A federal appeals court this week upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules governing greenhouse gases. In the landmark ruling, judges rejected a series of lawsuits challenging the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, acknowledging that the agency is “unambiguously correct” in its use of the law.
Members of industry and 14 states had initially challenged the rules. The ruling clears the way for the agency to move forward limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants, cars and other large industrial sources using the Clean Air Act. Under the rules, EPA requires new and expanding facilities to use obtain construction and operating permits. This is in addition to tailpipe rules, which set mileage and emissions standards for new vehicles.
While the Rio+20 Earth Summit ended with weak text calling for the world to move to a “green economy and phase out fossil fuels,” a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests leaders forgo such meetings because tackling global climate change is as easy as scaling up what countries and states are already doing. CNN reports the U.S. is in fact managing to curb some carbon emissions due, in part, to cheap natural gas, the economy and investments in energy efficiency.
Sea Levels Rise Globally, East Coast to Take Hardest Hit
Around the world, sea levels are rising. Nowhere are they rising faster than the United States’ East Coast, according to scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey. When compared to global averages since 1990, the Atlantic Ocean is rising, annually, three to four times faster than in other areas of the world. Several cities along the 600-mile stretch running from North Carolina to Massachusetts are experiencing significant jumps, including Norfolk, Va., and Philadelphia, with spikes of 4.8 inches and 3.7 inches, respectively.
New studies are not just threatening the East Coast—they reflect changes on the West Coast as well. A National Research Council report describes a rise of several inches over the next two decades, and more as the years go on. Southern and central California will be the hardest hit, with a rise of six inches by 2030. Oregon and Washington will see less dramatic changes of four inches in the same window, then two feet by 2100.
BP has made headlines again, two years after the Gulf oil spill. For the spill, the company stands to pay billions of dollars in environmental fines under the Clean Water Act; a new study indicates thousands of jobs could be created along the coast if those funds were used for coastal restoration. Specifically, if $1.5 billion per year over the course of the next decade were spent on coastal restoration, it could result in close to 57,000 jobs. Penalty figures are still being decided.
As Hollywood actors are clenched in a legal battle over technology that may have helped clean the Gulf following the spill, federal investigators are looking at whether BP officials lied to Congress about just how much oil was actually leaking between April 20 and July 15, 2010. Internal e-mails, to the highest levels of BP, show a struggle over well flow and reveal that some company engineers warned early on that size estimates of the undersea leak might be too low. Meanwhile, another set of recently released e-mails—some 3,000 to be exact—is stirring up controversy. In a Boston Globe op-ed two Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientists detail how they reluctantly acceded to BP’s demands for confidential e-mails detailing the scientific process they used to calculate oil flow rate following a court order. The scientists cited concerns over “not simply invasion of privacy, but the erosion of the scientific deliberative process.” BP’s request for access to White House e-mails related to the spill, however, was denied.
Negotiators Face Stumbling Blocks on Way to Rio+20
Spring in the U.S. has been the warmest since record keeping started in 1895. As temperatures rise, representatives from some 135 heads of state will be present when United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20 Earth Summit, begins June 20. A newly surfaced document indicates there may be some difficulty reaching a blueprint for sustainable development that all can agree on. Specifically, just 20 percent of the wording in the draft—addressing everything from corporate sustainability reporting to universal access to clean energy—has been agreed upon. With the deadline for negotiations soon approaching, WWF director general Jim Leape worried about the prospect of “an agreement so weak it is meaningless, or complete collapse.”
In a recent interview with Yale e360, the International Energy Agency’s Fatih Birol urges countries to band together to address dangerous rises in global temperatures. “Individual efforts of countries or sectors will not bring us to 2 degrees,” said Birol. “And if the trends continue like this, we can very soon kiss goodbye to a 2-degree trajectory.”
The New Hampshire legislature passed a bill that would pave the way for the state to exit the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), but the law would require that two other states leave the cap-and-trade pact first. New England’s emissions have fallen recently—supporters of the cap-and-trade pact attribute this RGGI; others say cheap natural gas explains the decrease. “Natural gas has changed the complexion of the whole situation,” said the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Brian Murray. Meanwhile, a New York judge has dismissed a lawsuit that would have ended that state’s participation in RGGI.
U.S. Energy Output Soars
As global energy consumption grew 2.5 percent worldwide, so did the United States’ energy output, as the U.S. became the world’s largest natural gas producer and its oil output grew more than any nation outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Meanwhile, two industry groups have come out with a study indicating the Obama administration has overestimated methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This comes after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the first regulations for fracking in April.
The call came from a coalition of four green investment groups—representing the investment arms of banks HSBC and BNP Paribas, as well as of fashion company Hermes and the United Nations Environment Programme—aimed at limiting emissions and taxing them, arguing it will drive innovation, attract investment and create jobs. The call also hailed Australia’s recent move toward a carbon tax, saying it will be a boon for investors.
