Obama Aims for Elusive Goal of Energy Independence

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Wednesday President Obama set a goal to cut oil imports by one-third in the next decade. It’s a goal, he acknowledged, that echoes calls for energy independence from every president since Nixon. But it’s time for the country to “finally get serious about a long-term [energy] policy,” Obama said.

One of the first steps, he said, is to boost domestic oil and gas production—in line with Republicans’ “drill, baby, drill” refrain that’s called recently for expansion of offshore drilling. The country will likely hear more from the administration about this, since a White House official told reporters on Tuesday that Obama’s speech is the beginning of a new “concerted focus on energy.”

Drastically reducing oil imports would be a historic turn, since imports have been on the rise in recent months—and have risen sharply over the past 40 years, as domestic oil production has fallen since its peak in 1970. From more than a dozen countries scattered around the world, the U.S. imports about 9 million barrels per day—about two-thirds of the oil it consumes, and about one-seventh of the oil produced outside its borders.

Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog has a full transcript of Obama’s speech.

Blueprint for Innovation

The administration’s 40-page “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” shares details of other proposed measures, including cars with better fuel efficiency, increased ethanol production, and more clean energy. It calls for boosts in efficiency—but actual cuts in total energy use are hard to come by, a new U.S. Energy Information Administration report points out, as increasing numbers of gadgets have eclipsed efficiency gains.

The blueprint also calls for building a “smart grid,” but California utility PG&E has had a rocky start with its roll-out of smart meters. Some customers have feared the meters’ radio signals would harm their health, and now PG&E will disable the radio transmitters—but those customers will have to pay for manual readings.

While Obama’s energy blueprint calls for putting many well-established technologies into place, research continues on several cutting-edge energy-related technologies. Advances were announced last week on an “artificial leaf,” which uses sunlight to split water, creating hydrogen fuel. Meanwhile, the U.S. and U.K. announced $10 million in new grants for research aimed at improving on natural leaves to boost food and biofuel production.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy is aiming to boost innovation with a new effort, “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator,” which will reduce costs and paperwork for start-ups to license patents.

U.S. states have continued to lead the way, with California’s Assembly passing one of the world’s most aggressive renewable energy standards, calling for a third of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020.

In general, though, the U.S. is lagging on clean energy funding, falling behind China and Germany, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report. The report pointed out global clean energy investment is on the rise, reaching $243 billion in 2010, a new record high. China has also begun using a voluntary carbon trading system called the “Panda Standard.”

Germany’s Nuclear Fallout

The fight to control nuclear power plants in Japan continued, and the country may have lost the race to save one reactor from a meltdown, the Guardian reported.

In the wake of Japan’s disaster, Germany has been the country to change policies most drastically, with the Green Party toppling the conservative Christian Democrats in a major state election, and politicians calling to permanently shut half the country’s nuclear plants. The European Union’s energy commissioner said this nuclear backlash will mean more reliance on coal.

Juicing Up Cars

Meanwhile, with oil prices remaining high—hovering well above $100 a barrel—the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are set to mark a milestone this year, said Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, with oil exports bringing in more than a trillion dollars.

Despite high prices at the pump, sales of fuel-efficient cars have stalled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. One complaint about electric cars has always been their limited range on a single charge, but Secretary of Energy Steven Chu forecast that in about five years electric cars will be able to go 300 miles on a charge.

Tesla Motors, manufacturer of an all-electric sports car, is taking U.K. auto show “Top Gear” to court over battery range. The car maker claimed the show’s negative review was libelous, alleging the part when the car’s battery ran out of juice and was pushed to a garage was faked.

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.

Trace Radiation Isn’t the Only Global Fallout from Fukushima

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

As Japan’s nuclear disaster stretched into its second week, traces of radiation from the stricken power plants showed up in several U.S. states, and as far away as Iceland.

With the reactors and uranium fuel rods still proving difficult to bring under control, the disaster could be the “death knell” for nuclear power, some analysts said. Countries around the world—from China to Germany—are taking a closer look at their nuclear plants and plans, while the U.S. intends to complete an initial review of its reactors within three months. Some are still arguing publicly for more nuclear, such as European Union Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard and veteran environmental journalist George Monbiot, who wrote the disaster changed his mind and made him pro-nuclear.

Despite the radiation now spread across Japan, New Scientist points out fossil fuels are far deadlier than nuclear power—mainly because of air pollution.

