IPCC Report Shares Dire News, Some Adaptation Measures

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

The news isn’t all dire.

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

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

Wind Installation Hurdles, Potential Records

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Issues Plan to Cut Methane Emissions

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

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

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

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


Supreme Court Divided after Hearing on EPA Authority

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Nuclear Reviving

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

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

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

Obama: Decision on Keystone Could Come Soon

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

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

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

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

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


Report Warns of Sudden Climate Change Impacts

December 5, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Hard-to-predict sudden changes to Earth’s environment are more worrisome than larger but more gradual impacts of climate change, according a panel of scientists advising the federal government. A 200-page report released Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences repeatedly warns of potential climate “tipping points” beyond which “major and rapid changes occur.” And some of these changes—happening in years instead of centuries—have already begun. They include melting ice in the Arctic Ocean and mass species extinctions.

Study co-author Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University compared the threat of abrupt climate change effects to the random danger of drunk drivers: “You can’t see it coming, so you can’t prepare for it. The faster it is, the less you see it coming, the more it costs.”

The report did have some “good news.” Two other abrupt climate threats—giant burps of undersea and frozen methane and the slowing of deep ocean currents that could lead to dramatic coastal cooling—won’t be so sudden, giving people more time to prepare.

Report authors say the threat of sudden climate change disaster requires an early warning system that would be integrated into existing warning systems for natural disasters. With improved scientific monitoring and a better understanding of the climate system, abrupt change could be anticipated and potential consequences could be reduced.

The National Academy of Sciences report follows the wrap up of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland, which produced the outlines of an emissions reduction deal to be agreed on in 2015. Though the pact’s wording was vague, some decisions were more concrete. They include a multi-billion dollar framework to tackle deforestation and measures to boost demand for a clean development mechanism encouraging countries without legally binding emissions targets to use carbon credits. Participants also finalized details on how countries’ emissions reductions will be monitored, reported and verified.

Saying the government should lead by example, President Barack Obama ordered federal agencies to increase their use of renewable energy from 7.5 to 20 percent by 2020. The new commitment is intended to reduce pollution and boost domestic energy independence.

Obama Environment Advisor to Step Down

The Obama administration will lose its second top environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in February. In the post she’s held since 2009, Sutley helped spearhead the National Ocean Policy and contributed to Obama’s climate plan.

“Under her leadership, Federal agencies are meeting the goals I set for them at the beginning of the administration by using less energy, reducing pollution, and saving taxpayer dollars,” said President Obama in a statement. “Her efforts have made it clear that a healthy environment and a strong economy aren’t mutually exclusive—they can go hand in hand.”

Sutley’s departure comes on the heels of Heather Zichal’s exit last month and the resignation of Lisa Jackson, who left the EPA in early 2013. That leaves the big job of implementing—and defending—Obama’s plan to cut carbon emissions on the shoulders of “new and existing power plant lieutenants,” according to ClimateWire.

Iran Nuclear Deal Reached

International negotiators recently reached a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program for six months—pending a formal pact freezing or reversing progress at all of Iran’s major nuclear facilities. Talks surrounding the formal pledge may begin as early as next week.

The deal, struck between Iran and five other major countries, brings a partial lifting of sanctions on Tehran. Oil sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union will be maintained even though key parts of Iran’s nuclear program will be rolled back.

“Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpiles. Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium,” said President Barack Obama. “Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited. Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor. And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.”

The temporary freeze that could start by early January represents the first time in about a decade that Iran has agreed to stop some of its nuclear activities. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute suggests 77 percent of Israelis surveyed don’t believe the deal will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

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 Proposes Lower Biofuel Mandate

November 21, 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 Thanksgiving holiday, the Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return Dec. 5. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday announced cuts to a federal mandate dictating how much ethanol must be blended into gasoline. The mandate—under the Renewable Fuel Standard—would have been scheduled to reach 18.15 billion gallons in 2014, up from 16.55 billion gallons this year. The EPA instead proposes to set the 2014 requirement at 15.21 billion gallons, equal to the 2012 mandate.

“We believe that the ethanol blend wall represents a circumstance that warrants a reduction in the mandated volumes for 2014,” the EPA said of the technically feasible amount of ethanol that can be used in today’s vehicles. The agency’s 204-page proposal also suggests rolling back the 2011 cellulosic biofuel target and refunding oil companies nearly $5 million for their costs in trying to meet it.

If finalized after public comment, the proposal is unlikely to have much of an impact on consumers, but it could affect sales of one of the primary ethanol crops: corn.

