U.S. May Be “Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas,” But Shale Gas Rush Is Slowing

February 2, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Following on last week’s State of the Union address that supported hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” in shale gas deposits, President Obama called the U.S. “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” and unveiled a new proposal to provide tax breaks to boost the use of natural gas as a fuel for trucks.

But the market has a glut of natural gas due to widespread use of the drilling method, pushing prices to their lowest in a decade and deflating the shale gas rush, leading large producers to cut production to try to bring the price up.

The House of Representatives held a hearing on fracking to follow up on a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report that found fracturing fluids were the likely cause of contaminated groundwater in Pavilion, Wyo. At the hearing, a filmmaker who made the documentary “Gasland” was arrested for filming without a press credential—an action that Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said was unprecedented.

Meanwhile, the EPA began new tests of groundwater in Dimock, Pa., after becoming aware of data that suggests drinking water contamination near fracking sites.

In Europe, shale gas exploration would be covered by existing regulations on water contamination and use of chemicals, so there is no need for new regulations at this point, a European Commission report said.

Also, the International Energy Agency urged the G20 to put stringent rules on shale gas production, while also planning a workshop to consider ways of easing obstacles to shale gas production around the world, with the aim of producing a “Magna Carta” of rules to guide the industry for years to come.

Shale gas is off to a slow start in Europe, and is unlikely to challenge Russia’s dominance of the natural gas market there anytime soon, argues Foreign Policy‘s Steve LeVine. Exxon announced disappointing results from shale gas wells in Poland, and Bulgaria banned fracking, following the lead of France.

Battery Bankruptcy

In Obama’s State of the Union address last week Obama mentioned battery makers as an example of clean-tech. The next day Ener1—whose subsidiary, EnerDel, makes electric vehicle batteries and received $118 million in green stimulus grant money—filed for bankruptcy.

Some called this a repeat of Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer that went bankrupt, and which Obama had touted as a model cleantech business.

However, many others shot back, pointing out that Ener1 is different in many ways. Ener1 will continue operating during bankruptcy proceedings, rather than shutting down as Solyndra did. Also, Ener1 received widespread support over the past several years, netting a deal with the United States Advanced Battery Consortium and a U.S. Department of Defense research grant, and enjoyed bipartisan support.

Overall, it has been a tough time for electric-car battery makers, with demand for electric vehicles lower than expected. But the future is bright for the sector, argued Bloomberg New Energy Finance, with goals to get a million electric cars on the road within the next several years in both China and the U.S.

Also, the California Air Resources Board mandated that by 2025, roughly one in seven cars sold in the state would have to be plug-in hybrid, electric, or fuel-cell vehicles—a standard that 10 other states may likewise adopt.

Biofuels’ Big Footprint

Some of the most popular biofuels—made from palm oil or soybeans—cause more global warming than regular fossil fuels, and nearly as much as tar sands, according to a European Commission (EC) evaluation of biofuels, which was leaked to Euractiv.

Under the European Union’s 2009 Renewable Energy Directive, for biofuels to count toward the goal of increasing renewable energy, the biofuels must have substantially less emissions than regular gasoline. The EC will use the data on emissions when issuing new legislative proposals on biofuels this spring.

Today’s biofuels have such large emissions in large part because tropical forests are often cleared to grow them—and a new study found that such forests store about 20 percent more carbon than previously thought.

Carbon Labels, Glaciers Disappear

British supermarket chain Tesco pledged in 2007 to label all its products with their carbon footprint, but the company announced it has given up the plan since it proved too difficult, requiring several months of work for each product, and because other companies didn’t follow their lead.

In Chile, a new reason for glacier retreat arose: a thief stole five tons of ice from the Jorge Montt glacier, which he planned to sell as designer ice cubes for cocktails.

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.


