Thursday, September 28, 2017

Impacts of Ocean Acidification on a Marine Food Web
Paper Reviewed: Taucher, J., Haunost, M., Boxhammer, T., Bach, L.T., Algueró-Muñiz, M. and Riebesell, U. 2017. "Influence of ocean acidification on plankton community structure during a winter-to-summer succession: An imaging approach indicated that copepods can benefit from elevated CO2 via indirect food web effects". PLoS One 12: e0169737, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169737.

Writing as background for their important new study, Taucher et al. (2017) state that "plankton communities form the base of the pelagic food web and provide many important ecosystem services such as productivity, sustenance of fish stocks, or carbon update." However, they note that it remains "one of the major challenges in biological oceanography to find general rules that explain and predict the trophic structure and biogeochemical functioning of marine ecosystems and how underlying ecological processes are affected by environmental drivers, particularly in the context of ongoing climate change and ocean acidification." Thus, it became their objective to investigate the impact of ocean acidification on plankton community structure and biogeochemical cycling during a long-term in situ study.

To accomplish their desires they used an imaging-based approach to obtain size distribution and taxonomic composition data of a natural plankton community housed in ten pelagic mesocosms (50 m3) deployed in the Gullmar Fjord of Sweden under natural or reduced seawater pH (simulate "ocean acidification," corresponding to ~760 µatm pCO2). The experiment ran for 113 days, covering the transition from winter to summer conditions, beginning in January of 2013. And what did their experiment reveal?

Simulated ocean acidification had a stimulatory effect on the biomass and size structure of the entire plankton community, from picoplankton to mesozooplankton. Notably, there were large biomass increases for copepods and diatoms, which increased by 40 and 30 percent, respectively (see figure below). In explaining this observation, it was the belief of the authors that elevated CO2 had an initial direct stimulatory effect on the phytoplankton productivity that indirectly "propagated up the food web and ultimately became visible as elevated biomass of copepods," though it is also quite possible that elevated CO2 directly stimulated the growth of the higher trophic organisms up the food chain as well.

With respect to the implications of their work, Taucher et al. write that "since copepods serve as a major food source for a variety of commercially important fish species, such CO2-driven trophic cascades could have important implications for ecosystem structure and fish stock dynamics in temperate and arctic regions." And based upon the results of their study, we would add that all indications are that those implications are of a highly positive nature.


Obama EPA hid Climategate emails from Trump transition team

Members of President Trump's U.S. EPA transition team were frustrated in their requests for documents dealing with climate change and carbon regulations.

More than 1,000 pages of emails and other records obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act show that some of EPA's fiercest critics who served on Trump's transition effort, such as Christopher Horner and Dave Stevenson, sought specific, detailed records on controversies like "Climategate" and the social cost of carbon rule.

Yet at least five of the Trump transition team's information requests were denied or "disapproved" by Matt Fritz, then EPA's chief of staff serving under Administrator Gina McCarthy.

In a Dec. 20 email to Myron Ebell, the head of Trump's EPA transition team, Shannon Kenny, an EPA career official serving as the agency's transition coordinator, shared documents with him detailing the denied requests.

"Per the process you and Matt Fritz discussed at your initial meeting, I recorded your requests and shared them with Matt for his consideration," Kenny said.

"He has agreed to grant one of the requests, and I will post that information in the morning on the site."

EPA staff and transition team members had set up an internal website to share briefing materials with each other.

Attached to Kenny's message were several information access request forms, submitted by her at the behest of various members of Trump's transition team, that asked for documents held by EPA.

One request from Horner and submitted by Kenny was for a "specific memo discussing Climategate emails."

"Climategate" refers to the 2009 hacking of emails from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit's server. The scandal has resonated with several Republican lawmakers and climate change skeptics, who argue the emails showed global warming was a conspiracy among scientists. Several reviews of the stolen material, however, found no scientific misconduct (Climatewire, April 15, 2010).

"Subject line had words: 'Hacked Emails CRU.' Memo begins: 'Issues raised regarding climate research,'" said the form. It also noted that Horner believed a 13-digit control number was associated with the memo.

Asked why the information was requested, the form said, "Information needed to implement the president-elect's climate agenda."

In a section on the form showing a decision on the request, "Disapproved" was circled.

"The memo referred in this request will be withheld," said the form, followed by Fritz's signature as indication that the EPA chief of staff is who made the decision.

Other requests were not approved.

