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.


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.


Tougher Efficiency Standards Ordered for Large Trucks

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced his administration will begin developing tougher fuel standards for the nation’s fleet of medium- and heavy-duty trucks. The new standards will build on a 2011 regulation that set the first-ever fuel standards for model years 2014–18. The next phase—for models beyond 2018—will be proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in March 2015.

“Improving gas mileage for these trucks is going to drive down our oil imports even further,” Obama said. “That reduces carbon pollution even more, cuts down on businesses’ fuel costs, which should pay off in lower prices for consumers. So it’s not just a win-win, it’s a win-win-win. We got three wins.”

In 2010, heavy-duty vehicles made up roughly 4 percent of registered vehicles on the road but accounted for 20 percent of on-road energy use and carbon emissions. Ahead of the roll out of the final rule in March 2016, the Obama administration was offering “new tax credits, both for companies that manufacture heavy-duty alternative-fuel vehicles and those that build fuel infrastructure so that trucks running on biodiesel or natural gas or hybrid electric technology.” Those credits, Politico reports, still require approval from Congress.

EIA Projects Increased Coal Fired Power Plant Retirements

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports in its Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Reference Case that a much larger number of coal electric power plants will retire by 2020 than has been announced thus far. The EIA projects about 60 gigawatts—accounting for one-fifth of existing 310-gigawatt coal-fired electric capacity. That’s 20 gigawatts more than power companies are reporting.

“In [EIA’s] projections, 90 percent of the coal-fired capacity retirements occur by 2016, coinciding with the first year of enforcement for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards” (MATS) as well as the rise of cost competitive natural gas, the report notes.

Despite the latest retirement projection, existing coal plants are expected to supply 32 percent of all U.S. electricity in 2020. Coal generation flattens out after 2020, the EIA predicts, as coal use increases due to projected high natural gas prices and nuclear plant retirements.

“Post-2020, demand for electricity in our projections increases as well as natural gas prices,” said EIA Analyst Michael Leff. “Therefore, there is less long-term economic pressure on coal post-2020, barring no future regulations.”

The EPA is working on new regulations—separate from MATS—that would regulate carbon emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants. Through early March, the agency is accepting comments concerning proposed carbon pollution standards now proposed for new plants.

A recent survey found many Americans are in favor of carbon regulations for power plants, but at a public hearing on the rules, some industry representatives criticized the agency’s requirement for carbon capture and storage technology to trap harmful emissions.

Kerry Says Climate Change Can Now be Considered Another Weapon of Mass Destruction

The United Kingdom has been rocked by record-breaking flooding. Although the U.K. Met Office has said there is no definitive link between climate change and recent weather events, it found unusual weather is “consistent with what is expected from the fundamental physics of a warming globe.”

Recent, unusual weather events have pushed climate change back into the political debate. While in Jakarta, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Indonesia—the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the U.S. and China—that man-made climate change could threaten the populace’s way of life.

“Think about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” Kerry said. “It doesn’t keep us safe if the United States secures its nuclear arsenal while other countries fail to prevent theirs from falling into the hands of terrorists. The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

Days earlier, Kerry visited China, where he announced a “co-operative effort” to address climate change ahead of a global summit on the issue next year. The visit to Indonesia, some reported, was part of a larger effort to enlist the help of developing nations in reducing emissions. However, others failed to find the strategy behind Kerry’s climate speech.

Keystone XL Pipeline Decision Further Delayed Following Court Ruling

The Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, hit another hurdle Wednesday, when a Nebraska judge struck down a state law approving the route of the controversial pipeline. The 2012 law gave Nebraska’s governor authority to approve the pipeline’s route through the state. The ruling further complicates a pending decision by the Obama administration on whether to approve the Keystone project. Obama was expected to discuss the issue with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a one-day North American Summit meeting Wednesday.

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.


Guidelines Issued for Diesel Fuel Used in Hydraulic Fracturing

February 13, 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) issued guidelines on the use of diesel fuel in oil and gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method that involves pumping water containing chemicals into shale formations to unlock trapped energy resources. The EPA defines five substances as diesel variations and outlines guidelines and “technical recommendations” for their use.

