Pruitt Confirmed to Head EPA

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Friday, in a 52-46 vote, the Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma attorney general to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt was sworn in that evening.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt filed 14 lawsuits challenging EPA regulations, including limits on carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. Many of the cases are pending in the courts, creating “serious conflicts of interest,” said Delaware Senator Tom Carver the day before the vote. On Tuesday, Oklahoma asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to replace Pruitt in the Clean Power Plan lawsuit with the state’s new attorney general.

In his first speech to EPA staff on Tuesday, Pruitt said, “I believe that we as an agency, and we as a nation, can be both pro-energy and jobs, and pro-environment. We don’t have to choose between the two.”

He steered clear of specifics about the Trump administration’s energy policies, instead hinting at some agency reforms, saying that the agency has a responsibility to “avoid abuses that occur sometimes” in rulemaking, and he stressed the importance of following the “rule of law” and in partnering with states.

“I seek to ensure that we engender the trust of those at the state level,” he said (subscription).

Those comments echoed Pruitt’s first interview as EPA administrator, in which he told the Wall Street Journal that he intends to restore power to states, that environmental laws were not meant to be a “one-size-fits-all model,” and that “the state departments of environmental quality have an enormous role to play” as well as suggested that the public has trust issues with the EPA’s procedure for producing studies and cost-benefit analyses.

“The citizens just don’t trust that EPA is honest with these numbers,” he said. “Let’s get real, objective data, not just do modeling. Let’s vigorously publish and peer-review science. Let’s do honest cost-benefit work. We need to restore the trust.”

During the interview, Pruitt appeared to contradict his confirmation hearing testimony by questioning EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, saying that “the courts have seriously called into question the legality” of both the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Rule, which clarifies the EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act. Both rules may be targets of future executive actions. Although the order may not cancel the Clean Power Plan outright, it would mark the first step in weakening the Obama-era climate rule.

The Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts vs. EPA that the EPA possesses authority to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act—an authority that the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s panel on the environment is looking to roll back (subscription).

Senate Democrats had sought to delay Pruitt’s Senate confirmation vote, saying lawmakers could afford to wait a few days to learn more about Pruitt’s ties to the oil and gas industry, a reference to an Oklahoma judge’s ruling, that required Pruitt to hand over nearly 3,000 e-mails related to his communications with the industry, the subject of a public records lawsuit. The Center for Media and Democracy published those e-mails yesterday, two years after Pruitt initially refused to release them. The e-mails share close ties to the oil and gas industry. AP detailed a few of the ways in which those e-mails show how Pruitt and his staff coordinated their legal strategy with oil and gas industry executives and advocacy groups funded by those profiting from fossil fuels to fight federal efforts to curb carbon emissions.

Study Examines Spill Risk of Hydraulically Fractured Wells

A new analysis led by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, which appeared Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, concludes that making states spill data more uniform and accessible could provide stakeholders with important information on where to target efforts for locating and preventing future spills at hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells.

“… Reporting requirements differ across states, requiring considerable effort to make the data usable for analysis,” said Lauren Patterson, policy associate at the Nicholas Institute and the study’s lead author. “Given the rapid recent development of unconventional oil and gas development, data are scarce on both how often spills happen, where in the process they occur, and what caused them.”

“The presence of a spill,” she added, “does not mean an adverse impact; many spills were small or contained. The data on containment and potential impacts varied between states and over time, making it difficult to do more than report on the number of spills.”

It identifies 6,648 spills reported across Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania during a 10-year period (2005 and 2014). The work also shows that the range of requirements makes it impossible to compare states or come up with a comprehensive national picture. For example, Colorado and New Mexico require spills of more than 210 gallons to be reported to the state, whereas North Dakota calls for any spill of more than 42 gallons to be documented.

Making this state-level data more uniform could help regulators and industry reduce future spills.

“Analyses like this one are so important, to define and mitigate risk to water supplies and human health,” said Kate Konschnik, co-author on the paper from Harvard Law School’s Environmental Policy Initiative. “Writing state reporting rules with these factors in mind is critical, to ensure that the right data are available—and in an accessible format—for industry, states and the research community.”

