Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
What suite of policies are available to the Biden administration for reducing emissions from oil and gas production—on federal lands and more broadly?
As the US Department of the Interior continues its comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas leasing program, the Biden administration faces tough decisions about previously approved oil and gas projects. Pledging to review leases on a case-by-case basis, the Interior Department has issued dozens of leases that were sold during the Trump administration—and could issue over 200 more, despite the current temporary halt on new leases. Although such leases may not contribute to the administration’s broader climate goals, they reflect legal realities: little precedent exists for the Interior Department to withhold already sold leases. Similarly, to implement environmental protections within the confines of federal law, the administration has temporarily suspended leases issued by the Trump administration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and pledged to conduct a new environmental review—while also defending a massive oil project on federal land west of the refuge. More insights about the federal government’s plans for oil and gas leases could come this summer, when the administration plans to release its review of the leasing program and recommend reforms.
An article from the new issue of Resources magazine—themed on a comprehensive view of the tools that policymakers can use to help decarbonize the major sectors of the US economy—reviews strategies for reducing emissions from oil and gas production. RFF Fellow Brian Prest notes that the extraction and use of fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) on federal lands is equivalent to around one quarter of annual US emissions and highlights three reforms which could limit future emissions: a ban on new fossil fuel leases, imposing “carbon adders” on federal lands, and adjusting the share of fossil fuel revenues that the federal government receives. As President Biden considers a variety of options for oil and gas leases, Prest notes that the Obama administration similarly paused new coal leases and considered carbon adders. Prest also highlights other tools that could reduce emissions outside of federal lands, such as eliminating tax provisions that benefit the fossil fuel industry and creating certification programs that incentivize producers to curb methane emissions.
Related research and commentary:
How can policymakers make it easier for airlines to reduce the environmental impacts of air travel?
The coronavirus pandemic sharply reduced air travel, but emissions from airlines could soar again unless new reforms are put in place. Climate-conscious policymakers are hoping to develop those reforms: a trio of House Democrats unveiled a bill last month that would create a new tax credit to incentivize production of sustainable aviation fuels. Under the current draft, energy producers would receive at least $1.50 per gallon of fuel that reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent compared to conventional jet fuel; furthermore, producers would earn more credit the cleaner the fuel is. The Biden administration likewise has backed efforts to encourage greener practices among airlines, with the Treasury Department recommending updates to the tax code that incentivize sustainable aviation fuels in a proposal released earlier this year. While new incentives could get cleaner fuels off the ground, sustainable aviation fuels to date remain prohibitively expensive for airlines to deploy at scale and currently account for less than 1 percent of all jet fuels used globally.
On a new podcast episode based on a Policy Leadership Series event last month, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby talks with RFF President and CEO Richard G. Newell about the role that airlines can play in decarbonization efforts. Kirby contends that sustainable aviation fuels can reduce emissions from air travel but that a combination of more start-up capital and government support is necessary to develop cheaper, more effective fuels. While skeptical of some carbon offset schemes, Kirby sees potential for a variety of emissions reduction strategies, from sustainable fuels to direct air capture and more. “People 20 years ago said wind and solar could never compete with carbon for powering the grid, and today, it’s cheaper to produce a megawatt with renewable energy than it is with carbon in many places in the country,” Kirby says. “The same can happen with sustainable fuels.” For more, listen to the podcast episode and watch the full video from the event.
Related research and commentary:
How can policymakers in California balance their goals of both boosting clean energy and protecting low-income households from undue expenses?
The California State Assembly could vote later this month on a measure that proposes something unexpected for the climate-conscious state: reducing its solar panel incentives. California currently has a rebate system in which homeowners who install solar panels are compensated for the excess energy they produce by their utility company, which buys back the energy. However, this system places a heightened financial burden on customers without rooftop solar, who must pay higher monthly fees to offset the rebates. Critics contend that the rebate program has outlived its usefulness: When California first introduced the rebate, only 10,000 homes had solar units. Today, over a million households have installed solar panels, which may preclude the need for such incentives. The proposed reforms would eliminate existing benefits for all solar owners by August 2022, or the California Public Utilities Commission could scale back the program first. The bill unexpectedly has drawn support both from progressive lawmakers, who worry about the impact of high electricity bills on low-income households, and from utility companies, which lose money due to the program.
On the most recent episode of the Resources Radio podcast, Berkeley Professor and Haas Faculty Director Meredith Fowlie discusses some reasons for high power bills in California, along with possible reforms that could reduce the burden on low-income households. In particular, Fowlie notes that, while the current rooftop solar rebate system effectively promotes green energy, it might not do enough to address inequality. “As more and more households adopt solar panels, that shifts the fixed cost recovery onto the households that don't have solar panels,” Fowlie explains. “Because solar panels have been adopted, on average, by wealthier homeowners, there are equity implications to that cost shift.” Transitioning from conventional fossil fuels and increasing electrification are feasible only when affordable for everybody, Fowlie contends.
Related research and commentary:
Plus, check out our newest feature: #FactOfTheWeek, themed this week around the cicadas you might have seen (or heard) in recent weeks.
Shot Stalker / Shutterstock
Brood X, the nation’s largest brood of cicadas in terms of range and density, has erupted from the ground across the eastern United States, from Georgia to the District of Columbia to New York. Scientists estimate that their density can be as high as 1.5 million cicadas per square acre.