"Energy and climate news for February 5, 2011: Obama touts clean energy as jobs booster; More oil drilling rigs are in Gulf than before BP disaster; EPA decides to limit rocket fuel in drinking water–Guess who objects?"
Overturning a 2008 decision by the Bush administration, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that it will establish a federal limit on the amount of perchlorate in drinking water. This would be the first nation-wide limit and would crack down on the naturally occurring and artificially produced chemical that is used in rocket fuel, fireworks, flares and missiles. The reason for concern is that the EPA says perchlorate may have an impact on the thyroid, which Time Magazine’s Bryan Walsh calls a “nasty” chemical because it hinders the “thyroid’s ability to produce hormones needed for developing fetuses and infants.”
According to an EPA study, the chemical’s reach is not small: “more than 4 percent of public water systems have detected perchlorate and between 5 million and 17 million people may be served drinking water containing perchlorate.” Furthermore, The Washington Post’s Brian Vastag notes that the FDA peeked into just how pervasive perchlorate was in the food supply in 2006 and found it in 74 percent of the items it tested. Unsurprisingly, Wednesday’s announcement has its critics. Among them: The Perchlorate Information Bureau, whose spokesman Bill Romanelli thinks this is about ideology. The Perchlorate Information Bureau, of course, “is supported by Aerojet, American Pacific Corporation and Lockheed Martin,” so Romanelli might not be the most impartial observer, either.
At present, the EPA is still hammering out what the limit should be, when it will roll out, and just how much it will cost to implement. Despite these open ended issues, however, commenters saw no reason to hold back their praise, their critcisim or their questions.
- Why Is This Taking So Long? asks the National Resources Defense Council’s Jennifer Sass. Although Sass is excited that the EPA is going after perchlorate, she told the Washington Post that we shouldn’t be waiting for more information to move forward. “Anything that anybody needed to say about this process is already done,” she says. On her blog, Sass also notes that “after more than 17 years of accumulated science on perchlorate harms, two EPA toxicological reviews (1998, 2002), and a lengthy review by the National Academies (2004), it is past time for EPA to take effective regulatory action to protect people’s health by preventing exposure to perchlorate.”
- This Reverses a Huge Mistake The Washington Post’s Brian Vastag says that the Bush Administration had an opportunity to clean up our drinking water but went out of its way not to, noting “a Washington Post investigation at the time found that officials from the Bush administration heavily edited a key EPA report to play down the risks of the chemical. A Government Accountability Office report also found that the Defense Department–which, along with NASA, is a heavy user of perchlorate–sought to derail any perchlorate standards.”
- Score! The National Resources Defense Council’s Mae Wu says the EPA’s Lisa Jackson is proof that things are moving in the right direction. She says “given the science on the impact of perchlorate on normal thyroid function and the data on the widespread occurrence of perchlorate throughout the U.S., this determination marks the Agency finally coming to its senses.”
While a backlog of drilling permits in Washington continues to feed oil industry angst, new data shows that more rigs are in the Gulf of Mexico than before the BP oil spill, indicating that operators might have more confidence in the future than they are letting on.
The latest tracking information from ODS-Petrodata, a Houston-based compiler of oil and gas data, shows there are 10 more rigs in the Gulf now than there were last April.
While only 34 of the 125 rigs in the Gulf are actually working — half the total that were active before the Macondo well blowout — the vast majority of the idle rigs, particularly those slated for big-ticket jobs in deepwater, will remain under contract for the rest of 2011.
In the shallow-water Gulf oil fields, where the government has never officially banned drilling but has issued few work permits in the past several months, activity has rebounded to near its pre-blowout levels.
There are 26 shallow-water rigs operating now, just 11 fewer than before the BP blowout, according to ODS-Petrodata. In December, the government issued seven shallow-water drilling permits, matching the monthly average from the year leading up to the BP disaster.
