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Obama admin sued for dragging feet on studies of climate impacts

alarm clock that says "late"
Shutterstock

Just over a year ago, we told you that the Obama administration would soon start requiring federal agencies to consider climate change when analyzing the environmental impacts of major projects that need federal approval. Bloomberg reported in March of last year that the new guidelines would "be issued in the coming weeks."

But many weeks have come and gone and the guidelines still haven't been released, so now activists are suing the administration to hurry things along.

The lawsuit revolves around the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to study the environmental impacts of projects they oversee and to develop strategies for reducing those impacts. Since passage of the landmark law in 1969, NEPA assessments have covered a variety of potential environmental impacts. In early 2008, major environmental groups petitioned the George W. Bush administration to include climate impacts among them. After Obama came into office, his administration said it would broaden the scope of NEPA studies to cover climate change, and in 2010, it issued draft guidelines to this effect, but they've been bottled up at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) ever since.

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What’s worse than burning coal? Burning wood

wood fire
Shutterstock

In its scramble for new and clean energy sources, the U.S. government is failing to see the forest for the burning trees.

The burning of biomass to produce electricity is marketed as clean and renewable, and promoted by federal policies. But a report published Wednesday concludes that burning wood is more polluting than burning coal.

More than 70 wood-burning plants are under construction or have been built in the U.S. since 2005, with 75 more planned, according to the analysis by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Integrity.

For every megawatt-hour of electricity produced, even the "cleanest" of the American biomass plants pump out nearly 50 percent more carbon dioxide than coal-burning plants, PFPI staff researcher Mary Booth, a former Environmental Working Group scientist, concluded after poring over data associated with 88 air emissions permits. The biomass plants also produce more than twice as much nitrogen oxide, soot, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic matter as coal plants.

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Pennsylvania officials have no idea how to assess health threats of fracking

frackwell_marcellusshale
WCN 24/7

Could it be that frackers are die-hard Ravens fans? That might explain their cavalier attitude about the health of citizens in Steeler Country.

Kidding! Money is the motive, yinz -- and if Pennsylvanians are exposed to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals in the making of it, who cares?

An alarming new study by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, published in the journal Reviews on Environmental Health, finds that current methods and tools used to measure harmful emissions from fracking wells don’t accurately assess health threats -- not even close, in fact.

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California’s cap-and-trade program pays loggers to clearcut old-growth forests

Clearcutting in in Tuolumne County
Ebbets Pass Forest Watch
Does this look climate-friendly to you?

Timber industry lobbyists clinched a nice little victory in Sacramento four years ago, and now forests and the climate are paying the price.

Under California's cap-and-trade program, which began in late 2012, timber companies can earn carbon credits by felling forests and chopping down old-growth trees -- and then replanting the razed earth with younger trees. Which they will eventually chop down, again, after they have grown. The idea was that the younger trees would suck up a lot of carbon dioxide as they grew. But that flies in the face of scientific findings, published earlier this year in the journal Nature, that older trees are far better than their younger cousins at sucking carbon out of the sky.

A coalition of environmental groups sent a letter on Tuesday to the California Air Resources Board and Climate Action Reserve, the state's carbon-offset registry, urging them to reconsider the wrongheaded rules:

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Vermont expands solar net metering, gives finger to ALEC

Solar panels in Vermont
Tim Patterson

Bad news for the polluter-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, but wonderful news for the planet.

In 2012 and 2013, ALEC tried to roll back states' renewable energy standards, and failed. Now it's trying to roll back solar net-metering programs, which let homeowners sell electricity from their rooftop panels into the grid, and that campaign isn't going so well either.

Case in point: In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) just signed a bill that will expand the state's net-metering program, allowing solar panel owners to sell more of their clean electricity into the grid.

The bill will nearly quadruple the size of a cap on the amount of solar power that utilities must be willing to buy from their customers. It also creates pilot projects that could allow for solar projects as large as 5 megawatts to be built under the scheme. The AP reports:

Alternative energy proponents pushed for the increased cap after some Vermont utilities had reached the 4 percent cap and stopped taking new net-metered power.

"Our success exceeded our wildest dreams," Shumlin said before signing the bill into law, noting that since he took office in 2011 the state had quadrupled the amount of solar energy on the state's electric grid.

Vermont's increased use of alternative energy has helped the state to become the nation's per-capita leader in the number of solar energy jobs.

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Congress members ask EPA to reopen three fracking investigations

test water EPA
Shutterstock

A crew of Democratic House members are calling on the EPA to do its damned job -- specifically, to investigate potential links between pollution and fracking in three states where groundwater has been mysteriously poisoned.

Rep. Matt Cartwright's (D-Pa.) letter, sent Tuesday to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy with signatures from seven other lawmakers, follows the agency's disturbing decisions to drop three investigations into possible connections between fracking and water contamination.

In mid-2012, the EPA dropped an investigation into water pollution in Dimock, Pa., despite internal warnings from one of the agency's scientists that methane levels jumped in aquifers following drilling -- "perhaps as a result of fracking." In early 2013, the agency dropped its investigation into water pollution in Parker County, Texas -- despite lacking confidence in the quality of water tests conducted by the frackers themselves. And in the middle of last year, the EPA dropped its investigation into water contamination around Pavilion, Wyo. -- despite findings in a draft report that fracking chemicals were likely to blame.

