Obama’s Popularity and the Next Election may be Tied to Gas Prices

April 28, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Whenever prices at the gas pump soar, President Obama’s popularity takes a hit, he suggested at a private fundraising event—and which is backed up by a recent poll. House Speaker John Boehner argued high gas prices could even cost Obama the 2012 election.

Obama argued the long term solution is clean energy, but to try to help in the shorter term, though, the administration launched two new efforts. The Justice Department will conduct a probe into speculation in oil trading, to see if it is inflating oil prices, as Obama has claimed before. Also, a new federal program will aid homeowners in getting loans to pay for improvements that boost energy efficiency. “We’re making it easier for American homeowners to save money by saving energy,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said.

A “Crazy and Unsustainable” Policy

With the 2012 Presidential elections approaching, some Republican hopefuls have lit into Obama’s approach to energy. To help with high oil prices, last week Donald Trump supports Libyan intervention if the U.S. can take their oil. This week, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty called for opening drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as well as more offshore wells, while saying  Obama “sat on his hands” regarding drilling in America.

Despite calls to boost domestic fossil fuel production, “it is simply crazy and unsustainable to continue to subsidize the oil-and-gas companies when we need to reduce our deficit and invest elsewhere,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Several major oil-and-gas companies should report significant profit, according to the Associated Press.

Since the 2009 G20 meeting, Obama has been pushing for an end to fossil fuel subsidies around the world. Obama may be gaining traction on this issue, with Speaker Boehner saying oil companies “ought to be paying their fair share” of taxes.

Who Resurrected the Electric Car?

Electric cars have been resurrected, with the maker of the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car” to film a follow-up, “Revenge of the Electric Car.”

While electric cars are still a minuscule slice of the auto market, the market continues to shift in larger ways, according to a new report. As the economy has recovered somewhat from the Great Recession, sales of most kinds of cars have risen. But sales of small cars, hybrids, and diesels (which are often fuel efficient) are growing much faster than car sales as a whole. Compared to the first quarter last year, this year sales jumped roughly 25 to 45 percent for various classes of more efficient cars, but rose only 7 percent for SUVs.

Western Water Woes to Deepen

Water supplies in the Western U.S. will only get tighter as climate change worsens, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which billed it as “the first consistent and coordinated assessment of risks to future water supplies across eight major … river basins,” including the Colorado, Rio Grande and San Joaquin. Flows in these three basins, the government report said, are likely to decline by 8 to 14 percent by 2050—a time frame in which future warming is largely already set by past emissions. In California, however, there’s large uncertainty about the impacts, making planning all the more difficult.

When it comes to moisture-loving fungi, climate change is already changing landscapes. Truffle-hunting dogs have turned up troves of the valuable fungi in Germany, where they were never known to exist before, a new study reports. Although the study was on expensive edible fungi, the findings could have much wider implications. “Without fungi, plants don’t work,” the study leader, a fungal ecologist, told Wired Science. “We know climates are changing and that fungal habitats are shifting. What we’re not certain about are the effects.”

Nuclear Power Protests Mark Chernobyl Anniversary

With progress slow on controlling Japan’s damaged nuclear power plants, farmers from the area protested against nuclear power, and thousands protested in France and Germany against nukes in their countries.

Meanwhile, NRG Energy announced it is pulling the plug on a nuclear power plant it was building in Texas.

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.


Blockbuster Supreme Court Case on Emissions May Fizzle

April 21, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A “blockbuster” court case that’s been wending its way through the courts for seven years finally reached the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court this week, who heard initial arguments that greenhouse gas emissions should be regulated because they’re a “public nuisance.”

In their questions, the justices were generally wary of getting courts involved in regulating greenhouse gases. “Asking a court to set standards for emissions sounds like the kind of thing that EPA does,” said one justice, referring to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA is currently authorized to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act, and they have set out a timeline for slowly phasing in regulations—but their ability to do so may still be undercut by Congress, although several attempts to do so have failed so far.

New data show the global recession accomplished what other measures struggled to do: it made greenhouse gas emissions plummet. In 2009, greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the European Union both fell drastically—between 6 and 7 percent compared with the year before—according to new data from their respective environmental protection agencies.

Efforts to boost clean energy and energy efficiency are moving ahead—despite encountering opposition from sometimes unexpected corners. The U.S. government finally approved building the first U.S. offshore wind farm in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which had long faced opposition from the Kennedy clan.

Gulf Still Faces Oil Threat on Anniversary of Spill

Activists anxious to cut emissions faster broke into the grounds of a coal-fired power plant near Chicago and unfurled a banner calling for the plant’s closure, before being arrested. The protest against all fossil fuel use was part of a Day Against Extraction, pegged to highlight the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill Wednesday. Treehugger marked the date with a roundup of some of the past year’s best reporting on the spill. In a bit of unfortunate timing, the day was also marked by a spill of hydraulic fracturing fluid at a Pennsylvania natural gas well.

Although the Deepwater Horizon well has been plugged, the Gulf still faces a big risk from oil leaks, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. Based on federal documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request, the AP reports there are 3,200 abandoned and unplugged oil and gas wells in the Gulf classified as active.

Are Smart Meters Vulnerable to Cyber Attack?

Now another battle is heating up, over smart meters, which provide power companies real-time information on their customers’ power consumption, and which could save energy and distribute electricity use more evenly throughout the day.

Residents of northern California, where the utility Pacific Gas & Electric has installed smart meters, were among the first to blame the meters for a variety of maladies. Rollouts of smart meters in Maine, British Columbia, and elsewhere are likewise encountering health scares. But the meters use signals like those from cordless phones, posing no special risk, according to a recent report by the California Council on Science and Technology.

In the U.K., where installation of smart meters is also under way, the security of the data seems to be a bigger concern, as research has shown the meters are vulnerable to attack by computer viruses or could be hacked.

The Donald Wants to Seize Middle East Oil

Real estate mogul Donald Trump, who said he’s considering running for president in 2012, blamed Obama for the high price of oil in the world. Trump proposed several remedies, including demanding the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries sell their oil for cheaper, as well as invading Libya to “take their oil,” and seizing Iraqi oil as reimbursement for the cost of war there.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund warned the world is facing increased oil scarcity, while the International Energy Agency echoed similar warnings of another recession triggered by high oil prices. It also urged Saudi Arabia to boost its oil production, since it’s the only country that claims to have substantial spare oil production capacity.

However, Saudi Arabia argued there’s actually an oversupply of oil, and that’s why it cut its production in April by about 800,000 barrels per day—a 9 percent drop—compared to the month before. The Financial Times questioned Saudi claims that the market is oversupplied, pointing out that the country’s oil minister said the same in November, and yet since then prices have risen from $86 to $121 a barrel.

President Obama disagreed, blaming speculators for high oil prices.

War for Oil After All?

Trump isn’t alone in talking about invasions providing better access to oil supplies, according to secret memos obtained by U.K. newspaper The Independent.

Politicians have roundly rebutted any link between oil and the war, with former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair saying in 2003, “the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it.” However, the memos reveal a different story. Months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.K. Foreign Office wrote in one memo: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there…”

“It has never seemed likely that the US and Britain invaded Iraq primarily for its oil,” wrote political reporter and Iraq expert Patrick Cockburn in The Independent. “But would they have gone to war if Iraq had been producing cabbages? Probably not.”

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.