“Decisions about permitting hydraulic fracturing operations that use diesel fuels will be made on a case-by-case basis, considering the facts and circumstances of the specific injection activity and applicable statutes, regulations and case law, and will not cite this guidance as a basis for decision,” the EPA said.

Although the EPA has limited authority to regulate fluids in fracking, it has been allowed to regulate diesel fluids under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Tuesday’s guidelines mark the first time the agency has done so.

The guidelines are intended to protect underground stores of drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act. These new standards, the agency said, can be adopted by states to govern natural gas production.

Olympians, World Leaders Look to Make Progress on Climate Change

Just one day after Sochi Olympians released a statement calling on world leaders to take action on climate change and prepare a global agreement at a U.N. meeting in Paris in 2015, President Barack Obama and French Republic President Francois Hollande pledged joint efforts on climate. The two leaders agreed to expand their work in the area ahead of the U.N. meeting that will bring world leaders together to forge a global climate agreement to take effect in 2020.

“Even as our two nations reduce our own carbon emissions, we can expand the clean energy partnerships that create jobs and move us toward low-carbon growth,” according to an op-ed published in the Washington Post. “We can do more to help developing countries shift to low-carbon energy as well, and deal with rising seas and more intense storms.”

Beyond the pledge, the Obama administration may be preparing to bring a new U.S. carbon-reduction pledge to the U.N. talks in Paris.

“In at least three interagency meetings at the White House since September, administration sources said, officials have debated whether the new goals should extend to 2025 or 2030. They also have laid out the scientific and economic modeling that must be done in the coming months and discussed whether a new target should assume Congress will eventually enact climate legislation or whether the White House must continue to use existing authority under the Clean Air Act to squeeze out more emissions reductions,”ClimateWire reports (subscription).

Study Challenges Climate Effects of Wind Farms

European wind farm installations have little large-scale impact on temperature and precipitation, according to a new study published in Nature Communications. The latest research challenges the idea, which some earlier studies suggested, that wind farms’ warming effects might not be purely local.

The weather effects from wind “remain small and likely unnoticeable,” Francois-Marie Bréon, study co-author, said of the research, which constitutes the first continent-scale modeling of the relationship of turbines, precipitation and temperature (subscription).

To arrive at their finding, study authors used the measured local weather impacts of wind farms operational in 2012 to model future effects based on the projected two-fold increase in wind production by 2020. They concluded that “the impacts remain much weaker than the natural climate interannual variability and changes expected from greenhouse gas emissions.”

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 Promises Strong Action on Climate Change, Energy Independence in State of the Union Address

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama took just 5 minutes of the 65-minute speech to cover energy and environment issues. He declared climate change “a fact,” stating “when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

Despite this assertion, National Geographic reports Obama’s efforts on climate change since his last State of the Union address have come up short in the minds of many in the environmental community. On Tuesday, Obama did mention a number of issues, most of which he had discussed before, to deal with climate change. He wants to set new fuel efficiency standards for trucks, and he promised to “cut red tape” to establish natural-gas-powered factories and fueling stations for cars and trucks. He endorsed natural gas not only as an economic driver, but also as a way to further cut emissions.

He also mentioned efforts to set emissions limits for power plants, and, if necessary, to use his executive power to move the effort forward. But portending the political drama to come, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted earlier Tuesday to scrap a measure (subscription) to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants.

Obama went on to tout the administration’s work toward attaining energy independence, offering that there is more “oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world.” According to White House reports, domestic crude oil production surpassed crude oil imports in October 2013 for the first time since 1995.

The president did not mention whether he intends to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—projected to carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The closest he came, Politico reports, was alluding to “tough choices along the way” during a shift to a “cleaner energy economy.” Coal, nuclear power and wind—sources responsible for 60 percent of the nation’s electricity generation—received no mention.

Long-Awaited Farm Bill Passes House

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a five-year farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014, containing provisions for renewable energy, energy efficiency programs in rural areas, cuts to food stamps and modifications to the federal agricultural subsidy system.

