The Trump administration is proposing to repeal a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rule aimed at ensuring hydraulic fracturing does not pollute water supplies, claiming that it triggers unjustified compliance costs and duplicates state rules.
“Upon further review of the 2015 final rule … the BLM believes that the 2015 final rule unnecessarily burdens industry with compliance costs and information requirements that are duplicative of regulatory programs of many states and some tribes,” agency officials wrote. “As a result, we are proposing to rescind, in its entirety, the 2015 final rule.”
The rule imposed well casing and wastewater storage requirements as well as required drillers to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulically fractured wells. Estimated to cost the oil and gas industry $32 million to $45 million a year, the rule has been the target of legal challenges since it was finalized in 2015.
It was among several Obama-era environmental rules President Donald Trump directed his administration to review and potentially rescind in a March executive order (subscription).
Research Highlights Little Studied Source of Methane Emissions
Climate change is allowing the release of methane from thawed permafrost according to aerial samplings of emissions from Canada’s Mackenzie River Basin, home to known oil and gas deposits. Research published in the journal Scientific Reports shows that the melting permafrost contributes to a warming climate not just through the natural production of biogenic methane but also through emissions of fossil gas, contributing significantly to the permafrost-carbon-climate feedback.
Between 2012 and 2013, the research team led by the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences took aerial geochemical samples, finding 13 times more methane than would be expected from typical microbial methane emissions rates. Although geological methane hotspots cover only 1 percent of the total area of the basin, they contribute to some 17 percent of its annual methane emissions.
“This is another methane source that has not been included so much in the models,” said lead author Katrin Kohnert. “If, in other regions, the permafrost becomes discontinuous, more areas will contribute geologic methane.”
Trump Cabinet: New Environment Nomination Draws Criticism
President Donald Trump has nominated Samuel Clovis to serve as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary of research, education and economics, the department’s top science post. Clovis is a former college economics professor and talk radio who has challenged the scientific consensus that human activity has been the primary driver of climate change.
The Washington Postpoints to a 2014 interview with Iowa Public Radio, where Clovis noted that he was “extremely skeptical” about climate change and added that “a lot of the science is junk science.”
E&E Daily reports that some see Clovis as committed to agricultural research. CNN and other media outlets highlighted a stipulation in the Farm Bill that “the Under Secretary shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics,”—requirements, they say, that Clovis’ nomination appears to violate.
A White House statement about Clovis’ nomination lists his background as largely military, noting that “Clovis holds a B.S. in political science from the U.S. Air Force Academy, an M.B.A. from Golden Gate University and a Doctorate in public administration from the University of Alabama. He is also a graduate of both the Army and Air Force War Colleges. After graduating from the Academy, Mr. Clovis spent 25 years serving in the Air Force.”
His nomination was among eight sent to the Senate Tuesday.
In a 28–12 vote on Monday night, California’s Senate approved AB 398 to extend the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program to 2030. Hours later, the bill passed in the state’s Assembly, 55–21. Lawmakers also approved a companion measure, AB 617, aimed at reducing pollution that causes local public health problems. In addition, to win GOP support in the Assembly for the cap-and-trade program, the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment giving Republicans increased input in how the state spends revenues from the sale of emissions allowances—permits to pollute—by requiring, in 2024, a two-thirds vote to approve how they are used.
Gov. Jerry Brown and others have argued that extension of the cap-and-trade program is critical to meet the most aggressive climate goal of any state in the nation—a 40 percent cut in 1990s-level greenhouse gas emissions by 2030—and to send a countering signal to President Donald Trump’s rejection of policies and partnerships aimed at limiting warming (subscription). The program sets a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and allows emitters to buy and sell emissions permits, or allowances. The number of allowances available each year equals the annual limit, and both decrease over time, lowering emissions.
