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August 30 2012

20:54

Electrical Generation Capacity from Renewable Sources Surges Under Obama


Electrical generating capacity and net output has grown significantly under the Obama administrationElectrical generation from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal has grown dramatically under the Obama administration says Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign.

Bossong cites two new government studies that show a near doubling of non-hydro renewable energy sources contributing to U.S. electrical generation since president Obama took office.

The latest issue of the Electric Power Monthly from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) analyzes data through June 2012. The report shows that from January 1 to June 30, 2012 non-hydro renewable energy sources (geothermal, biomass, solar, and wind) provided 5.76 percent of net electrical generation, an increase of 10.97 percent for the same period last year. Utility scale solar increased 97.2 percent from one year ago, wind generation grew 16.3 percent and geothermal by 0.2 percent. Biomass declined by 0.8 percent.

For the first half of 2012, wind contributed 3.84 percent of net electrical generation with biomass following at 1.4 percent, geothermal at 0.45 percent and finally solar with 0.09 percent – noting that this figure does not take into account the significant growth in small solar systems such as rooftop PV solar and other non-utility-scale solar projects. Another 7.86 percent of net generation came from conventional hydropower, which declined 14.3 percent from the same period in 2011.

During the last full year of the Bush administration, non-hydro renewable energy sources contributed 3.06 percent to net electrical generation, averaging 10,508 gigawatt-hours of output per month. Since then average monthly electrical generation has grown 78.70 percent from non-renewable sources with an output of 18,777 gigawatt-hours as of mid-2012. Electrical output from solar has grown by 285.19 percent in the period from 2008 to mid-2012, wind by 171.72 percent, and geothermal by 13.53 percent. Biomass has dropped by 0.56 percent.

The second government study come from the Energy Infrastructure Update from the Office of Energy Projects at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). According to the latest data 38 percent of all new electrical generating capacity for the first half of 2012 came from 229 renewable energy projects (“capacity” does not mean actual generation). Fifty new wind projects accounted for 2,367 Megawatts (MW)  of capacity, solar has 111 projects for 588 MW, 59 biomass projects contribute 271 MW, 5 geothermal projects for 87 MW, and finally 4 water power projects at 11MW.

Electrical generating capacity from new renewable sources were more than double than new capacity from coal, with only 2 new coal projects coming online,  contributing 1,608 MW of capacity. Renewable energy sources now contribute 14.76 percent of total installed generating capacity in the United States:

  • Hydro: 8.66%
  • Wind: 4.30%
  • Biomass: 1.23%
  • Geothermal: 0.31%
  • Solar: 0.26% (again, this figure accounts only for utility-scale projects, not the significant contribution from smaller PV solar systems)

Overall, natural gas leads with 41.83 percent and coal with 29.66 percent of total installed capacity. Nuclear power stands steady at 9.16 percent with the final 0.07 percent coming from waste heat.

“The numbers speak for themselves – notwithstanding politically-inspired criticism, the pro-renewable energy policies pioneered by the Obama Administration have proven their worth through dramatic growth rates during the past three and one-half years,” said Bossong. “The investments in sustainable energy made by the federal government as well as individual states and private funders have paid off handsomely underscoring the short-sightedness of proposals to slash or discontinue such support.”

 

March 21 2012

19:30

Documents Reveal USDA Risking Lawsuits by Ignoring Own Staff On Fracking Mortgages Review

A major storm is brewing over the USDA’s sudden about-face on fracking and environmental laws. On Tuesday, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture pulled a 180-degree U-turn and decided to reverse the call made by his staff specialists, who advised that the agency immediately stop giving special exemptions from environmental laws to people applying for federal mortgages on properties with oil and gas leases.

Now, environmentalists, members of Congress, and transparency groups are saying that something seems amiss and they are looking for answers.

It all started on Monday when The New York Times ran a story with emails showing that the USDA planned to tell its $165 billion dollar mortgage program to stop financing properties with drilling leases until an environmental review of the impact of drilling and fracking on homes backed by the agency could be completed.

The proposal by the Agriculture Department, which has signaled its intention in e-mails to Congress and landowners, reflects a growing concern that lending to owners of properties with drilling leases might violate the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, which requires environmental reviews before federal money is spent. Because that law covers all federal agencies, the department’s move raises questions about litigation risks for other agencies, legal experts said,” the Times story explained.

DeSmogBlog has obtained many of the emails and they make very clear that the staff specialists, whose job it is to interpret laws like NEPA, believe that environmental reviews are legally required and that the agency is vulnerable to litigation if it gives these mortgages a pass, called a “categorical exclusion.”

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January 25 2012

18:16

Built to Fail: National Energy Board Muzzles Environmental Scientists In Enbridge Northern Gateway Hearing

The Obama Administration’s recent decision to deny TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline is monumental. Alongside the rousing display of public environmental activism sparked by the proposed pipeline, the US government finally showed its environmental assessment process has a backbone. And given this timely announcement, which coincides with the Enbridge Joint Panel Review of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, it might be cause for some optimism. That is, it would be if the Enbridge hearing wasn’t built to fail.

But the hearings are built to fail. The National Energy Board (NEB), the federal body tasked with overseeing the Enbridge hearing, issued a general directive one year ago designed to exclude input from prominent environmental groups critical of the astonishingly rapid expansion of the tar sands – an expansion that only stands to increase with the proposed pipeline. 

According to the NEB, information regarding the cumulative environmental impacts of the tar sands – including climate change impacts – is irrelevant to the hearing, which is intended to consider information regarding the pipeline alone.

