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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Monitor staff and guest contributors offer a mix of news, analysis, and commentary on energy and resource issues emerging across the globe.

Oil-containment booms cut across a sandbar on Pelican Island Sunday in Galveston, Texas. The Galveston oil spill poses a significant threat to local wildlife and jams up a major shipping route vital to the region's economy. (Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle/AP)

Galveston oil spill: Does oil boom mean more spills?

By Staff writer / 03.24.14

A Galveston oil spill sent 168,000 gallons of a heavy marine fuel oil into a busy Texan waterway after a barge collided with a ship Saturday. The 50-mile Houston Ship Channel in Galveston Bay remained closed early Monday, as crews worked to contain an oil spill that experts said would be particularly difficult to clean up.

Saturday's spill poses a significant threat to local wildlife and jams up a major shipping route vital to the region's economy. It came days ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, which spilled 11 million gallons and still leaves its mark on Alaska's Prince William Sound.     

Oil barge safety has improved dramatically in recent decades, but a sharp uptick in US oil production has raised new concerns about how to safely transport the fossil fuel. The exact cause of Saturday's Galveston oil spill remains to be determined, but the collision draws attention to increased oil tanker traffic in the nation's waterways and the environmental toll it can take. 

“Fuel oil is not easy to clean off anything,” said Jim Suydam, a spokesman for Texas' General Land Office, a state agency leading the response in conjunction with the US Coast Guard, told The Texas Tribune. “It sticks to things.”  ( Continue… )

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs bills making Crimea part of Russia in the Kremlin in Moscow, Friday. Russia's Crimea annexation means Ukraine loses its primary access to offshore oil and gas resources in that region. (Sergei Chirikov/AP/File)

With Crimea annexation, Putin expands oil and gas empire

By Staff writer / 03.21.14

When Russia annexed Crimea, it seized not just the land, but also the resource-rich waters that surround it.

Crimea may account for less than 4 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product but is vital to developing the substantial Black Sea oil and gas that lies in its watershed. Moscow’s acquisition of the Ukrainian peninsula blocks Kiev’s physical access to those resources and is scaring off private foreign capital that seemed ready to develop them.

If the region is to stay under Russian control, as seems all but assured, Russia’s state-owned oil and gas giants will likely step in to fill the void. That would further expand Moscow’s resource leverage over Europe and again hamper Kiev’s efforts to secure its energy future. 

The deep-water natural gas reserves in the portion of the Black Sea shelf that still formally belongs to Ukraine are estimated at between 4 trillion and 13 trillion cubic meters, according to Ukrainian government figures. With an investment of between $8 billion and $9 billion, production could reach a level of about 9.7 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year by 2030. Those energy riches, though, changed hands de facto when the rest of Crimea did.

Ukraine – which currently consumes about 55 bcm a year, of which roughly 50 percent is imported from Russia – also has between 1.2 trillion and 3.5 trillion cubic meters of onshore conventional gas reserves. Kiev would still be able to slash its reliance on Russian supply by developing its untapped onshore conventional reserves, but the loss of offshore reserves is, nonetheless, a formidable blow in terms of energy security and a substantial loos of potential revenue.

For now, Western interest in offshore Ukraine – and potentially other parts of the Black Sea – is in a holding pattern ... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook. 

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 BP oil spill. BP made its triumphant return to the Gulf of Mexico as the highest bidder Wednesday for 24 of the blocks on sale in the Gulf of Mexico. (Gerald Herbert/AP/File)

BP returns to Gulf of Mexico nearly 4 years after ban

By Daniel J. GraeberGuest blogger / 03.21.14

British energy company BP on Wednesday won its first bids on acreage in the Gulf of Mexico in nearly four years. Next month marks the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy -- and the drilling moratorium that followed -- and federal officials said the region is still a centerpiece of the U.S. energy portfolio.

The U.S. Department of Interior said Wednesday it attracted more than $872 million in high bids for the 1.7 million acres on the auction block in the Central Gulf of Mexico. Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the Gulf of Mexico remains one of the most productive oil basins in the world.

"While domestic energy production is growing rapidly in the United States, the Central Gulf of Mexico, as demonstrated by today's lease sale, will continue to be one of the cornerstones of the nation's energy portfolio," he said in a statement. (Related Article: Can the United States Rule the (Energy) World?)

