NOAA, Others Predict Active Atlantic Hurricane Season

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

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its predictions for hurricane activity, ahead of the official start of the storm season June 1. In the Atlantic, NOAA forecasts an active season with 13 to 20 named storms. Seven to 11 of those storms, NOAA said, could actually develop into Category 1 or higher hurricanes. As many as three to six of them have the potential to become Category 3 or higher hurricanes.

NOAA’s predictions for the 2013 hurricane season are comparable to those of other independent groups such as and Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center. All cite a similar cocktail of conditions that set the stage for a more active season.

“This year, oceanic and atmospheric conditions in the Atlantic basin are expected to produce more and stronger hurricanes,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “These conditions include weaker wind shear, warmer Atlantic waters and conducive wind patterns coming from Africa.”

In 2012, when hurricanes Sandy and Isaac made landfall, there were 10 named storms. Destruction from Hurricane Sandy was so great that NOAA is now rethinking its approach to storm surge forecasts.

Meanwhile, activity in the Eastern and Central Pacific was predicted to be below normal.

Regulating Carbon Emissions

The U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has completed its study of the economic and environmental effects of a carbon tax, which would place a fee on oil, gas and coal with the goal of reducing harmful emissions. The report not only looks at the impact of a carbon tax, but also at how large the tax should be and how the revenue would be spent.

Taxing fossil fuels, the CBO found, would increase gasoline and power costs. Specifically, a carbon tax of $20 per ton would increase gasoline prices by about 20 cents a gallon and electricity bills by 16 percent, on average. The impact of these hikes—especially for low-income households—could be reduced or eliminated, (subscription) depending on how the revenue was spent.

In California, the cost of carbon is starting to rise. The state’s Air Resources Board held its third cap-and-trade auction, selling out 2013 permits at a record price. Still, some debate exists about how revenue from the country’s first emissions trading scheme would be spent.

Jackson to Lead Apple’s Environmental Efforts

Lisa Jackson, former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, will serve as Apple’s top environmental advisor, company CEO Tim Cook announced Tuesday. Cook was going over Apple’s environmental efforts when he referenced the hire on stage at a technology conference in Ranchos Palos Verdes, California, noting Jackson will be coordinating efforts across the company.

“Apple has shown how innovation can drive real progress by removing toxics from its products, incorporating renewable energy in its data center plans, and continually raising the bar for energy efficiency in the electronics industry,” Jackson told the Washington Post in an e-mail. “I look forward to helping support and promote these efforts, as well as leading new ones in the future aimed at protecting the environment.”

Progress forward for Jackson’s potential successor is still in limbo, and Business Week notes that Gina McCarthy’s fate is not entirely in her own hands. In particular, much of the data that EPW Ranking Republican David Vitter is insisting be released before he would acquiesce to her consideration is not even in the control of the agency. Instead, it is possessed by Harvard University and protected by confidentiality agreements between the University and subjects of the study. The Competitive Enterprise Institute also is now suing to obtain McCarthy’s text messages from days on which she testified before Congress.

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.

With Oklahoma Tornado, Questions Swirl about Climate Change Link

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

Hours after a powerful tornado tore through an Oklahoma suburb, killing dozens, some renewed speculation about such storms’ connection to climate change. In recent years, researchers have been working to assess what causes these storms and whether manmade global warming could be affecting them.

Plain geography is a factor. Moore, Oklahoma, is in the middle of what is known as Tornado Alley—an area where cold, dry air from Canada and the Rockies meets warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico to create the unstable conditions that cause tornados. Although, generally, researchers agree that climate change will increase the likelihood of extreme weather events, they cannot say for sure whether there is a connection between climate change and tornadoes.

“The short answer is, we have no idea,” said Michael Wehner, a climate researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, noting he’s studying the issue and is optimistic about achieving a more definitive answer. “The reason I’m optimistic that we can get somewhere on this is that supercomputing technology is driving this very hard. We’re just getting into the sweet spot for these kinds of issues, with the largest mainframes that money can buy.”

Studies, the Houston Chronicle cites, indicate no evidence at this time to link tornado activity to climate change. According to the National Weather Service, tornadoes aren’t getting more frequent, but more accounts of these storms are being made available for public consumption.

