Selected category: Setting the Facts Straight

Pope Francis and climate change: Thoughts from a Catholic environmentalist

Source: Flickr/Catholic Church

It’s not often that my Catholic faith intersects with my work communicating about international climate change issues.

That’s changed now that Pope Francis is expected to release a statement of official church teaching this summer on the environment and climate change. It’s making headlines again this week, as the pope convenes a summit on climate change.

Known as an encyclical, it’s expected to reflect on Catholic teaching as it applies to the world today, and focus on the moral obligation to protect creation and humankind – especially the world’s most vulnerable people.

That Pope Francis – dubbed the “rock star pope” – will make such a statement on environmental protection is not surprising to those familiar with his and the Catholic Church’s position on the environment, the latter of which has long taught the importance of humans taking care of the Earth.

Caring for Earth part of our faith

The encyclical will formally be on “ecology,” with climate change playing a central role.

Climate touches everything, including people. Pollution that causes global warming also triggers asthma. Warmer temperatures mean crops and people’s livelihoods are jeopardized, while diseases such as West Nile and Lyme disease spread. Sea-level rise means people lose their homes.

These effects can still make climate change seem unrelated to the faith, far in the future and overwhelming. But Pope Francis is calling on us to see that it’s none of those.

Similarly, when I taught Sunday school to young children, we didn’t address the complexities of Catholic theology. We focused on Catholics’ belief that God provided humans with nature and its animals, trees and air for us to enjoy and protect.

The poor feel brunt of climate change

As an environmentalist, I’ve helped bring attention to my Environmental Defense Fund colleagues’ work with people who are feeling the impact of climate change first-hand.

In Brazil, the country with the world’s largest Catholic community, indigenous groups are already experiencing changes in the Amazon’s rainfall and river levels, fire patterns and climate systems they used to depend on for growing crops. And in India, farmers and rural women are already experiencing weather events consistent with a changing climate.

We know there are solutions to climate change. The United States and the world made important advances on climate and energy in the past year, and we believe we can stop the rise in greenhouse gas emissions and see them begin to decline in thenext five years.

Timing of pope’s document critical

The encyclical is a call to action for all of us to read the document and think more deeply about our relationship with the world. It asks us to consider what we can do – personally, in our community and parish, at the state and national level, and internationally.

The release of the encyclical comes in advance of international climate negotiations in Paris this December, where countries will seek to build an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

By staking out the Vatican’s position on climate change, the pope is telling the world that protecting the environment is not a niche issue – it’s a human, personal and moral issue.

This post originally appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

Also posted in Partners for Change, Policy, What Others are Saying| Comments are closed

NERC's Report is Flawed: We Can Reduce Climate Pollution and Ensure Electric Reliability

power-poles-503935_1920If reducing climate pollution from power plants were a football game, the U.S. team would be halfway to the goal line while fans were still singing the national anthem.

That is, we have already gotten about halfway to the expected goals of the Clean Power Plan – before the rule is even final.

The Clean Power Plan is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) historic effort to place the first-ever limits on climate pollution from our country’s existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants. When it’s finalized this summer, it’s expected to call for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions compared to 2005 levels — but U.S. power plant emissions have already fallen 15 percent compared to 2005 levels.

That’s because renewable energy, energy efficiency resources, and natural gas generation have been steadily deployed and growing for years. Even conservative estimates forecast continued growth of these resources — which makes last week’s report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) seem really strange.

NERC’s report about the Clean Power Plan’s impacts on electric grid reliability makes predictions that starkly contrast from the progress we’re already seeing.

How did this departure from reality happen?

It’s due in large part to severely flawed assumptions underlying NERC’s analysis, which yield unrealistic results.

Those flawed assumptions cause NERC to greatly overstate the generation mix changes required to meet the Clean Power Plan. The NERC Assessment’s assumptions regarding energy efficiency, renewable energy deployment, and retirement modeling are at odds with both recent experience and current trends.

Unrealistically Low Energy Efficiency Gains

NERC assumes that demand for electricity will grow at an average of one percent per year through 2030, even after accounting for growth in energy efficiency investments. That growth rate is more than 40 percent higher than the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts.

