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The Political Climate Gets Legal December 17, 2013

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Law.
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This blog has been quiet for a while, but that does not mean the writing has stopped.  Here’s a link to my first print publication with the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, entitled, The “Lone Grid” State: Texas as the Ideal Location for State-Level Climate Regulation (pdf).  In short, I argue that the interaction between the interstate electrical grid and the Constitution’s limitation on state regulation of interstate commerce may actually make Texas better able to enact a strong climate program than even California.  Enjoy!

GOP vs. the Vatican? May 9, 2011

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Politics.
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Three years ago, the Roman Catholic Church commissioned a report to investigate the environmental changes occurring on our planet.  The Vatican’s non-denominational scientific arm, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, reached out to international experts and asked them to compile the report that will soon be delivered to Pope Benedict XVI.

Brace yourself, because this document issues some shocking warnings: at our current trajectory, we risk “serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses.”  Even more unsettling, it urges deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, offering at least tacit papal approval for socialism (by which I mean cap and trade or a comparable system, of course).  It should be fun to watch Newt Gingrich denounce the pope as a tree-hugging communist any minute now.  Ah, what luck!  A segue… 

One of the most disturbing trends in America is the politicization of science.  Applying politics to science ensures that what threats we encounter will remain unaddressed – how can we ever agree on a solution when half of the political establishment refuses to even acknowledge that a problem exists?  While I am not unbiased, it is objectively fair to say that in this story, Republicans are the bad guys.  Most politicians selectively choose facts that advance their cause, but the GOP attacks any concrete numbers as “fuzzy” and gleefully persecutes scientists just because the reality they study does not conform to dogmatic conservative ideology.  Watching the way Republican congressmen interact with scientists at Congressional hearings will literally dispel any sense of hope you have for our future while they wield any sort of control over our government.

Polling consistently shows that most of our nation’s god-fearing Republicans take it as an article of faith that climate change is a hoax or occurring naturally.  Both of those viewpoints are based entirely on political talking points and polluter-funded propaganda campaigns; scientists do not support these views.  Baseless beliefs of this type are difficult to dislodge, especially with the GOP on a disgustingly successful warpath to discredit everyone with an advanced degree as lying conspirators and/or partisan hacks. 

Enter the Pope.  Granted, His Holiness wasn’t out there measuring glaciers for this report and those dastardly scientists actually wrote the thing, but surely this is different from purely academic work.  It will be interesting to see how, if at all, conservatives respond to the Vatican.  Not that I expect anything at all to change, it will just be interesting to watch. 

Another Day on the Campaign Trail: GOP Lies = News August 17, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
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On Monday, a GOP senate candidate in Wisconsin made the following statement:

I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change.  It’s not proven by any stretch of the imagination.” –Ron Johnson, six-figure BP stockholder and oil spill apologist.

This “forgotten Tea Party candidate” went on to expound his misguided opinion in detail. He said some other stupid things, but I think my favorite was that a strong economy would keep the environment clean.  Isn’t that cute?

It always angers me to see such baseless denial, especially when excreted by a man who would seek to become among the most powerful decision-makers in our country.  But what really set me off was how this story was covered.

The national press will do what they always do, so for Congressional races, I prefer to take a look at how these stories are covered locally in order to better gauge what effect they will have on the people who can actually vote.  The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel has more than twice as many readers as the next biggest newspaper in Wisconsin.

This is the article they ran by Steve Schultze.  Suffice it to say that it did not calm me down.

In the ~800 word piece, the word “said” appears 25 times and makes up 3% of all the words used.  This “article” isn’t journalism, it’s stenography.  Worse, in letting Ron Johnson dictate to the newspaper, this reporter just spread blatant misinformation.

Yes, I know this guy was reporting an interview.  I am aware that Mr. Johnson is entitled to his opinion, even if it’s wrong, and that a reporter’s job is, in this case, to present that opinion to the electorate.  But journalists are supposed to pursue the truth, not just balance.

Let me offer a more specific example from the interview.  Johnson is 100% sure that humans aren’t warming the planet.  So how does he explain the rising temperatures?

“It’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity,” he says.

That’s Johnson’s opinion, that’s what Schultze reported.  Why is that poor journalism?  Because it is demonstrably false.

Solar output does vary, and that radiated energy does exert some influence on our climate systems.  So at first blush, sunspots do appear to be a valid hypothesis for global warming.  …That is, until you take even a glance at solar output data and discover that we are in a drastic solar minimum; the sun is currently cooler than it’s been in over a century.

Since 1975 the sun has been cooling while our planet warmed. That’s not how cause and effect work. Click for full size | Image credit: SkepticalScience.com

Fact: the sun is not causing our current climate change.  If anything, decreased solar output is masking what would otherwise be even more extreme warming!

After reading Schultze’s article, Wisconsinites know that Ron Johnson thinks the sun is causing global warming.  Don’t the voters deserve to know that he is unquestionably wrong?  Wouldn’t that help them make a more informed decision?  I think so.

In the hallowed name of fairness and balance, Mr. Schultze did offer a counterpoint to Johnson’s falsities:

[Democratic Sen. Russ] Feingold has taken a completely opposite position on global warming, saying that “most people think man had some role in it.”

And that was that.  A difference of opinion, nothing more.

In political news coverage, media outlets strive to maintain objectivity by offering both candidates equal coverage, without appearing to favor one or the other.  That 50-50 coverage, presenting both sides of the story in a “we report, you decide” paradigm, accomplishes objectivity when covering differences of opinion.

However, when the media provide 50-50 coverage to a situation where one party is clearly lying or wrong, that attempt at objectivity becomes what is called the “bias of balance,” about which I have blogged extensively and wrote my honors thesis.

This problem pollutes the debate about every major issue our country faces today.  Gutless, “balanced” media coverage enables conservative demagogues to successfully manipulate public opinion against effective and desperately needed legislative reforms.  And the situation is not improving.

