Report, Initiatives Aim to Take Action on Climate Change

July 31, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: While Tim Profeta is on vacation, Jeremy Tarr, policy associate in the Climate and Energy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, will author The Climate Post. Tim will post again August 28.

The Climate Post will also take a break from circulation August 7 and will return August 14.

A new report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers finds that for each decade of delay, policy actions on climate change increase total mitigation costs by approximately 40 percent. The cost of inaction—letting the temperature rise 3 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels instead of 2 degrees— could increase economic damages by about 0.9 percent of global output.

“To put this percentage in perspective, 0.9 percent of estimated 2014 U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is approximately $150 billion,” according to the report. “Moreover, these costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay.”

The report is the first of several announcements by the Obama administration on climate change. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced initiatives to curb methane emissions, which accounted for about 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas pollution in 2012. The Energy Department recommended incentives for modernizing natural gas infrastructure, and it plans to establish efficiency standards for natural gas compressors as well as improve advanced natural gas system manufacturing.

The same day, several companies and nongovernment groups committed to support a new Food Resilience theme in the president’s Climate Data Initiative. The initiative leverages data and technology to help businesses and communities better withstand the effects of climate change. Companies like Microsoft are helping to organize data sets and tools in the cloud that will enable the assessment of vulnerable points in the food system, such as the effects of climate change on our food system and the reliability of food transportation and safety.

Hearings Fuel Debate on Clean Power Plan

During public hearings in Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heard testimony from the public on its proposed Clean Power Plan, which would limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

In Washington, D.C., many utilities and industry groups were critical of the plan’s climate benefits and called on the EPA to conduct further economic analysis before issuing its final rule in June 2015. In Atlanta, others said the plan did not account for steps they’ve already taken to reduce emissions.

“This rule is flawed,” said Mississippi utility regulator Brandon Presley (subscription). “States like Mississippi, who have fought to pull themselves up and get a program to help customers reduce energy costs and reduce energy consumption, kind of get slapped away from the table.”

In their testimony, many environmental groups sought greater emissions reductions from the power sector as well as increases in renewable energy generation and programs that reduce electricity demand. Some members of the public, like retired coal miner Stan Sturgill of Kentucky, agreed with these groups’ request for tougher restrictions.

“Your targets to reduce carbon dioxide pollution by 2030 are way too low and do not do enough to reduce our risk of climate change,” said Sturgill, who suffers from black lung and other respiratory ailments. “The rule does not do near enough to protect the health of the front line communities from the consequences of this pollution. We’re dying, literally dying, for you to help us.”

The EPA is asking states to meet carbon emissions targets that would result in a 30 percent reduction in power sector carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. States are given flexibility in how they achieve the targets.

Representatives from 13 western states met last week to discuss the EPA’s proposal and to begin considering the advantages of working together in response to the rule.

“We’re in the process of determining what makes sense for us, including working with other states in a regional market,” said Camille St. Onge, spokeswomen for Washington’s Department of Ecology.

United States Imposes Energy-Related Trade Constraints

The U.S. Commerce Department placed proposed new import penalties on solar products from China and Taiwan. These penalties come on top of anti-subsidy tariffs imposed on some panels from China last month.

The new proposed penalties, still to be confirmed, aim to curb the sale of low-cost solar panels and cells, a practice known as dumping, from other countries in the U.S. market. If confirmed, they would impose duties as high as 165 percent on some solar companies in China and 44 percent on those in Taiwan. The Commerce Department has issued only preliminary findings, but final rulings are expected from the Commerce Department later this year.

The move has China’s Commerce Ministry saying Washington’s actions risk damaging the solar industry in both countries.

“The frequent adoption of trade remedies cannot resolve the United States’ solar industry development problems,” an unnamed Chinese official told Reuters.

In the United States, reactions to the news were mixed.

“Today’s actions should help the U.S. solar manufacturing industry to expand and innovate,” said SolarWorld Industries America President Mukesh Dulani. “We should not have to compete with dumped imports or the Chinese government.”

