Grand Staircase Pot1127

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. 

A group of electric utilities on Nov. 25 filed suit challenging the Trump administration's rule blocking California from setting its own tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions standards and zero-emission vehicle sales mandates.

The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by the Power Companies Climate Coalition, members of which participating in the suit include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Seattle City Light, Consolidated Edison, National Grid and New York Power Authority. Calpine also joined the suit.

The utilities sued the EPA for withdrawing a 2013 waiver clearing the way for California's GHG tailpipe standards and ZEV sales mandates. In addition, the group sued the Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for pre-empting the state's standards. The Trump administration has argued that California's tailpipe standards are tantamount to fuel-economy regulations, over which the federal government has exclusive regulatory authority under the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

In a statement, the utilities argued that the Trump administration's action blocks emissions-reduction efforts by California and states that enforce California standards.

"Barring states from enforcing stricter standards for new cars and trucks will thwart the power companies' efforts to help electrify the transportation sector and could stand as an obstacle to states' achievement of their respective climate goals and federal air-quality standards for ozone and fine particulate matter (smog and soot) pollution," the utility petitioners said.

Another utilities group, the National Coalition for Advanced Transportation, earlier sued the NHTSA to challenge its pre-emption action. Members of that group include Pacific Gas & Electric and Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

Utilities Seek Speedier Vegetation Management

Western utility groups on Nov. 25 urged the U.S. Forest Service to establish procedures for quick approvals of vegetation-management projects aimed at reducing wildfire risk in utility corridors crossing national forests and grasslands.

In a joint letter to the Forest Service, the 15 utility groups said the agency should establish "procedures with robust timelines and milestones" for allowing utilities to move quickly in removing hazardous trees that endanger transmission and distribution lines.

The utilities filed comments in response to the Forest Service's Sept. 24 proposal to implement a 2018 statute. The law, an amendment of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, requires the Agriculture and Interior departments to finalize regulations by March 23 allowing utilities to submit plans allowing for streamlined vegetation management in rights of way.

Under the Forest Service proposal, utilities may submit vegetation-management operating plans for approval by the agency and incorporated into special-use permits.

The letter was sent to the Forest Service by Scott Corwin, executive director of the Northwest Public Power Association, on behalf of his and the 14 other organizations. Others included groups representing cooperatives, power agencies, public utility districts and municipal utilities in Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

"Having 15 utility organizations from across the West speaking with one voice shows the seriousness of the need for proper implementation of this law to maintain the rights of way for public safety," Corwin said.

The utilities recommended guidelines that "eliminate or minimize the need for case-by-case approvals for routine operations and for utility management activities that are necessary to control hazard trees."

The utility groups cited obstacles in securing timely agency approvals for tree trimming and removal. "Often, our members find various inconsistencies working with federal agency personnel, as outcomes vary based on individual federal employees' decisions and timelines," the letter said.

U.N. Issues 'Bleak' GHG Emissions Report

Significant cuts in GHG emissions are needed to meet Paris climate agreement targets, but there is no sign of emissions peaking in the next few years, the United Nations said in a "bleak" report released Nov. 26.

"Countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions, meaning that deeper and faster cuts are now required," the report said.

The document warned that "further delaying the reductions needed to meet the goals would imply future emissions reductions and removal of CO2 from the atmosphere at such a magnitude that it would result in a serious deviation from currently available pathways. This, together with necessary adaptation actions, risks seriously damaging the global economy and undermining food security and biodiversity."

The report said structural socioeconomic changes would be needed to reach emissions-reduction targets. "Deep-rooted shifts in values, norms, consumer culture and world views are inescapably part of the great sustainability transformation," it noted.

Global emissions reached a record level of 55.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent in 2018, and fossil-energy emissions from energy and industrial sectors totaled 37.5 gigatons of CO2-e. (CO2-equivalent normalizes the varying heat-trapping properties of greenhouse gases into a common metric of heat-trapping impact.)

"There is no sign of GHG emissions peaking in the next few years; every year of postponed peaking means that deeper and faster cuts will be required. By 2030, emissions would need to be 25 percent and 55 percent lower than in 2018 to put the world on a least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2 degrees [Celsius] and 1.5 degrees respectively," the report said.

Under current policies, annual GHG emissions would be 60 gigatons of CO2-equivalent by 2030, 19 gigatons greater than the level to which emissions would have to fall by 2030, according to the median estimate of least-cost reductions needed for keeping global temperature increases at 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. To keep the increase at 1.5 C, emissions would have to fall to 25 gigatons by 2030, the report said.

On Nov. 4, the State Department formally notified the U.N. that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris agreement one year from that date, which is one day after the 2020 presidential election. President Donald Trump in 2017 announced his administration's plan to pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord. Candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have vowed to return the U.S. to the agreement if Trump is defeated next year.

The U.N. report pointed to a few "encouraging developments," including "voters and protesters, particularly youth, making it clear that [climate change] is their number-one issue. In addition, the technologies for rapid and cost-effective emission reductions have improved significantly."

EIA: U.S. CO2 Emissions Up in 2018

U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions increased in 2018 for the first time in four years, the Energy Information Administration reported Nov. 26.

Emissions were up 2.7 percent from their 2017 level, the EIA said, attributing the increase to higher natural gas emissions tied to extreme summer and winter weather and to growth in transportation-related emissions from petroleum use.

"Natural gas is both the most prevalent home-heating fuel and the most prevalent fuel used to generate electricity," the report said, noting that higher heating and cooling demand spurred a 10-percent increase in gas-related emissions in 2018.

Electric power generation increased by 3.6 percent last year, but power-sector emissions rose by only 1.1 percent, which reflected the continuing shift from coal-fired to gas-fired generation, the EIA said.

