All posts tagged 'fracking'

Act II at the Obama EPA: Gina McCarthy (is predicted) To Take the Helm

March 1, 2013 00:43
by J. Wylie Donald


The President gave an indication of his environmental focus in his inaugural address, and then again in his state of the union speech. The focus would be on climate change. 

Central to that focus would be the EPA Adminstrator, but that would not be Lisa Jackson who tendered her resignation at the end of 2012.  If Washington gossip is any guide, Ms. Jackson's replacement will be Gina McCarthy, the current head of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation.

We went looking to see if we could draw a bead on where Ms. McCarthy might lead EPA.  We found a recent speech and it was directly on point. On February 21, Ms. McCarthy addressed an audience at the Georgetown Law Center at a conference on Climate Change and Energy Policy. (The conference was videotaped. Ms. McCarthy has the podium from about 4:50 to 5:30 if you are interested.)  

Ms. McCarthy has a reputation of being something of a pragmatist. Her talk was consistent with that. A brief summary might be:  Climate change is here and we have to deal with it, but in addressing carbon dioxide there can be great benefits from doing so in the form of reducing pollution, increasing efficiency and empowering communities.

Pollution reductions will come in at least three forms. First, if more renewable energy sources are developed, there will be less emissions. Second, if production and use is made more efficient there will be less emissions. Third, if production is focused on fossil fuels that emit less pollutants when burned (that is, not coal), there will be less emissions.  We note that this strategy is already at work.  The growth of wind and solar power has been meteoric.  Ms. McCarthy promoted electric cars, which are far more efficient than gasoline-powered ones (although she ignored compressed natural gas vehicles, which are low emission and have some compelling advantages over electric cars).  And we have covered before  the catastrophe for coal signaled by the proposed Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, which forecasts not a single new coal plant through 2030.

Significantly, or perhaps not, she did not mention fracking and the phenomenal recent growth in natural gas production.  That was surprising.  A recent Harvard Magazine article  summarized the pollution and greenhouse gas effects of the natural gas bonanza: 

The shift from coal to gas in the electricity sector has also yielded an environmental bonus—a significant reduction in emissions of CO2, because CO2 emissions per unit of electricity generated using coal are more than double those produced using gas. … [T]he U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that domestic emissions of CO2 during the first quarter of 2012 fell to the lowest level recorded since 1992. An ancillary benefit of the coal-to-gas switch has been a significant reduction in emissions of sulfur dioxide, the cause of acid rain, because many of the older coal-burning plants selectively idled by the price-induced fuel switch were not equipped to remove this pollutant from their stack gases.


Efficiency pervaded her remarks. A striking number is the $1.7 trillion she stated automobile fuel efficiency standards had saved consumers at the pump. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. EPA will help Americans make buildings, processes and communities more efficient.  According to Ms. McCarthy the EPA Climate Showcase Communities saved $19 million per year based in large part on efficiency.

We are somewhat troubled by the “eye of the beholder” syndrome exhibited here.  Certainly consumers saved money at the pump.  But they spent more at the car dealer.  How did they fare overall?  The answer depends on how long they owned their car and the price of gas.  According to research in 2012 by TrueCar.com for the New York Times, at $4/gallon “[e]xcept for two hybrids, the Prius and Lincoln MKZ, and the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the added cost of the fuel-efficient technologies is so high that it would take the average driver many years — in some cases more than a decade — to save money over comparable new models with conventional internal-combustion engines.”  

Ms. McCarthy’s vision of empowerment is through information.  If building owners get the knowledge of how to make their buildings more efficient, they will  because it makes sense to do so.  If communities are provided the relevant information, they will make enabling smart choices.  Indeed, she closed on the importance of information, referencing three sources.  First, EPA has now been collecting information on greenhouse gas emissions for two years.  That information is publicly available.  People should look at this because it identifies the sources of the climate change problem.  Electric utilities are far and away the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases (which is to say, all of us are because, with rare exceptions, all of us use electricity generated with fossil fuels).  

