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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 fracking operation is seen outside Williston, N.D., in this October file photo. The energy world portrayed in the debates – one in which coal is 'clean' and oil and gas companies will lead the US to a new era of energy abundance – is an illusion carefully crafted by the fossil fuel industry. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters/File)

Obama, Romney avoid hard truths about energy

By Richard Heinberg and Tom ButlerContributors / 11.02.12

The presidential campaign now nearing its noisy conclusion may be remembered more for what wasn’t said than for what was, especially when it comes to the pivotal issue of energy. We heard assertions that America has a century’s worth of cheap natural gas, that domestic drilling will soon free us of the need to import oil, and that the president of the United States is responsible for high gasoline prices – all exaggerations at best. We didn’t hear the hard truth about our nation’s energy conundrum.

Here’s an inconvenient fact: The recent glut of US oil and natural gas production was driven not by new discoveries or technologies, but by high prices. In the years 2005-08, as conventional oil and gas supplies dwindled, prices for these fuels soared. High prices then provided an incentive for the industry to use expensive, risky technology to drill problematic reservoirs. Companies bought up mineral rights and drilled thousands of wells. High per-well decline rates and high production costs were hidden behind a torrent of new gas, new oil, and old-fashioned hype.

Facts have consequences. It’s thrilling to trumpet robust oil and gas production numbers, but not so cheery to look honestly at our current energy system. There was no straight talk this election year about what growing reliance on unconventional fossil fuels really means: the need for enormous amounts of water for fracking, the high climate impacts from fugitive methane, the threats to groundwater from bad well casings or leaking containment ponds, and the inevitable social disruption to communities in the oil patch, roiled by boom-and-bust economic cycles. Low-quality shale reservoirs require not only fast and furious rates of drilling, but also creative financing – which Wall Street has been happy to supply, in the process inflating yet another bubble. ( Continue… )

Saudi civil defense members extinguish a fire after an explosion which severely damaged an industrial building in eastern Riyadh Thursday. At least 23 people were killed when a fuel truck crashed into a flyover in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Thursday. What safety measures are in place for fuel transportation in the US? (Mohammed Mashhor/Reuters)

Fuel truck explosion kills 23 in Saudi Arabia; Are US trucks safe?

By Correspondent / 11.02.12

A fuel truck explosion in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which killed at least 23 people and injured more than 110, grabbed wide attention Thursday when leaking gas caused an explosion in a nearby warehouse.

While preliminary reports suggest the accident was an unusual, isolated incident, it begs the question: How safe are fuel tankers? They deliver fuel to gasoline stations in the United States and around the world. So how common are large explosive accidents?

“Occurrences do happen, but they’re very rare considering the number of miles traveled with these trucks every day and every year,” said Matthew Manoli, safety director at Dennis K. Burke Inc., a family-owned, Massachusetts-based fuel-delivery company.

Of the 3,484 large trucks involved in fatal crashes in 2010 in the US, 51 contained flammable liquids such as gasoline and fuel oil, according to an August 2012 report by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The total number of large trucks involved in fatal accidents declined 30 percent between 2000 and 2010. Some attribute the drop to more stringent hours of service rules, which determine driver shift lengths.

That's a miraculous safety record, considering the “heck of a lot of loads that go to gas stations each day,” says Dan Furth, president of National Tank Truck Carriers, a Washington-based association. 

Still, accidents happen.

In 2009, an older fuel-tanker truck that did not have the most recent stability controls, rolled over in Indianapolis, spilling 9,001 gallons of liquefied petroleum gas. The trucker and another driver sustained serious injuries, and the incident prompted an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into retrofitting tankers with anti-rollover technology.

The explosion Thursday near the Saudi Arabian National Guard and the Prince Nayef Arab College for Security Sciences in the Saudi capital was triggered after the truck crashed into a bridge, according to officials on state television, who called it an accident.

“The truck driver was surprised by a road accident on its route, causing it to crash into one of the pillars of the bridge,” Captain Mohamed Hubail Hammadi, a spokesman said.