The U.S. government placed a moratorium on deepwater drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf in May 2010. The ban was lifted that October, but nobody could move forward unless they were able to show they could respond to a possible spill.  ( Continue… )

President Obama makes a statement on Ukraine Thursday on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington. The latest round of sanctions against Russia largely avoid the energy industry, which continues to be a touchy subject as the West responds to Russia's annexation of Crimea. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

More US sanctions on Russia over Crimea. Why energy is largely untouched. (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.21.14

President Obama stepped up the US response to Russia's annexation of Crimea Thursday, blocking an additional 20 Russians from visiting or doing business with the United States. Most are prominent Russian oligarchs with ties to banks and occupy government posts. The expanded sanctions are aimed at limiting the financial and political activities of Russian President Vladimir Putin's government while assuring Eastern Europe allies they have Washington's backing.

"America’s support for our NATO allies is unwavering," Mr. Obama said on the South Lawn of the White House Thursday. "We’ve already increased our support for our Eastern European allies, and we will continue to strengthen NATO’s collective defense, and we will step up our cooperation with Europe on economic and energy issues as well."

Apart from Gennady Timchenko, the head of Volga Group, an oil and gas investment group, Thursday's list largely tiptoes around the most delicate topic of the sanctions conversation: energy. That may frustrate those in Washington and abroad who have called for a more aggressive targeting of Russia's resource wealth, but – for now at least – Obama's hands may be tied. ( Continue… )

Members of the Russia's State Duma are seen prior to voting Thursday to allow Crimea to join Russia. The Crimea annexation may motivate the new Ukraine government to push forward with shale gas development. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Russia annexes Crimea. Could it boost Ukraine's energy outlook?

By James StaffordGuest blogger / 03.20.14

Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula is now Russia’s. It was done with an impressively organized non-violent military operation, and supported by the foregone conclusion of a referendum on independence from Ukraine. One Ukrainian soldier was reportedly killed on 18 March, after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the treaty to annex the Crimea and troops moved to take over a Ukrainian military facility in Simferopol. The US has imposed largely symbolic sanctions on Russian officials who have no American assets to freeze and would be fine foregoing trips to the US, but the game is over.

Ukrainian troops have been ordered to disengage entirely, and Russia will keep its tanks from rolling into Eastern Ukraine. We’ll hear a lot of rhetoric for the next six months before Crimea is forgotten. From an energy perspective, the Crimea is not a major loss for Ukraine, and now it’s up to the new government to get real shale development in motion, and for Turkey to face up to its own strategic realities and join forces with Ukraine to harness LNG potential, according to Ukraine energy expert Robert Bensh.

Robert Bensh is an energy and energy security expert who has led oil and gas companies in Ukraine for over 13 years, and served as an advisor to former energy minister and former vice-prime minister Yuri Boyko on issues of Western capital markets and political systems.  ( Continue… )

The Nicaragua national flag flies above the Revolution Square in Managua, Nicaragua. Only 30 percent of Nicaragua's rural population has access to electricity, Guevara-Stone writes, but the people of Sabana Grande have shown that a brighter future is possible (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters/File)

How solar energy empowers women, youth in rural Nicaragua

By Laurie Guevara-StoneGuest blogger / 03.20.14

Forty years ago Sabana Grande, a small community in northern Nicaragua, was ravaged by war. Now you will find people sitting under solar-powered lights, eating solar-cooked chicken, and drinking smoothies made by a bicycle-powered blender. Sabana Grande (pop. 2,000), in the mountains of Totogalpa, about 20 miles from the Honduran border, has embraced a solar culture that has transformed the community.

Turning landmine survivors into solar technicians

The war between the government Sandinistas and the Contra rebels left hundreds of people disabled by landmines, especially in the northern part of the country. In 1999 a Nicaraguan non-governmental organization called Grupo Fenix received a grant from the Canadian Falls Brook Center to reintegrate landmine survivors back into society. The NGO decided it would teach the landmine survivors how to make solar panels, providing them with both a livelihood and a way to get electricity in a poor, off-grid region. It focused on Sabana Grande, an agricultural community in one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest departments of Nicaragua. 

Grupo Fenix, founded by engineering professor Susan Kinne of the Engineering University of Nicaragua and made up of many of her engineering students, taught the villagers how to solder together discarded solar cells they received from some large PV manufacturers to make solar PV panels, up to 60 watts in size. They also held classes on installing and maintaining off-grid solar PV systems. The Sabana Grande solar workshop was born, and soon a few of the trained farmers-turned-technicians started selling small solar home lighting systems to people in the community and throughout the region.  ( Continue… )

General view of the United Nations headquarters behind a wire fence in Vienna Tuesday.The brewing and growing conflict between Russia and the West over Crimea threatens to derail this week's negotiations over Iran's nuclear talks. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