While Egypt has demanded much of President Obama’s time these days, today he turned to domestic matters. Mr. Obama delivered a speech on jobs and innovation in State College, Pennsylvania. And he used the moment to introduce a proposal to make factories and office buildings more energy efficient.
NPR’s Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama admits energy efficient buildings is not the sexiest sounding path of the future, but on a day when much of the country is shivering in subfreezing temperatures, cutting the heat and electric bill might have some appeal.
Commercial buildings consume about one-fifth of all the energy used at the U.S. Mr. Obama says a 20 percent gain in efficiency could save those businesses some $40 billion a year.
President BARACK OBAMA: Making our buildings more energy efficient is one of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to save money, combat pollution and create jobs right here in the United States of America. And that’s what we’re going to do.
(Soundbite of applause)
HORSLEY: The president was speaking at Penn State University, which will anchor a new energy innovation hub. That’s where Mr. Obama outlined what he called a better building initiative. It would include rewards for local governments that adopt energy friendly building codes and financial incentives to help building owners cover the upfront cost of energy upgrades.
Pres. OBAMA: What we’re saying to people is if you’re willing to make your buildings more energy efficient, we’ll provide new tax credits and financing opportunities for you to do so.
HORSLEY: That might not be easy, though. A similar plan for Mr. Obama last year, to make homes more energy efficient, stalled in Congress. With turmoil in the Middle East and a stronger global economy, energy prices are on the rise, though. Floyd DesChamps of the Alliance to Save Energy says that could boost the prospects for the president’s plan.
President Barack Obama on Thursday sought to carve out a slice of attention in news coverage blanketed with the Egypt crisis for his politically crucial bid to revive the US economy.
Obama’s State of the Union address, laying out his new mantra that America needs an explosion of innovation to compete with China and India, was only last week — but seems an age ago, with Washington fixated on the Middle East.
But the White House sees Obama’s economic push as crucial to expanding US exports, competitiveness, cutting high unemployment and sparking a new range of green energy jobs.
His efforts to reboot the slowly recovering economy are also vital to the president’s own hopes of winning a second term, as his reelection effort begins to take shape.
Obama, who has been briefed several times each day on the Egypt crisis and is leading US diplomatic efforts, took a few hours away from foreign policy to travel to Pennsylvania State University here.
His mission was to highlight one area of the green energy push — an initiative to encourage energy efficient buildings — which he says is typical of employment opportunities offered up by green economy jobs.
“They’ll be more than jobs that help support families. They’ll be jobs with a national purpose — jobs that make our economy smarter, jobs that make our planet safer, jobs that maintain America’s competitive edge in the 21st Century,” Obama said.
President Obama brought a message of economic innovation and clean energy to this key swing state on Thursday, even as his administration continued to grapple with the rapidly changing uprising in Egypt.
In a speech at Pennsylvania State University, Mr. Obama promised new tax incentives, government investment and revamped regulations for energy efficiency. He also toured laboratories where researchers study ways to make buildings more energy efficient.
The president’s remarks, delivered to several thousand students in the university gymnasium, echoed the theme of last month’s State of the Union address.
“These are places where the future will be won,” Mr. Obama said. “These are the places where the new jobs and the world’s best businesses will take root.”
The president spent much of last year promoting the benefits of investment in clean-energy technologies. On Thursday, Mr. Obama vowed that new government investment would spur American innovation.
That message is at the center of a philosophical clash with Republicans on Capitol Hill, who deride Mr. Obama’s use of the word “investment” as code for greater government spending in the face of growing federal deficits.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley urged lawmakers Thursday to back a $100 million venture capital initiative, spur investment in offshore wind farms and ban the installation of septic systems in major new housing developments.
O’Malley (D) used his fifth State of the State speech to pitch several priorities, some of which have already drawn skeptical questions from lawmakers in both parties and could test his political muscle after a convincing reelection in November.
In a 28-minute address to a joint session of the General Assembly, the governor also acknowledged unpopular budget choices ahead but asked for a continued focus on education, job creation and the environment.
