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Climate Desk Associate Producer
Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Could promises by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to dramatically restrict fracking actually make climate change worse?
In Sunday night's presidential debate, both Democratic candidates came out swinging against the controversial technique for extracting oil and natural gas. Sanders was blunt. "No, I do not support fracking," he said. Clinton was a bit less direct. She said she would hold fracking operations to such high standards that "by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place." (You can watch their responses above.)
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
While Sanders' statement basically matched what he has said before, Clinton's appeared to be something of a shift from her earlier positions. As secretary of state, she backed a push to get fracking operations up and running in foreign countries and called natural gas "the cleanest fossil fuel available for power generation today."
Now, it appears that either Democrat could try to curtail fracking substantially.
Many environmentalists would celebrate that, but some experts are warning that when it comes to climate change, limiting fracking could backfire. To understand why, you need to know a bit of background about the complex scientific debate surrounding the issue.
Environmental activists have criticized fracking for possibly contaminating subterranean water supplies, polluting air in communities near drilling sites, and contributing to climate change. They point out that methane, the main component of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that is up to 90 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term if it leaks into the air without being burned (though it lingers in the atmosphere for much less time than CO2).
When natural gas is burned in power plants, it produces far less CO2 than coal does. But methane leaks occur at nearly every step of the natural-gas production process—from well to pipeline to storage. Right now, there's a raging debate among scientists over whether the methane leaks from the natural-gas system or the huge carbon dioxide emissions from coal are ultimately worse for global warming.
There's a good chance that efforts to limit fracking could lead to the burning of more coal.
In Sunday's debate, Clinton said fixing the methane leaks would be a precondition for her to support fracking. Clinton and Sanders have both proposed new regulations on methane leaks that build on rules currently being formulated by the Obama administration. But both candidates say they want to go beyond simply fixing methane leaks and are actually promising to eliminate most fracking.
Here's the problem: There's a good chance that efforts to restrict fracking could lead to the burning of more coal. About 90 percent of the natural gas used in the United States is produced domestically, according to federal statistics; more than half of that is produced by fracking. The fracking boom has resulted in cheap gas replacing coal as the chief power source in many parts of the country. Gas now accounts for about one-third of US electricity production, up from about 23 percent when President Barack Obama took office. That growth has been matched by a decline in coal consumption.
At the same time, the country has seen a steady reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP, an indication that the economy is becoming cleaner. The rapid growth of solar, wind, and other renewables is one important factor behind that trend, as are widespread improvements to energy efficiency. But the swapping of natural gas for coal has been arguably the most vital—note how the falling blue line (coal) mirrors the rising green line (gas):
Energy Information Administration
Less fracking would mean less gas production, which would mean higher gas prices, which would likely mean that gas' share of America's electricity supply would fall.
"Few politicians would want to turn the dial back on natural gas, if it meant we started burning more coal in exchange."
"Without natural gas, it would have been very difficult to achieve the emissions reductions from retiring coal plants that occurred over the last decade," said Rob Barnett, a senior energy analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. "Few politicians would want to turn the dial back on natural gas, if it meant we started burning more coal in exchange."
In other words, some analysts said, if Clinton and Sanders are committed to confronting climate change, choking off the country's supply of natural gas could be a big step in the wrong direction. That's especially true if the drawdown of fracking isn't paired with new policies aimed specifically at preventing a reversion to coal. Sanders has called for a national carbon tax, and both candidates have supported various incentives for renewables. But a carbon tax is unlikely to pass Congress, renewables are under siege in many states, and Obama's plan to reduce coal consumption was recently put on hold by the Supreme Court.
"In the present legislative and regulatory environment, any severe curtailing of natural-gas fracking would just lead to a bounce back of coal, not an expansion of renewables," said Ray Pierrehumbert, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago. "A strong carbon tax or strong support for renewables and efficiency could possibly allow fracking to be phased out without causing a bounce back in coal, but that's not the situation we are facing in the US."
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Coal is ultimately in a death spiral regardless of what happens with fracking, says Mark Brownstein, vice president of climate programs at the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that generally supports replacing coal with gas.
"In the present legislative and regulatory environment, any severe curtailing of natural-gas fracking would just lead to a bounce back of coal."
"Any way you slice it, you have old, inefficient, highly polluting coal-fired power plants in the US, and there are all sorts of economic and political and environmental factors that bear down on them irrespective of the price of natural gas," he said. "The simple possibility of gas prices rising doesn't change the fundamental pressure on coal."
Fracking faces economic pressures of its own, unrelated to regulation of methane leaks or water contamination. The boom in oil and gas production is starting to come full circle, as the saturated market drives down prices, which in turn drives down production. In 2015, gas production dipped for the first time in years; the same crash happened in oil production in response to record-low global oil prices. In other words, the fracking industry is already contracting without any help from Sanders or Clinton.
