Blue Marble - March 2010

Climate Details, Still TBD

| Wed Mar. 10, 2010 3:25 PM EST

What happened at yesterday's huddle on climate and energy legislation at the White House? There have been vague reports of general agreement from the senators who participated in the meeting, but still no details yet on what kind og legislation might materialize in the Senate and which lawmakers might support it.

The meeting included six Republicans and eight Democrats, all seen as key to the climate and energy debate. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaksa), who is leading Senate efforts to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide pollution, told Mother Jones on Wednesday that there was "good agreement" on "general principles," "but as with anything the devil is always in the details." "At this point in time I think we’re still in a lot of talking stages," said Murkowski.

Other senators seemed to have a similarly vague observations after the meeting."There was a lot of progress," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Wednesday. Brown noted, however, that yesterday's talks didn't really go into details about the anticipated legislation from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), but that he expects to see more specifics in the next few weeks.

President Obama participated in the 70-minute conversation as well, though it's not clear how much he weighed in on specifics, other than expressing "strong support for a bipartisan effort to establish clean energy incentives," a White House aide told The Hill.

Greenwire notes that Kerry said they are "moving very rapidly" and are "now down to dealing with specific language and negotiating with various interested parties."

But in conversations with Senate staffers, it doesn’t seem like they have seen many specifics yet, even following yesterday’s big meeting. Staffers and environmental lobbyists say that they have still seen only an outline of a bill that includes a lot of open ends on both the mechanism for pricing carbon and energy incentives. And of course, whether senators will support an eventual bill depends a whole lot on how Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman fill in those blanks. The group that met at the White House yesterday was fairly representative of the constituencies needed to get a bill passed this year – coal states, manufacturing states, sympathetic Republicans and strong environmental advocates like Barbar Boxer (D-Calif.)--and whether or not the trio can get their support is going to be key to getting to 60 votes. "I think if this group continues to work together, we can get something done on this, this year," Lieberman said after the meeting.

Kerry has said that they will release a draft of legislation before the Easter recess, but it sure sounds like they have a long way to go in figuring out exactly what that bill will look like.

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Another Climate Email "Scandal"

| Wed Mar. 10, 2010 12:00 PM EST

In case there was any doubt that the recent "outrages" over climate science are part of an orchestrated effort by pro-polluter, anti-science forces, look no further than the latest email "scandal."

The back story: last November someone hacked into computers at the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University and stole more than 1,000 emails between climate scientists. They then circulated select portions of those emails in an attempt to create the appearance of impropriety among the scientists and to aid the skeptics' cause. Detailed examination of the entire email dump revealed, at worst, some unprofessional behavior—but it also affirmed the vast body of scientific evidence supporting climate change. But that hasn't stopped skeptics from seizing on the so-called Climategate affair—in lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency to calls from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) for a criminal investigation into climate scientists.

The hacked emails and subsequent attacks have put climate scientists on edge. This was made clear in recent exchanges between scientists on a National Academy of Sciences listserv that an unidentified source leaked to the conservative press last week. Now, on cue, right wing, anti-climate forces are declaring outrage that scientists were discussing how to best respond to the PR disaster of Climategate.

Here’s the Competitive Enterprise Institute hyping the NAS "scheme" as "ClimateGate Reloaded" and pulling out more out-of-context quotes to tarnish scientists. CEI posted all of the emails on their GlobalWarming.org site, noting that "The e-mails reveal a group of scientists plotting a political strategy to minimize the effects of Climategate in the public debate on global warming."

The folks at CEI evidently think they're revealing yet another outrage—but maybe it's not the one that they think. How much more proof do we need that the assault on climate science is part of a coordinated attempt by polluters and their pals at anti-science bastions like CEI to confuse the public about global warming and malign the scientific community?

Blanche Lincoln's Revolving Door

| Wed Mar. 10, 2010 10:10 AM EST

Blanche Lincoln’s support for a measure to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating planet-warming gases has put her at the top the list of electoral targets of environmental groups this year. They've highlighted Lincoln’s ties to big polluters—she’s been the top recipient of oil and gas money in the Senate since 2005. And her current and former staffers are also closely tied to polluting interests, as Paul Blumenthal highlights over at the Sunlight Foundation.

