September 30 2022

Senate ratifies Kigali amendment, wildfires undoing benefits of Clean Air Act, sea level rise drives rising groundwater, eroding Nantucket, French nuclear power fails to rescue Europe

The New York Times reports that the U.S. Senate has ratified the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, becoming the 138th nation to do so. The 2016 Kigali Amendment will greatly reduce the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are powerful greenhouse gases. The article notes that Americans for Prosperity, a political action committee founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, sent a letter to lawmakers last week saying that ratifying the Kigali Amendment would be an “abdication (to the UN) of U.S. sovereignty over environmental regulation”. The group also argued it would raise the price of air-conditioning, refrigeration and industrial cooling for American consumers, a claim refuted by a spokesman for the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, an industry trade group. The spokesman noted that the industry has spent years preparing for this change, and “if you’re a consumer, this isn’t going to make any difference to you whatsoever.”

Inside Climate News reports that California is considering legislation that would support “natural carbon sequestration programs” to encourage regenerative agriculture and the greening of the state’s cities and suburbs. The goal of these programs is to encourage practices that use ecological processes to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil. Critics note that it is difficult to measure the actual carbon sequestration that occurs from regenerative agriculture, and that this sequestration (like other natural carbon solutions) can be impermanent if land-use practices change in the future. An excellent article in Sierra Magazine notes that, while agricultural practices such as not tilling the soil can store carbon (and improve water retention and soil health), there is a danger of over-hyping the beneficial impacts of these practices (Anthropocene Magazine describes how conclusions among studies vary depending upon how long they run and how deep into the soil they sample). Carbon sequestration by natural systems (such as peatlands and intact forests) is considerably greater. The Washington Post notes that the Inflation Reduction Act includes support for regenerative-agriculture practices such as planting cover crops, better managing water sources and conserving grasslands and other landscapes that sequester carbon. The bill also supports reforestation and forest conservation…

September 15 2022

California and General Motors plan for emission-free cars by 2035, the need for charging stations and lithium for batteries, fake local news used to spread climate misinformation, devastating flooding in Pakistan, the benefits of beavers

The Guardian reports that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has adopted a plan to eliminate the sale of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles in the state by 2035. California is the largest car market in the United States, so this decision will have a major effect on national vehicle sales and manufacturing. The rule requires that 35% of new cars be emission-free by 2026, 68% by 2030 and 100% by 2035 (last year 12% of new cars sold in California were zero-emission). The decision faced little pushback from an auto industry that is committed to producing EVs. Indeed, General Motors has said it plans to sell only electric vehicles by 2035 (Time Magazine notes that Chrysler-Fiat [now Stellantis] has not moved aggressively to develop electric models, and the company appears to be behind the market transition). In the New York Times, transportation expert Margo Oge, who served as Director of the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012, states that “California will now be the only government in the world that mandates zero-emission vehicles.” (Morning Edition has an excellent interview with Oge, who serves with me on the Board of Directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

An op-ed in the Washington Post criticizes California’s decision, based on weak assumptions such as car-battery technology not improving between today and 2035, and ignoring the industry’s commitment. Another op-ed comes to a very different conclusion, noting that the next generation of drivers will probably view the tailpipe the same way the current generation views the rotary phone. In Salon, Carl Pope provides a historical perspective on California’s commitment to clean cars, noting that in 1969 “the California legislature came within one vote of phasing out the internal combustion engine.” The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that California’s commitment to EVs also requires a plan to phase out the state’s petroleum industry. “A petroleum phaseout plan will help regulators appropriately target climate policies, but it is also essential to help communities and workers plan for the future.”…

August 31 2022

under-the-radar” elements of the Inflation Reduction Act, sea level rise challenging the Outer Banks and Miami, local resistance to renewable energy, lawns leaving southern California, solar powers Australia

The New York Times notes that one of the least publicized aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is how it amends the Clean Air Act, the country’s key air-quality law, to define carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels as an “air pollutant.” (An op-ed in the Washington Post further describes the importance of this small amendment to the Clean Air Act.) This gives explicit authorization to the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, which should allow it to use its power to push renewable-energy sources despite the recent decision by the Supreme Court in West Virginia v. EPA. At the very least, it will make legal challenges to the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide much more difficult, which is why Republicans tried unsuccessfully to strip this language from the bill during the Senate debate.

In the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer explains that the IRA will also allow the EPA to pass much stricter rules than it could have previously. This is because provisions of the law that support renewable energy will reduce the cost of complying with regulations for reducing carbon emissions. This should enhance the EPA’s ability to demonstrate that benefits of stricter regulations outweigh the costs and are therefore in the public interest.

Another important but poorly publicized component of the IRA is the expansion of the federal loan program to support commercialization of renewable technologies. This program, operated by the Department of Energy, will be able to offer up to $350 billion in additional federal loans and loan guarantees. This is the program that provided a crucial loan to help Tesla expand from a company that sold only expensive two-door electric sports cars into the world’s most valuable automaker (the program also backed Solyndra, which was a commercial failure that became a political football). National Geographic describes the fee on methane emissions, another “under the radar” component of the IRA (one of the few “sticks” in a bill full of “carrots”)…

August 15 2022

U.S. Congress finally takes action on climate, fossil-fuel-dependent regions are worried about transition to renewables, Colorado River basin in historic drought, record flooding in the U.S. and around the world, USPS will electrify its vehicle fleet faster

Talk about a wonderful surprise! After unexpected announcements by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) regarding an agreement to remake the Build Back Better bill (now the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022), and with the subsequent support of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the U.S. Senate passed the bill on Aug 7th (after an all-night “vote-a-rama” in which 41 mostly unfriendly amendments were offered). Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) left the chambers in tears. “We’ve been fighting for this for decades. Now I can look my kids in the eye and say we’re really doing something about climate,” he said. Several other senators mentioned children and grandchildren as a reason to support the bill. The bill also represents “the largest change to national health policy since the passage of the Affordable Care Act,” as it includes continued Obamacare subsidies and grants Medicare the power to negotiate prices for prescription drugs. The House approved the bill on August 12th.