Vote Expedites Northern Leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline

The House approved legislation Wednesday to expedite construction of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline’s northern leg by eliminating the need for a presidential permit and requiring no additional environmental studies. The vote was largely symbolic, U.S. News and World Report wrote, noting that experts say it has virtually no chance of surviving a Senate vote. The White House has also threatened to veto the bill, claiming it “prevents thorough consideration of the complex issues that could have serious security, safety, environmental, and other ramifications.”

So far, the Canadian government has nearly doubled spending—reaching $16.5 million—to promote the pipeline. But it seems Americans are more aware of climate change than the Keystone XL pipeline project, according to a new poll (subscription) by Yale and George Mason universities.

Moniz Vows to Review LNG Export Data, Energy Efficiency in New Role

In his first official speech after being sworn in as Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz indicated he plans to delay any final decisions on applications to export liquefied natural gas until he reviews data showing what impact exports would have on domestic supplies and prices. The boom in domestic production of the resource has lowered prices and stirred debate regarding exports. Moniz doesn’t plan to order new studies right now. Rather, he’ll review what is already out there—including a study commissioned in 2012 by the Department of Energy.

He saw efficiency as a vital part of meeting the country’s climate and energy challenges, noting he plans to advance a large bipartisan energy efficiency bill moving through Congress.

“Efficiency is going to be a big focus as we go forward,” Moniz said. “I just don’t see the solutions to our biggest energy and environmental challenges without a very big demand-side response. That’s why it’s important to move this way, way up in our priorities.”

Meanwhile, Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama’s pick to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has waited longer than any other nominee for U.S. Senate confirmation—more than 20 days longer than Michael Leavitt in 2003.

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 Dioxide Milestone Revised by NOAA

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

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced last week that carbon dioxide concentrations at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii surpassed the milestone 400 parts per million for a sustained period. NOAA has since revised the figure—on the basis of computer analysis—saying its May 9 readings actually remained fractions of a point below the historic level, coming in at 399.89. A second monitoring program run by the Scripps Institute for Oceanography, The New York Times reports, continues to show a level of 400.8 parts per million for the same period. The numbers, scientists said, are a reminder of the long-term trend in greenhouse gases.

“The last time in the Earth’s history when we saw similar levels of CO2 in the atmosphere was probably about 4.5 million years ago when the world was warmer on average by three or four degrees Celsius than it is today,” said Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at the Imperial College London. “There was no apparent ice sheet on Greenland, sea levels were much higher, and the world was a very different place.”

A first draft of the congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment shares more data on how the climate is changing; the final version is due out in early 2014. Among the highlights: the average temperature in the U.S. has increased by nearly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, and sea levels are expected to rise another 1 to 4 feet this century. Another study, which looked at 50,000 common animals and plants, says climate change could lead to the loss of more than half of these plants and one third of the animals.

McCarthy Gets Go Ahead

After boycotting the first hearing a week ago, Republican lawmakers agreed to show up to vote today on whether to move the nomination for Gina McCarthy to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the full Senate. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 10-8 along party lines to move McCarthy forward in the process. No date has been set for the floor vote, and Sen. Roy Blunt still maintains a hold on McCarthy’s nomination over a dispute to repair the levee system on the Mississippi River.

Natural Gas Exports, Ethanol Topics of Debate

The boom in domestic production of natural gas has lowered prices and stirred debate regarding the export of the resource. A decision by the Obama administration on whether to approve applications for some 20 natural gas export terminals could come in “weeks and not months,” David Leiter, president of ML Strategies LLC, told Bloomberg. If all were approved, facilities could ship nearly 41 percent of the total U.S. production of natural gas this year and lead to further increases in hydraulic fracturing. This week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held the first of a series of forums on natural gas. Up next week: exports.

Meanwhile, a new House bill seeks to modify the renewable fuel standard (RFS) to let natural gas-based ethanol qualify as a renewable. Currently, the rule limits eligible feedstocks to renewable sources such as corn, soybeans and switchgrass.