Singapore Commits, States Consider Carbon Tax

A proposed carbon tax by a group of Republican lawmakers—the Climate Leadership Council—hasn’t made much headway with Congress since its introduction earlier this month, but others are starting to think about the concept.

State lawmakers in California are debating whether to extend the current cap-and-trade system beyond 2020, or replace it with a carbon tax—or cap and tax. Like the cap-and-trade system, this alternative strategy would place a cap on emissions that would decline each year, but it would also tax all emissions at the EPA-set social cost of carbon, or $50 per ton in 2030. And, ClimateWire reports, Washington state has proposed a $25-per-ton carbon tax to bolster the state budget. A second proposal to impose a $15-per-ton tax is also on that state’s legislative agenda (subscription).

Across the pond in Southeast Asia, Singapore announced plans to implement a S$10–$20 per ton carbon tax in 2019—committing to reducing emissions 36 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2030.

“The most economically efficient and fair way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to set a carbon tax, so that emitters will take the necessary actions,” said Singapore Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. “Singapore is vulnerable to rises in sea level due to climate change. Together with the international community, we have to play our part to protect our living environment.”

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.

The Cost of Fixing Climate Change

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

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions could boost the economy rather than slow it, according to a new study by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy Report finds that roughly $90 trillion will be spent in the next 15 years on new infrastructure around the world. Adopting rules that redirect that investment toward low-emissions options—more efficient use of resources and the building of connected and compact urban cities driven by public transportation—could make economic sense.

“A central insight of this report is that many of the policy and institutional reforms needed to revitalise growth and improve well-being over the next 15 years can also help reduce climate risk,” the report authors said. “In most economies, there are a range of market, government and policy failures that can be corrected, as well as new technologies, business models and other options that countries at various stages of development can use to improve economic performance and climate outcomes together.”

Taking action on climate change, the report authors said, is affordable.

“Of the $6 trillion we will spend a year on infrastructure, only a small amount—around $270 billion per year—is needed to accelerate the shift to a low-carbon economy, through clean energy, public transport systems and smarter land use,” said Felipe Calderon, chairman of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. “And this additional investment could be entirely offset by operating savings, particularly through reduced fuel expenditures”

Studies Assess Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing

A new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences links water contamination from shale gas extraction in parts of Pennsylvania and Texas to well integrity rather than the hydraulic fracturing process. The research, which looked at 133 water wells with high levels of methane, found that the contamination was either naturally occurring or linked to faulty well construction by drillers.

“These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared,” said Avner Vengosh, study co-author and professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University. Researchers pointed, instead, to the cement used to seal the outside of vertical wells and the steel tubing used to line them as culprits.

“In all cases, it [the study] basically showed well integrity was the problem,” said Thomas H. Darrah, co-author and Ohio State University researcher. “The good news is, improvements in well integrity can probably eliminate most of the environmental problems with gas leaks.”

Another study on hydraulic fracturing in the Bulletin of Seismological Society of Americafound a connection between deep injections of wastewater from a coal-bed methane field and an increase in earthquakes in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001. The report, which focuses on the Raton Basin, suggested that the area had been “seismically quiet”—experiencing only one earthquake of greater than 3.8 magnitude—until shortly after major fluid injections began in 1999. Since 2001, the area has recorded 16 such events.

EPA Extends Comment Period for Power Plants

On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) extended the public comment period for its proposed rule for regulating carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 45 days—to Dec. 1.

Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, said the extension is due to stakeholders’ great interest.

“While we’ve heard quite a bit so far, we know that there are many individuals and groups continuing to work to formulate their input,” she said. “We want the best rule possible, and we want to give people every opportunity to give their ideas and contributions.”

The delay, McCabe told reporters, would not affect the timeline for finalizing the rule by June 2015.

The same week, a government watchdog agency—the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—released a report suggesting coal plant retirements may be higher than previously thought. It predicted 13 percent of coal-fired generation would come offline by 2025—compared with its 2012 estimate of 2 percent to 12 percent.

The report suggested that existing regulations such as the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and recently proposed regulations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing generating units were contributors to the retirements. Low natural gas prices, increasing coal prices and low expected growth in demand for electricity were also cited as contributors.

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.

