As almost 200 countries try to work out an agreement in 2015 to slash carbon emissions, the U.S. and others are about to make the climate task tougher by adding new fossil fuel pipelines, power plants and other infrastructure that could increase pollution for decades.
The installations threaten to deepen the planet's dependence on fossil fuels and lock in new carbon emissions over the long term, jeopardizing the world's ability to slow global warming and prevent catastrophic droughts, flooding and sea-level rise. The investments also soak up funds that should be poured into nonpolluting, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, environmental advocates say.
"Projects that are approved today, they are not projects meant to last for two or three years. They have an operational and economic life span in excess of 30 years," said Anthony Swift, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group that opposes new projects involving coal, crude oil and natural gas. "In many real respects, infrastructure is destiny."
In the U.S., infrastructure has become the nation's de facto energy policy. With no comprehensive federal energy plan, and existing climate policies under attack from Congress, the U.S. fight over climate and energy is playing out over infrastructure projects. Because new energy facilities last for decades, are fiercely protected once built, and add carbon emissions for the duration, the battle lines now form around every new fossil fuel plant and pipeline proposal, from the Keystone XL oil pipeline to West Coast coal export terminals.
New pipelines like the controversial Keystone XL have a lifespan of 50 years or more. Environmentalists have been fighting to kill that oil import project for six years, arguing that the massive conduit from Canada to Texas refineries and ports would trigger more oil production in Alberta's tar sands, add millions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere and threaten waterways in six states on the way to the Gulf Coast.
Power plants that burn coal or natural gas typically stay online for 35 to 40 years, according to the University of California at Irvine. Export facilities for natural gas and coal could encourage higher U.S. production and boost world supplies for decades.
"Many of our hopes and our worries about the future of the global energy system boil down to questions about investment," said Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, during a June speech on a new investment report. "Will policy makers succeed in steering investment towards a cleaner, more secure energy system, or are we locking in technologies and patterns of consumption that store up trouble for the future?"
The widespread use of coal, oil and natural gas is overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, causing a global warming trend that's getting progressively worse. To avoid runaway warming and irreversible impacts, world leaders agreed to limit the increase in the average atmospheric temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
As part of a United Nations-led process, negotiators from around the globe are hammering out a plan for achieving that goal, and they hope to create a historic climate treaty for world leaders to sign in Paris in December. That pact, however, is complex and uncertain. And it wouldn't take effect until 2020.
What happens in the meantime represents a test of every nation's climate credibility and resolve, and changing course on the energy front has already proved a daunting task. In nearly every large economy, oil, coal and natural gas operations are pervasive and deeply entrenched physically, economically and politically—and that dominance grows stronger with every new pipeline, power plant and export project.
In the U.S., the federal government provides $18.5 billion a year in subsidies for oil and gas production, according to figures from Oil Change International. The government also discounts coal and oil leases and provides broad support for new natural gas power plants, pipelines and export projects.
Those policies and the economic recovery helped increase fossil fuel production and related greenhouse gas emissions, which rose 2.5 percent in 2013 after years of declines, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration. In a December report, the EIA projected a 1.3 percent increase in energy-related carbon emissions for 2014.
This year, though, federal and state officials will have plenty of opportunities to plot a new path with energy infrastructure.
Decisions are coming on the Keystone XL oil import pipeline and others, and on natural gas and coal export projects. In addition, dozens of older and more-polluting coal power plants are slated for closure this year, providing the U.S. with an unprecedented opportunity to maximize emission reductions using a combination of renewable power and targeted energy-saving investments to reduce demand.
Adding Up the Impact
Calculating the cumulative carbon emissions from new and existing fossil fuel investments is becoming increasingly important because there's a finite amount of carbon that can be stored in the atmosphere without causing global warming to exceed the 2-degree goal. The planet has already warmed by about 0.8 degrees since the industrial age began, and a World Bank report estimated that human activity to date has already locked-in a warming increase to 1.5 degrees by 2050.
While it's an inherently imprecise number, researchers have estimated the total 2-degree carbon capacity and translated it into a global emissions budget. Much of that budgeted carbon is already in the atmosphere or locked in via existing energy plants and projects.
