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Japan Failed to Heed Warnings About Tsunami Risk at Nuclear Plants, IAEA Says

A new IAEA report says Tepco ignored tsunami hazard warnings by its own scientists, while urging the nuclear industry to review natural disaster risks

Justin McCurry, Guardian

Jun 1, 2011
Map of Radiation Measurements by Greenpeace

TOKYO, Japan—International nuclear inspectors have criticized the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for failing to prepare for a tsunami of the size that slammed into the facility on March 11, sparking the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

In a preliminary report issued on Wednesday, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) had underestimated the risk of a giant tsunami, and urged authorities to closely monitor the health of plant workers and members of the public.

The team, led by Britain's chief nuclear safety official, Mike Weightman, said lack of preparedness had contributed to the crisis at Fukushima, where workers are still trying to restore cooling systems to reactors, three of which suffered meltdowns soon after they were struck by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 14-meter tsunami.

Weightman dismissed speculation that the earthquake had caused substantial damage before the tsunami arrived. "In terms of the cause it is clear — the direct cause was a tsunami, associated with an earthquake, of tremendous size," he told reporters.

The three-page report said Tepco had failed to heed warnings by government experts and its own scientists of the possibility of waves big enough to breach the plant's 5.7-meter protective wall. "We had a playbook, but it didn't work," said Tatsujiro Suzuki, the vice chairman of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission.

Popular Oil Recovery Method Comes Under Fire for Heavy Water Use

Secondary oil recovery via water flooding requires an average of 8 gallons of water for every gallon of crude that's recovered

By Jeff Kart, Midwest Energy News

May 31, 2011
Oil Recovery

A common method of extracting oil by injecting large amounts of water into old wells is coming under scrutiny by Michigan environmental groups.

The technique, known as water flooding, has been around for decades. But like many non-conventional means of oil recovery, it is becoming more economically viable as prices rise, and there is little information on exactly how much water is being traded for the oil that's produced.

Energy extraction is placing increasing pressure on the nation's water supply, according to a new report by the nonprofit World Policy Institute.

The report, "The Water-Energy Nexus," explains how traditional and alternative energy technologies are consuming a rising amount of water per unit of energy. While agriculture is responsible for 80 percent of water consumption in the United States, energy production consumes most of the remaining 20 percent.

"The competition between water and energy needs represents a critical business, security and environmental issue, but it has not yet received the attention that it deserves," Diana Glassman, one of the report's authors, said in a statement.

Analysis: India Takes Unique Path to Lower Carbon Emissions

The world's third-largest carbon polluter is betting big on two market-based trading schemes to encourage energy efficiency and green power

By Krittivas Mukherjee, Reuters

May 30, 2011
Ramagundam Super Thermal Power Station

With four times the population of the United States, an economy growing 8 to 9 percent a year and surging energy demand, India's race to become an economic power has propelled it to No. 3 in the list of top carbon polluters.  

India's greenhouse gas emissions will keep rising as it tries to lift millions out of poverty and connect nearly half a billion people to electricity grids. But it is also trying to curb emissions growth in a unique way, fearing the impacts of climate change and spiraling energy costs.

The government is betting big on two market-based trading schemes to encourage energy efficiency and green power across the country of 1.2 billion people, sidestepping emissions trading schemes that have poisoned political debate in the United States and Australia.

"The policy roadmap India is adopting to curb emissions is innovative — something that will make industries look at making efficiency the centerpiece rather than some step that follows an ineffective carrot and stick policy," said Srinivas Krishnaswamy, CEO of green policy consultants Vasudha India.

In the world's first such national market-based mechanism, called Perform, Achieve and Trade (PAT), India is starting a mandatory scheme that sets benchmark efficiency levels for 563 big polluters, from power plants to steel mills and cement plants, that account for 54 percent of the country's energy consumption.

Chevron Facing Shareholder Pressure Over Huge Amazon Pollution Fine

Oil giant is criticized by some shareholders for a 'take no prisoner' attitude to an $18.6 billion fine that an Ecuadorean judge levied against the company

Felicity Carus, Guardian

May 25, 2011

Chevron bosses are facing shareholders for the first time since the company was fined a total of $18 billion by a court in Ecuador over contamination from oil extraction in the Amazon. California's largest oil company is coming under increasing pressure from institutional investors and long-term shareholders who are gathering at the annual general meeting at Chevron's HQ in San Ramon, near San Francisco.

