In Berlin on Wednesday, President Obama emphasized America’s moral obligation to do more to avert a future of “more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise.” Speaking from Washington, D.C., the top White House climate change adviser, Heather Zichal, followed this statement of intention with hints at more concrete actions, suggesting that President Obama will be implementing carbon dioxide regulations for existing power plants when he reveals his climate change strategy either on Tuesday or in the upcoming weeks.

President Obama, speaking in Berlin last week, reaffirmed commitment to action on climate change. (Source: Flickr user, Matthias Winkelmann)

The regulations on carbon emissions emitted by power plants, the largest individual point sources of carbon pollution in the United States, will be a conscientious step forward. However, with the carbon pollution standard for new power plants still under review, having been delayed past its original intended ruling date in April, the anticipated proposal for existing power plants will not only be even more costly and time consuming, but will likely be met with stronger resistance from Republicans, Democrats, and industries who are worried about the future of coal, slower job growth, and higher energy costs.

These power plant standards come at a time when concerns over climate change impacts are rising significantly.  In order to meet the 2°C Scenario – the official target of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to avoid serious climate change and irreversible damage – the United States would need to at least halve its current emissions (total 6.7 billion metric tons CO2 in 2011 and 5.3 billion metric tons CO2 in 2012), of which power plants accounted for 2.2 billion tons in 2011 and around a third in 2012.

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carbon standard, Climate Change, coal, emissions reductions, EPA, Germany, low-carbon, power plant, United States

Following the call to action and sweeping plan of attack offered by President Obama during his Second Inaugural Address last month and State of the Union this week, it is clear that he has made climate change a priority in his second term.  From outlining the need to increase renewable energy research and installations to setting an ambitious goal of improving efficiency in homes and businesses by 50 percent over the next twenty years, President Obama’s wide-reaching plan has the potential to once again make the United States a global leader in environmental action.

President Obama discusses Hurricane Sandy, an extreme weather event that has been linked with climate change, with disaster response officials. Obama has reaffirmed his intention to fight climate change in his second term (Source: The White House)

While President Obama’s renewed commitment to address climate change has raised hopes, it is important to review the successes and failures of his last four years in order to set realistic expectations for what is possible during his second term.

Early during his first term, the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen presented President Obama with a major international opportunity to demonstrate how his Administration would differ from the previous eight years of the United States playing foil to international environmental cooperation during the Bush Era.  The Obama Administration did not rise to the challenge, instead offering minor concessions while continuing to push for stalling the negotiations until 2015 and beyond, effectively deferring the responsibility for an international treaty to the next Presidential term.

Domestically, Obama’s environmental track record fared somewhat better.  The Administration has advanced environmental protection by increasing vehicle mileage standards, expanding protected areas, strengthening air quality standards, and raising federal investment in clean energy to the highest levels in US history.  On the other hand, the Obama Administration failed to oversee comprehensive climate legislation, and has drawn out the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Of course, there are some extenuating circumstances that Obama faced in his first term that made success more difficult to achieve.  While a lack of political readiness or will to move may be to blame for the Administration’s lack of forward progress at international negotiations, domestically the Obama team’s success was tempered by a divided congress, the prolonged economic depression, and a desire to remain an appealing candidate throughout a hotly contested re-election. 

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Climate Change, Copenhagen, emissions reductions, EPA, negotiations, United States

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 20th Annual Fall Meeting for the American Bar Association’s Section on the Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER). The conference, held in Austin, Texas, was attended by hundreds of lawyers and professionals involved in the environment, energy, and natural resource legal fields. Unlike in previous years, the 2012 meeting was dedicated completely to U.S. energy issues, including the production of shale gas, the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, federal energy and climate regulation, and prospects for wind and solar power.

As expected at a gathering of prominent lawyers, there was little agreement about the proper direction for U.S. energy policy. But one overriding theme did emerge: the country will continue to pursue a broad-based energy strategy. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama laid the groundwork for an “all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy.” During the recent presidential debates, both Obama and his opponent Governor Mitt Romney indicated that the United States would continue down this path. Where the conference attendees, presidential candidates, and general public disagree is on the proper composition of an “all-of-the-above” energy policy.

