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.


Weaker Kyoto Protocol Extended at International Climate Negotiations

December 13, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

After weeks of deliberation among representatives of nearly 200 countries, the United Nations climate talks ended with an agreement to extend the life of the Kyoto Protocol. The only global agreement in place to curb greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized nations, it was set to expire at the end of this year. The second phase of the Kyoto Protocol still leaves off the world’s two largest emitters—the United States and China—and covers no more than 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

In addition, the package adopted at Doha includes assurances to address “loss and damage” at the next conference in Warsaw, where richer nations may be financially responsible to poorer nations for failure to reduce emissions. There was also confirmation of a decision made at last year’s U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to work toward adopting a universal climate change agreement by 2015. The extension of the Kyoto Protocol keeps existing climate targets until this new international agreement takes effect in 2020. This agreement would set emissions goals for all nations, whereas the Kyoto Protocol extension establishes emissions cuts for only a handful of industrialized nations, which include Switzerland, Australia and the European Union.

While the U.S. did join in backing the establishment of the universal treaty, several former U.S. presidential aides and advisors say the country’s involvement hinges on President Barack Obama’s willingness to talk about the issue of climate change. “President Obama needs to talk about climate change and help the American public connect the dots between extreme weather, climate change, our energy policy and the progress we are already making on reducing emissions,” said Congressman Edward Markey. “The public will be more accepting of an international climate deal if they understand what we are already doing” to fight global warming.

The outcome of the conference was widely criticized, but some offered glimpses of hope. Michael Jacobs of The Guardian called the talks a start, but noted that 2015—the deadline for negotiating the successor to Kyoto—“will be the moment of truth.” Mother Jones, meanwhile, offered a fairly pessimistic assessment of the talks, but called the extension of Kyoto “something”—even though it doesn’t include the U.S., China or India. China and the U.S. are to be a clear focus next year, others said. And Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action described the outcome as crossing “the bridge from the old climate regime to the new system. We are now on our way to the 2015 global deal … Very intense negotiations lie ahead of us. What we need now is more ambition and speed.”

Arctic Report Card Shows Record Lows

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) again released its annual Arctic Report Card, summarizing the latest scientific observations about the region. Of note: 2012’s record ice loss follows a fairly unremarkable year temperature-wise—relative to the previous decade. The report also found that this year’s summertime sea ice pack was the smallest ever seen, and a new record low June snow cover extent was set.

The melting of ice, it seems, is also affecting the food chain—specifically through the creation of phytoplankton, which is experiencing increasing blooms on land and in open water as ice melts. The report suggests that previous estimates of phytoplankton production may have been ten times lower.

NOAA’s report findings come just days after the release of another study showing increased melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. It found smoke from Arctic wildfires may have contributed to this melting.

Major Brands Focus on Sustainability

With climate and energy policy close to dormant in Congress, a new study finds the majority of the world’s largest companies aren’t waiting on governments to lower emissions and shift to clean energy. Many—approximately 56 percent of Fortune 100 and Global 100 companies—are investing in renewable energy and emission reduction. This comes on the heels of a new list from Climate Counts, which ranks 145 companies’ efforts to reduce their carbon footprints. Rankings were based on 16 criteria and included support of progress on climate legislation as well as their ability to communicate their efforts to reduce emissions to consumers.

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.


Surprise Deal Emerges at United Nations Climate Talks

December 15, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a surprise turnaround, the United Nations climate talks managed to produce a new deal to eventually curb global emissions moving forward. In a press release announcing the agreement, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) called it a “breakthrough.”

The new agreement marks a break from the Kyoto Protocol, which divided the world into two categories—the developed and the developing world. Instead, said the European Union’s Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, the new agreement reflects “today’s mutually interdependent world,” and moves toward an agreement that partners all countries in combating climate change.

The new agreement—dubbed the “Durban Platform“—created a group with an unwieldy name, the Ad Hoc Working Group on a Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which has the mandate to develop “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force.” In essence, it is an agreement to finalize an accord no later than 2015, which would go into effect in 2020.

The agreement would also extend the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire at the end of 2012, for an additional five years, allowing the system’s carbon trading to continue. This won’t have much impact on carbon markets or renewable investment in the next few years, analysts told Reuters, but could have an effect over the longer term.

How the Deal Was Done

To forge the deal at the thirteenth hour, the talks were extended nearly two days.

The push for the new agreement reportedly came from developing nations and those likely to be most affected by climate change, which put pressure on the European Union to work for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.

The bloc of emerging countries known as BASIC—Brazil, South Africa, India and China—was divided, with India the strongest holdout against binding emissions cuts for these countries—at least until richer countries met the targets they’d already committed to.

