Blue Marble - March 2010

What Do We Know About the Climate Bill?

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 1:27 PM EDT

Leaks and rumors are swirling about the climate and energy package from John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). From what I've heard from sources briefed on the outline, the senators have reached agreement on some specifics, but much of it remains in flux.

In a lot of ways it’s not that much different from the House bill, though it doesn’t cover as much of the economy and it also seems likely to include a lot of sweeteners for things like coal, oil, and nuclear power. Brad Johnson at Wonk Room put together a good chart comparing the two bills, as well as what Barack Obama outlined both on the campaign trail. But, as I’ve noted, a lot of specifics are still in flux and there will likely be efforts to weaken it after it’s released. Also, if the Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute like it, there are probably some other significant changes from the House-passed bill, which both groups opposed.

Congressional Quarterly put together a list of what is probably in the bill at this point, at least according to the information reporters are getting from those briefed on the outline. Their list is in line with what I've heard from participants. Here's their list:

  • An economy-wide cap on carbon emissions that would begin in 2012, with a target of reducing carbon pollution 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.
  • Separate caps on carbon emissions by the electric utilities and manufacturing sectors, which would have to buy permits to pollute from the federal government.
  • A straight fee or tax, paid by consumers at the pump, on transportation fuels. The levy would be linked to the carbon content of the fuel and the price of carbon in the other markets.
  • A combination for the regulated sectors of a "cap and trade" model, under which polluters could trade pollution permits on an open market, and a "cap and dividend" model, which would return revenue from the sale of permits directly to consumers.
  • Direct rebates to consumers of half the revenue from the sale of pollution permits.
  • Delay until 2016 in starting the phase-in of carbon caps on manufacturers.
  • Application of a “carbon tariff” to imports of goods from countries that do not regulate their carbon emissions.
  • A “hard collar” on the price of emission permits of no less than $10 per ton of carbon emitted and no more than $30 per ton. The government would keep a strategic reserve of 4 billion credits, and would flood the market if the carbon price exceeded $30 per ton. The price would be indexed to inflation rates and rise over time.
  • A threshold of 25,000 tons of carbon per year before a polluter would be subject to regulation.
  • A single federal system to cap emissions, pre-empting separate state limits.

The senators may release their detailed outline next week, and legislative language is expected shortly after Easter recess. Modeling of the bill from the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to take five to six weeks. According to sources in the briefings, Kerry expects to have the bill ready to go to the floor in early May, after the Senate considers financial reform legislation.

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Urban Density and the YIMBYs

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 12:46 PM EDT

Today Kevin Drum argues that Matt Yglesias' proposal to rein in urban sprawl is a pipe dream. Yglesias' idea, not a new one by any means,  is to change zoning laws that prevent denser housing and offices in most places. Drum claims that developers, local governments, and corporations have long supported this idea and yet little has changed. The real obstacle to the densification of our suburbs are the people who live there. "Suburban residents have them completely overwhelmed," he writes. ". . .Building a truly walkable neighborhood strikes me as the next best thing to impossible."

Drum might have been correct 10 or 20 years ago, but he's less correct today. I've been spending the greater part of my time over the past couple of months working on a magazine piece about NIMBY opposition to infill development, and one thing I've discovered is that public perceptions of urban density are quickly changing. There are two major demographic trends at play: Generation Y, the "echo boom" that is by far the largest population cohort in American history, is now entering the housing market. They don't yet have kids, they often grew up in bland subdivisions, and they are itching to escape the suburbs for walkable cities. And at the same time, Baby Boomers have become empty nesters and are looking to downsize into more convenient and fun walkable communities. "Our consumer research shows that all of these consumers want to be in a higher density environment than they currently live in," Shyam Kannan, a real estate consultant with Robert Charles Less & Co (RCLCO), told me. "There is a huge pent-up demand for walkable environments."

Creating a more walkable community is not as hard as Drum makes it seem. A classic study produced in 1999 showed that per-capita transportation fuel consumption declined by one-half to two-thirds as urban density rose from four to 12 people per acre. That's about as dense as many of today's suburbs. And some of the first suburban redevelopment projects have been mall and strip mall conversions (see video below the jump), where languishing commercial districts with huge parking lots are turned into mid-rise buildings with underground parking, street-level shops, and mid-rise housing. The widest and busiest streets in suburban areas can often be rezoned in the same way. From an engineering and design perspective, these things are fairly easy to carry out.

