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Looming Sequester Has Implications for National Weather Forecasting, Energy

Unless Congress reaches a deal by Friday, a set of automatic spending cuts—known as the sequester—will take effect. According to the Obama Administration, this trigger, for $85 billion worth of across-the-board federal spending cuts, is expected to have significant implications for climate and energy.

Newly released estimates by the White House detail how the cuts are projected to impact programs in each state. Decreases in environmental funding will be in the multi-millions, with the hardest hits to clean air efforts in CaliforniaNew YorkTexasOhio and Illinois. Overall more than $100 million in budget cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air program are proposed. The acting chief of the EPA, Bob Perciasepe, warned of furloughs for staff. In a letter, he detailed the widespread potential effects of the cuts, which included reduced monitoring of oil spills, air pollution and hazardous waste.

The EPA isn’t the only federal agency that would be impacted by the cuts. For example, the operating budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also at risk, which could potentially degrade the government’s ability to provide timely and accurate weather forecasts. Specifically, the sequester could cause a two- to three-year delay in the production and deployment of the first two next-generation weather satellites being developed through a program called GOES-R. “This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings,” said Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank. “It is unclear that future years of investment will be able to undo some of the damage—especially to our weather preparedness.”

The energy sector will also feel the effects if the cuts aren’t avoided by March 1. There could be a slowdown in the development of oil and gas resources as well as a decline in the permitting of solar and wind installations on federal lands. The cuts could also affect clean energy deployment, decrease the number of homes eligible for energy-efficiency upgrades and delay the cleanup of nuclear waste at sites in Tennessee, South Carolina, Washington and Idaho.

Obama has called a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss the sequester, but absent a deal, the cuts will begin at 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Obama’s Picks for Energy, Environment

Gina McCarthy and Ernest Moniz are still clear favorites to help lead President Barack Obama’s environment and energy team. Timing for formal announcements, however, are less clear, sources told Politico.

McCarthy is expected to replace Lisa Jackson, who stepped down as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month. Moniz, currently the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, could replace Steven Chu as the head of the Department of Energy. Reuters says McCarthy “would likely become the face of Obama’s latest push to fight climate change,” while Nature says Moniz “would bring to the office a pragmatic support for nuclear power and natural gas, along with a candid desire to, in his own words, ‘innovate like hell’ on basic energy technologies.”

BP Oil Spill Trial Opens

Testimony began this week in the civil trial surrounding the deadly explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010. Unless a settlement is reached, Federal District Judge Carl J. Barbier will determine who is liable for damages resulting from the rupture and discharge of millions of gallons of crude oil from BP’s high-pressure Macondo well. In addition, Barbier will assess whether BP, Transocean or other companies that worked on the project were grossly negligent in their handling of the rig and well in order to decide how much money will be paid.

finding of gross negligence could mean more than $17 billion in Clean Water Act fines and other punitive damages, beyond the $8.5 billion settlement the company reached in 2012.

Record-Setting Renewable Energy Projects See Light

In a conference of leaders in the offshore wind industry, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hinted at the nation’s energy future. “It is going to be very much a continuation agenda,” Salazar said. Though the sequester could slow offshore wind energy development in the Atlantic, he noted that Cape Wind—the first proposed offshore wind project in the U.S.—should break ground in 2013, despite earlier holdups.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown cleared the $1 billion McCoy Solar Project for fast-track approval. Estimated to provide enough electricity to power 264,000 homes, the solar project would be the world’s biggest (subscription required).

And across the pond, Saudi Arabia revealed a plan to install 54 gigawatts of renewable energy—a combination of solar, wind, geothermal and waste-to-energy plants by 2032. The project aims to reduce the amount of oil burned in power stations by the world’s top oil exporter.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.