RFF releases Resources magazine three times a year—but for even more down-to-the-minute insights on current events about the environment, energy, and natural resources, the Common Resources blog has you covered. Some of our favorite recent blog posts are excerpted below. Read them in full at resources.org, and stay tuned for further coverage of landmark environmental laws and regulations, the potential of alternative fuels, the future of decarbonization, and more.
“Equity and Economics in Transportation Policy”
by Joshua Linn
Prompting lockdown orders and deterring our freedom of motion, COVID-19 significantly altered when, where, and how we travel. Now, energy demand is picking up, vaccines are becoming more available, and plans are developing for the Biden administration to reshape the transportation sector in a clean energy future. As a result, further shifts in travel patterns are expected.
In a recent blog series, RFF Senior Fellow Joshua Linn considers the future of US transportation, reflecting on whether transit systems can rebound from the pandemic, how policies can equitably boost electric vehicle use, and more.
Electric vehicles (EVs) and equity
“Linking the [EV] subsidy to lower incomes would be consistent with President Joe Biden’s goal of factoring equity into climate policy, and since lower-income households are less likely than other households to buy plug-in vehicles, offering them larger subsidies could help boost the part of the market that’s struggling the most.”
Who benefits from EV subsidies?
“In the long term, subsidies can hasten the transition to EVs and substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the short term is a different story. As long as the [Zero Emission Vehicle] program is driving market shares in many states, tax credits aren’t helping households directly—nor are they helping all households equitably—across much of the country.”
“The trends explored here contradict the notion that demand for public transportation is experiencing a long-term decline. Instead, the robust long-term demand that we observe for buses and trains strengthens the case for helping these public transportation systems survive the current crisis and return to normal service levels over the next year.”
Three approaches to investing in EV infrastructure
“A lot of uncertainty exists about how future consumers will use charging stations, and investments are irreversible: once a station has been built, the costs can’t be recovered by closing the station. Without telling us exactly how to proceed, economic theory makes clear that it’s better to proceed slowly and gather more information to avoid wasting resources.”
“Science-Based Estimates for the Social Cost of Carbon Will Underpin Sound Climate Policy”
by Richard G. Newell and Maureen L. Cropper
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that outlines plans for updating the federal government’s estimate of the social cost of carbon (SCC). The order reconvened an interagency working group that is tasked with periodically updating the measure—a group that former President Donald Trump had disbanded—and tasked the group with arriving at an updated SCC by January 2022.
In a blog post published shortly after the executive order was released, RFF President and CEO Richard G. Newell and Senior Fellow Maureen L. Cropper review key findings from a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report they co-chaired and elaborate on how the government can orient the process around established best practices.
“The [Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis] lays out the necessary actions to reestablish economic, scientific, and regulatory best practices and ensure that the social cost of carbon is grounded in transparency and applies the best possible science.”
Under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can determine the Best System of Emissions Reductions for an existing pollution source; subsequently, states must set performance standards from individual sources or groups of sources that comply. But administrations have interpreted their powers under the Clean Air Act differently, and the courts could look unfavorably upon far-reaching environmental regulations that draw authority from Section 111(d).
In a recent blog post, RFF Senior Research Analyst Maya Domeshek expands on an idea first introduced in a recent issue brief she coauthored with Senior Fellow Dallas Burtraw and proposes that the Biden EPA use its power to implement a “cofiring standard” that encourages coal plants to burn a higher percentage of natural gas, which has roughly half the carbon intensity of coal.
Gas has roughly half the carbon intensity of coal, so if a plant’s energy input went from 0 to 20 percent gas, its emissions rate would decrease by roughly 10 percent.
“Coal plants all over the country already burn natural gas, often as part of warming up the turbines of the generator, often for sustained periods of generation, and sometimes at the same time as coal. Gas has roughly half the carbon intensity of coal, so if a plant’s energy input went from 0 to 20 percent gas, its emissions rate would decrease by roughly 10 percent. All it would take to adapt to such a cofiring standard would be for coal plants to make small investments that increase the capacity of their gas pipeline connections.”