Federal Appeals Court Upholds EPA Mercury Rule

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

A federal appeals court upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) requiring power plants install technology to cut emissions of mercury and other air pollutants. MATS was challenged by industry and several states that argued the EPA should have considered costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to go forward with the standards. The EPA contended the rule was required under the Clean Air Act.

“On its face,” the majority opinion said, the Clean Air Act “neither requires EPA to consider costs nor prohibits EPA from doing so. Indeed, the word ‘costs’ appears nowhere” in that section of the law.

Although Judge Brett Kavanaugh—one member of the three-judge panel—agreed with the majority in other aspects of the ruling, he wrote a dissenting opinion on when the EPA should have considered the costs of MATS.

“The estimated cost of compliance with EPA’s Final Rule is approximately $9.6 billion per year, by EPA’s own calculation … To put it in perspective, that amount would pay the annual health insurance premiums of about two million Americans. It would pay the annual salaries of about 200,000 members of the U.S. Military. It would cover the annual budget of the entire National Park Service three times over,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Most power plants will have until March 2015 to meet the requirements set forth by the standards, but extensions to 2016 are possible. Despite the litigation, nearly 70 percent of coal-fired power plants are already in compliance with MATS, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The appeals court ruling comes as the EPA released findings that between 2011 and 2012 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped 3.4 percent—an overall decrease of 10 percent below 2005 levels. The findings are based on data in the agency’s annual inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and sinks. The agency attributed the decrease, in part, to reduced emissions from electricity generation, much of which is attributable to the increased usage of gas instead of coal—a change that has been influenced by the mercury regulations.

Methane Emissions Rule May be on Horizon

Five papers exploring methane emissions from compressors, leaks, liquid unloading, pneumatic devices and hydraulic fracturing production were released by the EPA for public comment Tuesday.

“The white papers will help EPA solidify our understanding of certain sources of methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in the oil and natural gas industry,” the agency said in a statement. “Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and VOCs contribute to the formation of harmful ground-level ozone (smog).”

The release of the papers is a first step in what could become a new set of regulations governing emissions of methane from oil and gas operations.

A day earlier, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that the EPA underestimated methane emissions from oil and gas operations. In a survey of hydraulic fracturing sites in southwestern Pennsylvania, the peer-reviewed study found that drilling operations released methane at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than the EPA expected. Seven well pads—1 percent of all the wells in the research area—accounted for 4 to 30 percent of the recorded emissions.

Four Years Later, BP “Active” Spill Response Concludes

The “active cleanup” phase of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill ended this week, days before the four-year anniversary of the 2010 spill.

“Let me be absolutely clear: This response is not over—not by a long shot,” said Capt. Thomas Sparks, the Coast Guard federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon response. “Our response posture has evolved to target re-oiling events on coastline segments that were previously cleaned.”

BP said its cleanup involved aerial patrols over more than 14,000 miles of shoreline and ground surveys covering more than 4,400 miles.

“Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon accident, BP committed to cleaning the shoreline and supporting the Gulf’s economic and environmental recovery,” BP said in a press release. “Completing active cleanup is further indication that we are keeping that commitment.”

Multiple studies are attempting to assess not only the reach of the spill, but also its health effects for spill responders and Gulf wildlife. A new report by the National Wildlife Federation used data from independent scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess how 14 species were faring. Some—such as the bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles—are still dying in large numbers due to the spill.

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 Releases Early Predictions from Annual Energy Outlook

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

Editor’s Note: In observance of the upcoming holidays, the Climate Post will not circulate the next two weeks. It will return Jan. 9, 2014. 

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Monday released a 20-page preview of its Annual Energy Outlook 2014, which includes projections of U.S. energy supply, demand and prices through 2040.

Although the full report won’t be released until spring 2014, the preview projects a spike of 800,000 barrels a day in domestic crude oil production in 2014. By 2016, U.S. oil production will reach historical levels—close to the 9.6 million barrels a day achieved in 1970. The feat—made possible by fracking and other advanced drilling technologies—is expected to bring imported oil supplies down to 25 percent, compared with the current 37 percent, by 2016. Eventually though, the boom will level off, and production will slowly decline after 2020.

Natural gas will replace coal as the largest source of U.S. electricity. In 2040, natural gas will account for 35 percent of total electricity generation, while coal will account for 32 percent. Production of natural gas is predicted to increase 56 percent between 2012 and 2040; the U.S. will become an overall net exporter of the fuel by 2018—roughly two years earlier than the EIA projected in last year’s forecast.

