Friday, October 31, 2014

More Cities Experiment with Electric Buses and Other, Cleaner Forms of Mass Transit

The Eaton power management company claims that its new "HyperCharger" can recharge a battery-powered bus in as little as 10 minutes. (Credit: Eaton Corp.) Click to enlarge.
In hilly central Massachusetts, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority's six electric buses average the equivalent of 16 to 18 mpg and have saved the agency an estimated $80,000 on fuel since last fall.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which serves the Philadelphia area and first experimented with hybrid buses about a decade ago, has 400 hybrids in its 1,400-vehicle fleet and will soon receive 60-foot articulated hybrid buses.

Close to booming natural gas exploration, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, is phasing out diesel and liquefied natural gas (LNG) from its 612-vehicle fleet in favor of compressed natural gas (CNG).

Just as American drivers balance fuel economy, sticker price and overall value when buying cars, transportation departments nationwide are increasingly forced to weigh fiscal constraints with long-term economic and environmental merits and pitfalls before placing their next bus orders.

In 1996, 95 percent of buses in the United States were diesel-powered and just under 3 percent used CNG, LNG or blended fuels, according to the American Public Transportation Association's September report.

As of 2013, the most common bus systems have shifted significantly:  58 percent of U.S. buses ran on diesel; 20 percent used natural gas and blends; 13 percent were electric or hybrid buses; and 7 percent relied on biodiesel.

Faced with a diversity of choices as electric bus makers have multiplied and as diesel and hybrid engines have become more efficient, transit providers are following their own blueprints.

Read More at More Cities Experiment with Electric Buses and Other, Cleaner Forms of Mass Transit

Record Number of Anti-Fracking Measures on Nov. 4 Ballots

Denton, Texas is one of eight towns or counties in the midterm elections where citizens are seeking to limit or ban fracking. The pursuit of a ban on the Nov. 4 ballot "is the last option that's left for us," Denton activist Adam Briggle told InsideClimate News. (Credit: Michael Leza) Click to enlarge.
Eight towns and counties across the country are taking their health and environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to the ballot boxes next week.

That's apparently a record number for a single election day, according to experts who spoke to InsideClimate News.

Fracking is "the number one political issue" related to energy this election, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego.

The controversial process, which involves pumping a slurry of water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open shale bedrock and extract oil and gas, has driven a surge in U.S. energy production, enriched property owners and created local jobs.

But there's a growing backlash against the industry:  opponents are concerned about air, water, waste, noise and light pollution, and they argue that regulations are too weak.

Fracking is "coming into communities where people live and work and play, and people are increasingly saying a drilling rig is not a neighbor I want to have," said Kate Sinding, senior attorney and director of the Community Fracking Defense Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Here's the rundown of the eight anti-fracking campaigns on the Tuesday, Nov. 4 ballot: four Ohio towns (Athens, Gates Mills, Kent and Youngstown), one Texas town (Denton) and three southern California counties (Santa Barbara, San Benito and Mendocino).

Read More at Record Number of Anti-Fracking Measures on Nov. 4 Ballots

Why the Result of Brazil’s Elections Could Be Bad News for the Climate

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff (Credit: AP/Eraldo Peres)  Click to enlarge.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was re-elected last Sunday in what turned out to be the narrowest election in the country’s history.  The incumbent won 51.64 percent of the popular vote, beating center-right candidate Aecio Neves of the PSDB and continuing the PT’s (Worker’s Party) 12 year run in highest office.  Despite the victory, the current administration has been criticized by a large contingency of environmentalists and economists for adopting a short-sighted approach to economic development, often overlooking major environmental concerns for the sake of large scale infrastructure projects.

Brazil is a key player in the global environmental debate because it holds 12 percent of the world’s fresh water and about a third of its remaining rainforests.  It was also able to grow exponentially during the first decade of the 21st century in a somewhat sustainable manner.  The same could not be said for last four years.  Rousseff did not present any concrete environmental policy proposals during this year’s campaign, and that signals warning signs when assessing what the environmental legacy of her second term will be.

The president’s abrasive relationship with environmentalists dates back to her predecessor’s administration.  She served as the last president’s chief minister — a sort of equivalent to prime minister and the second highest position in Brazilian politics.  Her tenure in the position marked a period when most major infrastructure projects were approved and their licensing processes fast-tracked.  As a result, Rousseff fostered a hostile relationship with environmental interests during her tenure as chief minister.  Her lack of regard for environmental concerns grew to such an extent that Marina Silva, who headed the Ministry of Environment at the time, resigned in protest.  Silva, a former environmental activist from the Amazon, ran against Rousseff in this year’s election.  At one point predicted to win it all, she placed an underwhelming third and threw her support behind Aecio Neves in the run-off.

It was with this antagonistic dynamic with environmentalists that Rousseff launched her presidential campaign in 2010, but she adopted a conciliatory tone.  On the campaign trail Rousseff frequently underscored a commitment to sustainable development and a “zero tolerance” policy for deforestation, in a somewhat successful attempt to woo young voters and the environmentally-minded.  Since taking office, however, she has largely followed a policy of development at all costs, green-lighting controversial infrastructure projects of high environmental cost, de-emphasizing renewables like wind and solar in favor of dirtier forms of energy, and overseeing the first increases in Amazon deforestation since 2006.
Rousseff is coupling her strategy of hydropower expansion in the Amazon with a heavier reliance on fossil fuels.  Brazil’s ten-year energy plan funnels 70 percent of its budget to fossil fuels (much of it for offshore drilling), and only 9.2 percent of it for renewables, with environmentally questionable hydro composing the bulk of the renewable budget.