Second,  she touted the EPA’s 2012 report, Climate Change Indicators in the United States (18MB).  This is a valuable resource. Twenty-six “indicators” are assessed as to what they show about a world beset by climate change.  All are familiar with reduced ice sheets, reduced snowpack and higher average temperatures.  Less familiar is the documented increase in ragweed pollen season and retained ocean heat.  And the report is honest about what is not known.  Although 7000 Americans were reported to have died of heat-related illnesses in the last 30 years, trends have not been determined.  Although one might think that a hotter world would lead to more hurricanes, the data have not proven that yet.

Last, Ms. McCarthy praised government research into adaptation and the various reports issued and to be issued.

Some view agency heads in Washington as essentially valueless; talking heads, here today and gone tomorrow.  The bureaucracy was there when the new head arrived and will be there when the now old head leaves.  What this view misses is that the agency head can muster the agency’s resources in support of one initiative, argue for it on Capitol Hill, at the White House and in the press, and give the extra boost when the going gets rough.  Gina McCarthy was instrumental in building the northeast’s cap-and-trade program (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) in her native Connecticut.  Certainly, that idea on a national basis is percolating again.

Carbon Emissions | Climate Change | Regulation | Renewable Energy | Solar Energy

The Top 6 at 6: A Review of the Most Important Climate Change Legal Stories in the First Half of 2012

July 1, 2012 00:01
by J. Wylie Donald

Arbitrary and capricious.  Familiar words to anyone involved in regulatory activity.  But also applicable to calendars, which willy-nilly cut off a series of events and ascribe them to one solar cycle, as if the sun gave two hoots.  As we perused the various "Climate Change: Year in Review" reviews that crossed our desk last January, we concluded 365 days are arbitrary and one year capricious in assessing what is important to resurrect and re-discuss.  We further concluded that a 12-month look-back is too long.  So, for what it is worth, here is one of six months.

1.  Cap-and-Trade in the U.S. - On January 1 the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) (or what remains of it) initiated its long-anticipated cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions.  Notwithstanding the lack of support from other WCI members, California and Quebec are moving forward with a cap-and-trade program.  California's and Quebec's mandated reporting rules applied to stationary sources emitting at or above 25,000 metric tons of CO2e per year.  On May 9 coordination between the two programs was announced  initiating the 45-day public comment period.  The first auction will be held in November and then, on January 1, 2013, enforcement begins when covered entities must participate. It is obviously too soon to tell how successful the California program will be, but when the world's eighth largest economy takes an initiative, it is likely to have impact elsewhere, particularly when it is the only program in the nation.

2.  Greenhouse Gas Liabilities and Insurance Coverage - We didn't think there would be anything to say this year about coverage for GHG liabilities.  After all, in the only case in litigation the Virginia Supreme Court issued its opinion in AES Corp. v. Steadfast Insurance Co. in September 2011 and concluded that there was no "occurrence" triggering coverage made in the allegations pleaded by the Native Village of Kivalina against AES Corporation.  But then the Court granted a motion for reconsideration in January and many puzzled as to what was going on.  Apparently nothing as the Court reiterated its previous conclusions in an April 20, 2012 opinion.  The decision will be significant in Virginia because it may have upset coverage in more conventional cases, as the concurring opinion of Justice Mims suggests.  As for the rest of the nation, it is one decision, on one issue, on one set of facts.  The case is important because it is the first, but we will be surprised if it provides guidance anywhere else.
 
As for greenhouse gas liability that is a story unto itself.  Like something out of a Steven King novel, the Comer v. Murphy Oil case refuses to pass quietly into the night.  This is the case that was dismissed by the Southern District of Mississippi, reversed by the 5th Circuit, vacated by the 5th Circuit en banc when it accepted rehearing and then reinstated as dismissed when the 5th Circuit's quorum dissolved.  Following a denial of a request for a writ of mandamus from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Comer plaintiffs re-filed their complaint against over 100 electric utilities, oil companies, chemical companies and coal companies alleging their GHG emissions were responsible for the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina.  And the Southern District of Mississippi dismissed the plaintiffs again on March 20.  And plaintiffs appealed again.  We don't expect the case to be finally at rest until the Supreme Court denies certiorari, or accepts it (perhaps in order to address the Ninth Circuit's much-anticipated decision in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, which has been pending for over six months since oral argument).

