Report, Initiatives Aim to Take Action on Climate Change

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

Editor’s Note: While Tim Profeta is on vacation, Jeremy Tarr, policy associate in the Climate and Energy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, will author The Climate Post. Tim will post again August 28.

The Climate Post will also take a break from circulation August 7 and will return August 14.

A new report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers finds that for each decade of delay, policy actions on climate change increase total mitigation costs by approximately 40 percent. The cost of inaction—letting the temperature rise 3 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels instead of 2 degrees— could increase economic damages by about 0.9 percent of global output.

“To put this percentage in perspective, 0.9 percent of estimated 2014 U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is approximately $150 billion,” according to the report. “Moreover, these costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay.”

The report is the first of several announcements by the Obama administration on climate change. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced initiatives to curb methane emissions, which accounted for about 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas pollution in 2012. The Energy Department recommended incentives for modernizing natural gas infrastructure, and it plans to establish efficiency standards for natural gas compressors as well as improve advanced natural gas system manufacturing.

The same day, several companies and nongovernment groups committed to support a new Food Resilience theme in the president’s Climate Data Initiative. The initiative leverages data and technology to help businesses and communities better withstand the effects of climate change. Companies like Microsoft are helping to organize data sets and tools in the cloud that will enable the assessment of vulnerable points in the food system, such as the effects of climate change on our food system and the reliability of food transportation and safety.

Hearings Fuel Debate on Clean Power Plan

During public hearings in Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heard testimony from the public on its proposed Clean Power Plan, which would limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

In Washington, D.C., many utilities and industry groups were critical of the plan’s climate benefits and called on the EPA to conduct further economic analysis before issuing its final rule in June 2015. In Atlanta, others said the plan did not account for steps they’ve already taken to reduce emissions.

“This rule is flawed,” said Mississippi utility regulator Brandon Presley (subscription). “States like Mississippi, who have fought to pull themselves up and get a program to help customers reduce energy costs and reduce energy consumption, kind of get slapped away from the table.”

In their testimony, many environmental groups sought greater emissions reductions from the power sector as well as increases in renewable energy generation and programs that reduce electricity demand. Some members of the public, like retired coal miner Stan Sturgill of Kentucky, agreed with these groups’ request for tougher restrictions.

“Your targets to reduce carbon dioxide pollution by 2030 are way too low and do not do enough to reduce our risk of climate change,” said Sturgill, who suffers from black lung and other respiratory ailments. “The rule does not do near enough to protect the health of the front line communities from the consequences of this pollution. We’re dying, literally dying, for you to help us.”

The EPA is asking states to meet carbon emissions targets that would result in a 30 percent reduction in power sector carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. States are given flexibility in how they achieve the targets.

Representatives from 13 western states met last week to discuss the EPA’s proposal and to begin considering the advantages of working together in response to the rule.

“We’re in the process of determining what makes sense for us, including working with other states in a regional market,” said Camille St. Onge, spokeswomen for Washington’s Department of Ecology.

United States Imposes Energy-Related Trade Constraints

The U.S. Commerce Department placed proposed new import penalties on solar products from China and Taiwan. These penalties come on top of anti-subsidy tariffs imposed on some panels from China last month.

The new proposed penalties, still to be confirmed, aim to curb the sale of low-cost solar panels and cells, a practice known as dumping, from other countries in the U.S. market. If confirmed, they would impose duties as high as 165 percent on some solar companies in China and 44 percent on those in Taiwan. The Commerce Department has issued only preliminary findings, but final rulings are expected from the Commerce Department later this year.

The move has China’s Commerce Ministry saying Washington’s actions risk damaging the solar industry in both countries.

“The frequent adoption of trade remedies cannot resolve the United States’ solar industry development problems,” an unnamed Chinese official told Reuters.

In the United States, reactions to the news were mixed.

“Today’s actions should help the U.S. solar manufacturing industry to expand and innovate,” said SolarWorld Industries America President Mukesh Dulani. “We should not have to compete with dumped imports or the Chinese government.”

But Rhone Resch, CEO of the U.S.-based Solar Energy Industries Association, condemned the decision, saying the answer lies in a negotiated solution.