When unveiled for debate last week, the legislation drew the ire of many Republicans and progressive environmentalists, although other influential environmental groups said it represented a reasonable balance and the best chance for advancing the program (subscription). In the end, eight Republicans in the Assembly and one in the Senate voted to extend the program, but some environmental groups remain unhappy, saying the legislation allows polluters too many allowances to emit greenhouse gases and that local air quality is not addressed by the use of offsets, a practice whereby polluters can meet a certain amount of their emissions targets by investing in greenhouse-gas-reducing projects, including those outside California, rather than investing in their own emissions reductions.
The bipartisan, supermajority votes in both the state Assembly and Senate for extension of the program were touted by Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León as a win for the environment and the economy.
“Californians understand that we can’t truly have a healthy economy that’s built to last without taking meaningful steps to protect public health and preserve a livable environment,” said de León.
ClimateWire reported that climate scientists view the debate as a trap because it gives the minority of researchers who question mainstream climate science a stage they’ve not been able to command in peer-reviewed journals (subscription). At the same time, refusal to participate could leave the impression that mainstream climate scientists are hiding something—and would leave skeptics’ assertions unopposed.
NOAA Says 2016 Greenhouse Gas Influence Reached 30-Year High
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Annual Greenhouse Gas Index, the influence of greenhouse gases on atmospheric warming was higher last year than it has been in nearly 30 years (subscription). The greenhouse gas index was intended to provide a straightforward way to report the yearly change in the warming influence of greenhouse gases, reported the New York Times, which noted the steady increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990.
“The role of greenhouse gases on influencing global temperatures is well understood by scientists, but it’s a complicated topic that can be difficult to communicate,” the NOAA release states.
As explained by Climate Central, the index takes measurements of 20 key greenhouse gases from some 80 ships and observatories around the world and boils them down into a numerical index that defines the rise from 1700 to 1990 as 100 percent or 1. This year’s number, 1.4, shows that the direct influence of the gases on the climate has risen 140 percent since 1750; 40 percent of that increase has been realized since 1990. The increase is due mostly to human activities and has resulted in warming of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial temperatures.
This week NOAA announced that the first half of 2017 was the planet’s second-warmest, behind 2016, since the start of planetary temperature recordkeeping in 1880. A major El Niño, such as that experienced in 2016, tends to increase global temperatures. But as Earth’s temperature has risen because of greenhouse gases, an El Niño isn’t necessary to attain very high temperatures. Years with La Niñas, which tend to cool global temperatures, are today hotter than El Niño years several decades ago.
On Monday California Governor Jerry Brown and legislative leaders released a plan to extend through 2030 the state’s cap-and-trade program, which limits carbon emissions and requires polluters to buy allowances for greenhouse gas emissions—that is, permits to pollute. The deal updates how carbon emitters can use pollution allowances and offsets, empowers the California Air Resources Board to set a price cap on permits, and prevents local air districts from placing additional carbon emissions restrictions on polluters already regulated under the cap-and-trade program. A vote on Assembly Bill 398 and AB 617, a companion bill to increase local air pollution monitoring and pollution penalties, could come as early as today; the former will need approval of two-thirds of the Senate and Assembly.
The deal’s price cap provision is meant to guard against energy price spikes, but there are concerns it might undermine the purpose of limiting emissions. Thus far, permit prices have hovered near the program’s price floor and emissions have been within the state’s targets, but if demand spikes and prices hit the ceiling, emissions could rise. The proposal includes provisions to ensure that emissions goals are still met when the price ceiling is hit.
The offsets provision would decrease the amount of emissions reductions businesses can achieve through environmental projects in other sectors, and it would require that half of such projects be sited in California. Industry and environmental justice groups have sparred over the offsets, because although they can be a potentially cheaper alternative to achieving emissions reductions at regulated sources they are often without benefit to local air quality.
The deal prioritizes state programs that could receive allowance auction proceeds. First in line: efforts to control toxic air pollution from mobile or stationary sources, followed by low-carbon transportation projects and sustainable agriculture programs.