3.  Natural Gas:  The Bridge Fuel - With the combining of two technologies, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, a resource of unprecedented volume is "changing the game" of energy.  "Annual shale gas production in the US increased almost fivefold, from 1.0 to 4.8 trillion cubic feet between 2006 and 2010. The percentage of contribution to the total natural gas supply grew to 23% in 2010; it is expected to increase to 46% by 2035."  Thus reported the Energy Institute at the University of Texas in February in a 400+ page tome entitled Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development.  Momentously, the UT researchers report "there is at present little or no evidence of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing of shales at normal depths."  The reference to "normal depths" acknowledged that in December 2011 the EPA linked contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming to shallow fracking operations. In March 2012, however, EPA agreed to conduct further testing.  And then in May, a personal injury tort case, Strudley v. Antero Resources Corp. et al., No. 2011-CV-2218 (2d Jud. Dist. Ct. Col. May 9, 2012), brought against fracking operators in Colorado was thrown out because plaintiffs could not muster adequate proofs of specific causation. Despite some intense opposition, fracking is moving forward.  What does all of this have to do with climate change?  Natural gas when burned emits half the carbon dioxide of coal.  Accordingly, some argue that natural gas is the bridge to a low-carbon future.  If so, then fracking builds that bridge.

4.  Innovative Climate Change Legal Theories - Last spring the sound and the fury were intense as the environmental organization Our Children's Trust unleashed several dozen regulatory petitions and a dozen lawsuits across the nation.  The goal:  establish the public trust doctrine as applicable to the atmosphere and use it to implement greenhouse gas regulation.  It appears that all of that is signifying nothing. Over two dozen petitions were denied in 2011 and two lawsuits were dismissed (Montana and Colorado).  It did not get any better in 2012.  The first six months of this year delivered only bad news to OCT.  State courts dismissed lawsuits in Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington.  The federal court in the District of Columbia did the same.   Plaintiffs took a voluntary dismissal in California.  To be sure, OCT has filed appeals (the one in Minnesota is scheduled to be argued on July 18).  Having failed to convince a single court so far, we think we are safe in predicting an uphill battle.

5.  Power Plant Performance Standards - On April 13, 2012, a scant seven months before the presidential election, the EPA published in the Federal Register standards of performance for all new fossil fuel-fired electricity-generating units requiring them to meet an electricity-output-based emission rate of 1,000 lb of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour of electricity generated.  The only plants that can meet this standard without implementing costly carbon capture and storage technology are natural gas plants.  Thus, the administration took a strong stand against coal-based generation.  Or it is all smoke and mirrors.  As EPA notes in the proposed rule, because of the glut of natural gas made available by fracking, there is little likelihood of a new coal-powered plant before 2030.  Notwithstanding, industry groups have filed a half-dozen lawsuits seeking to derail the rule.

6.  EPA's Greenhouse Gas Regulatory Program - Less than a week ago USEPA and its GHG program got a firm "thumbs up" from the D.C. Circuit.  Inundated with over two dozen appeals of various USEPA GHG regulations, the Endangerment Finding, the Tailpipe Rule, the Tailoring Rule and the Timing Rule (for citations see The DC Circuit Locks in USEPAs GHG Regulations Sort Of). The court turned away every challenge, sometimes on the merits and sometimes on procedural grounds such as standing.  There is much that deserves comment not the least of which are the differences between the states with California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, lining up on one side, and Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Virginia lining up on the other.  To focus more on legal matters, several challenges were turned away on standing.  For example, neither states nor industry groups could challenge the Tailoring Rule as they did not allege the requisite injury.  Because the Tailoring Rule benefits small businesses (who are not required to comply with certain GHG emission requirements), it would appear that the door may remain open for parties who allege competitive injury (i.e., non-regulated entities gain a competitive advantage). In the meantime, do not expect Congress this election year to touch the issue.  