Chinese companies supplied 31 percent of the solar modules installed in the United States in 2013 and more than 50 percent in the distributed solar market.

On Tuesday, the United States and the European Union issued new economic sanctions on Russia, citing the country’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. The sanctions ban the export of energy-related technology for use in Russian oil production from deepwater, Arctic offshore and shale oil production rock reserves. However, exports of technology for gas projects to the country, which holds the world’s largest combined oil and gas reserves, will continue.

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.

Senate Clears Way for Keystone XL Pipeline

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

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return July 3.

The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 12 to 10 on a bill Wednesday approving the long-debated Keystone XL oil pipeline. The pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, requires presidential approval as it crosses international boundaries. Without a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring it to a vote by the full Senate, the bill is likely to languish.

Even so, Forbes deemed the vote “more than symbolic,” saying “It serves to tell the truth about Keystone XL, the need for new pipelines in this country, and for making our future energy security our top priority.”

Others, like Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Anthony Swift, disagreed. “This latest vote on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is all about politics and bad policy,” he said. “Locking ourselves into a massive infrastructure to move the dirtiest oil on the planet for the next 50 years would greatly worsen carbon pollution—at a time when we’re facing growing and grievous costs wrought by climate change.”

Another Canadian pipeline did get the official green light—the Northern Gateway project. Just as controversial as Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to British Columbia, where it would be loaded on supertankers for shipment to Asia through sensitive waters in the Pacific’s shipping lanes. Before construction can begin on the Northern Gateway pipeline, Enbridge must meet about 100 conditions imposed by the regulator. Inside Climate News focuses on the “eerie” parallels between the debates on each pipeline project.

As the United States Grapples with EPA Rule, Japan Considers Carbon Trading

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants has made it into the pages of the Federal Register, an event marking the start of a 120-day comment period.

In the weeks since the rule’s release, there has been closer examination of how states can meet emissions standards cost effectively. Some say energy efficiency is the answer. Another potential solution: wind and solar. In an op-ed in The Hill, representatives of the American Wind Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association point to the technologies’ cost decreases and significant carbon reduction benefits. Others like Ed Throop, director for the Sikeston Board of Municipal Utilities, are not so convinced. “The wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine all the time,” he said. It’s good, clean energy, but it’s not what you’d call baseload energy. You can’t call on it anytime you need it.”  

Japan has its own strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to unnamed government sources, the country may have plans to agree to a carbon deal with India. Japanese companies would install carbon-cutting technology in India and in return receive carbon credits that can be used to offset their country’s emissions under the joint crediting mechanism. So far, Japan has signed agreements with 11 countries to launch the joint crediting mechanism. Several news outlets reported the likelihood of a bilateral agreement in early July during annual talks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Ocean Sanctuary Would Close Parts of Pacific to Energy Exploration

President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced his intent to expand a U.S. sanctuary in the central Pacific Ocean. Slated to go into effect later this year, the proposal extends protection around the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to 200 miles and limits fishing and energy development. The White House said it will consider input from lawmakers and fishermen before making any final decisions about the geographic scope of the sanctuary.

In video remarks, Obama said climate change, overfishing and pollution have threatened economic growth opportunities in the ocean.

“We cannot afford to let that happen,” Obama said. “That’s why the United States is leading the fight to protect our oceans. Let’s make sure that years from now we can look our children in the eye and tell them that, yes, we did our part, we took action, and we led the way toward a safer, more stable world.”

Marine reserves, Smithsonian Magazine reports, can mitigate some of these problems by increasing the size and number of marine creatures within its borders and helping species deal with climate change.

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, EPA Rules Focus of McCabe Confirmation Hearing

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

Climate change, extreme weather and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants were the focus of a confirmation hearing for Janet McCabe, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

In the hearing—at which lawmakers took jabs at one another on the impacts of climate change and criticized McCabe’s recent comments on extreme weather causes—the acting assistant administrator for air and radiation told the committee that if confirmed she would evaluate the full consequences of the EPA’s current and pending rules. She pointed to her work as a state regulator in Indiana, highlighting her sensitivity to the economic impact of environmental regulations.

