Obama Doesn’t Need Congress to Move Forward on Clean Energy

January 23, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A week before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, a new report says Obama could advance key measures of his Climate Action Plan with or without the cooperation of Congress.

“When they believed a national situation warranted action, some past presidents interpreted their authority broadly and exercised it aggressively,” the report said. “That is the practice of presidential authority Americans and the world need today.”

More than 200 recommendations for how Obama can use his executive authority to accelerate progress on climate change are contained in the 207-page Powering Forward report released by the Center for the New Energy Economy and developed with the help of CEOs, energy experts, academicians and thought leaders. The recommendations focus on clean energy solutions such as doubling energy efficiency, financing renewable energy, producing natural gas more responsibly, developing alternative fuels and vehicles and helping utilities adapt to a changing energy landscape.

Most of the recommendations aren’t all that new, but a few, says Oilprice.com, are interesting. One suggestion is to modify mortgage rules so that qualifying for federally backed mortgage loans requires new homes to be constructed with updated energy efficiency standards.

Despite the report’s ideas for the future, 2013 saw many clean energy developments. The Rocky Mountain Institute calls out 10—including growth in the electric vehicle sector and companies putting a price on carbon—that helped bring the country closer to a secure, prosperous energy future.

NASA, NOAA Label 2013 One of the Planet’s Warmest Years

A pair of reports simultaneously released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reached different conclusions about where 2013 ranks among the world’s hottest years.

NOAA said last year’s average world temperature of 58.12 degrees tied with that of 2003 for the fourth hottest year since 1880—when record keeping began. NASA ranked 2013 the seventh warmest on record—tying 2009 and 2006. The slight difference in rankings, scientists said, could be explained by the methods used by the agencies to interpret the same weather data collected from more than 1,000 metrological stations across the globe. NASA, for example, uses more samples from Antarctica.

Regardless of the difference in rankings, both agencies found that nine of the 10 warmest years on record were in the 21st century. According to NASA, the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere peaked in 2013 at 400 parts per million—higher than any point in the last 800,000 years. The level was 285 parts per million in 1880.

“Long-term trends in surface temperature are unusual and 2013 adds to the evidence for ongoing climate change,” said Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “While one year or one season can be affected by random weather events, this analysis shows the necessity for continued, long-term monitoring.”

Schmidt said 2014 is likely to be even warmer than 2013, remarkable partly because El Nino, the periodic warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, was absent in 2013.

“Through the second half of 2014 we are looking at the likelihood of an El Nino, which will help warm 2014 over 2013,” he said.

Southern Leg of Keystone Begins Exporting Oil

TransCanada began delivering oil on Wednesday from Oklahoma to customers in Nederland, Texas, through the southern portion of a controversial proposed cross-border pipeline. The start of commercial operations for this leg of the Keystone XL pipeline came with little fanfare after approval by the president nearly two years ago. Although landowners in East Texas continue to challenge TransCanada’s right to take their land for the pipeline, it’s the northern leg of the pipeline, which is projected to carry oil from Canada, that’s been most controversial.

The northern portion of the pipeline still awaits approval by the U.S. State Department. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry brushed aside pressure from Canada, offering that he’s not yet received a critical environmental report on the long delayed project.

“My hope is that before long, that analysis will be available, and then my work begins,” he said.

TransCanada acknowledged it has plans to look at building rail terminals in Alberta and Oklahoma if the Obama administration declines to approve the pipeline’s northern leg. Recent accidents involving oil-bearing trains may put more pressure on the administration to approve the pipeline.

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.


EIA Releases Early Predictions from Annual Energy Outlook

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the upcoming holidays, the Climate Post will not circulate the next two weeks. It will return Jan. 9, 2014. 

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Monday released a 20-page preview of its Annual Energy Outlook 2014, which includes projections of U.S. energy supply, demand and prices through 2040.

Although the full report won’t be released until spring 2014, the preview projects a spike of 800,000 barrels a day in domestic crude oil production in 2014. By 2016, U.S. oil production will reach historical levels—close to the 9.6 million barrels a day achieved in 1970. The feat—made possible by fracking and other advanced drilling technologies—is expected to bring imported oil supplies down to 25 percent, compared with the current 37 percent, by 2016. Eventually though, the boom will level off, and production will slowly decline after 2020.

Natural gas will replace coal as the largest source of U.S. electricity. In 2040, natural gas will account for 35 percent of total electricity generation, while coal will account for 32 percent. Production of natural gas is predicted to increase 56 percent between 2012 and 2040; the U.S. will become an overall net exporter of the fuel by 2018—roughly two years earlier than the EIA projected in last year’s forecast.