Read More at Why the Result of Brazil’s Elections Could Be Bad News for the Climate

   Thursday, October 30

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Libertarians Sue White House over Climate Change Video

A libertarian think tank has sued the White House over a video that claimed global warming might be tied to last year’s extreme cold spell, commonly referred to as the “polar vortex. ”

The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s lawsuit filed Wednesday says White House Office of Science and Technology director John Holdren was wrong when, in the January video, he cited a “growing body of evidence” linking the so-called “polar vortex” to climate change. Specifically, Holdren said he believes that the United States will see “more of this pattern of extreme cold” as global warming gets worse.  The group also says OSTP Senior Communications Advisor Becky Fried was wrong to make the same claim in a White House blog post published at around the same time.

The reason Holdren and Fried likely made this claim is, in fact, because there is a growing body of evidence that links global warming to an increased likelihood of more mid-latitude cold fronts.  Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Science, has been publishing peer-reviewed papers for years about what she believes are ripple effects of a warming Arctic — ripple effects that make weird weather events more likely in different parts of the world.

Her research claims that Arctic warming affects the jet stream, which determines local weather.  She theorizes that the warming causes a less drastic change in temperatures between northern and southern climates, leading to weakened west-to-east winds, and then, a wavier jet stream.  A wavy jet stream can bring the Arctic’s coldness down to the temperate United States, leaving Alaska and the Arctic strangely warm, and the United States strangely cold.  She says this will happen more often as global warming worsens.

It’s not settled science.  In fact, it’s disputed by some well-respected climatologists, including Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, a distinguished senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.  In January, when the polar vortex was at its peak in the United States, Trenberth told Climate Progress that he was skeptical of Francis’ assessment, and that it showed “a correlation, but correlation is not causation.”

Holdren acknowledges the uncertainty in the video over which his employer is now being sued.  “As in all science, there will be continuing debate as to exactly what is happening,” Holdren said.  “But I believe the odds are that we can expect, as a result of global warming, to see more of this pattern of extreme cold in the mid-latitudes and extreme warm in the far north.”

Read More at Libertarians Sue White House over Climate Change Video

Family Planning Could Help the Environment, but Not in Our Lifetimes, Researchers Say

Families wait for a food delivery in the malnutrition-prone Sahel region of Africa.  (Credit: EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie) Click to enlarge.
This week, a group of researchers promoted a different kind of global approach to addressing climate change:  voluntary family planning.

Though their proposal may raise eyebrows, researchers at the Population Reference Bureau and Worldwatch Institute say what they are advocating will both empower women and preserve the environment.  They recently formed a joint working group of health, climate and population experts from around the world.  They are drafting a report on how family planning could be incorporated into governments' environmental policy.

With an estimated global population of over 7.2 billion people, there is increasing concern that finite natural resources will no longer be able to keep up with increasing demands. According to a 2013 U.N. report, the global population is expected grow to 9.6 billion by 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100.

Reducing population growth and lowering fertility will improve communities' resilience and adaptive capacity in the short term, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  In the long term, population reductions could reduce the risk of climate impacts, according to the working group.
Researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia found that even dramatic population reductions would not be enough to have much of an environmental effect for most of the 21st century.

They published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday.

Read More at Family Planning Could Help the Environment, but Not in Our Lifetimes, Researchers Say

NASA Scientist Raises Alarm on Global Groundwater Decline

Storage declines in major aquifers chart (Credit: Jay Famiglietti) Click to enlarge.
Groundwater supplies beneath the world's driest regions -- where water is needed most -- are approaching the point of crisis, warns a commentary piece published yesterday in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change.

Penned by James Famiglietti, a top water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the commentary includes new satellite data confirming that the amount of water stored in seven of the world's major aquifers -- including California's Central Valley -- declined markedly since the early 2000s.

It is not the first time scientists have raised alarm about global overdependence on groundwater, but Famiglietti said in an interview that little is being done to improve the situation, even as climate change appears set to exacerbate water shortages.

"Those aquifers are in the dry parts of the world -- that's why we rely on them," Famiglietti said.  "Because of climate change, those dry areas of the world are getting drier, so there will be less replenishment of an already limited resource."

A chart published with Famiglietti's piece documents a steady decline in California's Central Valley aquifer, the southern portion of the High Plains Aquifer in the U.S. Midwest, the North China Plains aquifer, an aquifer in northwestern India, an aquifer in the northern Middle East, Australia's Canning Basin and the Guarani aquifer in central South America.

Many of these areas are grappling with drought.  Northern China is in the midst of its worst drought in 60 years.  Armed bandits are exploiting dry conditions in northern India, instituting an illegal "water tax" on small villages.

And in California, farmers and municipalities today are facing unprecedented water cutbacks.  In September, California passed legislation that will, for the first time, manage groundwater on a statewide basis.

Famiglietti called this move a step in the right direction but said far more needs to be done around the world before the problem is solved.

"It's worse than people realize in part because declining groundwater reserves don't normally get included in assessments of drought," he said.

Read More at NASA Scientist Raises Alarm on Global Groundwater Decline

Almost Everything You've Bought Recently Came to You Via This Dirty Industry

China Ports (Credit: NRDC) Click to enlarge.
China, dubbed "the world's factory" for pumping out so much of the world's consumables, now boasts seven of the world's top ten busiest trading ports. Strung up and down its densely populated eastern coast, China's ten biggest ports handle nearly 30 percent of the world's containers each year.

These mega-ports—Shanghai's is the planet's busiest—helped China become the biggest trader in the world, eclipsing the US in 2012.  China has also become the world's second largest consumer market—meaning that more and more ships are unloading wares in the country's ports, not just loading up. 

But there's a big downside for the planet in all that trade, according to a report released Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a US-based environmental advocacy group with offices in Beijing.  When the country's brutal smog and worsening air crisis make international headlines, as it did earlier this month after runners in the Beijing marathon donned air masks, coal burning and China's grid-locked streets get most of the attention.  But emissions from China's vast shipping industry have so far been "very much overlooked" by Chinese leaders, says Barbara Finamore, an author of the report and NRDC's Asia director.

