Climate Compass Blog

Water Resources and Climate Change: A Key Area of Concern

Although much of the discussion about climate change impacts has focused on increases in temperature and the rise in sea level, changes that impact our nation’s water resources could have the greatest impact on society. A quick glance at recent newspaper headlines—heavy spring rains leading to massive flooding of the Mississippi River, historic drought covering large parts of Texas, and extensive wildfires spreading across Arizona—provides more than enough evidence of how vulnerable we are to water-related extreme events. 


While these events have led some to ask whether they are caused by climate change, this question misses the mark. Individual weather events are not “caused” by any single phenomenon—and climate change’s contribution to individual events will not be resolved cleanly in the years to come. What virtually all climate scientists agree on, however, is that the climate is already changing, all weather events now form under different conditions than they used to, and this change is increasing the probability of extreme weather events happening. It makes sense to learn what we can from actual events and avoid getting caught up in an irresolvable debate about why a particular event happened. We would be better served by learning more about what is at risk from extreme events and what we can do to better manage and minimize those risks.


A recent interagency draft report, National Action Plan: Priorities for Managing Freshwater Resources in a Changing Climate, highlights both the extensive economic and social risks that we face as a nation from the impact of climate change on water resources and the critical steps we need to take to begin facing up to these challenges. 

Source: US Global Change Research Program: Climate Change Impacts in the United States

The report documents the changes in our climate system that are already evident and are likely to increase over time. Warmer air and sea surface temperatures and rising sea levels are only part of the picture. Total precipitation has increased by about 5 percent over the past 50 years, and the amount of precipitation that occurs during the heaviest downpours has increased by 20 percent. However, regional variations appear likely with increased precipitation in the northern part of the country while areas in the south, particularly in the southwest, are likely to get drier. The strengthened hydrologic cycle puts wet areas at risk of getting wetter while dry areas are at increased risk of drought. Areas dependent on water from melting snow packs may also face substantial changes as more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow and as earlier snowmelt changes the timing and quantity of water availability.


The implications of these changes cut a wide swath across our economy and environment. Water availability is critical in sectors as diverse as agriculture, electricity generation (hydroelectric, but also fossil fuel generation and nuclear power), heavy transport, mining and mineral exploration, and storm water management. Beyond economic factors, water is also critical to ecosystem wellbeing, wildfire management, and public health.


In order to more effectively manage these risks, and to enhance the resiliency of our water resource  systems,  the report sets out six general recommendations and 24 specific actions that should be undertaken by federal agencies and their partners. It calls for a more formal planning process, highlights the need for improved information, enhanced capacity building, better integration across related issues, and better tools for assessing vulnerabilities, and recommends expanded water use efficiency.


These actions are by no means a cure-all for the challenges we face in managing the increasing demands on our water resources in a changing climate. Nor are they a substitute for slowing the rate and magnitude of climate change through reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The most effective risk management strategy is to avoid the risk all together. But with climate change already underway, we are too late to avoid some changes, and adaptation will be critical to reducing economic and environmental costs. We need only to look at the costs and suffering from recent extreme weather events to understand the risks we face.


Comments on the draft plan are being accepted until July 15, and can be submitted to: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/initiatives/adaptation/freshwater-plan
 

Steve Seidel is Vice President for Policy Analysis

RGGI’s Benefits, Costs, and Why It Should Stay

Throughout the beginning of 2011, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) —the first mandatory carbon dioxide (CO2) cap-and-trade program in the United States—was successfully defended by state legislators in three states where attempts were made to remove those states from the program. In the second week of May, the states of Delaware and Maine defeated bills proposing withdrawal, while in New Hampshire, Senators did not pass the House’s version of a withdrawal bill. But on May 26, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that his state will leave RGGI by the end of the year.

Participating RGGI states cap CO2 emissions from power plants (those with generation capacities of at least 25 megawatts) and auction most of the emissions allowances. (Each allowance lets a power plant emit one ton of CO2.) RGGI’s CO2 emission allowance auctions raised $789.2 million for the 10 participating Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states from 2008 to the end of 2010. Meanwhile, consumers on average saw their monthly utility bills increase by less than $1. As highlighted in a February RGGI report, this allowance auction revenue has benefited the 10 participating states via investments in clean energy technology and energy bill assistance. These investments are creating clean energy jobs, saving consumers money, and deploying technologies that reduce the environmental impact of power generation.

Getting It Right on Fuel Efficiency

This post also appears in the National Journal Energy & Environment Experts blog in response to the question: What should drive fuel efficiency?

At a moment when it appears to many that our government can’t do anything right, the current approach to regulating vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a bright spot.

