Germany's Bold Move: Ousting Nuclear Energy by 2022

Posted on June 16, 2011 by Stephen M. Bruckner

In the wake of Fukushima's nuclear emergency, Germany has decided to end its use of nuclear energy. Germany announced on May 30 that it plans to shut down all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022. This decision to close the source of over 25% of its electric power has major economic implications. Why did the Fukushima incident cause Germany to reverse the decision that it made only last September to extend plant licenses an additional 8 to 14 years?  In light of its history of few natural disasters and a sound nuclear plant safety record, Germany’s response to the Fukushima incident is surprising and confounding.  Whatever the motivation of the German government, the salient question is whether this planned phase-out is even feasible.

 

Germany certainly is turning its back on the prayer of that famed nuclear plant worker, Homer Simpson: "And Lord, we are especially thankful for nuclear power, the cleanest, safest energy source there is. Except for solar, which is just a pipe dream." Currently, nuclear energy provides the United States with over 20% of its power and provides France with over 75% of its energy needs. Nuclear energy has been both praised as a successful alternative to fossil-fuel energy and condemned for its riskiness and generation of radioactive waste. Many policy makers and some environmental organizations tout the benefit of nuclear energy in reducing our carbon dioxide emissions.

 

Germany, however, has already taken the first steps to oust nuclear from its energy mix by shutting down seven of the older plants. It plans to boost the use of renewable energy, accelerate the expansion of the “smart” electricity grid, and make buildings more energy efficient. Bloomberg estimates that Germany will spend €10 billion to expand its electricity grid to avoid stunting economic growth. Boosting renewable energy won't be much easier.  German nuclear power plants currently pay a tax to help subsidize renewable energy sources like hydro and wind power. Without the nuclear power plants, the German government must find the funds elsewhere. It will likely cost the government €235 million to replace this loss of revenue in the next three months alone.

 

The closing of Germany’s nuclear power plants complicates its efforts to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40% by 2020. Assuming that Germany does not increase its fossil-fuel energy production, one can predict the rest of this story: To avoid looming energy shortages and economic instability, Germany will need to buckle down and develop new-and-improved environment-friendly energy sources. If successful, these efforts will pave the way for a worldwide boom in renewable energy development. But it is also possible that Germany will return to pre-Fukushima nuclear energy production — that or purchase nuclear energy generated in France. In the meantime, with Germany's solar manufacturing already up 7.6%, Homer Simpson (with the rest of the world anxiously waiting) will continue to eat his sprinkled donuts from the comfort of his nuclear power plant job, waiting to see if his “pipe dream” is real.

 

Bold move, Germany. Now pass the donuts.

Derivatives Trading in Climate Change Legislation

Posted on June 2, 2009 by Stephen M. Bruckner

ACES & Eights? Swaps and Other Derivatives in Climate Change Legislation

 

By

 

Stephen M. Bruckner

 

            On May 21, 2009, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy & Security Act (ACES), by a 33-25 vote. As the Committee touts its efforts on the much-examined markup of H.R. 2454 (aka, “Waxman-Markey discussion draft”), coalitions from each side of the ideological spectrum assail the legislation as toothless and watered-down, or a disaster for the American economy.  The bill has a long way to go, including review by other House committees and, of course, the Senate, so it may be premature for Committee Chairman Henry Waxman to bestow the mantle of “decisive and historic action.

Buried within ACES’ cap-and-trade emissions plan are a series of provisions that detail how big banks, hedge funds, and traders can use complex securities and derivatives to profit from the new carbon allowance market.  We all watched aghast as “credit default swaps” and similar financial alchemy led to the melt down of Wall Street and the credit markets. Do these types of investments have a proper role in climate change and energy legislation?  In a bill that already has plenty of political and policy hurdles, why add financial regulation?

Title III, Subtitle D of ACES, entitled “Carbon Market Assurance”, amends the Federal Power Act to create a financial instrument known as a “regulated allowance derivative”, which can include a “swap agreement”, and directs the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to establish regulations for these financial vehicles.  Title III, Subtitle E of ACES, entitled "Additional Market Assurance", addresses transactions in derivatives involving energy commodities such as coal, gasoline, and natural gas. These provisions open the door for financial institutions to partake in the new market created by ACES’ emission allowances.  It allows companies, funds, and traders to purchase and trade emission allowances, and to devise complex derivative instruments to sell and trade, picking up commissions and charging fees along the way.  As a result, the theoretical value of the allowances and their derivatives will be determined, in large part, by the manipulation and speculation of financial parties with little or no concern for carbon emission standards or federal climate policy beyond immediate monetary gain. 

Simply put, the emerging market for new carbon allowances created by the bill could be (at best) undermined or (at worst) commandeered by financial contrivances that are already partially responsible for the nation’s current financial instability.  The fundamental value of the new cap-and-trade 'products' will necessarily fluctuate as the emissions market adjusts and stabilizes.  If big banks and hedge funds can use puts, swaps, options and other speculative instruments, which the federal government has yet to capably regulate, the stability of emissions allowances and carbon trading could be placed at risk.  The chaos visited upon the economy at large by these and other financial instruments should cause hesitation and serious consideration as to whether they belong in Congress' first attempt at comprehensive climate change legislation. 

