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Richmond v Chevron: the California city taking on its most powerful polluter

Susie Cagle, THE GUARDIAN

The Chevron refinery that looms over Richmond, California, its muted orange tanks nestled into the scrubby low-slung hills above San Francisco Bay, is older than the city itself.

The refinery processes nearly 250,000 barrels of crude oil each day. When it “flares”, as it did more often in 2018 than in any other year over the past decade, dark smoke spirals up and across town in the bay breeze.

When it explodes, like it did in 1989, 1999 and 2012, the thick cloud is visible across the bay and beyond, a blot against the sky that ascends before falling and settling on everything within a multi-mile vicinity that is not covered, closed or sealed up.

A fire on 6 August 2012 sent more than 15,000 people to seek treatment for respiratory distress at local hospitals.

Richmond has long been known for the three Cs: crime, corruption and Chevron. You could also add coal to that list, which the Levin-Richmond terminal began exporting out of the city in 2013, along with coke, the petroleum-refining byproduct.

Despite its proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley’s wealth, Richmond’s median household income is below the California state average, with more than 15% of residents living in poverty. More than 80% of residents are people of colour. And Richmond children have roughly twice the rate of asthma as their neighbours countywide.

“It’s a textbook example of an environmental justice community,” said Matt Holmes, the executive director of the nonprofit Groundwork Richmond. “I think the whole country owes Richmond a debt.”

And the city is here to collect. Richmond may be a company city, but it is in open and sustained conflict with the industries that sustain it. Environmental justice activists here are fighting a multi-front war against the fossil fuels that gave the city life, but which, they argue, are also slowly killing it.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/richmond-chevron-california-city-polluter-fossil-fuel

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Renewable energy capacity now exceeds coal in U.S.

YALE ENVIRONMENT 360

Renewable energy now generates more electricity in the United States than coal. Solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal totaled 21.56 percent of U.S. generating capacity as of April, according to a report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Coal, meanwhile, accounted for just 21.55 percent of capacity, down from 23.04 percent last year.

As Engadget reports, this gap is likely to widen in the coming months. FERC notes that renewable energy has added 1 percentage point to its share of U.S. installed capacity every year, and says that sector could account for 25 percent by 2022. A total of 186,000 megawatts of proposed wind and solar projects are expected to go online in the next four years.

Coal capacity has dropped to its lowest level in 40 years. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than half of the U.S. coal mines operating in 2008 — when coal production peaked — have since closed. Natural gas, however, continues to grow, accounting for more than 44 percent of U.S. total energy capacity in April.

Source: https://e360.yale.edu/digest/renewable-energy-capacity-now-exceeds-coal-in-the-u-s

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The natural gas industry has a leak problem

John Schwartz and Brad Plumer, THE NEW YORK TIMES

The American oil and gas industry is leaking more methane than the government thinks — much more, a new study says. Since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, that is bad news for climate change.

The new study, published Thursday in the journal Science, puts the rate of methane emissions from domestic oil and gas operations at 2.3 percent of total production per year, which is 60 percent higher than the current estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency. That might seem like a small fraction of the total, but it represents an estimated 13 million metric tons lost each year, or enough natural gas to fuel 10 million homes.

Thanks to a boom in hydraulic fracturing in states like Texas and Pennsylvania, natural gas has quickly replaced coal as the leading fuel used by America’s power plants. It has also helped, to some extent, in the fight against climate change: When burned for electricity, natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does. The shift from coal to gas has helped lower CO₂ emissions from America’s power plants by 27 percent since 2005.

But methane, the main component of natural gas, can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period if it escapes into the atmosphere before being burned. A recent study found that natural gas power plants could actually be worse for climate change than coal plants if their leakage rate rose above 4 percent.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/21/climate/methane-leaks.html

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India, once a coal goliath, is fast turning green

Geeta Anand, THE NEW YORK TIMES
Just a few years ago, the world watched nervously as India went on a building spree of coal-fired power plants, more than doubling its capacity and claiming that more were needed. Coal output, officials said, would almost triple, to 1.5 billion tons, by 2020.