Horner also requested access to correspondence from a two-week stretch in November 2013 between Lorie Schmidt, EPA's associate general counsel for air and radiation, and Michael Goo, a former EPA policy chief during the Obama administration. Horner was interested in communications regarding carbon capture and sequestration, which were needed to implement Trump's "climate agenda."

Fritz also disapproved that request.

In addition, Horner sought access to communications sent to Al McGartland, director of EPA's National Center for Environmental Economics, regarding setting discount rates for the social cost of carbon rule. Fritz denied that request as well.

Fritz told E&E News the information requests he disapproved were for documents not pertinent to the transition effort. Instead, they were related to some of the individual transition team members' prior litigation against EPA.

"These were related to topics that were already being litigated by members of the transition team," Fritz said. "They were related to very specific matters. They weren't related to matters of policy, of organization, of budget. ... They weren't relevant to actual transition items."

Fritz, who served nearly two years as EPA's chief of staff at the end of the Obama administration, said he didn't know Horner's motives in asking for the information but said the requests were part of a process set up with Trump's transition team.

"This was a process we established with the transition team, with Myron, that if they had requests for non-public information, we would have to approve them," said Fritz, who now works at the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP.

Horner told E&E News that his information requests were relevant to Trump's transition effort at EPA. He also said he has not requested the same information again since the transition team wrapped up and Trump's appointees took charge of the agency.

"Transition work was and is confidential. About whether I made the same request post-transition, no, I did not seek those records after the transition was over. They were sought for transition purposes," Horner said.

Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has relentlessly pursued EPA records in the past.

A foe of mainstream climate science, he has hunted down documents through FOIA requests and subsequent litigation, battling EPA in court to force the agency to cough up more records. His best-known find was former EPA chief Lisa Jackson's alternative email address, "Richard Windsor," named for her dog and hometown (Greenwire, Dec. 12, 2016).

Horner said it was logical for a new administration to review records dealing with possible policy shifts.

"With that said, it would make sense for a new administration team to review an agency's internal record of matters that are subject of changes in policy. Indeed, it seems irresponsible if one did not," Horner said.

Bob Sussman, who served as co-chairman of President Obama's transition effort at EPA, told E&E News that his team asked the outgoing George W. Bush administration about general policies at the agency.

"We did not zero in on what particular individuals had done or said on specific issues," Sussman said. "The focus was understanding the state of play in the agency, where regulatory actions stood and so on."


The winner of the wind-power game won’t be the consumer

Last year, the average selling price that the Big Six energy companies got for electricity from their gas and coal-fired power stations was £45.49 per MWh. By contrast, the average price of electricity from Scottish Power’s wind farms was £117.14 – more than two and half times more – enabling Scottish Power to make a stonking £42.35 profit per MWh, almost as much as the selling price of conventional electricity. Small wonder Mr Anderson wants more wind.

Is wind-generated electricity so much better than conventional to justify such a huge price premium? As Matt Ridley and John Constable brilliantly explain in The Scottish Wind-Power Racket, Scottish wind power is like the sausage factory that only makes sausages when it wants to, and has to be compensated when it makes sausages you don’t want or the roads are too congested for the sausages to make it to your front door.

The bad news doesn’t end there. On top of the 157 per cent mark up on the wholesale price of conventionally generated electricity, you have to pay additional delivery charges for the privilege. National Grid is spending nearly £2 billion on extra grid infrastructure to transport Scottish wind power southwards, enabling National Grid to grow its profits and forcing us to pay even more for high cost renewable energy.

All this is important to bear in mind as we risk being swamped with renewable energy propaganda claiming that we’re on the verge of a wind bonanza. Indeed, one normally level-headed commentator talked of Britain swapping places with Saudi Arabia to become the energy sheikhdom of the northern seas, claiming that the economic argument over wind power had been settled. It hasn’t.

The offshore wind excitement – Keith Anderson is an onshore man – was triggered by the results of the second round of offshore wind contracts. These showed bid prices of between £57.50 and £74.75 per MWh compared to £114-150 per MWh for the projects in the previous round, hence the outpouring of joy at the apparent fall in costs.

Only the story is a little more complicated. According to a timely study by Gordon Hughes, Capell Aris and John Constable, there has been a real, but modest rate of technological improvement, which is only to be expected of a mature technology such as wind power. However, this improvement is offset by the trend towards building wind farms in deeper water as the cheaper, shallower sites get built out.

The key point, though, is that the bid numbers aren’t committed and don’t represent actual costs. As the authors explain, offshore wind bidders are in the game to get their hands on expected subsidies of around £300million a year, totalling more than £4 billion over the 15-year contract period.