The accident was compounded when leaking gas caused an explosion in a nearby heavy machinery and vehicles warehouse, according to SPA, the state news agency.

In the US, those in the industry emphasize a few factors that make transporting fuel a relatively safe operation here:

Tank design
Many of the long fuel-carrying tubes you see flying down the highway are actually broken up into smaller containers inside, to account for different kinds of fuel. This minimizes the content’s movement, experts say, thereby keeping the liquids stable. It also ensures that if one section is damaged, the leak is likely to be contained. Because gasoline has a low center of gravity, the flat, oblong shape of the tank helps prevent trucks from rolling over, Mr. Furth says.

Electronic sensors

Most new fuel tank trucks include a variety of electronic sensors that help prevent accidents. One kind of stability system automatically applies the brakes when excessive weight is measured on one side of the vehicle. This helps prevent trucks from rolling over on sharp turns.

Driver quality

“The core of our whole safety program is our drivers and our hiring practice,” Mr. Manoli says. “We don’t just turn the keys over to anyone who walks in the door.”

Background checks, road tests, and routine training should all be a part of a trucking company’s safety program, he adds. At a base level, drivers of cargo tank motor vehicles transporting hazardous materials are generally required to obtain a commercial driver’s license with special certification for hazardous materials and fuel tanks, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which writes hazardous materials regulations for the Department of Transportation.

As for other vehicles on the road, industry experts said drivers should exercise the same caution around fuel tankers that they would for any kind of large truck. Avoid the truck’s blind spot, they say, and don’t brake abruptly in front of a truck as they take longer to stop.

– Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

A general view from Exchange Place shows the skyline of lower Manhattan in darkness after a preventive power outage caused by giant storm Sandy in New York Tuesday. The use of a distributed network of renewable energy sources may help prevent post-storm blackouts. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Can renewables prevent future blackouts from storms?

By Correspondent / 11.02.12

In the wake of the millions of homes and businesses left powerless by hurricane Sandy, many homeowners must be asking: Is there a better way to get my electricity?

One possibility, of course, is using renewable energy. It sounds easy: Stick up a few solar panels and, voila, you're covered. Can solar or other renewables really offer a solution to storm-related blackouts?

“Potentially yes, but it’s not a slam dunk,” says Stephen Connors, a renewable energy researcher at the MIT Energy Initiative, a multidisciplinary effort at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. 

When it comes to outages, the crucial question is not necessarily what kind of power you use, but what it is connected to, Mr. Connors says. You can have a rooftop full of solar panels but if it’s integrated into a city-wide grid system, with no on-site storage capabilities, you are still reliant on a network vulnerable to falling branches and blown transformers. 

"Everything comes down to whether you connect to the grid and whether you can island from the grid," Michael Stadler, research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., says in a telephone interview.

When a grid is disrupted, most residents or commercial businesses with solar panels will still lose power like those without because the panels still rely on the grid to generate grid-synchronized energy. If the solar panel owners have an on-site battery system, with a switch that allows a disconnection from the utility, they can run off whatever energy they have stored, according to energy experts.

This, however, is very uncommon, energy experts say. In rare cases, like hospitals and jails, a section of the grid may completely "island" itself from the rest of the grid and stay continuously powered indefinitely.  ( Continue… )

A National Guard truck drives through high water on Newark Street in Hoboken, N.J., Wednesday in the wake of superstorm Sandy. Parts of the city are still covered in standing water, trapping some residents in their homes. Some 90 percent of homes were without power. Will Sandy make 'green' energy more attractive? (Craig Ruttle/AP)

Did hurricane Sandy bolster the case for 'green' energy?

By Staff writer / 11.01.12

It took a huge and deadly superstorm walloping America's media capital (New York) and its political capital (Washington) for major news outlets and politicians to begin talking about climate change.

Is Sandy evidence of Global Warming?NBC asked. (Scientists don't know.)