“EIA’s updated Reference case shows that advanced technologies for crude oil and natural gas production are continuing to increase domestic supply and reshape the U.S. energy economy as well as expand the potential for U.S. natural gas exports,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski. “Growing domestic hydrocarbon production is also reducing our net dependence on imported oil and benefiting the U.S. economy as natural-gas-intensive industries boost their output.”

Total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are also predicted to remain below 2005 levels—roughly 6 billion metric tons—through 2040.

Oil to Flow from Southern Leg of Keystone Pipeline in 2014

Next month some 700,000 barrels per day are expected to begin flowing from Cushing, Okla. to Texas through the 485-mile pipeline that forms the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Initial testing, before the Jan. 22 launch, is showing no issues with the pipeline or shippers, according to project lead TransCanada.

Construction of the southern leg required only state environmental permits and permission by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The northern leg—bringing crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast—has been more controversial. It awaits presidential approval on a trans-border permit.

Even so, TransCanada announced it has reached an agreement with 100 percent of landowners in five of the six states through which the 1,700-mile northern leg will pass. The remaining holdouts are in Nebraska, where the pipeline’s route was reworked to avoid crossing the Sand Hills aquifer.

U.S. Military to Utilize More Biofuel

On the heels of a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lower the country’s 2014 biofuel mandate, the U.S. military announced plans to make biofuel blends part of its regular “operational fuel purchase” through a collaboration of the Navy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The Navy’s intensifying efforts to use advanced, homegrown fuels to power our military benefits both America’s national security and our rural communities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Not only will production of these fuels create jobs in rural America, they’re cost effective for our military, which is the biggest consumer of petroleum in the nation.”

Sudden fuel price spikes—responsible for as much as $5 billion in unbudgeted fuel increases—were cited as one reason for the program, which will begin in 2014. Deliveries are expected in mid-2015.

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.

Proposed Rules to Limit Power Plant Emissions Expected This Week

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

In a move initiated by the Obama administration to address global changes in climate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected this week to release a proposal for regulations to reduce carbon emissions from new power plants.

Although details about the regulations remain confidential, the New York Times reports the proposal could contain standards different for coal plants than for natural gas power plants. The emissions limits for large natural gas plants may be kept at 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced, as proposed by the agency earlier this spring. The standard for coal, on the other hand, could be closer to 1,300 pounds per megawatt hour.

Regardless of the limits set on Friday, the proposal will give the country its first sense of how carbon capture and storage technology (CCS), which removes carbon dioxide from smokestacks and stores it underground, may be featured in a rule on curbing emissions from existing power plants. The new source performance standards will trigger a section of the Clean Air Act requiring the EPA to work with states to develop standards for existing plants by next summer.

This step to address the largest stationary sources of carbon dioxide in the United States promises to be controversial.

In a white paper, Republican lawmakers suggested the EPA was overreaching.

“The way in which EPA has ‘pushed the envelope’ in interpreting its legal authority … portends a similarly aggressive and unlawful approach to the regulation of existing [power plants],” the white paper states.

Moniz, McCarthy Testify on Climate Action Plan

President Obama’s climate action plan got its first airing by the nation’s top energy and environmental officials on Wednesday at a hearing of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Power. In testimony before the committee, the head of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, addressed both legal questions and concerns about the future of coal, while Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz delivered a primer on the science behind climate change to Republicans.

McCarthy said the EPA and other government agencies were authorized to bring in new measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even without new laws from Congress.

“We are not doing anything at the EPA and in the climate plan that goes outside the boundaries of what Congress has said is our mission and our authority,” McCarthy testified.

McCarthy and Moniz both attempted to allay fears about the future of coal, which figures prominently in one pillar of the climate plan that will be revealed this week when the EPA proposes new standards for new power plants. To lawmakers who suggested the EPA could stymie construction of new coal plants in the United States by making compliance with tighter emissions standards impossible, McCarthy responded that CCS “is technically feasible and it is available today.” The Associated Press reports that required installation of CCS technology will make construction of new coal-fired plants difficult, even though the rule to be announced on Friday is likely to be more lenient on coal-burning plants than initially proposed in March.