But Rhone Resch, CEO of the U.S.-based Solar Energy Industries Association, condemned the decision, saying the answer lies in a negotiated solution.

Chinese companies supplied 31 percent of the solar modules installed in the United States in 2013 and more than 50 percent in the distributed solar market.

On Tuesday, the United States and the European Union issued new economic sanctions on Russia, citing the country’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. The sanctions ban the export of energy-related technology for use in Russian oil production from deepwater, Arctic offshore and shale oil production rock reserves. However, exports of technology for gas projects to the country, which holds the world’s largest combined oil and gas reserves, will continue.

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.


States, Studies React to EPA Rule Release

June 12, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On the coattails of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule for regulating carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, the White House issued a report on the health effects of climate change. The seven-page report outlines six major risks linked to rising temperatures—asthma, lung and heart illnesses; infectious disease; allergies; flooding-related hazards and heat stroke.

But one week after release of the EPA rule, most conversation centered on how the states will undertake their role in executing it. States in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative were hopeful their participation in the carbon trading program would help meet the requirements of the new rule. Lawmakers in at least eight states approved anti-EPA resolutions. Kentucky has enacted a new law that could block the state from complying with the rule, and West Virginia sent a letter to the EPA requesting the agency to withdraw the rule.

The proposal, which assigns each state interim and final emissions goals and asks the states to develop plans to reach them, accounts for the regional differences that affect how hard it will be to reduce emissions. The differences are both practical—how expensive one energy source is compared to another—and political. The proposal does say it “anticipates—and supports—states’ commitments to a wide range of policy preferences,” including decisions “to feature significant reliance on coal-based generation.”

States using a more traditional regulatory approach to execute their plans may be choosing a more costly approach than putting a price on carbon. New research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds that a regulatory standards approach cut less carbon at a higher price than emissions reductions that could be achieved under a cap-and-trade system (subscription).

“With a broader policy, like cap-and-trade, the market can distribute the costs across sectors, technologies and time horizons, and find the cheapest solutions,” said a study author Valerie Karplus. “So the market encourages emissions reductions from sectors like electricity and agriculture, and requires reductions from vehicles and electricity at a level that makes economic sense given an emissions target. On the other hand, narrow regulations force cuts in ways that are potentially more costly and less effective in reducing emissions.”

According to a Bloomberg national poll, Americans—by nearly a two-to-one margin—are willing to pay more for energy if it helps combat climate change. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll had similar findings, showing that most voters approve of the EPA’s new regulations even if there is a rise in energy costs.  Here at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, we looked ahead to the possibility of a further expansion of Clean Air Act standards limiting carbon dioxide emissions from other sectors. In particular, a new policy brief identifies key differences between the electric power and refining industries, highlighting their potential significance for regulating the refining industry. A companion working paper more deeply examines policy design as well as options for maximizing cost effectiveness while accounting for differences among refineries.

Study: Agricultural Emissions Can Be Curbed

Worldwide, agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of human-caused emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 300 times as much heat-trapping power as carbon dioxide. Overuse of nitrogen fertilizer is increasing these emissions.

A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that soil microbes were converting nitrogen fertilizer (subscription) into nitrous oxide faster than previously expected when fertilizer rates exceeded crop needs. In fact, the change was happening at a rate of about one kilogram of greenhouse gas for every 100 kilograms of fertilizer.

“Our specific motivation is to learn where to best target agricultural efforts to slow global warming,” said Phil Robertson, author of the study and director of Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station. “Agriculture accounts for 8 to 14 percent of all greenhouse gas production globally. We’re showing how farmers can help to reduce this number by applying nitrogen fertilizer more precisely.”

The study offers proven ways to reduce nitrogen use—applying fertilizer in the spring instead of fall and placing it deeper in the soil for easier plant access. It also provides support for expanding the use of carbon credits to pay farmers for improved fertilizer management.

