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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.

A Chevy Volt is charged in Gaithersburg, Md. GM has cut the price tag on its Chevy Volt by $5,000 in an effort to boost sales. (Gary Cameron/Reuters/File)

Chevy Volt price slashed. An EV price war?

By Correspondent / 08.06.13

The Chevy Volt is getting a $5,000 price cut, General Motors announced Tuesday. The move follows other electric carmakers' discounts to spur sales of a product that has yet to win mass appeal.

“Unfortunately, Chevrolet has quickly discovered that when price savings at the pump and ultimately value are your key selling points, a $40,000 cost of entry makes for a difficult hurdle to overcome for most budget conscious consumers," Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said in an e-mailed statement. "After seeing the success that Nissan has enjoyed with the Leaf after lowering prices by a similar amount, Chevrolet decided to follow suit to try and get the Volt out to the masses."

The 2014 Chevy Volt will now start at $34,995, putting it closer to the range of the Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius Plug-in, which average around $32,000. The Volt will also appear in a lower bracket of price ranges on many popular automotive sites, which GM hopes will give it more exposure to price-sensitive customers.

Nissan used a similar strategy with it's Nissan Leaf and saw a healthy growth in sales. In January, Nissan knocked $6,400 off the Leaf's sticker price and has sold 11,703 units so far this year. That's a 230 percent increase over the same period last year. Now, GM is looking to capture some of that magic.  ( Continue… )

A pedestrian walks past the US embassy in Tel Aviv Monday. An attack on an oil pipeline in Yemen comes amid growing concerns about the possibility of Al Qaeda plots in Yemen and elsewhere in the region. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Al Qaeda threat: Is energy a target?

By Daniel J. GraeberGuest blogger / 08.06.13

A pipeline designed to carry up to 125,000 barrels of oil per day was attacked in Yemen, halting the flow of crude oil to Yemeni ports. Yemen relies on oil exports for more than half of its government spending and the country's president said last week his economy would grind to a halt if oil companies flee the national security situation there. The attack comes amid growing concerns about the possibility of al-Qaida plots in Yemen and elsewhere in the region. It also follows an emerging trend in the region's energy sector.

Yemen's official Saba News Agency blamed the attack on frustrated tribesmen, who've pressed the embattled government for more financial concessions. The attack came less than a week after a similar incident on a pipeline designed to carry 125,000 barrels of oil per day from the Safer oilfields to an export terminal in al-Hudaydah province, along the eastern coast.

Yemen produces nearly 300,000 bpd. Attacks on oil infrastructure cost the government more than $1 billion last year and oil exports dropped by 4.5 percent. Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi told U.S. President Barack Obama he was concerned about the economic situation given the heightened state of security in his country. (Related article: How Much is Oil Supporting U.S. Employment Gains?)

"Yemen's development basically came to a halt whereby there is no tourism," he said. "And the oil companies had to leave the country as a result of the presence of al-Qaida."  ( Continue… )

A pressure gauge is seen at an underground gas storage facility in the village of Mryn, 75 miles north of Kiev, Ukraine. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters/File)

Is the next energy hub in Ukraine?

By Scott BelinksiGuest blogger / 08.05.13

Twenty-two years after breaking free from the USSR, Ukraine is now attempting to do the unthinkable and permanently shake Russia’s hold on the country. The plan? Looking westward to the European Union and building an energy hub that might just revolutionize the region’s geopolitical status quo.

When Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych came to power after a vigorous election race in February 2010, the country had just spent 5 years under their most avowedly pro-Europe President so far, Viktor Yushchenko, and yet had made few concrete steps to edging out of the Soviet shadow. While Yushchenko rode the wave of the Orange Revolution into office promising integration with the EU, relations with Brussels subsequently grew cold, half due to his inaction and half to the EU’s preoccupation with its own economic crisis.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s dependency on big brother Russia reached new levels when, in 2009, the Kremlin cut off all gas transfers going through Ukrainian territory after a dispute over prices. To defuse the situation, the smaller country ended up signing a 10-year contract agreeing to pay exorbitant gas prices to Russian giant Gazprom, prices completely unrelated to market value. 

Such disadvantageous terms of trade have dominated Ukraine since its independence despite the country’s strategic geographical position. Ukraine is quite literally a bridge between the East and West, with pipelines that transfer 70% of the gas shipped from Russia to the European Union. The country is equipped with an envious level of large-scale infrastructure to store and transfer gas and also endowed with promising hydrocarbon resources onshore and offshore in the Black Sea.  ( Continue… )

Thousands of protestors gathered at the National Mall in Washington in February to call on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Backers of the pipeline say the State Department's environmental review shows there's no environmental concerns, but environmental groups reject that report, saying it underestimates the pipeline's impact. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File)

State Department watchdog probes Keystone XL review

By Correspondent / 08.05.13

The controversial Keystone XL approval process is back in the limelight, this time because of a probe into conflicts of interest.