It also fails to reflect likely energy efficiency growth. An analysis by McKinsey & Company found that implementing only those efficiency measures that pay for themselves would reduce the nation’s total end-use energy consumption by 23 percent by 2020.

Arbitrary and Unrealistic Projections on Wind and Solar Expansion  

NERC predicts expansions of wind and solar power that are far below those observed in recent years.

U.S. solar capacity stood at 20.5 gigawatts at the end of 2014. The NERC Assessment predicts an addition of 13 to 20 gigawatts of solar energy between 2016 and 2030 — when solar capacity is expected to grow by 20 gigawatts over the next two years alone.

The U.S. wind industry is also expected to add 18 gigawatts of new capacity in the next two years.

NERC’s low-ball assumptions greatly limit renewable energy deployment in their study. This in turn greatly increases the burden on other compliance options, namely coal-to-gas generation shifting.

Failure to Account for Dynamic Grid Reliability Management Tools

NERC assumes that the Clean Power Plan will drive coal power plant retirements over its entire life-span. However, numerous studies — including one by the Brattle Group and three by the Analysis Group, show that total output and emissions from coal units can decrease without retiring units that are needed to operate on occasion in order to maintain electric reliability.

There are also numerous tools and processes available to grid operators to ensure reliability in light of dynamic market, technological and regulatory change, including capacity and energy markets, resource adequacy forecasting, and reliability must-run contracts.

These instruments, for example, have worked well to maintain adequate capacity during the recent wave of coal-fired power plant retirements, so much so that the electric grid has added an average of roughly 30 gigawatts of total power every year since 2000. The NERC Assessment, however, finds only 11 to12 gigawatts of total power will be added every year – a significant departure from the past 15 years of evidence.

A History of Inaccurate Assessments

This report is not the first time that NERC has issued an inaccurate assessment of threats to reliability.

NERC has assessed previous public health and environmental safeguards, each time raising reliability concerns that were not borne out in reality.

  • In 2011, NERC issued its Long-Term Reliability Assessment, which looked at the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, the Clean Water Act Cooling Water Intake Structures rule, and the Coal Combustion Residuals rule. NERC raised numerous reliability concerns about these protections, which the EPA noted at the time were flawed and exaggerated. None of NERC’s concerns have manifested during implementation of these standards.
  • In a 2011 companion study, NERC issued its Potential Impacts of Future Environmental Regulations about the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and a number of other regulations. NERC again raised reliability concerns, none of which have occurred in practice.
  • In its 2007 Long-Term Reliability Assessment, NERC predicted several regions, including New England and New York State, would drop below target capacity margins, threatening reliability. NERC’s prediction was based on a number of factors, including proposed environmental protections. Some power generators used the report to oppose to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. NERC’s predicted reliability shortfalls did not occur, nor has the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative caused reliability issues – even while emissions fell almost 50 percent below the region-wide emissions cap.
  • In 2000, NERC drafted a review of EPA’s nitrogen oxide emissions standards for eastern power plants, knows as the NOx SIP Call. Yet again, NERC predicted a number of reliability concerns that did not occur after the rule was implemented.

NERC has repeatedly produced analyses indicating that public health and environmental safeguards will come at the expense of electric reliability – and these analyses have consistently been contradicted by reality. In fact, emission standards have never caused a reliability problem in the more than four decades that EPA has been administering the Clean Air Act.

NERC’s newest report is no better. It gives no solid reasons to doubt that the Clean Power Plan will be compatible with a reliable electric grid.  

For a clearer picture of the link between reliability and environmental protections, read this post by my colleague Cheryl Roberto, a former Commissioner of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission and electric system operator.

You might also like EDF’s fact sheet about the Clean Power Plan and the latest flawed NERC report.