“I come from Indiana, where people rely on coal,” she told the committee (subscription).

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has not announced when it will vote on McCabe’s nomination, which still requires approval by the full Senate.

Just a day earlier, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the draft rule for existing power plants, which is scheduled for release by June 1. “We are going to make them cost-effective, we are going to make them make sense,” McCarthy said at a conference. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be so flexible that I’m not going to be able to rely on this as a federally enforceable rule.”

Flexibility for states was emphasized by McCarthy who insisted the EPA will give states the tools to curtail emissions that drive climate change and that the proposed rule will not threaten electric reliability or shutter large numbers of facilities.

EPA officials have met with more than 200 groups about the upcoming rule. Last week, the White House began its review of the rule—the final step before the EPA can publish it and gather formal comments from the public.

EIA Energy Outlook Predicts Decrease in Oil Imports

Net U.S. energy imports declined last year to their lowest level in more than 20 years, meaning U.S. net imports could reach zero within 23 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The finding is the first in a staged release of the EIA’s complete Annual Energy Outlook 2014. Future releases—running April 14 to April 30—will look at matters ranging from the implications of accelerated power plant retirements and lower natural gas prices for industrial production to light-duty vehicle energy demand and the potential for liquefied natural gas to be used as a railroad fuel.

Between 2012 and 2013, net energy imports decreased by 19 percent. The EIA cited increased growth in oil and natural gas production as the reason. Crude oil production grew 15 percent in 2013.

“In EIA’s view, there is more upside potential for greater gains in production than downside potential for lower production levels,” the report said. It noted that U.S. oil production should hit 9.6 million barrels per day by 2020.

Global Renewable Energy Investment Down as Tax Credits Resurface

Global investment in renewable energy fell 14 percent in 2013, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance. The drop in investment was attributed, in part, to energy policy uncertainty and the falling cost of renewable energy technology. The latter factor may seem counterintuitive but one of the report’s lead editors, UN energy expert Eric Usher said that the fall in the cost of the clean energy technologies, particularly solar, had “left some governments thinking that they had been paying too much and reviewed their subsidies.”

Even with investment down, the shift toward low-carbon sources hasn’t slowed. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of power generated worldwide last year—up from 7.8 percent in 2012. Liebreich told Mother Jones that proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015.

Further incentives for renewables may be in the offing. Last week, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved a draft bill that includes some 50 temporary tax breaks, including one for renewable energy. The bill includes provisions for wind energy through an extension of the U.S. Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit, which was responsible for jumpstarting much of the last decade’s U.S. wind energy development. Provisions were also included for biofuel.

Congress is expected to pass the bill by the end of year, allowing businesses and individuals to continue to claim tax breaks on their 2014 taxes.

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.N. Climate Talks Pick Back Up in Bonn

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

The next round of U.N. climate change talks began in Bonn, Germany—the final round of midyear negotiations before the 19th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in November. The talks are, in part, focused on defining elements of a universal climate agreement by 2015, an agreement that would be enforced by 2020.

“The negotiations are now in a crucial conceptual phase of the 2015 agreement,” said U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres. “Stakeholders need to provide clear inputs as to where more ambition is possible, and where international policy guidance from governments can unleash even more action on their part.”

Early stories regarding research by the Stockholm Environment Institute aims to guide emissions targets being devised by U.N. climate talk delegates. Their plan suggests the U.S. would be responsible for 29.1 percent of greenhouse gas reductions by 2020—three times the effort assigned to the current emissions leader, China—to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The Obama administration also opted to raise the social cost of carbon emissions—a monetized estimate of health, property and environmental damage tied to federal regulations—from about $21 to roughly $35 a metric ton. In theory, this means the government could justify stricter regulations for greenhouse gas emissions in the future, according to the Washington Post.

Wind, Solar, Geothermal Projects to Increase Domestic Renewable Production

Projects with the potential to create 520 megawatts of new clean electricity generation were announced by the U.S. Department of Interior this week. Located in Arizona and Nevada, the projects—the 350-megawatt Midland Solar Energy Project near Boulder City, Nev., the 100-megawatt Quartzsite Solar Energy Project near Quartzsite, Ariz., and the 70-megawatt New York Canyon Geothermal Project—are the first approved by Department Secretary Sally Jewell on public lands since she took over the department earlier this year.