The bill, which will now go before the Senate, contains $881 million in mandatory funding for energy programs. The provision—which extends over the next 10 years—provides funding for projects focused on advanced biofuels and a program encouraging the development of wind, solar, hydroelectric and biogas projects.

“With stable policy and the investments included in this conference report, Farm Bill energy programs will continue to help rural communities create economic growth and good paying jobs,” said Biotechnology Industry Organization President and CEO Jim Greenwood. “The expansion of eligibility to new renewable chemical technologies and the support for new energy crops will create additional opportunities and improve U.S. economic growth across the country.”

The bill also includes an enhanced crop insurance program that would aid livestock producers in the event of a natural disaster and severe weather.

Botched Analysis Leaves Arctic Drilling in Question

The federal government failed to properly evaluate environmental risks related to offshore drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, a federal appellate court ruled recently. Three Ninth Circuit Court judges found the environmental review the U.S. Department of the Interior conducted before approving the sale of 2008 drilling leases considered the impact of drilling for 1 billion barrels of oil. A lawsuit brought by environmental groups and Native Alaska tribes alleged a larger environmental impact given that available oil was much higher.

The ruling brings the oil leases, covering some 30 million acres of sea floor, into question. And it means another setback for Shell, which announced plans to resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer, following several mishaps in the area in 2012. Of the companies that purchased leases in 2008, Shell is the only company that has begun drilling in the Arctic. On Thursday, the oil giant announced it will abandon plans to drill off the coast of Alaska this year.

The case is currently scheduled to return to a U.S. District Court in Alaska.

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.


Carbon Markets Show Glimmers of Recovery in 2014

January 9, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A year after the launch of its cap-and-trade program, California formally linked its emissions trading scheme with Quebec’s—enabling carbon allowances and offset credits to be exchanged between participants in the two jurisdictions. The linkage, which marks the first agreement in North America that allows for the trading of greenhouse gas emissions across borders, is designed to escalate the price on the amount of carbon businesses can emit.

There is a “potential for this market to serve as an example for other North American subnational jurisdictions to follow if it can prove to be successful,” said Robin Fraser, a Toronto-based analyst with the International Emissions Trading Association.

Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) opted to beef up its carbon trading system. Carbon prices are poised to rebound from a three-year decline after the 28-country bloc decided to back a stopgap plan to reduce the number of pollution permits that have flooded the market. As a result, the cost of emitting carbon dioxide may increase more than 50 percent on average to $10.54 a metric ton by the end of 2014.

The “backloading” plan aims to remove 900 million permits from the EU market between now and 2016. The date on which the law is formally adopted will drive the quantity of permits that can be withdrawn from auctions this year.

“If the auction calendars can still be adapted by end-March, a total of 400 million allowances will be backloaded for 2014. This amount will be reduced to 300 million if backloading is initiated in April, May or June,” according to the European Commission.

The move, The Economic Times reports, may help to lead global carbon market recovery in 2014. Last year, global carbon markets’ value dropped 38 percent to $52.9 billion.

EPA Power Plant Rule Open for Public Comment

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) draft proposal limiting carbon emissions from new power plants was published in the Federal Register Wednesday, triggering a 60-day public comment period.

The delay between the Sept. 20 announcement of the rule and the Jan. 8 Federal Register inking had prompted speculation about whether the agency was reconsidering the controversial rule requiring plants be built with carbon capture and storage (CCS) capabilities if they burn coal (subscription). The rule has drawn criticism from coal industry supporters, who say that CCS technology is not viable. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, sees things differently.

“We have proven time after time that setting fair Clean Air Act standards to protect public health does not cause the sky to fall,” McCarthy said in September. She noted that the proposed rule, “rather than killing the future of coal, actually sets out a certain pathway forward for coal to continue to be part of a diverse mix in this country.”

Another EPA rule that’s meant to remove potential obstacles to implementation of CCS was also published in the Federal Register. This rule, according to the EPA, is expected to “substantially reduce” the uncertainty associated with identifying carbon dioxide streams under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act as well as to facilitate deployment of geological sequestration.

