Looming Sequester Has Implications for National Weather Forecasting, Energy

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Unless Congress reaches a deal by Friday, a set of automatic spending cuts—known as the sequester—will take effect. According to the Obama Administration, this trigger, for $85 billion worth of across-the-board federal spending cuts, is expected to have significant implications for climate and energy.

Newly released estimates by the White House detail how the cuts are projected to impact programs in each state. Decreases in environmental funding will be in the multi-millions, with the hardest hits to clean air efforts in California, New York, Texas, Ohio and Illinois. Overall more than $100 million in budget cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air program are proposed. The acting chief of the EPA, Bob Perciasepe, warned of furloughs for staff. In a letter, he detailed the widespread potential effects of the cuts, which included reduced monitoring of oil spills, air pollution and hazardous waste.

The EPA isn’t the only federal agency that would be impacted by the cuts. For example, the operating budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also at risk, which could potentially degrade the government’s ability to provide timely and accurate weather forecasts. Specifically, the sequester could cause a two- to three-year delay in the production and deployment of the first two next-generation weather satellites being developed through a program called GOES-R. “This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings,” said Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank. “It is unclear that future years of investment will be able to undo some of the damage—especially to our weather preparedness.”

The energy sector will also feel the effects if the cuts aren’t avoided by March 1. There could be a slowdown in the development of oil and gas resources as well as a decline in the permitting of solar and wind installations on federal lands. The cuts could also affect clean energy deployment, decrease the number of homes eligible for energy-efficiency upgrades and delay the cleanup of nuclear waste at sites in Tennessee, South Carolina, Washington and Idaho.

Obama has called a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss the sequester, but absent a deal, the cuts will begin at 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Obama’s Picks for Energy, Environment

Gina McCarthy and Ernest Moniz are still clear favorites to help lead President Barack Obama’s environment and energy team. Timing for formal announcements, however, are less clear, sources told Politico.

McCarthy is expected to replace Lisa Jackson, who stepped down as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month. Moniz, currently the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, could replace Steven Chu as the head of the Department of Energy. Reuters says McCarthy “would likely become the face of Obama’s latest push to fight climate change,” while Nature says Moniz “would bring to the office a pragmatic support for nuclear power and natural gas, along with a candid desire to, in his own words, ‘innovate like hell’ on basic energy technologies.”

BP Oil Spill Trial Opens

Testimony began this week in the civil trial surrounding the deadly explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010. Unless a settlement is reached, Federal District Judge Carl J. Barbier will determine who is liable for damages resulting from the rupture and discharge of millions of gallons of crude oil from BP’s high-pressure Macondo well. In addition, Barbier will assess whether BP, Transocean or other companies that worked on the project were grossly negligent in their handling of the rig and well in order to decide how much money will be paid.

A finding of gross negligence could mean more than $17 billion in Clean Water Act fines and other punitive damages, beyond the $8.5 billion settlement the company reached in 2012.

Record-Setting Renewable Energy Projects See Light

In a conference of leaders in the offshore wind industry, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hinted at the nation’s energy future. “It is going to be very much a continuation agenda,” Salazar said. Though the sequester could slow offshore wind energy development in the Atlantic, he noted that Cape Wind—the first proposed offshore wind project in the U.S.—should break ground in 2013, despite earlier holdups.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown cleared the $1 billion McCoy Solar Project for fast-track approval. Estimated to provide enough electricity to power 264,000 homes, the solar project would be the world’s biggest (subscription required).

And across the pond, Saudi Arabia revealed a plan to install 54 gigawatts of renewable energy—a combination of solar, wind, geothermal and waste-to-energy plants by 2032. The project aims to reduce the amount of oil burned in power stations by the world’s top oil exporter.

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.

A Wind Tax Credit, Indefinitely?

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for doubling research and development funding for renewable energy. A policy document released by the White House following the State of the Union proposes making the wind production tax credit—which was renewed in January for one year as part of the deal to avert the fiscal cliff—permanent.