“These projects reflect the Obama Administration’s commitment to expand responsible domestic energy production on our public lands and diversify our nation’s energy portfolio,” said Jewell. “Today’s approvals will help bolster rural economies by generating good jobs and reliable power and advance our national energy security.”

Separately, the department announced its first ever commercial wind energy lease sale in federal waters, south of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The July 31 sale will include 164,750 acres that could produce enough electricity to power more than one million homes, if fully developed. Nine companies, including the developer of the Cape Wind Project, expressed interest in participating. The area sits between, and to the south of, Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. Although several offshore wind farms are being developed in the U.S., there are none currently in operation. In Maine, a team did recently launch a prototype of a floating turbine—making history. The turbine, which stands 65 feet tall, is now afloat and connected to the grid with a capacity of about 20 kilowatts. The research team hopes the prototype will cut the traditional cost of erecting a tower in the water, allowing the U.S. to better tap into its offshore wind potential, which is estimated at 4,000 gigawatts.

Keystone Hearing Rumored

This summer, there could be another public hearing in Washington, D.C. on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, but State Department officials have yet to confirm the news regarding the long awaited project.

Meanwhile, another Canadian company is quietly building a network of new and expanded pipelines that would achieve the same goal as Keystone—but bring even more oil into the U.S.

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.


Looming Sequester Has Implications for National Weather Forecasting, Energy

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

Unless Congress reaches a deal by Friday, a set of automatic spending cuts—known as the sequester—will take effect. According to the Obama Administration, this trigger, for $85 billion worth of across-the-board federal spending cuts, is expected to have significant implications for climate and energy.

Newly released estimates by the White House detail how the cuts are projected to impact programs in each state. Decreases in environmental funding will be in the multi-millions, with the hardest hits to clean air efforts in California, New York, Texas, Ohio and Illinois. Overall more than $100 million in budget cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air program are proposed. The acting chief of the EPA, Bob Perciasepe, warned of furloughs for staff. In a letter, he detailed the widespread potential effects of the cuts, which included reduced monitoring of oil spills, air pollution and hazardous waste.

The EPA isn’t the only federal agency that would be impacted by the cuts. For example, the operating budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also at risk, which could potentially degrade the government’s ability to provide timely and accurate weather forecasts. Specifically, the sequester could cause a two- to three-year delay in the production and deployment of the first two next-generation weather satellites being developed through a program called GOES-R. “This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings,” said Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank. “It is unclear that future years of investment will be able to undo some of the damage—especially to our weather preparedness.”

The energy sector will also feel the effects if the cuts aren’t avoided by March 1. There could be a slowdown in the development of oil and gas resources as well as a decline in the permitting of solar and wind installations on federal lands. The cuts could also affect clean energy deployment, decrease the number of homes eligible for energy-efficiency upgrades and delay the cleanup of nuclear waste at sites in Tennessee, South Carolina, Washington and Idaho.

Obama has called a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss the sequester, but absent a deal, the cuts will begin at 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Obama’s Picks for Energy, Environment

Gina McCarthy and Ernest Moniz are still clear favorites to help lead President Barack Obama’s environment and energy team. Timing for formal announcements, however, are less clear, sources told Politico.

McCarthy is expected to replace Lisa Jackson, who stepped down as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month. Moniz, currently the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, could replace Steven Chu as the head of the Department of Energy. Reuters says McCarthy “would likely become the face of Obama’s latest push to fight climate change,” while Nature says Moniz “would bring to the office a pragmatic support for nuclear power and natural gas, along with a candid desire to, in his own words, ‘innovate like hell’ on basic energy technologies.”

BP Oil Spill Trial Opens

Testimony began this week in the civil trial surrounding the deadly explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010. Unless a settlement is reached, Federal District Judge Carl J. Barbier will determine who is liable for damages resulting from the rupture and discharge of millions of gallons of crude oil from BP’s high-pressure Macondo well. In addition, Barbier will assess whether BP, Transocean or other companies that worked on the project were grossly negligent in their handling of the rig and well in order to decide how much money will be paid.

