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Coal Faces a Day of Reckoning in New Mexico

Decision over the future of the San Juan coal plant could reverberate through the entire coal industry and could also steer debate over renewables.

By Zahra Hirji and Naveena Sadasivam

Apr 24, 2015

As a bitterly fought case over the future of New Mexico's largest coal-fired power plant nears a climax, the outcome has the potential to reverberate through the faltering U.S. coal industry. It could also steer the debate over how soon and at what cost renewables are embraced as the country's energy future.

That landmark moment could come any day, when New Mexico regulators decide whether to accept a utility's controversial plan to close only two of its four coal-fired units, replacing them mainly with natural gas and nuclear energy. The Public Regulation Commission's regulatory panel could deny the request, potentially forcing the plant to shut down and opening the door for renewable replacement power.

San Juan is one of the largest––and most polluting––power plants among the hundreds facing retirement amid the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's crackdown on coal pollution and the boom in natural gas production that has undercut coal prices. The case has drawn attention nationwide as it could influence the fate of middle-aged and younger plants and possibly accelerate the power industry's pivot to climate-friendly energy sources.

The San Juan decision "carries with it potentially precedent-setting and national implications for how to deal with current haze and future carbon regulations," said Robb Hirsch, executive director of New Mexico Independent Power Producers, a trade group of workers in renewable energy, natural gas or transmission lines.

New York Mayor Champions Economic Justice in Sustainability Plan

Mayor De Blasio offers a visionary roadmap to lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty through environmental action. Can it work?

Apr 24, 2015

Environmental justice advocates may have found a climate champion in Mayor Bill De Blasio, who this week made income equality the centerpiece of his sweeping sustainability plan for New York City.

The plan, known as OneNYC, is a rebranding and revamping of the city's eight-year-old sustainability agenda PlaNYC, but the emphasis on economic justice came as an unexpected swerve. Urban development and environmental experts told InsideClimate News that OneNYC is the most ambitious strategy in the nation to link the fight against income inequality with climate action and may inspire officials in other municipalities to follow.

De Blasio's plan is a municipal-level equivalent to the thorny discussions between rich and poor nations over an international climate deal. There is now growing recognition that a climate deal that fails to lift poor nations out of energy poverty would not succeed. Guaranteeing people access to clean electricity would promote economic development, uplift the lives of the poor—and address the economic justice issues that have plagued climate progress.

Thawing Permafrost: the Arctic's Slow, Giant Carbon Release

As the Arctic melts and organic matter decays, vast stores of carbon in the permafrost will be released triggering an unstoppable feedback system.

Apr 23, 2015

Permafrost—a vast, frozen subsurface layer of soil—covers nearly a quarter of the land in the northern hemisphere. It contains centuries worth of carbon in the form of plants that have died since the last ice age but remained frozen rather than decomposing.

Now scientists are learning that the "perma" part of its name may no longer be accurate.

Obama: Climate Change 'Can't Be Edited Out'

President uses Earth Day remarks to call out Republican politicians and make climate denial a political liability.

Apr 22, 2015

Standing in Everglades National Park Wednesday, President Barack Obama called out Republican politicians for their continued denial that climate change is happening, is man-made and will pose serious risks to millions of Americans in coming decades.

Climate change "can't be edited out," Obama said. "It can no longer be omitted from the conversation, and action can no longer be delayed." The comment was in reference to Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott's decision to ban state employees from using global warming-related terms in official communications, according to published reports.

"This is not a problem for another generation," Obama said. "Not anymore. This is a problem now, and it has serious implications for the way we live right now."

The President's comments are part of a White House plan to make denial of climate change a political liability for Republicans heading into the 2016 political campaigns.

After Years of Inaction, EPA Tightens Toxic Air Standard for Oil Refineries

Lawsuit helped force an update of emissions standards for dangerous chemicals that went unchanged nearly 30 years.

By Lisa Song and David Hasemyer

Apr 22, 2015

The federal government has issued new guidelines to correct the chronic underestimation of toxic air pollutants emitted from oil refineries and petrochemical plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency late Monday released a revised set of "emission factors"—mathematical formulas used by industry to estimate the amount of air pollutants coming from their facilities.

The new emission factors acknowledge that refinery and chemical plant flares release four times as many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than previously thought. VOCs are dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer and other illnesses. Emissions of hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas that attacks the nervous system, were underestimated by a factor of 10 from refineries' fluid catalytic cracking units—equipment used to make gasoline and other fuels.