On Thin Ice

As the planet has continued heating up, the Arctic ice cap has been shrinking—but not in any straightforward, linear fashion. Scientists have been keeping a close eye on two key features: how big the Arctic sea ice cover is at its minimum in the summer and at its maximum in the winter. The National Snow and Ice Data Center has released its latest numbers on the Arctic sea ice, finding it’s tied with 2005 for the lowest on record. As the Arctic thaws, the U.S. Navy should prepare for a military struggle near the North Pole, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences warned.

CO2 Court

In the absence of national regulations for greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., states are taking regulation matters into their own hands. Louisiana recently became the first to issue greenhouse gas permits. Six states, and the city of New York, have banded together to sue power companies over their carbon dioxide emissions on the grounds they’re a public nuisance. The governments have filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, and will present their arguments to the court in April.

California’s long-standing attempt to create a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases suffered a setback when a judge ruled the state must do more studies on alternatives. The decision was triggered by a suit from environmental justice advocates, who said the system would ignore the needs of people who live near polluters.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said, while campaigning last year, he wanted to build the “greenest government ever.” To move toward that goal, the government has just tripled the funding for its new Green Investment Bank – which is aimed at funding renewable energy and clean technologies – to 3 billion pounds ($4.8 billion). Getting the bank up and running is, The Guardian reported, the government’s “biggest environmental test.”

The U.K.’s Carbon Trust, a government-backed company that advises businesses on cutting their greenhouse gas emissions, had its funding slashed earlier this year—but now it is aiming for a big expansion in its business in the U.S.

Pain at the Pump Continues

With ongoing conflict in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, oil prices have remained above $100 a barrel. Republicans have blamed Democrats for high prices at the pump. But gasoline prices in the U.S. are closely tied to global oil prices, as Sen. Jeff Bingaman pointed out in a hearing, so Good called him “the only politician speaking truth about gas prices.”

Another Reason to Hate Spam

The world’s biggest botnet—or network of hijacked computers—was taken down recently, cutting the global amount of spam e-mails by 39 percent. Not only may this have gotten rid of a lot of annoying e-mails for Viagra and even bogus climate change conference invites, but according to McAfee, this measure also took a big chunk out of spam’s sizeable carbon footprint.

 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.

Japan’s Earthquake-Tsunami-Radiation Disaster Worsens

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last Friday, Japan was rocked by a magnitude 9.0 quake—its most powerful earthquake on record, and the strongest anywhere in the world in the past 140 years—with its epicenter off the coast, creating a 30-foot-high tsunami that swallowed up whole towns and killed more than 5,000 people. The tsunami waves knocked out the cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan, creating a nuclear disaster that has worsened over the days since the natural disaster struck.

Two of the six reactors in the complex appear to have suffered partial meltdowns, releasing large amounts of radioactivity. This makes the disaster far worse than the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, but not as bad as Chernobyl in 1986.

As radiation climbs to “extremely high” levels just 50 workers remain. The release of radiation could worsen again, as the uranium fuel rods may restart their nuclear chain reactions, spreading more radiation.

Nearly 200,000 people were evacuated from the area surrounding the nuclear plant, and the humanitarian crisis continued; many parts of Japan still lack power and access to food has been difficult. As winds shifted to blow some of the radiation south, toward the capital of Tokyo, Japan’s Prime Minister warned those living within 20 miles of the plant to stay indoors. But the U.S. government warned Americans in Japan to stay much farther away from the nuclear site, as did other foreign nationals, with Austria moving its embassy from Tokyo to the southern city of Osaka.

Early Warnings

According to a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, the International Atomic Energy Agency had warned Japan more than two years ago its safety measures were out of date, and that strong earthquakes would pose “serious problems” for their nuclear reactors. But Japan has had “an unfortunate track record of downplaying or concealing mishaps,” according to the think tank Chatham House. As early as 1972, regulators were warned about apparent flaws in the design of the reactors in Japan—the Mark 1 model.

Global Warming Link?

Although nuclear power has been touted as a source of electricity that contributes little to global warming, now any kind of nuclear renaissance will face much higher hurdles, according to several analysts. Already, the disaster has given a boost to renewable energy, The Guardian reports.

Within a few hours of the earthquake, a few people were posting on Twitter that the temblor seemed linked to global warming, but The Gazette says such an effect is unlikely to be connected to Japan’s quake. To try to counter misconceptions and rumors, many news sites are providing backgrounders, including a map of all the world’s nuclear power plants, explanations of what happens in a meltdown, answers to common questions about the quake and its aftermath, and a rebuttal of five myths about nuclear power. The New York Times also has pages giving the latest status of all six reactors in the complex, and a forecast of a plume of radioactivity, predicted to waft across to America’s Pacific coast by Friday.

