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PennFuture's Climate for Change :: Climate news from around the state, country and world

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

KXL: A bad day for tar sands means a good day for climate sanity

He did it. He said he would and, to our great relief, he did. That is to say that last evening, President Obama vetoed the bill that Congress sent to him which would have greenlighted the development of the Keystone XL pipeline. (Read the Washington Post coverage.)

I'm feeling both great relief and a sense of celebration. Extraction and processing of Canada's tar sands, and then shipping them through a highly risky pipeline through the heart of the U.S. mainland only for all of the resulting fuels to be sent overseas, has been called "the dumbest energy idea ever." I agree.

Why would this country take all the environmental risks for so few jobs (35 permanent jobs) and no new energy sources for domestic consumption (don't believe those who say otherwise)?

Huge thanks to the President for seeing sense and vetoing this bill -- as he had been promising to do.
  Lena Moffitt and NWFers gathered at the White House to thank
 Pres. Obama just hours after he vetoed the bill.

A big shoutout to my good friend and colleague, Lena Moffitt, who is federal policy manager for National Wildlife Federation's Climate and Energy Program, and has led on this issue for years.  (PennFuture is proud to be NWF's Pennsylvania affiliate). When I heard news of the veto from Lena yesterday afternoon and asked her reaction, she said with a big smile, "The President's building a climate legacy, and there's no room for KXL in it!"

I was late waking up to the threats of this ridiculous pipeline proposal; it wasn't until about three years ago that, thanks to savvy, insightful folks like Lena who were way ahead of me, I learned just how daft this pipeline idea is. Thank you, @LenaMDC, for opening my eyes. (Read the guest blog post that Lena wrote for us back in December, in which she exposes the flaws in the economic arguments in support of the pipeline.)

We can't relax just yet -- the President will still need to reject one more permit request.  We're certainly hopeful that President Obama will stick to his guns and kill this pipeline for good.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director, based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Poll: Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly want action on climate

Great news about our fellow Pennsylvanians: According to a poll released last week by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), residents of the Commonwealth are downright bullish on having state government, led by Gov. Tom Wolf, take strong action to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Some surprising highlights of the poll, according to NRDC:
  • 82 percent of Pennsylvanians endorse a state-crafted plan to curb carbon pollution -- as we'll need to in the near future, in response to the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan Rule. This includes strong majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.
  • Even stronger numbers: 93 percent of Pennsylvanians support the expansion of utility programs to increase energy efficiency in homes, thus saving homeowners money.
  • Better yet: 97 percent of Pennsylvanians see the tremendous promise of energy efficiency. More than 80 percent of us want to boost the state's use of renewable power, including solar and wind.
  • And toss that stale old chestnut about "jobs versus the environment" out onto the compost heap, please: More than 60 percent of Pennsylvanians say using more energy from true renewables will create jobs.
Dig into the polling results yourself. Then you'll be more than ready the next time someone tries to tell you we're not ready to act on climate change.

Pennsylvanians are leading the call to a clean energy economy.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets at @joybergey.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Two steps forward

Since I may have been a bit pessimistic in my post last week -- complaining about insufficient progress on climate -- let's look at two brighter stories that have come to light since then.

-- A rare sign of hope has emerged from a petroleum company: Shell Oil is recommending its investors support a shareholder resolution that would have the company report annually on how it's preparing its business model for potential risks posed by climate change. To pass, the resolution would need the support of 75 percent of its shareholders at its annual meeting in May.

(But Shell hasn't completely changed its tune as it also announced that it intends to resume drilling in the arctic. Sigh.)

-- And more props to President Obama for smart, long-term thinking about how we'll deal with the damage that climate change will almost invariably bring. He signed an executive order last week establishing the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. To quote the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), "The new federal flood risk standard requires all future federal investments in and affecting floodplains to meet the level of resilience as established by the Standard. For example, this includes where federal funds are used to build new structures and facilities or to rebuild those that have been damaged."

Learning from the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, and knowing that these catastrophic weather events will only increase in number as the atmosphere warms, it's good to know the President isn't hiding his head in the sand from our responsibility to future generations. Thanks, O!

Joy Bergey is federal policy director for PennFuture and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2014 -- the hottest year ever. Or, at a minimum, in a long, long time.

