Obama Shares Plan for Action on Climate Change

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

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation July 4 in observance of the Independence Day holiday. We will return July 11.

In a speech at Georgetown University Tuesday, President Barack Obama outlined a long-awaited executive strategy—comprised mostly of initiatives already underway—to curb greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

“As a president, as a father and as an American, I’m here to say, ‘We need to act,’” Obama said. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

The plan includes measures previously speculated to be a part of the overall climate change reduction strategy, including boosting renewable energy on federal land and tightening energy efficiency standards. At its heart the plan relies on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations to reduce emissions from new and existing power plants responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

The agency issued a proposed rule for new power plants in April 2012, a rule the president said will be finalized soon after a new proposal is submitted no later than September 20, 2013. Once finalized, the rule will trigger a requirement under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act for the EPA to regulate existing sources. Under Obama’s plan, the proposed rule for existing plants wouldn’t be issued until June 2014, and may not be finalized for another year afterward.

The Clean Air Act provision addressing performance standards for existing facilities—specifically, Section 111(d)—calls for a partnership between the EPA and state governments under which the EPA identifies an emission target, then states design and implement the performance standards that are subject to the agency’s approval. The combination of limited precedent and the statute’s general language should provide the EPA with a broad array of options for setting the emission target and evaluating the adequacy of state plans to achieve it.

To spur investment in technologies that keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere, Obama will make roughly $8 billion in federal loan guarantees available. This will fund a variety of advanced energy projects, including carbon capture and storage.

‘Wiggle Room’ Still Left for Keystone XL Decision

Obama’s thinking on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline—carrying 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada’s tar sands to Texas—is subject to interpretation.

“Our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” Obama said. “The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”

The Washington Post reports that Obama may have left himself some “wiggle room” on the decision—expected as early as this summer. In March, the State Department issued a draft environmental impact statement finding Keystone XL wouldn’t lead to significantly more carbon pollution. The administration has said it will examine whether vetoing the project would mean higher emissions than if it were built.

Renewable Energy to Double

Renewable energy is another key initiative in Obama’s climate strategy, and he shared plans Tuesday to issue permits for 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on federal land and 100 megawatts of installed renewable capacity for federally-subsidized housing. The move would double production by 2020.

The plan’s release coincides with the International Energy Agency’s release of a five-year energy outlook identifying global renewable energy as fast growing—edging out natural gas as the second largest electricity source, after coal, by 2016.

Supreme Court to Review Cross State Air Pollution Rule

The Supreme Court will review the lower court’s decision striking down the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which would set limits for emissions from coal-fired power plants that cross state lines. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ overturned the rule in August 2012, stating the agency exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act by imposing “massive emissions reduction requirements.”

The rule would cap emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in 28 states in the eastern half of the country where pollution blows into neighboring jurisdictions. In a statement, the EPA told POWERnews it was “pleased” with the decision to reconsider the rule, but “the Supreme Court’s decision to grant our petition is not a decision on the merits but instead a decision to review the case on merits. As such, it does not alter the current status of [CAIR] or the Cross-State Rule.”

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 Could Unveil Climate Strategy with Clean Air Act Tie Soon

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

The Obama administration could soon make an announcement detailing plans to address climate change, even in the face of continuing political barriers to progress on the issue. Unnamed administration officials pointed to July for the rollout, while an Administration aide was more vague.

“In the coming weeks and months, you can expect to hear more from the president on this issue,” White House environment and energy adviser Heather Zichal said at an environmental forum June 11. Though timing and details are still in flux, Zichal said the plan will expand on the administration’s efforts to permit more renewable energy on public land and to promote energy efficiency. A central part of the administration’s approach to deal with climate change, Zichal noted, would be to use the authority given to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address greenhouse gases from power plants under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA missed an April deadline to release final rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants under the act and has shared no details about its plan for the rules since. Speculation about the public release of a climate strategy did delay the filing of a lawsuit against the EPA for that missed deadline; filers pledged to “wait to see” if Obama releases a plan in the coming weeks.

