June 2003

New Zealand Considers Gas Tax

As part of its effort to reach its Kyoto targets, the New Zealand government is planning to introduce a tax to help pay for research into livestock emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, which account for more than half of the country’s greenhouse gases.

The tax will be paid by the countrys farmers, and is expected to cost them NZ$8.4 million (about US$5 million at current exchange rates). The levy will take the form of a 9 cent tax on each of the countrys 46 million sheep and 72 cents on each of the nine million cows.

Farmers are resisting the move. Federated Farmers President Tom Lambie told Reuters, “This decision is yet another example of the government’s desire to act in the wider public interest but expecting rural New Zealand to pay for its largesse.” (Reuters, June 19).

EU Agrees on Trading Scheme

The European Parliament and the EUs member governments have reached agreement on the content of an emissions trading scheme. The agreement will be incorporated into a bill currently before the Parliament, which is expected to be approved at its second reading the week beginning 30 June, after which it will become law following formal adoption by the EU Council of Ministers.

EU member states extracted the concession from the parliament that they will not be subject to a quantitative cap on the amount of allowances they can distribute. They are restricted in issuing “no more than is likely to be needed” for the “strict application” of national emissions allocation plans. For the initial 2005-2008 trial period, this must also be “consistent with a path towards achieving or over achieving” Kyoto Protocol targets.

The parliament also conceded that auctioning of emissions allowances could remain voluntary, despite its earlier insistence on the guaranteed sale of at least a small portion. During the initial period, up to five percent may be auctioned, with 10 percent from 2008. There is a promise of harmonized EU auctioning of allowances “after 2012.” The parliament did win its wish for limitation of an opt-out clause during the initial phase to individual installations rather than whole industry sectors.

Environmental New Service reports that inclusion of other sectors and other greenhouse gases beyond carbon dioxide remains optional, though there is a stronger commitment for the addition of the chemicals, aluminium and transport sectors when the European Commission reviews the law at the end of next year.

The spokesman for the parliaments Greens, Dutchman Alexander de Roo, expressed the hope that the agreement would “put pressure on the Russian Duma” to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol cannot come into force until either the US or Russia ratifies it. (ENS, June 25).

Alberta Has the Energy U.S. Needs

Ralph Klein, the premier of Alberta, Canada, described his province’s vast hydrocarbon resources in a speech in Washington, D. C. on June 25. The possibility that the Kyoto Protocol could limit future use of these resources was not raised by Klein or in any of the questions from reporters at the lunch, which was sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute, U. S. Energy Association, and G. F. Energy. The premier did mention that Alberta’s energy resources, although enormous, would eventually run out.

Alberta has proven reserves of 176 billion barrels of oil. The rest of Canada has less than 3 billion, the U. S. has 22 billion, and Mexico has 13 billion barrels. Approximately two thirds of Alberta’s reserves are contained in heavy oil sands.

Klein described technological advances that have made production from oil sands economically feasible in the last few years. He said that 32% of Canada’s petroleum production came from oil sands in 2002. The provincial government expects this to grow rapidly as $50 billion is invested in oil sands development in the next 15 years.

Alberta also has huge reserves of natural gas, coalbed methane, and coal. Currently, the province supplies 14% of the gas consumed in the U. S. Klein said that increased supplies from Alberta were only part of the answer to the increasing demand for gas in the U. S.

Hydrogen Poses Risks to Ozone Layer

A report in the June 13 issue of Science entitled “Potential Environmental Impact of a Hydrogen Economy on the Stratosphere” suggests that hydrogen fuel cells could pose environmental risks.

The study theorizes that systems of molecular hydrogen (H2) production, storage, and transport will almost certainly involve some of the hydrogen escaping into the atmosphere. Current losses suggest that 10-20% of all H2 will escape, which implies that if all oil or gasoline combustion technologies were replaced with hydrogen fuel cells, anthropogenic H2 emissions would increase four to eight times.

The researchers suggest that the H2 would move up to mix with air in the stratosphere, where it would oxidize to form water vapor. This would result in a cooling of the lower stratosphere and would also enhance the chemical practices that destroy ozone. A fourfold increase in the amount of H2 in the stratosphere would lead to a stratospheric temperature decrease of about 0.25 C and ozone depletion of around five percent. These effects would rise to a 1 decrease and over 15 percent depletion with a sevenfold increase in H2.