As Blumenthal points out, at least six of Lincoln's former staffers currently lobby for major players in the climate debate, including trade groups for the oil and gas industry, agricultural interests, the airplane industry and biofuels. They include Kelly Bingel, Lincoln’s former chief of staff and now a lobbyist for Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, which represents the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries, one of the country’s largest oil manufacturing, trading and investment companies. Both API and Koch have opposed efforts to address climate change—with API orchestrating astroturf "Energy Citizen" rallies, while Koch has funded major conservative groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. Ben Noble, another former staffer, lobbies for a number of agricultural interests opposed to climate legislation, including the USA Rice Federation.

The door to Lincoln’s office also spins the other direction, something not noted in the Sunlight post. In December she hired Julie Anna Potts to serve as her chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which Lincoln chairs. Potts most recently served as general counsel for the American Farm Bureau Federation. The farm lobby in general and AFB in particular have vehemently opposed climate legislation—going so far as to deny that emissions are even a problem.

Lincoln has made it plain that she doesn't intend to vote for climate legislation anytime soon—she even touted her opposition last week in her first TV ad for the primary. Cap and trade, she has said, is a "complete non-starter."

Markey Questions Obama's Nuclear Plans

| Tue Mar. 9, 2010 3:23 PM EST

One House Democrat is sending signals that the Obama administration should take a more cautious approach to its big plans for a nuclear revival in the US. Via The Hill, we learn that Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the co-authors of the House climate bill and the chair of the energy and environment subcommittee, last week sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking it to review the process for permitting new nuclear plants and extending the permits for older plants.

Markey lists concerns about the potential costs of expanding nuclear power, and worries that cost concerns might lead to compromised safety. The Obama administration has been unwillling to provide many details on anticipated costs for the expansion, though it appears that that Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu is grossly underestimating the fiscal realities of the nuclear industry.

Markey directed the GAO to study fiscal cocerns about a nuclear expansion, noting that "the cost of a new nuclear reactor often exceeds the total market capitalization of the companies seeking to build them." He notes that "industry cost estimates have historically been vastly underestimated," and that there are constraints on the ability to obtain reactor components and skilled workers because the industry has been stalled for nearly three decades. "As a result, there is a danger that high costs, long construction times, and procurement complications may cause licensees to prioritize speed of completion over safety of construction," he writes.

Nuclear power, Markey writes, "has been offered by some as one answer to the escalating crisis of global warming," but he warns that safety concerns about new nuclear plants could dwarf that potential impact, since "a catastrophic accident at a nuclear plant would pose a threat to the public health and safety many orders of magnitude more severe than at any other type of power plant." He lists earthquakes, severe weather events, and even climate change impacts like coastal flooding and constraints on water resources as concerns that the NRC should take into account as it evaluates permits.

Safety concerns about the new generation of nuclear are already an issue in the nuclear revival. Even the design proposed for the first recipient of a loan guarantee in this planned renaissance, a two-reactor expansion at the Vogtle site in Georgia, has not received a permit and probably won't until late 2011. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last October cited significant safety concerns regarding the design proposal for the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors that are slated to be used for the Georgia project and six others around the country, noting that the commission did not believe that the shield design was sufficient to withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and airplane crashes. Questions have also been raised about extending the life of existing plants, after Vermont recently rejected a request to add more years to the life of the Yankee plant amid concerns that the owners had misled regulators about the reactor's safety.

With the Obama administration and the Senate moving ahead full-bore on plans to flood money to the nuclear industry, it might be an excellent time for the GAO to weigh in on these outstanding fiscal and safety concerns that Markey notes.

White House Hosts Climate Huddle

| Tue Mar. 9, 2010 11:06 AM EST

For months now, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been promising that the climate and energy bill he's authoring with Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will be released sometime soon. Last week, his spokesman told me their bill would be made public in the "coming weeks." But it’s well known that the trio is not introducing anything until they have 60 senators lined up behind them--and from what I hear from Senate staffers, it’s not clear that they are anywhere near that number yet.

But that could change. Key senators and a number of swing voters on the issue are huddling at the White House this afternoon for a closed-door session with administration officials. In addition to the authors, Democrats Max Baucus (Mont.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), and Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) are on the guest list. On the Republican side, Susan Collins (Maine), Judd Gregg (N.H.), George LeMieux (Fla.), Richard Lugar (Ind.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have been invited.