Nope, it wasn't just our imagination, or the power of suggestion. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has confirmed that "the globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2014 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880." (And although Pennsylvanians may think of last year as mild because of our relatively easy summer, recall that California and the west suffered a brutal weather year.)

Six months in 2014 set new records for warmth: May, June, August, September, October and December. October tied for record warmest.

If you are not convinced that looking at just one year, or five months within that year, shows a significant change, then how about this: 19 of the 20 warmest years on record have occurred in the past 20 years. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred after 2002 (with the exception of 1998).

With all this bad news, are we making any serious progress with those who run the financial and business sectors of our economy? An encouraging sign is this recent quote about climate change in Fortune magazine: "The investment community... has woken up to this threat. It is demanding more information from companies about their exposure to climate events, as well as the prospective cost of their carbon emissions.”

Are we making progress in Congress? Perhaps a tiny little bit. Last week, more than 60 senators agreed that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. Sad as it as, this represents serious forward movement over the past decade. But we have to move faster.

The bright spots in federal leadership remain the Obama Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In last week's State of the Union address, the President said much about the issue, including this: "The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."

The EPA has taken action by proposing rules to limit global warming pollution from any new and existing  fossil fuel-fired power plants and new and modified oil and gas wells. A good start, but we need federal and state governments to do so much more. We inch toward progress while the temperatures race up the scale.

Every decision maker needs to feel the heat (literally and figuratively) to act now.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Who will climate change hurt the most?

James K. Boyce wrote a fascinating opinion piece ("Get ready to make tough choices") about climate change for the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. (Boyce is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. He also presented a webinar for PennFuture several years ago on the positive economics of a cap-and-dividend approach to climate legislation.)

Professor Boyce is not the first to point out that it's now too late to prevent many of the harmful effects of climate change, so society must start making the difficult decisions now around how to adapt to climate change: Building sea walls to prevent the tragedy of the next Hurricane Sandy or Typhoon Haiyan will be hugely expensive. Cooling centers and emergency services will be needed as well as water projects to help livestock survive the coming, intense droughts.

We certainly can't afford all of these things. So, which of these do we build? Which don't we build? How will we justify our choices to those who won't be protected?
Jim Boyce's research predicts that on our present course, world incomes will fall 25 percent across the board in the next 20 years as a result of climate disruption. Holy cow.

Here's the truly intriguing angle that Boyce then raises:

Who will be hurt more by the loss of so much income, the poorest Bangladeshi farmer or the wealthiest Manhattan real estate baron? The Bangladeshi making a dollar a day will have to get by on 75 cents a day. Hard to fathom. Terribly unjust.

The Manhattan one-percenter making $2,000 a day will have to "scrape by" on $1,500 a day. (Strike up tiny violins playing sad music.)

My indignation aligns entirely with the Bangladeshi's plight. And yet, the math shows that Mr. Got Rocks in NYC will lose 2,000 times more money ($500 versus 25 cents a day). Conventional economic wisdom treats every dollar equally, so the wealthy person's absolute loss is viewed as much more important than the dirt-poor farmer's loss. 

Jim Boyce suggests a different calculus, one that is much fairer: let's value every person equally, as the Declaration of Independence suggests. Indeed, Article 1, Chapter 27 of Pennsylvania's Constitution guarantees that "the people have a right to clean air [and] clean water." The people, not the dollars, are what Americans hold dear in their deepest values.

Boyce ends his Inquirer piece as follows: "In the years ahead, climate change will confront the world with hard choices: whether to protect as many dollars as possible, or to protect as many people as we can."

I certainly hope we make the right choice. All lives matter.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

It’s time to reject Keystone XL, Mr. President

PennFuture closely coordinates its federal advocacy work with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) -- we're their state affiliate, after all. Lena Moffitt is NWF's manager of federal policy for climate and energy. She writes a guest post this week about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Lena has my personal thanks, since reading a piece she wrote several years ago opened my eyes to what a horrible idea this pipeline really is. Thanks for your leadership, Lena.

We've been fighting the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline for nearly six years now - and
Joy Bergey and Rob Altenburg (PennFuture), Lena Moffitt (NWF),
and Chelsea Harnish (Virginia Conservation Network) left to right

the case for rejection is stronger than ever. While, yes, the Nebraska Supreme Court still has to decide whether the pipeline’s route through the state is legal or not, once that decision comes down, the time for “review” will be over and the time for rejection will be upon us.

