On January 18, the second to last day it was in power, the Bush administration finalized 6,000 miles of energy corridors for new transmission lines in 11 Western states.
Ideally, those lines would carry renewable energy to the cities. Instead, the corridors were drawn to promote fossil fuel use, 11 environmental groups and Colorado's San Miguel County allege in a lawsuit filed this week against the Departments of Interior, Energy and Agriculture, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.
The agencies did not consult local organizations or look to include areas rich in renewable energy sources, says Katie Renshaw, associate attorney at EarthJustice, which filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in California.
“If you juxtapose the corridors on a map with existing and proposed coal plants, they’re all served," Renshaw says.
"This case is saying that the agencies need to step back, rethink this process, and say, ‘What is the purpose of these corridors? Should it be to perpetuate dirty energy? Or take the opportunity to move towards clean, 21st-century energy sources?'”
The outcome is important, and not just for the 3.2 million acres affected in the West. The same process for finalizing the energy corridors in those 11 states will be used to determine how energy corridors are drawn in the other 39 states.
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama advocated for a renewable electricity standard that would require utilities to obtain 25% of their power from renewable resources by 2025.
By the time the climate bill got through the U.S. House, though, the RES had been watered down to 20% by 2020, with loopholes allowing states to get away with as little as 12%, and even less if they can make carbon capture technology work. Several independent analyses and the EPA have concluded that such a tepid law would spur about as much growth in renewable energy as no federal law at all.
Now, the climate ball is in the Senate’s court, and industry, environmental and trade groups are digging in in an attempt to resuscitate the RES to its full potential as a force that can shift the energy industry's focus from coal to wind, solar and other renewable sources.
While politicians around the world debate how to reduce human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, scientists are making some unsettling discoveries about another developing greenhouse gas problem: nature’s own emissions.
A study published this week shows that the amount of carbon locked in the Arctic permafrost is more than double previous estimates. Additionally, other research shows that the permafrost is thawing, meaning this enormous amount of carbon could be released into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.
The thawing of the permafrost is especially dangerous because it could cause a domino effect of more warming that, for now, cannot be checked by human engineering or policy.
"We now estimate the deposits contain over 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere", said Dr. Charles Tarnocai, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, and lead author of the study, published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles.
As long as permafrost is frozen, the carbon in the soil is locked up.
But when it thaws, the carbon becomes exposed, and microbes called methanogens break down the carbon and release methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
For the first time since the Three Mile Island meltdown, U.S. interest in nuclear power is heating up.
In southern Ohio yesterday, a coalition of energy companies, including Duke Energy, announced that it is considering ordering the nation's first new nuclear plant in more than 30 years.
Duke's group will have some competition: So far, 17 applications have been submitted to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 26 new reactors, reflecting how concern about energy supplies and climate change have changed the debate over nuclear power.
In the Bush administration’s last days, the Bureau of Land Management opened 2 million acres of public land to commercial oil shale development. A coalition of environmental groups quickly sued, contending the regulations could harm endangered species.
From a pure energy perspective, the land in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado holds much promise. Just a small fraction of it – a 1,200-square-mile area of western Colorado known as the Piceance Basin – holds about 1 trillion barrels, “as much oil as the entire world’s proven oil reserves,” according to a 2005 report on oil shale by the RAND Corporation.
“This resource base is extremely valuable," says Jim Bartis, a senior policy researcher at RAND and an author of the report. "A 6,000-acre lease would yield something like 12 billion barrels of oil. At a $100 a barrel, we’re talking a $1.2 trillion value here.”
The catch is that the oil is trapped in rock – shale – that needs to be heated to between 800 and 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit for the oil to be extracted. The process is energy intensive, water intensive, and, the lawsuit argues, contributes to global warming.
When the House Committee on Agriculture opens its hearing on climate legislation this afternoon, its chairman will be pushing another bill aimed at changing the government's biofuel rules. His arguments on behalf of ethanol have drawn the most attention, but the bill would also open federal forests for biomass production.
That effort is pitting agriculture interests against environmentalists – and it could hold up the climate bill.
Representing the environmentalist perspective is the National Resources Defense Council’s Nathanael Greene, who writes that the bill is an attempt by timber and agriculture interests to weaken “the safeguards designed to ensure that we don’t burn irreplaceable forests for energy.”
In the laboratory, algae shows more promise than any other biofuel, producing more oil per acre than any other feedstock. According to some estimates, it could produce anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 gallons per acre a year compared to corn’s 20-30 gallons.
So, why isn’t it fueling airliners and cars around the world?
Because of the financing valley of death – the difficulty that experimental projects, no matter how encouraging, have in obtaining the considerable investment needed for a commercial launch.
With the financial crisis drying up funding for new green technologies even further, lawmakers are recognizing the need to step into the breach.
A movement of lawmakers, energy companies and environmental groups is now promoting the creation of a federal green bank that would finance clean energy and energy efficiency projects.
This summer, Congress will decide whether or not to pass a comprehensive climate bill in the form of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES). Until now, one big question was unanswered: Will it be too expensive?
The CBO's cost estimate projects that the climate bill would help reduce federal budget deficits by $24 billion over a decade.
ACES would raise $846 billion in its first decade, almost entirely through a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases intended to prompt companies to reduce their carbon emissions. During the same time period, the federal government would spend $821 billion through programs related to the bill.
The CBO report rebuts opponents of the bill who have claimed that it would be too costly.
“This certainly helps make the case for passage,” says Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.
“It won’t all of a sudden convince someone who is opposed to support it. That doesn’t happen. But it does take away a very important opponents’ talking point – something that the American people care about – which is the deficit.”
If any U.S. company should feel safe involving itself in carbon capture and storage projects, it should be Kinder Morgan.
The Houston-based pipeline giant already transports 1.3 billion cubic feet of carbon dioxide a day through 1,300 miles of pipelines that comprise the country’s largest such network. The CO2 is used to pump oil out of the ground in a process known as enhanced oil recovery.
Yet, CEO Rich Kinder says he wouldn't touch a CCS project right now, not until the government answers some serious questions about legal liability if something goes wrong.
“I would be remiss and probably hung out to dry if I said I'm taking on that,” Kinder told the Reuters Global Energy Summit in Houston. "This is a plaintiff lawyer's dream."
Questions about who would be legally responsible for damage that might result from carbon stored underground are among the major hurdles that CCS faces, in addition to its high cost and the long timeline for getting the still-developing technology into large-scale operation.
Persuading homeowners and businesses to plunk down $10,000 or more for solar panels isn't easy in the current economy, so two utilities with renewable electricity standards to meet are testing a novel approach.
Rather than leaving the upfront costs of the panels and installation to consumers, Duke Energy and Arizona Public Service (APS) are preparing pilot programs that will install utility-owned solar systems on homes and businesses for free.
The newly announced projects will turn rooftops across North Carolina and Flagstaff into mini renewable-energy power plants for the utilities.