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DEP Press Office Spins Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report

Release of Emissions Inventory needlessly creates deep confusion

We just had a replay of the confusion created following Governor Christie’s Feb. 22 budget address.

Recall that the Gov. went out of his way to brag that he slashed DEP’ budget by 10%, a claim that was contradicted just 1 hour later by DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, who issued a press release that said DEP’s budget had increased by 5.3% (see: Did Martin Pull a Schundler?).

To his business cronies, Christie wanted to appear a “fiscally responsible” budget hawk, particularly by starving the beast at DEP. Yet, he and Bob Martin also wanted to appear pro-environment.

It’s deja vu all over again – but this time Martin didn’t wait an hour. He appeared with the Governor. They want it both ways again:

Last week, the NJ DEP issued a press release, announcing the release of a DEP Report on Greenhouse gas emissions during the calendar year 2008.

The lede of the press release highlighted that greenhouse gas emissions were declining and claimed that NJ had actually met the Global Warming Response Act’s 2020 emissions reduction goals.

The DEP release was issued the same day Governor Christie stirred national controversy  by announcing that he was withdrawing NJ from the 10 northeast states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

Here is DEP’s lede:

TRENTON – Statewide greenhouse gas emissions decreased by more than 8 percent in 2008, bringing New Jersey under 2020 emissions levels targeted by the State’s Global Warming Response Act (GWRA), according to a legislatively mandated report issued by the DEP today.

We’ll get to that alleged “legislative mandate” in a moment (see point #1 below), but at this point will note that it implies some sense of independence between the release of the Report and the Governor’s RGGI statement.

The same day DEP issued the emissions inventory, Governor Christie held a press conference – accompanied by DEP Commissioner Martin. In addition to his RGGI statement, in an effort to have it both ways, the Governor issued a dubious statement highlighting bullets about Christie’s “Commitment to Protecting NJ’s Environment” .

For national consumption, the NY Times coverage noted that Christie’s withdrawal from RGGI was based on this rationale:

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said the regional climate initiative “does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses, with no discernible or measurable impact upon our environment.”

In NJ media circles, although Christie won praise for finally conceding that humans caused global warming (a scientific conclusion he previously denied), a close reading of the text of the Governor’s statement suggests just the opposite.

Instead of walking back his global warming denial, Christie actually is using classic propaganda techniques to manufacture false uncertainty about:

  • the scientific consensus on man made global warming (“we are at least part of the problem” – inference: we better figure out how much):
  • the urgency of the problem and strength of the science to support policy actions now (we are “just beginning to have a fuller understanding” – inference: guess we need to wait for more science to come in); and
  • the existence of currrent NJ laws and policies to control greenhouse gas emissions (“put policies in place” – inference: putting in place policy takes more time and we’re under no binding laws and policies now. Just like the New Normal, the past is not binding):

[Update: 6/6/11 – read this piece about risk versus uncertainty: “Risky Advice“]

Christie did all this by saying:

But when you have over 90% of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role it’s time to defer to the experts. Climate science is complex though and “we’re just beginning to have a fuller understanding of humans” role in all of this. But we know enough to know that we are at least a part of the problem. So looking forward, we need to work to put policies in place that act at reducing those contributing factors.

So, moving right along, from a communications perspective, what’s up with these deeply conflicting messages on a key issue? Can emissions be declining, and yet RGGI ineffective? What’s the relationship between RGGI and emissions reductions? What explains emissions reductions? How much is due to RGGI and how much does RGGI cost? What does the money go toward? Who benefits and who pays?

The Governor’s statement provided 4 reasons for killing RGGI (we will examine them in a subsequent post).

Getting back to DEP’s emissions inventory press release: Was DEP providing cover for the Governor by balancing the “good news” about emissions reductions with the bad Christie RGGI move? Did they expect more praise and cover from Pringle?

Do the Christie folks think they can have it both ways? Or was this incoherent chaos an intentional move to baffle the media and public by creating a plausible cover story?

Let’s first look at the media dynamics.

Predictably, the DEP press release on the emissions inventory Report prompted criticism from Jeff Tittel of Sierra Club, who also questioned the timing of its release, comparing it to discredited George Bush tactics:

“This report is the environmental equivalent of George Bush landing on an aircraft carrier with a sign that says ‘Mission Accomplished,’ ” said Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter. “The data makes no sense.”

The DEP press office fired back, with another in what has become a pattern of increasingly harsh attacks on Tittel:

“The study speaks for itself. It’s just a factual report,” said DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese. “Jeff Tittel can criticize all he wants, but this study was prepared by DEP scientists who are viable, credible professionals who put the numbers together as required by the Legislature. The numbers are legitimate and valid.”

We agree with DEP on one point – yes, DEP scientists and staff are credible. But the DEP Commissioner and Press Office are not.

Shame on them for timing the release of this report to provide Christie RGGI cover and then hiding political spin behind the reputations of DEP professionals.

That too is a page out of Bush media playbook. Bush shamelessly hid behind the troops. He did this to dodge criticism of Bush’s bad decision to go to war in Iraq. Critics were marginalized and attacked as unfaithful to the troops fighting his foolish war (this explains all the obligatory “Support the Troops” crap. The modern roots of that go back to Nixon administration lies about hippies spitting on Vietnam Vets as they returned to the US. But I digress).

Moving on to the technical front, I reviewed and will focus today of the emissions inventory Report (I intend to write a policy piece about Governor Christie and the RGGI issues in a subsequent post).

My intent here is not to get into the increasingly petty he said/she said DEP press office squables or to defend Tittel (he’s more than capable of that), but to illustrate how DEP Press Office is hiding behind and spinning the data in the DEP staff emissions inventory Report.

1. The timing is Suspect

The DEP Report releases data from 2008 – which leads to the obvious question of “why was it released now?”.

