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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.

The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska. Shell last month said it was suspending plans offshore Alaska to prepare its equipment and personnel for resumption of activity "at a later stage," Graeber writes. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Painter/US Coast Guard/AP/File)

More politics than policy in Arctic oil drilling debate

By Daniel J. GraeberGuest blogger / 03.18.13

Rep. Ed Markey, ranking member of the House Energy Committee, said an investigation into Shell's offshore Alaska campaign suggested the company wasn't ready to work in extreme environments. An Interior Department report found problems with the way Shell managed its Alaska campaign last year. Last week, Markey added that he wanted to restrict oil and gas exports to ensure U.S. energy security.  Amid the firestorm over Republican pressure to pass the Keystone XL pipeline, some party leaders on the other side of the aisle are embracing a protective model as a way to keep the domestic economy going. The political debate around energy, however, is becoming less about energy and more about partisanship.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Tommy Beaudreau led the Interior Department's review of Shell's work offshore Alaska. The New Years Eve grounding of drillship Kulluk gave environmental campaigners the fodder they needed to reiterate their position that arctic oil and gas exploration wasn't safe. Beaudreau found that "Alaska's harsh environment was unforgiving" to Shell's lack of oversight in Alaska.

Markey, D-Mass., said the report showed Shell wasn't prepared to drill in the harsh arctic environment of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. (Related article: Using Oil Revenues to Research Alternative Fuels)

"Until Shell demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have the capability to drill in the arctic safely, their drilling plans should remain on ice," he said( Continue… )

A coal-fired power plant is seen from Lake Powell in Page, Ariz. The Texas Clean Energy Project will incorporate carbon capture and storage technology in a first-of-its-kind commercial clean coal power plant, Tracey writes. (Ross D. Franklin/AP/File)

Clean-coal power plant to break ground in Texas (Sponsor content)

By Evan TraceyAmerican Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) / 03.18.13

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, author Joe Nocera talks about “A Real Carbon Solution” in Odessa, Tex. as the Summit Power Group plans to break ground on a $2.5 billion coal gasification power plant. Summit has named it the Texas Clean Energy Project (TCEP).

TCEP is a “NowGen” Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) facility that will incorporate carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in a first-of-its-kind commercial clean coal power plant.

TCEP will be a 400MW power/poly-gen plant that will also produce urea for the U.S. fertilizer market and capture 90 percent of its carbon dioxide (CO2) – approximately 3 million tons per year – which will be used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in the West Texas Permian Basin.

According to Nocera, “Part of the promise of this power plant is its use of gasified coal; because the gasification process doesn’t burn the coal, it makes for far cleaner energy than a traditional coal-fired plant.”

“But another reason this plant — and a handful of similar plants — has such enormous potential is that it will capture some 90 percent of the facility’s already reduced carbon emissions. Some of those carbon emissions will be used to make fertilizer. The rest will be sold to the oil industry,which will push it into the ground, as part of a process called enhanced oil recovery.”

TCEP received a $450MM award in 2010 from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Power Initiative. TCEP received its final air quality permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on December 28, 2010.

The Texas Clean Energy project will be the first United States based power plant that combines both Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle and carbon capture and storage technologies.

A mixture of oil, diesel fuel, water and mud sprays as roughnecks wrestle pipe on a True Company oil drilling rig outside Watford, N.D. Production from "tight oil" wells has risen, Cobb writes, but not enough to offset declines elsewhere. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters/File)

Behind the oil boom lurks oil well depletion

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / 03.18.13

With the media awash in stories telling us how much oil is being discovered around the world, there is one word which the optimists quoted in these stories refuse to utter: Depletion.

The simple fact is that depletion never sleeps. It starts as soon as an oil well begins production and goes on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Furthermore, it is not exactly news that oil is being discovered all around the world. The industry has been spending record amounts to find it.

What’s critical is the difference between the annual additions to oil production capacity and the annual decline in the rate of production from existing wells, a decline which is running anywhere from 4 to 9 percent depending on whom you talk to.

Even at the low end of decline rate estimates, the world must find and put into production the equivalent of what is currently coming out of the entire North Sea, one the world’s largest finds, and we must do so EVERY SINGLE YEAR before worldwide production can rise. So difficult has this task become, that we’ve only just been able to keep global production on a bumpy plateau since 2005. For now, the oil industry is on a treadmill which requires ever more drilling just to keep production even.  ( Continue… )

A filed of corn is shown near Council Bluffs, Iowa. The general consensus seems to be that we just aren’t ready for this great leap of faith in ethanol, Alic writes. (Nati Harnik/AP/File)

Ethanol mandate: Did the EPA jump the gun?