"Last September, the central government issued a national air control plan and it only mentioned this in passing," she said in a phone interview from Beijing.

Finamore's report argues that poor regulation in China means that in a single day one container ship can pollute as much as half a million trucks

That's because regulations allow China's oceangoing ships to burn fuel with sulfur levels that are 100 to 3,500 times higher than those permitted for road vehicles, according to the report.  This so-called "bunker oil" is extremely dirty and spews toxic exhaust into the air, including harmful diesel particulates, and nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide that cause smog. Those chemicals are known to lead to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.  Shipping is not a small contributor:  two thirds of the sulfur pollution in the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, comes from the shipping industry, says Finamore.

The exhaust not only pollutes the air locally, but also carries a powerful climate toll:  a portion of the exhaust is "black carbon," a fine particulate that, after CO2, is the second largest contributor to global warming.  The US Environmental Protection Agency says it is particularly potent in melting arctic sea ice.  As more ships take polar routes made more hospitable by warming, the black carbon they leave behind may accelerate melting, potentially further opening up once ice-bound lanes for more shipping.  "It's a vicious cycle," says Finamore.

Read More at Almost Everything You've Bought Recently Came to You Via This Dirty Industry

Who Should Pay to Fix the World's Salt-Damaged Soils?

Farms outside Baghdad as seen from a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter. Much of Iraq's soil has a high salt content because of flooding and poor drainage. (Credit: Jim Gordon/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr) Click to enlarge.
Imagine losing about 5,000 acres, or 15 average-sized farms in Iowa, every day.  That's how much productive farmland has succumbed to salt damage in the last 20 or so years, according to a paper published Tuesday by a group of international researchers.  And, they say, all that degraded land is costing farmers $27.3 billion a year.

Rainfall and irrigation systems designed for lots of drainage usually keep salt from building up in the soil.  But as climate patterns shift and more farmers irrigate without sufficient drainage, evaporated salt is crusting on top dirt clumps around the world — especially in places like Central Asia.  Normally, soil has anywhere from zero to 175 milligrams of salt per liter.  Once that level exceeds 3,500 milligrams per liter, it's next to impossible to grow anything, including major crops like corn, beans, rice, sugarcane and cotton.

That means "the farmers in salt-affected areas bear most of the cost of lost crop production," says Manzoor Qadir, lead scientist of the Water and Human Development Program at United Nations University and one of the authors of the paper, which appears in the UN Sustainable Development journal Natural Resources Forum.  But the consequences accumulate all the way up the chain to other businesses that use those agricultural products.
The good news is we can stop, and in many cases, reverse it.  According to Jack Watson, professor of soil physics at Pennsylvania State University, "salt doesn't disappear through any kind of biological or chemical means."  But the top layer of dirt can be flushed with extra water, pushing the salt down below the roots of the plants.
The pulp and paper, transportation, packaging, clothing, and even the travel industry should be digging deeper into their pockets.  Why?  Because the pulp and paper industry or clothing are directly affected by cotton production while transportation and packaging businesses are missing millions of shipments from areas that are producing less because of salt damage, like the Indus Basin in Pakistan or the Aral Sea Basin in Central Asia. 

The private sector, says Qadir, can afford to buy the technology and cover the labor costs that would help.  That might be a desalination plant, soil additives like gypsum that help absorb salt or land levelers to maintain the soil surface.  It could even be as simple as helping farmers plant salt-tolerant crops like licorice.

Read More at Who Should Pay to Fix the World's Salt-Damaged Soils?

   Wednesday, October 29

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Solar Grid Parity in All 50 US States by 2016, Predicts Deutsche Bank

Total PV Installations and Total PV Capacity (Credit: Deutsche Bank, SEIA) Click to enlarge.
Rooftop solar PV will reach grid parity in 50 US states by 2016 – up from just 10 now – setting the scene for a dramatic increase in the uptake in household and commercial rooftop solar in the world’s biggest economy.

That’s the prediction of Vishal Shah, the leading solar industry analyst at Deutsche Bank, who says that declining system costs, customer acquisition costs, financing costs and rising volumes should drive significant scale benefits .

Shah’s prediction was included in his first report on the newly listed Vivint Solar, which is the number two installer in the US. Deutsche Bank considers its prospects are so good that it will at least double its sale in each of the next two years.

But it is also predicting big things for the US market, based on a continued fall in installation costs of solar, the cheaper cost of finance as new financial models attract more mainstream funding, and assuming that the attempts by utilities to curtail the proliferation of solar are resisted.

Read original story at Solar Grid Parity in All 50 US States by 2016, Predicts Deutsche Bank

EU:  UN Climate Summit Will Fail Unless U.S. Sets Big Goal

Global Green Growth Forum (Credit: AFP) Click to enlarge.
The UN climate summit in 2015 will fail unless the United States sets "a concrete and ambitious" goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard warned.

In an interview with AFP, Hedegaard said the European Union set the example for both Washington and Beijing when it pledged last Friday to cut EU emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.
"We can do that in Europe because it's in our own interests but that in itself cannot solve the climate change issue," she said.
"The Americans have to come forward with something ambitious, something tangible and something concrete," Hedegaard added.

Read More at EU:  UN Climate Summit Will Fail Unless U.S. Sets Big Goal

Bangladesh Leads 32 Nations Hit by Extreme Climate Risk

Height above sea level (Credit: Resources for the Future) Click to enlarge.
Bangladesh, Sierra Leone and South Sudan led a ranking of countries facing extreme risks as a result of climate change, exacerbating the chances of civil conflict, according to a study by U.K. researcher Maplecroft.