Everyday, critical policy considerations are buried further and further beneath piles of manufactured yet diligently transcribed political drama.  THAT is why I am among the majority of people who think this country is on the wrong track.

And no, Mainstream Media, that is NOT bad news for Democrats – it’s bad news for America.  And it is in no small part your fault.

Case in point a la Jon Stewart and the NYC mosque ridiculousness (as usual, worth watching in its entirety, but most directly relevant starting at 4:00).

Massive Russian Fires Could Go Nuclear August 10, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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UPDATE: Andy Revkin at DotEarth took up the call and has provided more information about the nuclear question.  According to experts that he has consulted with previously and contacted again for these fires, fires in the Red Forest do not pose a severe radiation threat.  While they are capable of releasing radioactive materials from the environment into the air, one of two things happen in such a scenario: those radionuclides either settle back where they were or they do get dispersed much more broadly but at drastically reduced concentrations.  Either way, there is not much increased danger from this event.

The only exception to this is for firefighters themselves, who can double their elevated radiation exposure by working on fires in that area because breathing in those airborne radionuclides then exposes them to radiation internally in addition to the higher ambient doses externally.

Revkin’s correspondence with these experts did not explore the notion of fire reaching the sites themselves.  That omission may attest to the low risk of such an event or be an oversight.  But regardless of the nuclear aspect, these fires are still worthy of coverage.

Original Post:

Russia is on fire.  Western news coverage has been relatively light for an event of this magnitude, in part because it is hard for us to appreciate the scope of this situation from here.  But let’s try.

Fires spread across roughly half of the world’s largest country.

The country is in dire straits. 35 regions are in a state of declared emergency on account of the flames themselves or crop failures from drought; both maladies have been brought on by record heat that the Russian Meteorological Center says they haven’t seen in a thousand years.

Scorching weather allowed peat fires to ignite across Russia.  Peat forms from decomposing plant material in marshy areas.  It is used in agriculture and can burn when dry.  Under those dry conditions, enormous peatlands can smolder in underground fires that can burn for literally centuries.  Just for the record, coal seams can do the same thing.

Although these fires are obviously the more immediate threat, peat has a high carbon content.  Massive peat fires are a significant concern for climate change.

Underground fires can cause surface damage, but they can also ignite surface fires as has happened in Russia.

Fire seems like a relatively mundane threat.  Yes, we’ve all seen footage of California homes and forests aflame, but it appears to be a straightforward hazard.  The Russian situation is especially serious for two major reasons.  The first is its scale.

At the height of this fire, nearly 2000 square miles were ablaze.  It’s centered around the most populous parts of the country.   Currently, the fires are more under control and have been reduced to about 40% of that maximum size.

Government resources are obviously overwhelmed, with firefighting efforts hindered by years of cutbacks and neglected infrastructure.  Even a Russian naval base has reportedly sustained serious damage.  That is unfortunate, but there are other government installations that we especially do not want afflicted by these fires…

Fire is threatening the Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing facility and a secretive nuclear research facility in Arazamas-16.  Yet even if those facilities are successfully protected or spared, this fire could well have nuclear consequences.

The fires are approaching the Red Forest, home to the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.  This is the region most heavily affected by fallout from the 1986 disaster.  Despite extensive cleanup efforts, the soil is heavily contaminated with radioactive molecules including cesium-137 and strontium-90.  If the fire rages through the forest or those facilities, it could spread these previously settled radionuclides to new areas.

The health effects of this fire could become more severe, but they have already proven lethal.  Thick smoke laced with carbon monoxide and suspended particulate matter is blanketing Moscow and much of the countryside.

So far, 52 people have died as a direct result of the fires, but the DAILY death toll in Moscow has reached 700 as a result of the air quality and extreme heat.  The city’s morgues are nearing capacity.  People are fleeing Moscow.

The toxic view in Moscow.

The situation has had such a profound impact on the Russia that President Dmitry Medvedev has abruptly embraced the need to address anthropogenic climate change.  This from a country that had until now stubbornly maintained its intent to increase its greenhouse gas emissions.

Does one brutal summer prove global warming? Not on its own, no.  But there is plenty of other evidence and this global heat wave, massive floods in Pakistan, and devastating mudslides in China are precisely with climate scientists have warned us could occur.

Russians view this as a wake-up call.  I hope we can answer it with them.

More photos here and here.

CCS: An Energy Wild Goose Chase, Not Silver Bullet July 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is the much-hyped “clean” in “clean coal.”  Contrary to industry advertising, as of yet, it doesn’t really exist – so neither does “clean coal.”  If carbon-pricing ever occurs (and at some point it will), CCS will be vital to the survival of the coal industry.

So on Wednesday, a bipartisan pair of coal state senators pushed for yet more funding for this technology.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) are seeking $20 billion to support large-scale CCS demonstration projects.

So how does it work?

Burning coal releases a lot of carbon dioxide.  Today, CO2 simply vented into the atmosphere with the rest of coal’s air pollutants. As a greenhouse gas, CO2 emissions are causing climate change, so CCS seeks to capture that carbon dioxide before it gets released and store it someplace other than our atmosphere.  In theory, if we can filter out the CO2 from coal combustion and store it safely, we could burn fossil fuels to our hearts’ content without exacerbating global warming.  CCS technology can potentially remove 80%-95% of CO2 emissions from power plants and other industrial sources.

Cost aside, the major technical issue with CCS is figuring out where to store all that gas.  There are two major options for storage:

  1. Geological storage
  2. Ocean storage

Geological Storage:

The most obvious place to store CO2 is within the Earth.  Our planet is rich with geological formations that naturally hold gases underground; it within these geologic traps that we currently drill for oil and natural gas.  Like helium in a balloon, light gases attempt to rise through the ground.  When impermeable rocks form solid, dome-shaped formations, gases become trapped there, having risen as high as they can.

The most attractive potential CCS sites are deep saline reservoirs, unmineable coal seams, and oil and gas reservoirs.

There are a number of geological formations that can theoretically store CO2 underground.