India’s plans were cited by American critics of the Paris climate accord as proof of the futility of advanced nations trying to limit their carbon output. But now, even as President Trump pulls the United States out of the pact, India has undergone an astonishing turnaround, driven in great part by a steep fall in the cost of solar power.

Experts now say that India not only has no need of any new coal-fired plants for at least a decade, given that existing plants are running below 60 percent of capacity, but that after that it could rely on renewable sources for all its additional power needs.

Rather than building coal-fired plants, it is now canceling many in the early planning stages. And last month, the government lowered its annual production target for coal to 600 million tons from 660 million.

The sharp reversal, welcome news to world leaders trying to avert the potentially deadly effects of global warming, is a reflection both of the changing economics of renewable energy and a growing environmental consciousness in a country with some of the worst air pollution in the world.

Read more at: India, Once a Coal Goliath, Is Fast Turning Green – The New York Times

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What does a Trump presidency portend for California’s environmental policies?

Richard Frank, LEGAL PLANET
Sensing political storm clouds ahead, California Governor Jerry Brown yesterday issued a statement on the presidential election results that concludes: “We will protect the precious rights of our people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time–devastating climate change.”
Several of my Legal Planet colleagues have recently posted thoughtful commentary on what Donald Trump’s election as the nation’s 45th president signifies for national environmental law and policy.  By contrast, I’d like to focus on the potential for significant political dissonance between the incoming Trump Administration and the State of California.
In my view, that potential is sky-high, given California’s longstanding commitment to environmental and energy policies that are anathema to those articulated by Trump in the just-concluded presidential campaign and currently being reiterated by senior members of his transition team.
Business leaders, property rights advocates and Tea Party activists are all seeking the Trump Administration’s active support for their efforts to re-energize the oil, gas and coal industries, aggressively promote private development of federal lands, dismantle or curb USEPA’s regulatory programs and suspend the Obama Administration’s aggressive pursuit of greenhouse gas reduction goals.  California Governor Brown’s above-quoted statement confirms that the Golden State will continue to pursue its environmental, conservation and climate change objectives notwithstanding the dramatic environmental policy shift we can expect under Trump’s presidency.
Past political history demonstrates that such a clash between California and the federal government is likely.  When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, with both houses of Congress in Republican hands, similar political turbulence quickly developed between the Reagan Administration and Reagan’s home state of California on a number of environmental issues.
At its heart, this was, and is, a battle of federalism principles: the proper, respective roles of the federal and state governments in charting public policy, together with the legal authority of both to act.
As we gird for likely legal and political battles between California and the federal government over environmental policy, three constitutional doctrines are likely to play a key role:

  • preemption,
  • regulatory takings
  • and the dormant Commerce Clause.

I briefly review each of those doctrines and their relevance below.
Read more at: What Does a Trump Presidency Portend for California’s Environmental Policies? | Legal Planet

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How Utah coal interests helped push a secret plan to export coal through California 

