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May 20 news: Amazon rainforest deforestation rises sharply; Do biofuels reduce greenhouse gases?

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Brazil: Amazon rainforest deforestation rises sharply

New satellite images suggest deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest has increased almost sixfold.

Deforestation jumped from 103 square kilometers in March and April of last year to 583 square kilometers, or 228 square miles, in the same period of 2011, according to Brazil’s space research institute.

Man made fires to clear the land for cattle or crops in Sao Felix Do Xingu Municipality, Para, Brazil - 2008Mato Grosso, the center of soybean farming in Brazil, shows the most destruction.

Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira characterized the figures as “alarming” and announced the formation of a “crisis cabinet” in response to the news.

“Our objective is to reduce deforestation by July,” Teixeira said.

The new figures have taken the government by surprise, analysts say. A government report from December said Brazilian Amazon deforestation had fallen to its lowest rate in 22 years. But the new numbers show a 27 percent increase in deforestation from August 2010 to April 2011.

Some environmentalists are arguing that growing demand for soy and cattle is causing farmers to clear more land. Others say the easing of an existing law on forest production is causing it.

Offshore wind transmission ‘backbone’ clears one hurdle, faces several more

The Atlantic Wind Connection, a visionary $6 billion plan to build a transmission backbone for offshore wind farms off the mid-Atlantic coast, succeeded in getting one obstacle removed from its hurdle-filled path yesterday. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved an above-market 12.59 percent return on equity as an incentive to move the project forward.

At the same time, FERC said it will ask for industry comments on the case-by-case approach the commission has followed with its program to give incentives to major, higher-risk transmission projects, a policy mandated by Congress in 2005. The notice of inquiry may — or may not — lead to a general rulemaking on the issue, said FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, who called himself “very agnostic” on that question.

A debate among the commissioners over the size of incentive returns has intensified, industry participants say, pressed by Commissioner John Norris, former chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board, speaking for state-level concerns over costs of new transmission projects.

“We clearly have more transmission in service or being built today, and that transmission would most likely not have been built, or started, were it not for the work and decisions of this commission to date,” Norris said. “While some may think we do things perfectly here and always get it right, I’m not one of them.” The inquiry “gives us a chance to assess our successes and perhaps mistakes and request input on how we may be able to improve our policies,” he added.

To Accelerate Solar, Trim Bureaucracy and Create Standards

Solar has become a multibillion-dollar business, but parts of it still act like a cottage industry, according to eIQ Energy’s Michael Lamb.

Solar power installations involve substantial sums of money, lots of electricity, and placement on homes and commercial buildings. This means that installation projects are drawing increasing attention from several types of governmental agencies: financial regulators, building inspectors, fire marshals, zoning and design review boards, and probably others, as well.

Today, interactions with these groups can be frustrating for array designers, installers, financiers, owners and operators, largely because this is new territory for government. It’s akin to car ownership or electrification in the early 1900s — no one had figured out who was in charge, or how much oversight was needed to maintain public trust, safety and aesthetic standards. Times like that are ripe for confusion, especially since technology tends to move faster than public agencies.

This is an important topic for solar — the costs of permitting, inspection, interconnection costs and other “bureaucratic” items can run to nearly a dollar per watt today. Reducing these costs, while maintaining appropriate controls, will be a step toward grid parity, and also toward fully integrating this important renewable energy source into society.

If we can address these issues in a concerted manner, we should be able to cut compliance costs by 50 percent or more over the next few years — and also create a framework that sets proper expectations and protections for the financial, technical, and operational sides of the solar community.

Prelude FLNG: Shell Gas Plant To Be Biggest Floating Object Ever

Royal Dutch Shell PLC will construct the biggest floating man-made object ever, a natural gas processing plant longer than four football fields and more massive than any aircraft carrier.

The “Prelude FLNG” facility, to be anchored off the Australian coast, will be made of 260,000 tons of steel – five times more than Sydney’s famed Harbour Bridge, Shell said Friday.

It is designed to take in the equivalent of 110,000 barrels per day in gas from undersea fields 200 kilometers (125 miles) off Australia’s Northwest coast and cool it into liquefied natural gas, known as LNG.

Shell claimed the plant will be able to withstand category 5 cyclones, the worst type of storms, and is planned to remain moored above the Prelude gas field for 25 years after completion.

Iran’s President to Lead Next OPEC Meeting

The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is expected to lead next month’s OPEC conference in Vienna as he presses for higher oil prices to aid Iran‘s struggling economy, while also seeking to protect and consolidate his power at home as he confronts a growing split with the nation’s supreme leader.

As chairman of the meeting on June 8, Mr. Ahmadinejad is likely to inject a bit of drama into the usually predictable proceedings, in which members of the 12-nation bloc generally follow Saudi Arabia’s lead in promoting moderate oil prices. His position may complicate Saudi Arabia’s ability to direct policy at a time when industrialized nations are pressing for more production to restrain oil price increases.

But the issue for the Iranian president appears to be at least as much about his political fight with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as about his desire to seek increased prices, analysts said. Mr. Ahmadinejad has been engaged in a power struggle with Ayatollah Khamenei that has already diminished the president’s standing and undermined his authority, analysts said.

