Bacteria Surviving at High Altitudes Could Play a Role in Global Climate

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that even as high as 30,000 feet in the sky, fungi and bacteria are present in the air. These living microorganisms could very well affect global climate.

“The million-dollar question in the field [right now] is how much living things can impact clouds, the hydrological cycle and the climate overall,” said Anthanasios Nenes, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and study co-author.

The study showed that viable bacterial cells represented, on average, around 20 percent of the total particles detected in the size range of 0.25 to 1 micron in diameter. By at least one order of magnitude, bacteria outnumbered fungi in the samples, and the researchers detected 17 different types of bacteria— including some that are capable of metabolizing the carbon compounds in the atmosphere—such as oxalic acid. The work may shed new light on how clouds will change in composition and abundance as the world warms, which Climate Central reports is a source of uncertainty in climate projections.

China Coal Consumption Rising

Domestic coal, which has suffered in recent years due to the abundance of natural gas and tighter regulations, just may get a boost from China. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China is using nearly as much coal to support its economic and population growth as the rest of the world combined. With its demand already accounting for 47 percent of global consumption, the country is expected to dominate the coal market in 2013 as it continues to rely on the fossil fuel for 70 percent of its energy generation.

“[There are] enhanced opportunities for exports of American coal to China to feed some of that demand,” said Heath Knakmuhs, senior director of policy at the U.S. Chamber’s Energy Institute. “While China does have significant internal coal resources, they’re often far away from load centers. It does provide an opportunity for American coal suppliers—especially those located in the western U.S. to export enhanced amounts to China.”

Indeed, U.S. coal shipments to China have increased significantly in recent years—showing a 107 percent jump from 2011 to 2012. Proposed coal-export terminals in Washington and Oregon—through which coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana would be shipped to China—are shaping up to be “one of the biggest climate fights of 2013,” according to Mother Jones. Opponents of the terminals cite local concerns such as the congestion and coal dust associated with the mile-long trains as well as higher coal consumption—and increased greenhouse gas emissions—in Asia. But some argue that China will burn coal whether or not they get it from the U.S., and that higher coal prices will reduce coal consumption in the U.S. and Europe. “Perhaps counterintuitively, the United States selling coal to China, and Asia generally, likely will reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally,” said Stanford University’s Frank Wolak.

EPA Challenged in Court

Two rules developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were challenged in court, and ultimately thrown out in recent weeks. These include:

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR)—The EPA lost a bid for a federal appeals court review of a rule designed to force cuts to soot and smog emissions from coal-fired power plants. CSAPR was originally issued in July 2011 and aimed to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions in 28 states that cross state lines. The Clean Air Interstate Rule, which also aims to address pollution across state lines, remains in effect as the EPA reviews the decision.

Cellulosic Ethanol Target—A federal appeals court struck down future rules for blending cellulosic biofuels, made from sources such as grasses, agricultural waste and wood chips, because supplies are not available to meet forward-thinking requirements. The biofuels mandate—part of the renewable fuel standard—required refiners to blend 36 billion gallons of biofuel into traditional transportation fuels by 2022.

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.

Climate Change Resurfaces in President’s Second Inaugural Address

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In his remarks at the 57th presidential inauguration, President Barack Obama discussed a topic Americans hadn’t heard much about since his November victory speech—climate change. In the nationally televised speech following his oath of office, Obama elevated the issue of climate change into the top tier of his second-term priorities, alongside gun control and immigration reform.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition—we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure—our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

How would he do it? Scientific American had some answers based on written responses Obama provided the news outlet in November—touching on reduced oil dependence and clean energy. More details about Obama’s climate initiatives could come during the State of the Union Address Feb. 12. Expectations generally, and of a legislative solution in particular, were tempered by the statements of White House Spokesman Jay Carney the day after the speech. Other energy insiders think the administration will lean toward the same low-key approach they’ve taken since 2009.

Cutting Carbon without Congress

Although it is too soon to tell whether a commitment to climate change in a second term will translate into a push for legislation in 2013, there are other options available to Obama reports The Washington Post. Chief among them is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide and impose carbon limits on existing coal- and gas-fired utilities, which are responsible for some 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually—or about 40 percent of total U.S. emissions. These “stationary sources” are covered in section 111 of the Act, which has provisions for regulating new sources under 111(b) and existing sources under 111(d). How these rules are constructed will help to define Obama’s term.

The Natural Resources Defense Council released a detailed plan for constructing these regulations appropriately and cutting carbon emissions from power plants more than 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. The plan, NRDC notes, could stimulate investments of more than $90 billion in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources over the next eight years. Meanwhile, researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, alongside other leading experts, have produced a report that looks at the options, limitations and impacts of regulating existing sources of carbon dioxide under section 111 (d) of the Clean Air Act. It concludes that states have choices and the flexibility to develop cost-effective plans when regulating carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. This is mainly due to the broad language of the section, which can be interpreted in many ways.