The NEB’s muzzle tactics affected groups like the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the Living Oceans Society and Forest Ethics, all prominent organizations critical of the environmental threats posed by the tar sands. Facing the board’s enforced censorship, these groups teamed up with EcoJustice to appeal the directive.

Paul Paquet, biologist and senior scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, headed up the organization’s submission to the NEB. The group's plan to discuss the pipeline in the context of the tar sands ran aground with the release of the January 2011 NEB directive entitled “Panel Session Results and Decision." Their submission “became a major issue,” Paquet told DeSmogBlog, “because of course we were looking at the tar sands.”

It looked to Raincoast like the NEB had responded to their application, and others, by issuing a gag order. And indeed, they had.

Nobody has been silenced directly; only by the directive that came from the NEB…And that’s right across for everybody, not just us," said Paquet. "I think it's scandalous.”

The NEB justifies the exclusion - which denies some of Canada's leading environmental scientists the right to talk about climate change, greenhouse gasses and Canada's energy future throughout the hearing - rather crudely:

…we do not consider that there is a sufficiently direct connection between the [Pipeline] Project and any particular existing or proposed oil sands development, or other oil production activities, to warrant consideration of the environmental effects of such activities…Subject to consideration of cumulative effects…we will not consider the environmental effects of upstream hydrocarbon production projects or activities in our review.” [emphasis mine]

To an environmental scientist like Paquet, the full significance of the directive was shockingly obvious:

it was a general directive in order to try to constrain the hearings…including issues of cumulative effects or sustainable development that are supposed to be looked at. You can hardly talk about sustainable development that relates to the pipeline by excluding a discussion of the tar sands,” Paquet told DeSmogBlog.

But when EcoJustice began investigating the energy board’s hearing strategy they realized that was exactly what was slated to happen: a hearing crafted to overstate the benefits of the pipeline by ignoring the inherent costs of the tar sands. Although the NEB hasn't been entirely consistent in their rationale. Apparently when it comes to the tar sands, not all opinions are equal.

Duplicitous Directive

Though the NEB termed Raincoast’s treatment of the tar sands irrelevant to the pipeline, the Pipeline Partnership’s treatment of the tar sands was fair game – a little inconsistency EcoJustice thought pertinent to mention in its appeal.

According to Barry Robinson, the EcoJustice lawyer representing the three environmental groups, the hearing is strategically biased. "We generally see this as an unbalanced approach," he told DeSmogBlog, "to consider the economic benefits but not the environmental impacts."

And if you're going to include the one you should, as a matter principle, be open to including the other. "Since Enbridge is relying on the economic benefits of the oil sands and its one of the reasons to approve this then you must equally consider the environmental impacts of the oil sands," he continued.

The premise of Enbridge's Project Application submitted by the Northern Gateway Pipelines Limited Partnership falls entirely upon the benefits the pipeline will bring to tar sands development. The pipeline is in no way a standalone project; its contribution to the tar sands economy is its only measure of success.

And that is why the Partnership's application relies so heavily on the projected economic benefits the pipeline will bring to the tar sands.

In the words of the Partnership:

There is a clear opportunity to link, by new pipelines and marine transportation, regions of rapid demand growth with new, secure supplies of oil, such as those that are increasingly available from Canada’s oil sands. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Project (the Project) will create that link by connecting to suppliers of oil delivered at the Edmonton hub…”

…As nations continue to develop and grow, oil sands supply will continue to respond by increasing production. It is critical, however, that oil sands producers can access new global markets to support their development so that Canada obtains full value for its secure oil production…”

…Enbridge’s Gateway Project is an important part of Canada’s energy future and will help ensure there is enough capacity to transport new oil from Canada’s oil sands in the years to come…”

EcoJustice challenged the NEB’s disingenuous claim that there is no “significant direct connection” between the Northern Gateway proposed pipeline and “existing or proposed tar sands development.”

But EcoJustice's appeal is something the National Energy Board refused to reconsider, twice. 

"Early in the panel process we formed a letter on behalf of the three groups [pushing] that the environmental impacts…should be considered…Then the panel came out with…the panel decision and they declared that 'no, we are not including upstream impacts.' We subsequently submitted a formal motion to the panel, arguing that the upstream impacts should be included…and they once again decided that the impacts are outside the scope of what the hearing will consider,"Robinson told DeSmogBlog.

The apparent double standard on NEB's part here is clear: Gateway supporters are welcome, while critics who bring up the larger issue of the tar sands are muzzled.

From a legal perspective, says Robinson, "the panel, particularly in its role as a National Energy Board panel, has to decide if the project is in the public interest…and they are required to balance both the benefits and the burdens of the project."

Legality, however, might have little to do with it, says Paquet. “It's just one of those issues where justice and the law aren’t necessarily going to be the same.”

Image: Burning oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Used with permission from Kris Krug.

December 12 2011

15:49

A Democrat Undermines Science

In my debate a few months back with Kenneth Green about the left, the right, and science, my colleague really could have used some more strong examples of left wing science abuse.

Now, he has one.

There is no other way to spin it: The Obama administration’s decision to ignore the FDA, and refuse to make Plan B emergency contraception (the “morning after” pill) available over the counter, is a clear and unequivocal case of politics interfering with science. And it is a particularly galling one because, as former FDA official Susan Wood points out, this is one of the key issues on which the last administration, that of George W. Bush, misused science. So there is every reason for the Obama administration to have known better, and to have done differently.