Derivatives Trading in Climate Change Legislation

Posted on June 2, 2009 by Stephen M. Bruckner

ACES & Eights? Swaps and Other Derivatives in Climate Change Legislation

 

By

 

Stephen M. Bruckner

 

            On May 21, 2009, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy & Security Act (ACES), by a 33-25 vote. As the Committee touts its efforts on the much-examined markup of H.R. 2454 (aka, “Waxman-Markey discussion draft”), coalitions from each side of the ideological spectrum assail the legislation as toothless and watered-down, or a disaster for the American economy.  The bill has a long way to go, including review by other House committees and, of course, the Senate, so it may be premature for Committee Chairman Henry Waxman to bestow the mantle of “decisive and historic action.

Buried within ACES’ cap-and-trade emissions plan are a series of provisions that detail how big banks, hedge funds, and traders can use complex securities and derivatives to profit from the new carbon allowance market.  We all watched aghast as “credit default swaps” and similar financial alchemy led to the melt down of Wall Street and the credit markets. Do these types of investments have a proper role in climate change and energy legislation?  In a bill that already has plenty of political and policy hurdles, why add financial regulation?

Title III, Subtitle D of ACES, entitled “Carbon Market Assurance”, amends the Federal Power Act to create a financial instrument known as a “regulated allowance derivative”, which can include a “swap agreement”, and directs the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to establish regulations for these financial vehicles.  Title III, Subtitle E of ACES, entitled "Additional Market Assurance", addresses transactions in derivatives involving energy commodities such as coal, gasoline, and natural gas. These provisions open the door for financial institutions to partake in the new market created by ACES’ emission allowances.  It allows companies, funds, and traders to purchase and trade emission allowances, and to devise complex derivative instruments to sell and trade, picking up commissions and charging fees along the way.  As a result, the theoretical value of the allowances and their derivatives will be determined, in large part, by the manipulation and speculation of financial parties with little or no concern for carbon emission standards or federal climate policy beyond immediate monetary gain. 

Simply put, the emerging market for new carbon allowances created by the bill could be (at best) undermined or (at worst) commandeered by financial contrivances that are already partially responsible for the nation’s current financial instability.  The fundamental value of the new cap-and-trade 'products' will necessarily fluctuate as the emissions market adjusts and stabilizes.  If big banks and hedge funds can use puts, swaps, options and other speculative instruments, which the federal government has yet to capably regulate, the stability of emissions allowances and carbon trading could be placed at risk.  The chaos visited upon the economy at large by these and other financial instruments should cause hesitation and serious consideration as to whether they belong in Congress' first attempt at comprehensive climate change legislation. 

Environmental Appeals Board Tees Up Carbon Dioxide Issue to Obama Administration

Posted on December 4, 2008 by Stephen M. Bruckner

In a decision that will have far-reaching implications for coal-fired power plants, EPA's Environmental Appeals Board ("EAB") ruled on November 14, 2008 that EPA's Region 8 must reconsider whether carbon dioxide ("CO2") is a regulated air pollutant covered by the Clear Air Act's Prevention of Significant Deterioration ("PSD") permitting program. Because there is so little time left for EPA to finalize its decision, the EAB's ruling effectively drops this hot button issue squarely on the doorstep of the incoming Obama administration.

 

            The procedural posture of this case is a bit unusual. Deseret Power Electric Cooperative ("Deseret") operates a coal-fired power plant, the Bonanza Power Plant, on the Uintah and Ourah Indian Reservation in Utah. Deseret wants to build a new waste-coal-fired plant at the same location. The new plant needs a "PSD permit" to regulate its emissions under the Clean Air Act. A PSD permit requires the installation of "Best Available Control Technology", or "BACT", for regulated pollutants.

 

            Most PSD permits are issued by state environmental agencies. However, because Deseret's power plant is located on an Indian reservation, EPA's Region 8 is the permitting authority. EPA issued the PSD permit to Deseret on August 30, 2007. The Sierra Club, which had submitted comments to EPA on the proposed permit, appealed the permitting decision to the Environmental Appeals Board. Sierra Club argued that the permit violated the Clean Air Act because the Act requires BACT for each pollutant "subject to regulation" under the Act. [Clean Air Act §§ 165(a)(4), 168(3); 42 U.S.C. §§ 7475(a)(4), 7478(3)].

 

            The EAB rejected the Sierra Club's argument. The EAB carefully reviewed the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), which held that CO2 is within the Clean Air Act's definition of "air pollutant". The EAB noted that the Massachusetts decision did not address whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant "subject to regulation" under the Clean Air Act. The EAB therefore rejected the Sierra Club's argument that the phrase "subject to regulation" has a plain meaning that requires Region 8 to establish a CO2 limit in Deseret's permit.