“Empowering American Landowners with Carbon Credits”
by Ann Bartuska
For years, private carbon markets have allowed farmers, ranchers, and foresters to benefit financially from employing climate-friendly practices, such as cover cropping and no-till farming. But the quality of these markets varies, and many landowners have struggled to find ways to participate. Enter the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2021, which would authorize the US Department of Agriculture to establish a program to certify that private carbon markets meet certain standards and would create a one-stop shop of information for landowners about ways they can profit from reducing emissions.
RFF Consultant Ann Bartuska writes about the potential for the Growing Climate Solutions Act to reduce agricultural emissions in a blog post she published when the legislation passed the Senate.
“Farm owners manage their lands with the assumption of multigenerational ownership, which motivates them to adopt sustainable practices. One solution that can facilitate sustainable practices is to introduce voluntary programs for buying and selling carbon credits.”
“What Happened in Texas? Understanding the Blackouts and Drawing Lessons for the Power Grid”
by Karen Palmer and Kathryne Cleary
An unusually intense winter storm hit Texas this February, prompting outages in millions of households, sending energy bills skyrocketing, and leading to dozens of deaths. The unique grid system in Texas likely exacerbated the crisis, but state and federal policymakers continue to grapple with what reforms are necessary to avert similar disasters in the future.
After the storm, RFF’s Kathryne Cleary and Karen Palmer provided insights in a Q&A on the blog, reflecting on the state’s isolation from interstate electrical grids, possible strategies for integrating renewables, and necessary preparations as climate change intensifies.
“For Texas, the prospect of greater interconnection with the rest of the US grid does raise the prospect of federal regulation—that’s what causes hesitancy in the state. But Texas already exports other forms of energy. With greater connection to the US grid, the state could potentially export electricity.”
“Texas has been here before. Outages already have been associated with cold weather, both in 1989 and 2011. Both of those events resulted in some studies that recommended weatherization—and those recommendations were not adopted. Perhaps part of the reason for inaction has been due to the infrequency of these kinds of extreme weather events. What’s different now is that we recognize that the climate is changing.”
The unique grid system in Texas likely exacerbated the crisis, but state and federal policymakers continue to grapple with what reforms are necessary to avert similar disasters in the future.
“The first step toward a solution is for grid operators to prioritize resilience and long-term planning for the future. Doing so requires understanding the potential sources of disruption and their associated risks, and enacting solutions that reduce those risks cost-effectively.”
“The Potential of Hydrogen Fuel in Decarbonization Efforts”
by Jay Bartlett and Alan Krupnick
Policymakers, researchers, and industry leaders have long been curious about hydrogen, which could potentially serve as a zero-emissions fuel. Lately, momentum has picked up. A bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate this August includes $8 billion for boosting clean hydrogen and establishes four “regional clean hydrogen hubs” across the United States.
As costs decline and technologies develop, RFF’s Jay Bartlett and Alan Krupnick explore the potential for hydrogen in a recent series of blog posts. They focus in particular on green hydrogen, produced through water electrolysis using power from nuclear or renewable sources, and blue hydrogen, produced from natural gas and coal while capturing the carbon dioxide emissions—and they reflect on the contexts in which decarbonized hydrogen could be most effective and cost-efficient.
Reducing emissions in oil refining and ammonia production
“About 80 percent of dedicated hydrogen production is used as a feedstock in either oil refining or ammonia production. Reducing feedstock emissions in these two applications would considerably shrink the emissions footprint of hydrogen.”
Evaluating zero-carbon “green” hydrogen against renewable and nuclear power
“The motivations for producing green hydrogen relate to three main advantages it can provide cheap long-term storage, be used in combustion heating, and serve as a zero-carbon feedstock for industrial processes.”
The right policies can incentivize cleaner “blue” hydrogen
“We cannot predict which form of decarbonized hydrogen—whether green hydrogen, low-emissions blue hydrogen, or a different production method—would be the most efficient means of displacing gray hydrogen. Establishing incentives that require life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but do not constrain technology options, thus is the most effective policy pathway.”