Drum is right about one thing, though: Changing zoning laws to allow developers to meet this new housing demand will be an uphill fight. To a large degree, the problem is that the people who run city governments and have the time to go to public meetings are older folks and not 20-something Millennials. But there are already indications that zoning laws are changing. Berkeley has rezoned some of its commercial corridors and is in the process of rezoning its downtown to allow denser buildings. New laws, and lawsuits by Attorney General Jerry Brown in California, are forcing suburban cities to build more housing while at the same time reining in their sprawl. And perhaps most encouragingly, there's a nascent movement of YIMBYs out there with its own pack of outspoken bloggers, among them the Seattle's excellent Dan Bertolet, who has garnered a big follwing at Publicola.

Enviro Groups Supportive of Kerry's Climate Efforts

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 12:13 PM EDT

Twenty environmental groups on Friday issued a statement praising the headway on a climate and energy package from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), while noting that there are still many details to be worked out.

"Their stated goal and commitment to a 17% reduction in carbon pollution by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050 represents the leadership needed by the US Senate to create jobs, increase energy security, reduce carbon pollution and protect public health," said the groups. "Legislative details are important, and are not settled yet, and we will be working closely with the senators, their staffs and others to make sure these details achieve the goals."

Kerry briefed a small group of leaders from big green groups on Thursday evening, though they had little to say about the details of the legislation. Industry groups also got a briefing on the details earlier in the week, and the Chamber of Commerce's head lobbyist, Bruce Josten, told reporters after the meeting that he believes the bill will be "largely in sync" with industry's requests. The Chamber and other industry groups, like the American Petroleum Institute, who opposed previous climate and energy packages have been making positive noises about this latest legislative effort. Their involvement in shaping the package has made plenty in the environmental community nervous, though at this point most recognize it as the only hope for getting to 60 votes this year.

Details that have emerged so far include the targets noted above, and that the bill would target a limited portion of the economy. Utility regulations would begin in 2012, and other major sources would be phased in beginning in 2016. Transportation fuels will be covered by a fee on carbon, rather than included in the cap, and state and EPA limits on emissions would be preempted.

Here are the 20 groups issuing today’s statement: The Alliance for Climate Protection, Environment America, Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Blue Green Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for American Progress Action Fund, Union of Concerned Scientists, National Tribal Environmental Council, Environment Northeast, National Audubon Society, Interfaith Power and Light, Conservation International, Defenders of Wildlife, Clean Water Action, The Wilderness Society, Climate Solutions, Green for All, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Enviros Mum on Kerry Meeting

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 6:56 PM EDT

Leaders of a number of big environmental groups met Thursday evening with John Kerry (D-Mass.) to discuss details of their forthcoming legislation on climate and energy, but were tight-lipped about what they learned.

Kerry, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) met with industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, who walked away from the meeting praising what they saw as “in sync” with industry requests. But enviros had little to say about what they think of the bill--and dashed away from the handful of reporters awaiting them outside Kerry's office following the nearly two-hour meeting.

"We had a very encouraging meeting, and we're looking forward to continuing to work together to pass a comprehensive bill this year,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. He didn’t offer much more than that.

"I’m not going to comment on any specific conversations or alleged leaks about alleged bills," he continued. "We’re very encouraged, very promising, looking forward to moving forward as quickly as possible."

Included in the meeting were representatives from LCV, the Center for American Progress, Sierra Club, Environment America, the National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, the Alliance for Climate Protection, and the Blue Green Alliance.

Other environmental groups not included in the briefing, however, had harsh words for what they've heard so far about the outline of the bill, which reportedly includes a number of incentives for offshore drilling and nuclear power in addition to a scaled back cap on carbon dioxide pollution. "Everything we're seeing and hearing is dreadful," said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think there’s some hard thinking that needs to go on by the big greens on what is a bottom line here.”

One thing enviros stressed even before the meeting is that the bill is still in the draft stages and may change significantly. "From what I understand, it’s not final. There are still things in flux," said Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, prior to the meeting.

Peter Sinclair Smacks Down the Anti-Scientists

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 6:14 PM EDT

"Are we a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from objective truth?" Peter Sinclair quotes Leonard Pitts Junior with that line, as he takes on the deniers with calm, reasoned forbearance and a few forlorn questions.

The video's one in Sinclair's growing arsenal at Climate Denial Crock of the Week.

 

 

 

Senators List Demands for Climate Bill

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 12:42 PM EDT

Leaks have started to flow from what has been, until now, a tightly sealed negotiation between senators and interest groups over climate and energy legislation. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) shared details with industry groups yesterday; they’re meeting with environmental groups today to talk about what they’ve pulled together so far.

Under discussion is just an 8-page outline of a bill. According to sources close to the negotiations "things are still in flux" when it comes to many of the specifics. Details that were leaked yesterday weren't promising on the climate front—though the effort does seem to have the tentative support of a lot of the big industry players that agitated against the House bill. The end result could be a relatively weak piece of legislation, but one that has the political support needed to actually go somewhere. The senators say they may release a draft as early as next week.