“The state of our state is stronger today than two years ago. It is stronger than it was even a year ago. But better isn’t good enough,” O’Malley said in a speech that was interrupted by applause a dozen times. “There is more we can do, and for the sake of our children’s future, there is more we must do.”
Officials say the U.S. Department of Energy has given approval for site preparation and construction to begin on a solar energy farm in Haywood County.
Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development says the Energy Department completed its environmental review of the solar array and found it complies with federal regulations.
The West Tennessee Solar Farm will sit on 200 acres off Interstate 40 and will be capable of producing more than 7 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually.
Under the Volunteer State Solar Initiative, $31 million in federal stimulus funds will be used for installation. Development is being managed by the University of Tennessee, and Chattanooga-based Signal Energy will design and build it.
Though the Environmental Protection Agency has become an enemy of many West Virginia lawmakers for perceived anti-coal policies, at least one industry developing in the state has been shown some favor from the agency.
Last month, the EPA announced a three-year pass on greenhouse-gas permitting requirements from the burning of biomass materials. Research into the development of biomass, or plant and animal waste, as a fuel source is under way in West Virginia.
In the EPA announcement, the agency said the three-year deferral allows enough time to determine environmental impacts that may come from burning biomass for fuels. The agency will also use the time to determine if emissions from biomass facilities should be held to permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act.
Well before the EPA announcement, several West Virginia researchers had already been looking at developing biomass energy in the state.
Marshall University researchers at the Center for Environmental, Geotechnical and Applied Sciences (CEGAS) have working with the West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center and the West Virginia Division of Energy Office of Coalfield Community Development to utilize abandoned and current coal surface mines for various renewable energy sources.
The oil and gas industry, which beat back new regulatory bills even during the worst days of last year’s massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scored another victory this week.
The Senate voted late Wednesday against a proposal to end some oil industry tax breaks to pay for easing paperwork requirements for small business under President Barack Obama’s health overhaul law.
Instead, the Senate passed an alternative, using unappropriated federal funds, to pay for the $22 billion estimated cost over 10 years of the small-business provision. It would drop a requirement that, starting next year, small businesses file IRS forms every time they make purchases of services or goods worth $600 or more.
The repeal measure passed 81-17. Opponents of ending tax breaks for oil companies, including Louisiana lawmakers, argued that now is not the time to impose taxes on an industry that is struggling to regain domestic offshore production after an embargo and what some industry officials call a continuing de facto embargo on offshore drilling.
A nine-year battle between Los Angeles regional air quality officials, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California public health groups over the integrity of the area’s pollution trading system will be rejoined Friday, as air district officials vote on new rules governing pollution offsets.
Environmentalists contend that a proposal by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), known as Rule 1315, will lock in a phony accounting system that will count years-old pollution reductions as offsets, thus allowing businesses to build new facilities that pollute.
“The district is creating tons of credits for companies to emit soot,” said Angela Johnson Meszaros, an attorney for several environmental justice and health groups. “They are creating way more than they need for essential public services. Then they will give them to big business and new power plants.”
The fight over the trading system has ricocheted through state and federal courts for years. In the waning hours of its 2009 session, the California Legislature enacted two laws to circumvent a state court ruling that had suspended the region’s trading system. One of those laws explicitly authorized a proposed power plant in Palm Desert to use AQMD offsets that had been banked for use by hospitals and other public facilities.
The Los Angeles region has some of the worst air pollution in the U.S., with soot and smog that cause thousands of premature deaths, according to scientists.
A battle over a proposed coal export terminal on the Columbia River has taken on a global dimension, as opponents say local officials have to consider the potential environmental harm when the U.S. fuel is burned at its destination””in China.
Making this argument is “a core strategy in the fight against a huge expansion of the fossil-fuel economy,” said Ross Macfarlane of Seattle-based Climate Solutions, one of the groups that want the terminal project stopped.
Terminal critics also say the potential environmental damage from mining the material in Montana and Wyoming hasn’t been adequately assessed.