This week, the first agricultural greenhouse gas emissions offsets were issued to a Michigan farmer whose voluntary decrease of nitrogen fertilizer use on corn crops reduced nitrous oxide emissions.

Crude Oil Production to Increase

U.S. crude oil production will reach its highest level—9.3 million barrels per day—in 2015, according to the latest Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast, issued Tuesday. The EIA estimates 8.4 million barrels per day for 2014—the United States averaged 7.4 million in 2013.

The increase will not have a dramatic effect on gas prices. The EIA reports that the U.S. average price for gasoline is expected to fall to $3.54 a gallon in September and to $3.38 a gallon in 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.


EPA Releases Proposed Rule for Existing Power Plants

June 5, 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) this week announced a proposed rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This first-of-its-kind proposal uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets for carbon dioxide and to allow states to devise individual or joint plans to meet those targets. The EPA expects to finalize the rule by next June.

“Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source—power plants. By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids.”

An analysis by our Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researchers highlights key details of the 600-plus-page rule, which assigns each state interim and final emissions goals. These goals are based, in part, on the efficiency of each state’s fossil fleet in 2012. They also reflect estimates of the emissions-reduction potential of efficiency upgrades to coal plants and increased use of renewable energy, demand-side energy efficiency, and existing natural gas capacity.

The rule provides states considerable flexibility to decide how to meet their interim and final emissions reduction goals. States may consider methods such as expanding renewable energy generation, creating energy efficiency programs and working with other states on the creation of regional plans. Once the EPA’s proposed rule is finalized, states will be given one to three years to finalize their state plans.

The rule sparked predictable political commentary. Republican leadership pilloried the rule, the President’s allies expressed gratitude for his leadership, and political pundits mused over the rule’s impact on the midterm elections. A Washington Post-ABC News post–rule-announcement poll found a large majority of Americans—70 percent—support regulating carbon from power plants. Americans in coal states were supportive of limiting greenhouse gas emissions regardless of whether their state was forced to make bigger adjustments than other states. And at least one set of political commenters—former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and I—point out that, if executed effectively, the rule could begin the nation’s path back to more comprehensive climate change policy.

China Taking Action as Well?

The proposed rule appeared to spur another of the world’s largest emitters—China—to consider capping its carbon dioxide emissions, starting with its next five-year plan in 2016. The suggestion, offered by He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change at a Beijing conference, was reported in several media outlets but was not an official pronouncement of the government.

“What I said today was my personal view,” said Jiankun. “The opinions expressed at the workshop were only meant for academic studies. What I said does not represent the Chinese government or any organization.”

Still, some saw the statement—by a senior advisor—as a promising development ahead of international climate negotiations that began Wednesday in Bonn, Germany. “As with many things in China, these officials don’t speak unless there’s some emerging consensus in the government that this is a position that they’re trending toward,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the environmental group at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think it’s a very positive sign that this kind of debate has taken hold.”

Not all commenters were sanguine about the EPA rule. According to a German study released this week, even with the 30 percent emissions cut outlined in the EPA’s proposed rule, climate pledges the United States set at United Nations climate talks may not be met. The study found the EPA rule would reduce 2030 U.S. national emissions only about 10 percent below 2005 levels. In 2010, the United States promised to reduce greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

“While the proposal is welcome, it is insufficient to meet the U.S.’s pledges of 17 percent reduction of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and is inconsistent with its long-term target of 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050,” said Niklas Hoehne of Ecofys, a German group that helped analyze the plan’s impact. “The plan implies an economy-wide decarbonisation rate of about 0.9 percent per annum, significantly lower than the 1.4 percent per annum achieved in the last decade. This is not as fast as required for a 2 C decarbonisation pathway.”

