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U.S. Natural Gas Exports No Better for Climate Than China’s Coal, Experts Say

'Ignoring the potential increase in methane pollution from future LNG exports won't make climate change go away—it will only make its impacts more deadly.

Jun 12, 2014

As the Obama administration inches toward a major expansion of natural gas exports, one of the thorniest questions is how that growth will affect greenhouse gas emissions, possibly worsening the problem of global warming.

Although gas contains less carbon than other fossil fuels, it emits more methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 in the short term. Methane leaks into the atmosphere from gas production wells, and from the pipelines that deliver the gas to export terminals. Then you have to count CO2 emissions from the significant amount of energy needed to liquefy the gas so it can be shipped abroad. Finally, exports would likely boost natural gas prices—and that could encourage burning dirtier coal instead.

Quantifying all this pollution is enormously complicated, and attempts to do so can lead to some surprising results, as shown by a new study from the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory. It reached the startling finding that in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions, for China to buy liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States might be no cleaner than for China to keep on burning its own coal.

Trailblazing California-Quebec Climate Plan Faces Fossil Industry Pushback

With the deadline to expand the cap-and-trade program less than six months away, energy companies are urging the two governments to pull back.

By Mike De Souza

Jun 12, 2014

OTTAWA—When you combine climate change, an unlikely partnership between Californians and French-speaking Canadians—and the prospect of an 8-cents-a-gallon rise in gasoline prices—what do you get?

The energy industry vs. California. And Quebec.

Last year, California and Quebec launched the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), a system that makes businesses pay for carbon pollution. When it comes to climate change, that puts California and Quebec well ahead of their national governments in Washington and Ottawa. It also puts California and Quebec squarely in the sights of the oil-and-gas industry, which strongly opposes action by sub-national governments enforcing polluter-pay regimes on their own.

The first phase of the system, now under way, covers large industrial facilities, but on Jan. 1, the cap-and-trade scheme will expand to cover pollution from companies that distribute oil, natural gas and gasoline. With that deadline less than six months away, energy companies are urging the two governments to pull back.

Exxon to Challenge Ark. Oil Spill Fine at Hearing, but Public Not Allowed to Listen

'What gets everybody really suspicious is that you don't have access to watch it, which raises all kinds of issues about transparency.'

Jun 11, 2014

Federal pipeline regulators and ExxonMobil lawyers will spar Wednesday in Houston over a proposed $2.7 million fine and allegations that the company delayed crucial inspections, skewed risk data and ignored warning signs before its Pegasus oil pipeline ruptured in Arkansas last year.

The two sides are presenting evidence for and against the fine and allegations in an "informal" administrative hearing that's closed to the public. It is being heard by a presiding officer from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), according to Damon Hill, spokesman for the regulatory agency. A final ruling could take six months or longer.

PHMSA's Pegasus case is being closely watched by pipeline opponents who question the government's ability to stand up to oil company pressure and protect the public from harmful—and sometimes deadly—incidents involving oil pipelines and railroad cars filled with crude.

"What gets everybody really suspicious is that you don't have access to watch it, which raises all kinds of issues about transparency," said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant who serves on PHMSA’s safety standards advisory board for oil pipelines. "The pipeline is owned by the company, but it's running through public assets, so [the closed process] tends to be frustrating."

Prosecutor Takes on Beef Industry to Put Brakes on Deforestation in the Amazon

Combining local activism with the long arm of its federal prosecutor, the state of Pará advances a new model for combatting deforestation.

Jun 11, 2014

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

The morning after I landed in the Brazilian state of Pará, I joined a pair of state government officials heading to an event in a municipality of Terra Alta, located 70 miles inland from the capital of Belém. It turned out they were honored guests, and as we approached we discovered that a parade was literally waiting for them on the side of the road before rolling into town. A man was shooting fireworks out the back of one truck, and a stack of concert speakers belted music out of another.

The occasion? Several dozen properties were formally being entered into the new "rural environmental registry," and the local government was using the occasion to persuade more landowners to register their land and protect their remaining forests. Terra Alta Environment Secretary João Batista do Nascimento told me that the municipality needs to get its environmental documents in order so its producers can remain competitive in a market that punishes environmental negligence.

"Our challenge is to bring this message to people who have to produce and respect the forest," Paulo says.

EPA Too Fixated on the 'Global' in Global Warming, Says U.S. Chamber

In calculating the costs and benefits of its new climate rule, the EPA figured in measures 'to reflect the global nature of the problem,' the agency said.

Jun 10, 2014

Business groups opposed to the Environmental Protection Agency's crackdown on carbon pollution want the Obama administration to stop paying so much attention to the "global" part of global warming.

The EPA has estimated that by reducing CO2 emissions by more than half a billion tons a year, its new rule would save the world tens of billions of dollars in avoided climate damage. The agency said the benefit of reduced warming would be several times more than any cost imposed by EPA's regulation, which would control emissions from existing power plants in the United States.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the fossil fuel industry are taking the position that when considering whether regulations make economic sense, the government should consider only benefits that accrue directly to Americans—since they'll bear the cost of regulations.  

At issue is an intensely controversial cost-benefit tool known to climate economists as the "social cost of carbon," or SCC. It is a calculation based on complex economic modeling that expresses a price in today's dollars for the damages to society that will be brought on by each ton of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere.