Local officials reject both arguments. “Environmental groups are treading new ground here, there is no guidance from the state of Washington on how to approach this,” said Mike Wojtowicz, an official in Cowlitz County, which gave construction approval for the project.
U.S. coal companies are looking for a better way to export to Asia, as there are now no major coal exporting facilities on the U.S. West Coast. Washington state, with its proximity to coal-rich Wyoming and Montana, is seen as the best place to start.
In November, Millennium Bulk Terminals LLC, a unit of Australia-based Ambre Energy Ltd., purchased the site of a former Alcoa Inc. aluminum smelter in Longview. Millennium plans to spend $100 million on the coal terminal, which local officials hope will bring 125 construction jobs and 75 permanent positions to Longview, a former sawmill hub where unemployment last year topped 12%.
Royal Dutch Shell PLC this morning announced it is postponing plans to drill for oil this summer in seas off Alaska, citing continued uncertainty over whether it would receive federal permits.
Shell CEO Peter Voser in an earnings call with reporters said the company would need to spend as much as $150 million without knowing whether it would receive needed permits from U.S. EPA and the Interior Department.
“Despite our investment in acreage and technology and our work with the stakeholders, we haven’t been able to drill a single exploration well,” Voser said. “Critical permits continue to be delayed, and the timeline for getting these permits is still uncertain.”
The plan took a hit in late December when an EPA appeals board remanded Shell’s Clean Air Act permits back to the company for revisions, faulting the agency’s analysis of the impacts of nitrogen dioxide emissions from drill ships on the Alaska Native communities (Greenwire, Jan. 5).
Shell, which has invested more than $3 billion in its Arctic development plan, also awaits drilling permits from Interior.
The company’s decision postpones exploration by at least a year in a region federal scientists believe could hold the nation’s second-largest oil and gas reserves after the Gulf of Mexico
During his fall campaign for the Senate, then-Gov. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) literally took aim at House Democrats’ “cap-and-trade” bill that placed limits on pollution.
On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Manchin, now the state’s junior senator, turned his sights to the Environmental Protection Agency. In his maiden speech on the Senate floor, he said the EPA has overstepped its regulatory power while trying to clean up the environment. He introduced a measure Thursday to ban the EPA from revoking Clean Water Act permits that have already been granted.
“Bureaucrats should not be able to regulate what has not been legislated,” he said. “Giving any agency such absolute power will have a chilling effect on investment and job creation.”
Mr. Manchin said he’s irked at the federal agency because last month it revoked a clean water permit for a West Virginia mine, after a firm had already planned to invest $250 million in the project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had approved the project in early 2007. The EPA can block such permits, but has never retroactively vetoed one, Manchin aides said.
Coal and clean-energy issues are often tricky for West Virginia Democrats. Although their party generally supports limits on fossil fuels and carbon pollution, the state’s economy and electricity grid are tied to coal mining. On energy issues, the state’s politicians tend to agree with Republicans.
All eyes will be on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this session as it attempts to craft a legislative proposal to match President Obama’s prime-time statement last week that he wants to source 80 percent of the nation’s energy from low-carbon sources by 2035. But with an influx of new members, questions remain about how cohesive the panel will be on energy issues.
Seven freshmen and one veteran senator are joining the 22-member panel this year in a shakeup that could threaten the historically bipartisan committee’s ability to move on energy legislation, including the clean energy standard that Obama touted last week.
“It’s going to be tough; it’s going to be challenging to come up with a consensus,” said Joshua Freed, director of the Clean Energy Program at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
The roster changes are sparked by the departures of six members from the Senate and three additional departures from the committee. Joining the panel are third-year Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota and freshmen Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Five freshmen Republicans — Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Dan Coats of Indiana, Rob Portman of Ohio and John Hoeven of North Dakota — will also join the panel. Paul and Lee are political newcomers, but the other three are veteran officeholders: Coats is a former senator and congressman, while Hoeven is a former governor, and Portman served in the House and in former President George W. Bush’s Cabinet.