Impacts Far Reaching as U.S. Marks Sandy Anniversary

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

A year ago this week, Superstorm Sandy made a lasting mark on the northeast United States. Many areas continue to recover from the storm, the deadliest and most destructive of the 2012 hurricane season. The effects of Sandy’s destruction linger in many areas where it made landfall, but the storm has had wider-ranging impacts, including influencing how we predict and prepare for future storms.

Although Sandy’s unusual path was projected far in advance, the storm highlighted the limits of an accurate weather forecast. Because the storm was not a hurricane, but rather a “post-tropical cyclone,” responsibility for public warnings shifted from the National Hurricane Center to the National Weather Service, resulting in multiple weather warnings and confusion about the storm’s threat level. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has changed its policies to allow the National Hurricane Center to issue communications about storms that have gone post-tropical.

Even though NOAA predicts a roughly 20 percent increase in hurricane rainfall by the end of the 21st century, much of the flooding from Sandy was the result of storm surge, not rainfall. Scientists are now using data about Sandy’s flood levels to create forecasts that could better outline pending storm surges—neighborhood by neighborhood. Improved storm-surge models could predict where flood zones should be drawn given future sea level rise, which some scientists warn may be even worse than Sandy in coming decades. New analysis by Climate Central breaks down how projected sea-level rise and coastal flooding in New Jersey and New York—two areas hard hit by Sandy—would affect infrastructure and populations.

Fracking in California Gets Renewed Attention

After signing a law in September to regulate fracking in California, Gov. Jerry Brown says the state’s environmental review of the technique could take as long as 18 months to complete.

“I think we ought to give science a chance before deciding on a ban on fracking,” said Brown, noting the review will be “the most comprehensive environmental analysis of fracking to date.”

The news follows reports that the oil production technique was being used far more off the shores of Long Beach, Seal Beach and Huntington Beach than state officials believed.

Draft Legislation Could Restrict EPA’s Power Plant Standards

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) released a draft bill this week that would require congressional approval of greenhouse gas emissions limits on power plants. In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) issued new draft rules that would limit emissions from new power plants—meaning any future coal plants would have to use technology to capture and store carbon emissions. The EPA also is expected to issue, by June 2014, a proposed rule for existing power plants that would be implemented by states through regulations based on federal guidelines.

Manchin and Whitfield, who come from two of the most coal-dependent states in the country, worry the EPA regulations for new and existing power plants will have ill effects on their states’ economies and electricity supply.

“We’ve got people on both sides of the issue—far right and far left—that aren’t going to like it, would rather have something different,” said Manchin (subscription). “We found that this strikes what we feel is a consensus, middle, doable procedure that we can abide by.”

The bill released by Manchin and Whitfield would require the EPA to ensure that its carbon emissions limits for coal plants can be achieved over a one-year period by at least six units located at different commercial power plants in the United States. The bill also calls for establishment of separate standards for new natural gas and coal plants and for no EPA regulation of emissions from existing plants until Congress passes a law specifying when emissions standards would be effective. The draft’s release preceded a pro-coal rally that took place on the West Lawn of the Capitol and new guidelines by the U.S. Department of Treasury stating that the department will no longer approve financing for coal plants overseas—except in very rare cases. In those instances, the plants would be subject to greenhouse gas emissions standards similar to those in the U.S. and considered for poor nations that have no economically feasible alternatives or emerging markets.

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.

EIA: Carbon Emissions Decline

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

In 2012, energy-related carbon emissions in the United States declined 3.8 percent even as global carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.4 percent, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The recorded 5.29 million metric tons of carbon dioxide amounted to the largest decline since 1994, continuing a downward trend that started in 2007. EIA attributed last year’s decrease to several factors, including a mild winter and alterations in energy consumption for transportation. Notably, U.S. power plants reduced their carbon emissions by 10 percent between 2010 and 2012. The overall energy-related emissions decline occurred in tandem with an increase in gross domestic product and energy output (subscription).

The downward trend may not last, The Washington Post reports. Energy-related emissions rose 2.6 percent in the first part of 2013, and the EIA expects emissions to keep rising. The U.S. State Department said the nation could reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases 17 percent by 2020, if it enacts proposed rules to curb methane leaks and to cut pollution from power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to solidify regulations. This week, it began its 11-citylistening tour,” which is intended to solicit ideas from the public on how to best regulate emissions from more than 1,000 power plants currently in operation.

