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.


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.


Impacts Far Reaching as U.S. Marks Sandy Anniversary

October 31, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A year ago this week, Superstorm Sandy made a lasting mark on the northeast United States. Many areas continue to recover from the storm, the deadliest and most destructive of the 2012 hurricane season. The effects of Sandy’s destruction linger in many areas where it made landfall, but the storm has had wider-ranging impacts, including influencing how we predict and prepare for future storms.

Although Sandy’s unusual path was projected far in advance, the storm highlighted the limits of an accurate weather forecast. Because the storm was not a hurricane, but rather a “post-tropical cyclone,” responsibility for public warnings shifted from the National Hurricane Center to the National Weather Service, resulting in multiple weather warnings and confusion about the storm’s threat level. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has changed its policies to allow the National Hurricane Center to issue communications about storms that have gone post-tropical.

Even though NOAA predicts a roughly 20 percent increase in hurricane rainfall by the end of the 21st century, much of the flooding from Sandy was the result of storm surge, not rainfall. Scientists are now using data about Sandy’s flood levels to create forecasts that could better outline pending storm surges—neighborhood by neighborhood. Improved storm-surge models could predict where flood zones should be drawn given future sea level rise, which some scientists warn may be even worse than Sandy in coming decades. New analysis by Climate Central breaks down how projected sea-level rise and coastal flooding in New Jersey and New York—two areas hard hit by Sandy—would affect infrastructure and populations.

Fracking in California Gets Renewed Attention

After signing a law in September to regulate fracking in California, Gov. Jerry Brown says the state’s environmental review of the technique could take as long as 18 months to complete.

“I think we ought to give science a chance before deciding on a ban on fracking,” said Brown, noting the review will be “the most comprehensive environmental analysis of fracking to date.”

The news follows reports that the oil production technique was being used far more off the shores of Long Beach, Seal Beach and Huntington Beach than state officials believed.

Draft Legislation Could Restrict EPA’s Power Plant Standards

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) released a draft bill this week that would require congressional approval of greenhouse gas emissions limits on power plants. In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) issued new draft rules that would limit emissions from new power plants—meaning any future coal plants would have to use technology to capture and store carbon emissions. The EPA also is expected to issue, by June 2014, a proposed rule for existing power plants that would be implemented by states through regulations based on federal guidelines.

Manchin and Whitfield, who come from two of the most coal-dependent states in the country, worry the EPA regulations for new and existing power plants will have ill effects on their states’ economies and electricity supply.

“We’ve got people on both sides of the issue—far right and far left—that aren’t going to like it, would rather have something different,” said Manchin (subscription). “We found that this strikes what we feel is a consensus, middle, doable procedure that we can abide by.”

The bill released by Manchin and Whitfield would require the EPA to ensure that its carbon emissions limits for coal plants can be achieved over a one-year period by at least six units located at different commercial power plants in the United States. The bill also calls for establishment of separate standards for new natural gas and coal plants and for no EPA regulation of emissions from existing plants until Congress passes a law specifying when emissions standards would be effective. The draft’s release preceded a pro-coal rally that took place on the West Lawn of the Capitol and new guidelines by the U.S. Department of Treasury stating that the department will no longer approve financing for coal plants overseas—except in very rare cases. In those instances, the plants would be subject to greenhouse gas emissions standards similar to those in the U.S. and considered for poor nations that have no economically feasible alternatives or emerging markets.

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 Issues New Source Rules, Separates Requirements for Coal and Gas-Fired Plants

September 26, 2013
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 a long-awaited revised proposal for Clean Air Act standards to curb carbon pollution from new power plants. The rule sets separate standards for new gas-fired and coal-fired plants. It would require future coal-fired plants to limit emissions of carbon dioxide to 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour (MWh). The average U.S. coal-fired plant currently emits nearly 1,800 pounds per MWh. Large combined cycle natural gas plants producing at least 850 megawatts of electricity would be limited to 1,000 pounds per MWh, while smaller plants could emit up to 1,100 pounds per MWh. The new proposal replaces an earlier standard issued in 2012 that would have required all types of facilities to limit emissions to 1,000 pounds per MWh (subscription).

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

New coal plants would likely need to implement carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, under the rule set to be finalized next year. That rule will trigger the drafting of standards for existing sources under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. Much of the opposition surrounding the rule, which is set for proposal in June 2014, is likely aimed at limits for these existing coal and natural-gas fired plants, which vary in age. There may be one significant difference between the new source and existing source rules, the Washington Post reports. Carbon capture and sequestration may not be part of existing source rules.

In preparation for the proposal to cut carbon from existing sources, public comment sessions will begin around the country this fall. Although the EPA would create and enforce the rules directly, states would determine how to meet limits.

Studies Look at Arctic Ice, Drilling  

Ahead of the U.S. Department of Interior’s release of minimum standards for oil and gas exploration in federal waters off Alaska’s Arctic coast, Pew Charitable Trusts has put out a 142-page document offering suggestions for how these guidelines might look. The study covers roughly 80 recommendations that include everything from the length of the drilling season to equipment durability and emergency spill protocol.

“We are recommending both exploration and production drilling restrictions and operational restrictions during certain hazardous Artic conditions,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of Pew’s U.S. Arctic Program. “Our report is clear: If you can’t clean up a spill in Arctic conditions, then we recommend that drilling operations be limited to periods of time when you can clean up a spill.”

Arctic sea ice experienced record melts that opened shipping lanes for offshore drilling in 2012, but it appears to be making a comeback, according to the New York Times. That doesn’t necessarily mean the ice is recovering—measurements taken September 13 were still the sixth-lowest on record.

Higher Risk of Storms Forecast

Research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the eastern and central United States faces a higher risk of severe weather as global warming causes an increase in the conditions producing thunderstorms. By the middle of the century, the eastern U.S. could see severe storms an average of 7.5 spring days, with the largest increase to 2.4 days from March through May across portions of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

“We’re seeing that global warming produces more days with high CAPE [convective available potential energy] and sufficient shear to form severe thunderstorms,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, study co-author and associate professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford. This pattern, revealed by the research team’s computer modeling, may have been missed in previous work. Earlier studies concluded that although global warming increases CAPE, it decreases wind shear, and the two phenomena cancel each other out.

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.