February 15 2022

February 15 2022

damage from melting permafrost, Senator Manchin a global climate villain, nuclear power gets more expensive, fossil-fuel lease decisions must consider climate impact

An article in the New Yorker describes the remarkable changes occurring in Siberia as permafrost thaws due to global warming. All the buildings and other infrastructure designed and built for the frozen ground are facing serious structural challenges (or failing entirely) as the ground thaws. The article notes that, as of 2016, 60% of the buildings in the city of Norilsk were compromised due to permafrost thaw.

Unfortunately, damage to infrastructure is not the most serious problem posed by thawing permafrost. The frozen ground releases carbon dioxide and methane as it thaws and frozen organic matter in the soil decomposes. This represents an accumulation of so much heat that it won’t be possible to refreeze the ground. The expansion of shrubs and trees across the tundra will take up some of the carbon (see below), but there is a limit to how large this vegetation can be, and the decomposition season is longer than the growth season. An experiment is underway to reintroduce large herbivores, as their grazing activity can reduce snow cover, which exposes the ground to cold winter air and reduces thawing.

Measurements of carbon release make it clear that these ecosystems are now emitting much more greenhouse gas than they used to before extensive thawing commenced. In 2016, an anthrax outbreak was detected, triggered by the activation of “old” infection sites after very high air temperatures led to the thawing of the sites to a depth not previously seen.

The Guardian also reports on changes to the Arctic; in this case. it is the advance of trees into the tundra landscape. The Arctic treeline, which used to advance a few centimeters a year, is now accelerating north at an annual rate of 40 to 50 meters. Warming is also threatening reindeer herds in northern Norway, as warming and re-freezing snow generates ice that prevents the animals from accessing vegetation. The accelerating treeline is also interfering with reindeer foraging areas.

An interesting article in Yale e360 takes us to the Marcell Experimental Forest in Minnesota, where scientists are documenting major changes in the boreal forest, including thawing permafrost, drowned trees, methane releases, increased wildfires and the slow transformation of these forests from carbon sinks to carbon emitters. This forest, which extends from the Great Lakes across northern Canada, Alaska, Russia and Scandinavia, holds vast amounts of carbon in vegetation and peatlands. “In addition to mitigating floods, filtering water, and slowing or stopping wildfire, the peat-heavy boreal ecosystem provides nesting sites for 1 to 3 billion birds that journey north from as far away as Argentina.”

The Washington Post takes an in-depth visit to Schoonschip, a new Dutch community built on the water in an old industrial area near Amsterdam. The community has been developed to be resilient to sea level rise and flooding. The Texas Tribune reports on plans to build a massive storm-surge barrier to protect Galveston and Houston during future hurricanes. Future storm surges will likely be more severe as sea level rises. The $30 billion project would take at least 15 years to construct. Texas lawmakers are working to raise state and federal funds to support planning and construction.

In Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell reports on Senator Joe Manchin’s business ties to the coal industry, and the industry’s power in West Virginia. One observer calls Manchin’s investments in (and income from) his firm, Enersystems, “the most egregious conflict of interest I have ever seen.” Given Manchin’s key role in controlling climate legislation in the Senate, Goodell notes, “the idea that the fate of the Earth’s climate has wound up in the hands of a Maserati-driving senator from coal country is a plot twist that belongs in a Hollywood disaster movie, not here in the real world where millions of people suffer as a consequence.” Meanwhile, West Virginians pay enormously high rates for electricity, with the state’s regulatory body structuring rules to keep inefficient coal-fired power plants operating. E&E News provides more details on Manchin’s history of voting to protect his own economic interests, and an article in the Guardian describes how Manchin is gaining a reputation as a climate villain around the world.

Inside Climate News reports that the two new units at the Vogtle Nuclear Power Station in Georgia, which were estimated to cost $14 billion, are now estimated to cost $30 billion. They are also six years past the estimated completion, and have yet to begin operation. Issues like these are among the reasons I don’t think nuclear power will make a major contribution to the climate solution, despite being able to produce electricity with virtually no carbon emissions. I explained my thoughts in The Nuclear Mirage, and since then the cost overrun at the Vogtle plants has increased by $2 billion. There is going to be a major battle before the Georgia Public Service Commission to decide how much of the cost overruns will be shouldered by ratepayers v. shareholders (and don’t forget the taxpayers, who will probably foot some of this bill as well). Power Magazine reprints a statement from four former leaders of nuclear regulatory agencies, who conclude “nuclear is just not part of any feasible strategy that could counter climate change.”