In fact, the bogus argument that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius used, to justify overruling her own expert agency, is the same bogus argument that was attempted during the Bush years.

Sebelius argued that

The label comprehension and actual use studies did not contain data for all ages for which this product would be available for use….the data, submitted by Teva [Pharmaceuticals], do not conclusively establish that Plan B One-Step should be made available over the counter for all girls of reproductive age.

Here’s what I reported in The Republican War on Science, back in 2005:

The FDA’s stated reason for ignoring its scientific advisers—that Barr [Pharmaceuticals] had not provided adequate data on how younger adolescents would use the drug….

In both cases, politicians were demanding more “data” on a drug that has already been proven safe, and creating hurdles that other drugs—drugs not having something to do with, uh, sex—have not had to clear.

The interesting question is why the Obama administration has so clearly abused science on this issue. After all, it is not like the Democrats usually do what the Christian right says. And concerns about Plan B have long been tied to Christian right moralizing about young girls and promiscuity.

One can only hypothesize: Perhaps this is an attempt to head off potential criticism from the right in a coming election year.

But that’s just the point—you don’t get to go against the science for any reason, whether it is to appease your own base or to protect yourself from political attack. The excuse doesn’t matter, because there is no excuse.

I don’t think this one case study changes the big picture: The right is still much more in conflict with science than the left. And in my new book The Republican Brain, I will explain why it is very natural that things should be this way—that, generally, liberals and scientists should find themselves aligned, and conservatives and scientists should find themselves opposed.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be counterexamples in complex social systems, or political situations. And the supposedly pro-science (and now simply hypocritical) Obama administration has just provided a very, very big one.

November 19 2011

00:08

Another Blow To Dirty Energy: Fracking Nixed In The Delaware River Basin

Last night, big news erupted across the Northeast with an announcement that fracking in the Delaware River Basin, a pristine watershed that supplies water to over 15 million people, would be suspended. The Delaware River Basin Commission was set to vote on whether or not to permit 20,000 fracking wells in the area on Monday, November 15th. However after enormous citizen backlash, the DRBC realized they did not have the votes to push the practice through.

The Commission is made up of the 4 governors of basin states: New York (Cuomo), New Jersey (Christie), Pennsylvania (Corbett), and Delaware (Markell). The fifth member is from the Army Corps of Engineers, who is there to vote on behalf of the Obama administration.

Earlier in the week, sources indicated that Pennsylvania and New Jersey were set to vote yes, while New York was set to vote no. This left Delaware and the Obama administration up in the air. Advocacy groups and citizens targeted Delaware, knowing that the Obama administration wouldn’t likely leave themselves in the position of tie-breaker.

Knowing of the widespread, devastating health and environmental effects fracking has left in other areas of the nation, many people in the Delaware River Basin are immensely concerned about the prospect of fracking in their watershed. So much so, that when information came out that offices of the members of the Commission were tallying phone calls, people flooded the offices with calls and emails urging each to vote no on allowing fracking into the area, to the point where voicemail boxes were full for days.

After Delaware announced they would vote no at Monday’s meeting, as predicted, the meeting was soon cancelled. Ideally citizens would have liked to see fracking legitimately outlawed, but for now, it’s a temporary victory that will keep gas fracking - which some have dubbed as extreme energy extraction - out of an area that supplies water to millions.

Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch made the following statement,

This is a victory for the grassroots activists who have passionately rallied to protect our water, communities and health from the potentially devastating effects of this dirty practice. By standing up against big lobbying cash and flashy ads touting the job creating effects of shale gas development, we have won this critical fight.This delay is really a testament to the power of fighting for the what we believe in, not the best we can get. We’ll continue to forge ahead until we have a ban on fracking in the U.S.”

November 10 2011

20:51

Breaking News: Obama Administration to Delay Decision on Keystone XL Pipeline


A decision to delay the Keystone XL pipeline to TexasThe State Department will delay until after the 2012 election the decision on whether to allow the controversial Keystone XL pipeline intended to route oil produced from the Alberta Tar Sands south to refineries in Texas. A decision on the pipeline had been expected by the end of the year.

Until recently the general assumption was that the Keystone pipeline project would be permitted. In October of 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “inclined to approve it” because Canada is a better source of oil than the Middle East. But mounting opposition to the project in recent weeks and months has forced the administration to think twice. The dissent has not only come from environmentalist groups, but also from states directly affected by the proposed pipeline. GOP-leaning Nebraska has expressed concern over the route the pipeline will take, much of it over the vast Ogallala Aquifer extending across the Great Plains.

The unfolding scenario has put the Obama administration in a political squeeze between exploiting more “friendly” sources of oil and the environmental consequences of oil produced from tar sands, which is often characterized as a “slow motion oil spill.”

Despite the tough political situation and mounting pressure from all sides for a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project, the administration insists the delay is not for political reasons, but to consider possible alternative routing and to further assess the full consequences of the project.

Portions of the pipeline already built have produced at least 12 oil spills already, including one “six story geyser” that dumped  21,000 gallons of oil in North Dakota.

 

Image credit: Carl Chapman. Some rights reserved.
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September 07 2011

18:49

Obama Can Regulate the Environment and Create Green Jobs


President Obama should focus on creating green jobs and supporting environmental regulation. Jobs and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusiveAs U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to unveil his jobs and economic plan, his popularity is at an all-time low. Support from the President’s base has been eroded by the two week long protest against the Keystone XL pipeline and profound disappointment about the abandonment of stricter ozone regulations.