Study Looks at Methane Leaks Tied to Fracking

Natural gas drilling sites are leaking methane into the atmosphere at a rate slightly lower than estimates previously released by the EPA, according a study of emissions at multiple drilling sites.

Published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study finds natural gas sites release 0.42 percent of methane produced—roughly equal to the emissions from 10 million cars (subscription). The EPA analysis, which used data from 2011, estimated leakage at 0.47 percent, but other studies have found the leakage to be even higher.

Measurements for the PNAS study were taken in 2012, when new EPA rules required the use of emissions control technologies. Approximately 67 percent of the wells studied could capture or control 99 percent of potential emissions—a fact some said signaled the need for more policies to reduce sector-wide emissions while others called for better data.

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.

IEA Says Policies Could Keep 2 Degrees Celsius Goal Alive

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

Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), warns global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions set an all-time high in 2012, throwing the world off its path to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2020. These emissions rose 1.4 percent in 2012 to 31.6 billion tons—though the U.S. posted its lowest emissions (down 200 million tons), curbing them to mid-1990 levels.

“Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “But the problem is not going away—quite the opposite. This report shows the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C but also finds that much more can be done to tackle energy-sector emissions without jeopardizing economic growth, an important concern for many governments.”

The release of the report came as nations gathered in Bonn, Germany, for a second week of talks aimed at a global climate pact—taking effect in 2020—to limit carbon emissions to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. The report lays out four policy priorities to put the world back on track: a partial phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies, reduced natural gas venting and flaring in oil and gas production, limited use and construction of inefficient coal power generation and enactment of targeted energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry and transport. The policies, the report said, would stop the growth of energy-related emissions by the end of the decade.

Energy Programs in Question after Senate Farm Bill Vote

This week, the Senate approved a five-year farm bill aimed at reducing food stamps and expanding farm subsidies that are designed to help farmers through extreme weather such as droughts and floods. Attention now turns to the House, which is expected to begin debating it’s version of the bill this month. The two versions include very different provisions for clean and renewable energy programs.

Although the Senate bill does include mandatory funding for clean and renewable energy programs—the Rural Energy Assistance Program and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program—the total allotted comes to 31 percent less per year than the total provided under the 2008 Farm Bill, which was extended through September 30 as part of fiscal-cliff compromises. With the House bill, all funding for the energy programs is reauthorized at reduced and non-mandatory levels.

“The House bill would allow the programs to continue on paper with an annual appropriation, but provides no mandatory funding to operate the programs,” said Andy Olsen at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. That could result in some “very gutted programs,” he noted.

Estimates of Shale-Based Resources Rise

New analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) provides estimates for global shale gas and oil resources in the U.S. and 41 countries. The update of a two-year-old study by the EIA,  nearly doubles the number of formations that have these technically recoverable resources.

It finds that more than half of the identified shale oil resources—roughly 345 billion barrels—outside the U.S. are in Russia, China, Argentina and Libya; China, Argentina, Algeria, Canada and Mexico hold the most shale gas resources. The U.S. holds the second largest concentration of shale oil resources behind Russia and ranks fourth in shale gas resources after Algeria.

“As shale oil and shale gas production has grown in the United States to become 30 percent of oil and 40 percent of natural gas total production, interest in the oil and natural gas resource potential of shale formations outside the United States has grown,” said EIA administrator Adam Sieminski, noting that the EIA report shows “a significant potential for international shale oil and shale gas.”

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. Oil Reserves Higher Than Previously Thought

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

According to a new U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessment, two formations in the central United States hold three times the amount of natural gas and two times the amount of oil than the federal government previously estimated. Concentrated in the Dakotas and Montana, the Bakken and Three Forks formations are expected to hold 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Three Forks formation, which alone contains 3.73 billion barrels of oil, was not included in the last USGS assessment in 2008—helping to explain the large jump.

“These world-class formations contain even more energy resource potential than previously understood, which is important information as we continue to reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign sources of oil,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The same week, Jewell announced the U.S. Department of Interior will release revised, draft rules regulating hydraulic fracturing operations that have increasingly recovered tough-to-reach fossil fuel sources—particularly in North Dakota. The rules would only apply to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling on public lands and would establish new requirements for disclosure of chemicals and well integrity. The draft is expected in the coming weeks.

