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New U.S. Determination Is Seen Emerging in Battle for Arctic Oil

Excitement about the commercial potential of the Arctic has escalated as ice has retreated, making access to oil easier at a time when prices have rocketed

By Terry Macalister, Guardian

May 12, 2011
Melting ice in the Arctic

The U.S. government has signaled a new determination to assert its role in Arctic oil and gas exploration by sending secretary of state Hillary Clinton and other ministers to a summit of the region's powers for the first time.

Clinton and the U.S. secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, were both at the biennial meeting in the Greenland capital of Nuuk amid fears by environmentalists of a "carve up" of Arctic resources that could savage a pristine environment.

The political maneuvers came as Britain's Cairn Energy prepares to drill for oil off Greenland while Shell applies to explore for oil off Alaska and BP has done a deal to explore the Russian Arctic. They also came as cables were released by WikiLeaks showing American diplomats talking about the need to assert U.S. influence over political and economic competitors such as China.

Flammable Methane in Drinking Water Near Fracking Wells, Study Finds

A study on the impact of fracking in Pennsylvania and New York shows water within1 kilometer of gas wells has methane levels over 17 times normal

Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

May 10, 2011
Marcellus Shale

For the first time, a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.

The peer-reviewed study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stands to shape the contentious debate over whether drilling is safe and begins to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand the risks.

The research was conducted by four scientists at Duke University. They found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to dangerous levels when those water supplies were close to natural gas wells. They also found that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground, strongly implying that the gas may be seeping underground through natural or manmade faults and fractures, or coming from cracks in the well structure itself.

"Our results show evidence for methane contamination of shallow drinking water systems in at least three areas of the region and suggest important environmental risks accompanying shale gas exploration worldwide," the article states.

In China the Big Nuclear Question Is 'How Soon?'

While some nations have turned their backs on nuclear, China is pressing ahead with a bold plan to raise capacity from 10.8 GW to as much as 70 GW in 2020

By David Stanway, Reuters

May 8, 2011
Nuclear power plant in Qinshan, China

CHENGDU, China—The congenial Professor Duan Xuru doesn't look like a stereotypical mad scientist as he shows guests into a cluttered laboratory filled with canisters, vacuum pumps and patched-up pipes tied together with spirals of blue wire and rubber tubing.

But Duan, based in the southwest Chinese city of Chengdu, is working on an audacious project described as a "man-made sun." He hopes it will eventually create almost unlimited supplies of cheap and clean energy.

Duan is no maverick either, but a pioneer in one of the many expeditions that China has launched to map out its nuclear energy options in the future.

Old-fashioned atom splitting has been in the spotlight after Japan's biggest earthquake and tsunami left an aging nuclear reactor complex on the northeast coast on the verge of catastrophic meltdown.

While Germany and Italy have turned their backs on nuclear power, China is pressing ahead with an ambitious plan to raise capacity from 10.8 gigawatts at the end of 2010 to as much as 70 or 80 GW in 2020.

U.S. Senate Panel Approves Bill for Pipeline Safety

Under the bipartisan bill — a response to several pipeline accidents in the last year — pipeline safety fines would more than double to $2.5 million

Tom Doggett, Reuters

May 6, 2011
An oil pipeline in Alaska

WASHINGTON—Reckless operators of U.S. petroleum and natural gas pipelines would pay higher fines under bipartisan safety legislation passed on Thursday by the Senate Commerce Committee.

The bill is in response to several pipeline accidents in the last year that killed more than a dozen people, destroyed homes and polluted land and water.

"More needs to be done to strengthen oversight and address safety vulnerabilities," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, the committee's chairman.

The legislation would raise fines from $100,000 per day to $250,000, and from $1 million for a series of pipeline violations to $2.5 million.

The bill also requires automatic shut-off valves to prevent oil spills and natural gas explosions, and would authorize more federal pipeline safety inspectors.

Scotland Awards Contracts to Make Electricity from Whiskey

Scotland will use the byproducts of its famed whiskey-making industry to create electricity for homes

Kirsty Scott, Guardian

May 5, 2011
The Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland

It is the spirit that powers the Scottish economy, and now whiskey is to be used to create electricity for homes in a new bioenergy venture involving some of Scotland's best-known distilleries.

Contracts have recently been awarded for the construction of a biomass combined heat and power plant at Rothes in Speyside that by 2013 will use the by-products of the whiskey-making process for energy production.

Vast amounts of "draff," the spent grains used in the distilling process, and pot ale, a residue from the copper stills, are produced by the whiskey industry each year and are usually transported off-site.

The Rothes project, a joint venture between Helius Energy and the Combination of Rothes Distillers (CoRD) will burn the draff with woodchips to generate enough electricity to supply 9,000 homes. It will be supplied by Aalborg Energie Technick, a Danish engineering company. The pot ale will be made into a concentrated organic fertilizer and an animal feed for use by local farmers.

Environmentalists have expressed concern that some of the wood used in the process may not be locally sourced, but say the 7.2 megawatt project — the equivalent output of two large wind turbines — is a good scale and a valuable addition to Scotland's renewables industry.

BP Alaska Deal Seen Pointing to Big Gulf Fine

BP will pay a $25 million civil penalty for its 2006 Alaska oil spills, or over $4,900 per barrel, in the largest such fine to date for an oil accident

Tom Bergin, Reuters

May 4, 2011
Gulf of Mexico, June 2010

BP Plc's $85 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice for oil spills in Alaska in 2006 suggests the government will push for higher than expected fines for the Gulf of Mexico blowout.