“To once again double generation from wind, solar and geothermal sources by 2020, the President has called on Congress to make the renewable energy production tax credit permanent and refundable, as part of a comprehensive corporate tax reform, providing incentives and certainty for investments in new clean energy,” the policy document states. Internal analysis by the American Wind Energy Association indicates phasing out the credit—over the course of six years—would give the industry the time it needs to establish a “stable base market” in the U.S.

But some in Congress have set their sights on challenging the tax credit and subjecting it to increased oversight.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s latest report, 100 percent of electricity capacity added in January 2013 was from renewables, with the majority coming from wind.

Vote Saves EU Trading Scheme, for Now

The world’s largest carbon market was saved from collapse this week. The European Parliament’s environment committee voted to support a proposed plan to remove a record surplus of emissions permits from their carbon trading scheme, which imposes emission limits on some 12,000 power plants and factories. The surplus—a result of the recession and factors such as an increase in carbon auctions—has driven carbon prices to an all-time low. The “backloading” plan delays the scheduled release of permits by up to five years. The vote did fail to provide a hoped-for boost to carbon allowance prices, which dropped 20 percent following the announcement.

The backloading plan still needs approval by the full European Parliament and the governments of the 27 member states.

Studies Put Arctic Ice Loss under Microscope

A reduction in summer Arctic ice cover reached a record low in 2012. But new research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests this melting doesn’t stop in cooler months. It finds sea ice volumes have declined 9 percent during the winter and 36 percent during autumn months over the course of the last decade.

This widespread reduction of ice is disrupting the balance of the region’s greenhouse gases. The melting affects both the uptake and release of gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, which can end up in the soil and cause lasting negative effects.

As the ice retreats and more shipping routes are opened, access for oil and gas exploration has also become easier. The United Nations Environment Programme says the region needs to be better protected as a result. Their report, UNEP Year Book 2013, recommends using economic instruments to create financial incentives that would improve chemical safety. A better understanding of how exploration would affect the region’s ecosystems and populations, Reuters reports, is also needed before taking further steps to develop the Artic.

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.

In State of the Union Obama Targets Energy, Climate

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Amid discussion of gun control, immigration reform and deficit reduction, President Barack Obama touched on his agenda for energy and climate in his State of the Union address Tuesday. Picking up where he left off in his second inaugural address, Obama took his focus on climate change one step further, calling on Congress to enact legislation to cut carbon pollution and increase clean energy production. He made it clear he intends to act with or without lawmakers.

“But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Obama said. “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take now and in the future to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

Topping the list of actions for Congress: a market-based solution similar to cap-and trade legislation John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on a few years ago. A cap-and-trade system—like the one established in California—would create a cap, or limit, on industrial greenhouse gas emissions that would decrease over time. At the federal level, it died in the Senate in 2010. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer rolled out a bill that would levy a fee on large fossil fuel facilities—building off the momentum of the State of the Union (subscription required). Wednesday the Environment and Public Works Committee held a briefing to discuss the latest findings in climate science research.

During the speech, Obama offered no details on steps he would take if Congress fails to act. While there was no mention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations of power plants, The National Journal reports he is on track to use his executive authority to introduce rules for controlling carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act this year. This would go beyond mandates currently proposed for new facilities.

Energy Trust Would Drive New Research to Reduce Oil Dependence

In addition to taking executive action to curb climate change, Obama proposed using the revenues from federal oil and gas production to fund an Energy Security Trust. This trust would “drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.” The $2 billion investment would support research into a range of technologies, including homegrown biofuels and electric vehicles. It would not require expanding drilling. The Hill notes that creating such a trust would require an Act of Congress, and some Republican lawmakers are already calling the plan a “nonstarter.”

