Two Conversations about A Tragedy
It’s been just over a month since a train loaded with crude oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing an estimated 47 residents. In the interval since the accident, the relevant authorities have focused on ascertaining the cause of the accident and determining how best to improve rail safety. However, there has also been another, less-customary conversation about whether oil in general, and the specific oil on this train, might be too dangerous to transport by rail at all. That conversation would benefit from some context that appears to be absent.
Both conversations began with a tragedy in a place I recognized immediately. Ten years ago my wife and I passed through Lac-Megantic and drove along the Chaudière river that originates there, on its way to the St. Lawrence. It’s an area of natural beauty and historical significance. The images of destruction and of oil spilled in the river were gut-wrenching.
The investigation is still underway, but it seems significant that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) of the US Deparment of Transportation has already issued an Emergency Order banning the practice of leaving such trains unattended, pending the development of better procedures for securing them safely.Canadian authorities are reviewing their regulations and enforcement, as well as revisiting questions about the specific type of tank car in which the oil was carried. The Wall St. Journal reported that the FRA is also looking into the testing and classification of crude oil shipments, to ensure that the tank cars used to transport different crude oils are suited to the task. Meanwhile, the rail operator involved in the accident hasfiled for bankruptcy on both sides of the border. ( Continue… )
[Editor's note: US natural gas production levels referenced in paragraphs four and five have been updated to reflect the most recently available data.]
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. That's the credo of the oil and gas industry as it continues to lobby for increased oil and natural gas exports from the United States. After all, the industry claims, we're on our way to achieving energy independence, and we can help our balance of trade by exporting the extra hydrocarbons we produce. The data, however, contradict the industry's claim.
Even as the Obama Administration approved the country's third natural gas export terminal, the United States remained a net importer of natural gas. Production in the United States averaged 69.5 billion cubic feet (bcf) per day this year through May, the latest month for which data is available. But the country consumed 76.9 bcf per day. It IMPORTED almost 7.8 bcf per day from Canada. And, then it EXPORTED about 1.8 bcf per day to Mexico, a number that has been rising. (Both Canada and Mexico are part of an integrated North American natural gas pipeline system.)
RECOMMENDED: US energy in five maps (infographics)
The latest approval would lift the capacity for daily liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports from the United States to 5.6 bcf per day or about 8 percent of what we currently produce. The exports would be shipped using special freighters to Europe and Asia. Strangely, these exports would make it necessary for the United States to IMPORT more natural gas in order to support current consumption! The situation seems surreal, and yet, additional approvals for LNG exports are likely in the future. ( Continue… )
Water is an essential ingredient for the operation of most nuclear power plants, from providing the liquid that is flashed to steam to drive turbines to providing coolant for storage of spent fuel. In most NPPs, water is drawn from nearby rivers or from the ocean.
Unfortunately, that reliance can also prove to be a liability.
In reviewing the 11 March 2011 catastrophe that overwhelmed Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s six reactor Fukushima Daiichi NPP, few people remember that it was not the Richter 9.0 earthquake, the fifth largest in modern history, that devastated the facility, but the massive tsunami subsequently generated by the undersea tremor.
Which incidentally killed 25,000 people. ( Continue… )
As a result of the poor economic conditions, and low prospects of future growth, demand for oil in the US has fallen in six of the past seven years, but driven by increased consumption of industrial fuels such as diesel, used to power trucks and trains, and propane gas, used by the petrochemicals industry, there has been a strong resurgence in demand.
So far this year the IEA states that US oil demand has grown in four of the first six months, prompting an upgrade in the organisation’s forecast for growth of US oil demand, from 0 to 0.3%, what will be the first year of growth since 2010. (Related article: GDP Growth must Slow as Oil Limits are Reached)
RECOMMENDED: US energy in five maps (infographics)
The IEA has been surprised by the recent decision by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reduce its forecast for US GDP growth in 2014, claiming that they believe the demand for oil looks far more positive, and that “signs of recovery in the US economy have been associated with rising oil consumption in recent months.” ( Continue… )
"I've got a hyperloop to catch."
That's a phrase you might hear sometime in the future, if you believe Elon Musk. The driving force behind Tesla Motors' luxury electric car and SpaceX's forays into private space travel is throwing his weight behind a "fifth mode of transport." The hyperloop, as he laid out in plans late Monday, would whisk travelers in pods at about the speed of sound through tubes to reach their destinations.
It's not an entirely new idea, and Mr. Musk stresses that his plan is "extremely speculative." But if executed exactly as he envisions it, the hyperloop would offer a combination of high speed, low cost, and low emissions that would make planes, trains, automobiles, and boats look positively Stone Age.
"Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this)," Musk wrote in a 57-page proposal, "the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment."