“EIA’s updated Reference case shows that advanced technologies for crude oil and natural gas production are continuing to increase domestic supply and reshape the U.S. energy economy as well as expand the potential for U.S. natural gas exports,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski. “Growing domestic hydrocarbon production is also reducing our net dependence on imported oil and benefiting the U.S. economy as natural-gas-intensive industries boost their output.”

Total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are also predicted to remain below 2005 levels—roughly 6 billion metric tons—through 2040.

Oil to Flow from Southern Leg of Keystone Pipeline in 2014

Next month some 700,000 barrels per day are expected to begin flowing from Cushing, Okla. to Texas through the 485-mile pipeline that forms the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Initial testing, before the Jan. 22 launch, is showing no issues with the pipeline or shippers, according to project lead TransCanada.

Construction of the southern leg required only state environmental permits and permission by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The northern leg—bringing crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast—has been more controversial. It awaits presidential approval on a trans-border permit.

Even so, TransCanada announced it has reached an agreement with 100 percent of landowners in five of the six states through which the 1,700-mile northern leg will pass. The remaining holdouts are in Nebraska, where the pipeline’s route was reworked to avoid crossing the Sand Hills aquifer.

U.S. Military to Utilize More Biofuel

On the heels of a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lower the country’s 2014 biofuel mandate, the U.S. military announced plans to make biofuel blends part of its regular “operational fuel purchase” through a collaboration of the Navy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The Navy’s intensifying efforts to use advanced, homegrown fuels to power our military benefits both America’s national security and our rural communities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Not only will production of these fuels create jobs in rural America, they’re cost effective for our military, which is the biggest consumer of petroleum in the nation.”

Sudden fuel price spikes—responsible for as much as $5 billion in unbudgeted fuel increases—were cited as one reason for the program, which will begin in 2014. Deliveries are expected in mid-2015.

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


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.


U.N. Climate Conference Kicks Off Amid Reminders of Deal Urgency

November 14, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The 12-day United Nations Climate Change Conference, which aims to forge an agreement to cut climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, began in Warsaw, Poland, this week. The goal set by the U.N.: limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

Representatives from nearly 200 countries are debating an agreement that would take effect by 2020. Major breakthroughs are not expected at the conference, which is pervaded by a mood of “realism” about the scale of what can be achieved. The Washington Post reports the talks will only lay a foundation for a global agreement to be reached in time for the 2015 talks in Paris, France.

As the conference began, there were reminders of what’s at stake. Devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan was on the minds of many, along with reports spelling out how nations are falling further behind their collective goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its newly released World Energy Outlook, forecast energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to rise 20 percent by 2035, leaving the world on a trajectory for a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsiusfar above the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees Celsius.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also amended carbon dioxide estimates for policy makers in a report designed to provide guidelines for the representatives working to devise a climate agreement. The panel cut its estimate of total emissions since 1870 to 515 gigatons, down from 531 gigatons, and raised its estimate of total carbon emissions since 1750 to 555 gigatons, up from 545 gigatons.

Ethanol Mandate to Be Announced Soon

Although the IEA predicts fossil fuels will provide 75 percent of the global energy mix by 2035—causing oil prices to continue to rise—current U.S. prices for oil tumbled to their lowest in more than five months. Gas prices have fallen to their lowest in 33 months, in part due to the moderate decrease in oil prices.

Some view prospective ethanol volume requirements, which could be weakened for 2014 partly as a result of a decline in the price of renewable energy credits, as a contributor to the low gas prices. As early as this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could announce how many billions of gallons of ethanol refiners will be required to blend into gasoline and diesel fuel next year. Those numbers could be on par with 2012 totals if the agency sticks with a draft version of the mandate leaked in October.

The ethanol mandate was under fire this week, following an investigation by the Associated Press, which suggests it comes with an unadvertised environmental cost, namely incentivizing farmers to grow corn on environmentally sensitive land and increasing use of nitrogen fertilizers, leading to high nitrate levels in some water supplies.

Obama Names New Climate Advisor

Heather Zichal, a key architect of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, stepped down from her post last week as top energy and climate change advisor. Zichal said she will take time to “decompress and take on a few projects” before deciding on formal next steps. In a statement, Obama praised Zichal’s five years of service to the administration.

“She crafted my energy and climate change agenda in the 2008 campaign, then again on my presidential transition, and as my top energy and climate advisor at the White House, she has been a strong and steady voice for policies that reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, protect public health and our environment, and combat the threat of global climate change,” Obama said.