If the plan includes final rules for new fossil fuel-fired power plants, known as the new source performance standard, those rules will prompt a Clean Air Act provision—section 111 (d)—requiring the EPA and state governments to regulate greenhouse gases from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants. The White House has signaled that new rules securing reductions from existing power plants are likely to be part of its strategy. A new report by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy outlines some of the key considerations that are likely to arise if energy efficiency is included as an option for states needing to secure reductions from existing sources. It explores how incorporation of energy efficiency into past state air quality programs can inform federal and state environmental regulators as they evaluate these section 111(d) issues.

A second analysis by the Nicholas Institute identifies how potential regulatory tools under the Clean Air Act—beyond the greenhouse gas rules—could accelerate development and deployment of potentially game-changing clean air and energy technologies to reduce emissions in the nation’s key industrial sectors.

Holding Pattern Continues for McCarthy

The timing of Obama’s climate plan could complicate the nomination of Gina McCarthy, Obama’s pick to replace former administrator Lisa Jackson as head of the EPA. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced last month that McCarthy’s nomination would be delayed until July.

The Senate Environment and Public Works panel backed McCarthy a month ago in a party line vote. The nomination remains in a holding pattern as a result of continued opposition by Republicans and urgings to release data the EPA uses to design air pollution regulations.

U.S. Tax Code Has Minimal Effect on Carbon Dioxide, Other GHG Emissions

Current federal tax provisions have minimal net effect on greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report from the National Academies of Science. The report, which evaluates how key elements of the current tax code affect the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, finds that several existing tax subsidies have unexpected effects, and others yield little reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of revenue loss (subscription).

Climate Commitment Renewed at G8 Summit

While the crisis in Syria and the economic downturn pushed climate change out of the spotlight at the G8 Summit, it was highlighted in a communiqué released following the close of the talks. G8 leaders dedicated a page to climate change—noting that it is “one of the foremost challenges for our future economic growth and well-being.”

The statement acknowledges “grave concern” the leaders have regarding failure to make deep emissions cuts and includes support for UNFCCC’s efforts to deliver a new global treaty to curb greenhouse gases in 2015 with a more ambitious framework than is currently in place.

“We remain strongly committed to addressing the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2020 and to pursue our low-carbon path afterwards, with a view to doing our part to limit effectively the increase in global temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, consistent with science,” the statement reads. “We also note with grave concern the gap between current country pledges and what is needed, and will work towards increasing mitigation ambition in the period to 2020.”

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.

IEA Says Policies Could Keep 2 Degrees Celsius Goal Alive

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

Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), warns global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions set an all-time high in 2012, throwing the world off its path to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2020. These emissions rose 1.4 percent in 2012 to 31.6 billion tons—though the U.S. posted its lowest emissions (down 200 million tons), curbing them to mid-1990 levels.

“Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “But the problem is not going away—quite the opposite. This report shows the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C but also finds that much more can be done to tackle energy-sector emissions without jeopardizing economic growth, an important concern for many governments.”

The release of the report came as nations gathered in Bonn, Germany, for a second week of talks aimed at a global climate pact—taking effect in 2020—to limit carbon emissions to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. The report lays out four policy priorities to put the world back on track: a partial phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies, reduced natural gas venting and flaring in oil and gas production, limited use and construction of inefficient coal power generation and enactment of targeted energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry and transport. The policies, the report said, would stop the growth of energy-related emissions by the end of the decade.

Energy Programs in Question after Senate Farm Bill Vote

This week, the Senate approved a five-year farm bill aimed at reducing food stamps and expanding farm subsidies that are designed to help farmers through extreme weather such as droughts and floods. Attention now turns to the House, which is expected to begin debating it’s version of the bill this month. The two versions include very different provisions for clean and renewable energy programs.

Although the Senate bill does include mandatory funding for clean and renewable energy programs—the Rural Energy Assistance Program and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program—the total allotted comes to 31 percent less per year than the total provided under the 2008 Farm Bill, which was extended through September 30 as part of fiscal-cliff compromises. With the House bill, all funding for the energy programs is reauthorized at reduced and non-mandatory levels.

