Hurricane Isaac Disrupts Energy Production, Stirs Old Wounds

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

While Hurricane Isaac managed to leave Gulf oil platforms largely untouched, New Orleans’ strengthened levees were put to the test as the storm made landfall on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

More than 90 percent of all oil production and roughly 66 percent of all gas output was shut down as a precautionary measure as Isaac approached the Louisiana coast Tuesday. As the hurricane weakened into a tropical storm on land, reducing the threat to offshore production, energy prices dropped. Gasoline prices rose by roughly five cents nationwide—the largest one-day jump in gas prices in 18 months just as the holiday weekend approaches. Though losses will be less than other storms, Reuters reports a $1 billion economic loss for offshore energy.

Oil production in the Gulf is expected to return to normal quickly; nonetheless, the Group of Seven (G7) urged oil-producing countries to raise output to ensure the market was well supplied. The G7 has said it is ready to release oil from strategic reserves, perhaps as soon as September. The International Energy Agency has dropped its opposition to the plan, which has been spearheaded by the U.S.

As Hurricane Isaac continues to churn in the Gulf region, it could stir up remnants of up to 1 million barrels of crude oil that leaked into the ocean as a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness warned coastal residents that oil material—such as tar balls—could wash ashore.

Meanwhile, tropical storm Kirk became the Atlantic’s 11th named storm of 2012, a feat typically not reached until closer to the end of hurricane season in November. A study in the journal Atmospheric Science Letters suggests hurricanes could be stopped if the clouds that float above hurricane-forming regions were brightened.

Rule Promotes Cleaner Cars

A new fuel economy rule that will nearly double the efficiency of the nation’s cars and trucks to a fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon over the next 13 years was finalized by the Obama administration this week. The requirements of the rule will be phased in gradually between now and then, and automakers could face fines for non-compliance.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate the rule will increase the average price of a vehicle by $1,800 in 2025. Consumers could save an estimated $5,700 to $7,400 in gasoline over the life of the vehicle. Additionally, the rule is expected to save 4 billion barrels of oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 billion metric tons.

The rule, some argued, doesn’t come without consequences. Higher-efficiency vehicles that consume less fuel could reduce revenues from the gasoline tax 21 percent by 2040. As a result, spending on road repairs could decline.

Forbes says regardless of the high 54.5 mpg requirement, your average will likely be closer to 40 mpg.

Deal Creates Largest Carbon Market

The European Union will link its “cap-and-trade” system with Australia’s carbon market, creating the largest emissions trading scheme in the world. A partial link of the two markets will begin in July 2015, and the association will be complete by 2018. The deal will not only provide a boost for the declining European market, but also allow Australian companies to buy cheaper credits from the European Union.

In the U.S., California will open the country’s first full-scale carbon market in November. Before then, the California Air Resources Board plans to hold a practice auction—testing its electronic platform for selling carbon allowances to companies. The practice auction comes in the middle of a political debate over whether the state should auction revenues at all.

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

Federal Court Tosses EPA’s ‘Good Neighbor’ Pollution Rule

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit this week threw out the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), which set stricter limits on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-burning power plants in 28 states and the District of Columbia.

In a 2–1 ruling, the panel held the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act by requiring upwind states to reduce more than their “fair share” of pollution that degrades air quality in neighboring states. The court also rejected CSAPR for prematurely imposing on states a federal plan for reducing such air pollution. The dissenting judge criticized the majority for exceeding the court’s jurisdictional limits and disregarding well-settled legal precedent.

Having vacated CSAPR, the D.C. Circuit ordered the EPA to draft new rules. In the interim, the EPA must continue implementing the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which was vacated in 2008. The EPA said it will review the ruling before “determining the appropriate course of action,” but some expect the agency to appeal. Otherwise, the job of rewriting the rules will fall to the second Obama Administration or the first Romney Administration.

Environmental and health advocates see the ruling as a setback for air quality, as the EPA predicted the rule would help cut nationwide sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent of 2005 levels and cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 54 percent. Some states, including Texas, celebrated the verdict as a victory against overreaching regulation by the EPA. The impact of the court’s decision on coal-fired power plants is unclear, as coal plants still must comply with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and compete with low natural gas prices.

Arctic Ice Melt Could Set Record

With two more weeks left in the melting season, some scientists are saying ice in the Arctic Ocean could reach its smallest size yet. Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center predict we could see the ice retreat to less than 1.5 million square miles—39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000.

Unusually warm weather in Greenland has triggered widespread surface melt and darkened the lower portions of the country’s ice sheet. This trend, according to Stef Lhermitte, a remote sensing analyst at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, could increase the probability of widespread melting in the future.