Zichal’s deputy, Dan Utechformerly a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Hillary Clinton when she was senator—will take over the role. In his new position, Utech will be tasked as the lead coordinator of the administration’s stand on energy and environmental issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline and new rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In his first blog post since assuming the new role, Utech praised the president’s energy and climate strategy for helping oil production hit a 24-year high.

 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.


Warming Leading to Record Temps, Melting

July 25, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last month was among the top five warmest Junes on record, according to new data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The average global temperature, according to NOAA, was 60.54 degrees Fahrenheit—1.15 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average of 59.9 degrees Fahrenheit. June’s record heat extended the world’s streak of warmer-than-average months to 340 and resulted in a roughly 63 percent decline in Northern Hemisphere snow cover—the third lowest cover on record.

Meanwhile, a new analysis in the journal Nature says manmade warming in the Arctic is an “economic time bomb,” and policy makers should not focus solely on the benefits of an increasingly open space in the region. Melting of ice caps—which trap billions of tons of the greenhouse gas methane—could cost the world more than $60 trillion. That figure nearly equals the size of the 2012 global economy.

“Estimates are that the economic benefits of Arctic shipping and oil exploration will be four orders of magnitude less than the additional costs analysed here,” said co-author Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, who calculated the average global economic consequences of the release of 50 gigatonnes of methane over the course of one decade from thawing undersea permafrost with his fellow Dutch and British co-authors.

Given methane’s potency, the authors say such a release could increase the methane content of the atmosphere twelve-fold and raise temperatures by as much as 1.3 degrees Celsius—impacts most likely to be felt in developing countries.

McCarthy Confirmed after Record-Long Wait

Five months after President Barack Obama selected Gina McCarthy to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), she overcame Republican objections and won Senate confirmation by a 59 to 40 vote. McCarthy, who oversaw the EPA’s Air and Radiation Office in Obama’s first term, replaces Lisa Jackson as the 13th administrator of the agency.

McCarthy will now be charged with carrying out the Obama Administration’s planned regulations on climate change, Obama announced in June.

“We have a clear responsibility to act now on climate change,” McCarthy offered by video message Monday. “That’s what President Obama has called on us and the American people [to do], so that we protect future generations. And he recently said the question now is whether we have the courage to act before it’s too late. This agency has the courage to act. We can make it happen.”

At the heart of Obama’s climate plan are efforts to limit emissions from new and existing power plants, representing about a third percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. House Republicans, this week, approved a bill that cuts the EPA’s 2014 budget by a third. It blocks federal rules to limit carbon emissions from power plants and the Tier 3 rule to reduce sulfur content in gasoline (subscription required).

Moniz Restructuring U.S. Energy Department

Ernest Moniz, another key person on Obama’s climate and energy team, is doing some reorganizing of the leadership in his department. In a recent memo to U.S. Energy Department staff, Moniz details the new structure, which he says is designed to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of departmental operations.

“We must have the ability to closely integrate and move quickly among basic science, applied research, technology demonstration and deployment,” said Moniz. “The innovation chain is not linear but, rather, one that requires feedback among its various elements. This is particularly the case with regard to clean energy as we work to implement the President’s Climate Action Plan.”

Spill Less Damaging than 2010 BP Gusher

Fire caused a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico to partially collapse, just a day after a ruptured natural gas well on the Hercules offshore rig forced 44 people to evacuate. Hercules, on Wednesday, was working to plug the leak on the rig, which is roughly 55 miles off the coast of Louisiana. This latest offshore oil rig incident, Huffington Post reports, should not be as damaging as the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, because it appears to involve gas that disperses relatively easily.

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.


U.S. Oil Reserves Higher Than Previously Thought

May 2, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

According to a new U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessment, two formations in the central United States hold three times the amount of natural gas and two times the amount of oil than the federal government previously estimated. Concentrated in the Dakotas and Montana, the Bakken and Three Forks formations are expected to hold 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Three Forks formation, which alone contains 3.73 billion barrels of oil, was not included in the last USGS assessment in 2008—helping to explain the large jump.

“These world-class formations contain even more energy resource potential than previously understood, which is important information as we continue to reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign sources of oil,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The same week, Jewell announced the U.S. Department of Interior will release revised, draft rules regulating hydraulic fracturing operations that have increasingly recovered tough-to-reach fossil fuel sources—particularly in North Dakota. The rules would only apply to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling on public lands and would establish new requirements for disclosure of chemicals and well integrity. The draft is expected in the coming weeks.

