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Hurricanes Increase Attention to Climate Change, Shed Light on Infrastructure Concerns

Hurricane Irma is shaping up to be a potentially catastrophic storm that remains on course to hit Florida by Sunday. Coming immediately after Hurricane Harvey, Irma is increasing attention to the relationship of severe weather events to climate change. Throughout the past few decades, hurricanes in particular have drawn attention to the need to fight climate change, with scientists recognizing that although climate change is not the cause of hurricanes, “a warmer planet will produce bigger and more destructive hurricanes.” What is unclear, however, is when American politicians will conclude that the severity and frequency of big storms requires more action to reduce global warming pollution.

Whatever the political reaction after Harvey and Irma, the storms are making clear their implications for energy infrastructure. The hazard with hurricanes are the associated winds, storm surge and, most of all, rain. Already, energy companies in the state are bracing for the hazards that Hurricane Irma, which registered at a category 5 on Wednesday, could bring.

When Houston providers were hit by Hurricane Harvey last month, they experienced limited power outages thanks to investments—smart meters and a fault location, isolation and service restoration system—made after Hurricane Ike in 2008. Still, oil refineries, chemical plants and shale drilling sites have reported Harvey-triggered flaring, leaks and chemical discharges—releasing more than 1 million pounds of air pollutants in the week after the storm.

Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, noted that the Houston area has a “deep concentration of fuel production in this one area that’s so intensely vulnerable.”

In an op-ed in The Conversation experts Andrew Dessler, Daniel Cohan and Katharine Hayhoe write that “today, wind and solar power prices are now competitive with fossil fuels across Texas. Across the country, these industries already employ far more people than coal mining. Electric cars may soon be as affordable as gasoline ones and be charged in ways that help balance the fluctuations in wind and solar power.” 

And Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich) and Valerie Brader write in The Hill that “as Hurricane Harvey has taught us, making sure our energy resources are safe, secure and plentiful should not be a partisan issue. It’s an issue we can’t afford to wait on.”

“It makes you realize, these megastorms, if you haven’t been hit by one, your worst-case scenario is nowhere near a true worst-case scenario,” said Daniel J. Kelly, the executive director of the New Jersey Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, as he recalled his state’s struggle to respond to Hurricane Sandy.

Trump Announces Picks for NASA, Other Climate-Related Posts

On Tuesday, the Trump administration sent 46 nominations to the Senate for confirmation, among them Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma to head up the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Bridenstine doesn’t have a background in science—he studied economics, business and psychology at Rice University. Before he became a Republican congressman in 2012 he worked as executive director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum & Planetarium and served as a Navy combat pilot.

Last year, he sponsored a bill called the American Space Renaissance Act, which proposed broad, ambitious goals for the nation’s space program, including directing NASA to devise a 20-year plan. Although he wants Americans to return to the moon and is an advocate for commercial space flight, NPR reported that Bridenstein expressed skepticism that humans are causing climate change.

Science magazine reported that Democrats in the Senate may question Bridenstine about comments he made in 2013, during his first term in the House, while arguing for additional support for weather research. “Mr. Speaker, global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago,” he said. “Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.”

Although at the time Bridenstine claimed that any changes in global temperature were linked to natural cycles and not increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from industrial activity, he has since acknowledged that those emissions do play a role in climate change.

But in a 2016 interview with Aerospace America, he suggested that any efforts to lessen the nation’s carbon footprint would be economically detrimental.

“The United States does not have a big enough carbon footprint to make a difference when you’ve got all these other polluters out there,” he said. “So why do we fundamentally want to damage our economy even more when nobody else is willing to do the same thing?”

Six other nominees would, if confirmed, also have a say about climate and energy policy.

  • Timothy Gallaudet, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, is the nominee for Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. He has experience in assessing the national security impacts of climate change.
  • Matthew Z. Leopold, former General Counsel of the Florida Department of Environment Protection and a former attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division, is the nominee for Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, General Counsel.
  • William Northey, currently serving his third term as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, is the nominee for Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm Production and Conservation.
  • David Ross, currently serving as the director of the Environmental Protection Unit for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, is the nominee for an Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water.
  • Bruce J. Walker, founder of Modern Energy Insights, Inc., is the nominee for an Assistant Secretary of Energy, Electricity, Delivery and Energy Reliability.
  • Steven E. Winberg, a veteran of Consol Energy and the Batelle Memorial Institute, is the nominee for an Assistant Secretary of Energy, Fossil Energy.

Nuclear Construction Continuing in Georgia as Southeast Utilities Roll Back Plans

Utilities in Georgia are pressing ahead with plans to build two huge nuclear reactors in the next five years—the only nuclear units still under construction nationwide after South Carolina utilities SCANA’s South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper opted to end construction of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station’s two reactors. The proposal calls for completion of the Georgia reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle generating station near Augusta, which is already home to two existing nuclear units built in the 1980s.

“Completing the Vogtle 3 and 4 expansion will enable us to continue delivering clean, safe, affordable and reliable energy to millions of Georgians, both today and in the future,” said Paul Bowers, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power. “The two new units at Plant Vogtle will be in service for 60 to 80 years and will add another low-cost, carbon-free energy source to our already diverse fuel mix.”

Meanwhile, Duke Energy Florida, Duke Energy Carolinas, and Dominion Virginia Power separately announced plans to rollback efforts to develop additional new reactors— moves that made the future of the United States nuclear industry even more unclear.  Right now, as much as 90 percent of nuclear power could disappear over the next 30 years if existing units retire at 60 years of operation—the current maximum length of operating licenses. A Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions study explores how the potential loss of existing nuclear plants in the Southeast interacts with the regions other electricity sector challenges—among them, increasing natural gas dependence, demand uncertainty, and emerging technology—and it proposes steps states can take to address these challenges.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.