Big Businesses’ Call for Climate Action: Strong Treaty, More Aid

October 20, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A group of 285 large investors, representing more than $20 trillion in assets, urged world governments to forge a binding treaty at upcoming climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, and said global spending has not been nearly enough to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The call came from a coalition of four green investment groups—representing the investment arms of banks HSBC and BNP Paribas, as well as of fashion company Hermes and the United Nations Environment Programme—aimed at limiting emissions and taxing them, arguing it will drive innovation, attract investment and create jobs. The call also hailed Australia’s recent move toward a carbon tax, saying it will be a boon for investors.

Meanwhile, another group of more than 175 companies called for Durban attendees to ensure $100 billion in annual climate aid to poor nations, as had been promised earlier.

No Big Bang

But Jos Delbeke, director general for climate action at the European Commission believes the long-running negotiations through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are unlikely to produce a “big bang”—that is, a breakthrough that would lead to the birth of a new climate treaty.

In preparation for the upcoming meeting, Japan has signaled it may step back from its own target of cutting CO2 emissions 25 percent by 2020—and it is bringing it up now to avoid giving the “wrong message to the international community,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Japan, Canada and Russia have said they won’t accept an extension of the Kyoto Protocol unless it binds all major economies—which is not the case under Kyoto—but other governments are seeking a way to extend the treaty even without those three countries.

Yomiuri Shimbun also reported Japan will argue the next legally binding climate agreement should wait until 2015, after the Kyoto Protocol lapses in 2012.

Door Closing

Meanwhile, International Energy Agency Chief Economist Fatih Birol gave a sneak preview of the upcoming World Energy Outlook report, which will argue that without bold action, “the door may be closing” on limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Meeting the challenge will take about $38 trillion in spending on oil, gas and electricity infrastructure over the next 25 years.

According to a leaked version of the European Union’s Energy Roadmap 2050, in most scenarios—with differing amounts of efficiency, renewable energy and nuclear power—electricity prices will rise until about 2030, and then fall.

Already the high cost of energy is eating into consumers’ disposable income in the U.S., as well as in the U.K., where it is driving inflation up.

As a counter-measure, the U.K. is pursuing “serious intervention” in the energy market to increase competition and transparency, and the country’s Department of Energy and Climate Change hopes a new bill that came into effect on home energy efficiency will help fight rising bills.

Mixed Signals

A New York Times article asked “Where Did Global Warming Go?,” noting the topic has faded from Obama’s speeches and arguing the GOP has made climate change skepticism a requirement for electability.

However, Joseph Romm at Climate Progress pointed a finger at the New York Times and other major media outlets as part of the problem because there has been a major decline in the amount of climate coverage. Others, such as William Y. Brown of the Brookings Institution argued the New York Times piece is wrong to say Americans don’t trust scientists; rather they don’t like being lectured.

Green issues do appeal to voters, according to a study by Stanford University researchers, who found American politicians who took a pro-green stance were more likely to win. More specifically, Democrats who supported green issues won more often, and Republicans who took anti-green stances lost more often than if they kept silent on the topic.

Energy will also be a significant issue for GOP candidates, according to “energy and environment insiders” polled by the National Journal. Especially important, the insiders said, will be linking energy policy with job creation.

Luxury in a Smaller Package

Even in these hard economic times, luxury cars still have a market and automakers are rolling out new models that, while remaining plush and pricey, are shrinking, both in body and engine.

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.


Libya’s Revolution Could Provide Stimulus through Cheaper Oil

August 25, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

After rebel forces swept into Libya’s capital, Tripoli, the country may be able to start to ramp oil production and exports again, which many analysts hope will bring down oil prices.

Libya claims Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, and was producing about 1.6 million barrels a day when the production suddenly dropped to near zero in February. Many analysts said it will take two to three years for Libya’s oil production to recover to previous levels, and by year’s end they may only be producing a quarter to a third as much as before.

Even before rebels had taken over Moammar Gadhafi’s compound, oil companies were preparing to return to the country, which they left months before.

So far, though, the price has been up and down, in part because of anticipation of the outcome of a summit this week, which may result in a new round of quantitative easing, which would likely drive down the value of the dollar.

Trading Leaks

To try to understand how much speculators are driving oil prices, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has been looking into “excessive speculation.” Earlier this year, five traders were charged with making $50 million off speculation.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a long-time critic of oil speculation, became frustrated with the pace of investigations and leaked the records of many trades.

