Climate and Energy News Roundup 3/3/2017

Ryan Jackson, who worked for the Senator James Inhofe (R, OK) for more than a decade and was staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been hired as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s chief of staff.  The Trump administration’s 2018 budget blueprint calls for deep cuts in the EPA budget that would reduce the agency’s staff by one-fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs, according to details of a plan reviewed by The Washington Post.  Climate change initiatives are among the programs to be eliminated entirely.  The budget blueprint also calls for a decrease in NOAA’s budget, with steep cuts to research funding and satellite programs.  According to The New York Times, the White House is “fiercely divided” over president Trump’s pledge to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.  Steve Bannon is urging Trump to pull out, but is being opposed by secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the president’s daughter Ivanka and a “slew of foreign policy advisers and career diplomats”.  On Wednesday the Senate confirmed Ryan Zinke’s nomination to lead the Interior Department by a 68 to 31 vote.  On Thursday they voted 62 to 37 to confirm Rick Perry as energy secretary.

Climate

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has a released a new version of their Climate Opinion Maps.  These maps are really interesting because they allow you to look at opinion data at the county and city level.  They also provide information at the congressional district level, which clarifies why your representative responds as he/she does.

You may recall that a few weeks back I included links about the “social cost of carbon” (SCC), the parameter that would be used to put a price on carbon should we decide to do so.  Well, on Tuesday, the Subcommittee on Environment and Subcommittee on Oversight of the House Science Committee held a hearing to examine the SCC.  Joseph Majkut, Director of Climate Science at the Niskanen Center, a Libertarian think tank that is concerned about climate change, wrote a very interesting analysis on the Center’s climate blog of the issues involved in determining an appropriate value for the SCC.  Dana Nuccitelli of Skeptical Science also had thoughts about estimating the SCC.

The Australian state of New South Wales, which includes Sydney, Australia’s largest city, has experienced the hottest summer on record, with temperatures of 118.7°F on February 11-12.  Analysis by a team from World Weather Attribution and the University of New South Wales found the record average heat was 50 times more likely because of climate change.  In addition, such heat would have occurred once every 500 years in the past, but now can be expected to occur once every 50 years.  And speaking of a warmer world, a new paper in Nature Climate Change reports that snow will melt more slowly.  This, in turn, will have serious consequences for water availability in areas that rely heavily on the snowpack as a water source.  Finally, Amanda Paulson at CSM Inhabit presented six questions (and answers) about how climate influences weather.

Although it will be short while before data analysis is complete, it appears almost certain that the minimum summer sea ice extent around Antarctica will reach a record low this year.  Meanwhile, verification and analysis of Antarctic temperatures during 2015 are now complete, revealing that March 24 of that year set a new record high of 63.5°F at an Argentine research base near the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula.

Climate Central has completed an analysis of meteorological winter 2016-2017 (Dec., Jan., and Feb.), which is now over, and has found that 84% of 1500+ weather stations studied experienced a warmer than average winter, whereas 16% experienced a cooler than average winter.  Furthermore, 8% of the weather stations reported the hottest winter on record, while 0.4% reported the coldest.  Andrew Freedman at Mashable addressed the question of why it has been so warm.  The warm winter has led to an early spring in many parts of the U.S.  The National Phenology Network, is cooperation with USGS, has a set of maps, updated daily, showing how early spring has arrived in each state this year.

Burger King has been buying animal feed produced in soy plantations formed  by burning tropical forests in Brazil and Bolivia, according to a new report by Mighty Earth, which says that evidence gathered from aerial drones, satellite imaging, supply-chain mapping, and field research shows a systematic pattern of forest-burning.  The New York Times had a more detailed report on the deforestation, including on-the-ground accounts by their reporters.  A paper in the journal Nature Plants analyzed the greenhouse gas impacts of bread production, looking at all steps in the supply chain.  The authors found that fertilizer production contributed 43% of global warming potential, the largest of any step.

According to a new paper in the journal Geology by researchers from the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles in northwest Canada, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers.  Similar large-scale landscape changes are evident across the Arctic, including in Alaska, Siberia, and Scandinavia.

Energy

Let’s start off the Energy section with some optimistic news about batteries that use oxygen from the air in their charge/recharge cycles.  Batteries of this type have the potential for being less expensive with higher energy density than current batteries, making them good candidates for backup power storage for solar and wind installations.  In the meantime, lithium-ion battery arrays are going to be used at two wind farms in Texas.  They are slated to come on-line by the end of 2017.

Another form of renewable energy, which I have included previously but which is not as developed as wind and solar, is ocean energy.  Writing on the website of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Renee Cho provided an overview of the technology, with a description of each of the techniques being considered.  Even though this article was posted on February 14, I have included it because it provides such a complete picture of the technology.

IKEA is installing a 470,000-square-foot solar array on its new Midwestern distribution center, which, once completed, will be the largest solar rooftop in the state of Illinois.  And speaking of solar panels, check out Business Insider’s photo report on Tesla’s alternative to traditional solar panels for residential installations.

Last summer EPA announced new regulations to restrict methane emissions from new or modified oil and gas operations.  At the same time, they sent out an information request to existing facilities asking for them to provide information about their emissions and how they were seeking to control them.  On Thursday, EPA withdrew that request.

Arizona has been a solar battle ground for the past five years, with major fights between electric utilities and rooftop solar advocates over the rates for households and businesses with solar installations.  Now an agreement has been reached between Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest public utility, and a group of solar interests, which, if approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission, will allow solar to remain a viable option in the state.  Nevertheless, solar advocates expressed dissatisfaction with the agreement.  On the subject of renewable energy and battles with traditional electric utilities, are you familiar with the “clean energy paradox”?  If not, then you might find “A World Turned Upside Down” in The Economist to be interesting.  It explains the complexities of adding renewable energy to traditional power grids, including why renewables can be “bad news for the vertically integrated giants that grew up in the age of centralized generating by the gigawatt.”

A forecast by China’s National Energy Administration predicts that China’s CO2 emissions in 2017 will drop 1% from 2016, making it the fourth consecutive year of either zero growth or a decline in the country’s emissions, despite its continued increase in energy consumption.  This decoupling is due to large deployment of renewable energy.  In contrast, Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution jumped 3.4% in 2015-16, compared to 2014-2015, as coal use continued to rise after the scrapping of their carbon price.  Meanwhile, in the U.S., 8.7 GW of electric generating capacity by wind and 7.7 GW of solar capacity were added in 2016, along with 9 GW of natural gas capacity and 1 GW of nuclear, offsetting 12 GW of coal and natural gas retirements, for a net increase of 15 GW, the largest increase since 2011.  Furthermore, off-shore wind energy companies point out that installing large turbines along the Atlantic coast will help create thousands of jobs, boost domestic manufacturing, and restore U.S. energy independence.

It is becoming more common for states to assess a fee for electric vehicles.  A stated reason is that the owners of electric vehicles do not pay road taxes, which are normally levied against gasoline and diesel fuel.  However, a Koch brothers initiative is also working to initiate fees on electric vehicles.  David Roberts argued in Vox that our broken federal gas tax is a major underlying cause of these levies.

These news items have been compiled by Les Grady, member and former chair of the CAAV steering committee. He is a licensed professional engineer (retired) who taught environmental engineering at Purdue and Clemson Universities and engaged in private practice with CH2M Hill, the world’s largest environmental engineering consulting firm. Since his retirement in 2003 he has devoted much of his time to the study of climate science and the question of global warming and makes himself available to speak to groups about this subject. More here.

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