“I’m in a state of shock,” said Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, in a response similar to many others in the biofuels industry. “This rule is a departure from the last five and a half years.”

Refiners welcomed the reduced blending requirements, but warned they may not address long term problems.

“While we are pleased that EPA has taken steps to avoid the blendwall in 2014, we remain concerned that the proposed rule leaves open the possibility that the biofuel mandates will exceed the maximum amount of ethanol that can be safely added to our gasoline supply,” said Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuels & Petrochemical Manufacturers.

News of the proposed rule comes on the heels of a report by the National Research Council drawing attention to some of ethanol’s hidden costs (subscription). The report, which was co-authored by a Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researcher, finds that ethanol consumes so much energy and requires so much land use change that its impact on greenhouse gas emissions is at best neutral.

2010 BP Spill Data Made Public

A new website launched by BP contains raw, uninterpreted data from studies on the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill and its effects on the environment and ecology of the area. It provides scientific data gathered as part of the official Natural Resource Damage Assessment that BP and the federal government agreed to during the disaster. The assessment also includes 2.3 million lines of water chemistry data collected since April 2010 as well as information on the composition of oil released from the Macondo well and analyses of the oil in various degrees of degradation and weathering.

More information covering oil, water, sediments, environmental toxicology, birds and marine life will be made available next year. BP is awaiting a ruling in a civil trial in New Orleans regarding just how much oil gushed into the Gulf and whether it was guilty of gross negligence for the spill. The oil giant is among the 90 companies said to have produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, according to a new study published in the journal Climatic Change.

Warsaw Climate Talks Enter Final Days

As a new report suggests global carbon emissions from cement production and burning fossil fuels are on track to hit a record high this year, negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world entered their final week during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (subscription). The two-decades-old negotiations hit a few snags in producing an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol by 2015:

  • Japan—one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases—opted to drastically scale back its emissions reduction target. The new target calls for decreasing emissions by 3.8 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, rather than by 25 percent from 1990 levels, a goal set four years ago. According to Reuters, the change represents a roughly 3 percent rise from the earlier target. The new target reflects the country’s increased reliance on fossil fuel after idling of Japan’s nuclear fleet following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, which the country is still cleaning up.
  • Negotiations on how to set up new carbon markets and global standards to cut greenhouse gas levels also broke down after developing nations refused to move forward until rich nations made more efforts to cut their own emissions. Further talks on the issues have been postponed until June 2014.
  • Poor countries walked out of the U.N. climate talks after rich nations refused to discuss climate change compensation until after 2015. The question of who is to blame for climate change is central for developing countries, which contend they should be given support from rich nations to green their economies. Meanwhile, forest protection pledges—specifically from Norway and the United Kingdom—were made and expected to be one of the only significant financial offers from richer, developed nations at the conference.

Despite all the setbacks, the U.N. did propose a draft document outlining a roadmap to a 2015 climate agreement. It clarifies some of the steps nearly 190 nations must take to reach a binding greenhouse gas reduction deal to go into effect in 2020.

If the Obama administration has its way, the 2015 agreement would for the first time make the United States and emerging powers like China equally obligated to curb carbon (subscription). According to State Department Special Envoy for Climate Todd Stern, the administration has begun crunching numbers to determine how much the United States can cut greenhouse gas emissions after 2020.

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.


Report: Current Efforts to Slow Global Warming Not Sufficient

November 7, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Days before world leaders meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference, a new report warns that the opportunity to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels is diminishing. The “Emissions Gap Report 2013,” compiled yearly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), looks at how each nation is meeting its pledge to reduce the release of greenhouse gases. The latest findings suggest that greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to reach 59 gigatons. Even if nations meet their current climate pledges, emissions would be 8-12 gigatons too high (roughly the equivalent of 80 percent of emissions coming from the world’s power plants right now). A 44-gigaton level, agreed at the 2010 U.N. Climate Conference in Cancun, is needed in 2020 to attain the 2-degree goal.

“As the report highlights, delayed actions means a higher rate of climate change in the near term and likely more near-term climate impacts, as well as the continued use of carbon-intensive and energy-intensive infrastructure,” said U.N. Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Director Achim Steiner. “This ‘lock-in’ would slow down the introduction of climate-friendly technologies and narrow the developmental choices that would place the global community on the path to a sustainable, green future.”