In regard to that third option, geo-sequestering CCS has been conducted on a small scale since the 1970s.  Subterranean gas injection is one of the techniques known as “Enhanced Oil Recovery,” often abbreviated EOR. Injecting gases into oil reservoirs can artificially increase the pressure within a given well, thus enabling the recovery of oil that would not have otherwise been obtainable.  It helps get a little more oil out of a depleting well. CCS can help us make the most of our existing domestic oil infrastructure instead of drilling in new, sensitive areas.  Whether such operations are suitable for long-term carbon storage is under investigation.

However, CCS took a big hit just two months ago, when researchers at Texas A&M determined that CCS will require 5-20 times more underground reservoir capacity than previous thought.

Ocean Storage:

In theory, injecting CO2 at great depths within the ocean could keep the carbon out of the atmosphere for a geologically significant amount of time.  At depths of over 1000 meters, CO2 will simply dissolve in the water.  At depths of over 3000 meters, CO2 forms a liquid denser than seawater and pools at that depth for a time before ultimately dissolving.  A number of other ocean storage theories exist.

All of them are terrible ideas. Even if we could guarantee that oceanic CO2 never returned to the atmosphere (we cannot), carbon dioxide causes plenty of problems in the ocean as well.  We don’t even understand all of the potential consequences of oceanic CCS, but we do understand that it would cause ocean acidification, about which I have already written an entire post.


Regardless of where the CO2 is stored, a second major technological hurdle is transportation.  After capture at each stationary source, CO2 would need to be transported to whatever storage sites were to be used.  This could be done most economically via pipeline.  However, this is no simple matter.

“That CCS and related legislation generally focuses on the capture and storage of CO2, and not on its transportation, reflects the current perception that transporting CO2 via pipelines does not present a significant barrier to implementing large-scale CCS.”  –Congressional Research Service 2007, p. 2.

…but it does.

The various technologies required to build a CO2 pipeline network are each individually considered mature.  However, integrating them and deploying them at such a large scale would a considerable challenge.

Widespread CCS use would require its own dedicated national CO2 pipeline network.  That network does not exist. Currently, there are approximately 3,600 miles of CO2 pipeline in operation within the US, mostly to support EOR operations.  In contrast, there are approximately 500,000 miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid (such as gasoline) pipelines across the country.

To utilize CCS, we would need CO2 pipelines running across the country from hundreds of major stationary emitters to reservoirs. That infrastructure would have to be built from scratch.

Politicians have not seemed to notice yet, but this contributes to yet another critical problem with CCS…

Very High Cost:

CCS is an expensive venture.  Massive amounts of federal funding have already been funneled into CCS research and development.

The stimulus bill included $3.4 billion for CCS programs related projects.  Department of Energy budgets for fiscal years 2008-2010 included a combined total of $1.26 billion in direct CCS or CCS-related funding.  Federal loan guarantees for CCS were first authorized in the Dick Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005.  The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 restated that authority indefinitely and provided an additional $8 billion in coal-related loan guarantees.  The Cheney energy bill also included $1.3 billion in tax credits for advanced coal projects (source).

That’s about $14 billion right there.  This before the $20 billion now proposed by Senators Rockefeller and Voinovich. Why so much money?

A University of California study found that laying the 16 inch diameter pipeline that CCS would require would cost $800,000/mile (in 2002 dollars) although costs for individual pipelines could vary by a factor of 5 depending on location.

Last year, a Harvard study put the future of CCS in serious doubt.  These researchers determined that the “realistic” cost of first-generation CCS will be about $150/ton of CO2.  That price tag would make this technology infeasible.  We emit a LOT of CO2 each year.  Some analysts believe that, if utilized, CO2 sequestration rates could rise to over 1 billion tons of carbon per year by mid-century.  Even if that cost/ton came down as the technology advanced, the annual price tag would be staggering.

For reference, last year, analysts suggested a price ceiling of $35/ton of CO2 for cap-and-trade credits because costs higher than that were deemed prohibitively high.  In 2007, the Bingaman-Specter cap-and-trade bill had a price ceiling at $12/ton of CO2 (although commentators corrected deemed this ridiculously low).  The point is that $150/ton is beyond uneconomical.

Coal’s low price is what makes it so attractive to utilities (it certainly doesn’t have any other redeeming qualities).  Coals’ days without CCS are numbered, but CCS’s high costs make coal an unrealistic fuel for the future.


Leakage out of the reservoir is a major concern.  Even stable rock formations shift in earthquakes.  In order for CCS to be an effective climate mitigator, sequestered carbon would have to remain underground for thousands of years.  Seismic activity presents a danger of undoing all that sequestration.

But even beyond climate concerns, if a carbon reservoir leaked near a populated area, that escaping carbon dioxide would pose a significant health risk.

Because CO2 is denser than air, when it leaks out of the ground it forms an invisible, undetectable cloud that pools near the ground and displaces the oxygen, suffocating any life nearby.  This has happened naturally and given us a glimpse of what could occur: in 1986, Lake Nyos in Cameroon released a large amount of CO2, silently killing nearly two thousand people and a large number of livestock.

1,700 people and 3,500 cattle within 16 miles of Lake Nyos were killed when the lake “outgassed” and CO2 displaced the oxygen near the ground.

CCS CO2 reservoirs could pose a substantial threat to nearby life. Pressurized carbon dioxide pipelines present would present a smaller, related risk.

Carbon Dioxide is Dangerous

Yes, carbon dioxide is necessary to sustain life on this planet.  That does not mean that more is better. For the “CO2 Is Green” crowd, I present this paragraph from the CRS report:

“CO2 occurs naturally in the atmosphere, and is produced by the human body during ordinary respiration, so it is commonly perceived by the general public to be a relatively harmless gas. However, at concentrations above 10% by volume, CO2 may cause adverse health effects and at concentrations above 25% poses a significant asphyxiation hazard. Because CO2 is colorless, odorless, and heavier than air, an uncontrolled release may accumulate and remain undetected near the ground in low-lying outdoor areas, and in confined spaces such as caverns, tunnels, and basements. Exposure to CO2 gas, as for other asphyxiates, may cause rapid “circulatory insufficiency,” coma, and death.” –Congressional Research Service 2007, p. 18.

