EPA Announces New Carbon Regulations: What You Need to Know

Coal power plant

Cross-posted from We Are Power Shift.

On Tuesday, the EPA officially announced its long-awaited rules on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — the first ever in U.S. history. According to the standards, new plants can emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per magawatt of electricity produced. Natural gas plants fall within this limit; coal plants do not.

So what does this mean for coal? At the moment, not much. The key word is new — plants already running are exempt from the regulations. In a move that startled climate advocates, EPA Admin Lisa Jackson declared that there were “no plans to address existing plants,” which, of course, produce the vast majority of the power sector’s carbon emissions.

But here’s the catch: The EPA may be legally obligated to regulate existing coal plants. Grist‘s David Roberts explains,

Once something is deemed a pollutant under the Clean Air Act… then it must be regulated under Section 111 of the act….

Section 111b governs new sources. That’s what was issued today. But when EPA regulates under 111b, that triggers a legal obligation for it also to regulate existing sources under 111d.

So a carbon rule for existing sources should appear sometime in the future, but, as far as the Administration is concerned, there’s no point in talking up more regulations until something’s actually on the table. Thus, “no plans,” at least until after the election. (Of course, under a Republican president, the EPA, if it even existed, would undoubtedly scrap all carbon limits.)

We’ve still taken a step forward. The new EPA carbon rules help the clean energy effort by effectively outlawing new coal-fired plants. In order to meet the requirements, coal plants would have to capture and store their CO2 emissions, and carbon sequestration isn’t available yet on a large scale.

[youtube http://youtu.be/uFJVbdiMgfM]

Interestingly, the coal industry built an entire lobbying campaign around this technology, dubbed “clean coal,” and politicians, including Obama, picked up the term becase they like alliteration. But when faced with actually implementing it, the industry people balk. Apparently, we should keep using coal because coal is clean, but we can’t require coal to be clean because clean coal, in the words of a Peabody Energy spokesman, “doesn’t exist as a commercial technology.” Thanks for clearning that up!

The bottom line: As long as the rule holds, the climate movement doesn’t have to worry about stopping new coal plants. Instead, activists can focus on transitioning old coal energy to renewable sources. We are nearer than ever to a coal-free America.

[Image: Dmitri Klimenko]

Is Global Warming Making Tornadoes Worse?

[RYSE cross-post]

Like most natural disasters, the tragic tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest have triggered a veritable storm of media attention. One question that has come up repeatedly in both mainstream and environmental outlets is this: Could global warming be making tornadoes stronger and more frequent?

Joe Romm, one of the Web’s most thorough climate bloggers, published a detailed post on the subject. He quoted two scientists “who have done more research and publication on extreme weather and climate change than most,” Kevin Trenberth and Tom Karl. Trenberth is head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Karl is the director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Karl explained that, while several studies show that conditions favorable for tornadoes are more common with more greenhouse gases, “the results are not conclusive.” However, “…what we can say with confidence is that heavy and extreme precipitation events often associated with thunderstorms and convection are increasing and have been linked to human induced changes in atmospheric composition.”

Trenberth, meanwhile told the New York Times that “it’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.”

April 2011 did set a new monthly record of 875 tornadoes in the U.S., which coincided with record high temperatures throughout the world. We know the climate is changing, so it seems logical that tornadoes, which are part of the climate, should be affected. But overall, it seems that the specific connection between greenhouse gases and tornadoes has not been explored deeply enough to produce a definite answer.

We must not lose sight of the big picture, though. We’re seeing not just tornadoes, but also record droughts and wildfires, unusually heavy rainfalls, historic floods, and deadly heat waves, in the U.S. and throughout the world. In addition, NOAA has reported that our current emissions path could lead to semi-permanent Dust Bowls in the Southwest and other regions. Experts have been warning for years that climate change would make events like these more common, and in this case, the connection with greenhouse gases is well understood.

Whether or not monster tornadoes add to the proof that our climate is disrupted, they show, painfully, how much our civilization relies on a stable environment, and how dramatic changes in weather patterns can cause damage that even the wealthiest nations struggle to shake off.

Bill McKibben showed us the big picture in his piece for the Washington Post:

Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections….It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advised to try and connect them in your mind with, say, the fires now burning across Texas—fires that have burned more of America by this date than any year in our history. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been—the drought is worse than the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if it’s somehow connected….

There have been tornadoes before, and floods—that’s the important thing. Just be careful to make sure you don’t let yourself wonder why all these records are happening at once: why we’ve had unprecedented megafloods from Australia to Pakistan in the last year. Why it’s just now that the Arctic has melted for the first time in thousands of years….

Because if you asked yourself what it meant that the Amazon has just come through its second hundred-year-drought in the last four years, or that the pine forests across the western part of this continent have been obliterated by a beetle in the last decade—well, you might have to ask other questions. Like, should President Obama really just have opened a huge swath of Wyoming to new coal-mining? Should Secretary of State this summer sign a permit allowing a huge new pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta? You might have to ask yourself: do we have a bigger problem than four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline?

….Better to join with the US House of Representatives, which earlier this spring voted 240-184 to defeat a resolution saying simply “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” Propose your own physics; ignore physics altogether. Just don’t start asking yourself if last year’s failed grain harvest from the Russian heatwave, and Queensland’s failed grain harvest from its record flood, and France and Germany’s current drought-related crop failures, and the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, and the inability of Midwestern farmers to get corn planted in their sodden fields might somehow be related. Surely the record food prices are just freak outliers, not signs of anything systemic….

