Energy Department to boost energy sector climate change efforts

Pershing recently moved to the Energy Department after years of being second in command for the State Department’s international climate change efforts.

Coming from that background, Pershing understands plenty about the difficulty of coaxing unwilling actors to shift the way they do business.

The energy sector is tricky in a similar way, because federal government doesn’t have much jurisdiction over electric utilities and oil and gas drilling within states.

“The sector itself requires a lot of parts to work together,” Pershing acknowledged.

But he said investors, electric utilities, insurance firms and state regulators are waking up to the dangers posed by extreme weather events, such as wildfires, floods and storms.

The report the department released Thursday underscores such developments and comes as Congress is talking about how to prevent deadly wildfires like the one that killed 19 elite firefighters last month in Arizona.

The DOE report said that climate change will continue to feed such incidents and that continuing business as usual will put energy infrastructure at risk.

It’s the first of several in the coming weeks and months, Pershing said.

The department will put out a report on how climate change could impact the electric grid later this summer, he said. Another report on the nexus of climate change and hydropower — more severe droughts linked to climate change means less water available for generating electricity — will follow.

The DOE is releasing this data deluge shortly after President Obama announced a climate plan that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in hopes of preventing future extreme weather.

While climate scientists avoid connecting singular weather incidents to climate change, they say its effects exacerbate them.

For the new DOE initiative, getting data out is the first step, Pershing said.

He expects stakeholders to ask questions after they digest the information, which will lead to more technical analyses from the DOE. Then the department can work with other agencies, regulators and industries to develop best practices, he said.

Pershing said some of that work is already happening in the Northeast in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Electric utilities, insurance firms, state governments and federal agencies there are piecing together a framework for prevent another widespread disaster, Pershing said.

The storm in October 2012 left more than 8 million people across 21 states without power. It also disrupted electricity delivery to gas stations and fuel import terminals, causing gasoline shortages on the East Coast.

Pershing said getting more data out to various actors about the risks climate change poses could incent other regions to act. Or if one takes the lead, as in the Northeast, it could pass along lessons learned to other areas that face similar threats, he said.

Making such information more available might also encourage more investment in the energy sector, Pershing suggested.

Pershing said potential financiers are sitting on the sideline because they’re unsure how vulnerable some projects might be to the effects of climate change. Providing more precise data, he said, could eliminate some of those unknowns, as well as push regulators, governments and utilities to better protect their systems against extreme weather.

“We at DOE can help with that kind of data for investors, regulators, utilities,” Pershing said. “There’s a broad suite of players.”