 

            But that was pretty much the end of the good news for EPA and Deseret. In making its permit decision on CO2, EPA Region 8 relied on prior EPA interpretations addressing when a pollutant is considered to be "regulated". The EAB ruled that the reasons cited by Region 8 for its decision were not sufficient. The EAB then sent the case back to Region 8 to 'reconsider whether or not to impose a CO2 BACT limit in light of the Agency's discretion to interpret, consistent with the CAA [Clean Air Act], what constitutes a "pollutant subject to regulation under the Act."' [Deseret decision at p. 63]. Recognizing the potential impact of its ruling and of Region 8's further consideration, the EAB observed that because the issue "has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding", Region 8 should decide whether it would be better to address the matter in "an action of nationwide scope". [Deseret decision, pp. 63-64].

 

            Clearly, then, the Sierra Club was denied the clear victory it sought; namely, to require BACT for carbon dioxide in all coal-fired power plant PSD permits. On the other hand, Deseret and other electric utilities seeking PSD permits are left hanging as to whether CO2 will be a regulated pollutant under the PSD program. Although EPA probably wants to resolve this case before the expiration of President Bush's term, as a practical matter, it simply cannot get it done in little more than a month. Thus, the incoming Administration must squarely confront an issue that could shape the climate change debate and, ultimately, energy policy in this country. EPA most likely will take the hint from the EAB and handle the matter through "an action of nationwide scope". How it turns out is anyone's guess, but it is fair to say that the new EPA will have more climate change hawks in policy positions than the current Agency.

Environmental Appeals Board Tees Up Carbon Dioxide Issue to Obama Administration

Posted on December 4, 2008 by Stephen M. Bruckner

In a decision that will have far-reaching implications for coal-fired power plants, EPA's Environmental Appeals Board ("EAB") ruled on November 14, 2008 that EPA's Region 8 must reconsider whether carbon dioxide ("CO2") is a regulated air pollutant covered by the Clear Air Act's Prevention of Significant Deterioration ("PSD") permitting program. Because there is so little time left for EPA to finalize its decision, the EAB's ruling effectively drops this hot button issue squarely on the doorstep of the incoming Obama administration.

 

            The procedural posture of this case is a bit unusual. Deseret Power Electric Cooperative ("Deseret") operates a coal-fired power plant, the Bonanza Power Plant, on the Uintah and Ourah Indian Reservation in Utah. Deseret wants to build a new waste-coal-fired plant at the same location. The new plant needs a "PSD permit" to regulate its emissions under the Clean Air Act. A PSD permit requires the installation of "Best Available Control Technology", or "BACT", for regulated pollutants.

 

            Most PSD permits are issued by state environmental agencies. However, because Deseret's power plant is located on an Indian reservation, EPA's Region 8 is the permitting authority. EPA issued the PSD permit to Deseret on August 30, 2007. The Sierra Club, which had submitted comments to EPA on the proposed permit, appealed the permitting decision to the Environmental Appeals Board. Sierra Club argued that the permit violated the Clean Air Act because the Act requires BACT for each pollutant "subject to regulation" under the Act. [Clean Air Act §§ 165(a)(4), 168(3); 42 U.S.C. §§ 7475(a)(4), 7478(3)].

 

            The EAB rejected the Sierra Club's argument. The EAB carefully reviewed the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), which held that CO2 is within the Clean Air Act's definition of "air pollutant". The EAB noted that the Massachusetts decision did not address whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant "subject to regulation" under the Clean Air Act. The EAB therefore rejected the Sierra Club's argument that the phrase "subject to regulation" has a plain meaning that requires Region 8 to establish a CO2 limit in Deseret's permit.

 

            But that was pretty much the end of the good news for EPA and Deseret. In making its permit decision on CO2, EPA Region 8 relied on prior EPA interpretations addressing when a pollutant is considered to be "regulated". The EAB ruled that the reasons cited by Region 8 for its decision were not sufficient. The EAB then sent the case back to Region 8 to 'reconsider whether or not to impose a CO2 BACT limit in light of the Agency's discretion to interpret, consistent with the CAA [Clean Air Act], what constitutes a "pollutant subject to regulation under the Act."' [Deseret decision at p. 63]. Recognizing the potential impact of its ruling and of Region 8's further consideration, the EAB observed that because the issue "has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding", Region 8 should decide whether it would be better to address the matter in "an action of nationwide scope". [Deseret decision, pp. 63-64].

 

            Clearly, then, the Sierra Club was denied the clear victory it sought; namely, to require BACT for carbon dioxide in all coal-fired power plant PSD permits. On the other hand, Deseret and other electric utilities seeking PSD permits are left hanging as to whether CO2 will be a regulated pollutant under the PSD program. Although EPA probably wants to resolve this case before the expiration of President Bush's term, as a practical matter, it simply cannot get it done in little more than a month. Thus, the incoming Administration must squarely confront an issue that could shape the climate change debate and, ultimately, energy policy in this country. EPA most likely will take the hint from the EAB and handle the matter through "an action of nationwide scope". How it turns out is anyone's guess, but it is fair to say that the new EPA will have more climate change hawks in policy positions than the current Agency.