewable energy in China have sparked accusations of a trade war with the United States, prompting a U.S. Department of Commerce investigation.

Some U.S. manufacturers launched an official complaint against China, and have called for a duty on Chinese panels imported into the U.S.

Another group of U.S. solar manufacturers and installers banded together to form the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy to oppose the complaint. This led China’s largest solar power plant developer to shelve plans for a $500 million U.S. project.

Despite China’s large exports of solar panels, they’re also using many at home—and may install as much solar capacity as the U.S. this year.

Carbon Tax Approved

Australia will impose a large tax on carbon emissions, after the country’s Senate passed the legislation. The tax will kick in next July, and the country is pursuing linking its carbon market with others in New Zealand and Europe.

The system will be tax-and-dividend in which households will be compensated for higher energy prices, with payments of about 10 Australian dollars per week scheduled to start in May, before the tax hits.

Pipeline Controversy

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry tar sands from Canada to Texas faced its biggest opposition yet with a revival of protests in Washington, D.C., in which thousands of protesters encircled the White House.

Canada is also considering another tar sands pipeline called Northern Gateway to reach a port on the Pacific coast, sited for export to Asia.

Oil historian Daniel Yergin argued opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is misguided because if the U.S. doesn’t buy the fuel, China will.

Either way, the large store of tar sands in Canada could reshape world oil markets, said the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which represents large exporters such as Saudi Arabia, but does not include Canada.

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.


Big Businesses’ Call for Climate Action: Strong Treaty, More Aid

October 20, 2011

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.


Australia’s Wild Weather May Have Helped Push Carbon Tax

October 13, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Although Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard had promised before to not enact a carbon tax, floods, bush fires, heat waves, and drought reawakened discussion about putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

This week, Australia’s House of Representatives narrowly passed a carbon tax, sending the bill to the country’s Senate, where observers say it is almost certain to pass. Supporters say Australia’s setup would have several advantages over Europe’s carbon-trading system, including a fixed price for the first three years while the fledgling system gets going, which could allow Australia to claim it is the world leader on climate legislation.

However, Australia is currently one of the biggest emitters per capita, with 80 percent of the country’s electricity coming from coal. Australia is also the world’s biggest coal exporter, and as such has the coal industry reacting fiercely to the proposed law.

Buying Sunshine

Debt-wracked Greece is launching a plan—with Germany’s help—to attempt to boost its economy out of recession by building huge solar power installations. “Project Helios,” named after the Greek god of the sun, is designed to attract 20 billion euros in foreign investment—and a large portion of the electricity produced may leave the country, headed to Germany.

However, the plan for exporting the electricity has some snags, critics say—including the need for billions of euros of investment in Greece’s power grid. Nonetheless, the president of the Hellenic Association of Photovoltaic Companies said the plan is more realistic than Desertec, a proposal to supply Europe with electricity from huge solar power farms in North Africa.

Energy for All

In preparation for 2012—which the United Nations has named the Year of Sustainable Energy for All—the International Energy Agency released its first assessment of the cost of ending energy poverty. The price tag: $48 billion a year—about 3 percent of the yearly global energy investment, and about five times as much as is spent now trying to bring energy to the world’s poor.

Expanding electricity to about 1.5 billion people who lack it now would add less than 1 percent to the world’s emissions, the report estimated, and the spread could be driven by the private sector, with the proper incentives from governments, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Pipeline Proceedings

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted tar sands from Canada to Texas, faced raucous opposition at a public hearing in Washington, D.C. Protests against the project outside the White House dwindled in September, but the project remains a political headache for the Obama Administration.

Nonetheless, many industry insiders surveyed by National Journal, as well as Canada’s natural resources minister, said the administration is likely to approve the pipeline.

More Nuclear Zones

Notwithstanding the retreat from nuclear power in Germany, Switzerland, and perhaps Japan, the world is still headed for a nuclear renaissance, said a report by Britain’s Royal Society. However, the report argued there should be more emphasis on controlling proliferation of nuclear materials and better storage of spent fuel to avoid accidents like that at Fukushima.

A new bill in Berkeley, California, is questioning the city’s long-time stance as a “nuclear free zone,” which uses no nuclear power and lets no nuclear weapons pass through it. But one of  its city council members says the 1986 law causes more problems than it is worth and should be repealed.

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.


Tar Sands Pipeline Gets Green Light in Environmental Review

September 1, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Hundreds of protesters—including famed climate researcher James Hansen—have been arrested in protests in front of the White House over the past two weeks, in an attempt to stop the construction of a pipeline from Canada to Texas to carry diluted tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries, mainly over concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and risks of tainting a nearby water aquifer.

The U.S. State Department has been weighing whether to approve the pipeline, and under what conditions. In a major step last week, the State Department published its final environmental review, which said the pipeline would have “no significant impact to most resources” along its path, assuming “normal operation.”

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said energy security concerns could help the pipeline win approval on the grounds that importing oil from Canada is preferable to imports from the Middle East—an argument echoed in a Washington Post editorial by veteran business reporter Robert Samuelson.

Shale Gas Shakedown

The Marcellus shale deposits—so far, the biggest site for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking— may contain far less gas than recently projected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), according to a new assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Although the new estimate is higher than the U.S. Geological Survey’s own 2002 estimate, it is much lower than an estimate EIA published earlier this year. In response, the EIA said it will downgrade their next estimate—perhaps by as much as 80 percent. But the Washington Post reports there may be more to these numbers.

In light of allegations that petroleum companies have overstated how much gas they could get out of shale deposits, the New York State Attorney’s Office is investigating whether companies “overbooked” reserves. Earlier this summer, federal lawmakers called on the Securities and Exchange Commission, the EIA and the Government Accountability Office to investigate industry estimates.

Rise and Fall of Solar, Wind

China achieved a meteoric rise in wind power over the past five years, and last year pulled ahead of the U.S. to become the country with the largest installed capacity of wind turbines.

At the same time, the growth of China’s wind industry is slowing down due to over capacity and withdrawal of subsidies, among other causes. And some of China’s largest wind turbine manufacturers reported falling profits due to fierce competition, as has been seen in the solar panel industry.

Solar manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe have been struggling to compete with panels from Asia, China especially. Two weeks ago, Evergreen declared bankruptcy, followed by Solyndra this week. Both companies had been touted by the Obama administration and local officials as models for the green economy. New York-based SpectraWatt, a solar spin-out from computer chip manufacturer Intel, also filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, China is pushing ahead with plans to greatly expand their installations of solar power, doubling their targeted installations over the next decade. By 2015, they aim to have 3 gigawatts installed—10 times as much as they had last year—and by 2020, 50 gigawatts.

Despite such difficulties in the market, the United States’ net exports of solar power products more than doubled in 2010 compared with the year before, reaching $1.8 billion. Total U.S. exports of solar products rose 83 percent, to $5.6 billion, in part because Asia is importing equipment for manufacturing solar panels.

Burying the Problem

The first industrial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) plant in the U.S. broke ground in Illinois, with the aim of capturing emissions from a large corn ethanol plant. Work on the plant began just after a U.S. utility canceled its plan for CCS on a West Virginia coal plant.

In Canada, a CCS plant for capturing emissions from tar sands processing may move ahead after Canada’s government recently agreed to underwrite two-thirds of the $1.35-billion project’s cost.

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.