Moniz: Broad Net Needed for Climate Solutions

Federal research priorities for decarbonizing the economy should reflect the need for a broad suite of technological breakthroughs, former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a House subcommittee hearing Nov. 20.

At a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee's Energy and Water Subcommittee, Moniz said in written testimony that even if all countries party to the 2015 Paris accord meet their CO2 emissions-reduction commitments, that would yield only one-third of the reductions needed to keep global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels through a "least-cost pathway."

Moniz added that "every tenth of a degree matters in the fight against global warming" in order to avoid "tipping points"—what Moniz called "irreversible changes in the climate system with uncertain triggers."

Moniz headed the Department of Energy from 2013 to 2017 and is currently CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative research and policy analysis organization.

In response to questions from Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the subcommittee's ranking Republican, Moniz pointed to the costs of not restraining GHG emissions, including adaptation to higher wildfire risk. "Here in the United States of America, right now in Northern California, people are being told you're not going to have electricity for a week. It's unbelievable," he said.

Moniz cited hydrogen as an example of a broadly applicable, low-carbon energy technology needed for decarbonization. He called hydrogen a "carbon-less natural gas" that could be an "economywide opportunity," including fuel for heavy transportation and industrial processes requiring high heat.

In addition, Moniz said hydrogen could serve as a "storage medium." He cautioned that "we should not equate storage with batteries," adding that batteries "do not make a system reliable and resilient if we have large dependence on wind and solar."

"We've got to think of storage in different ways for time scales up to seasonal," he noted. In his written testimony, he noted that in California's energy market, "current battery-storage technologies are generally for a few hours' duration," while in 2017, "there was a total of 90 days with little to no wind and periods where there were 5-10 days in a row with little to no wind generation."

Moniz also said research should aim to spur "regional innovation," with national laboratories as hubs.

Moniz said a low-carbon economy likely will continue using fossil fuels, which he said necessitates scaling up technologies to strip carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and oceans. Energy Futures Initiative has recommended a 10-year, $10.7-billion research program aimed at bringing CO2-removal technologies to commercialization.

On nuclear energy, Moniz said federal support for developing small modular nuclear reactors should aim to stand up an industry, including manufacturing know-how and a skilled workforce, that would attract private investment in tooling and production.

Rich Powell, executive director of the ClearPath organization advocating conservative policies for reducing GHG emissions, told the subcommittee the long lead times for scaling up emerging zero-carbon energy sources necessitates ambitious technology-development targets.

He said demonstrating advanced nuclear technologies by 2025 would exemplify "the sort of timeline we need to be hitting if these reactors are going to play a role in decarbonizing a large part of the power grid by the 2050s."

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Sept. 24 reported out legislation, S. 903, directing the Energy Department to complete at least two advanced nuclear demonstration projects by the end of 2025.

The bill also would direct DOE to establish a pilot program to enter into at least one power-purchase agreement of up to 40 years by Dec. 31, 2023 for a reactor that  is licensed after Jan. 1, 2019, with "special consideration" for "first-of-a-kind or early deployment nuclear technologies."

House Democrats Roll Out Net-Zero-by-2050 Bill

House Democrats on Nov. 21 introduced legislation requiring federal agencies to draft technology-neutral plans for moving the U.S. economy to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.

Under the bill, EPA would be required to evaluate agency plans and recommend ways to strengthen them.

The bill, HR 221, was introduced by Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) and five other Democratic lawmakers, including Oregon's Earl Blumenauer and New Mexico's Deb Haaland.

The bill would stand little chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.

House Dems Urge Freeze on Monument Plans

House Natural Resources Committee leaders on Nov. 18 urged Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to halt action on management plans for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument until litigation challenging Trump's shrinkage of the monument is resolved.

In a letter to Bernhardt, the committee's leaders alleged the monument's reduction violated the 1906 Antiquities Act. In addition, they cited allegations that the Interior Department violated appropriations legislation against energy preleasing and leasing activities within the monument's original boundaries. The Government Accountability Office is investigating the allegation, following a request by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee's Interior and Environment Subcommittee.

The letter was sent by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and all five of the panel's subcommittee chairmen, including Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), who heads the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee.

The Interior Department on Oct. 18 published a final environmental impact statement on proposed management plans for the monument and the Kanab-Escalante Planning Area, which includes lands that were removed from the monument in Trump's 2017 proclamation reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante by 47 percent, to about 1 million acres.

The proclamation has been challenged in court by environmental organizations and tribes.

In the letter, the lawmakers said proposed alternatives for managing the monument and the planning area are a "seemingly clear violation" of 2018 appropriations legislation barring preleasing or leasing activities within Grand Staircase's original boundaries, as proclaimed in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton.

FERC Approves Four LNG Projects

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Nov. 21 approved four liquefied natural gas projects in Texas that would expand shipment capacity by nearly 49 million metric tons per year.

Three projects, with a combined total capacity of 37 million metric tons, are proposed along the Brownsville Ship Channel, including facilities planned by Texas LNG Brownsville, Rio Grande LNG Terminal and the Annova LNG Brownsville Project.

In addition, FERC approved a proposal to expand by 11.45 million tons per year the Corpus Christi Liquefaction LNG terminal.

Commissioner Richard Glick voted against permitting the projects, arguing that the commission failed to adequately consider their climate impacts.

Trump to Nominate Wright for NRC

Trump on Nov. 22 said he plans to nominate David Wright for a full five-year term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Wright, a former member of the South Carolina Public Service Commission and past president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, has served on the NRC since 2018. His current NRC term expires June 30, 2020.