Briefly

Stuff that matters


snow problem

The Great Lakes are having Great Snowstorms partly thanks to climate change.

This week was one for the history books in Erie, Pennsylvania. In just two and a half days, the city racked up more than 5 feet of snow, more than its previous record over any two week period.

In a similar scenario three years ago, Buffalo, New York, set a new U.S. record of 77 inches in 24 hours. It may seem weird, but the warming waters of the Great Lakes are fueling this kind of colossal snowfall — for the time being.

These “lake-effect” snows are fed by the still-liquid parts of the Great Lakes during the early winter. When cold air blows over the open water, warmth and moisture rise into the atmosphere to create heavy bands of snow. The combination of frigid air, warm water, and perfectly aligned winds created this week’s ideal snow conditions in Erie.

Lake Erie, the shallowest and most ice-prone of the Great Lakes, used to reliably freeze over every year. But that’s starting to change: In recent years, Lake Erie has sometimes barely frozen at all. The chart below shows its percentage of maximum ice cover each year since 1973:

NOAA / GLERL

The same trend holds true for the rest of the Great Lakes, one of the fastest-warming parts of the lower 48. Since 1995, Great Lakes ice levels have been below normal 70 percent of the time. Eventually, though, air temperatures may warm so much that major lake-effect snows will become more rare.


Trickle-Down Economics

Scientists could predict snowpack levels before snow ever touches the ground.

New research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association could help pinpoint snow levels in mountain ranges across the western United States eight months in advance. That’s more certainty of the future than we’re getting from most government agencies these days, so we’ll take it!

“Snowpack” refers to layers of mountain snow that build up during the winter, harden into large masses of frozen water, and then melt in the spring. That melted snow trickles down to feed rivers and streams, bolster municipal water supplies, and supply farmers with a majority of the water they need to grow crops. Eighty percent of snowmelt runoff is used for agriculture.

A lack of snowpack, furthermore, is a big cause of wildfires and drought. Declining snowpack levels in Western mountain ranges in recent years contributed to 2017’s unprecedented drought and wildfire season.

Now, scientists at NOAA think they can help farmers and water managers in the West by predicting where water resources are most likely to accumulate and how much snowmelt can be expected.

This summer, researchers will already be working on snowpack predictions for March 2019 across the western U.S. — with the exception of the southern Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, where random storms make predictions difficult.


Sneaky Peak

Peak oil is back and better than ever.

Back when oil prices were high, people were talking a lot about peak oil supply — the possibility that we’d run out of new sources of crude oil eventually. But now people are talking about peak oil demand — the possibility that we’ll just stop using the stuff as we come up with better options.

Most recently, analysts from Bank of America and Merrill Lynch have predicted that oil consumption will peak by 2030, as electric vehicles become dominant. The (simplified) argument: Right now, batteries make electric vehicles relatively expensive. As battery prices fall, EVs will turn into a bargain and people will start buying them en masse. If 40 percent of new car sales are EVs by 2030, that would be enough to send our oil habit into decline.

Most oil companies are planning on demand peaking later — like 2040, 2050, or not at all (see ExxonMobil and Chevron). But Royal Dutch Shell is preparing for peak oil in as little as 10 years.


Public vs. Private

Puerto Rico will privatize its power utility.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced Monday that he will begin the process of selling the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, pending the approval of a federal judge and the island’s legislature.

Before Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the U.S. territory last September, PREPA was already saddled with $9 billion of debt and aging infrastructure. After the hurricane, the utility came under fire for a series of blunders — from hiring and then firing Whitefish Energy to allegedly hoarding necessary supplies. Today, 30 percent of the island is still without power.

“What we know today is the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority does not work and cannot continue to operate like this,” Governor Rosselló said in a statement.

But not everyone agrees that privatizing PREPA is the best solution. “[It’s] a recipe for Puerto Rico being raked over the coals by private interests,” Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told Reuters.

“I’m in Puerto Rico now and it’s not really a surprise, they have been laying the groundwork for this for years,” tweeted journalist Naomi Klein, referring to how “disaster capitalism” lets corporations profit off a society still reeling from a disaster. “The chaos post-storm was the perfect opening,” she said.


sun blocked

The United States will start taxing solar panel imports.

We’d previously mentioned that President Donald Trump hinted at a tariff to “tank the solar industry.” Today, the administration announced it’s actually doing it. Bloomberg called Trump’s move “the biggest blow he’s dealt to the renewable energy industry yet.”

The starting tax rate on imported solar cells will be 30 percent, but that will decline to 15 percent over the following three years. The United States imports 80 percent of its solar panels, mostly from Malaysia, South Korea, and a few other East Asian countries (where producers moved fleeing President Barack Obama’s levies targeting China). The new tax will likely drive up the price of solar installations in the U.S.

However, U.S. solar cell producers had lobbied for the tariff to help them compete. Some have argued that the tax could help domestic solar companies develop superior technology.

Ironically, this is exactly the sort of thing that might have saved Solyndra, the failed solar company that in 2011 became a whipping boy for Republicans critical of Obama’s efforts on renewables. Solyndra was working on a more efficient form of solar cell, but it was swamped by a flood of cheap imported silicon cells.

Now, we have a Republican president interfering with free trade to shelter today’s Solyndras. We’re through the looking glass.


retro-leum

The United States could become the world’s biggest oil producer. It’s been a while.

Spurred by the higher profit margins that come with fracking technology, U.S. oil production is poised to set a record in 2018, potentially passing top oil producers Saudi Arabia and Russia.

For context, the last time we were pulling this much oil out of the ground — in 1970 — the Beatles broke up, the Apollo 13 mission narrowly avoided disaster, the United States invaded Cambodia, and the dot-matrix printer made its debut.

Now we’ve moved on to 3D printers, but we’re still stuck with petroleum technology.

If you count natural gas, the United States has been the biggest oil and gas producer since 2014. While China is now the world’s largest fossil fuels burner and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States is a (much) larger producer, digging up and selling far more than our share of the problem.


Pipe Up

Opponents mount protests after major natural gas pipeline moves forward.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the PennEast Pipeline its certificate of public convenience and necessity on Friday, which also allows the company to acquire land through eminent domain.

The proposed $1 billion pipeline would run nearly 120 miles from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and transport up to 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. Its opponents say it would threaten the health and safety of nearby communities and endanger natural and historic resources. Proponents maintain that the pipeline is an economic boon that will lower energy costs for residents.

After getting the OK from FERC, the company moved up its estimated in-service date to 2019, with construction to begin this year. But it won’t necessarily be an easy road ahead. The pipeline still needs permits from the State of New Jersey, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Delaware River Basin Commission. And while Chris Christie was a big fan of the pipeline, newly elected Governor Phil Murphy ran a campaign promising a green agenda and has already voiced opposition.

Pipeline opponents are demonstrating this afternoon and taking the developers to court. “It’s just the beginning. New Jersey doesn’t need or want this damaging pipeline, and has the power to stop it when it faces a more stringent state review,” Tom Gilbert, campaign director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said in a statement.