At the U.S. Department of Energy's Washington, D.C. headquarters, the fourth floor feels like any other nondescript outpost of the federal bureaucracy. But the no-frills landscape of desks and cubicles belies the immensity of the job at hand.
Each day nearly 200 staffers scour loan applications, track billion-dollar debts and manage borrowers' credit risk as part of the department's Loan Programs Office—one of the biggest clean energy finance shops in the world.
You may think you've never heard of the LPO—after all, its $34.4 billion loan portfolio for renewable energy, nuclear and fuel-efficient technologies pales in comparison to, say, annual federal student loans (roughly $1 trillion) or even the $68 billion Congress used to rescue just one troubled insurance company, AIG.
But chances are that you know of the program because of one very large and very notorious loan.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Arkansas state legislators leery of lax federal oversight of oil pipelines have attempted to beef up safety standards to try to prevent another disastrous spill in their own backyard.
They're aware, however, that their efforts are largely symbolic.
That's because, in most instances, a state statute cannot infringe on the federal government's constitutional authority to set and enforce rules about petroleum pipelines. But for local lawmakers trying to calm constituent fears after a 65-year-old pipeline burst in central Arkansas, going it alone seemed the only option in an environment where the U.S. Congress and federal regulators seem incapable of strengthening rules that pipeline safety advocates perceive as weak and ineffective.
Peter Davidson walked nervously toward a U.S. Senate conference room in Washington, D.C. A lanky man with graying, wavy hair and thick-rimmed glasses, he was still studying the notes he had prepared when he stepped inside to face a dozen members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
"My name is Peter Davidson," he said as he slid into a black leather chair and pulled a microphone close. "I recently joined the Department of Energy as executive director of the Loan Programs Office…one of the largest clean energy and transportation portfolios in the world."
Though few outside Washington know it, the Energy Department's eight-year-old Loan Programs Office is at the center of the nation's highly political battle over clean energy. The program backs innovative energy projects that can't get private financing because their technology is too new and risky.
If one can believe a recent BBC poll, Germany is the most admired country in the world.
Germany's industrial skill and innovation, from sleek Bosch refrigerators to the global engineering acumen of Siemens, are the envy of the planet. Devoted to sound banking, progressive labor practices and a working social safety net, Germany largely dodged the Great Recession while still remaining the European Union's economic anchor.
But lately it is Germany's bold environmental policies that have attracted world attention. The country is striving to generate 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050—a goal bolstered by chancellor Angela Merkel's decision, in 2011, to phase out the use of nuclear power within a decade. Germans even have a bouncy portmanteau word for their ambitious efforts: the Energiewende, or energy transition.
Yet beneath that feel-good image of green stewardship and social justice is an ongoing unhealthy reliance on the dirtiest of fuels, soft lignite coal. Even as wind turbines and solar panels have sprouted all over Germany, giant strip mines continue to obliterate rural communities and foul the nation's air. In order to gain access to shallow lignite seams, mining companies have since World War II bought up and destroyed well over a hundred villages in Germany. They have relocated tens of thousands of people. And if they have their way, they will uproot still more people in coming decades.
When a United Nations panel of experts released a report last week affirming that man-made climate change is a scientific certainty, skeptics of global warming were noisily trying to discredit the panel. In the process, they drowned out the critiques of a far different group.
A broad array of leading climate scientists and policy specialists were also criticizing the panel for the exact opposite reason: They believe the main conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may be too general and too conservative to convey a clear message about the grave threat of warming and to inform policies to address local climate change issues. They say that after 25 years it might be time to overhaul the organization and refocus its research priorities.
"The state of the science and the questions to be answered have changed," said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research who has worked with the IPCC since the early 1990s.
Thousands of miles of pipelines are being built at natural gas drilling sites throughout the nation without supervision or regulation by state or federal authorities.
These specialized pipelines, known as gathering lines, carry gas from wells to nearby separation facilities for processing. Many of the pipes are as large as regulated pipelines and operate at the same or higher pressures. Some run close to homes and businesses.