Rainforest Losses Could Affect Energy Output, Agriculture

Two new studies in the journals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Environmental Research Letters look at threats to the Amazon rainforest. The first finds extensive deforestation will leave less water in nearby rivers to run the hydropower dams that countries such as Brazil are investing billions of dollars to create. Scientists estimate that Brazil’s controversial Bel Monte Damone of the world’s largest hydropower projects—could deliver roughly 30 percent less power if forest loss continues. The loss is equivalent to the energy consumption of 4 million Brazilians.

Making more land available in the Amazon rainforest for farming could actually produce fewer “wins” for the agricultural sector, according to the Environmental Research Letters work. Why? Loss of trees not only reduces the capacity of the Amazon to act as a natural carbon sink, but also increases temperature and decreases precipitation. “These climate feedbacks, usually ignored in previous studies, impose reduction in precipitation that would lead agricultural expansion in Amazonia to become self-defeating: the more agriculture expands, the less productive it becomes,” researchers said. Google and Carnegie Mellon share a time lapse look at deforestation’s effect from 1984 to 2012.

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.

Arctic Experiencing More Than Just Melt

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

Carbon dioxide emissions are soaking into Arctic waters and affecting the chemistry of the ocean, a new report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program shows. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions and freshwater runoff challenge the ocean’s ability to neutralize acidification—an imbalance caused by absorption of the greenhouse gas from the air. The study said the Arctic’s cold water makes it more vulnerable to absorbing carbon dioxide, lowering pH levels and thereby increasing acidity.

“We have already passed critical thresholds,” said Richard Bellerby, report chairman. “Even if we stop emissions now, acidification will last tens of thousands of years.”

In fact, the average acidity of surface ocean waters is now roughly 30 percent higher than at the start of the Industrial Revolution. This month, experts predict carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to reach 400 parts per million for a sustained period of time—40 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than before that revolution began. Among the report’s other key findings: Arctic marine ecosystems are highly likely to undergo significant change, acidification may contribute to the alteration of fish species, acidity is not uniform across the Arctic, and acidity rise is the result of an uptake in carbon dioxide emissions from human activities.

Negotiating Climate Policy

Nations gathering for the week-long climate talks in Bonn, Germany, moved closer to solidifying details for a 2015 international climate agreement that would take effect in 2020. Although there were no breakthroughs in bridging the divide between the U.S. and China, participants began to lay the groundwork for progress at November’s climate summit in Poland. More specifically, a U.S. proposal to move away from a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and let countries draft their own emissions reduction plans gained support at the meeting. The current level of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is far too low, says U.N. Climate Change Secretariat Christiana Figueres. “The challenge for the 2015 agreement is precisely to bridge the gap,” Figueres said. “The process is not on track with respect to the demands of science.”

In the European Union, politicians announced plans for a “rescue attempt” centered on the union’s carbon trading system, which is designed to provide incentives to industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union Parliament rejected a proposal to backload the auctioning of credits within the system last month, a plan that would have removed a surplus of emissions permits from the system dubbed the world’s largest carbon market. A second vote determining whether to withhold carbon permits from the oversupplied market to address the current imbalance is expected by July.

Obama’s Energy and Environment Team Takes Shape

With Ernest Moniz—a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor—now confirmed as the Energy Secretary, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was scheduled to vote on whether U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nominee Gina McCarthy would get her turn in front of the full Senate. All eight Republican lawmakers on the committee boycotted the hearing on the vote today, contending that McCarthy hasn’t answered several questions fully. At least two Republicans were needed to move ahead with a vote, according to committee rules.

“As you know, all Republicans on our EPW committee have asked EPA to honor five very reasonable and basic requests in conjunction with the nomination of Gina McCarthy, which focus on openness and transparency,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “While you have allowed EPA adequate time to fully respond before any mark-up on the nomination, EPA has stonewalled on four of the five categories. Because of this, no Republican member of the committee will attend [Thursday]’s mark-up if it is held.” Chairwoman Boxer vowed to move McCarthy’s nomination through the committee, even if it required her to change the committee rules to remove the requirement for Republican attendance for a quorum.

Meanwhile, recently confirmed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made her first appearance, since winning confirmation last month, to defend the department’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget.

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

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.