The invite list is a pretty good guide to the senators who are seen as crucial votes if anything is to be passed this year. Cantwell and Collins have their own competing climate legislation, and there’s been a lot of chatter about whether they would sign onto the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill if it incorporates enough of their ideas. Rockefeller last week introduced a bill to delay Environmental Protection Agency regulation of carbon dioxide for one year to protect coal states and give the Senate more time to act. Murkowski has been leading efforts to block EPA rules forever, because she says regulating greenhouse gases should be the job of Congress. And Brown has been the key Democrat negotiating for measures to protect trade-exposed, energy intensive industries in a climate plan. The list reflects not only key senators but key constituencies that need to be won over.

From the administration, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are expected to attend. While White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner has said that the administration does not plan to offer a legislative outline to the Senate, the participation of cabinet members in today's meeting indicates high-level engagement in the negotiations.

Environmental advocates are taking this meeting as a signal that there may actually be forward movement on legislation soon, despite the countless obituaries that have been written for climate policy.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday March 9

| Tue Mar. 9, 2010 7:41 AM EST

Crass Pass: A sometimes vulgar plea to just pass a healthcare bill already.

Turning Blue: Unwittingly, Anthem may have helped bring healthcare back to life.

Big Business: Not much reason, other than lobbyists, to extend US's biologics program.

Stupak's Back: Stupak is still trying to reduce abortion access in healthcare bill.

Cove Win: The Cove documentary on dolphin hunting wins an Oscar.

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Carbon Emissions Outsourced in a Big Way

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 7:30 PM EST

A new study finds more than a third of carbon dioxide emissions associated with consumption of goods and services in many developed countries (Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom, and France) are actually emitted outside their borders.

For some small nations, including Switzerland, their outsourced emissions exceeded the amount of CO2 emitted within their national borders. The findings in PNAS:

  • In the US, about 2.5 tons of CO2 are consumed per person but produced somewhere else.
  • In Europe, 4 or more tons of CO2 are consumed per person but produced somewhere else.
  • Most American and European emissions are outsourced to developing countries, notably China.
  • Nearly a quarter of the emissions produced in China are ultimately exported to the US, Japan, or Europe.

The study used published trade data from 2004 to create a global model of the flow of products across 57 industry sectors and 113 countries or regions. By allocating carbon emissions to particular products and sources, the researchers were able to calculate the net emissions "imported" or "exported" by specific countries.

The researchers conclude that regional climate policy needs to take into account emissions embodied in trade, not just domestic emissions. The authors, from the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, suggest:

"Sharing responsibility for emissions among producers and consumers could facilitate international agreement on global climate policy that is now hindered by concerns over the regional and historical inequity of emissions."
 

Jackson to Senate: You Do Your Job, I'll Do Mine

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 6:33 PM EST

Facing assaults from all sides on her agency's plans to limit carbon dioxide, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson on Monday renewed her support for both her duty to regulate planet-warming gases, and the need for Congress to act meaningfully.

Jackson has plenty of reason to be frustrated. The Senate climate bill has been moving forward at a glacial pace. She's maintained that she prefers new legislation on climate, but the Senate has yet to produce that. Meanwhile, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has undertaken an effort to block the agency’s scientific conclusion that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health, and a number of industry groups have also filed lawsuits to that end. And last week Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and a trio of coal-state House members introduced measures to delay EPA regulations for one year, which they said would give Congress more time to act. But Jackson maintained that the EPA has a legal obligation to move forward--and rather than spending time undermining her agency, perhaps the Senate should get to work on a new climate bill.

"I am not in a position where I am going to stand here and support the idea of EPA not being able to use the Clean Air Act," she told reporters on Monday. "The energy of the Senate on this issue would be wonderful if it would be put towards new legislation to do something."

She also argued that Congress should keep its focus on an economy-wide cap on carbon emissions, as senators are reportedly considering a scaled-back option that caps only electric utilities. "The more you move away from an economy wide approach, you lose some opportunities to really harness that private sector investment," she said.

DOE Offers Rock-Bottom Price for Nuclear

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 5:26 PM EST

Is Energy Secretary Steven Chu low-balling the potential cost to taxpayers for the Obama administration's planned nuclear revival?

