Other stories below: A coal-fired plant eager for pollution rules; Keystone pipeline puts Obama in a pinch
To the dismay of drivers across the country, 2011 went down in the record books as having the most expensive gasoline average ever, $3.513 for the year, 72 cents per gallon higher than 2010′s yearly average, according to GasBuddy.
Patrick DeHaan, GasBuddy’s senior petroleum analyst, projects that by Memorial Day, the national average will be between $3.86 to $4.13 per gallon, and that prices in 2012 will come close to or set new all-time highs. If that happens, drivers could spend $200 to $300 more for gas this year.
Inflation adjusted data from the Energy Department’s U.S. Energy Information Administration confirmed that 2011 was a record year. The real annual average for a gallon of regular gas last year hit $3.56, up from $2.90 in 2010, according to the EIA. From its data that begins in 1919, the previous record high was in 1981, at $3.45.
As operators of coal-fired power plants around the country welcome a court-ordered delay on tighter pollution rules, the owner of a retrofitted plant here says that the rules cannot come too soon.
The company, Constellation Energy, says it is an issue of fairness. A little more than two years ago, it completed an $885 million installation that has vastly reduced emissions from two giant coal-burning units at its Brandon Shores plant here, within view of the city’s downtown office towers.
The goal was to comply with a Maryland law, but the company also anticipated that the federal Environmental Protection Agency would adopt similar limits. The agency followed through last year, completing a rule on sulfur and nitrogen emissions that was due to take effect on Sunday.
U.S. scientists want to expand research into climate change to focus on its social effects and ways to adapt to a changing planet, but tighter budgets may crimp those plans, the National Academy of Sciences reported Thursday.
The 10-year plan reviewed by the academy represents a “significant broadening” of the federal Global Change Research Program, which includes researchers from across the U.S. government. Thursday’s report by the academy’s National Research Council generally supports the proposal but warned that researchers may have to overcome fiscal as well as scientific hurdles.
“The proposed broadening of the program’s scope from climate change only to climate change and ‘climate-related global changes’ is an important step in the right direction,” the review committee concluded. But it cautioned that “in an era of increasingly constrained budget resources, those questions of how will become paramount.”
It’s sometimes suggested that American car companies have quit making more efficient cars and trucks in recent decades. But that’s not strictly true, according to MIT economist Christopher Knittel. In a new paper for the American Economic Review, building off his earlier research (PDF), Knittel calculates that automakers actually boosted vehicle fuel efficiency a whopping 60 percent between 1980 and 2006. Engine technology got better by leaps and bounds. It’s just that most of those improvements went toward making cars bigger and more powerful — and, as a result, all those advances barely increased gas mileage.
Knittel notes that automakers have made a slew of striking advances on the internal combustion engine over the past few decades — from variable-speed transmissions to front-wheel drive — that have drastically increased efficiency. But automakers mainly took advantage of those breakthroughs to build larger cars and light trucks with more powerful engines. Between 1980 and 2006, the average curb weight of vehicles increased 26 percent, while horsepower rose 10 percent. Average gas mileage, by contrast, improved just 15 percent.
When Congress gave the White House a tight 60-day deadline for approving or rejecting the controversial Keystone project, it seemed like a Christmas gift to TransCanada, the company building the pipeline that would carry oil from Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
But TransCanada says it didn’t ask for this deadline and it doesn’t know how to handle this unwanted gift.
“We’re heading into uncharted territory,” says James Millar, a TransCanada spokesman.
Last year, environmentalists and ranchers in Nebraska succeeded in delaying the Keystone XL pipeline by arguing that it put a huge aquifer at risk. The company is looking for a new route through Nebraska, and it doesn’t expect to have it pinned down until next fall.
The unrequested deadline was just the latest consequence of how politicized the Keystone pipeline has become.
“We have essentially become the lightning rod for that broader debate around the consumption of fossil fuels,” says Millar.
The rain is falling heavily in Brazil and people are concerned that the tragedy that struck last year might be repeated.
Just 11 days into 2011, flash floods and landslides killed 902 people across the state of Rio de Janeiro. It was the most deadly natural disaster in Brazil’s history. Worst hit was a mountainous region 40 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. 300mm (12 inches) fell in just a few hours, triggering flash flooding and landslides which buried people under a wall of mud
This year the rains have turned heavy once more. The states of Mina Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and Espirito Santo are all being hit by the severe weather. An average of 125mm (4.9 inches) of rain is expected in the whole month of January, but some locations are reporting this amount of rain in just 24 hours.
Flooding is already affecting many areas and as the rains continue to fall, the risk of mudslides is also rising.