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Climate Politics/Capitol Light (37)

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November 6, 2019    

The big news of the week—kind of—was Trump’s starting the paperwork for getting the US out of the Paris Climate Accord (Accord). Although Trump announced his intentions in June 2017, the rules of the Accord prohibited any formal action before a few days ago. The US won’t actually be off the Accord until November 4, 2020—a day after the next presidential election.

At one level, the Accord with or without the US has not achieved what had been hoped. Only a few nation-states have upped their voluntary greenhouse gas reduction pledges to the point needed to keep global temperatures from crossing the temperature threshold the science community warns of as being points of no return.

Trump’s withdrawal, however, sends the wrong message. It will be used by populist leaders in Brazil, central and eastern European nations, and elsewhere as an excuse for them to retract their country's support for the Accord.

The withdrawal diminishes US standing in climate negotiations, as well as its moral leadership position—not just now but into the future. As in so many other areas, Trump’s willingness just to walk away—with no regard for what’s left in his wake—is making the US an unreliable partner.

US manufacturers are going to have to build their products to the higher environmental standards of the EU and elsewhere if they want to do business in global markets. Trump’s deregulation of the US environment doesn’t change that.

Rolling back US environmental regulations and instituting policies distinctly anti-climate runs the risk of making the US the dumping ground for products that fail to meet the stricter environmental standards of other nations.

Trump’s having acted on his June 2017 promise, therefore, is hardly a surprise. Should a Democrat win the 2020 campaign for president, I would imagine one of his or her first acts will be to take back the letter that just went out over Trump’s signature. It won’t restore the US to the global community, but it will be a start.

A taxing time? Probably not. Efforts to extend and revise an assortment of expired or soon-to-lapse energy tax breaks before the end of the year are struggling to find air in a crowded agenda. Policy and process disagreements are also getting in the way.

Lawmakers and interest groups for months have eyed the end of the year to enact an extenders package to revive more than two dozen tax breaks — including key biofuel and efficiency incentives — that have expired or will lapse by Dec. 31.

But the lack of progress on appropriations and daily partisan rancor over the House's impeachment inquiry may deprive congressional tax-writers of one crucial ingredient: a legislative vehicle.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has been looking to the Nov. 21 expiration of the current stopgap funding measure for moving extenders, but with the annual appropriations process already months behind schedule, there's talk of simply punting spending decisions into February or March

  • There are significant differences between the parties as to how laden a tax extender bill should be.
  • Even if there were a vehicle ready and waiting, it would be hard for Democrats and Republicans in both chambers to come to some agreement.
  • A few powerful Republicans are also peeved by some of the renewables groups, e.g., electric vehicle folks, coming back for more after they promised the last time credits were passed that it was the last time.

Rolling dunder. The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to relax rules that govern how power plants store waste from burning coal and release water containing toxic metals into nearby waterways, according to agency officials.

The proposals, which scale back two rules adopted in 2015, affect the disposal of fine powder and sludge known as coal ash, as well as contaminated water that power plants produce while burning coal. Both forms of waste can contain mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals that pose risks to human health and the environment.

The new rules would allow extensions that could keep unlined coal ash waste ponds open for as long as eight additional years. The biggest benefit of the regulation governing contaminated wastewater would come from the voluntary use of new filtration technology.

Trump administration officials revised the standards in response to recent court rulings and to petitions from companies that said they could not afford to meet stringent requirements enacted under the Obama administration. They also reflect President Trump’s broader goal of bolstering America’s coal industry at a time when natural gas and renewable energy provide more affordable sources of electricity for consumers. (Washington Post)

  • The rollbacks were high on the wish list of Robert Murray—head of the now-bankrupt Murray Energy Corporation—and a friend and contributor to the president.
  • There is a serious possibility that the rule changes will be rejected by federal courts because of EPA’s dubious impact analysis—starting with its initial assumptions.
  • Over 500 power generating units at approximately 260 facilities may be impacted by the new rule. Ninety percent of the 260 are believed to be leaking unsafe levels of toxins.

A case of flagrancy? The EPA inspector general has raised the alarm about a top political appointee sparring with investigators.

EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson is the subject of an Oct. 29 "seven-day letter" from the IG, a tool used sparingly by EPA's internal watchdog to report to the agency's head "serious or flagrant problems" it has uncovered. The letter must then be submitted to Congress seven days later, which gives the document its name.

"The particularly serious or flagrant problem I am reporting concerns two instances of refusal to fully cooperate and provide information to the IG, one during an audit and one during an administrative investigation. They center on a single employee — Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson," said acting EPA IG Charles Sheehan in the letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

Sheehan discussed two matters for which the IG office sought help from Jackson. "Mr. Jackson's cooperation has been patiently sought multiple times over protracted periods by OIG auditors and investigators," he said.

Sheehan had harsh words for Jackson in his letter to the administrator.

"If information is choked off, we cannot fulfill our congressional charter and produce work of the rigor and quality expected by the American public," Sheehan concluded.

"To countenance open defiance even in one instance — much less two, both by a senior official setting precedent for himself and all agency staff — is ruinous." (E&E News)

Give us land, lots of land—to bomb. The U.S. Air Force is seeking to assert control over as much as two-thirds of a wildlife refuge in Nevada for training troops and testing weapons, according to a legislative proposal sent by military planners to the Department of the Interior and obtained by The Washington Post.

The military’s Nevada Test and Training Range already encompasses much of a vast stretch of southern Nevada desert originally set aside for bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and other wildlife. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service retains primary authority over the refuge to halt military drills that would otherwise disturb key habitat for plants and animals.

The draft legislation would instead carve out 1.1 million acres of Desert National Wildlife Refuge to be used “primarily for the military purposes” and only “secondarily” as a nature preserve. The military wants to add as much as 260,000 acres of the refuge — the largest in the contiguous United States — to the testing range. (Washington Post)

With liberty and justice for all. 2020 Democratic presidential contenders are giving new attention to the idea of "environmental injustice," heartening green advocates who argue that polluting industries have gone unchecked.

A number of candidates have rolled out ambitious plans to tackle decades of pollution and harmful practices that have been concentrated in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods and communities of color. (The Hill)

Oil, oil everywhere. The flood of crude will arrive even as concerns about climate change are growing, and worldwide oil demand is slowing. And it is not coming from the usual producers, but from Brazil, Canada, Norway, and Guyana - countries that are either not known for oil or whose production has been lackluster in recent years.

This looming new supply may be a key reason Saudi Arabia’s giant oil producer, Aramco, pushed ahead on Sunday with plans for what could be the world’s largest initial stock offering ever. (New York Times)

The molecule that would roar. Scientists at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg have figured out how to harness the energy and keep it in reserve so it can be released on demand in the form of heat—even decades after it was captured.

The system starts with a liquid molecule made up of carbonhydrogen, and nitrogen. When hit by sunlight, the molecule draws in the sun’s energy and holds it until a catalyst triggers its release as heat.

The most advanced potential commercial use the team developed is a transparent coating that can be applied to home windows, a moving vehicle, or even clothing. The coating collects solar energy and releases heat, reducing electricity required for heating spaces and curbing carbon emissions. (Bloomberg)

  • It’s being reported that the scientists are now seeking investors to bring the discovery to market.

An increasingly frequent barrier. Electrical-generating facilities are often controversial in the communities that host them, and projects along Lake Ontario and in the North Country have fizzled amid concerns about noise, view-sheds, and impacts on migrating birds. (Wall Street Journal)

A full fifth. Brazil's National Institute of Space Research, which tracks forest damage, calculates that one-fifth of Brazil's Amazonian rain forest-the world's largest remaining "green lung," which absorbs billions of tons of carbon dioxide—has been destroyed since the nineteen-seventies. (The New Yorker)

All Americans.  "Climate refugee" is likely a new term for most Americans. Also referred to as environmental migrants, climate refugees are people who are now forced to seek refuge from the life-threatening impacts of the climate crisis.

The article is an opinion piece by Representatives Yvette Clark (D-NY) and Michael Shank, a professor at New York University and Director of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.

  • Climate change is not tomorrow’s problem. It’s here and now.
  • Although poor Latinos from Central and South America are now among the most prominent climate refugees, the time is coming for US citizens.
  • Recurring fires, floods, and water problems will soon have everyone on the mover in search of greener pastures.