From the end of August to the beginning of September, a total of 1,252 protesters were arrested in front of the White House for opposing the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Those arrested included 350.org’s Bill McKibben and NASA climate scientist James Hansen. The tar sands pipeline could galvanize U.S. action on climate because many believe we should be working to reduce the demand for oil rather than increase the supply.

The Obama administration decision to abandon stricter ozone pollution standards pleased Republicans and business groups who say environmental regulations kill jobs. However, the research shows that regulations are not killing small business.

Previous regulations, like amendments to the Clean Air Act, have resulted in far lower costs and job losses than indicated by industry and the GOP. When the EPA first proposed amendments to the Clean Air Act aimed at reducing acid rain caused by power plant emissions, the electric utility industry warned that it would cost $7.5 billion and tens of thousands of jobs. But as reported in the New York Times, Dallas Burtraw, an economist at Resources for the Future, indicated that the cost has been closer to $1 billion. The EPA cited studies showing that the law had been a modest net creator of jobs through industry spending on compliance technology.The costs of regulation should be factored alongside reduced mortality and morbidity. The New York Times reports that clean air regulations have reduced infant mortality and increased housing prices according to research by Greenstone.

The Sierra Club indicates that half of U.S. families live in communities where the air is unsafe to breathe. According to the Sierra Club, the new standard for smog would have prevented up to 12,000 premature deaths, 5,300 heart attacks and tens of thousands of asthma attacks and other serious respiratory illnesses each year. These protections from smog would have saved billions of dollars in health costs.

Countries around the world are investing in cleaner air and a healthier environment. According to ENN, the 2011 Global Green Economy Index (GGEI) show that expert practitioners in the green economy rank Germany as the top overall national green performer while a new index places New Zealand on top. The UK has also announced its national sustainability agenda.

Many other countries are getting very serious about their focus on sustainability. Bolivia forwarded a piece of legislation called la Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra (the Law of Mother Earth), which encourages a radical shift in conservation, enforces new control measures on industry, and reduces environmental destruction.

Bolivia’s law redefines natural resources as blessings and confers the same rights to nature as to human beings, including: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. Perhaps the most controversial point is the right “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

Ecuador has enshrined similar aims in its Constitution, other nations have also shown interest in this approach including Nicaragua, Venezuela, Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

In the summer of 2011, politicians in Turkey sought a constitution that would afford rights to the Earth. Even the African nation of Nigeria is working hard to protect their environment. To help with this task, Nigeria created the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) which was created to help enforce environmental laws, standards and regulations in the country.

In the U.S., the preoccupation with jobs overshadows any interest in the environment. When President Obama addressed a crowd of more than 10,000 people in Detroit on Labor Day, they were heard chanting “More good jobs.” During the speech, the President intimated what he’ll be saying in his major jobs address to the joint session of Congress.

“We’ve got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding,” Obama said. “I still believe both parties can work together to solve our problems. We’re going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party.”

A move toward stricter governmental regulation would help green industries to grow and provide jobs. Despite the prevailing public mood, job creation is intimately connected with environmental protection. But it is hard to imagine that Republicans will work with the President to pass any legislation, particularly environmental legislation. According to the Presidential Climate Action Project, there is a great deal the President can do without congressional input. In 2010 they provided a report (pdf) that lists a large number of actions that can be implemented with executive orders.

“What we’re saying is Congress has decided not to act, but [Obama] can do so,” former Sen. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat and a co-chairman of the group, said.

It’s not as if Obama has failed to make progress on climate issues. In October 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order 13514, Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance. This EO calls on Federal agencies to set and meet specific sustainability related targets throughout their operations. As part of this undertaking, GSA is leveraging its purchasing power to promote sustainable procurement. More recently, the Obama administration developed landmark fuel efficiency standards for vehicles by regulating cars and light trucks as well as trucks and buses.

Despite the lack of legislative progress on the environment, the Obama administration has done more to promote renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions than any previous government. However, Obama’s efforts have been impeded by the unrelenting multi-front manipulation of powerful interests associated with the old energy economy, including the oil industry. Further, the Republican controlled House is working hard to dismantle the EPA.

It comes down to the choice between temporary jobs of the past which are ruining the environment or permanent jobs of the future that protect the planet.

Republicans and ill-informed members of the business community are indicating that now is not the time for environmental regulations or investment in sustainability. In 2008, some feared that a recession would undermine the growth of sustainability, but current events appear to indicate otherwise. Difficult economic times auger greater efficiency, and a weak economy is also the reason why economists argue that massive green infrastructure investments may be the best way to strengthen the economy and create jobs.

A President’s popularity is a function of jobs and the best way to create jobs is to enact regulations and invest in the green economy.
——————–
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Austin Post and Take Part

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September 01 2011

09:51

Hillary Clinton's State Department Oil Services and the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline [VIDEO]

With over 700 people arrested so far in the Keystone XL tar sands action taking place at the Obama White House, and widespread distrust and criticism of the State Department’s final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), this is a critical moment in the fight against a disastrous proposal to build a tar sands pipeline between Alberta and oil refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. 

Given the scientific certainty that tar sands oil is a recklessly dirty form of energy - as well as fresh evidence from Oil Change International debunking the claims that increasing our dependence on Canadian oil would be helpful for U.S. national security - it should be a no brainer for the Obama administration to say no to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.

But powerful oil industry lobbying, as well as pressure from the Canadian government, seem to have deflated and cast aside this administration’s stated commitments to science-based decisionmaking. Rather than working to transition the nation to a clean energy future now, an Obama administration approval of Keystone XL would further solidify our dirty fossil fuel addiction.