Cleanup Delayed for Fukushima as Britain Signs First Nuclear Deal

Japan delayed plans to clean up towns surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for up to three years—affecting more than 90,000 people who are unable to return home after a series of meltdowns following an earthquake and tsunami two and half years ago. The original plan indicated cleanup of the most contaminated towns would be completed by March 2014.

“We would have to extend the cleanup process, by one year, two years or three years, we haven’t exactly decided yet,” said Shigeyoshi Sato, an official from the Environment Ministry in charge of the decontamination efforts. One reason for the delay—a lack of space to store the radioactive waste that comes out of the decontamination process.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom signed a roughly $26 billion deal to build new nuclear reactors—the first in 20 years—financed in part by China. The twin reactors are envisioned to advance the government’s goal of adding low-carbon energy sources. If built on time, the new reactors would begin operation in 2023 and operate for 35 years.

Studies Look at Climate Change Effects in Next Century

Several studies, looking at everything from ocean health to energy use, have found their way into recent media headlines.

New Climate by 2050: Research published in the journal Nature suggests that, on average, locations worldwide will leave behind the climates that have existed from the middle of the 19th century through the beginning of the 21st century as soon as 2047, depending on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the next few decades. The new, more extreme temperatures would first occur in the tropics, where plants, people and wildlife are least equipped to adapt. About 1 billion people, according to the study, currently live in areas where the climate would exceed historical bounds of variability by 2050. The work highlights the need to scale back greenhouse gas emissions because a warming climate may drive some species to extinction, threaten food supplies and spread disease.

Climate Change to Impact Ocean Health: Every inch of the world’s oceans are predicted to undergo chemical changes associated with global climate change by 2100, according to research published in the journal PLOS Biology. More than two dozen scientists used projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with biological and socioeconomic data, to predict how oceans could be altered by the end of the century.

“If global CO2 emissions are not reduced, substantial degradation of marine ecosystems and associated human hardships are very likely to occur,” the study said.

This follows research published in Nature showing that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, coral reefs could be extinct by 2050.

Carbon Capture and Storage Development Slows: A new study suggests that since 2012, the number of projects that capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants dropped from 75 to 65 worldwide. Although the number U.S. is a global leader in developing and deploying carbon capture and storage and carbon capture utilization and storage technology, it has proposed no new projects in these areas—in fact, no new projects have been proposed outside of China.

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.

Supreme Court Will Hear Challenges to EPA Rule

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

The U.S. Supreme Court opted Tuesday to hear challenges raised by states and industry groups to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions rules issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act. Six of nine petitions were granted review. The specific issue in the case deals with the GHG permitting program that the EPA implemented in January 2011 (commonly referred to as the Tailoring Rule).

Since 2011, the Tailoring Rule has required new power plants and other large polluting facilities to apply for permits to emit greenhouse gases. According to the Oct. 15 order, the Supreme Court will consider whether regulating GHG emissions from vehicles necessarily triggers a requirement for stationary industrial sources such as power plants to obtain permits for their GHG emissions. The court will look at “whether EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.”

The court will not consider other issues such as whether greenhouse gases endanger public health when it hears arguments early next year. It is expected to issue a ruling by the end of June 2014.

A 2007 Supreme Court caseMassachusetts v. EPA—found that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act. That ruling prompted the EPA to promulgate the first-ever GHG regulations for motor vehicles.

The Supreme Court’s review of these regulations could slow the EPA’s work on a rule to account for carbon dioxide from burning wood for energy, according to ClimateWire (subscription).

“The EPA is dealing with two issues that related to our industry right now,” said Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves. “One is how to respond to the D.C. Circuit ruling in July that invalidated the Tailoring Rule deferral [of biogenic emissions], and secondly, how to measure carbon emission from biogenic sources. Our reading is that the court appears to be prepared to examine the statutory underpinnings of EPA’s authority to regulate power plants, including biomass, and we’ll continue to work with EPA on the underlying accounting rule for biomass to get the science right on the issue.”