The basic concept is "a cross between a Concord and a rail gun and an air hockey table," as Musk described it at a conference in May. Columns of air would push passenger cars through special, low-pressure tubes at speeds greater than 600 mph. To reduce friction, the cars would levitate on a cushion of pressurized air. ( Continue… )
This week, the EPA announced that it was adjusting the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) in order to reflect market realities. As originally proposed earlier this year, the rule called for 14 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol, but the final rule sets a requirement for 6 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol this year.
However, as all the news stories focus on how the EPA has “backed down”, what goes overlooked is that there is finally a cellulosic biofuel industry in which commercial production has started.
KiOR’s biorefinery in Columbus, Mississippi started commercial production in March using wood chips to produce cellulosic fuels, and Ineos just announced on July 31 that their Indian River BioEnergy plant in Florida has begun operations to make biofuels from plant waste. Both of these are now operating at full commercial scale. Whether they’re making money yet, we don’t know, but the fact that they’re producing large volumes of cellulosic biofuels may be a historic turning point. These developments are important steps towards developing a real advanced biofuel industry that can help move us toward a point where we have other options for how to fuel our cars and trucks.
Robert Rapier, writing about this issue in January, had called commercial cellulosic ethanol production a “unicorn” because it was something that doesn’t exist, no matter how much we want it to. Today, we can honestly say that is no longer the case. ( Continue… )
On Thursday ConocoPhillips announced another deal as part of its 2012-2013 asset disposition program, with the sale of 226,000 acres of its Canadian oil sands property to Exxon Mobil Corp. and Imperial Oil for$720 million.
The property exists nearly 100 miles to the south of Fort McMurray in Alberta, and entails of ConocoPhillips entire stake in the Clyden oil sands in the Athabasca Region. ConocoPhillips lays claim to the largest oil sands position in the area, with 1.1 million acres, and an estimated potential of 16 billion barrels.
In total ConocoPhillips hopes that it will raise around $13.8 billion from the program of selling non-core assets, which it then intends to return to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. (Related article: Back to the Oil Basics in Pennsylvania) ( Continue… )
Chalk another one up for Tesla Motors.
The luxury electric carmaker released a surprisingly good earnings report late Wednesday, defying pessimistic forecasts and sending Tesla Motors stock (TSLA) soaring.
In many ways, the odds are stacked against Tesla, and some still expect it to one day go the way of Fisker Karma, Better Place, and other high-profile flops in the electric vehicle (EV) industry. But the small car company in Fremont, Calif., continues to beat those odds, making a splash in an industry that is historically adverse to new entrants.
"Tesla has clearly found an unmet market niche that's capable of supporting the company, at least in the near term," Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said in an e-mailed statement. "The automaker's long-term goal of producing a high-volume, low-cost electric car is the next big hurdle, but for now they seem to be firing on all non-existent cylinders.”
After posting its first profit in Q1 2013, many analysts expected Tesla to slip back in the red for the second quarter. But at $26 million, Tesla more than doubled its operating profit in Q2, and ended the quarter with $747 million in cash and no government debt. It's stock ballooned in after hours trading Wednesday and by midday Thursday, was up more than 17 percent at $151.75. Still, because of its early repayment of its government and its car-price guarantee, which forces the company to start accounting for car sales as leases, Tesla officially posted a net loss in Q2 of $30.5 million, or 26 cents a share. ( Continue… )
Ever since civil unrest led to the toppling of President Ali Abdullah Salehas in 2011, Yemen has struggled to contain the rise of Islamic militants operating within its borders, even with the help of the US military.
US, British, and French embassies were closed recently, after a message was intercepted on the 4th of August from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and successor to Osama bin Laden, to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of al-Qaeda in Yemen, mentioning a planned attack that was to happen shortly.
It seems as though that attack may have now been foiled, after Yemen’s government has just released that it uncovered an al-Qaeda attack to seize various facilities in the dangerous southwestern province of Hadramut. (Related article: Is Oil the Next Front in Al-Qaida's War?)
Rajeh Badi, advisor to Prime Minister Mohamed Salem Basindwah, told Bloomberg that the militants were prevented from carrying out their plot to attack the al-Dhabah oil export terminal, and the LNG facility in Shabwah province, as well as the planned seizure of the port city of Mukalla in Hadramut. ( Continue… )
Renewable energy is slowly catching up to fossil fuels and becoming more competitive, but it still faces the same challenges as ever. The fact that the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and few systems can efficiently cope with the fluctuating energy demand placed upon them.
Critics view these points as proof that renewable energy has no future, whereas advocates view them as challenges that must be overcome.
Many different techniques have been tested to try and smooth out the varying generating levels that clean energy sources produce, mainly some form of energy storage system, but none has yet managed to provide an adequate solution. (Related article: Airborne Wind Turbines Continue to Advance)
An exciting, new wind turbine produced by GE, shows hope as a potential solution to the constant problems that afflict the wind energy sector. The 1.6-100 and 1.7-100 wind turbines boast the ability of generating far more electricity when wind speeds are minimal, store excess energy for use in the future, and has a smart system that can analyse when more energy will be needed, and when the wind should blow. ( Continue… )