To highlight the influence of oil industry lobbyists over Hillary Clinton’s State Department and its unscientific review of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline proposal, DeSmogBlog presents a video animation created by artist Mark Fiore, depicting the not-so-far-fetched “State Department Oil Services” led by Hillary Clinton:




Visit DeSmogBlog’s Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Action Page for more information.

June 08 2011

15:22

A Voice From (and for) the Wilderness

Bruce Babbitt, who served as interior secretary in the Clinton administration, speaks out against moves by the Republican majority in the House to dismantle environmental protections. And he accuses President Obama of failing to push back.

June 02 2011

19:32

President Obama Must Say No To Dirty Energy's Wish List

Originally published at TomDispatch.

In our globalized world, old-fashioned geography is not supposed to count for much: mountain ranges, deep-water ports, railroad grades -- those seem so nineteenth century. The earth is flat, or so I remember somebody saying.

But those nostalgic for an earlier day, take heart. The Obama administration is making its biggest decisions yet on our energy future and those decisions are intimately tied to this continent’s geography. Remember those old maps from your high-school textbooks that showed each state and province’s prime economic activities? A sheaf of wheat for farm country? A little steel mill for manufacturing? These days in North America what you want to look for are the pickaxes that mean mining, and the derricks that stand for oil.

There’s a pickaxe in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, one of the world’s richest deposits of coal. If we’re going to have any hope of slowing climate change, that coal -- and so all that future carbon dioxide -- needs to stay in the ground.  In precisely the way we hope Brazil guards the Amazon rainforest, that massive sponge for carbon dioxide absorption, we need to stand sentinel over all that coal.<!--break-->

Doing so, however, would cost someone some money.  At current prices the value of that coal may be in the trillions, and that kind of money creates immense pressure. Earlier this year, President Obama signed off on the project, opening a huge chunk of federal land to coal mining.  It holds an estimated 750 million tons worth of burnable coal. That’s the equivalent of opening 300 new coal-fired power plants. In other words, we’re talking about staggering amounts of new CO2 heading into the atmosphere to further heat the planet.

As Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute put it, “That’s more carbon pollution than all the energy -- from planes, factories, cars, power plants, etc. -- used in an entire year by all 44 nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean combined.”  Not what you’d expect from a president who came to office promising that his policies would cause the oceans to slow their rise. 

But if Obama has admittedly opened the mine gate, it's geography to the rescue. You still have to get that coal to market, and “market” in this case means Asia, where the demand for coal is growing fastest. The easiest and cheapest way to do that -- maybe the only way at current prices -- is to take it west to the Pacific where, at the moment, there’s no port capable of handling the huge increase in traffic it would represent.

And so a mighty struggle is beginning, with regional groups rising to the occasion.  Climate Solutions and other environmentalists of the northwest are moving to block port-expansion plans in Longview and Bellingham, Washington, as well as in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since there are only so many possible harbors that could accommodate the giant freighters needed to move the coal, this might prove a winnable battle, though the power of money that moves the White House is now being brought to bear on county commissions and state houses. Count on this: it will be a titanic fight.

Strike two against the Obama administration was the permission it granted early in the president’s term to build a pipeline into Minnesota and Wisconsin to handle oil pouring out of the tar sands of Alberta. (It came on the heels of a Bush administration decision to permit an earlier pipeline from those tar sands deposits through North Dakota to Oklahoma).  The vast region of boreal Canada where the tar sands are found is an even bigger carbon bomb than the Powder River coal.  By some calculations, the tar sands contain the equivalent of about 200 parts per million CO2 -- or roughly half the current atmospheric concentration. Put another way, if we burn it, there’s no way we can control climate change.

Fortunately, that sludge is stuck so far in the northern wilds of Canada that getting it to a refinery is no easy task.  It’s not even easy to get the equipment needed to do the mining to the extraction zone, a fact that noble activists in the northern Rockies are exploiting with a campaign to block the trucks hauling the giant gear north. (Exxon has been cutting trees along wild and scenic corridors just to widen the roads in the region, that’s how big their “megaloads” are.)

Unfortunately, the administration’s decision to permit that Minnesota pipeline has made the job of sending the tar sand sludge south considerably easier. And now the administration is getting ready to double down, with a strike three that would ensure forever Obama’s legacy as a full-on Carbon President.

The huge oil interests that control the tar sands aren’t content with a landlocked pipeline to the Midwest.  They want another, dubbed Keystone XL, that stretches from Canada straight to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. It would take the bitumen from the tar sands and pipe it across the heart of America. Imagine a video game where your goal is to do the most environmental damage possible: to the Cree and their ancestral lands in Canada, to Nebraska farmers trying to guard the Ogallala aquifer that irrigates their land, and of course to the atmosphere.

But the process is apparently politically wired and in a beautifully bipartisan Washington way. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must approve the plan for Keystone XL because it crosses our borders.  Last year, before she’d even looked at the relevant data, she said she was “inclined” to do so. And why not? I mean, the company spearheading the Keystone project, TransCanada, has helpfully hired her former deputy national campaign director as its principal lobbyist.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the political aisle, those oil barons the Koch Brothers and that fossil fuel front group the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pushing for early approval.  Michigan Republican Congressman Fred Upton, chair of the House Energy Committee, is already demanding that the project be fast-tracked, with a final approval decision by November, on the grounds that it would create jobs. This despite the fact that even the project’s sponsors concede it won’t reduce gas prices.  In fact, as Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation pointed out in testimony to Congress last month, their own documents show that the pipeline will probably cause the price at the pump to rise across the Midwest.