Senate Votes on Clean Energy

A House committee in North Carolina’s state legislature last week voted against a bill to repeal the state’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS). However, a Senate Committee this week pushed through the bill, which would keep the mandate at 3 percent, but eliminate it later on.

The REPS enacted by a 2007 North Carolina law had no expiration and, in addition to the overall renewable requirements, uniquely required utilities to get 0.07 percent of their electricity from hog waste now and 0.20 percent by 2018. So far, little of the set-aside for hog waste-derived energy has been met. A new study by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative provides a first step toward an informed strategy to increase swine gas energy production. Using a comparative modeling analysis considering individual and centralized approaches, the report finds that injecting biogas collected from an optimized network of farms into the natural gas pipeline could be a cost-effective approach to meeting state REPS.

As Carbon Dioxide Levels Rise, International Climate Negotiations Begin

As early as this month, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are expected to reach a new milestone, rising above 400 parts per million for a sustained period of time. Carbon dioxide levels in excess of 400 parts per million have already been recorded at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, but they tend to fluctuate hourly. The milestone is significant because it illustrates how dramatically humans have altered the atmosphere in a few generations, says Mother Nature Network. In 1988, atmospheric carbon dioxide was about 350 parts per million.

“I wish it weren’t true but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400 ppm level without losing a beat,” said Ralph Keeling, a geologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “At this pace we’ll hit a 450 ppm within a few decades. Each year, the concentration of CO2 at Mauna Loa rises and falls in a sawtooth fashion, with the next year higher than the year before. The peak of the sawtooth typically comes in May. If the CO2 levels don’t top 400 ppm in May 2013, they almost certainly will next year.”

The Washington Post looks at President Obama’s record on climate and environment so far. In Bonn, groups gathered for a week-long meeting to focus on the “scope, design and structure” of the 2015 climate agreement that would take effect in 2020. This agreement would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 to limit pollution.

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.

Obama Announces Leaders of His Energy, Environment Team

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

After weeks of speculation, President Barack Obama officially announced his selections to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on Monday. Gina McCarthy was chosen to lead the EPA, replacing Lisa Jackson, while Ernest Moniz will take over as energy secretary, replacing Steven Chu. Together, Obama said, they are charged with “making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change.” They join Sally Jewell, named to the Department of the Interior last month. Jewell’s confirmation hearing is slated to take place today.

Assuming Moniz and McCarthy win confirmation from the Senate, what can we expect them to focus on? Using the power of executive authority, quite a bit, reports The Washington Post. On the list: reducing global hydrofluorocarbon emissions, tightening emissions from medium and heavy-duty vehicles, new energy efficiency standards, and using the Clean Air Act pursue stricter rules for natural gas and methane emissions and cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

For the last four years, McCarthy has been working with the EPA as the assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. Under her leadership, the EPA proposed the first regulations to cap emissions from new power plants under the Clean Air Act in 2012 and the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) in 2011. A large number of pollution rules that have been postponed or delayed in the courts—such as the cross state air controls for power plants—will come up in Obama’s second term. In this new role McCarthy could face considerable opposition from industry polluters, which some say could be worse than her predecessor.

Moniz, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, is a former Energy Department undersecretary. “Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, water and our climate,” Obama said when he introduced Moniz Monday. The nomination of the MIT physicist comes with mixed reactions, as Moniz is a known advocate of shale gas and nuclear energy. The coal industry, however, is much more welcoming of Moniz than McCarthy, GreenWire reports (subscription required) because making coal fit into a low-carbon world has been a focus of his research.

Climate Change to Open Arctic Shipping Routes

As a result of climate change, by mid-century ships could sail directly over the North Pole, according to a new study. The Northwest Passage is now only accessible to a few icebreaker ships on average one summer of every seven years. Through computer simulations using independent climate forecasts for the years 2040 to 2059, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, predict the route—20 percent short than today’s most trafficked Arctic shipping lane—to be passable more frequently with warming of the North Pole that will lead to record low levels of summer sea ice.