After decades of failing to tighten corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, and several years when California and other states began to take the matter of setting vehicle GHG standards into their own hands, the federal government finally got its act together. In 2007 Congress enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, tightening CAFE. In 2010, NHTSA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly set GHG and CAFE standards, and California agreed to conform its rules to the federal ones. NHTSA and EPA are hard at work at a second round of standards for light duty vehicles, as well as the first-ever set of similar rules for medium and heavy duty trucks.

We now have the Congress, federal and state regulators, industry and public interest groups aligned on a policy framework that is meeting important national goals of reducing oil dependence and GHG emissions, providing regulatory consistency and certainty to the industry, and creating a climate favorable to investment and innovation.

The auto industry is responding successfully. The plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt won the 2011 Motor Trend Car of the Year, 2011 Green Car of the Year, and 2011 North American Car of the Year. It’s also selling well. But PHEVs are just part of the story. The Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra are among the nine vehicles in the U.S. marketplace that get more than 40 miles per gallon. They were also among the 10 top-selling vehicles last month. Higher sales of fuel-efficient vehicles across the board contributed to strong sales and combined profits of nearly $5.9 billion for the three U.S. automakers in the first quarter of this year.

Higher gasoline prices are heightening consumer interest in these vehicles. But we cannot rely on oil prices alone to drive us to the next generation of vehicles. Oil prices are too volatile to motivate the sustained business investment we need. And the price we pay at the pump doesn’t reflect the true cost of oil to our country. Half of the 2010 U.S. trade deficit was from oil – that’s $256.9 billion we sent overseas last year alone. The U.S. EPA estimates that the energy security benefit of reducing oil dependence is on the order of $12 per barrel. And gasoline burning inflicts enormous damage on our air quality and climate. For example, the transportation sector is responsible for more than a quarter of U.S. GHG emissions and is a major contributor to smog.

The beauty of the fuel economy and GHG standards is that they are performance based. They set targets based on important public policy goals – i.e., oil savings and GHG reductions – but leave it to industry to find the best way to meet them. They don’t “pick winners.” They should remain the core of our public policy framework for transportation.

But our current set of vehicles and fuels may not be up to the job of meeting our long-term goals. In order to level the playing field with the incumbent technologies that have benefited from nearly a century of infrastructure development and fuel-vehicle optimization, we need to make some public investment to jumpstart alternative vehicles and fuels. This has to be done carefully. We need a savvy, adaptive strategy that ensures that any subsidies are only temporary, leverages public investment with private dollars, spawns experiments and learns from them, and rewards environmental and efficiency performance.

It is not clear whether hydrogen, natural gas, electricity, or biofuels are the long-term solution to our energy and environmental challenges. But we need to continue to keep the pressure on all of them through performance-based standards, research them all, subsidize limited deployment to see how they perform in the real world, and leave it to industry and consumers to determine their ultimate success in the marketplace.

Judi Greenwald is Vice President for Innovative Solutions

Let's Ride the EV Wave

This post also appeared in the National Journal Energy & Environment Experts blog in response to a question about oil use and the future of electric vehicles.

Whether or not electric vehicles (EVs) take off will ultimately depend on consumer acceptance of new technology. But public policy and technological progress are just as important, as we highlight in our new report on the transportation sector.

Indeed, electric drive vehicles powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells could revolutionize transportation in the United States, saving considerable amounts of oil while also reducing the sector’s impact on our global climate. And the EVs on the market now are off to a great start, winning national and international awards.

Nearly all major automakers are planning to introduce these vehicles in the coming years, and I applaud automakers like Ford that have committed to building alternative drivetrains in significant number for the long haul. Companies like Ford understand climate change and the need to reduce our impact on our global environment while not sacrificing our mobility. For EVs to achieve that goal, we need policies like a clean energy standard that aim to decarbonize our electrical grid. I’m sure Ford is also investing in this space because they see a market opportunity.

The private sector has invested billions of dollars in developing, manufacturing, promoting, and distributing EVs in the last decade. From a map on our website, you can see that policymakers across the country are supporting EVs because they want their region to benefit from this burgeoning market.

Policymakers should rely on private capital as much as possible to build out the EV charging infrastructure so we can balance the desire to support alternative vehicles while also tackling our nation’s budget deficit. To that end, we should coordinate policy related to EV purchase and home charging nationwide so private players can enter new markets more easily. The most efficient way to “refuel” these vehicles is not yet clear, and we should use policy to help provide the foundation to let the market work.

Another element that is critical to the success of these vehicles is its most expensive component – the battery. Not only do we need aggressive R&D to develop batteries with much higher energy density, we also need to figure out what to do with these batteries at the vehicle’s end-of-life. About 80 percent of the battery’s capacity is still usable at this point, resulting in the largest untapped resource in this space today.