The Washington Post has an in-depth look at the two weeks of negotiations that caught almost everybody in Washington DC by surprise. These negotiations included secret meetings in a basement conference room between Senators Schumer and Manchin, and key conversations by Manchin with economist Larry Summers and with Bill Gates. In a public tribute to all the staff members who worked on the bill, Schumer said, “This bill is going to change America for decades, and you did it.” Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota said she considers this bill, “one of the most significant things that I’ve had an opportunity to work on,” and Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said, “it will be transformative.” The New York Times describes the decades of effort that has been required to get the U.S. Senate to act, including the persistence of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who just gave his 285th weekly address on the Senate floor about the climate crisis.

Climate analysts are enthusiastic and astounded by the proposed legislation, which contains $369 billion for climate action (Biden’s climate advisor, Gina McCarthy, says she’s ready to “dance in the streets”). The power of Congress to tax and spend (and shape the economy) is now going to push the U.S. economy to decarbonize, writes Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic. He notes that the “core of the bill is a set of tax credits that could touch nearly every aspect of the energy economy,” representing a much broader and more easily accessed set of incentives for renewable energy than previously available. Dave Roberts takes a deep dive into the bill on his podcast. Among other things, his guests note that to have a 10-year term for the federal renewable-energy tax credits is extraordinary, given that previous credits for the industry would sunset after three or five years (this uncertainty is known as the “solarcoaster”). In addition, the credits themselves will become more easily claimed, including by nonprofit entities such as rural energy cooperatives, and they can be transferred to third parties as well…

July 31 2022

climate policy on a “Manchin-go-round”, EV sales rising quickly, California’s last nuke may operate longer, Alaska burning, old coal plants go solar

In mid-July, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WVA), who the New York Times notes has taken more campaign donations from the fossil-fuel industry than any other Senator, decided to vote against action on climate change. Manchin has made his fortune by selling the dirtiest type of coal to a power plant in West Virginia, and then taking a slice of the revenue from that plant’s electricity sales. After previously rejecting two larger climate-action bills, he decided that he could not support even the pared-down version he requested (an article in the New Yorker chronicles this bad faith negotiating, and Bill McKibben notes this is but another American political failure on climate).

Manchin’s decision signaled that the U.S. will not take meaningful climate action, essentially ensuring the planet will blow past the temperature thresholds identified as dangerous by the world’s scientific community. John Podesta, a former senior counselor to President Barack Obama, remarked: “It seems odd that Manchin would choose as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity.” In a New York Times op-ed, climate scientist Leah Stokes wonders how Manchin “looks his own grandchildren in the eye.” Also in the Times, Paul Krugman notes that Manchin only has this power because Republicans are unified in their opposition to clean energy, which he sees as the real problem.

But wait! In a last-minute reversal, Senator Manchin changed his position and agreed to a bill that, according to the New York Times, represents “the largest investment in renewable energy in the history of the United States.” Maybe the Senator had a moment with his grandchildren after all. At the time of this writing, it is still unclear what will be contained in the agreement, which Manchin has called the Inflation Reduction Act. Of course, the “Manchin-go-round” could just keep on spinning (and don’t forget the “Sinema-go-round”). I’ll have more on this bill in the next In Brief

July 15 2022

Supreme Court limits the EPA’s ability to act on climate, extreme weather collapsing insurance markets, the value of natural infrastructure, record-breaking floods hit Bangladesh and Australia, indoor agriculture’s use of fossil fuels

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case West Virginia v. EPA, limited the ability of the federal government to require reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. While not preventing the EPA from regulating these emissions, the court constrained how the EPA could approach the problem, specifically preventing the agency from issuing a rule that would transform the entire electricity sector. Instead, the EPA must take a plant-by-plant approach and restrict emissions with devices such as scrubbers on smokestacks. Of course, the science dictates that such a sector-wide transformation is necessary to protect public health and safety. The New York Times describes how the court’s decision makes it almost mathematically impossible to meet the emissions-reduction goals the Biden Administration has announced.

The plaintiffs in the case, a group of Republican Attorneys General, were originally led by Scott Pruitt when he was AG of Oklahoma before becoming Trump’s first EPA Administrator (I know you hoped that we were done with him… at least he did get crushed in the Republican primary for Senate in Oklahoma). This group argued that Congress did not give the EPA explicit authority to take a sector-wide action, and therefore it should not be able to do so. The majority of the court agreed, embracing the “major questions” doctrine for the first time. Historian Heather Cox Richardson notes that this “reversed almost 100 years of jurisprudence by arguing that Congress cannot delegate authority on ‘major questions’ to agencies in the executive branch,” and in a broader context signals “the end of the federal government as we know it.” The major-questions doctrine could be invoked to prevent federal government agencies from taking technically-nuanced action on any number of issues, all depending upon what the Supreme Court might decide is a “major question.” For a deep dive into the complexities of the decision, you can listen to the Volts podcast that interviews one of the attorneys supporting the EPA’s position (spoiler: even the attorney is not sure what the decision actually requires)…