Using the Clean Air Act to Regulate Carbon Emissions

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

In an attempt to address global changes in climate, the Obama administration set specific deadlines for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use the Clean Air Act to cut carbon dioxide pollution from new and existing power plants.

Just weeks away from the deadline for release of proposed rules for new power plants (full disclosure: Duke scholars will preview pending climate change regulations live online Sept. 16), a new journal article claims the Clean Air Act has brought about beneficial changes. Tracing the rings of 100 to 500 year old eastern red cedars, scientists observed accelerated growth and photosynthesis starting just after the bill passed in 1970. Beforehand, core samples from the trees contained sulfur isotopes that pointed to pollution and carbon isotopes that showed that the trees’ stomata (pores regulating the exchange of carbon dioxide and water) were closing. By the 1980s, the stomata had begun to open and sulfur isotopes had approached levels not seen since the preindustrial age.

“There is a clear shift in the growth, reflecting the impact of key environmental legislation,” said Kansas State University’s Jesse Nippert of the trees located in the Appalachian Mountains. “There are two levels of significance in this research. One is in the terms of how we interpret data from tree rings and how we interpret the physiology of trees. The other level of significance is that environmental legislation can have tremendous impact on the entire ecosystem.”

Using the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions from existing power plants raises questions. Doing so means the EPA must craft rules—to be proposed by June 2014—that match the uneven terrain of different states’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions, Midwest Energy News reports. As a result, state air pollution regulators are encouraging officials to maintain existing state proposals. In a letter, the National Association of Clean Air Agencies encouraged the EPA to acknowledge the “different makeup of existing fossil fuel generation in each state.”

Climate Change to Affect Future Fires, Storms

A rim fire burning in the Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite National Park may be a taste of the types of fires some regions will experience in the future according to a new Harvard study, which suggests that wildfire seasons will last nearly three weeks longer, be twice as smoky and burn larger areas in western states by 2050. The findings, a Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences press release says, were based on a set of internationally recognized climate models, meteorological data and records from past fire activity.

“It turns out that, for the western United States, the biggest driver for fires in the future is temperature, and that result appears robust across models,” said co-author Loretta Mickley. “When you get a large temperature increase over time, as we are seeing, and little change in rainfall, fires will increase in size.”

A paper published last year in the journal Ecosphere came to a similar conclusion. It suggests that climate change’s effect on wildfires would vary widely, especially when precipitation patterns were factored in.

Although climate change could negatively influence wildfires, it may help steer superstorms away from the United States east coast. With stronger and possibly more frequent storms predicted, New York and much of the seaboard will be at a lower risk of a direct hit according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It looks, specifically, at atmospheric steering currents and suggests air patterns may block or push extreme weather offshore if greenhouse gas emissions were tripled by 2100 (subscription).

Some meteorologists disagreed with the findings, questioning the accuracy of the climate models and the conduct of the analysis.

Ice Wall Proposed to Contain Fukushima Leaks

Japan is proposing new measures to deal with increased radiation surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant, which was severely damaged in a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The proposal: invest some $470 million to build a wall of ice to contain the radioactive leaks.

Under the government’s plan, a wall of frozen soil will be constructed around the plant’s damaged reactors. Tubes might be used to carry a powerful coolant liquid as deep as 90 feet. The liquid would freeze the ground solid so no groundwater would be able to pass through the soil.

Last week, radiation levels at the plant reached as high as 1,800 millisieverts an hour—enough to kill an unprotected person within hours. The chief of Japan’s nuclear watchdog authority, Shunichi Tanaka, said information given by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) on the radioactive contamination was “scientifically unacceptable,” likening use of “millisieverts per hour” to “describing how much something weighs by using centimetres” and adding that “becquerel” was the more appropriate measure. Experts say the radiation reading reported by TEPCO was taken close to the source and drops dramatically 20 inches away. Therefore, it would do little to harm workers wearing rudimentary protection at a normal distance.

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.