Of the nation's 240,000 miles of gathering lines, only about 10 percent are regulated. When leaks or accidents occur on the remaining 90 percent, operators aren't required to notify regulators. In most cases, state and federal officials don’t even know where these lines are located.
"Since they're unregulated, no one has to report them to anybody," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Pipeline Safety Trust. His organization has asked the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to give all gathering lines the same scrutiny it gives transmission lines, which carry gas to refineries.
Pipeline accidents involving natural gas are among the most feared industry accidents, because gas is so explosive. When a poorly maintained natural gas distribution pipeline exploded in San Bruno, CA. in 2010, eight people died and 38 homes were destroyed.
A string of plant closures, project cancellations and other setbacks has raised new doubts about the future of nuclear power in the United States, but there's disagreement about whether the retrenchment will be limited and temporary or the beginning of a broad and permanent decline.
Renewed safety concerns and reinvigorated local opposition have played a role in the industry's recent troubles. But the most potent foe—and the primary force behind the spate of closures and abandoned projects—is economic.
The industry's run of bad news includes:
WASHINGTON—Two days before Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, presented her landmark proposal to regulate carbon emissions from future electric plants, one of her main allies in Congress walked her down memory lane.
Rep. Henry Waxman reminded her that he once tried to help the coal industry pay for costly technology to capture carbon dioxide from power plants and pump it deep underground.
"In 2009, the president supported market-based legislation to make major carbon pollution reductions while investing $60 billion to develop clean coal technologies like carbon capture and sequestration. Isn't that right?" Waxman asked.
"That's my recollection," McCarthy replied wryly.
McCarthy knew full well that the California Democrat was inquiring about his own cap-and-trade bill, which included huge subsidies and bonuses for CCS. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate, where coal-state senators would not even debate it.
"At the time our bill was criticized for being too generous to the coal industry," said Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which was holding a hearing on the administration's climate plan. "But virtually all the Republicans on this committee and the coal industry opposed the legislation despite its massive investment in that industry. We wanted to invest in innovative approaches so that coal could still be used. But Republicans opposed us."
Now, with no prospect for legislation to tackle climate change in sight, McCarthy and other Obama administration officials are pressing ahead with new regulations to reduce emissions from the power sector—and they're making the case that the requirements are an opportunity, not a burden, for the coal and utility industries.
Almost 75 percent of the nation's publicly traded companies are ignoring a three-year-old Securities and Exchange Commission requirement that they inform investors of the risks that climate change may pose to their bottom lines, according to a citizen researcher who has compiled what may be the country's biggest searchable database of climate risk disclosure.
The data, culled from the annual reports of 3,895 U.S. public companies listed on major stock exchanges, found that only 27 percent mentioned "climate change" or "global warming" in their most recent filing. Annual reports are the primary vehicle for companies to reveal to shareholders business risks and any other challenges they face.
The tally is the work of Lawrence Taylor, a 72-year-old retired database developer and entrepreneur, who said he has been following climate science and politics and felt compelled to do something about it. Sizing up corporations seemed a good place to start, he said.
Conservative groups at the forefront of global warming skepticism are doubling down on trying to discredit the next big report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In recent weeks, they've been cranking out a stream of op-eds, blogs and reports to sow doubt in the public's mind before the report is published, with no end in sight.
"The goal is to inform the public, scientific community and media that the upcoming IPCC report doesn't have all the science to make informed judgments," said Jim Lakely, a spokesman for the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago that has been spearheading the efforts.
Heartland gained notoriety last year after running a billboard campaign comparing climate change believers to "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, which caused several corporate donors to withdraw support for the group.
The fifth assessment by the IPCC, the world's leading scientific advisory body on global warming, is expected to conclude with at least 95 percent certainty that human activities have caused most of earth's temperature rise since 1950, and will continue to do so in the future. That's up from a confidence level of 90 percent in 2007, the year the last assessment came out. The IPCC, which consists of thousands of scientists and reviewers from more than 100 countries, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore. Governments often use its periodic reviews of climate risks to set targets for reducing carbon emissions and other policies.