This Week in the RFF Library Blog

Each week, I review the papers, studies, reports, and briefings posted over at the RFF Library Blog.

Untapped Potential: Reducing Global Methane Emissions from Oil and Natural Gas Systems
Based on the best currently available data, around 3.6 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas escaped into the  atmosphere in 2012 from global oil and gas operations.  This wasted gas translates into roughly $30 billion of lost  revenue at average 2012 delivered prices, and about 3% of  global natural gas production. – Rhodium Group | Environmental Defense Fund

Did Energy Efficiency Break the Electric Utilities’ Business Model?
We have reached a tipping point in America’s power sector. An industry that has sustained itself on Americans’ growing power demands has suddenly seen demand drop. This is making it difficult for US power utilities, under their current model, to turn a profit. What’s more, this is not a new trend. Using a time-series filter, an analysis of forty years of monthly end-use electricity data exposes a twenty-five year trend during which energy efficiency has steadily chipped away at the total electricity use in the US. – CO2 Scorecard Group / by Shakeb Afsah and Kendyl Salcito

Global E-Waste Monitor 2014: UN Report
[CBS] The United States and China are the world’s biggest producers of electronic waste and most of the home appliances, computers and smartphones they toss out are never recycled. – United Nations University

An Overview of Unconventional Oil and Natural Gas: Resources and Federal Actions
The United States has seen resurgence in petroleum production, mainly driven by technology improvements—especially hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling—developed for natural gas production from shale formations. Application of these technologies enabled natural gas to be economically produced from shale and other unconventional formations and contributed to the United States becoming the world’s largest natural gas producer in 2009. Use of these technologies has also contributed to the rise in U.S. oil production over the last few years. In 2009, annual oil production increased over 2008, the first annual rise since 1991, and has continued to increase each year since. Between January 2008 and May 2014, U.S. monthly crude oil production rose by 3.2 million barrels per day, with about 85% of the increase coming from shale and related tight oil formations in Texas and North Dakota. Other tight oil plays are also being developed, helping raise the prospect of energy independence, especially for North America. – Congressional Budget Office

Overcoming Barriers to Deployment of Plug-in Electric Vehicles
In the past few years, interest in plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) has grown. Advances in battery and other technologies, new federal standards for carbon-dioxide emissions and fuel economy, state zero-emission-vehicle requirements, and the current administration’s goal of putting millions of alternative-fuel vehicles on the road have all highlighted PEVs as a transportation alternative. Consumers are also beginning to recognize the advantages of PEVs over conventional vehicles, such as lower operating costs, smoother operation, and better acceleration; the ability to fuel up at home; and zero tailpipe emissions when the vehicle operates solely on its battery. There are, however, barriers to PEV deployment, including the vehicle cost, the short all-electric driving range, the long battery charging time, uncertainties about battery life, the few choices of vehicle models, and the need for a charging infrastructure to support PEVs. What should industry do to improve the performance of PEVs and make them more attractive to consumers? – National Research Council

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Projected Reductions in Drilling Activity Do Not Undermine the Argument for Lifting the Crude Oil Export Ban

In early 2014, the case for lifting the crude oil export ban, which has been in place since the 1970s, started to gain traction—and with good reason. Doing away with the ban would result in lower US gasoline prices and greater US tight oil production. But the momentum stalled out as the price of crude oil dropped dramatically over the past several months. Indeed, Russell Gold recently reported in the Wall Street Journal that drilling of new wells in two key production basins—the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays—was set to decline. On one hand, this observation for the immediate term would seem to suggest that the case for lifting the oil export ban has become much less pressing. On the other hand, in its recently released 2015 Annual Energy Outlook, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted higher levels of domestic production of crude oil over the next several years, with a steadily falling share of crude oil consumed in the United States attributable to imports, down to 17 percent by 2040. This apparent conflict between the two projections seems to raise doubt about the urgency of lifting the export ban. But does it?