By Jen AlicGuest blogger / 03.16.13

US consumers aren’t sure the ethanol math is adding up here as they prepare for this year’s new federal mandate—they’re also not sure whether it’s good for their car engines.

To wit: This year, the use of renewable fuels must rise to 16.55 billion gallons, and this means more ethanol and more ethanol-blended gasoline for cars. More specifically, US refiners will be required to use 13.8 billion gallons of corn ethanol—up from 13.2 billion gallons now--but this is too much to blend with gasoline.

Right now, the gas Americans are putting in their cars is about 10% ethanol, but even this hasn’t been approved by regulators for ALL cars. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the E15 blend—for newer cars--thanks to a lot of lobbying by the ethanol producers.   ( Continue… )

A worker looks over solar panels at the NRG Solar and Eurus Energy America Corp.’s 45-megawatt solar farm in Avenal, Calif. We should collectively and aggressively work for clean energy to be a national priority to “lift all boats,” – both innovation and deployment of today’s technology alike, Stepp writes. (Apolinar Fonseca/The Sentinel/AP/File)

Making energy innovation part of climate policy debate

By Matthew SteppGuest blogger / 03.15.13

Innovation vs. Deployment

One of the continuing debates among climate and energy analysts and advocates is whether public policy should emphasize innovation or deployment. A hardy round of wonky discussion brought to light the nuances of each point of view, but it still leaves one lingering issue: how do we make energy innovation part of advocates’ climate policy pitch?

There are two levels to the debate between innovation analysts and deployment advocates. The most significant debate is over policy nuance and is what has been in the blogging spotlight recently. The debate logic chain typically plays out broadly this way:

  • Mitigating climate change requires cutting global carbon emissions to near zero, which requires no less than a transformation of the global energy system from fossil fuels to clean energy. For its part, the United States has set a goal of 80 percent carbon reductions by 2050 and a midterm goal of 17 percent reductions by 2020.
  • Innovation analysts argue today’s technology isn’t enough to get us to 80 percent global (or US) carbon reductions. Cheaper and better technologies are needed to fully address climate change, which requires looking at the full innovation ecosystem and aggressively strengthening through policy. Today’s policy approach is woefully lacking because it underinvests in research, development, and demonstration, and provides limited deployment incentives that don’t drive innovation. As a result, innovation analysts (for example, myself) typically focus on boosting R&D budgets, bridging the valley of death, and reforming deployment policies to drive technological improvements as the best path to addressing climate change.
  • Deployment advocates argue today’s technologies are enough to at worse meet our midterm climate goals and at best get us much closer to our 80 percent goal than innovation analysts argue. Most commonly, this extends to deployment advocates arguing that big innovations really aren’t necessary. In other words, we need to do everything we can to push deploying today’s technologies by using policies including subsidies, carbon pricing, and mandates. By no means is funding research not important, but it’s not a high policy priority. As a result, deployment advocates (for example, Climate Progress EditorJoe Romm) champion clean energy subsidies and incentives to accelerate the deployment of existing technologies and as the best path to addressing climate change.

As Dave Roberts at Grist argues, there is in fact a lot both “camps” agree on at this level. Cheaper and better clean energy technologies will make deep carbon reductions less and less “difficult, expensive, and politically contentious” than if we relied solely on today’s technologies. The agreement only breaks on the policy implementation side.  ( Continue… )

The campus of Argonne National Laboratory is the site of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, a federally-funded battery-research effort. President Obama visits the lab Friday and is expected to discuss the role storage and renewables will play in America's energy future. (Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory/File)

Obama at Argonne lab: Why batteries matter (+video)

By Correspondent / 03.15.13

President Obama's visit to the center of a national energy-storage-research effort Friday highlights an overlooked tool in the administration's push for renewable energy: batteries.

The technology is ubiquitous – in our phones, our cars, and our planes – but the science is far from simple. The challenges are well-documented in news stories about bankrupt batterymakers, winter-averse electric cars, and grounded Dreamliners.

Many in the energy community believe we need a better battery. That's the focus of the work under way at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago – and the reason for Mr. Obama's visit. The president is expected to urge Congress to provide an additional $2 billion for battery and transportation research meant to end the nation's use of oil.

Better batteries would not only extend the range of electric-only and hybrid cars, they would also make the nation's electric grid a lot "greener," capable of storing energy from wind turbines and solar panels on a large scale and then delivering it when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.

"It’s not glitzy; it’s not glamorous," said Donald Sadoway, a battery researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., in a phone interview. "But – boy – if this thing works, it has enormous benefit."  ( Continue… )

A billboard carries a message for the coal industry near Wheeling, W.V. A federal court case pitting Arch Coal against the Environmental Protection Agency has mining and other industries worried that the EPA could pull their permits retroactively under the Clean Water Act. (Jason Cohn/Reuters/File)

Court case: Coal mine gets permit. Can EPA take it back again?