A finding of gross negligence could mean more than $17 billion in Clean Water Act fines and other punitive damages, beyond the $8.5 billion settlement the company reached in 2012.

Record-Setting Renewable Energy Projects See Light

In a conference of leaders in the offshore wind industry, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hinted at the nation’s energy future. “It is going to be very much a continuation agenda,” Salazar said. Though the sequester could slow offshore wind energy development in the Atlantic, he noted that Cape Wind—the first proposed offshore wind project in the U.S.—should break ground in 2013, despite earlier holdups.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown cleared the $1 billion McCoy Solar Project for fast-track approval. Estimated to provide enough electricity to power 264,000 homes, the solar project would be the world’s biggest (subscription required).

And across the pond, Saudi Arabia revealed a plan to install 54 gigawatts of renewable energy—a combination of solar, wind, geothermal and waste-to-energy plants by 2032. The project aims to reduce the amount of oil burned in power stations by the world’s top oil exporter.

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.

Experts Debate a Link between Climate Change and Extreme Weather

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

As the 2012 harvest season comes to a close, pumpkins appear to be one of the few successes for farmers following the severe drought felt across many parts of the United States. Damage to the nation’s two largest crops, corn and soybeans, puts these staples below demand for the first time since 1974, while the rising cost to feed cattle drives up the cost of milk as herds shrink to an eight-year low. As a result, U.S. agricultural exports could be down as much as $2 billion.

More Americans are connecting warming and weather extremes such as drought. According to their latest survey, Yale found 74 percent believe global warming is affecting weather in the U.S.—up from 69 percent in March 2012. One large reinsurance company agrees with this consensus—claiming climate change is driving the increase in natural disasters since 1980 and will continue to for years to come. Others aren’t sold on the findings. “Thirty years is not an appropriate length of time for a climate analysis, much less finding causal factors like climate change,” said Roger Pielke, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado.

New software described in the journal Environmental Science and Technology attempts to share the impact of emissions on the health of the climate. The Hestia program maps emissions by city, right down to street level. “Cities have had little information with which to guide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions—and you can’t reduce what you can’t measure,” said Kevin Gurney, the lead scientist behind the project. “With Hestia, we can provide cities with a complete, three-dimensional picture of where, when and how carbon dioxide emissions are occurring.”

U.S. Slaps Trade Tariffs on Chinese Solar Panels

The U.S. Department of Interior has approved 33 renewable energy projects amounting to 10,000 megawatts of electricity on public lands since 2009. This, ThinkProgress points out, meets a goal expressed by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 of authorizing this type of power from non-hydro renewable energy by 2015.

Renewable energy investment, however, has declined roughly 20 percent in the past year. Excess capacity that’s driven down prices for solar panels and wind turbines is to blame, Bloomberg said. Governments are paring support for the industry in places such as the U.S. and Europe after a record $280 billion was invested in clean and low-carbon technologies in 2011. On Wednesday the U.S. Commerce Department announced its final decision on tariffs for Chinese solar panels—imposing tariffs ranging from 24 to near 36 percent. The ruling follows findings that government subsidies may have given Chinese companies an unfair advantage by allowing them to charge less per panel. Some Chinese solar executives blame the country’s glut of solar power on U.S. tariffs—although others blame the Chinese government for propping up the industry and showering it with low-interest loans and other subsidies. Following the ruling, China demanded the U.S. repeal the tariff with Ministry of Commerce Spokesman Shen Danyang saying, “The United States is inciting trade friction in new energy and sending a negative signal to the whole world about protectionism and obstructing the development of new energy development.”

Meanwhile, Australia took one step toward ambitious renewable energy targets—calling for 20 percent of its electricity to come from renewables by 2020—when it switched on its first solar farm. While it is currently expected to produce 10 megawatts, plans are already underway to expand that to 40.

