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:
A federal effort to plug abandoned wells could reduce emissions and employ laid-off oil and gas workers. Is enough support available across the political spectrum for such a program?
North Dakota intends to use $66 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to plug abandoned oil and gas wells in the state. These wells, often left behind by companies that have gone bankrupt, continue to leak methane, which contributes to climate change and degrades air quality. North Dakota is not the first state to embark on this kind of cleanup effort, but programs to plug wells in other states have often struggled to obtain the necessary funds. This conundrum has prompted an unlikely coalition of environmentalists and fossil fuel interests to seek federal support for plugging wells across the country, which would stem methane emissions and create jobs for workers who have been laid off during the pandemic. The idea has been gaining momentum, culminating in an endorsement from presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, whose clean energy plan includes a call to create jobs by plugging wells.
More recently, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his support for a federal well-plugging program. Contending that “the best efforts of state regulators” have not been enough to control the growing problem, Bloomberg says that a federal well-plugging effort would yield both economic and environmental benefits. The former presidential candidate cites a recent report coauthored by RFF Senior Research Associate Daniel Raimi, which suggests that a federal program to plug abandoned oil and gas wells could employ up to 120,000 Americans while serving as a cost-effective way to lower emissions. “It’s exciting to see prominent figures recognize the potential of this idea,” Raimi says. “We’ve seen recognition from both progressive and conservative policymakers at the state and federal level that using stimulus funds to plug orphaned oil and gas wells can create jobs quickly while also providing long-term environmental benefits.”
Related research and commentary:
- Report: Green Stimulus for Oil and Gas Workers: Considering a Major Federal Effort to Plug Orphaned and Abandoned Wells
- Public comments: Virtual Forum on Reclaiming Orphaned Oil and Gas Wells: Creating Jobs and Protecting the Environment by Cleaning Up and Plugging Wells
- Blog: The Potential for Plugging Abandoned Wells as Green Economic Stimulus
How would EPA’s push for more “transparency” in science impact how the benefits and costs of possible regulations are calculated?
Citing concerns about transparency, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is advocating for a new rule that would encourage Clean Air Act regulators to discount studies that utilize confidential data such as private medical records. But the proposal has generated controversy ever since it was first floated in 2018: EPA’s own independent Science Advisory Board claims that the rule might “reduce scientific integrity,” and a House committee last month voted to block the rule. EPA has long cited studies that incorporate confidential patient information—such as research about the long-term health impacts of particulate matter pollution—as a way to evaluate the public health–related co-benefits of regulations. Placing limits on these studies makes it harder for regulators to assess the full costs and benefits of proposed rules. While EPA has previously walked back contentious versions of the regulation, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler recently announced plans to expand the proposal to all major environmental protection laws—not just the Clean Air Act.
The current administration has long sought to change how EPA calculates costs and benefits, often as a strategy to justify regulatory rollbacks. According to a new working paper coauthored by RFF Senior Fellow Karen Palmer and University Fellow Joseph E. Aldy, the administration’s skepticism about co-benefits ignores EPA’s long history of factoring ancillary benefits into regulatory decisions. The paper’s authors assess long-term trends in how EPA conducts cost-benefit analyses, contextualizing regulatory decisions dating back to 1997 alongside newer rules, including the proposal to discount confidential data in regulatory decisions. They find that justifications for revising the process of assessing benefits and costs are unfounded, and that reconsidering regulations that were previously found to be beneficial could have adverse consequences. “With virtually every Clean Air Act regulation since 1997 estimated to deliver monetized benefits in excess of monetized costs,” they write, “the removal of any of these rules through deregulatory actions would impose social costs in excess of the benefits.”
Related research and commentary:
What can emerging data about electricity use in New England tell us about the impacts of lockdown orders on energy demand and renewable power?
The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have prompted a sharp decline in electricity demand across the world—and early data suggests that renewable power has benefited. Because the grid typically absorbs all available renewable power regardless of how much electricity is being used, lower overall demand means renewables comprise a higher percentage of power in the grid. Consequently, clean power surged in the early days of the pandemic, making up a “record share of global electricity production” and functionally “fast-forward[ing] some power systems 10 years into the future.” But as countries like the United States ease lockdowns, and electricity demand slowly returns to typical levels, the current strength of renewables might prove fleeting. Even in areas where many people are working remotely, electricity demand is rising again. This includes New England, where early data suggests that reduced commercial and industrial energy consumption is increasingly being offset by heightened demand for electricity at home.
RFF’s Kathryne Cleary and Karen Palmer look closely at New England’s electricity consumption in a new blog post, finding that electricity consumption in the region tumbled when lockdown orders were in place this May. This drop in demand likely proved environmentally beneficial, as renewables contributed more and fossil fuels contributed less to power generation compared to the same period last year. Still, early data from the region could offer a preview of how electricity habits will shift across the United States as temperatures rise again. Pointing to data suggesting that energy use reverted to more typical levels in June, Cleary and Palmer caution that increased residential demand for air conditioning this summer could prompt a decrease in the share of electricity generation attributed to renewables. While highlighting some implications for New England’s complex system of renewable energy credits that could discourage investment in renewables, Cleary and Palmer conclude that, broadly, “the future of renewables depends on how quickly the economy recovers from this recession.”
Related research and commentary: