Visualizing Donald Trump’s ‘Who knew?!’ Climate Policy Moment

U.S. President Donald Trump called health insurance an “unbelievably complex subject” when Congress was debating health care in February. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” said Trump as Republicans in Congress struggled to find consensus on how to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Given developments in Washington, D.C., over the past week, he could soon be issuing similar tweets about unimagined intricacies in energy policy—intricacies with critical implications for technology developers.

Last week’s main affair in Washington, of course, was Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, and the ensuing ‘political firestorm’. But two big energy issues were also playing out, exposing policy rifts among Republicans—cracks that that could ultimately shift the course of U.S. and global policy.

One momentous event was the Republican-led Senate’s failure to pass the override of Obama-era methane regulations that House Republicans approved in February. The second was the hardening of a split among top Trump officials over U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Both cases show energy policy—and its environmental drivers—to be richer than the jobs-versus-environment caricature painted by Trump and Republican leaders in Congress. Knocking down existing policies inherited from prior administrations to deliver on political promises—rather than carefully improving them—comes at a price that some members of Trump’s party and even his administration are not willing to accept.

Mark Boling, a supporter of clean energy and climate action, makes that case forcefully. Boling, an executive vice president at the Houston-based natural gas producer Southwestern Energy, opposed the legislative attack on methane regulations pushed by GOP leaders in Congress. “It was too blunt,” says Boling.

The targeted regulations, finalized in 2016 by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, specify royalty charges, monitoring requirements, and emissions controls for methane vented or flared by oil and gas producers at sites on federal lands. The rules are defended by environmental groups fighting to slow climate change (because methane is a potent greenhouse gas), by local leaders grappling with local air pollution exacerbated by methane releases, and by taxpayer advocates bemoaning lost royalties from wasted methane.

The Congressional resolution would have scrapped the rules and prohibited the agency from issuing new rules that were “substantially similar.” It was pushed forward by oil and gas producers, who saw the rules as an unwarranted drag on their industries.

Last week was the dramatic showdown. It was the Senate’s last chance to use a streamlined procedure to scrap rules approved under President Obama, and Vice President Mike Pence was on hand in case the GOP’s vote count was off and there was a tie vote. Instead, the Senate defeated the methane rollback 51-to-49. Arizona Senator John McCain cast the surprise ‘no’ vote, joining two other Republicans and all of the Senate’s 48 Democrats.

The Trump Administration will now review the rule, as Trump instructed EPA to do with related rules governing methane releases on new oil and gas sites nationwide in a sweeping executive order last month. Boling has strong ideas for how to improve the existing rule to get more emissions reduction at lower cost. “It clearly has flaws,” he says.

One flaw is what Boling calls its “prescriptive specifications” for methane leak detection and repair programs, which he predicts will slow the commercialization of novel sensor technology. Boling favors a performance-based approach whereby the Bureau of Land Management (and the Environmental Protection Agency) would set a ceiling on allowable methane releases and then set oil and gas producers free to meet it.

He predicts producers will be empowered to press novel technology into service faster. Examples include drone-based methane detectors (which General Electric is working on), or small tuneable diode lasers for 24/7 onsite monitoring (being developed by IBM and Quanta3). Using such advanced technology, says Boling, will accelerate the identification of so-called super-emitters—the 10-20 percent of oil and gas sites releasing 90 percent of the methane—and thus slash emissions faster.

A similar argument over the merits of policy improvement versus abandonment surrounds U.S. involvement in the Paris agreement. Pulling out of Paris was part of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, along with his assertions that climate change was a hoax. But concern about damage to various U.S. interests has fueled debate amongst key members of Trump’s team.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Trump policy advisor Steve Bannon want the president to follow through on his campaign pledge, calling Paris a “bad deal” for the U.S. Others, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the President’s daughter Ivanka advocate staying in so the U.S. can help steer global climate policy.

The Paris “foes” had “gained the upper hand” early this month, according to the Washington Post, when a decision seemed imminent. But last week, that decision was deferred, and Tillerson took full advantage. On Thursday, he signed on to an agreement among Arctic nations (the Fairbanks Declaration of 2017) that refers to the human causes and severity of climate change and also cites the Paris Agreement.

Business leaders, meanwhile, are speaking out in greater numbers against a Paris pullout, including top executives from the energy industry:

  • General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt told a Georgetown University audience this month that the deal is a big business opportunity, reminding the students that GE operates a $12 billion renewable energy business. (Immelt also stated categorically that “climate change is real.”)
  • Colin Marshall, CEO of coal firm Cloud Peak Energy, wrote Trump last month arguing that he can best support the coal industry by staying in. For example, the Paris rules could determine the global acceptance of carbon capture and storage, which could ultimately make or break coal’s fate.
  • Last week, two dozen major firms financed ads in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the New York Post that “strongly urge” Trump to stick with Paris. Signatories include Google, Intel, utilities National Grid and PG&E, and power equipment giant Schneider Electric.

Boling says there are multiple issues at play, but he counts five big ones: science, social concerns, economic issues, environmental factors, and political calculations. All but one, says Boling, are slam dunks for staying the course: “The only possible way one could get to a ‘no’ on the Paris Agreement is under the political category.”