World’s Nuclear Course Shifting

U.S. nuclear facilities remain safe,” said Gregory Jaczko, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, in his Congressional testimony—although 23 reactors in the country use the Mark 1 design that failed in Japan.

Other countries have vowed to swiftly change their nuclear course. Following protests by more than 100,000 anti-nuclear activists across Germany, the country plans to shut down seven of its oldest nuclear plants. Since nuclear supplies about a quarter of Germany’s electricity, the sudden change in direction may cause Germany to miss targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Several other European countries have called for nuclear power reviews, shut-downs, or delays. However, the world’s most nuclear-reliant country, France, stood by its nuclear industry, while ordering safety reviews of all 58 of their reactors.

Some other countries have remained firm in their commitment to expanding nuclear power, such as Russia. Meanwhile, mixed signals have come from Chinese sources, with The New York Times reporting China is slowing its planned nuclear expansion. Chile’s president insisted on signing a nuclear accord with President Obama during a meeting planned for next week.

Food Fight in Congressional Cafeteria

Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., the new Congress has been beating back some of the changes put in place recently—including in the cafeteria. Four years ago, Nancy Pelosi, then House speaker, had put in place many changes to cut Congress’s carbon footprint, including biodegradable utensils and trays made from corn. Now Republicans have reversed these measures, bringing back styrofoam cups and, as the new speaker’s press secretary put it in a Tweet, “The new majority – plasticware is back.”

Back in the halls of Congress, a committee passed a bill to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Before it passed the committee, two Democrats tried to add an amendment to recognize global warming is real, and people are causing it—but Republicans rejected the addition. So another, more conservative Democrat added another amendment that said climate change is real—but avoided blaming people—and that did win enough votes to get added.

 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.

While Congress Debates Climate Science, China and Europe Move Ahead

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Republicans are far more skeptical of “global warming” than of “climate change,” a study led by a University of Michigan psychologist found. Among Democrats, on the other hand, about 85 percent believe the planet is getting hotter and weather getting weirder, no matter which label you use.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Congress, hearings continued about a bill to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from protecting the environment—specifically, “from promulgating any regulation concerning, taking action relating to, or taking into consideration the emission of a greenhouse gas to address climate change, and for other purposes.” As Science showed in its live blogging of the bill’s most recent hearing, it centered not on policies, but on the science of climate change.

In China, though, the leaders appear to be taking climate change increasingly seriously. “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to the nation’s economic and social development,” wrote China’s environment minister late last month. This week, China unveiled its latest five-year plan, with ambitious goals for boosting energy efficiency and the share of energy from sources other than fossil fuels—while also aiming for slower economic growth than in years past. But fossil fuels still loom large: “Oil security is the most important part of achieving energy security,” said China’s longtime former energy czar, Zhang Guobao.

Energy Crunch Seen on European Highways

In a move reminiscent of the 1970s energy crises that limited drivers to speeds of 55 miles per hour to conserve energy, Spain has lowered its speed limit from 120 to 110—kilometers an hour. (That’s 75 to 68 mph for us Americans.) Environmental writer George Monbiot indicates the U.K. should follow suit, since “the era of cheap and easy oil is long gone.”

In the past week, oil prices climbed still higher, as fierce fights continued in Libya, with Muammar Gaddafi’s forces making air raids on the eastern city of Ras Lanuf, setting ablaze its oil facility. To comply with U.S. sanctions, Exxon stopped its trade with Libya.

At a major oil meeting in Houston, several industry leaders tried to dispel fears of a global drop in oil production. However, at the meeting, the CEO of Kuwait Energy Co., Sara Akbar, said the protests and fighting are unlikely to end soon. “This bug that is growing in the air is very contagious, and everyone is getting it,” Akbar said.

Soaring Gas Prices: Here to Stay?

Get used to gas station owners putting up signs replacing the usual prices for various grades of gas with: “ARM, LEG, BOTH.” The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) said high oil prices are here to stay—at least for this year. They revised upward the predicted prices for the year, saying oil would average $3.70 a gallon at the pump, and $102 a barrel on the world market. If true, that would be an all-time high for the average annual price, breaking the record set in 2008.

These high prices spurred several Democrats to call for the White House to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, meant for big emergencies. The reserves are stored largely in underground salt caverns, a LiveScience primer explains. According to EIA statistics, the Reserve’s roughly 727 million barrels of oil are the equivalent of only two months of U.S. oil imports.