“The development is both exciting from an economic development point of view and worrisome in terms of safety, both for the arctic environment and for the ships themselves,” said lead researcher Laurence Smith, who mapped the likeliest routes, usable by icebreakers and other open water vessels, during the month of September. The price of oil and locations of natural gas will be big determinants for whether or not Arctic navigation increases, the authors said. Numerous obstacles, aside from sea ice, stand in the way of increased navigation in the region. Just last month, Shell called off drilling exploration efforts after several mishaps.

House Votes to Increase Funds for Satellite

Sequester budget cuts had threatened to impose a two- to three-year delay in the production and deployment of the first next-generation weather satellites being developed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through a program called GOES-R. Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to approve legislation that could breathe new life into the program that aims to create more timely and accurate weather forecasts. The spending bill would set aside $802 million for NOAA’s satellites. The catch—it must be approved by the Senate, and even if passed the new figure is still subject to additional cuts.

Record Carbon Dioxide Spike

Researchers at NOAA say the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose significantly in 2012. Carbon dioxide levels jumped by 2.67 parts per million since 2011 to a total just under 395 parts per million and could make it unlikely global warming can be limited another 2 degrees Celsius. The spike is the second highest since record keeping began in 1959, surpassed only by the 1998 increase of 2.93 parts per million.

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.

Climate Change Back on Political Radar after Sandy, Election

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In his re-election victory speech, President Barack Obama finally touched on a seldom-mentioned issue of the campaign—climate change: “We want our children to live in an America … that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Whether or not Hurricane Sandy can be  attributed to climate change, the storm’s devastating flooding brought the issue to the forefront of the country’s consciousness. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made the issue the centerpiece of his endorsement of Obama last week: “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be—given this week’s devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

A number of environmental groups have expressed hope Obama will finally be at liberty to take steps to address the issue. “I do think there’s an opportunity, if the president chooses to take it, to show leadership and get attention on the cost that climate change is likely to cause,” said Kevin Kennedy of the U.S. Climate Initiative of the World Resources Institute. The Hill dubbed the issue of climate change one of the winners of the election, along with tax credits for wind energy.

But the future of U.S. climate policy is far from certain. With comprehensive climate legislation dead in Congress, many see the path forward in continued regulation of carbon emissions from power plants. Sen. Harry Reid said he hopes the Senate, where the Democrats have expanded their majority, can address climate change, but he didn’t offer any specifics. Nat Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund says the President should simply begin talking about the issue—“not just once in a while but routinely, as a fact of life rather than a special-interest issue.”

What Does Obama’s Win Mean for Energy?

The Scientific American foresees executive orders similar to Obama’s previous term, which raised vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and increased efforts to regulate air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Others, meanwhile, see harsher regulations for energy companies during a second Obama administration—specifically for the natural gas and coal industries.

While hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas brings with it plenty of air pollution and potential water contamination concerns, its use is likely to soar. Even so, regulations of this practice may tighten. Federal officials have already indicated they may increase oversight in some areas, such as developing national standards for wastewater disposal.

Some speculate Obama’s first big test during his second term will be approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. In a recent interview with Audubon Magazine, the president discusses a number of environmental issues—including the controversial pipeline. “There are a number of sensitive issues involved in the consideration of the Keystone pipeline, demanding a fair and full assessment,” Obama writes. “My administration is conducting a thorough assessment that takes into consideration issues of public health and safety, environmental health, along with American energy security and economic factors. I am committed to reducing our reliance on foreign oil in a way that benefits American workers and businesses without risking the health and safety of the American people and the environment.”

States Taking up Climate Change Action

Despite a new study saying it’s too late for two degrees—and suggesting a more urgent need for a climate policy at the national and international levels—states are starting to take steps to reduce harmful emissions.

In fact, state clean-energy funds supported 18 percent more projects in over 20 states in 2011 compared to 2010. Next week, California will be the first to combat greenhouse gas emission by requiring utilities to cut their output or buy permits for the emissions they emit beyond the capped amount. On Nov. 14, the state will hold the nation’s largest-ever auction for these permits.

The Washington Post reports while states are the laboratories for progress, their experimentation has slowed and is more heavily focused on renewable energy. “We still see all the states doing things on clean energy,” said Judi Greenwald of C2ES. “But definitely fewer states are calling what they do ‘climate.’”

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.