The researchers also suggest that an increase in water vapor in the mesosphere could lead to an increase in noctilucent clouds, potentially affecting the earths albedo.

Atmospheric Mercury Declining

A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters (May 22) has found that total gaseous mercury levels have declined since their peak in the early 1980s. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry measured mercury levels in eight locations in both hemispheres as well as eight trans-Atlantic cruises over the course of more than twenty years. The study found that total gaseous mercury levels have declined since their peak in the early 1980s.  The findings correlate well with earlier research that found decreasing levels of mercury deposition dating back as far as fifty years. 

The study called into question the reliability of mercury models, saying that either “the area of man-made to natural emissions (including re-emissions) has been underestimated or the natural emissions undergo large temporal variations.”  If the discrepancy were natural, it would indicate a far greater degree of natural fluctuation than previously believed.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

A June 17 story in the Independent of London was headlined, “Global warming may wipe out a fifth of wild flower species, study warns.” The actual study (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), however, suggested rather less.

The scientists looked at the effects of increased temperature, CO2, precipitation, and nitrogen on a small patch of California meadow, divided into plots of approximately one square yard. They found that under certain conditions, including increases in all four factors, the average number of forb species in the plots (small flowering plants like buttercups) decreased from about 4 to 3.2 over three years. This did not mean that the plots became less diverse, however, as other plant species took their place, leading in some cases to an increase in biodiversity.

The studys authors acknowledged that not all areas would respond to the effects of climate change like California meadows, something that did not make it through to the Independents coverage.

Global Warming Caused Permian Mass Extinction, Researcher Warns

A new book from Michael Benton, head of earth sciences at Bristol University in England, suggests that the mass extinction at the end of the Permian era, 250 million years ago was caused by a global warming of about 6 C. When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time suggests that a series of volcanic explosions caused a runaway greenhouse effect that led to the death of the vast majority of the species alive at the time.

Professor Benton told the Press Association: “The Permian crisis nearly marked the end of life. It’s estimated that fewer than one in 10 species survived. Geologists are only now coming to appreciate the severity of this global catastrophe and to understand how and why so many species died out so quickly.”

An advisor on the science behind the award-winning TV series Walking with Dinosaurs, Professor Benton is also the author of the Encyclopedia of Awesome Dinosaurs. (Sydney Morning Herald, June 20).

NY Times Accuses White House of Censoring EPA Report

In a front-page story on June 19 and an editorial the following day, the New York Times accused the White House of partisanship and censoring science during the normal editing process of the State of the Environment report unveiled on June 23. The administration had moved to correct certain statements about the state of climate change science. In response, the EPA deleted the section on climate change entirely.

Much of the criticism centered on two issues. First, the replacement of the sentence “Climate changes has global consequences for human health and the environment,” with the statement, “The complexity of the Earth system and the interconnections among its components make it a scientific challenge to document change, diagnose its causes, and develop useful projections of how natural variability and human actions may affect the global environment in the future. Because of these complexities and the potentially profound consequences of climate change and variability, climate change has become a capstone scientific and societal issue for this generation and the next, and perhaps even beyond.” The NY Times summarized this alteration as “replacing statements about the risks of global warming with remarks that stress uncertainty.”

Secondly, the paper criticized the administration for deleting references to the National Assessment on Climate Change, a widely discredited document that relies on models that have been proven to have no better predictive power than tables of random numbers.

Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Foundation, was quoted as charging that “Political staff are becoming increasingly bold in forcing agency officials to endorse junk science.” This would seem to refer to the White House adding reference to the recent study by Willie Soon et al. that found worldwide evidence of extensive natural temperature variation during recorded history and beyond.

The Times pointed out that the Soon study had been “partly financed by the American Petroleum Institute,” but neglected to point out that 90 percent of the studys funding came from three government agencies the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. New Yorks paper of record did not address the question of whether leaving out reference to the Soon study might have been regarded as censorship.

Energy Bill Update

Since the beginning of June, the Senate has passed eight amendments to S. 14, the comprehensive energy bill.  Two, numbers 840 and 860, were sponsored by Senators Domenici (R-N.M.) and Bingaman (D-N.M.), and re-authorized Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding.  Two, Bingaman no. 867 and Alexander (R-Tenn.) no. 880 were adopted to ensure the availability of natural gas and to instruct the Secretary of Energy to report on natural gas supplies and demand. 

