Twice a month, 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. Keep reading, and feel free to send us your feedback.
Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
Does the American public benefit from increased US exports of liquefied natural gas?
The Biden administration has decided to pause approvals on the construction of new facilities that export liquefied natural gas. The US Department of Energy is required to approve facilities unless the new construction is not in the “public interest”; now, the agency will reevaluate how it judges the public interest. “The argument [that environmental advocates and some other stakeholders make] is that the Department of Energy has taken too lax an approach,” says Ben Cahill, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cahill joined the latest episode of the Resources Radio podcast to discuss the pause on approvals and the arguments for and against increasing US exports of liquefied natural gas. “Many people believe that it’s not enough to just look at the merits of one project,” says Cahill. “Maybe the bar should be higher in terms of the impact on domestic gas prices; environmental justice and impact on local communities; and, of course, the climate impacts.”
How is the government attempting to monitor and reduce methane emissions from the production of natural gas?
The Biden administration’s pause on expanding US export capacity for liquefied natural gas has fueled discussion over a difficult question: Exactly how bad is natural gas for the climate? A key variable in the debate is the amount of methane estimated to leak into the atmosphere during the production and transportation of natural gas. However, monitoring and measuring these emissions is notoriously tricky. New regulations from the US Environmental Protection Agency aim to improve the measurement of methane emissions from US oil and gas infrastructure and incentivize producers to prevent and stop leaks. But a potential shortcoming in the agency’s approach may result in inaccurate estimates of the size of leaks, according to Brian C. Prest, a fellow at Resources for the Future (RFF). Prest examines the flaw in a new blog post. That potential for inaccuracy “emphasizes the importance of [the agency’s] new super-emitter program … which allows certified third parties to identify and report leaks—not just the operators themselves,” says Prest.
How are policymakers trying to steer clean energy development and the benefits of clean energy into low-income communities?
Demand for rooftop solar in California has plummeted since last April, when the state cut the price that utilities are required to pay households for electricity generated by solar panels. The cut has increased the time needed for a household to pay off a home solar system. Demand-side policies, such as rebates for rooftop solar, can favor affluent households that might be in a position to afford clean energy technologies, leaving out lower-income households and communities, says Suzanne Russo, an RFF fellow and the new director of RFF’s Environmental Justice Initiative. In a blog post published this week, Russo examines a program in the Inflation Reduction Act that incentivizes clean energy investment in low-income communities. “The focus in this bonus program on renewables that are funded by developers, along with its emphasis on rooftop solar, enables the incentive to transfer the financial burden of installing renewables from low-income households and affordable housing providers to energy developers,” says Russo.
Rejected: New York City Application for Federal Funding to Rebuild Local Highway
The US Department of Transportation recently rejected an application from New York City for $800 million, which proposed using the money to fully rebuild and expand the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), a local highway that serves heavy traffic in both boroughs and is a major source of air pollution in local communities.
“The agency received 117 applications and approved 11 of them,” says RFF Fellow and Environmental Justice Initiative Director Suzanne Russo, who wrote a blog post with RFF Fellow and Transportation Program Director Beia Spiller, prior to the agency’s decision, about the fraught history and future potential of the highway. “As a comparison, the only project accepted from New York City was an award for $150 million to construct walking and cycling pathways along the Bronx Expressway, a major roadway that cuts through the Bronx and produces significant pollution in nearby communities of color. The investment in these pathways will create new opportunities for mobility without relying on personal vehicles—a benefit absent from the BQE proposal. However, we still don’t have insight into exactly why the BQE application was rejected. How the federal government will proceed in terms of decisionmaking around future funding of local infrastructure projects remains to be seen.”
Spiller adds, “The rejection offers New York City a chance to elevate procedural justice in its evaluation and selection of options for addressing the crumbling BQE and improving interborough transportation with solutions that help undo the legacy of environmental racism that this highway, like many others in the United States, has inflicted on communities of color.”
A new bill—the Providing Reliable, Objective, Verifiable Emissions Intensity and Transparency (PROVE IT) Act—is one of several bills in Congress that have been proposed to address issues of climate and trade. This bill is the first to advance through a congressional committee; it would authorize the government to gather data on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with designated products that are globally traded and require a lot of energy to produce. In a new blog post, RFF Fellows Marc Hafstead and Kevin Rennert discuss the PROVE IT Act and recent congressional interest in blending climate and trade. “The incorporation of carbon emissions into trade measures is a complex endeavor, though ultimately necessary if countries are serious about decarbonizing internationally traded, industrial products,” the authors say.
Public engagement is important for achieving an equitable transition to a clean energy economy, according to a recent report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Coauthor of the report Julia Haggerty joined an episode of the Resources Radio podcast to discuss a chapter in the report about public engagement and the energy transition. Haggerty also is an associate professor at Montana State University and a university fellow at RFF. “When it comes to deployment and adoption of new technologies, you by and large are going to move at the speed of trust,” she says. “And if you try to move faster than that, you risk backlash.”
The Clean Water Act protects the “waters of the United States,” but the law does not precisely define the types of waterways that are protected. The scale of protection under the law has fluctuated with presidential administrations and court rulings, and previous analyses of the changing protections have leaned on unreliable assumptions. New research provides a clearer picture of the protections. A recent blog post by RFF University Fellow Hannah Druckenmiller and University of California, Berkeley, Associate Professor Joseph Shapiro discusses a machine learning model that predicts which water streams and wetlands the Clean Water Acts protects under various interpretations of the law.
The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) recently proposed guidance for verifying the quality of carbon offsets. Companies often buy these offsets, which represent a specified reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, to help meet climate pledges. However, a persistent issue with carbon offsets has been verifying that the offsets actually represent the agreed-upon amount of emissions reductions. In a recent Q&A with Resources magazine, Alex Rau of Environmental Commodity Partners breaks down the guidance proposed by the CFTC. “Aside from the positive impacts from the CFTC more closely observing and scrutinizing ongoing transactional activity and actor conduct in the voluntary carbon markets, the CFTC guidance likely won’t meaningfully change how the carbon offset markets currently operate,” Rau says.
While environmental economists now regularly consider the immaterial value of natural resources, these types of considerations were not always present in the field. “Economists, over time, have measured more and more things, more and more abstract things, or intangible things, with constructs that are more and more theoretically abstract,” says Spencer Banzhaf, a professor at North Carolina State University. Banzhaf joined a recent episode of the Resources Radio podcast to discuss the history of environmental economics and how the field continues to evolve. “There are signs that economists are getting more involved in measuring the impacts on equity or inequality from policies, and not just the overall net benefit or cost of a policy,” says Banzhaf.
🎨 Climate in the Culture 🎵
Passive houses offer mixed appeal to characters in The Curse, a new television series starring and coproduced by Nathan Fielder and Emma Stone. The fictional show features Fielder and Stone as a newly married couple that flips houses in an underserved town in New Mexico, attempting to sell prospective homebuyers on the environmental benefits of passive houses, whose defining feature is energy efficiency (not to mention all-mirror exteriors). But this darkly comedic drama explores the sinister side of the couple’s ideals and motivations: Are they more interested in helping the environment or making profits from a related reality show, Fliplanthropy, which they’re desperately trying to sell to a major television network? The Curse unflinchingly follows the couple’s questionable path through environmentalism, gentrification, property speculation, relationships, and the relative convenience of cooking stir fry on an efficient induction stove versus an energy-intensive gas appliance.