Deal Reached to End Government Shutdown, Raise Debt Ceiling

A bipartisan deal to raise the debt limit through Feb. 7 and fund the government through Jan. 15—ending a 16-day partial government shutdown—was reached Wednesday. President Barack Obama signed the bill Thursday morning.

House Republicans had pushed to block new EPA regulations on greenhouse gas production and to roll back regulations on coal ash, among other things. The deal, however, is not rumored to include provisions related to energy policy or for repaying states for funding national parks during the shutdown (subscription).

The shutdown will have wide-reaching environmental impacts—reducing the nation’s ability to react to extreme weather events and carry out research. Antarctica field researchers who have spent decades collecting data on penguins and ice sheets to better study global warming now have documentation gaps. Further delays in a decision to approve or disapprove the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, are expected after the shutdown made it harder for the State Department to review the permitting process.

Airline Carbon Tax Proposal Revisited

The European Commission this week issued a proposal that would impose a tax on air-polluting emissions for all flights operating in Europe’s airspace. The proposal follows a controversial plan the European Union (EU) had to back down from last year. That plan would have required flights crossing EU airspace to buy pollution credits to cover 15 percent of their carbon dioxide emissions for the entire journey.

The proposal still has to be approved by the European Union’s government and parliament. If it passes, the legislation would apply from Jan. 1, 2014, until 2020, when an international airline carbon emissions tax scheme, agreed on by the International Civil Aviation Organization’s assembly of nations from the U.S. to Russia and the EU, takes effect.

“The European Union has reduced greenhouse gas emissions considerably, and all the economic sectors are contributing to these efforts,” said EU Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard. “The aviation sector also has to contribute, as aviation emissions are increasing fast—doubling since 1990. I am confident that the European Parliament and the Council will move swiftly and approve this proposal without delay. With this proposal, Europe is taking the responsibility to reduce emissions within its own airspace until the global measure begins.”

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.

Leadership Change in the White House

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

Heather Zichal, President Barack Obama’s top energy and climate adviser, announced plans this week to step down. Zichal has advised the president since 2008 and assisted in the creation of his Climate Action Plan, unveiled in June, to cut carbon emissions from U.S. power plants and other sources.

Although a replacement has not been named, some news outlets reported that Dan Utech, a deputy director for energy and climate at the White House, could be tapped for the role. Politico reported other names such as Kevin Knobloch, now chief of staff to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz; Gary Guzy, deputy director of the Council on Environmental Quality and Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke. Whomever is chosen will face a sizeable to-do list that includes turning the president’s climate plan into a reality (subscription).

“Heather had her fingerprints on every climate and clean-energy success of this administration,” said Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. “Heather’s replacement is going to have a big job ahead of them—she wrote the blueprint of the climate-action plan, and they’ll have to see it through.”

Her departure in the next few weeks marks a nearly complete turnover of the administration’s climate and energy team.

Renewable Fuel Standard Challenged by Industry

The American Petroleum Institute (API)—representing hundreds of oil and natural gas companies—has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the government’s estimate of the amount of ethanol that should be mixed with conventional gas under the 2013 Renewable Fuel Standard. Harry Ng, API vice president said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated refiners use 4 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2013 but that so far only 142,000 gallons have been available to refiners to blend.

“EPA issued this year’s requirement nine months late and has once again mandated significantly more cellulosic ethanol than is available in the marketplace,” said Ng.

The API filed its suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the same court that in January ruled in another API-filed lawsuit that the EPA was too “aspirational” in setting its 2012 cellulosic biofuels mandate.

Meanwhile, a report by GreenWire indicated draft proposals circulating among stakeholders signal the EPA intends to scale back 2014 targets for conventional corn ethanol and advance biofuels (subscription).

Government Shutdown Hits 10-Day Mark

As the partial government shutdown reaches its second week, there are glimmers of hope that Republicans and Democrats could break their impasse. House Republican leaders are considering a plan to raise the nation’s borrowing limit temporarily to buy time for negotiations on broader policy measures. The Washington Post reports that if the plan goes over well with rank-and-file Republicans, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could put it on the floor for a vote late today, but getting things up and running again with this approach could take until next spring as the effects on the environment become more wide-reaching.