Unconventional Contention

While dozens were in jail in Washington, D.C., after protests to oppose the construction of another pipeline carrying tar sands products from Canada to the U.S., a New York Times editorial argued against the pipeline because of high greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands operations. Canadian officials, meanwhile, stepped up lobbying on its behalf.

Producing natural gas from shale deposits using hydraulic fracturing has also been under scrutiny for its greenhouse gas emissions, and now a new study argues Marcellus Shale natural gas has slightly higher emissions than conventional natural gas, but fewer emissions than coal.

West Virginia issued emergency rules to regulate horizontal drilling, which the governor hoped was a first step to more permanent regulations for this drilling.

Dark Days in America, Brighter Elsewhere

With budget woes, spending cuts, and more spending cuts scheduled to be made over the coming years, it appears renewable energy in the U.S. is entering “dark days,” reported GreenBiz.

But renewables are gaining increasing traction elsewhere. In Brazil, in a large power auction, wind emerged as the cheapest source of electricity, beating out natural gas and hydroelectric power. The contracts could lead to the construction of 1.9 gigawatts of new wind farms.

Japan is expected to pass a renewable energy bill that would introduce a feed-in tariff to make renewables more attractive, and set down in law the government’s target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent (compared with 1990 levels) by 2020. To cope with the Fukushima disaster, though, Japan has boosted its use of fossil fuels in the short term.

Germany’s national rail company, which is the country’s biggest electricity consumer, is also moving toward renewables, planning to quit fossil fuels by 2050.

The Billionth Car

The future is bright for electric cars, according to a forecast from Pike Research, which said worldwide sales are likely to grow to 5.2 million by 2017, more than 50 times this year’s estimated sales.

However, even then electric cars would make up a tiny fraction of all cars, with more than one billion on the road as of 2010, a new study said. About half of the recent growth in cars has been in China, which has higher efficiency standards than the U.S., but the country is showing little interest in hybrids and electric cars.

Scientists Scrutinized 

Scientists working on climate change have been under scrutiny, with a polar bear researcher being suspended from his job for the U.S. government.

Another researcher came under fire after the “Climategate” leak of e-mails. He was cleared earlier this year in an investigation by his university, and now has been cleared in a second investigation by the National Science Foundation.

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.


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.


Pre-Election Maneuvering Marked by Fits of Climate Skepticism

October 28, 2010

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

“Recent comments from top White House and congressional contenders suggest an awkward mix of outright hostility or, at best, ambivalence toward the widespread scientific consensus that humans are responsible for the warming planet,” reports Politico.

Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) blames his loss in the GOP primary to his public assertions that climate change is real. Only two Republican gubernatorial candidates running for election this November believe in action on climate change; both are running in states where their Democratic opponents feel the same.

In one race for the House in Virginia, a Democratic incumbent may lose his seat in part because of his vote for the House cap-and-trade bill.

Colorado’s tight race for U.S. Senate is turning into a referendum on the power of views on climate change to sway voters, at least in that state: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is attacking his opponent, Tea Party favorite and Republican Ken Buck, for saying climate change is a “hoax.” It’s a stance that earned a sharp rebuke from Colorado’s climate scientists (the state hosts one of the country’s premier centers for the study of climate change, the National Center for Atmospheric Research).

Despite support from some of his potential constituents — “Climate change doubt is Tea Party article of faith,” says the New York Times — Buck appears to be responding to the criticism by shifting his focus to the economy.

Green groups say they are pouring more money into this electoral season’s races than ever, especially in the fight to rescue incumbent Virginia Democratic freshman Tom Perriello, but their spending can’t match funds coming from fossil-fuel-related industries. Mother Jones says Alaska write-in candidate (and incumbent) Lisa Murkowski, in a dead heat with Tea Party favorite and Republican nominee Joe Miller, is a beneficiary of those funds.