But even more attractive than the expected subsidy stream, is the way the deals have been structured. They are one-sided deals, where there is almost no walk-away penalty for non-delivery by the contractor but where the Government has put the customer on the hook for 15 years.

The prospect of a huge upside and a negligible downside is a formula for encouraging what is politely called “strategic bidding”, where bidders sprinkle their bids with fairy dust in the knowledge that they won’t suffer the consequences when their bid numbers turn out to have been too optimistic.

A similar dynamic was at work in bidding for rail franchises. Because of the asymmetric upside and downside risk profile, the process meant that the Government ends up choosing the most risky bid. In 2012, this led to the collapse of the West Coast franchise award, when the Department for Transport had to rescind its decision to award the franchise to First Group in the face of an action in the High Court by Virgin, who demonstrated how First Group’s numbers didn’t stack up.

The West Coast fiasco should have led the Government to have binned a system where irresponsible bidding is rewarded. Instead, it commissioned a report from a former managing director of a rival train operator who argued that the government should embrace the prospect of failure. “Government should tolerate the idea that a franchise may default,” the Brown Report says. “For franchising to function effectively and for the market to function competitively, Government should accept that there can be failure.” This is a bad approach to running a railway, as it systematically favours the lowest quality, highest risk bidder.

In energy, this is even more irresponsible as it means gambling with the future security of Britain’s energy supply. Only a weak government would have gone ahead with the disastrous Hinkley nuclear deal. It sent a signal around the world that the British government preferred a bad deal to no deal. In these circumstances, it would be hardly surprising that offshore wind developers are queueing up to low-ball bids.

Having won control of vast acreages of the sea, like players on a Monopoly board, wind farm developers can be fairly sure that if construction costs start turning out to be higher than assumed in their bid numbers, the Government will have nowhere else to go. Having bid Old Kent Road and Whitechapel prices, they’ll tell the Government that if it wants to ensure that Britain has enough generating capacity, consumers will have to end up paying Park Lane and Mayfair prices.

There is a silver lining. Offshore wind will make Scottish Power’s windfarms – strung out along the wind energy equivalent of Oxford Street – look positively low cost. One thing is certain, the winner of the game isn’t going to be the consumer.


EPA needs to stick to its knitting

Barack Obama decided that the 1992 Clean Air Act gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to force states to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

He also expanded the Clean Water Act with a regulation called "Waters of the United States," which aimed to give the EPA regulatory control over land if sometimes it holds standing water.

The running theme of the Obama EPA was expanding the agency's reach and multiplying its responsibilities. This campaign was repeatedly halted by courts, but it has threatened to erode liberty and make life more expensive for families, farmers, and companies.

But the most tangible consequence of the EPA's mission creep has been the neglect of its core functions.

Trump's EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt laid out Obama's legacy in a recent interview with the Washington Examiner. "He left us with more Superfund sites than when he came in," Pruitt said, referring to contaminated lands which the EPA is supposed to be remediating. "He had Gold King and Flint, Michigan," Pruitt went on, referring to the massive 2015 spill of mine waste into the Animas and San Juan Rivers. Obama also left "air quality standards 40 percent of the country in nonattainment," Pruitt added.

The problem? Obama's EPA wouldn't stick to its knitting. Pruitt aptly described the EPA's mindset under Obama: "We think we just ought to re-imagine authority because you know what? We don't know if people are going to pass regulations or states are going to do their jobs."

Pruitt promises to return the EPA to its proper mission and to limit its activities to those actually prescribed by Congress. Will Pruitt's EPA address greenhouse gas emissions? Obama justified his Clean Power Plan by asserting the urgency of the issue. But the executive's belief that an issue is important doesn't give the executive branch the power to address an issue.

The EPA has only the power Congress has given it. Repeatedly, Obama tried to get Congress to pass climate legislation. Repeatedly, he failed. This should have been taken as a sign that there is no democratic will for it. But Obama took these failures exactly the wrong way, deciding that if Congress won't act, he would act on his own.

This is like a soldier deciding that if his officers won't give him permission to shoot, he'll just have to give himself the order to fire.

On climate, Pruitt says the relevant question is "what tools are in the toolbox of this agency to deal with CO2?" Neither Pruitt nor Trump are allowed to put tools in there. Only Congress can. "We're not going to simply just make up our authority," Pruitt said.

Doing exactly what you are called to do by the proper authorities is not a very exciting mission. But such is the lot of conservatism. Executive agencies are role-players, and even the president doesn't get to determine their role. The Constitution is very clear that Congress alone has that power.