A judge ruled in February this year that the company was liable to pay $8.6 billion in damages, mostly to decontaminate polluted soil. The judge also awarded $860,000 to plaintiffs and a further $8.6 billion in punitive damages. Chevron has appealed the decision, which amounts to the largest award in corporate history, exceeded only by BP's $20 billion compensation fund after the Gulf oil spill.

Chevron's earnings were $6.2 billion in the first quarter of 2011, up from $4.6 billion last year.

The New York State Common Retirement Fund — which manages $150 billion of state government pensions — has filed a resolution calling on Chevron to appoint an independent board member with environmental expertise.

Pat Doherty, director of corporate governance at the New York State office of the state comptroller, said: "The fact that Chevron didn't have someone with this expertise on the board probably helped contribute to the problem. We're suggesting that Chevron's take no prisoner approach has arguably also made things worse."

Climate Change Warnings Add Heat to Australia CO2 Price Debate

In a government-commissioned report, Australian scientists urge the country to abandon coal-fired energy by 2050 to avoid dangerous warming

By Michael Perry, Reuters

May 23, 2011
Australia's Murray River in drought

 A team of Australia's top scientists warned on Monday of dire climate change in calling for the nation's carbon-dominated energy sector to turn green, as the government struggles to win support for a carbon price to cut pollution.

 In a report by a government-appointed Climate Commission, the scientists said many of Australia's major cities faced a serious threat from rising sea-levels, particularly Sydney.

 The Great Barrier Reef won't be spared either, its coral a victim of rising ocean acidity from higher carbon dioxide levels from burning fossil fuels and felling forests.

 The report, titled "The Critical Decade," aims to shift Australia's current political debate over the government's climate policy, which has polarized voters and been used by opposition parties to attack its parliamentary rivals.

"This is the critical decade. Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of climate change," said the scientists, whose report was handed to Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

"To minimize this risk, we must decarbonize our economy and move to clean energy sources by 2050. Carbon emissions must peak within the next few years and then strongly decline."

Achieving that won't be easy.

Indonesia Finally Signs Forest Clearing Moratorium

The long-awaited moratorium orders government institutions to freeze issuing new permits to log or convert primary forests and peatlands for two years

By Olivia Rondonuwu, Reuters

May 19, 2011
Logging Road East Kalimantan

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono inked into law a two-year moratorium on new permits to clear primary forests, as part of a $1 billion climate deal with Norway, a presidential adviser on climate change said on Thursday.

The moratorium ordered government institutions to freeze issuing new permits to log or convert primary forests and peatlands — a move that could slow the expansion of palm oil, timber and mining firms in Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

"We mean business when we say we would like to reform our forest and peatland management. There will be no new permits on 64 million hectares (158 million acres)," Agus Purnomo, presidential adviser on climate change, told Reuters Television.

"We mean business in the sense that we are continuing to grow our economy, because we allocate 35 million hectares of degraded forest for agriculture, mining and other development uses," he said in an interview.

The moratorium was due to start on January 1 but has been delayed because of wrangling between government ministries over how much forest to include, a symbol of the long-running tension between a nationalistic business old guard and more internationally minded reformers in the government.

The dispute shows how difficult it will be for Indonesia to reach a target of slashing emissions by at least 26 percent by 2020 while still spurring economic growth, as the country earns billions each year from cutting down forests.

State Clean Energy Mandates Have Little Effect on Electricity Rates So Far

While there's room for more study, the estimated impact on electricity rates is a fraction of a percent in most cases and just over 1 percent in two states

By Dan Haugen, Midwest Energy News

May 17, 2011
Wind farm

When Minnesota passed one of the nation's most aggressive renewable portfolio standards in 2007, Minnkota Power wasted no time in ramping up its wind capacity. Believing the cost of wind power would go up, the Grand Forks, N.D., generation and transmission co-op locked in long-term contracts to cover its needs for the next 25 years.

Then the economy went south, dragging electricity demand and wholesale prices down with it.

Minnkota, along with the 11 rural electric distributors it serves in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, suddenly found itself stuck with more wind power than it needed. It's been selling the excess at a loss ever since, making up the difference with a half-cent per kilowatt-hour surcharge on its customers.

The fees have helped fuel the perception — particularly among rural electric co-ops — that Minnesota's renewable energy policy is driving up the price of electricity. Others, though, including state energy officials, point to the utility's unusually large and early hedge on wind prices as a primary cause of its recent losses.

The Minnkota case illustrates just how complicated it can be to calculate the impact of state renewable mandates on electricity rates. Variables such as fuel prices, wholesale rates and energy demand are in constant flux, and decisions about what and when to buy can affect the return on capital  investments.

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.