States, Studies React to EPA Rule Release

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Study: Agricultural Emissions Can Be Curbed

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

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

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

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

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

Crude Oil Production to Increase

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

The increase will not have a dramatic effect on gas prices. The EIA reports that the U.S. average price for gasoline is expected to fall to $3.54 a gallon in September and to $3.38 a gallon in 2015.

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


Cross State Air Pollution Rule Reinstated by Supreme Court

May 1, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Supreme Court, in a 6-2 ruling, upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule to regulate pollution from coal-fired power plants that drifts across state lines.

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR), which applies to 28 states, aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which can lead to soot and smog. The rule was invalidated by a federal appellate court in August 2012 after it was challenged by a group of upwind states and industry because it enforced pollution controls primarily on coal plants. The higher court found the EPA acted reasonably.

“Most upwind states propel pollutants to more than one downwind state, many downwind states receive pollution from multiple upwind states, and some states qualify as both upwind and downwind,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “The overlapping and interwoven linkages between upwind and downwind states with which EPA had to contend number in the thousands.”

The Clean Air Act, and specifically the good neighbor provision at issue, she said, does not tell the EPA what factors to consider. “Under Chevron [v. Natural Resources Defense Council] we read Congress’ silence as a delegation of authority to EPA to select among reasonable options,” she added (subscription).

The rule does not address greenhouse gas emissions, which are the subject of another proposed rule for existing coal-fired power plants that is expected to be released in June. Also due next month is another Supreme Court decision, this one on 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.”

Electricity Sector Uncertainty and GHG Emissions

Data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that accelerated plant retirements in either the nuclear power or coal power generation industry would change projections of carbon dioxide emissions. Accelerated retirements of nuclear plants would boost emissions; accelerated retirements of coal-fired plants would reduce them.

EIA predicts U.S. emissions could be 4 percent higher than expected by 2040, but 20 percent lower if more coal plants retire. Lower natural gas prices and stagnant growth in electricity demand will lead to the loss of 10,800 megawatts of U.S. nuclear generation—roughly 10 percent of total capacity by the end of the decade.

Even with the uncertainty facing the electricity sector, there are multi-benefit approaches that state-level environmental regulators and utility commissioners can use to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while simultaneously addressing other electricity sector challenges. That’s according to a new study by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. The study examines Clean Air Act section 111(d) compliance strategies offering these multi-benefit approaches.

Studies Focus on Sea Level Rise, Land Subsidence

Oyster reefs are creating resilience in the face of sea level rise and extreme weather. A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that vertical oyster reef accretion could outpace climate change-induced sea level rise, helping rebuild a shrinking oyster population. The research is the first to suggest that the reefs would act differently than any normal sea wall.

The study of 11 oyster reefs in intertidal areas on the North Carolina coast from 1997 to 2011 found that intertidal reefs have the potential to grow 11 centimeters vertically a year. Researchers acknowledged that much remains to be studied, including subtidal reefs.

Sea level rise may not be the only problem for some regions. In coastal megacities, the extraction of groundwater for drinking water is causing land to sink 10 times faster than sea level rise, according to another new study.

“Land subsidence and sea level rise are both happening, and they are both contributing to the same problem—larger and longer floods, and bigger inundation depth of floods,” said Gilles Erkens, who led the study by the Netherland’s Deltares Research Institute. “The most rigorous solution and the best one is to stop pumping groundwater for drinking water, but then of course you need a new source of drinking water for these cities. But Tokyo did that and subsidence more or less stopped, and in Venice, too, they have done that.”

Financial loss due to sinking, the research said, would reach nearly a billion dollars yearly and cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City will sink below sea level if action isn’t taken.

Could Climate Change have Played Role in the Mount Everest Disaster?

Some scientists are linking the Mount Everest ice release—known as a serac—that killed 16 people last month to climate change.

“You could say [that] climate change closed Mount Everest this year,” said Western Kentucky University Professor John All (subscription).

Research conducted by the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development showed that the Himalayan glaciers shrunk 21 percent in roughly 30 years. Studies by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which point to data collected through on-site monitoring and remote sensing, show a 10 percent reduction in ice during the last four decades.

Still, others say it is impossible to link any one disaster to long-term changes. Much of the evidence that warming is occurring is anecdotal, and the number of scientific observations is not large enough to draw solid conclusions, NBC News reports.

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.


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.


Tougher Efficiency Standards Ordered for Large Trucks

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

EIA Projects Increased Coal Fired Power Plant Retirements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keystone XL Pipeline Decision Further Delayed Following Court Ruling

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

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


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.


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.


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.


Proposed Rules to Limit Power Plant Emissions Expected This Week

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a move initiated by the Obama administration to address global changes in climate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected this week to release a proposal for regulations to reduce carbon emissions from new power plants.

Although details about the regulations remain confidential, the New York Times reports the proposal could contain standards different for coal plants than for natural gas power plants. The emissions limits for large natural gas plants may be kept at 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced, as proposed by the agency earlier this spring. The standard for coal, on the other hand, could be closer to 1,300 pounds per megawatt hour.