In my view, the case for lifting the ban remains strong, irrespective of the future path of new drilling. The recent trend toward ever-larger inflows of tight light oil into US refineries is apparently continuing apace. Consider the recent historical paths of oil production in North Dakota and Texas, two key locations of light tight oil. As shown in Figure 1, production in the United States has increased dramatically over the past five years, continuing into the last several months. By contrast, imports from the three major trading partners in the western hemisphere—Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela—have increased at a much slower rate. Read More

RFF ON THE ISSUES: Employment effects of regulation; Energy efficiency bill passed; Conservation act renewal hearing

In this edition:

  • RFF First Wednesday Seminar on the employment impacts of environmental regulation
  • A study on the early effects of energy benchmarking and disclosure laws
  • Commentary on the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act

Employment Effects of Regulation

New research by Industrial Economics, Inc. suggests that EPA’s Clean Power Plan “would create more than a quarter of a million jobs” by 2040. The report notes that coal industry jobs lost due to the stringency of the regulations would be “offset not only by investments in cleaner sources of power, but also by productivity gains across the whole economy.” Read More

Reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund: Three Key Issues

Typical Earth Day stories focus on the achievements of our country’s two signature environmental laws, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. But today, I’d like to give some love to the 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, which expires at the end of September unless Congress reauthorizes it. A real opportunity to improve the fund could be realized through the reauthorization process (more on this below).

First, a little background: in 1964, Public Law 88-578 created the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the principal funding source for federal land acquisitions for conservation and recreation. The Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Forest Service all receive funds from the LWCF. Since its creation, the LWCF program has permanently protected nearly five million acres of federal lands. The LWCF also served for many years as a major source of state and local funding for parks and recreation. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, 98 percent of counties in the United States have a park or recreation site that was created with LWCF grants.

Offshore oil and gas lease revenues bankroll the LWCF; since 1977, by law, $900 million of these revenues have gone into the fund each year. This doesn’t mean, however, that $900 million are actually spent. The fact that LWCF spending is subject to the annual appropriations process remains a sore point for conservation and recreation advocates. Because of this feature of the law, spending has fluctuated over time and has not come close to the $900 million mark since the late 1970s. Read More

RFF ON THE ISSUES: State park funding options; Emissions regulations challenged

In this edition:

  • An analysis of the funding methods used to support public parks
  • Expert commentary on the effects of EPA’s emissions regulations on coal plants

State Park Funding Options                                               

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy unveiled his state budget last month, which includes a “$2 million cut in the annual state parks budget.” The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which is responsible for overseeing 255,000 acres of state land, would need to “cobbl[e] together state park funding from an array of sources” rather than rely exclusively on the state’s general fund. Read More

This Week in the RFF Library Blog

Each week, I review the papers, studies, reports, and briefings posted over at the RFF Library Blog.

Draft House Legislation Allowing States to Opt-out of the Clean Power Plan
[AIMO.comOn Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put forward a budgetary amendment to allow states to opt out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the nation’s power plants by 30% by 2030. The Senate could vote on the budget this week… – via US House,  Energy and Commerce Committee, Energy and Power Subcommittee

Yale Climate Opinion Maps
[SlateOn Monday, researchers from Yale and Utah State University unveiled a new statistical technique that allows an in-depth accounting of Americans’ attitudes toward global warming. The resulting maps—down to the county level—reveal some interesting takeaways. – Yale University | Utah State University

DC Microgrids Scoping Study–Estimate of Technical and Economic Benefits
Microgrid demonstrations and deployments have show the ability of microgrids to provide higher reliability and higher power quality than utility power systems and improved energy utilization. Los Alamos National Laboratory has released a report titled DC Microgrids Scoping Study: Estimate of Technical and Economic Benefits, which presents the results of a study by several national labs and funded by the Office of Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability. The study provides a preliminary examination of the benefits and drawbacks of potential DC microgrid applications relative to their AC counterparts, using several metrics for comparison, and offers recommendations for potential future research and deployment activities. – Los Alamos National Laboratory for US DOE Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

Methods of Measuring Radioactivity in Fracking Wastewater May Be Inaccurate: Iowa Study
Background: The economic value of unconventional natural gas resources has stimulated rapid globalization of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. However, natural radioactivity found in the large volumes of “produced fluids” generated by these technologies is emerging as an international environmental health concern. Current assessments of the radioactivity concentration in liquid wastes focus on a single element – radium. However, the use of radium alone to predict radioactivity concentrations can greatly underestimate total levels. – Understanding the Radioactive Ingrowth and Decay of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials in the Environment: An Analysis of Produced Fluids from the Marcellus Shale / by Andrew W. Nelson, et al.

The Clean Power Plan Benefits Low-income Communities: NRDC Study
[From a Climate Wire article by Emily Holden, sub. req’dThe Natural Resources Defense Council yesterday released a report touting the rule’s health and economic benefits to rural and low-income communities… Natural Resources Defense Council

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RFF ON THE ISSUES: China’s renewable goals; Disclosing energy use in buildings

In this edition:

  • RFF hosts the US release of a report on China’s renewable energy strategies
  • New research on utility bill savings from municipal energy disclosure laws

Note: Registration is still open for Looking Ahead toward Paris: International Perspectives on National Commitments, a policy dialogue hosted by RFF, the Embassy of Sweden, and Mistra Indigo, on April 21 at the House of Sweden.