A total of 32 countries out of 196 surveyed face that level of threat, the Bath, England-based analyst said today in an e-mailed statement.  Nigeria, Chad, Haiti, Ethiopia, the Philippines, the Central African Republic and Eritrea rounded out 10 most at risk.

The threatened nations all depend heavily on agriculture, which accounts for 28 percent of their combined economic output relying on farm-related revenue, and 65 percent of the working population employed in the sector, according to Maplecroft.  The climate risk combined with food insecurity act as “threat multipliers” escalating the danger of civil conflict, it said.

“Global business and the military now view climate change as an important risk management imperative,” James Allan, head of environment at Maplecroft, said in the statement.  “Identifying future flashpoints will help proactive organizations and governments make strategic decisions.”

Other nations deemed at extreme climate risk included India, Pakistan and Guatemala.

Eleven countries -- South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Chad, Ethiopia, Haiti, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Burundi and Afghanistan -- faced extreme risk from both climate change and food insecurity, according to Maplecroft.

Read More at Bangladesh Leads 32 Nations Hit by Extreme Climate Risk

China May Be at a Crossroads on the Future of Its Ambitious Coal Gasification Program

The view from Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Jan. 12, 2013. Pollution and the costs of cleaning it up may lead China to review its coal gasification projects.  (Credit: Michael Davis-Burchat, Flickr) Click to enlarge.
It was first criticized by environmentalists.  Then it was reined in by government officials.  Now, China's coal-fueled synthetic natural gas industry faces another blow as a group of energy experts raise doubt over its economic viability.

In a meeting recently hosted in Beijing, researchers from Chinese and Western think tanks opened fire on a long list of business risks in China's synthetic natural gas industry, including reliance on immature technologies and their rising environmental costs and dim market prospects.  If more projects are launched, the researchers asserted, it could put a dent in the nation's financial projections.

Coal-based synthetic natural gas -- a product of converting coal to natural gas through a gasification process -- barely existed in China until 2013.  However, as the country's demand for cleaner fuels soared last year, in line with mounting pressure to clean up air, the development of Chinese coal-to-natural-gas projects accelerated.

According to a 2014 study from Greenpeace, China currently operates two coal-to-natural-gas demonstration projects, but there are 48 other plants under construction or in planning.  Once completed by 2020, those plants will produce 225 billion cubic meters of coal-fueled synthetic natural gas annually.

That could provide a quick fix for China's smog-choked east, potentially replacing fuels from coal-fired power plants and petroleum-driven automobiles.  But it could also create an environmental nightmare.

Greenpeace calculates that if all the Chinese coal-to-natural-gas plants currently in the pipeline are built as planned, they will emit more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, equivalent to one-eighth of China's carbon emissions in 2011.

Besides that, producing natural gas from coal requires significant amounts of freshwater supplies.  Four out of five coal-to-natural-gas plants are or will be located in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and other northwestern regions, which are among the country's driest lands.
For most of China's synthetic natural gas plants that are planned in arid areas, Chen said, the costs will multiply, as the plant operator will have to pay for water-saving projects in exchange for water usage rights.

Then, if China puts a price on carbon emissions -- which has already been the case in seven pilot regions -- producing natural gas from coal will become still more costly.

Read More at China May Be at a Crossroads on the Future of Its Ambitious Coal Gasification Program

Australia Reaches Climate Policy Compromise

Under the policy, known as the Direct Action Plan, the government would set up a $2.5 bln Emissions Reduction Fund that would pay big polluters to cut their emissions. (Credit: ) Click to enlarge.
Australia's government has reached a compromise with independent senators and a key opposition party to secure support for a A$2.5 billion ($2.2 bln) fund to cut greenhouse gas emissions, media reports said Wednesday.

The ruling Liberal party has secured backing from the Palmer United Party (PUP) and independent senators Nick Xenophon and John Madigan, with details to be released later on Wednesday, according to the Guardian and the Australian Financial Review.

A compromise would put an end to a years-long debate on how Australia can meet its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 5 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

In August, the government dismantled a broad carbon pricing scheme put in place by the previous Labor government, saying it was too expensive.

Under the policy, known as the Direct Action Plan, the government would set up a $2.5 bln Emissions Reduction Fund that would pay big polluters to cut their emissions.

According to the Guardian, the government has accepted proposals by Senator Xenophon to put in place a "safeguard mechanism" to ensure emissions in the coal-dependant nation do not rise under the new scheme.

Read More at Australia Reaches Climate Policy Compromise

Developing Countries Begin to Take Lead in Green Energy Growth

Camel at wind farm  (Credit: Click to enlarge.
The growth rate of wind farms and solar plants in China, India and an array of smaller developing countries is starting to outpace that in many of the world’s richest nations.

Companies such as China’s Yingli and Trina Solar, two of the world’s largest solar-panel makers, and Indian wind turbine group, Suzlon Energy, are helping drive a major shift in green energy use, a year-long study of developing countries’ energy use suggests.

Until recently, it has been widely thought that poorer countries could not afford these newer types of green energy technologies and would have to keep relying on dirtier, fossil fuel systems such as coal power plants and diesel generators.

Wind turbines are seen at the La Ventosa project in Mexico's Oaxaca state. A new report Tuesday found that 55 emerging markets are installing renewable energy projects at nearly twice the rate of more developed nations.  (Credit: Reuters) Click to enlarge.
But the study found that the amount of new clean energy in the 55 countries studied, which ranged from China, the most populous nation, to tiny Belize and Barbados, has grown at an average of 19 per cent a year since 2008, compared with 13 per cent in the OECD group of rich nations over the same period.

The 55 countries added 142 gigawatts of new renewable energy generating capacity – more than the total current capacity of France – between 2008 and 2013.

