Warming Leading to Record Temps, Melting

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

Last month was among the top five warmest Junes on record, according to new data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The average global temperature, according to NOAA, was 60.54 degrees Fahrenheit—1.15 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average of 59.9 degrees Fahrenheit. June’s record heat extended the world’s streak of warmer-than-average months to 340 and resulted in a roughly 63 percent decline in Northern Hemisphere snow cover—the third lowest cover on record.

Meanwhile, a new analysis in the journal Nature says manmade warming in the Arctic is an “economic time bomb,” and policy makers should not focus solely on the benefits of an increasingly open space in the region. Melting of ice caps—which trap billions of tons of the greenhouse gas methane—could cost the world more than $60 trillion. That figure nearly equals the size of the 2012 global economy.

“Estimates are that the economic benefits of Arctic shipping and oil exploration will be four orders of magnitude less than the additional costs analysed here,” said co-author Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, who calculated the average global economic consequences of the release of 50 gigatonnes of methane over the course of one decade from thawing undersea permafrost with his fellow Dutch and British co-authors.

Given methane’s potency, the authors say such a release could increase the methane content of the atmosphere twelve-fold and raise temperatures by as much as 1.3 degrees Celsius—impacts most likely to be felt in developing countries.

McCarthy Confirmed after Record-Long Wait

Five months after President Barack Obama selected Gina McCarthy to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), she overcame Republican objections and won Senate confirmation by a 59 to 40 vote. McCarthy, who oversaw the EPA’s Air and Radiation Office in Obama’s first term, replaces Lisa Jackson as the 13th administrator of the agency.

McCarthy will now be charged with carrying out the Obama Administration’s planned regulations on climate change, Obama announced in June.

“We have a clear responsibility to act now on climate change,” McCarthy offered by video message Monday. “That’s what President Obama has called on us and the American people [to do], so that we protect future generations. And he recently said the question now is whether we have the courage to act before it’s too late. This agency has the courage to act. We can make it happen.”

At the heart of Obama’s climate plan are efforts to limit emissions from new and existing power plants, representing about a third percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. House Republicans, this week, approved a bill that cuts the EPA’s 2014 budget by a third. It blocks federal rules to limit carbon emissions from power plants and the Tier 3 rule to reduce sulfur content in gasoline (subscription required).

Moniz Restructuring U.S. Energy Department

Ernest Moniz, another key person on Obama’s climate and energy team, is doing some reorganizing of the leadership in his department. In a recent memo to U.S. Energy Department staff, Moniz details the new structure, which he says is designed to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of departmental operations.

“We must have the ability to closely integrate and move quickly among basic science, applied research, technology demonstration and deployment,” said Moniz. “The innovation chain is not linear but, rather, one that requires feedback among its various elements. This is particularly the case with regard to clean energy as we work to implement the President’s Climate Action Plan.”

Spill Less Damaging than 2010 BP Gusher

Fire caused a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico to partially collapse, just a day after a ruptured natural gas well on the Hercules offshore rig forced 44 people to evacuate. Hercules, on Wednesday, was working to plug the leak on the rig, which is roughly 55 miles off the coast of Louisiana. This latest offshore oil rig incident, Huffington Post reports, should not be as damaging as the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, because it appears to involve gas that disperses relatively easily.

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. Energy Production Linked to Earthquakes

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

As U.S. production of crude oil continues to grow, new studies in the journal Science say the very methods used to extract the resource could be behind some U.S. earthquakes. The studies find that the gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing can cause some small earthquakes and that the disposal of wastewater following this and other energy production methods can produce larger tremors.

The number of earthquakes in the central and eastern U.S. has increased nearly ten-fold in the last decade—averaging 21 per year between 1967 and 2000 and rising to as many as 188 in 2011. Although most have not been above a magnitude of 3.0, a few have exceeded 5.0.

One study links at least half of the magnitude 4.5 or higher quakes in the interior U.S. in the last 10 years to nearby injection-well sites. The authors, scientists from Columbia University, identified three tremors at injection-well sites in Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado that were triggered by another, major earthquake miles away.

“[The fluids] kind of act as a pressurized cushion,” said lead author Nicholas van der Elst. “They make it easier for the fault to slide.”

Researchers at the University of California, meanwhile, looked specifically at the Salton Sea Geothermal Field and found a direct correlation between relatively small seismic activity and an increase in groundwater pumping at the plant.

