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Want to Build with Federal Funds? New Order Requires Planning for Future Flood Risk

Executive order helps ensure tax dollars aren't wasted on repairing projects that just end up getting flooded again.

Feb 3, 2015

President Barack Obama's latest executive order looks to curb future damages from one of the nation's most common and costly forms of climate-related disasters: flooding.

The order, issued Jan. 30, creates a new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard that requires current—and future—flood risk assessments to be rolled into the planning and construction of federally funded projects in and around floodplains.

Today, most agencies determine a new construction project's flood hazard based on historic flood data, not future flood projections. In fact, the latest flood hazard maps designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency do not currently account for future risks—although the agency is working on this.

Wind Industry, Riding Tax-Credit Rollercoaster, Reports Year of Growth

Last year's growth of 4,850 megawatts was more than four times that of 2013, but it's still well below the expansion rates of just a few years ago.

Feb 3, 2015

U.S. wind energy installations grew more than four-fold in 2014, according to a new report, but the growth was well short of its 2012 peak, and uncertainty over a key industry tax credit is dampening prospects for growth beyond this year.

New onshore wind energy projects added 4,850 megawatts to U.S. power supplies during the year, up from an increase of 1,087 megawatts in 2013, according to a report this week from the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. With those additions, the U.S. has 65,879 megawatts of wind power capacity.

The big year-over-year increase in 2014 is partly a function of being compared to 2013, a down year for the industry because many projects weren't started until after Congress belatedly extended a critical tax credit to the end of 2013. To qualify for the reinstated credit, wind projects had to begin construction in 2013. That led to a rush to get projects underway before that deadline, and the 2013 construction push, in turn, led to the surge of completed wind projects in 2014, according to the Washington-based industry group.

Texas, already the nation's largest wind energy producer, installed more than 1,800 megawatts of new capacity last year—more than the nationwide total in 2013.  The state will host the majority of the 12,700 megawatts of wind energy under construction at the beginning of 2015, but 21 other states had projects underway, according to trade group's report.

"Wind is gaining strength, but as recent history shows, we can do a whole lot more," said Tom Kiernan, AWEA's chief executive officer.

Obama's Budget Reveals Depth and Breadth of His Climate Agenda

However the negotiations with Congress turn out, the budget will lock in the course of climate policy through the next presidential election.

Feb 2, 2015

This story has been updated on Feb. 3 at 9:00 PM ET to add more budget details and reactions.

Many of the climate-change goals were old, but some were new in President Obama's budget request to Congress, published on Monday.

Familiar elements included more green-energy R&D, permanent status for tax breaks that subsidize renewable production of electricity, and yet another plea to end existing subsidies for fossil fuels. Among the novelties: new incentives for states to meet the low-carbon targets of proposed Clean Air Act regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which would manage the $4 billion Clean Power State Incentive Fund, said it would support "state efforts to go above and beyond their carbon pollution reduction goals in the power sector."

Some environmental advocates have criticized the EPA's proposed power regulations for not going far enough, with some states likely to meet the targets without introducing tough new measures.

In a significant new argument to bolster his case for action on climate, Obama's budget warns that if Congress delays spending now, it will only pay a higher price in years to come.

"The Federal Government has broad exposure to escalating costs and lost revenue as a direct or indirect result of a changing climate," says an extensive discussion of the financial risks facing the nation from global warming.

Even though Congress, which controls the purse strings, is now in Republican hand, it's worth paying attention to both the overarching message and to the details in a presidential budget. No single document in the policy universe better outlines a president's priorities, and this one shows the depth and breadth of the administration's climate agenda. It covers the fiscal year that begins next October. And however the negotiations with Congress turn out, it will lock in the course of climate policy through the next presidential election.

Southern Forests' Ability to Suck Carbon From the Air May Be Slowing

New findings concern team of scientists who studied data from 40,000 sites in 11 states.

Feb 2, 2015

When U.S. Forest Service scientist David Wear hikes the trails crisscrossing the Appalachian Mountains, he pauses to revel not only in the beauty and solitude, but to consider the remarkable role that the forest around him plays in the world's environment.

"A walk in the woods is as much recreation as intellectual stimulation for me," Wear said. "I see questions about what’s happening in the changing dynamics of the forests."

One of those questions: How are today's forests doing when it comes to sucking carbon out of the atmosphere?

Wear and two Forest Service colleagues, John Coulston and Jim Vose, recently completed a study examining the carbon accumulation levels of forests in the southern United States.

They discovered a possible reduction in the ability of these forests to absorb carbon. That worries Wear and his colleagues because carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas that causes climate change.

The trio of scientists, who worked out of the Forest Service's Southern Research Station, recently had their findings published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Keystone XL Primer: Explaining the National Interest Process

For a step so critical to the Keystone pipeline's outcome, the determination of national interest is profoundly opaque.

Jan 30, 2015

Six years, two environmental reviews, one presidential delay, two Nebraska trials and innumerable rallies, commercials and op-eds later, the decision to grant a federal permit to the Keystone XL pipeline has now entered its home stretch, as the Obama administration moves to determine if the project is in the national interest.

The Congressional push to land a bill mandating approval for the Keystone XL has attracted most of the media attention, as has the president's vow to veto it. But parallel to the Congressional Keystone campaign, the State Department has quietly revived the national interest determination process after the Nebraska State Supreme Court tossed a challenge to the pipeline's route through the state. The administration had suspended the national interest determination process last spring while the case was pending.