Do Biofuels Reduce Greenhouse Gases? A new study fuels the debate over the impact of growing crops for fuel.

Greenhouse-gas emissions from biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, may be lower than many researchers have estimated, according to a new study. The findings could further fuel a debate over whether biofuels actually reduce greenhouse-gas emissions compared to gasoline, and if so, by how much.

Some recent studies have suggested that the indirect effects of biofuels production, such as higher food prices, could encourage farmers to clear forested land to grow more crops””thereby worsening climate change. At least one study suggested that the emissions resulting from such decisions would make biofuels””even advanced biofuels made from cellulosic materials such as switchgrass””worse for the environment than gasoline. These studies use economic analysis to predict the effect of future biofuels production on land use, while attempting to control for other factors that influence farmers, such as the amount of grain stocks on hand and changes in food demand.

The new study, to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Biomass and Bioenergy, uses analysis of historical data instead of economic models. It found no statistical correlation between changes in biofuel production in the U.S. from 2002 to 2007 and recorded changes in cropland use outside of the country. “There is no evidence for indirect land use change,” says Bruce Dale, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, who led the study.

Jason Hill, a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota, says that it’s not surprising that the study found no correlation, given that there are many competing forces that influence crop use. “It’s difficult to distinguish the signal from the noise,” he says.

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19 Responses to May 20 news: Amazon rainforest deforestation rises sharply; Do biofuels reduce greenhouse gases?

  1. lizardo says:

    The link for the offshore wind grid (clears hurdles) is actually the link for the Shell floating natural gas plant further down in this post.

    [JR: Thanks.]

  2. David Smith says:

    “Prelude FLNG” – If a facility such as this floating LNG plant operates in international waters what environmental/safety/etc regulations are enforced and who is responsible for enforcement? Will the proposed plant operate in international waters @ 125 miles off coast?

  3. Susan Anderson says:

    Thanks for juxtaposing Amazon forest and biofuels.

    This teensily OT, or not … **please** check it out!

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/may/19/al-gore-rupert-mudoch-news-corp

    Come to think of it, Olbermann is passionate like Dr. Romm – great men both!

  4. Davos says:

    So if Nuclear energy is out because of the fallout possibilities (and local NIMBYness), and bio-mass energy is out because of local NIMBYness (even among environmentalists), Natural Gas fracking is out, and now biofuels might be out …

    …It’s not leaving much left to work with. At some point it seems that if environmentalists are not willing to sacrifice their local environmental goals, then we may never reach global environmental goals.

    How can wind, solar, geothermal, um… carbon capture, regulation, and efficiencies do the trick by themselves?

  5. Solar Jim says:

    Prelude To Disaster.

    Can you imagine a “design error” on this floating gas station during a lightening storm?

    This is the globalized corporate proposal for “clean energy” we need: a gargantuan fossil gas refrigeration plant at sea while we drown on land from climate contamination.

    Makes perfect insanity to me. Sounds like a shell game, for the next quarter of a century. No existential discontinuity here, just private profit and socialized costs, like that of investment banksters.

    Yo 350, hello Mississippi.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Is the Amazon deforestation entirely the result of logging and clearing for other crops? I’m curious if other things are going on, such as pests or drought.

    The solar industry has been started and managed by geeks, with little construction and development experience. They keep getting screwed on sites and permits, and don’t understand why.

    Standardization of panel dimensions and wiring, rigorous testing for various ICC approvals, toolkits for entitlements- these are typically absent. The comment that it is a big industry acting like a little cottage industry is correct.

  7. TomG says:

    If the Amazon rain forest eco-system was starting to collapse, what would it look like to a satellite?

  8. PeterW says:

    Regarding the Biofuels land use article, are they using this U.S. specific study to suggest growing Biofuels has not had a major impact in the rest of the world? It would be interesting to ask the author about places like southeast Asia where biofuel growing has destroyed rainforests. It’s just a guess but I don’t think the same type of study would have the same results there.

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    Love the article “To Accelerate Solar . . . Create Standards”

    Couldn’t agree more. Imagine if pV panels were as standardized as a 2 x 4. Everyone knows how to buy and install them and what to expect.

    And a DC standard would allow homes and businesses to power all their electronics and LED lighting without the cost and waste of converting from DC to AC and back to DC.

  10. Leland Palmer says:

    I’m very skeptical about studies and findings concerning biofuels or biomass that become fossil fuel industry talking points.

    The fossil fuel industry has tremendous influence inside academia, for example, and contributes lots of money to universities, in one way or another.

    Certainly, biofuels do not have to compete with food crops. If biofuels do compete with food crops, and if that competition is significant enough to cause famine, then we need to change the way we grow biofuel crops.

    Biomass is inherently carbon neutral. Biofuels, which only use a small part of biomass, could conceivably be highly carbon positive. If one particular biofuel production process is found to be highly carbon positive- don’t use it.

    If biofuel production causes undesirable side effects, change the way we do it to avoid the side effects, IMO.