And for what it's worth, the candidates' threats could be kind of toothless anyway, Barnett said.
"It's unlikely the president has the authority to impose a national ban on fracking without new legislation from Congress," he said. "And Congress simply isn't likely to play along."
The Florida Supreme Court is set to weigh in on a controversial ballot measure that environmentalists warn could erect a new obstacle for the state's struggling renewable-energy industry.
On Monday, the court is expected to begin hearing oral arguments over Amendment 1, a proposed ballot initiative that purports to strengthen the legal rights of homeowners who have rooftop solar panels. But critics in the solar industry and environmental groups claim that if the measure passes in November, it would actually deal a major blow to rooftop solar by undermining one of the key state policies supporting it.
"They're trying to kill net metering, is really what it is."
Amendment 1 was created by an organization with a grassroots-sounding name: Consumers for Smart Solar. In reality, though, the organization is financed by the state's major electric utility companies as well as by conservative groups with ties to the Koch brothers. The measure qualified for the ballot in late January, after nabbing nearly 700,000 signatures from Floridians. A competing measure—pushed by Floridians for Solar Choice, a group backed by the solar industry—did not get enough signatures to make the ballot.
In Florida, the Supreme Court is commonly asked by the attorney general to review ballot initiatives to ensure that what voters will read on the ballot accurately characterizes the legal effects of the measure. And in this case, it does not, according to a legal brief filed by the environmental group Earthjustice:
If passed by the voters, the utility-sponsored amendment would be a constitutional endorsement of the idea that rooftop solar users should pay higher utility bills than other customers. Solar users could end up paying twice as much as other customers pay to buy power from the utilities. This utility-sponsored amendment pretends to be pro-solar but is actually a disguised attempt to derail rooftop solar in Florida.
"This is really shrewd, cynical deception," said David Guest, the Earthjustice attorney who will argue the group's position to the court on Monday.
A spokesperson for the utility-backed Consumers for Smart Solar countered in an email that "our amendment is not misleading" and that its opponents "are manufacturing false arguments and using scare tactics."
The court battle over the ballot measure is just the latest episode in a long and brutal fight in Florida pitting solar companies and their environmentalist allies against power companies that fear losing their customers to rooftop solar power. Despite being one of the country's sunniest (and largest) states, Florida ranks just 15th for solar installations. As Tim Dickinson recently explained in a great feature for Rolling Stone:
Key policies that have spurred a rooftop solar revolution elsewhere in America are absent or actually illegal in Florida. Unlike the majority of states, even Texas, Florida has no mandate to generate any portion of its electricity from renewable power. Worse, the state's restrictive monopoly utility law forbids anyone but the power companies from buying and selling electricity. Landlords cannot sell power from solar panels to tenants. Popular solar leasing programs like those offered by SolarCity and Sunrun are outlawed. Rooftop solar is limited to those who can afford the upfront expense; as a result, fewer than 9,000 Florida homes have panels installed.
The controversial ballot measure would amend the Florida constitution to guarantee that "electricity consumers have the right to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use." Sounds great, right?
Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, Floridians already have that right, even though it's not explicitly mentioned in the state's Constitution.
"There already is a right to own or lease solar," explained Hannah Wiseman, a professor of energy law at Florida State University. In this area, she said, Amendment 1 "is entrenching existing laws."
"They are taking an anti-free market position by siding with monopolies to stop competition from solar."
What the amendment won't do, however, is legalize the type of solar lease offered by SolarCity, which is currently banned in Florida. "Third-party ownership" is a business model in which a contractor such as SolarCity installs solar panels on your roof free of charge, retains ownership of those panels, and then sells you the electricity they produce at less than the cost of buying electricity from the grid. That model has been extremely successful for SolarCity in California and other leading solar states, since it's simple and allows homeowners to avoid the big up-front costs of installing and maintaining their own panels. In Florida, only electric utilities have the right to sell electricity to homeowners; you can buy or lease your own solar panels, but you can't arrange to buy power from a third-party solar contractor. The failed ballot measure backed by Floridians for Solar Choice would have changed that, but Amendment 1 will not.
But according to Guest, there's an even more insidious provision in Amendment 1's fine print. The amendment says state and local governments have the authority "to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do."
"It could open the door for utilities charging solar users high fixed fees, and potentially getting rid of net metering."