Crimea makes Iran nuclear talks a bit awkward

By Nicholas CunninghamGuest blogger / 03.19.14

Talks are resuming in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 – China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S. and Germany. The interim deal agreed to last November between these parties removed some sanctions from Iran, amounting to about $7 billion in economic relief. Iran has capitalized on the loosening grip of the West, and it has boosted its exports of oil as a result. February data suggests that Iran has breached the 1 million barrel-per-day limit imposed upon it for the fourth month in a row. It raised oil exports by 16% to 1.16 million barrels per day, though that rate is less than half of what it was before sanctions were imposed 2012. Iran’s oil exports have gone almost exclusively to buyers in Asia, including China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

And it’s not just oil where Iran is seeing some progress. Last week it signed a deal with Oman to export 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year. It will still require the construction of a $1 billion pipeline that crosses the Persian Gulf, but the deal spans 25 years beginning in 2015, and is worth about $60 billion. Iran sits atop the world’s largest natural gas reserves but has been unable to exploit them to their full potential. But with an eye on future growth of its oil and gas sectors, Iran has voiced optimism that a deal with the international community could be reached. The West and Iran have set a self-imposed deadline of July to reach a long-term agreement. (Related Article: Iran Talks Potential Nuclear-Oil Swap with Russia( Continue… )

Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, right, pose for media before heading for talks on Eastern Europe’s security, in Warsaw Tuesday. As Moscow tightened its grip on Crimea, Mr. Biden promised additional economic and military protections against Russian incursions into Eastern Europe, at meetings with NATO allies. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Biden warns Russia about more sanctions, but not US 'energy weapon' (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.18.14

Europe is on its own in efforts to wean itself off Russian fuel – for now, at least. 

As Moscow tightened its grip on Crimea, Vice President Joe Biden promised additional economic and military protections against Russian incursions into Eastern Europe, at meetings with NATO allies Tuesday.

The vice president encouraged Europe's own efforts to boost domestic energy production, but stopped short of the kind of aggressive US energy support many have called for in Washington and Brussels. Meanwhile, Russian and Crimean leaders signed an annexation agreement, according to the Kremlin, bringing Moscow a step closer to securing access to Black Sea oil and gas, and further blocking Eastern European forays into energy independence.  ( Continue… )

New York City emergency responders search through the rubble at the site of a building explosion in the Harlem section of New York, March 16, 2014. Replacing New York's century-old gas pipelines will take two decades and more than $100 million a year. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File)

New York pipeline blast shakes up an industry (+video)

By Contributor / 03.18.14

The natural gas pipeline explosion that took down two buildings in East Harlem and killed eight people is raising additional questions about the United States’ reliance on natural gas – or more to the point, whether the infrastructure that carries the fuel source is both safe and adequate.

Similar tragedies have dotted the American landscape in recent years, with the main culprits being older lines that have suffered from corrosion and that have ultimately led to leakage and destruction. In nearly all such cases, the lines had not been inspected for years and they had been made of cast-iron materials that were prevalent more than a century ago – outdated when compared with today’s flexible plastic pipelines.

The increased concerns over pipeline safety are occurring alongside the boom in shale gas, which is increasingly used to fuel electric generation in the United States. That promise is potentially undermined by an aging infrastructure that needs wider tentacles. The network in New York City, for example, consists largely of cast-iron pipelines, just as other northeastern cities depend heavily on those same materials. The ruptured lines that connected to the East Harlem buildings were built in 1887.

“Simply put, too much of the city’s essential infrastructure remains stuck in the 20th Century – a problem for a city positioning itself to compete with other global cities in today’s 21st Century economy,” the Center for Urban Future said – eerily, a day before the Harlem explosions last week. ( Continue… )

Russian flags decorate a vehicle as pro-Russian soldiers stand outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Ukraine, Monday. Crimea imports more than 80 percent of the consumed energy from the continental part of Ukraine, according to the Crimean government. (Vadim Ghirda/AP/File)

Can Crimea survive without Ukraine's power? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.17.14

Crimea, like broader Ukraine, is divided between political ambitions and economic realities.  

Annexing the Ukrainian peninsula would be a political and cultural victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it would also give Moscow more direct access to the Black Sea's oil and gas resources. Crimeans appear eager to go along with the plan, but are hamstrung by their reliance on the rest of Ukraine for its gas and electricity. Recent developments suggest a smaller natural-gas battle is brewing within broader tensions over Russia's role in European energy.

Russian troops seized control of a natural gas terminal just beyond the Crimean border Saturday, as reported by The New York Times. On Sunday, Crimeans voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining Russia in a controversial referendum. A day later, Crimea's parliament voted to nationalize the region's main energy companies, which many saw as a land-grab that would ultimately cede control of Ukraine's offshore oil and gas future to Russia.   

That move creates "a new set of legal problems," according to Mikhail Korchemkin, founder of East European Gas Analysis, a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm.  ( Continue… )

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