The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

While a bill to slash $6 billion in annual tax breaks for ethanol fuel failed to pass the U.S. Senate, it was still hailed by some lawmakers and analysts as a major break from the past.

It raises a philosophical quandary, says the Christian Science Monitor: “If Congress takes away a tax subsidy, should that count as a tax hike?” Nearly all Republican representatives have signed on to “The Pledge,” an agreement to never vote to raise taxes.

The bill to end ethanol tax breaks attracted votes from both sides of the aisle, with 34 Republicans and 6 Democrats voting for it—but it fell 20 votes short of passing. Nonetheless, some Democrats said the vote broke the dam, opening the way for the repeal of other tax breaks, such as larger ones for the oil industry.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Midwestern senators introduced an alternative to ending ethanol subsidies. Instead of a flat-rate tax credit of 45 cents per gallon of ethanol-gasoline blend, the new bill would introduce a variable subsidy that would increase when oil prices drop, and fall when oil prices climb.

On Thursday, a wide majority in the Senate did vote in favor of another piece of legislation that would end tax breaks for U.S. ethanol as well as tariffs on foreign ethanol. However, the change is unlikely to go into effect immediately, Bloomberg reports, because the repeal of the subsidies and tariffs is attached to another piece of legislation that is unlikely to become law.”

Fuel Woes Cause Ripple Effects

A report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and seven other international agencies called for an end to subsidies for biofuels because they are driving up food prices. Prices for both food and fuel have been rising fast in India and China, leading the Chinese government to adjust banking rules to try to quell inflation.

Meanwhile, if oil prices remain high—above the current level of $120 for Brent crude—there is a risk of derailing the economy, into a double-dip recession, said Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency. “We all know what happened in 2008. Are we going to see the same movie?”

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu also warned high fuel prices are taking their toll. “We’re very cognizant of … the fact that higher gasoline prices so impede the economic recovery,” Chu said. One of the measures the Obama administration considered for bringing down gasoline prices, he said, was to tap the government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, intended for emergencies.

More details came in a report from Reuters, with anonymous sources saying that in the weeks before a recent, fractious OPEC meeting, U.S. and Saudi officials met to discuss “an unprecedented arrangement” of oil trades. In the proposed deal, the U.S. would send Europe low-sulfur, “sweet” crude from the strategic reserve, and in return receive more high-sulfur, “sour” crude from Saudi Arabia. The deal fell through, the sources said, because Saudi Arabia was unwilling to sell the oil at a discount.

Another Kind of Military Power

The U.S. military—the world’s single largest user of oil, and responsible for 80 percent of the U.S. government’s energy consumption—has now created an Operational Energy Strategy. “Before, it was assumed energy would be where you needed when you needed it,” a Pentagon official told National Journal. “The new strategy is to say that energy is a strategic good that enables your military force.”

Earlier this month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, called on the Army to use fuel more efficiently. In addition to efficiency, renewable energy will be a major priority for investments by the military over the next 20 years, according to a study by clean tech group Pike Research.

Nuclear Risks Still Weigh Heavily

Nuclear plants and nuclear waste disposal have been under increased scrutiny since Japan’s Fukushima disaster, which the government recently confirmed had led to a meltdown of three of the six reactors at the site.

Republicans called for Gregory Jaczko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to step down after it was revealed he had “unilaterally” moved to stop work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump—a project for a long-term disposal site that has been in the works for decades, but that President Obama vowed in 2009 to end.

An independent review of temporary waste storage sites in the U.S. indicated that the threat of a release of radioactivity dwarfs the risk Japan faced. The report’s lead author, Robert Alvarez, said, “The largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet will remain in storage at U.S. reactor sites for the indefinite future.”

Meanwhile, China’s nuclear power plants all passed a recent safety review by government inspectors, paving the way for the country to move ahead with its ambitious plans for expanding atomic energy.

Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022 has turned the country into “a multibillion-dollar laboratory experiment” on how to roll out alternatives quickly to replace the quarter of Germany’s electricity that came from nuclear prior to Japan’s disaster. To enable renewables to take on a larger share of the load will likely require huge investments in expanding the grid and add a few thousand miles (several thousand kilometers) of additional power lines.

Are We Headed for a New Ice Age?

The Sun may go into hibernation for decades, a few new studies suggest, with a dramatic drop in the number of sunspots. Previous drops in the number of sunspots have been linked to cooler times on our planet, such as the “Little Ice Age” that struck medieval Europe.

Although some newspapers trumpeted that we’re approaching a “second little ice age,” New Scientist says the effect would actually be more like “a slightly less severe heatwave.” In fact, even if sunspots do go quiet, it would lower the Sun’s heating of Earth by at most 0.3 watts per square meter, whereas theman-made greenhouse effect is now about six times larger, at 1.7 watts per square meter.