The progress made in the past demonstrates that our nation is already approaching the goal line under the Clean Power Plan. The tremendous flexibility that the Clean Power Plan provides to states and power companies alike, together with time-tested grid management tools, provides the framework we need to reach the goal line — protecting our communities and families from dangerous carbon pollution, strengthening our economy, and providing a steady flow of cost-effective electricity.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Energy, Policy| Comments are closed

Electric Reliability and the Clean Power Plan: Perspectives of a Former Regulator

1024px-Wind_Turbines_and_Power_Lines,_East_Sussex,_England_-_April_2009

Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is no great disagreement that the U.S. energy system is transforming. With or without additional environmental regulations, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, this transition is occurring. Our history and experience have demonstrated that we can weather it without threatening our uniform and non-negotiable commitment to reliability.

But to do that, we need to tap all of the tools at our disposal to ensure a robust, reliable, and integrated energy system that is no longer dependent exclusively upon centralized, fossil fuel generation. Done right, the resulting change can deliver benefits to customers, the economy, the environment, electric companies, innovators, and workers alike.

EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would place national limits on carbon pollution from existing fossil fuel power plants for the first time ever. In doing so, it would create long-term market signals that will help drive investments in energy efficiency, demand response, and renewable energy for years to come – not only reducing carbon pollution from the power sector to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, but also by putting us on a path to a more reliable and resilient energy system.

As a former Commissioner of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission and electric system operator, I understand preserving the reliability of electric service is a paramount public responsibility for energy and environmental regulators, and for the power companies they oversee. As a Commissioner, I served as vice chair of the Critical Infrastructure Committee, a member of the Electricity Committee, and on the Task Force for Environmental Regulation and Generation within the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). I co-chaired the National Electricity Forum 2012 to modernize the nation’s electricity infrastructure. At the request of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, I have provided testimony on reliability of the bulk power system before both of those bodies.

Prior to my appointment to the Commission, I served for six years as the Deputy Director and then Director of the City of Columbus, Ohio Department of Public Utilities. My duties there included running the City’s electric distribution utility. This hands-on experience meeting the daily needs of electricity customers as both a regulator and a system operator – while protecting the financial integrity of the system – gives me a keen appreciation for the real-world demands and importance of system reliability.

From that perspective, perhaps the most critical feature of the proposed Clean Power Plan is the flexibility it provides to states and power companies to craft individualized compliance plans that reduce pollution while preserving and strengthening electric reliability. EPA’s approach gives clear guidance on what limits and metrics must be met, but leaves states the flexibility to design solutions that will boost the economy and meet those requirements as they see fit.

That flexibility acts as a built-in “safety valve,” affording each state multiple pathways for compliance and providing leeway for states to make plans that are appropriate to their unique circumstances. Moreover, this flexibility complements the robust framework of operating practices, market instruments, and planning processes that already exist to address short-term and long-term reliability issues.

Leading experts on energy policy and electric reliability have recently weighed in to confirm reducing carbon pollution goes hand in hand with electric reliability, thanks to the flexible structure of the Clean Power Plan and our existing reliability tools and processes. According to a recent report by The Brattle Group, the combination of the ongoing transformation of the power sector, the steps already taken by system operators, the large and expanding set of technological and operational tools available, and the flexibility under the Clean Power Plan are likely sufficient to ensure compliance will not come at the cost of reliability.

And, just last week, Dr. Susan Tierney – a former Assistant Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Energy and former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities— joined two other energy policy experts in sending a letter and report to the Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) concluding:

Evidence does not support the argument that the proposed CPP will result in a general and unavoidable decline in reliability.

The report provides examples of recent instances in which grid operators, FERC, and other entities have effectively used existing processes and tools to deftly address other kinds of reliability challenges in recent years, some of which were significant and unanticipated.

In 45 years of implementing the Clean Air Act, clean air standards have never caused the lights to go out. And nothing about the proposed Clean Power Plan – with all of its tremendous flexibility – will alter that record.

That’s a remarkable testament to the institutions and processes that exist to protect reliability, as well as the careful process EPA uses in developing clean air standards – and it is great news for families and communities who want and deserve clean air in addition to reliable, affordable electricity. The Clean Power Plan, like our other vital clean air standards, will help deliver both.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Energy, Policy| Read 1 Response

On El Niño, snowballs and real climate science

Source: NASA

Just as we thought science was finally taking root, here comes another article claiming that the rise in global temperatures has nearly stopped over the last 15 years. We heard it most recently from the Wall Street Journal.