He really, really hates California. Trump commented on California’s recent stretch of wildfires for the first time this weekend, saying that the state needs to do a better job managing its forests to prevent fires.

“The Governor of California, @GavinNewsom, has done a terrible job of forest management,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “I told him from the first day we met that he must “clean” his forest floors regardless of what his bosses, the environmentalists, DEMAND of him.”

Kamala Harris, the California senator, and presidential candidate tweeted back to Trump:

“Raking leaves is as effective at combating the climate crisis as your phone’s spellcheck is at fixing your tweets,” she tweeted “@GavinNewsom is doing his job. Maybe you should try it.”

  • Trump continues to take California personally rather than politically.
  • It’s resulting in a lot of lawsuits at the expense of the environment and taxpayers.

Influence run amok. Major homebuilders have, for years had a secret pact to block climate-friendly changes to building codes, The New York Times reports. The agreement has enabled the industry’s top trade organization “to prevent changes that would have made new houses in much of the country more energy-efficient or more resilient to floods, hurricanes, and other disasters.”

  • This really is unfortunate. Homebuilders should be at the forefront of climate defense.
  • Homes accounted for nearly one-fifth of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions nationwide last year.

Outrageous. The Trump administration has not responded to dozens of Congressional document requests related to its environment and science policies, reports The Hill. “The agencies that have failed to turn over documents include the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, Department of Commerce and Department of Agriculture, according to [House Energy and Commerce] committee staff.” (The Hill)

  • Checks, balances, and each branch of government respecting its co-equal counterparts are fundamental to our constitutional form of government.
  • I’m sure Trump and many Republicans like Senators Graham (SC) and McConnell (KY) will be the first to decry a Democratic administration following in this administration’s footsteps.

Just being lazy, you think? The Trump administration is chasing down fewer environmental crimes than any administration since the mid-1990s, according to new data from an independent research group.

During fiscal 2019, the Justice Department reported 302 new environmental prosecution cases, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse said in a recent report on environmental crime prosecution.

That contrasts with the 850 cases the Justice Department filed in fiscal 1999, 491 in 2009, and 335 in 2014. (Bloomberg Environment)

  • Not only is the Trump administration rolling back environmental regulations, but they also seem not to be enforcing the ones that are still on the books.

Bulb-us. Dual lawsuits filed in a federal appeals court in Manhattan seek to block the Energy Department from withdrawing an Obama-era requirement that requires bulbs commonly used in recessed lighting, track lighting, bathroom vanities, and decorative fixtures meet the same energy efficiency standards that effectively phased out the traditional incandescent bulb.

The standards, which had been scheduled to take effect in January 2020, applied to roughly half of the six billion lightbulbs in use today and would save consumers billions of dollars in energy costs and avoid millions of tons in carbon dioxide emissions, according to environmental groups backing the rules. (Bloomberg)

  • Among the allegations in the suits are that the US will become the dumping ground for banned bulbs around the world.
  • Makes the US kind of third-country-ish, don’t you think?

Time well spent. Italy will next year become the world's first country to make it compulsory for schoolchildren to study climate change and sustainable development, Education Minister Lorenzo Fioramonti said. (Reuters)

  • Can you imagine the melee that would break out in the US—especially in red states—if this were tried?

Psst, pass it on. Investment banks have begun quietly sounding alarm bells about climate change. Their worries are showing up in the documents that accompany municipal bonds they underwrite. (Morning Consult)

Can 11K scientists be wrong? The world’s people face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” unless there are major transformations to global society, according to a stark warning from more than 11,000 scientists.

 “We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” it states. “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.”

There is no time to lose; the scientists say: “The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”

The statement is published in the journal BioScience on the 40th anniversary of the first world climate conference, which was held in Geneva in 1979. The announcement was a collaboration of dozens of scientists and endorsed by further 11,000 from 153 nations. The scientists say the urgent changes needed include ending population growth, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, halting forest destruction, and slashing meat-eating. (The Guardian)

Ghost gear. Lost and abandoned fishing gear, which is deadly to marine life makes up the majority of “large“ plastic pollution in the oceans, according to a report by Greenpeace.