The new EPA guidelines have wide implications for public health and for an industry regulated by air permits. Facilities that emit a certain amount of pollutants must apply for air permits, and these new guidelines may mean facilities not previously required to have a permit now must comply with regulatory emission limits.

Emission factors are also used to report annual emissions, to calculate overall air quality and to determine if facilities comply with regulations, said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), an advocacy group whose lawsuit prompted the revised guidelines.

Amid California's Historic Drought, a Scientist Digs for Answers

A graduate student mines sediment in lake beds for clues to climate trends in droughts long past.

Apr 22, 2015

When Guleed Ali hikes the nooks and crannies of stream-sculpted canyons that lead to Mono Lake in central California, he often pauses to marvel at the landscape that spreads out before him.

He ponders the smooth blue lake that reflects the snow-capped Sierra Nevada and the limestone spires that reach skyward like fingers beckoning the birds.

But the young scientist looks beyond the grandeur. He also seeks clues to California's historic drought.

Since 2010, Ali, 28, has been studying sediment surrounding Mono Lake, which sits at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and near the edge of Yosemite National Park, looking for evidence of past droughts found sandwiched in the layers of deposits that have been laid down over the ages.

Trekking the canyons that lead to Mono Lake, Ali has mapped layers of sediments far above its current shoreline and removed samples for analysis.

In the lab, Ali has begun analyzing the layers using sophisticated dating techniques that allow him to plot how the lake level has risen and fallen over 27,000 years. He will then use existing data of known carbon dioxide and methane levels along with solar radiation levels to determine the atmospheric conditions at the time each layer of sediment was deposited.

Ali, a Ph.D. candidate at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said he hopes the information will add to scientific understanding about what climate patterns influenced past California droughts and how those conditions may be contributing to present and future drought conditions. Understanding past periods of global warming can add context to the present drought, he said.

EPA's Clean Power Plan Will Create Quarter-Million Jobs

New study shows that job gains, not the losses the industry predicted, would follow if new carbon rules are implemented.

Apr 21, 2015

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to crack down on carbon pollution from power plants would create more than a quarter of a million additional jobs, according to a new analysis by economists using a trusted, sophisticated model.

The findings support the EPA's argument that the benefits of its approach exceed the costs, and undermine the claims of the fossil fuel industry that the rules would cripple the economy.

Since BP Spill, 9 Million Acres in Gulf Leased for Drilling

Graphic details how a half a decade after BP's cataclysmic spill, the Gulf has opened up for business again.

Apr 19, 2015

The BP drilling rig explosion five years ago sent 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, causing widespread damage to wildlife, ecosystems and livelihoods still seen today.

The Bureau of Ocean Management waited 20 months after the disaster to hold its first drilling lease salebut it was a temporary disruption. "There was some pent up demand" in that first sale, which saw 20 companies spending $325 million on 181 drilling leases, said John Filostrat, a spokesman for the agency. It became clear that "companies are still investing in the Gulf."

Overall, lease sales have dropped 60 percent since the BP spill, but the areas being leased for exploration are significant, and reflect the industry's push into deeper and riskier waters far offshore. Companies have purchased the rights to drill on nearly 9 million acres since 2010—an area twice the size of New Jersey—and all of it in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil Majors Face New Pressure to Disclose Climate Risk to Investors

Investors holding $2 trillion in assets ask regulators to require transparency a day after 98% of BP shareholders demand similar information.

Apr 17, 2015

A $2 trillion group of investors will ask regulators on Friday to force oil and gas companies to provide more disclosures about climate-related risks to their businesses.

The request, backed by 62 institutional investors from the U.S. and Europe, is included in an April 17 letter to Mary Jo White, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The comptrollers for New York State and New York City submitted a similar letter to the commission. The letters are the latest sign of the growing concern from shareholders and others about how fossil fuel companies would fare in a world that’s shifting to low-carbon energy sources.

"We are concerned that oil and gas companies are not disclosing sufficient information about several converging factors that, together, will profoundly affect the economics of the industry," the investors wrote.

The group cited worries that carbon assets could become uneconomic—or stranded—if climate-related trends permanently undercut prices and demand for fossil fuels. Those fears are exacerbated by “excessive capital spending on high-cost, carbon intensive projects such as Arctic drilling, ultra deepwater drilling and Canadian oil sands projects," the investors wrote. 

"We have found an absence of disclosure in SEC filings regarding these material risks," said the investor group, which was organized by the sustainability group Ceres.

On Thursday, shareholders of oil giant BP reinforced the importance of such disclosures by overwhelmingly approving a measure that requires the company to provide more robust yearly climate change-related information, including data about the viability of BP projects in a low-carbon economy.