But Jos Delbeke, director general for climate action at the European Commission believes the long-running negotiations through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are unlikely to produce a “big bang”—that is, a breakthrough that would lead to the birth of a new climate treaty.
In preparation for the upcoming meeting, Japan has signaled it may step back from its own target of cutting CO2 emissions 25 percent by 2020—and it is bringing it up now to avoid giving the “wrong message to the international community,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Green issues do appeal to voters, according to a study by Stanford University researchers, who found American politicians who took a pro-green stance were more likely to win. More specifically, Democrats who supported green issues won more often, and Republicans who took anti-green stances lost more often than if they kept silent on the topic.
Energy will also be a significant issue for GOP candidates, according to “energy and environment insiders” polled by the National Journal. Especially important, the insiders said, will be linking energy policy with job creation.
Luxury in a Smaller Package
Even in these hard economic times, luxury cars still have a market and automakers are rolling out new models that, while remaining plush and pricey, are shrinking, both in body and engine.
Hundreds of protesters—including famed climate researcher James Hansen—have been arrested in protests in front of the White House over the past two weeks, in an attempt to stop the construction of a pipeline from Canada to Texas to carry diluted tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries, mainly over concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and risks of tainting a nearby water aquifer.
The U.S. State Department has been weighing whether to approve the pipeline, and under what conditions. In a major step last week, the State Department published its final environmental review, which said the pipeline would have “no significant impact to most resources” along its path, assuming “normal operation.”
Meanwhile, China is pushing ahead with plans to greatly expand their installations of solar power, doubling their targeted installations over the next decade. By 2015, they aim to have 3 gigawatts installed—10 times as much as they had last year—and by 2020, 50 gigawatts.
Natural gas has a reputation as the least environmentally damaging fossil fuel, but a new study from Cornell University paints a slightly different picture. Study leader Robert Howarth told the BBC that, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, gas from shale rocks—undergoing a boom in production in the U.S.—is “quite likely as bad [as] or worse than coal.”
Why? Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a far more powerful—albeit shorter-lived—greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and shale gas production is leaky. For each watt of energy released, the emissions from producing shale gas would cause about 20 percent more warming than the emissions from coal over a 20-year period. This is about the same amount of warming as coal over a 100-year period.
But is there enough of this resource? In areas with abundant shale gas, power plants are using it as a replacement for coal, reports the Centre Daily Times from the shale gas heartland of Pennsylvania. If these plans for increased natural gas consumption pan out, however, the remaining resources could be used up considerably faster than many estimates suggest.
A Little Competition
Meanwhile, efforts to boost domestic energy production may bring another potentially environmentally damaging practice to the United States, since a mining company has qualified for a permit to open the country’s first tar sands mine in Utah.
In other news, a few headlines made it hard to sort fact from fiction this week. One (apparently true) news story reported that, in the U.K., fish were transported by llama to new locales, to help them cope with climate change. And the Associated Press reported that energy giant General Electric decided to return its $3.2 billion tax refund to the U.S. Treasury. (That was a hoax, it turned out, perpetrated by the activist group The Yes Men.)
First Things First: The Obama administration today finalized greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks first proposed last May. The practical upshot of the rules is a roughly 40 percent rise in fuel economy, to 35.5 miles per gallon, by 2016. The government said the measures would save owners about $3,000 in fuel over a vehicles lifetime, but add a grand on average to sticker prices.
Of Drills and Bills: Energy independence has attracted bipartisan support and high-level media interest at least since 1948, when the U.S. first became a net importer of oil. Calls for freedom from foreign energy sources (or for “energy security” among the more sober-minded) have grown particularly acute in recent years. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin popularized the chant, “Drill, baby, drill!” during the 2008 presidential campaign. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich contributed “Drill here. Drill now. Pay Less.” Democrats have weakened in their rhetorical opposition to domestic offshore oil exploration as these slogans took off.
Politics can do funny things to strident partisan positions. Obama’s announcement this week on off-shore drilling might not be any more surprising than President George W. Bush’s re-purchase of oil-and-gas-leases off the Florida coast, during his brother’s, Gov. Jeb Bush, re-election bid. (“At the time, Bush’s decision was hailed by some environmental groups.”) Blood and electoral politics run thicker than oil.