This is what happened at Lake Nyos.

CO2: Pollutant or Commodity?

One additional minor but interesting potential complication for CCS is that CO2 could arguably be classified as both a pollutant and a commodity.  If climate-deniers figure this out, they will have a field day misconstruing this information, but CO2 could be classified as a pollutant by the EPA because of its excess greenhouse capabilities, but classified as a commodity by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) on account of its application for EOR.  Only in this circumstance could CO2 be considered a commodity.

Even if EOR CO2 were classified as a commodity, because it is unlikely that all the CO2 involved in widespread CCS could ever be used in EOR operations, all that excess CO2 not used in this way would probably constitute an industrial pollutant.  This is not just an academic issue; conflicting classifications would have significant impacts on the regulatory process for pipeline construction.


CCS demonstration plants are under way or planned in at least 10 countries including the U.S..  Our government is pouring money into this technology thanks to the Congressional sponsorship that coal industry campaign donations, lobbyists and jobs have bought.

However, the industry is lying to the public:clean, carbon-neutral coal”is decades away, if possible at all. The billions of dollars spent on this research could be better spent on real climate solutions; put $34 billion into solar and wind etc and we will have the clean, renewable energy infrastructure for our future.

CO2 is NOT green. July 14, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Media, Politics.
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I just stumbled across this news tidbit that warrants a brief post all to itself.

Apparently big industry polluters think a climate bill actually has a decent chance in the Senate.   A relatively new and truly despicable “advocacy group” calling itself “CO2 Is Green” has launched the latest salvo in the broader lobbying effort to sabotage responsible energy policy in this country.

I don’t know how these people sleep at night. I, for one, would feel disgusted with myself if I ran an organization designed solely to lie and propagandize.

Funded by oil and coal money, CO2 Is Green purchased a half-page ad in today’s Washington Post and is running TV ads in swing states.  These ads present unconscionably false claims such as “There is no scientific evidence that CO2 is a pollutant.”  This “organization” also has an “educational” operation called “Plants Need CO2.”  Please forgive the excessive quotes, I had no choice.

This is propaganda in the first degree. Climate-skeptics look down upon climate scientists who refuse to “debate” their industry-funded champions.  This is why such debates rarely occur: scientists work with facts.  Skeptics work with baseless propaganda.  How can you possibly debate someone who is not constrained by factual reality?

*I would like to thank my new friend Roger for making this point for me in the comments section of this post.*

***If anyone reading this does not understand how CO2, while directly necessary to support plant life and indirectly necessary to support human life, is a climate pollutant and that the resulting warming will NOT benefit life on this planet, please, PLEASE, comment so that I can respond or contact me so that I can explain.  My email address is jdf15@duke.edu.***

After checking out their deplorable website, which I refuse to link, I did a google search to learn more about CO2 Is Green (because their “About Us” page is just more propaganda and contains no information about them).  That’s how I found the source I linked in the second paragraph.

That source is a 2009 article from the Washington Post.  The title was “New Groups Revive the Debate Over Causes of Climate Change”.  I am seething.  The existence of these groups does absolutely NOTHING to challenge the scientific facts regarding climate change; everyone who reads this title is instantly misinformed about the issue at hand.

Journalism’s new, overzealous pursuit of balance instead of ACCURACY has had deplorable effects on our media. The existence of two opposing opinions does not automatically confer equivalency to those viewpoints. When such lopsided credibility exists, as is the case for climate scientists vs. industry-funded skeptics, to cover the story with artificial 50-50 balance is its own form of bias.

This was the subject of my honors thesis, which is summarized in my final column for the The Chronicle at Duke University.  I can expound upon it if asked.

Watered-Down “Energy-Only” Climate Bill Approaches July 14, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he will introduce energy legislation in two weeks.

Sen. Reid said he will push a bill that accomplishes four goals:

  1. Enhance oil rig safety requirements
  2. Create clean energy jobs
  3. Boost alternative energy/reduce oil consumption (read: increase efficiency)
  4. Reduce “pollution” from electric utilities

An aide later confirmed that the “pollution” to which he referred was in fact GHGs, but that he would not even mention GHGs or carbon dioxide explicitly is indicative of the political volatility surrounding this issue.

On the one hand, it is heartening to hear that the Senate will attempt to pass a climate/energy bill this year.  Just this week, four leading climate scientists explained in Politico that “The urgent need to act cannot be overstated.”

Even if a bill cannot pass, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) correctly opined that merely having an energy debate is advantageous for the Democratic energy agenda because it forces the “Party of No” to again block necessary and largely popular reform, with its job creation and increased energy security.

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel signaled last month that a utility-only bill would have the White House’s blessing, which is not surprising given their track record of centrist compromises.

However, many in the environmental community are less than thrilled that Sen. Reid has decided on a utilities-only approach.  After all, the House or Representatives passed an economy-wide cap last year.

But the Senate has a different political climate, and with the filibuster in place, senators representing just 10.2% of the nation’s population can block any bill they choose (go down to the “SPECIAL RANT.” Also I’d like to take this moment to profess my love for Gail Collins to the world). The prospects of even just a utilities-only bill passing are slim, so the comprehensive energy reform this country so desperately needs is simply not possible at this time.

Power plants burning fossil fuels unsurprisingly release large amounts of GHGs. A utility-only bill would limit the amount of carbon dioxide they can emit.

So, what would a utilities-only bill look like?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced a utilities-only energy over a year ago: S.1462.  It passed out of his committee in June 2009 with bipartisan support.  This bill, the America Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009, aka “ACELA”, would reduce energy-sector emissions by 17% in 2020 and by 42% by 2030.

Environmental groups hate this bill.  David Roberts at Grist has been covering this bill for over a year now.  His two-word summary: “ACELA sucks.” Why?  A number of reasons outlined here.  But I will explain the major ones that are the result of the utilities-only approach and apply to any bill of this type.

Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) have abandoned their earlier cap-and-trade bill (the American Power Act) in favor of their own utilities-only approach.  One thing their new bill has in common with Bingaman’s is the emissions targets.  Both bills seek to lower electric sector emissions by 17% in 2020 and 42% in 2030 (Kerry/Lieberman also set an additional target of 83% by 2050.)

As Joe Romm, a former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy and arguably the nation’s most authoritative commentator on energy policy put it:

“Meeting such a 17% target [for 2020] in the utility sector alone, as in the latest incarnation of the watered-down bill, would be utterly trivial.” -Joe Romm, Climate Progress.

This is because we are currently underusing our natural gas power plants.  American utilities have built an excess of relatively efficient natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants over the last 20 years.  Currently, the NGCC fleet operates at an average of 41% of its capacity.

In that absence of carbon-pricing, utilities choose to meet increased electricity demand by ramping up their dirtier, more inefficient coal plants because coal is currently cheaper than cleaner natural gas.  A recent MIT study found that ramping up production at existing natural gas plants instead of coal plants could cut U.S. power-sector CO2 emissions by 10% today, and without any additional capital investment.

In other words, utilities could meet over half of their emission reduction obligations for 2020 simply by pulling back the coal lever and pushing forward the natural gas lever and not changing a single thing.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t make this switch: it would reduce not only GHG emissions but also those of other coal air pollutants like sulfur and nitrogen oxides.  But a 17% utility-only decrease is barely even a step in the right direction and hardly constitutes energy reform.

More information on our underutilized natural gas capacity here.

Note that even the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House last year had the same 17% target.  It is also far too weak.  However, that was an economy-wide reduction.  Limiting that reduction the energy sector guarantees that this bill will be largely ineffective in the short term.

Grist’s David Roberts and CFR’s Michael Levi wrote good pieces explaining the pros and cons of a utility-only approach a few weeks ago.  A note for reading Mr. Levi’s piece: it defends a utility-sector cap-and-trade program.  Bingaman’s bill caps the energy sector without a trading program.  We do not yet know whether the upcoming Senate bill will contain cap-and-trade, but I personally doubt it.

The morale of the story is that a utilities-only would be a very small step in the right direction.  Like potential EPA regulations, if paired with strong followup bills that address manufacturers and transportation etc, this could potentially be part of the solution.

Electric utilities release about 1/3 of our GHG emissions, and even in an economy-wide cap-and-trade program, roughly half of the emission reductions are expected to come from utilities.  When we generate roughly half of our electricity with a fuel as dirty as coal, switching off of it offers major reductions.

This graph shows the relative emission reductions in different sectors that would be expected under an economy-wide cap-and-trade program. Energy is by far the biggest column.

However, a 17% target, which is highly likely, is too weak, and a utility-only bill is, on its own, not a climate solution.  For those people who support incrementalism to achieve reform in this political climate, such a bill is a tiny increment.  But it is a short shuffle down the path to a sustainable energy future.

Climate Change: A Snowball of Warmth July 9, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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This is a follow-up to the previous post, which explained feedback loops and their significance within the climate system in much more detail.  Please refer to that post for background information.

“Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change.” -The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment.

That irreversibility is the result of positive feedback loops.

There are a number of self-magnifying positive feedback loops in the climate system.  Like a snowball rolling down a snowy hill, these phenomena grow stronger as they continue.  All of them are triggered by a warming planet and in turn warm the planet even more.

The presence of all these warming feedback loops means that once the planet warms past a certain threshold, we won’t be able to reverse the effects and global warming will be unstoppable.  That is not to say that it will continue forever, but we will not be able to stop the full extent of the warming that will then occur.

As I wrote yesterday about the snowball analogy, a person farther down the hill could theoretically stop the rolling snowball while it was the size of a baseball or a basketball or probably even the size of one of those big yoga balls.  But you wouldn’t be able to stop the snowball once it reached the size of a car or a house.  Once the snowball gets that big, it’s going to roll all the way to bottom of the hill no matter what you do.

There is some point in that progression where the snowball becomes too big to be stopped.  A similar threshold exists for climate change; once the planet warms enough and there is enough CO2 in the atmosphere, we are committed to the full extent of climate change.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure where the threshold lies.  Currently, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is 392 parts per million (ppm). Some scientists say the threshold is at 450 ppm.  Other say 500 ppm.  A few even say 350 ppm, which we are already past.  Either way, there is a point-of-no-return and it is close.

In this post, I will lay out the specific positive feedback loops that could make climate change unstoppable.

Sea Ice

As you’ve probably heard, arctic sea ice levels are declining rapidly as the oceans warm.  This sea ice decline is itself a positive feedback loop.  “Albedo” is a measure of how much radiation an object reflects.  What radiation isn’t reflected is absorbed (causing that object to heat up).  An object’s albedo is represented in decimal values ranging from 0.0 (0% radiation reflected) to 1.0 (100% radiation reflected)

Ice has a very high albedo, around 0.9.  It is very reflective (hence snow blindness and sun burns on the ski slopes) so it absorbs very little heat.  When solar radiation strikes sea ice, most of it gets reflected back up into the sky.  In the past, sea ice has covered much of the arctic ocean, turning the region into a giant mirror as far as solar radiation is concerned.

With warming waters, however, more and more of the arctic has lost its sea ice, exposing the water beneath.  Water has a very low albedo, around 0.1.  Instead of reflecting that radiation, it absorbs 90% of it and, as a result, heats up.  As sea ice levels decrease, more of the arctic is absorbing heat instead of reflecting it.  This, obviously, warms the water further.

Warming water melts more ice, exposing more water, which absorbs more heat, which melts more ice…you get it.  This is a classic positive feedback loop.