The State Department asked eight federal agencies to weigh in on the national interest determination before Secretary of State John Kerry and, ultimately, the president determine the pipeline's fate. They are: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pentagon and the Departments of Energy, Justice, Interior, Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security. Their comments are due Monday, February 2.

What is the definition of "national interest?"

Senate Approval of Keystone 62-36 Hides Deep Divisions, Fierce Battles Ahead

Nothing in the Keystone debate suggests there's bipartisan consensus on any basic energy issue, or on the biggest climate question of all.

Jan 30, 2015

The moment the gavel hammered through Thursday's vote in Congress to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, some in the Senate were predicting that a bipartisan consensus on energy policy was just around the corner.

The Republican and Democratic senators who stage-managed the pipeline bill—Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maria Cantwell of Washington—both surmised after the 62-36 vote that before long they might be working in tandem.

Kids Caught in Crossfire of Climate Education Battle

New science standards require students be taught climate change as a scientific fact. They face resistance in several states from climate skeptics.

Jan 29, 2015

While President Barack Obama wants to protect young people from the catastrophic effects of global warming, school boards and lawmakers in some states are fighting to prevent students from learning the science of climate change.

In the most recent skirmish, parents and science educators in West Virginia blocked an attempt to weaken the teaching of climate change in elementary and secondary school classrooms. Responding to petitions and protests, the state Board of Education voted Jan. 14 to undo revisions to teaching guidelines that would have cast doubt on global warming and the reasons for it.

The West Virginia case is part of a long-running battle over the first set of national guidelines for science education to require that students be taught that climate change is a scientific fact and mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The guidelines, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, were developed by science-education groups and state school systems, led by the National Research Council. They have been adopted by 13 states and the District of Columbia, but face resistance in several states from climate skeptics on school boards and in legislatures.

"Climate is the major sticking point in the standards," said Lisa Hoyos, director and co-founder of the national activist group Climate Parents. "Even if a state has been involved in writing, they go home and the politics win out," she said. "Kids are caught in the crossfire."

Winter Storm Exposes Vulnerability of Nuclear Power Plants

Shutdown of Pilgrim facility in Massachusetts fuels critics' challenge.

Jan 29, 2015

Two days after a major New England blizzard contributed to the shutdown of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass., the facility remains closed.

Due to climate change, more of the most extreme precipitation events, such as this recent snowfall, are expected to slam the area in the coming decades. Nuclear power critics cite the Pilgrim shutdown as proof the industry isn't ready now—and won't be any time soon.

Federal regulators counter that several initiatives to improve nuclear plant responses to extreme weather and other natural hazards are already under way.

The region's first major nor'easter this winter, dubbed "Juno" by The Weather Channel, dumped up to 3 feet of snow in some places. Parts of the Massachusetts coast were wracked by hurricane-force gusts (up to 78 miles per hour). The culmination of high tide and storm-related winds produced a 2-5-foot storm surge that contributed to coastal flooding.

Although several nuclear power plants stood in Juno's path, only Pilgrim and New Hampshire's Seabrook station faced the full intensity of the storm. Seabrook was unscathed by the event and remained at full capacity throughout.

At Entergy Corporation's Pilgrim facility, however, staff moved to decrease the plant's operating capacity to 20 percent because of stormy conditions. During this process, according to a company statement, "the distribution lines that Pilgrim uses to send electricity to the grid became inoperable due to an offsite issue," the cause of which is still unknown. Following emergency procedures, the plant automatically shut down early Tuesday morning.

Groups Sue Obama's EPA Over Emissions From Industrial Livestock Production

Two new lawsuits are part of an effort to push EPA to regulate methane from agriculture, the country's biggest source of methane.

Jan 28, 2015

A coalition of environmental, community and animal welfare groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday in an effort to push the Obama administration to reduce air pollution, including greenhouse gases, from enormous livestock feeding lots that supply most of the country's meat, milk and eggs.

In two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., the groups said the EPA has failed to respond to two citizens' petitions delivered years ago urging greater regulation of air pollution from so-called concentrated animal feeding lots, or CAFOs. The EPA is supposed to respond to citizens' petitions within a reasonable time, though regulations do not define what such a period might be, said Tarah Heinzen, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project, one of the groups in the coalition.

"EPA has really gone awry by looking the other way regarding pollution from this industry," Heinzen said. "It shouldn't have to fall to citizens to petition EPA to do its job."

Map: Obama's Offshore Drilling Plan

Southern states see a bonanza, environmentalists see mixed signals from Obama on climate change as moratorium ends after almost three decades.

Jan 28, 2015

The Obama administration announced plans Tuesday to open up parts of the Arctic and waters off the mid- and south Atlantic coasts to drilling. The contentious new plan, unveiled by the Interior Department, proposes 14 potential leases between 2017 and 2022 in parts of the Arctic, Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The leases open up drilling on nearly 80 percent of undiscovered, potentially recoverable resources off the nation’s outer continental shelf.

Drilling remains off-limits off the Pacific coast, where political opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration has long been fierce. Some areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the Alaskan coast—which the administration deemed "simply too special to develop"—have also been banned from leasing.  

Here's a map of the areas that were previously open to drilling and the new areas proposed for leasing. Click to enlarge.