China’s Renewable Goals

The Chinese government recently reaffirmed its commitment to reducing pollution at its annual session of the National People’s Congress, where it increased its goal for solar power in order to “more than tripl[e] its solar power capacity” by 2020. Read More

Show Us the Money: An Early Look at Utility Bill Savings from Municipal Benchmarking and Disclosure Laws

(source: Hayden Irwin / flickr)

Municipal energy benchmarking and disclosure requirements are intended to bring some transparency about building energy performance to commercial real estate markets (source: Hayden Irwin / flickr)

Recently, my colleague Margaret Walls blogged about two new RFF discussion papers focused on a popular new policy in US cities: municipal energy benchmarking and disclosure requirements. These laws, which require owners of large commercial and multi-family buildings above a certain size threshold to benchmark their buildings’ energy use and disclose that information, are intended to bring some transparency about building energy performance to commercial real estate markets. The hope is that by increasing transparency, these policies will provide incentives for building owners to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy use, thereby reducing greenhouse emissions. The policies constitute an important component of local climate action plans and are believed to have the potential to spur important reductions in energy consumption over time. But how well are they delivering on that potential? Read More

RFF ON THE ISSUES: Flood insurance rates increase; US and international climate commitments

In this edition:

  • An option for making flood insurance affordable
  • An upcoming event on international climate commitments, in advance of Paris

Flood Insurance Rates Increase

On April 1, rates under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) increased in an effort to “align the cost of insurance with the actual flood risk.” Although many homeowners saw little to no increase, those who live in flood-prone areas can face premiums that are “more than the actual mortgage” of the home. Read More

Using the Social Cost of Carbon in the Bureau of Land Management’s Planning: An Opportunity for a Carbon Price?

In new research (described in an earlier blog post), we lay out a legal argument for how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might implement a carbon pricing policy, based on the social cost of carbon, on coal extraction on federal lands (with RFF coauthors Joel Darmstadter, Nathan Richardson, also of the University of South Carolina School of Law, and Katrina McLaughlin). As we mentioned previously, BLM has a mandate to manage public land in a way that provides for multiple uses. This responsibility means that it must account not for just resource extraction or recreation or conservation. BLM must manage the land for multiple uses and also get a sustained yield (economically and for the good of the public) out of the land. Implementing a significant carbon charge on federal coal at the point of extraction (at the royalty stage) might make one of those uses, resource extraction, no longer viable. This would most likely create a legal threat to the use of a carbon charge in this way. But there is another option, described in our research, that BLM might use: it could consider the social cost of carbon in its planning process.

The Council on Environmental Quality’s newly revised draft guidance under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) says that federal agencies should include climate change considerations in their planning efforts. Incorporating a carbon charge at this stage would be using the policy even farther “upstream.” In theory, BLM could examine a parcel of land that could be used for coal development, or grazing, or set aside as a wildlife reserve, and, at that point it, could consider a carbon charge in determining whether this land should be put up for coal leasing. As we note in the paper:

“This would be the earliest possible time to consider the [social cost of carbon, SCC] in shaping overall federal coal activity. Applying the SCC to federal coal could also be done systematically when BLM prepares resource management plans, its basic multiple-use planning activity under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). This multiple-use planning is a particularly promising place to incorporate full-cost accounting for coal—that is, the full costs and benefits of coal across its complete life cycle. It is early in the coal decision sequence, it includes all BLM lands for coverage and consistency, it creates planning areas of similar resources and recognizes differences among them, it has extensive public engagement, and it is where BLM explicitly applies its mandate to consider multiple uses and environmental trade-offs. Such incorporation gives BLM the opportunity to decide whether given federal lands are suitable for coal leasing, considering (among many other factors) the climate impacts of extracted coal.”

Such an approach might rule out coal leasing for some, but not all, potential parcels. Although a sufficiently high carbon charge might prohibit most federal coal development when considered at the royalty stage, the same charge considered at the planning stage might allow for some federal coal development, particularly on parcels that face fewer competing uses. While the ultimate fate of the proposed NEPA draft guidance remains to be seen, incorporating a carbon charge at the planning stage could present a promising option that is less likely to endanger BLM’s multiple use mandate.