Obama also wants to work with Congress to encourage cleaner-burning natural gas. “The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence,” he said. “We need to encourage that. And that’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. That’s got to be part of an all-of-the-above plan. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and our water.” Merrill Matthews at Forbes is skeptical of Obama’s promises to expedite the permitting process for oil and gas drilling, accusing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of withdrawing public lands that had already undergone a lengthy environmental review and been approved for oil and gas leasing.

Is the Speech a Roadmap for 2013?

The answers are mixed. Some liked what they heard. Success of the address, USA Today reports, depends on the success of the policies. The President has delivered variable results on proposals he’s put forth in four previous State of the Union addresses, reports Politico. With Republicans in control of the House, CBS News’s Brian Montopoli says a resurrection of a cap-and-trade bill like the one Obama proposed in 2009 is doubtful.

Meanwhile, a new national poll by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions suggests many Americans haven’t formed an opinion about a cap-and-trade approach; with support low, 36 percent are neither for nor against. It also found only 29 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat support a carbon tax and 64 percent strongly or somewhat favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories and cars. However, the percentage of Americans who think the climate is changing, and that the change is a result of human activity, have reached their highest levels since 2007.

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.

As U.S. Carbon Dioxide Footprint Falls, Report Looks at Ways to Continue Emission Decline

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

As Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed the Obama administration’s commitment to combat climate change, new data indicates carbon dioxide emissions in the United States in 2012 dropped to their lowest levels since 1994. The report found expansion of renewables, increased efficiency and the increased availability of unconventional natural gas all contributed to the reduction in climate pollution. In fact, by the end of last year carbon dioxide emissions were down about 10.5 percent from 2005 levels.

Further progress toward President Obama’s goal of cutting emissions 17 percent before 2020 may be attainable without Congress. According to a new report from the World Resources Institute, the U.S. could meet the target by combining actions at the state and federal levels. This includes new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, with the report recommending the administration use the Clean Air Act to do so. It also points to curbing methane emissions from natural gas operations and improving energy efficiency in home appliances and industry to achieve additional emission reductions.

U.S. Power Plants Remain Largest Emitters

Power plants accounted for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, new EPA data suggests. That translates to about 2,221 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—though those emissions dipped 4.6 percent compared to 2010 as more plants burned less coal. The data was gleaned from roughly 8,000 power plants and included an interactive map identifying the largest polluters. Among the top emitters were coal-dependent states, including Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky.

The EPA released the data, collected through the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, for the first time last year when it considered 2010 emissions from 29 sources. In 2011, emissions from those sources dropped 3 percent.

Chu Steps Down, Notes Responsibility to Address Climate

After four years, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has tendered his resignation. In the letter announcing his decision to forgo a second term, Chu writes of his accomplishments and our responsibility to address climate change.

“While we cannot accurately predict the course of climate change in the coming decades, the risks we run if we don’t change our course are enormous. Prudent risk management does not equate uncertainty with inaction … Ultimately we have a moral responsibility to the most innocent victims of adverse climate change. Those who will suffer the most are the people who are the most innocent: the world’s poorest citizens and those yet to be born. There is an ancient Native American saying: ‘We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’ A few short decades later, we don’t want our children to ask, ‘What were our parents thinking? Didn’t they care about us?’”

Chu notes, in the more-than-3,000-word letter, that better solutions, along with a willingness to accept failure, will be necessary.

“Our ability to find and extract fossil fuels continues to improve, and economically recoverable reser­voirs around the world are likely to keep pace with the rising demand for decades. As the saying goes, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; we transitioned to better solutions … The test for American’s policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for many successes.”

Meanwhile President Obama has tapped Sally Jewell, the CEO of outdoor retailer REI, to replace outgoing secretary Ken Salazar as head of the Department of Interior (DOI). Jewell is a both a former petroleum engineer and a longtime advocate for conservation, and if confirmed, she would oversee millions of acres of public lands. Western Energy Alliance President Tim Wigley said, “her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio.” Some are optimistic that Jewell might continue DOI efforts to develop renewable energy on public land and foster offshore wind power development.

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.