Keep in mind that if the three senators produce a weak draft, they'll be under pressure to weaken it even more—from both Democrats and Republicans. Take Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who recently outlined his demands for a bill in a letter to Kerry (via Wonk Room). His requests include taking away the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, eliminating the rights of states to set climate targets that are more ambitious than federal ones, delaying regulations on industrial sources of greenhouse gases for "at least 10 years," and putting a firm limit on the price of carbon permits.

The question of EPA regulation was a major sticking point in the House debate. Coal-state members successfully sought to take away the agency's authority to regulate emissions., but this authority was restored in the bill that Kerry and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced last year. However, the EPA's regulatory power doesn't look like it'll survive this new process. Preventing states from setting higher standards is similarly problematic—it's the ambitious work of states like Massachusetts and California that prompted federal action in the first place. The fear is that the pending bill could not only introduce a weak federal standard (which would be disappointing but not unexpected)—but also take away the best tools for improving upon it.

And that’s just Levin’s wish list. There are whole lot more of those things flying around the Hill right now as Kerry, Graham and Lieberman hash out details.

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Murkowski and Automakers Rumble Over EPA Regs

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 11:41 AM EDT

An effort by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to block the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gases would bring about the "collapse" of a delicate deal reached last year between automakers, states, and the federal government to reduce vehicle emissions, automakers said on Wednesday.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes General Motors, Ford Motors, Chrysler Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen, and Toyota, sent a letter to congressional leaders from both parties asking them to reject Murkowski's attempt to nullify the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health.

The EPA, the Department of Transportation, and the White House last year worked out a deal to unify the tougher state auto standards—first adopted by California—and federal standards into one program. But that deal is contingent upon the EPA's determination that gases are a health threat that should be regulated under the Clean Air Act—the finding that Murkowski wants to block. The EPA and the DOT have argued that her move would handcuff their ability to issue new rules for cars, which are due out by the end of this month.

That deal saved auto makers from the "alarming possibility of having to comply with multiple sets of inconsistent fuel economy standards" wrote Alliance President Dave McCurdy in the letter. If her resolution is successful, he wrote, "the historic agreement creating the One National Program for regulating vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions would collapse."

Murkowski's office fired off a press release yesterday claiming that the automakers were just bowing to pressure from the Obama administration, and blaming the administration for the patchwork of regulations that might have existed without a new federal standard. "It was the current administration’s decision to grant a California waiver request, thereby allowing individual states to regulate fuel economy, which has made the threat of a patchwork of regulations real," said Murkowski. "The administration created this problem, but it also has the authority to fix it." She also argued that the EPA doesn't need to be involved in the new rules—the DOT should be an adequate authority for writing fuel economy standards. "Statutory authority to improve fuel economy has existed for 35 years at the Transportation Department, and it still exists today,” she said.

Murkowski's fiery response indicates that she's opening a new front on her war on the EPA. When she first tried to thwart the EPA's regulations last September, she went after the agency's authority to write rules for stationary sources like power plants and left car regulations alone. Murkowski argued at that time that since the specific case prompting the EPA regulations, Massachusetts v. EPA, dealt with vehicle emissions, the agency should proceed with those. But her missive yesterday challenged the EPA's authority to restrict any greenhouse gas emissions at all.

Meanwhile, her latest legislative effort to block the EPA —a so-called resolution of disapproval that would throw out the agency's finding that greenhouse gases threaten human health—is sweeping. If passed, it would forever bar the EPA from regulating emissions under the Clean Air Act, as the Supreme Court directed it to do in 2007. Murkowski says she's putting that measure on hold while Congress considers an alternative option from West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who has introduced legislation that would delay EPA regulations for two years. But she’s made it clear that she’s keeping her bill waiting in the wings. Her spokesman, Robert Dillon, said in an email last week that she "will wait and see how Sen. Rockefeller progresses on his proposal" but "fully intends to seek an up or down vote on the issue."

Murkowski's threat is not an idle one. She has 40 cosponsors for the bill, including three Democrats—Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana—plus verbal support from others. A bipartisan trio of representatives introduced the same measure in the House in late February, though that one isn’t expected to gain as much traction.

The auto rules are the most immediate concern if Murkowski's EPA block is successful. In addition to the Auto Alliance, the United Auto Workers last week issued a letter condemning the measure as a "misguided" move that would "unravel the historic agreement on one national standard."(Disclosure: members of the Mother Jones staff belong to the UAW).

Fighting CO2 With Fire

| Wed Mar. 17, 2010 7:38 PM EDT

Large old trees sequester a lifetime's worth of carbon, significantly offsetting our own carbon emissions. But when wildfires consume those big old trees, they release that stored carbon into the atmosphere. It can take decades for forest regrowth to sequester the amount of carbon emitted in a single fire.