The timing of the release is highly suspected of political motives, for at least the following reasons:

  • The Christie RGGI withdrawal press conference. RGGI is one of 3 major components of NJ’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy.
  • Section 7 of the GWRA requires DEP to submit biennial reports (i.e. every 2 years), starting in January 2009. According to DEP’s May 2011 Report, the last biennial report was completed in November 2009 and included estimated greenhouse gas emissions for years 2005 through 2007. The next biennial Report  was due in January 2011, but could be expected in November 2011, Regardless, it should include emissions for years 2007 – 2009. So why was this Report issued in May 2011 and limited to 2008 emissions? Why is DEP moving to an annual Report when the law specifies biennial reporting?
  • According to Appendix A of the DEP report, the 2008 electric sector in state emissions “data were downloaded from the Department’s database through WebIntelligece on  May 19, 2010. That was over 1 year ago – does it take over a years to format that data in a Report? What explains the delay?

2) The Press release is selective and misleading with repect to attaining Global Warming Response Act Goals

The DEP staff report correctly notes that the GWRA has two very different emissions reduction goals: a 2020 target and a far more stringent 2050 target. Yet the DEP press release selectively mentions only the 2020 target. This cherry picking misleadingly implies that the Act’s requirements are met.  As Tittel said: “Mission Accomplished“.

The DEP staff Report noted that we have a long way to go in meeting GWRA goals. Here is what the Report actually says. But you wont find these key findings in the DEP Press Office spin: 

The Statewide greenhouse gas limit for 2050 is 80 percent less than the 2006 level of Statewide greenhouse gas emissions, or 25.4 MMTCO2e. To achieve this limit, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced approximately 101.5 MMTCO2e compared to 2006 emissions. The 2008 releases are 124.9 MMTCO2e, approximately 99.5 MMTCO2e above the 2050 limit. 

3) Emissions inventory relies on EPA emissions factors, not actual emissions – This obscures the fact that Christie killed DEP’s proposed greenhouse gas emission monitoring and reporting rule

The DEP Report is based – and heavily reliant on – fuel use data from the Energy Information Administration and various EPA greenhouse gas emissions factors, not actual emissions data.

This reliance on emissions factors not only injects uncertainty into the inventory, but is masks the fact that Governor Christie killed DEP proposed emissions inventory monitoring and reporting rule, which would greatly improve the inventory by providing real actual emissions (see: CHRISTIE SHREDS NEW JERSEY CLIMATE CHANGE PROGRAMS – Kills Emission Reporting, Diverts Green Energy Fund & Defunds Climate Office

4) Alleged emissions reductions are exceeded by the 5% undertainty factor, adjustments in methods, and dubious assumptions

The DEP Report estimates that 2008 emissions are 124.9 MMT, down from 2007 by 11 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

This 11 MMT estimate is transparently qualified with this caveat in a footnote to the staff Report:

All numbers are estimates; uncertainty of totals is likely in range of plus or minus 5 percent.

Thus, a 5% uncertainty factor is about +/- 6.2 MMT, or more than half of the estimated 2008 reductions. The estimates should have been provided as a range, not a numeric value, e.g. as 118.7 – 131.1 MMT (+/- 6.2)

The DEP press release reports a numeric value and lacks this caveat. This elides uncertainty and thereby misleads about the accuracy and reliability of the inventory’s estimates.

Furthermore, the 2008 Report is based on various adjustments in methodology. The changes all have the effect of reducing emissions. For example, changes in methods result in reductions of 3.5 MMT for forest sequestration.

Thus, uncertaintly and changes in methods may actually account for LARGER than reported emissions reductions. Actual real emissions may have increased.

5) Adjustments to methodology from prior inventories clouds results and undermines trend analysis. 

The DEP Report transparently concedes this set of problems and attemtps to address it – the DEP press release does not.

6) There is selective and biased adjustments, all of which lower emissions but ignore increases in emissions.

Importantly, the DEP estimates that significant emissions reductions may have occured due to fuel switching from coal to natural gas. Yet the Report fails to consider that EPA recently revised its GHG emissions factors for natural gas, making them essentially the same as coal. (see: Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated)

Use of EPA’s current revised natural gas emissions factors very likely would signifciantly increase estimated electric sector and total emissions.  

7) forest sequestration estimate is not fully documented and contradicted by forest loss and land development data

The DEP report estimates that carbon is being “sequestered” in forests and soil – and that this has increased since 1990.

Yet, for many years, NJ has been losing 15,000 – 20,000 acres per year to development – including forests, wetlands, farms, vegetation, and soils that store carbon.

I don’t have the expertise or time to review the Rutgers study and DEP’s very confusing Appendix A “explanation” of this apparently glaring conflict, so let’s just say is injects serious doubt into the land clearing emisions (1.7 MMT) and sequestration estimates (7.6 MMT).

8. Electric sector fuel switching to natural gas estimate not documented and ignores EPA’s increase in emissions factors for natural gas

Natural gas emission factors are far too low – see point #6 above.

9. Garbage incineration emissions reduced by 60% based on a dubious assumption

DEP subtracts 60% of garbage incinerator emissions (0.5 MMT) resulting from burning of paper on the highly dubious assumption that paper is manufactured from trees harvested in sustainable forests. Right.

10. conflict and possible error in forest sequestration data reported in Appendix A

Table 1 (page 4) estimates forest carbon sequestration at -7.6 MMT, but Appendix A seems to report -4 MMT. Either I’m reading this wrong or there is an error.

Aside from delving into the weeds to raise these technical issues, the larger problem is that the simultaneous release of a DEP press release – which conflicts with Gov.’s conclusions for RGGI withdrawal – needlessly creates nothing but deep confusion.

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