Others included an amendment by Sen. Boxer (D-Calif.) to promote the use of cellulosic biomass ethanol from agricultural residue, and an amendment sponsored by Domenici for the elimination of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE an additive used to increase oxygen in gasoline) from the fuel supply, and an amendment sponsored by Mary Landrieu (D-La.) aimed at reducing dependence on foreign oil, which passed 99-1, with Jon Kyl (R-Az.) being the lone dissenter who realized oil prices are set in a global market.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.) proposed an amendment to strike the provision relating to deployment of new nuclear power plants. The provision allows the government to aid in the creation of new power plants through loan guarantees and purchase agreements. Wyden and Sununu claimed that the provision amounted to $16 billion of high-risk loans. Their amendment was defeated on June 10, 48-50.

The Senate will probably take up the energy bill again some time in late July. Sen. Domenici, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has expressed determination to make the deals necessary in order to pass the bill before the August recess. There have also been persistent rumors that Senate Democrats intend to drag out debate until next year.

Automakers Oppose Hydrogen Target

At the Energy Efficiency Forum in Washington in mid-June, automakers claimed that Californias zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) program should be a warning to law-makers to avoid future mandates on fuel alternatives. Toyota, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors were referring to the California Air Resources Boards change in policy, switching from an electric vehicle mandate to one focusing on gas-electric hybrids and then fuel cell-powered vehicles. The failure of the electric vehicle mandate is blamed on high and rising costs and very low consumer demand.

One specific piece of legislation with which automakers disagree was Sen. Byron Dorgans (D-N.D.) bill, which would require hydrogen fuel cell vehicle accumulative sales reach 100,000 by 2010 and 2.5 million by 2020. GM and other automobile manufacturers are already trying to find ways to sell hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by lowering costs and improving performance, but are still having problems with storing the fuel.

Also at the forum, U.S. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman spoke about the Climate Leaders Program, which added 11 partners, making the total 41. The Climate Leaders Program is a voluntary initiative on climate change aimed at reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists are unhappy with the program, claiming that the goals are too low. (Greenwire, June 13).

Greenspan Testifies on Economics of Natural Gas

Prices of natural gas have risen dramatically as a result of environmental regulations that prohibit drilling in many areas and limit infrastructure development, according to witnesses testifying before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on June 10. The availability and price of natural gas is of interest because most strategies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions assume large-scale fuel switching from coal to gas.

The American Gas Associations representative, Carl English, cited land access restrictions as the greatest difficulty in lowering prices that have more than doubled on average since July 2000. Jeffery R. Currie on behalf of Goldman Sachs requested public investment in infrastructure projects to reduce volatility, which has rocked the chemical industry, but was contradicted by Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan.

Greenspan urged a market-based resolution to the problem and advised the committee to allow the free market greater access to world markets of liquefied natural gas as a way to reduce prices.

The Fed chairman assured members that LNG technology has grown to be very reliable and safe over the past decades. Currently only one percent of Americas natural gas supplies comes from overseas, but according to Greenspan the potential for growth in world natural gas markets is vast.

Utilities Back Emissions Caps

A coalition of eight electric utilities, energy investors, and environmentalist groups has urged the Federal Government to back mandatory caps on CO2 emissions. Their report, Electric Power, Investors, and Climate Change: A Call to Action, argues that greenhouse gas emissions will inevitably be regulated in the US, and that companies benefit by knowing when and how they will be limited. Furthermore, the current “patchwork of regulations and continued uncertainty” discourage investment and limit growth in the energy sector. Mandatory caps are seen as the answer to this uncertainty.

The utilities involved in the consortium stand to gain over their competitors if mandatory caps are introduced. They include: Calpine, the worlds largest producer of geothermal energy; Con Edison, the New York City utility which has divested itself of its generators in accordance with New York regulations and has recently asked FERC to “institute programs aimed at preventing unreasonably high energy prices and ensuring that consumers are protected from potential market abuses by power generators and marketers;” and KeySpan, a New England based utility which also has significant holdings in Canadian natural gas production.

The utilities report may be found on the web at www.ceres.org/newsroom/press/electricrecs.htm.

Scientists Revive Debate in Canada

An open letter published in Canadas National Post on June 4 urges Paul Martin, MP, Canadas Prime Minister in waiting, to undertake comprehensive scientific consultations on the Kyoto Protocol when he takes office following Jean Chretiens likely retirement. The letter was inspired by reports that Martin felt that Canadian ratification of Kyoto proceeded without adequate consultation with the provinces.