Never mind that it’s been 30 years since a month was below the 20th century global average surface temperature. Or that climate change is evidenced by clearly visible sea ice and glacial melt. Skeptics support their argument by pointing out, time and time again, how little the Earth has warmed since 1998.

Indeed, the “nearly-stopped warming” may at face value appear to be supported by convincing scientific data. But don’t be fooled: 1998 was an exceptionally warm year thanks to a very intense El Niño, a naturally-occurring phenomenon involving unusually warm water in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

The change in temperature from 1998 to today, therefore, is not at all a good representation of the long-term trend. It makes the nearly-stopped warming argument no more scientific than a snowball would be in Washington in February.

Selective statistics don't make a trend

Think of it as if you were to use the holiday season as a benchmark for measuring body weight.

If I looked at the weight change I had between Thanksgiving and December 31, a time of year when I usually enjoy lots of good food, the picture would look very different than if my weight monitoring began the week before Thanksgiving. That's because a Thanksgiving start date would be a higher-than-normal weight day, an anomaly.

And, yet, this is exactly what proponents of the nearly-stopped-warming theory are doing.

While it's true that the rate of temperature change has decreased since 2001, they cherry-pick a recent 15-year period, 1998 to 2012, starting with an initial year that is already way above average to prove their point. Of course, these quasi-scientists aren’t transparent about their strategy, so a non-expert would have to dig into the data to realize they are being tricked.

El Niño always a wild card

El Niño, meanwhile, was just doing what niños tend to do: It threw us for a loop.

The one occurring for 10 consecutive months 1997-98 was the most intense ever recorded, making 1998 the hottest year up until that point. (Three years have since broken that record: 2005, 2010 and 2014.)

Scientists have a number of technical and statistical methods for delineating natural from human influences on the temperature record, and apply these tools depending on the research questions they're trying to answer.

But the overall global record is not touched, so if you don't know which years were affected by natural events such volcanic eruptions, it can look noisy and confusing.

This is why we need to look at long-term trends to get the real answers.

This post originally appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions| Comments are closed

See no climate, hear no climate, speak no climate…Here we go again?

Source: Flickr/Alison Curtis

When news broke this week alleging that officials working for Gov. Rick Scott of Florida – a state that faces devastating impacts from climate change, such as being partially submerged – had unofficially banned use of the terms "climate change" and "global warming" from state documents, I had to check my calendar to see what year this is.

It felt as if we were back in 2003, when the George W. Bush administration was up to the same tricks. A former American Petroleum Institute lobbyist named Philip Cooney, who was then chief of staff in the White House Council on Environmental Quality, made hundreds of edits and deletions to EPA documents.

This country is drowning

Bush's White House tried to muzzle the EPA

Cooney's goal, according to a House committee investigation, was to “exaggerate or emphasize scientific uncertainties or to deemphasize or diminish the importance of the human role in global warming.” Cooney insisted on such extreme edits that that EPA decided to eliminate the climate change section from one report entirely.

After New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin broke the news about what was going on, Cooney resigned from the White House – and went to work for Exxon Mobil.

It's not yet clear exactly what happened in Florida. After four former staffers with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said they'd been told not to use the terms "climate change," "global warming" or "sustainability," and that this ban was widely known, Gov. Scott told reporters this week "it's not true."

The DEP website does include references to climate change, though most are several years old. Meanwhile, at least one group has asked the agency's inspector general to investigate.

Other states tried to censor, too

With an overwhelming majority of the American public favoring climate action, skeptical politicians are starting to crab-walk in the direction of climate reality. “I’m not a scientist” is the current favorite dodge and also with Gov. Scott – an attempt to avoid both outright denial and the responsibility to act that comes with recognizing the problem.

But as Emily Atkin reported in Climate Progress, other states where the governors still don’t accept the scientific validity of human-caused climate change have also been pulling out the muzzle.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was accused of pulling references to climate change from its website under orders from aides to Governor Tom Corbett. Corbett has since been voted out of office in favor of Gov. Tom Wolf, who understands that climate change is real.