More than 640,000 tonnes of nets, lines, pots, and traps used in commercial fishing are dumped and discarded in the sea every year, the same weight as 55,000 double-decker buses.

The report, which draws on the most up-to-date research on “ghost gear,” polluting the oceans, calls for international action to stop plastic pollution, which is deadly for marine wildlife.

Lease to suit. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that its annual oil and gas lease sale in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska would be on Dec. 11. The sale will be the 15th in a series of oil lease sales held by the BLM for that region on the western side of Alaska's North Slope. (Reuters)

Not just wind and solar. Getting the power grid to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will be far less costly if nuclear power, along with wind and solar energy, can be expanded, according to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (The Chronicle)

Worse than we thought? If it feels like the Paris withdrawal has been coming for years, that’s not wrong. It was already clear on the day he was elected that President Donald Trump would leave the Paris Agreement. After some vacillating early in his term, Trump made a sunny, pomp-dense Rose Garden speech in June 2017 and promised to depart the treaty. But under the agreement’s terms, he could not formally notify the United Nations of his intent to leave until this week, and American diplomats attended climate negotiations in the interim. (The Atlantic)

Companies are judged by the company they keep. The company has spent decades building its image as an environmentally-friendly automaker, touting its investments into hybrid cars. Toyota owners who were attracted to the company’s green image have responded to the move by submitting complaints to the company and on social media and promising to buy cars from those automakers who have sided with California. Experts believe automakers that sided with Trump could face potential losses from environmentally-focused consumers, but it is not clear how the backlash will play out over the long term. (Washington Post)

  • Consumers have an excellent opportunity to let car companies know what they think by their purchases.
  • Four auto companies—Ford, Honda, VW, and BMW of America—entered into an agreement with California that set fuel efficiency standards close to those of the Obama administration and gave the companies the flexibility they required.
  • For more on this, click here

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    Joel Stronberg's picture

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    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Nov 7, 2019 1:20 pm GMT

    Getting the power grid to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will be far less costly if nuclear power, along with wind and solar energy, can be expanded, according to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    It would be one thing if it were just a difference of cost, but the feasibility of actually accomplishing the goal shifts greatly when you add nuclear as a solution. The challenge, though, is overcoming the institutional and political holdbacks of the nuclear industry that continue to persist

    Nathan Wilson's picture
    Nathan Wilson on Nov 8, 2019 2:53 am GMT

    Yes, given the very low cost of windpower in the US central plains (where the majority of US windfarms are located), it's easy to forget that solar and windpower are not nearly as cost-effective in other places.  Furthermore, even the US central plains has yet to achieve high wind-power grid penetration:  the SPP, the grid operator which serves most of that regions only has 24% windpower, and ERCOT (serving Texas), is the only other US grid with double-digit windpower penetration, has 19% (LBNL data).

    It remains the case that the only major grids to have ever achieved deep decarbonization have done so using a combination of nuclear power and hydro (i.e. France, Switzerland, and Sweden).

    Joe Deely's picture
    Joe Deely on Nov 10, 2019 12:40 am GMT

     it's easy to forget that solar and windpower are not nearly as cost-effective in other places

    No longer true - for Solar - as the recent Lazrad report shows. The LCOE range has tghtened in recent years and the high-end of range is now lower than what the low-end was just two years ago.

    Alliant announcing plan to build 1 GW of solar in Wisconsin is an indication of spread of low cost solar to more regions of US.

     Furthermore, even the US central plains has yet to achieve high wind-power grid penetration:  the SPP, the grid operator which serves most of that regions only has 24% windpower...

    What are you trying to say here? In the last 5 years wind has gone from 11% - 24% on SPP while coal has dropped from 61% to 42%. There is plenty of wind capacity under construction and more in development. More importantly solar is starting to gain some traction in SPP as well. ( even more so in ERCOT)

    If a decision was made to close the remaining coal by 2025 and replace it with wind solar/storage that could be done. SPP would be 75% carbon-free at that point.