These figures did not include big hydropower dams which have traditionally been a leading source of green energy in developing countries but can take decades to build.
The 10 top ranked countries identified in the report included some less obvious candidates, such as Kenya, which has made big strides attracting investment in geothermal power, and Uruguay, where reverse auctions for clean power attracted $1.3bn in new renewable energy financing last year.

The economic case for renewables is especially compelling in the many developing countries that rely heavily on diesel generators, the report says, a dependence that means some of the poorest countries have the most expensive electricity.

Read More at Developing Countries Begin to Take Lead in Green Energy Growth

   Tuesday, October 28

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Scientists Discover Huge ‘Bathtub Ring’ of Oil on Sea Floor from BP Spill

This October 2010 photo provided by Penn State University shows the arms of a brittle starfish, red in color, clinging to coral damaged by the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: AP Photo/NOAA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) Click to enlarge.
Scientists have discovered yet another unforeseen effect of BP’s historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:  a 1,235-square-mile “bathub ring” of oil on the deep ocean’s floor.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on Monday showed that approximately 10 million gallons of oil settled and coagulated on the floor of the Gulf near the Deepwater Horizon rig, which spilled a total of 172 million gallons of oil into the ocean in April 2010.  That oil left a footprint on the ocean floor about two times the size of the city of Houston, Texas, and approximately the size of the state of Rhode Island, the study said.

Study author David Valentine told the Associated Press that tests to determine the oil’s chemical signature were not performed because the oil has degraded in the four and a half years since the spill occurred, but also said it’s obvious where the oil is from, since it settled directly around the site of the damaged rig.  BP disputes the claim, telling Fuel Fix that the researchers need to chemically identify the source of the oil before they can credibly blame the company.

Still, the research serves to try and answer some of the lingering questions from the 2010 oil spill, the largest in U.S. history.  One of those questions is where all the oil went — approximately 2 million barrels were never found — and another is how the spill impacted the health of the deep sea.  In July, a scientist who led a study on the impacts of the BP spill and found a wider range of impact on the deep sea than previously believed, told ThinkProgress that he was worried about how much we don’t yet know.

“What we still don’t know, and what we need to all keep in mind, is that there’s the potential for sub-acute impact,” Penn State University’s Charles Fisher said at the time. “In other words, things that might have happened to corals’ reproductive system — slower acting cancers, changes in the fitness of the animal.  These are very hard to detect and they’ll take a long time for us to see whats going on.”

Read More at Scientists Discover Huge ‘Bathtub Ring’ of Oil on Sea Floor from BP Spill

The Revolution That Wasn’t:  Why the Fracking Phenomenon Will Leave Us High and Dry - by Post Carbon Institute

Yellow Brick Frack (Credit: Click to enlarge.
A new, landmark report shows that hopes of a long-term golden era in American oil & gas production are unfounded.

America’s energy landscape has undergone a dramatic shift over the last decade—literally and figuratively—as a result of the widespread use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Whole areas of the country have been transformed in a matter of months, while the fossil fuel industry has reversed the decades-long decline in crude oil production and increased natural gas production to record highs.  Thanks to shale gas and tight oil (“shale oil”), by 2013 annual crude oil production was 24% higher and natural gas was 20% higher compared to just ten years earlier.

While this achievement is impressive, it pales in comparison to the sea change that has been triggered in “conventional wisdom” about our energy future.  In a few short years we have gone from President Bush warning that the U.S. was addicted to oil and dangerously reliant on Middle East imports to fears of a production glut.
Considering the EIA’s poor track record and the enormous implications that result from its forecasts, we at Post Carbon Institute felt it critical to closely examine the EIA’s most recent Annual Energy Outlook.  Using actual production data from over 80,000 wells, and coupled with an understanding of geology and trends in technological advances, we analyzed the production potential of the top twelve shale gas and tight oil plays in the U.S. Together these plays account for 89% and 88%, respectively, of current shale gas and tight oil production.  (These same twelve plays also account for 82% and 88% of the EIA’s reference case forecasts.)

The result of our analysis—Drilling Deeper: A Reality Check on the US Government’s Forecasts for a Lasting Shale Boom—was just released.

What did we find?  That the so-called “shale revolution” has more in common with the California Gold Rush and the Dot-Com Bubble than a new golden age of energy abundance.  The implications of this are profound.  If the “shale revolution” is nothing more than a temporary respite from the inevitable decline in US oil and gas production, then why are we rushing to rewrite our domestic and foreign policy as if we’re going to be “Saudi America” for the rest of the century?

And it raises painful questions about whether all of this—the tens (potentially hundreds) of thousands of wells drilled across the landscape; the billons of tons of fresh water used and contaminated; the millions of truck trips and damaged infrastructure; the NOx pollution and methane emissions; the flaring wells in North Dakota that can be seen as brightly at night as Minneapolis from space; the social impacts of booms and busts on communities across the country; the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in fracking rather than renewables; etc.—is worth it.

It’s not too late to choose a different path, but first we have to recognize that the yellow brick road we’ve been walking isn’t what it’s fracked up to be.

Read More at The Revolution That Wasn’t:  Why the Fracking Phenomenon Will Leave Us High and Dry

Low-Cost Solar Power Could Triple Georgia’s Solar Capacity

Georgia State Capitol (Credit: Corey Carey, Wiki Commons) Click to enlarge.
Editor’s Note:  While it’s great to see Georgia finally moving to put some serious solar power installations up, the really exciting thing about this story is that some of the projects are offering electricity for 6.5¢/kWh!  If that doesn’t mean anything to you, that’s cheaper than the cheapest coal on the market (not even counting externalities), far cheaper than the cheapest nuclear on the market, and cheaper than most of the natural gas on the market (not counting externalities).  That’s not just competitive — it’s cheap!  Here’s more info on the Georgia solar news from Jake / Solar Love:

Georgia has not done the best of the US states in adopting solar power.  At the same time, it has installed about 138 MW, so it ranks 15th nationally.  The state’s utility, Georgia Power, has not been very open to renewable energy, even though Georgia has very strong solar potential.  Up until now, it seems most of this potential has been wasted.