In 2012, power plants in operation around the world represented about 300 billion metric tons [or 300 Gt] of future carbon dioxide emissions—a level of locked-in, or committed, emissions that's growing by about 4 percent a year, according to a 2014 paper, "Commitment Accounting of CO2 Emissions," by researchers at the University of California, Irvine and Princeton University.
The growth is a problem because those added streams of carbon linger in the atmosphere, with half or more of those emissions remaining for 100 years. That accumulation is at the heart of the emerging carbon crisis.
"What we're building is going to take up more and more of that budget, and it will get to a point where if we let everything operate the rest of its life, we'll be over the 2-degree threshold," said Steven Davis, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a co-author of the paper on carbon commitment. That's what makes new investments in long-term fossil fuel projects potentially risky for investors, too. "If you stick with the 2-degree target," Davis said, "which of these power plants becomes suddenly less valuable?"
The IEA has repeatedly urged countries to move away from fossil fuels faster, warning that the lock-in effect of emissions from new high-carbon energy projects would be the most critical factor in the race to keep catastrophic climate change at bay.
"Once new fossil fuel export and transportation projects are financed and built, they would be very difficult to walk away from," said Joe Smyth, a spokesman for Greenpeace. "That's why they're a near-term focus for a lot of people worried about climate change."
The Keystone Effect
The Keystone XL pipeline is likely to be the first big climate test of 2015, and it's indicative of the kinds of battles that will become more common as climate concerns grow. Environmentalists, ranchers and others oppose the pipeline because of the risk of spills and infringements on property rights. The project gained nationwide notoriety, however, because it came to symbolize a major test of the country's commitment to fighting climate change.
Because the pipeline crosses the border between Canada and the U.S., the segment that begins at the international border must be approved by the U.S. State Department, which has not ruled on the matter. The pipeline's route in Nebraska is in legal limbo as well.
President Barack Obama said his administration would approve the pipeline only if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." Republican leaders in Congress, who vowed to quickly pass legislation to approve the Keystone XL, are proposing bills to accomplish that. Obama said he would veto the legislation if it got to his desk.
Opponents say the pipeline would worsen global warming by causing emissions during its construction and 50 years of operations, and by spurring greater tar sands production than would otherwise occur. Boosting the output of Canada's bitumen, a heavier and dirtier form of oil, would in turn increase the carbon emissions associated with extracting, processing and transporting the oil.
Advocates argue that the same amount of Canadian heavy oil would make its way to Texas and world markets with or without the Keystone XL, so the pipeline's climate impact would be minimal.
But there's another emissions issue that has become part of the Keystone debate: Whether making a potentially large stream of cheap heavy oil available on the world market would lower global prices—and thus increase consumption and carbon emissions. Under that framework, the Keystone XL's highest potential impact on the climate might be as much as four times greater than the State Department concluded, according to a Keystone paper published last fall from the Stockholm Environment Institute, an international think tank.
Quantifying such indirect carbon emissions is difficult, however, because doing so involves making assumptions about oil markets, prices and how other bitumen export options might unfold. But Michael Lazarus, an SEI senior scientist and one of the Keystone paper's authors, said it's important to quantify the effect new infrastructure has on increasing supply and consumption, especially when "it creates access to fossil fuels that are otherwise shut in."
"Gas export projects that have been proposed—those lock in both the fracking [to extract gas] on the development side, and emissions on the consumption side for whichever countries import it," said Smyth of Greenpeace. "The coal export proposals are also huge, long-term infrastructure projects, and the emissions associated with the ones in the Pacific Northwest are at least as problematic as Keystone, if not more so."
Natural Gas Dilemma
The boom in natural gas power plants represents one of the trickiest carbon lock-in issues for the U.S. In 2012, the jump in U.S. natural gas production through widespread fracking lowered prices enough to undercut profits of coal-fired power plants, triggering a wave of coal plant closures and a construction spree for gas power plants.
The following year, more than half of the nation's newly built power plant capacity burned natural gas, while solar additions amounted to almost 22 percent, coal was 11 percent and wind was almost 8 percent, according to figures from the EIA. Through the first half of 2014, more than half of the new power-production capacity involved natural gas. Solar plants contributed more than 25 percent of new generation, and wind power provided about one-sixth, the EIA said.