By Jonathan HarschContributor / 03.14.13

If a mine has received a federal permit to expand its current operations, can the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revoke the permit retroactively to protect the nation’s water?

That was the issue at stake in a Washington, D.C., courtroom hearing held Thursday over Arch Coal’s 15-year battle to expand its mining operations in West Virginia. The case involves the EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act and is closely watched by energy companies and other industries worried that EPA could also pull their environmental permits after the fact. Final answers aren’t expected anytime soon in a case that could go to the Supreme Court.

“Allowing EPA perpetual and unrestricted license to modify a permit after its issuance – even when the agency authorized to modify the permit has concluded there are no grounds to justify doing so – would destroy the certainty that the permit is intended to provide and upset Congress’s allocation of regulatory authority among the Corps, the States and EPA,” Arch Coal states in documents prepared for Thursday’s court hearing. “Congress did not give EPA such unbridled power.”

Explaining the coal company’s position in the US Court of Appeals March 14, Arch Coal attorney Robert Rolfe insisted that although the EPA has a recognized role in the permitting process, “that role has to be exercised before the permit is issued,” not retroactively. ( Continue… )

In a time exposure photo, tractor-trailers leave streaks of light as they merge onto Highway 2 west of Williston, N.D. Williston, the center of the energy boom in North Dakota, is the fastest-growing small city in the US. (Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette/AP/File)

In Great Plains, if you drill it they will come

By Staff writer / 03.14.13

The Great Plains are back. Written off a decade ago as a population drain – with some counties losing so many people that they were back to frontier status – portions of the nation's midsection have made a stunning comeback.

A big reason: the energy boom.

"After a long period of out-migration, some parts of the Great Plains ─ from just south of the Canadian border all the way down to West Texas ─ are experiencing rapid population growth," said Thomas Mesenbourg, acting director of the Census Bureau, in a release announcing the new population figures Thursday. "There are probably many factors fueling this growth on the prairie, but no doubt the energy boom is playing a role."

For example: The nation's fastest-growing metropolitan area is Midland, Texas, in the West Texas oil fields. Its population grew 4.6 percent between July 1, 2011 and July 1, 2012, census figures show. Oil-dependent Odessa, Texas, ranks No. 5 among the nation's fastest-growing metros.  ( Continue… )

Rep. Paul Ryan holds up a copy of the House Budget Committee 2014 Budget Resolution at a news conference in Washington Tuesday. The Paul Ryan budget calls for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and the opening up of more federal lands to oil and gas exploration. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In Paul Ryan budget, echoes of energy campaign rhetoric

By Correspondent / 03.14.13

Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin has made a splash with his latest federal budget proposal, but in the energy portion of his plan, he has simply rehashed the themes that the Romney-Ryan ticket sounded during the 2012 presidential campaign:

  • Approval of the Keystone XL pipeline;
  • The opening up of more federal lands to oil and gas exploration;
  • A reduction in federal loans to private energy companies.

That's not necessarily a bad thing – some of those ideas have bipartisan support. But the energy landscape has shifted since the 2012 election. Most notably, the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" revolution has already put the US on course for virtual energy independence, making the Ryan plan seem dated. His plan also uses some questionable job estimates and was, apparently, so off-base in one area that a clean-energy chief executive has written the congressman to protest the claims.

"The Ryan budget is ideological blither-blather," said Joshua Freed, vice president for the clean energy program at Third Way, a think tank of centrist Democrats based in Washington. "There is an enormous opportunity for pragmatic regulatory reforms and policy action in energy," Mr. Freed added in a telephone interview. "But it requires a fresh look from both parties to accomplish." ( Continue… )

An Exxon Mobil logo seen at a Dallas gas station. Exxon says the technology just isn’t there yet for algae-based fuels yet, though it had originally predicted it was only a decade away from producing these fuels, Alic writes. (LM Otero/AP/File)

Is the future of biofuels in algae? Exxon Mobil says it's possible.

By Jen AlicGuest blogger / 03.13.13

Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) is spending $600 million on developing biofuels for motor vehicles from algae, but the company says success is still a quarter of a century away.

Over three years into a joint venture with Synthetic Genomics Inc., Exxon says the technology just isn’t there yet for algae-based fuels, though it had originally predicted it was only a decade away from producing these fuels.

So far, the JV has been unable to come up with a way to produce enough raw material from algae to supply a refinery, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson told PBS television, as reported by Bloomberg. (Related article: Camelina – Tomorrow’s Biofuel, Today)

“We’ve come to understand some limits of that technology, or limits as we understand it today, which doesn’t mean it’s limited forever,” Tillerson said. The venture is “probably further” than 25 years away from successfully developing fuels.  ( Continue… )

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