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Republican’s bill calls for weather forecasting, not climate forecasting

Bridenstine squirrel
Scott Gentzen

If Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) were a squirrel, he'd have starved over the winter.

Like a maladapted rodent that's too short-sighted to save any nuts for the lean season ahead, the climate denier is sponsoring legislation that would force NOAA to focus on short-term weather forecasting at the expense of long-term climate modeling. The Hill reports that the bill, which now has 13 Republican and seven Democratic cosponsors, could get its first real hearing this week.

Bridenstine introduced the bill after 48 Oklahomans were killed by a brutal string of tornadoes last spring. "My state has seen all too many times the destructive power of tornadoes and severe weather," Bridenstine said at the time. Then he staged a bizarre tirade on the House floor in which he demanded that President Barack Obama apologize for spending "30 times as much money on global warming research as he does on weather forecasting and warning."

That would be quite the funding imbalance, were it true. But it's not. The figure is just plain wrong.

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Californians to receive $30 to $40 climate credit this month

piggy bank
Shutterstock

A year and a half after California started forcing some big polluters to pay for pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, households in the Golden State are about to start cashing in on the program.

The state's cap-and-trade program has raised nearly $1.7 billion so far. About 40 percent of proceeds are earmarked to be spent on clean energy initiatives, while the rest will be distributed to small utility customers through various programs, helping offset any increase in electricity prices. Residential customers of the state's investor-owned utilities, which together serve more than two-thirds of the state's electricity, will receive the first California Climate Credits on this month's electricity bills, reducing the amount due by roughly $30 to $40. The next residential credits will be paid out in October. Small business customers will receive them monthly.

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey said the credits will give "millions of Californians a stake in the fight for clean air and a healthy environment." He suggested electricity customers reinvest the money in efficient lightbulbs, smart thermostats, and other energy-saving measures to further reduce costs and to join the fight against climate change.

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What the U.N.’s new climate report says about North America

North America
NASA

Global warming is a global crisis, but the effects of climate change are being felt differently in different corners of the globe. The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of a world wracked by hunger, violence, and extinctions. But the IPCC also dedicates chapters to impacts that are underway and anticipated in individual regions and continents.

For North America, the report states there is "high confidence" of links between climate change and rising temperatures, ravaging downpours, and declining water supplies. Even if temperatures are allowed to rise by just 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 C), which is the goal of current international climate negotiations (a goal that won't be met unless everybody gets a lot more serious about curbing greenhouse gas pollution), such severe weather is going to get a lot worse.

North America's coastal regions will continue to face a particularly long list of hazards, with climate change bringing growing risks of "sea-level rise, warming, ocean acidification, extratropical cyclones, altered upwelling, and hurricanes and other storms."

Here are some highlights from the North American chapter of the IPCC's new report:

Observed climate trends in North America include an increased occurrence of severe hot weather events over much of the US, decreases in frost days, and increases in heavy precipitation over much of North America ...

Global warming of approximately 2°C (above the pre-industrial baseline) is very likely to lead to more frequent extreme heat events and daily precipitation extremes over most areas of North America, more frequent low snow years, and shifts towards earlier snowmelt runoff over much of the western US and Canada. Together with climate hazards such as higher sea levels and associated storm surges, more intense droughts, and increased precipitation variability, these changes are projected to lead to increased stresses to water, agriculture, economic activities and urban and rural settlements.

The following figure from the report shows how temperatures have already risen -- and how they are expected to continue to rise in different parts of the continent under relatively low ("RCP2.6") and high ("RCP8.5") greenhouse gas pollution scenarios:

Click to embiggen.
IPCC
Click to embiggen.
Read more: Climate & Energy

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U.N. climate report offers lots of bummer news plus a few dollops of encouragement

The maintenance costs are going through the roof.
NASA

Climate change has broken down the floodgates, pervading every corner of the globe and affecting every inhabitant. That was perhaps the clearest message from the newest report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the latest in a conga line of warnings about the need to radically and immediately reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Published Sunday, it's the second installment of the IPCC's fifth climate report. The first installment was released last September; the third comes out next month. (If you're wondering WTF the IPCC even is, here's an explainer.) This latest installment catalogues climate impacts that are already being felt around the world, including floods, heat waves, rising seas, and a slowing in the growth of crop yields:

Click to embiggen.
IPCC
Click to embiggen.

As we reported when a draft of key parts of the document was leaked in November, the IPCC says current risks will only worsen -- risks such as food crises and starvation, extinctions, heat waves, floods, droughts, violent protests, and wars.

Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke called the report an "S.O.S. to the world," reminding us that failure to "sharply curb carbon pollution" will mean more "punishing rainfall, heat waves, scorching drought, and fierce storm surges," and that the "toll on our health and economy will skyrocket."

But the report doesn't just focus on climate change's risks and threats -- it looks at ways in which national and local governments, communities, and the private sector can work to reduce those threats. And some of the news on climate adaptation is actually, gasp, slightly encouraging!