North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources was caught doing the same thing. This is the state where the General Assembly in 2012 passed a four-yearmoratorium on policies that rely on scientific models for sea level rise.

Maybe these states should require environmental officials to scrunch their eyes shut, stick their fingers in their ears and chant "nya-nya-nya." That would surely solve the problem.

Enough already

Here’s a prediction: Attempts to expunge the climate problem by executive fiat – to air-brush state websites and muzzle scientists – are on their last legs. So are evasions like “I’m not a scientist.”

Americans are raising the bar on how politicians from both parties talk about this issue. Voters will increasingly reward climate honesty and climate action.

Politicians who don't deliver will find themselves punished at the polls.

This post first appeared on our EDF Voices Blog.

Also posted in Extreme Weather, Policy| Read 1 Response

Defenders of dirty power plants use doublespeak to shape debate

Under the proposed Clean Power Plan, plants must cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

(This blog originally appeared on EDF Voices)

As we’ve noted before, few opponents of the federal Clean Power Plan want to stand up and say they favor unlimited carbon pollution. So they’re apt to frame their arguments in more clever ways.

Under the proposed Clean Power Plan, plants must cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Sometimes their approach is to use misleading statistics – like when they talk about the cost of moving to clean energy without mentioning the much larger benefits of doing so.

Or they’ll use an appealing bit of logic, which sounds right until it’s exposed to the way the world really works.

It takes more than one EPA rule

One of those seemingly-logical attacks is the complaint that the plan the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rolled out June 2 won’t solve climate change.

A CATO Institute blog says, “EPA’s Regulations Will Not Mitigate Climate Change.” At first glance, that seems like a step forward from the crazier objections – for instance, that climate change doesn’t exist.

But it’s really just a new strategy aimed at the same goal, like a lawyer who failed to impress the jury with an insanity defense and is now piecing together a fake alibi.

Your suspicions should be raised immediately when coal conglomerates complain that an EPA rule does “little” to solve an environmental problem, which on the surface sounds like a worthy objection. Why should the United States take this step to end unlimited pollution from power plants, they ask, when it won’t resolve the problem we are facing?

The complaint rests on the idea that the pollution reductions from U.S. power plants will not cut enough emissions to stop global warming. And that’s true.

It’s like telling Ike to call off D-Day because the landing alone wouldn’t defeat the Germans.

Even though power plant emissions are the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States – as of 2011, our utilities put out more of this pollution than the entire economies of every foreign country but China – they’re only a portion of total global output. So this plan does not, on its own, solve climate change.

But this argument is sort of like telling Ike to call off D-Day because the landing alone wouldn’t defeat the Germans.

Or it’s like telling a person with multiple risk factors for heart disease to keep smoking, because quitting won’t prevent an attack on its own. The reality is that in solving big problems, a major first step is always necessary and it's always insufficient.

The most important truth – in fact, the very reason some in industry are scrambling for arguments to oppose this new rule – is that the Clean Power Plan is a turning point in our environmental and economic history.

A historic step

For the first time, we’ll cut carbon emissions from their largest source, and begin to drive greater investment in abundant, affordable clean energy.

It will also have a big impact around the world. Addressing a major global problem in the 21st Century requires America to lead by example.

By making a substantial cut in our largest source of carbon emissions, we will not only cut billions of tons of pollution, we will enable a much bigger step forward internationally.

Let’s face it: Most of those in the fossil fuel industry who argue that the Clean Power Plan doesn’t cut enough pollution are really just trying to make sure we don't cut any pollution at all.

They know that if they’re able to intimidate the Congress into blocking these rules, it would make it substantially less likely that the U.S. and the rest of the world will move forward to a cleaner future.

But there’s an easy test to tell if someone offering this complaint is sincere: If they’re making suggestions to further strengthen the final rule, then they’re actually interested in a solution.

If not, they’re just trying to keep America living in the past.

Also posted in Clean Power Plan, Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News| Comments are closed
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