“The House bill would allow the programs to continue on paper with an annual appropriation, but provides no mandatory funding to operate the programs,” said Andy Olsen at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. That could result in some “very gutted programs,” he noted.

Estimates of Shale-Based Resources Rise

New analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) provides estimates for global shale gas and oil resources in the U.S. and 41 countries. The update of a two-year-old study by the EIA,  nearly doubles the number of formations that have these technically recoverable resources.

It finds that more than half of the identified shale oil resources—roughly 345 billion barrels—outside the U.S. are in Russia, China, Argentina and Libya; China, Argentina, Algeria, Canada and Mexico hold the most shale gas resources. The U.S. holds the second largest concentration of shale oil resources behind Russia and ranks fourth in shale gas resources after Algeria.

“As shale oil and shale gas production has grown in the United States to become 30 percent of oil and 40 percent of natural gas total production, interest in the oil and natural gas resource potential of shale formations outside the United States has grown,” said EIA administrator Adam Sieminski, noting that the EIA report shows “a significant potential for international shale oil and shale gas.”

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.N. Climate Talks Pick Back Up in Bonn

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

The next round of U.N. climate change talks began in Bonn, Germany—the final round of midyear negotiations before the 19th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in November. The talks are, in part, focused on defining elements of a universal climate agreement by 2015, an agreement that would be enforced by 2020.

“The negotiations are now in a crucial conceptual phase of the 2015 agreement,” said U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres. “Stakeholders need to provide clear inputs as to where more ambition is possible, and where international policy guidance from governments can unleash even more action on their part.”

Early stories regarding research by the Stockholm Environment Institute aims to guide emissions targets being devised by U.N. climate talk delegates. Their plan suggests the U.S. would be responsible for 29.1 percent of greenhouse gas reductions by 2020—three times the effort assigned to the current emissions leader, China—to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The Obama administration also opted to raise the social cost of carbon emissions—a monetized estimate of health, property and environmental damage tied to federal regulations—from about $21 to roughly $35 a metric ton. In theory, this means the government could justify stricter regulations for greenhouse gas emissions in the future, according to the Washington Post.

Wind, Solar, Geothermal Projects to Increase Domestic Renewable Production

Projects with the potential to create 520 megawatts of new clean electricity generation were announced by the U.S. Department of Interior this week. Located in Arizona and Nevada, the projects—the 350-megawatt Midland Solar Energy Project near Boulder City, Nev., the 100-megawatt Quartzsite Solar Energy Project near Quartzsite, Ariz., and the 70-megawatt New York Canyon Geothermal Project—are the first approved by Department Secretary Sally Jewell on public lands since she took over the department earlier this year.

“These projects reflect the Obama Administration’s commitment to expand responsible domestic energy production on our public lands and diversify our nation’s energy portfolio,” said Jewell. “Today’s approvals will help bolster rural economies by generating good jobs and reliable power and advance our national energy security.”

Separately, the department announced its first ever commercial wind energy lease sale in federal waters, south of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The July 31 sale will include 164,750 acres that could produce enough electricity to power more than one million homes, if fully developed. Nine companies, including the developer of the Cape Wind Project, expressed interest in participating. The area sits between, and to the south of, Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. Although several offshore wind farms are being developed in the U.S., there are none currently in operation. In Maine, a team did recently launch a prototype of a floating turbine—making history. The turbine, which stands 65 feet tall, is now afloat and connected to the grid with a capacity of about 20 kilowatts. The research team hopes the prototype will cut the traditional cost of erecting a tower in the water, allowing the U.S. to better tap into its offshore wind potential, which is estimated at 4,000 gigawatts.

Keystone Hearing Rumored

This summer, there could be another public hearing in Washington, D.C. on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, but State Department officials have yet to confirm the news regarding the long awaited project.

Meanwhile, another Canadian company is quietly building a network of new and expanded pipelines that would achieve the same goal as Keystone—but bring even more oil into the U.S.

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.