Climate and energy news for February 18th: Munich Re says weather-related disasters in Germany tripled since 1970; Passive houses sharply reduce energy; House GOPs EPA rider faces uphill Senate battle

Munich Re Says Natural Disasters in Germany Tripled Since 1970 on Climate

German insurers’ losses from natural catastrophes are rising as global climate change causes more inundations and storms, Munich Re said.

Weather-related events have more than tripled in the country over the past 40 years, Peter Hoeppe, who heads the Munich-based reinsurer’s Geo Risks Research Department, told journalists in Dusseldorf today. A rising trend is also measurable worldwide, he said.

Insurers’ claims costs related to natural disasters rose last year. Allianz SE, biggest insurer, recorded “high losses from natural catastrophes and bad weather conditions” in the three months ended September 2010, it said in the quarterly report on its website. Flooding, windstorms and a hailstorm cost the firm about 137 million euros ($186 million) in Germany in the period, it said. Munich Re, the world’s biggest reinsurer, also owns primary insurer Ergo Versicherungsgruppe.


“Climate change is a fact,” Hoeppe said, adding that 2010 was the hottest year worldwide since records started, according to data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. Higher temperatures are increasingly leading to extreme rainfall and storms.

Passive houses aggressively reduce energy

Heat your home by throwing a dinner party?

This concept may sound bizarre, but it’s feasible in cutting-edge green homes that are so well-insulated, they don’t need a furnace or boiler. They’ll stay warm simply with body heat. A hairdryer might also suffice.

“It’s like living in a glass thermos,” says John Eckfeldt, a physician who built one of these “passive” homes in frigid Isabella, Minn. He says the inside temperature is so even that if he sees snow falling, he’s surprised to realize it must be cold outside.

The windows never feel cold, nor do the concrete floors, even though they don’t have in-floor heating, says Joe Turner of his “passive” home in Salt Lake City. “The house is also super quiet.”

The passive house movement, popularized in Europe, where thousands of such homes have been built, is starting to catch on in the United States as consumers look to lower their utility bills. These homes don’t require pricey solar panels or wind turbines but focus on old-fashioned building science to reduce energy use by up to 90% less energy.

They’re different from the “passive solar” homes of the 1970s, which used a lot of south-facing windows for heating, because they emphasize other features: thick walls and roofs (often at least a foot) and triple-paned windows, as well as efficient appliances and lighting. The secret is tightness, achieved via superior insulation and air sealing. A mechanical system brings in fresh air, heating or cooling it as needed.

Few U.S. homes, only a dozen so far, have obtained certification from the Passive House Institute US, a private Illinois-based group that bases its rules on the German Passivhaus standard.

Yet, dozens of homes nationwide are now being designed to meet its strict energy efficiency requirements.

“It’s growing exponentially,” says Tom DiGiovanni, who heads the Passive House Alliance, a group established last year to promote the standard. He says more than 400 people are now trained as passive house consultants, up from 20 two years ago.

House GOP’s EPA rider faces uphill Senate battle

Friday’s likely House passage of a spending bill that blocks EPA’s initial climate rules means that political battle lines are already forming across the Capitol.

Several key Senate Democrats made it clear Thursday that they intend to thwart provisions that restrict EPA when they take up a fiscal year 2011 continuing resolution (CR).

The House GOP spending bill, which would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, would cut spending $61 billion below current levels.

The bill includes a rider that would eliminate funding for EPA regulation of stationary sources — such as power plants and refineries — until the end of September.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), chair of the Democratic Policy Committee and a top strategist for his caucus, said Senate Democrats hope to move a CR without proposals like the one to block EPA’s climate rules.

“One of the things we’re pretty clear on is we want a clean CR,” he said when asked about Republican proposals to block funding for EPA climate rules. “All the legislating they’re doing on the CR shows they’re not really serious. There are 400 legislative items that have nothing to do with spending that have been added to the CR.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) echoed Schumer’s comments. “We’ve got a budget crisis. If people want to change abortion law, if they want to change the Clean Air Act, if they want to change regulations that have to do with the rest of our life, that doesn’t belong on a budget bill,” she said. “Those should be separate.”

Democrats Mount Rear-Guard Action Against Republican Assault on EPA Climate Rules

House Democrats ratcheted up their defense of U.S. EPA’s climate regulations yesterday as lawmakers debated a GOP-crafted spending bill that would defund the agency’s regulations on greenhouse gases and chip away at funding for other environment and climate initiatives.Building off an argument originally put forward by Republicans and industry groups in opposition to EPA’s climate regulations on stationary sources, Democrats yesterday claimed that defunding its regulations now would result in the halted construction projects and backlog of permits that opponents of the regulation feared.