The question, squarely framed by the New York Times, is, Will Obama’s political jujitsu work? Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post, runs amused through the top papers’ takes, from the NYT’s “nobody-much-likes-it” to the Los Angeles Times’ “this-won’t-accomplish-much” to right-wing pundit Don Surber’s observation that “Still, it is an admission by Obama that Sarah Palin was right.” He repeats the last four words about 125 times over a full browser page.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a key architect of the climate-and-energy bill expected in mid-April, said yesterday that Obama’s drilling proposal is a “good first step,” echoing other calls from Senate Republicans that the sale of drilling leases be expanded to include the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the West Coast, and Alaska. Graham and Lieberman at the end of last week chatted with reporters about two elements of their developing climate bill. Utilities would participate in a market for carbon-emission permits, and the oil industry would have to pay a “fixed fee” for their carbon emissions. Last week 10 coastal Democratic senators sent a letter to Obama admonishing the administration against “unfettered” drilling. Watch to see if Obama’s drilling announcement this week is sufficiently fettered.
Traders to the Cause: The 2009 results of the EU’s Emissions Trading System are drawing scrutiny. Analysts attribute to reduced economic activity an 11.2 percent drop in EU industrial greenhouse gas emissions, a number that falls at the high end of expectations. Critics say industrial firms that receive pollution credits for free are benefitting from cyclical market dynamics, instead of permanently reducing emissions by deploying clean energy technologies. The decline in carbon prices, reflecting the recession and diminished outlook for a global treaty, have led to carbon trading firms’ disappearance from HSBC’s index of companies involved in climate solutions.
EU authorities have stepped up enforcement of about $6.75 billion in tax fraud they suspect within the trading system. Spanish police arrested nine people suspected of running a “carousel fraud.” In this scheme, traders buy credits in one EU country without paying a value-added tax, and sell them in another country at a price that includes the price of a tax.
It’s confusing enough without the outright accusations of fraud. An executive board that oversees a carbon-finance program set up by the Kyoto Protocol has suspended four auditors in a year and a three monts. The most recent companies penalized are carbon-market auditors in Germany and South Korea, who may now seek clarification on the market’s rules.
Against the backdrop of sagging carbon credit prices in Europe, a group of economists led by the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth Stanton in the U.S., suggests that target costs of greenhouse gas pollution are too low to effect the scale of change that many scientists call for.
More ‘Sunlight’ in Climate Science: The U.K. Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee issued findings from its investigation into climatologists’ behavior as documented in emails hacked out of University of East Anglia servers last fall. The Members of Parliament, as many others before them, found little or nothing in the episode to weaken the evidence that suggests industrialization waste is transforming the global climate. But they slammed the climate scientists as a group for secretive handling of data. The MPs heavily faulted the university itself for the scientists’ poor responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests. Phil Jones, who stepped down temporarily under fire as director of the UEA’s Climate Research Unit, was exonerated by the committee. Newspapers, such as the Guardian, tack on garden-variety “he-said, she-said” evaluations of the report.
Data’s Gotta Come from Somewhere: Obama’s 2011 budget proposes increased funding for NASA’s aging Earth observation infrastructure—62 percent more by the end of 2015. The investments would shore up data streams on ocean temperature, ice extent, ozone, and anthropogenic carbon emissions.
Satellite monitoring would be much easier if the risks of launching tin cans to space weren’t so high. NASA expects to rebuild its Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), after the initial model fell into far-southern waters. The OCO may be the best-named satellite ever. A triple pun, OCO is a normal acronym, a chemical diagram (carbon dioxide is a linear molecule, O=C=O), and a homophone of the Polish word for “eye.” This week Europe will launch its CryoSat-2, a device precise enough to measure changes in ice thickness within “a few centimeters” accuracy. The first iteration, CryoSat, was destroyed in a launch failure five years ago. This week’s most thought-provoking statement from a scientist occurs in the Nature story (see previous link) about CryoSat-2:
Technical problems with the rocket have already delayed the launch, which was originally scheduled for February. “I hope this time around probability is on our side,” says Duncan Wingham, CryoSat-2’s principal scientist, who will watch the launch from the European Space Operations Centre of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Darmstadt, Germany.
The truth is out there. Ernst & Young probes the renewables market in greater detail. A third of the jump in U.S. climate spending came from last year’s stimulus bill, according to a Congressional Budget Office report.
There’s Something up There… What do people think about climate change who rarely think about climate change? A minor indication came this week in a Washington Post book review of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar (NB: The first paragraph of the review has an adult theme). The third paragraph addresses global warming:
The subject, though, is hot. Whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, there’s no denying that novelists are warming up to the subject.
Perhaps I’m over-thinking this, but how is it intelligible to pose the question, even in a dependent clause, “whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere”? Certainly, there is carbon dioxide coming out of our tailpipes, smoke stacks, and melting permafrost. Maybe what’s accumulating in the air is something that has the same spectral and biochemical properties as carbon dioxide, but isn’t actually carbon dioxide.
At any rate, something that behaves identically to carbon dioxide is doing this. “Should” the author of the review (an editor) know that, even as a cute framing device, this dependent clause has negative communicative value?
Eric Roston is Senior Associate at theNicholas Instituteand author ofThe Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available atGrist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available atConservation.