However, at a policy level, there has been some movement to apply pressure to Georgia Power to adopt more solar.  Georgia is a conservative state, so there has been a resistance to disrupting the main utilities’ reliance on fossil fuels.  However, the dramatic drop in solar power prices has made even a resistant utility begin to embrace it more.

Georgia Power is looking for approval of 525 MW from 10 new solar power plants.  The average price of electricity for some of the proposed solar projects from developers was 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.  (That’s really low!)  The huge increase of over 500 MW would more than triple Georgia’s current solar power capacity.  It would also do so at lower prices than have been bid at previously.  Adding another 500 MW of solar power would create a number of new jobs for the construction phase of the projects, so there would be some impact economically.

Low-Cost Solar Power Could Triple Georgia’s Solar Capacity

Electric Car Finder Tool Helps Pick the Right EV for You

The Nissan LEAF is the top-selling electric car in the US and the world. (Credit: Nissan) Click to enlarge.
A big thanks is due to the Sierra Club, as it has just launched a new ‘pick-a-plug-in’ internet tool to help you pick the best electric car for your driving habits and needs.

A lot of people aren’t even aware of a single electric car on the market, and certainly don’t know all of the electric cars on the market.

“There are a lot of compelling reasons why more than a quarter million Americans have already bought EVs since they first came on the mass market a few years ago,” noted Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of the Sierra Club’s Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative.  “They are cool high-tech wonders, there is little or no need to ever visit a gas station, they are much cheaper to fuel — the equivalent of about $1 a gallon, and they are much better for the environment — even when considering the emissions from the electricity to charge them up.”

Also, if you weren’t aware, it’s worth noting that there’s a federal electric vehicle incentive on the table right now — a tax credit up to $7,500 in value. Some states also offer big incentives.  For example, California offers a $2,500 rebate, access to carpool lanes, and other incentives.

For more info, you can also check out Sierra Club’s online EV Guide, which provides info on EV incentives based on zip code!

Electric Car Finder Tool Helps Pick the Right EV for You

Drying Amazon Could Be Major Carbon Concern

Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, Brazil. (Credit: CIFOR/Flickr) Click to enlarge.
The Amazon rainforest inhales massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping keep the globe’s carbon budget in balance (at least until human emissions started throwing that balance off). But as a new study shows, since 2000 drier conditions are causing a decrease in lung capacity. And if the Amazon’s breaths become more shallow, it’s possible a feedback loop could set in, further reducing lung capacity and throwing the carbon balance further out of whack.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, shows that a decline in precipitation has contributed to less healthy vegetation since 2000.

“It’s well-established fact that a large part of Amazon is drying.  We’ve been able to link that decline in precipitation to a decline in greenness over the last 10 years,” said Thomas Hilker, lead author of the study and forestry expert at Oregon State University.

Since 2000, rainfall has decreased by up to 25 percent across a vast swath of the southeastern Amazon, according to the new satellite analysis by Hilker.  The cause of the decline in rainfall hasn’t been pinpointed, though deforestation and changes in atmospheric circulation are possible culprits.

The decrease mostly affected an area of tropical forest 12 times the size of California, as well as adjacent grasslands and other forest types.  The browning of that area, which is in the southern Amazon, accounted for more than half the loss of greenness observed by satellites.  While the decrease in greenness is comparatively small compared with the overall lushness of the rainforest, the impacts could be outsize.

That’s because the amount of carbon the Amazon stores is staggering.  An estimated 120 billion tons of carbon are stashed in its plants and soil.  Much of that carbon gets there via the forest flora that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Worldwide, “it essentially takes up 25 percent of global carbon cycle that vegetation is responsible for,” Hilker said.  “It’s a huge carbon stock.”
The study does note that because the poles are warming faster than the tropics, it could pull the band of rain that waters the Amazon and other parts of the tropics further north, increasing the odds of Amazonian drought and, with it, an uptick in carbon emissions.

Read More at Drying Amazon Could Be Major Carbon Concern

   Monday, October 27

Monday, October 27, 2014

How Can We Get Power to the Poor Without Frying the Planet? - by David Roberts

Solar in Rural Africa (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to enlarge.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus must sail his ship through the Strait of Messina, between two terrible dangers.  On one side, in a cave in the rocks, is a six-headed, sharp-toothed monster named Scylla.  On the other side, an overhang of rocks where “the waves and whirlwinds of fire are freighted with wreckage and with the bodies of dead men.”  There lies the sucking whirlpool of Charybdis.

As we pilot our ship through the 21st century, humanity faces its own narrow strait, its own Scylla and Charybdis.

On one side is the many-headed monster of energy poverty, with its attendant ill health, backbreaking labor, and wasted potential.  According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, “nearly 1.3 billion people are without access to electricity and more than 2.6 billion people rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking, which causes harmful indoor air pollution.”  (According to the World Health Organization, solid-fuel indoor cooking kills about 4 million people a year.)  This exclusion of a third of humanity from the benefits of modern life ought to be seen as both a tragedy and a crisis.  Beware Scylla!

On the other side there is climate change, “waves and whirlwinds of fire,” which on our current trajectory threatens to flood, parch, starve, and uproot millions of people this century and possibly render the planet hostile to human life for centuries to come. Beware Charybdis!