The State Department's watchdog has opened an inquiry into whether the contractor the department hired to perform the environmental review of the Keystone XL oil pipeline had a conflict of interest. The charges are serious because the White House will use the State Department review to determine whether the pipeline will proceed. If the department is now investigating it's own review, it signals potential trouble ahead for the project.

The probe – which a State Department official stressed is a "fact-finding" mission, not a criminal investigation – comes weeks after President Obama said he'd approve Keystone XL only if it did not "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

The proposed pipeline is controversial because it would carry crude oil produced from Alberta's tar sands, a process that environmentalists argue is a particularly carbon-intensive method of producing oil. Canadian and industry officials counter that it would open Alberta's vast oil reserves to a much larger market. Those backers say the State Department's review proved that the pipeline did not significantly add to greenhouse gas emissions.

But environmental groups reject the review. The agency's March 2013 draft review vastly underestimates future carbon emissions, opponents say, and was authored by a contractor who did not disclose ties to TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL. That the State Department is investigating its own contractor adds weight to these arguments.

"The president has said that he’s going to decide Keystone based on its overall impact on the climate in terms of carbon emissions," said Ross Hammond, senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth, an environmental group challenging the State Department report. "The report on which he’s going to base that decision is tainted – I think irrefutably tainted."  ( Continue… )

TransCanada CEO Russ Girling announces the company is moving forward with the 1.1 million-barrel-per day Energy East Pipeline project at a news conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Thursday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/AP)

TransCanada moves forward with oil pipeline, but it's not Keystone XL

By Robert M. CutlerGuest blogger / 08.02.13

The Canadian energy company TransCanada Corp announced today, Thursday, its decision to move forward with the Energy East Pipeline, a 2,740-mile project that would transit between 500,000 and 850,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) from western to eastern Canada. Some longer-term estimates see the possibility of eventually ramping volumes up to 1.1 million bpd.

Oil arriving through the Energy East Pipeline would feed refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick that at present get 86 per cent of their crude supply from the international market at much higher prices than they would pay for crude from Alberta. Conversion of the existing Canadian Mainline natural gas pipeline for carriage of crude oil would account for slightly over two-thirds the projected length. The remainder would be new construction. Cost estimates range up to $12 billion, excluding the transfer value of the Canadian Mainline. (Related article: Canada Threatens U.S. with Oil Trains if Keystone XL Not Built)

The announcement follows by three weeks the signature by Alberta province of a memorandum of understanding to pay up to $5 billion in tolls for transportation of its crude oil to eastern Canada, if a pipeline is built. The proposal still requires regulatory approval, but the conditions in favor of this have been lining themselves up for some time.

The company anticipates beginning the regulatory process next year, with first oil flowing to Montreal and the Quebec City region by 2017, and to Saint John, New Brunswick, by 2018. TransCanada and IrvingOil have formed a joint venture, to construct, own, and operate a new deep water marine terminal at Canaport in Saint John.  ( Continue… )

Thai soldiers wearing biohazard suits take part as cleaning operations continue at Ao Prao Beach on Koh Samet, Wednesday. The oil spill near Samet Island in Thailand has spread to other nearby islands. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

Samet Island: Thailand oil spill spreads to other islands

By Joao PeixeGuest blogger / 08.01.13

As authorities race to clean up an oil spill that has washed up on the beach of one the Thailand’s popular islands, new news has been released that the spill has spread to other nearby islands as well.

On Saturday morning around 13,200 gallons of oil was spilled into the sea from a pipeline operated by PTT Global Chemical, a part of the state-owned oil and gas company, PTT Plc. The spill occurred when crude oil was being transferred from a tanker moored offshore to the pipeline where it would then be carried to the Map Ta Phut refinery. (Related article: Rig Fire Exposes Lingering Dangers of Offshore Drilling)

The oil slick floated on the sea for a day before being washed up in Prao Bay on the small resort island of Samet on Sunday night as a black tide of crude oil. PTT immediately issued an apology and claimed that the mess would be cleaned up within three days.

But the Marine and Coastal Resources provincial director, Puchong Saritdeechaikul, was quick to question that boast, stating that “there’s no way it will be finished by that time.” He also announced on Wednesday that his team had now detected oil sheens on other smaller islands close to Samet’s eastern coast, although he was happy to release that initial inspections of the local coral reef just 100 metres from Prao Bay was showing no signs of damage from the oil slick. (Related article: Investing in Shale Companies that Offer Good Shareholder Value( Continue… )

The Chicago skyline is shown. If the perils of automobile traffic follow residents into the city centers from the suburbs, we may lose an opportunity to have more livable and sustainable urban areas in the US, Chahar writes. (Carolyn Kaster/AP/File)

Will urbanization save energy?