Senate Votes on Clean Energy

A House committee in North Carolina’s state legislature last week voted against a bill to repeal the state’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS). However, a Senate Committee this week pushed through the bill, which would keep the mandate at 3 percent, but eliminate it later on.

The REPS enacted by a 2007 North Carolina law had no expiration and, in addition to the overall renewable requirements, uniquely required utilities to get 0.07 percent of their electricity from hog waste now and 0.20 percent by 2018. So far, little of the set-aside for hog waste-derived energy has been met. A new study by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative provides a first step toward an informed strategy to increase swine gas energy production. Using a comparative modeling analysis considering individual and centralized approaches, the report finds that injecting biogas collected from an optimized network of farms into the natural gas pipeline could be a cost-effective approach to meeting state REPS.

As Carbon Dioxide Levels Rise, International Climate Negotiations Begin

As early as this month, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are expected to reach a new milestone, rising above 400 parts per million for a sustained period of time. Carbon dioxide levels in excess of 400 parts per million have already been recorded at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, but they tend to fluctuate hourly. The milestone is significant because it illustrates how dramatically humans have altered the atmosphere in a few generations, says Mother Nature Network. In 1988, atmospheric carbon dioxide was about 350 parts per million.

“I wish it weren’t true but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400 ppm level without losing a beat,” said Ralph Keeling, a geologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “At this pace we’ll hit a 450 ppm within a few decades. Each year, the concentration of CO2 at Mauna Loa rises and falls in a sawtooth fashion, with the next year higher than the year before. The peak of the sawtooth typically comes in May. If the CO2 levels don’t top 400 ppm in May 2013, they almost certainly will next year.”

The Washington Post looks at President Obama’s record on climate and environment so far. In Bonn, groups gathered for a week-long meeting to focus on the “scope, design and structure” of the 2015 climate agreement that would take effect in 2020. This agreement would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 to limit pollution.

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.


Details of Obama’s Plan to Reduce Dependence on Foreign Oil Emerge

March 21, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The White House has released more details about the Energy Security Trust that President Barack Obama first mentioned in February’s State of the Union address. Obama introduced the plan—which aims to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil, improve vehicle fuel efficiency and protect consumers from gas price spikes—during a speech at Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory. “By investing in our energy security,” he noted, “we are helping our businesses succeed and we’re creating good middle class jobs right here in America. The only way to really break this cycle of spiking oil prices—the only way to break that cycle for good—is to shift our cars entirely off oil.”

The Energy Security Trust focuses on shifting America’s cars and trucks off oil entirely by investing in research for advances in electricity, domestically produced natural gas and homegrown biofuels as cost-effective alternatives to fossil fuel. Over the course of 10 years, the trust will provide $2 billion in research dollars from federal oil and gas development revenue.

The plan, the White House said, builds on an earlier report and on strategies that resulted in reductions in carbon dioxide of 13 percent since 2007, highlighted in a new study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is intended to solidify America’s position as a world leader in advanced transportation technology. Feelings regarding the measure, however, are mixed. Some are praising the investment in research and development funding in light of sequester cuts, while others see little success for the proposal without a dramatic increase in oil and gas leasing on federal. Energy production on the nation’s federal lands would be among the top responsibilities for Sally Jewell, whose nomination to the post of Interior Secretary was advanced by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today.

Meanwhile, a new report states that by 2050 it is possible to cut car petroleum use by 80 percent—a much easier feat than cutting carbon dioxide emissions by a similar amount.

EPA Could Delay Climate Rules for Power Plants

A year ago, the EPA unveiled the proposed New Source Performance Standards, which would require all new coal- and gas-fired power plants built in the U.S. to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced. According to The Washington Post, the Obama administration is likely to miss its April 13 deadline for finalizing the rules and may be considering revising them. Some industry critics have expressed concern with the EPA’s proposed rule. Four moderate Senate Democrats also urged the President in a letter to scale back provisions for coal-fired plants. Revamping the new-source rules to lay out a separate standard for coal-fired power plants could take another six months, according to legal experts, but it might give the EPA a better chance of defending the rule in court.

Biofuels Suffer from High Prices

The punishment Midwest corn yields took from the drought has pushed corn prices so high that nearly 10 percent of the nation’s ethanol plants stopped production this past year. The credits refiners use to meet the EPA’s renewable fuel mandate that results in ethanol being blended into gasoline are spiking, too. The 10-fold increase in the price of the credits is causing some to be concerned about an increase in gasoline prices. In fact, this year U.S. drivers could face an increase in these prices of nearly $13 billion.

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.