Climate Compass Blog

Supreme Court Doubles Down on EPA and Clean Air Act

In a unanimous (8-0) decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in AEP v Conn that the state and land trust plaintiffs could not invoke a federal common law public nuisance claim against the five largest electric power companies.  The plaintiffs in the case were seeking controls on the carbon dioxide emissions from the utilities’ power plants.  Building on their 2007 decision in Mass v EPA, the Court held that Congress in passing the Clean Air Act had authorized federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and in doing so had effectively “occupied the field” thereby negating any common law claims. In a decision noteworthy for its brevity and clarity, the Court stated:

We hold that the Clean Air Act and EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired plants.  Massachusetts made plain that emissions of carbon dioxide qualify as air pollution subject to regulation under the Act. (page 10)

Recovery Act’s Impact on Energy Spending

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Pub.L. 111-5, Recovery Act, ARRA) is the economic stimulus package passed by Congress on February 13, 2009, and signed by President Obama four days later. As of February 2011, the package was expected to total $821 billion in costs through 2019 delivered through a combination of federal tax cuts, temporary expansion of economic assistance provisions, and domestic spending to advance economic recovery and create new jobs, as well as save existing ones. From advancing smart grid development to supporting appliance rebate programs, the Recovery Act has allowed the United States to make significant headway in building the foundation of its clean energy economy. We recently released an update to our 2009 white paper on the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Recovery Act spending. The publication summarizes DOE ARRA spending, the Recovery Act's effects on employment, and highlights a number of notable projects. 

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