Nine northeastern states are contemplating the future of their own cap-and-trade program. Since inception of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in 2008, the states’ aggregate emissions have decreased 37 percent—spurred in part by the cheap cost of natural gas (subscription). But RGGI advocates say that the program hasn’t sent electric bills soaring; instead, electricity costs have fallen 3.4 percent, again with help from natural gas prices. The program is set to release a plan for reducing the region’s carbon cap later this year, and there are signs that New Jersey may rejoin the program and that Virginia may link up with it—an expansion with both symbolic and market significance.
G20 Meeting Highlights Rift with the United States Over Its Climate Change Stance
Negotiations over the wording of the final communiqué from Germany hit a snag when the United States insisted on a line that read, “USA will endeavor to work closely with other partners to help their access to and use of fossil fuels.” The final language reads, “The United States of America states it will endeavour to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently and help deploy renewable and other clean energy sources, given the importance of energy access and security in their nationally-determined contributions.”
The G20 declaration noted the U.S. withdrawal from the accord but said that the United States affirmed its “strong commitment to an approach that lowers emissions while supporting economic growth and improving energy security needs.” The U.S. exit from the accord will become official in November 2020—the year of the next presidential election.
Regarding climate change mitigation, Inside Climate News laid out “six degrees of U.S. isolation” from the other G20 members: the need for increased ambition, the economic benefits of climate action, the coming energy transformation, the need for international finance, the need to end inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and the vestigial role for fossil fuels.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration appointed a renewable energy critic and former spokesman for a Koch Industries-funded campaign promoting fossil fuels to the post of senior adviser in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Study Offers Bad News on Extreme Flooding, Good News on Planning for That Phenomenon
A new study published Tuesday in Nature Communications suggests that extreme flooding currently expected to occur on average once every 100 years could, by 2050, occur every decade or even every year along the world’s vulnerable coastlines. The good news? Use of newly available data and advanced models offers the promise of improving global predictions of extreme sea levels.
“Up to 310 million people residing in low elevation coastal zones are already directly or indirectly vulnerable to ESL”—or extreme sea levels—“and coastal storms are causing damages in the order of tens of billions of dollars per year,” said the researchers. “These numbers could increase dramatically with SLR”—or sea-level rise—“and other changes, leading to annual damages of up to almost 10% of the global gross domestic product in 2100 if no adaptation measures are taken.”
As the climate changes, according to the study, category I hurricanes could do the same amount of damage as category II or III hurricanes did when sea levels were lower. But extreme sea levels, which often arise from a combination of high tides and storm surges, are often underrepresented in high-profile climate change documents such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To quantify the uncertainty of current extreme sea-level estimates, the study used newly released tide gauge data to conduct a meta-analysis of some 20 advanced climate models and found that predicted flood rates were underestimated for the West Coast of North and South America as well as for southern Europe and Australia.
Last week, Republican lawmakers revived a bill aimed at stopping use of the social cost of carbon (or the social cost of any greenhouse gas) in federal rulemaking (subscription). The bill would bar the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from applying the metric in any action, going further than President Trump’s executive order, signed in March, to revoke existing guidance and disband the interagency working group that sets guidance for the metric’s use. The bill’s reintroduction comes on the heels of a new study in the journal Science that makes a major advance in calculation of the cumulative economic impacts of climate change.
The study estimates that the United States could incur damages worth 1.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for every 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperature. Those damages include worsening economic inequality, heat-related deaths, agricultural declines, and even increased crime. The hard-hit counties—mainly in the South—could see losses higher than 20 percent of GDP. In the worst-hit county, Florida’s Union County, losses could near 28 percent, the kind of disparity that could contribute to political instability and drive mass migration.
According to lead researcher Solomon Hsiang, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, the most striking “takeaway message” is that “the effects of climate change on the U.S. are not the same everywhere. Where you are in the country really matters.” By which he means that climate change will move wealth away from the south and toward the north and west of the country, although he acknowledges that exact costs and their redistribution are hard to nail down because a changing climate makes the future world hard to predict.