The dilemma, of course, is that steering away from one side seems to bring us closer to the other.  Do we get modern energy to as many people as possible, as cheaply and quickly as possible, even if it means investing billions more in large, long-lasting fossil-fuel assets (and the mining and drilling needed to fuel them)?  Or do we push for the lowest-carbon, most sustainable energy path, even if it means a slower upward trajectory for the global poor?  Which danger is worse?  Which course is the most ethical?

This is the signal moral issue of our time, an incredibly difficult and complex set of interlocking problems, with facets and uncertainties too numerous to count and stakes too high to fathom.  We’ll be talking about it for the rest of our lives.  Above all, it seems to me to call for some humility.  There are uncertainties and risks every which way.

The dilemma has been the subject of renewed debate in recent months.  In this post, I’ll set out the broad contours of that debate. In a follow-up post, I’ll explain which way I lean, and why.

Read More at How Can We Get Power to the Poor Without Frying the Planet? - by David Roberts

How to Enjoy Halloween Candy Without Worrying About Ruining the Planet

Most candy corn, for the record, has plenty of other ingredients but not palm oil. (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to enlarge.
This year, Halloween candy sales could top $2.5 billion this year across the United States, with chocolate being the heavy favorite for most consumers.  The problem, apart from tooth decay and the consequences of high-sugar diets, is that many of the candies Americans will be consuming in large quantities contain a little-known ingredient that may not be flashy, but can have serious consequences for the climate.

Palm oil, the world’s most-used cooking oil, is cheap and versatile, trans-fat-free, and found in everything from food to makeup, biofuels to candles, cleaning agents to candies. In 2013 the world produced 50 million metric tons of the stuff — in comparison, it produced less than three million tons of olive oil.

Ordinarily a useful industrial and food product that could grow back and renew itself would be a climate boon, but palm oil has a problem.  It can only grow in tropical climates, and palm plantations require a great deal of clear-cut land to produce the oil — most current cultivation is in Indonesia and Malaysia.  This means deforestation and the massive amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere that comes with it, but also the loss of peatlands, a far less sexy but just as significant climate problem.  As Harrison Ford discovered in this year’s big climate documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” peat contains much more carbon than tropical forests do, so when plantations drain peatlands, that carbon gets released into the atmosphere.

So there are plenty of ways to unsustainably produce the palm contained in millions of pieces of Halloween candy.  Does that mean kids should be limited to trick-or-treating at houses that offer locally-grown fruits and veggies?  While there are plenty of health reasons to cut down on candy consumption, fortunately there are resources to help pick good palm oil candies from the bad.

Rainforest Foundation U.K. has a palm oil product guide, which rates chocolate manufacturers on a one to twenty “ethical score.” Ethical Consumer, which did the research for the guide, says that top scores either mean the company uses no palm oil or 100 percent Fairtrade palm oil. Italian confectioner Ferrero bottomed out with a score of one while Mars only reached a seven. Nestle was rated a bit better with a twelve, Lindt hit 14, and Booja Booja and Divine Chocolate aced the guide with perfect “20″ ethical scores.

The El Paso Zoo lists a few dozen candy brands that contain palm oil and several dozen more than contain none. If you aren’t sure, go by the ingredient list, but it’s not enough to look for “palm oil” there. Often companies use different names or derivatives, but the Cheyanne Mountain zoo’s palm oil webpage contains a comprehensive list of possible palm oil ingredient names. Some of the most common ones are “vegetable oil,” “stearate,” or “stearyl.”

Read More at How to Enjoy Halloween Candy Without Worrying About Ruining the Planet

Innovations in Energy Storage Provide Boost for Renewables

A 20-megawatt storage facility in Stephentown, New York uses 400 flywheels — which store electricity as kinetic energy — to modulate changes in power demand on the grid. (Credit: U.S. Department of Energy)  Click to enlarge.
Intermittency has long been considered the Achilles heel of renewable power generation.  The U.S. electricity grid, after all, is largely built around big, centralized coal and nuclear power plants that can run all the time, whether demand is high or low.  In contrast, grid engineers have no control over when the sun shines or when the wind blows, making it difficult for solar or wind to fully supplant the dirty-but-reliable fuels that keep the power grid humming along smoothly. 

That may finally be changing.  Large-scale and technologically advanced energy storage projects — from massive lithium-ion battery installations in the California mountains to giant, compressed air caverns under the Utah desert have recently been commissioned or announced.  And while numerous hurdles remain — including needed improvements in reliability and safety, regulatory and market changes, and of course, cost — policy moves in many states are steadily nudging the industry forward. 

In a report published last month, the consulting firm Navigant Research estimated that 362.8 megawatts of new energy storage projects — enough to power tens of thousands of homes — had been announced globally in the “It’s happening. We’re beyond the tipping point,” an industry spokeswoman said.  A separate report by the research company IHS projected that global energy storage installations would rise by 6 gigawatts annually by 2017, reaching 40 gigawatts by the end of 2022.  In the U.S. the Department of Energy’s Global Energy Storage Database lists 104 projects in the planning and construction phases.  Around the world, there are another 158 such projects.

Read More at Innovations in Energy Storage Provide Boost for Renewables

Climate Change Caused by Ocean, Not Just Atmosphere

The ocean conveyor moves heat and water between the hemispheres, along the ocean bottom. It also moves carbon dioxide. (Credit: NASA) Click to enlarge.
Most of the concerns about climate change have focused on the amount of greenhouse gases that have been released into the atmosphere.

But in a new study published in Science, a group of Rutgers researchers have found that circulation of the ocean plays an equally important role in regulating Earth's climate.

In their study, the researchers say the major cooling of Earth and continental ice build-up in the Northern Hemisphere 2.7 million years ago coincided with a shift in the circulation of the ocean -- which pulls in heat and carbon dioxide in the Atlantic and moves them through the deep ocean from north to south until it's released in the Pacific.

