Tag Archives: coal

We could be in a little less trouble than we thought.

Here’s how humanity could all but ensure its own demise: Dig up all the coal we have left and burn it, warming the planet 4 to 6 degrees C.

But that worst-case scenario doesn’t match up with what’s really happening in the world, Justin Ritchie, lead author of a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, told Grist.

That’s because money spent on climate change measures goes further than it did 30 years ago. Plus, baseline trends show greenhouse gas emissions are on the decline. Most studies underestimate the effect these factors have on global decarbonization.

The study indicates that the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement are more achievable than previously projected — but that’s not to say humanity isn’t in deep trouble.

It’s not “4 to 6 degrees bad,” Ritchie says. “It’s 3 degrees bad. You can’t say we don’t have to worry about implementing policies, we do. But it’s not going to reach the truly catastrophic scenarios.”

Another recent study published in the same journal shows that if all the coal plants currently planned actually get built, humanity could blow past the Paris goal of limiting warming to 2 degree C above pre-industrial levels.

Ritchie said his research doesn’t counteract that finding. “There’s a whole range of scenarios that can occur,” he says. “What our paper is trying to do is look at that whole range and how can we design policies that are more robust.”

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We could be in a little less trouble than we thought.

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Fossil fuel developments on U.S. public lands emit more greenhouse gases than most countries.

New research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association could help pinpoint snow levels in mountain ranges across the Western United States eight months in advance. That’s more certainty of the future than we’re getting from most government agencies these days, so we’ll take it!

“Snowpack” refers to layers of mountain snow that build up during the winter, harden into large masses of frozen water, and then melt in the spring. That melted snow trickles down to feed rivers and streams, bolster municipal water supplies, and supply farmers with a majority of the water they need to grow crops. Eighty percent of snowmelt runoff is used for agriculture.

A lack of snowpack, furthermore, is a big cause of wildfires and drought. Declining snowpack levels in Western mountain ranges in recent years contributed to 2017’s unprecedented drought and wildfire season.

Now, scientists at NOAA think they can help farmers and water managers in the West by predicting where water resources are most likely to accumulate and how much snowmelt can be expected.

This summer, researchers will already be working on snowpack predictions for March 2019 across the western U.S. — with the exception of the southern Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, where random storms make predictions difficult.

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Fossil fuel developments on U.S. public lands emit more greenhouse gases than most countries.

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Coal’s death spiral, in 3 charts

The latest reports suggest that coal has the equivalent of black-lung disease: the condition is chronic, and the long-term prognosis is dire.

Power companies plan to shutter more than 10 big coal plants in 2018, extinguishing a major portion of coal burning in the United States (see the map below). According to projections released by the Energy Information Administration this week, coal-fired plants will produce less than 30 percent of the electricity Americans use this year. Back in 2000, coal provided more than half of our electricity. Cheap natural gas has knocked coal out of competition.

2018 will be a bad year to be a gray dot.

EIA

This year is expected be a big one for coal-plant retirements but, as you can see below, so was 2015, and 2012, and, well, much of the past decade.

Pretty much all the plants shutting down are fossil-fuel plants.EIA

“Coal in the U.S. might not be dead, but it is in a death spiral,” said Alex Gilbert, of the energy research firm SparkLibrary. “Coal’s demise is inevitable, but it can still emit significant greenhouse gas and other emissions on its way out. The main policy question now is whether the death spiral should be a decade long or decades long.”

What pushed coal power into the death spiral? In a word, fracking. A crackdown on toxic pollution and the rise of wind and solar power, too. If you look at this map of plants scheduled to open this year, it’s all renewables and gas.

Look at all those renewables… and gas plants.EIA

Gilbert said coal companies also played a supporting role in the dirty fuel’s demise. “Coal’s decline is mainly due to market competition with natural gas with regulations playing a secondary role,” he said. “Fundamentally, however, coal is dying because the industry decided to fight changing times. Instead of innovating into a 21st-century compatible energy source, they played politics.”

So, what does all this mean for greenhouse-gas emissions? Well, even if we stop burning coal, it wouldn’t be enough to solve our emissions problems. And as we squeeze carbon out of our electrical system, carbon emissions from cars, industry, and heating are all going up. That’s consistent with a long term trend.

“Between 2005 and 2016, almost 80 percent of the reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. came from the electric power sector,” wrote Trevor Houser and Peter Marsters of the Rhodium Group, a company which analyzes energy trends. To get greenhouse-gas emissions down, other sectors have to play a larger role.

Rhodium Group

This year, people are expected to drive more, and a growing economy will cause industry to ramp up. All told, the United States is likely to pump out more greenhouse gases this year, according to the new data from the EIA.

“After declining by 1.0 percent in 2017, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are forecast to increase by 1.7 percent in 2018,” the EIA wrote.

It looks like our biggest problem is no longer coal. It’s cars.