Nonetheless, “Unmitigated climate change will be very expensive for huge regions of the United States,” said Hsiang. “If we continue on the current path, our analysis indicates it may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country’s history.”
The main takeaway of the study for Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions faculty fellow Billy Pizer, who wrote a perspective accompanying the study, is that it has produced “the first comprehensive estimate of climate change damages driven by state-of-the-art empirical studies of climate change impacts.”
The study team—a group of economists and climate scientists—used state-of-the-art statistical methods and 116 climate projections to price those impacts the way insurers or investors would. Specifically, they computed the real-world costs and benefits of increased temperatures, changing rainfall, rising seas and intensifying storms on agriculture, crime, health, energy demand, labor and coastal communities. In total, they computed the possible effects of 15 types of impacts for each U.S. county in 29,000 simulations.
The study appears to represent a significant improvement over earlier financial forecasts of climate change, which approximated damages for the entire country at once. The new study built its model from microeconomic studies of how variation in climate affects well-measured, and well-valued, county-level outcomes like crop yields, mortality, and energy consumption. But because the model’s algorithms emerge from observed relationships in real-world data, estimates omit many serious climate change risks, such as biodiversity loss, for which economic cost data were considered insufficient.
According to the researchers, their model is designed to continually integrate new findings and new climate model predictions, producing actionable science (subscription).
Red Team, Blue Team: Pruitt Calls for Debate of Climate Science
On Monday, a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot freeze implementation of a rule requiring oil and gas companies to fix leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas, while it reconsiders that rule. The court ruling could hint at trouble for the Trump administration’s efforts to unilaterally delay regulations such as those aimed at curbing greenhouse gases. But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt may have found a new context in which to question the need for such regulations.
Pruitt is leading a formal initiative to assess climate science using a “back-and-forth critique” by government-recruited experts. The idea is to stage “red team, blue team” exercises used by the military to identify vulnerabilities in field operations to conduct an “at-length evaluation of US climate science,” an official told ClimateWire. Other Trump administration officials are said to be discussing whether the initiative would stretch across many federal agencies that rely on such science.
“Climate science like other fields of science is constantly changing,” said EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman. “A new, fresh, and transparent evaluation is something everyone should support doing.”
But scientists and former EPA officials worry that the debate will give a disproportionately large voice to the limited number of skeptical voices within the scientific community. And, as was pointed out by PBS, science does not operate not by debate but by peer-reviewed studies.
Energy industry executives said the approach to scientific review that Pruitt is instituting could allow a challenge to the 2009 scientifically based environmental endangerment finding that established the EPA’s legal foundation for restricting greenhouse gas emissions from mobile and stationary sources. But lawyers say successfully making that challenge could be extremely difficult.
President Outlines Energy Dominance Proposals
President Trump last week outlined a multipronged plan to increase production of and export fossil fuels, including what he described as “clean, beautiful coal.” Speaking at the Department of Energy’s Washington headquarters, he called the need for regulations “a myth” and said his new policies would reap “millions and millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in wealth.” Although he did not reference renewable energy, climate change or reducing emissions, he touted his decision to exit the Paris climate agreement and to approve the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines.
To usher in what he dubbed “the golden era of American energy,” Trump outlined six initiatives:
Expanding nuclear energy
Lowering barriers to financing of overseas coal energy plants
Constructing a petroleum pipeline to Mexico
Increasing sales of natural gas to South Korea
Exporting additional natural gas from the Lake Charles liquid natural gas terminal in Louisiana
Opening a new offshore oil and gas leasing program.
In a New York Times op-ed, former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head (and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Advisory Board chairman) William Reilly noted that drilling in those areas could come at an economic cost. “A spill in any of those waters could threaten multibillion-dollar regional economies that depend on clean oceans and coastlines,” said Reilly, who pointed out that Trump has called for reconsideration of the well control rule, which tightened controls on blowout preventers, which are designed to stop undersea oil and gas well explosions. That rule was based in part on findings of the bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which Reilly co-chaired.