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.

The Clean and Dirty of Obama’s Energy Plan

On April 7, 2011, in Uncategorized, by joshwilson

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Following Obama’s energy speech a week ago, which set out a goal to cut U.S. oil imports by one-third within a decade, the administration unveiled more projects to bolster energy production—both clean and dirty. This included $112 million for solar power, $26 million for advanced hydropower, and lease sales for new coal mines and deepwater oil exploration. Global private investment in clean energy is also on the rise. This is according to a new report from the Cleantech Group, which indicated it reached $2.5 billion for the first quarter of this year, a 50 percent jump compared with the quarter before.

However, efforts to foster renewable energy have a long way to go, said the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its new “Clean Energy Progress Report.” Annual government subsidies for renewables amount to $57 billion, compared with $312 for fossil fuels, according to the IEA’s tally. “More aggressive clean energy policies are required,” the report argued, “including the removal of fossil fuel subsidies and implementation of transparent, predictable and adaptive incentives for cleaner, more efficient energy options.”

Meanwhile, President Obama promised to veto a bill that would handcuff the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and prevent it from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Several Republicans tried another tack, proposing amendments to another bill that would have the same effect—but all four amendments failed to pass the Senate.

Could we be Headed for a Double-dip Recession?

A new poll says Americans have become far more concerned about gasoline prices in the past several months than Iraq, Afghanistan, immigration, terrorism and taxes. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries said there’s nothing they can do to keep oil below $120 a barrel, and gas prices will continue to rise, according to a Moody’s forecast, while Algeria’s former energy minister said at an oil summit that turmoil in Arab countries will have dramatic effects on energy markets for years to come.

If the turmoil in the region spreads to Saudi Arabia, the country’s oil minister warned, the price of oil could soar. “If something happens in Saudi Arabia it will go to $200 to $300 [per barrel],” the minister, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, told Reuters. “I don’t expect this for the time being, but who would have expected Tunisia?”

Today’s high oil prices are already hampering global economic growth, an IEA official said. In the U.S. as well, high gasoline prices are taking their toll on the U.S. economy, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argues the U.S. is heading for a double-dip recession.

Even without a double-dip, governments’ belt-tightening measures have already eaten into green energy subsidies in Washington, D.C., as well as in Spain and France.

Fish Turning Up Radioactive

The fight continued to control the nuclear reactors in Japan, which are still facing the possibility of meltdowns. Authorities intentionally released 11,500 tons of radioactive water into the ocean before some uncontrolled leaks were sealed with a mix of  sawdust, newspaper,  concrete, and liquid glass. Despite these ongoing troubles, nuclear remains safer than many other energy sources, especially coal, according to an analysis of Europe’s energy sector and its effect on health.

Since the accident, U.K. environmental writer George Monbiot has been widely cited for his argument that Fukushima should actually make us more confident in nuclear power. This week he has stuck to his guns while sparring with Helen Caldicott, a Nobel Prize-winning anti-nuclear activist. Others have had their trust shaken,, however, including the European Union’s energy commissioner, who told Der Spiegel, “Fukushima has made me start to doubt” nuclear power.

The Japanese government is screening its fish, and finding some are highly radioactive—and halfway around the world from Japan, one New York restaurant has taken radiation scanning into its own hands, buying scanners to test incoming fish. Such fears are misplaced, argues risk expert David Ropeik—and fear itself may take a bigger toll on people’s health than radiation from the leaking plants.

Stern Rebuke

The latest round of United Nations climate talks, held in Bangkok, Thailand, got off to a rocky start. As the talks opened, U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, Todd Stern, was at an energy conference in New York, where he called for an agreement for developed and developing countries alike, without a “firewall” between them. But at the same time, he called a binding international agreement “unrealistic” and “not doable.” Rather than international agreements, Stern said, “it is the national plans of countries, written into law and regulations, that count and that bind.”

Developed and developing countries have set goals for cutting their emissions over the coming decades—but these don’t go far enough to avoid dangerous climate change, said Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres at the Bangkok meeting.

Didn’t See That Coming

After “Climategate” in late 2009, many climate skeptics launched studies independent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that took a closer look at the temperature record. Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is leading one such effort, which has received a large part of its funding from Koch Industries, known for fighting hard against emissions controls and accused by Greenpeace of funding a “climate denial machine.”

When Muller presented the initial results to a congressional hearing, “Republicans expected Muller to challenge the accepted wisdom,” according to Science. But he told the hearing, “we see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups.”

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.