We applaud Pruitt's mission of restoring the EPA to its proper shape and size. And we hope he has the humility, the diligence, and the skill to pull it off, for the sake of the Constitution, the economy, and the environment.


Unwinding Failing Renewables Policies

Brazil has started the process of cancelling contracts for wind and solar projects in an overheated market facing falling electricity demand. European governments should be making contingency plans for the similar necessities.

Global news about renewable energy development is generally positive, a fact that is in itself surprising and sufficient to arouse interest if not suspicion. In any technological sector there is always and regularly some bad news of a substantial kind, and yet on the face of things renewables are oddly free from the blotches and blemishes that are usual to even established sectors.

So it is particularly interesting to see the recent announcement by the Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency (ANEEL) that as a result of a reverse auction, nine unbuilt solar projects and 16 wind farms, with a total capacity of about 557 MW were being withdrawn, their contracts cancelled, with the developers forbidden to bid again in the next two power auctions (English press article here. Press release in Portuguese here).

This problem has been boiling away for some time. In March, Reuters reported that ANEEL believed that about 1.3 GW of wind and solar projects with contracts were in fact unlikely to enter operation due to weak prospects (“With power demand weak, Brazil mulls an auction to cancel projects”). In fact, the December 2016 auctions attracted no bids at all from new solar and wind plants.

The fundamental cause suggested for this slump in renewables development momentum is falling electricity demand; Brazil’s consumption fell by 2% in 2015 and a further 1% in 2016, largely as the the result of economic turbulence. That decline is doubtless a very large part of the explanation for the willingness of 500 MW of solar and wind to back out of its contracts, but it would hardly have caused such difficulties, requiring the construction of a reverse auction, if the market had not been so excited by favourable policy in the first place.

Indeed, the story serves to remind us that a sector overheated by enthusiastic policy remains vulnerable to real world realities that lie beyond easy control, such as falling demand. This is particularly interesting for those in the United Kingdom, where demand  is also falling, beginning in about 2005, and continues to fall, now standing at levels, about 280 TWh a year, not seen since the early 1990s. Renewables, however, continue to grow quite rapidly, with about 4.5 GW of capacity becoming operational in the year to July 2017, and a further 6.5 GW officially described as “under construction”. Even with very favourable terms of market access, and in spite of medium term hopes for electric vehicles, this narrowing market opportunity must be giving renewables projectors and exiting owners cause for concern, at least in the short term.

All this makes one wonder whether whether governments with major commitments to renewables, such as those in Germany and the United Kingdom, have made any contingency plans to extricate either subsidising consumers or subsidised renewables owners should circumstances require it. One suspects not.

Governments in the EU have tended to proceed as if renewables should be by virtue of their moral superiority exempt from normal business risk, and indeed those governments have take extraordinary measures to exempt renewables from normal risks. Nevertheless, as the Brazlian case reminds us, some substantial degree of risk remains and is irreducible. It may be falling demand, or general economic stagnation. It might be unrelenting and unacceptable cost to consumers, which itself could be responsible for falling demand economic recession or even depression. It might be rapid progress in a new, cheap, clean energy source, or that the inadequacy of renewables reveals itself as stubbornly resistant to remedy through technological change.

And while the daily news may not contain much that is bad, the global statistical headlines, the secular trends, are just not that encouraging: After decades of market favours, tax credits, portfolio standards, carbon taxes, guaranteed above-market prices, income top-ups, direct grants, relaxed environmental regulations and avoided costs, the modern renewables, wind and solar, still only accounted for only 1.5% of global Total Primary Energy supply in 2015, the most recent year for which there is data (IEA Renewables Information Overview, 2017). This really doesn’t look like a going concern.

This is much more than having a Plan B for the energy supply. In some senses that’s the easy bit; natural gas is right there, and so is coal if push comes to shove. The really awkward question for governments such as that in Germany or the United Kingdom, is how to respond if they are faced with the necessity of unwinding the vast contractual commitments made to renewable energy generators of all types and sizes, 30 GW of them in the UK, 95 GW in Germany? This is a much bigger problem than purging the planning queue of unbuilt and unwanted wind and solar farms, and it will require much more than a reverse auction. To all appearances the governments most in need of such forethought are the most completely unprepared.




Preserving the graphics:  Most graphics on this site are hotlinked from elsewhere.  But hotlinked graphics sometimes have only a short life -- as little as a week in some cases.  After that they no longer come up.  From January 2011 on, therefore, I have posted a monthly copy of everything on this blog to a separate site where I can host text and graphics together -- which should make the graphics available even if they are no longer coming up on this site.  See  here or here


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