Water Vapor

When you think of a greenhouse gas, you probably think of carbon dioxide.  Most people are surprised to discover that water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas.  In fact, it is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

As the climate warms, the atmosphere becomes more humid.  Warmer air can hold more water vapor.  As a result, as the planet warms, the air will be able to hold more of this greenhouse gas, which will cause more warming, which will allow the air to hold more water vapor…etc.  Positive feedback loop.

Methane Hydrates

You may recall from BP’s containment dome debacle that the procedure was thwarted by “methane hydrates.”  Methane hydrates are a frozen slurry of – you guessed it – methane (and water). Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

If the oceans warm to a certain point, these hydrates could melt and release their methane, which would rise through the water and enter the atmosphere.  There, they would increase the greenhouse effect, warming the oceans further, melting more methane hydrates, releasing more methane etc.  …there’s a pattern emerging here.

Methane hydrate deposits are found around the world and could amplify global warming.


Permafrost is soil that has been frozen for at least two years.  It contains a lot of dead organic matter that would be decomposed very quickly in warmer climates.  That decomposition releases methane, and global warming is melting that permafrost and making the arctic one of those warmer climates.

Like methane hydrates, as permafrost melts, it releases significant quantities of methane.  This, as you now know, soon enters the atmosphere and causes more warming, which melts more permafrost etc.

Western Siberia contains the world’s largest peat bog.  Its 385,000+ square miles (France and Germany combined) are estimated to contain 100 TRILLION lbs of methane.  It is already melting…


Desertification, Amazon loss, cloud cover, and terrestrial phenomena such as forest fires and soil respiration may also form positive feedback loops for global warming, although they are less well established.


Climate propagandists dismiss this simple science and those who explain it as “alarmist.”  While it may be alarming, raising awareness about these threats is not dishonest or unduly sensationalist.  People need to know why the long-term threat of climate change poses short-term urgency.

Rest assured, though, even without these simple and highly probable positive feedback loops, climate scientists explain that global warming will still be “substantial and critical.”  We cannot afford to put off addressing climate change any longer.

The Bad Kind of Positive Feedback: Climate Change July 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
Tags: , , , , ,

This post is about feedback loops and the impact they have on our climate system.  This follow-up post explains the specifics of the positive feedback loops described below.

If you roll a small snowball down a snow-covered hill, it gets bigger and bigger as it rolls.  This kind of self-magnification is aptly called the “snowball effect.”  Ironically, the snowball effect encapsulates the urgency with which we must respond to global warming.

The technical description of the snowball effect is a positive feedback loop. Positive feedback loops are processes that make themselves stronger as they continue.  I will discuss these in much more detail below, but to understand positive feedback loops it is useful to understand their opposite: negative feedback loops.

Examples of feedback loops. One reinforces the initial action. The other counters it.

Negative Feedback Loops

Colloquially, “negative feedback” discourages one from repeating a certain action.  Negative feedback loops operate in the same fashion, reversing the initial action that triggered the feedback loop.

A negative feedback loop has an output that opposes the changes of the input.  It reverses and minimizes change.  A thermostat is a basic example:

A rising temperature (change in one direction) triggers the air conditioner to turn on, cooling the air (opposing that change).  Another negative feedback loop controls the heater.  If the temperature gets too cold, the heater will turn on and raise the temperature again.  Thus the air in a house stays within a comfortable, stable range; an equilibrium.

Negative feedback loops essentially fight change (…like Republicans).

Negative feedback loops are common in nature.  Even just within our bodies, negative feedback loops regulate blood pressure, body temperature, blood sugar, many hormone levels and explain the gag reflex.

Positive Feedback Loops

In contrast, positive feedback loops magnify change.  Let’s look at our snowball example: proper, construction-grade snow adheres to itself.  Each time the snowball rolls, more snow grabs on to the ball’s exposed surface area, increasing its size.  As the snowball grows larger, it gains more surface area and is thus able to grab even more snow and get even bigger and have even more surface area to grab even more snow…you get the idea.  The process is self-magnifying and continues until the bottom of the hill.

Now, just because such feedback loops are “positive” does not mean that they are good; the most famous positive feedback loop is a nuclear reaction.  That being said, there are plenty of beneficial positive feedback loops, including many in nature.

Using our bodies as an example again, positive feedback loops are responsible for contractions in childbirth, blood clotting, lactation, and sneezing just to name a few.

A flawed but entertaining positive feedback loop.

Negative Feedback Loops Normally Regulate Climate

Earth’s climate is influenced by a number of different variables, including changes in solar radiation, changes in Earth’s orbit and axial tilt, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts.  However, carbon dioxide plays a critical role in one of the primary negative feedback loops that normally regulates climate for our planet.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps radiated heat from the sun and warms our planet.  That’s the greenhouse effect.  More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more warming.  That is an indisputable scientific fact.  Period.

When temperatures warm, the air can hold more water vapor so there is more rain.  Rain and atmospheric carbon dioxide are the two things that plants need most (other than sunlight, so they grow more.  More plant growth removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  Additionally, more CO2 dissolves in rainwater and gets stored in the oceans (note: too much of this is a bad thing and causes ocean acidification).  Over time, this eventually reduces atmospheric CO2 levels and their corresponding greenhouse effect, cooling the climate.

The same thing works in reverse.  If the planet starts cooling (because of other factors), the carbon cycle tries to warm it back up.  Cooler temperatures mean less rainfall.  Less rainfall means less dissolved CO2 stored in the oceans.  It also means less plant growth and drier weather.  Drier weather can lead to forest fires, which return the carbon stored in plants back to the atmosphere.  More carbon in the atmosphere means more greenhouse effect and the planet warms back up.

Without our interference, the carbon cycle essentially acts as Earth’s thermostat.  However, the carbon cycle is only so strong, and like an air conditioner on a scorching day, it can be overwhelmed.

Positive Feedback Loops Can Overwhelm Earth’s Natural Thermostat

First of all, it is undisputable that burning fossil fuels and cutting down the forests adds CO2 to the atmosphere.  Obviously, this increases the amount of heat trapped by the greenhouse effect and warms the planet directly.  That is pretty simple.  However, there are also a number of indirect positive feedback loops on our planet that can be triggered by rising temperatures and threaten to make climate change irreversible.