    But that is not how things work. Instead the wind and solar/storage will gradually make coal more uneconomic in SPP and more coal plants will close...more wind/solar/storage will be built and more coal will close etc..

    I wouldn't expect coal to be below 5% in SPP until 2030. Might add a touch of NG before then so mix could be 30% NG, 5% coal and 65% zero carbon at that point.

    Why do you think the transition should happen quicker? How would that be possible?

    Nathan Wilson's picture
    Nathan Wilson on Nov 9, 2019 5:30 am GMT

    I'm trying to say the switch to clean (non-fossil, non-biomass) energy is happening a lot more slowly in the US than nuclear opponents want us to believe.

    For the US as a whole, the trend for the last decade has been 7% of US electricity production has switched to wind for each 15 years passed.  So the wind-share is growing towards 100% at the 214 year rate.  We were promised exponential growth, but windpower growth quickly flattened to linear, has been about 7 GW/year for a decade.  A 214 year rate would be fine if there were 6 other renewable energy sources simulaneously growing just as fast, but the only other scalable renewable source is solar.  

    The utility solar is younger than the wind industry, and has only recently reached the growth rate (GW/year) of windpower.  Solar resource quality is more consistent across the country than windpower, so it could reach a growth rate of say 15 GW/year before going linear.  But the capacity factors and inter-plant output correlation are worse than wind, so the solar penetration on most grids will top-out much lower on most grids than the windpower penetration does on SPP.

    With its low cost windpower, the SPP should reach high windpower penetration long before the rest (in fact, in a renewables dominated US, I would expect windpower in SPP to be 150% of demand to support exports).  The fact that it has only 24% windpower is significant. 

    It is telling also that the developing (cost sensitive) countries China and India have lower windpower penetration (around 5%) than the US.  What the Lazard report does not say is windpower is less economical than coal (in developing countries), even when the LCOE is the same, because of external (grid) costs.  As your comments imply, gas is much more compatible with wind and solar than is coal, but China and India don't have much gas production.  So they are going very slow on wind and solar, while keeping their nuclear programs alive, as nuclear is as cheap as renewables in those countries, and is more grid-friendly.

    In summary, wealthy countries like the US can theoretically decarbonize without nuclear, but we are not on a path to do so.  Developing countries certainly won't decarbonize if we don't, and even if we do, they are less to follow if we take nuclear off the table.

    Joe Deely's picture
    Joe Deely on Nov 10, 2019 12:38 am GMT


    Interesting comment - but it only addresses my question - "What are you trying to say here?" in isolation vs my comment as a whole.

    I was trying to understand what you meant when you described SPP  with phrases -  "yet to achieve" and "only has 24% windpower".

    In fact, in your reply you continue in this vain by saying:

    With its low cost windpower, the SPP should reach high windpower penetration long before the rest (in fact, in a renewables dominated US, I would expect windpower in SPP to be 150% of demand to support exports).  The fact that it has only 24% windpower is significant

    What is significant?  Why "should" SPP reach high windpower penetration? How quickly do you expect SPP to reach this expected windpower of 150%?

    Your comments seem to imply that windpower growth has been slower than it should have been. Again I ask - what would make this transition quicker?

    SPP is a region that has a stable demand for electricity and there are existing coal plants supplying 42% of that demand. Why would  you expect slow moving utilities to rapidly close these plants and replace them with wind?

    In looking at the Lazard report you can see that the average cost of current coal is $33 MWh.

    What this says is that some wind is currently cheaper than some coal.  So with the current state of affairs - we have wind and solar being built for the following reasons:

    - to replace supply from uneconomic coal plants - i.e. those plants that are worse than average.

    - State RPS requirements

    - Corporate PPAs

    Each year as more renewable generation enters the market coal generation declines - especially in the least economic plants. Eventually, another coal plant shuts down.  This is a gradual process. 

    For the US as a whole 14GW of coal will shut down in 2019. If this rate were to continue then we will need another 16-17 years to shut down remaining coal.

    Obviously this process would speed up significantly if there was a decent tax on carbon generation in the SPP region or coal was forced to shutdown by government rule - like UK 2025 coal shutdown.

    Am I missing another way that this process can be sped up and SPP can get to your "expected" windpower shares quicker?

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