Iraq Predicted to Become New Top Oil Supplier

Iraq, the world’s third largest oil exporter, could push past Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the top supplier by the 2035, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Their report predicts Iraq could not only top 8 million barrels per day, but become a key supplier to Asian markets. “Developments in Iraq’s energy sector are critical for the country’s prospects and also for the health of the global economy.” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, the main author of the report, in a statement. “But success is not assured, and failure to achieve the anticipated increase in Iraq’s oil supply would put global oil markets on course for troubled waters.” Iraq had previously been aiming for a production capacity of 12 million barrels per day by 2017, a target many considered ambitious.

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 Court Tosses EPA’s ‘Good Neighbor’ Pollution Rule

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit this week threw out the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), which set stricter limits on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-burning power plants in 28 states and the District of Columbia.

In a 2–1 ruling, the panel held the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act by requiring upwind states to reduce more than their “fair share” of pollution that degrades air quality in neighboring states. The court also rejected CSAPR for prematurely imposing on states a federal plan for reducing such air pollution. The dissenting judge criticized the majority for exceeding the court’s jurisdictional limits and disregarding well-settled legal precedent.

Having vacated CSAPR, the D.C. Circuit ordered the EPA to draft new rules. In the interim, the EPA must continue implementing the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which was vacated in 2008. The EPA said it will review the ruling before “determining the appropriate course of action,” but some expect the agency to appeal. Otherwise, the job of rewriting the rules will fall to the second Obama Administration or the first Romney Administration.

Environmental and health advocates see the ruling as a setback for air quality, as the EPA predicted the rule would help cut nationwide sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent of 2005 levels and cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 54 percent. Some states, including Texas, celebrated the verdict as a victory against overreaching regulation by the EPA. The impact of the court’s decision on coal-fired power plants is unclear, as coal plants still must comply with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and compete with low natural gas prices.

Arctic Ice Melt Could Set Record

With two more weeks left in the melting season, some scientists are saying ice in the Arctic Ocean could reach its smallest size yet. Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center predict we could see the ice retreat to less than 1.5 million square miles—39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000.

Unusually warm weather in Greenland has triggered widespread surface melt and darkened the lower portions of the country’s ice sheet. This trend, according to Stef Lhermitte, a remote sensing analyst at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, could increase the probability of widespread melting in the future.

Carbon Emissions at 20-Year Low

In early 2012, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were at their lowest since 1992, the Energy Information Administration reported. The report attributed the decline to a combination of three factors: a decline in coal generation due to low natural gas prices, reduced household heating demand as a result of an unusually warm winter and low gasoline demand. The New Scientist reported the fall will boost the natural gas industry, but won’t slow climate change. Another new report, which examined 2,500 power plants operated by 100 utilities in the U.S., also found a marked decline in carbon dioxide and other pollutants, primarily as a result of natural gas displacing coal in the nation’s energy mix. The report also found that the utilities’ use of renewables has doubled since 2004.

Most of the new capacity added in 33 states in the first half of the year used natural gas or renewable energy sources—with the majority built over the last 15 years powered by natural gas or wind. Other forms of renewables, such as solar water heating, which could provide cost savings and fewer carbon emissions, have been largely overlooked (subscription required). The potential applications for solar heating units, ClimateWire reports, span from restaurants to large-scale projects like hotels, hospitals, government offices and educational campuses. Pilot customer-side clean projects—like the solar water heating and combined heat and power projects detailed in recent case studies by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions—could help others learn. As Renewable Energy World reports, “solar is contagious.”

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.

Scientists: Mars Rover Can Help Us Better Understand Climate Change on Earth

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

NASA’s rover, Curiosity, made a successful landing on Mars earlier this week. Some scientists say the car-sized rover, the most high-tech ever designed by the space agency, could have a lot to tell us about our own climate.

As Mother Jones reports, scientists have made great strides in predicting what will happen to our climate, but we only have one climate to test hypotheses on. The rover will give scientists a chance to test their assumptions. “You learn about how to understand an atmosphere by seeing different atmospheres,” said Mark Lemmon, a planetary scientist from Texas A&M University who is part of Curiosity’s climate team. “And the more we know about Mars’ atmosphere, the better we can really understand our own.”