By April, the EPA is expected to complete carbon emissions standards for new power plants—closely followed by those for existing sources. As The National Journal notes, Obama’s climate change vow could make the EPA a political target.

Keystone XL a Test for ‘All of the Above’ Energy Strategy

While Obama has stressed the importance of the nation’s growing oil and gas supplies in his “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, coal, gas and oil went unmentioned Monday during his inauguration speech Monday.

Obama’s words regarding climate change will soon be tested, some environmental groups said, when he decides whether or not to approve the roughly 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline that will carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Obama vetoed the original plan for the pipeline. Among the main obstacles Obama cited for delaying the project a year ago was that landowners in Nebraska have worried the pipeline could contaminate the Ogallala aquifer. Now that Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman has approved a revised route through his state, that objection no longer applies. The BBC reports that Obama’s green energy agenda could be defined by this decision—even though any action is still months away.

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.


Global Temperature Rises in 2012, Climate Conditions Questioned

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Just days after the announcement that last year was the warmest in history for the continental United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found global temperatures are rising too.

In their separate annual analyses of surface temperatures, NASA and NOAA ranked 2012 among the 10 warmest years on record globally (NOAA showed 2012 as the 10th warmest while NASA found it to be the ninth warmest). With the exception of 1998, the nine hottest years have occurred since 2000—with 2005 and 2010 coming in the hottest. Both agencies reported temperatures across Earth rose about 1 degree Fahrenheit.

While each successive year may not be warmer than the year prior, with the current course of greenhouse gas increases, NASA scientists expect each decade to be hotter than the next. “One more year of numbers isn’t in itself significant,” said NASA GISS Climatologist Gavin Schmidt. “What matters is this decade is warmer than the last decade, and that decade was warmer than the decade before. The planet is warming. The reason it’s warming is because we are pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, according to NASA, were 285 parts per million in 1880; now they are more than 390 parts per million.

Studies out this week in two scholarly journals look more closely at the effects of warming. One, in the journal Nature Climate Change, reports the world may be able to avoid 20 to 65 percent of the adverse effects of climate change by the end of this century. The other finds soot just may be the second-largest contributor to climate change, and that certain emissions cuts could produce cooling effects. “Reducing emissions from diesel engines and domestic wood and coal fires is a no-brainer, as there are tandem health and climate benefits,” said University of Leeds co-author Piers Forster. “If we did everything we could to reduce these emissions, we could buy ourselves up to half a degree less warming, or a couple of decades of respite.” A scientist in the Scripps Institution of Oceanography tells Nature the study does not answer questions about the overall effect of aerosol emissions on climate.

Last week, a federal study also laid much of the blame for record U.S. temperatures on greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity.

Renewable Energy on the Map

While representatives from France and the United Nations discussed the importance of renewable energy at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, delegates remained unsure whether the U.N. 2030 target of 30 percent renewables is achievable. “The shift towards low-carbon energy has started,” said Christina Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. “But it is not happening at the scale or speed required.” Fossil fuels still account for about 80 percent of the global energy mix.

As Ontario phased out coal and the first portion of an offshore wind power line in the northeastern U.S. moved ahead, one organization launched an open-access global atlas aimed at helping countries assess their renewable-energy-generating potential to better meet the target. The map only offers solar and wind data sets currently, but other renewable information will be added in the future.

Sandy Relief Package Passes House

Weeks following Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a roughly $50 billion package designed to provide backing for long-term structural repairs as well as emergency relief for victims in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. It comes on top of a nearly $10 billion package to replenish flood insurance programs authorized earlier this month. The damage is extensive, with areas such as New York requesting nearly $42 billion from the federal government.

The Senate is expected to consider the aid next 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.


Heat Wave: 2012 Labeled Hottest Year on Record

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

It’s official. Last year was the warmest year in history for the contiguous United States with at least 356 record high temperatures tied or broken, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Average temperatures in 2012 were above the 20th century average by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures also beat a previous record set in 1998 by a full degree, even though 2012 was not an El Niño year. “Well, 1998’s heat was attributed to a strong El Niño, said Meteorologist Matt Mosteiko. “For 2012, there wasn’t one main factor that led to warm temps.”

Researchers on the NOAA study were reluctant to connect specific weather events in 2012 to climate change, but they did describe the data as “part of a longer-term trend of hotter, drier and potentially more extreme weather” to The Washington Post.

While global temperatures for 2012 are not yet available, predictions for temperature increases globally were released. But the United Kingdom’s Met Office downgraded its previous forecast for average global temperatures through 2017. The cut—20 percent—takes the average to 0.43 degrees Celsius above the 1971-2000 average, down from 0.54 degrees. The report led some media outlets to claim “global warming is at a standstill,” but others said that isn’t true. Rather, natural fluctuations in the climate system are currently having a combined cooling effect on the atmospheric temperatures, which is damping the full extent of human-caused temperature rise.