After Sandy, Bill Clinton rails against Romney on global warming,” CBS headlined. (With only five days to go, does it matter?)

The more interesting question is whether hurricane Sandy will bolster the case for “green” energy initiatives in the long term. ( Continue… )

Lower fuel prices are advertised at North Little Rock, Ark., gas station Tuesday. Prices at the pump have continued to fall, with a national average of $3.53 per gallon recorded on Wednesday, according to Consumer Energy Report. (Danny Johnston/AP)

Gas prices continue post-Sandy drop

By CER News DeskGuest blogger / 11.01.12

With five refineries lying in the path of Hurricane Sandy when it made landfall earlier this week, there were fears that gasoline prices across the country would jump due to a stoppage in production, but reduced demand in the wake of the storm promises to help keep those prices moving steadily downwards.

With excellent warning of the storm’s approach and meteorological models that proved to be highly accurate, East Coast refineries were also able to take preemptive action by either reducing operations or temporarily closing altogether. (See more: Why Sandy’s Impact Will Differ From Katrina)

The Philips 66 refinery, based in Linden, New Jersey, is one of the country’s largest, with the potential to cause headaches in the oil industry if it were to suffer extensive storm damage. While the plant did see some flooding in its lower areas, the facility’s decision to close in anticipation of Sandy saved it from the worst of the potential damage; it remained offline yesterday as systems were inspected and is expected to begin operations today.  ( Continue… )

Cars wait in long lines at a Sunoco gas station on the Garden State Parkway in Montvale, N.J., Nov. 1, 2012. Lines formed at gas stations amid fuel shortages around the Northeast and emergency utility crews struggled to reach the worst hit areas and restore power to millions of people affected by hurricane Sandy. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Gas shortages, long lines add to post-Sandy misery (+video)

By Patti Domm and Brian A. ShactmanCNBC.com / 11.01.12

Gasoline futures jumped as cranky consumers on the East Coast—already stressed by the wrath of Superstorm Sandy—joined long lines at the pump to fill up their cars and gas cans to fuel home generators, causing shortages in some areas.

Though retail gasoline prices were steady or dropping at the pump through Tuesday, they could start to spike in hard-hit areas of the storm, particularly the New York metropolitan region.

Shortages were already affecting all types of stations. In New Hyde Park on Long Island, N.Y., CNBC found several stations already out of fuel, while two others in the center of town were dealing with huge lines and thin patience.

As more drivers emerged from storm damaged residential areas, lengthy lines with hours long waits formed around the region at gas stations that still had fuel and power. ( Continue… )

Microfiltration is the first step of the Groundwater Replenishment System in Newport Beach, Calif. Researchers at the University of Texas found that the treatment and distribution of water makes up no less than 12.6 percent of US energy use. (Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

Water delivery system makes up 12.6 percent of US energy consumption: report

By CER News DeskGuest blogger / 11.01.12

A team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin has released a detailed report on energy use in water delivery to citizens of the United States, finding that no less than 12.6 percent of the nation’s total annual energy consumption is devoted to the task.

Published in September’s issue of Environmental Research Letters, a peer-reviewed scientific journal of the highest standing, the report details the investigation conducted by the team as they traced water from its source to the taps of average American households and back again. The study focused on each aspect of water delivery, including pumping from natural sources, building and maintaining reservoirs, treating the water for safety and then pumping it to individual residences and businesses, including those in the industrial sector. (See more: Water Usage in an Oil Refinery( Continue… )

A gas station is submerged in floodwaters near the Gowanus Canal in the Brooklyn Borough of New York Oct. 29, 2012. Hurricane Sandy knocked out gas stations and refineries on the East Coast, but its biggest effect could be keeping motorists off the road, which is helping push down gas prices. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

Hurricane Sandy pushes gas prices ... down?

By Staff writer / 10.31.12

For a superstorm, hurricane Sandy has had surprisingly little effect on gasoline prices.

On the morning after the storm made landfall, gas prices fell nationally by almost a penny per gallon. The following day, they fell another penny.