Using our snowball analogy, if you start a tiny snowball rolling down on a huge hill, a person farther down the hill could theoretically stop it while it was the size of a baseball or a basketball or probably even the size of one of those big yoga balls.  But you wouldn’t be able to stop the snowball once it reached the size of a car or a house.  Once the snowball gets that big, it’s going to roll all the way to bottom of the hill no matter what you do.

Don't end up like Susie. Tell your senator to stop climate change today.

For climate change, the bottom of the hill is that endgame scenario you’ve probably heard about, 2-300 years from now when the planet is much warmer and the sea level is, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, ~260 feet higher than today.

To use a non-snowball analogy, think of our climate as a rowboat on a lake.  If you tip the boat a little bit to either side, its negative feedback loops will still steady it back in its equilibrium in the middle.  However, if you rock it hard enough in one direction, the negative feedback loops are overwhelmed and the boat flips to a new equilibrium – upside down.  With you, conveniently enough for climate change, underwater.

The moral of the story is: because of a number of positive feedback loops that will keep getting stronger, if we don’t stop climate change before a certain threshold of atmospheric CO2, we won’t be able to stop it later when its effects truly become devastating.

So we need to act.  Now.

I had intended to use this post simply to explain the different climate change positive feedbacks, but I decided to make this accessible to more people by starting from the very basics.  This post describes the actual climate positive feedback loops.

Why the EPA Should Regulate Carbon July 7, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

…because the Senate won’t.

Despite what is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, the ongoing oil spill  and pubic opinion polls showing that Americans are finally ready to address our entwined energy and climate crises, legislation remains blocked by the usual suspects: Republicans, lobbyists and perpetual election year politics.

Most people think that Congress is the governmental entity that ought to address an issue as sweeping as climate change.  I agree.  So do most congressmen – loudly.

Unfortunately, many those congressmen who angrily rant about the importance of congressional authority are the very same people blocking congressional action.

The Obama Administration has made it clear that it does not want to have to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency.  Everybody would prefer that Congress pass a bill instead.  The House has.  The Senate, it seems, cannot.

Yet we must address a threat of this magnitude.  So if Congress won’t, the EPA should.  The Supreme Court agrees; if Congress doesn’t act, the EPA is legally obligated to regulate GHGs as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The EPA will not supersede legislative climate action; it will act in accordance with the Clean Air Act (written by Congress) unless Congress passes a newer law.

As the chances for such a law fade, it is worth examining what EPA carbon regulations might look like.

What Would EPA Regulations Looks Like?

There have been a number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through on the road to EPA carbon regulations.  Next January, when the EPA’s new gas mileage standards for cars comes into effect, greenhouse gases will finally be “subject to regulation” under the Clean Air Act.

First, new polluting power plants and industrial facilities would have to adopt the “best available control technologies” (BACT) for regulating carbon emissions.  The EPA gets to determine which technologies are “best.”  Carbon capture and sequestration technology could fall into this category if it was proven, but that’s a long way off.  In the meantime, the EPA would the mandate the use of existing technologies to reduce emissions and/or increase efficiency.

For example, the EPA could require any and all new coal-fired power plants to utilize integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology.  IGCC plants convert coal into a synthetic gas so that it can be burned more cleanly (in terms of non-GHG pollutants) and use excess heat from the primary combustion and generation to power a secondary steam turbine that generates extra electricity per unit of coal burned.  Or it could require new power plants use natural gas instead of coal.

Natural gas emits much less carbon than coal.  It’s not a long-term solution, but significant short-term gains could be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas.  The EPA could propose this change.

What is the “Tailoring Rule”?

Under the Clean Air Act, anyone trying to build or upgrade a facility that will emit a baseline level of a regulated pollutant (usually 100-250 tons per year) needs to get a permit from the EPA certifying that they are utilizing the “best available control technology” (BACT) to minimize their emissions.

For other Clean Air Act pollutants, like lead, 100 tons per year is quite a bit and well worth of regulation.  The problem here is that carbon emissions are on a much larger scale.  As the Clean Air Act is written, as many as 6 million buildings would need permits for their carbon emissions, including schools, churches, buildings that use heating oil…you get the idea.  Not the real targets of these regulations.

In May, the EPA released its “Tailoring Rule” to limit the focus of the permitting process to facilities that release >75,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year and already apply for other Clean Air Act pollutant permits.  This way, only the major polluters are subject to these regulations. The Tailoring Rule brings down the number of regulated buildings from 6 million to about ~550 of the biggest polluters.

For the record, when originally proposed, the cutoff was set at 25,000 tons per year, but after the comment period, the EPA realized that too many buildings would be unintentionally regulated (like schools and small businesses).

Additionally, any new power plants expected to emit more than 100,000 tons of GHGs per year would need to get a permit.  This would certainly cover all new coal plants, whose emissions are on the order of million of tons per year.

If the EPA does end up implementing these regulations, conservative groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will likely challenge the Tailoring Rule in court so that schools etc. would need be regulated as well.  Why?  Because they hate children.  …ok fine, because if the EPA enacts this policy, conservatives want it to become a regulatory nightmare.  Making the EPA permit the 6 million buildings that emit much smaller amounts of carbon each year would be impossibly cumbersome and cause considerable public backlash – so conservatives hope we would just scrap the whole thing and let them keep polluting for free.  Potential legal vulnerabilities such as this are a weakness of this less than elegant regulatory route.

Benefits of EPA Carbon Regulations

EPA regulations would hopefully be designed with less lobbyist influence than in Congress.

Most climate/energy bills – including the climate bill that pass in the House last year – end up “grandfathering” in some dirty coal plants.  That is, their emissions are exempted from regulation.  Such provisions completely undercut the energy bills that contain them by providing utilities with a perverse incentive to keep their oldest, most polluting plants open as long as possible.  They are written by lobbyists and exist solely as thank you’s from American legislators to their industry supporters.