While Curiosity sends back readings about the cold temperatures on the red planet, Earth is heating up.  NOAA confirmed what many of us have felt (literally):  July was the hottest month in 118 years of recordkeeping. One NASA scientist links the increasing number of unusually hot summers to climate change in a new study. The findings have received mixed reviews: some said it was a smart way of understanding the magnitude of heat extremes, while others criticized the study’s statistical analyses. Another study by Harvard researchers suggests the vapors from powerful storms could be depleting the ozone layer, which could lead to an increase in the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.

This is around the time the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee came off a three-year hiatus to discuss the state of climate science, with neither side budging on the issues. Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp reflected on the disagreements in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “It is time for conservatives to compete with liberals to devise the best, most cost-effective climate solutions. Solving this challenge will require all of us.” Meanwhile, in a New York Times op-ed physicist and long-time climate-change skeptic Richard Muller recounted his recent “total turnaround” on climate change following intensive research by his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. Muller is now convinced not only that global warming is real, but also that humans are the cause. “Call me a converted skeptic,” he said.

Global Energy Demand Sees Increase

Global energy demand grew by more than 3 percent in 2011, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The way energy is consumed and produced must change, but no single solution exists, argued IEA Deputy Executive Director Richard Jones in the documentary Switch. “There is no one magic bullet,” Jones said. “There is no one technology you need, because the world is different in different places.”

The Obama administration is expediting seven proposed renewable energy projects on public lands expected to produce power for 1.5 million homes from wind and solar in Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming and California. Federal permitting could be completed as early as December. Many more renewable energy projects are in the works for power-thirsty military bases after the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Interior inked a deal earlier this week. The plan is designed to ensure energy for bases if the commercial grid were interrupted, and proposes the use of a mix of offshore wind generation for coastal bases with other solar, geothermal and biomass projects.

In the Arctic, Shell has scaled back plans for drilling as the start of production efforts approaches. Lingering sea ice delayed the start of the company’s original four-month drilling plan, initially projected to begin July 1.

Drought Threatens Food Surplus

The worst drought in more than half a century—now affecting 63 percent of the U.S.—has some analysts predicting the U.S. will deliver the smallest corn crop in five years—keeping prices at record highs. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s corn crop and more than 11 percent of the soybean crop have been affected. Both are major exports for the U.S. Global food reserves continue to decline, raising food-import cost forecasts to a near-record $1.24 trillion.

The drought’s effect on crop and livestock production has prompted President Barack Obama to seek aid for the Midwest. “Congress needs to pass a farm bill that will not only provide important disaster relief tools, but also make necessary reforms and give farmers the certainty they deserve,” said Obama.

In Georgia, one farmer is taking a different approach to keeping his crops healthy despite the drought. Farmer Glenn Cox is relying on new technology that uses sensors encased in PVC pipes to gather moisture and temperature readings from different soil depths and locations in his corn and peanut fields. Antennas fitted to the pipes transmit data to his computer for monitoring—taking the guess work out of when and where to water.

Elsewhere, other measures are being taken to better cope with drought conditions—including introducing to cattle breeds in Iowa genes from hardier breeds more accustomed to drought.

Climate’s Impact on Marine Life

Ocean acidification—caused when greenhouse gas emissions dissolve in the ocean to form acid—is not only making it harder for sea creatures to grow their shells, but it could also be disrupting the marine food chain, according to a new study. Polar regions may be most affected, making it difficult for clams and sea urchins to extract enough calcium carbonate to grow their shells and skeletons.

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.

Harnessing Sun, Wave Power for Energy

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a short summer break next week, returning Aug. 9.

Oceans, which cover more than two-thirds of the planet, hold a large amount of energy. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates ocean wave and tidal currents have the potential to account for 15 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030.

While technologies harnessing energy from tides and currents have been domestically discussed for decades, the nation’s first commercial tidal energy project was dedicated in Maine Tuesday. This first tidal generator is expected to begin delivering electricity to the regional power grid in September—with just enough juice to power 25 homes as it starts out. The U.S. Navy, too, is exploring harnessing wave power as part of a larger plan to reduce energy consumption by 50 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Interior identified 17 sites on public land across six Southwestern states that could be ideal for the development of solar energy. The plan, which will be finalized after a 30-day comment period, places 445 square miles of public land in play for utility-scale solar facilities. On the technology front, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles are taking the idea of solar power from roofs to windows with the invention of a thin, transparent solar cell that can turn the sun’s energy into electricity while still allowing visible light to stream through. The cells, researchers claim, can be produced at high volume for low cost and installed at an estimated $10 to $15 per window.