The 2020 target could still be achieved, Steiner said, through stronger pledges that scale up international cooperation initiatives in areas such as energy efficiency, fossil fuel subsidy reform and renewable energy. Agricultural practices that could reduce emissions, such as expansion of no-till farming and improved water management, are also explored.

The World Meteorological Organisation released its annual report, a day after the UNEP study, showing that concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide all broke records in 2012. The volume of carbon dioxide grew faster in 2012 than in the previous decade, reaching 41 percent above pre-industrial levels.

“This year is worse than last year, 2011,” said Michael Jarraud, WMO secretary general. “2011 was worse than 2010. Every passing year makes the situation somewhat more difficult to handle, it makes it more challenging to stay under this symbolic 2 degree global average.”

Obama Establishes Climate Change Adaptation Task Force

The UNEP report’s release follows issuance of an executive order by President Barack Obama aimed at making it simpler for state and local governments to respond to weather disasters as well as at directing federal agencies to revise programs and policies that might serve as a barrier to climate adaptation.

The order establishes the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which brings together local, state and tribal officials to advise the federal government on how to respond to climate impacts. The task force will recommend how structures built with federal money can be made more resilient to the effects of climate change.

“The impacts of climate change—including an increase in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, an increase in wildfires, more severe droughts, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise—are already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the Nation,” the president said in the Executive Order. “Managing these risks requires deliberate preparation, close cooperation, and coordinated planning by the Federal Government, as well as by stakeholders, to facilitate Federal, State, local, tribal, private-sector, and nonprofit-sector efforts to improve climate preparedness and resilience; help safeguard our economy, infrastructure, environment, and natural resources; and provide for the continuity of executive department and agency operations, services, and programs.”

The order also establishes a second group—the Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience—that will be co-chaired by the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. It replaces the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force created in 2009. The group will consider the recommendations of the state, local and tribal leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. Those recommendations will be related to modernizing federal programs to support climate-resilient investments and to planning for climate-change related risks.

Scientists Work to Deconstruct Climate Issues

As scientists study samples from an Antarctic ice sheet believed to date back 1.5 million years for clues on how Earth’s climate has changed, a senior U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official indicated the Obama administration is looking for ways to use its existing authority to tackle a powerful greenhouse gas: methane.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Sarah Dunham with the EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs testified that the White House-led Interagency Task Force on Climate Change is searching for ways to reduce emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas through “incentive-based programs and existing authorities.” The leakage of the gas, some scientists at the hearing said, was inaccurately estimated by the agency in 2011.

One international team of engineers and scientists proposes a fleet of “methane-sniffing drones” that would be connected to sensors in smart phones as one way to help ensure drillers pay a state-imposed fee for any future leaked or flared gas. And at Duke, researchers are using a car equipped with special sensors to detect methane leaks and their concentrations from aging pipelines beneath cities, thereby providing a better estimate of how much this infrastructure is contributing to climate change.

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.


Supreme Court Will Hear Challenges to EPA Rule

October 17, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Supreme Court opted Tuesday to hear challenges raised by states and industry groups to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions rules issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act. Six of nine petitions were granted review. The specific issue in the case deals with the GHG permitting program that the EPA implemented in January 2011 (commonly referred to as the Tailoring Rule).

Since 2011, the Tailoring Rule has required new power plants and other large polluting facilities to apply for permits to emit greenhouse gases. According to the Oct. 15 order, the Supreme Court will consider whether regulating GHG emissions from vehicles necessarily triggers a requirement for stationary industrial sources such as power plants to obtain permits for their GHG emissions. The court will look at “whether EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.”

The court will not consider other issues such as whether greenhouse gases endanger public health when it hears arguments early next year. It is expected to issue a ruling by the end of June 2014.

A 2007 Supreme Court caseMassachusetts v. EPA—found that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act. That ruling prompted the EPA to promulgate the first-ever GHG regulations for motor vehicles.

The Supreme Court’s review of these regulations could slow the EPA’s work on a rule to account for carbon dioxide from burning wood for energy, according to ClimateWire (subscription).

“The EPA is dealing with two issues that related to our industry right now,” said Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves. “One is how to respond to the D.C. Circuit ruling in July that invalidated the Tailoring Rule deferral [of biogenic emissions], and secondly, how to measure carbon emission from biogenic sources. Our reading is that the court appears to be prepared to examine the statutory underpinnings of EPA’s authority to regulate power plants, including biomass, and we’ll continue to work with EPA on the underlying accounting rule for biomass to get the science right on the issue.”

