Studies Link Warming to Increased Weather Extremes

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

A new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds global temperatures to be one of the best predictors of hurricane activity. In fact, the PNAS study found that a one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in global temperatures could multiply the frequency of Katrina-like storms by two to seven times.

In the Arctic, melting sea ice—which reached its sixth lowest level on record—is driving its own extreme weather patterns. “For the past few winters, large parts of Asia, North America, and Europe experienced these cold conditions above normal snowfall,” said Jiping Liu of the University of Albany who led a study in PNAS on the topic. “When we started to explore the reason why, our study suggested it was the decline of Arctic sea ice.” Liu was among several researchers to discuss the topic at a news conference, where it was noted that warming conditions in the Arctic may be weakening jet stream currents, causing extreme weather systems to hover in northern mid-latitudes.

States Are Taking an Active Role in Clean Energy Deployment  

In Congress, signs of progress on a few small-scale energy bills are evident, but action at the state level is more robust. Washington D.C. and 29 states have renewable energy standards that require electric utilities to get a portion of their power from clean energy sources such as solar or wind. More than 20 states have created clean energy trust funds, and more than 40 offer some form of clean energy loans. These measures are responsible for helping double renewable energy capacity in the United States.

These successes aren’t without challenges. Renewable standards in 22 states could be lowered or repealed as part of a multi-pronged campaign to reverse Renewable Portfolio Standard mandates. Some of the most heated debates are in Kansas, Vermont, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio—where there’s a bill recommending repeal of the state’s 2008 standard requiring utility companies to get 12.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Plan Designed to Help Wildlife Adapt to Climate Change

A new plan—dubbed the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy—establishes key priorities to help wildlife adapt to climate change. The nationwide plan describes the expected future impacts to wildlife habitats, noting that “Even if further GHG emissions were halted today, alterations already underway in the Earth’s climate will last for hundreds or thousands of years. If GHG emissions continue, as is currently more likely, the planet’s average temperature is projected to rise 2.0 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with accompanying major changes in extreme weather events, variable and/or inconsistent weather patterns, sea level rise, and changing ocean conditions including increased acidification.”

Seven goals for resource managers are highlighted in the plan, which was developed in response to a request from Congress. The goals include conserving and connecting habitat, managing species and habitats to allow sustainable use and protect ecosystems, reducing non-climate stressors such as pollution and invasive species, conducting research to increase knowledge and educating the public about climate change and its effects on resources.

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

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.

Carbon Tax Is a Popular Topic in Washington

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

Since China announced it will hold off plans to introduce a carbon tax, the idea has generated some activity on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers on Tuesday proposed a draft bill that would charge the largest industrial polluters a fee for, or carbon tax on, their fossil-fuel emissions. The plan, proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), includes three possible per-ton prices for carbon pollution—$15, $25 or $30—and annual cost increases ranging from 2 percent to 8 percent to ensure that emissions continue to decrease. The new bill solicits feedback on how revenue (subscription required) generated by the fee or tax should be spent but proposes that proceeds go toward mitigating energy costs for consumers, reducing the deficit, protecting jobs, decreasing the tax liability for businesses and individuals and investing in other activities that could reduce carbon pollution.

The Waxman-Whitehouse draft, which has not been formally introduced into Congress or even finalized, is one of a few carbon tax proposals circulating in Washington. A measure by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was released last month. The same week as the release of the Waxman-Whitehouse draft, Republicans introduced a resolution that opposed a national carbon tax, citing its threat to the economy and businesses.

Two studies of a carbon tax have produced very different results. A study by the National Association of Manufacturers finds that a carbon tax starting at $20 per ton and rising 4 percent yearly would result in an economic slowdown. Meanwhile, a report by the Brookings Institution finds that a carbon tax could have benefits—including improving environmental outcomes and increasing economic efficiency.

A national poll released recently by Duke University found that 29 percent of the respondents strongly or somewhat supported a carbon tax. There was much more support surrounding a clean energy standard or other traditional measures to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Will “Fire Ice” Discovery Revolutionize the Energy Industry?

Japan has produced methane from methane hydrates, a fossil fuel that behaves like ice, from deep under the ocean for the first time. Deposits of the fuel source, known as “fire ice,” may be large enough to supply the country’s natural gas needs for years. An estimated 1.1 trillion cubic meters of gas are trapped off Shikoku Island. Japan hopes to convert the trapped methane into natural gas that could help address recent energy woes, but the Japanese government says it is still at least five years away from commercial extraction. Japanese officials point to the recent gas boom in the United States as evidence that complex drilling processes can yield big results—a fact that has Australia worried. Japan is Australia’s top natural gas customer.