Carbon Emissions at 20-Year Low

In early 2012, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were at their lowest since 1992, the Energy Information Administration reported. The report attributed the decline to a combination of three factors: a decline in coal generation due to low natural gas prices, reduced household heating demand as a result of an unusually warm winter and low gasoline demand. The New Scientist reported the fall will boost the natural gas industry, but won’t slow climate change. Another new report, which examined 2,500 power plants operated by 100 utilities in the U.S., also found a marked decline in carbon dioxide and other pollutants, primarily as a result of natural gas displacing coal in the nation’s energy mix. The report also found that the utilities’ use of renewables has doubled since 2004.

Most of the new capacity added in 33 states in the first half of the year used natural gas or renewable energy sources—with the majority built over the last 15 years powered by natural gas or wind. Other forms of renewables, such as solar water heating, which could provide cost savings and fewer carbon emissions, have been largely overlooked (subscription required). The potential applications for solar heating units, ClimateWire reports, span from restaurants to large-scale projects like hotels, hospitals, government offices and educational campuses. Pilot customer-side clean projects—like the solar water heating and combined heat and power projects detailed in recent case studies by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions—could help others learn. As Renewable Energy World reports, “solar is contagious.”

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.

Crop Damage Sparks Fuel Versus Food Debate

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Dry conditions that continue to grip Midwestern states, damaging crops and threatening to push up food prices, stirred new debate this week after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released crop yield projections capturing the severity of the drought. Though the U.S. is the largest producer of corn and soybeans, the report puts corn production at 10.8 billion bushels, down 13 percent from last year’s yield and 17 percent from July projections. It also slashes soybean yields, though not as sharply as corn.

The low projections are bumping up corn prices. The price spike in corn is causing some livestock farmers to turn to other sources, even candy, for their animals’ nutrition. While the USDA announced it will buy up to $170 million worth of meat to help relieve some of these farmers, low yield projections still mean feed could be more scarce next year. “I think this will help some in the short run, but what we really need is to change the ethanol mandate,” said Bob Ivey, a hog farmer and general manager of Maxwell Foods, of the USDA announcement.

Like Ivey, others renewed debate over the use of corn for ethanol production this week, putting more pressure on the U.S. to divert its corn crop to food. As required by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), about 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is currently used in ethanol production, with the rest going to food, animal feed and exports. With agricultural production in other major exporting countries such as China and India suffering and the global food price index up six percent in July, some are concerned about global shortages of certain food commodities. As some legislators called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue a waiver of the corn ethanol RFS for the next year, the top United Nations food official, José Graziano da Silva, told the Financial Times that an “immediate, temporary suspension” of the mandate could help head off another world food crisis as poorer countries bear the burden of rising food costs. The Renewable Fuels Association urged the EPA to reject the waiver request, saying it “would do more harm than good to America’s economy and its energy security.”

Meanwhile, the federal government is poised to approve the use of sorghum to create advanced ethanol. It would join imported sugar-cane-based ethanol and domestic biodiesel to become the third “advanced biofuel” in the U.S. (Advanced biofuels produce fewer greenhouse gases over their lifetime.) A sorghum-based ethanol could be a welcome addition to the U.S. biofuel supply because sorghum is not an important ingredient in human foods (it’s mainly used as animal feed), it is more drought-tolerant than corn, and it produces the same amount of ethanol as corn using one-third less water.

Study: Temperatures May Climb 7 Degrees

If droughts weren’t enough, global warming and urbanization could cause temperatures in cities to climb seven degrees by 2050, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. That’s two to three times higher than the effects of global warming, says Climate Central’s Michael Lemonick.

One scientist affiliated with MIT is pursuing a technology that would help in droughts by mitigating water lost from reservoirs through evaporation. The technology involves coating the water with a thin layer of vegetable oil, which could possibly reduce evaporation by up to 75 percent.

Energy in the Arctic

Shell’s plans for drilling in the Arctic faced another delay—not one due to ice, but rather to failure to complete construction on a spill response barge, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “So it’s not a matter of ice. It is a matter of whether Shell has the mechanical capability to be able to comply with the exploration effort that had been approved by the government,” Salazar said. The window to drill is closing, The Wall Street Journal warns, as exploration in the Chukchi Sea must end by Sept. 24 and the end of October in the Beaufort Sea.