When those new natural gas plants replace coal-fired generation, carbon emissions generally fall by about half. Many argue that is a good trade, even though burning gas also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Others view the shift to natural gas as a necessary interim step until lower-emission alternatives can take over.
Recent studies have called that rationale into question by uncovering widespread leaks of methane—a more potent greenhouse gas—from drill sites, pipelines and other equipment used to extract, process and transport natural gas. In addition, there's growing evidence that new gas plants have begun undermining investment in renewable power projects.
"The question then becomes, how do you ensure that gas is a transitional step towards an eventual goal of zero emissions?" said Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in a widely cited speech from late 2013. "If we invest too much in dedicated pipelines and other infrastructure, the transition risks becoming a new and permanent dependency."
That issue will loom large this year, because U.S. coal plant closures are expected to rise sharply and hit a peak in 2015, with more than 13,000 megawatts of capacity tentatively set to retire, according to EIA data. Energy officials will have to decide how much more natural gas—and how many more decades of natural gas emissions—to add to the U.S. power system.
"We're kind of at a inflection point, where we can either double down on this kind of fossil fuel infrastructure, and build another new generation of brand new gas plants," said Davis of UC Irvine, "Or we can start building green technologies—more wind and solar."
Taken together, U.S. decisions this year on new power plants and a range of major fossil fuel infrastructure projects represent a critical test of whether the nation's actions line up with its climate-change pledges.
"All these projects need to be considered in terms of their impact on climate, and whether they're consistent with a 2-degree world, and in that world, many of these projects don't make sense," said Swift of the NRDC. "The time has come for us to make our energy infrastructure decisions based on that."
Winds of Change
To be sure, the nation's reliance on carbon-based energy has begun to weaken in recent years. Solar and wind power production has grown, often taking the place of coal power plants. Fossil fuel demand has flattened amid policies promoting energy efficiency, renewable fuel and higher vehicle mileage standards. In addition, the administration's pending Clean Power Plan would impose state-by-state cuts in carbon pollution from electricity generation.
And in November, Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping jointly announced new emissions-reduction commitments. Obama pledged to reduce U.S. carbon emissions as much as 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, and around 80 percent by 2050. Xi promised that China's greenhouse gas emissions would peak in 2030 at the latest, and that 20 percent of its energy will come from non fossil-fuel sources by that year.
Several recent reports concluded that the 28 percent reduction is a makeable target, but Obama will have to fight off congressional efforts to undermine the effort. Republicans, now in control of both houses of Congress, have vowed to dismantle climate-related regulations, slash support for renewable power and push through approvals for the Keystone XL pipeline, LNG export terminals and other fossil fuel projects.
To meet the 28 percent goal, the U.S. will need to make sweeping changes. On the infrastructure front, government officials will need to calculate the amount of cumulative carbon emissions—or carbon lock-in—embedded in new energy projects.
In December, the Obama administration issued new draft guidelines to do just that. The guidelines call for agencies with authority over fossil fuel projects to quantify the climate effects of proposals and to consider reasonable alternatives and mitigations. The analysis would be part of reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act and must include direct, indirect and cumulative carbon emissions and effects that are "reasonably foreseeable," according to the draft guidance.
The guidelines, which replace a 2010 version that was withdrawn, could be changed before they become final. In current form, they would allow agencies to skip the climate-impact review as long as they specify the reason for doing so. In addition, the guidance doesn't require agencies to act based on the climate information.
Even so, the White House advisory makes it clear that "individual projects' emissions can't be ignored on the basis they alone aren't going to make a large difference," said Lazarus, the SEI scientist. The draft guidelines also address enabling infrastructure such as pipelines by telling agencies that an analysis of greenhouse gas effects "should include 'downstream' emissions associated with the combustion of new fossil fuel supplies enabled by the action," Lazarus said.
The guidance could help bridge the gap between U.S. climate policies and fossil fuel development, Lazarus said. "Will it ultimately make a difference is hard to say," he said. "That, of course, depends on how decision-makers respond."