An op-ed in the New York Times by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger notes that the state achieved its goal of “one million solar roofs” despite much skepticism when he announced the goal in 2006. Key to this achievement is “net-metering,” which allows those with solar systems to sell “excess” electricity back to the utility at retail rates. This helps homeowners pencil-out the investment of $20k or so in the system, but it also means that they are not paying as much to the utility to address fixed costs associated with maintaining the electrical grid. An article in Grist notes that, with so many solar systems now in the state, this has had the unintended consequence of forcing those fixed costs onto other ratepayers, a particular burden for low-income Californians. The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) has proposed a new fee structure to address this problem, but it will have a large negative impact on the residential solar industry at a time when the state is trying to move to renewable power (CNN describes a similar proposal in Florida). An op-ed in the Hill by Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson notes that limiting residential solar will increase the use of natural gas and other fuels, generating air pollution that will have an outsized impact on the health of communities (mostly low-income) near these facilities. The author notes that policies to replace natural gas with electricity would allow fixed electrical costs to be spread over more users without damaging the solar industry. An editorial in the Sacramento Bee argues against the new rule, suggesting that utilities are exploiting concerns about impacts on lower-income ratepayers to seek higher returns (Inside Climate News reports that one “grassroots” group in the fight, “Affordable Clean Energy for All”, is funded predominantly by utility companies). Reuters notes that the CPUC delayed adopting the new rule.

The New York Times reports on the Biden Administration’s decision to begin enforcing an Obama-era regulation that forces coal-fired power plants to limit emissions of mercury. The Obama Administration calculated that the total benefits of the rule, including reductions in addition pollutants besides mercury, would result in $80 billion in benefits (over 5 years) — well below the estimated $9.6 billion a year cost to industry. In its April 2020 decision to delay implementing the rule, the Trump Administration discounted the additional benefits (without any evidence, of course) to justify the delay.

A federal judge has invalidated the environmental impact report for an oil and gas lease because it inadequately assessed the impact of the lease on greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change. The New York Times notes that this decision, which halts the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in the nation’s history, shows that regulatory decisions that disregard global warming are increasingly vulnerable to legal challenges. Earlier, two lease sales in Alaska were similarly blocked due to a lack of analysis of climate impacts.

CNN reports that EVs made up 6.3% of global vehicle sales in 2021, tripling their market share from 2019. They comprised 10% of sales in Europe, 12% in China, but only 3% in the U.S. Analysts suggest that this represents the less-aggressive support from the U.S. government for EVs. In December 2021, EVs were 10% of the global market, with more EVs than diesel cars sold in that month in Europe for the first time ever. General Motors announced a $7 billion investment in Michigan to support EV production (including a battery manufacturing facility), with the goal of being “the market leader” in electric vehicles by 2025 according to GM CEO Mary Barra. The Biden Administration is also trying to get the U.S. Postal Service to delay an $11.3 billion contract to buy up to 165,00 new gasoline-powered mail delivery vehicles, hoping to convince the USPS to buy EVs instead. The proposal calls for only 10% of the new trucks to be electric and seeks only a 0.4-mile-per-gallon fuel economy improvement over the current 30-year-old fleet.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that the Biden Administration has taken its most significant climate action to date by issuing revised tailpipe standards for passenger cars and trucks (these are in essence mileage standards, as using less fuel per mile is how vehicles reduce emissions). This reverses a Trump Administration’s rule that relaxed standards. The EPA estimates that the new rule will prevent the release of 3.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the next three decades, “which is equal to shutting down more than 700 coal plants for a year.” While this is a welcome development, climate-change activists note that these new standards are only slightly more proscriptive than those agreed to by the industry 9 years ago under President Obama.

The New York Times reports that ex-President Trump illegally removed a variety of documents, some apparently classified, from the White House and took them to his personal residence in Florida. This is egregious behavior which, of course, no Republicans have objected to — despite having previously expressed “horror” over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Among the materials was the map, pictured below, on which Trump drew with a Sharpie to change the predicted path of Hurricane Dorian so it matched his erroneous message on Twitter.

This is worth remembering as one of Trump’s more despicable moments (“#Sharpiegate”), at least for environmental scientists. As I noted at the time, “This pathetic and childish maneuver demonstrates a dangerous contempt for science and a profound emotional weakness. Oh, and it is actually against the law (18 USC §2074) to falsify a weather report from the U.S. government.”

Given this man’s disastrous environmental record — and what we’re still learning about his shenanigans — God help us if he and his Sharpie get back in the Oval Office.