By Bharat ChaharGuest blogger / 07.31.13

The signs of great movement back to the city center from suburbia can be found in most major cities of America.  New apartments, condos, townhouses seem to be sprouting up in the previously abandoned or dilapidated sites all across the US.  A recent issue of Fortune magazine talked about how majority of the new housing construction today is happening in the heart of the cities rather than the suburbs. I see evidence of this in our great city of Houston every time I drive to downtown.  The appeal of living in the city seems to be catching on with the younger generation  – who are willing to give up a big house and yard for the convenience of living close to work.  From an environmental perspective, if these trends were to continue, American urban areas have the potential to become far more sustainable rather than continuing 20th century trend of sprawling further and further away from the city with an ever-increasing footprint.

I think this is great and hope the trend continues.  But, I worry that public transportation or lack thereof may become the roadblock to making our cities more desirable and sustainable.  As more people move in closer and the population density rises, it will put an increasing burden on the cities’ infrastructures.  Most of these demands could be met by investments from the increasing tax base as the population increases, but the development of adequate public transportation may not be as easy.  ( Continue… )

Iran's Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi (C) arrives to attend a meeting with India's Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram (not seen) in New Delhi. India is cautiously aware of increasingly strict US and international sanctions on Iran due to its purported covert nuclear weapons program, which has left the country seeking alternatives. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters/File)

Piracy threatens India's quest for oil

By Joao PeixeGuest blogger / 07.31.13

India, like China, is searching the globe for oil imports.

Both nations are cautiously aware of increasingly strict U.S. and international sanctions on Iran due to its purported covert nuclear weapons program, which have left both nations despite waivers granted by Washington seeking alternatives.

India, following in China’s lead, has been investigating the possibilities of African oil production, but its rising imports from west Africa have been threatened by the age-old scourge of piracy. The worrying trend of rising piracy ironically comes at a time that hijackings off the Somalia coast are in decline, by the concerted efforts of a multinational maritime task force that has operated there over the past several years.

New Delhi is concerned, because after several years of increasing oil imports from west Africa, India’s imports since 2012 from west African Gulf of Guinea countries nations have recently declined nearly 16 percent as a reaction to a steady rise in piracy in the region, according to government and international statistics.  ( Continue… )

A tar sands plant and tailings pond at their tar sands operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Fort McMurray, population 76,000, is the heart of Alberta’s oil sands largesse. (Todd Korol/Reuters/File)

With no room to grow, Canadian town evicts oil sands companies

By James StaffordGuest blogger / 07.30.13

The Canadian town of Fort McMurray, population 76,000, is the heart of Alberta’s oil sands largesse--but the town is bursting at its seams with nowhere to expand because the land surrounding it is owned by oil companies.

The government’s answer to this is to cancel all the leases on 22,000 hectares of land surrounding Fort McMurray—effective immediately.

In an agreement announced on 26 July, the government promised lease-holders fair reimbursement, with the municipality purchasing the land from the province over the next five to 15 years.

This acreage is more than twice the size of Fort McMurray today, and the idea is to make the town two-thirds the size of Calgary. (Related Article: What Happens When the Oil Runs Out?)

For Fort McMurray—whose population is expected to double by 2030 thanks to the very oil sands industry is must now evict—it is a necessity. The town needs more housing and infrastructure, but has nowhere to put it.  ( Continue… )

New US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy delivers a speech at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., Tuesday, July 30, 2013. The tension between environmental stewardship and economic health is a false dichotomy, McCarthy said in the speech. (Steven Senne/AP)

EPA head: Fighting climate change will create more jobs

By Correspondent / 07.30.13

In her first public address as administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy aimed to redefine the EPA as a source of job creation, instead of the economic drag it is sometimes portrayed to be.

Climate change is not an environmental issue but a "fundamental economic challenge," Ms. McCarthy said in a speech Tuesday at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. It must be addressed with cleaner, more sustainable energy and transportation sectors. 

"Today, the truth is that we need to embrace cutting carbon pollution as a way to spark business innovation," McCarthy said, making a point to elongate the "a" in "spark" with her signature Boston accent.

"We need to cut carbon pollution to grow jobs," she added. "We need to cut carbon pollution to strengthen the economy. Let’s talk about this positively. Let’s approach this as an opportunity of a lifetime. Because there are too many lifetimes at stake to not embrace it this way – the way this country has always embraced its challenges: head on."

McCarthy's direct approach has earned her a reputation as a tough regulator in Washington. Her confirmation process ended earlier this month after 136 days and more than a thousand questions from Senate Republicans wary of her previous work as head of the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation. 

Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming has long criticized McCarthy and the EPA, and voted against her nomination. ( Continue… )

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