When the smaller pipeline was approved in 2009, we got a taste of the arguments that the administration will use this time around, all masterpieces of legal obfuscation. Don’t delay the pipeline over mere carbon worries will be the essence of it. 

Global warming concerns, said Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg then, would be "best addressed in the context of the overall set of domestic policies that Canada and the United States will take to address their respective greenhouse gas emissions." In other words, let’s confine the environmental argument over the pipeline to questions like: How much oil will leak?  In the meantime, we’ll pretend to deal with climate change somewhere else.

It’s the kind of thinking that warms the hearts of establishments everywhere. Michael Levi, author of a Council on Foreign Relations study of the Canadian oil sands, told the Washington Post that, with the decision, “the Obama administration made clear that it's not going to go about its climate policy in a crude, blunt way." No, it’s going about it in a smooth and… oily way.

If we value the one planet we’ve got, it’s going to be up to the rest of us to be crude and blunt. And happily that planet is pitching in. The geography of this beautiful North American continent is on our side: it’s crude and blunt, full of mountains and canyons. Its weather runs to extremes. It’s no easy thing to build a pipeline across it, or to figure out how to run an endless parade of train cars to the Pacific.

Tough terrain aids the insurgent; it slows the powerful. Though we’re fighting a political campaign and not a military one, we need to take full advantage.

Originally published at TomDispatch.

18:22

House Panel Faults Administration Spill Response

A Republican committee chairman says the administration appeared more concerned about protecting its own media profile and avoiding responsibility for recovery efforts than protecting gulf jobs and livelihoods.

May 18 2011

13:00

You've Got to Start Somewhere: A Climate Prescription

A former adviser to President Obama proposes giving utilities incentives for converting to cleaner forms of electricity without top-down mandates from the federal government or penalties for failure to comply.

April 20 2011

17:27

Obama Marks Anniversary of BP Disaster

The Deepwater Horizon drill rig exploded one year ago in the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting oil spill has had lingering consequences.

April 15 2011

13:39

One Million Electric Vehicles by 2015?


Will Barack Obama's call for one million electric vehicles on American roads by 2015 be realized? Some predict there could be as many as 14 million on the road by 2020. Either way we should soon be seeing many more signs like this one.(Our regularly featured Enviro News Wrap will be back next week)

EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama called for a million electric vehicles on American roads by 2015. How likely is it that we’ll attain that goal? – Jerry Mitlitski, Salem, OR

“We can break our dependence on oil…and become the first country to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” President Obama said in his January 2011 State of the Union address. “The future is ours to win.”

It’s difficult to say how likely such an arbitrary goal might be, but green leaders and others are optimistic. The waiting list for the new electric Nissan Leaf, rolling off the factory floor as we speak, is some 20,000 Americans long. The auto industry expects similar demand for other new electric and plug-in hybrid cars hitting U.S. roads this year and next from General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi and others.

Of course, the Obama administration realizes that attaining such a goal will be impossible without help from the federal government. To that end, consumers and businesses can get tax credits worth up to $7,500 on the purchase of each new electric vehicle (EV). The feds have also committed $2.4 billion for research and development into improving EV batteries, and another $115 million for the installation of EV charging infrastructure in 16 different metro areas around the country—not to mention some $300 million in clean cities grants to dozens of American communities working to reduce petroleum use, and the $25 billion being doled out to help U.S. automakers retool. So much federal involvement has helped spur state governments and private industry to make significant investments in the EV sector as well.

But even with all this funding, a million EVs on the road by 2015 may still be just a pipe dream. James Sweeney of Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center calls the plan “very aggressive.” He reasons that it took over a decade for hybrids—which “did not require any difference in infrastructure and had as great a range as conventional vehicles, neither of which is likely to be the case with electric vehicles”—to capture three percent of the U.S. passenger car and light truck market. EVs would have to achieve the same market share in just four years if Obama’s goal is to be realized. “Even with a large subsidy, it would be very hard to move to such a large market share that quickly,” Sweeney concludes.

The Electrification Coalition, an organization of pro-EV business leaders from companies including Nissan, Federal Express, Coda Automotive and Coulomb Technologies, would take issue with that conclusion, however. The group’s November 2009 study, dubbed the Electrification Roadmap, predicted that as many as 14 million EVs could be on American roads by 2020 if lawmakers create “electrification ecosystems” in several major U.S. cities simultaneously. If the group is anywhere near the mark, reaching Obama’s goal of a million EVs by 2015 should be a no-brainer. The group also says that EVs could account for as many as 75 percent of all miles driven by light duty vehicles in the U.S. by 2040.

Now if only we could clean up our supply of electricity too, then we really might be onto something good for the planet…

Contacts:
Precourt Energy Efficiency Center
Electrification Coalition

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Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski, courtesy Flickr

March 18 2011

22:47

Senate Ally Defends Obama on Gas Prices

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, delivered a long floor speech rebutting claims that Obama administration policies rather than Middle East uncertainties have driven up prices.

December 10 2010

19:10

PART TWO: The Paradox of Canada’s Tar Sands and America’s Drive to Substantially Decarbonize Energy

(Cont'd from Part 1) As far as the credibility of the U.S. and Canada in international climate negotiations, the Sierra Club’s Kate Colarulli thinks that continued tar sands oil production and consumption hurts both countries badly.  Canada’s reputation is particularly poor in this context.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s International Program, feels the same way.  Canada, in her view, has been completely discredited at the table as a direct consequence of the tar sands.