Disgustingly, even the original Clean Air Act grandfathered in existing coal plants.

Everything Congress touches that is at all energy-related comes out blackened with soot and covered in tar balls.  The EPA is not impervious to industry demands, but it is certainly in a better position to stand up to industry than Congress (which isn’t saying much).

In fact, in many ways,

The EPA is Better Suited to Address this Issue than Congress

In 1997, economist Alan Blinder presented an interesting argument that some governmental challenges could and should be better solved by unelected experts.

Certain types of problems, Blinder correctly argued, are by nature better addressed by experts than by elected laymen in Congress.  These types of problems meet three criteria (discussed below):

  1. The issue deals with technical subjects requiring specialized knowledge.
  2. The issue is long-term, both in problems and solutions.
  3. The issue imposes short-term hardship to avert long-term hardship of much greater magnitude.

Consider the legislative challenges of issues that meet these criteria.  What follows are not critiques of our democracy but rather explanations of some unfortunate effects that institutional design can have upon policymaking.

Congress Lacks Specialized Knowledge:

Everybody knows that our elected representatives are not experts.  They are elected to represent us and cannot possibly be expected to have in-depth knowledge of all the issues our legislature must tackle.

To overcome this deficiency, they summon experts to testify before them.  But most testimony has little impact on legislation, and as anyone who has ever watched C-SPAN (or even the Daily Show) can tell you, sometimes “expert testimony” is nothing short of political theater.

For example, in 2005, the notorious Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK and Congress’s most vocal climate-denier), who at the time chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee, invited fiction author Michael Crichton to advise the Senate on climate science because he had recently written State of Fear, a fictional story about murderous eco-terrorists.  Inhofe also made that book “required reading” for members of the top Senate environmental committee.

Jim Inhofe is the poster child both for senators not being experts and political theater. He once disputed climate science by saying “God’s still up there. We’re going through these cycles.” This man CHAIRED the Senate’s environmental committee for 5 years and remains its ranking Repubican member.

When you hear about the final deal-making and compromises being made to pass a law, it has nothing to do with expert testimony or pure policy considerations – it’s often just about pork barrel politics and a particular legislator’s demands.

It is easy to see why under certain circumstances, our country would be better served if experts in the field at hand were asked to craft sensible and efficient policies to address technical problems.

Congress Cannot Address Long-Term Problems:

It is never more than two years from an election year in Washington.  If congresspersons want to be reelected, they need to deliver short-term results to their constituents.

It is no surprise, then, that long-term problems are not legislative priorities; they appeal to our legislators’ responsibility and duty, but those are not the forces that drive Washington.

Even if addressing a long term problem did not cost anything today, it would present an opportunity cost because a House representative only has 2 years to deliver demonstrably for his constituents.

For long term solutions that have short term costs, the future prospects grow bleaker.  Add a degree of uncertainty and magnify it with disinformation and demagoguery, and it is obvious why climate bills are hard to pass.

Congress Cannot Impose Short-Term Costs for Long-Term Benefits:

Legislators are held accountable for the present, not the future.  Until the end of their careers, the desire for reelection prioritizes short-term considerations.  Think about a Representative in the House.  If a bill in the House could save his constituents money in 10 years but will cost them money this year, he would have to be reelected 5 times before his constituents would feel the actual benefits of that bill, but he would surely be held responsible for the cost.

If that representative’s constituents are totally on board with that bill, they may give him credit for his work in the short term.  But if it’s a contentious law and there is disinformation circulating, that vote could well cost him his job.

If the problem that bill solves is only a small one today, even if it’s going to get much bigger in the future, his constituents may resent him for imposing a cost to solve a problem that was not unbearable yet.  This is why Congress is a reactive, not proactive, body.

Climate change is a long-term threat with long-term solutions.  Unfortunately, we only have a short-term window to address it and it will impose short term costs.

It is the perfect storm of an issue that Congress really cannot handle.  It is exactly the type of issue that Alan Blinder was talking about.  That is why the responsibility of carbon regulation may well fall to the EPA.

Downsides to EPA Action

1. Limited Scope: EPA regulations, at least early on, would do very little to clean up our existing power plants.  Recall from the Tailoring Rule that these regulations apply only to new or upgrading plants (unless they release other Clean Air Act pollutants too).  Obviously, we would need to reduce our current emissions to meaningfully reduce our climate pollution.

2. Cost: Congressional action could achieve emission reductions more cheaply than the EPA regulations could.  If EPA establishes carbon regulations under the Clean Air Act, they will be traditional “command and control” regulations.  The EPA will dictate what emissions-reducing technologies are best, and mandate their use.

Instead of that approach, Congress could use more modern market-based initiatives like cap-and-trade to put a price on carbon.  This would spur innovation and let us achieve our emission reductions for less.  The EPA would mandate the use a current technology, with no incentive to develop better ones.

The cost factor and other differences between market-based initiatives vs. command and control regulations are outlined in this recent post.

3. It’s Not Enough: EPA carbon regulations would provide emissions reductions where we need them most – the energy sector.  But they couldn’t put a price on carbon, which is a vital step to achieving the long-term reductions necessary to avert the worst effects of climate change.

“The only way to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 is to put a price on carbon, and the only folks who can do that are in Congress.” –David Bookbinder, Sierra Club.

4. Threat of Being Overturned: Legal challenges could slow the EPA process but probably not derail it altogether.  The real threat is that Congress could overturn anything the EPA does, as Lisa Murkowski has already attempted to do preemptively.


By virtue of not having gone through Congress, EPA climate regulations would likely emerge looking more like a sound policy solution than anything Congress has ever produced.  However, these regulations would not be enough. Combined with a good energy bill, they could be part of a real solution, but we would still need some congressional action to truly address this threat.

A comprehensive climate/energy bill would be preferable to EPA regulations.  But if Senate conservatives block another climate bill, the EPA will take action.  It will at least be a long overdue step in the right direction.