Pulling funding for the initiative, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) argued, would not overturn the requirement to net the permits. Instead, it would just halt “dozens of major [construction] projects” and cost thousands of jobs, he said.

“Members have different views about how to reduce pollution, but we should all agree that a multi-state construction ban is a terrible idea,” Waxman said.

Last month, federal climate regulations went into effect that require large stationary sources — including power plants, refineries and cement kilns — to seek special air permits before proceeding with new construction projects or modifications to existing facilities that would result in substantial greenhouse gas emissions. In order to net these permits, local air regulators or federal EPA must be persuaded that the project will use the “best available control technology” to limit the facilities’ emissions.

Mississippi gov criticizes EPA’s coal oversight

Potential Republican presidential candidate Haley Barbour criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday for being “out of hand” in its approach to regulating coal.The Mississippi governor spoke privately to a group of Kentucky coal executives meeting in Lexington, but told The Associated Press afterward that the EPA under the Obama administration is imposing strict environmental standards that mining companies can’t possibly meet.

“It’s a deliberate way to try to halt coal mining, which would be catastrophic for Appalachian America,” he said.

Barbour was the first candidate pondering a run in next year’s presidential race to reach out to Kentucky’s coal operators who have the inclination and the financial resources to help bankroll politicians friendly to their industry.

Most early presidential candidates bypass Kentucky because of its late primary. Nominees for each party usually are all but decided by the time the state’s voters go to the polls in May.

But with corporate spending limits essentially lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, mining companies would be free to spend unlimited amounts of money in the next presidential election. That could turn Kentucky’s deep-pocketed coal operators important players in presidential politics.

Ky. lawmakers want to give symbolic boot to EPA

Kentucky lawmakers thumbed their noses at federal regulators on Thursday by advancing a largely symbolic measure declaring the state a “sanctuary” exempt from Environmental Protection Agency oversight of its influential coal sector.

It was a bipartisan pileup as Republicans and Democrats joined the chorus denouncing the environmental agency.

“As the overreaching EPA impact settles in on us, it’s costing us jobs, it’s putting us in a very perilous situation,” warned Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard, a coalfield Republican sponsoring the anti-EPA resolution.

The resolution easily cleared the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. It now heads to the full Senate.

The popular but apparently unenforceable proposal declares Kentucky a “sanctuary state” out of reach of the EPA’s “overreaching regulatory power.” Smith has acknowledged that the bill isn’t likely to compel the EPA to change its ways.

It states that water quality standards set for coal mining and processing permits in Kentucky would be immune from federal regulation. It places jurisdiction for environmental regulation with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Tar sands pipeline poses health risks, campaigners claim

Just after dawn on July 26, 2010, homeowners along Talmadge Creek near Marshall, Michigan, awoke to the chemical stench of raw fuel. Several bolted outside and followed the sickening stink to the creek’s wooded banks and found its source: a torrent of black goo, unlike anything ever experienced in Michigan or anywhere else in the upper Midwest, heading downstream to the Kalamazoo River.

The black goo originated some 2,000 miles away, in the fields of Alberta, Canada. There, a massive extraction effort has damaged thousands of square miles of forests, polluted water supplies, and poured tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere each year — all in an effort to provide a new source of transportation fuel to quench American demands, as well as alleviate concerns about reliance on oil from the Middle East and find energy sources closer to home.

What the Michigan spill revealed, however, is that an expanding constellation of processing plants, refineries, and transcontinental pipelines needed to produce and transport tar sands oil to American markets also puts communities and water supplies across the U.S. at risk. And it’s a risk that, until recently, was little known or understood by the communities that stand in harm’s way.

In < a href=””>a new report released yesterday, NRDC and several partner groups demonstrate that tar sands oil is more difficult and dangerous to transport than conventional crude. Known as DilBit, short for diluted bitumen, it’s thick as peanut butter and more acidic, highly corrosive, and abrasive. Yet the NRDC report says that pipeline developers and operators are using the same designs, operating practices, and materials to transport DilBit that work for conventional crude.

Spill claims administrator meeting Fla. lawmakers

The embattled administrator of a $20 billion fund to pay claims from Gulf of Mexico oil spill victims is meeting with a Florida legislative panel.

Kenneth Feinberg is expected to hear more complaints about payments being too slow, too low or both Friday when he appears before the House Economic Affairs Committee.

Feinberg’s been getting plenty of that kind of criticism during his travels along the Gulf Coast, but this week he also got a complaint of another kind from BP.