Effects of Drought, Heat Continue To Be Felt

NASA satellites tracking ice surface melt in Greenland recorded unprecedented melting over the course of four days in July—melting even occurred at Greenland’s coldest, highest place, Summit Station. While the ice sheet normally sees melting over summer months, the speed and scale of the thaw—which went from 40 to 97 percent—surprised scientists. “Ice cores from Summit show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average,” said Lora Koenig, a glaciologist who belongs to the research team analyzing the satellite data. “With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time. But if we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome.”

The drought in the United States continues to spread, forcing some plains ranchers to sell cattle and driving down the U.S. corn yield to a 10-year low. It has some contemplating whether we are headed for a repeat of the 2008 global food crisis, but others are more optimistic, saying farmers may weather the drought better than in 1988. With National Weather Service forecasts indicating the drought is likely to worsen, The Washington Post took a comprehensive look at whether climate change is causing the drought. The short answer: Droughts have multiple causes, there have been worse ones in the past, and most evidence suggests droughts will become more intense in many parts of the world if the planet keeps heating up, which could disrupt the world’s food supply.

Rules Get Review

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reviewing part of a controversial rule that sets the first federal standards to reduce mercury and other toxic pollutants from power plants. The review was prompted by power plant operators who found the rule was confusing for new plants.

The EPA also has issued new—and largely unnoticed—rules limiting sulfur dioxide and soot emissions from cruise ships. The new rules, which go into effect Aug. 1, would require cruise ships to immediately reduce the sulfur content of their fuel from an average of 2.7 percent to 1 percent, and to reduce that number to 0.1 percent by 2015. EPA estimates the benefits of the new rule, by 2015, will be like removing 12.7 million and 900,000 cars off the road per day in terms of sulfur dioxide and soot emissions. The cruise ship industry and some Alaskan officials worry about the increased cost and availability of the lower-sulfur fuel, however, and Alaska’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit to block the new rules.

The European Commission announced a rescue plan that would withhold carbon allowances to support its Emissions Trading Scheme, which has struggled of late due to an oversupply of carbon credits. The rescue plan would involve “backloading,” or delaying auctions of carbon allowances, in an effort to bolster the program. While there are no firm numbers in the draft proposal itself, a Commission analysis assesses the possibility of withdrawing 400 million, 900 million or 1.2 billion allowances over the first three years of the market’s next phase.

Cars that Drive Themselves

Motor vehicles are responsible for a significant percentage of U.S. carbon emissions. As YaleE360 tells it, self driving cars—which could greatly reduce the risk of accidents and slash fuel consumption and emissions—may be a reality sooner than you think.

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.

Reach of BP Oil Spill Still Strong Two Years Later

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

While people are beginning to return to the Gulf to vacation and Gulf leases to oil and gas companies are on sale for the first time since the spill, the tiny microbes that once inhabited the area’s beach sands still haven’t bounced back.

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.”

Despite worldwide criticism, a senate panel in North Carolina approved a bill that would prohibit some scientific data to be used to predict future sea level rise. The current bill allows only the state’s Coastal Resources Commission to calculate the rate of rise using historic data, not projections of sea level rise from climate change. The senate went on to approve the controversial bill Tuesday by a vote of 35-12. Virginia appears to have taken a similar approach. Lawmakers there have commissioned a study of the coastline, only after references to climate change were removed.

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.

North Carolina is closer to legalizing hydraulic fracturing, despite new evidence that the state’s reserves might be much smaller than previously thought. New Jersey is looking to restrict wastewater treatment plants from accepting water used in hydraulic fracturing—claiming it could harm water supplies.

Hydraulic fracturing is not the only energy method in the spotlight. A new U.N. report shows global investment in renewable energy is at a record high. In fact, in 2011 it was up 17 percent to $257 billion—with solar investment surging past wind to take the lead.

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.