 Legal experts said the size of a $25 million penalty levied as part of the deal, when calculated on a per barrel of oil spilled basis, and the DoJ's willingness to invoke a raft of legislation to threaten BP, set a bad precedent for the British oil major.

 "The per barrel calculus is really sort of a way of communicating to the public that the Obama administration is very serious about this stuff," said Zygmunt Plater, Professor of Law at Boston College Law School.

BP has indicated it will face fines of under $5 billion related to the 2010 Gulf disaster, rather than the around $21 billion it could face if it was found guilty of gross negligence, a position that most analysts have accepted.

 However, if the Alaska settlement is a template, BP could end up paying out well in excess of $21 billion, as the spill at Prudhoe Bay in 2006 was dwarfed by the nearly 5 million barrels spewed from BP's ruptured Macondo well last summer.

Seas Could Rise Up to 1.6 Meters by 2100: Study

New international research shows that sea levels could rise by 5 feet by 2100 from warming — a prediction that is above most past scientific estimates

By Alister Doyle, Reuters

May 3, 2011
Greenland Ice Cap

OSLO, Norway—Quickening climate change in the Arctic including a thaw of Greenland's ice could raise world sea levels by up to 1.6 meters (5.25 feet) by 2100, an international report showed on Tuesday.

Such a rise — above most past scientific estimates — would add to threats to coasts from Bangladesh to Florida, low-lying Pacific islands and cities from London to Shanghai. It would also, for instance, raise costs of building tsunami barriers in Japan.

"The past six years [until 2010] have been the warmest period ever recorded in the Arctic," according to the Oslo-based Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), which is backed by the eight-nation Arctic Council.

"In the future, global sea level is projected to rise by 0.9 meters [2 feet, 11 inches] to 1.6 meters [5 feet, 3 inches] by 2100 and the loss of ice from Arctic glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland ice sheet will make a substantial contribution," it said. The rises were projected from 1990 levels.

"Arctic glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland ice sheet contributed over 40 percent of the global sea level rise of around 3 mm per year observed between 2003 and 2008," it said.

Experts Divided Over Safety of Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant

Critics of Indian Point say the NYC suburbs are no place for a nuclear plant, while advocates insist the facility is safe, despite having some seismic risk

By Alice Kenny, SolveClimate News

May 2, 2011

New York City, the nation's most densely populated county, stands just 24 miles downwind from the Indian Point nuclear power plant, making it the closest and largest city to an atomic facility in the United States. 

Now the plant has brought another unwanted distinction to the area. A recent MSNBC investigation based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) figures reveals that among the country's 104 nuclear power plants, Indian Point carries the greatest risk of reactor core damage from an earthquake.

NRC maintains that Indian Point and all U.S. nuclear plants were designed to absorb increased risk. "All plants continue to meet their seismic requirements and continue to operate safely," NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell told SolveClimate News.

But in the wake of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station, some New York politicians and environmentalists are demanding a fresh cost-benefit analysis of Indian Point and the carbon-free power it provides. Leading the charge are New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner, whose town sits midway between Indian Point and New York City, and the Ossining, N.Y.-based environmental group Riverkeeper.

Could a disaster similar to the one still unfolding in Japan happen here? the critics ask. Is nuclear power's zero-emissions electricity worth the risk?

Total to Tender for Majority Stake in SunPower

With Total's financial heft behind it, SunPower said solar energy would become competitive with fossil fuels more quickly

Nichola Groom, Reuters

Apr 29, 2011
Solar panels

French energy company Total SA offered to pay up to $1.37 billion for a majority stake in U.S. solar company SunPower Corp, one of the biggest moves ever by an oil and gas giant into the market for renewable energy.

Solar power has been one of the fastest growing energy industries in recent years, but still remains tiny compared with oil, gas and coal because of its higher cost. With Total's financial heft behind it, SunPower said solar energy would become competitive with fossil fuels more quickly.

"It's a vote of confidence from a much larger company and a vote of confidence for the solar industry as a whole," Wedbush analyst Christine Hersey said.

Total will launch a tender offer for up to 60 percent of SunPower's outstanding Class A common shares and 60 percent of its Class B common shares for $23.25 a share.

EPA Examines Gas Well Blowout for Hazardous Substances

EPA has asked Chesapeake Energy to give a "complete accounting" of all the hazardous chemicals released by a gas well that blew out last week

Timothy Gardner, Reuters

Apr 27, 2011

WASHINGTONRegulators said on Tuesday they have asked Chesapeake Energy to give information on any hazardous substances released by a Pennsylvania natural gas well that blew out last week.

The regional U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has asked for details, including sources of the discharge and the extent of environmental damage.

"We want a complete accounting of operations at the site to determine our next steps in this incident and to help prevent future releases of this kind," said Shawn Garvin, the EPA regional administrator.

The EPA said it requested the information on Friday about fluids used at the well in hydraulic fracturing, which is also known as fracking. Pennsylvania is taking the lead in investigating the blow out (read EPA's letter to Chesapeake).

Chesapeake said it intends to comply with EPA's request and has already communicated with the agency about its response to the incident. Chesapeake is one of the gas producers that voluntarily reveals the fracking fluids it has used at completed wells (see FracFocus, chemical disclosure registry).