Middle East Oil Anxiety

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Over the past week, the unrest in the Middle East deepened, with growing protests in Bahrain and Libya, and more draconian measures by the countries’ leaders to quash the opposition.

Libya is a significant oil exporter, and the first member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to experience significant protests in recent months. The developments have roiled the oil markets, driving the price above $110 a barrel—the highest since the bubble-inflated peak burst in July 2008, after spiking to nearly $150 a barrel. It could spike as high as $220 a barrel, a Japanese bank warned.

Some of the major oil companies exporting from Libya stopped operation, and an Italian company shut down its gas pipeline out of Libya. An ex-CIA field officer and Times’ intelligence columnist reports Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi may soon sabotage his country’s oil pipelines. Although Libya’s production is only about 2 percent of the world total, it’s high quality, making it difficult to quickly replace.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), set up by the world’s industrialized countries in the wake of the 1970s energy crises, is keeping an eye on the disruption in Libya. The agency said OPEC can boost production to offset losses from Libya—but the IEA may still recommend member countries tap their strategic reserves. Nonetheless, if the unrest spreads further, prices at U.S. pumps could reach $5 a gallon.

Climate Forecast: Magic 8 Ball Says Outlook Not so Good

Quitting oil would be an enormous task, taking decades—but the world could make big strides toward this goal by mid-century, according to a new United Nations report, “Towards a Green Economy.” The plan involves investing about 2 percent of global GDP per year, but over the long run would achieve higher growth than business-as-usual, the study estimates.

Europe, too, could gain jobs and boost its GDP by adopting tougher climate regulations. Such local and regional efforts may have to bear the burden in fighting climate change, since a global deal on climate change is “not on the cards” for this year, said Todd Stern, America’s lead climate negotiator.

Stern added that in the meantime, countries that emit the most should adopt their own climate goals.

In the U.S., state-level measures have so far led the way—but with a change in the political climate after the latest elections, some of these efforts are under fire. In New Hampshire, the state House voted overwhelmingly to pull out of a 10-state agreement to regulate power plants.

The U.S. House passed a bill with an amendment to block federal funding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which (as you know) won a Nobel Prize in 2007 for its efforts to build a worldwide consensus that global warming is happening, and people are the main cause of it. Direct federal funding for the IPCC is $13 million a year, the amendment’s author claimed—but even that paltry amount may have been dramatically overstated.

Coming Soon to a Charging Station Near You

Many local efforts are supporting the rise of electric cars, with roll-outs of charging stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego. Even Russia is planning to start selling a locally made hybrid electric car next year.

The Obama administration’s proposed 2012 budget, now before Congress, would nearly double the funding for electric cars, boosting the outlay for roll-out of electric vehicles to $229 million. To put numbers like this in perspective, a NASA analyst, in his spare time, put together a tool charting how federal budgets have been spent, going all the way back to 1962.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy is making a case for its cutting-edge research sector, ARPA-E, which would get big boost under Obama’s proposed budget. Arnold Schwarzenegger will bring his swagger to the cause as well, with a keynote speech at ARPA-E’s annual conference.


With oil prices on the rise, alternative energy sources and efficiency are becoming increasingly attractive. In addition to the electric cars already mentioned, UPS is adding a fleet of trucks fueled by liquefied natural gas. (Full disclosure: When I lived in Pakistan recently, my car ran on compressed natural gas, cutting my carbon footprint, mile-for-mile, by half compared with gasoline).

Shipping giant Maersk ordered 10 new “mega containers”—the largest ships ever made—which will make shipping more efficient, thus cutting emissions. But this efficiency gain may be canceled out: Science says a warming world could make shipping less efficient, as barnacles and other creatures that cling to ships grow faster in warmer seas.

A new Breakthrough Institute report states, increased efficiency may actually boost energy use in many ways—known as the “rebound effect,” or by the flashier “Khazzoom-Brookes postulate.” Efficiency expert Joe Romm aims to debunk the Breakthrough Institute report, emphasizing that well-designed efforts to boost efficiency can make real cuts in energy use.

Other ways to fight global warming, rather than tackling CO2 head-on, also got a boost. A new study from the U.N. indicates cutting soot and ozone are the quickest ways to fight warming in the short term.

In the Trenches

Libya is not the only place facing revolt. In Marin County, locals are blockading trucks and opposing mandatory installation of smart meters meant to help monitor and control the use of electricity.

 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.

New Budget Would Make Big Oil Pay for Clean Energy

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Republicans are vowing to fight President Obama’s newly released budget for the 2012 fiscal year. Among other things, the new budget includes a few changes to spending on climate and energy research. In the energy sector, it calls for slashing tax breaks and loopholes for fossil fuel producers to bring in about $4 billion dollars of additional revenue. Obama has asked to end these fossil fuel subsidies in the past two years’ budgets, however, and was shot down each time.

(Meanwhile, a House bill called Ending Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act would go much farther, targeting $40 billion in big oil tax breaks. It seems no one is sure, even roughly, how much fossil fuel tax breaks amount to.)

If the budget is approved, the extra revenue from ending these tax breaks would help pay for proposed boosts elsewhere. Overall, the U.S. Department of Energy budget would rise 12 percent to $29.5 billion. The budget for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), dedicated to funding cutting-edge technologies, would jump from $398 million to $550 million.

Another winner would be the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with boosts in funding for more satellites to keep an eye on the planet and upgrade the fledgling National Climate Service so it’s on par with the National Weather Service.

Hydrogen comes in the big loser. Its boosters may be stung by the proposed 40 percent cut in research on hydrogen;  the administration argued the money is better spent on other technology that may reach scale much sooner.

