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

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

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…

EPA Coal Cuts Light Up Washington

A meeting at the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) Washington headquarters yesterday lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most exciting sessions in the agency’s history. Buttoned up policy wonks, lobbyists, and power market experts showed up in droves—over 600 registered—to witness a discussion of what President Obama’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan presaged for the U.S. power grid. The beltway crowd was joined by activists for and against fossil fuels—and extra security.

Inside proceedings, about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans’ impact on power grid reliability, protesters against fracking and liquid natural gas exports shouted “NATURAL GAS IS DIRTY” each time a speaker mentioned coal’s fossil fuel nemesis. Outside, the coal industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity distributed both free hand-warmers and dark warnings that dumping coal-fired power would leave Americans “cold in the dark.”

As expected, state regulators and utility executives from coal-reliant states such as Arizona and Michigan hammered home the ‘Cold in the Dark’ message in their exchanges with FERC’s commissioners. Gerry Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Detroit-based utility DTE Energy, called the Clean Power Plan “the most fundamental transformation of our bulk power system that we’ve ever undertaken.”

EPA’s critics argue that the plan’s timing is unrealistic and its compliance options are inadequate. Anderson said Michigan will need to shut down, by 2020, roughly 40 percent of the coal-fired generation that currently provides half of the state’s power. That, he said, “borders on unachievable and would certainly be ill-advised from a reliability perspective.”

EPA’s top air pollution official, Janet McCabe, defended her agency’s record and its respect for the grid. “Over EPA’s long history developing Clean Air Act standards, the agency has consistently treated electric system reliability as absolutely critical. In more than 40 years, at no time has compliance with the Clean Air Act resulted in reliability problems,” said McCabe.

McCabe assured FERC that EPA had carefully crafted its plan to provide flexibility to states and utilities regarding how they cut emissions from coal-fired power generation, and how quickly they contribute to the rule’s overall goal of lowering power sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. (Michigan has state-verified energy conservation and renewable energy options to comply with EPA’s plans according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

McCabe said EPA is considering additional flexibility before it finalizes the rule, as early as June. EPA would consider, for example, specific proposals for a “reliability safety valve” to allow a coal plant to run longer than anticipated if delays in critical replacement projects—say, a natural gas pipeline or a transmission line delivering distant wind power—threatened grid security.

As it turned out, language codifying a reliability safety valve was on offer at yesterday’s meeting from Craig Glazer, VP for federal government policy at PJM Interconnection, the independent transmission grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic region. The language represents a consensus reached by regional system operators from across the country—one that is narrowly written and therefore unlikely to give coal interests much relief. “It can’t be a free pass,” said Glazer.

A loosely-constrained valve, explained Glazer, would undermine investment in alternatives to coal-fired power, especially for developers of clean energy technologies. “Nobody’s going to make those investments because they won’t know when the crunch time really comes. It makes it very hard for these new technologies to jump in,” said Glazer.

Clean energy advocates at the meeting, and officials from states that, like California, are on the leading edge of renewable energy development, discounted the idea that additional flexibility would be needed to protect the grid. They pushed back against reports of impending blackouts from some grid operators and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation(NERC). Those reports, they say, ignored or discounted evidence that alternative energy sources can deliver the essential grid services currently provided by conventional power plants.

NERC’s initial assessment, issued in November, foresees rolling blackouts and increased potential for “wide-scale, uncontrolled outages,” and NERC CEO Gerald Cauley says a more detailed study due out in April will identify reliability “hotspots” caused by EPA’s plan. At the FERC meeting, Cauley acknowledged that “the technology is out there allowing solar and wind to be contributors to grid reliability,” but he complained that regulators were not requiring them to do so. Cauley called on FERC to help make that happen.

Cleantech supporters, however, are calling on the government to ensure that NERC recognizes and incorporates renewable energy’s full capabilities when it issues projections of future grid operations. They got a boost from FERC Commissioner Norman Bay. The former chief of enforcement at FERC and Obama’s designee to become FERC’s next chairman in April, Bay pressed Cauley on the issue yesterday.