  • Science: Everything from the funding of scientific research to environmental protection programs are on hold, including groundbreaking work to harness the power of the sun through self-sustaining nuclear fusion.
  • Oil and Gas Permits: Though the government is still issuing offshore drilling permits, similar approvals for onshore oil and gas wells on public lands have stopped, and an oil and gas lease auction scheduled for later this month in New Mexico has been canceled. Thus, the shutdown will deprive the federal government of a reliable revenue source—more than 6 million acres of federal land leases auctioned in 2012 brought in more than $233 million.
  • Energy Markets: If the shutdown is prolonged, the data relied on to shape future commodity markets—especially for energy and agriculture—may not exist.
  • Workforce: The Department of Energy, though still fully operational, won’t be for long (subscription). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission began furloughing employees today.
  • EPA Rulemaking: The shutdown has forced the EPA to postpone the start of hearings on proposed carbon dioxide limits for existing power plants (subscription).

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.

Energy, Climate Programs Affected by Federal Government Shutdown

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

Washington braced for a prolonged shutdown, the first in 17 years, this week after members of Congress failed to pass a budget. The closure has affected the workforce of many climate and energy programs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for one, lost more than 90 percent of its employees, disrupting monitoring of air and water quality as well as potentially setting back efforts to advance the president’s climate plan. Only those dealing with events that would “imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property” remain on duty. This could, as the National Law Review notes, affect the rule promulgation process for the EPA’s proposed standards for new power plants, released last month.

The Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Department of Energy will lose a chunk of their workforce, which could directly impact America’s capacity to drive global energy innovation the Christian Science Monitor suggests.

Other programs, such as the National Weather Service will continue operation. The shutdown would affect how employees carry out their work.

“We are restricted to ‘mission critical’ duties,” a National Weather Service meteorologist told Climate Central. “We aren’t allowed to engage the public in outreach activities (such as spotter talks or school talks), and we’re supposed to only include forecast-critical information on Facebook and Twitter accounts. Only emergency equipment maintenance is allowed, which means that routine maintenance is not. This will hamstring us in the future, either when the shutdown is lifted and the rush of delayed work hits or when equipment breaks because it is not being maintained properly.”

Wind Tax Credit under Debate

Meanwhile, lawmakers are divided over the extension of a wind tax credit. The credit is set to expire at the end of this year unless Congress votes to renew the 2.3 cent per kilowatt-hour credit. Without renewal, the incentive would be limited to energy projects that start construction before Dec. 31. The credit was extended at the beginning of 2013 as part of a deal to avoid sending the country over the fiscal cliff.

A congressional analysis suggested extending the tax credit for new wind farms for just one year would cost $6.1 billion over the next decade. Rob Gramlich, senior vice president for policy at the American Wind Energy Association, told the House Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements Subcommittee Wednesday that the credit would help diversify the country’s energy portfolio while driving down energy costs.

“This tax credit … drives over $20 billion of private investment annually and brings electricity to 15 million American homes,” said Gramlich. “Allowing it to expire … will move us away from further diversification of our energy portfolio, take away opportunities for consumers to save money, dampen domestic manufacturing and innovation and cause companies to hold off on investing in communities across America.”

IPCC Report Points Finger at Human Activity

At a meeting in Stockholm last week, a panel of the world’s leading climate scientists asserted that “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause” of global warming since 1950 and for the first time identified a carbon emissions ceiling for avoiding climate change’s worst effects.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), at the meeting, released a summary of its fifth assessment report stating, with at least 95 percent certainty, that people are responsible for warming oceans, melting ice and rising sea levels observed since the mid-twentieth century. The report authors warned that the carbon ceiling—the 2 degree Celsius target—when carbon dioxide emissions reach 1 trillion tons. This is likely to be broken in a matter of decades unless emissions reductions begin soon. They predict average temperatures would rise 2.6 to 4.8 degrees Celsius higher than today between 2080 and 2100, if carbon emissions continue unchecked.

Reactions to the report have been critical charging both best- and worst-case estimates of global warming are too conservative or that the models on which it is based are faulty. Others called it a “wake-up call” to governments and society about the role of humans in global warming and break down modeling projections contained in the study.

The report does directly address one issue raised by climate change skeptics: the slow-down in global temperature rise since 1998. While acknowledging this pause, the authors conclude that 15 years is not a long enough timescale to draw firm conclusions about it. According to the report, such short periods are influenced by natural variability and generally do not reflect long-term climate trends.

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.