The letter was signed by 35 scientists, of whom 16 are Canadian. Tim Ball, for 28 years professor of climatology at the University of Winnipeg and one of Canadas first climate scientists, coordinated the letter. Also among the signatories was Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, who has expressed strong skepticism about climate modeling.

The letter criticized Prime Minister Chretien for acting to ratify the protocol on the basis of a “gut feeling.” It provoked a reply from the Minister of the Environment, David Anderson, published in the National Post on June 9. Anderson called the signatories “dead wrong.” He argued for Chretiens “gut feeling” on the basis that there will never be absolute scientific certainty on climate change and so leaders need to act in order to avoid “analysis paralysis.”

Dr. Ball replied, “The real threat in all this is Mr. Andersons dogged determination to take draconian action on climate change without a proper assessment of the relevant science.”

The letter has been posted at www.sepp.org.

Administration Aids State AGs Lawsuit

On June 4, the attorneys general of Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency for refusing to initiate a process for regulating carbon dioxide emissions.

Their suit, naming outgoing EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman as defendant, seeks to force the agency to apply National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to CO2 despite the fact that the Clean Air Act does not authorize regulation of CO2 or any climate-related programs.

According to Greenwire (June 4), the plaintiffs base much of their case on the idea that the EPA has “made clear its understanding of the possible scenarios that could result from unchecked carbon dioxide emissions. Specifically, the AGs point to the administration-approved Climate Action Report released last June that said recent climate changes are likely due mostly to human activities and that predicted increases in temperature and weather variability could have serious negative ramifications, including major ecosystem transformations, diminishing water supplies, a 4-inch to 35-inch rise in sea levels and increased outbreaks of insect-borne diseases.”

Climate Action Report 2002 (actually issued in May) and the National Assessment on Climate Change have theoretically been disowned by the current administration, with the President stating that it was “put out by the bureaucracy.” However, various agencies continue to disseminate the documents on their web sites.

Christopher C. Horner, acting on behalf of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has petitioned under the Federal Data Quality Act to have the document removed from further dissemination, but is meeting resistance from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (see article in the DATE issue). The State Attorneys General lawsuit illustrates exactly how this obstinacy is creating problems for the administration itself.

State Legislative Update: New York, Illinois, Oregon, and New Jersey

Legislative activity continues in many States aimed at curbing CO2 emissions. Activity is currently at its most intense in Illinois, Oregon, New York and New Jersey.

In Illinois, HB 2563 aims at directing marine and rail terminals to operate so that trucks do not idle with their engines running for more than 30 minutes, on pain of a $250 fine. The bill is currently with the House Committee on Rules. SB 0143 would create a renewable energy portfolio standard law. It is currently before the Senate Committee on Rules.

In New Jersey, AB 2095 would increase fines for non-compliance with the renewable portfolio standard up to $10,000 to $100,000. AB 3238 would make the adoption of an emissions portfolio standard for power generators mandatory. Current law already requires power generators to track emissions in lbs per MWh of SO2, CO2 and NOx. The bill is currently before the Committee on the Environment. AB 3491 would prohibit diesel trucks from idling at marine terminals, and is currently before the Committee on Transportation.

In New York, AB 04082 would adopt Californias vehicle greenhouse gas regulations by 2009. It has been through the Committees on Environmental Conservation and Codes and was amended in the Assembly during May. AB 05933 would set performance standards for NOx, SO2, CO2 and Hg, and has passed the Assembly. It is currently before the Senate Committee on Environmental Conservation.

Also in New York, AB 06428 would set an emissions standard for NOx, SO2, Hg and CO2 based on lbs per MWh generated. It would make a CO2 emissions cap permanent by 2007 that is seven percent less than 1990 levels and also establish a credit trading program. The bill passed the Assembly in March and is currently before the Senate Committee on Energy and Telecommunications. SB 00899 would set a clean energy requirement that 1.5 percent of each utilitys electricity supply comes from renewables, increasing by 0.5 percent each year until the requirement reaches six percent, after which it would increase by one percent annually until the requirement stands at ten percent. This bill is also currently before the Senate Committee on Energy and Telecommunications.