On Tuesday, Jimmy Carter opined the Tea Party is backed by anti-green “hard-right oligarchs who want to prevent the oil companies and major corporations from having to pay their share of taxes or to comply with environmental laws.”

Which Will Characterize the Next Two Years on the Hill: Compromise or Gridlock?

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told students at Utah State University to expect “two years of good old-fashioned gridlock” if the GOP wins the House in November, including, possibly, a shutdown of the federal government. Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) declared there will be “no compromise” with President Barack Obama on major issues.

It’s possible energy will be spared the fate of, say, the health care bill, says Darren Samuelsohn of Politico, suggesting incentives for nuclear, clean coal and even renewables might be prime candidates for bipartisan legislation. Lindsey Graham, who once participated in the creation of the senate cap-and-trade bill, says the GOP should work with Obama on energy, perhaps in the incremental approach currently favored by the Obama administration.

The oil and gas industry is already depositing checks into the coffers of candidates likely to head influential House committees after November; the industry remains focused on emissions rules and what it contends are unrealistic expectations about the ascension of renewables.

A “technology-first” approach to tackling carbon emissions is gaining favor among think tanks.

Are We Getting Cap, but No Trade?

Stephen Spruiell at National Review argues emissions regulations issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will make emissions for certain industries expensive without letting them trade for those emissions, as they would have under cap-and-trade. He also argues it may be nearly impossible to prevent the EPA from regulating emissions in this way.

Outlets on the left agree with Spruiell and argue, more or less, “see, we told you this would happen.”

The regulations at issue include the EPA’s first-ever fuel efficiency standards for trucks and buses, which the trucking industry supports. Canada is issuing its own rules in harmony with U.S. regulations.

Emissions Regulations Will Knock Out up to 7 Percent of U.S. Generating Capacity, says Study

A huge debate has erupted over a North American Electric Reliability report arguing in a worst-case scenario, the shutdown of coal-fired power plants will, as a result of emissions regulations, significantly impact U.S. generating capacity.

In Texas, farms, cities and environmentalists say the state has insufficient water for more coal-fired plants.

And Now Some Good News …

A four-seater electric Audi with ample trunk space managed to travel 375 miles on a single charge. The non-partisan (even though so far all of its members seem to be partisan) Climate Hawk movement gained momentum.

GM just released its first ad for the Chevy Volt: “This is American, man.

Spending money on greenhouse gas mitigation efforts in developing countries could make up the shortfall in domestic commitments to existing Copenhagen pledges, says a new paper.

Nissan just fired up production for the all-electric LEAF, Tesla is about to open a factory to produce its all-electric sedan and Mazda is releasing a gasoline-powered car in Japan that gets 70 mpg.

OxFam’s new ads aim to bring immediacy to the impacts of climate change.

The U.S. government just approved the world’s largest solar thermal project — big enough to double U.S. capacity for solar thermal all by itself. We’re $100 billion away from increasing the proportion of U.S. electricity from solar to 4.3 percent by 2020.

The U.S. may have the world’s second-largest emissions of greenhouse gases, but on a map of per capita emissions it’s easy to lose the U.S. among all the countries with higher emissions, and Amazon wants to shrink their carbon footprint even further by offering greener shipping options.

… But New Challenges to a Livable Climate Continue to Arise

China’s chronic dependence on coal is still a monumental problem, reports Scientific American, and Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants cost neighboring communities $127 million in health-related expenses.

Cellulosic ethanol may be the cold fusion of biofuels, and fundamentally unsustainable, to boot, argues Grist’s Tom Philpott. Your next bottle of bioplastic might be made from plants, but in a world where cheap ethanol comes from cleared Brazilian forests, the move away from oil may not be all good.

Economists think energy efficiency might lead to more emissions, not fewer.Trees are prevented from soaking up extra atmospheric carbon by limited supplies of nitrogen, and just 1,000 spaceflights a year would warm the planet as much as the entire airline industry currently does.

Andrew Revkin, the New York Times’s lead climate commentator, reports climate change is “boring.” Perhaps that’s why the lead researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory believes “climate change journalism has gotten worse [in recent years].”