Regardless of the limits set on Friday, the proposal will give the country its first sense of how carbon capture and storage technology (CCS), which removes carbon dioxide from smokestacks and stores it underground, may be featured in a rule on curbing emissions from existing power plants. The new source performance standards will trigger a section of the Clean Air Act requiring the EPA to work with states to develop standards for existing plants by next summer.

This step to address the largest stationary sources of carbon dioxide in the United States promises to be controversial.

In a white paper, Republican lawmakers suggested the EPA was overreaching.

“The way in which EPA has ‘pushed the envelope’ in interpreting its legal authority … portends a similarly aggressive and unlawful approach to the regulation of existing [power plants],” the white paper states.

Moniz, McCarthy Testify on Climate Action Plan

President Obama’s climate action plan got its first airing by the nation’s top energy and environmental officials on Wednesday at a hearing of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Power. In testimony before the committee, the head of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, addressed both legal questions and concerns about the future of coal, while Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz delivered a primer on the science behind climate change to Republicans.

McCarthy said the EPA and other government agencies were authorized to bring in new measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even without new laws from Congress.

“We are not doing anything at the EPA and in the climate plan that goes outside the boundaries of what Congress has said is our mission and our authority,” McCarthy testified.

McCarthy and Moniz both attempted to allay fears about the future of coal, which figures prominently in one pillar of the climate plan that will be revealed this week when the EPA proposes new standards for new power plants. To lawmakers who suggested the EPA could stymie construction of new coal plants in the United States by making compliance with tighter emissions standards impossible, McCarthy responded that CCS “is technically feasible and it is available today.” The Associated Press reports that required installation of CCS technology will make construction of new coal-fired plants difficult, even though the rule to be announced on Friday is likely to be more lenient on coal-burning plants than initially proposed in March.

Study Looks at Methane Leaks Tied to Fracking

Natural gas drilling sites are leaking methane into the atmosphere at a rate slightly lower than estimates previously released by the EPA, according a study of emissions at multiple drilling sites.

Published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study finds natural gas sites release 0.42 percent of methane produced—roughly equal to the emissions from 10 million cars (subscription). The EPA analysis, which used data from 2011, estimated leakage at 0.47 percent, but other studies have found the leakage to be even higher.

Measurements for the PNAS study were taken in 2012, when new EPA rules required the use of emissions control technologies. Approximately 67 percent of the wells studied could capture or control 99 percent of potential emissions—a fact some said signaled the need for more policies to reduce sector-wide emissions while others called for better data.

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.


U.S. Energy Production Linked to Earthquakes

July 18, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

As U.S. production of crude oil continues to grow, new studies in the journal Science say the very methods used to extract the resource could be behind some U.S. earthquakes. The studies find that the gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing can cause some small earthquakes and that the disposal of wastewater following this and other energy production methods can produce larger tremors.

The number of earthquakes in the central and eastern U.S. has increased nearly ten-fold in the last decade—averaging 21 per year between 1967 and 2000 and rising to as many as 188 in 2011. Although most have not been above a magnitude of 3.0, a few have exceeded 5.0.

One study links at least half of the magnitude 4.5 or higher quakes in the interior U.S. in the last 10 years to nearby injection-well sites. The authors, scientists from Columbia University, identified three tremors at injection-well sites in Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado that were triggered by another, major earthquake miles away.

“[The fluids] kind of act as a pressurized cushion,” said lead author Nicholas van der Elst. “They make it easier for the fault to slide.”

Researchers at the University of California, meanwhile, looked specifically at the Salton Sea Geothermal Field and found a direct correlation between relatively small seismic activity and an increase in groundwater pumping at the plant.

Court: Biogenic Carbon Emissions Will Be Regulated

A federal court in the U.S. has ruled Clean Air Act limits on carbon dioxide pollution now apply to power plants that burn biomass.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Court threw out a three-year deferral put in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that temporarily exempted regulation of biogenic carbon emissions. Environmental groups challenged the EPA’s initial decision, resulting in Monday’s court hearing, which found the EPA had no basis for its 2011 rule.

Biomass Magazine reports that a draft rule for biogenic carbon emissions is expected in a couple months. The court decision comes as the EPA crafts rules to regulate carbon emissions from new and existing power plants—the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s new plan to combat climate change. ClimateWire warns that 2015 will be a pivotal time as utilities meet a host of standards (subscription required)—including the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule requiring power plants to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent, the second phase of the Clean Air Interstate rule, and, potentially, greenhouse gas rules for existing power plants.

World Bank Says It Will Limit Coal Plant Financing

The World Bank is taking steps to reduce the use of coal. Just weeks after Obama’s pledge to ban U.S. funding for coal plants overseas, the World Bank’s board agreed Tuesday to limit, but not end, financing of coal-fired power plants. The bank will focus on scaling up natural gas and hydroelectric projects, instead.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Billy Pizer and the Center for Global Development’s Scott Morris discuss the strategy and how exactly limits on coal financing should be considered.

An analysis by the National Journal shows seven major U.S. electric utilities are also taking steps to shift how they generate power. In their power portfolios, coal decreases or stays the same, and natural gas increases; renewables and nuclear power see small increases.

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.