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Weekly Roundup 2-3-2017

Your Roundup of Climate and Energy News for the week ending February 3, 2017 follows.  Please forward the URL to anyone you think might be interested. 

In the face of a boycott by Democrats, on Thursday Republican members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works suspended their rules and approved the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head EPA.  The vote was 11-0 to send the nomination to the full Senate.  The Los Angeles Times has explained why a challenge to California’s unique authority to set rules for car and truck emissions would be hard for Pruitt to win if confirmed.  On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 17-6 to approve Rick Perry’s nomination to head DOE, sending it to the full Senate.  On Wednesday the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO, as Secretary of State with a vote of 56-43.  Justin Gillis of The New York Times presented an interesting analysis of how the Republican position on climate change has changed subtly over time and how the appointment of Rex Tillerson and Rick Perry may actually give some cause for hope.  Neil Gorsuch is President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court.  His position on the Chevron rule may be very important to environmental cases coming before the court.  John Cushman has an explanation of why at Inside Climate News.  In response to statements by members of Congress, the President, and some nominees for leadership positions in the new administration, and actions by the transition team, scientists plan to hold a “Listen to Evidence” march in Washington, DC on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22.  Supporting events will be held around the country, as well as in other countries.  In addition, climate scientist Michael Mann expressed his views about recent events in an op-ed piece on The Hill.

Climate

Writing in The Washington Post, Jason Samenow of The Capital Weather Gang stated: “The Arctic is so warm and has been this warm for so long that scientists are struggling to explain it and are in disbelief.  The climate of the Arctic is known to oscillate wildly, but scientists say this warmth is so extreme that humans surely have their hands in it and may well be changing how it operates.”  One impact of the warmth is that the extent of Arctic sea ice is well below any previously recorded value for this time of year.

A study published Thursday in the Nature journal Scientific Reports has found that ocean acidification (caused by increased CO2 levels) increases the potency of coral-killing seaweeds, allowing them to take over and kill off coral reefs.  The only effective way to address the problem is to reduce CO2 emissions and the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Like California, which just went from extreme drought to intense rainfall, Peru is struggling to cope with heavy downpours and flooding as its drought has ended.  The precipitation has been fueled by unusually warm temperatures in the Pacific, which is odd since an El Niño period just ended last year.  Meanwhile, in Chile, which is still in a decade-long drought, the worst wildfires in the country’s history are raging across the central and southern regions of the country.

According to a recent survey by researchers from the University of New Hampshire, just 25% of people who voted for Donald Trump believe climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity, compared to 90% of Hillary Clinton voters.  Interestingly, 99% of people who voted in the election, but did not cast a vote for president, believe climate change is occurring and is human-caused.

Scientists gathered in Anchorage last week for the Alaska Marine Science Symposium reviewed new research probing the impacts of increasing water temperatures on marine ecosystems.  This article focused on Arctic cod, bird populations in the Bering Sea, and the impacts of toxic algal blooms on marine mammals.

Energy

Recently I have provided links to reports by BP and others stating that fossil fuel demand will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.  Now a new report by The Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Institute of Imperial College, London, challenges such conclusions.  Rather, their analysis suggests that the fossil fuel giants are vastly underestimating the disruptive power of solar panels and electric cars, which could cause coal and oil demand to peak by 2020.  Carbon Brief has provided two graphs that summarize the findings.  David Roberts at Vox agrees that we are probably underestimating how quickly electric cars will disrupt the oil market.  It is worth noting that the European Union is on track to meet its 2020 goal of getting 20% of its energy from renewable sources.

The owners of Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the West, announced in early January that low natural gas prices and the rising costs of generating electricity using coal make it too expensive to operate the plant.  A decision on the plant’s fate is expected this spring.

A new paper in Nature Climate Change uses “a nested structure of key indicators to track progress through time” toward the goals established by the Paris Climate Accord.  While many key indicators are consistent with emission levels required to meet temperature goals, the continued lack of large-scale carbon capture and storage is a major threat to their attainment.

On Monday, Honda and General Motors announced an $85 million collaboration in which, beginning in 2020, they will assemble hydrogen fuel cells for both companies at a Brownstown, Michigan, GM plant.  The fuel cells will be used in vehicles from both companies.  The big question is whether the needed hydrogen infrastructure will be available.

On Thursday, the Senate passed 54-45 a Congressional Review Act bill undoing the Interior Department’s Stream Protection Rule, a regulation requiring coal firms to clean up waste from mountaintop removal mining and prevent it from going into local waterways.  The House passed the bill 228-194 on Wednesday night.  Brad Plumer of Vox provided some history on the rule and why Republicans were intent on killing it.

Construction of Generation III+ nuclear reactors is being plagued by delays and cost overruns, causing former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official Lake Barrett to state: “The cost overrun situation is driven by a near-perfect storm of societal risk aversion to nuclear causing ultra-restrictive regulatory requirements, construction complexity, and lack of nuclear construction experience by the industry.”  This is not the situation globally, however.

According to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, replacing traditional wood and coal-burning cook-stoves with cleaner technology could reduce global temperature by 0.08°C and save more than 10 million lives by 2050.

A new study by the University of Texas Energy Institute published in Nature Energy has found that if your house has solar panels, it is better to stay connected to the grid than to store energy in batteries for use when the sun isn’t shining.  That is because the energy loss associated with batteries results in 8 to 14% more energy use when energy is stored in them.  Despite those losses, as net metering is eliminated or scaled back in some states, battery storage is likely to find increased use.  In addition, electrical companies are increasingly turning to battery farms for energy storage.

One of the vicious cycles associated with global warming is that the warmer Earth gets, the greater the demand for air conditioning, which typically requires electricity to operate, causing more greenhouse gases to be emitted, driving the temperature even higher, etc.  There is another way, however, even though it is not yet in widespread use: solar thermal cooling.  If that sounds like an oxymoron, read this piece, or at least look at the excellent graphics.

Les Grady
R. A. Bowen Professor Emeritus