New Imports for Solar

The United States has set new import tariffs on some solar panels from China, saying some manufacturers had unfairly benefitted from subsidies. The still-preliminary Commerce Department ruling was prompted by a petition of charges filed by a group led by SolarWorld in 2011. The petition claims some Chinese companies avoided tariffs by shipping solar cell parts to locations like Taiwan—flooding the U.S. market with cheap products.

Duties imposed in the preliminary decision could range from 18.5 to 35.21 percent.

“The import duties, which are in line with our expectations, will wipe out the price competitiveness of Chinese products in the U.S. market,” said Zhou Ziguang, an analyst at the Chinese investment bank Ping An Securities in Beijing.

For U.S. companies, the news was mixed—some could see great benefits; others, very little.

“SunPower will be the primary beneficiary of the decision, given its presence in the U.S. distributed generation market where most Chinese companies supply product,” according to Morgan Stanley. “Although First Solar theoretically benefits, we believe that the impact will be small given limited presence of Chinese companies in the U.S. utility scale market.”

Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said “These damaging tariffs will increase costs for U.S. solar consumers and, in turn, slow the adoption of solar.”

Last year the European Union overcame a similar trade dispute with Beijing when the trade partners agreed to set a minimum price for solar panels from China.

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


Study Deals Blow for Biofuels as EPA Lowers 2013 Mandate

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delays for Keystone XL, Power Plant Rule Still on Track

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

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

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

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

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

Arctic Drilling Rule Coming Shortly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Federal Appeals Court Upholds EPA Mercury Rule

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Methane Emissions Rule May be on Horizon

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

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

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

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

Four Years Later, BP “Active” Spill Response Concludes

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

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

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

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

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

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


Climate Change, EPA Rules Focus of McCabe Confirmation Hearing

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Climate change, extreme weather and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants were the focus of a confirmation hearing for Janet McCabe, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

In the hearing—at which lawmakers took jabs at one another on the impacts of climate change and criticized McCabe’s recent comments on extreme weather causes—the acting assistant administrator for air and radiation told the committee that if confirmed she would evaluate the full consequences of the EPA’s current and pending rules. She pointed to her work as a state regulator in Indiana, highlighting her sensitivity to the economic impact of environmental regulations.

“I come from Indiana, where people rely on coal,” she told the committee (subscription).

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has not announced when it will vote on McCabe’s nomination, which still requires approval by the full Senate.

Just a day earlier, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the draft rule for existing power plants, which is scheduled for release by June 1. “We are going to make them cost-effective, we are going to make them make sense,” McCarthy said at a conference. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be so flexible that I’m not going to be able to rely on this as a federally enforceable rule.”

Flexibility for states was emphasized by McCarthy who insisted the EPA will give states the tools to curtail emissions that drive climate change and that the proposed rule will not threaten electric reliability or shutter large numbers of facilities.

EPA officials have met with more than 200 groups about the upcoming rule. Last week, the White House began its review of the rule—the final step before the EPA can publish it and gather formal comments from the public.

EIA Energy Outlook Predicts Decrease in Oil Imports

Net U.S. energy imports declined last year to their lowest level in more than 20 years, meaning U.S. net imports could reach zero within 23 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The finding is the first in a staged release of the EIA’s complete Annual Energy Outlook 2014. Future releases—running April 14 to April 30—will look at matters ranging from the implications of accelerated power plant retirements and lower natural gas prices for industrial production to light-duty vehicle energy demand and the potential for liquefied natural gas to be used as a railroad fuel.

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

“In EIA’s view, there is more upside potential for greater gains in production than downside potential for lower production levels,” the report said. It noted that U.S. oil production should hit 9.6 million barrels per day by 2020.

Global Renewable Energy Investment Down as Tax Credits Resurface

Global investment in renewable energy fell 14 percent in 2013, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance. The drop in investment was attributed, in part, to energy policy uncertainty and the falling cost of renewable energy technology. The latter factor may seem counterintuitive but one of the report’s lead editors, UN energy expert Eric Usher said that the fall in the cost of the clean energy technologies, particularly solar, had “left some governments thinking that they had been paying too much and reviewed their subsidies.”