India was persuaded by an addition in the Durban text of an option of an “outcome with legal force”—although the difference in meaning between that and a protocol or “legal instrument” is not yet clear. The United States’ Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, said overall it is “pretty clear that we’re talking about something probably in the nature of a protocol.”

Just after the talks wrapped up, Canada pulled out of Kyoto Protocol, saying it won’t meet the goals it had agreed to for cutting its emissions, bringing condemnation at home and abroad. Nonetheless, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said Canada still has a “legal obligation” to cut its emissions.

Landmark or Disaster?

Opinions were divided over the new pact’s significance.

Some called it a “landmark deal,” although many seem to think it is unlikely to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the line the U.N. had drawn for “dangerous climate change.”

A Nature editorial called the outcome “an unqualified disaster” for the climate, and argued politicians can no longer talk “with a straight face” of meeting the 2-degrees-Celsius goal. With India’s agriculture under major threat from further warming, the country’s reluctance to sign a binding climate treaty was “suicidal,” argued Gwynne Dyer.

Persian Gulf Tensions

Meanwhile another deal was being hashed out, among the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). They agreed to raise officially allowed production to 30 million barrels a day—but since production is already at that level, the agreement will likely have little effect on oil prices. The compromise came out in Saudi Arabia’s favor, since the country defied other OPEC members earlier this year and unilaterally raised its own production.

Oil markets are “cooling” as the Eurozone crisis has slowed global growth, said the International Energy Agency; nonetheless, the agency warned oil prices are high enough to threaten growth.

Tensions between Iran and the West continued, with some saying a covert war has already begun. An escalation would likely drive oil prices much higher, and the U.S. and European Union are reportedly trying to find ways to apply pressure to Iran that would neither raise oil prices nor hand Iran windfall profits.

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.

Editor’s Note: The Nicholas Institute is transitioning away from sending The Climate Post via Google Feedburner. If you are receiving our new posts Thursday’s at 5 p.m. via Google, please unsubscribe from the feed by clicking the link at the bottom of the e-mail. Forward the e-mail on to nicholasinstitute@duke.edu to re-subscribe using our new service. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and appreciate your interest in our weekly write-ups.


Pleas, Hard Lines, and Accusations of Bad Faith Negotiations at Climate Talks

December 1, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In Durban, South Africa, the latest round of United Nations climate negotiations opened with a plea from South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, for countries to look beyond national interests. So far, however, the talks have been marked by many of the same divisions that plagued earlier meets.

A coalition of environmental groups—including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists—accused the U.S. of negotiating in bad faith. At the conference, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela stalled on decisions about a Green Climate Fund to pay for clean energy and climate change adaptation in poorer countries.

In response, the European Union (EU) urged a conclusion on the fund, and took the hardest stance it ever has in such negotiations, insisting on stiff conditions for China and developing countries and demanding a road map for moving forward.

Meanwhile, Canada’s environment minister called the country’s decision to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol “one of the biggest blunders” an earlier administration made since they had no intention of meeting the pledge. This led a group of African leaders to plead Canada to reconsider.

Climategate 2.0

A week before the climate talks began, a new collection of 5,000 e-mails from climate researchers surfaced, apparently part of the same set obtained and then leaked in 2009 in the so-called “Climategate” affair. Despite widespread accusations of bias and manipulation of data, the researchers involved were cleared of wrongdoing.

But the new release of the second batch of e-mails led U.S. Rep. Ed Markey to state: “This is clearly an attempt to sabotage the international climate talks for a second time.” Markey called for more intense investigation into how the e-mails were hacked. While U.K. police investigated the apparent crime before, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed the police spent little on this effort.

To try and get clues of who may have been responsible, the Guardian reached out to readers to help troll through the files and uncovered an encrypted file apparently created by the hacker.

Emissions Warning

The latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin from the World Meteorological Organization recorded an unusually large increase in the CO2 level in the air in 2010—a jump of 2.3 parts per million over the year, compared with the average over the preceding decade of 2.0 parts per million each year.

If this trend continued for the rest of the century, the world would warm some 6 degrees Celsius, warned Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

However, this forecast is at odds with other warnings the IEA has made, argued Chris Nelder of SmartPlanet—in particular, Birol’s warning that the world has reached the peak of conventional crude oil production, and that high oil prices are hampering economic growth.

Threat of “Oil Armageddon”

Oil-importing countries continued to feel the bite of high oil prices; nonetheless, this year renewable energy spending passed a milestone, topping investment for fossil power plants.

Oil prices may spike again, many analysts warned, after France urged many countries to halt Iranian oil imports, and the U.S., Britain and Canada teamed up to apply new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

However, the EU, poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest oil importer, can’t afford to refuse Iranian oil, the Wall Street Journal argued. Likewise, the U.S. had been considering sanctions, CNN reported, but hesitated because of the toll an oil price spike would likely have on the global economy. With relations between Iran and the West quickly worsening, Reuters reports oil consuming nations, hedge funds and refineries are preparing for an “oil armageddon.”