In case all these “millions” and “billions” give your eyes an unhealthy glaze, this chart puts the proposals for various areas of research and development in perspective. Even with boosts for the energy sector, defense research still takes more than half the cake.

But even before the budget was released, Republicans in Congress vowed to fight it. House Republicans proposed chopping NOAA’s budget by nearly a quarter. Other party members have proposed shifting NASA’s focus back to a bygone era, with less earth science and more rockets.

It’s not just America where budget woes may stymie climate efforts. In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron is continuing his “bonfire of the quangos,” referring to quasi-governmental groups set up to advise government. Many of them may face the ax—including some set up to fight climate change. Meanwhile, the Carbon Trust, the government’s main agency dedicated to cutting carbon emissions, has had its own funding cut by 40 percent.


Meanwhile, the mercury keeps rising. In January, America looked from space like a giant snow globe, with a snowpocalypse swamping the Eastern United States. But, climate change deniers be damned, globally January was actually the 17th-warmest on record, according to new data from NOAA.

The ongoing warming may be hampering harvests, with dramatic knock-on effects. Fires raged across Russia last summer, and monsoon floods pummeled Pakistan and Australia—all of which may have been made more likely by climate change. Finding the fingerprint of climate change on such events has been difficult, however—but two new studies find climate change has intensified rainfall, making heavy downpours much more likely.

Coming “climate chaos” could cause falling crop yields, mass migrations and defense nightmares, the U.N.’s top climate official said in a speech at Spain’s national defense college. Food prices have reached a 20-year high, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization announced earlier this month. High food prices fall hardest on the poor, and helped trigger the protests in Tunisia that toppled the country’s repressive government, shares Paul Krugman.

With growing turmoil across the Middle East, including Yemen, Egypt and Iran, other contributing factors have come up as well—such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mention of water shortages and dwindling oil production putting the squeeze on many countries.


Worries about dwindling oil supplies were stoked by WikiLeaks’ release of four cables from the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia, in which a former senior Saudi oilman said his country had hugely exaggerated its reserves. If new oil is truly getting much harder to find, it would explain a number of developments. Exxon, the world’s biggest private oil company, has fallen behind, not finding enough oil to keep up with its production. Shell also came out with gloomy scenarios for future oil supplies.

It appears catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon spill are capable of opening all sorts of rifts: a conflict over proceeds from a technology that assisted in cleaning up the Gulf oil spill has pitted two actors against each other, with Stephen Baldwin suing Kevin Costner.

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.

Here Come a Bunch of Bills Aimed at Blocking EPA’s Ability to Regulate Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) unveiled draft legislation to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The bill caps a rough week for the EPA in Congress, reports Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones. It is joined by a bill to delay EPA regulations for two years and a bill that would make it “impossible for the federal government to do anything about climate change under any of the nation’s existing environmental laws.”

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson responded by re-affirming the threat of a presidential veto of any such legislation.

State of the Union Fallout

Eliminating oil subsidies may be one of the few issues on which the Obama administration and the Heritage Foundation agree, but the larger issue is the subsidies afforded to everything from coal and nuclear to renewables, says the New York Times.

Another talking point from Obama’s State of the Union Address, an energy plan for getting the U.S. to 80 percent “clean” energy by 2035 was met with skepticism by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber answered with an energy plan of its own, which called for support for renewables and the elimination of EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

The World Wildlife Fund also released an energy plan, with an ambitious goal of 95 percent renewables worldwide by 2050, coupled with a reduction in overall consumption of 15 percent by mid-century.

Technology Review says the administration’s plan might make electricity more expensive for utilities but lower bills for individuals through incentives for energy-saving measures. Smart meters, one method for reducing energy consumption through measurement, are meeting resistance from both ends of the political spectrum in California, owing to concerns about privacy and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.”

Another barrier to the president’s plan: construction of new nuclear power plants in America appears to be going nowhere fast.

China Leapfrogs Struggling U.S. Wind Industry

Shifting climate conditions are leading to a surplus of hydropower in the American Northwest, lessening demand for wind power. Despite robust construction of wind farms in the U.S. in recent years, for the first time ever China now has a larger installed base of turbines than the U.S. — 41,800 megawatts versus 40,180 in the U.S.

Is It Hot in Here?

A new psychological study suggests people are more easily convinced by the scientific evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change when they’re hot. The visceral response to heat apparently helps the mind imagine future warming scenarios.

Arctic Thaw and the Future of Atmospheric Carbon

An experimental warming of Alaskan tundra of just 1.5 degrees Celsius doubled the amount of carbon the soil pumped into the atmosphere. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to wide-scale reforestation, and therefore carbon sequestration, in Ukraine.

Climate Capitalism

The editors of Triple Pundit are kicking off their push for the marriage of profit and planetary stewardship with an ongoing series on the subject. While Climate Central points out the ethical dilemma at the core of calculating a true cost for the economic impact of climate change.

A paper from economists in Israel and the Netherlands suggests that, paradoxically, announcing a climate policy causes some industries to pollute more while they still can.

Guaranteeing the Future of Next-Generation Energy Technologies

The European Union is set to recycle rare earth elements, key to the production of many clean technologies, and which currently come from China, a country increasingly reluctant to be the world’s sole supplier of the metals. California mines may step into the breach, and the elements might also be mined in Texas. A new report highlights rare earth elements aren’t just important for a renewable energy infrastructure; shortages could also represent a national security threat.

GE, ConocoPhillips and NRG Energy are all contributing to the $300 million pool of funds to be invested in newly-founded Energy Technology Ventures, which will be “focused on the development of next-generation energy technologies.” Initial investments include companies that work on solar, biomass and conversion of coal to methane.

 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.