Two advocacy groups have come up with a new tactic to show how climate change—and laws to deal with it—could make investments in fossil fuel companies riskier and rock financial markets.
In a pair of first-of-their-kind shareholder resolutions, the groups have asked two of the nation's largest coal producers to report to investors how much of their coal assets would be left "stranded" in the ground if the United States were to pass sweeping greenhouse gas regulations.
As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group for environmental issues, filed a resolution with CONSOL Energy late last year. The Unitarian Universalist Association, a religious organization that promotes social justice, filed a similar resolution with Alpha Natural Resources.
The groups' point is that coal and other energy companies would be dangerously overvalued in a carbon-regulated world, thus creating a "carbon bubble" that could one day pop.
"This carbon bubble is so big, it's going to make the housing bubble look like chump change," Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow, said in an interview. "It's another order of magnitude."
The carbon bubble concept is relatively new, born out of a recent scientific paper that has united climate change activists and some in the financial community in a common pursuit: to rethink the value of investments in coal, oil and gas.
The State Department's recent conclusion that the Keystone XL pipeline "is unlikely to have a substantial impact" on the rate of Canada's oil sands development was based on analysis provided by two consulting firms with ties to oil and pipeline companies that could benefit from the proposed project.
EnSys Energy has worked with ExxonMobil, BP and Koch Industries, which own oil sands production facilities and refineries in the Midwest that process heavy Canadian crude oil. Imperial Oil, one of Canada's largest oil sands producers, is a subsidiary of Exxon.
ICF International works with pipeline and oil companies but doesn't list specific clients on its website. It declined to comment on the Keystone, referring questions to the State Department.
EnSys president Martin Tallett said he couldn't talk about the proposed pipeline, but he pointed out that in addition to working for the oil industry, his company also works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and the World Bank.
"We don't do advocacy," Tallett said. "Our goal is to tell it like it is, to tell the way we see it… If we were the pet of government agencies or oil companies, the other side wouldn't come to us."
New national science standards that make the teaching of global warming part of the public school curriculum are slated to be released this month, potentially ending an era in which climate skepticism has been allowed to seep into the nation's classrooms.
The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nonprofit Achieve and more than two dozen states. The latest draft recommends that educators teach the evidence for man-made climate change starting as early as elementary school and incorporate it into all science classes, ranging from earth science to chemistry. By eighth grade, students should understand that "human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming)," the standards say.
They're "revolutionary," said Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a nonprofit that defends evolution and climate education and opposes the teaching of religious views as science.
The 26 states that helped write the standards are expected to adopt them. Another 15 or so have indicated they may accept them—meaning climate change instruction could make its way into classrooms in 40-plus states.
Tensions are building between the struggling U.S. offshore wind industry and the federal agency that oversees it.
Industry leaders worry that a new federal program designed to spark offshore wind construction could end up killing proposals that have been in the works for years, according to developers at the annual Offshore Wind Power USA conference this week in Boston.
The federal government has jurisdiction over much of the nation's offshore wind resources, but it only recently began developing regulations that would help the industry get off the ground. In the interim, states along the Atlantic Coast began soliciting wind proposals and developing programs to help jump-start development.
President Obama's expected choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency is Gina McCarthy, who as an assistant EPA administrator has shaped some of the agency's most contentious rules, including greenhouse gas regulations for new cars and power plants and air pollution standards for oil and gas drilling.
McCarthy, 58, hasn't made any public statements about what she would do if confirmed as EPA administrator, and the Office of Air and Radiation—which she currently heads—didn't return a request for comment. To get an idea of how she might lead the agency, we examined some of the speeches she's given over the past four years.
McCarthy's record shows she's a strong supporter of climate action. In 2009, when Congress was debating a carbon cap-and-trade bill (which died in 2010), she told a group of Connecticut energy experts that the country needs a "comprehensive energy bill moving forward that provides a cap-and-trade system" to deal with climate change.
As concerns rise over plans to pipe Canadian tar sands oil to the East Coast for the first time, a dormant effort to clean up the region's fuels is showing new signs of life.
The Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM) has accelerated a project to crunch the full "life cycle" carbon emissions of vehicle fuels used in the region—from their extraction through to their refining, transportation and combustion.
With the fuel tracker, NESCAUM hopes to advance a clearer picture of the transport sector's sizable—and growing—contribution to regional greenhouse gas emissions.
The new data, expected to be released later this year, could be the underpinning of a climate policy several years in the works called the Clean Fuels Standard.
WASHINGTON—With a couple of lines tucked into his State of the Union speech this month, President Obama pitched the tent for a three-ring circus starring advocates with competing agendas: controlling greenhouse gases, expanding fossil fuel development and conserving open spaces.
The idea Obama proposed would siphon $2 billion from the swelling oil and gas royalties the government expects to collect over the next decade and devote it to federally sponsored clean-car research that has been starved for cash. The question is what he will have to give up in negotiations to get what he wants.
"Much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together," he said in the speech. "So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good."
The likely nomination of nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz to lead the Department of Energy has drawn criticism from some environmentalists who say his support for natural gas and close ties to industry would undermine efforts to tackle climate change. Moniz strongly favors natural gas as a "bridge fuel" and directs the MIT Energy Initiative, a research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is funded by some of the world's largest fossil fuel companies.
"His appointment to the DOE could set renewable energy development back years," said a statement released by Food and Water Watch. The environmental group is circulating a petition opposing Moniz's nomination.
But an examination of Moniz's public record indicates a more nuanced outlook. Moniz did not return requests for an interview. However, in speeches and reports over the past few years, he has expressed concern for climate change, proposed additional funding for renewable energy and recommended more stringent regulations for natural gas production. He even hinted that he might support a tax on electricity to fund clean energy research.
The average "energy returned on investment," or EROI, for conventional oil is roughly 25:1. In other words, 25 units of oil-based energy are obtained for every one unit of other energy that is invested to extract it.
But tar sands oil is in a category all its own.
Tar sands retrieved by surface mining has an EROI of only about 5:1, according to research released Tuesday. Tar sands retrieved from deeper beneath the earth, through steam injection, fares even worse, with a maximum average ratio of just 2.9 to 1. That means one unit of natural gas is needed to create less than three units of oil-based energy.
"They have to use a lot of natural gas to upgrade this heavy, sticky, gooky almost tar-like stuff to make it fluid enough to use," said Charles Hall, a professor at the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Hydrogen from gas heats the tar sands so the viscous form of petroleum it contains, known as bitumen, can be liquefied and pumped out of the ground. In this way, Hall said, gas helps turn tar sands "into something a bit closer to what we call oil."
As many as 40,000 protesters from 30 states descended on the White House on Sunday and demanded that President Obama kill the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. By the estimates of organizers, it was the biggest protest march for climate change action in the nation's history.
In about 18 cities from Boston to Los Angeles, thousands more participated in solidarity rallies—and helped garner unusual nationwide media attention for an issue that has typically slipped under the local media radar.