More: White House Ups the Ante on Cost of Carbon Pollution to the Public

The EPA estimated that its rule, proposed on June 2, has an annual compliance cost of about $7.5 billion. That would produce a global climate benefit of about $31 billion in 2030, it said, by preventing intense heat, drought, storms, floods and so forth from getting worse in the years to follow. (There are additional health benefits from reductions of soot and smog, which the agency calculated separately.)

World's Most Fuel-Efficient Car Makes Its Debut

Volkswagen's limited production diesel-electric hybrid gets 260 mpg and emits one-tenth the greenhouse gas that the average U.S. car does.

Jun 9, 2014

The world's most fuel-efficient car has just arrived on dealer lots in Germany and Austria, but don't expect it to be sold in America anytime soon.

The Volkswagen XL 1, a diesel-electric hybrid, gets about 260 miles per gallon—meaning, a New York-to-Washington run would guzzle just about a gallon of diesel. Chevrolet's all-electric Spark, America's fuel economy leader, gets half that many miles per gallon. The average U.S. car gets 36 mpg.

7 Reasons Why Wall St. Isn't Buying the 'War on Coal'

Traders largely shrugged off dire warnings about EPA's climate rule released on Monday.

Jun 6, 2014

Monday's unveiling of the Obama administration's proposal to cut carbon emissions triggered a withering response from politicians and business groups tied to the coal industry—the most vocal of them proclaiming Obama's "war on coal" would decimate jobs and companies, create the next energy crisis and devastate the U.S. economy.

Wall Street must have missed the memo.

On the day the proposal was released, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Standard & Poor's 500—the stock indexes most closely associated with the nation's economic health—rose. Results in the coal sector were mixed. The stock price of the nation's largest coal producer, Peabody Energy Corp., closed down 15 cents, or 1 percent. Natural Resource Partners, Cloud Peak Energy Inc. and Walter Energy Inc. also saw their stocks fall on Monday, while shares of Alliance Resource Partners, Westmoreland Coal Co., and Rhino Resource Partners moved higher.

By the time U.S. stock exchanges closed on Thursday, the Dow and the S&P 500 had settled at new record highs. Traders had largely shrugged off dire warnings about the carbon-cutting plan and sent the share prices of Peabody Energy and three other coal companies above where they started on Monday morning.

Green States & Black States: Obama's Climate Plan Paints U.S. in New Colors

The administration wants to get enough states supporting its Clean Power Plan to color the map mostly low-carbon green, instead of coal black.

Jun 5, 2014

At the core of Obama's plan to control greenhouse gas emissions from more than 1,000 power plants is a strategy resembling that of a presidential campaign in search of electoral votes.

The administration wants to get enough states on board to color the map mostly low-carbon green, instead of coal black.

To that end, it has designed a policy that seems intended to isolate the fiercest pockets of resistance, winning over as many fence-sitting states as possible.

That would make it harder for his opponents to paint this regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act as a heavy-handed federal intrusion.

"It is going to be important to have a critical mass of states being supportive," said Travis Madsen, a global warming campaigner at Environment America, a federation of state-based advocacy groups. "If too many states decide they will not cooperate, it's hard to say what might happen. The more states cooperate or act supportively, the more likely we will succeed."

How Ambitious Is EPA's Climate Change Rule, Really?

By allowing states extraordinary flexibility in meeting the new standards, the EPA chose not to set the bar very high for several coal states.

Jun 3, 2014
Coal-burning power plant

Brandishing her pen on Monday morning to sign proposed rules that would significantly cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's electric power plants, Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy said: "This is the opening of our second round of engagement."

What lies ahead is a 120-day comment period, months of additional fine-tuning, discussions with other government agencies and interest groups, and more likely than not attempts to challenge the rule in Congress and the courts. A final rule will be issued in about a year. The states, meanwhile, will come up with their own implementation plans, subject to Washington's review. Only when all that is over will the rules take full effect.

The proposed standards are highly flexible guidelines for states to follow in limiting the emissions from existing power plants. They are designed to achieve a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, compared to the amount fossil fuel power plants emitted in the benchmark year 2005.

That would amount, in the end, to some half a billion tons less carbon dioxide allowed into the atmosphere each year from the nation's existing power plants.

"That's like canceling out annual carbon pollution from two thirds of all cars and trucks in America," declared McCarthy in a feisty and confident speech before a large, supportive crowd in Washington.

But how ambitious is this, really?

L.A. Spill Case Has Exposed Flaw in Pipeline Safety Oversight

Company responsible for the spill didn't know its dormant pipeline was full of oil before it leaked across a Los Angeles neighborhood.

Jun 3, 2014

On March 17, a Los Angeles-area oil pipeline spilled between 1,500 and 3,000 gallons of crude onto a neighborhood street, surprising residents and creating a noxious mess that took weeks to fully rectify.

The pipeline's owner, Phillips 66, must have been plenty shocked, too. It thought the pipe was empty.

Phillips 66 told state officials that it took ownership of the pipe through a 2001 acquisition, that it never used the line, and that it didn't know it still contained oil, according to Rep. Janice Hahn, whose Congressional district includes the spill site. The company and state oil pipeline regulators declined to confirm those statements or discuss other aspects of the case, citing an ongoing investigation into the spill.

In a statement, the Houston-based refiner and pipeline owner said the pipe involved was "out of service" and that it was being maintained "in compliance with [federal] requirements for this type of pipeline."