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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Report: PA state forest certification a wise and very valuable investment

The Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) has issued a report finding that Pennsylvania’s investment in environmentally responsible management of its state forests is a wise one.

The report - The Costs and Benefits of FSC Certification of DCNR Forests - can be found at the committee website.

Pennsylvania’s 2.2 million acre state forest is certified by the Rainforest Alliance under the Forest Stewardship Council standards that supports environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable forest management. Pennsylvania was one of the first states to have its publicly-owned forests certified.   The achievement and maintenance of that certification is a testament to the great work of the women and men of DCNR, and reflect their commitment to scientifically sustainable, socially acceptable, transparent, and accountable management of the public’s forest.

The certification has big net economic benefits. LBFC found that the FSC certification audits cost DCNR a miniscule 1 cent per acre per year plus some additional staff costs that support the certification.  On the other side of the ledger, it allows timber harvested from DCNR land to command a premium price on the timber market.  In timber sales between 2001 and 2006, LBFC found, DCNR earned a premium of about $7.7 million from the FSC certification - roughly a 10 percent increase in revenue for Pennsylvania’s state forest over what would have been earned in the absence of certification.

LBFC describes the economic benefits of FSC certification as “currently modest” – though I would argue that a 10 percent revenue increase is a great deal for Pennsylvania. Especially since that number is likely to go up.

LBC found that the certification is increasingly attractive to wood buyers and wood product manufacturers.  By 2006, FSC-certified buyers accounted for nearly two-thirds of the dollar value of all state forest timber sales, up from less than 15 percent in 1998. The percentage of timber volume going to FSC-certified buyers increased from less than 10 percent in 1998 to over 40 percent in 2006. 

LBFC also found that demand for certified lumber products and accompanying economic benefits may increase in the future.  They cite the European Union’s regulations on timber products and the green building movement, led by the LEED program, which will increase demand for certified lumber.  Further, several major companies (Home Depot, IKEA, Glatfelter, Time-Warner, and others) now require that some or all of their wood come from certified sources.    

The LBFC report includes extensive discussion of deer management issues, which have a major impact on forest sustainability.  DCNR’s response to the report on that score (and generally) is worth reading.

The LBFC report should be read in tandem with another report – a DCNR analysis of the impact of additional leasing of state forest land for natural gas drilling.  That analysis shows that shows that no additional leasing involving surface disturbance can occur without significantly altering the ecological integrity and wild character of our state forest system.  That DCNR analysis also found that additional leasing and resulting oil and gas development has the potential to jeopardize DCNR’s FSC certification. The latter report led to a moratorium on additional leasing that was signed by Governor Rendell in 2010 and that the Corbett Administration has so far kept in place.

Certification of the state forest is wise public policy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A ripe moment in the fight against climate disruption

new report from The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that almost a third of U.S. coal-fired power plants could no longer be economically viable and could be retired in the next few years.

The UCS report - Ripe for Retirement - says that 59,000 MW of coal generation could be too costly to operate, and an additional 40,000 MW of coal generation is scheduled to shut down or be converted to another fuel in the next few years.  The combined closure of 99,000 MW of coal capacity would represent nearly one third of the U.S.’ 316,000 MW of coal-fired generation.

Those retirements could reduce CO2 emissions between 9.8 and 16.4 percent, depending on what resource replaces the coal, and provide other significant public health and environmental benefits.

There are two main drivers of this possible outcome: (currently) cheap and abundant natural gas, and stricter federal air pollution standards.

The UCS report says that the retirement of aging coal plants "would create an opportunity to accelerate our nation's transition to a cleaner energy future."  Reuters quotes report co-author Steve Frenkel:

"Regulators should require utility companies to carefully consider whether ratepayers would be better off by retiring old coal plants and boosting electricity generation from natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind. Spending billions to upgrade old coal plants may simply be throwing good money after bad."

Coal-fired generation fell from 42 percent of U.S. electricity in 2011 to about 37 percent in 2012, and natural gas’ share rose from 25% in 2011 to 31 percent this year.  As a consequence, U.S. carbon emissions fell to their lowest level in 20 years.  However, in 2013, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects coal to produce 40 percent of the nation's electricity, gas will fall to 27 percent, and carbon emissions will rise.

This is a golden moment – ripe with opportunity to fire an effective salvo against disastrous climate disruption.  But it will not necessarily happen due to market forces alone.  The continued - and more responsible - production of natural gas and the right regulatory policies on electricity generation will be needed.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

IEA: some good renewable news, but a very dark climate outlook

The International Energy Agency has published its World Energy Outlook 2012. The report contains some encouraging – but mostly profoundly troubling – projections.

IEA says that renewable energy could rival coal as the biggest global source of electricity production by 2035.  Renewable sources are forecast to become the second biggest power generator in 2015 and rise to almost a third of all generation in 2035, a level comparable to that of coal. The drivers for this increase are falling costs of renewable technologies, rising prices of fossil fuels, and increased renewable subsidies.

The latter point is crucial.  IEA projects global renewable energy subsidies to rise to $240 billion in 2035.  Is that projection realistic?  In 2011, IEA says they totaled $88 billion.  Government support for renewable energy around the world has been cut or thrown into doubt, and subsidies to fossil fuels increased 30% in 2011 alone to $523 billion - almost 6 times the subsidy amount for renewable energy.  And fossil fuel subsidies will be difficult to reduce.  

So the comparatively rosy picture painted for renewables is in doubt.

IEA projects that, thanks mainly to hydraulic fracturing, the United States will become the world's biggest oil producer by 2017, a net exporter of natural gas by 2020, and will be almost energy self-sufficient by 2035. But as Ed Matthew, director of the think tank Transform UK, has warned: "Energy independence will not increase national security in the US if it leads to runaway climate change."

And therein lies the profoundly troubling news. 

Fossil fuels still dominate the global energy mix.  While shale gas can be a bridge fuel and is essential even in optimistic projections on renewable energy use, IEA says that the projected growth in renewables won’t be enough to meet the United Nations goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). We are likely heading for triple that warming. 

IEA says that almost 80 percent of the emissions allowable by 2035 under a 2-degree scenario are already locked in because of existing energy use patterns, and all the allowable emissions will be locked in by 2017 if no action is taken to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Even a massive investment in largely-ignored energy efficiency would push back the lock in date by only about 5 years, IEA says.
The current course is unsustainable, deeply troubling, and may be deadly.