Even in areas hit hard by the storm, gas prices were up only nominally on the first day: less than a penny in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, according to GasBuddy.com, a group of local websites that track gasoline prices. By the second day, they had stabilized or were falling again.

If anything, hurricane Sandy may be helping to push prices down faster. ( Continue… )

Power lines devastated by fire and the effects of hurricane Sandy are seen in the Breezy Point section of the Queens borough of New York Tuesday. If past hurricanes are any indication, utility bills will go up. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Will hurricane Sandy raise your utility bill?

By Correspondent / 10.31.12

Hurricane Sandy may cost the US economy anywhere from $30 billion to $50 billion, according to preliminary assessments. A big portion of that bill will be paid by utilities as they scramble to repair downed lines and restore power to millions of customers.

And that means higher utility bills down the road for those customers, if previous hurricanes are any indication.

Utilities say they won't know the exact numbers for weeks, but Allan Drury, a spokesman for New York-based Consolidated Edison, expects the cost to utilities to be high. "[T]he empirical evidence would point to it being very expensive, because so many customers are out of service."

As of 1:30 pm Tuesday, about 860,000 Consolidated Edison customers were without power, Mr. Drury said in a telephone interview, more than four times the number of homes and businesses who lost power during last summer's hurricane Irene.   

Between the added labor needed to restore power and the complicated repairs to damaged infrastructure, costs will add up quickly.

"We have outside contractor crews – and bills that will have to come in – that all becomes a part of the cost of storm restoration," David Graves, a spokesperson for National Grid, said in a voice message. "It’s going to be some time before we have all the accounting in place."

The British-based utility serves Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York in the United States.

So who pays for all the overtime labor, downed wires, and blown transformers? 

Ratepayers typically cover the costs associated with storms, Drury said, but the effect isn't always direct. "We don’t say, 'Here’s a storm, we now have to charge more.' "

Con Ed's utility rates are set on a one- or three-year basis by the New York State Public Service Commission. A spokesperson for New York's Public Service Commission did not return a call for comment Tuesday afternoon.

If hurricane Sandy is anything like hurricane Irene, customers in the areas hardest hit may see a jump in utility rates.

In southern Vermont, for example, where Irene did its most damage, Central Vermont Public Service Corp. customers who use an average of 600 kilowatt-hours a month are to pay a $2.23 monthly surcharge over four years to recoup the hurricane costs. 

Public Service of New Hampshire customers will pay 12 cents a month over four years for the utility to recover $7.1 million in Irene damages.

Last week, Atlantic City Electric announced it received permission from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to increase rates increase by $3.44 or 1.9 percent for a typical residential customer. The company attributes the hike to the rising cost of infrastructure maintenance and restoration costs associated with hurricane Irene.

– Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Storm surge hits a small tree as winds from Hurricane Sandy reach Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn., Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Hurricane Sandy has already reduced refining capacity in the Northeast, and the possibility exists of extended outages if any of these refineries take significant damage from the hurricane, Rapier writes. (Jessica Hill/AP)

Sandy vs. Katrina: differences in their impact on gas and oil

By Robert RapierGuest blogger / 10.30.12

As Hurricane Sandy bears down on the East Coast, a lot of prognosticators are offering up predictions for what it means for gasoline prices in that market. I thought it might be of interest to note the differences in Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina concerning the oil and gas markets.

Hurricane Sandy has already reduced refining capacity in the Northeast, and the possibility exists of extended outages if any of these refineries take significant damage from the hurricane. Gasoline and heating oil inventories in the area were already very low, and this increases the chances of sharp gasoline spikes across the area. However, these spikes are expected to be short-lived and localized, as the area also receives gasoline from Europe and from the Colonial Pipeline, which brings supplies to the East Coast from the Gulf Coast. As long as refinery outages are not prolonged, the gasoline markets should return to normally fairly quickly. However, people would be wise to make sure their cars are topped off with gasoline and that their heating oil supplies are adequate.  ( Continue… )

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