The issue here is net metering, a policy that exists in almost every state (including Florida) that requires electric utilities to purchase excess electricity from solar homes. In effect, the extra power your panels produce in the afternoon offsets the cost of power you take from the grid at night. The policy is widely loathed by power companies because they not only lose a paying customer to solar but also have to pay that customer and take the customer's extra power off their hands. Electric utilities across the country have waged a variety of wars against net metering over the last several years; one of their biggest wins was in Nevada last month.
Often the fight comes down to a complicated, sometimes esoteric debate about whether net metering forces utilities to raise their rates for nonsolar homes to cover the cost of solar homes. (In addition to having to buy the excess power, utilities say solar homes still make use of transmission lines and other grid infrastructure without paying their fair share for it.)
That brings us back to the amendment: If passed, Wiseman said, it would allow utilities to argue that net metering is a "subsidy" for solar and that lawmakers have the authority to prohibit it.
"It could open the door for utilities charging solar users high fixed fees and potentially getting rid of net metering," Wiseman said.
Guest was more blunt: "They're trying to kill net metering, is really what it is."
All of this seems to be pretty confusing for Floridians, who appear to hold conflicting views on the controversy. According to the solar-industry-backed Floridians for Solar Choice, 82 percent of the state's voters said they would support changing the law to permit third-party ownership of solar. But a recent poll from the utility-backed Consumers for Smart Solar found that 73 percent of voters support their ballot measure.
One of the amendment's opponents is Debbie Dooley, a Georgia-based tea party activist who has rallied conservative opposition to this measure and other potentially anti-solar policies around the country. Consumers for Smart Solar is engaged in "a campaign of lies and deception," she said. The group "claims to support a free-market principle, but they are taking an anti-free-market position by siding with monopolies to stop competition from solar."
Now it's up to the court to determine if Amendment 1's wording is, in fact, deceptive. If they decide it is, they could throw the measure out. The case is much more ambiguous than the ballot measure language the court normally reviews, Wiseman said. But she added it's rare for the court to remove initiatives from the ballot.
The headline negotiations during the Paris climate summit in December were between national governments: What would China, the United States, and other big emitters be willing to do? But just outside the spotlight, some of the most optimistic commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions, ramp up clean energy, and invest in adaptive measures were being made by cities.
A new analysis from social scientists at University College London sheds some new light on the money behind those municipal efforts—and the results paint a highly uneven picture. The researchers compared spending on climate adaptation in 10 major global cities—that is, investments in infrastructure, public health, water systems, etc., aimed at making them more resistant to climate change. All 10 cities are members of the Compact of Mayors, an initiative to hold cities to a high standard of climate action.
On average among those 10 cities, spending on climate adaptation accounted for one-fifth of one percent of GDP in 2015, or about $855 million. Not surprisingly, cities in wealthier countries such the US and the UK spent far more than cities in African countries and Southeast Asia:
Cities in developing countries also lag behind on spending on a per-capita basis. (The Paris figure is so high in part because the study counted population just within a city's official boundaries, not the surrounding metropolitan area, and Paris' boundaries are relatively small)…
...and as a share of GDP:
The findings illustrate that spending on climate adaptation is more a function of wealth, and the value of local real estate, than the size of a city's population or its relative vulnerability to climate impacts. The researchers conclude that "current adaptation activities are insufficient in major population centres in developing and emerging economies."
That may not be very surprising—of course New York and London will be better able to rally funds for climate readiness than Addis Ababa. But it's an important snapshot of the uphill battle developing countries face in confronting climate change.
Congressman Lamar Smith's crusade against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keeps getting weirder.
Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, suspects that NOAA scientists may have "changed" climate research data to make it appear as though a possible slowdown in global warming over the last decade-and-a-half didn't really happen. In other words, the congressman seems to believe that government scientists somehow manipulated the facts in order to support President Barack Obama's climate agenda.
It turns out that the scientific debate over the extent to which climate change took a so-called "hiatus" is far from settled and extends far beyond NOAA's research. Chris Mooney at the Washington Post has a detailed rundown of the latest research on this surprisingly difficult question here. Of course, the basic existence of man-made global warming is not in dispute by scientists, Smith's opinion notwithstanding.
But in any case, Smith is determined to get to the bottom of what he sees as an insidious plot by NOAA to falsify research. His original subpoena for internal communications, issued last October, has been followed by a series of letters to Obama administration officials in NOAA and other agencies demanding information and expressing frustration that NOAA has not been sufficiently forthcoming. In December, for example, he wrote to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker complaining that NOAA showed a "pattern of failing to act in good faith." (NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.)