However when prescribed burns are set to reduce underbrush and protect those big trees, their flames release significantly less CO2 than wildfires of the same size. This according to a new paper in Environmental Science & Technology. Lead author Christine Wiedinmyer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder says:

"It appears that prescribed burns can be an important piece of a climate change strategy. If we reintroduce fires into our ecosystems, we may be able to protect larger trees and significantly reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by major wildfires.

Using satellite observations and computer models of emissions, the team concluded that widespread prescribed burns can reduce fire emissions of carbon dioxide in the West by an average of 18 to 25 percent and by as much as 60 percent in certain forest systems. This happens because prescribed fires burn the underbrush and small trees that store less carbon, while reducing the chances of high-severity wildfires that kill off big trees. Coauthor Matthew Hurteau of Northern Arizona University tells the National Science Foundation:

"When fire comes more frequently, it's less severe and causes lower tree mortality. Fire protects trees by clearing out the fuel that builds up in the forest."

In the western US, land managers have spent most of the last century suppressing fires and that's led to comparatively dense forests that store large amounts of carbon. But these forests are also now overgrown and vulnerable to large fires. Changes in climate, including hotter and drier weather in summers, as forecast for a warming West, are expected to spur increasingly large fires in the future.

Another benefit of prescribed burns: Improved air quality and human health, since previous research indicates that controlled burns reduce emissions of fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide compared to wildfires.
 

Chamber Finally Finds a Climate Bill It Can Back

| Wed Mar. 17, 2010 6:22 PM EDT

The three senators working to craft an energy and climate bill met with representatives from industry groups on Wednesday evening to share details of their forthcoming legislation. From the leaks that have come out of the meeting, it sounds like their bill will be very industry-friendly.

Greenwire reports that industry sources said that the draft language they saw from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) would call for a goal of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels and 80 percent by 2050. Utility regulations would begin in 2012, and other major sources would be phased in beginning in 2016. There would also be an upper and lower limit on the price of carbon permits, often referred to as a price collar, of $10 to $30 per ton.

Industry representatives also said the bill would take away the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, and halt emissions programs already underway in states – two measures that would significantly handicap future efforts to limit emissions.

The head lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bruce Josten, told reporters after the meeting that he believes the bill will be "largely in sync" with what most industry types would like to see. The Chamber, of course, has been one of the most formidable foes of climate legislation to date. In addition to the Chamber, the senators also met with the Edison Electric Institute, American Petroleum Institute, and Portland Cement Association.

The Hill also included this tidbit from the meeting:

The senators are also planning to add sweeteners--such as major financial support for new nuclear power plants and "clean coal" projects, as well as wider offshore drilling--to attract support from industry and centrist Democrats and Republicans.

The signals coming out of this meeting are not very good in terms of climate, though Kerry had already scaled back expectations on that front. (Admittedly, they haven't been high for quite some time.) At this point, though, the senators are still circulating an 8-page outline, not full legislation, so a lot of the details aren't yet clear. The senators aren’t expected to release a real bill for another few weeks. They’re also meeting tomorrow with environmental groups to talk over the draft, so there may be more information coming out of that meeting.

A Setback for Geoengineering?

| Wed Mar. 17, 2010 5:07 PM EDT

Bad news this week for the cheerleaders of a carbon-capture technique known as iron fertilization. That's where you spread tiny bits of the nutritious metal over the sea surface, encouraging the birth of phytoplankton blooms. As they grow, these single-celled creatures—the bottom link in the ocean food chain—suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and incorporate it into their tiny little selves. When they die, the theory goes, they sink to the frigid ocean depths where they are trapped, taking the carbon out of circulation. Presto!

But that last bit is pretty speculative, and iron fertilization comes with unintended consequences. In her MoJo report on the unproven technique—which has raised the ire of, among others, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (a group best known for its salty founder and its standoffs with whaling vessels)—Melanie Haiken spoke with a number of scientists who were concerned about potential side effects:

Some computer models predict that iron fertilization could bring about the production of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane. Other concerns: Seeding may stimulate growth of toxic species, alter the marine food chain, and lead to the depletion of deep-water oxygen. In short, toying with the world's largest ecosystem would affect the natural balance upon which larger species, including humans, depend.

Funny about those toxic species, because a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes that a major species of poisonous phytoplankton—one whose toxin is dangerous to fish, birds, ocean mammals, and humans (think tainted shellfish)—produces far more of its nasty stuff after it is exposed to iron. The results are "an indication that we are not masters of nature," one of the authors told San Francisco Chronicle science reporter David Perlman.