The fuel source is also being explored in Canada and the United States, with the latter funding 14 research projects on methane hydrates. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that naturally occurring gas hydrates could contain more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—potentially more organic carbon than the world’s coal, oil and other forms of natural gas combined. Recent mappings off the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts show large offshore accumulations of methane hydrate, but the potential environmental effects of drilling for hydrates remain little understood.

The Future of Nuclear Power

Monday marked the second anniversary of Japan’s tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Before the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan was the third largest consumer of nuclear energy, behind the United States. Now just two of the country’s 50 operable reactors are online. With plans to phase out nuclear power by 2040, the long-term energy strategy is expected to bring higher electricity rates for consumers this year.

The future of nuclear remains less certain worldwide. The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently told more than 3,000 industry executives, experts and government regulators that when it comes to commercial reactors they must be ready to deal with the unknown.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists is more critical of the industry. It points to safety mishaps at nuclear plants across the United States in 2012. The study, released shortly after the NRC annual report card, details a dozen events.

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.

Obama Announces Leaders of His Energy, Environment Team

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

After weeks of speculation, President Barack Obama officially announced his selections to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on Monday. Gina McCarthy was chosen to lead the EPA, replacing Lisa Jackson, while Ernest Moniz will take over as energy secretary, replacing Steven Chu. Together, Obama said, they are charged with “making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change.” They join Sally Jewell, named to the Department of the Interior last month. Jewell’s confirmation hearing is slated to take place today.

Assuming Moniz and McCarthy win confirmation from the Senate, what can we expect them to focus on? Using the power of executive authority, quite a bit, reports The Washington Post. On the list: reducing global hydrofluorocarbon emissions, tightening emissions from medium and heavy-duty vehicles, new energy efficiency standards, and using the Clean Air Act pursue stricter rules for natural gas and methane emissions and cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

For the last four years, McCarthy has been working with the EPA as the assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. Under her leadership, the EPA proposed the first regulations to cap emissions from new power plants under the Clean Air Act in 2012 and the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) in 2011. A large number of pollution rules that have been postponed or delayed in the courts—such as the cross state air controls for power plants—will come up in Obama’s second term. In this new role McCarthy could face considerable opposition from industry polluters, which some say could be worse than her predecessor.

Moniz, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, is a former Energy Department undersecretary. “Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, water and our climate,” Obama said when he introduced Moniz Monday. The nomination of the MIT physicist comes with mixed reactions, as Moniz is a known advocate of shale gas and nuclear energy. The coal industry, however, is much more welcoming of Moniz than McCarthy, GreenWire reports (subscription required) because making coal fit into a low-carbon world has been a focus of his research.

Climate Change to Open Arctic Shipping Routes

As a result of climate change, by mid-century ships could sail directly over the North Pole, according to a new study. The Northwest Passage is now only accessible to a few icebreaker ships on average one summer of every seven years. Through computer simulations using independent climate forecasts for the years 2040 to 2059, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, predict the route—20 percent short than today’s most trafficked Arctic shipping lane—to be passable more frequently with warming of the North Pole that will lead to record low levels of summer sea ice.

“The development is both exciting from an economic development point of view and worrisome in terms of safety, both for the arctic environment and for the ships themselves,” said lead researcher Laurence Smith, who mapped the likeliest routes, usable by icebreakers and other open water vessels, during the month of September. The price of oil and locations of natural gas will be big determinants for whether or not Arctic navigation increases, the authors said. Numerous obstacles, aside from sea ice, stand in the way of increased navigation in the region. Just last month, Shell called off drilling exploration efforts after several mishaps.

House Votes to Increase Funds for Satellite

Sequester budget cuts had threatened to impose a two- to three-year delay in the production and deployment of the first next-generation weather satellites being developed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through a program called GOES-R. Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to approve legislation that could breathe new life into the program that aims to create more timely and accurate weather forecasts. The spending bill would set aside $802 million for NOAA’s satellites. The catch—it must be approved by the Senate, and even if passed the new figure is still subject to additional cuts.

Record Carbon Dioxide Spike

Researchers at NOAA say the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose significantly in 2012. Carbon dioxide levels jumped by 2.67 parts per million since 2011 to a total just under 395 parts per million and could make it unlikely global warming can be limited another 2 degrees Celsius. The spike is the second highest since record keeping began in 1959, surpassed only by the 1998 increase of 2.93 parts per million.

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.