Bay asked Cauley how he was going to ensure that NERC is more transparent, and wondered whether NERC would make public the underlying assumptions and models it will use to craft future reports. Cauley responded by acknowledging that NERC relied on forecasts provided by utilities, and worked with utility experts to “get ideas on trends and conclusions” when crafting its reliability studies.

Cauley also acknowledged that they were not “entirely open and consensus based” the way NERC’s standards-development process was. And he demurred on how much more open the process could be, telling Bay, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The challenge from Bay follows criticism leveled at NERC in a report issued last week by the Brattle Group, an energy analytics firm based in Boston. Brattle found that compliance with EPA’s plan was “unlikely to materially affect reliability.”

Brattle’s report concurred with renewables advocates who have argued that NERC got it wrong by focusing too much on the loss of coal-fired generation and too little on that which would replace it: “The changes required to comply with the CPP will not occur in a vacuum—rather, they will be met with careful consideration and a measured response by market regulators, operators, and participants. We find that in its review NERC fails to adequately account for the extent to which the potential reliability issues it raises are already being addressed or can be addressed through planning and operations processes as well as through technical advancements.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Will Shuttering Coal Plants Really Threaten the Grid?

Does President Obama’s plan to squelch carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants really threaten the stability of the grid? That politically-charged question is scheduled for a high-profile airing today at a meeting in Washington to be telecast live starting at 9 am ET from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Such “technical meetings” at FERC are usually pretty dry affairs. But this one could be unusually colorful, presenting starkly conflicting views of lower-carbon living, judging from written remarks submitted by panelists.

On one side are some state officials opposed to the EPA Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut U.S. power sector emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Susan Bitter Smith, Arizona’s top public utilities regulator, argues that EPA’s plan is “seriously jeopardizing grid reliability.” Complying with it would, she writes, cause “irreparable disruption” to Arizona’s (coal-dependent) power system.

Environmental advocates and renewable energy interests will be hitting back, challenging the credibility of worrisome grid studies wielded by Bitter Smith and other EPA critics. Some come from organizations that are supposed to be neutral arbiters of grid operation, such as the standards-setting North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Clean energy advocates see evidence of bias and fear-mongering in these studies, and they are asking FERC to step in to assure the transparency and neutrality of future analyses. Continue reading

NASA Launches its First Carbon-Tracking Satellite

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

It’s been a rough birthing process for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite program, which promises global tracking of carbon dioxide entering and leaving the atmosphere at ground level. Five years ago the first OCO fell into the Antarctic Ocean and sank, trapped inside the nose cone of a Taurus XL launch vehicle that failed to separate during launch. The angst deepened yesterday when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scrubbed a first attempt to launch a twin of the lost $280-million satellite, OCO-2, after sensors spotted trouble with the launch pad’s water-flood vibration-damping system less than a minute before ignition.

But this morning OCO’s troubles became history. At 2:56 a.m. PDT a Delta II rocket carrying the OCO-2 satellite roared off the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. According to JPL, the OCO separated from the Delta II’s second stage 56 minutes later and settled into an initial 690-kilometer-high orbit. If all goes well it will maneuver into a final 705-km orbit over the next month, putting it at the head of an international multi-satellite constellation of Earth-observing satellites known as the A-Train. Continue reading

Sniffing Gas: White House Taps ARPA-E to Boost Methane Detection

Gasbot 2.0. Photo: Victor Hernandez

Gasbot photo: Victor Hernandez

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum we spotlight the methane emissions overlooked by the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, and the satellite-based detector launching next year to map this “missing methane.” Last week the White House acknowledged EPA’s missing methane problem, and laid out a strategy to combat it. While promising to improve EPA’s inventory, including more use of top-down methane measurement, the White House also promised federal investment in ground-based methane sensing to plug leaky natural gas systems thought to be the source of much of the missing methane.

Action can’t come soon enough according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on Monday unveiled its latest report onClimate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The IPCC said “widespread and consequential” impacts are already visible and world leaders have only a few years to change course to avoid catastrophic warning. Methane is a major contributor according to the scientific body’s update on the physical basis for climate change, released last fall, which deemed methane to be up to 44 percent more potent as a warming agent than previously recognized. Continue reading