In June 2013, in his historic climate speech at Georgetown University, President Obama said that Keystone XL would not be found to be in the national interest if the project “significantly exacerbate[s] the problem of carbon pollution.” Over the past year, it has become increasingly evident that Keystone XL would have a significant impact on destabilizing the climate, and should therefore be rejected. Since the State Department released its Final Environmental Impact Statement in January 2014, reality has demonstrated that Keystone XL is, in fact, key to expanded tar sands developments. Unlike the State Department’s erroneous conclusion, tar sands expansion is not inevitable and is, in fact, dependent on several key factors. Over the past 11 months, we’ve watched a natural experiment unfold, demonstrating what happens when a few key factors turn against the industry’s favor. These factors are detailed below:
  1.  The price of oil plummeted well below the State Department’s estimates. And without high oil prices, extremely expensive tar sands projects quickly become uneconomical. *
  2. Tar sands oil is not being transported by trains to the extent the State Department predicted. Rail remains an expensive, logistically difficult alternative that has not filled the place of needed pipeline capacity.
  3. Other pipelines (alternatives to Keystone XL) remain on hold and face increasing opposition, both in Canada and the U.S. From Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, to TransCanada’s Energy East Project, to the Portland-Montreal line, tar sand pipelines face mounting opposition and legal battles wherever they are proposed.
In the face of these three factors, tar sands developments are slowing down. In 2014 alone, three major tar sands projects have been canceled or indefinitely put on hold - Shell’s Pierre River, Total’s Joslyn North, and Statoil’s Corner project. These three projects had the potential to produce 4.7 billion barrels of bitumen over their lifetime, which would have cumulatively released 2.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The fact is that with oil prices low, tar sands producers’ profit margins are narrow, and they need cheap pipeline transportation options to get their product to market (transporting tar sands by rail is between 40 percent and up to 150 percent greater than pipeline transport). This means that a major, dedicated tar sands pipeline like Keystone XL, which would lock in cheap transportation for tar sands to the Gulf Coast, would be hugely beneficial to this industry, triggering other projects to move ahead.

And in fact, even the State Department’s FEIS indicated just that. The State Department considered several “scenarios” in its analysis and, under a scenario that looks like what reality has turned out to be – one with low oil prices, low transport of tar sands via rail, and constrained pipeline options – Keystone XL would, in fact, have “substantial impact on oil sands production levels,” and, thus, on the climate.

While the State Department deemed this scenario “unlikely” in February of this year, it is this very scenario that reality has borne out in the interim 11 months. Simply put, even the State Department’s FEIS indicates that Keystone XL will have a significant impact on the climate under circumstances like those we are seeing today.

Given this, along with the President’s resurgent leadership on climate lately (releasing first-ever limits on carbon pollution from our power sector, announcing an historic deal with China to reduce our nations’ economy-wide emissions, sending Secretary Kerry to Lima to forge a global climate agreement), the President is well positioned to seize yet another leadership moment for protecting the climate by rejecting Keystone XL. We certainly hope he does.

* WTI (a crude oil benchmark price) has lost around 40 percent since June. Many tar sands producers are cutting back capital expenditure as a result.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Eight million strong are demanding action on climate change

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially closed the public comment period on December 1 on their proposed standard to limit carbon pollution from existing (think "dirty old") power plants. This follows closely on the heels of another proposed standard from EPA that would limit carbon pollution from not-yet-built power plants.

It's great news that more than 8,000,000 Americans weighed in officially in support of these two proposed standards. There are so many reasons to support EPA on this: Concern about our children's future and everyone's health; worries about the economic devastation caused by ever-increasing extreme weather events; threats to national security; fear for wild animals and wild places; and more.

PennFuture's senior energy analyst, Rob Altenburg, an expert in federal and state legislation, did a great job explaining the human side of regulations in an interview he gave to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this week.

Our staff gathered on December 1 alongside dozens of volunteers at EPA's Region III headquarters in Philadelphia to thank the agency for its great work, specifically on the proposed carbon pollution limits. Susan Saxe, a volunteer with the Philadelphia chapter of Pa. Interfaith Power and Light, baked an apple pie as a thank-you to EPA staff, because...protecting the environment is as American as apple pie!

"Kudos and Cookies" (led by Susan Saxe) baked a pie for the EPA.

Joy Bergey is federal policy director for PennFuture and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.