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.


OPEC Discord May Be “the Beginning of the End” of the Oil Cartel

June 9, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

With oil prices high, the International Energy Agency (IEA) last month made a rare plea for the world to produce more oil. So the latest meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), where they set their production quotas, was closely watched. After a rancorous meeting, most member countries refused to raise quotas.

Before the OPEC meeting, the chief economist of the IEA, Fatih Birol, told the New York Times: “Oil prices are hurting the economy.” He added, “I hope to see more oil in the markets soon.”

Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi declared it “one of the worst meetings we ever had,” with opposing views from the “haves” and “have-nots”—in terms of spare production capacity.

Saudi Arabia had been pushing to boost production by more than 1.5 million barrels per day, above current levels. Already OPEC members have gone beyond their quotas, producing an estimated 28.8 million barrels per day, compared to the current overall quota of 24.8 million barrels per day. “Everybody in OPEC is cheating and everyone knows that,” an oil analyst told the New York Times.

The Saudi oil minister suggested his country would decide on its own production levels, telling Platts, “let the buyers come and we will supply them with what they want, whatever they need.” The Wall Street Journal quoted one Gulf-state delegate as saying it’s “the end of the quota system,” and the Guardian reports some analysts say the split could mark the beginning of the end for the cartel.

Some analysts argued OPEC doesn’t matter, and Russia is the big winner, since they have added more to exports in the past few years than Saudi Arabia, and have the ability to boost their production further.

Is Increasing the Gas Tax the Answer?

The head of General Motors’ North American unit predicted gasoline prices will continue to climb in coming years. While, General Motors’ CEO, Dan Akerson, called for higher gas taxes to push people to buy more efficient cars. “We ought to just slap a 50-cent or a dollar tax on a gallon of gas,” Akerson said.

Meanwhile, the Liveable Communities Taskforce in the U.S. House of Representatives issued a report titled “Freedom From Oil.” “Providing a range of transportation choices can help break auto dependence,” the report said, and it encouraged a range of measures from more efficient cars, to better city planning, to “pay-as-you-drive” auto insurance.

Clean Energy Trade Wars

Subsidies for clean energy and emissions trading schemes were also a source of discord, within countries and internationally. China agreed to end subsidies that favored wind power firms using domestic parts, after the U.S. complained it was protectionism that broke World Trade Organization rules.

Starting next year, the European Union plans to include flights in and out of Europe in its greenhouse gas emissions trading system. But China may threaten a trade war over this issue, following on U.S. carriers, who have already started a legal battle to fight European Union levies on flights.

In several countries, feed-in tariffs that subsidize renewable energy are on the chopping block. The United Kingdom is considering slashing its subsidy by 40 to 70 percent for installations producing more than 50 kilowatts, but the solar industry pleaded for a re-think, saying the move would “decapitate” the industry. The chief policy director of the Confederation of British Industry said “business confidence has clearly been bruised by sudden and unexpected policy shifts,” including the reversal of these tariffs.

Climate Talks Stumble, Coal Rises

A few countries are starting to oppose an extension of the Kyoto Protocol. The climate treaty expires in 2012, and countries have been trying to negotiate a successor, but with limited success. At the latest round of talks in Bonn, Germany, one of Canada’s delegates said their country would not take on any emissions targets under an extension of the treaty. Russia and Japan also took a similar stance. The European Union’s lead negotiator said it may take until 2014 or 2015 to create a full successor treaty.

To help cut emissions and cope with a decline of nuclear power, the world could create a “golden age of gas,” according to a new IEA report. However, renewable energy such as wind and solar is often competing with natural gas—so the rise of natural gas could “muscle out” renewables, delaying their deployment.

Only six months ago, the IEA was warning about a gas glut, but that is already beginning to dissipate as gas demand has surged. In part this is due to increased imports by Japan of liquefied natural gas, after shutting another of its nuclear power plants.

The world may be moving increasingly toward coal, according to numbers published in the latest BP Statistical Review. Coal consumption  rose to 29.6 percent of the world’s energy—its highest share of the energy mix since 1970—with China’s use growing 10 percent in 2010, but richer countries also consuming 5 percent more in 2010. To reflect the rise of renewables, BP added them to their report for the first time, reporting that in 2010, solar grew 73 percent and wind close to 25 percent.

A New Kind of Crude

Instead of relying one kind of black goop—crude oil—to power cars, researchers at MIT developed another liquid they call “Cambridge crude.” The conductive liquid can store electrical charge, so that the battery could be slowly charged by plugging it in, or could be quickly “refueled” by draining the liquid and pumping in a new, pre-charged batch—giving electric cars the flexibility of fuel cars.

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.