Climate Compass Blog

Climate Negotiators Open a New Round

A new round of climate talks opened this week in Bonn, Germany, with the ambitious goal of reaching a comprehensive legal agreement “applicable to all Parties” by 2015.

Countries agreed to launch the new round last December in Durban, South Africa, as part of a package deal that also keeps the Kyoto Protocol alive, at least for now. The so-called Durban Platform negotiations offer governments the chance to consider new approaches and—one can hope—commit themselves to meaningful action.

Since the start of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 15 years ago, there’s been tension between two competing models—binding targets-and-timetables vs. voluntary pledge-and-review. And in actuality, parties have now constructed both: the first in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the second in the parallel framework that emerged in Copenhagen in 2009 and was further developed in Cancún and Durban. 

Senate Hearing on Bingaman Clean Energy Standard

My C2ES colleague, Judi Greenwald, will be testifying on Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012, a bill written by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the committee chairman. As mentioned in my previous blogs (The Bingaman Clean Energy Standard: Let the Conversation Begin and The Bingaman Clean Energy Standard: What is "Clean"?) and in our primer on the design of a clean energy standard (CES), we think a CES holds a lot of potential for maintaining a diverse energy mix, advancing clean energy technology and associated industries, and reducing the environmental footprint of the electric power sector—including the sector's greenhouse gas emissions, which account for about one third of the U.S. total.

As Judi will attest, we also think Sen. Bingaman's bill is a great start, and balances the multiple objectives we would have for such a measure.  On Thursday, we get to hear what a few other people think. 

Watch this space Thursday morning as I live blog from the hearing and post updates below.

Update May 17, 11:58 am: It’s a standing-room-only crowd at this morning’s hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Senator Jeff Bingaman’s proposal for a federal clean energy standard.

Senators in attendance: Committee chairman Sen. Bingaman (D-NM), top committee Republican Sen. Murkowski (R-AK), Barrasso (R-WY), Cantwell (D-WA), Coons (D-DE), Corker (R-TN), Franken (D-MN), Manchin (D-WV), Risch (R-ID), Shaheen (D-NH), Udall (D-CO), Wyden (D-OR)

Here are some highlights of the question-and-answer session during the hearing’s first panel, with witnesses David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy, and Dr. Howard Gruenspecht, Acting Administrator of the Energy Information Administration:

Sen. Bingaman pointed out that EIA projects that electricity rates would increase by 2035 under the CES, but then asked how would electricity bills will be affected.  Mr. Sandalow answered that the modeling shows that the average household energy bill would actually decline by $5 a month by 2035, in large part because of the energy efficiency promoted by the bill. Dr. Gruenspecht agreed.

Sen. Murkowski asked whether the cost of renewable energy being used by federal agencies under the Energy Policy Act of 2007 is an indication of the costs that would be seen under Sen. Bingaman’s bill. Mr. Sandalow pointed out that a key difference between Sen. Bingaman’s bill and the 2007 law is that the CES would give credit not only for renewable energy, but for nuclear power, natural gas, and clean coal, which would lead to lower prices than renewable energy alone.

Sen. Barrasso asked whether the Obama administration would rescind greenhouse gas regulations promulgated under the Clean Air Act if Sen. Bingaman’s bill were enacted.  Mr. Sandalow said the administration would not support such an amendment to the Clean Air Act.  For the record, C2ES believes that if a CES, or any other measure, led to significant reductions in GHG emissions from a given economic sector, we should be open to using that measure rather than the existing provisions of the Clean Air Act that pertain to that sector.

Sen. Franken suggested that it might be worth setting aside a fraction of the bill’s requirement for clean energy specifically for renewable energy.  In fact, while most states have renewable energy standards in place, four—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—have alternative energy standards, similar to Sen. Bingaman’s clean energy standard proposal, and each of the four takes an approach that favors renewable energy sources over the other qualifying clean energy sources.

Update May 17, 1:55 pm: Here are some quick notes on the second panel of this morning’s hearing. The room is still full even though many of the Senators and journalists have left—thus missing a discussion on preemption that was arguably the most noteworthy exchange of the entire hearing.