The British oil giant responsible for the spill caused by the explosion of its Deepwater Horizon rig last year says he’s being too generous with its money.

The company contends his methodology artificially inflates future expected losses from the spill.

Court Orders U.S. to Decide on Drilling

A federal judge ordered the Obama administration to decide within 30 days whether to grant a set of five permits for deep-water drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico, saying the administration’s inaction on the requests is “increasingly inexcusable.”

The order, by Judge Martin Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, ratcheted up the pressure on the administration, which last fall lifted a months-long moratorium on deepwater drilling but has yet to grant any permits to drill new oil or natural-gas wells at depths greater than 500 feet.

Middle East Unrest Means Higher Gas Prices

The price of gasoline in the United States is where the rubber meets the road at the intersection of American foreign and domestic policy.

There’s not much we can do (except cheer for the forces of freedom) to influence events in Egypt or the other countries in the Mideast where there is political unrest. But we can control our fight for energy independence here at home. [See photos of the Egyptian uprising.]

Since the protests in Egypt began, the price of a gallon of gas has risen by more than a dime. Egypt is quiet at least for now, but there are antigovernment demonstrations going on in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. As long as there is political unrest in the countries that supply the United States oil, gasoline prices will continue to rise.

Thankfully President Obama made a strong commitment to federal support for the development of a clean energy industry in his State of the Union address. He followed up on that pledge with trips to clean energy industrial factories in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York. President Obama has used his trips to focus public attention on the progress we’ve made in developing a vital clean energy industry that will give us new jobs, cleaner air and energy independence. Our oil based economy is a job killer. Alternative sources of energy like the sun, wind, and water will also prevent another oil spill like the one in the Gulf Coast which killed the livelihoods of thousands of people.

California 2020 carbon price seen $75: Point Carbon

California begins a market for greenhouse gases next year and prices will rise several times over between 2012 and 2020 under the plan to address climate change, Thomson Reuters research firm Point Carbon forecasts in a new report.

It forecast the price of carbon would rise from about $13 per metric ton in 2012 to $75 per ton in 2020.

California aims to give away many of the permits to emit carbon dioxide to factories and utilities early in the program, but prices will rise as state giveaways slow and because of a likely shortfall in offset credits for projects which soak up carbon, Point Carbon said.

Special Report: The California carbon rush

Under California’s new carbon trading system, big polluters will be paying through the nose for the privilege.

And so will everyone else in the state.

The basic premise is “no pain, no gain” — when the price starts to pinch, that will spur innovation and California will lead the world in green technology. Or at least that’s the plan.

The Carbon Rush officially gets underway next year. Power plants, factories and other companies will have to obtain an “allowance” permit for every ton of carbon dioxide they produce. Allowances will be sold at state auctions and on an open market.

Most of the financial sting is being backloaded. The program begins with a big giveaway, with the state handing out most permits free — a “soft start,” is how state officials term it.

This new market will rapidly expand, beginning at just under $2 billion and rising to nearly $10 billion in 2016, according to estimates from Point Carbon, a Thomson Reuters company focusing on carbon markets.

The state is expected to reap billions of dollars in revenues, but the side-effects are hardly trifling. And it is only part of an array of programs to combat climate change. Cap and trade is guaranteed to push up gas prices for consumers and, critics say, some businesses may be driven away by the additional costs in an already high-cost state.

Piecemeal possibilities

THE planet-wide industrial exhalation of previously fossilised carbon is not the only way that humans are changing the Earth’s climate. There are other greenhouse gases, other atmospheric pollutants, the effects of cutting down forests, and more: together these things may contribute almost as much as carbon emissions to global warming. In the face of an international inability to put the sort of price on carbon use that would drive its emission down, an increasing number of policy wonks, and the politicians they advise, are taking a more serious look at these other factors as possible ways of controlling climate change.

Three things make these alternative approaches attractive by comparison. The first is that the emission of carbon dioxide is a fundamental part of today’s industrial infrastructure. The same is not true for, say, HFC-134a, a gas with various industrial uses that delivers more than 1,000 times more warming than carbon dioxide, mass for mass. Something peripheral for which alternatives can be readily found is easier and cheaper to do without than something at the heart of industrial life.

Second, the benefits of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions can seem abstract and far-off. In contrast, reducing emissions of the sooty particles known as black carbon, which are given off by inefficient combustion in cooking fires and brick kilns, and by dodgy diesel engines, offers rapid, huge and tangible public-health benefits (see article). Controlling black carbon by giving poor people cleaner ways to burn various fuels could not only forestall a decade or two of global warming, it would also save hundreds of thousands of lives currently blighted by smoke and disease.