Even with investment down, the shift toward low-carbon sources hasn’t slowed. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of power generated worldwide last year—up from 7.8 percent in 2012. Liebreich told Mother Jones that proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015.

Further incentives for renewables may be in the offing. Last week, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved a draft bill that includes some 50 temporary tax breaks, including one for renewable energy. The bill includes provisions for wind energy through an extension of the U.S. Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit, which was responsible for jumpstarting much of the last decade’s U.S. wind energy development. Provisions were also included for biofuel.

Congress is expected to pass the bill by the end of year, allowing businesses and individuals to continue to claim tax breaks on their 2014 taxes.

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


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.


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.


Study Says United States Tops List of Global Warming Offenders

January 16, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study by Canadian researchers finds the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and developing nations Brazil and India were responsible for more than 60 percent of global temperature changes between 1906 and 2005. The U.S. alone was responsible for 22 percent of the warning; China followed at 9 percent and Russia at 8 percent. Brazil and India each contributed 7 percent; the U.K. and Germany were each responsible for 5 percent. The findings, authors said, are particularly important for diplomats working toward a deal in 2015 to limit emissions.

“A clear understanding of national contributions to climate warming provides important information with which to determine national responsibility for global warming, and can therefore be used as a framework to allocate future emissions,” researchers said in their paper, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

To restrict warming to U.N. targets of 2 degrees Celsius, rising world emissions would need to drop 40 to 70 percent by 2050, Reuters reports. U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said number two historic emitter China is taking the right steps to address global warming with its energy-efficiency standards for buildings and other renewable energy commitments. In the U.S. carbon emissions from energy fell 12 percent between 2005 and 2012, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates a 2 percent increase in these emissions in 2013.

Global Energy Demand Growth, Renewable Investment Slowing

Global energy consumption continues to grow, but slowly. The fourth annual edition of the BP Energy Outlook 2035 pegged growth at 41 percent compared with 55 percent the last 23 years. Although demand from emerging economies is predicted to rise steadily, energy demand elsewhere will slow through 2035.

The U.S., the report said, will be able to provide for its own energy needs in the next two decades with the acceleration of shale oil and gas production. Natural gas, in particular, will overtake oil as the country’s most used fuel as early as 2027—accounting for 35 percent of U.S. consumption by 2035. Oil, however, will be the slowest growing of the major fuels with demand rising on average 0.8 percent annually. Still, U.S. oil imports are expected to drop 75 percent through 2035.

In Europe, the energy market is predicted to rise just 5 percent by 2030 and to become more dependent on imports of gas. China’s energy production will rise 61 percent with consumption growing 71 percent by 2035.

The release of BP’s Energy Outlook comes the same day Bloomberg New Energy Finance revealed that global investment in clean energy fell 12 percent last year.

“Global investment in clean energy was USD 254 billion last year, down from a revised USD 288.9 billion in 2012 and the record USD 317.9 billion of 2011,” a release from Bloomberg stated. In Japan, clean energy investment spiked as a result of small-scale solar installations.

RGGI States Reduce Emission Cap in 2014

States participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) dropped their carbon dioxide emissions cap for power plants 45 percent for 2014 to 91 million tons. The initiative, which partners New York, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, aims to reduce these states’ power plant pollution by half of 2005 levels.

“RGGI has once again proven that state leadership provides the laboratory for innovation,” said Kenneth Kimmell, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and RGGI chair. “RGGI is a cost-effective and flexible program that can serve as a national model for dramatically reducing carbon pollution for other states throughout the nation.”

Within the program, each power plant is assigned an amount of carbon dioxide it can release, but the plants can buy and sell allowances to increase or decrease their emissions. At the first allowance auction under the new limits March 5, states will offer up 18.6 million carbon dioxide allowances.

Appellate court arguments surrounding New Jersey’s 2011 exit from the trading program began this week.

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.