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Coal’s death spiral, in 3 charts

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Singing protesters interrupt a White House presentation at COP23.

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Singing protesters interrupt a White House presentation at COP23.

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The Clean Power Plan’s health benefits are better than ever, Trump’s EPA discovers.

Poor dumb turtles and fish, always chomping on the ubiquitous plastic in the water by accident — or so the story went, until a handful of recent studies suggested sea creatures may actually be choosing to eat plastic.

In one of these experiments, researchers took single grains of sand and particles of microplastic — both around the same size and shape — and dropped them onto coral polyps. The tiny creatures responded to the plastic the same way they would to a tasty piece of food, stuffing the bits of trash into their mouths like so many Snickers Minis.

“Plastics may be inherently tasty,” Austin Allen, a study coauthor and marine science doctoral student at Duke University, told the Washington Post.

Coral polyps rely on chemical sensors — taste buds, essentially — to determine whether something is edible or not. And they were repeatedly chosing to swallow plastic during the study. Only once in 10 trials did a polyp make the same mistake with sand. In fact, the cleaner and fresher and more plastic-y the plastic was, the more readily the coral gulped it down.

While the long-term effects of the plastic-saturation of the planet are still unknown, this research suggests that accidentally tasty microplastics could pose an extra hazard to already beleaguered corals around the world.

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The Clean Power Plan’s health benefits are better than ever, Trump’s EPA discovers.

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More bad news for the coal industry with layoffs in Mississippi.

According to a new study from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, the current presidential administration has collected fewer civil penalties and filed fewer environmental enforcement suits against polluting companies than the Obama, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations did at the same point in office.

The analysis assesses agreements made in the Environmental Protection Agency’s civil enforcement cases. For abuses under laws like the Clean Air Act, the Trump administration has collected just $12 million in civil penalties, a drop of 60 percent from the average of the other administrations. Trump’s EPA has lodged 26 environmental lawsuits compared to 31, 34, and 45 by Bush, Obama, and Clinton, respectively.

The marked decrease in enforcement likely has to do with the EPA’s deregulatory agenda. Since confirmed, administrator Scott Pruitt has systematically tried to knock out key environmental regulations, especially those created during Obama’s tenure.

The Project notes that its assessment is only of a six-month period, so future enforcement could catch Trump up to his predecessors. Or he’ll continue to look the other way.

“I’ve seen the pendulum swing,” said Bruce Buckheit, who worked in EPA enforcement under Clinton and then Bush, “but never as far as what appears to be going on today.”

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More bad news for the coal industry with layoffs in Mississippi.

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West Virginia’s governor wants a new subsidy for coal.

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West Virginia’s governor wants a new subsidy for coal.

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The Navajo Nation is transitioning from coal to solar.

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The Navajo Nation is transitioning from coal to solar.

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Good news about CO2: Emissions from the energy sector stayed flat for the third year in a row.

According to the cover article in today’s issue of the journal Nature, the iconic reef off the coast of Australia suffered unprecedented coral die-off after last year’s record-breaking bleaching event. Now, as the Southern Hemisphere hits late summer temperatures, central and southern sections of the reef — areas which avoided the worst of last year’s bleaching — are in trouble.

“We didn’t expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years,” coral researcher Terry Hughes told the New York Times. Hughes led the team that conducted aerial surveys to document the bleaching last year, as well as subsequent surveys to assess just how much of that bleaching turned into dying.

Bleached corals don’t always turn into dead corals — some are able to recover when temperatures drop. Er, if temperatures drop. If water temperatures stay high and corals stay bleached, they will eventually starve to death. Without coral building reefs, whole ecosystems may disappear, along with the food, tourism, and jobs they support.

Hughes and his coauthors found that even corals in pristine, protected water were likely to be suffering from heat stress, meaning the only thing left to do to protect corals is, you know, address climate change.

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Good news about CO2: Emissions from the energy sector stayed flat for the third year in a row.

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Innovation, not scarcity, could bring us peak oil as soon as 2020.

The acting secretary of the Army has reportedly ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a critical easement that would allow the pipeline to be built underneath Lake Oahe, the primary source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, a proponent of the pipeline, announced the news Tuesday night.

The easement, which could come within days, would clear the way for construction of the last major segment of the pipeline. A week ago, President Trump called for the Army Corps to move quickly toward approval of the easement.

This is the same easement the Obama administration declined to issue in December. At that time, the Army Corps ordered an environmental impact statement (EIS) to be conducted for the project, a process that could take years, granting the water protectors a small but important victory. It’s not clear whether the Army Corps now has the authority to simply stop the EIS process.

“If and when the easement is granted, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe will vigorously pursue legal action,” the tribe said in a statement. “To abandon the EIS would amount to a wholly unexplained and arbitrary change based on the President’s personal views and, potentially, personal investments.”

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Innovation, not scarcity, could bring us peak oil as soon as 2020.

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