The critics get Paris wrong, says Boling, by viewing it as a “death march” rather than a “roadmap” for an economic marathon. As Boling puts it: “We have to move to a low carbon energy economy. The smart people will see that as an economic opportunity for those who want to get there first.”

If other issues are any guide, the upside potential presented by global cooperation on climate change may be something important—something the President did not thoroughly analyze before his election. Trump attacked and antagonized China on the campaign trail, and has subsequently befriended Beijing in order to put pressure on North Korea. Might the climate skeptic discover similar nuance on climate change, embracing cleaner energy and the Paris Agreement to “make America great again”?

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

Will Earth’s Climate Get More Sensitive to CO2? Only Better Satellites Can Say

President Trump, his top officials, and Republican leaders in Congress propose to dial back action on climate change, arguing that the scientific consensus on human induced-climate change is unconvincing. That makes resolving scientific uncertainties all the more important. A mathematical analysis published today in the journal Nature Climate Change could explain one of the hottest disputes in climate science: just how sensitive Earth’s climate is to rising levels of CO2.

The metric targeted by University of Washington climatologist Kyle Armour in today’s report—equilibrium climate sensitivity—is the warming at Earth’s surface caused by a doubling of atmospheric CO2. A doubling to 560 parts per million since the Industrial Revolution could occur by mid-century if global economies adopt the Trump Administration’s animosity towards climate action and fossil fuel consumption continues unabated.

Armour’s analysis affirms the range of possible climate sensitivity provided by climate models and the IPCC, which some recent studies argue is too high. His analysis also highlights a need for better satellite equipment to narrow the range—including missions that the Trump Administration placed on the chopping block last month. Continue reading

Commentary: Photo Ops with Coal Miners Offer No Substitute for Fact-based Climate Policy

Harry Fain, coal loader. Inland Steel Company, Floyd County, KY. 1946. Photo: Russell Lee

President Donald Trump surrounded himself with coal miners at the EPA yesterday as he signed an executive order calling for a clean sweep of all federal policies hindering development of fossil fuel production in the United States. The order’s centerpiece is an instruction to federal agencies to cease defending EPA’s Clean Power Plan and thus, according to Trump’s rhetoric, revive coal-fired power generation and the miners who fuel it.

The electric power sector, however, responded with polite dismissal.

What separates President Trump and some of his top officials from power engineers and utilities? The latter operate in a world governed by science and other measurable forces. Unlike President Trump, scientists, engineers, and executives suffer reputational and financial losses when they invent new forms of logic that are unsupported by evidence. And a world of fallacies underlies the President and his administration’s rejection of climate action. Continue reading

Wind Could Provide Over 26% of Chinese Electricity by 2030

Last month I argued that the primary reason Chinese wind farms underperform versus their U.S.-based counterparts is that China’s grid operators deliberately favor operation of coal-fired power plants. Such curtailment of wind power has both economic and technical roots, and it has raised serious questions about whether China can rely on an expanding role for wind energy. New research published today appears to put those concerns to rest, arguing that wind power in China should still grow dramatically.

The report today in the journal Nature Energy projects that wind energy could affordably meet over one-quarter of China’s projected 2030 electricity demand—up from just 3.3 percent of demand last year.

In fact the researchers, from MIT and Tsinghua University, project that modest improvements to the flexibility of China’s grid would enable wind power to grow a further 17 percent. That, they argue, means that China’s non-fossil resources could grow well beyond the 20 percent level that China pledged to achieve under the Paris Climate Agreement. Continue reading

The Natural Gas Accounting Gap

Last month the U.S. EPA admitted it was way off in its estimate of how much methane producers leak into the atmosphere in the process of wresting natural gas from the ground and piping it across the continent. It’s a big deal since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and likely responsible for a substantial fraction of the climate change we’re already experiencing. And it’s been a long time coming. For many years now methane measurements by airplanes and satellites have strongly suggested that methane emissions from the oil and gas patch could be double what EPA figures captured.

Today the online earth observation pub Earthzine has my take on an unusual research project that helped convince EPA — and the industry — to change their tune on methane emissions. Take me to the article…

Beetles, Cacti, and Killer Plants Inspire Energy Efficiency

What do you get when you mix a desert beetle, a pitcher plant, and a cactus? Pick the right parts and you get an extremely slippery surface with an uncanny capacity to condense and collect water, according to research reported today in the journal Nature.

The advance could be a big deal for the energy world because, when it comes to energy efficiency, condensation lies somewhere between a necessary evil and a major drag. Nuclear, coal, and thermal solar power plants, for example, require large heat exchangers to condense the steam exiting from their turbines so that they can raise a new round of hotter steam. For other devices, such as wind turbines and refrigerator coils, condensation is the first step towards energy-sapping ice formation. Continue reading

How the Paris Climate Deal Happened and Why It Matters

One month after the terror attacks that traumatized Paris, the city has produced a climate agreement that is being hailed as a massive expression of hope. On Monday the U.K. Guardian dubbed the Paris Agreement, “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” Distant observers may be tempted to discount such effusive language as hyperbole, yet there are reasons to be optimistic that last weekend’s climate deal finally sets the world on course towards decisive mutual action against global climate change.

The birthing process clearly sets Paris apart from earlier efforts at global climate action, such as the Kyoto Protocol crafted in 1997. Only last-minute intervention by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore clinched a deal at Kyoto Continue reading