According to the energy wire service Platts, Chu told reporters last week that credit subsidy rate--which represents the anticipated cost of a loan guarantee to the government paid into a fund by the loan recipient--for the Vogtle plant in Georgia would be in "the range of 1 percent of the loan, plus or minus a half a percent." The Georgia plant received a conditional loan guarantee of $8.3 billion last month for two reactors, the first award in the Obama administration’s planned renaissance.

As I reported earlier today, the administration has so far been unwilling to give an exact credit subsidy rate for new reactors, citing business confidentiality. The nuclear industry wants the fee to be 1 percent or less. Chu stated in testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology last week that the DOE "is tasked to convince OMB that it will cost the taxpayer zero" because the loan guarantees "are self pay"--meaning, the credit subsidy would be sufficient to cover the cost of potential defaults. From Chu's remarks, it sure seems like the Obama administration is set to give the nuclear industry what it has asked for, even if that subsidy rate does not reflect the real risks.

Many observers believe the subsidy rate should be much higher than the figure Chu offered in order for that to be the case, listing skyrocketing costs, delays, and a history of defaults as cause for concern. The credit subsidy rate should be as high as 30 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office, if it is going to insulate consumers from the risk of default on new nuclear reactors (a figure the CBO reiterated in blog post last week). A new analysis from Richard W. Caperton, an energy policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, finds that outside estimates and calculations indicate that the cost "should be at least 10 percent and possibly much more." A lower figure, like the one Chu offered, would have to be based on a lot of assumptions about the cost and trajectory of the nuclear industry that don't appear to be realistic.

Caperton concludes that the administration's anticipated subsidy rate of 1.5 percent or below is far too low to protect the public from taking on the burden of nuclear projects that go belly up. The administration, he notes, needs to keep in mind that credit subsidy fees "should be set at a rate that protects taxpayers, not at an artificially low rate as a handout to big utilities."

Inside the Climate Science Bunker

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 12:11 PM EST

Climate researchers are under siege by a well-organized campaign to destroy the foundations of climate science, as yet another round of leaked emails underscores. Last week, an unidentified source sent a number of emails exchanged between scientists on a National Academy of Sciences listserv to reporters detailing just how battered scientists feel these days.

Climate scientists have been under attack in the wake of the so-called "ClimateGate" incident and the backlash against the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for minor errors in a recent report. The latest emails, obtained by Washington Times and Energy & Environment Daily, show climate scientists fed up with the assault and looking to fight back.

"We need to develop a relentless rain of science and scientific dialog on the incredible, destructive demagoguery that has invaded the airwaves, the news media and the public forum and has prevented a rational discussion about political solutions to human perturbations on the environment," wrote Paul Falkowski, a professor at Rutgers University's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, in one email.

"Most of our colleagues don't seem to grasp that we're not in a gentlepersons' debate, we're in a street fight against well-funded, merciless enemies who play by entirely different rules," wrote Paul R. Ehrlich, a Stanford University researcher in another email.

In particular, they’re tired of the "neo-McCarthyism" of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has called for a "criminal investigation" into climate scientists. "I am hopeful that all the forces working for honest debate and quality assessments will decry this McCarthyite regression, and by name point out what this Senator is doing by a continuing smear campaign," wrote Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University.

The scientists discuss possible recourse for the attacks, from starting an advertising campaign in major newspapers to increasing their public presence. There’s discussion about getting the National Academy of Sciences to put more work into educating the public, and also of starting a new nonprofit to do that.

But right-wing blogs are already seizing upon the latest emails as yet more evidence of some kind of secret conspiracy among climate scientists to promote climate science. Here’s Hot Air on the "plot" to "attack" skeptics.

That this latest round of emails was leaked to the press is probably good evidence of just how much suspicion and pressure these scientists are under these days. And as they point out, the attack isn’t about just climate; there’s a growing effort to undermine science in general.

"If the public looses [sic] faith in scientists, we can see the inevitable consequences. H1N1 vaccines were taken a plot to kill our children. Regardless of the evidence, cell phones cause brain cancer," wrote Falkowski. "[S]cientists are being treated like political pawns--and it is not acceptable."