Deal Reached to End Government Shutdown, Raise Debt Ceiling

A bipartisan deal to raise the debt limit through Feb. 7 and fund the government through Jan. 15—ending a 16-day partial government shutdown—was reached Wednesday. President Barack Obama signed the bill Thursday morning.

House Republicans had pushed to block new EPA regulations on greenhouse gas production and to roll back regulations on coal ash, among other things. The deal, however, is not rumored to include provisions related to energy policy or for repaying states for funding national parks during the shutdown (subscription).

The shutdown will have wide-reaching environmental impacts—reducing the nation’s ability to react to extreme weather events and carry out research. Antarctica field researchers who have spent decades collecting data on penguins and ice sheets to better study global warming now have documentation gaps. Further delays in a decision to approve or disapprove the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, are expected after the shutdown made it harder for the State Department to review the permitting process.

Airline Carbon Tax Proposal Revisited

The European Commission this week issued a proposal that would impose a tax on air-polluting emissions for all flights operating in Europe’s airspace. The proposal follows a controversial plan the European Union (EU) had to back down from last year. That plan would have required flights crossing EU airspace to buy pollution credits to cover 15 percent of their carbon dioxide emissions for the entire journey.

The proposal still has to be approved by the European Union’s government and parliament. If it passes, the legislation would apply from Jan. 1, 2014, until 2020, when an international airline carbon emissions tax scheme, agreed on by the International Civil Aviation Organization’s assembly of nations from the U.S. to Russia and the EU, takes effect.

“The European Union has reduced greenhouse gas emissions considerably, and all the economic sectors are contributing to these efforts,” said EU Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard. “The aviation sector also has to contribute, as aviation emissions are increasing fast—doubling since 1990. I am confident that the European Parliament and the Council will move swiftly and approve this proposal without delay. With this proposal, Europe is taking the responsibility to reduce emissions within its own airspace until the global measure begins.”

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.


Using the Clean Air Act to Regulate Carbon Emissions

September 5, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In an attempt to address global changes in climate, the Obama administration set specific deadlines for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use the Clean Air Act to cut carbon dioxide pollution from new and existing power plants.

Just weeks away from the deadline for release of proposed rules for new power plants (full disclosure: Duke scholars will preview pending climate change regulations live online Sept. 16), a new journal article claims the Clean Air Act has brought about beneficial changes. Tracing the rings of 100 to 500 year old eastern red cedars, scientists observed accelerated growth and photosynthesis starting just after the bill passed in 1970. Beforehand, core samples from the trees contained sulfur isotopes that pointed to pollution and carbon isotopes that showed that the trees’ stomata (pores regulating the exchange of carbon dioxide and water) were closing. By the 1980s, the stomata had begun to open and sulfur isotopes had approached levels not seen since the preindustrial age.

“There is a clear shift in the growth, reflecting the impact of key environmental legislation,” said Kansas State University’s Jesse Nippert of the trees located in the Appalachian Mountains. “There are two levels of significance in this research. One is in the terms of how we interpret data from tree rings and how we interpret the physiology of trees. The other level of significance is that environmental legislation can have tremendous impact on the entire ecosystem.”

Using the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions from existing power plants raises questions. Doing so means the EPA must craft rules—to be proposed by June 2014—that match the uneven terrain of different states’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions, Midwest Energy News reports. As a result, state air pollution regulators are encouraging officials to maintain existing state proposals. In a letter, the National Association of Clean Air Agencies encouraged the EPA to acknowledge the “different makeup of existing fossil fuel generation in each state.”

Climate Change to Affect Future Fires, Storms

A rim fire burning in the Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite National Park may be a taste of the types of fires some regions will experience in the future according to a new Harvard study, which suggests that wildfire seasons will last nearly three weeks longer, be twice as smoky and burn larger areas in western states by 2050. The findings, a Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences press release says, were based on a set of internationally recognized climate models, meteorological data and records from past fire activity.

“It turns out that, for the western United States, the biggest driver for fires in the future is temperature, and that result appears robust across models,” said co-author Loretta Mickley. “When you get a large temperature increase over time, as we are seeing, and little change in rainfall, fires will increase in size.”

A paper published last year in the journal Ecosphere came to a similar conclusion. It suggests that climate change’s effect on wildfires would vary widely, especially when precipitation patterns were factored in.