 

Proposed Rule for Power Plant Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Much Ado About Nothing?

March 30, 2012 00:20
by J. Wylie Donald

Wow!  Whether one likes the president or not, one must concede he's not afraid of leading. Just a little over seven months from the election he has drawn a line in the sand and proposed a rule that may fundamentally alter America's energy mix and takes a big step toward addressing carbon dioxide emissions.  Or it does nothing at all.  We are talking of course of Tuesday's announcement of new source performance standards for electricity plants.   In EPA's words:

The EPA is proposing standards of performance that require that all new fossil fuel-fired EGUs meet an electricity-output-based emission rate of 1,000 lb
CO2/MWh of electricity generated on a gross basis. This proposed standard is based on the demonstrated performance of natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) units, which are currently in wide use throughout the country, and are likely to be the predominant fossil fuel-fired technology for new generation in the future.  EPA, Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units (proposed rule) at 13 (Mar. 27, 2012) .

So natural gas is in.  And what about the other fossil fuels?  New plants using coal or oil and even IGCC (integrated gas combined cycle) can be built but EPA expects that they will need to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) to meet the standards.  Id.

What brought about this groundbreaking new rule?  We set forth the legal foundation in a companion post.  Suffice to say here that EPA has moved a long way from the days before Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), when greenhouse gases were not Clean Air Act "pollutants."  But the non-regulatory drivers were perhaps even more significant.  All are aware of "fracking".  The use of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing in shales a mile beneath the surface has unleashed a torrent of natural gas.  As Forbes reports this month natural gas prices are half of what they were just a few years ago.  And the glut is not seen to be abating.  EPA has seized on this surfeit:  "technological developments and discoveries of abundant natural gas reserves have caused natural gas prices to decline precipitously in recent years and have secured those relatively low prices for the near-future."  Proposed Rule at 15.  As a result, "energy industry modeling forecasts uniformly predict that few, if any, new coal-fired power plants will be built in the foreseeable future."  Id. 

In other words, the proposed regulation will have hardly any effect (even none) on coal-fired generation because no one was going to build those plants anyway.  "Our IPM modeling, using Energy Information Administration (EIA) reference case assumptions, projects that there will be no construction of new coal-fired generation without CCS by 2030. Under these assumptions, the proposed rule will not impose costs by 2030."  Id. at 17.

We have read the commentary that this is the death of coal.  The cost of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, which will be the only way for a new coal plant to meet the new standard, is prohibitive. Accordingly, no coal plants will be built. According to EPA, however, coal-fired production was dead anyway because of the glut of natural gas. 

Crystal balls are notoriously unreliable.  Some may remember that nuclear power was to make electricity too cheap to meter. But that didn't happen.  America built the largest man-made construction the world has ever seen (the interstate highway system) on the assumption that gasoline would always be abundant.  That was in error.  An oil embargo introduced Americans to long lines at the fuel pump and locking gas caps. Most forget that natural gas production peaked in the early 1970s, not to be exceeded again until over twenty years had passed.  The point is:  smart people took their best science and made plans.  But reality somehow did not get the message. 

For what it is worth, here is our crystal ball on the demise of coal.  First, CCS technology is pertinent not only to coal. Combustion of natural gas emits carbon dioxide as well. The regulatory imperative will push natural gas plants to address their CO2, and coal will be able to take advantage of improvements in CCS technology. Second, the United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal. To expect that industry to dry up and blow away is naïve. Shale gas went from a vanishingly small fraction of the US energy mix to over 20% in five years or less. Innovation made this possible.  Just as ten years ago we could not imagine today's natural gas industry, we may not be able to recognize our coal resource in another ten years. Third, we thought it was fundamental that energy security depends on a mix of energy sources. It would be foolhardy to rely completely on natural gas.  It will only take one cold winter and a natural gas pipeline calamity to make coal seem like a sensible alternative. 

Whether the proposed rule will actually have an impact depends on numerous factors.  All can agree, however, that climate change has been thrust back on the national agenda. 

Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Greenhouse Gases | Regulation


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