The ocean conveyor system, Rutgers scientists believe, changed at the same time as a major expansion in the volume of the glaciers in the northern hemisphere as well as a substantial fall in sea levels.  It was the Antarctic ice, they argue, that cut off heat exchange at the ocean's surface and forced it into deep water.  They believe this caused global climate change at that time, not carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"We argue that it was the establishment of the modern deep ocean circulation -- the ocean conveyor -- about 2.7 million years ago, and not a major change in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere that triggered an expansion of the ice sheets in the northern hemisphere," says Stella Woodard, lead author and a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences.  Their findings, based on ocean sediment core samples between 2.5 million to 3.3 million years old, provide scientists with a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of climate change today.

The study shows that changes in heat distribution between the ocean basins is important for understanding future climate change.  However, scientists can't predict precisely what effect the carbon dioxide currently being pulled into the ocean from the atmosphere will have on climate.  Still, they argue that since more carbon dioxide has been released in the past 200 years than any recent period in geological history, interactions between carbon dioxide, temperature changes and precipitation, and ocean circulation will result in profound changes.

Read More at Climate Change Caused by Ocean, Not Just Atmosphere

Towering Ambition to Help Protect Amazon Rainforest

Amazonian tree canopy (Credit: Click to enlarge.
One of the biggest towers in the world – taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the John Hancock Tower in Boston, and the Chrysler Building in Chicago − is about to rise above the rainforest.

The purpose of the 325-metre (1,066 feet) Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO) is to gather vital information on how climate change is affecting the Amazon ecosystem and other humid tropical areas, using climate models.

The research project is being run by Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonia Research (INPA), and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany.  As one of the project directors, Paulo Ataxo, of the University of São Paulo, explains: “The tower will help us answer innumerable questions related to global climate change.”

Jointly financed by the Brazilian and German governments, the ATTO – which has taken seven years to plan and build − is located 100 miles from the city of Manaus.  The steel girders had to be transported 4,000 km by road and river from the factory in southern Brazil, and finally up a dirt track into the heart of the forest.

The ATTO, adding to a network of smaller observation towers already in the area, will be able to monitor − without direct human influence − changes in air masses over an area of hundreds of miles.  It is expected to be in operation for at least 20 years, measuring the wind, humidity, carbon absorption, cloud formation and meteorological patterns in the soil, tree tops, and the air above, adding to the growing body of research showing how vital it is to stop deforestation.
The Brazilian government claims it is reducing deforestation.  But, according to Environment Ministry figures, the vast area known as Amazônia Legal, which covers the whole of the Amazon basin, has already lost almost a fifth (18.2%) of its total area of 5 million sq km  − that is, around 900,000 sq km.

Read More at Towering Ambition to Help Protect Amazon Rainforest

Toon of the Week - Global Warming

Global Warming

Read More at Toon of the Week - Global Warming

   Sunday, October 26

Sunday, October 26, 2014

U.N. Climate Change Draft Sees Risks of Irreversible Damage

Smoke rises from chimneys of a thermal power plant near Shanghai March 26, 2014.  (Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria) Click to enlarge.
Climate change may have "serious, pervasive and irreversible" impacts on human society and nature, according to a draft U.N. report due for approval this week that says governments still have time to avert the worst.

Delegates from more than 100 governments and top scientists meet in Copenhagen on Oct 27-31 to edit the report, meant as the main guide for nations working on a U.N. deal to fight climate change at a summit in Paris in late 2015.

They will publish the study on Nov. 2.

Read More at U.N. Climate Change Draft Sees Risks of Irreversible Damage

Cold Winters in Europe, Asia Linked to Sea Ice Decline

A comparison of the sea ice extent minimum on Sept. 16, 2012, (in white) to the average minimum during the past 30 years (yellow line).  (Credit: NASA) Click to enlarge.
In the latest study to look at the possible connection between the precipitous decline of Arctic sea ice and extreme weather over the Northern Hemisphere, researchers found that cold winters over Europe and Asia were twice as likely thanks to sea ice decline in a particular part of the Arctic.

A comparison of the sea ice extent minimum on Sept. 16, 2012, (in white) to the average minimum during the past 30 years (yellow line).

The proposed connection between the precipitous decline of Arctic sea ice and extreme weather over North America, Europe and Asia has garnered a lot of public attention in recent years, particularly after the polar vortex-fueled frigid winter the eastern U.S. just had.

But how exactly the sea ice is influencing the larger atmosphere has been difficult to tease out, and computer models haven’t been able to find a robust connection.  The new study, detailed online Oct. 26 in the journal Nature Geoscience, was able to find a connection by conducting a large number of computer model simulations and determining there is a link between sea ice decline and cold winters over Europe and Asia, at least.

Read More at Cold Winters in Europe, Asia Linked to Sea Ice Decline

Former EPA Leader: ‘Irresponsible’ for US to Halt Nuclear Power

President Barack Obama is briefed by Carol Browner, assistant to the President for energy and climate change, on the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, during a meeting in the Oval Office, June 1, 2010. Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett is pictured at right. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)  Click to enlarge.
Former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Carol Browner said it would be “irresponsible” for the U.S. to take nuclear power off the table if it is serious about tackling climate change.

Speaking at a Washington event hosted by The Hill and Nuclear Matters, Browner called herself a “lifelong environmentalist” who now supports nuclear energy.

Browner, who led the EPA under President Clinton, also worked on climate and energy policy for President Obama during his first years in office and explained her shift on nuclear policy on Friday.

“I think climate change is the biggest problem the world has ever faced,” Browner said.

“Here in the U.S., if we were to take off the table an existing source of carbon-free energy, it would simply be irresponsible,” she said.

Read More at Former EPA Leader: ‘Irresponsible’ for US to Halt Nuclear Power