After the opening statements, Senators Bingaman and Murkowski had an extended back-and-forth with the panelists about the overlap between the Bingaman bill and other regulatory programs. The panelists offered a range of views, with a couple supporting preemption of the Clean Air Act authority. C2ES’s Judi Greenwald expressed a more nuanced view:

The key issue is environmental results. If a CES is ambitious enough, and can achieve greater environmental benefits than we can get under existing Clean Air Act Authority, it might make sense to consider replacing some Clean Air Act provisions with a CES. However, we need to be very cautious. The Clean Air Act has very broad authority to address GHG emissions throughout the economy and the CES only applies to power plants. We would need to ensure that EPA maintains its authority to continue to make progress in other sectors, for example, as with the successful greenhouse gas standards for vehicles.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to exploring this issue is the deep partisan divide over EPA and the Clean Air Act. With members of Congress calling for an evisceration of EPA and the Clean Air Act, there is a legitimate concern that opening up the Act for an ostensibly narrow revision would lead to a gutting of provisions having nothing to do with greenhouse gases.

On another topic, Sen. Franken discussed Minnesota’s energy efficiency resource standard, and asked whether incentives for energy efficiency could be incorporated into the Bingaman bill. Judi Greenwald pointed out that many of the bill’s features would indeed promote energy efficiency: crediting of combined heat and power, the use of revenues raised through the alternative compliance payment, and the very structure of the proposed standard—it would be set as a percentage of total electricity production; if electricity use goes down, the requirement is easier to meet. 

One thing we wish we could've said:

During the first panel, Sen. Corker said carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be broadly deployed when donkeys fly. Sen. Manchin, who takes a decidedly more favorable view towards CCS, was nevertheless concerned that the bill does not promote CCS.

Here's what we would have said, had they raised those points during the second panel:

While EIA projects that CCS is not deployed under the bill, it could be. CCS could play a bigger role under this bill if we can bring down its costs. There are a number of options for doing that. For example, C2ES co-convenes the National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative, which is calling for a federal tax credit to capture and transport CO2 from power plants and industrial sources for use in enhanced oil recovery. In addition to driving a lot of domestic oil production, and reducing CO2 emissions, it would generate additional revenue to cover the cost of CCS.  We would expect that as CCS costs come down, it would enable coal to have a bigger role. A CES could help in other ways as well. AEP put the Mountaineer project on hold and withdrew from its partnership with DOE on this project because regulators in several states could not justify the expense for a technology that is not required by law. The CES could make the case for projects like Mountaineer to go forward.

Putting the "U" in CCUS

I spent the last few days at the eleventh annual Carbon Capture Utilization & Sequestration Conference (CCUS) in Pittsburgh.  

For its first 10 years, it was the CCS conference, focused primarily on advancing efforts to capture and permanently sequester carbon emissions underground. This nascent technology is absolutely critical if we are going to continue burning fossil fuels and have any hope of averting dangerous climate change.

This year the conference organizers added “Utilization” to the title. This addition reflects a new reality: in the absence of strong climate policy, the key driver of CCS innovation is the utilization of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (CO2-EOR). This is a little-known technique in which CO2 (usually drawn from naturally occurring underground reservoirs) is injected into declining oil fields to boost their output. It now accounts for about 6 percent of domestic U.S. oil production.

Climate Change's Impact on International Arctic Security

This blog post is cross-posted on the Center for New American Security's National Security blog.

Today we released a new report today titled Climate Change & National Security: The Arctic as a Bellwether. The lead author of the report is Dr. Rob Huebert, Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. 

Official military doctrine in the United States now holds that “climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.” Nowhere is this linkage more clearly illustrated than in the Arctic, and that’s why we think the region is a bellwether for how climate change may reshape global geopolitics in the post-Cold War era. 

As the planet has warmed over the past few decades, temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at about twice the global rate. And the Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking much faster than scientists anticipated. The five smallest sea ice covers ever recorded have all occurred in the past five summers. As a result, the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Archipelago has opened up every summer since 2007, and the Northeast Passage along Russia’s coastline has opened up every summer since 2008.

Can Nuclear Be Part of Our Clean Energy Future?

Nuclear energy is often touted as a reliable, carbon-free element in our electricity portfolio, but three major challenges must be overcome before it can play a bigger role in our energy mix: cost, reactor safety, and waste disposal. Recent progress on each of these fronts shows that nuclear energy may indeed be a greater component of our clean energy future.

As a zero-carbon energy source that also has the highest capacity factor, new nuclear generation is especially well suited to provide baseload generation, which is an emerging gap in our electricity system. As electricity demand rises, aging coal plants are retired, and we pursue greenhouse gas emission reductions, there is a growing need for new low- and zero-carbon baseload electricity generation. Without technological breakthroughs in electricity storage technology, wind, and solar, energy cannot adequately meet baseload demand due to intermittency. Natural gas is lower emitting than coal, but it still emits greenhouse gases and has historically been vulnerable to price volatility.