This came as the first comprehensive plan to manage the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska was announced, leaving open the possibility for a pipeline to transport oil and gas from the Chukchi Sea onshore. The plan would allow drilling on half of the 23 million-acre reserve estimated to contain 549 million barrels of recoverable oil and 8.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In the renewable energy sector, wind made headway in 2011, adding about 6,800 megawatts of power generation, which made it second only to natural gas of all new U.S. electric capacity. Specifically, wind accounted for 32 percent of energy, pushing U.S. wind power capacity to 47,000 megawatts.

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.

Scientists: Mars Rover Can Help Us Better Understand Climate Change on Earth

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

NASA’s rover, Curiosity, made a successful landing on Mars earlier this week. Some scientists say the car-sized rover, the most high-tech ever designed by the space agency, could have a lot to tell us about our own climate.

As Mother Jones reports, scientists have made great strides in predicting what will happen to our climate, but we only have one climate to test hypotheses on. The rover will give scientists a chance to test their assumptions. “You learn about how to understand an atmosphere by seeing different atmospheres,” said Mark Lemmon, a planetary scientist from Texas A&M University who is part of Curiosity’s climate team. “And the more we know about Mars’ atmosphere, the better we can really understand our own.”

While Curiosity sends back readings about the cold temperatures on the red planet, Earth is heating up.  NOAA confirmed what many of us have felt (literally):  July was the hottest month in 118 years of recordkeeping. One NASA scientist links the increasing number of unusually hot summers to climate change in a new study. The findings have received mixed reviews: some said it was a smart way of understanding the magnitude of heat extremes, while others criticized the study’s statistical analyses. Another study by Harvard researchers suggests the vapors from powerful storms could be depleting the ozone layer, which could lead to an increase in the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.

This is around the time the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee came off a three-year hiatus to discuss the state of climate science, with neither side budging on the issues. Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp reflected on the disagreements in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “It is time for conservatives to compete with liberals to devise the best, most cost-effective climate solutions. Solving this challenge will require all of us.” Meanwhile, in a New York Times op-ed physicist and long-time climate-change skeptic Richard Muller recounted his recent “total turnaround” on climate change following intensive research by his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. Muller is now convinced not only that global warming is real, but also that humans are the cause. “Call me a converted skeptic,” he said.

Global Energy Demand Sees Increase

Global energy demand grew by more than 3 percent in 2011, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The way energy is consumed and produced must change, but no single solution exists, argued IEA Deputy Executive Director Richard Jones in the documentary Switch. “There is no one magic bullet,” Jones said. “There is no one technology you need, because the world is different in different places.”

The Obama administration is expediting seven proposed renewable energy projects on public lands expected to produce power for 1.5 million homes from wind and solar in Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming and California. Federal permitting could be completed as early as December. Many more renewable energy projects are in the works for power-thirsty military bases after the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Interior inked a deal earlier this week. The plan is designed to ensure energy for bases if the commercial grid were interrupted, and proposes the use of a mix of offshore wind generation for coastal bases with other solar, geothermal and biomass projects.

In the Arctic, Shell has scaled back plans for drilling as the start of production efforts approaches. Lingering sea ice delayed the start of the company’s original four-month drilling plan, initially projected to begin July 1.

Drought Threatens Food Surplus

The worst drought in more than half a century—now affecting 63 percent of the U.S.—has some analysts predicting the U.S. will deliver the smallest corn crop in five years—keeping prices at record highs. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s corn crop and more than 11 percent of the soybean crop have been affected. Both are major exports for the U.S. Global food reserves continue to decline, raising food-import cost forecasts to a near-record $1.24 trillion.

The drought’s effect on crop and livestock production has prompted President Barack Obama to seek aid for the Midwest. “Congress needs to pass a farm bill that will not only provide important disaster relief tools, but also make necessary reforms and give farmers the certainty they deserve,” said Obama.

In Georgia, one farmer is taking a different approach to keeping his crops healthy despite the drought. Farmer Glenn Cox is relying on new technology that uses sensors encased in PVC pipes to gather moisture and temperature readings from different soil depths and locations in his corn and peanut fields. Antennas fitted to the pipes transmit data to his computer for monitoring—taking the guess work out of when and where to water.

Elsewhere, other measures are being taken to better cope with drought conditions—including introducing to cattle breeds in Iowa genes from hardier breeds more accustomed to drought.

Climate’s Impact on Marine Life

Ocean acidification—caused when greenhouse gas emissions dissolve in the ocean to form acid—is not only making it harder for sea creatures to grow their shells, but it could also be disrupting the marine food chain, according to a new study. Polar regions may be most affected, making it difficult for clams and sea urchins to extract enough calcium carbonate to grow their shells and skeletons.

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.