Climate and Energy News Roundup 3/10/2018

Les Grady is away for the next two weeks. This week’s roundup has been compiled by Doug Hendren. 

POLITICS & POLICY

Kids climate lawsuit moves forward. A federal court in San Francisco has rejected the Trump administration’s latest attempt to shut down Juliana v. United States. Says chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust: “The Ninth Circuit just gave us the green light for trial.”

Hard-hit by the two nor’easters in one week, Governor Charlie Baker is preparing to file a Massachusetts climate change bill. Speaking on WGBH radio, Baker stated: “We’re going to have to come up with a different strategy around resilience. And 35 Vermont communities have voted to support a statewide effort to combat climate change.

On March 21st, a federal court in San Francisco will hold the first-ever hearings on climate science. Oil giants, and the California cities suing them, will present “tutorials” about basic climate science, as well as who knew what, and when.

As Atlantic Coast Pipeline moves to construction, groups urge Northam to act. Northam has stated he is “confident in the public servants at the DEQ”, although the DEQ previously ceded the review of VA water crossings to the Army Corps of Engineers, and the DEQ’s performance has not inspired confidence in this process to date.

Wednesday, March 14th DEQ Air Pollution Control Board Hearing will take place at 4411 Early Road, Harrisonburg at 5PM. Hearing concerns the proposed carbon emissions cap for Virginia (joining the RGGI states).

CLIMATE

The polar vortex strikes again.  The north pole has been warmer than Europe in recent weeks. Arctic regions are overheating, with areas up to 35-50 degrees (F) above normal temperatures. Springtime is coming to the north far earlier than in the past. A recent study proposes a simple rule of thumb: For every 10 degrees you go north from the equator, spring is now arriving four days earlier than a decade ago.

Snowpack has declined 15-30% in the American west over the past century, partly because what once fell as snow now falls as rain. The amount of water normally stored as the region’s snowpack is roughly equivalent to all the water stored in regional reservoirs, including Lake Mead. Parts of the southwestern US depend heavily on melting snowpack during summer months.

Is mainstream news starting to talk about rising sea levels? A forthcoming report reviewed by NPR asserts that “today’s storm will be tomorrow’s high tide… it’s coming.” NOAA calculations indicate that in many coastal areas (including Norfolk, VA), tidal flooding “is going to become chronic rather quickly… It’s not going to be a slow, gradual change.”  And this week the Boston Globe reported: “The storms we’re seeing now, people thought this was decades in the future”. Increased flooding risk applies to inland areas as well: A new study finds 41 million Americans living in flood zones, over three times larger than FEMA’s official estimate.

A new study finds it still possible to hold global warming to 1.5°C by 2100, if global emissions peak by 2020, decline rapidly thereafter, and massive amounts of carbon are removed from the atmosphere in the second half of the century. At our current rate of global emissions, our carbon budget of 230GtCO2 for a 1.5C future will be exhausted in six years.

ENERGY

California set a new state solar record this week, briefly supplying 49.95% of electric grid demand from solar sources. Investors are eager to supply more, but regulators may put on the brakes while they figure out how to manage such rapid growth.

March 5-9 has been CERAWeek in Houston, an annual conference once described as “The Burning Man of energy”.  This year’s conference agenda is here. Reporting on the conference, Ed Crooks (Financial Times) opines that oil industry leaders seem to think of the transition away from fossil fuels the way most people think about dying…”They understand it intellectually, but hope it is a long way off.” The CEO of Saudi Aramco feels renewables will not compete with oil in cost or scale “for some time”, and BP’s CEO says “the world will need a lot of oil for a long time to come”.  Environmental Defense Fund’s Mark Brownstein offers a different view: “Everyone here seems to be certain the energy transition will be steady and orderly…but in the past few years we have seen the shale boom, and the plunging cost of solar power…we should be prepared for the possibility that it will be sudden and chaotic. Complacency is a strategic mistake.”

As expected, the US remains an outlier, even in an audience of fossil industry leaders, all of whom acknowledge growing concern about global warming. According to Financial Times’ Ed Crooks, Rick Perry was clearly “out of step with the industry in his refusal to engage with the issue in any detail”.

These are heady days for the US shale oil industry, with production (10 million barrels per day) on par with Russia and Saudi Arabia. Thanks to a late-2016 agreement to cut back production signed by leading global oil producers (including Russia and OPEC nations), world oil prices are up 15-20% from a year ago. Current prices are adequate to support the higher costs of fracking for US shale oil, and the US may surpass Russia this year as the world’s largest oil producer.

Does all this mean “peak oil” is dead? Don’t bet on it, warns Richard Heinberg. While declining world oil production has been “rescued” by US shale oil production, it has been the result of some economic sleight-of-hand. The fracking boom, Heinberg explains, occurred in the context of the 2008 economic collapse, and a subsequent flood of nearly 10 trillion dollars created by central banks in the US, Europe, England and China, making essentially unlimited, very cheap money available to the nascent fracking industry. The industry is, Heinberg explains, unprofitable on the whole.  Heinberg sees a huge bubble of debt hanging over the industry, foreseeing it will burst at some point with far-reaching consequences.

Another message from CERAWeek was the wide range of opinions about the impact of climate policies and electric vehicles on oil demand. Mary Barra, General Motors CEO, assert GM’s “commitment to an all-electric, zero-emissions future…regardless of any modifications in fuel-economy standards”. Stiil, execs agreed they “weren’t losing any sleep”,  voicing confidence in the low penetration of EVs to date. [For a very different view on how fast EVs might take over, check out Stanford professor Tony Seba’s vision of “Clean Disruption”.]

My general impression from reporting on CERAWeek is to side with the views expressed by Brownstein and Heinberg.  The US shale oil industry is dependent for its survival on two things:1) continuing international production restraint to prop up oil prices, and 2) the continuing river of cheap money that began after the 2008 meltdown. Both are risky assumptions. In addition, in 2008, it took only a 5% drop in US oil demand to drop gasoline prices from $4 to $1.80 or so. The industry is exquisitely sensitive to small changes. The climate window is indeed closing fast, and we are unlikely to have a shot at 1.5°C. But a lot of exciting things are happening, too.

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