Eruption of “Supervolcano” Could Have Global Climate Effects

A new study suggests that the magma chamber beneath one famous national park is 2.5 times larger than previously known and that it could have the potential to erupt with a force 2,000 times greater than Mount St. Helens in 1980.

Although there isn’t enough data to predict the timing of another Yellowstone eruption—the last one happened about 640,000 years ago—study scientists say instruments monitoring seismic activity would provide some warning. That eruption would leave volcanic material and gases lingering in the atmosphere that could result in a global temperature decrease.

“You’ll get ashfall as far away as the Great Plains, and even farther east,” said University of Utah scientist James Farrell of the findings presented at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.

Two separate studies in the journal Nature Geoscience suggest just how the magma in “supervolcanoes” like the one in Yellowstone blow sky high: the buoyancy of the magma exerting pressure on the magma chamber walls eventually causes the chamber roof to collapse. Though rare, supervolcano eruptions have a devastating impact on the Earth’s climate and ecology, reports BBC.

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.


EIA Releases Early Predictions from Annual Energy Outlook

December 19, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the upcoming holidays, the Climate Post will not circulate the next two weeks. It will return Jan. 9, 2014. 

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Monday released a 20-page preview of its Annual Energy Outlook 2014, which includes projections of U.S. energy supply, demand and prices through 2040.

Although the full report won’t be released until spring 2014, the preview projects a spike of 800,000 barrels a day in domestic crude oil production in 2014. By 2016, U.S. oil production will reach historical levels—close to the 9.6 million barrels a day achieved in 1970. The feat—made possible by fracking and other advanced drilling technologies—is expected to bring imported oil supplies down to 25 percent, compared with the current 37 percent, by 2016. Eventually though, the boom will level off, and production will slowly decline after 2020.

Natural gas will replace coal as the largest source of U.S. electricity. In 2040, natural gas will account for 35 percent of total electricity generation, while coal will account for 32 percent. Production of natural gas is predicted to increase 56 percent between 2012 and 2040; the U.S. will become an overall net exporter of the fuel by 2018—roughly two years earlier than the EIA projected in last year’s forecast.

“EIA’s updated Reference case shows that advanced technologies for crude oil and natural gas production are continuing to increase domestic supply and reshape the U.S. energy economy as well as expand the potential for U.S. natural gas exports,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski. “Growing domestic hydrocarbon production is also reducing our net dependence on imported oil and benefiting the U.S. economy as natural-gas-intensive industries boost their output.”

Total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are also predicted to remain below 2005 levels—roughly 6 billion metric tons—through 2040.

Oil to Flow from Southern Leg of Keystone Pipeline in 2014

Next month some 700,000 barrels per day are expected to begin flowing from Cushing, Okla. to Texas through the 485-mile pipeline that forms the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Initial testing, before the Jan. 22 launch, is showing no issues with the pipeline or shippers, according to project lead TransCanada.

Construction of the southern leg required only state environmental permits and permission by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The northern leg—bringing crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast—has been more controversial. It awaits presidential approval on a trans-border permit.

Even so, TransCanada announced it has reached an agreement with 100 percent of landowners in five of the six states through which the 1,700-mile northern leg will pass. The remaining holdouts are in Nebraska, where the pipeline’s route was reworked to avoid crossing the Sand Hills aquifer.

U.S. Military to Utilize More Biofuel

On the heels of a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lower the country’s 2014 biofuel mandate, the U.S. military announced plans to make biofuel blends part of its regular “operational fuel purchase” through a collaboration of the Navy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The Navy’s intensifying efforts to use advanced, homegrown fuels to power our military benefits both America’s national security and our rural communities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Not only will production of these fuels create jobs in rural America, they’re cost effective for our military, which is the biggest consumer of petroleum in the nation.”

Sudden fuel price spikes—responsible for as much as $5 billion in unbudgeted fuel increases—were cited as one reason for the program, which will begin in 2014. Deliveries are expected in mid-2015.

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.