Court: Biogenic Carbon Emissions Will Be Regulated

A federal court in the U.S. has ruled Clean Air Act limits on carbon dioxide pollution now apply to power plants that burn biomass.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Court threw out a three-year deferral put in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that temporarily exempted regulation of biogenic carbon emissions. Environmental groups challenged the EPA’s initial decision, resulting in Monday’s court hearing, which found the EPA had no basis for its 2011 rule.

Biomass Magazine reports that a draft rule for biogenic carbon emissions is expected in a couple months. The court decision comes as the EPA crafts rules to regulate carbon emissions from new and existing power plants—the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s new plan to combat climate change. ClimateWire warns that 2015 will be a pivotal time as utilities meet a host of standards (subscription required)—including the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule requiring power plants to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent, the second phase of the Clean Air Interstate rule, and, potentially, greenhouse gas rules for existing power plants.

World Bank Says It Will Limit Coal Plant Financing

The World Bank is taking steps to reduce the use of coal. Just weeks after Obama’s pledge to ban U.S. funding for coal plants overseas, the World Bank’s board agreed Tuesday to limit, but not end, financing of coal-fired power plants. The bank will focus on scaling up natural gas and hydroelectric projects, instead.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Billy Pizer and the Center for Global Development’s Scott Morris discuss the strategy and how exactly limits on coal financing should be considered.

An analysis by the National Journal shows seven major U.S. electric utilities are also taking steps to shift how they generate power. In their power portfolios, coal decreases or stays the same, and natural gas increases; renewables and nuclear power see small increases.

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. Agency Says Global Temperatures Hottest Since Meteorological Measurement Began

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

The United Nations agency charged with understanding weather and climate released new findings indicating the world experienced above average temperatures from 2001 to 2010. In fact, the first decade of the 21st century was the warmest since modern meteorological measurement began in 1850.

“Rising concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are changing our climate, with far-reaching implications for our environment and our oceans, which are absorbing both carbon dioxide and heat,” said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Michel Jarraud, who noted many extremes could be explained by natural variations, but that rising emissions of man-made greenhouse gases also played a role.

The report analyzed global and regional trends as well as extreme weather events, finding land and sea temperatures averaged 58 degrees Fahrenheit compared with the long-term average of 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit indicated by weather records dating back to 1881.

Release of the report comes just days after President Barack Obama committed to “redouble” efforts to forge an international climate agreement at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Warsaw, which will attempt to establish a framework for rules governing industry-based carbon markets and non-market programs after 2020, Bloomberg reports.

China, U.S. Make Carbon Deal

On Wednesday, China and the United States—which account for more than 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—agreed to a non-binding plan aimed at cutting carbon emissions from the largest sources in both countries. The deal was made at the U.S.–China Strategic Dialogue in Washington, D.C. a month after the countries agreed to phase out hydroflurocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas. The plan targets five initiatives, to be developed by a working group with officials from both countries. The initiatives focuses on improving energy efficiency, reducing emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, collection and management of greenhouse gas data, smart grid promotion and advancement of carbon capture and storage technology.

“Both countries are acting actively in transforming their growth models,” said Xie Zhenhua, head of the Chinese team and vice director of the National Development and Reform Commission. “Under the context of sustainable development, both countries are taking active measures in addressing climate change and in improving the environment. I think the measures we have taken are working towards each other for the same objective and have created a very good political foundation for our cooperation in climate change …”

The plan, which won’t be finalized until October, is intended to include more aggressive measures to limit output of emissions from coal-fired power plants. A new study released prior to the agreement links heavy air pollution from coal burning to shortened lifespans for residents in northern China.

In the U.S., Obama placed carbon standards for power plants among top priorities in a recent climate action plan speech in which he called for a revised draft of the proposed rule for new plants by September. On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent an updated emissions rule for new power plants to the White House. The contents, which remain confidential, come ahead of Obama’s September date request. Once the new source rule is finalized, it will trigger a requirement under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act for the EPA to regulate existing fossil-fuel plants.

Vitter Drops McCarthy Filibuster Threat

A full Senate vote on Gina McCarthy—Obama’s pick to lead the EPA—could come as early as next week now that one of McCarthy’s biggest critics has lifted his threat to place a hold on her nomination.

“I see no further reason to block Gina McCarthy’s nomination, and I’ll support moving to an up-or-down vote on her nomination,” said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, after acknowledging the EPA had sufficiently answered requests he made in connection with McCarthy’s nomination.

Although McCarthy still faces a hold on her nomination from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Vitter’s announcement signals a step forward for Obama’s climate change policies that curb emissions from existing and future power plants. The president will rely on McCarthy to lead the agency in crafting rules that support those policies.

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.