Now, a new letter gives some insight as to his specific grievances: Smith claims that NOAA's internal search for documents responsive to the subpoena has been "unnecessarily narrow," limited only to documents containing the terms "hiatus," "haitus," "global temperature," and "climate study." A NOAA spokesperson confirmed that those were the only search terms the agency used to find the relevant documents. On Monday, Smith asked NOAA to expand that field to include the words below ("Karl" presumably refers to Thomas Karl, the NOAA scientist behind the research Smith is interested in):
In Smith's defense, NOAA's four terms (three, really, since one is just a misspelling of another) are incredibly narrow and, if there really was any scientific malfeasance, would quite possibly miss it. At the same time, the new list further illuminates what Smith is really after: Some evidence of a nefarious political conspiracy involving Obama, the United Nations, the Paris climate agreement, and temperature buoys.
Sure, NOAA should be transparent about its activities. But the whole thing seems more and more like a wild goose chase by Smith—I'm not holding my breath for any bombshell revelations.
Porter Ranch, Calif., site of a massive methane leak that was finally plugged this month.
It's no secret that the United States has a methane problem. Methane accounts for about one half of one percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions—it's released mostly from natural gas production, landfills, and agriculture (cow farts and burps). But as a greenhouse gas, it's incredibly potent in the short term, capable of trapping up to 90 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-30 time period. And although the Obama administration has proposed some potential solutions, methane emissions are currently unregulated by the federal government.
A couple new analyses came out this week painting a picture of just how severe methane emissions really are.
The first deals with the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility near Los Angeles, which was finally plugged on Feb. 12 after spewing gas from a major leak for four months. In addition to creating a public health crisis (the noxious fumes prompted thousands of locals to evacuate), the leak made a significant contribution to climate change.
The Aliso Canyon leak was spewing 60 metric tons of methane every hour.
In a new study published Thursday in the journal Science, scientists reported that the leak single-handedly doubled Los Angeles' methane footprint. The study, one of the first peer-reviewed measurements of the leak and based on a series of scientific flights over the site, found 60 metric tons of methane leaking every hour.
Aliso Canyon is an extreme case, but methane leaks are frighteningly common, and they take a significant toll for the environment. This week the Environmental Protection Agency released an updated draft of its Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the official accounting of America's carbon footprint. In 2014, total greenhouse gas emissions in the US were 6.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (a metric used to make apples-to-apples comparisons between different gases). That's about 1 percent higher than in 2013, but about 8 percent lower than the 2007 peak.
The most notable thing about the draft, however, is a dramatic upward revision of methane emissions statistics. The new figures for methane emissions from the oil and gas sector are about 27 percent higher than previous estimates. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, that difference represents a 20-year climate impact equal to 200 coal-fired power plants. It also represents about $1.4 billion worth of lost natural gas.
"There's been a lot of science done over the last few years. Before that, we didn't know a lot about the extent of methane emissions," said Matt Watson, an analyst at EDF. "Now they recognize that they've been systematically undercounting these emissions by a pretty significant extent."
The new draft also upwardly revises estimates for landfill emissions, moving them to the number-one slot. Livestock emissions estimates are essentially the same. The oil and gas revision is by far the biggest, and likely the most significant from a policy standpoint.
New figures for methane emissions from the oil and gas sector are about 27 percent higher than previous estimates.
Methane emissions occur at many different points of the natural gas production process. Most are intentional: Excess gas is flared from well sites to relieve pressure, and some pieces of drilling equipment are designed to periodically vent gas. But an estimated one-third of methane emissions from the natural gas system are accidental, coming from leaks in pipelines, storage facilities, and other infrastructure.
The reason for the accounting difference, Watson explained, is that the EPA had systematically undercounted the number of natural gas facilities and their equipment. The agency also used an unrealistically low estimate for how much leakage is really occurring; because methane emission reporting is voluntary for natural gas operators, who themselves may not even know the extent of the leaks, some amount of informed guesswork has to go into these calculations. The result, Watson said, is that "in some cases [EPA] was almost completely ignoring huge parts of the oil and gas sector."
In a speech to energy industry executives on Wednesday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the change underscores the need for better federal regulation of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.
"We've known for a while there has been a big discrepancy," McCarthy said, according to the Houston Chronicle. "We have been working with the industry to try and get some voluntary efforts. Those efforts have not been as successful as they have with other industries."
In January 2015, the EPA proposed regulations aimed at reducing methane leakage by 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025, mostly by upping standards for new infrastructure. But the plan hasn't been finalized, and in any case it would not apply to existing sources.
Given that Obama is likely to spend the next year just defending his gains on carbon dioxide emissions, it seems unlikely that major reform is forthcoming on methane. It could be a top climate priority if a Democrat wins the presidential election: Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have proposed similar plans to address leaks and other sources of methane in the natural gas sector. The Republican candidates, needless to say, have not put forward any plans to address methane.