Warnings came from many corners that high oil prices could stall the global economic recovery. But The Hill reports some U.S. senators hope the high oil prices will revive a bipartisan energy bill “gang,” which in 2008 aimed to boost U.S. oil production and spur development of clean energy.

Meanwhile, Europe and Australia forged ahead with plans to battle climate change and dependence on fossil fuels. The European Union’s climate change commissioner published a long-awaited roadmap for how the member countries could cut emissions cost-effectively, calling for a 25 percent cut (that’s below 1990 levels) by 2020. But the European Union looks likely to miss targets for improving energy efficiency—one of the main ways of cutting emissions. Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has vowed to push ahead with plans to put a price on carbon emissions.

Climate-Sensing Satellite Takes Dive for NASA … Again

A NASA satellite named Glory failed in its launch and fell into the Pacific Ocean, which spelled the end of the $424-million project. One of its main tasks would have been monitoring aerosols—tiny droplets in the atmosphere—to determine their affect on the Earth’s climate. In 2009, another climate-sensing satellite riding on the same type of rocket, called a Taurus XL, met the same fate, due to the identical problem: a door on the side of the rocket failed to open and release the satellite.

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.

Rupert Murdoch’s Media Empire, Including Fox News, Goes Carbon Neutral

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

An e-mail has linked Fox News to deliberately casting doubt on climate change, but their parent company—Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp—seems to take climate change very seriously. News Corp announced it is now carbon neutral, claiming it is no longer contributing to global warming.

It’s no small feat for the huge company, which also owns the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones. On the site for the company’s Global Energy Initiative, Murdoch never utters the words “climate change” or “global warming,” but he says: “we have become carbon neutral across all of our global operations and we are the first company of our kind to do so.” Their next goal: cutting their absolute emissions by 15 percent by 2015.

One of News Corp’s energy-saving measures was lighting retrofits—but one Republican representative thinks this is a bad move. Michele Bachmann, representing Minnesota in the U.S. House, introduced (again) her “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act,” meant to block the mandated phase-out of incandescent bulbs. Bachmann argues the mercury in the bulbs is harmful to the environment, and it’s unproven low-energy bulbs actually cut power use.

Terminator Urges Revolution

Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered some memorable lines at the meeting of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy. The former on-screen action hero called for an end to debates over climate science, and a focus on the benefits of clean energy technologies. Like Tunisia’s revolutionaries, he called for Americans to “overturn the old energy order.”

Also at the meeting, the Secretary of the Navy announced his branch of the armed forces plans to partner with ARPA-E on energy storage and electrical systems for ships, part of the “Great Green Fleet” effort to get half the Navy’s energy, by 2020, from sources other than fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, debates over climate science grind on—especially in Tennessee. The state’s House of Representatives debated a bill that would push teachers to “teach the controversy” on global warming, as well as on “biological evolution” and “human cloning.” Mother Jones reports that over the past few years, creationists and global warming deniers have been joining forces.

Groundbreaking with Fracking

Meanwhile, efforts to produce more fossil fuels have been earth-shattering, literally. In the past few years, it’s become far more common to use an old method known as hydrofracturing, or “fracking,” in which fluid is forced into wells, which then opens up cracks underground to release more oil or natural gas. But this is causing a lot of side effects, with apparent links to a swarm of earthquakes in Arkansas, including their strongest in 35 years. The waste water from fracking can also pick up carcinogens and radioactivity naturally occurring down deep, yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to crack down on the dumping of wastes into rivers, the New York Times reports. Even when the waste water is being recycled, health and environmental risks remain.

Protests in Texas and Detroit against a proposed pipeline could stymie another fossil fuel project. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry “dilbit”—diluted bitumen, a thick, sticky form of oil mined from Canada’s tar sands— south to the Gulf coast near Houston, crossing a dozen states. A report earlier this month, sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, warned pipelines carrying dilbit are far more likely to leak, which has worried residents in the pipeline’s proposed path.

One key project aimed at cleaning up fossil fuels has avoided cries of “not in my backyard,” at least for now. The FutureGen project—aimed at capturing carbon dioxide from a coal power plant’s exhaust and storing it underground, and which has had its federal funding flicker on and off—has now found a home for its CO2 underneath Morgan County, Illinois.

With oil prices surging another $5 a barrel higher—in the “danger zone” for the global economy, according to Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist—renewables are becoming more competitive. However, this isn’t always in the way treehuggers would hope, as a new project in California illustrates. There, the sun’s energy will be put to use to boil water, and the steam will pumped underground to loosen up thick, heavy oil that otherwise would remain stuck underground.

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.