In Cancún, Canada has been an extremely visible target because of the tar sands.  Protesters there have made the salient point that Canada is dragging its feet on robust greenhouse gas reduction targets because of their desire to continue and radically expand the tar sands extraction.

Canada was also being tarred in Cancún – pun intended – by being the recipient of three “Fossil of the Day” awards, as voted by over 400 international organizations.  Canada was similarly dishonored at the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties for “…years of delay, obstruction and total inaction.”<!--break-->

Bringing the Crude to New Markets

The Natural Resources Defense Council has been a leader in the battle to curtail the destruction that the tar sands engender.  For one thing, they’ve fought to keep 526 in place in the face of nearly constant pressure to water it down or eliminate it.  They’ve also been involved in several legal battles on major pipeline projects to bring Canadian crude oil to the U.S.

The State Department has the responsibility to rule on international pipeline projects that cross into the U.S.  In August last year, they approved the Alberta Clipper project.  A new proposal, the Keystone XL pipeline, would transport up to 900,000 barrels a day of tar sands crude oil almost 2,000 miles from Alberta to refineries in the Gulf Coast, providing the first outlet beyond the U.S. for foreign markets.  The NRDC’s Casey-Lefkowitz points out that opposition within Canada prevents the crude from being sent by pipeline west to Vancouver.  The Province of British Columbia has a de facto moratorium in place on shipping of oil from its ports and the First Nations are vigorously against it being routed through their lands.

A recent pipeline rupture was responsible for a spill of a million gallons (over 20,000 barrels) of tar sands crude in Michigan.  There is concern, even among conservative Republican politicians, that the Keystone XL project will endanger critical resources like the Ogallala aquifer.
 
Environmental Review

State’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the Keystone XL project has been subjected to serious challenges, including from other key federal agencies.  The Environmental Protection Agency wrote a comprehensive 18-page critique calling for much more information and analysis.

The Department of Energy also commented [PDF].  One of the chief rationales for the importation of oil from Canada – and cited in State’s DEIS – is that the friendly relations between these two G-7 powerhouses will somehow buffer oil price shocks from other regions.  DOE challenges this notion.  “When the world experienced an oil price shock in 2008, Canada sold crude to the U.S. at a price linked to a global market price, not at or below market rates.”  Further, “In the case of a manipulation of supply to create price shock conditions, the Keystone XL pipeline would not eliminate the instruments that market participants may use to exercise market power.”

50 members of the House of Representatives wrote a letter to Secretary Clinton [PDF] in June calling for “a full lifecycle assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions for tar sands” to determine whether the pipeline “is consistent with the Administration’s clean energy and climate change priorities.”  Congressman Waxman wrote to both Secretary Clinton [PDF] and State’s project manager [PDF] in July.  In the latter, he gets to the heart of the problem:

Canada faces a serious challenge in addressing its greenhouse gas emissions, and tar sands are the single biggest part of the problem going forward.  There is little basis for assuming that this problem will be effectively addressed while the United States supports increased production by further expanding market access for tar sands fuel. 

Secretary Clinton spoke out of school in October during a talk at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.  When asked about State’s disposition on approval for the Keystone XL, she said “…we are inclined to do so…”  Her rationale was that “…we’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada.”  Not convincing.

Eleven U.S. Senators, led by Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley, subsequently wrote a letter to Secretary Clinton, until two years ago one of their closest and most reliable progressive colleagues.

Approval of this pipeline will significantly increase our dependence on this oil for decades.  We believe the Department of State (DOS) should not pre-judge the outcome of what should be a thorough, transparent analysis of the need for this oil and its impacts on our climate and clean energy goals.

How the United States and Canada proceed on the tar sands – and how the rest of the world reacts to their critical decisions – will provide important signals on whether we are going to succeed or fail in meeting the greatest environmental threat in human history, climate change.

December 09 2010

19:24

The Paradox of Canada’s Tar Sands and America’s Drive to Substantially Decarbonize Energy

“America is addicted to oil,” said the arch-environmentalist and fervent renewable energy advocate George W. Bush in his State of the Union address in 2006.  Good thought.  His successor, Barack Obama, has actually acted on that perception, though, and worked to reduce America’s reliance on oil and other fossil fuels.  He and his administration have negotiated a long-term agreement to significantly increase gas mileage; issued a directive to radically improve the environmental performance of federal buildings and vehicles; and designated a large portion of the economic stimulus package for green initiatives.  Obama said in March that “…for the sake of our planet and our energy independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels now.”

Looming over the border in Canada, however, is the specter of the tar sands.  Production of crude oil from the tar sands is tracking at 1.5 million barrels a day for 2010.  Of this, over a million barrels is exported to the U.S.  The environmental and public health impacts of the extraction, processing and transportation of tar sands have been well documented and reported.  These are concerns that have been expressed by environmental groups in North America and Europe, but now the economic and security implications of increasing tar sands development are being addressed by key members of the U.S. Congress as well as analysts working on the critical interface between energy, environment and security.