If we achieve the right mix of policy, technological progress, and consumer acceptance, there’s little reason to doubt that alternative vehicles will have a significant impact on the car market in this decade. It appears that it will be tough to kill the electric car this time.

Eileen Claussen is President

About Those "Missing" Cost-Benefit Analyses ...

While Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on greenhouse gases (GHGs) and other air pollutants are on firm political and legal footing, attacks on them continue. Claims have been made that the costs of regulation are extreme or, contradictorily, that the government has not conducted any cost analysis of these regulations.

On the side that the costs are too high, one figure bandied about recently is that all government regulations are costing the economy $1.75 trillion annually, and $280 billion of that stems from compliance with existing environmental regulations. Those figures came from a study by two Lafayette College professors done for the Small Business Administration (SBA). Yet, as widely reported, the Congressional Research Service, and even the professors themselves have disputed the methodology of the study and its use in the current frenzy of political shots at environmental regulations. In a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, the methodology of the SBA report was faulted for, among other things, allowing for double counting of costs. The Lafayette College study simply adds together other previous studies on individual regulations, regardless of the approaches and methodologies of those calculations. The CRS report quotes the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as having written that such a methodology is an “inherently flawed approach.”

More distressingly for those who care about making informed decisions about the economic impacts of regulation, that large figure is not balanced against any benefits those regulations might have. According to the CRS report, the authors of the Lafayette College stated that they were never asked to include benefits in their analysis. The authors were quoted as saying the report was “not meant to be a decision-making tool for lawmakers or federal regulatory agencies to use in choosing the ‘right’ level of regulation. In no place in any of the reports do we imply that our reports should be used for this purpose. (How could we recommend this use when we make no attempt to estimate the benefits?)” On the contrary, as we have explained before, the benefits of Clean Air Act regulations have far outstripped the costs in major studies.

As for those who say no economic analyses were ever done of these regulations, all federally promulgated regulations undergo a cost-benefit analysis before implementation. This requirement stretches back many presidential administrations, with each administration offering adjustments to the process. The basis for current analysis is found in Executive Order 12866, signed in 1993 by President Clinton, which provided a significant overhaul to the review process and, among other things, requires

Each agency [to] assess both the costs and the benefits of the intended
regulation and, recognizing that some costs and benefits are difficult to
quantify, propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination
that the benefits of the intended regulation justify its costs.

President Obama reaffirmed the inclusion of cost-benefit analysis in the regulatory process in Executive Order 13563 at the beginning of 2011.

Turning specifically to the GHG regulations implemented by the Administration, where regulatory requirements have been imposed the analyses required by OMB have been conducted and are readily available. Some critics have complained that there was not a cost-benefit analysis done of the EPA’s 2009 Endangerment Finding for GHGs. Such claims miss the fact that the Endangerment Finding was a scientific ruling that GHGs cause climate change, posing a threat to public health and welfare, and motor vehicles emit GHGs contributing to those risks. Since there were no regulatory requirements to reduce GHG emissions in this rulemaking, a cost-benefit analysis was inappropriate.

When it comes to actually reducing GHGs from emitting sources, such analyses would be appropriate, and federal agencies are required to include them as part of the rulemaking process. EPA has done so. The first rule on GHGs , the light-duty vehicle GHG emission standards promulgated jointly with Department of Transportation’s Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards, was issued with a Regulatory Impact Assessment that offered almost five hundred pages of detailed qualitative and quantitative analysis of the costs and benefits of the rules. The findings were that the GHG standard for light duty vehicles has an estimated cost of $52 billion and benefits of $240 billion: benefits outweighing costs by better than 4 to 1.

Upon the implementation of the light duty vehicle standards, the New Source Review program for stationary sources of GHGs was automatically triggered – without any regulatory action taken by EPA – therefore no separate cost-benefit analysis was legally required of this step. However, when EPA went through the regulatory process to create the tailoring rule to lower the compliance requirements for stationary sources, it was required to undertake an analysis. The Regulatory Impact Assessment of EPA’s tailoring rule is available on its website and includes an in-depth qualitative and quantitative analysis of the reduced permitting costs from the tailoring rule regulation now in effect for stationary sources. As EPA continues its rulemaking for New Source Performance Standards for utilities and refineries, fully documented regulatory impact analyses will be conducted and made available for comment with the proposed rule.

Thus, despite the claims to the contrary, EPA has in the past and will continue in the future to analyze the costs and benefits of GHG regulations. It is also clear that, to date, GHG regulations imposed by the EPA under the Clean Air Act have vastly greater benefits than costs.

Michael Tubman is the Congressional Affairs Fellow