So, what do we agree on?

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energy policy, EPA, natural gas, renewable energy, United States
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rejected challenges to EPA's greenhouse gas rules last month. (Source: cadc.uscourts.gov)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rejected challenges to EPA's greenhouse gas rules last month. (Source: cadc.uscourts.gov)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to regulate greenhouse gases have been under attack ever since the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA Supreme Court ruling that confirmed its authority to do so. In 2010, just before efforts to pass a cap-and-trade climate bill were abandoned in the Senate, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski sponsored failed legislation to nullify the Supreme Court decision and block EPA from moving forward with greenhouse gas regulations. Attempts to undermine EPA’s regulatory authority were once again thwarted last month when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected several legal challenges and upheld EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding for greenhouse gases.

First, a bit of background to explain how EPA began regulating greenhouse gases. In 2003 under the Bush Administration, EPA determined that it lacked authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and that even if EPA did have this authority it would not set vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards. In response, Massachusetts led a coalition of 12 states and several cities and non-governmental organizations to sue EPA for failing to regulate greenhouse gases.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Massachusetts, mandating that EPA determine whether greenhouse gas emissions “endanger public health or welfare”. EPA released its endangerment finding in 2009, which determined that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful to both humans and the environment because they constitute the main driver of human-caused climate change. Based on the Supreme Court ruling, the endangerment finding legally required EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and stationary sources under the Clean Air Act. In order to avoid overwhelming permitting agencies with a huge new bureaucratic burden, EPA established a “tailoring rule” for greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources so that initially only large industrial facilities will be required to obtain greenhouse gas emissions permits.

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emission standards, EPA, greenhouse gas emissions, U.S. Court of Appeals, United States

Last week I wrote about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new proposed standard for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel power plants. The long-awaited regulation would limit emissions to 1,000 pounds of CO2per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity produced, essentially guaranteeing that no new coal power plants will be built in the U.S. without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

Almost 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from coal power plants. Image source: epa.gov

Almost 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from coal power plants. Image source: epa.gov

In an effort to minimize opposition to the proposed standard, the EPA emphasized the limited negative impact on industry, as utility companies are already choosing to invest in natural gas rather than coal plants for new capacity. This is due mostly to abundant new reserves of relatively cheap shale gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing.

So just how accurate are the EPA’s claims that the proposed regulation is in line with industry business-as-usual? Other projections of future coal plant construction support the overall claim that the industry was already moving away from investing in new coal power.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected there would be “virtually no new coal in [the] reference case [scenario] following several CCS demos.” The EIA reports that there are 9.3 gigawatts (GW) of new coal capacity currently planned by 2015, and none thereafter. Nearly all of this new capacity will be built within the next 12 months and will therefore be exempt from the proposed CO2 standards. Any plants scheduled to begin construction in more than a year will need to include CCS technologies in order to comply with the 1,000 pounds of CO2 per MWh limit of the proposed EPA regulation. Power plant emissions can be averaged over a 30-year period to meet the regulations, so it is also possible for power producers to build coal plants in the near-term provided they install CCS systems in the future.

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carbon emission, Climate Policy, coal, EPA, United States

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the country’s first federal standard regulating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants last week. The introduction of a carbon standard has been long-awaited by the environmental community, and many groups are applauding the proposed rule as an important first step by the U.S. government to tackle climate change.

EPA promotes the clean air and health benefits of carbon regulation on the agency homepage. Image source: epa.gov

EPA promotes the clean air and health benefits of carbon regulation on the agency homepage. Image source: epa.gov

The carbon emission standard – which limits emissions to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity produced – will apply to future fossil fuel-fired power plants with an installed capacity greater than 25 megawatts (MW); plants that are currently operating or that will begin construction in the next 12 months are exempt.