If you got upset about any of this, you might forget how important it is not to disrupt the record profits of our fossil fuel companies. If worst ever did come to worst, it’s reassuring to remember what the US Chamber of Commerce told the EPA in a recent filing: there’s no need to worry because “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re telling themselves in Joplin today.

Enough said.

A Green Review of Obama’s State of the Union Address

President sets ambitious clean energy goals but fails to mention climate change.

I didn’t envy Barack Obama last night. As he gave his State of the Union speech, he must have known that almost everybody in America has some gripe about the actual state of the union and that, as President, he’s expected to fix all the country’s problems: reduce the deficit, revive the job market, and restore the economy, all without the partisan bitterness Washington has become known for. Add saving the world from impending climactic catastrophes, and you’ve got a tall order.

But, hey, he asked for the job.

Expectations were high among greens and climate hawks. As the slightly-more-powerful GOP threatens to derail clean energy plans, sustainability advocates were looking for strong leadership from the President. Did he impress or disappoint? You can decide that for yourself. In case you didn’t see the whole speech, here’s what went down (you can read the full text here.)

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.  We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard.

Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge.  We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

After sharing the classic Inspiring Story About Ordinary People, Obama set several very ambitious clean energy goals:

  • “…by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.”
  • “…we can…become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”
  • “I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies.”
  • “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail…”

We would be making some great progress, if we could achieve all that. But Republicans have already announced their intentions of rolling back clean energy spending (AmTrak, Energy Star, and weatherization are on the list), so Obama’s demands have a slim chance, at best.

Maybe in an effort to lend some bipartisan-ness to his address, he defined “clean energy” in a polluter-friendly way:

Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all….

I’m with the wind and solar folks. While you could say that natural gas is an improvement over coal, “clean coal” simply doesn’t exist right now. And nuclear is massively expensive, non-renewable, and not truly clean. But none of this is new.

What has angered greens the most is not what Obama said, but what he didn’t say. The words “climate change” and “global warming” appeared nowhere in his speech. David Roberts explains why this is a problem:

Obama wants to launch a clean energy race. And good for him. But what are the stakes? What is the threat? Where is the urgency? If it’s just about international competition, why not focus on good macroeconomic policy — why go to such lengths to build up this economic sector, these technologies? Why not just leave it to the market?

Here’s why: The U.S. needs to get at or close to zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century or there will be severe and possibly irreversible changes in the climate, leading to massive, widespread human suffering. That’s why we don’t have time to wait for the invisible hand of the market.

Another big complaint is that Obama didn’t stand up for the Clean Air Act. Although he did mention “commonsense safeguards to protect the American people” he could have responded more specifically to the effort to eliminate the our last chance at regulating carbon.

Of course, I would have liked to see more in Obama’s State of the Union address, but I can’t say I was really disappointed. Pre-speech polling showed that Americans mainly wanted to hear about jobs, healthcare, and the economy. Global warming, not so much. There are plenty of reasons why Obama should have mentioned climate change, but none of them would have given him the political boost that he needs.

In the end, he’s still a politician. And when you’re a politician, getting re-elected is more important than saving the world.

Official Global Warming Debunking Tool by Matt Davies

With a rare snow currently blanketing the South, I thought it would be a good time to bring out this global warming cartoon by Matt Davies. (For a more serious reply to the cold-weather-disproves-global-warming argument, see Skeptical Science.)

Via ClimateProgress.

350 Earth Aerial Art Show: A Planetary Vision of a Planetary Challenge

Over the past week, thousands of people in thirteen countries staged the world’s first art show visible from space. Coordinated by 350.org, the project included aerial installations from Los Angeles to Egypt to Icleland. Like October’s Global Work Party, this event highlighted our species’ vulnerability to climate change–and our ability to find solutions. DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based aerial imaging company, photographed the formations with satellites 400 miles above the equator.

Red Polar Bear by Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, Langjökull Glacier, Iceland

The project ended November 27, just in time for the UN climate conference in Cancun.

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who organized an art piece in Brighton, England, explained on his site,

The plan is to make images visible from the skies to remind those in Cancun that we’re running out of time. We can’t keep putting this off.

Thom Yorke's image of King Canute in Brighton, UK

While it’s exciting to see a climate-activism event on this scale, it is clear that no amount of artistry can take the place of a comprehensive international effort to reduce carbon emissions. However, widespread change does not often begin at the political apex, and it does not often survive without popular support.

From a HuffPost oped signed by Bill McKibben; hip-hop innovator DJ Spooky; urban artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada; and Santa Fe Art Institute director Diane Karp:

You might ask: so what? Don’t we really need new engines and turbines? And the answer is: of course. But we won’t get them, not in numbers sufficient to make a difference, until we’ve really woken up to the danger at hand.

Waking people up is one of the tasks at which artists excel. And in this case, the medium really is the message. By using, for the first time, the whole earth as a canvas, they’ll be reminding all of us the one root truth of the global warming era: we really do live on aplanet.  A planet, just like Mars or Saturn, where the gaseous composition of the atmosphere determines whether life is possible. And just one planet—not the separate nations and classes we think we inhabit, but a round piece of rock with one atmosphere where the carbon we pour skyward mixes invisibly to set the temperature….

We won’t solve this crisis with images. But maybe we can help build the pressure for politicians and businesspeople to act. There’s a movement building the world around, and it can’t appeal to the head alone.

Climate Elephant by Daniel Dancer, New Delhi, India

You can view more photos from the planetary art show on the 350.org Facebook and Flickr pages.