Sarah Tory, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
On June 27, hundreds of people packed the Oakland City Council meeting where a proposal to ban the transport of coal through the California city was up for a vote. Speakers on both sides of the issue delivered passionate arguments, pitting the promise of good jobs in a depressed area against concern about environmental impacts. The meeting quickly became rowdy. “There was a lot of tension,” says Rev. Ken Chambers, pastor of West Side Missionary Baptist Church in West Oakland, who spoke in support of the ban. Pro-coal supporters stationed in the audience heckled him throughout his address, and at times, Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the council president, struggled to maintain order.
“Officers,” she requested, “please escort those persons who continue to have disrespectful outbursts outside of the chamber.”
The vote came after more than a year of heated debate over plans to build a marine terminal, from which coal mined in Utah could be shipped to Asia. The proposed terminal was part of a larger redevelopment project slated for the old Oakland Army Base, located in West Oakland, a predominantly black neighborhood that’s among the region’s poorest and most polluted.
One by one, the seven council members present voted to uphold the ban on transporting coal. The decision was finalized by a second vote on July 19, leaving the proposed $250 million project in limbo.  Without coal as one of the terminal’s possible bulk commodities, proponents warned, it would be at risk of losing critical funding — depriving an economically struggling neighborhood of job opportunities. Critics of the plan, however, worried that transporting millions of tons of coal by rail  — even in covered cars — through West Oakland poses a public health and safety risk to local residents, who already experience high levels of air pollution.
The decision — and the wider controversy around it — places Oakland at the center of a growing battle over coal exports on the West Coast. From British Columbia all the way to California, plans for new export terminals are faltering, thanks to opposition from local communities concerned about climate change and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel development.
Read more at: How Utah coal interests helped push a secret plan to export coal from California — High Country News

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The untold story behind the Clean Power Plan

Carl Pope, HUFFPOST GREEN

So, in seven years, the fuel that launched the industrial revolution went from the height of its magnificence to a tottering finale. How did it happen, and what is the role of the Clean Power Plant rule in the saga?

The media missed the real story on the Obama Clean Power Plan. Most outlets, like the NYT, hail it as a ground-breaking major new initiative, which “could lead to the closing of hundreds of polluting coal-fired power plants, freeze future construction of such plants and lead to an explosion in production of wind and solar energy,” while Republicans blasted it as a huge example of Presidential hubris — precisely because it would accomplish those goals.
Political insiders like Politico and Slate claim it isn’t such a big deal. And at first blush the numbers seem to support the skeptics.The new rule will require reductions in carbon pollution from the power sector by 770 million tons — 32% against a 2005 baseline. But by the end of 2014, utilities had already cleaned up 350 million tons, and emissions were cut by another 15% in the first four months of 2015.
As of last week, power companies had also announced the future shut-down of additional plants which should lead to another 120 million tons — for a pre-CPP rule total of more than 470 out of the 770 million. So most of the cuts required have already taken place or been announced. Even Kentucky, the state whose Senior Senator, Mitch McConnell, seems willing to restart the Civil War over the EPA regulations, was already retiring or had retired 14 coal boilers — and these retirements will provide most of the emission cuts required under the CPP. What’s the big deal?
It’s true that the announcement of the final version of the CPP is more in the nature of a mopping-up operation than the initial invasion of Normandy. But armies engage in mopping-up operations only after they secure victory, and the CPP did not spring like Venus from the brow of President Obama last week — there’s a long history here. The CPP is the keystone of one of the most dramatic and fundamental economic restructures in history.
To understand what’s happened, look back to the summer of 2008. Coal was generating more than half of U.S. electricity, Peabody stock was headed towards $84.05/share, up two-fold since its 2001 IPO. Export coal from Australia was selling for close to $200/ton on the back of Chinese demand. U.S. utilities had proposed to add 150 new coal fired power plants to the 500 coal boilers the country already relied upon.
Read more at: The Untold Story Behind the Clean Power Rule | Carl Pope

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Gas surges ahead of coal in US power generation