In Oregon, HB 2788 would impose a tax on each fuel supplier and utility based on the amount of carbon in fuels sold to consumers or used to produce electricity. It would also create a renewable energy resources account fund for development of renewable energy resources. The bill was introduced in March.

Mercury Numbers Look Shaky

On June 5, the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change and Nuclear Safety held a hearing on the Clear Skies Act, S.485, that focused on mercury. Reducing mercury emissions has been seen as a potential indirect means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions because it could force utilities to close coal-fired power plants.

Incidental mercury reductions, which the EPA initially anticipated would produce a decrease of 22 tons by 2010, will actually result in a reduction of only 2 to 14 tons from its current level of 48 tons per year according to Dr. Randall Kroszner, acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.

According to Dr. Larry S. Monroe of the Electric Power Research Institute, the Clear Skies Acts mercury reduction scheme would reduce the fraction of the population above the reference dose for mercury by only 0.064%, at an estimated cost of 6 billion dollars.

Dr. Richard Bucher, on behalf of W.L. Gore and Associates, the makers of GORE-TEX fabrics, reported a breakthrough by his company in using their synthetics to capture mercury at rates higher than any commercially available products. According to Bucher, “Coal burning trial results . . . indicate mercury capture rates consistently in excess of 90%.” However, the technology is still in the testing stage and may not be available to power suppliers for years.

Earth Greening Rapidly Since 1980

Something remarkable happened between 1980 and 2000. Researchers from a variety of institutions published a study, funded by NASA and the Department of Energy, in the June 6 issue of Science that found that, “Global changes in climate have eased several critical climatic constraints to plant growth, such that net primary production increased 6% globally.” The Amazon rain forests accounted for 42 percent of the observed increase in plant growth.

The Christian Science Monitor (June 6) related how unexpected this result was: “The surprise was twofold. The growth rate far exceeded what most scientists expected. Many models indicated that additional growth in the tropics would be minimal, given the fairly constant temperatures from one season to the next. In addition, many researchers had held that any increased productivity in the tropics would largely be driven by a rise in atmospheric CO2 rather than changes in climate itself.”

The scientists found that this increase was not necessarily due to the direct impact of increased take up of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2 fertilization). According to Roger Highfield, writing in Londons Daily Telegraph (June 6), “In general, where temperatures restricted plant growth, it became warmer; where sunlight was needed, clouds dissipated; and where it was too dry, it rained more. In the Amazon, plant growth was limited by sun-blocking cloud cover, but the skies have become less cloudy. In India, where a billion people depend on rain, the monsoon was more dependable in the 1990s than in the 1980s.”

Commenting on what the study means for claims about deforestation, the lead author, Dr Ramakrishna Nemani, of the University of Montana, told the Telegraph that “the role of deforestation may have been overplayed a bit,” although he added that he felt that current forests ought to be preserved. Other team members expressed cautionary notes about the study, noting that the sustainability or otherwise of increased vegetation growth had not been assessed.

However, the most interesting comment on the study from one of its authors came from Dr Charles Keeling, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who told the Telegraph that, “The 36 per cent increase in global population, from 4.45 billion in 1980 to 6.08 billion in 2000, overshadowed the benefits that might have come from increases in plant growth.”

Hazy Aerosol Picture Continues

Confusion appears to reign over what the various recent reports on aerosols mean for the debate over global warming (see the past two issues). New Scientist (June 4) reports that “top atmospheric scientists got together, including Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and Swedish meteorologist Bert Bolin, former chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” at a workshop in Berlin in late May to assess the implications of Anderson et al.s Perspectives piece for Science magazine, which cautioned that the sulfate aerosol cooling effect may be greater than models predict.

The Perspectives piece had said that this might mean either that the earths temperature is more naturally variable than thought or that the climate is more sensitive to forcing than thought. The Berlin workshop settled on the latter, and produced the prediction that, when sulfate aerosol production wanes, the earth might warm between 7-10 C based on the IPCCs worst-case scenario. Readers may remember that the worst-case scenario is based on the assumptions that the entire world will raise itself above the current economic output levels of the United States, population will continue to increase rapidly, and there are no major technological advances.

New Scientist admits that the calculations on which these dire predictions were based were “back-of-the-envelope” figures. Despite this extreme uncertainty, Will Steffen of the Swedish Academy of Sciences was quoted as saying that, “The message for policy makers is clear: We need to get on top of the greenhouse gas emissions problem sooner rather than later.”