Australia has also been experiencing record-breaking heat of late, which has led to a rash of wildfires in some of the country’s most populous areas. The average temperature on Tuesday reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit—the hottest since record-keeping began in 1911. The extreme heat forced meteorologists to add a new color to their temperature maps to show temperatures near 129 degrees.

Energy in Arctic under Review

Shell Oil has experienced more than a dozen mishaps as it pulls together offshore drilling operations in the Arctic. Just last week off the coast of Alaska, Shell grounded its drilling vessel, the Kulluk. Some reports say the ship’s lifeboats may have leaked diesel fuel.

This series of accidents has led the U.S. Department of the Interior to initiate a review of Shell’s exploration efforts to help guide future permitting in the region. The process, officials have said, is estimated to take 60 days. The outcome could threaten the company’s drilling plans for 2013 during the limited window when weather conditions and regulators allow exploration. “It is troubling that there was such a series of mishaps,” said U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “There is a troubling sense I have that so many things went wrong. It may be that Shell isn’t even ready to move forward in 2013, because of assessments taking place of the Kulluk.”

Cities Adapt as Full Extent of Sandy Relief Remains in Limbo  

As the northeastern U.S. continues to recover from Hurricane Sandy, President Barack Obama signed a bill to provide emergency federal aid to the hurricane’s victims in three of the hardest hit states—Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. The $9.7 billion, earmarked mostly to help pay for flood insurance, is only a piece of the $60 billion sought to aid in recovery following the October storm. Lawmakers are expected to weigh in on the remainder of the package Jan. 15. House Republicans asked members to submit amendments to the relief package by Friday.

Some states aren’t waiting on Washington. New York now has a new commission focused on how to cope with worsening storms. So far, the expert panel’s recommendations—still part of a draft report— include measures such as turning industrial shoreline into oyster beds, storm barriers with moveable gates and rail connections between commuter lines.

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.

Fiscal Cliff Deal Reached, Clean Energy Not Forgotten

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

After months of negotiating, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., reached an agreement to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Featured in the measure is an extension of a renewable electricity production tax credit for wind, geothermal and some biomass projects, which gives credit for each kilowatt-hour of energy they produce.

Highly contested prior to the bill’s passing was the credit’s impact on the wind industry. The credit, which offers 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of wind power production, had already expired when the deal was reached Tuesday. Its pending expiration had resulted in layoffs at United States turbine parts manufacturing plants as developers placed new projects on hold, though wind-turbine installations are predicted to exceed natural gas fueled power plants in the U.S. this year.

The tax credit has been expanded to cover wind projects that begin construction in 2013not only projects that are up and running. Lawmakers also extended credits for residential energy efficiency improvements, plug-in vehicles, energy-efficient new home construction and the production of various biofuels—including one that treats algae as a qualified feedstock.

Then, there are a few smaller items some might have missed in the new law. Among them: a $2-per-ton subsidy for coal produced on Native American lands and a credit for electric scooters. Also, electric and natural gas industries kept dividend tax rates on par with capital gains taxes.

Climate Records, Missteps

Even as many cities tied or broke weather records in 2012, climate-related coverage in the press waned, according to independent data collected by the nonprofit The Daily Climate. In fact, it dropped 2.4 percent from 2011. Among the surprises: stories linking climate change to weird weather and sea-level rise were up.

On Jan. 1 California looked to its own climate record when it began enforcing its cap-and-trade program, AB32—the first of its kind in the nation. If the program is deemed successful—cutting pollution without harming the economy, The National Journal reports, “there is every reason to think that it will pave the way for more state and national action on climate change.” The Washington Post worries about a number of things that could go wrong with the program. Among them is the issue of “leakage”—decreased emissions within California but increased emissions in other states.

The announcement of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson’s departure is expected to refocus attention on the Obama Administration’s direction on issues such as climate change and energy strategy. Among one of the most immediate: legal challenges as regulators prepare to release final rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act. The agency may also face legal challenges from environmental groups who want it to propose air pollution standards for oil and gas drilling. EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe is expected to fill Jackson’s shoes, at least temporarily. Steven Cohen argues in The Huffington Post that the EPA, under any leadership, must make “the leap from environmental protection to environmental and economic sustainability.”

Energy Boom, Arctic Drilling Perils

Even amidst a drilling boom, ThinkProgress reports Americans paid more for gasoline in 2012—on average roughly nine cents more than in 2011. Tensions with Iran and refinery constraints were cited as factors in the increase. In 2013, AAA predicts prices to remain high—just not as high as in 2012.

Meanwhile, an oil rig that ran aground off the coast of Alaska has renewed debate about Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic this summer. This accident is the latest in a string of issues Shell has faced in its efforts to drill in the region. While the vessel was carrying more than 100,000 gallons of petroleum products, there has been no indication of a leak. As work to remove the rig continues, the web is abuzz with speculations about what this could mean for the future of Arctic drilling.

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.