Karl Mathiesen, THE GUARDIAN
For the first time ever, gas has usurped coal as the biggest producer of electricity in the US. Analysts say Obama administration’s proposed climate change rules are likely to establish gas as the predominant source of electricity as early as 2020.
Figures released by the US government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that in April, natural gas produced 31.5 per cent of the country’s electricity and coal 30.2 per cent.
The interregnum will not last, with coal expected to average around 35.6 per cent of generation across 2015. But a decade ago, such an inversion was unthinkable. Americans got half their electricity from coal and just a fifth from natural gas. Now the two are neck and neck.
In April a glut of fracked gas from new shale regions drove the price of gas down to just $2.50/million Btu (British thermal unit, a widely-used measure of energy), a 35 per cent drop since February. This oversupply, combined with a routine seasonal shut down of coal plants, caused gas production to creep above coal for the first time.
“Power generators often use the spring months to take their plants offline for maintenance, especially coal plants. This maintenance period happened to coincide with a period of very low natural gas [prices],” said Tyler Hodge who works on the EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook.
Hodge said gas prices were expected to rise again in the coming months, and coal would reassert itself at the top of the production table when plants fire up again for the winter.
In 2012, gas prices fell even lower and production almost overtook coal, but coal returned to dominance. “So this [gas surge] is by no means irreversible,” said Michael Obeiter, a senior associate in the World Resources Institute’s climate programme. But he said the short term fluctuations in gas price were compounding an overall drift away from coal and the trend favoured “natural gas becoming the dominant source for electricity generation in the US in the coming years.”
Read more at: Gas surges ahead of coal in US power generation – 15 Jul 2015 – News from BusinessGreen

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Obama builds environmental legacy using Clean Air Act

Coral Davenport, NEW YORK TIMES

Taken together, the Clean Air Act regulations issued during the Obama administration have led to the creation of America’s first national policy for combating global warming and a fundamental reshaping of major sectors of the economy, specifically auto manufacturing and electric utilities. The regulations could ultimately shut down existing coal-fired power plants, freeze construction of new coal plants and end demand for the nation’s most polluting fuel.

President Obama could leave office with the most aggressive, far-reaching environmental legacy of any occupant of the White House. Yet it is very possible that not a single major environmental law will have passed during his two terms in Washington.
Instead, Mr. Obama has turned to the vast reach of the Clean Air Act of 1970, which some legal experts call the most powerful environmental law in the world. Faced with a Congress that has shut down his attempts to push through an environmental agenda, Mr. Obama is using the authority of the act passed at the birth of the environmental movement to issue a series of landmark regulations on air pollution, from soot to smog, to mercury and planet-warming carbon dioxide.
The Supreme Court could still overturn much of Mr. Obama’s environmental legacy, although the justices so far have upheld the regulations in three significant cases. More challenges are expected, the most recent of which was taken up by the court on Tuesday. The act, however, was designed by lawmakers in a Democratic Congress to give the Environmental Protection Agency, which was created at the same time, great flexibility in its interpretation of the law.
Read more via Obama Builds Environmental Legacy With 1970 Law – NYTimes.com.

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China-U.S. climate accord goals achievable; policies are already in place

Henry Fountain and John Schwartznov, THE NEW YORK TIMES
For all the pronouncements about the United States and China reaching a historic climate pact, the agreement they announced Wednesday does not signal a seismic shift in policies by either nation, experts said.
The United States and China should both be able to meet the stated goals by aggressively pursuing policies that are largely in place, these analysts said. For the United States, those include the Obama administration’s proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants, which would go into effect in 2017. Experts said that in practice it should be possible to wring more emissions cuts from that and other climate-related measures without adding to costs.
“We think that the tools are there to meet this target,” said David Doniger, director of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Politics, of course, may get in the way — Republicans in Congress vowed to fight the power plant proposal even before it was introduced in June, and some, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is set to become the majority leader next year, have already sharply criticized the China pact.
Policy analysts said a changing energy mix for China, including a buildup of renewable energy sources and nuclear power, had been in the works for some time. “What China is pledging to do here is not a lot different from what China’s policies are on a track to deliver,” said David G. Victor, who studies climate policy at the University of California at San Diego.
Wang Yi, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said experts in China had reached a consensus that the 2030 date was achievable for its targets, and that 2025 would be a more ambitious goal.
The agreement, announced during President Obama’s visit with President Xi Jinping in Beijing, calls for the United States to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. That represents a significant acceleration in the rate of reduction from the president’s earlier pledge to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020.
Read more and see infographics via Climate Accord Relies on Environmental Policies Now in Place – NYTimes.com.