Although climate change could negatively influence wildfires, it may help steer superstorms away from the United States east coast. With stronger and possibly more frequent storms predicted, New York and much of the seaboard will be at a lower risk of a direct hit according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It looks, specifically, at atmospheric steering currents and suggests air patterns may block or push extreme weather offshore if greenhouse gas emissions were tripled by 2100 (subscription).

Some meteorologists disagreed with the findings, questioning the accuracy of the climate models and the conduct of the analysis.

Ice Wall Proposed to Contain Fukushima Leaks

Japan is proposing new measures to deal with increased radiation surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant, which was severely damaged in a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The proposal: invest some $470 million to build a wall of ice to contain the radioactive leaks.

Under the government’s plan, a wall of frozen soil will be constructed around the plant’s damaged reactors. Tubes might be used to carry a powerful coolant liquid as deep as 90 feet. The liquid would freeze the ground solid so no groundwater would be able to pass through the soil.

Last week, radiation levels at the plant reached as high as 1,800 millisieverts an hour—enough to kill an unprotected person within hours. The chief of Japan’s nuclear watchdog authority, Shunichi Tanaka, said information given by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) on the radioactive contamination was “scientifically unacceptable,” likening use of “millisieverts per hour” to “describing how much something weighs by using centimetres” and adding that “becquerel” was the more appropriate measure. Experts say the radiation reading reported by TEPCO was taken close to the source and drops dramatically 20 inches away. Therefore, it would do little to harm workers wearing rudimentary protection at a normal distance.

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


Reports: Ocean Acidification Heats Planet, Changes Ecosystems

August 29, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Two new studies showcase the greater dangers of rising ocean temperatures.

The first, in the journal Nature Climate Change, finds rising carbon dioxide levels that make oceans more acidic can also raise global temperatures. The authors find ocean acidification would lead certain marine organisms to emit less of the sulphur compounds that help with cloud formations that cool Earth. When the data were fed into climate models, the authors estimated reduction of this compound could add nearly 0.5 degrees Celsius to global temperatures this century.

A second paper in the same journal focuses on how acidification will change marine ecosystems. The authors looked at 167 studies on more than 150 species under a wide range of carbon dioxide concentrations.

“Our study showed that all animal groups we considered are affected negatively by higher carbon dioxide concentrations,” said study co-author Astrid Wittmann. “Corals, echinoderms and molluscs above all react very sensitively to a decline in pH value.”

Seas are naturally slightly alkaline, but pH levels fall as oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The research is expected to be included in the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth Assessment Report on climate science. An early leaked draft of the U.N. report shows ocean temperatures rose more than 0.18 degrees Fahrenheit each decade of the last 40 years (through 2010).

McCabe Could Be Next EPA Air Chief

Janet McCabe, a deputy administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s clean-air office, is expected to be nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the office, the National Journal reports. If selected, McCabe would spearhead efforts to craft new pollution regulations for the nation’s coal-fired power plants, which she discusses in a recent EPA webinar. Timing of an announcement regarding a nomination, however, was unclear to sources (subscription).

Keystone XL Decision in Danger of Delay

Results of an investigation into conflict of interest complaints related to the Keystone XL pipeline may not be released until early 2014. The announcement by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) means a final decision on the project could be delayed until next year.

“It is our hope to conclude work by the end of the year and release a report in January,” said Douglas Welty, an OIG spokesman. “As to the timing of the department’s decision—you need to ask them directly whether our work will have an impact on that.”

A story in the National Journal suggests one portion of the pipeline—proposed back in 2008—may have become obsolete.

“They just waited too long. The industry is very innovative, and it finds other ways of doing it and other routes,” said Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, of the portion of the pipeline that would carry oil from fields in North Dakota to Montana.

Climate Change Considerations in Wake of Sandy

A presidential task force created after Hurricane Sandy has issued a 200-page report with 69 policy recommendations to promote stronger construction as climate change contributes to more intense storms and extreme heat. Among other actions, it calls for more advanced energy infrastructure and streamlined assistance for affected communities.

“Decision makers at all levels must recognize that climate change and the resulting increase in risks from extreme weather have eliminated the option of simply building back to outdated standards and expecting better outcomes after the next extreme event,” the report says.

It includes a 15-page section dedicated to threats due to climate change. Many of the initiatives suggested to deal with these threats, such as a minimum flood risk standard, have already been put into action (subscription).

Meanwhile, House Republicans are planning a hearing on the White House’s climate change agenda with leaders of 13 federal agencies next month. It is expected to touch on the science underpinning global climate change.

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.