Barring Tar Sands Oil 

Congressman Henry Waxman, the outgoing chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, was the driving force behind Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 [PDF].  Section 526 prohibits federal agencies from procuring alternative fuel unless its life cycle GHG emissions are less than those for conventional petroleum sources.  This provision set off alarm bells in Canada.  The Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Wilson, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates [PDF] within a couple of months of EISA becoming law to say that “Canada would not want to see an expansive interpretation of Section 526, which would then include commercially-available fuel made in part from oil derived from Canadian oil sands.”  <!--break-->

The Sierra Club has been canvassing the records of federal agencies to determine whether or not they have been in violation of Section 526.  On June 18, the Sierra Club and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy filed a lawsuit [PDF] saying that DOD is in violation of the law.  The complaint contends that “The U.S. Department of Defense currently utilizes millions of barrels per year of oil sands derived mobility fuels that are part of blends of oil sands derived fuels with fuels from conventional petroleum sources.  These fuels are supplied under contracts with several refineries around the United States.”

Security Concerns

Kate Colarulli, director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels Campaign, says that tar sands crude is a detriment to U.S. national security in two ways.  First, as the U.S. continues to consume oil, it continues to drive up its price and, indirectly at least, support destabilizing interests.  She cites the work of the Truman National Security Project in this regard.  Testimony [PDF] from one of their Fellows before Congress in April alleged that “The fact is that the one billion dollars a day that Americans send overseas for oil is flooding a global oil market that enriches hostile governments, funds terrorist organizations, and props up repressive regimes.”

Clearly the Canadians are not a hostile government to the U.S. but the point is that a growing demand for oil, no matter its origin, is going to further enrich interests that are.  CNA, a non-profit research organization, issued a report in May of 2009 that echoed this concern:  “U.S. dependence on oil — not just foreign oil — weakens international leverage, undermines foreign policy and leaves us vulnerable to unstable or hostile regimes.” 

Colarulli’s other point is that to the extent that fossil fuel extraction and use continues in a “business as usual” fashion, the climate system will continue to suffer, and the devastating impacts we have already experienced will worsen.  Again, CNA’s analysis underscores this.  Retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, was quoted in the press release:   “Increasing demand for, and dwindling supplies of, fossil fuels will lead to conflict. In addition, the effects of global climate change will pose serious threats to water supplies and agricultural production, leading to intense competition for essentials.”

The U.S. Department of Defense knows what time it is.  They are moving quite vigorously to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.  The stakes are high.

The New Congress

The 112th Congress will see a new balance of power in the House of Representatives.  Although some progressive analysts are fearful of the influence of an incoming class of “climate zombies” in the House, there is some hope that because the critically important Energy and Commerce Committee will be chaired by a moderate, Fred Upton, things will not entirely unravel.  In any event, there will likely be renewed efforts to strike Section 526 from federal law and other moves to monkey wrench the progress that the U.S. has been making under President Obama to decarbonize the economy. 

To be continued....  (Check back tomorrow for Part 2).

October 27 2010

19:44

Coal Lobbyists Wooed White House Staff To Influence Coal Ash Regulations Long Before Public Hearings

While the final EPA hearing is happening today in Tennessee to solicit public input on federal proposals to regulate toxic coal ash, a new report [PDF] from DeSmogBlog and PolluterWatch shows that coal industry lobbyists held dozens of secretive meetings with the White House to peddle their influence long before the Obama administration opened the process to the public.  

The coal industry’s influence on the process was largely peddled behind the scenes, beginning over a year ago, when lobbyists representing coal ash producers and users started swarming the White House to protect the coal industry from full responsibility for the potential health and water threats posed by coal ash waste.  

The lobbyists’ ability to quickly and easily gain access and influence over the White House’s review of this critical environmental regulation calls into serious question President Obama’s campaign pledge to limit the role of lobbyists in federal decision-making.<!--break-->

Between October 2009 and April 2010, coal industry representatives held at least 33 meetings with White House staff on the coal ash issue, almost three times as many meetings as environmentalists and university scientists were granted on the subject. 

At the time the lobbying spree began last fall, the industry was facing a fast-tracked effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to finally classify coal ash as hazardous waste, a much-needed designation since the ash - laden with heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and a host of other radioactive and dangerous substances – threatens water supplies and human health in communities nationwide. 

The Obama White House seems to have been more than happy to accommodate the massive lobbying blitz, which achieved in short order exactly what the industry wanted by delaying federal regulation of coal ash waste indefinitely.  

The result was that EPA was forced to issue two proposals for public comment – one much more favorable to the industry - undercutting EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash based on solid science alone. 

Despite overwhelming evidence that existing state regulations are failing to protect the public, polluter politics has once again prevailed, revealing the Obama White House to be as easily manipulated by industry lobbyists as any prior administration.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s original proposal drew instant criticism from the coal industry, and polluter lobbyists quickly began booking meetings with the White House to raise objections.  They focused their attention on the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), an arm of the White House Office of Management and Budget that reviews draft agency rules. 

Overseen by President Obama's regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, OIRA is a favorite industry target to gum up the federal regulatory process because it is charged with reviewing proposed environmental rules based on multiple economic and political considerations, not strictly science.  OIRA is known to regularly solicit industry input in its review process.  The power of the OIRA was well demonstrated during the Bush administration when former OIRA head John Graham derailed dozens of environmental regulations at the behest of polluting industries.  

In the case of coal ash, White House staff held at least 33 meetings with coal ash lobbyists in the past year, calling into question the coal industry’s “undue influence” over the government’s deliberative process. 

Read the full report [PDF] detailing the coal industry lobbying blitz, and check out Greenpeace’s new spreadsheet of coal ash threats [PDF] sorted by company.

AttachmentSize coal ash report_lores.pdf371.18 KB

October 05 2010

14:09

October 04 2010

16:00
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