    But all claims that biofuels or biomass are equivalent to fossil fuels should be looked at with a great deal of skepticism, IMO. Biofuels and biomass are inherently carbon neutral. The carbon source is the atmosphere, and the carbon sink is the atmosphere, for biofuels and biomass.

    Fossil fuels are inherently carbon positive. The carbon source is underground, and the carbon sink is the atmosphere.

    Exceptions may exist- but these will be minor exceptions to the inherent properties of these fuel sources.

  11. Mike # 22 says:

    (from Yale E360)”Eighty-one percent of the recent clearing occurred in Mato Grosso, the nation’s southernmost state and a center of soybean production.” http://e360.yale.edu/digest/brazil_deforestation_escalates_as_nation_debates_easing_forest_code/2951/

    This is over three square miles a day. Fortunately for the ethanol boosters like Dr Bruce Dale, there is absolutely no evidence between sidelining farmland in this country for biofuels and the demand for more farmland else where. What a silly idea.

  12. paulm says:

    @5davos…are u claiming to be a non-environmentalist?

    Do u not have concerns for the air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat and a stable climate to prosper in?
    Ie our environment.

    I think most of us are environmentalist. (if you are also concern for the biosphere, then u are a first rate envo)
    We need to recognize that there is a paradigm shift need.

  13. Davos says:

    #13 … What can we do then?

    A significant number of currently available carbon reducing mitigation strategies (‘wedges’ if you like) depend on the ability for environmentalists to see the larger (but more diffuse) benefit of certain practices that have more direct impacts on a local level that can supercede and prevent a valuable project from getting off the ground.

    Everyone is an environmentalist at the local level when it comes to constructing things like a biomass plant in their back-yards.

    However, who else can you count on to drive home support for things like biomass, nuclear, natural gas (all these currently available strategies we keep talking about)? It has to be environmentalists.

    One of the reasons countries like China can forge ahead in these departments, is because they can do so by simple decree (no 10-year litigation tracks), and they have a culture within the population that focuses on the larger good of the whole, rather than an impact to the local person.

    Many of the ‘wedges’ that are discussed by definition have at least some impact that is rejectable on the NIMBY level…However, if these rejections are allowed to succeed…then how can we achieve the larger goals?

  14. Merrelyn Emery says:

    David Smith #3. I think you will find that it is on the edge of Australia’s exclusive economic zone which is 200 nautical miles except where it is negotiated with neighbours so I guess it will come under Oz’s legal framework.

    Our govt is making a big deal out of gas being the transition fuel from coal and oil so it seems it will be a very long transition at 25 years. However, we have already had one blow out on an oil rig in those waters which did enormous damage to fishing grounds in Timor and the possibilities for this monster are just too horrible to contemplate, ME

  15. espiritwater says:

    I was with a girl today from Colombia. She said that this past year, they’ve had floods constantly. Also, the mountains are giving away and burying homes. They have a lot of mountains in Colombia and so most people build their homes on the mountains. She said you could be driving along and suddenly… “hey! Where’s the road?!” Everything is collapsing there. She said people are destroying the planet.

  16. paulm says:

    @14 Davis,

    The shift required is a step too far, I am afraid, to occur with out collapse and regeneration (rebirth).
    We are currently too embedded in our consumer based focus and growth, growth, growth.

    Even with a big switch to ‘green’ solutions overpopulation and over consumption means hitting the wall.

    I hope we can come through the other side reasonably intact, but there is going to be mass disruption and, well, triage.
    We have to try hard and cross our fingers to get there.

    I guess we have to look on it as a learning opportunity, evolution.

  17. paulm says:

    Do More With Less Or Things Will Get Ugly: Study
    http://www.fastcompany.com/1753567/humanity-needs-to-do-more-with-less-study

    Ethonomic Indicator of the Day: 140 billion tons–the amount of resources the global economy will consume in 2050.

    As it stands, economic growth is largely dependent on resource consumption. As a country grows, so does its use of natural–and limited–high-quality resources like oil, gold, and copper. But this is untenable in the long run, especially as growing countries like India and China model themselves increasingly on American habits of consumption (a car, two cell phones, and 30 pounds of meat for all!). The seemingly impossible solution: separating resource use and environmental impact from economic growth–a process with the unfortunate moniker “decoupling.”

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You can see the synergies of collapse grow more stark by the day. Business greed leads to ecosystem destruction to grow soya, mostly GE, so lots of Roundup is sprayed, so the soil is sterilised, fungal pathogens promoted, and local human populations poisoned. Amazonia dries out, drought grows more frequent and more dire, so fires spread, releasing more carbon. Warming soils become fossil sources rather than sinks at some stage. Eventually Amazonia will hit the tipping-point where mega-fires rage, and more and more carbon is released. It’s all one-way traffic, too. The bias seems to be towards disequilibrium, certainly in the short term, and we all know what Keynes said about the long term. I mean, did not Lovelock predict a period of great chaos before the earth settles into a new climate equilibrium, and I’m certain that he meant only after emissions decrease and greenhouse gas levels stabilise. Continuing releases presage runaway change that will take aeons to reverse.