The average natural gas plant in the U.S. emits between 800 and 850 pounds of CO2 per MWh, safely within the proposed standard. The average coal plant, on the other hand, emits 1,768 pounds of CO2 per MWh, which would exceed the standard. However, these existing plants will not be affected by the regulation, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson further emphasized that there are currently “no plans” to place standards on CO2 emissions from existing plants, including future modifications that could increase their emissions. However it is likely that the EPA will regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants at some point down the road, and the proposed standard for new sources is a vital step to ensuring that this will occur.

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carbon emission, Climate Change, coal, emissions limits, EPA, natural gas, United States

Photo: Coyote Springs Generating Station by Portland General Electric

On August 25, my colleagues at the Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors and I released a new greenhouse gas (GHG) life-cycle analysis of U.S. coal and natural gas-fired electricity. If you have been following my posts on ReVolt over the last year, you’ll know we began studying this issue after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced revisions to its methodology for estimating emissions from natural gas systems (basically from the production, processing, transmission, and distribution of natural gas) that resulted in a more than doubling of its estimate for methane emissions from those sources. Methane, in addition to being the primary component of natural gas, is a GHG some 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a hundred-year period. Consequently, some analysts have raised concerns that when the actual amount of methane emitted during the entire life cycle of natural gas (an amount which the EPA’s previous methodology apparently underestimated) is taken into account, natural gas might lose its GHG advantage over coal.

Over the past year, a number of new life-cycle analyses have come out that all ask different versions of the question, “How clean is natural gas really, on a life-cycle basis?” Some focus on GHG emissions from shale versus conventional natural gas, while others focus on all natural gas produced in the United States. The life-cycle analyses use different underlying assumptions, methodologies, and sources of data, and nearly all comment on the implications of their findings for the GHG comparison between coal and gas. After all, if the Obama administration is (or at least was) considering a clean energy standard that gave natural gas-fired electricity a half-credit on the basis of its GHG savings over coal, this should be reflected by actual GHG savings.

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Climate Change, coal, emissions reductions, energy, EPA, natural gas

Global production of biofuels increased 17 percent in 2010 to reach an all-time high of 105 billion liters, up from 90 billion liters in 2009. High oil prices, a global economic rebound, and new laws and mandates in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, and the United States, among other countries, are contributing to the surge in production, according to research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute’s Climate and Energy Program for the website Vital Signs Online.

The United States and Brazil remain the two largest producers of ethanol. In 2010, the United States generated 49 billion liters, or 57 percent of global output, and Brazil produced 28 billion liters, or 33 percent of the total. Corn is the primary feedstock for U.S. ethanol, and sugarcane is the dominant source of ethanol in Brazil.

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biofuels, corn, EPA, ethanol, sugarcane

On July 28, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a package of regulations designed to reduce air pollution from the oil and natural gas industry. One of these regulations, a new source performance standard for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), will require drillers to use a technique called “green completions” on any oil or gas well that they hydraulically fracture. The EPA estimates that this new regulation, which is the United States’ first federal air standard addressing hydraulically fractured wells, will reduce such wells’ emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 95 percent.

Green completions also have the co-benefit of capturing methane that would otherwise be vented or flared. Methane is the main constituent of natural gas and a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Recent estimates of methane emitted during the production, processing, and transport of natural gas have caused some to question the greenhouse gas benefits that could be achieved by switching from coal to gas-fired electricity.

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emissions reductions, EPA, Methane, natural gas, oil, United States

If you’ve been following U.S. power industry news for the last few years, you would be forgiven for believing that coal is about to surrender its long-term hold on the electricity sector. Utility after utility has announced plans to retire hundreds and even thousands of megawatts of coal-fired capacity, and to pull the plug on coal plants under development. In the absence of Congressional action, some analysts have even questioned whether just the threat of tighter EPA regulations could be enough to encourage utilities to shut down substantial amounts of coal generation.

But the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in its 2011 Annual Energy Outlook released this week, is less sanguine about coal’s imminent demise. Although proposed EPA regulations on air emissions, coal ash, and water intake could make a major dent in coal’s market share, the report says, they won’t be enough to end coal’s reign as the largest source of electricity—at least not without a price on carbon dioxide.

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2035, air toxics, Annual Energy Outlook, coal, coal ash, EIA, electricity, EPA, mercury